Archive for July, 2012

Under the Radar Trade Targets

This has already been an active week leading up to next Tuesday’s trade deadline, with names like Hanley Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, Zack Greinke, and Ryan Dempster hogging the headlines. However, while the big names get all of the attention, there are going to be some under the radar moves made in the next four days that could provide significant upgrades for teams down the stretch. Here, we’ll take a look at four players who might not have the name value of the guys dominating the rumor mill, but could be impact pick-ups for teams in contention.

Yunel Escobar, SS, Toronto

Escobar hasn’t hit well for the Blue Jays this year, slumping to just a .250/.299/.342 line that adds up to just a .283 wOBA, but he could still be a Major upgrade for several teams in the race. His career history suggests that he’s got more offense in his bat than he’s shown the last few months, as his career line of .285/.357/.393 is actually quite good for a shortstop, and UZR has rated him as an above average defender at the position every year since 2008. A strong finish to the year is certainly possible, but even without a huge rebound, Escobar could still represent a vast improvement for both Bay Area teams. The Giants are currently leaning on Brandon Crawford and his .269 wOBA while the A’s have had to suffer through Cliff Pennington’s .245 mark.

ZIPS projects that Escobar will be worth +1.2 WAR over the remainder of the 2012 season, a full win better than the +0.2 WAR projection for Crawford and a half win improvement over what the system sees from Pennington down the stretch. He’s not just a rental, either, as he’s under contract for $5 million in 2013 and then any team acquiring him would hold team options for both 2014 and 2015 at that same $5 million salary, so Escobar could provide both a short term boost and an answer for the next several seasons at a position that isn’t easy to fill. While his reputation in Atlanta wasn’t the best, there simply aren’t many shortstop options available, and if Escobar hits like he has previously, he could be the bargain of the trade deadline.

Paul Maholm, SP, Chicago

While all the talk has centered around the Cubs dealing Ryan Dempster and/or Matt Garza, Maholm may actually be the value buy out of the Cubs starters. He doesn’t rack up strikeouts like his rotation mates (just 6.02 K/9), but his combination of strikes (2.38 BB/9) and groundballs (50.0% GB%) make him a very solid innings eater. He could be a perfect fit for a team like the White Sox that just need a solid league average pitcher at the back of their rotation to stabilize things for the final two months of the season.

Maholm isn’t a guy that you want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series, but he’s more than capable of giving a team six quality innings every fifth day, and shouldn’t require the same kind of commitment in terms of prospects as the more high profile arms on the market. That makes him a great fit for the White Sox, who don’t have many good prospects to trade to begin with, and the club option for 2013 at $6.5 million would give them insurance in case they don’t have confidence in John Danks returning to full health. Maholm would be a legitimate improvement over Phil Humber and give Chicago a better shot at keeping pace with Detroit, and Kenny Williams may be better off with Maholm than trying to outbid everyone else for Zack Greinke.

Oliver Perez, relief pitcher, Seattle

Yes, that Oliver Perez. The guy who was last seen walking 42 batters in 46 innings with the Mets has resurfaced as a left-handed reliever in Seattle, and looks nothing like the guy who earned the scorn of everyone in Queens. His fastball has averaged 93.8 MPH this year, up a staggering 5.8 MPH from his last season in New York. The average velocity has also brought a new found ability to throw strikes, as 72 percent of the pitches he’s thrown for the Mariners have been strikes — in 2010, that number was just 56 percent.

His track record means that buyers are going to be wary of paying too high a price to acquire Perez’s services, but it’s hard to argue that he’s the same guy he was earlier in his career. The command might not stick around, but in throwing 94 out of the bullpen from the left side, Perez has a chance to be a real weapon in relief for any contender, and the Rangers and Cardinals both showed how important bullpen depth can be in October. A team like the Braves — who don’t know what to expect from Jonny Venters — would be a good fit, though in reality, every team in the playoff race should be evaluating Perez before next Tuesday.

Chris Denorfia, Outfielder, San Diego

While the Padres disappointed potential suitors for Carlos Quentin when they re-signed him earlier in the week, there’s another outfielder in San Diego who could provide real value as a strong role player and should come at a much lower cost. The highly underrated Chris Denorfia is quietly having a very strong season, hitting .294/.356/.431 while splitting time between all three outfield positions. Like most Padres hitters, his offensive line is being dragged down by the offensive black hole known as Petco Park, as he’s hitting a spectacular .330/.375/.491 on the road.

