Archive for December 2011

It’s Tough to Be a Royals’ Fan

December 21, 2011

Or the fan of any of the small market team that hasn’t had success in a while.  It’s a steep hole to dig out of.

When I saw that the Royals had signed Yuniesky Betancourt for a second stint, my initial reaction was, “What are they thinking?!?  Haven’t they already seen enough of him to never make that mistake again?”

On further investigation, I realized that its actually not such a bad move for the Royals after all.  According to fangraphs, Betancourt’s performance was worth $3.7 million in 2010 and $2.3 million last season.

The Royals are reported to have signed Yuniesky for one year at $2 million with another $500,000 in performance bonuses.  That’s right in line with his recent past performance and really a bargain for a player who played regularly the last two seasons.

I realize that this is the kind of move bad small market teams feel they have to make.  They have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find the best available player they can get to sign for the very limited money they have to spend, particularly if they don’t have enough depth in the high minors to fill the hole internally.

The only hope for the Royals and their long-suffering fans is that all the great young talent they’ve been able to draft the last few seasons finally develops to its full potential at roughly the same time before they all escape via free agency and that fill-ins like Betancourt play just well enough to allow the team to win in spite of themselves.

With only two winning seasons in the last twenty years, even an 82-win season would be cause for celebration in K.C.  That’s reasonably doable in 2012, given their recent modest improvement in 2009 and 2010, even though Betancourt is unlikely to do much to make it happen.

Texas Rangers Place High Bid for Yu Darvish

December 20, 2011

The Rangers reportedly bid $51.7 million just for the right to negotiate a possible contract with Yu Darvish.  How much more will it take to actually get him signed?

Darvish made 500 million yen in 2011, which at present exchange rates is about $6.4 million.  mlbtraderumors.com has passed on rumors that it could take $70 to 75 million to bring him to the U.S.

Past signings of posted players suggests that a six year contract in the $54 to 60 million range is most likely.  That’s not a whole lot more per year than what he’s making now, but I have to think that at 500 million yen, Darvish is up against the de facto limit for any NPB team other than the Yomiuri Giants or the Hanshin Tigers.  His high salary is probably a big part of the reason the Nippon Ham Fighters posted him in the first place, aside from the enormous posting fee he commanded.

Also, Japanese teams rarely give players multi-year contracts, so I would think it would be hard for Darvish to turn down a $54 to 60 million long-term deal.

It’s a big time play for the Rangers — high risk and high reward, at least if they successfully sign Darvish. One thing I don’t like about the posting system, is that MLB teams don’t pay anything if they don’t sign the posted player to a contract.  I still kind of wonder whether the A’s didn’t place the winning bid on Hisashi Iwakuma last winter and then low-ball him in contract talks just to keep him away from their competitors.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Darvish is more promising at this moment than Diasuke Matsuzaka was when the Red Sox first committed a little over $103 million to bring Dice-K to Boston.

Matsuzaka shows both the risks and possible rewards.  He went 33-15 his first two seasons and has been battling arm problems the last three.  Fangraphs estimates his total value through the first five years of his six year deal at only $44.9 million.

Clearly, if fangraphs’ estimate is accurate, the Red Sox made a big mistake signing Dice-K.  However, if Matsuzaka’s arm had stayed healthy, the Red Sox likely would have received roughly what they paid for.

Like Matsuzaka, Darvish has pitched an awful lot of innings at a tender age in Japan.  Unlike Dice-K, Darvish has never had any significant injuries in his career to date (Matsuzaka had elbow problems in 2002).

Also, the Rangers have to like the fact that Darvish is much bigger than Matsuzaka. Fangraphs lists Matsuzaka as six feet even and 185 lbs.  NPB’s website lists Darvish as 6’5″ and 215 lbs.  That’s definitely a body-type scouts like to see in pitchers.

If Darvish comes to the U.S., I think he’ll dominate major league hitters for the first two seasons, like Hideo Nomo with better control.  After that, we’ll see how his arm holds up and what kind of adjustments American League hitters make.

Milwaukie Brewers Place High Bid for Norichika Aoki

December 18, 2011

The Brewers placed the high bid on Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki, which was reported to be only $2.5 million.  This is a terrific move by the Brewers, at least at this price, even though very few people in the U.S. have any familiarity with Aoki.

