Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Zack Greinke

The Brewers completed a deal this weekend to acquire 2009 Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke from the Royals for four prospects. The Royals felt they would not be able to resign Greinke when he becomes a free agent after the 2012 season, and wanted to trade him now so that they could maximize the value for him and receive prospects to supplement their #1 farm system.

From the start, the Brewers were considered a favorite for Greinke because of their commitment to improving their pitching staff this winter, and because of their ability to trade the major league ready "up-the-middle" help that the Royals stated would be necessary in any deal. With the deal complete, we answer the burning questions.

1. Did the Royals really need to trade Zack Greinke?

Need is a strong word, but the Royals clearly felt that there was no chance that they could keep Greinke after 2012. The losing and constant rebuilding behind him seemed to have taken its toll, but if Moustakas, Hosmer and the rest develop quickly, that could turn around quickly. More important to the Royals, they felt they were in a situation where they could trade Greinke and get significant value in return - talent that would be under contract through the middle of the decade at a low cost when the Royals expect to contend.

2. Which Zack Greinke will show up for the Royals?

In 2009, Greinke went 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA, winning the Cy Young Award. In 2010, he fell off to 10-14, and the ERA jumped over two runs per game to 4.17. So where will he stand? Which was the real Greinke? Are the Brewers getting a 27 year old ace, or a glorified #3 starter two years away from free agency?

It's very possible that he will never reach the heights of 2009 again. Let's take a look at his last three seasons. His walks and groundball/flyball numbers all stayed about the same, but fewer fly balls went out of the park, and he struck out 9.5 per nine innings, rather than 8. However, Greinke had more than his share of bad luck this year. First off, the Royals defense was the worst in the American league in converting balls in plays into outs. That .312 BABIP was among the worst of AL qualifiers, and right about in line with what a pitcher on the Royals would be expected to have. However, Greinke seemed to have several of those fall in at especially bad times - opposing players hit 26 points higher with men on base than they did with the bases empty, despite his strikeout rate being the same and home run rate being lower. A pitcher with Greinke's rate stats, pitching in front of the bad Royals defense, would be expected to have an ERA around 3.27, and in front of an average defense, it would go down to between 3.10 and 3.15.

Unfortunately for Greinke, the Brewers defense was actually slightly WORSE Than the Royals - only Pittsburgh had a lower defensive efficiency in all of baseball. On the bright side, Grienke is in the non-DH league, meaning his strikeouts will go up, and his walks and home runs will likely go down. Adjusting for the difference, his expected ERA goes down to 3.03, good for 12th in the National League. Even better for Greinke is the Brewers offense. It wasn't quite as potent as in some past years, but they were still 4th in the NL in scoring, compared to the Royals, who were 10th in the AL. An ERA in the range between 2.90 and 3.25, with the innings Greinke provides, should give him a won-loss record of something in the neighborhood of 18-9. That's probably not quite enough to compete with the Phillies aces and Tim Lincecum for the Cy Young award, but it is a legitimate #1 starter. Going into his age 27 season, the Brewers have an ace for the next two years and possibly beyond.

3. If Greinke had such bad luck last year, wasn't it foolish for the Royals to trade him while his value was low?

Maybe? The Royals got a legitimate haul for him though, and suppose Greinke blows out his shoulder in May? This was a deal Kansas City might have considered even if they thought they could resign him.

What did the Royals get back in return?

Quite a bit.

Alcides Escobar is the most famous player going to Kansas City. Before 2010, the Brewers traded JJ Hardy to the Twins to open up shortstop for the 23 year old Escobar, their #1 prospect. Meanwhile, the Royals decided Yuniesky Betancourt was good enough to go into their season as the starting shortstop. For an organization that had decided the same thing about Neifi Perez and Angel Berroa in the last decade, I suppose that was about par for the course, but it still didn't make it a good idea. So what happened? Betancourt hit .269/.288/.405-right in line with his career numbers. Escobar, though, was MUCH worse, hitting an anemic .235/.288/.326. Of the 138 major league qualifiers, he had the 133th highest slugging average and the 132nd highest OBP.

On the bright side, unlike Betancourt, Escobar was a plus defensive player, and has acceptable batting numbers in the minor leagues: .298/.353/.409 at AAA Nashville in 2009. There is possibility of improvement here, especially since Escobar's contact rates are solid. He is just going to need to hit the ball harder in order to be a major league player. At the very least, his defense makes him an upgrade over Betancourt. Long term though, he has a lot of work to do on offense to be part of the solution for the Royals.