He’s not going to hit that well in a new location, but Denorfia has over 1,100 big league plate appearances and a .331 wOBA that is 10 percent above league average, so it’s about time that he got a chance to show what he can do with increased playing time. At 31, he’s not young enough to be a long term solution, but he’s probably the best fourth outfielder in the game today, and could start for a handful of contenders with question marks in the outfield. Pittsburgh might be an ideal landing spot for Denorfia, as he wouldn’t cost them a vital part of their farm system and would give them depth behind newly recalled prospect Starling Marte, allowing them to have a necessary safety net who is already used to serving as a part-time player.

Five AL Trades That Need to Happen

Yesterday, Dan Szymborski gave you five National League trades that should go down, hoarding intriguing talents like Justin Upton and Cole Hamels in the process. But, just because he’s already kept those two in the NL doesn’t mean that the AL contenders should stand pat at the deadline — there are five moves in the AL that need to happen too.

Trade No. 1: Miami Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and second baseman Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers for third baseman Nick Castellanos, starting pitcher Jacob Turner, and outfielder Delmon Young.

The Tigers can’t afford to let prime seasons from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder go to waste, and have already bet big on 2012, so they shouldn’t stop short now. The surrounding cast around The Big Three needs serious improvement, and the Marlins could offer significant help at several positions in one fell swoop.

Ramirez hasn’t settled in well at third base and could probably use a change of scenery at this point, and the Tigers might be a good place for him to start over. Of course, with Miguel Cabrera at third, he’d have to undergo another positional switch, but the Tigers could get creative in an effort to get him on board – offer him a chance to move back to shortstop in 2013 if he’s willing to move to the outfield for the rest of this season. Ramirez was outspoken about wanting to remain at shortstop, and the organization could decline Jhonny Peralta’s team option for next season in order to give Ramirez another shot at his preferred position. In order to get that shot, he’d just have to acquiesce to an outfield experiment that may be the best use of his physical skills anyway.

A fast runner with mediocre instincts, he’s long been projected by scouts as an outfielder, and the Tigers could certainly use a replacement for the inept Delmon Young (who the Marlins are forced to take back simply so Jim Leyland wouldn’t play him anymore). Ramirez would give the team another legitimate offensive weapon, and if his transition to the outfield went quickly — the team could start him off at DH while he learns the position in warm-ups — he has the physical skills to also be a vast improvement with the glove as well.

Sanchez is an underrated hurler who would fit in well behind Verlander, but is headed for a big payday in free agency, and might be too pricey for the Marlins this off-season. Including him in the deal in order to get both Castellanos and Turner is better than letting him walk for draft picks over the winter.

Infante might look like the throw-in, but given the team’s awful production from second base (.198/.277/.274) this season, just getting a league average player is a dramatic upgrade. The price for these two upgrades may seem steep, but if the deal breathes new life into Ramirez, he could the difference between the team sitting at home or throwing a parade in October. For the Marlins, they would finally have a real third baseman of the future, an interesting young pitcher, and a chance to move on from the Hanley Ramirez era.

Trade No 2: Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Zack Greinke to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Leonys Martin, starting pitcher Neil Ramirez, and second baseman Rougned Odor.

The Rangers rotation consists of many quality pitchers, but there’s no one that you could point to as the guy you want to give the ball to in Game One of a playoff series. The Rangers might be World Series favorites even without Greinke, but adding a true frontline starter would give them their best chance to avoid being the Buffalo Bills of Major League Baseball.

Greinke has experience both in the AL and in hitter friendly ballparks, and he’s had success at avoiding home runs throughout his career, a key attribute for pitching well in Texas. His 2.80 xFIP is second in the Majors (behind only Stephen Strasburg), and with the Rangers quality defense behind him, he could very well take a step forward even while switching to a tougher environment. In a market full of arms that just duplicate what Texas already has, Greinke is one of the true difference makers.

Given the changes in the CBA that eliminate draft pick compensation for midseason acquisitions, giving up three quality prospects for a rental might seem like a steep price, but the Rangers are better off paying in quantity rather than quality. This deal would allow them to keep coveted shortstop Jurickson Profar and third baseman Mike Olt, and while they may regret moving Odor in a few years, they have the depth to live with the losses of Martin and Ramirez in the short term.

