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2016 MLB thread. Baseball is upon us! Royals are the champs - Page 669

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The Players’ Association May Target Qualifying Offers.
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With Nelson Cruz signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles, qualifying offers are back in the spotlight. The executive director of the player’s association, Tony Clark, has issued a statement saying he’s “concerned” about how qualifying offers are affecting the free agent market. Unions deal in politics and in this case concerned can probably be read as “we’re going to make this a sticking point in the next round of negotiations.” The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire after the 2016 season, so the MLBPA will have a couple more years of data in their hands before they pursue any changes.

The current CBA was reached following the 2012 season. It included a new rule called a ‘qualifying offer’ that replaced baseball’s old method for compensating a team for losing a player to free agency. Under this rule, teams have the option to offer impending free agents a contract equal to the average of the top 125 contracts in baseball. If the player declines the offer and signs with another club, then the team losing the player gains a supplemental first round pick while the signing team loses their first available pick (the first 10 picks are protected).

Very few people would deny that baseball’s qualifying offer has led to some strange circumstances. It’s been in effect less than two years and already we have had eight players noticeably affected. The complete list includes Kyle Lohse, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales, and Cruz. Individually, we can make cases as to why each player may have been left with fewer options than originally anticipated, but the group as a whole points overwhelming to the existence of a qualifying offer effect.

The above list is interesting because, with the possible exception of Swisher and Drew, it’s a Who’s Who list of players that we (internet analysts as a whole) expected to be overpaid relative to their talents. Mr. Cameron spent a deal of time this offseason predicting that Cruz would sign a terrible contract. We all have concerns about Jimenez and Santana after each player posted one strong season in their walk year. Last year, Bourn was supposed to earn more than B.J. Upton right up until he didn’t, and everybody was grumbling about Lohse’s underwhelming stuff.

Not all players suffer from the qualifying offer effect. There appear to be two groups who do just fine. The less interesting group is those players who quickly re-sign with their original club. Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Adam LaRoche, and Hiroki Kuroda all fall into this bucket. The other group is comprised of free agent powerhouses – Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann. To a lesser extent, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson and Upton can also be included.

The players who struggle the most are those with some kind of wart. In a truly free market, players like Cruz probably would find a fairly pricey contract. There are plenty of teams that could use an offense first outfielder. My hypothesis is that when the qualifying offer penalty is attached to a player, teams become more focused on the negative than the positive. Whereas the narrative could have been, “this player will add 25 home runs and 80 RBI to the middle of my lineup,” teams might pay more attention to the PED suspension, past injuries and lousy defense when signing Cruz comes with a penalty.

The endowment effect and loss aversion probably comes into play, and they are a big reason why I hypothesize that teams focus on the negatives with players who received qualifying offers. The endowment effect is a behavioral phenomenon where people overvalue things they already own. Loss aversion is what it sounds like, people go out of their way to avoid losing things, sometimes to their detriment. Teams might be too timid about giving up a draft pick in some cases because it’s the proverbial bird in hand.

So, proposals. How can we go about fixing this? Honestly, there are a thousand and one ways that this system can be adjusted or replaced. Each has its pros and cons. It really comes down to the preferences of the owners and players as well as the trade offs that each party is willing to make. I’ll offer one idea as food for thought.

I like the theory behind the qualifying offer system. It’s a lot cleaner than the old arbitration system with its Type A, B and C players determined by an arbitrary Elias Sports Bureau formula. Given the penalty involved with the qualifying offers, my only issue is that too many players are getting caught in the net. The top tier can still sign mega-contracts, but there appears to be a definite point where talent level does not exceed most club’s desire to keep their draft picks.

My proposal is to increase the cost of the penalized qualifying offer and introduce a second tier option that carries no penalty. Let’s call them Type A and Type B as a nod to the past (also because I tried calling them Type I/Type II and it sounded too much like diabetes). Rather than an average of the top 125 contracts, the Type A players will be offered the average of the top 75 contracts. Looking back at the 22 players who received offers, perhaps four to six of them would have received a Type A offer. Incidentally, these are the players who signed large contracts without anybody hemming or hawing over the loss of a draft pick. Signing teams would still lose their top pick and draft pool allocation when inking one of these top players. The team who loses the player will still receive a supplemental first round pick.

Type B would fall in at a lower compensation level – perhaps an average of contracts 51-175. I’ll leave it up to others to get the math right. The idea is to offer some compensation for the loss of decent players like Cruz without affecting their market price. As such, a Type B free agent might net the original club a supplemental third round pick, but signing the player won’t penalize his new team.

Whether you like that idea or not, we can expect some kind of change to be instituted with the next CBA. The players affected by this rule are long-standing, dues paying members of the union. As such, their complaints carry a lot of weight. If Tony Clark is speaking up now about the topic, his goal is probably to prepare the owners to budge. Negotiating a CBA is about give and take, the players will have to give something in order to secure a free agent compensation system that punishes players less severely.

Ubaldo Jimenez Sends Orioles Hurtling Toward Nelson Cruz.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
All offseason long, Nelson Cruz was thought of as a terrifying land mine. Plenty was written elsewhere, plenty was written right here, and in early November, Dave used the term “land mine”, specifically, to refer to Cruz as an acquisition. It was understood that Cruz was seeking a major contract. It was understood that Cruz was overrated as a contributing player. It was understood that everyone was to prepare to laugh at the team that eventually gave Cruz a whopper of a deal. Cruz became something of an unfunny offseason punchline. Then he signed with the Orioles for a year and eight million dollars. There are incentives, worth a total of less than one million dollars.

All along, it was assumed Cruz would end up with something statistically unreasonable. What he got instead is something that’s more or less fine for that kind of player, and this is one of the dangers of reaching conclusions about the market before the market reaches a conclusion about a player. As Dave has illustrated, or will illustrate, it’s interesting that this is what Cruz was reduced to. Something else that’s interesting is how the Orioles’ earlier acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez in part allowed the Cruz signing to take place.

As you know, the Orioles signed Jimenez, and as you know, Jimenez had been extended a qualifying offer, so by getting him under contract, the Orioles gave up their first-round pick. It was to be 17th overall. As you know, the Orioles couldn’t give up that pick twice, so by signing Cruz, they’re giving up their next pick, which was to be 55th overall. This, incidentally, is one of the arguments against the current system — it incentivizes a team to sign multiple compensation free agents, since the draft cost decreases each time. Once the Orioles dealt with one of these guys, it was easier for them to deal with another.

After Jimenez signed, there were reports that the Orioles were “intensifying” their pursuit of guys like Cruz, Kendrys Morales, and Ervin Santana. Whether or not that was actually true, it made all the sense in the world. In a way, signing Jimenez freed up money.

Here’s one way you can think about that. The Orioles got Cruz for $8 million and a year. Last year, the 17th overall pick had a slot value of about $2.16 million. The 55th overall pick had a slot value of about $1.00 million. So the former was worth more than twice as much as the latter, and these slot values don’t reflect the actual values of the picks — those might be three or four times higher. Perhaps even more; it’s difficult to nail down, and it probably varies from team to team. When it’s negotiating with a compensation free agent, every team has to keep in mind the value of the pick it’d be losing, and this in theory ought to be reflected by the salary numbers.

What the Orioles are giving up in exchange for Cruz is $8 million and the 55th. Now, let’s say Jimenez hadn’t signed. What’s the difference in value between the 55th and the 17th? $3 million? $6 million? Something even more than that? You’d subtract that value from the salary offer, and you’d presumably be left with something Cruz would be humiliated to accept. By getting Jimenez first, the Orioles could offer more to Cruz in terms of immediate salary, and they clearly reached or exceeded the point at which Cruz was willing to shake hands. At least in this way, Cruz got himself more money by waiting until later February.

Maybe the Orioles didn’t actually do all the specific math, but this is at least a general overview of the consequences of the Jimenez move. It’s similar to how, even if a team isn’t using actual WAR, it’s making decisions based on its own understanding of WAR. The Orioles could give Cruz more because suddenly they valued the draft cost to sign him less. And even still, Cruz got a smaller offseason contract than Brian Wilson.

Though Cruz’s deal is of a surprising size, the identity of his new team isn’t surprising at all. The Orioles were kind of Cruz’s only good-looking fit. More recently, Seattle looked like a favorite, but there’ve been whispers of two things — one, it’s been suggested Cruz didn’t want to play in Seattle, and two, it’s been suggested the Mariners didn’t actually have much interest, and that was just stuff coming from the outside. Seattle would’ve had to shuffle some pieces around. The Orioles had a hole, and though Morales was another potential free-agent fit, he seems to be in greater demand than Cruz was. Cruz, clearly, was available for this kind of contract. It’s been noted on Twitter that Cruz turned down some multi-year offers, but all we can really go on is what got Cruz locked up in the end.

Among the concerns for potential Cruz suitors: his PED suspension, his waning ability to move around, and his performance record in a hitter-friendly park. The Orioles shouldn’t have to worry too much about two of those. It looks like Cruz is going to serve as the regular DH, as he’s an inferior defender to David Lough. And Baltimore isn’t much less hitter-friendly than Texas, so Cruz isn’t going from one extreme to another. As for the PEDs, Cruz served his time, and there’s no reason to believe his offense is a total product of drug abuse. He might be hoping he has a more lucrative market in a year if he can get some distance between himself and his suspension.

I have to say that, as small a deal as this is, it still doesn’t look like a bargain. It’s only a bargain relative to what Cruz was expected to sign. Presumably, he’s an upgrade over Henry Urrutia, but he might be a one- to one-and-a-half-win DH. He’s 33, and he cost $8 million and a draft pick. He cost more than Chris Young, who’s an actual outfielder. He cost more than Michael Morse, who was an interesting DH candidate. Cruz isn’t a major impact player — he’s a one-dimensional slugger with failing legs. He boosts the Orioles’ odds of making the playoffs by a small number of percentage points.

But one should almost never fret too much over a one-year deal, particularly when it’s a one-year deal that addresses a need for a could-be contender. There’s long-term cost here in the form of a pick, but it isn’t too substantial. There’s no long-term commitment. There’s no blocking of an organizational asset with promise. Cruz improves the Orioles right away at the cost of money they had available, and they could offer him a little more days after bringing Ubaldo Jimenez into the fold. Nelson Cruz has signed his free-agent contract, and there’s no one to criticize. That has to be the most surprising aspect out of everything.

How Much to Make of Juan Lagares’ Defense.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
If you’re not much of a hitter, you might be considered to play a lot anyway for one of two reasons: you’re a pitcher, or you’re an outstanding defender. Juan Lagares isn’t much of a hitter, and he doesn’t project to be much of a hitter, but the evidence and the eyes show he’s an outstanding defender, and that’s why he’s in the mix to start in center field for the Mets. That’s why he’s probably the favorite, or at least, that’s why he probably ought to be. The Mets also happen to be big believers in Eric Young, and that’s their right, and I don’t intend to address that part of the conversation.

What Lagares has on his side are some incredible defensive numbers. We all know to be cautious with those, when we’re talking about individual seasons. The words of this rival team official read like FanGraphs in the newspaper. There’s no question that Lagares is highly talented in the outfield, and that no amount of regression can make him look anything but skilled. But with Lagares in particular, the situation’s a little different, and the numbers have to be treated a little differently.

To quote that official:

As one rival team official noted, defensive metrics generally are plagued with “less year-to-year reliability,” making them far less precise than their offensive counterparts.
“You can’t just take his 2013 WAR and say that’ll work,” said the official, who has a background in analytics. “You have to regress defensive projections a bit and combine those with your offensive projections, plus whatever else you know about the players.”

Absolutely, right on. Lagares’ WAR last year was 2.9, in a partial season. That doesn’t mean you just project him as a borderline star in a full season. That’s fairly obvious stuff, but Lagares was supported by crazy defensive statistics and those have to be dealt with. What’s really interesting about Lagares is how those statistics break down.

For outfielders, UZR considers errors, range, and arm. With Lagares, you can just ignore the errors column, because the number is negligible. His range number was terrific, probably because his range was terrific, and this is what people usually think about first when they think about defensive statistics. They think of them as measures of range. But Lagares’ UZR got an enormous boost from his arm. His arm rating was more strongly positive than his range rating.

We have arm ratings going back to 2002. Let’s put everything over a per-150-games denominator. Last season, per 150 games, Lagares’ arm comes out to 20.6 runs above average. Since 2002, there have been 922 player-seasons of at least 750 innings in the outfield. Lagares in 2013 owns the highest Arm/150, by a full four runs over 2007 Alfonso Soriano. Right behind, there’s 2004 Alex Rios. Over 12 years of baseball, at least, no outfielder had a more productive arm than Juan Lagares last summer. He wound up with an astonishing 15 assists.

So, yeah. But then, if you paid any attention to the Mets, you already knew about this. It was no secret that Lagares was doing things with his arm other players generally didn’t do. It was actually a function of Lagares’ aggressive positioning, speed, hands, and arm. Controlling the running game is a skill of Juan Lagares’, but more important than what he’s done, now, is what he’s going to do. How reliable is an arm rating, year to year?

My guess was that range rating would prove more consistent than arm rating. I identified all outfielders who played at least 750 innings in consecutive seasons between 2002-2013. This left me with a sample of 587, and then I calculated all the Range/150 numbers and all the Arm/150 numbers. Year-to-year, Range/150 yielded an r value of 0.50. Here’s what that means: if a player was one standard deviation better than average in Year X, he’d be expected to be 0.50 standard deviations better than average in Year X+1.

Year-to-year, Arm/150 yielded an r value of 0.32. As expected, there’s a weaker relationship, and here’s what that looks like graphically:

You might prefer a table. Here’s another way of showing what regression looks like. For Year X, I split the players into six groups, in descending order of Arm/150. Then I averaged their Arm/150 ratings for Year X+1.

Group Year X Year X+1
Group 1 7.7 2.4
Group 2 2.9 0.6
Group 3 0.8 -0.2
Group 4 -0.9 0.1
Group 5 -2.9 -1.3
Group 6 -6.0 -2.2
The idea was already that we had to regress Juan Lagares’ defensive numbers. But because he built so much value on his arm, we have to regress a little more aggressively, because the arm numbers are a little less consistent than the range numbers. And that seems to make intuitive sense, because there are fewer opportunities to make a difference with your arm, and once people know you’re a threat in the outfield, they’re likely to change their baserunning strategies.

