Archive for December 2009

Yeah, But Bay Got to Play Some of Those Road Games in Colorado

December 30, 2009

As you know, Jason Bay signed a four-year deal with the Mets guaranteeing him $66 million.  Meanwhile, Matt Holliday has reportedly rejected a five-year $80 million offer from the Cardinals and a five-year $82.5 million deal from the Red Sox.

The Red Sox have since signed John Lackey with the money they offered Holliday and signed Mike Cameron to fill the outfield position.  It remains to be seen whether Holliday’s agent Scott Boras can find another team to enter to the bidding or whether he can convince the Cardinals to bid against themselves, as he has famously done with other teams and other free agents in the past.

Assuming that Holliday signs for the Cardinals at about their current offer, is Holliday worth another guaranteed year and another $15 million guaranteed than Bay got?

In Holliday’s favor, he’s sixteen months younger than Bay and a much better defensive leftfielder than Bay, at least if you trust fangraphs’ UZR ratings.  On the other hand, through 2009, Jason Bay has a career road OPS of .898, while Holliday’s career road OPS is only .808.

That’s a big difference, even taking into account that Holliday has played very few games in Coors Field as a visiting player.

My point is that just about everyone considers Holliday to be a better player than Bay in large part because Holliday’s batting numbers have been so grossly inflated in Colorado.  Given Holliday’s age and giving him the utmost credit for his better defense, Holliday might be worth an extra year and an additional $15 million, but if Boras can squeeze any more out of a team than that, the team is making a mistake.

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Have the Yankees Considered Jack Cust?

December 30, 2009

Reports have it that now the Yankees have traded for Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez, taking on substantial salary in both deals, they are looking to go cheap to fill the void left in left field after the departure of Hideki Matsui and the likely departure (unless his asking price comes way down) of Johnny Damon.

You always have to take the Yankees’ claims that they’ll try to save a buck on ballplayers with a grain of salt.  However, to the extent they are serious about wanting a low-cost option in left for 2010, I can’t think of a much better choice than Jack Cust.

First, he’s cheap.  After being non-tendered by the A’s and making $2.8 million in 2009, the Yankees could probably sign him for one year in the $2-to-3 million range.

Second, he’s a left-handed hitter with a lot of power, perfect for the new Yankee Stadium.

According to this article from the Hardball Times, in 2007 at least, Cust hit his homeruns more or less foul line to foul line.  This surprised me, as I had expected from what I’ve seen of him that Cust would be a dead-pull hitter.

Cust is certainly the type of player who swings mostly at strikes and tries to tee off on every swing, like fellow lefty power hitters Jim Thome and Matt Stairs.  However, while he likes to swing at strikes, he apparently also likes to drive middle-away strikes the other way toward left center.

Either way, I suspect that Cust would be well suited to the dimensions of the new Yankee stadium.  Like the House that Ruth Built, the new Yankee stadium is 314 feet down both foul lines and 408 to dead center.  However, the new park is shorter in both power allies: 360 feet to right center (as compared to 385 in the old park) and 382 feet to left center (compared to 399 in the old park).

Coming off his poor 2009 season, Cust should only be used as a platoon player starting exclusively against right-handed pitchers and pinch-hitting against right-handed relievers when a port-sider starts.  Even in that role, I could see Cust hitting 20 to 30 HRs in 2010 playing half his games at the new Yankee stadium.

As most people know, Cust is a poor defensive outfielder, but he understands hitting, and I think he would be more adept than most at learning to be a dead-pull hitter to take advantage of the new stadium’s short right field dimensions.

During the twelve seasons from 1949 through 1960 when Casey Stengel was their manager, the Yankees won ten American League pennants and seven world championships with teams that had a lot of great players but which also platooned extensively at certain positions.  Platooning in order to create a short-term solution at a position where you don’t want to shell out the bucks made sense then, and it still makes sense now.

As the right-handed third of their left-field platoon, Marcus Thames is available and also likely to come cheap. Johnny Gomes is another possibility, although he’s likely to be a little more expensive than Thames.  With slick-fielding, light-hitting Brett Gardner around as a fifth outfielder to substitute defensively (and out of a position now that the Yankees have Granderson), the Yankees could make a left field platoon made up of a couple of lead-footed power hitters work.

