Archive for March, 2013

Defining Success For Also-Rans

Commissioner Bud Selig is fond of saying that under his watch, revenue sharing and the addition of two wild cards have allowed more teams than ever to begin the season with at least some hope of reaching the postseason. Perhaps that’s true, but realistically it doesn’t apply to everyone. In five of the six divisions, there’s at least one team with almost no chance for glory in 2013.

Even if there’s little likelihood of success between the lines, these teams can — must, really — identify ways to make 2013 a successful season, rather than just marking time as endless games go by. These teams can learn more about what they have, what they don’t and what they need to do to get back into contention.

For these clubs, success this season will be defined in ways other than victories.

Miami Marlins

Attempt to win back some sort of public goodwill by proving that the latest fire sale brought back the core of the next good Marlins team.

The Marlins were rightfully flogged after the deals that shipped out Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Anibal Sanchez, raising the white flag after just a single season in their new publicly-funded park. That series of moves has shrunk the Opening Day payroll from just more than $100 million in 2012 to about a third of that this season, leaving them with only Giancarlo Stanton and what’s likely to be a whole lot of empty seats.

Miami fans might feel betrayed by the moves, but the Marlins can help redeem themselves this season by showing that the deals made sense from a baseball perspective, not just a financial one. Catcher Rob Brantly (.290/.372/.460 in 113 plate appearances after coming from Detroit), pitchers Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi (4.13 FIP in 22 starts between Los Angeles and Miami) and slick-fielding rookie shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria all arrived in the deals and will start the season with the Marlins. They’ll soon be joined by fellow trade acquisitions in outfielder Jake Marisnick and pitchers Justin Nicolino and Jacob Turner, plus two top prospects the team already had — pitcher Jose Fernandez and outfielder Christian Yelich.

It won’t be easy for the Marlins to swing the tide of public opinion back their way, but it’s important to remember this is a team that lost 93 games last season and 90 in 2011. For this to be a successful season in Miami, the Marlins can win a similar amount of games for a fraction of the cost and with a much brighter future.

Colorado Rockies

Sort out their organizational direction.

It’s one thing to say that the Rockies should just fix their lousy pitching staff, because that’s been an ongoing concern almost since the day they were born in 1993. This edition of the club has a larger concern to deal with — they’ve increasingly become one of the more oddly-run organizations in baseball.

In a five-month span last season, the Rockies ran through one of the more confounding stretches we’ve seen in years. In June, they announced plans to go to a four-man rotation and limit starters to 75 pitches per outing. While that represented admirable outside-the-box thinking, the timing of the midseason implementation was awkward, and players never seemed to buy into it. In August, the club raised the eyebrows of many by promoting assistant general manager Bill Geivett to perform the duties of a general manager without actually stripping incumbent Dan O’Dowd of the title. Geivett took that one step further, locating his desk within the clubhouse — a move nearly unheard of in the sport.

By September, they announced the four-man rotation idea would be scrapped for 2013. That was followed by a managerial shakeup in October, as Jim Tracy decided he’d had enough and quit. After a search that included an active player, Jason Giambi, they settled upon former shortstop Walt Weiss, who was previously coaching high school baseball.

The Rockies have plenty of problems on the field and are expected to finish last in 2013. The best thing they can do to change that for the future is to figure out their organizational philosophy and return the focus to building a winning team.

Seattle Mariners

Figure out if they already have the offensive core of the future, or if they need to find one.

Seattle lost 87 games last season and spent the winter applying patches to the offense, importing short-term fixes like Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse. There’s plenty of pitching talent on the way, with pitchers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker all likely to be ready within the year to join the newly-extended Felix Hernandez, but the Mariners need to understand if they have the pieces to upgrade that league-worst offense for years to come.

The team thought it might have done that already with youngsters second baseman Dustin Ackley, catcher Jesus Montero and first baseman Justin Smoak, but all three flopped last season, with Montero’s lowly .298 OBP representing the trio’s best mark.

There’s still hope here, because youth is on their side — none are older than 26 — and Smoak put up a red-hot September after switching to a lighter bat. This is probably his last chance to prove himself with Seattle, however, and the Mariners need to find out if Ackley and Montero are for real, as well.

New York Mets

Get the growing pains of their “big three” prospects out of the way in a low-expectation year.

After four straight losing seasons, the Mets head into 2013 with more problems than ever. R.A. Dickey is gone, Johan Santana might be finished and the team arguably doesn’t have a single big league quality outfielder. That’s going to make for a tough season against the powerhouses of the NL East, but Mets fans have a lot to look forward to thanks to a trio of ready-now young talent.

Matt Harvey made his debut last season and sparkled in 10 late-season starts, striking out 70 in 59 1/3; innings. He’ll be joined later in the season by fellow starter Zack Wheeler, one year younger but even more highly-regarded, and also by catcher Travis d’Arnaud, the main prize of the Dickey deal. All three should see considerable time in the big leagues this season. While that won’t be enough to allow the Mets to contend this year, there’s nothing better they can do than to get the trio fully acclimated to New York while the pressure is at its lowest.

Put another way: The Mets head into this season with Jeremy Hefner in the rotation and John Buck behind the plate. If the team does nothing else but replace them by beginning the careers of the core of the next good New York club, it’ll be a worthwhile endeavor.

San Diego Padres

Settle Chase Headley’s future, one way or another.

Headley broke out in a huge way in 2012, finishing fifth in the National League Most Valuable Player ballot thanks to 31 home runs and 115 RBIs, along with solid defense. He’s set to earn $8.5 million this season and has one remaining season of arbitration beyond that before hitting free agency after 2014.

