Archive for January 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates Should Consider Tim Wakefield

January 30, 2012

I saw on mlbtraderumors.com that Tim Wakefield is considering retiring in light of the fact that the Red Sox apparently have no interest in bringing him back in 2012.  When the team’s new manager is reported stating that he “can’t imagine” Wakefield coming in and competing for a job in Spring Training, it’s a pretty safe to say Wakefield is through as far as the Red Sox are concerned.

The Pirates should consider signing Wakefield.  He started his career in Pittsburgh and might be willing to return for a year (or so) rather than hanging up his cleats for good.  There’s always something of a feel good story when a veteran player returns to the team on which he started his major league career after years playing elsewhere.

More importantly, I think Wakefield could be a useful player for the Bucs at a reasonable price.  Wakefield is finishing a two-year $5 million contract.

His ERAs have been a little over 5.00 each of the last two seasons, but Fenway is tough place to pitch.  Fangraphs says his value over the last two seasons was $9.2 million, which is a lot less than what the Red Sox paid him.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the Pirates could sign him for 2012 at about $2 million.

The Pirates have enough better, younger starters to fill out their rotation next season, but Wakefield would be a useful low-cost insurance policy.  Only James McDonald made even 30 starts for the Bucs last season, none of their starters pitched even 175 innings, and all their starters except McDonald, while posting respectable ERAS, had terrible K/IP ratios.

Those kind of pitcher tend to get hurt more often that strikeout pitchers, so there could be real value to having a veteran around who is virtually a sure thing when it comes to his ability to eat innings.  $2 million wouldn’t be much for that kind of certainty.

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The Next Yu Darvish

January 22, 2012

Now that Darvish is officially a Texas Ranger, the next Japanese pitcher likely to stir up endless speculation regarding if and when he’ll come to the U.S. is the Rakuten Golden Eagle’s Masahiro Tanaka.  While there is only one Yu Darvish, Tanaka is the only other pitcher in Japan who can really be compared to Darvish.

Darvish and Tanaka were far and away the top two starters in Japan last season and Tanaka is two years younger than Darvish.  Here are their 2011 pitching lines for comparison purposes:

Darvish:  18-6 W/L, 232 IP, 156 hits, 5 HRs and 36 BBs allowed, 276 Ks and 1.44 ERA.

Tanaka:  19-5 W/L, 226.1 IP, 171 hits, 8 HRs and 27 BBs allowed, 241 Ks and 1.27 ERA.

ERAs were ridiculously low in NPB last year with six pitchers posting ERAs below 2.00 out of only 33 starters who threw enough innings to qualify.  Still, Tanaka and Darvish were 1st and 2nd, respectively.

No other pitcher in Japan struck out more than 192 or threw more than 216 innings.

Obviously, Tanaka is no Yu Darvish.  2011 was Darvish’s fifth consecutive season with an ERA below 2.00 and in four of the last five years, Darvish struck out more than 200 and pitched more than 200 innings (Darvish missed three to five starts at the end of 2009 with back and shoulder soreness).

Still, Tanaka is no slouch, having recorded ERA’s of 2.50 and 2.33 the previous two seasons and striking out 196 in 186.1 IP in 2007, his rookie season, and 171 in 189.2 IP in 2009.  Tanaka suffered a right pectoral injury in 2010 that limited him to 150 IP, but he came back strong in 2011 with his best season to date at the tender age of 22.

Like Darvish, Tanaka was pitching in NPB’s major leagues at age 18, which is an incredible accomplishment in and of itself.  Because NPB teams have only one minor league team each, young players can reach the top league much more quickly than in the U.S — you simply don’t see 18 year old starters in the U.S., now or ever, with Mel Ott in 1927 probably coming the closest.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that NPB seems to have a lot more late bloomers (players who have strong careers although not establishing themselves as regulars until age 25 or later) than MLB does.  This may be because their are fewer NPB teams, which means that good minor league players can get stuck if there is a strong player holding their position at the top level.

Like Darvish, Tanaka has thrown an awful lot of innings at a tender age, but has handled it pretty well so far.  NPB’s website lists Tanaka at 6’2″ and 205 lbs, which for a player who only recently turned 23, is certainly big enough to make MLB teams stand up and take notice.