Finally, the great thing about being the Yankees is that if they choose to go with the low-cost platoon and it doesn’t work out, they can always add salary by trading for another slugging leftfielder after the All-Star Break and still probably save money over what it would have cost them to resign a Johnny Damon or a Hideki Matsui.

Oh, and BTW, Jack Cust is originally from New Jersey.  How perfect is that?

Big-Ticket Signings

December 29, 2009

It has just been reported that the Mets signed Jason Bay to a four-year deal that guarantees Bay $66 million.  The contract also contains a “readily attainable” fifth year vesting option based on plate appearances, which would bring the total contract to a little over $80 million.

The contract is pending a physical by Bay, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t pass it, given that there have been no rumors or signs of injury in recent memory.

All in all, it’s not a bad deal for the Mets.  Bay is a legitimate offensive weapon, and the Mets aren’t necessarily on the hook for more than four years. Also, a few years ago when the player market was up, Bay likely could have commanded a five-year $90 million deal.

My guess is that Bay will have a strong 2010 season, but then will gradually but steadily decline every season after that.  The Mets are a “win now” team, so I’m sure they are most concerned about what Bay does in 2010 and 2011.  Obviously, the New York teams can better swallow the under-performing late years of long-term player contracts than the other teams.

The Giants have finalized their two-year $12 million deal with Mark DeRosa.  I wish I could say that I was more excited.

If DeRosa is the Giants’ starting 3Bman in 2010 with Pablo Sandoval shifting to 1B, the Giants will probably get more offense out of the two positions than they did in 2009.  However, at age 35 in 2010 and moving into what is generally a pitchers’ park, it remains to be seen if DeRosa has more good season with the bat, let alone two.

DeRosa also had surgery on his left wrist to repair a partially torn tendon sheath in November, which certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.  The Giants are hoping that DeRosa will give them significant right-handed power in 2010, and left wrist problems are probably the worst news you would want to hear about, except for maybe lower back disk problems or a sudden onset of blindness.

I’m sure that everyone else in Giants Land is wondering if GM Brian Sabean has pulled another piker.  Sabean absolutely loves his aging veterans, even though many of these signings (Zito, Rowand, Renteria) have been blowing up in his face of late.

I will reserve judgment until I see what other moves the Giants make between now and the end of Spring Training and what kind of a year DeRosa has in 2010.  However, as I said before, the move does not inspire confidence.

Japanese Hitters in the U.S.

December 29, 2009

One of my first posts, when I began this blog at the start of the 2009 season, compared what every Japanese hitter who has played significantly in both Japan and MLB hit there as opposed to here through the end of the 2008 season.  Here’s a link to that post.  My reason for doing producing this survey was that I thought it would be useful as a means of predicting what Japanese hitters will likely hit in MLB, based on what they previously hit in Japan.

Another season is in the books, and I think it would be a good idea to update last year’s study to see if there were any significant changes.

Unfortunately, no new Japanese hitters came to the U.S. for the 2009 season.  As a result, we are limited to the same (and only) nine Japanese players who have had a least 500 at-bats in Japan and 500 ABs in MLB: Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, Akinori Iwamura, Tad Iguchi, Kenji Johjima, So Taguchi, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kosuke Fukudome.

Please note that I have not included any North American players going from the U.S. to Japan, mainly because most such players either played little in MLB before going to try their luck in Japan or were in the last years of their professional careers when they went to Japan.  The Japanese players coming here, on the other hand, tend to still be in their primes when they leave Japan.

There have been a few North American players who had substantial major league careers and went to Japan while still in their prime years — Warren Cromartie and Leron Lee are two who readily come to mind — but they were from a different generation and don’t necessarily tell us as much about how Japanese baseball (NPB) compares to MLB when it comes to hitting today.

Of the nine players listed above, Shinjo is retired (his last year was 2006) and So Taguchi spent most of the season in American AAA ball, accumulating only eleven major league at-bats.  The other seven played regularly or semi-regularly in 2009: Ichiro, the Matsuis, Iwamura, Johjima and Fukudome in the U.S. and Tad Iguchi back in Japan.