Just for the sake of showing some individual cases, everybody agrees that Jeff Francoeur has an amazing arm. In 2007, his arm was worth 16.6 runs above average. In 2006, it was +3.5, and in 2008, it was +2.5. Ichiro went from negative to positive between 2002-2003, and he went from positive to negative between 2008 and 2009. Alfonso Soriano lost ten runs per 150 after his remarkable 2007. Nyjer Morgan lost 20 after 2009. No single player has yet posted consecutive double-digit Arm/150 ratings. Well, let me revise that — no single player has yet posted consecutive double-digit Arm/150 ratings with the same sign. Between 2002-2003, Bobby Higginson went from one of the best ratings to one of the worst. Jeff Francoeur has almost pulled it off, but Jeff Francoeur has almost pulled a lot of things off.

Getting back to Lagares, last year his Arm/150 was almost 21. It was about 4.4 standard deviations above the average. According to the calculated r value, next year we’d expect Lagares to be about 1.4 standard deviations above the average, which would leave an Arm/150 around 6. Which would represent a reduction of about a win and a half, and truth be told we should probably be regressing more heavily since Lagares was in the outfield for barely 900 innings. As noted before, you can’t make Lagares’ arm not good. But you can make it less extraordinary, and applying regression makes Lagares’ numbers a lot more realistic.

You regress the arm stuff, heavily. You regress the range rating separately, and then you put them together. You still get a very good defensive center fielder, and maybe Lagares is better than his regressed self, but you can begin to understand why the Mets aren’t just going to hand him a regular job. His 2013 WAR is misleading. Lagares really might not be able to hit enough, because as good as he’s been in the field, he’s been that good for two-thirds of one season.

Sure does still seem better than Eric Young, though. And I sure do hope people keep trying to run on him, because as much as I believe in regression to the mean, I’m most fascinated by those who refuse to do it, and we can’t be sure it’ll happen to Juan Lagares until or unless it happens.

Do The Dodgers Have a Problem At Second Base?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Dodgers have a problem at second base. The Dodgers don’t really have a problem. This’ll make sense soon, I promise.

Back when the Dodgers signed Cuban Alexander Guerrero for $28 million, I mentioned that some scouts thought his defense was stiff. Thinking that stiff shortstop defense would be fine at second base, maybe I didn’t think that was a big deal. Maybe we all should’ve paid more attention to that facet of the player.

The news has trickled out slowly, but it hasn’t been good. First, Jeff Sullivan identified the position as a problem spot on a contender. Then Mike Petriello pointed out how little safety net the Dodgers had at second base. Then there was a bit of news that the team wasn’t sure about Guerrero’s defense at second. Then someone called the position an open battle, maybe even a platoon situation. Then came the pining for Mark Ellis.

We should have known from the signings alone that something was up at second base: Justin Turner, Chone Figgins, Brendan Harris, Miguel Rojas, and now it looks like Cuban shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena are all headed to Dodger camp. Most are minor league signings, but that 23-year-old Cuban shortstop may cost the team another $25 million, and maybe he’s not really in the mix for second base anyway. Point is, they’re worried about second base.

The eventual solution may come with Alexander Guerrero in the minor leagues and a platoon in the major leagues. That would disappointing for most parties involved in bringing the Cuban in. As a 26-years-old, he’s close enough to his peak that the expectation probably was that he’d break camp with the major league team. But, considering he’s adjusting to a new league and a new position at the same time, it wouldn’t be enough to render final judgement on the deal.

The Dodgers paid for Guerrero’s upside over the options. Other than Robinson Cano, the pickings were slim — David Adams, Willie Bloomquist, Luis Cruz, Mark Ellis, Rafael Furcal, Omar Infante, Kelly Johnson, Nick Punto, Brian Roberts and Skip Schumaker all feature lower ceilings than the Cuban at least. So it behooves them to groom him the right way in order to better their chances of seeing that upside. Maybe the minor leagues is the right idea.

After all, a platoon between Dee Gordon and Justin Turner — or, really, pick two names from above, with one including possible lefty hitters Dee Gordon or Chone Figgins — might provide the same production as most of the names on that list above. The fans project Infante for a .310 wOBA and his defense was barely above scratch last year. Turner has a lifetime .305 wOBA which might be improved facing just lefties, and his versatility made him a good non-tender to watch. Dee Gordon has been atrocious so far, but a new position and a new role (he’s only been 14% worse than league average against righties) might work for him. Miguel Rojas has been a slick defender in camp, and the team could use some infield defense up the middle. Maybe Arruebarruena will be ready enough to contribute with the glove right away.

But the point goes beyond what the team actually does at second base this year. This team is stacked at other positions and can afford to ‘figure it out’ at second. Last year, they scored 649 runs, the seventh-most in the National League, and this with a second baseman that was 8% worse than league average with the stick. Our projected depth charts have them above-average at every position but second base. Full(er) years from Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig should help them at least match their offensive total from last year, even if second base takes a step down from the league average that the Ellis-led crew managed last year.

Projections are just projections, but it’s worth noting that only two of last year’s playoff teams had seven above-average position players. Only one was in the NL — the Dodgers. That the Dodgers have good players everywhere (with some depth) has allowed them to gather this group at second base with less heartburn.

The Dodgers have a problem at second base. The Dodgers don’t really have a problem.

What If Aroldis Chapman Threw Softer?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Aroldis Chapman doesn’t throw all the hardest pitches in baseball, but he does throw most of them. Last year, PITCHf/x captured 41 pitches of at least 102 miles per hour. Of those, Chapman was responsible for 27. He throws the kinds of rockets that make even rival spectators gasp, and indeed, the heat has long been his calling card. It’s one of the most exceptional abilities in the game. Chapman throws a lot harder than just about anyone. But what if he didn’t?

In a sense, this is a hypothetical. In a sense, this can be investigated. What if we chopped a few miles per hour off Chapman’s average fastball? We can’t know for sure what that pitcher would actually be like, but we can make something of an educated guess, based on Chapman’s history. So let’s try it, just to see. Big thanks to Brooks Baseball for making this fairly easy.

We’re interested in Chapman when he throws in the 94 mph to 96 mph range, or so. But we can’t just isolate those slower fastballs. Things aren’t that simple. What if one of those slower fastballs came in a game in which Chapman was averaging nearly 100 mph? Then it would function almost as a pseudo-changeup, a minor change of pace. No, it’s better to focus on Chapman’s lowest game averages. I’ll try to keep the methodology to a short paragraph.

From Brooks Baseball, I exported Chapman’s single-game fastball velocity averages. In all, his fastball averaged 98.1 mph, with a standard deviation just less than 1.7. Subtracting the standard deviation from the average yielded just under 96.5 mph. I decided to isolate Chapman’s games in which his fastball averaged something below that mark. I was left with a sample of 36 appearances. Over these 36 appearances, Chapman’s fastball averaged 95.6 mph. So, rather than throwing like Aroldis Chapman, he threw like a really talented baseball player. Last season, John Axford‘s fastball averaged about 95.3 mph. Luke Hochevar‘s fastball averaged about 95.4 mph. This is a good fastball — a fast fastball — but a diminished fastball from Chapman’s established norm.

So what do the other numbers say? How did Chapman perform over his 36 slowest relief appearances? This is to be the basis of our educated guess. And, you know, things could be better. Over these appearances, Chapman threw just 59% strikes. He walked 19% of 151 batters. Over all his other appearances, he threw 64% strikes, and he walked 11% of more than 600 batters. The slower Chapman has been, the wilder Chapman has been.

But, my goodness, that isn’t everything. Slower Chapman also struck out 36% of the batters he faced. He allowed a contact rate of 67%. He allowed three home runs, for a rate which isn’t meaningfully different from his ordinary rate. Last year, 125 relievers threw at least 50 innings. Five managed strikeout rates of at least 36%, including Chapman. Slower Chapman has a higher strikeout rate than Trevor Rosenthal.

And there’s a very important consideration. Aroldis Chapman averages 98 mph with his fastball. We’re looking at a sample of games over which he’s averaged less than 96 mph. So this is selecting for games during which Chapman wasn’t quite right. Put another way: What would Chapman be if his 100% was throwing 95 mph to 96 mph? What we’re looking at are games in which he was throwing 95-96, but he wasn’t 100%. He’s dealt with shoulder fatigue before, and this can lead to performance issues that sometimes manifest as subpar control. That’s a likely explanation for the high observed walk rate. Slower Chapman is also not-normal Chapman, which means the numbers we see might reasonably represent the bare minimum, or so.

So let me summarize real quick. The question: What if Aroldis Chapman lost a few miles per hour? When he’s pitched below his norm, he’s walked a lot of batters, and he’s struck out a ton of batters. The walk rate might be explained by the fact that these are games in which Chapman wasn’t quite OK. And when he wasn’t quite OK, he still posted what would be one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball. So if healthy Chapman averaged about 95.6 mph, he might strike out even more batters. After all, it’s easier to do better when your arm feels better.

Here are examples of Chapman throwing in the mid-90s, for the hell of it:

When he’s thrown softer, Chapman still hasn’t thrown soft. A fastball between 95 mph and 96 mph is still a really good fastball, an above-average fastball even among the pool of relievers. I don’t know how to test what Chapman might be around 92 mph to 93 mph. When he’s thrown softer, Chapman hasn’t been literally unhittable, but he’s been about as close as any other pitcher. So there’s reason to believe that even if Chapman lost a few miles overnight, as long as he were healthy, he’d still function as a strikeout machine.

Mostly, I did this out of my own curiosity. But the other night I was wondering how long Chapman might be able to keep throwing as hard as he does. Velocity tends to diminish, and Chapman’s pressing against the upper extreme. Velocity-wise, Aroldis Chapman can’t be this version of himself forever. Performance-wise, though, it looks like he could still get the job done, even as a more ordinary hard thrower. Eventually, Chapman might be reduced to throwing 95 mph. And should that day come, opposing batters probably still will really hate him.

The Worst Transactions of the 2014 Off-Season.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
10. Phillies sign Marlon Byrd.
Cost: Two years, $16 million.

$8 million per year for a guy coming off a +4 WAR season would ordinarily have no shot at ending up on any kind of list of the winter’s worst moves, especially given the short term of the deal and the limited risk that the overall expenditure implies. That said, it isn’t often that a guy goes from -1.0 WAR and a PED suspension at age-35 to +4 WAR at age-36, and so the question is simply how much should we put into one excellent season versus what Byrd had done previously. We had over 4,000 plate appearances showing Byrd to be an average hitter, and now we have 600 where he’s been an excellent hitter. Maybe he found a late career miracle cure and is going to ride his new found success to glory, but more likely, he’s going to go back to being Marlon Byrd, and the Phillies are going to remember why they gave up on him a decade ago.

9. Yankees sign Carlos Beltran.
Cost: Three years, $45 million.

Beltran is still a really good hitter, and in 2014, he’ll probably earn his $15 million paycheck, even if he’s now more of a DH than a regular OF. But Beltran is going to be 37, and it won’t be long until he’s exclusively a DH, and the bat isn’t so good that he can afford to slip much and still be an impact player without adding anything in the field. And his age, slippage has to be expected, and $15 million for a 38 or 39 year old Beltran probably isn’t going to look very good. On a one or two year deal, this could have made sense, but for $45 million over three years, the Yankees could have done better.

8. Colorado acquires Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles.
Cost: Dexter Fowler.

I get that the Rockies have outfield depth, and wanted to give guys like Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon a shot, and Fowler’s getting expensive enough in arbitration where he’s not some kind of massive bargain anymore. However, he’s still a quality player, in the prime of his career, and the Rockies basically gave him to the Astros in order to free up enough room in the budget to sign Justin Morneau, who is older, worse, and not really much cheaper. Moving Michael Cuddyer to first base would have freed up playing time for Dickerson or Blackmon in the same way that trading Fowler did, and the team would have been better off for it. Lyles and Barnes are unlikely to ever make any real contribution in Colorado, and it’s hard to see this series of moves actually paying off for the Rockies.

7. Diamondbacks sign Bronson Arroyo.
Cost: Two years, $23 million.

Bronson Arroyo is unoffensive. He’s not bad, and when he keeps the ball in the ballpark, he can even look deceptively effective. But the reality is that Arroyo turns 37 in a week, gets destroyed by left-handed batters, and his entire success is based on walking the tightrope of weak contact. If he doesn’t hit his spots perfectly, 2011 happens, and he threatens the all time record for home runs allowed in a season. Arroyo is an okay back-end starter, but there’s no good reason to spend $12 million per year on okay back end starters, especially for an organization with a limited payroll and younger kids who project to be nearly as good. Arroyo’s biggest selling point is his durability, but 200 mediocre innings just aren’t that valuable.

6. Diamondbacks acquire Addison Reed.
Cost: Matt Davidson.

I don’t mean to pick on the Diamondbacks, but I actually like this trade even less than I like the Arroyo deal, and I don’t think I hid the fact that I didn’t really like that deal too much. It’s not that Addison Reed is bad, because he’s not. He’s fine, and he’ll be a good enough closer for Arizona. But they already had J.J. Putz and David Hernandez, who also would have been good enough closers, and the D’Backs didn’t need a third good-not-great right-handed reliever enough to justify trading a player with some legitimate value. Even if they didn’t see Davidson as a long term piece to build around given their roster and his defensive skills, he’s still a property of some real value; Marc Hulet ranked him #62 on his Top 100, while Baseball America came in at #72. This isn’t a guy to just give away for a minor bullpen upgrade. To make things worse, Reed has racked up a ton of saves in his time in Chicago, and is going to be quite expensive to retain in his arbitration years, so this probably ends up being Davidson for a few years of Reed’s services before he gets non-tendered. And that’s not a good swap.

