Monday, July 30, 2012

Orioles recall Lew Ford!


So nobody called me yesterday to tell me the Orioles purchased Lew Ford's contract. It was apparently "trending" on "twitter" which are things the kids do today so they don't have to call me when important things happen.

Anyhow, that's enough old man ranting from me. Ford got the start in left field, going 0 for 3 with a walk and an outfield assist in his first MLB appearance since 2007. Since leaving the Twins, he spent time in the Twins and Reds organizations, as well as with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

I will be wearing my Ford-20 jersey sometime soon.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Trade Breakdown: Wandy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh

As you have likely heard by now, the Pirates acquired pitcher Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros on Tuesday in exchange for three minor leaguers: outfielder Robbie Grossman and pitchers Rudy Owens and Colton Cain. While Grossman is a pretty good prospect, this is a solid deal for the Pirates. Rodriguez is under contract for 2013 at $13M, a pricey but not burdensome amount; he also has a player option for the following year, which, as it will be his age-35 season, unless he has an excellent run between now and then, he is likely to exercise. Making a playoff run may give Pittsburgh additional payroll flexibility, and Rodriguez can have a direct impact on that.

Today it was announced, as expected, that Rodriguez would be taking the place of Kevin Correia in the rotation. This is a substantial upgrade, and makes the Pirates chances of making the playoffs much better. While Rodriguez isn't a star, he has been solid. After his career year in 2009, Rodriguez has had an ERA+ between 106 and 110 in every season. His K/9 rate is down a tad this year, from 7.8 to 6.1, he's worked around that by lowering his BB/9 from 3.3 to 2.2, while also cutting into his HR rate. He's pitched over 190 innings in each of the last three years, and is on pace to easily surpass that in 2012. Despite some injury concerns the past couple springs, Rodriguez has proven to be an above-average, durable starter. 

That is important for the Pirates, because Correia isn't really either. Despite making the 2011 All-Star team, he finished the year with a poor 77 ERA+. It was the fourth consecutive year where he'd been under 100 (and the third in those four when he'd been under 80), and with an 88 ERA+ to this point in 2012, along with a K/9 rate dropping below 4.5, Correia is unlikely to turn things around in the rotation. In addition, Rodriguez is not only a better pitcher, he's the more durable one - Correia has surpassed 160 innings only once in his career. There's a bright side to Correia too, though - he pitched well in the San Francisco bullpen half a decade ago, and until this year had solid (though not outstanding) stats in his first two trips through a lineup. It was the third time through that really seemed to give Correia real issues. So, not only is Rodriguez a clear upgrade in the rotation, there is a chance that Correia can provide value in the 'pen.

With the Pirates 2.5 games behind the first-place Reds, and with a small lead over fellow wild-card contenders in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, improvements like this can be major. The advanced stats may show that Rodriguez is probably worth between one and two wins more than Correia from now until the end of the year, but that's not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. Rodriguez, by pitching deeper into games, can force the Pirates to use their relievers slightly less frequently, improving their value as well.  Not to mention, in such a tight race, one or two games may well be the difference between a trip to the playoffs and a 21st-consecutive postseason-free autumn in Pittsburgh.

With that in mind, the cost involved is sensible, though the Astros should be credited with getting a decent haul as obvious sellers. None of the prospects involved were top-100 types, and Marc Hulet of FanGraphs has a pretty good breakdown here. Grossman is the top prospect. A centerfielder with some pop and a willingness to take a walk, he could reach Houston by midseason 2013. However, his value declines some if he needs to move to a corner. Most of his power so far has come in the form of doubles. If some of those start going out of the park, he may stick as a starter. If not, he's unlikely to sustain that walk rate against higher quality pitching. He could get stuck as a tweener, but I like his chances to at least have a career as a fourth outfielder.

Rudy Owens was looking like a real prospect after a very good 2010 season at Double-A Altoona, posting a 2.46 ERA and K/BB well above 5.0. He had a difficult adjustment to Triple-A last year, and while he's improved this year, his low strikeout rate and preponderance of fly balls pegs him as a fringe prospect with a peak as a #4 or #5 prospect. He has excellent control, so he shouldn't be neglected, but he has little in the way of star potential.