I looked at five statistics: homeruns per 100 at-bats (HR rate), batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.  Here are these numbers for each player in Japan and the U.S.:

Ichiro Suzuki: In Japan (age 18-26) 118 HRs, 3.26 HRs/100 AB, .353 BA, .421 OBP, .522 SLG, .943 OPS; in the U.S. (27-35) 84 HRs, 1.38 HRs/100 AB, .333 BA, .378 OBP, .434 SLG, .812 OPS.

Hideki Matsui: In Japan (19-28) 332 HRs, 7.26 HRs/100 AB, .304 BA, .413 OBP, .582 SLG, .995 OPS; in the U.S. (29-35) 140 HRs, 4.18 HRs/100 AB, .292 BA, .370 OBP, .482 SLG, .852 OPS.

Kazuo Matsui: In Japan (19-27) 150 HRs, 3.23 HRs/100 AB, .309 BA, .361 OBP, . 486 SLG, .847 OPS; in the U.S. (28-33) 32 HRs, 1.43 HRs/100 AB, .271 BA, .325 OBP, .387 SLG, .712 OPS.

Akinori Iwamura: In Japan (19-27) 188 HRs, 5.25 HRs/100 ABs, .300 BA, .366 OBP, .519 SLG, .885 OPS; in the U.S. (28-30) 14 HRs, 1.04 HRs/100 AB, .281 BA, .354 OBP, .393 SLG, .747 OPS.

Tad Iguchi: In Japan (22-29, 34) 168 HRs, 4.64 HRs/100 AB, .272 BA, .350 OBP, .472 SLG, .822 OPS; in the U.S. (30-33) 44 HRs, 2.39 HRs/100 ABs, .268 BA, .338 OBP, .401 SLG, .739 OPS.

Kenji Johjima: In Japan (19-29) 211 HRs, 5.23 HRs/100 AB, .299 BA, .360 OBP, .517 SLG, .877 OPS; in the U.S. (30-33) 48 HRs, 2.98 HRs/100 ABs, .268 BA, .310 OBP, .411 SLG, .721 OPS.

So Taguchi: In Japan (22-31) 67 HRs, 1.64 HRs/100 ABs, .277 BA, .333 OBP, .387 SLG, .720 OPS; in the U.S. (32-39) 19 HRs, 1.39 HRs/100 AB, .279 BA, .332 OBP, .385 SLG, .717 OPS.

Tsuyoshi Shinjo: In Japan (19-28, 32-34) 205 HRs, 3.97 HRs/100 AB, .254 BA, .305 OBP, .432 SLG, .737 OPS; in the U.S. (29-31) 20 HRs, 2.28 HRs/100 AB, .245 BA, .299 OBP, .370 SLG, .669 OPS.

Kosuke Fukudome: In Japan (22-30) 192 HRs, 4.98 HRs/100 AB, .305 BA, .397 OBP, .543 SLG, .940 OPS; in the U.S. (31-32) 21 HRs, 2.10 HRs/100 ABs, .258 BA, .367 OBP, .400 SLG, .767 OPS.

The differentials between stats in Japan and stats in the U.S. obtained in last year’s survey didn’t change a whole lot this year.  2009 was a good homerun year (relatively speaking) for Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Kaz Matsui and Kenji Johjima, and upon his return to Japan, Tad Iguchi’s 2009 homerun total was down from seasons immediately before he left for the U.S.

As a result, the homerun rates for these players in the U.S. compared to Japan improved slightly over last year’s results.  On average, these Japanese hitters have now hit 50.8% as many homeruns in the U.S. as they hit in Japan in the same number of at-bats (last year, it was 49.4%).  The mean was also up to 51.5%, compared to 50.9% last year.

In other words, the numbers still suggest it is roughly twice as hard to hit homeruns in MLB as it is in NPB.