5. Mets sign Curtis Granderson.
Cost: Four years, $60 million.

I get that the Mets offense was lousy last year, and Granderson makes it less lousy, but for $60 million, you have to get more than what Granderson projects to give over the next four years. Both ZIPS and Steamer see him as roughly a +2 to +3 WAR player for 2014, and the reality is that left-handed hitting outfielders of similar value were signing for a fraction of what Granderson cost the Mets. He may be marginally better than David Murphy (2/$12m), David DeJesus (2/$11M), or Nate McLouth (2/$11M), but there’s no way the gap is worth $10 million per year, plus an extra two years committed for ages 35 and 36. Granderson is getting paid like an impact player, but he just isn’t one, and the Mets could have gotten 90% of the production for 15% of the cost.

4. Yankees sign Masahiro Tanaka.
Cost: Four years, $108 million, plus player option for another 3/$67M.

I think Masahiro Tanaka is probably going to be very good. This isn’t about being skeptical of his abilities, or his prior workload, or anything relating to Tanaka, really. This is all about the contract, and specifically, the opt-out. While Tanaka’s deal is widely reported as $155 million over seven years, the opt-out means that it’s really a contract for $88 million over four years, not including the $20 million posting fee, with some chance that the Yankees will have to pay Tanaka an additional $67 million if he goes bust. Essentially, the Yankees paid $27 million per year for the next four years if Tanaka is good, and if things don’t break in their favor, they pay a $67 million tax to boot. If they only wanted a four year commitment, they could have signed any two of the domestic free agents for the same amount that they paid to get Tanaka, upgrading their roster in a very similar manner while taking a tiny fraction of the risk. Without the opt-out, at least this would have had a chance of working for NYY. With the opt-out, the deal is all downside.

3. Rangers sign Shin-Soo Choo.
Cost: Seven years, $130 million.

$130 million isn’t superstar money anymore, but it should buy a better overall player than Shin-Soo Choo. The things he does well, he does very well, and they certainly have value, but he’s not a good fielder, he doesn’t hit left-handed pitching, and he doesn’t even have that much power for a guy whose value is almost entirely tied up in his bat. The total package is an above average non-star, and he probably was worth something closer to Curtis Granderson’s contract than the one he actually got. I thought the Giants overpaid for Hunter Pence, but he looks like the steal of the century compared to Choo’s deal with Texas. For the next year or two, Choo will be worth $20+ million per year, but the back end of this contract is going to be a disaster, and there just isn’t that much value at the front end; certainly not enough to make this contract anything but a mistake.

2. Mariners sign Robinson Cano.
Cost: 10 years, $240 million.

There’s a decent chance that, over the life of this contract, Cano actually is a $200 million player, and in terms of total wasted dollars, $4 million per year for a decade isn’t actually a huge mistake. If Cano had signed this same deal with another team, it probably wouldn’t have ranked this highly, but unfortunately for the Mariners, they are one of the organizations with the least to gain from signing the winter’s best free agent. For starters, they still aren’t particularly good even with him on board, so they’re unlikely to take advantage of the first few years of the deal where he’s likely to be worth his salary. Additionally, his signing displaced Nick Franklin, leaving one of the team’s better young players without a future in the organization. The Mariners needed a lot of things this winter, but a second baseman wasn’t one of them, and the upgrade they got from replacing Franklin with Cano — and whatever lesser thing they get for Franklin in trade — simply wasn’t the best use of their $240 million. By the time the Mariners are ready to win, Cano’s contract is likely to be an anchor, and the kind of big splash that looks regrettable not too long after the ink dries.

1. Tigers acquire Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Krol.
Cost: Doug Fister.

There are basically two options here:

1. Everyone is wrong about Robbie Ray. The Tigers actually just acquired one of the best young left-handed pitching prospects in the game, the kind of guy who could step into their rotation in 2015 and provide years of quality innings before he ever makes any kind of real money.

2. Dave Dombrowski screwed up. Because if Robbie Ray isn’t a quality, high-end pitching prospect, the Tigers sold a pitcher as good or better than Masahiro Tanaka, who will make less than $20 million over the next two years, for the kind of return that a team should expect when trading a decent role player.

Pitching prospects are hard to predict, and there are plenty of scenarios where it turns out that #1 is actually true, and this deal works out for the Tigers. If Ray turns into something, swapping two years of Fister for six years of a good young arm won’t look like a bad idea at all, especially given the Tigers current pitching depth. But the consensus among other teams and prospect experts is that Ray is not that kind of prospect, and that this is the most lopsided trade we’ve seen in years. For two bargain years of Doug Fister, the Tigers should have gotten a really strong return, and very few people think this qualifies. Maybe Ray will prove everyone wrong. Or maybe a good GM just whiffed.

Red Sox Pull Capuano from Cautious Market.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
When Ryan Dempster walked away, it was pretty clear what the Red Sox needed to do. Though Dempster’s salary was too high, the pitcher served an important function as swingman and rotation depth. So it was up to the Red Sox to find a replacement, and the most obvious replacement on the market was Chris Capuano. Capuano was both a starter and a reliever just last year, and with Boston, he could compete with Felix Doubront for the fifth rotation slot in camp. In short, it’s not a surprise at all that, Thursday, Capuano and the Red Sox agreed to terms, pending a physical.

What’s more of a surprise are the terms themselves. Capuano signed for one year, despite having looked for two earlier in the offseason. And his guaranteed base salary is just $2.25 million, with incentives that could push the deal up to a maximum of $5 million. Granted, there might’ve been a discount because the Red Sox just won the World Series. Granted, there might’ve been a discount because Capuano grew up in Massachusetts. But if there were substantially bigger offers out there, it stands to reason Capuano would’ve taken one of those, so it’s curious that he was available so cheap.

We’ve talked up Capuano as a bargain for so long it’s possible the wrong impression has been conveyed. No one has ever suggested that Capuano is going to be an excellent pitcher. Rather, it seems like he should be solid, yet a market never really materialized, ending up with him signing for a fraction of Willie Bloomquist‘s guarantee in the middle of February. Capuano’s never been about major upside. He just seemed and seems like a rare free agent who could offer some surplus value.

One of the stranger things: two years ago, Capuano signed for a guaranteed two years and $10 million. He was younger, but he was also less removed from his most recent Tommy John surgery, and in 2011 he’d been a more or less league-average starter. His new maximum is half of that contract, despite some market inflation, and despite Capuano having been reasonably effective for two years in Los Angeles. Though he’s now in his mid-30s, there’s no sign of decline in his repertoire. He’s coming off a very Capuano-like contact rate.

To me, it seems like the market has grown increasingly cautious about pitchers with arm-injury histories. It’s the best explanation I can come up with for why Capuano signed with the Red Sox at the cost of a utility infielder. Again, even a durable Capuano wouldn’t have signed a huge deal, but this could be at least in part a response to his pair of elbow surgeries. He’s also had shoulder surgery, and though none of this has happened since his last free-agent contract, philosophies around the marketplace might’ve changed.

Masahiro Tanaka, of course, got the biggest contract, and he hasn’t been hurt yet. Ricky Nolasco and Jason Vargas got four years, having been reliable types. Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza got almost identical terms, but Garza’s been the more consistent performer, Jimenez had a draft pick attached, and Garza’s deal includes a cheap year of injury protection. Tim Lincecum got a lot of money despite his inconsistency, and he’s had great health. The reliable Scott Feldman got three years. Phil Hughes got three years. Bronson Arroyo and Tim Hudson got bigger guarantees than Scott Kazmir despite being much much older.

Meanwhile, Capuano signed for very little. Ervin Santana is still available, and though we don’t know what he’ll ultimately sign for, there’s talk teams are worried about his elbow. Paul Maholm was given an even lower base than Capuano. Dan Haren had a shoulder problem, and he got one year. Josh Johnson got one year, although that much was expected. Jason Hammel got one cheap year. Going international, Suk-min Yoon signed for a cheap three years in large part because he’s coming off a shoulder issue. Previously, he was one of the best prospects in Korea. Scott Baker was given a minor-league contract. Shaun Marcum was given a minor-league contract. Erik Bedard was given a minor-league contract.

There are, of course, always a million factors. Bruce Chen has been healthier than Capuano, and the last three years, he’s posted a better ERA and a similar FIP. He’ll make just $3.25 million this season. But he’s a year older, and his xFIP has been much worse, and he seems to have the inferior raw stuff. Also, it’s a comparison of two contracts given by two teams. The Chen contract shows the Capuano contract isn’t outrageously cheap, but as Dave pointed out on Twitter, Capuano has a smaller 2014 guarantee than Edinson Volquez. It still seems like a good deal for a fifth/sixth starter who could come in handy in a variety of roles.

A market aversion to injury-proneness is almost impossible to measure, meaning changes in that aversion are also almost impossible to measure. You’d expect that pitchers with injury histories would sign for some percentage less than others, because durability is, in part, a skill. A pitcher who’s been hurt is a pitcher who’s more likely to get hurt. There are essentially two questions: (1) Is the market more cautious now than it used to be? (2) Is the market now too cautious? It seems, from here, like the market might’ve been a bit too afraid of Chris Capuano, and the Red Sox just took advantage of that. I’m open to being wrong, since teams know more about injuries than I do, but they don’t know that much, and they sure do hate to see salary on the DL.
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Hello darkness, my old friend - Kings fan

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Ron Washington Loves to [Bleeping] Bunt.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The non-appendix portion of The Book is 367 pages long. Chapter 9, “To Sacrifice or Not” is 50 pages long and represents nearly 14% of the entire book. The math within may not be for everyone to read, but the information is simplified with the addition of several “The Book Says” callouts that would be easy for any reader, say a manager, to find.

Ron Washington tells us to take those “analytics on that and shove it up our [bleep][bleep]”

Washington does not like to be told how to “[bleep] manage” and wonders why people do not criticize Mike Scioscia because the Angels had a higher bunt total last season. He went on to lament to the media pool in Surprise that his team has not been a good situational hitting team and that he uses the bunt to make up for those shortcomings.

Washington deserves praise as well as criticism for his observations. He is correct about his team’s struggles in situational hitting as the Texas Rangers were in the bottom third in the league in terms of batting average and weighted on base average with runners in scoring position. He was slightly off on his recall of raw totals as Retrosheet shows the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sacrifice bunting 37 times while the Rangers did so 45 times.

Team Sac Bunts
HOU 46
TEX 45
ANA 37
KCA 37
NYA 36
DET 35
CLE 31
MIN 29
TOR 29
BAL 27
BOS 26
SEA 26
TBA 24
OAK 22
CHA 19
In terms of execution, how did Washington perform against the [bleep] analytics of bunting?

If the opposing manager is thinking about sacrificing (with a runner on first and no outs and a non-pitcher at the pate), tell him you will gladly give the runner second base in exchange for the out.

19 times in 2013, Washington called for a bunt with a runner on first and no outs. One time, in early April, did this involve the use of a non-pitcher.

Elvis Andrus – 7 times
Leonys Martin – 5 times
Craig Gentry – 2 times
Ian Kinsler – 1 time
Jurickson Profar – 1 time
Leury Garcia – 1 time
Mitch Moreland – 1 time
Late in a close game, in a low-scoring run environment, it is correct to often sacrifice bunt a runner on first with no outs.

8 of the 19 sacrifice bunts listed above came before the seventh inning, five of which came in the first three innings of the game. One sacrifice bunt came in the third inning of a game in which the Rangers were already ahead 5-2.

Early in the game in a low run-scoring environment, it is correct to often sacrifice bunt with a runner on first and no outs. In an average run-scoring environment, you should occasionally sacrifice to keep the defense honest.

The eight early-game bunts came against the following pitcher: Roberto Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, Jarrod Parker, Anibal Sanchez, Jason Vargas, Brad Peacock, Jason Vargas and A.J. Griffin. Sanchez, arguably the best pitcher of the bunch, was the pitcher who was on the mound when the Rangers used a sacrifice bunt up three runs in the third inning.

All other things being equal, sacrifice more often with a low-walk, low-OBP hitter on deck

28 times, Washington called for a sacrifice bunt with batters hitting 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the lineup with Elvis Andrus doing so 14 times. Andrus hit in the second spot of the lineup 116 times in 2013, with Lance Berkman and Ian Kinsler doing a majority of the work in the third spot of the lineup. Berkman had a .340 OBP and a 12.9% walk rate while Kinsler had a .344 OBP and a 8.3% walk rate.

With a runner on second and no outs, give the opposing manager the standing offer of taking an out in exchange for the runner advancing to third, unless you are tied or down by a run in the ninth inning or later.

Ten times last season, Washington called for a sacrifice bunt with a runner on second and no outs. One of them came in a tie game in the 14th inning. None of the others occurred after the 7th inning. One of them came in the first inning, and none of the bunts were by a pitcher.

With a runner on first or first and second, and no outs, the batters GIDP rate (adjusted for the pitcher) should be considered in deciding whether to bunt or not.

Let’s call this the Jose Molina rule. Molina has 62 sacrifice bunt attempts in his career, and it is not due to his deft bunting abilities. Managers call for Molina to bunt to avoid double plays in the early innings. Joe Maddon has had Molina attempt a sacrifice bunt six times before the later innings of a game over the past two seasons; five times were with no outs. Washington called for bunts in these situations 29 times, 18 of which involved batters in the first three spots in the lineup – Ian Kinsler, Leonys Martin, or Jurickson Profar. That trio grounded into 25 double plays last season, led by Andrus with 19. Andrus fits the profiles for GIDP rate, and bunts against Joe Saunders and Jerome Williams are justified while bunts against Ernesto Frieri and A.J. Griffin are not.

The return on investment that Washington is getting for his excessive utilization of the sacrifice bunt is barely above the American League Average.

Team Times Scored Sac Buts Score%
BOS 19 26 73.1%
CLE 21 31 67.7%
OAK 13 22 59.1%
MIN 17 29 58.6%
TOR 17 29 58.6%
NYA 21 36 58.3%
BAL 15 27 55.6%
TEX 25 45 55.6%
AL Average 257 469 54.8%
ANA 20 37 54.1%
HOU 24 46 52.2%
SEA 13 26 50.0%
CHA 9 19 47.4%
TBA 11 24 45.8%
DET 16 35 45.7%
KCA 16 37 43.2%
The same can be said about the return on investment for bunting as often as the Rangers do overall.