I have long felt that Aoki would be a good bet for a major league team because of his outstanding ability to get on base.  I posted this study two and a half years ago (I’ll admit it needs updating), which suggests that on average Japanese hitters lose between 25 and 30 basis points on their on base percentages and a little over 90 basis points on their slugging percentages when they come from NPB to the major leagues.

What this means is that except for an NPB star with exceptional power like Hideki Matsui, Japanese hitters will not hit for power in the U.S.  On the other, Japanese hitters who are particularly good at getting on base, will continue to be good at getting on base in the U.S.

That is where Norichica Aoki comes in.  Even after a 2011 season way below his career norms, most likely due to the complete collapse of offense in NPB this past season, apparently due to the introduction of new baseballs, Aoki still has a career .402 OBP in NPB.  (Aoki’s .292 batting average and .358 OBP in 2011, were respectively good for 7th and 4th place in the Japan’s Central League out of 24 qualifying players.)

Aoki’s career NPB on-base percentage strongly suggests that we should reasonably predict about a .370 OBP from him in Milwaukee next year.  Given how well Aoki runs (164 career NPB stolen bases at a 76% success rate), he should be a better than average lead-off or second place hitter in the U.S.

The biggest knocks on Aoki are that he will be 30 next year, his career NPB .454 slugging percentage probably correlates to below .400 in MLB, and his outfield range and weak arm suggest that he’d be a better than average left-fielder in Milwaukee (he plays center field in Japan).

According to this website, Aoki made 330 million yen last season, which converts to about $4.24 million.  That makes me think the Brewers would have to give him at least $11 or 12 million over two years to convince him to come to the U.S.

That’s a fairly big commitment for an untested left-fielder with no power, although with Ryan Braun facing a 50 game suspension for alleged PED use and the Brewers recognizing the uncertainty that comes with Nyjer Morgan as the apparent every day centerfielder, bringing in Aoki makes a certain amount of sense.

Charlie Finley’s Designated Pinch Runners

December 17, 2011

The memory of Charlie Finley’s pinch runners popped into my head today, and I thought I’d write something about them.  Turns out, though, someone beat me to it.  Here’s a great post from Junk Stats, which really lays out Charlie O’s string of pinch running specialists from 1967 through 1978. I’ve still got my own comments to add, so here goes.

The most famed of Finley’s pinch runners was sprinter Herb Washington, because he wasn’t a baseball player.  He was a world class track star who, according to wikipedia, tied or broke the world’s record in the 50 and 60 yard dashes several times.

Washington only lasted a little over a year as the A’s’ designated pinch runner, because he wasn’t a baseball player.  There’s more to stealing and running the bases than simply being fast.  He got picked off base in the 9th inning of Game 2 of the 1974 World Series by Dodger relief ace Mike Marshall, and that was the beginning of the end of Washington’s baseball career.

How much Finley’s decision to sign Washington in the first place was simply for the publicity and how much was a true baseball decision is a matter for debate.  One thing is certain — Charlie O was really committed to the idea of pinch runners.

One thing that Washington’s career proved, however, is that baseball is better left to the professionals.  All the other pinch runners Finley’s A’s used were real professional ballplayers, even if not major league talents, and they were usually better as pinch runners than Washington was.

Finley’s first full-time pinch runner, Allen “The Panamanian Express” Lewis, had a career .282 minor league batting average.  However, he had no power and didn’t get on base unless he hit safely, so he had no chance of a major league career except for his wheels.

Larry Lintz, the A’s primary pinch runner in 1976 and part of 1977, was actually a player who was highly underrated in his day.  He couldn’t hit for average (MLB career .227) and had no power, but he had a career .336 OBP, which is great for a 2Bman who ran the way he did.

In his only season as a major league semi-regular with the Expos in 1974, Lintz hit a lousy .238 with no power at all, but he still scored 60 runs in only 388 plate appearances because he drew 44 walks and stole 50 bases in 57 attempts.  That kind of player’s value would be recognized today, at least by the money-ball teams.

It’s safe to assume that Herb Washington was probably the fastest player ever to play major league baseball, but Allen Lewis and Larry Lintz were more efficient base stealers by a fairly wide margin, as were most of the A’s other designated pinch runners.

