January 2009

Lowe to Braves makes NL East even more interesting

lowe250_011409.jpgWHERE’S THE REST OF ME (AND OTHER TALES OF A PIRATICAL LIFE)
As of tomorrow morning, the annual ordeal known as writing and editing of the Baseball Prospectus book, which always concludes with a human sacrifice — most often me and my co-editor — has concluded. Regular scheduling of this column will resume immediately, and for those left that still care, Wholesome Reading will resume publication by Monday. As for the book itself, if you want to see how I’ve spent 98 percent of my time, the sucker will be out right around Valentine’s Day. It has all the usual goodies, plus a foreword by your friend and mine, Keith Olbermann.

Before I shuffle off for a very long nap, I’ll be making my usual trip to Castle YES for another turn in the Internet Bunker for a new installment of the YES Hot Stove show. You can’t see it on TV, but I’ve got a stocked mini-fridge under the desk. When the revolution comes, I’m going to be sitting pretty — and I’m not going to share with anyone except Bob Lorenz, because Bob always puts out M&Ms when we have a meeting in his office. That’s class. Who can make a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew? At YES, we know who.

Meanwhile, the baseball world has continued to slowly rotate. The Braves have picked up Derek Lowe, which puts the Braves in an interesting position, having gone from being basically rotation-free in 2008 to having an interesting and potentially deep collection of veteran (Lowe and Javier Vazquez), young (Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson at some point), and a lot of options for rounding out the group. It seems unlikely that the offense will hold up, but a solid rotation might be enough in the NL East. In that same division, the Mets are on the verge of signing Alex Cora, which is a nice move for them only in that it gives then some added depth around the infield, particularly at second, which is going to be a suppurating wound for years with Omar Minaya’s Worst Ever Contract — I mean, Luis Castillo — literally on his last legs. Cora will also give the Mets the opportunity to give Jose Reyes a game off every now and again, key since he tends to wear down as the season progresses.

Returning to the greatly fatigued Hall of Fame debate for a moment, I wanted to grab an entry from our last set of comments and respond. This was written by Buzah:

Steve, you mention Rice’s indebtedness to Fenway. Not until I really looked did I realize how bad it was. Career splits were .320/.374/.546 at home vs .277/.330/.459 away. Some of that could be explained with age, but even in his 1978 MVP season the splits were extreme — .361/.416/.690 home vs .269/.325/.512 away. It’s clear that someone who ranks 177th all time in OPS+, tied with John Olerud, Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, would not have ranked that high if he didn’t play in Fenway. I think there are a slew of left fielders today that you might want to start over him, not including Manny Ramirez, who is a HOFer himself. Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Cliff Lee … if not definite, there is at least a strong case to be made that there are guys you’d rather have right now than what Rice usually brought to the table.

Buzah, you’re right to a large degree about Rice, but as I tried to suggest the last time around, I do view his ability to hit at Fenway as a skill. After all, though almost every hitter who plays at Fenway is helped by the park to some degree, but not all of them turn into .320/.374/.546 maulers. The same thing is true of the hitters that play for the Rockies. Those teams need players who are capable of exploiting their park to the greatest extent, just like the Yankees have always needed left-handed power hitters to pull the ball into Babe Ruth’s porch. Now, what the player does the rest of the time is important as well. It represents 50 percent of the schedule. It’s ironic, I think, that we call a player who can hit left-handers, but not right-handers, a platoon player, and while we may celebrate his accomplishments in that role, it’s also something of a denigration, a way of indicating that he’s not quite the equivalent of a full-time player. A player who can hit at home but shrivels on the road (or vice-versa) is a kind of platoon player too, but somehow we don’t think of him that way.

See you on TV on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., and here before that.

Rice not worthy, Rickey the greatest

rice250_011209.jpgTHAT OL’ HALL OF FAME ANNOUNCEMENT
I’ve stayed away from commenting on the Rise of Jim Rice as a Hall-of-Fame candidate because the whole thing seemed inevitable, a group of self-appointed reactionaries making a comment on the steroids era. The problem is that the logic of it escaped me. “Look! Jim Rice was mediocre without the help of drugs! We’ll show Mark McGwire and the rest of those overinflated bodybuilders what we think of them by putting in this guy! Sure, he didn’t run, didn’t play defense, didn’t hit outside of Fenway Park, was done as a useful player at 33, and was completely uncommunicative, but he was clean!” The vote sure wasn’t about Rice the ballplayer, who peaked from 1977-1979 and had a bunch of seasons around those years that were just decent, and wouldn’t even rate that if he hadn’t been so good at taking advantage of Fenway. Yes, that’s a skill, but given Rice’s other shortcomings, it shouldn’t have been enough.

