I miss the old days sometimes, when we disagreed on players more often.
Now, we just like all the same players.
Cardinals Continue Being Smart, Acquire Peter Bourjos.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Well, the Cardinals clearly weren’t swayed by the rhetoric, and today, they’ve acquired Peter Bourjos from the Angels to be their new center fielder. And now TBS and Fox can properly say that the Cardinals have one of the best defensive center fielders on the planet, because Peter Bourjos is what Jon Jay was supposed to be.
Since 2010, here are the top 5 center fielders in UZR/150 among players who have spent at least 2,000 innings in center field.
Peter Bourjos, +20.2
Carlos Gomez, +18.2
Jacoby Ellsbury, +13.7
Michael Bourn, +9.9
Denard Span, +9.5
Defensive numbers have larger error bars than offensive numbers, but those error bars simply mean we’re asking if Bourjos is the best defensive outfielder in baseball or if he’s merely just very good. With a sample of 2,600 innings, you absolutely have to regress those numbers when projecting future defensive contributions, but even at a 50% regression, Bourjos would still rate as one of the very best defensive center fielders in baseball.
And given what we know about Bourjos’ skills — his speed, his baserunning, and the fact that the Angels pushed Mike Trout to left field because they preferred Bourjos in center — we shouldn’t regress Bourjos back towards a league average mean. We know enough about Bourjos-like players to know that these types of athletes are usually good defenders, and we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the fastest players in the game also rates as one of the most valuable in the field. You don’t want to count on Bourjos maintaining a +20 pace in CF, but a +10 projection isn’t crazy at all.
And when you field like Bourjos does, you can be a pretty terrific player even if you aren’t an amazing hitter. But unlike some other defensive specialists, Bourjos is not a total zero at the plate. For his career, he’s a .251/.306/.398 hitter while playing in a pitcher friendly ballpark, so that grades out to a 96 wRC+. And that’s just what he does at the plate. He’s also one of the game’s best baserunners, so for his career, Bourjos has actually been an above average offensive player, grading out at +4 runs over 1,136 plate appearances. Put him in the #8 spot in an NL line-up where he’ll get walked a decent amount in front of the pitcher, and he could even be more deadly, especially if he regularly steals his way into scoring position.
Add average offense to elite defense and baserunning and Bourjos grades out as a +3 to +4 WAR player over a full season, depending on how aggressive you are with his fielding projection. Steamer gives him a very conservative +5 defensive rating, and still sees him as a +3 WAR player, so it’s reasonable to call that something close to his floor. Well, his healthy floor anyway.
That’s the big rub with Bourjos: health. There’s a reason he’s only racked up 1,136 plate appearances over four seasons, despite being highly productive when on the field. He missed most of the 2013 season with a broken wrist, and it wasn’t the first time his wrists have given him problems. He’s also had some hamstring issues, and we’ve never seen his body hold up under the weight of a full season as a big league regular. To some degree, health is a skill, and it’s one Bourjos hasn’t yet shown, though at the same time, there’s not much reason to believe that Bourjos is fragile for having gotten beaned in the wrist by an errant fastball.
So the Cardinals will take a chance on Bourjos’ health for the chance to get a pretty terrific center fielder, and one that they control for the next three seasons. Bourjos is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, and his lack of playing time should keep his price reasonable, so the Cardinals should have a productive player making basically peanuts for the next few seasons. This move also allows Jay to slide over to right field, replacing Carlos Beltran, until Oscar Taveras proves that he’s ready for regular action. While Jay is not a great center fielder, he should be a defensive asset in right field, and the Cardinals outfield defense will go from one of the worst in the game to one of the best.
To get Bourjos, the Cardinals sent Anaheim third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas. Salas is basically nothing, so this can be seen as essentially a Freese for Bourjos swap from the Cardinals perspective. And it’s hard not to love that exchange for St. Louis. Freese has value and is a decent buy-low candidate for the Angels, but his offensive performances have always been heavily driven by BABIP, and his defense went from okay to terrible last year. Even if you expect a nice rebound season, Freese still projects as an inferior player to Bourjos, he has one less year of team control, and will be more expensive in his final two seasons of arbitration. Oh, he’s also older, and not exactly the picture of durability himself.
It’s hard to see any area where Freese is better than Bourjos. This trade will be sold as speed-and-defense for power, but Bourjos actually has a higher career Isolated Slugging mark than Freese does. This is an average hitting elite defender for a slightly above average hitting meh defender, only the meh defender costs more and is closer to the end of his career.