For the Brewers, they get a guy who should be able to take over in center field right away, replacing the platoon of Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan that has been nothing short of a disaster in 2012. Ramirez is an inconsistent arm who recently got demoted from Triple-A back to Double-A, but has shown signs of life in four starts since the move and still has premium stuff. And Odor may be the real prize of the group, though the Brewers would have to wait a few years for the 18-year-old to live up to reach Milwaukee. Still, this package would be too much for the Brewers to turn down, and the Rangers can afford to part with three young players in order to try and bring home a ring.

Trade No 3: Chicago Cubs trade starting pitcher Ryan Dempster for shortstop/second baseman Jean Segura.

While the Dodgers have been heavily connected to Dempster, it’s the other Los Angeles franchise who should swoop in and add him to their rotation. With Dan Haren and Ervin Santana struggling, the Angels are in need of another reliable starter, and Dempster is the best fit for them on the market. He’d slide in perfectly as another strike thrower who misses bats, and he should be able to take advantage of Anaheim’s friendliness towards right-handed pitchers.

Segura is a middle infield prospect who was aced out of a future in Anaheim when the team gave contract extensions to both Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick, so his role in the organization is now trade chip. He got off to a slow start in Double-A but has heated up as of late, and would offer the Cubs a potential Starlin Castro replacement or a guy who could offer a bit more at the plate than Darwin Barney.

Trade No 4: Seattle Mariners trade starting pitcher Kevin Millwood and catcher Miguel Olivo to the Chicago White Sox for catcher Tyler Flowers.

The White Sox don’t have the prospects to make a huge splash at the deadline, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to improve the roster in order to hold off the Tigers and Indians. Picking up veterans like Millwood and Olivo might not grab headlines, but could be enough to keep them in the race.

Millwood’s quietly pitching well for the Mariners, posting his usual 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio with some ground balls, and before you point out that Safeco Field is a pitcher’s haven, he was effective down the stretch for Colorado last year as well. With John Danks and Gavin Floyd on the DL, the team could use an innings sponge who can keep the team in games, and that’s Millwood’s specialty at this point in his career.

Olivo would be making a return visit to Chicago, but instead of flopping as the catcher of the future, he could serve as the perfect platoon caddy for A.J. Pierzynski. Pierzynski is hitting okay against lefties in 67 trips to the plate this year, but he’s historically got a large platoon split and the team could use an alternate option against southpaws in the second half. However, Olivo wouldn’t have to play against all LHPs to be worth acquiring — he also has a very strong throwing arm, another big weakness for the White Sox starting catcher. Olivo could be used situationally against teams who can run, or late in games to prevent a stolen base, and would represent an upgrade in a limited role over Flowers, who has been atrocious for the White Sox.

The Mariners just need offense, and Flowers has flashed some power in the minors. He might not be any kind of savior, but as a 26-year-old, he’s more in line with the type of player that Seattle needs to be looking at in the second half than either Millwood or Olivo.

Trade No 5: Philadelphia Phillies trade outfielder Juan Pierre to the New York Yankees for relief pitcher Kevin Whelan.

With Brett Gardner’s injury problems lingering, the Yankees could use some depth in left field, and what better way to replace Gardner than with another player with similar physical skills. Pierre is nowhere near Gardner as a defender, but he’s a high-contact speed guy who can be effective in a strict platoon — he’s hitting .345/.385/.427 against RHPs and .171/.190/.171 against LHPs. Thankfully, with Andruw Jones around, a strict platoon would be easy to pull off, allowing Raul Ibanez to move back to designated hitter.

Pierre would also give the team a pinch-running option on days he doesn’t start, and gives Joe Girardi a bit more flexibility on the bench. As a useful role player, he’s worth giving up on the hopes that Whelan ever figures out where the strike zone is, and let the Phillies bet on his all walks-and-strikeouts approach to pitching.

What’s Troubling Adrian?

The Red Sox are a disappointing 43-42 this season, in fourth place by a half-game over the Blue Jays, and 8.5 games out of first place in the AL East. However, despite their pitching struggles and numerous injuries, especially in the outfield, the Red Sox are merely 2.5 games behind the Orioles for the second wild card spot. The playoffs are within reach, and as Jacoby Ellsbury gets back into the swing of things and Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia return from the disabled list, the Sox could make a serious postseason push. Though it would certainly help if Adrian Gonzalez was hitting at his normal level.