It’s done, though, and there’s not much to do about it but shrug. History is always a tug of war, and different perspectives gain ascendance at different times, leaving their detritus behind even as they vanish from the scene. Every Hall of Fame is like that, in whatever guise it exists. Fifty statues stand under the U.S. Capitol dome. Each state gets to send likenesses of two native greats, state hall of famers if you will. The resultant collection is a fascinating congeries of legitimate heroes and scumbags who have no business being there (as well as many complete obscurities), but I guarantee you that if we started debating exactly who belonged in each group, no two of us would come up with identical lists. In fact, I can think of reasons to disqualify some of the guys I personally favor.

Really look that list over. There are some “great” Americans represented who you would think twice about leaving alone in a room with your wallet. The Hall of Fame is a lot like that, except that the inductees should in theory be less open to debate, given that we have a statistical record of their accomplishments. The life of a president or general is not so easily reduced to wins and losses, hits and outs, and so there is more room for interpretation. With the Hall, the best you can do is make an argument that the numbers aren’t representative, that there are other factors at work, and that’s usually where Hall voters get themselves into trouble. That’s what we have here, Rice going in because 76 percent of the voters decided to put their faith in unprovable ambiguities like Rice’s fearsomeness, or even just parked their political position on PEDs over his body.  

Thus, Rice is merely one more scorched-out battleground. Grass will grown on him, cattle will graze, some people will visit sometimes, perhaps. In the long run, though, just saying someone was great because you have an agenda for them doesn’t make them so. Time renders its own verdict. When some of those statues were erected under the Capitol dome, many more than 100 years ago, there wasn’t sufficient perspective for objections, for a large enough body of people to say, “Hey, wait — this guy was a drunk!” or “This guy was a slaver — why are we putting him here so school children can come through and think he’s some kind of all-time great?” When it comes to the Hall of Fame, there’s a more educated electorate on the rise, but it’s time isn’t yet here. Rice gets his plaque, and it is hoped he enjoys the honor. He certainly wasn’t a bad ballplayer. But in the final analysis, his election is a rearguard action, a reaction, and it’s not about him, it’s about honoring a time when the old men who voted for him could still claim to understand the game.

AND JUST TO KICK THIS HORSE EVEN HARDER
We’ve talked about Rock Raines and his Hall-of-Fame qualifications before; on the YES Hot Stove show, I said that if Rickey Henderson was the No. 1 leadoff hitter of all time, Raines was 1-A. I don’t want to rehearse all the arguments again, but when Andre Dawson gets 361 votes and Tim Raines gets 122, something is amiss.

RICKEY IS THE GREATEST …
… But you knew that. No disrespect to Don Mattingly, but Rickey should have had the 1985 MVP award as well.

Waiting on the 1 p.m. train to Stamford

pettitte_250_010809.jpgIt doesn’t quite deserve Gladys Knight, does it? While I wait, a few thoughts on Andy Pettitte.

Now, I am in something of a bubble while traveling, so if in the time I compose this dispatch Pettitte has re-signed with the Yankees, joined Joe Torre in Los Angeles, retired in a fit of Cajun pique, decided to discover Japan, or volunteered for the Roger Clemens Memorial Witness Protection Program, forgive me. YES is very generous, but they haven’t yet volunteered to subscribe me to a portable broadband service and I’d feel kind of Oliver Twist-y asking. I mean, I’m the only guy in the company with his own bunker. Sure, Bob Lorenz is a much bigger name than me, but when the blow down storms come, it’s me Bob is going to have to ask for a seat in the safe room. And he’s going to be very disappointed, because my chair sucks compared to his.

Earlier this week, I remarked that the Yankees need to leave a spot in the rotation open for youth. The most obvious candidate for that spot is Phil Hughes, but it could just as easily be taken up by Alfredo Aceves, Ian Kennedy, or a darkhorse candidate like George Kontos. The Yankees need the flexibility that youth generates, because as we’ve seen this winter, we’re entering a new paradigm when it comes to free agent action. The arbitration-based compensation system is dying.