Lorenzo Cain is a centerfielder who will turn 25 a couple weeks after opening day. Cain was solid in 2010 for the Brewers, after being fantastic in the minors earlier in the season, but there are warning signs. Cain has little in the way of power, and has been old for his level in most of the minor leagues he's played in. However, Cain is very fast, and his defense looks to be above average. More importantly, he's kept his walk rates about 10% for most of his career, which means he'll be able to keep his OBP above .330 even in seasons where he's not getting much luck in the batting average department. For a plus defensive center fielder, that is a player with value. Cain should start over Melky Cabrera this season, and be a serviceable player for a long time, and the upside here for the Royals is a pretty exciting leadoff hitter in front of Butler/Moustakas/Hosmer.

Jeremy Jeffress throws a baseball harder than just about anyone else alive. A first round pick of the Brewers back in 2006, and going into 2010, he was looking like a bit of a bust. Despite outstanding (10+ per 9 inning) strikeout rates, Jeffress simply had walked WAY too many people to make any progress, throwing too many pitches to get him through significant innings. Even more alarming was the 100 game suspension for a "drug of abuse." So, despite a fastball that sits at 100 miles per hour and can reach 102, Jeffress was on the outside looking in.

In 2010, the Brewers moved Jeffress to the bullpen, with outstanding results. Those high strikeout rates turned even higher, the walks didn't hurt him quite as much, and his ability to keep the ball in the park was magnified - across four levels he allowed zero home runs. Jeffress probably needs a couple months of fine tuning in Triple A, but there will be significant pressure to get him on the Royals major league roster. If Joakim Soria is traded at midseason, this is your closer in waiting. The upside here is a thinner Bobby Jenks in Jenks' best seasons. There is risk here, but lots of potential reward as well.

Jake Odorizzi
is the upside portion of this trade. The 2008 first rounder turns 21 in March, and was fantastic at Single A Wisconsin in 2010, capped by a start in late August where he threw 8 no-hit innings against Cedar Rapids. He is mechanically smooth throws his fastball in the low 90's, touching 95 on occassion. He has work to do on his secondary pitches, but he has time. There is ace potential here.

5. How does this affect the Royals and Brewers, short term and long term.

The Brewers are back in line to compete with the Cardinals and Reds for the division title. Greinke will give them lots of quality innings, and makes them a much better team in October if they reach there. Considering the haul they gave up, they'd better reach October, because there is not a lot of help on the way. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus had Jeffress and Odorizzi as the Brewers top two prospects.

Meanwhile, in the Royals organization, they become the #8 and #9 prospects, respectively, which just goes to show how insanely deep the Royals system is. The Royals are in a position much like the Tampay Bay Rays in 2008. After several years of ineptitude, they have had several quality drafts in a row, and they should be contenders by 2013. Trading Greinke hurts them for 2010, but they will be able to evaluate Cain and Escobar. This is a trade that looks like it makes sense for and should benefit both teams.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

So, Exactly How Good is Adrian Gonzalez?

As you may have heard, the Red Sox traded three prospects and a PTBNL to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez. Getting by asking why the Padres would give up on their 2011 season instead of playing it out, letting Gonzalez walk as a free agent, and getting two top draft picks for him, the biggest question seems to be about how good Adrian Gonzalez is. We all know that he is good, and we all know that playing in the cavern in San Diego has hurt his offensive production. So how good has he been in the last few years, and how good will he be in Boston?

In order to figure that out, the best place to start are Gonzalez’s home/road splits. On the road the last three years, Gonzalez has done the following:
2008: 359 PA, 20 2B, 29 BB, 71K, 22 HR, .308/.368/.578
2009: 346 PA, 15 2B, 46 BB, 51K, 28 HR, .306/.402/.643
2010: 356 PA, 21 2B, 44 BB, 55K, 20 HR, .315/.402/.578

As we know, the AL is a bit harder to hit in than the NL due to the competition level, so I took out 5% of his walks, 10% of his home runs, 10% of his walks, and added 10% more strikeouts. Then, to recreate a normal home/road split, I calculated likely neutral home statistics by adding 10% to his doubles, 12% of his home runs, 10% of his walks, and leaving strikeouts alone. Before giving you this numbers, I want to acknowledge some statistical oddities. First off, Gonzalez walked 73 times in 81 home games in 2009. Several of these were intentional, several more were of the unintentional/intentional variety. Opponents seemingly were not worried that other Padres could beat them at Petco, and were simply not giving him pitches to hit. Because Petco plays so far out of line with what other parks do, I just didn’t use those numbers. Not because they’re not important, but because they produce fluky outliers like that one. Since this is really the only number that will seem a bit off base, I continued with the exercise as is.

So, playing as an American leaguer in a neutral park, we would expect Gonzalez’s stats to have looked something like this:
2008: 710 PA, 40 2B, 55 BB, 156 K, 43 HR, .300/.356/.560
2009: 681 PA, 30 2B, 87 BB, 112 K, 53 HR, .298/.389/.619
2010: 704 PA, 42 2B, 84 BB, 122 K, 39 HR, .310/.393/.568

Fenway isn’t quite a neutral park – for lefties, it tends to give you a couple points of batting average and take away some of the home runs, but we’re pretty close here. This production puts Gonzalez among the elite hitters in baseball, and quite likely the best hitter in his division. When the news of the trade was breaking, it was reported that Gonzalez was seeking Mark Teixeira-like money. If he was, it was being generous to Teixeira, whose 2009 near-MVP season had him at .292/.383/.565, and his down 2010 gave him only at .256/.365/.481.