Unsurprisingly, that combination has had trade rumors swirling around Headley since last summer, especially considering how thin third base is and that large market teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees both need help at the position. The longer the Padres hold on to him, the lower his trade value becomes — especially if his 2012 was a mirage, considering he hit just four homers the season before — so it’s important to their long-term success that they end the questions and sign him or move him.

If there’s any kind of silver lining to the broken thumb that will sideline Headley for the first few weeks of the season, it’s that the Padres will get plenty of time to look at 24-year-old prospect Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko is a career .319/.385/.529 hitter in the minors with 55 homers over the past two seasons, but he’s been blocked at third base by Headley. With Headley and backup Logan Forsythe both injured, Gyorko is expected to see time both at second base and third base in San Diego this year; his performance will go a long way towards informing the Padres if Headley is expendable or not.

Minnesota Twins

Fully commit to a ground-up rebuild.

The Twins have lost 195 games over the past two seasons, in large part because no team in baseball had a worse FIP than Minnesota did in 2012 — no, not even the Rockies. Their last-place outlook doesn’t seem likely to change in 2013, and giving $14 million to Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey seemed like a large sum of money for an incremental improvement when similar placeholder types could have been found for a fraction of that.

The process of turning this team over began when outfielders Ben Revere and Denard Span were traded for pitching prospects Trevor May and Alex Meyer, along with back-end starter Vance Worley. It’s a good start, but the team needs to go further.

Outfielder Josh Willingham is coming off a career year (35 homers and an .890 OPS) and has a reasonable two years left on his contract; he’ll be more valuable as a trade chip than he will be on the field for a losing team. The same goes for longtime Twin Justin Morneau, who is headed into the last year of his contract and showed that he could stay healthy and reasonably productive in 2012. If they can get some value out of multi-positional types like Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit as well, all the better; none of these players will be around the next time the Twins see October.

The Twins cost themselves in 2011 by failing to trade Michael Cuddyer in his free-agent walk year, letting him move on to Colorado as a free agent for nothing. If the team plans to truly turn around what’s become one of the worst teams in the league, they can’t repeat that mistake.

Houston Astros

Find rock bottom this year.

You just can’t overstate how bad it’s going to be for the Astros in 2013. Take a team that lost 213 games over the plast two seasons, remove the only offensive player who contributed more than two wins above replacement (Jed Lowrie, at 2.6), switch them to one of the toughest divisions in baseball and what you have is a recipe for outright disaster.

GM Jeff Luhnow already traded off all of his respectable veterans last season, other than perhaps starter Bud Norris, so fans don’t even have that to look forward to.

What the team can do instead is to make sure that this season is as bad as it gets, and that next season starts the long climb back to respectability. That doesn’t mean it won’t still be bad — if the team is as awful as everyone expects this season, it could improve by 10 games in 2014 and still lose more than 100 — but now that the teardown is finished, the front office can see what’s left.

That means finding out if Brett Wallace is ever going to hit, or if Justin Maxwell can be a usable outfielder, and maybe even getting top prospect Jonathan Singleton up after his suspension is over. It’ll be ugly in Houston no matter what, but fans and players alike need to begin to see that there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

Five Players Who Will Fall Off in 2013

Every year, certain players surprise in a good way, and we have already seen picks to click from Jonah Keri and breakout picks from Keith Law. But not everyone can be a pleasant surprise. Young players who we expect to show progress will plateau or take steps back, and veterans who we expect to maintain a certain level of performance will backslide. Let’s take a look at a few players that I am not optimistic on this year.

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Back-to-back three-win seasons established Weaver as one of the best pitchers in the game, but there was an underlying river that threatened to undermine his progress — his strikeout rate. In 2010, Weaver struck out a career-best 25.8% batters, but his swinging-strike rate that season has proven to be an outlier. As his strikeout rate has declined — his 19.2% K% last season was actually below average — so has his velocity. Towards the end of last season, his average velocity was barely above 85 mph. With his 20’s behind him, Weaver is unlikely to see these trends suddenly reverse themselves, and he will become even more reliant on his control and defense. Luckily, both of those are still excellent, so Weaver’s decline may be soft, but his days of being an ace may be behind him. Last season he only registered a 94 FIP-, just six percent better than league average. That’s not the profile of a pitcher who should be the eighth-fastest pitcher in fantasy leagues, as he is at Mock Draft Central.

Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants: Another player who will say goodbye to his 20’s this season is Pence. The Texas native, who turns 30 on April 13, saw a sharp decline in his performance following his trade to the Giants last season. It might not get any easier this season. Pence has never been a player who relies on his patience, and has instead made his hay as a power-speed player. The speed vanished in 2011, and the power may go the way of the dodo soon as well. Last season, only one National League park depressed home runs from right-handed hitters more than did AT&T Park. It was also the fourth-hardest NL park for right-handed hitters for doubles and triples. This puts Pence’s streak of 20-plus homers in five straight seasons squarely in jeopardy, but it’s more than just that. After starting his career with five consecutive seasons with at least 3.0 WAR, last season Pence fell to just 1.8, and if he doesn’t improve, his days as a full-time starter may be numbered.

Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians: When Kipnis homered in four straight games in his introduction to the majors, it seemed like a new star had been foisted upon us. More than a year later, things appear less certain. Yes, Kipnis did sock 14 homers and swipe 31 bases last season, something that no other second baseman could boast. On the other hand, his 3.1 WAR was only the 12th-best mark at the position, and tied for a middling 69th out of 143 qualified players. His offense was league average, but after his ’11 debut, more was expected. His projections don’t look any rosier heading into 2013, as neither ZiPS nor Steamer project his wOBA to be a top 10 figure at second base. Steamer ranks him 12th, and ZiPS ranks him 13th. He’s not close to breaking away from the pack in either projection system, and both rate him as essentially akin to the Mets’ Daniel Murphy.

This runs contrary to his public perception — on MDC for instance, only Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler are being drafted ahead of Kipnis at the keystone. Part of the problem may be his home ballpark, Progressive Field. In his brief time in the majors, Kipnis has struggled against left-handed pitching, and that is doubly true at home. In his 128 plate appearances at home against lefties, he has hit just .184, and only 3.8% of the flyballs he has hit have landed in the cheap seats, a number that is well below league average. And while 128 PA is a small sample, it has been shown that HR/FB stabilizes around 100 PA, so that number may not take a turn for the better. This season, Kipnis will be 26, so he isn’t <i>that</i> young. He should be entering his prime, but his recent performance and projections offer little hope for growth. As a point of comparison, Pedroia had seasons with wOBA’s of .364, .377 and .359 by the time he reached his age-26 season. Last year in his first full season, Kipnis hit for a not-at-all comparable .315 wOBA. Kipnis simply may not become the star many expect him to be.

Michael Morse, Seattle Mariners: In his one full season in the majors, Morse hit .303/.360/.550 in 575 PA. In his other 1,115 major league PA, he has hit .291/.341/.462 — not bad in and of itself, but certainly the star quality is lacking. Add in some absolutely horrid defense, and you are left with a player that is only superficially a “beast.” Over the past two seasons, 107 players have played at least 1,000 innings in the outfield. Of them, only Lucas Duda has a worse UZR/150 than does Morse. Now, he will move to a bigger outfield in Seattle than he had been playing in in Washington. That’s not a recipe for success. Not only will his fantasy value take a hit — Safeco Field still kills right-handed hitters — but his WAR may be in danger of delving into negative territory.

Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals: In the past two seasons, Beltran has not missed significant time due to injury. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the automatic number-generating robot for the entirety of the two seasons. His 2011 campaign was a revelation, as was his first-half performance last season. But then his walk rate dropped, his K rate spiked, and his production dropped. Beltran isn’t going to be as bad as his .236/.302/.440 line that he tallied in the second half last season, but the superstar lines of 2011 and early 2012 will probably be out of reach as well. No longer an asset defensively, Beltran is almost completely reliant on his bat to provide value, and his bat isn’t going to justify superstar status. Neither ZiPS nor Steamer projects Beltran to have a top-20 wOBA among outfielders. Both grade him as above-average offensively, similar to players like Jason Kubel and Nick Markakis. What’s more, if Beltran does get hurt, he may find himself Wally Pipp’d by top prospect Oscar Taveras. It can be dangerous to put too much weight on first-half and second-half splits, but when the player in be pessimistic.

To be sure, these four are not the only players about whom I am pessimistic. Like Morse, Jacoby Ellsbury only has only recent banner season, albeit a borderline-MVP banner season. He probably isn’t going to get near that level again though. Dan Haren, Tommy Hanson and Brian McCann are all broken until proven healthy — all three are too risky for my tastes in fantasy baseball this season. From a fantasy perspective, Mike Moustakas is the embodiment of a player whose real-life value far outstrips his fantasy value.

The New Most Underrated Player

Last August, I wrote a post at FanGraphs that labeled Giants center fielder Angel Pagan as The Most Underrated Player in Baseball. He then went on to fame in October and fortune in free agency, so coming off a World Series title and a $40 million contract, it’s probably time for him to pass the torch. There are a few pretty good players who don’t get enough respect, but given that he just placed 175th in the BBTN 500, I don’t think anyone in the game is currently more underrated than Erick Aybar.

Aybar seems to fly under the radar for many of the same reasons as Pagan. He’s a good hitter relative to his peers at an up the middle position, but he’s not the kind of dynamic offensive player who shows up on Sportscenter a lot. Rather than being excellent at any one thing, he’s solid at a number of things, and excels in areas that people pay little attention to, such as running the bases. And, of course, he’s been overshadowed by more famous teammates for practically his entire career, and given that he’s now on the same team as Mike Trout, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

But just because Aybar isn’t the most famous member of the Angels line-up doesn’t mean that we should continue to overlook his contributions. Over the last four years, Aybar has posted a 99 wRC+ (league average is 100, and league average for shortstops is 86), and as most teams in baseball can attest, it is not easy to find a guy who can hold his own with the bat while also defending the shortstop position. For Aybar, though, what he does at the plate is just the start of his offensive value.

Over the last four years, Aybar has accrued 16 runs of baserunning value, according to the metrics we use on FanGraphs to evaluate base stealing and advancing when a teammate puts the ball in play. That’s good for 18th best in baseball during that stretch, and has added nearly two wins of value to the Angels during that stretch. And using the last four years of data might actually underrate Aybar’s current baserunning skills — in 2009/2010, he was just 36 for 51 in stealing bases, but he’s 50 for 60 over the last two years. As his base stealing has improved, so has his overall value, and he’s been worth +7.6 WAR over the last two seasons alone, putting him 5th overall among shortstops during that stretch.