Moves like this are why the Cardinals are one of the best run organizations in baseball. They get younger, cut costs, set up their team for the future, and get the better player in return. Oh, and they got the Angels to throw in a prospect, even if not a very good one, just for the fun of it. The Indians spent $48 million to buy this skillset in an aging Michael Bourn last winter, but the Cardinals figured out how to turn an aging third baseman coming off a bad year into a nearly free version of the same thing.
The Angels needed a third baseman, I guess, but they traded a good player for a worse player who costs more. Anaheim keeps spinning their wheels, while the Cardinals keep marching on towards sustained excellence. Some things really do stay the same.
Rockies’ Sign Hawkins, Teams Continue To Not Pay For Saves.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
When Hawkins suits up for his second go-round with Colorado in 2014, it will be his 20th season in the major leagues. He has thrown at least 20 innings in each season since 1995. That’s pretty ridiculous if you ask me. Digging into the Play Index, I find that he really doesn’t have much company in this regard. Here is the list of the pitchers who have primarily been relievers during their careers and managed to pitch in 20 or more major league seasons:
Eleven players. There have been eight other pitchers who pitched in 20 or more seasons and were relievers by the time they reached their 20th season, but I don’t think that’s the same thing. Pitchers who are converted to relief work early in their career — or in John Franco’s case, at the very beginning of it — generally don’t last as long, because the theory goes that if you were really good, you’d be a starting pitcher.
Hawkins was a starter himself, once upon a time. In his earlier years, three of which were full(ish) campaigns, he was a back-end starter for the Twins. It wasn’t pretty. He never posted an above-average ERA- or FIP-, and for the period he posted a 6.16 ERA. A poor ERA doesn’t always tell the whole story, but it does a pretty nice job in this case. Hawkins simply wasn’t a very good pitcher at that point in time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that most pitchers who post a 6+ ERA in their first 500 major league innings, don’t live to see another 500. Hawkins has, and is working on his third block of 500 innings because he has been much better as a reliever.
It was a slow progression, but after breaking through with a dominant 2003 campaign (38 shutdowns, seven meltdowns, 2.8 WAR), all of the goodwill nearly vanished after a disastrous 2005 campaign. He started the season as the Cubs closer, but lost the job and was dealt to the Giants, where he didn’t have any better luck in high-leverage situations. For the season, he posted 19 SD and 18 MD. Still, the Orioles liked him enough to bring him into the fold in 2006, and everything has been gravy since. From 2006 on, he’s posted 119 SD against 54 MD. Not the best ratio perhaps, but Hawkins has maintained that two-to-one ratio in just about every season, and is coming off a 20-8 season in 2013 with the Mets.
With a tandem of Hawkins and Rex Brothers, who himself posted 30 SD against seven MD last season, the Rockies could have a pretty good back end of the bullpen. And with Brothers making the league minimum and Hawkins making just $2.5 million, they’ll have it on the cheap.
It is that continual devaluation of the closer on a macro level that makes this deal so interesting. As Dave Cameron noted a couple of weeks ago, salaries keep rising, but there is a growing body of work that shows that teams can have success doing just the opposite with the back end of their bullpen. From Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Kansas City to Chicago to … you get the idea … teams are entrusting the supposedly most important role in the game to youngsters who haven’t yet reached arbitration, or castoffs who they signed for peanuts.
Over the past five years, the average salary for the top 25 in saves has declined:
Now, perhaps this isn’t the best way to look at this. It doesn’t include high-priced flops like Joel Hanrahan, Heath Bell or Brandon League. But then again, it also doesn’t include league minimum guys like Trevor Rosenthal, Danny Farquhar, Mark Melancon and Brothers. My feeling is that these things probably even out. Except for the part where the guys who have been most frequently trusted to get the save are plying their trade for less than they were before.
Back in 2009, seven of the 25 pitchers on this leaderboard earned $8 million or more. That number declined to three last year, and with Mariano Rivera now retired, this year that might be just two — Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano. Both of their contracts look like disasters, as do the contracts for Jonathan Broxton and Brandon League, especially since neither is now a closer. As Jerry Crasnick wrote on Wednesday, teams are wary of making big commitments because it reduces bullpen flexibility.