Team Times Scored Overall Bunts Score%
BOS 29 54 53.7%
CLE 33 68 48.5%
TBA 28 60 46.7%
BAL 25 57 43.9%
HOU 41 95 43.2%
MIN 28 66 42.4%
NYA 34 83 41.0%
TEX 39 96 40.6%
AL Average 433 1087 39.8%
OAK 21 53 39.6%
TOR 26 70 37.1%
KCA 35 99 35.4%
DET 28 82 34.1%
SEA 24 71 33.8%
ANA 29 91 31.9%
CHA 13 42 31.0%
Ron Washington may like to [bleep] bunt whenever he [bleep] wants to, because he does it “when Ron Washington feels like it’s necessary. Bottom line.” The original column cited the Greek chorus of bunt-loathing fans and media, which is fitting because the Greeks were known for their comedies as well as their tragedies. A wonderful comedy came in the second inning of a mid-August game against Felix Hernandez, when five of the first six batters of the inning reach safely and Washington calls for a suicide squeeze with runners at second and third.

It worked, because Profar made a phenomenal slide to avoid the tag by Henry Blanco. The ultimate tragedy in the strategy game in the play-in game against the Tampa Bay Rays when Washington had Andrus sacrifice Kinsler over to third base with one out in the eighth inning down 4-2.

The bottom line is that Washington’s belief that his excessive use of the sacrifice bunt is allowing his team to create more runs to compensate for their lack of situational hitting is mostly [bleep].

Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman for his heavy-lifting with the data mining for this article.

The Pointlessness of Signing After the Draft.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Nelson Cruz got tired of unemployment and signed a one year, $8 million deal over the weekend, taking nearly half of the salary he turned down when the Rangers made him a qualifying offer back in November. However, according to agents Scott Boras and Bean Stringfellow, fellow remaining free agents Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales, and Stephen Drew aren’t particularly interested in following in Cruz’s footsteps, and are even openly talking about waiting until after the June draft — when they will no longer have compensation picks attached — before signing a new contract. The theory is that, without the encumbrance of draft pick tax, teams would be lining up to sign these players.

There’s a problem with this theory, however; the math simply doesn’t work. Over at MLBTradeRumors, Tim Dierkes did a great job laying out the picks that each team would have to surrender if they signed any of the remaining qualified free agents. He also helpfully included the pool amount allocated to each pick, so we can see that the exposed draft pick “values” range from $2.8M down to $600K.

Now, because the flow of cash into the draft is restricted, draft dollars are worth more than their face value. Any team wanting to acquire draft pool allocation has to pay more than $1 for $1 in order to do so, since draft dollars are a limited resource relative to a team’s access to capital. Last summer, the Dodgers essentially bought $210,000 in international spending money — limited to some extent the same way the draft dollars are — by taking on $500,000 of Carlos Marmol‘s salary, putting a 2.4X valuation on those international dollars.

Draft dollars are probably worth more than international spending dollars, since the penalties for blowing your international budget out of the water aren’t as severe as ignoring your draft budget. In conversations with people in MLB front offices, the general consensus has ranged around a 3X valuation for draft pick dollars, so a pick with a slot value of $2 million would be worth $6 million in open market dollars. This hypothesis is supported by transactions like the Bud Norris trade, where the Orioles gave up a pick — currently slotted in at #37 — for a moderate value arm, as well as the difference in contracts signed by the similar-ish free agent starters this winter. Picks certainly have value, especially in the #10 to #20 range, but teams are willing to trade that value for the right price, and that right price seems to be around three times the value of the pool allocation.

Take Nelson Cruz, for instance. When the Orioles 1st round pick — #17 overall, $2.2M slot value — was on the line, they weren’t willing to sign him, even for the 1/$8M he eventually agreed to. With a 3X valuation on that pick — which would make the pick worth $6.6 million — that would have made the true cost of signing him 1/$14.6M, or basically the same valuation as the qualifying offer. Once they signed Ubaldo Jimenez and Cruz’s signing only cost them the 55th pick — which has a slot bonus of $750K, and a 3X valuation would make that pick worth $2.2M — they agreed to terms on a deal that valued Cruz at just over $10M. Essentially, signing Jimenez made Cruz roughly $4 million cheaper for the Orioles, which was enough to push them to make a deal.

So, let’s get back to the threat of waiting until after the draft to sign. At the very top end of the exposed pick range, the value of the potential lost picks, using a 3X multiplier, would be around $8.3 million. That’s the added cost to the Brewers of signing any of the remaining qualified free agents, and is certainly a reason why the team pursued Matt Garza instead. But teams like the Brewers, Padres, and Giants aren’t really rumored to be the teams negotiating with qualified free agents at the moment.

Stephen Drew’s primary suitor seems to be the Mets, whose exposed draft pick is worth just $1.9M after applying the multiplier. The Mariners ($2.3M) have been linked to both Kendrys Morales and Ervin Santana. The Rockies ($4.9M) apparently have some interest in Santana, but not at his current asking price. The Orioles ($1.8M) are still being linked to Santana even after signing Jimenez. The Blue Jays ($3.5M) seem like they’re out on Santana, even though they have been linked to every available starting pitcher this winter, it seems. Of the clubs rumored to be interested, the magnitude of the draft pick tax is just not that high.

And there’s almost no way that the player would come out ahead by waiting until after the draft versus just taking a reduced salary equal to the team’s draft pick tax. By waiting to sign until June 8th, when the draft has completed, the players would be sitting out approximately 40% of the season; the Blue Jays play 64 games between Opening Day and June 8th, for instance. Because players who sign mid-season are only paid a pro-rated amount of the annual salary they agree to, it’s almost certain that 40% of the player’s 2013 salary will be larger than the draft pick tax of any interested teams.

For instance, if Santana is seeking a $50 million deal for four years, just like every other free agent hurler, he’s asking for a $12.5M salary in 2013. By sitting out 40% of the season and signing that exact same deal on June 8th, he’d earn a total of $7.5 million in 2014, meaning that sitting out the first two months of the season would cost him $5 million in salary. He’d be better off just giving that $5 million discount to the interested teams and pitching the entire season, since that $5 million discount is likely to be larger than any of the interested teams valuations on the pick they would lose to sign him.

Realistically, I just don’t see any real advantage to the player for sitting out two months of the season. At the prices they believe they’re worth, two month’s salary is probably more costly than the draft pick tax. It’s one thing to wait until after Opening Day to avoid receiving a qualifying offer next season — if Ken Rosenthal’s report is correct and players can avoid a 2015 QO by signing after April 1st — but sitting out until June in hopes that big offers will come rolling in once the pick expires just seems to overstate the value the teams are actually putting on the picks that are at-risk.

On the New Collision Rules at Home Plate.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It was back during the winter meetings when major league baseball made headlines by announcing their intention to eliminate home plate collisions. On Monday, MLB and the players’ association announced that a new rule will take effect in time for the 2014 season. The rule will be reviewed and possibly tweaked prior to the 2015 season.

The impetus to make a change is obvious, many teams count their catcher as one of their best players. In an otherwise non-contact sport, catchers get knocked off the field all too often. Baseball is a bit behind the curve. Other sports have been protecting exposed players for over a decade, like quarterbacks and kickers in football or goaltenders in hockey. Players like Buster Posey and Yadier Molina have been injured in recent seasons, as these two videos show (video one, video two).

The new rule can be read in its entirety here (twitter link). Umpires will now have two judgment calls to make on collision plays. Baserunners are disallowed from leaving a “direct line to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher.” Runners who break this rule will automatically be called out. This is not dissimilar from the double play rule that disallows baserunners from sliding out of the base path, so umpires shouldn’t have a hard time implementing the rule. Functionally, we should see catchers field the ball slightly in front of home plate, giving baserunners the opportunity to hook slide behind them rather than blind side them. The other component of the new rule is that the catcher cannot block the plate unless he is in possession of the ball. If he does so, the runner is automatically safe.

The MLB press release linked above states that the rule will “prevent the most egregious collisions.” In a sense that is true. The worst collisions are the ones like the Posey video where the ball and the player arrive at the same time. Under the old rule, the catcher is placed between a rock and a hard place where an out and a moderate case of whip lash is the friendliest outcome. With the new rule, Posey has to field the ball out of the base path, which may have prevented the injury.

Emphasis on “may.” As the Molina video demonstrates, the ball often arrives in time for the catcher to be set up in front of home plate. With this rule in place, maybe Molina fields the ball differently and isn’t hurt, but there are collisions each year where the ball beats the baserunner by enough time that the catcher can set up. There is no data to indicate that being fully prepared for a collision improves the health outcomes of the collision. Intuitively, the catcher can set up in the most effective manner to absorb a hit, but the advantages may be partially or completely mitigated by other factors.

What we do have data on is drunk and/or sleeping drivers. There are tragic headlines all the time like “Sleeping Driver Kills Two, Walks Out Unscathed.” Usually, when somebody runs into an immovable object while going 50 mph, all parties are going to get injured. With drunk or sleeping drivers, they don’t have the reaction time to tense up prior to a crash. That tension makes the body more brittle and prone to breaking bones and damaged connective tissue. Drunk and sleeping drivers do get injured frequently in their collisions, but they also walk away more often than otherwise expected.

Where this parlays back to catchers is that it’s not immediately obvious that a catcher prepared for a collision is much better off than a catcher that is unprepared. The prepared catcher is tensed and thus his body becomes more brittle. The unprepared catcher is (hypothetically) less tensed and thus more able to take the hit.

The new rule still allows collisions on plays where the catcher gets the ball in time to set up in front of the plate. This should reduce the number of full on collisions, but won’t eliminate them entirely. Maybe the most egregious collisions won’t happen, but the second most egregious still may. Fans who enjoy the collision play need not worry about it going extinct.

There is one last factor to keep in mind. The early supposition is that we’ll see more sliding plays at the plate. However, home plate has more in common with first base than second or third. The fastest way across the plate is running. While hook slides will probably go up, I also expect to see more glancing blows as runners try to scurry past the catcher. If my expectation proves accurate, we could be increasing injury risk to baserunners with the new rule. We’ll see how it shakes out and if any changes are implemented next offseason.

2014 Payroll Allocation, By Position.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
In Part One of this series, published yesterday, I ranked the projected 2014 Opening Day payrolls, estimated the number of pre-arbitration players on each Opening Day roster, and calculated the percentage of each team’s payroll attributed to the highest paid player.

Today, in Part Two, I break down the payrolls even further, into four component parts: the starting rotation, the starting lineup, the bullpen and the bench. In so doing, I made a judgment on who was likely to slot into these roles to start the season. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts and MLB Depth Charts were my go-to sources, but I made a deliberate decision to exclude all non-roster invitees from Opening Day rosters, as those players’ salaries aren’t included on Cot’s Contracts. Invariably, some of my judgment calls will be wrong. Feel free to note those in the comments, as many did yesterday in Part One.

How much will teams spend on their starting rotation, as a percentage of the overall payroll:

Before we get to the numbers, a note about methodology. Several teams have starters who are on the disabled list. On the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett will be sidelined for the part of the season. I included their salaries as part of the Dodgers’ Opening Day starting rotation because to exclude them would have presented misleading information on how much the Dodgers are spending on starting pitchers this season.

Now, the numbers, in chart form:

Num Team 2014 Payroll Starters’ Combined Salary Starters as % of Payroll
1 Phillies $175,500,000 $80,675,000 46.10%
2 Giants $147,000,000 $57,800,000 39.30%
3 Brewers $100,500,000 $38,825,000 38.60%
4 Twins $82,500,000 $31,580,000 38.30%
5 Tigers $161,000,000 $60,325,000 37.50%
6 Mariners $87,500,000 $31,857,143 36.40%
7 Dodgers $223,000,000 $77,400,000 34.70%
8 Red Sox $155,000,000 $51,525,000 33.25%
9 Blue Jays $136,000,000 $44,700,000 32.90%
10 Cubs $89,000,000 $29,245,000 32.85%
11 Yankees $197,500,000 $64,800,000 32.80%
12 Pirates $71,500,000 $23,000,000 32.40%
13 Astros $49,000,000 $15,600,000 31.85%
14 Reds $106,000,000 $33,625,000 31.70%
15 Rockies $91,000,000 $26,062,500 28.65%
16 Royals $91,000,000 $25,050,000 27.50%
17 Rays $75,500,000 $20,225,000 26.80%
18 Cardinals $108,500,000 $28,875,000 26.60%
19 Diamondbacks $108,000,000 $28,650,000 26.50%
20 Padres $86,000,000 $21,150,000 24.60%
21 White Sox $89,000,000 $21,750,000 24.50%
22 Nationals $130,500,000 $30,275,000 23.20%
23 Mets $82,000,000 $18,675,000 22.75%
24 Angels $151,000,000 $34,200,000 22.65%
25 Orioles $105,000,000 $22,705,333 21.60%
26 Rangers $131,000,000 $27,000,000 21.10%
27 Indians $80,000,000 $13,200,000 16.50%
28 Athletics $79,000,000 $11,000,000 13.90%
29 Braves $96,000,000 $12,600,000 13.10%
30 Marlins $42,500,000 $3,000,000 7.10%
And in graph form [Note: after the post published, I edited the chart to better reflect the Pirates' spending on rotation, given the Astros' payment to the Pirates for $5.5 million in salary for Wandy Rodriguez. The graph does not contain that change.]:

Even with Ryan Howard‘s bloated contract, and expensive deals with aging veterans Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, the Phillies will still spend close to 50% of their payroll this season on starting pitching. Their recent A.J. Burnett signing pushed that number up significantly, but even so, without Burnett, Philadelphia was heavily committed to the rotation.

On the other end, the Miami Marlins will field four starters at the league minimum and one — Jacob Turner — at only $1 million. The Oakland Athletics will be the only other team to feature four pre-arbitration starting pitchers; the A’s overall spending on starters is higher than the Marlins due to Scott Kazmir‘s $9 million contract. The New York Mets would have been close to the A’s situation if Matt Harvey hadn’t required Tommy John surgery, which pushed the team to add Bartolo Colon on a 2-year/$20 million deal.

Five teams will feature starting rotations with no pre-arbitration pitchers: the Washington Nationals, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Dodgers. With Derek Holland and Matt Harrison still recovering from injuries, the Texas Rangers may start the season with several pre-arbitration starters in their rotation, but the team is still on the hook for six major-league salaries for the rotation.