Still not convinced? Here’s Aybar’s performance — in batting, fielding, and baserunning — over the last two years compared to Derek Jeter:

Name Batting Base Running Fielding WAR
Erick Aybar 12.2 9.5 (1.0) 7.6
Derek Jeter 22.5 (0.8) (21.7) 5.5

Jeter’s been a slightly better hitter even after you account for their home parks, but Aybar wipes out the entire offensive advantage just through the difference in baserunning, meaning that they’ve essentially been equals in terms of producing runs over the last two seasons. When it comes to saving them, Aybar is clearly superior, and though he’ll never The Captain, he’s pretty clearly a better shortstop now than the Yankees superstar.

This isn’t intended as a knock against Jeter, who is still a very good player in his own right, but simply serves to show that Aybar’s performance is nothing to sneeze at. He might not be a big time power hitter, but then again, neither is Jeter. Shortstops who make a lot of contact, get a bunch of doubles, and can run when they get on base can produce a lot of value even if they aren’t pulling the ball into the stands on a regular basis.

And yet, Aybar remains underappreciated. He’s never been named to an All-Star team, nor has ever even received a single down ballot MVP vote. Last spring, he signed a four year contract extension that kept him off the free agent market for the grand total of $36 million, giving him the same average annual value in salary that Cody Ross got this winter.

The Angels have just announced that Aybar is going to hit second in the order this year, putting him in between Trout and Pujols, so he might get more attention than he has in previous years, and don’t be too shocked if he takes another step forward offensively with Trout opening up the right side of the infield for him on a regular basis. Of course, any step forward offensively now would just elevate him from good player to a legitimate star, so perhaps we can start giving him credit for being a key part of the Angels success now?

Oh, and if you were wondering, my other two finalists for the title also play in the West – David Murphy of the Rangers and Trevor Cahill of the Diamondbacks. Murphy’s been tagged with the fourth outfielder label but is more than capable of playing everyday on a good Texas team, and with Hamilton gone to Anaheim, he’s going to get his chance to prove it in 2013. Cahill hasn’t been able to repeat his flukey 2.74 ERA from 2010 again, and might be seen as something of a letdown for those who thought that was sustainable, but he’s still been an above average starter and increased both his strikeout rate and ground ball rate last year — it’s not easy to move both of those things up at the same time, suggesting that Cahill might be in line for even more improvement headed into his age-25 season.

But while Murphy and Cahill are good players, they’re still not as good as Aybar. And that’s why, at the end of the day, he’s now the most underrated player in baseball.

How The Tribe Upgraded Their Pitching

For the third time in four years, the Cleveland Indians are coming off a season of at least 93 losses. General manager Chris Antonetti, having already fired manager Manny Acta before the 2012 season ended, spent the winter remaking the face of his club. That meant bringing in two-time World Series champion Terry Francona to manage and bidding farewell to longtime offensive cogs Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, part of what ended up being a surprisingly active offseason for a small-market team seemingly so far away from contention.

After acquiring Drew Stubbs in the Choo deal and signing Mark Reynolds, Cleveland then forfeited two high draft picks to sign Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher to expensive four-year deals. The new quartet — along with returning bats such as Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana — should make for an immediate upgrade to a Cleveland attack that finished 22nd in runs scored.

Yet for all the effort Antonetti put into reshaping his offense, he seemingly did little to improve a pitching staff that ranked as the least effective run-prevention unit in baseball (non-Colorado division). Needless to say, the offseason strategy has left many confused. Why, after all, make commitments of more than $100 million and two draft picks to improve the offense immediately, but fail to upgrade one of the worst rotations in baseball enough to make a real playoff push?

The answer: Antonetti may not have made a prominent addition to his rotation, but he did help his team take a huge leap forward in preventing runs.

Addition by subtraction

You might be wondering: How is a team that is bringing back the underwhelming trio of Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister, and fortifying it with Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir — yes, him — going to be any better than last year’s group? It’s because the responsibility for run prevention doesn’t fall entirely on the pitcher, and the offseason moves haven’t only upgraded the Cleveland offense — they’ve made a large impact on the team’s defense as well. Simply turning more balls into outs should help the pitching staff look better, even if the pitchers aren’t actually performing better.

Advanced defensive statistics remain admittedly imperfect, but they’re light years ahead of the generally useless fielding percentage, and they all agree on one thing — Cleveland’s 2012 defense was one of the worst in baseball. Whether you prefer defensive runs saved (28th, at minus-51 runs), UZR/150 (30th at minus-57 runs) or just about anything else, the team’s fielding was ranked poorly. It isn’t just a single-year problem, either; the Indians haven’t ranked above fourth worst in UZR/150 since 2008.

Extra outs in the field pile up on a team’s arms, and it’s not difficult to see how that affected Jimenez and Masterson, the only two Cleveland starters to throw at least 150 innings last season. Each ended up with ERA marks (5.40 for Jimenez, 4.93 for Masterson) that exceeded their FIP (5.04 for Jimenez, 4.16 for Masterson) by a considerable amount. In fact, six of the seven Cleveland pitchers to make more than five starts ended up with an ERA higher than their FIP, indicating a defense that was not making the plays it needed to. The pitching staff wasn’t good, but the defense made it seem even worse.

Taking the staff as a whole, only the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers ended up with larger differences between their ERA and FIP than Cleveland’s did. It’s a serious problem, and it’s one that might have still existed even if Antonetti had spent more of his time on improving his pitching.