Even the Yankees were reluctant to offer their departing free agents arbitration for fear that they would accept (in retrospect, had they known the Players Association was steering free agents away from accepting such offers, they might have been emboldened to take the chance). Simultaneously, those players who were offered arbitration have seen their possibilities dry up, because the buyers have finally, finally realized, decades into the free agent process, that a team’s chances of developing a decent player for a first-round pick, one that they control for the first six years of his career, are good enough that it’s just not worth forfeiting a pick for a player like Jason Varitek, who is going to come in for a year or two, be a character guy, and then retire.

With the pick you gave up for Varitek, you could have made a conservative draft pick, selecting the proverbial polished college pitcher who is not going to develop much but should safely turn into a solid four-five starter within those same two years. Given what four-five starters cost on the open market, it’s just not worth passing one up for a 35-year-old catcher. There really was a point at which teams did not get this. At one point the Montreal Expos gave up a first-round pick to sign a third-string catcher named Tim Blackwell. You could look it up.

As a result of this, hoarding old guys has less value than ever. It used to be that a departing vet classified as a Type A or Type B free agent would leave a parting gift in the form of a draft pick. Now, with clubs hesitant to buy into the system at both ends, when they depart all the leave is an empty locker. Bobby Abreu is going to play for another few years, but the Yankees will have nothing to show for it but memories of the many fly balls that went over his head.

This makes an Andy Pettitte something of a dead end in the life cycle. Sure, he might help the club to a pennant, but you can make a strong argument that the Yankees are close enough to that already that the marginal wins he provides over a youngster — we have to acknowledge that the big zero that the Yankees received from Kennedy and Hughes last year was an unlikely to be repeated fluke — are not only not worth the money but will also leave the Yankees naked when he finally heads off into retirement. He will have blocked off a youngster for small return, won’t be bringing a draft pick, retirement or no, and so when he’s gone, there’s a vacuum where there should have been the next guy standing ready.

Conversely, if the Yankees invest 20-25 starts in a young fifth starter this year, they might get 30 starts a year for the next five, at prices they control. There’s a lot of value in that achievement and not much risk. This is particularly true because given the team’s depth in young pitchers, they can pull the plug on any failing experiment very quickly. Hughes not working out? Back to the Minors and ring in a new Kennedy administration. Kennedy has a Bay of Pigs? It’s Aceves time. Aceves’s arm falls off? Try Kontos. The point is, at the end of the season you have something you didn’t have before, an additional asset to carry you forward into 2010.

SHOW TIME!
Having written that, I am mere minutes from heading into the YES studios to get my spray-tan. Once again, the show airs at 6:30 p.m., and I’ll be checking through your comments for juicy tidbits with which to wow Bob and the gang. See you in the bunker. 

More on the center field merry-go-round

damon_250_010809.jpgJon Heyman of SI.com had an interesting tidbit in a recent posting about the Yankees shopping Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady:

Johnny Damon isn’t in the trade mix, as the Yankees need him to be their leadoff hitter and part of a center field rotation. The other in-house candidates for center field are Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.

That’s interesting, though not in the basic meaning of it — even though Damon is in the last year of his contract and is coming off something like a career season, it seemed unlikely the Yankees would try to move him, given the two roles he plays on the team, leadoff hitter, as Heyman mentions, as well as defensively overqualified left fielder. Many observers tend to focus on Damon’s poor arm, but his speed makes for a corner outfielder who can cover an unusual amount of ground.

Now, if you think about it, the most potent offensive outfield the Yankees could field next year would be Nady in left, Damon in center, and Swisher in right, rather than the presumed alternative, Damon in left, some combination of Gardner and Cabrera in center, and Xavier Nady in right — and Swisher playing the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Hamlet’s Father, or something. The problem with doing that, beyond the misuse of Swisher, is that at Damon’s current stage of the lifecycle, he’s better off not being overtaxed. Further, while his speed still does wonders in left, it’s not quite as spectacular in center — Damon had already slid off his peak the position before the Yankees moved him.

That said, being part of a center field rotation, as per Heyman above, makes all kinds of sense in that it gives the Yankees a great deal more flexibility in being able to waltz other players in and out of the corners. The more positions a star can play without compromising the defense, the better off the team is, because the club begins to close off openings for the replacement-level players that are so damaging to the winning effort. Similarly, Joe Girardi needn’t be married to any one center fielder.