Through 85 games and 370 plate appearances, Gonzalez is hitting a measly .284/.330/.417. While his .322 wOBA meets the league average, he is a far greater hitter. He has a career .371 wOBA and a .395 mark over the last three seasons. Projection systems, which are based heavily on historical data, see him rebounding nicely down the stretch. But there is no guarantee that he completely rebounds and the possibility still exists that he’ll finish the year with a drastically lower wOBA. Whether he finishes the season hovering around a .320 wOBA, or closer to the .340 that ZIPS projects, his current and potential dropoffs are worthy of investigation.

Throughout history, there are plenty of examples of players whose wOBA dropped substantially as compared to their prior three-year averages. Among players who managed 1,000+ plate appearances over four consecutive years, and who batted at least 400 times in the fourth season – to avoid drop-offs due to injuries or reduced playing time – there were 187 such examples of players whose wOBA dropped by 70+ points.

However, a selection bias exists in the data in that players with extremely high wOBAs over a three-year span are more likely to experience larger drop-offs: Roger Hornsby’s .544 wOBA average from 1923-25, and his subsequent .396 mark in 1926 isn’t really a comp for Gonzalez. To get around that issue I restricted the data to players whose three-year wOBA average fell in the .370-.420 range. That dropped the list to 81 players who lost 70+ points of wOBA in that fourth season.

Most of the recent examples are players whose careers were essentially over after that fourth season. Sammy Sosa had a .387 wOBA from 2002-04, and a .292 wOBA in 2005. Roberto Alomar had a .404 wOBA from 1999-2001 and a .316 wOBA in 2002. Pat Burrell had a .382 wOBA from 2006-08 and a .304 mark in 2009. Jim Edmonds, like Gonzalez, had a .395 wOBA from 2004-06, but well to .316 in 2007.

The comparable players might not bode well for Gonzalez, but as Adam Dunn is showing us, sometimes players simply have fluky poor seasons. Among the group whose three-year average fell between .370 and .420, Dunn actually had the second-largest drop-off of all time, with a .385 average from 2008-10 and a .266 wOBA last season. Though his wOBA fell by 119 points, he now has a .370 wOBA and has rebounded nicely.

That being said, why exactly has Gonzalez struggled? According to an excellent post from ESPN’s Sweetspot affiliate Fire Brand of the American League, Gonzalez’s struggles revolve around plate discipline, an assertion backed up by the data. FanGraphs has Gonzalez swinging at 52.6% of his pitches seen, compared to his career 48.7% rate. He hasn’t topped 50% in this category since before he was a regular starter. His rate of swings out of the zone is up to a career-high 37.1%, and his career rate is just 29.1%. He has swung at 75.1% of pitches thrown his way in the zone, up from 69.9% last, but is making less contact on those pitches. And while his overall contact is slightly up, it has come more from pitches out of the zone, where worse contact is often induced by pitchers.

And while he has produced more effectively over the last two weeks – a .393/.404/.500 slash line and a .392 wOBA – some of his plate discipline stats are still askew. That productivity is accompanied by a 41.5% rate of out-of-zone swings, which is disconcerting since pitchers have only thrown 38.2% of pitches in the zone throughout this span.

He has also swung at 57.1% of all pitches, and while his approach has yielded solid results recently, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a discernible change. Gonzalez started out slowly and has experienced some recent success despite approaching plate appearances in the same odd way. Perhaps he is being pitched differently and is yet to make adjustments.

The previously linked Fire Brand article found that pitchers are more inclined to challenge Gonzalez inside this year, instead of constantly staying low and away. Since he hasn’t made them pay for it, there hasn’t been any reason to limit their plate coverage. Gonzalez is likely too good to finish the season with merely league average production, but there is certainly precedent for substantial drop-offs in productivity, and his can be traced to a specific root cause. The Red Sox playoff hopes don’t entirely hinge on his production picking up, but given the uncertainties caused by numerous injuries to everyday players, having Gonzalez as anything but a sure thing clearly hurts.