Instead, the new-look Indians’ defensive corps is in position to actually help their staff rather than hinder it, and that’s in part simply due to addition by subtraction. Choo and Shelley Duncan were the two corner outfielders with the most playing time last season, and both were subpar defenders; Choo in particular rated as being especially poor (minus-17 UZR). If Antonetti had merely replaced them with average fielders, that would be an upgrade, but he has done much better than that — the 2013 Indians are likely to be one of the only teams in baseball playing three center field quality defenders in their outfield.

The new crew

Bourn is the real prize here, because he’s one of the few players universally acclaimed in the field by both traditional methods (two Gold Gloves) and advanced stats (DRS and UZR/150 each ranked him as 2012’s best defensive outfielder). DRS has Bourn has saving 24 runs on his own, and that alone would take a major chunk out of the 51-run defensive deficit the team saw last year.

The addition of Bourn also creates a domino effect that moves last year’s center fielder, Michael Brantley, over to left. Brantley ranked as a slightly below-average center fielder, and he should be more effective as he slides down the defensive spectrum to a less demanding position. When Brantley last played left field regularly, logging 558 1/3 innings there in 2011, both DRS and UZR/150 considered him above-average. He’ll look even better this year when compared to Duncan.

Rather than the subpar Choo in right field, Stubbs figures to see most of the playing time there. Despite hitting only .213/.277/.333 with Ohio’s other team, Stubbs still was worth 1.3 wins above replacement simply because of his excellent defense and baserunning (30 steals in 37 attempts). Like Brantley, he’ll be moving to a corner after having been a regular center fielder, and he’ll be a massive improvement over Choo.

Due to Stubbs’ huge platoon split, Swisher could see time in right field as well, but he’s expected to get most of his playing time at first base. That’s for the best, not only because it keeps the defensively challenged Jason Giambi and Reynolds as the designated hitter platoon they really ought to be, but because Swisher is a capable defender as well. If Swisher is even average at first base, that’s an improvement; despite the sterling defensive reputation of Swisher’s predecessor, Casey Kotchman, the metrics indicate he has been declining with the glove for several years now, posting a negative DRS and UZR for three straight years.

As for the rest of the infield, the Indians return the same primary starters who finished last season. Cabrera is not a good defensive shortstop, and Lonnie Chisenhall proved to be rough around the edges in limited play, but Kipnis was about average. Considering the inexperience and youth of Chisenhall and Kipnis, there’s the potential for improvement there, and Mike Aviles should take over the Jack Hannahan role. At the least, the infield — while not a strength — isn’t likely to be worse than last year’s version, and could be slightly better. Masterson, as a ground ball pitcher, stands to gain the most from any improvement here.

Again, advanced defensive metrics have not yet attained perfection, and so it’s reasonable if one were to quibble with some of the exact numbers. But the idea that an outfield of Bourn, Brantley and Stubbs comprises one of the best defensive groups in the game more than passes the sniff test. For a team that needed all the help it could get in preventing runs from scoring, an improved defense that will help every pitcher on the staff could be even more effective than having made a single big splash on the pitching market.

Orioles Were Wise to Stand Pat

The Baltimore Orioles shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and beating the favored Texas Rangers in the wild-card playoff last year, breaking a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons that dated back to the Cal Ripken Jr. era. The AL East has long been a brutal division to compete in, but the usual powers in Boston and New York have finally begun to show signs of vulnerability, and Tampa Bay has to overcome the losses of James Shields and B.J. Upton. At long last, the timing would have appeared right this winter for the Orioles to capitalize on their success and take advantage of what might be a small window of opportunity.

That’s clearly the way the Toronto Blue Jays saw things, making big splashes in trades with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, but Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette chose a different, much quieter path. The Orioles didn’t sign a single new player to a major league contract this winter, and even the team’s trading activity merely netted them bit players like Yamaico Navarro and Trayvon Robinson.

The lack of action was most notable in the team’s unstable rotation, where 12 different pitchers made at least two starts for the team last season, and only Wei-Yin Chen made more than 20. Rather than attempting to import a stabilizing presence, Duquette decided to stay with his various internal options for the rotation.

Despite the playoff berth, the Orioles outscored their opponents by only seven runs — good for an expected record of 82-80 — and much of the 2012 magic in Baltimore was built on a record-setting 29-9 record in one-run games. That’s good for a fantastic story for a fan base which desperately needed one, but it’s not indicative of their true talent level and almost certainly not sustainable going forward.

For this reason, Duquette has been criticized for not making a splash, But when you examine the three courses of action he had this winter, he made the right choice.

Course No. 1. Trade young talent for a big-time starting pitcher.

This is the largely unpopular route Dayton Moore took in Kansas City, cashing in star-in-the-making Wil Myers and three other decent-to-good prospects to add Shields and Wade Davis to his rotation. Duquette could have done the same, but it would likely have cost him stud prospects like pitcher Dylan Bundy  one of only three prospects to top Myers on Keith Law’s Top 100 — or infielder Manny Machado, each of whom made their MLB debuts in their age-19 seasons last year.

Had Duquette made those players available, he certainly could have swung a deal for a Shields or a comparable starter, but the long-term cost would have far outweighed the present benefits for a team that isn’t as close as hometown fans may believe.

2. Spend a lot of money (and potentially a first-round draft pick) on a free agent.

If you figure that the Orioles were never going to be in the race for Zack Greinke and that lesser choices like Joe Blanton or Kevin Correia weren’t enough of an upgrade to matter, the midrange market for impact starting pitching was exceptionally thin this winter. Other than Greinke, only two pitchers who moved to new teams signed for more than $15 million total — Ryan Dempster with the Red Sox and Edwin Jackson with the Cubs. Kyle Lohse remains available, of course, but in addition to being an imperfect fit for the AL East, he would have cost Baltimore its top draft pick since the Cardinals made him a qualifying offer. This is the toughest part of the market to find value in.