The Golden Eagles had the worst attendance in NPB over the last two seasons, just barely nipping the Yokohama Bay Stars for last place.  One has to think that if Tanaka has a 2012 season anywhere close to his 2011, Yokohama won’t be able to afford him and will be looking to cash in on a likely $40-50 million posting fee (depending on how well Darvish pitches this coming season).

Here is another Japanese pitcher to keep an eye on:

Kenta Maeda:  His 2.46 ERA was 7th best in the Central League last season, and his 216 IP and 192 Ks were third best in all of NPB after, of course, Darvish and Tanaka.  Somehow, pitching that well only resulted in a 10-12 record (there was really no offense in NPB last year at all).

In fact, Maeda was even better in 2010, going 15-8 with a 2.21 ERA and 174 Ks in 215.2 IP.  Maeda is also only seven months older than Tanaka, which means MLB teams are well aware of him.

The biggest knock on Maeda is that he does not have the body MLB teams want to see in their right-handed pitchers.  NPB’s website lists him as only 6’0″ and 161 lbs.

Tim Lincecum has proven a pitcher can be successful with that body type, but it isn’t for nothing they call him “The Freak.”

Maeda’s team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, are another of NPB’s perennial bottom feeders (sorry about the pun — I couldn’t resist), so you have to think they’ll look for a posting payday if Maeda continues to pitch the way he has the last two seasons.

While I’m at it:

Toshiya Sugiuchi:  Sugiuchi is a veteran lefty with terrific stuff.  He won’t be posted, but he’s about to enter his 11th NPB season, which makes you think he’s going to be a true free agent at the end of 2012 or, at the latest 2013  [He was a free agent this off-season — See below].

Sugiuchi is a hell of pitcher, and he could easily be the next Hiroki Kuroda if he comes to the states.  In fact, he should be better than Kuroda if his NPB numbers mean anything.

Sugiuchi’s 1.94 ERA and 177 Ks were “only” good enough for sixth and fifth, respectively, in all of NPB last season.  However, he has had four other seasons with ERA’s between 2.11 and 2.66 and four seasons with between 204 and 218 Ks, even without ever having pitched 200 innings in a season (he’s fallen a few innings short several times).

Sugiuchi is a small left-hander listed as 5’9″ and 187 lbs.  MLB teams don’t have the same grudge against small LHPs as they do against small RHPs, so I don’t think Suguichi’s small stature will hurt him if MLB teams come calling.

The MLB pitcher Sugiuchi most reminds me of, in terms of size and numbers, is Wandy Rodriguez, another compact lefty with great strikeout stuff.  If Sugiuchi comes to the U.S. as a starter in 2013 at age 32, I would expect his numbers to look a lot like Wandy’s 2011 season.

[Actually, Sugiuchi will probably never come to the U.S.  Further research for this post reveals that Sugiuchi recently signed a four-year free agent contract with the Yomiuri Giants for two billion yen, which is hair less than $26 million at current exchange rates.]

Two other veteran lefties worth mentioning here are Tetsuya Utsumi and Tsuyoshi Wada.  Wada was signed back in December by the Orioles for two years at $8.15 million.

Utsumi pitches for the Yomiuri Giants, along with the Hanshin Tigers, one of the two teams in Japan with the resources to compete with MLB teams in terms of the salaries they can offer, as Suguichi’s new contract suggests.  Thus, Yomiuri may well hold on to Utsumi when he becomes a free agent a couple of years from now.

The Wada signing makes a lot of sense for the Orioles, given their budget limitations.  He’s well worth the risk on $8.15 million over two years.  However, neither Wada nor Utsumi is as good as Sugiuchi.

Bargain Signings

January 21, 2012

Two recent signings strike me as tremendous bargains for their teams:  the Giants just signed Sergio Romo, avoiding arbitration, for $1.575 million, and the Brewers just signed Norichicha Aoki for what espn.com reports is two years at $2.5 million plus incentives.

Romo has more than three years of major league experience under his belt, and he was arguably the best set-up man in the Senior Circuit over the last two seasons.  To me, that’s worth a lot more than $1.575 million.

Actually, it’s probably only worth about $2.5 million, given his role and his experience, but everything is relative and the latter number is almost 60% more than the former number.