There is yet another hand, which is that the Yankees might want to get married to a center fielder. Damon is in the last year of his contract, and as good as he was at 34 and may be at 35, asking him to keep it up at 36 and 37 will likely be pushing it. Given that the class of free agent center fielders next winter is going to be no fun, the Yankees will be in much better shape going into 2010 if they have the next center fielder lined up now. That could mean getting Gardner established, finding some way to electrify Melky, or even giving Austin Jackson a shot in the second half of the season, should his work at Scranton demand such an audition. Obviously the needs of 2010 have to be balanced against the goal of winning in 2009, with any luck the two goals will be mutually compatible.

One supposes the Yankees will need another leadoff man after 2009 as well. Traditional images would suggest that Gardner is the man, but Gardner may never have enough sock to justify taking up so many plate appearances, regardless of how many bases he steals. The Yankees will need to remember that your leadoff hitter need not match the picture of the singles-hitting speedster. That way lies madness. That way lies Juan Pierre. Remember, Wade Boggs was a great leadoff hitter, and he almost never stole a base. It’s about how often you’re on, not about how fast you can run. In an era of home run hitting, the rest takes care of itself.

SO LET’S TAKE THIS TOPIC ON THE AIR
Later today (6:30 EST) I’ll be appearing from the Bunker on the Yes Network’s Hot Stove show. As usual, I’ll be asked to summarize what we’ve been discussing this week. Let’s try a simple vote, which I’ll relay to the fellers on the air: who should be the starting center fielder in 2009? Damon? Gardner? Cabrera? A rotation split roughly in equal thirds? Or a write-in candidate of your choice? Jim Edmonds is still out there, and he murdered the ball for the Cubs last year. He’d be a heck of a platoon player in center. Argue it out in the comments section below, and I’ll tally up your responses while waiting for smilin’ Bob Lorenz to cast his dancing spell my way.

Does Melky deserve another shot in center?

nady_250_010609.jpgTHEY MIGHT BE TRADING
The ice keeping the outfielder/designated hitter free agent market is beginning to break up, and that can only be good news for the Yankees as they look to ease their outfielder logjam. There really isn’t much reason for a team to trade anything of value for an Xavier Nady when better players can be had for mere dollars. However, as those players fall out of the market, the losing bidders will be looking for consolation prizes, and that’s where Nady comes in.

Parenthetically, FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal reports today that it’s not just Nady on the market, but that the Yankees are also floating Nick Swisher. This is so depressing a possibility that I refuse to acknowledge it. Should Swisher rebound, the Yankees will have a right fielder with a .260 average, 25 home runs and 90 walks. Should Nady return, the Yankees will have a right fielder with a .270 average, 20 home runs, and 35 walks. The difference, when you add in Swisher’s superior defensive capabilities, is between four and five wins, which is a huge number. Now, if trading Swisher nets the Yankees Tris Speaker to play center field and trading Nady does not, you could make the argument that Nady + Speaker is greater than Swisher + Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera. Fortunately, it’s doubtful that a Tris Speaker is available, let alone that one will be made available for either player, so Nady should almost certainly be the man with the one-way airline ticket out of town.

I realize I often drop Tris Speaker’s name when talking about possible center fielders. For those that didn’t take the prerequisite course, Pinstriped Bible Background 101, Speaker, also known as the Grey Eagle, played from 1907 to 1928 and for decades was known as the quality standard for center field defense. He also banged out 3,500 hits, about 800 doubles, and averaged .345/.428/.500. Thus, if the professor says that the Yankees have a chance to get a Tris Speaker, he is referring to the idea of an impact-level, two-way center fielder. He is not referring to Mike Cameron. He is definitely not referring to Melky Cabrera. Sadly, he’s not referring to Brett Gardner either, though Gardner is almost certainly the best of the preceding three names.

Speaking of Gardner, I got a good bit of mail on the subject of he and Melky from reader Jeremy:

In your recent Pinstriped Bible column, you mention that Melky Cabrera doesn’t
deserve to keep his roster spot because: “His Major League batting averages are, in order,.280, .273, and .249. Wake me when the movie’s over.”
 
With all due respect, I think this deserves more analysis than you give it. Batting
averages aren’t considered to be the defining statistic in baseball anymore. I’m not
pretending to be Bill James or anything, but in 2006 and 2007 Melky posted OPS+s of
95 and 89 respectively. In 2008 he did post an OPS+ of 68, but he had the least ABs
and GP’d since his 20-game stint in 2005. His -4.0 VORP is inexcusable, but for
goodness sake his BABIP was .271! He’s a 24 year old who plays good defense and if
last April showed us anything (.291/.359/.505,6 HR,17 RBI) might have some
potential.