How much will teams spend on their starting lineup, as a percentage of the overall payroll:

The Dodgers, again, presented tough choices, given their outfield situation. I included Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig in LA’s starting outfield with Andre Ethier coming off the bench. If you think Ethier will start, you’d have the Dodgers with a lower starting lineup number and a higher bench number. As it is, with Ethier coming off the bench, the Dodgers have the most expensive bench in the league this season.

The numbers, in chart form:

Rank Team Projected 2014 OD Payroll Starting Lineup Combined Salary Starting Lineup As % of Payroll
1 Rangers $131,000,000 $84,675,000 64.60%
2 Mets $82,000,000 $52,950,000 64.60%
3 Braves $96,000,000 $61,442,375 64%
4 Indians $80,000,000 $51,075,000 63.80%
5 Orioles $105,000,000 $65,171,667 62.10%
6 Yankees $197,500,000 $117,867,857 59.80%
7 Cardinals $108,500,000 $57,900,000 53.40%
8 Rockies $91,000,000 $48,528,571 53.30%
9 Nationals $130,500,000 $65,616,490 50.50%
10 Brewers $100,500,000 $50,450,000 50.20%
11 Marlins $42,500,000 $21,350,000 50.20%
12 White Sox $89,000,000 $44,542,000 50%
13 Diamondbacks $108,000,000 $52,750,000 48.80%
14 Tigers $161,000,000 $77,925,000 48.40%
15 Athletics $79,000,000 $38,150,000 48.30%
16 Angels $151,000,000 $72,125,000 47.80%
17 Blue Jays $136,000,000 $65,000,000 47.80%
18 Pirates $71,500,000 $33,425,333 46.70%
19 Mariners $87,500,000 $39,957,500 45.70%
20 Twins $82,500,000 $37,600,000 45.60%
21 Dodgers $223,000,000 $100,970,000 45.30%
22 Rays $75,500,000 $33,995,000 45%
23 Red Sox $155,000,000 $67,375,000 43.50%
24 Giants $147,000,000 $61,837,778 42.10%
25 Padres $86,000,000 $36,225,000 42.10%
26 Reds $106,000,000 $43,541,667 41.10%
27 Phillies $175,500,000 $70,450,000 40.25%
28 Royals $91,000,000 $30,300,000 33.30%
29 Astros $49,000,000 $14,737,000 30%
30 Cubs $89,000,000 $18,892,857 21.20%
And in graph form:

Look at the outliers. The Cubs will spend just more than 20% of their payroll on their starting lineup. Right fielder Nate Schierholtz — who was a platoon player on the Giants — will be the second-highest paid position player with a salary of $5 million. On the Astros, pitcher Scott Feldman‘s $12 million salary is nearly a quarter of the payroll, which pushes down the percentage spent offensive players.

What about the DH? American League teams have nine players in their starting lineups; National League teams have only eight. You’d expect — or at least I expected — to see more AL teams at the top of the rankings. But of the top 15 teams in spending on starting lineups, eight are NL teams.

How much will teams spend on their bullpen, as a percentage of the overall payroll:

Every team has an active bullpen competition in spring training, so my Opening Day roster picks are likely to be off for a number of teams. But that shouldn’t change the payroll percentage numbers too much, as most of the guys fighting for the last few bullpen spots are likely to be pre-arb or otherwise inexpensive players.

The numbers, in chart form:

Rank Team Projected 2014 Opening Day Payroll Bullpen Combined Salary Bullpen As % Payroll
1 Rays $75,500,000 $17,669,750 23.40%
2 Athletics $79,000,000 $17,840,000 22.60%
3 Royals $91,000,000 $18,522,500 20.40%
4 Marlins $42,500,000 $8,450,000 19.90%
5 Padres $86,000,000 $16,600,000 19.30%
6 Nationals $130,500,000 $25,125,000 19.25%
7 Reds $106,000,000 $17,050,000 17%
8 Diamondbacks $108,000,000 $17,975,000 16.60%
9 Rockies $91,000,000 $14,950,000 16.40%
10 Cubs $89,000,000 $14,375,000 16.20%
11 Astros $49,000,000 $7,500,000 15.30%
12 Angels $151,000,000 $22,887,500 15.20%
13 White Sox $89,000,000 $13,350,000 15%
14 Giants $147,000,000 $21,845,000 14.90%
15 Dodgers $223,000,000 $32,900,000 14.75%
16 Twins $82,500,000 $11,435,000 13.90%
17 Pirates $71,500,000 $9,975,000 13.80%
18 Phillies $175,500,000 $24,000,000 13.70%
19 Red Sox $155,000,000 $20,400,000 13.20%
20 Indians $80,000,000 $9,900,000 12.40%
21 Orioles $105,000,000 $12,850,000 12.20%
22 Cardinals $108,500,000 $13,000,000 12%
23 Mariners $87,500,000 $10,250,000 11.80%
24 Braves $96,000,000 $11,240,000 11.70%
25 Tigers $161,000,000 $15,737,500 9.80%
26 Blue Jays $136,000,000 $12,050,000 8.90%
27 Brewers $100,500,000 $8,700,000 8.70%
28 Mets $82,000,000 $6,700,000 8.20%
29 Rangers $131,000,000 $9,000,000 6.90%
30 Yankees $197,500,000 $12,480,000 6.30%
And in graph form:

The top six teams in this ranking are all small budget teams. And that makes sense, given the rise in relievers’ salaries in the last five years, particularly for “proven closers.” But look at the Nationals. Washington will spend nearly 20% of its payroll on its bullpen, which is an astounding figure for a team with a $130 million payroll.

Even so, the Nationals aren’t even the top spender on their relief corp. That honor goes to the Dodgers, of course, who will spend more on Brian Wilson to set up Kenley Jansen ($10 million), than seven teams will spend on their entire bullpen. And there’s still the matter of Brandon League‘s 3-year/$22.5 million contract, now in its second year. That’s a pretty, pretty expensive low-leverage middle reliever.

How much will teams spend on their bench, as a percentage of the overall payroll:

Rank Team Projected 2014 Opening Day Payroll Bench Combined Salary Bench as % of Payroll
1 Marlins $42,500,000 $5,800,000 13.60%
2 White Sox $89,000,000 $9,800,000 11.00%
3 Padres $86,000,000 $9,337,500 10.90%
4 Indians $80,000,000 $6,750,000 8.40%
5 Dodgers $223,000,000 $17,700,000 7.90%
6 Diamondbacks $108,000,000 $8,250,000 7.60%
7 Rays $75,500,000 $5,235,000 7.10%
8 Red Sox $155,000,000 $10,800,000 7.00%
9 Mets $82,000,000 $5,637,500 6.90%
10 Pirates $71,500,000 $4,950,000 6.90%
11 Rockies $91,000,000 $6,100,000 6.70%
12 Athletics $79,000,000 $4,895,000 6.20%
13 Reds $106,000,000 $6,360,000 6.00%
14 Astros $49,000,000 $2,800,000 5.70%
15 Cardinals $108,500,000 $6,040,000 5.60%
16 Nationals $130,500,000 $7,200,000 5.50%
17 Cubs $89,000,000 $4,900,000 5.50%
18 Mariners $87,500,000 $4,800,000 5.50%
19 Yankees $197,500,000 $9,700,000 4.90%
20 Braves $96,000,000 $4,590,000 4.80%
21 Tigers $161,000,000 $7,500,000 4.70%
22 Blue Jays $136,000,000 $5,250,000 3.90%
23 Giants $147,000,000 $5,415,000 3.70%
24 Royals $91,000,000 $2,955,000 3.20%
25 Rangers $131,000,000 $3,500,000 2.70%
26 Phillies $175,500,000 $4,612,500 2.60%
27 Brewers $100,500,000 $2,500,000 2.50%
28 Twins $82,500,000 $2,000,000 2.40%
29 Orioles $105,000,000 $2,350,000 2.20%
30 Angels $151,000,000 $2,000,000 1.30%
And in graph form:

I’ve searched and searched for a pattern to emerge with these bench payroll numbers, and I don’t see much. On average, teams will spend just under $6 million on their bench, so the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers and Nationals — among the big spending teams — and the White Sox, Indians, Padres and Diamondbacks — among the low spending teams — are on the high end. Again, I expected to see bigger numbers from NL teams because they have a five-man bench, while AL teams have only four, with the DH taking up the extra spot in the starting lineup. But that didn’t show itself in the actual numbers.

Putting all the numbers together in one chart:

The moment you’ve all been waiting for. No? I guess you’re not as much of a numbers geek as I am.

We return to the chart ranking the projected Opening Day payrolls, and give you the percentages for rotation, starting lineup, bullpen and bench. Before you start hollering in the comments, some of the percentages will add up to more than 100%. From what I can see, that’s largely the result of using rounded numbers and then adding those rounded numbers together. Obviously, if I made an egregious mistake, tell me in the comments. But save yourself the energy on “Minor nitpick but the Yankees’ numbers add up to 102%.”

Rank Team Projected 2014 Payroll Rotation as % of Payroll Starting Lineup as % of Payroll Bullpen as % Payroll Bench as % of Payroll
1 Dodgers $223,000,000 34.7% 45.3% 14.8% 7.9%
2 Yankees $197,500,000 32.8% 59.8% 6.3% 4.9%
3 Phillies $175,500,000 46.1% 40.3% 13.7% 2.6%
4 Tigers $161,000,000 37.5% 48.4% 9.8% 4.7%
5 Red Sox $155,000,000 33.3% 43.5% 13.2% 7.0%
6 Angels $151,000,000 22.7% 47.8% 15.2% 1.3%
7 Giants $147,000,000 39.3% 42.1% 14.9% 3.7%
8 Blue Jays $136,000,000 32.9% 47.8% 8.9% 3.9%
9 Rangers $131,000,000 21.1% 64.6% 6.9% 2.7%
10 Nationals $130,500,000 23.2% 50.5% 19.3% 5.5%
11 Cardinals $108,500,000 26.6% 53.4% 12.0% 5.6%
12 Diamondbacks $108,000,000 26.5% 48.8% 16.6% 7.6%
13 Reds $106,000,000 31.7% 41.1% 17.0% 6.0%
14 Orioles $105,000,000 21.6% 62.1% 12.2% 2.2%
15 Brewers $100,500,000 38.6% 50.2% 8.7% 2.5%
16 Braves $96,000,000 13.1% 64.0% 11.7% 4.8%
17 Rockies $91,000,000 28.7% 53.3% 20.4% 6.7%
18 Royals $91,000,000 27.5% 33.3% 16.4% 3.2%
19 Cubs $89,000,000 32.9% 21.2% 16.2% 5.5%
20 White Sox $89,000,000 24.5% 50% 15.0% 11%
21 Mariners $87,500,000 36.4% 45.7% 11.8% 5.5%
22 Padres $86,000,000 24.6% 42.1% 19.3% 10.9%
23 Twins $82,500,000 38.3% 45.6% 13.9% 2.4%
24 Mets $82,000,000 22.8% 64.6% 8.2% 6.9%
25 Indians $80,000,000 16.5% 63.8% 12.4% 8.4%
26 Athletics $79,000,000 13.9% 48.3% 22.6% 6.2%
27 Rays $75,500,000 26.8% 45.0% 23.4% 7.1%
28 Pirates $71,500,000 32.4% 46.7% 13.8% 6.9%
29 Astros $49,000,000 31.9% 30.0% 15.3% 5.7%
30 Marlins $42,500,000 7.1% 50.2% 19.9% 13.6%

Two postscripts:

A big, big thank you to my colleague Bill Petti for the graphs. Yes, a writer at FanGraphs is graphically-challenged.

Several readers left good comments on Part One with suggestions of other ways to break down the salary numbers. Please leave your suggestions below. I will review the suggestions and write a follow-up post with additional analysis.

Area Scouting, the Home Visit and the Phillies/Wetzler Affair.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It was only a matter of time. The team turned out to the Phillies, but it could have been anyone, and the player turned to be Oregon State LHP Ben Wetzler, though it too could have been anyone. The disconnect between the NCAA rules and the reality governing the mating ritual between major league clubs and amateur prospects ensured that it would eventually come to this, with a player’s eligibility being compromised for doing what the vast majority of players in his position have done without incident, in the simple course of doing business.
Depending on one’s home base, an area scout can basically set his calendar a year in advance. I was based in the Northeast in my area scouting days, so we’ll use my calendar as a frame of reference. Just days after the annual Rule 4 draft, an initial follow list of top prospects for the next year’s draft is filed. Throughout the summer, while mixing in high school prospect showcases, college summer wood bat league games, coverage of minor league teams and tryout camps, you begin to visit the homes of the top prospects in your area, starting the process of getting to know the prospect and his family. Once school resumes, college scout day workouts begin, while the home visits with prospects continue. In the winter, it’s too cold to play, but you attend some indoor player workouts, while the home visits go on.

Once the spring season begins, a cold-weather scout will often head south to watch their snow-birding college prospects, but once the weather warms, you head back north to watch the prospects play, and to continue to meet with prospects and their families, following up with the kids who have been prospects all along, and getting to know the ones who are just beginning to make their mark.

In these visits, medical information may be collected, the prospects may be given psychological and vision tests, but by and large, there is conversation. Conversation about professional baseball, the lifestyle, the minor leagues, the spring training facility, you name it. Over time you learn what makes each player tick, get a feel for who the ultimate decision-maker in the family is, and try to develop the relationship to the point that a level of trust is in place for when the important, financially-based questions begin to be asked late in the spring prior to the draft.

Suffice it to stay, this relationship-building process is a very significant component of an area scout’s job, both in terms of importance and quantity of time spent. Why is so much time spent in this regard? To avoid exactly what happened in the Phillies/Ben Wetzler situation.

Put yourself in the shoes of a high school or college prospect or of their mother or father. The player has always been the star of the team, the first one picked, and has on many occasions been pursued diligently by third parties long before the area scout walked in the door. The traveling teams, the colleges, the agents/advisors in some cases, have all come calling. The player and his family, quite likely, have little sense as to where the player’s talent fits in within the context of the entire country, and unless their last name is Upton, Cecchini or Frazier, likely have little idea regarding the nuances of the major league draft. The family gets one shot at it, and for the player’s sake, they have to do everything within their power to get it right.