In the arbitration process, Romo requested $1.7 million and the Giants offered $1.3 million.  The fact that the Giants quickly agreed to give him significantly more than splitting the difference suggests the Giants realized they dodged a bullet when Romo asked for as little as he did.

If you look at the numbers players and teams usually compromise at after each submits their arbitration proposals, teams rarely agree to more than merely splitting the difference.  Usually, it’s the player who gives up a little more than the mid-point.

The deal the Brewers swung with Aoki for two years is apparently a whole lot less than the $4.25 million (330 million yen) the Yakult Swallows paid him in 2011.  Espn quotes Aoki as saying, “I’m just happy to get the opportunity to play in the major leagues.”

In fact, the Brewers are reportedly even getting an option for a third year.  Given how little Aoki is getting relative to what he could have gotten in Japan, it’s hard to imagine the third year, if exercised, isn’t a bargain for the Brewers too.  (According to Jon Heyman, Aoki gets a total of $8.6 million over three years if the option is exercised and all the incentives are met — that’s small potatoes for a major league player.)

Actually, Aoki would have taken a pay cut in Japan in 2012, because his numbers were way down.  However, a lot of that had to do with how much offense was down in NPB in 2011.  Aoki’s .292 batting average, while almost 40 points below his career average, was good enough for 7th in the six-team Central League.

It’s also almost certain the Swallows had decided they couldn’t afford Aoki anymore.  Otherwise, why would let your best player go for a $2.5 million posting fee?

The fact that Aoki is willing to accept considerably less money to play in the U.S. than he would likely have made staying in Japan, is in my mind a good sign for how he’ll perform here.  One thing is certain, he doesn’t lack in confidence.  I would bet he’s willing to take less money because he believes he’ll be a success and eventually make the kind of money Japanese players can only make playing in the States.

The biggest knock on Aoki is that he’s already 30 years old in 2012.  Otherwise, I see him as a mini-Ichiro, at least in terms of having the same talent set.  Given the very small amount of money the Brewers are going to paying him, I will be very surprised if they don’t come out way ahead on this signing when the contract is up.

Oakland A’s to Sign Jonny Gomes

January 20, 2012

mlbtraderumors.com reports that the A’s are on the verge of signing corner outfielder Jonny Gomes.  On paper, it’s a brilliant move.

It’s been a pretty grim off-season for A’s fans, as the team seems determined to trade away the core of their pitching staff for a bunch of prospects who may or may not ever amount to anything.  One thing is certain, though.  The prospects aren’t likely to do much to help the A’s win in 2012.

The A’s are building for the eventual move to San Jose, which may or may not happen one day.  (This post could easily turn into a diatribe about what a turd Bud Selig is, particularly why he hasn’t pushed through the obvious solution — let the A’s play in San Jose and get construction on the new stadium started and find a way to pay off the Giants for their territorial rights with cold, hard cash — but that’s not the point of this post.)

The A’s recently traded for Seth Smith, a move that really didn’t excite me at all.  At least with the A’s signing Gomes, you can see a little a Money-Ball thinking behind it all.

In theory, Smith and Gomes are the perfect platoon combination.  Smith is terrific against right-handed pitchers, but can’t hit southpaws a lick (.881 career OPS against RHP; .588 career OPS against LHP).

Jonny Gomes is exactly the opposite.  He wears out lefties, but can’t hit right-handers well enough to start at the corner outfield positions (.877 career OPS against LHP; .733 OPS against RHP).

If you played Smith only against righties and Gomes only against lefties, you would have one hell of a left-fielder at a bargain price, not mention at least one really good platoon pinch hitter ready to come off the bench.

As I said, in theory it looks like an ideal arrangement.  In practice, I’m not quite so sure.

They’re both getting a little long in the tooth for the kinds of players they are.  More importantly, they are leaving good or great hitters’ parks in the NL (note that Gomes hit quite a bit better in Cinci than he did in Washington) to come to the worst hitters’ park in the AL.  It would be surprising if one of the two did not fall flat on his face in 2012 given this change, heavy platoon play or no.

One thing to be said for Gomes, given how his career has gone (he’s had a tough time getting guaranteed major league contracts even when he hit well) and the fact that he’s from Petaluma, he’s probably the only professional hitter in America glad to be going to Oakland.