Colton Cain was a highly regarded amateur, taken in the 8th round of the 2009 draft with great stuff but very mediocre results. He's still only 21, but is struggling in High A. Houston will see if they can get a bit more out of the Texan.

So, while it's not exactly a treasure trove for Houston, they've added some necessary talent to the organization. It's not one of the more glamorous parts of the rebuilding process, but if they had several players who they could turn into top prospects, they wouldn't be the worst team in baseball. It's going to be a long way back for the Astros, and cutting payroll and adding organizational depth is what needs to be done. For the Pirates, they've improved their team for the playoff run without giving up any of their top prospects. With any luck, they'll be seen in the postseason for the first time since the era of Andy Van Slyke, Chico Lind, Doug Drabek, and that Barry Bonds fellow.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Midseason thoughts

I published my First-half awards earlier today, but I wanted to throw around my other thoughts on the season so far, and what to expect in the second half. 

Other thoughts, related and unrelated:

-Remember pre-season 2011? Everyone picked the Red Sox to play the Phillies in the World Series? Well the Phillies ran into Chris Carpenter and Father Time, the Red Sox couldn't stay healthy, and now both are in last place. The Red Sox have an outside chance to sneak into the second wild card spot, but the Phillies are probably playing for next year. Their five-year playoff streak is, surprisingly, the longest current streak in baseball.   

-Albert Pujols:
    -Opening day through May 4: 27 games (0 team games missed), .194/.237/.269, zero home runs.
    -May 5: Given the day off
    -May 6 to present: 58 games (0 team games missed), .305/.378/.555, 14 home runs.
Moral of the story - Pujols is probably not the best hitter in baseball anymore, but he is certainly a long way from done. The Angels resurgence has corresponded perfectly with that of El Hombre, and I'm pretty sure you don't want your pitchers to be facing him with the game on the line in the playoffs, do you?

-Matt Moore, ranked on several prospect lists (Kevin Goldstein, Jonathan Mayo, Jim Callis) ahead of both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, has an ERA+ of 83 for Tampa Bay. That doesn't mean he won't turn into a great pitcher, but didn't it seem funny that he was ranked ahead of someone in Harper who a) seemed like a historically great prospect, and b) is four years younger? Especially considering that hitters are easier to project than pitchers, it seems likely that Moore was placed first more to generate controversy than out of a considered belief that he would turn into a better player. 

-Player Development isn't always smooth, Exhibit A: Justin Upton is hitting "only" .273/.353/.401, to the frustration of Diamondbacks fans. If a 24-year old outfielder was called up from Triple-A, he'd get Rookie of the Year consideration in many years. Upton came up so young that it's easy to forget how young he still is.

-Player Development isn't always smooth, Exhibit B: Jason Heyward, 22, is hitting .272/.340/.497, his career best slugging percentage. His more aggressive approach is causing some consternation from some, though. He's walking in only 8.9% of plate appearances, while striking out in 22.6%. Compare that to his rookie season of 2010, with a 14.6% walk rate and 20.5% strikeout rate. The payoff, of course, is in extra home runs - he's hitting one every 21.0 at bats in 2012, from ever 28.9 in 2010. Some in the Braves organization thought Heyward was too passive in 2011, leading to his disappointing sophomore campaign. We'll see where this goes.

-Looking for good bets to have a big improvement in the second half? Jose Batista is your best choice. His .215 BABIP seems artificially low, considering he's leading the league in home runs and has a .270 career number. Even with the bad luck on balls in play, he's at .244/.360/.540 on the season. Giving him the extra 13 singles that would move that BABIP up to .270? .286/.394/.581, again putting him among the best hitters in the league. 

-Tim Lincecum. He's 3-10 with an MLB-worst 6.42 ERA. FIP and other advanced stats tell us he shouldn't be that bad, but really nobody should be this bad, much less somebody who was the best pitcher in the league three years ago. His walk rate has increased gradually since 2009 and now is at 4.7 per 9. Still, it's hard to imagine a pitcher who still strikes out nearly 10 batters per nine innings continuing to be this bad. Don't expect a return to his old form, but a return to respectability should be in order here.
-Example of why more wild card spots doesn't equal more excitement - Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York are all within a game of each other. Does having four of them, rather than three, make things more exciting? It seems to do the opposite to me. The more wild card teams you add, the worse the teams that are competing at the end of the regular season are. That's progress?