The area scout, who at the entry level doesn’t earn much of a salary, is the club employee responsible for developing that relationship, being the human embodiment of his major league franchise to the player and his family, and their resource for guidance throughout the draft process. The objective is not necessarily to improve the player’s chances of signing with the area scout’s club – in fact, that possibility is out of his hands, as he could do everything right and still have a one in thirty shot of getting an opportunity to sign the player, with the trigger being pulled several layers of responsibility above him. More than anything, the area scout’s responsibility to eliminate the grey area – black or white are both fine.

If at the end of the process, a high school prospect has been educated regarding the realities of the draft and pro baseball, and the inherent differences between the pro and college experiences – for better and for worse – and makes a clear decision prior to the draft, this benefits the club, even is the decision is in favor of college baseball. The club in most cases will simply use their pick on someone else, and avoid the severe consequence of a wasted draft pick. Ideally, money should not be the sole or even primary driver of a player’s decision. In the real world, however, everyone has their price. This is where the whole thing gets dicey.

Every spring, a hard-working area scout doing his job appropriately will come across one or more “pop-up” prospects. Never heard of him before, got a tip, and lo and behold, kid is throwing 92 with a functional breaking ball. Right now I’m thinking of a specific high school prospect from my area a decade ago who fit that profile, and reached the big leagues last season. There are several stages that families of such prospects tend to go through: 1) Thrilled to get attention from a scout; 2) Very receptive to information about draft and pro ball, solid sum of money plus college scholarship money that doesn’t go away sounds good to them; 3) Local “expert” from their area enters picture, pumps up family’s financial expectations beyond reason, and 4) Family has to make a final call regarding their financial requirements for the draft. If all goes well, the final result is black or white, and not grey, and there are no regrets.

Problems arise when a team thinks it has a final answer regarding the player’s financial requirements, only for them to change after the player is drafted. Today, teams have an assigned draft pool, and each and every player is drafted with a specific signing amount in mind, making the entire relationship-building process more important than ever. I am not here to pass judgment upon the Philadelphia Phillies, or upon Ben Wetzler and/or his advisor. Most likely, the Phillies thought Wetzler would sign for a certain amount, and the player changed his mind. That’s his prerogative, but at the same time, the club had invested not only a valuable 5th round pick in the player, but also a great deal of time and effort in scouting and developing a relationship with the player so that the eventual result would not occur. Most clubs in this position lick their wounds and move on. At this stage, however, the Phils took the seemingly draconian step of reporting the player to the NCAA for improper use of an advisor. No matter the details of the negotiation process in this specific case, the Phillies have clearly made no friends in the agent/advisor community, and repercussions could well be felt in drafted player negotiations going forward.

The obvious elephant in the room is this – almost every player in every year’s draft has an advisor in this day and age. The top prospects not only have representatives of 30 teams traipse into their living rooms, they also have a handful of agents doing the same exact thing. Without going into great detail, if the letter of the current NCAA law was to be enforced with regard to the actual role of agents/advisors in the signing process, let’s just say that quite a few more players’ NCAA eligibility would be compromised. It only makes sense – for most players/families, this is one of the largest financial and life decisions they will ever make. Retention of a legal/financial professional’s assistance would seem to be the normal course of business, at least at the top of the draft.

Some of my fondest memories of area scouting are of the relationships developed with players and their families, and not only with the ones you were lucky enough to have drafted and eventually sign. It is a great feeling to walk into a ballpark with scouts present from all 30 clubs, and to have the prospect single you out for a personal welcome just after he finishes throwing his bullpen. It feels great to be invited to a draftee’s wedding, years after you meet him. The relationships developed often pay real baseball dividends as well.

Like the time a New York City high school catcher who played in the city championship game the day after being drafted. I watched advisors literally chase his mother around the ballpark handing her business cards. She came directly to me and said, “Come to my house tomorrow, let’s get this done”. The family had been educated regarding the draft, the rounds, the dollars, and had developed a trust in me. We got the deal done the next day.

Or the time a draft-and-follow New Jersey pitcher had a final decision to make. His car was packed for his trip to college, taking with it any chances of him signing a pro contract. I was welcomed into the home one final time, and after we talked into the wee hours of the morning, the player’s best friend gave him life advice in words that I never could have. The player signed.

Or the time another New Jersey pitcher was the first player to agree to terms in his draft year. We had determined exactly how much it would take to sign the player in advance, but just as we were ready to select him, I received a call from the player’s father. Another team had called during the draft, offering more. I responded that our money was real, that we were moments from selecting him, and called upon the trust that had been developed between us. We drafted him, and he immediately signed.

Or the time I had dinner at a chain restaurant with an outfield prospect, his mother and grandmother. After discussing terms for a period of time, and making little progress, they asked me to step out for a moment. I came back a few minutes later, and he immediately agreed to terms. Only later did I find out that the grandmother had basically read him the riot act, and he listened. God bless her.

Stories like this happen in every draft – some, unlike those referenced above, involve contact with advisors. Relationships and levels of trust are built, enabling players to embark upon their professional dream. I consider many of the players and families – and agents – with whom I have interacted friends, and maintain ongoing relationships with them. As in any professional pursuit, interpersonal relationships are the engine that makes things work.

Something broke down in the Phillies/Wetzler case. Most likely, it was simply the case of a player changing his mind, which can and has happened to every club, with the club then taking a fairly drastic, risky measure to register their displeasure. The Phillies very well may have done everything perfectly in their evaluation and eventual drafting of Wetzler, and it wasn’t enough. Moving forward, it would certainly be in all parties’ best interest to recognize that the agent/advisor has a role in the signing process, and that this role should be more realistically spelled out in the NCAA regulations. Such a development will benefit all parties, but most of all the young, aspiring athlete in need of professional guidance that is occasionally beyond the reach of his parents and immediate family members.

2014 Top 10 Prospects: Boston Red Sox.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Red Sox system is loaded with talent. A lot of the players in the 11-15 range would be on most other clubs’ Top 10 lists. If there is one area of weakness in the organization, it’s pitching — due to a lack of high-ceiling talent. Many of the arms project as mid-rotation arms or are in the lowest levels of the system.

#1 Xander Bogaerts | 70/MLB (3B/SS)
20 50 10.0 % 26.0 % .250 .320 .364 .304 86 -0.4 0.2 0.2
The Year in Review: Bogaerts combined for an .865 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. That performance led to a big league call-up at the age of 20. The young hitter held his own in 18 big league games and then produced a .412 on-base percentage in 12 playoff games.

The Scouting Report: The 21-year-old Aruba native has an advanced approach to hitting for his age. He generates good pop thanks to his quick bat but he still has more power to grow into as he matures as a hitter. He has a solid approach at the plate and a developing eye that should allow him to hit for a high average; he should also produce a strong on-base percentage. Bogaerts has shown the ability to handle both positions on the left side of the infield and has a solid arm for either shortstop or third base.

The Year Ahead: Although the Stephen Drew saga has yet to come to a conclusion, Bogaerts is the favorite to start at shortstop in 2014. It would be a wise move because the rookie has a strong shot at out-performing the veteran — despite his inexperience.

The Career Outlook: Bogaerts gave flashes of his potential during his 2013 call-up and could be a perennial all-star at either shortstop or third base for years to come in Boston.

#2 Jackie Bradley | 60/MLB (OF)
23 107 9.3 % 29.0 % .189 .280 .337 .279 69 -3.0 -2.3 -0.2
The Year in Review: Bradley was a surprise addition to Boston’s opening day roster in 2013 but failed to stick. He rode the shuttle between The Show and Triple-A numerous times throughout the season and appeared in a total of 37 games with the Sox. In 80 Triple-A games, he produced an .842 OPS.

The Scouting Report: Bradley’s greatest asset is his above-average defense in center field, which comes from excellent reads, good range and a solid arm. At the plate, he shows a patient approach and isn’t afraid to work the count. He doesn’t have plus power but it could be average or a tick above. He should hit at the top of a big league lineup, although he lacks impact speed.

The Year Ahead: With Jacoby Ellsbury heading to the rival New York Yankees, Bradley has a clear shot at a permanent starting gig with Boston and he’s much more prepared for the job coming into 2014 than he was in ’13.

The Career Outlook: Bradley doesn’t have a “wow” factor but he should be an above-average defensive outfielder who produces a strong on-base percentage and some pop at the plate.

#3 Garin Cecchini | 60/AA (3B)
22 640 164 37 7 111 100 26 .316 .442 .455 .416
The Year in Review: Cecchini just keeps on hitting. The third base prospect opened 2013 in High-A ball and hit .350 with a 1.016 OPS in 63 games to earn a promotion to Double-A. There, he just missed hitting .300 but produced an .825 OPS thanks to 51 walks in 66 games.

The Scouting Report: Cecchini will probably never be your prototypical slugging third baseman but he has a chance to be a special hitter with the bat, nonetheless. He utilizes the entire field and has excellent bat control as well as a strong eye; that allowed him to walk more than he struck out in 2013. He has a chance to be a solid but unspectacular fielder with modest range and a solid arm.

The Year Ahead: If the young player performs well in spring training he could earn an opening day assignment to Triple-A after performing well in 66 Double-A games in 2013. However, with the presence of a young Will Middlebrooks in Boston, there isn’t a need to aggressively push Cecchini.

The Career Outlook: Cecchini produces an outstanding on-base percentage thanks to his ability to coax walks while also producing a strong batting average. That should allow him to be a solid third base option despite the lack of prototypical power output.

#4 Mookie Betts | 60/A+ (2B)
20 619 161 39 16 90 67 46 .309 .411 .491 .414
The Year in Review: Betts performed extremely well in 2013 at two A-ball levels. Combined, he produced a .417 on-base percentage and a .923 OPS while producing unexpected gap power. He didn’t turn 21 until early October but he held his own in the Arizona Fall League as one of the youngest participants.

The Scouting Report: Betts’ value jumped more than perhaps any other prospect in the system between the end of 2012 and the end of 2013. The infielder is ultra-athletic and could probably play a variety of positions, although his modest arm makes him an attractive option as a second baseman; he could be a plus defender at the keystone. At the plate, Betts generates plus bat speed that helps him generate surprising pop for his size. He also makes good contact and has a patient approach. His above-average speed could allow him to steal 20+ bases in a full season.

The Year Ahead: After hitting .341 in 51 High-A games, Betts may be ready for a promotion to Double-A and could even see Triple-A before the year is out.

The Career Outlook: Obviously, Betts is blocked at second base in Boston but he’s athletic enough to move to another position, including shortstop or centre field.

#5 Blake Swihart | 60/A- (C)
21 422 112 29 2 41 63 7 .298 .366 .428 .364
The Year in Review: Swihart has avoided the dreaded prep catcher stagnation issue that plagues a lot of highly-drafted young catchers. He continues to get better and better with every passing season. He hit .298 with a much-improved approach at the plate in 2013; his walk rate jumped from 6.9 to 9.7% over the past two seasons.

The Scouting Report: The athletic Swihart projects to develop into an average or better defender behind the plate with strong leadership abilities. At the plate, he shows a solid approach and should hit for average with a solid on-base percentage. He doesn’t currently produce much power but projects to have at least average pop.

The Year Ahead: Swihart will move up to Double-A in 2014 and could spend the full year there with Christian Vazquez ahead of him on the depth chart and in Triple-A.

The Career Outlook: Switch-hitting catchers that can actually hit with average or better defense are not easy to find so Swihart carries a lot of value.

#6 Henry Owens | 60/AA (P)
20 26 26 135.0 84 9 11.27 4.53 2.67 3.27
The Year in Review: Owens opened 2013 in High-A ball and made 20 starts at that level. He was difficult to hit with just 66 base-knocks allowed and 123 strikeouts issued in 104.2 innings. He made things easier for hitters at times, though, by struggling to find the plate; he issued 53 free passes. Owens, 21, received a six-start trial in Double-A towards the end of the season and struck out 46 batters in 30.1 innings.

The Scouting Report: The highly-projectable Owens is all arms and legs, which gives him deception, but also leads to command/control issues. Like with a lot of tall, young pitchers it may take time for the pitcher to train himself to repeat his delivery on a consistent basis. The southpaw has a low-90s fastball that touches 94-95 mph and his changeup has plus potential. His curveball has a chance to be an average or better offering. He needs to learn to use his height to his advantage and spend more time in the lower half of the strike zone in an effort to induce more ground-ball outs.

The Year Ahead: Owens will no doubt return to Double-A to open the 2014 season. He could also see Triple-A action in 2014 but he may not be quite ready for the Majors unless he takes a huge step forward with his command.

The Career Outlook: The tall lefty has the ceiling of a No. 2 or 3 starter if he realizes his full potential and finds a consistent feel for his breaking ball. Even if he ends up as more of a No. 4, though, he could have value as a workhorse.

#7 Matt Barnes | 60/AAA (P)
23 25 25 113.1 115 11 11.28 3.81 4.13 3.33
The Year in Review: The right-hander made 24 starts in Double-A. His lack of polish caught up to him and Barnes allowed quite a few base runners with 112 hits and 46 walks in 108.0 innings. On the plus side, he missed his fair share of bats and struck out 135 batters. He made one start at the Triple-A level without allowing a run in 5.1 innings.

The Scouting Report: Barnes, 23, succeeds based on the strength of his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, which shows good movement. He also has a changeup and curveball but both offerings need polish to become consistently above average; the former shows the most potential. There is a chance that he may end up as a high-leverage reliever based on the strength of his fastball-changeup combo.

The Year Ahead: The University of Connecticut alum should spend much of the year in Triple-A but could see his first big league action in 2014 if/when an injury strikes the big league staff.

The Career Outlook: Barnes has a strong frame that suggests he could develop into an innings-eating No. 3 or 4 starter depending on the development of his secondary stuff.

#8 Trey Ball | 60/R (P)
19 5 5 7.0 10 1 6.43 7.71 6.43 6.20
The Year in Review: Ball made just five appearances after turning pro in 2013. In seven innings at the Rookie ball level, he struggled with both his command and control. He allowed 10 hits and six walks.