Fausto Carmona Is Really Roberto Hernandez Heredia

January 20, 2012

Yet another Latin player is discovered to be someone other than whom he claimed to be.  Actually, that’s not entirely fair — most of these guys (Pedro Feliz, Miguel Tejada and Vladimir Guerrero, to name three) only get caught lying about their age, shaving off a year or two in order to draw more interest and bigger signing bonus when first scouted.

The trend, if Juan Carlos Oviedo nee Leo Nunez and now Carmona/Heredia can be considered a trend, is to assume another (younger) person’s identity.  This is almost certainly the result of requiring foreign players to provide more substantive documentation as to their birth dates now than was once the case, making it easier to pretend to be someone else entirely — someone who, of course, just happens to be younger.

Carmona/Heredia shaved three years off his age (he’s really 31 instead of his previously claimed 28), which for some reason strikes me as particularly egregious.  Three years is a long time in the life of a professional baseball player and claiming to be that much younger than he really is is little less than fraud. That third year bothers me a lot more than the first one or two.

That being said, now that he’s a proven major league starter, it really doesn’t make that much difference.  The Indians recently picked up a $7 million option on Carmona/Heredia and at either age — 28 or 31 — he’s probably going to be the same pitcher in 2012.  On the other hand, if the Indians had committed to a long-term deal on this pitcher, they’d have every right to seek cancellation on the grounds of intentional misrepresentation.

When this happened to Nunez/Oviedo last September (the truth coming out, that is), he was forced to leave the country and return to the Dominican Republic with three weeks left in the season.  The Marlins immediately put him on the restricted list, which meant they didn’t have to pay him while he didn’t play, and they could also fill his space on the active and 40-man rosters.

As a practical matter, I don’t know if the Marlins withheld his last three weeks of salary.  I certainly hope they did since he couldn’t play as a direct result of being a liar and a cheat.  Yeah, I know these guys are just trying to escape grinding poverty in their home countries, but misrepresenting the facts in order to get a better deal is still lying and cheating.

The latest on Nunez/Oviedo is the Marlins just gave him a $6 million contract for 2012.  However, it’s anyone’s guess when the U.S. government will let him back in the country, and the article linked to above suggests the Marlins won’t be paying Nunez/Oviedo anything until he’s back in uniform.

That may be awhile.  Not surprisingly, since 9/11 the U.S. government has taken a very dim view of individuals who have entered this country pretending to be someone they’re not. Also, even though he and Carmona/Heredia are big-shot, million dollar ballplayers, and not potential terrorists, the government takes a long time to straighten these kinds of situations out.

Frankly, it’s one time I’m glad the wheels of government churn at a snail’s pace.  Taking a year or more to let these guys back into the U.S. would send a strong message about the consequences for prospects who lie about who they are.  Nunez/Oviedo and Carmona/Heredia don’t deserve special treatment the rest of us don’t get just because of they’re well-paid ballplayers.

Rangers Sign Yu Darvish for the Amount Expected

January 19, 2012

After winning the bidding war in the posting process for just a little more than the Red Sox bid for Diasuke Matsuzaka a few years ago, the Rangers just signed Darvish at the eleventh hour for somewhere between $56 million and $60 million guaranteed over six years, just a little more than Dice-K got from the Red Sox.

When I saw these numbers posted on mlbtraderumors.com, it struck me as exactly what I expected Darvish would get when the Rangers high posting bid amount was reported.  In fact, I think any rational person with knowledge of past NPB posted player signings could have predicted the same.  The only question I was left with was why did it take the entire 30 days to reach the final contract number.

It obviously has a lot to do with human nature, and the fact that you can’t necessarily expect anyone to be fair or reasonable.  If the Rangers and Darvish’s agent had 30 days to cut a deal, they were going to take every last minute to cut that deal, even if reasonable minds could have predicted the final contract amount on day one.  Unless it went right down to the wire, each side would have wondered if they had left dollars on the table they didn’t have to.

Either Darvish or more especially the Rangers could have driven a hard bargain.  For Darvish, he could have demanded more, but there’s no way he ever could have commanded a multi-year contract from his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, anywhere near what an MLB team could offer.