3. Stand pat.

This is the path the Orioles have taken, conserving their resources, and it makes sense because Duquette has no shortage of intriguing candidates to fill out his rotation. Only Chen and veteran Jason Hammel, who was surprisingly effective before going down with a knee injury, appear to have solid holds on jobs. Manager Buck Showalter has indicated that righties Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman are in line to get the next two, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario where both keep those positions all season.

Gonzalez was a 28-year-old rookie who impressed with a 3.25 ERA that wasn’t backed up by a 4.38 FIP or a less-than-stellar minor league track record. Tillman’s 2.93 ERA looked even better, but mediocre peripherals along with a .221 BABIP gave him a 4.25 FIP and make it unlikely he prevents runs as effectively again. In Tillman’s case, even reports of improved velocity may not be accurate, since it was skewed largely by a spike in his first game of the season that didn’t last.

Battling for the final spot — and for those that inevitably open up during the season — is a cast of seemingly thousands. The Orioles have former prospects who haven’t quite put it together yet (Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, and Brian Matusz), they have veterans trying to prove they can stay healthy and effective (Tommy Hunter, Jair Jurrjens, and Tsuyoshi Wada), and both groups should be looking over their shoulders at the next wave knocking on the door (Bundy and Kevin Gausman).

This is where the Orioles can look for breakout potential, because the first four starters are unlikely to provide a whole lot more than we’ve already seen. It may seem odd to say about a pitcher coming off a 6.20 ERA season, but Arrieta might be the most likely of this group to come alive and provide value. In his age-26 campaign, he increased his strikeout rate to 8.56 per nine innings while also lowering his walk rate to 2.75 per nine, good numbers that continued the steps forward he’d made there in 2011. The resulting 3.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than successful starters like Dempster, Matt Garza, Jackson, Mat Latos and Brandon McCarthy, and the upward trend in that metric is generally a good indicator of a pitcher doing something right.

Arrieta turned 27 this week, and scouts still love his multiple fastballs and plus secondary pitches, so the conditions are there for him to shave that ERA number significantly.

By this time next year, or perhaps even later in 2013, it’s quite possible that stud prospects Bundy and Gausman each occupy spots in the Baltimore rotation. Duquette knows that they are the future of the rotation, so there was no sense spending a lot of money (or talent) to bring in guys who might not be much better than their in-house options.

The Orioles need to sort out once and for all which of their many current starting options are going to join Bundy and Gausman, be a part of their bullpen or move on entirely. It may not be the most popular decision to stand still, but acquiring someone like an Aaron Harang only serves to ensure mediocrity and prevent young players like Arrieta from proving they’re part of the future.

Given the options available, Dan Duquette made the right decision for Baltimore’s long-term success — even if, in the present, it’s hard for fans to swallow.

The Yankees of the National League

Every year, it seems, the New York Yankees put together a monster offense. They get on base (#1 in MLB in OBP since 2008) and they hit for power (#1 in both SLG and HRs), so it’s no big surprise that they’ve scored a league best 4,234 runs over the last five years. Their 1,092 home runs during that span put them more than 100 dingers ahead of the Rangers, who have the second highest total among MLB clubs in the last five seasons. The Yankees more than have lived up to their Bronx Bombers nickname.

However, an interesting thing happens when you look at each team’s offensive performance during those last five years and exclude the at-bats that have been given to pitchers, leveling the playing field between AL and NL clubs to a large degree. When you just look at the results each team has gotten from their hitters, the St. Louis Cardinals emerge as the Yankees of the National League.

The totals that include their pitchers at-bats – a .270/.338/.419 slash line, a .331 wOBA, and 805 home runs — don’t stack up against New York’s numbers, but eliminating those at-bats from players who are not paid to hit makes a big difference. Just focusing on the results from their position players, the Cardinals team average jumps to .278 (#1 in MLB), their OBP jumps to .348 (#1 in MLB, edging out New York’s .347), and their slugging percentage jumps to .433 (#7 in MLB).

That slugging percentage doesn’t keep pace with the Yankees .449 mark, but then again, the Cardinals don’t play half their games in a park that was designed with home run derbies in mind. In fact, Busch Stadium annually grades out as one of the stingiest parks in all of baseball for home runs, depressing homers by about nine percent since it opened. Yankee Stadium and it’s short RF porch inflates home runs by 11 percent, for comparison.

Once you adjust for these park factors, the Cardinals hitters have actually performed almost identically to the Yankees hitters during this last five year stretch. The Yankees hitter’s 113 wRC+ — which adjusts overall offensive numbers relative to a team’s home park and the average offensive levels of the leagues each team plays in — is still #1 in baseball, but just barely ahead of St. Louis’ 112, and both teams stand well ahead of the rest of the pack during that stretch.

If we repet this measurement after the 2013 season, it’s quite possible that St. Louis will stand as the best overall offense of the last five years, because while the Yankees line-up looks like it’s going to take a step back due to aging and injuries, the Cardinals offense just continues to get better and better. In fact, there’s a case to be made that St. Louis’ 2013 line-up is one of their deepest and most impressive in recent memory.