The Best Fits For Several Trade Targets

Jim Bowden laid out his list of the 10 players most likely to be on the move over the final four weeks leading up to the trade deadline, and in several of those cases, there’s one team that could use their services more than anyone else. Without further ado, here are the three best fits to fill a contender’s needs for the stretch run.

Shane Victorino to the Cincinnati Reds.

That the Reds are in first place right now is something of a minor miracle, given the ridiculously awful performance they’ve gotten from their leadoff hitters this season. Table setters for the Reds this year have combined fora .194/.234/.304 batting line – easily the worst in the majors – and are the primary reason that Joey Votto has only 47 RBI despite being baseball’s best hitter this season. The Reds badly need a guy who can get on base at an average rate at least, and it would help if that guy could play center field, giving them a better option than either Drew Stubbs or Chris Heisey.

Enter Shane Victorino. While the Phillies 5’9 Hawaiian sparkplug isn’t having the same kind of impact he did last year (hitting .254/.322/.386), he’s still been a quality all around performer, producing +1.6 WAR to date. Most of his regression from last year has come through hitting fewer extra base hits, but the Reds don’t need Victorino to match 2011’s .491 slugging percentage, and would be happy to just have his career .342 on base percentage at the top of their line-up instead of the out machines they’ve been playing this season.

Victorino is a perfect complement to the guys already on Cincinnati’s roster as well, as he’s a switch hitter who is better from the left side of the plate, helping to balance out the all-RHB options the Reds have beyond everyday right fielder Jay Bruce. Stubbs could play against all lefties in a platoon and play left field against right-handers on days when the Reds want to maximize outfield defense, giving them more options defensively as well as a guy who could ignite their line-up and allow Votto to start driving runners in with all of his doubles.

Adding Victorino and making Stubbs as a fantastic fourth outfielder could add between one and two wins for the Reds over the rest of the season, and given how competitive the NL Central is, that could easily be the difference between a division title and sitting at home in October.

Francisco Liriano to the Indians.

With Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson rounding into form, the Indians rotation is starting to look like a strength of the team once again. However, both of those hurlers are right-handed, as are all three other members of the Indians rotation. In fact, 10 of the 12 pitchers currently on Cleveland’s roster are right-handed, and that presents a significant match-up problem against the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox.

With left-handed thumpers like Adam Dunn and A.J. Pierzynski, the White Sox have several players with large platoon splits, and the team’s 85 wRC+ against LHPs ranks just 22nd in baseball. However, the Indians don’t currently have any way to exploit those weaknesses against Chicago, and end up throwing an army of right-handed pitchers at an offense that is better against RHPs (98 wRC+) than they have been against LHPs. Beyond just the White Sox, the Indians would benefit from having a having quality left-handed starter, and Liriano’s inconsistent history and impending free agency should drive his price down to the point where the Indians could afford him without surrendering a premium return.

Liriano provides as much upside as any starter on the market, and given the Indians position, they need to take a gamble rather than making a safer, smaller move that won’t have as much impact. Replacing McAlister or Tomlin with Liriano should net them an extra win, and could also give them a match-up weapon they lack at the moment.

Marco Scutaro to the Dodgers.

Among the 23 shortstops in MLB who have qualified for the batting title, Dee Gordon ranks 21st in offense (61 wRC+) and 22nd in fielding (-9.4 UZR), all of which serve to make him baseball’s worst performing shortstop (-0.9 WAR) to date. Of all qualified players at any position, only Brennan Boesch (-1.5 WAR) has been worse. Gordon’s speed and athleticism might eventually make him a good Major League player, but he’s nowhere close to that now, and he has no business playing on a team with playoff aspirations.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, there aren’t a lot of shortstops available, but Scutaro represents one potential upgrade who could make a major difference even while not being an amazing player himself. Scutaro’s decent-but-unspectacular production (90 wRC+, 0.1 UZR) isn’t going to command a huge return in trade, but because of the complete void he’d be filling for LA, acquiring Scutaro would be more impactful than if the proposed Carlos Lee deal had gone through. The Dodgers won a substantial amount of games in the first two months of the season with Matt Kemp surrounded by a bunch of steady performers, and what they need now is yet another steady performer to plug their hole at shortstop.

Scutaro won’t be on anyone’s list of guys who will put you over the top, but in terms of magnitude of difference for acquiring team, swapping him in for Gordon might be a larger upgrade than any other team makes all month.