The other numbers changed even less.  On average, these nine hitters hit 20 points lower in the U.S. than in Japan, on-base percentages dropped 25 to 30 points, slugging percentages dropped about 90 points and OPS numbers dropped roughly 120 points.

The same results lead to the same conclusions: Japanese players lose a lot more of their power coming to America than they do their ability to get on base.  As a result, MLB teams should be looking for Japanese hitters with high on-base percentages more than guys who have 30-40 per season homerun power in Japan.

The drop-off in power also means that with the exception of exceptional players like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, most Japanese hitters do not have the power to play 1B or the corner outfield positions regularly in the U.S.   Instead, catchers, middle infielders and centerfielders are the Japanese hitters most likely to be stars in the U.S.

I’m surprised that no more Japanese hitters came across the Pacific in 2009 and don’t appear to be coming in 2010 either.  There are several reasons for this, I suspect.  MLB teams have realized that most Japanese hitters don’t have the power MLB teams want or will pay big bucks for.  Also, the Cubs were pretty badly burned by the four-year $48 million contract they gave Fukudome two years ago, and all the U.S. teams are now gun-shy.

Adding to these factors, the dollar is much weaker against the yen now than it was two years ago, which makes it relatively harder to buy the rights to Japanese players from the their current teams or to give Japanese players the contracts they want to leave Japan.

Yet another factor is that the NPB leagues (the Pacifc and the Central) were pitchers’ leagues in 2009, which makes the hitters in the Japanese leagues look weaker than they really are.  In 2009, only seven players on the twelve NPB teams had OPS numbers of .900 or higher, with only two above .930.  By comparison 27 players on the 30 MLB teams had .900 or better OPS numbers, with 16 of those above .930.

The upshot is that the MLB tendency to overvalue Japanese pitchers and undervalue Japanese hitters is exacerbated by the current, relative lack of offense in the Japanese game.

All of that being said, two Japanese hitters who right now look like ideal candidates for an enterprising MLB team are Tokyo Yakult Swallows centerfielder Norichicka Aoki and Saitama Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima.

Aoki will be 28 years old in 2010.  He has a career batting average of .331 and a career OBP of .401.  He also has a career .463 slugging percentage and has stolen 137 bases in his five NPB seasons with a 75.6% success rate.  I don’t know anything about his centerfield defense, but I have to assume that if it’s not MLB-caliber, he would be a better than average defensive corner outfielder.

Nakajima will be 27 in 2010.  He has a career batting average of .300 with a .369 OBP and a .477 slugging percentage.  He also runs well, having stolen 98 bases in his Japanese major league career with a 75.4% success rate.  Again, if he isn’t an MLB-caliber defensive shortstop, one would think he could move to second like Kaz Matsui and Akinori Iwamura.

Would their Japanese teams post them if MLB teams came calling?  Both the Swallows and the Lions were .500 teams last year, although the Swallows managed to sneak into the Central League play-offs as the team with the third best record in the six-team circuit.  Traditionally, the Swallows have been a poor team that has had difficulty holding onto its best players, although I don’t know if that’s still the case.

The Seibu Lions have been the powerhouse team in the Pacific League for some time, at least until this past season.  However, they were the team that sold off Diasuke Matsuzaka to the Red Sox in 2006, because they needed the $50+ million they received to remodel their stadium, which is (or was) by most accounts the worst ballpark in NPB.

Assuming that the Lions don’t need more money to finance the stadium renovations, I would be surprised if they let go of Nakajima.  I doubt that a position player could command the kind of posting price that Dice-K generated, so I expect Nakajima will remain in Japan at least until he becomes a free agent, most likely after the 2012 season.

** According to this NY Times article, the renovations on the Seibu Dome were completed by the start of the 2009 season.

Former Giants Twirlers Find New Homes

December 28, 2009

Bob Howry just signed with the Diamonds on a one-year deal for an amount reported as $2-to-3 million.  That sounded like too much to me, at least based on how I remembered Howry’s 2009 season a Giant.

However, on reviewing his numbers again, I can see why the D-Backs gave him that much.  Howry went 2-6 last year, but finished the season with a 3.39 ERA  after a September in which his ERA was only 1.69.  He allowed 50 hits and 23 walks and knotched 46 K’s in 63.2 IP over the 2009 season as a whole.