How will this impact the AL East race? Short term, it doesn’t quite bring them up to the Yankees level. The Red Sox will move Kevin Youkilis to third base, where his potent bat will be even more valuable. However, the Sox got a very good season out of Adrian Beltre there last year, slightly worse than Gonzalez would be expected to produce. It also may take Gonzalez 6-8 weeks to get acclimated with the American League pitching.

Long-term though, the Red Sox are now in a much better position than they were in three days ago. Gonzalez is still in his 20’s, and he’s put up production that would have had him the top 3 in MVP voting both of the past two years. He is also durable, having not played in less than 156 games in any of his five seasons in San Diego. His defense is a little overrated, due to how good he is at making quick throws from seemingly odd angles, but he’s still well above average overall. So yes, the Red Sox will still need better production out of John Lackey, Josh Beckett and the bullpen in order for them to win in 2011. Long-term though, building off of Gonzalez, Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester all under contract, the Red Sox a core to compete with any in baseball.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A Dunn Deal!

And it’s a great one for the White Sox. It is being reported that the White Sox have just signed Adam Dunn to a 4 year contract for $56 million. For $14M, Dunn steps right in as the American League’s best designated hitter. Not only that, but he does it for a team that got the least production of any team from the DH position in the American League. Check this out:

White Sox designated hitters had 45 extra base hits last season. Adam Dunn has hit at least 38 home runs and 63 extra base hits every season since 2004. Even though it seems like he’s been around forever, Dunn just turned 31 in November, meaning the White Sox have only committed to him through his age 34 season, so he is likely to retain much of his value. The change from the easier National League will probably cost him a few points of batting average, but moving from Nationals Park to the smaller Comiskey Park should allow him to keep his power, and moving into an improved lineup will help his RBI and run totals significantly (meaning you may want to consider drafting him in fantasy or holding onto him in a keeper league).

How much will he improve the White Sox? Well, Dunn was nice enough to make the math easy for us by having almost exactly the same number of plate appearances as the White Sox DH position. By my calculations, White Sox DHs were worth 76 runs, and Dunn was worth 95, so the simple answer is “about 19.” But, wait, there’s more! Of those 76 runs, 26 of them were created by Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin, the starting 1B and RF, respectively. So 1/3 of the White Sox DH value was provided by players needed at other positions. Dunn isn’t the butcher some portray him as at 1B and can exist in the outfield, so he’ll be able to play on the days Quentin and whoever is playing 1B for Chicago need days off from the field.

Beyond that, Dunn had a .356 OBP last year, and a .381 mark for his career. The difference came mostly from a drop-off in walks - only 77 last year, after walking over 100 times in his last 7 qualified seasons. Whether that drop-off was an aberration or a loss of skill is important, as those 25 points of OBP are huge over the course of a season, and a loss of this skill could represent significant decline. Looking deeper into the numbers, Dunn was seeing slightly fewer pitches per plate appearance, looking at 4.11 last year, compared to between 4.2 and 4.4 in previous ones, so there was a slight drop-off, but not a huge one. The biggest change was on 3-2 pitches where pitchers seemed to be much more aggressive with Dunn. In 2009, Dunn went .159/.537/.293 on 3-2, while in 2010, he went .176/.402/.400. Pitchers were giving up a little bit of power for more outs. In the White Sox lineup, on a better team, Dunn should be coming up with runners on base in a close, important game a bit more often, making that choice harder for pitchers when they get deep into counts. When a pitcher is leading 7-3 and nobody is on base, it makes sense to be aggressive and try to get outs. Leading 5-4 with runners on first and second, and the situation is totally different - a pitcher would rather walk Dunn than give up the 3 run homer.

I'll split the difference and call part of the drop off a drop in skill/change in approach by Dunn, and call the other part a more aggressive approach by pitchers, and say that Dunn will draw in the 90 walks range this year, getting an OBP to around .370-.375. This represents close to 40 points higher than White Sox DH's last year, meaning he'd be making outs 12% less frequently. That means the hitters AFTER Dunn will have a 12% better chance of doing something before the third out is made.

So let’s put Dunn’s value over who he is replacing at about 42 runs (19 on his own, plus 30%, or 8 runs of Konerko and Quentin’s contribution, plus 15 runs that other guys in the lineup will have opportunities to provide). That represents three to four wins over the course of the season. That won’t be enough on its own to push Chicago in front of Minnesota as the best team in the AL Central, but they have corrected their biggest problem, and done so at a reasonable cost.