The Scouting Report: Selected seventh overall in 2013, Ball didn’t focus on pitching full-time until turning pro. Much like former Red Sox prospect Casey Kelly, the Indiana native native was a two-way player in high school so he could see his skills take a big jump forward as he devotes himself to pitching. A very athletic player, Ball has a solid delivery and could develop both above-average control and command. He throws his fastball up into the low 90s and both his secondary offerings — a curveball and changeup — show the potential to develop into above-average offerings.

The Year Ahead: Because he’s a little bit behind due to his double-duty in high school, Ball may open 2014 in extended spring training. If he comes out strong, though, Boston could push him to Low-A ball.

The Career Outlook: He still has a lot to learn but Ball has the necessary athleticism to take quick steps forward in his development on the mound.

#9 Allen Webster | 60/ MLB (P)
23 30.1 6.82 5.34 43.1 % 8.60 6.51 5.18 -0.9 -0.3
The Year in Review: Webster made his long-awaited MLB debut in his six pro season but was bounced around due to a lack of command and control. He allowed 18 walks and 37 hits in 30.1 innings. In 21 Triple-A starts, Webster produced a solid ground ball rate and struck out 116 batters in 105.0 innings.

The Scouting Report: A starter for most of his career, Webster’s command and control issues may prevent him from realizing his full potential as a starter. However, he’s flashed significant promise during brief stints in the bullpen. With mid-to-high 90s velocity, the right-hander can be down right dominant when he commands it — and especially when he’s also throwing his changeup and breaking ball for strikes. His ground-ball tendencies add significant value.

The Year Ahead: Webster has a shot at beating out Felix Doubront for the fifth starter’s role but, more than likely, he’ll head back to Triple-A and may be the first starting pitcher recalled in the event of an injury or demotion.

The Career Outlook: Webster’s future may lie in the bullpen if he cannot add the necessary polish to his game, but he could develop into a dominant, late-game reliever.

#10 Christian Vazquez | 55/R (C)
22 403 99 19 5 48 44 7 .287 .375 .391 .355
The Year in Review: The young catcher saw his value increase significantly as his bat took a step forward. He trimmed his strikeout rate and walked more than he K’d (47-44) while playing at Double-A. He also saw one game of action at the Triple-A level.

The Scouting Report: Vazquez’s strength is behind the plate and he has a chance to be one of the better defensive catchers in the American League. He makes youthful mistakes at times but he calls a good game and is an excellent receiver with a strong arm. At the plate, he showed a patient approach in 2013 that helped him walk more than he struck out. He has some gap pop but he’ll probably never hit for much home run power.

The Year Ahead: With the catching tandem of A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross reaching the twilight of their respective careers, injuries could become more commonplace so Vazquez might be a busy man riding the Pawtucket/Boston shuttle.

The Career Outlook: Vazquez will certainly be challenged by the catching depth in the system with the likes of Blake Swihart and Jon Denney coming up behind him but the Puerto Rico native offers the best defense out of the group.

The Next Five:

11. Jonathan Denney, C: Denney was a potential first round draft pick in 2013 but slid to the Sox in the third round due to signability concerns. The young catcher shows potential behind the plate, although he’s far from a finished product. At the plate, he’s overly aggressive at times but has plus power potential from the right side of the dish.

12. Manuel Margot, OF: Margot is a toolsy outfield prospect that’s oozing with raw potential. He made some adjustments throughout the 2013 season and came on strong in the last month of the year — leading to the expectation that the 19 year old will be ready for full season ball in 2014. He has good speed, a strong arm and should hit for more authority as he matures as a hitter.

13. Anthony Ranaudo, RHP: In a lot of organizations, Ranaudo would be a no-brainer as a Top 10 prospect. In the deep Red Sox system, though, he just doesn’t make the cut. Injuries have been a problem for Ranaudo in the past — as well as inconsistent results — but he pitched well in both Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. He has the ceiling of a No. 3 starter.

14. Deven Marrero, SS: The 24th overall selection from the 2012 amateur draft, Marrero’s offense was a disappointment in his first full season. He posted an OPS of just .655 while splitting the season between High-A and Double-A. On the plus side, he stole 27 bases in 29 tries and also showed a patient approach at the plate. He’ll certainly stick at shortstop at the big league level, and he could eventually force Xander Bogaerts off the position — assuming the Arizona State alum hits well enough to by an everyday guy.

15. Brandon Workman, RHP: After working as a starter in the minors, Workman found his niche at the big league level as a reliever. His four-pitch repertoire gives him a shot at returning to the rotation but the depth on the Red Sox may keep him in the ‘pen barring a trade or injury. Workman posted a 10.15 K/9 strikeout rate in the Majors but still needs to polish his command.

The Most- and Least-Improved Teams for 2014.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Here’s the thing about projections: we always want them to get better, but we never want them to be perfect. Not that perfect is anywhere within our grasp, but in the hypothetical reality where we knew for sure what was going to happen, sports would be ruined. We don’t want to know the future — we just want to think we do, so we can talk about and analyze things that haven’t fully played out. With that in mind, hey look, we have complete combined 2014 data for Steamer and ZiPS!

We have combined 2014 season projections, and we have author-generated team-by-team depth charts. So what we have is an idea of the projected upcoming standings, an intelligent declaration of how things will go that we know will look kind of silly in six months. Reality always deviates from the projections, but that doesn’t mean the projections are valueless, and I thought it could be worth looking at which teams appear the most and least improved from last season.

The simplest approach: a raw comparison of 2013 team WAR to projected 2014 team WAR. Now, that might not seem right to you. Projections are based around estimated true talent. Last season’s raw WAR doesn’t capture true talent — it captures true talent +/- a whole lot of luck. But the way people always think about this is, the most recent record was the “real” record. Which teams stand to post the most- and least-improved records? Just because last year’s Astros were worse than they should’ve been doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Ask anybody. They happened.

I’ll spoil something right away — of course, a phenomenon you’re going to notice is regression to the mean. Last year’s worst teams ought to do better. Last year’s best teams ought to do worse. The standings can sometimes exaggerate the real spread of talent, and over a bigger sample, you expect teams to play closer to average. The lists you’re going to see aren’t just in order of 2013 record, but there’s a definite correlation.

Now then, the whole process was simple. For each team, I added up 2013 WAR. Then I went to this page to track down the projected 2014 WAR. Ervin Santana is still out there as a meaningful free agent, but not a lot about this is going to change on account of someone signing Ervin Santana. I did have to make one adjustment, because right now the projected 2014 WARs add up to something well over 1,000. Once that was adjusted down, it became a matter of simple sorting and subtraction.

We’ll begin with the ten most-improved teams:

Astros, +18 WAR
Phillies, +12
Mariners, +11
Marlins, +8
Yankees, +8
Blue Jays, +8
Padres, +8
White Sox, +6
Twins, +5
Brewers, +4
One interesting thing about the Astros: they project to be way, way better this year than last. Another interesting thing about the Astros: they still project for the second-lowest WAR in baseball, between the Twins and the Marlins. That’s a better team, an improved team, but it’s still a bad team with a handful of shinier pieces. While neither Dexter Fowler nor Scott Feldman is a widely-recognized superstar, they’re hints of adequacy on a roster with a greater degree of adequacy and depth. Improvements tend to be swiftest at the start, and last season was a disaster.

I’ll note that, between 2003-2004, the Tigers went from about 2 WAR to about 33. There were different players, but not as many as you might expect. Ivan Rodriguez didn’t hurt the cause. The Astros didn’t pick up an Ivan Rodriguez, but it’s not like they’re feeling a real sense of urgency.

The Phillies, in a sense, are a positive regression case. They also added A.J. Burnett, Roberto Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, and Marlon Byrd, so while they also don’t project very well, they should be in the hunt a little longer. It pains me to say that the Phillies should be better for no longer having Roy Halladay. It pains me less to say they should be better for no longer having Delmon Young.

It’s not surprising to see the Mariners, because they made the biggest splash of all by signing Robinson Cano. Nearby, you also see Cano’s former team, which elected to replace him with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Masahiro Tanaka. So, the Mariners benefited by adding a star. The Yankees lost one star and added three, which is a different approach. In between, there are the Marlins, who if nothing else should get twice the year from Giancarlo Stanton.

The Blue Jays should be able to look ahead to better health and fewer black holes. As much as theirs has been an offseason of inactivity, they should get better just by staying the same. The Padres, meanwhile, have put together a fairly interesting rotation, and a rotation that includes none of Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard, and Jason Marquis. While San Diego might be the worst team in the NL West at the moment, they’re also a more or less average team in a division that’s light on great but heavy on depth.

Now to turn things around and look at the other end of the spreadsheet:

Red Sox, -16 WAR
Tigers, -14
Rays, -8
Braves, -8
Athletics, -8
Reds, -7
Rangers, -7
Royals, -6
Orioles, -6
Pirates, -5
A lot of people have asked how the Red Sox are going to survive the losses of Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew. Similarly, people have observed that the Tigers have downgraded by losing guys like Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, and Prince Fielder. Absolutely, it looks like both teams will step back. But one has to understand just how good these teams were a year ago. The Red Sox had the highest team WAR in baseball. The Tigers came in second. The Rays were in third, a full ten WAR behind Detroit. These teams could afford to lose some ground, and even still they look like the favorites to win each of their respective divisions. The Red Sox will be in a battle, but they have plenty of organizational depth. The Tigers have less depth, but also should have less of a struggle to reach the Division Series.

All of these are at least fairly good teams. They were all good teams in 2013. The Rays are projected to regress a little bit in a lot of different places. The Braves have spent the offseason signing players they already had, and they’re also projected for an accumulation of little regressions. Same story for the A’s, although Josh Donaldson is projected for more than a little regression. Last year, he was worth almost eight wins. This year he’s pegged for a little over four. It’s worth noting the A’s lost Bartolo Colon and don’t have the same rotation depth. They have all kinds of depth in the field.

The Reds simply haven’t done anything, and they’ve lost Shin-soo Choo. Projections expect less from the stars that remain. The Rangers have some pitching-staff issues to work out given the injured Derek Holland and the absent Joe Nathan. The Royals and Orioles have made some offseason additions, but the Royals remain a good deal behind the Tigers and the projections just aren’t quite buying the breakouts of Chris Davis and Manny Machado. Finally, we’ve talked about the Pirates regressing for months, and they could really end up missing A.J. Burnett. There are interesting pieces to possibly lift them up within the system, but the Pirates haven’t moved forward since finally getting back to October and a repeat performance doesn’t seem to be so obviously in the cards.

All the other teams — they’re within two of last year’s total WAR. Funny how that one worked out. At present, the Giants, Cardinals, and Angels are projected to be the exact same. The divisions around them have changed, but they haven’t, so much. At least until we observe the unpredictable. Then we’ll be like, welp, so much for everything we talked about before.

Did Houston Spend Wisely This Winter?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
How you view the near-unprecedented teardown of the Houston Astros depends largely on how you view the sport of baseball as a whole. If you’re in it for the long haul, for the joy of seeing teams attempting to build dynasties from within and using their resources effectively, you probably appreciate the commitment to the vision. If you’re a fan who doesn’t enjoy spending your hard-earned dollars to go watch a bunch of players you’ve never heard of (“Look, kids, Marwin Gonzalez!”) lose over 100 games for the third season in a row, then you probably find it to be an abomination.

It’s safe to say that the majority of FanGraphs readers fall under the first category, though there’s a certain validity to both sides. But all that really matters is how ownership feels about it, because while Jim Crane’s commitment to letting Jeff Luhnow blow things up and start from scratch has been admirable so far, there’s only so many 0.0 television ratings a businessman can suffer. That’s especially true as attendance has continued to shrink — down from just over three million in 2007 to half that in 2013, ahead of only three other clubs — and as reports surfaced in December that MLBPA head Tony Clark was “monitoring” the Houston situation, given that the club’s $549,603 average per player was the lowest the sport had seen since the 1999 Royals, who paid out $534,460 per player while losing 97 games. (Luhnow disputes the accuracy of that report, but the fact that Houston’s payroll was particularly low is unavoidable.)
While it’d be beyond foolhardy to deviate from the plan now, and while the continued television mess is a huge limitation for the team, we heard multiple times last fall that the Astros planned to spend to improve the big league team in 2014, with Luhnow insisting the result would be better on the field. It would have been difficult not to, anyway, because additional cost-cutting moves during the season led to an end-of-season roster which had only $1.437 million committed to Jose Altuve in 2014, along with an arbitration case for Jason Castro and $5.5m to Pittsburgh to cover Wandy Rodriguez.

When we started hearing things like “the payroll could be between $50-60 million next year” and that they might actually be in on Shin-Soo Choo, I took the time in early November to imagine all the fun they could have this winter with that flexibility, starting from essentially payroll-zero to spend $50 million or more. The Astros didn’t follow any of my tongue-in-cheek plans — I guess we won’t be seeing an outfield of Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Nate McLouth any time soon — nor did they go down the more realistic path I laid out.

But they did take some steps to improving, making one big trade and signing several major league free agents. As Wendy Thurm wrote earlier today, the Opening Day payroll appears to be around $49 million, ahead of the Marlins but still a good $20 million behind the next-stingiest team, Pittsburgh. Still, it’s in the range that was promised months ago, and it’s a step forward. Did the road Houston took this winter make sense?

The answer to that question really depends on what you’re expecting to get out of this season for the Astros. They are, still, unavoidably a bad team. Even if they improved by 20 games this year — a massive leap — they’d still have 91 losses. In a division with two clear contenders, an Angels team that still has Mike Trout, and a Seattle club that, for all its flaws, did add Robinson Cano, there’s almost no way 2014 doesn’t end with a fourth-straight last-place finish.

But if the goal here is merely to say they’ve found rock bottom, turned the corner, seen the light, however you want to put it, all without damaging the bright future they have, then this winter has been a pretty successful one in Houston. Take, for example, the three categories of deals they made.

1) Traded Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes for Dexter Fowler ($7.85m, with one arbitration year remaining).

This move was so good that it made Dave Cameron’s list of the 10 best transactions of the offseason, even ahead of the Dodgers taking a one-year gamble on Dan Haren, which was universally loved. In order to upgrade from one 28-year-old outfielder to another, the cost was a still-talented young arm who has shown very little improvement in parts of three seasons in the big leagues. Put another way: last year’s Houston rotation was one of the worst in the bigs, and Lyles was below-average even only among Astros starters. He may yet improve; he may not, although Colorado isn’t the best place for him to find out. In return, Houston picked up a solid two-to-three win player who can get on base, do some damage when he’s there, and add a little power. Fowler is not without flaws; he’s also clearly better than Barnes, by multiple wins, and at 29 next season, may yet have some trade value if the team chooses to flip him.