The anchors of the team that posted a 107 wRC+– excluding pitchers, that number jumps to 114, tied with NYY for #1 in baseball — last year return, and while Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran are getting older, there’s still some significant areas where the Cardinals offense could be even better than they were a year ago. For starters, Allan Craig played in just 119 games last year, so a full season from Craig could add an additional 100 or so plate appearances from one of the league’s best hitters, many of which were given to an ineffective Matt Adams last year.

However, the biggest potential upgrade could come at second base. Last year, St. Louis’ second baseman hit just .240/.309/.363, with only San Francisco and Colorado getting a lower OPS from the keystone position among NL clubs. Most of the Cardinals at-bats at second base last year went to Skip Schumker, Daniel Descalso, and Tyler Greene, and Greene and Schumaker won’t be back with the Cardinals for 2013. Descalso is still penciled in for some regular work at second base, but in an ideal situation, he’ll spend most of his time as a defensive replacement and part-time player in 2013, because the Cardinals are working with Matt Carpenter — primarily a third baseman in his career to date — on making the shift to second base in order to get his bat in the line-up.

Carpenter has played a grand total of 18 innings at second base in his career, but the Cardinals had some success converting Schumaker to the position a few years ago, and they believe that Carpenter has the physical skills to become adequate at the position as well. If he makes the transition, having a second baseman with a career 120 wRC+ would be a huge boon to St. Louis’ already potent offense. Carpenter might not field the position well enough to be an everyday player at the start of the season, but if he hits and doesn’t embarrass himself, it will be hard to keep him out of the line-up, and St. Louis’ other hitters are so good that second base is the only job he has a chance to win.

Having too many good hitters is a nice problem to have, and allows you to do things like experiment with a third baseman at second base, but even with moving Carpenter around, the Cardinals still don’t have room for all of their offensive talents. Oscar Taveras — just rated by Keith Law as the #2 prospect in baseball — is a prodigious hitting prospect that draws comparisons to the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, and yet, there is nowhere for him to play barring an injury. With Beltran and Holliday in the corners and Jon Jay locking down center field, the Cardinals don’t have room for a hitter who destroyed Double-A as a 20-year-old last year, and projects as an above average Major League hitter right now according to Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections.

The Cardinals have some pitching questions, and Rafael Furcal’s continuing elbow problems highlight their lack of depth at shortstop, but St. Louis has the deepest group of offensive talent in the Major Leagues right now, and the best hitting prospect in baseball sitting in their farm system waiting for an opportunity. They might not have a cool nickname based on their offensive prowess, but 2013 may very well signal the year where the sport begins to recognize that St. Louis is where the best offense in baseball resides.

Dodgers Make Correct Closer Call

When the Los Angeles Dodgers retained reliever Brandon League in October by guaranteeing him $22.5 million over three years, with the chance to earn an additional $10 million in incentives, it was a move that was largely panned in the baseball world.

League is a good-but-not-great reliever in a world where expensive multiyear contracts for nonelite relievers almost invariably end poorly for the team. Over the past four seasons, League’s 3.51 ERA is nearly identical to that of Matt Belisle (making $4.1 million this year for Colorado) and Brandon Lyon (with the Mets for one year and just $750,000).

Why? Because League saved 37 games with the Seattle Mariners in 2011 and has earned the closer label. The excessive money may not bother the obscenely wealthy Dodgers as much as it would other teams, but general manager Ned Colletti compounded the decision by declaring that League would be the team’s closer in 2013 despite the presence of the undeniably more talented Kenley Jansen.

This thinking is par for the course at Chavez Ravine. Last year, Javy Guerra began the season as the closer even though he is inferior to Jansen, and he lost the job to Jansen, who lost it to League when he had to miss a month with a cardiac issue.

While it’s unclear if the Dodgers actually think League is better than Jansen, what is clear is that they are better off with League in the ninth and Jansen in a setup role.

It’s long been a sabermetric principle that managers shouldn’t preserve their best relievers for the ninth inning with a lead, because it’s often not the most important moment in a game. There’s clearly more danger in a reliever trying to hold down a one-run lead with two on in the eighth against the heart of a lineup than on a closer starting a clean inning in the ninth against the 7-8-9 hitters, but reliever usage doesn’t reflect that.

The reason why is that it takes the right circumstances to make it work. For example, if a team has an established veteran closer — think a Jonathan Papelbon type — telling him he’s being moved to the eighth can be seen as a demotion. If a club has only one above-average reliever, it’s understandably going to be difficult for a manager to keep him out of the ninth for long if the closer is blowing games and the media is breathing down the skipper’s neck.

The Dodger combo of Jansen and League just so happens to be perfectly situated to make this work, even if it seems odd to keep the better pitcher away from save chances. Jansen is a young player who did well as a closer but hardly had the standing to be untouchable. If not for that missed time, we might not be having this conversation, because League was terrible in his first weeks as a Dodger and posed no threat to Jansen otherwise.

However, after some side work with Dodgers coaches Rick Honeycutt and Ken Howell, League allowed just one run in his final 21 games, converting all six save opportunities in Jansen’s absence. When Jansen returned Sept. 20, manager Don Mattingly chose to work him back in slowly as League’s setup man. (He was still excellent, striking out 13 in 8 1/3 innings.)

That sequence of events is what led Colletti and Mattingly to determine that Jansen should continue to set up League, though it’s probably more of a happy accident in the “it wasn’t broke last September, so don’t fix it” vein than it is any indication that the team is suddenly thinking especially sabermetrically.