Most likely, Darvish at best could force the Ham Fighters to give him $8 million for one year or $18 million over three years.  In fact, even more likely, Darvish could have forced the Ham Fighters to trade him to Yomiuri or Hanshin, the big money teams in NPB, who would then have given him the contract just described.

It doesn’t take much to see that almost any offer in the neighborhood of the posting fee would have been a win for Darvish, particularly if, like most players of his caliber, he wants to test himself against the world’s best.

The Rangers, on the other hand, could have tried to drive a harder bargain, since they had nothing to lose except Darvish himself.  With no obligation to pay the Ham Fighters a dime if they failed to sign Darvish, they could have offered, for example, $48-50 million for six seasons and said take it or leave it.

Of course, the Rangers really wanted Darvish for obvious reasons.  There has never been a more promising pitcher to come out of Japan, and a number of Japanese pitchers have already had great seasons in the U.S.  Also, Darvish did a good job of seeming ambivalent about playing in the U.S. over the last couple of years, which created the impression he might decide to stay in Japan unless he got the number he wanted.

I note that this bargaining process is a little like the dance that goes on every year with the amateur draft picks.  The owners noticed that giving the top draft picks and their agents more time to negotiate contracts gave them a bit more leverage, and so the owners pushed to move up the signing deadline, which also had the salutary effect of getting the signed players into minor league uniforms sooner.

However, despite all the talk that I recall at the time about how determined the owners were to move up the signing deadline, when it was moved up in 2007 to August 15th, the practical effect was to move up the deadline by only ten or 15 days, since teams couldn’t sign players once they began their college classes.  The owners didn’t move it up any further because they didn’t want to be stuck negotiating with draft picks before the expiration of the July 31st trade deadline.  They also didn’t want to move it up to early July or late June for fear that fewer draft picks might sign if not given sufficient time to negotiate.

Even at August 15th, the deals generally aren’t made until the last day, often minutes before the midnight deadline.  It’s kind of a silly way to do things, but since people will never be entirely rational or reasonable, it’s the way things will always be done when this kind of money is at stake.

Baltimore Orioles Sign Wei-Ying Chen

January 11, 2012

The Orioles today announced the signing of Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Ying Chen for three years and $11.3 million.  I honestly wish I could say I was more excited about this move.

Whenever one of MLB’s perennial doormats makes a move to bring in some exotic talent the other teams may have overlooked, I always root that it will work out for them.  Chen is young and clearly has some talent, but there is at least one thing in his numbers that causes me concern.

Specifically, his strikeout rate dropped sharply last year.  After recording 146 Ks in 164 IP in 2009 (8.0/9 IP) and 153 Ks in 188 IP in 2010 (7.3/9 IP), he struck out only 94 in 164.2 IP this past season (5.1/9 IP).

Wikipedia attributes the sharp decrease in strikeout rate to lost velocity on his fastball as a result of a “leg injury” without citation to an outside source.  Maybe, but one thing I know is that pitchers who show similar movement in their strikeout rates over three seasons like Chen’s last three tend to get hurt in year four.  Frank Tanana in the late 1970’s is an example that springs to mind.

Chen has already had Tommy John surgery in 2006, and after four seasons as a top pitcher in Japan’s NPB, he may be just about ready for another elbow tendon transplant surgery.

Of lesser concern is that Chen’s 2011 ERA (2.68) isn’t nearly as good as it looks, given the collapse of offense in NPB last year, reportedly as a result of introducing new baseballs.  Chen’s ERA was only good enough for 10th in the six team Central League, and that fact is reflected in his 8-10 record for the Chunichi Dragons, who finished first in the Central League during the 2011 regular season.

For what it’s worth, Chen made two starts in the seven game Nippon Championship Series against the Softbank Hawks.  He pitched great in the first game of the series, which the Dragons won 2-1.  In Game 5 he gave up five earned runs in seven innings of work, the most runs allowed by any starter in the seven game series.  It was a low-scoring series in an extreme pitchers’ year.

At the end of the day, Chen only turns 27 next July 21st, so there’s a reasonably good chance he’ll help the Orioles in 2012.  He also posted a better than 3:1 K:BBs rate for the third year in row, which suggests he’s a good pitcher.  I just have my doubts that he’s going to last long enough to help the O’s in years two and three of the contract.