-Finally, the All-Star game gets a lot of flak these days. You know what? I'm going to watch all nine innings of it, and I'll enjoy every second of it. Sure, that doesn't mean it will be great baseball and it doesn't make the "This Year It Counts" gimmick any less infuriating (though it's no less random than the alternating system that was used through 2002). Best of all, the game will be in Kansas City. Twenty years ago, Royal Stadium (since renamed Kaufman Stadium) was the best of the cookie cutter circular stadiums, of which there were far too many. Now, cast against the new retro stadiums, its un-pretentiousness, its lack of manufactured nooks and crannies, makes it one of baseball's most unique. I'm looking forward to watching some home runs into the water fountain.

First-half Awards

I figured it was a good time to do one of those obligatory "hand out awards for a half-season of baseball that looks incredibly silly on October 1" type of posts! This needs no explanation, so let's dive in.

American League MVP:
1. Robinson Cano
2. Mike Trout
3. Josh Hamilton's new WAR (rWAR) calculation has Brett Lawrie (.291/.334/.425) leading the AL with a 5.0, giving me pause about using their new calculation, ever. It seems to work better for pitchers than hitters. Trout is second in rWAR and first in FanGraphs calcuation (fWAR), but has played in only 64 games. I have trouble giving an MVP vote to someone who has only played in 3/4 of his team's games the award, even if it's a fake vote for a half-season award. Trout is having an amazing season, though, and if he continues at his current pace while playing full-time, would move into the lead for this award. Choosing between Trout and Bryce Harper for the future is probably a draw at this point. Harper is the better bet to dp something absurd like hit 900 home runs, but Trout does everything well already and is also less likely to miss half a season from getting punched in the face.

Cano gets the award both on merit and because he's really the only excellent player on a first place team. The guy is absolutely carrying the Yankees right now. Notoriously streaky, it will be interesting to see if he can keep it up.

Hamilton has cooled off after his April and May, when he put up a 1.180+ OPS in both months. He still leads the league in home runs, RBI and SLG, and if does that and stays healthy he'll have a good chance to win the real award.

National League MVP

1. Andrew McCutchen
2. David Wright
3. Joey Votto

I'll say this up front - any article you read that has anyone else in the top three is wrong, though a strong case can be made for any ordering. I chose McCutchen first because of the excellent Pirates story. Normally I don't vote for the "story," but the Pirates center fielder has been nearly as good as the other two, and is also doing so with a weaker supporting cast.

David Wright is probably the most under-appreciated player in baseball, which is why it stinks to be a New York Met. He's been the best all-around player in baseball this year, but always seems to be criticized more for what he can't do than praised for what he does. The New York Post will probably call his Hall of Fame induction speech overrated.

Votto is the best hitter in baseball and will likely continue to be. .348/.471/.617? Ho Hum.

American League Cy Young:

1. Chris Sale
2. Justin Verlander
3. Jake Peavy

In the provincial manner of Boston sports reporting, I've read a lot this year about how dumb it was to convert Daniel Bard into a starting pitcher. Some of the arguments are strong, but some are of the "why turn a successful reliever into a starter when you need help in the bullpen" variety. The answer, of course, is that if he's a good starting pitcher, you won't need as much help in your bullpen. Sale has made the conversion much better than the White Sox could have hoped, ranking second in the American League with a 2.19 ERA. That translates into a league best 194 ERA+. It will be interesting to see how he does as the innings pile up, but Sale is the latest successful case in the "make your good relievers into starters" trend that Nolan Ryan (and Mike Maddux) deserves a lot of credit for.

It could be said that Justin Verlander, deserves the nod over Sale due to his 36 additional innings pitched and league lead in strikeouts. To counter, Verlander has given up 17 additional earned runs in those 36 innings, and the strikeout lead is a funtion of that innings lead - he's striking out 8.7 per 9 IP, Sale at 8.6. I'll be honest - I'd be really, really surprised if Sale has better numbers than Verlander when the season ends, but right now he comes out on top.

Peavy gets the nod over Jered Weaver because of his better K rate, and over C.J. Wilson because of his better walk rate. I'm guessing no Angels fans read this blog, but if they did, they probably stopped approximately one sentence ago.