Year Low Medium High
2010 .481 .721 .745
2011 .512 .536 .716
2012 .586 .633 .671

Whether it was on purpose or not, it makes sense. League can be a solid reliever — perhaps more than solid if the mechanical change means he can maintain that excellent September performance — yet he’s also a flawed one. Using Baseball Reference’s Leverage Index, we can see how he has performed over the past three years in situations deemed as low, medium and high leverage (see table).

In each of the past three seasons, League has been hit harder when the most pressure is on. Jansen, by comparison, has continued to blow away batters no matter whether the situation is tense (.465 career OPS against in high-leverage situations) or less critical (.452 career OPS against in low-leverage situations). He has also been effective against both lefty and righty hitters, unlike League, who has shown a massive platoon split over his career, limiting the tactical situations a team would want to use him in the first place.

It’s clear that Jansen is the man the team should want on the mound in the most critical situations, and while it may seem counterintuitive to have a reliever who performs better in lower-pressure situations as the closer, it’s important to remember again that bases empty in the ninth inning is often less important to winning a game than two on and one out in the eighth.

There’s no question that Jansen is the more effective reliever, a statement that even League would probably agree with, and he may yet end up back in the ninth if League’s inconsistent history returns. Yet as long as League can hold things together as the closer, Jansen will provide the Dodgers one of baseball’s most dangerous bullpen weapons in the most important situations — even if he’s not the one actually collecting the saves.

The Astros Effect on the AL Playoff Race

The Houston Astros are coming to the American League West. The Houston Astros current Major League roster looks like one of the worst we’ve seen in recent memory, as the team is currently in the midst of a total organizational overhaul. The Astros are almost certainly going to be one of the worst teams in baseball this year, and their addition to the AL West means that the schedules for Texas, Anaheim, Oakland, and Seattle will be easier this year than they were last year.

Just how much will playing one of the league’s worst teams 19 times help the AL West contenders? Well, first off, we need to know where those games are going to come from.

Let’s use the Angels as an example of the scheduling adjustments that have been made to make 19 games against the Astros work. MLB wanted to preserve the same number of intra-division match-ups, so the Angels are still going to play the Rangers, Mariners, and A’s a combined 57 times, just as they did a year ago. To add 19 match-ups against Houston, the league had to trim a portion of the games against teams from other divisions. The count of where those cuts were made to create 19 additional games against their new divisional rival:

Team 2013 2012 Difference
Detroit 6 10 4
Tampa Bay 7 10 3
Minnesota 6 9 3
Cleveland 6 9 3
Baltimore 7 9 2
New York 7 9 2
Kansas City 7 9 2
Toronto 7 8 1
Chicago 7 8 1
Interleague 20 18 -2

The Angels will now play 21 fewer games against the AL Central and AL East, with the extra two games that were cut from those teams going to additional interleague match-ups. Here, you can see how it’s not just playing a poor Houston team that could be a potential boon to the Angels, but it’s dumping a decent chunk of their games against some of their toughest AL competition. Last year, the Angels played 29 games against Detroit, Tampa Bay and New York, going 10-19 in the process. This year, they will play just 20 games against those three teams.

But, of course, this isn’t just a single sided coin. In addition to getting fewer games against the Tigers, Yankees, and Rays, they also lose a series against Minnesota, who might challenge the Astros in the race for the #1 pick in the 2014 draft, and lose some games against the mid-to-lower-tier AL clubs as well. Clearly, though, the games being shifted to match-ups with the Astros are coming from a group of games that were against much stiffer competition previously.

To take this a step further, we can make an educated guess as to just how many additional wins we might expect the Angels (and the Rangers, Mariners, and A’s) to get from this new schedule compared to what they might have been expected to win under the old format. The Astros won 34% of their games last year, and that was with some decent performances from since-traded players such as Jed Lowrie, Wandy Rodriguez, and Wilton Lopez. Even with some improvement from a few young players and some carryovers, it’s hard to see the Astros being a significantly improved team in 2013. If we project a slight improvement — it’s really hard to lose 107 games, even when you’re rebuilding — we might generously call them a 60 win team in 2013, which means that they would be expected to win 37% of their games next year.

However, because we believe that the Angels are a better than average team, the Astros shouldn’t win 37% of their match-ups against Anaheim. By using a neat little mathematical tool developed by Bill James called log5, we can estimate the outcome of those 19 Angels-Astros match-ups, however. If we assume that the Angels have the talent level of a 90 win team — that is, they would win 55.5% of their games — then we’d expect the Angels to beat the Astros in 68% of their head to head match-ups, which translates to a 13-6 expected record in those games.

How would they have done under the old system? Well, if we look at the overall strength of the competition that they are playing fewer games against, we note that they are skewed towards above average teams, mainly thanks to the reduction in games against Detroit, Tampa Bay, and New York. Overall, the same methodology would have expected the Angels to go just 10-9 under the old schedule, so playing the Astros is a three win bump for Anaheim.

The math is essentially the same for each of the other three AL West incumbents, even teams with less imposing rosters like Seattle. While the Mariners might not win as many games against the Astros as the Angels, Rangers, and A’s, they’ll still get the benefit of losing fewer games against the AL East squads, and so the relative benefit comes out to three additional wins for them as well.

Three wins probably won’t be enough to push the Mariners into the playoff race, but it could very well be a decisive margin in determining the American League Wild Card teams. For Texas, Anaheim, and Oakland, the arrival of the Astros might give them enough of a cushion to sneak out a wild card berth, even if their rosters might not stack up against Toronto or Tampa Bay on paper. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, it’s not always about being the best team, but simply being the team that takes the most advantage of inferior opponents.