One thing I noticed looking at this article by the same author as the Junk Stats piece above, is that Finley appears to have had at least one significant convert to his church of the designated pinch runner.  Chuck Tanner managed the A’s in 1976, and he obviously took the idea with him to Pittsburgh.

In 1978, the Pirates acquired former Oakland pinch runner Matt Alexander, who filled the same role for the Pirates for the next few seasons.  Tanner also used Alberto Luis exclusively as a pinch runner for a period in 1979.

It’s worth noting that keeping a player on the roster for use solely as a pinch runner doesn’t appear to have hurt the A’s or the Pirates at all.  The A’s won five consecutive division titles and three World Series during this period, and the Pirates won their last World Series in 1979.

That being said, it’s hard to imagine any team today devoting a roster spot to a player used exclusively as a pinch runner.  The 1970’s was an era of ten-man pitching staffs.  Twelve is the norm today.

Also, it’s hard to imagine why any team would really need to keep a player on their roster whose only value is as a pinch runner.  Professional baseball is full of players who are not major league hitters who can run the bases extremely well and play at least one defensive position better than a sweet-swinging regular.   It’s just too easy to find an inexpensive player who can do double duty as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement.

Two recent Giants come to mind:  Darren Ford and Rajai Davis.  (In fairness to Rajai, he eventually developed into enough of a hitter to play regularly the last few seasons.)  I’m sure you can remember a couple from whatever team you root for.

Twins Trade Cuddyer for Willingham

December 17, 2011

Not exactly, but in practical effect.   On paper, it’s a good move for the Twins.

According to mlbtraderumors.com, the Twins will be giving Josh Willingham $21 million for three seasons, while the Rockies will be paying Michael Cuddyer $31.5 million over the same three seasons.  It seems fairly clear to me that Cuddyer isn’t worth $3.5 million per year than Willingham.

Both will be 33 next year, both have some power.  Cuddyer has more defensive value, particularly because he can play quite a few positions.  Fangraphs says Cuddyer was worth $14 million last year and $30.1 million over the last three, while Willingham was worth $9.4 million last year and $33 million over the last three.  That sounds like pretty much the same player.

Cuddyer obviously had some slightly greater value to the Twins, given the long history he had with the team.  It will be interesting to see what Twins fans have to say about the switch.

I expect there will be a certain amount of grumbling until the season actually starts.  If Willingham plays well and, more importantly, if the Twins play winning baseball, the fans will forget Michael Cuddyer right quick.  At the end of the day, fans mostly want to see a winning team.

The reports are that the Twins are actively trying to re-sign Jason Kubel, but now that they’ve thrown their lot in with Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit, I don’t really see the point.  The Twins have plenty of good-hit-no-field players already, and they should be saving all the DH time they can for Joe Mauer anyway.

Arizona Diamondback Resign Cody Ransom

December 13, 2011

It was announced in the last day or so that the Diamondbacks resigned one of my favorite marginal major leaguers Cody Ransom.  It was a minor league deal (which makes sense since Cody is a classic 4-A player) probably calling for $500,000 to $600,000 per year for time spent in the majors and around $85,000 per year for time spent at AAA.

I like Cody because once upon a time he was Giants prospect.  Also, he has the dubious distinction of being the only position player I am aware of who has managed to play parts of nine different major league seasons without ever once getting 100 plate appearances in one year.

If anyone is a aware of any other position player who played in the majors nine or more years without ever reaching 100 plate appearances in a season, I’d love to hear about it.  The player I’m most reminded of is Charlie “Swede” Silvera, a San Francisco native who was Yogi Berra’s back-up at catcher for the Yankees from the late 1940’s until well into the 1950’s.  He played in ten major league seasons, and topped 100 plate appearances only in 1949, when he had came up to the dish with wood in his hands 149 times.

The Swede was a pretty good hitter, with a career .282 major league batting average and a .356 OBP.  However, he had no power at all, so as long as Yogi Berra was healthy enough to play, Silvera sat.

I’ve written about Cody Ransom before, at length here.  He is that rare player who learned how to hit around age 30.

When Cody was young and had the defensive range to play shortstop, he couldn’t hit.  When he finally learned how to hit, he no longer had the range to play SS.  This is one way 4-A players are made.