National League Cy Young:

1. R.A. Dickey
2. Matt Cain
3. Johnny Cueto

Dickey's "power knuckler" is the coolest of all things in baseball right now. With two consecutive one-hitters and a start for the NL in the All-Star Game, he's certain to be consi... wait what? Tony LaRussa is starting Matt Cain? You know what? I'll just say it. Tony LaRussa makes baseball worse. Anyhow, Dickey is 12-1, which I don't really care about but will help him, is second to Stephen Strasburg in strikeouts, is fourth in K/BB ratio, and fifth with his 2.40 ERA. There's no pitcher dominating all of these categories, and Dickey is doing it while essentially inventing a new pitch. That's really really cool.

Matt Cain threw possibly the best game ever pitched, which separates him from the herd - there are a lot of NL pitchers who are very close in value. Cain, historically unlucky, deserves some attention.

Johnny Cueto didn't make the All-Star team because they need to take relievers who have higher ERAs than starters in way less innings. I'll put him third out of spite and because there's nobody obviously better.

American League Rookie of the Year

1. Mike Trout
2. Yu Darvish
3. Tommy Milone

I'm told Trout was given rookie eligibility back because of time spent on the disabled list last season. If this is not the case, well... as always, it's good to keep in mind that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Darvish picked a crummy year to be a rookie. Coming in with unreasonable expectations, he's tied for third in the American League in wins (10), is second in K/9 ratio (10.3) and has an ERA of 3.59. That's very good. His high walk rate means he has put more wear into his 100.2 innings pitched than he otherwise may have, but all other indicators are that he's going to continue to be the very good pitcher we expected him to be.

There's no obvious third place choice, but lots of candidates, including Will Middlebrooks and Yeonis Cespedes. Milone, a favorite of this site for his 59-mile-per-hour slow curveball, gets the nod. Milone is 8-6 with a 3.57 ERA, and an expectedly-low walk rate. It's his 6.0 K/9 rate that's making him an above average pitcher though - Milone is missing more bats than the scouts expected he would.

National League Rookie of the Year

1. Bryce Harper
2. Zack Cozart
3. Lance Lynn

Bryce Harper is really, really good at baseball. His one weakness is that the little hitch his swing does seem to leave him vulnerable to the strikeout. If that is the main flaw of a 19-year old baseball player, we're dealing with a special case.

Cozart is 26 and has a sub-.300 OBP, but he's on here for his defense. It's fair to include him with Alcides Escobar and Troy Tulowitzki among the best defensive shortstops in the National League. Also, you may have noticed that it is no longer 2001 - the average National League shortstop is hitting .258/.312/.385, so the Reds are not giving anything up offensively to get Cozart's outstanding D.

Is Lance Lynn a rookie? He comes up in the rookie reports on every site, but that doesn't seem possible. If he is a rookie, he's a clear choice for the third slot right now. After getting off to an outstanding start, he has slowed lately - he gave up 17 earned runs in 15.1 innings in his last three June starts. Six shutout innings to start July is promising, but as his workload builds, his results may continue to taper off.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

July 7, 2012: Red Sox 9, Yankees 5; Pedro Ciriaco ignites Boston


My wife's brother was in town for the weekend, so their sister got the four of us Red Sox vs. Yankees bleachers tickets for last nights game, the second of a doubleheader.
Fenway with the wife & in-laws

After an awful week for the Red Sox, a miserable first inning had me in a typically grumpy mood. However, the bats started to turn around, led by middle infielder Pedro Ciriaco. Down 3-2 going into the bottom of the sixth, the Red Sox scored three, gave one back in the top of the seventh, then scored another four to take a commanding lead. At the heart of both rallies was minor league veteran Pedro Ciriaco. 

Originally signed back in 2005, Ciriaco got a couple stints with the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Known for his glove, he was having his best offensive season for Pawtucket, making the International League All-Star game. His contract was purchased by Boston before Friday, and he went 0 for 4 in his Red Sox debut in game one of the doubleheader. 

In game two, though, he had a game to be remembered. Ciriaco went 4 for 5 with two doubles, driving in four of the Red Sox' runs. He also made several very nice plays at shortstop, which is really the reason he's made the major leagues. When he came to bat in the 8th, Ciriaco received a standing ovation from the grateful Fenway crowd, hungry for something that would spark the .500 Dead Sox, losers in seven of their last nine, to life. During the at-bat, chants of Pe-dro harkened back to the Pedro Martinez era.