Howry will be 36 in 2010, so it remains to be seen if he’s got any good years left.  Either way, his strong September showing after a generally lack-luster season probably earned him an extra million dollars for 2010.

Also, Ryan Sadowski, after signing a minor league deal with the Astros earlier in the off-season, has now apparently signed a contract with the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).

Giants fans will remember The Big Sadowski for winning his first two major league starts, throwing thirteen shutout innings in the process.  Sadowski then lost his next four starts, allowing 14 earned runs in 15.1 innings pitched.  He was promptly sent back down to AAA Fresno, never to return.

Sadowski’s contract to play in Korea in 2010 is for $200,000 with a $100,000 signing bonus.  The fact that the one-year deal contains a “signing bonus” makes me think that the $200,000 base contract is not guaranteed, meaning the Lotte Giants don’t have to keep paying him if he doesn’t make good and gets released.

It’s interesting (to me at least) to think whether or not this is a good move by Sadowski.  He’ll be 27 in 2010, so going to Korea now probably means the end of his chances to have an MLB career.

Also, playing in the Astros’ system, Sadowski, as a player with MLB service time, would have to be paid at a rate of at least $65,000 per year for his minor service time and a pro-rated portion of the 2010 major league minimum of $400,000 for any time spent on a major league roster.

Here are Sadowski’s career minor league numbers: 4.28 ERA, 412.1 IP, 393 hits and 177 walks allowed and 356 strikouts recorded.  These numbers don’t suggest that Sadowski has a good shot at having a significant major league career.  However, a couple of breaks in 2010, and Sadowski could have ended up spending at good portion of 2010 on the Astros’ roster.

I have to think that Sadowski is good enough to be successful in the KBO, so long as he can adjust to living in Korea.  However, a lot of American players can’t.

Perhaps Sadowski figures that he can have a longer career and make a little more money playing in Korea than he could in the U.S. at this point in his career.  Perhaps, he also believes that if he plays well in Korea, he’s more likely to grab a Japanese team’s attention than if he remains a slightly better than average AAA starter.

This latter possibility makes more sense.  For a player of his age and talent level, Sadowski’s best shot at making any real money playing baseball is to pitch for a Japanese major league team for three or more full seasons.  Right now, he’s pitched so little in the majors that he’s probably not high on any Japanese team’s list of 4A players.  Maybe a big year or two in Korea will change that.

I wish Ryan Sadowski the best, although I kind of suspect we’ll never hear from him again.

Don’t Play DeRosa in Left Field

December 26, 2009

Some reports suggest that if the Giants sign Mark DeRosa, they plan to play him largely in left field.  This would be a probably stupid idea.

DeRosa has value at third, not as a corner outfielder.  DeRosa’s OPS numbers the last three seasons were .791, .857 and .752.  The first two of those seasons were performed playing in Wrigley Field half of the time.  Wrigley is a great place to hit.  Even last year split between St. Louis and Cleveland, DeRosa played in better hitters’ parks than he’ll play in in San Francisco.

The odds that DeRosa would have an OPS of .800 over a full season in either 2010 or 2011 playing his home games in San Francisco is extremely slim.  Even an .800 OPS really isn’t good enough from your players playing in left field.  Without the DH, National League teams in particular need to get as much offense as possible out of the left field slot.  There’s no way DeRosa will cut it.

The same is true for first base.  DeRosa only has value playing 3B and 2B, and other positions as necessitated by injuries.

As bad as the Giants’ offense was last year, it won’t be any better in 2010 with DeRosa starting regularly in left field.

Nationals Sign Matt Capps

December 24, 2009

The Nationals have reportedly reached agreement with Matt Capps on a one-year contract for $3.5 million with an additional $425,000 in performance incentives based on games finished.

I actually don’t like this deal for the Nats, at least not as much as I like the idea of signing Matt Capps.  I really think that signing Capps for only one year is a mistake.