Cody hit .317 with a 1.034 OPS last year at AAA Reno in the Pacific Coast League.  Reno is a great, great place to hit, but 27 HRs in 372 ABs at the AAA level is still impressive.  However, he hit a lousy .152 with a .546 in 37 late season plate appearances with the D-Backs.

Cody turns 36 this coming February, so I think it’s better than even money we’ll never see him in the majors again, even for his annual cup of coffee.  Still, anything is possible, and now that the D-Backs have rewarded him for his terrific 2011 campaign with one more season at AAA, Cody is only one or two injuries and a hot streak away from evening things up with Charlie Silvera.

Ryan Braun Tests Positive For Steroids

December 11, 2011

Well, it’s awfully disappointing that one of the league’s brightest young stars has tested positive for steroids.  At least, it shows that the testing regime really works, and there’s no one who won’t be held accountable if they test positive.

According to ESPN, Ryan had a 4 to 1 or higher ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, and a further test on the same sample showed that the extra testosterone was artificial.  Ryan requested a second test, which came up negative, but the second test was probably taken some weeks after the first one.

Ryan isn’t going to be railroaded.  He has already filed to challenge the positive test, which will apparently be decided by an arbitrator.

It’s a tough blow for the Brewers and their fans, but I can’t say I’m entirely surprised.  Not that I ever suspected Braun in particular, but I have always assumed that players are still taking substances they shouldn’t be, only in smaller quantities and with an eye to outsmarting the testing regime in place.  Any little edge can mean millions of dollars at this level, and in Braun’s case, it may have helped him win his recently awarded MVP, assuming that he did, in fact, cheat.

My suspicion is that the players now most likely to test positive for steroids are the marginal major leaguers and the biggest stars.  Obviously, the guys on the cusp of having major league careers and making the real money have a big incentive to do anything it takes to get an edge.

Among the top players, the egos are big, and the incentive to put up the biggest numbers is probably as much about being recognized as the best and getting the most glory, as it’s about making the extra millions.

For what it’s worth, Ryan Braun doesn’t have a ‘roids body, although he’s always had a noticeably thick neck, which to me always seemed like what you’d see in a football player rather than a baseball player.  Of course, some of the guys who test positive really look the part, and others don’t.

Now for some completely unrelated topics — my most devoted reader has asked me what I think of the Angels signing Albert Pujols and the Giants trading for Angel Pagan from the Mets.

The Angels obviously gave Pujols too much money over too many years, but the signing makes a certain amount of sense as far as the Angels are concerned.  They are a big market team that hasn’t been to the World Series since they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against the Giants in 2002 (Ha! Ha! Ha! – it doesn’t hurt anymore thanks to 2010).  Prince Albert obviously gives them a better chance of doing so in the next five years.

I’m interested to see how Pujols adjusts to American League ball.  He’s great, but his career is almost certainly on a downward trajectory, and the AL is the better of the two leagues.

My guess is that Albert tops his 2011 .906 OPS four or five times over the ten years of the contract, but that he tops 1.000 only one more time.  To me, Pujols is the modern day Jimmie Foxx, and the Beast did not age well.  At least, Pujols isn’t a heavy drinker.  [I was tempted to end the post here, because the 534 word count matched Foxx’s career homerun total.]

I just can’t get excited about the Angel Pagan trade.  Pagan is a better bet than Andres Torres in 2012, and even more so in the year or two afterward before he becomes a free agent, mainly because Pagan is younger.  Otherwise, they look pretty similar.

The way I see it, the Giants gave up a little more than they got in order to improve in the outfield.  Ramon Ramirez was really very good last year, and I think there’s a good chance he’ll end up as the Mets’ top set-up man in 2012.

I wonder if it was tough for the Mets to give up a Puerto Rican starter in Pagan.  There are a lot of Puerto Ricans in New York, so Pagan must have had some box office appeal.

There was a time when teams definitely took ethnicity into account.  Italian stars playing for the Yankees, the Giants looking for a Jewish star for years, the New York teams being the first to integrate.  Nowadays, it probably comes down a lot more to simply winning and finding the players who can help a team win.

Andres Torres is also from Puerto Rico, and although I expect him to be role player for the Mets in 2012, I also expect the New York fans will like him.  He was one of my favorite players during his time as a Giant.  I liked the story of his late-found success, and he was just a class act and real professional.  That kind of player is popular wherever he goes.