2) Signed Scott Feldman (3/$30m) and Jerome Williams (1/$2.1m) to the rotation.

Feldman is not exciting, even though he’s taking up nearly a quarter of the club payroll. Williams is less exciting. But then, the baseline isn’t “exciting.” It’s not “playoffs.” For this team, it’s merely “getting better,” and in order to add at least something to that awful rotation, the options were limited. Houston wasn’t going to give up a draft pick for an Ervin Santana or an Ubaldo Jimenez, nor should they have, even if any of those guys wanted to come to Houston. They weren’t going to trade for David Price or entice Tim Hudson to spend his final years in last place. They weren’t going to convince Bronson Arroyo to take his brand of flyballery to Houston, and again, in last place.

That means that what’s left are the mild upgrades, and Feldman and Williams certainly count as that. Feldman, when healthy, has consistently put up seasonal FIP numbers of around 4.00, and xFIP slightly less than that, though BABIP fluctuations has made the ERA not always align. $10 million annually sounds high; then again, that barely buys two wins these days, we can’t know how much extra the Astros needed to kick in to convince even a mildly-useful player to come. Williams may or may not end up in the bullpen, and may or may not continue on the pace that made him worth about 1 WAR in 351 innings for the Angels. For $2.1m, it’s practically free to find out, and again, WAR only works when the guys you’re replacing are even up to being the R.

3) Added Matt Albers (1/$2.45m with club option), Chad Qualls (2/$6m with club option), Jesse Crain (1/$3.25m), Anthony Bass (trade from San Diego), and Darin Downs (waivers) to reinforce the bullpen.

The bullpen was like the rotation, but worse: By ERA, by FIP, by xFIP, by BB/9, by HR/9, by WAR, by whatever metric you choose to use, the 23 Houston relievers, from Wesley Wright down to two cameos from Lyles, were the worst group in baseball. They were actually worse than that; even though WAR is an imperfect stat for relievers for several reasons, it’s still a laugh to at least point out that no group of relievers in the history of baseball in our database ever managed a WAR quite so bad as -5.4. (Again, don’t take that too seriously, if only because WAR is a counting stat, and past teams with superior and/or old-school rotations who pitched deeper into games wouldn’t have had the opportunities to compile that bullpen number.)

However it is you want to put it, the bullpen was atrocious, and Crane and Luhnow both placed it on their list of priorities this winter, though “making it less terrible” isn’t the same thing as “spending big,” because we should know by now that awful teams don’t need to spend on their bullpens. And so while you might snark a bit at some of these names, know that last year’s names were Hector Ambriz and Paul Clemens and Chia-Jen Lo and Jose Cisnero. Crain, remember, was so good in his three years in Chicago (176/65 K/BB, 2.10 ERA) that Tampa Bay traded for him knowing full well he had a shoulder injury. Albers seems unlikely to keep up his BABIP magic, but has thrown at least 60 innings in each of the last five years, with a FIP below 4.24 in four of them. That would have made him practically an All-Star candidate on this team.

And Qualls, well, everyone likes to make fun of Chad Qualls. With good reason, too. But do remember Eno Sarris’ semi-positive look at Qualls:

Of course, those that are thinking of the 2010-2012 Chad Qualls are snarfing their milk right now. But that’s a little unfair. In 2009, he had a bad knee injury. Apparently he changed his mechanics to relieve stress on that knee. It was only in 2013 that he went back to his old delivery, to great results. Take a look at some of his per-pitch stats in 2010-2012 and then last season:

Category Frequency Velocity Whiff% GB%
Years 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013
Sinker 65% 62% 92.5 94 6% 7% 63% 71%
Slider 34% 38% 87 87 14% 19% 39% 55%
Change 1% 0% 84 4% 75%
In terms of movement, he gained an inch of horizontal movement on the sinker, and his slider got tighter. Both pitches gained velocity, and both pitches were much more effective in 2013. This echoes what Qualls says in the piece above, too. Despite being a sinker/slider guy, Qualls also didn’t show a big platoon split on his pitches. Against lefties last year, his slider got *more* whiffs (22%) even as it lost the grounders (36%). The sinker still did its thing (66% grounders v LHB).

It’s still not going to be a good bullpen. It’s still not going to be a good team, at least not until George Springer and Carlos Correa and Mark Appel and friends get going. But if the goal this winter was to:

1) Be a better team, if even only somewhat
2) Show the fans and the union that more money could be spent
3) Provide some sort of veteran base for the coming prospects
4) Buy future talent by signing potentially tradeable assets now, and
5) Not sacrifice anyone you’d miss in the future

…then it’s hard to say that the Astros misfired this winter, especially if you buy into the PR value of saying they reportedly “just missed” on Jose Abreu and supposedly offered north of $100 million for Masahiro Tanaka. It’s still going to be a long season in Houston, one filled with far more losses than wins. But finally, after all these years, it seems like the bottom has been reached, and now it’s uphill towards the goal. It’s doubtful that any of the players acquired this winter are going to be on the next Houston team that reaches the playoffs. But in their own way, whether it’s through future trades or giving potential free agents a slightly better impression of the team or helping a young pitcher blow just one less big league game, they’ll have helped play a part in that. That’s money well spent.

The Surprising Reality of Brett Gardner.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Yesterday, the Yankees gave Brett Gardner $52 million to not exercise his right to become a free agent next winter. Instead, he’ll now stay in New York and play left field alongside Jacoby Ellsbury, rather than testing free agency to see if he could land a bigger deal as the best center fielder on the market. And that means Gardner has just signed up for four more years of criticism from those who think a left fielder should be “a run producer”, a guy who knocks the ball out of the ballpark and hits in the middle of the line-up.

Gardner is not that guy. He has more career triples than home runs, and a large part of his value comes from running down balls in the outfield. He’s a speed-and-defense guy, and traditionally, speed-and-defense guys have not been paid the same level of wages as similarly valuable sluggers. But while these kinds of labels help us describe the ways in which a player creates value, there’s also a trap to using these kinds of generalities, and we shouldn’t be so confined by player types that we miss the fact that Brett Gardner is actually a pretty good offensive player.

Just for fun, I pulled a leaderboard of all players who have accumulated at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last three years, and then calculated the spread between their OFF and DEF ratings. As a short reminder, OFF is the sum of a player’s batting and baserunning runs above average, while DEF is the sum of their UZR and the positional adjustment. Players with a large span between their OFF rating and DEF rating are specialists, guys who provide a huge bulk of their value with either their bat or their glove.

To no surprise, the largest gap in the game goes to Miguel Cabrera, who has a span of 212 runs between his OFF and DEF from 2011 to 2013. Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, Edwin Encarnacion, and Ryan Braun are all in the range of of a 150 run span. On the flip side, Brendan Ryan (93 runs), Darwin Barney (91 runs), and Clint Barmes (87 runs) have the largest negative spans, coming out nearly 100 runs worse on OFF than on DEF. Subracting the DEF rating from the OFF rating isn’t some huge analytical breakthrough, but I think these results do show that it does a pretty decent job of grouping players by their type.

So, where does OFF-DEF put Brett Gardner? Well, from 2011 to 2013 — which is actually just two seasons in his case, since he missed almost all of 2012 — he’s at +17 runs as a hitter and +22 runs as a fielder, for a span of just five runs to the defensive side. This makes his peer group include guys like Ian Desmond, Howie Kendrick, Yadier Molina, Erick Aybar, Jason Heyward, and Michael Bourn. That doesn’t mean all those guys are equally valuable — you can have a small OFF-DEF span by posting either 0/0 ratings or +20/+20 ratings, when higher numbers are obviously better — but it should serve as a reminder that Gardner’s peers aren’t really defensive specialists; they’re solid hitters who also happen to add value on the field.

In fact, this OFF-DEF toy actually reveals a pretty interesting comparison for Gardner’s contract that you’d likely never connect based on the way they look: Jhonny Peralta. Peralta signed a four year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals as a free agent this winter, so he got basically the same deal Gardner just signed, even though his performance has actually been more skewed towards defensive value than Gardner’s has.

From 2011 to 2013, Peralta’s offense has graded out at +8 runs relative to the league average hitter, while his DEF ratings have graded him out as +43 runs relative to an average defender. Peralta actually has an OFF-DEF span of 35 runs towards the defensive side of the ledger, even though no one really thinks of him as a glove first player. The reality, though, is that Peralta isn’t actually that all different from Gardner in how he creates his value.

Both are roughly average hitters. From 2011 to 2013, Peralta posted a 109 wRC+ compared to Gardner’s 103, so Peralta’s been a little bit better at the plate, but the gap is not particularly large, grading out to 13 runs by wRAA. Gardner then makes it all up and more once he reaches bases, as his baserunning advantage is +20 runs thanks to his ability to steal bases and turn his times on base into a higher percentage of runs scored. So, even with 400 fewer plate appearances, Gardner has actually been a better offensive player than Peralta since the start of the 2011 season.

Going forward, the forecasts expect this to continue. Both ZIPS and Steamer see Peralta continuing to be a slightly better hitter than Gardner (105 wRC+ to 100 wRC+), with Gardner making up the gap on the bases. While Peralta’s frame and ability to hit the ball over the wall more frequently suggest that he’s an offense-first player, the reality is that Peralta is an average hitter whose value comes from being able to provide real defensive value by playing shortstop. Gardner, meanwhile, is also roughly an average offensive player who creates value through his defense, only instead of being a solid defender at an up-the-middle position, he’s going to go back to being an excellent defender at a corner spot. At the end of the day, the value between those two things is simply not that different.

Peralta might not seem like a comparison for Gardner, but he is an example of the market price for average hitters with defensive value. Both Peralta and Gardner have their warts — the former a PED suspension, the latter a history of injuries — but Peralta’s deal makes a pretty good case that Gardner was probably in line for more than what the Yankees gave him if he got to free agency. While this kind of player is still generally underrated, it is clear that the Yankees see that Gardner is a quality contributor, even as a left fielder, and were willing to pay for the right to keep him and Ellsbury together for the next five years.

The contrast between the contracts signed this weekend — $8 million for Nelson Cruz, $52 million for Brett Gardner — are a great example of the changes that are taking place in MLB front offices. Gardner’s a good player, even if he doesn’t look like a traditional good left fielder. The days of average hitters with defensive skills being overlooked and drastically underpaid seem to be coming to an end.
post #20053 of 73410
Mike Trout signs one year, $1M deal with the Angels.
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post #20054 of 73410
Originally Posted by Th3RealF0lkBlu3s View Post

Mike Trout signs one year, $1M deal with the Angels.

wait...can someone explain this?
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post #20055 of 73410
He will receive One Million dollars from the Angels during the 2014 season.

laugh.gif iono.
post #20056 of 73410
Originally Posted by DeadsetAce View Post

Originally Posted by Th3RealF0lkBlu3s View Post

Mike Trout signs one year, $1M deal with the Angels.

wait...can someone explain this?

Since he can't negotiate with anyone else but the Angels, he has to take whatever they're willing to negotiate with him and his agent. This number actually breaks the record for an arby player set by Ryan Howard in 2007 with the Phillies (which was 900,000). Mike will get his money eventually, plus this allows for the team to wait longer to hammer out a long term deal.
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post #20057 of 73410
Originally Posted by Th3RealF0lkBlu3s View Post

Originally Posted by DeadsetAce View Post

Originally Posted by Th3RealF0lkBlu3s View Post

Mike Trout signs one year, $1M deal with the Angels.

wait...can someone explain this?

Since he can't negotiate with anyone else but the Angels, he has to take whatever they're willing to negotiate with him and his agent. This number actually breaks the record for an arby player set by Ryan Howard in 2007 with the Phillies (which was 900,000). Mike will get his money eventually, plus this allows for the team to wait longer to hammer out a long term deal.

ah gotcha. thanks for explaining that. wow, though. just sounds nuts, but makes sense
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post #20058 of 73410
That boy will get paid soon. Angels better enjoy it while it lasts. laugh.gif
post #20059 of 73410

Basically the Angels gave him $1 mil to butter him up hoping he signs that 6 or 7 year contract. Remember last year when they renewed his contract for $510k, only $20k over the league min. and it ticked off Trout and his agent.

post #20060 of 73410
post #20061 of 73410
Originally Posted by bbllplaya23 View Post

That boy will get paid soon. Angels better enjoy it while it lasts. laugh.gif

Can't wait 'til he's a yankee.
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post #20062 of 73410

When Mike Trout signs his next contract I wouldn't be surprise if he gets 300 million 

post #20063 of 73410
Originally Posted by ognikehead85 View Post

When Mike Trout signs his next contract I wouldn't be surprise if he gets 300 million 

Depends if the Angels ride out arbitration or buy those years out, he'll definitely break all the arbitration records, that's a fact.
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post #20064 of 73410
Originally Posted by GotHolesInMySocks View Post

Originally Posted by bbllplaya23 View Post

That boy will get paid soon. Angels better enjoy it while it lasts. laugh.gif

Can't wait 'til he's a yankee.

Chill. Yall couldn't even keep your own big name player
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post #20065 of 73410
Originally Posted by ***a5in11 View Post

Chill. Yall couldn't even keep your own big name player

Mariners are looking real good this season pimp.gif
post #20066 of 73410

PROOF Reddick got robbed in Detroit.

**** all of you. frown.gif
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post #20067 of 73410
Originally Posted by Ecook0808 View Post

Originally Posted by ***a5in11 View Post

Chill. Yall couldn't even keep your own big name player

Mariners are looking real good this season pimp.gif

you damn right. push for 3rd place and a .500 record smokin.gif
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post #20068 of 73410
Originally Posted by ***a5in11 View Post

you damn right. push for 3rd place and a .500 record smokin.gif

post #20069 of 73410
Them low expectations
post #20070 of 73410

:lol:Nthat @ the crusade Ozzie Smith is leading.

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One again...Lord Stanley Resides In The Windy City.

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