As I’ve said before, the Nats can go out and sign all the Pudge Rodriguez’s, Jason Marquises and Matt Capps in baseball, and they will still be a long-shot to win 90 games in 2010.  They need players at reasonable prices who can help them build a consistent pennant contender two to five years from now as they develop young stars.

Matt Capps is young (26 in 2010), coming off a bad year way below his career norms but with good peripheral numbers, and the market for player contracts is way down this year.  In short, the best deal for the Nats would probably have been a three-year deal that would keep Capps in DC for what are likely to be the three prime seasons of his career (age 26 through 28).

Matt Capps’ 2009 ERA was ugly and he gave up a lot of hits and homeruns.  However, he also had a Ks-to-BBs rate of 2.71-to-1 and struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings.

If Capps is healthy in 2010, I think it’s more likely that Capps’ numbers will be closer to his terrific 2007, when he posted a 2.28 ERA in 76 appearances and had a 4-to-1 Ks-to-walks rate, than his awful 2009.  This is mainly due to the fact that he is only 26 years old and typically that’s an age when players are still getting better.

The problem with a one-year deal for the Nats is that if Capps has a terrific year in 2010 (Let’s say a 2.60 or 2.70 ERA with 35 saves), the Nationals still won’t make the playoffs.  A great closer, assuming Capps is one in 2010, won’t help a team as bad as the Nats were in 2009 all that much.  A closer only goes into games to protect leads, and isn’t likely to help in most of the many games where the Nats will be the team trailing in the late innings.

If Capps has a big year in 2010, the Nats can offer him arbitration, but Capps will make far more money then for 2011 than the Nationals could have locked him up for now.  In fact, even if Capps has a mediocre year in 2010 (say, 4.00 ERA and 15 saves), he’d still probably get more money through arbitration than he could have been signed for now, or the Nats have to non-tender him the way the Pirates did this year and lose him completely.

Given the deal he actually signed, I suspect that the Nationals could have signed him to a two-year deal in the $6-7 million range, or at least gotten an option for a second year for a $250,000 or $500,000 buy-out.  Capps probably could not have been signed to a three-year deal, because he is eligible for free agency after year two.  However, Capps likely would have agreed to a two-year deal, because from the players’ point of view, there is a great deal to be said for guaranteed money.

Obviously, a two-year deal entails more risk than a one-year deal.  However, every player acquisition entails some degree of risk, and for the Nationals to become a pennant-contending team, they are going to have to take some well-calculated risks.

One of the reasons I suspect that Nationals only offered Capps a one-year deal is that teams still look back on their glory days before the formation of the players’ union, when all baseball player contracts were for one season, and if a player with a high salary had a bad year, he could be offered much less money the next season or simply released.  Of course, in those days players couldn’t become free agents or go to salary arbitration either.

Some teams definitely still dream of a return to the days when all players could be forced to accept one-year contracts.  The problem is those days are gone forever, and teams need to learn to master the salary regime in place today.  In the current salary regime, sometimes the best player contract from the team’s perspective is a multi-year deal.

For example, sometimes even enormous long-term contracts turn out to be tremendous bargains for the signing team.  Two great examples are the six-year $43.75 million contract the Barry Bonds signed with the Giants before the 1993 season, and more recently the five year $70 million contract Vladimir Guerrero signed with the Angels before the 2004 season.

At the time the Bonds contract was signed, it was the biggest contract ever.  However, it came right after the 1990-1991 Recession when the player contract market was down, and in succeeding years, prices for elite players like Bonds went through the roof as the economy and MLB revenues soared.

Similarly, the year that Guerrero signed his big contract, the market was down, and the Angels managed to lock him in for years at what turned out to be a bargain price.  The Angels picked up Guerrero’s option year in 2009, and he didn’t play well, but that in no way minimizes how good the original five-year contract turned out for the Angels.

If I were a general manager, I would be much less willing to sign pitchers to long-term deals than position players, because pitchers are so much more injury-prone.  In fact, unless the pitcher is so good that you have to offer more years just to sign him, I wouldn’t give any pitcher more than a three-year deal.

That being said, with a player as young and talented as Matt Capps, the Nats’ failure to lock him in for at least two seasons was a mistake.