Seems simple. Don’t pay closers a ton of money, because they’re a crapshoot. Except that the game is awash in cash, so there is still a good chance that someone does get to that eight-figure payday. If David Murphy is suddenly worth $5 million a year coming off a 0.4 WAR season, then surely a closer is worth $10 million, right? Maybe. Or what about Craig Kimbrel, who the Braves just have to retain, right? They just have to sign him to a big-money deal! Well, not so fast. Just like the Red Sox haven’t missed Papelbon, we are already seeing some very smart people advocate for the Braves to trade Kimbrel. Longevity is most definitely an issue. Going back to that top 25 in saves from each of the past five years, the only name who shows up on it in each season is Papelbon, and with his saves rank dropping — not to mention his fastball velocity — it’s no longer a given that he is the cream of the crop.
In LaTroy Hawkins and Rex Brothers, the Rockies might end up with a closing tandem that costs roughly two-thirds of what they paid Rafael Betancourt last season — and at $4.25 million, they didn’t exactly pay Betancourt a mint. The duo may not look like world beaters on their face, but then, did Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon look like sure-fire relief aces at this time last year? Did Fernando Rodney look like one heading into 2012? The most uncertainty in this game is found in the bullpen, and more teams are beginning to realize that it isn’t worth paying a pretty penny for that uncertainty.
Mets Land Bargain in Chris Young.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It is very easy to focus on Young’s warts. He hit just .200/.280/.379 last year. He doesn’t hit right-handed pitching all that well. Now 30, his defense probably isn’t what it used to be. These statements are all true, but they simply explain why Young was signing for 1/$7M instead of 5/$75M like B.J. Upton last winter. If Young was coming off a good year, and had historically better numbers against right-handed pitching, and was still in his defensive prime, he’d be signing a big money long term deal. For 1/$7M, you get warts. You just pick and choose which warts you’re okay with.
And the particular warts that Chris Young comes with are the kinds of warts worth trying to buy low on. Yes, he had a bad 2013 season, but his track record before last year shows a league average hitter with a consistent skillset. In order to try and maximize his power, he hits a crazy number of fly balls. He takes some walks and gives up some strikeouts in the process. The combination of low contact rates and high fly ball rates means that he’s going to post very low batting averages, but the walks keep the OBP respectable and the occasional home runs mean that he’s still contributing while hitting .230.
None of that changed last year. He still hit for power, drew walks, struck out, and hit fly balls. However, he posted a .237 BABIP that was the lowest of his career, so his wRC+ fell from 98 to 82. Other than that, he was basically the same hitter he’s always been, and while BABIP for hitters isn’t entirely random, there’s no reason to expect him to sustain a career low. Steamer projects him to post a .269 BABIP in 2014, a little below his career average, and that bump would push him right back to league average hitter status.
League average hitters who can also play the outfield pretty well and add some baserunning value are nifty pieces. Yes, Young’s league average hitting comes with a larger than usual platoon split, but he offers enough non-hitting value to still be worth putting in the line-up against right-handers, and the overall production matters more than how it is distributed. Observed platoon splits need to be fairly heavily regressed when projecting the future anyway, so one should not simply accept that Young is a part-time player at this point in his career. He’s more valuable against LHPs, but handing him a regular job is completely justifiable.
Because the Mets already have Juan Lagares, there’s a good chance that Young will spend a decent amount of time in a corner outfield spot. Traditionally, the thought has been that you want bats in the corners and defense up the middle, but that false dichotomy is falling away as teams realize that defense matters at all positions, and you can still extract value from a good glove player in a corner. While Young’s bat doesn’t stack up as well compared to LF/RF types, his defensive abilities don’t disappear when he’s not playing center field, and the diminishing returns of playing multiple center fielders side by side are overstated.
Steamer projects Young for +1.7 WAR over just 434 plate appearances, so the forecasting system actually believes Young is a slightly above average big league player. Because of his platoon splits, you can’t extrapolate his entire value over 434 PA out to 600 PA, but there’s nothing wrong with giving Chris Young a regular job and letting him play most days. And for $7 million, getting a roughly average regular OF is a nifty little bargain indeed.
Last year, Cody Ross – same basic overall skillset, though with less defensive chops — got $26 million over three years. Ryan Ludwick, another average hitting RHB without as much defensive value, got $15 million over two years. Even Jonny Gomes, strictly a lefty masher who should probably DH, got $10 million over two years. For the Mets to land Young with only a single year commitment, even though he projects to be better than guys who got more money for more years, makes this a pretty great little deal. If Young has a big bounce back season, they can either flip him for prospects at the deadline or potentially extend a qualifying offer next winter, and maybe reap a draft pick as reward for their faith in his skills.
Young isn’t a sexy addition, but this is the kind of solid low cost move that smart teams are making these days. If you just focus on what Young can’t do, you’ll ignore the fact that what he can do has value, and $7 million for what he brings to the table is one of the off-season’s better bargains.