All I’m really saying here is that Melky deserves a much more in-depth look than
batting average can give us. I realize that April is an EXTREMELY small sample size;
but combined with his other statistics, I think that it is worth giving Melky some
growth time. After all, compare the first few seasons of Sammy Sosa with the first few seasons of Melky. I’m not saying that they will even end up being comparable, BUT early career batting averages aren’t the best way to gauge a player’s potential (just ask the Rangers if they would have traded Sosa if they had known he would put up a 201 OPS+ in 2001).
 
In summation, Melky hasn’t been as great as the Yankees expected him to be so far,
but his early stats show that he has some potential. He’s still only 24 and his
flash of brilliance last year shows that, from time to time, he can mash with the
best of them. Thanks for reading, Jeremy P.

Thank you, Jeremy. Good one. I wasn’t simply evaluating Melky on batting average, though he might prefer it if we stick to that because so far it’s the only offensive skill he’s shown in the Major Leagues. I’ve been through the Melky arguments enough times that I figured it was safe to give you the shorthand version. Let’s run through your points. He had the fewest at-bats of his career for a reason, namely that he was abusing the ones he was given. His batting average on balls in play was indeed low, but so was his line drive rate, and line drives are where batting averages come from. Melky spent much of the season hitting weak fly balls and grounders. It wasn’t bad luck, as we might normally infer from a low BABIP, or defenders making a fluke chain of great plays against him, he just didn’t swing with much authority. That said, even if we grant that his low BABIP could have been caused by bad luck, nothing much changes. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and tip him 30 points of batting average, to get him back up to the league average in the BABIP category. At best, you’d have his 2006 production … except you wouldn’t have that either, because his walk rate has also dramatically declined since then, dropping from nearly 11 percent of PAs in 2006 to just 6.5 percent this year.

There’s another problem here, which is that Cabrera is also a fraud as a switch-hitter. He is completely shut down by left-handed pitchers, with career rates of .251/.319/.329. Basically, we’re looking at a batting-average oriented platoon player who has yet to hit for an impressive average over a sustained period of playing time anywhere in his career, who doesn’t and probably will not hit for power and is not particularly selective.

That brings us to your Sosa comparison, which, respectfully, is wildly off base. First, you should recognize that Sosa is an outlier. Most players do not explode the way he did, which is just one reason why observers sometimes look at that explosion with skepticism. I’m not saying they’re correct about that, by the way, merely that the rareness of the development is one reason why. Second, the statistical similarities aren’t really there. Sosa was in the Majors at 21, still clearly learning on the job and swinging at every off-speed pitch he was offered, but still knocking extra-base hits all over the place. This correlated with what scouts were saying at the time: this guy has immense physical tools. When he hits the ball, it travels for whole galaxies. The only problem is that he doesn’t hit it often enough, but if he ever learns how to make better contact, look out. This was something you could see at the time — I have a dim recollection of him simply crushing a ball off of Dave LaPoint into the center field bleachers at Yankee Stadium in 1990.

No one has ever seen those kinds of physical tools in Cabrera. No one is predicting that kind of explosion for him, and I would argue that his approach at the plate largely precludes that kind of development. Now, I’m not prescient, and it’s certainly possible that Cabrera could change that approach, or put on 50 pounds of muscle (in a wholesome way, I mean) and start crushing the ball, or all the bad luck that you think he had in 2008 reverses, he hits .350 on balls in play this year, bats .300 on the season, thereby elevating all of his weak peripherals. Maybe, but I doubt it. I’m not much of a gambling man, but if we’re going to roll the dice that way I’d rather bet on Gardner adding a few singles and a few walks than on Cabrera changing his entire being. One is entirely within the realm of possibility. The oth
er is an almost impossible long shot.

BUNKER BOY RIDES AGAIN
I’ll be back in the Bunker on the YES Hot Stove show again this Thursday evening, so get your comments in and I’ll bug Bob and the newsprint boys about ‘em. No doubt we’ll be talking about Mark Teixeira, the center field issue, and the ongoing Andy Pettitte saga. Me, I hope it keeps on going — the Yankees can and should reserve a spot in the rotation for youth.

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