While it's crazy to think that a shortstop with a .281 OBP at Triple-A will continue to be the team's offensive leader, it was a fantastic game to be present at, with real electricity and excitement, rather than seven and a half innings of dullness and then "Sweet Caroline," followed immediately by a steady stream toward the exits. 


Beyond the Ciriaco-inspired jubilation, some thoughts from the game, and on the Red Sox and Yankees in general:

-Nick Punto, career .247/.324/.326 but not hitting anywhere near that well this year, was batting second. The idea that the #2 hitter needs to be able to "handle the bat" is ridiculous. The #2 hitter needs to be able to hit well, it's one of the most important positions in the lineup, and putting a bad hitter there leads to a lot of unnecessary outs and the middle of the order batters getting too few RBI opportunities.

-Mauro Gomez played third base, despite the fact that he can't really. In fact, he got his fourth consecutive start at the position. On the first batter of the game, he managed to make two errors on a Derek Jeter grounder. Two batters later, a three run home run put the Red Sox in a hole. Gomez had 71 career minor league games at third base, zero since the start of 2010. The guy can hit, but even on a night where he went 3 for 4 with two doubles, he may have only evened out. It happens that someone needs to play out of position in an emergency, but continuing to put someone clearly out of position will end up having consequences. Jeter tried to bunt for a single toward Gomez in the seventh, but a very nice play by Matt Albers getting off the mound quickly and throwing Jeter out prevented that. It was a smart play by Jeter though, as Gomez wouldn't have had a chance to get him.

-Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who now has a .287 OBP) was batting cleanup. I know having a catcher who can hit for power is fun and all, but let's not trick ourselves on Salty. He's an all or nothing hitter who strikes out a ton and makes too many outs, and was used to separate Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz in the lineup. I know the common strategy is to separate the lefties in the lineup, but against a team who has Boone Logan and Clay Rapada as the lefties in the pen? Valentine needed to split his two best hitters up because he was scared they would have to consecutively face Boone Logan or Clay Rapada? As a result of this strategy, Gonzalez went 0 for 0 with runners on base. 

-Felix Doubront really showed some poise by settling down after a round first inning against a tough lineup. He struck out 6 in 6.1 innings, and he remains fourth in the American League with a K/9 ratio of a tick over 9.0. He'll be one of the players to watch in the second half for Boston. Will he make adjustments as he starts getting repeat appearances against teams, and start to get the home runs down a little bit? Will the adjustments go the other way, and will teams begin to hit Doubront better the more they've seen him? Will he begin to tire under what is already nearing a career-high in terms of innings pitched? He's at 96.0, nearly 30 away from his career high of 129.1 in 2008. Like Saltalamacchia, it's easy to overstate how good he's been because of how poorly others around him have done, but there are positives with Doubront and the Red Sox have to be thrilled with what he's given them.

-On the Yankees side, Russell Martin finally got a hit, ending an 0-for-30 slump. His swing looks terrible, and he's batting only .179. Unless Brian Cashman really believes his low BABIP is a result of bad luck rather than his slow bat, this is a position that the Yankees will likely try to upgrade at the deadline. The question is, how? The catching position is weak around the league, and the Yankees best prospects in the high minors, Banuelos and Betances, have really disappointed this year. In-house replacements Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Gustavo Molina are not upgrades. This may be a position the Yankees will simply have a disadvantage at for the time being.

-Girardi's decision to pinch-hit A-Rod for Martin the ninth inning of a game they were losing by five runs at the time was a rather curious one. It seemed to do little more than give Red Sox fans an extra opportunity to boo the guy.

-In a nice game where he went 3-for-5 with two doubles, Adrian Gonzalez extended his hitting streak to 18 games, during which time he has hit .377/.400/.481. That sounds nice, until remembering that Gonzalez hit .338/.410/.548 for the entire season in 2011. That's probably too much to expect in the second half, but the Red Sox will need something closer to player to get any chance of getting back into the race.

-Like I said above, it's crazy to think Ciriaco is actually a player who can hit enough to make a difference for the Red Sox, but maybe it's time to think a little crazy? Pe-dro! Pe-dro!