Archive for the ‘Pittsburg Pirates’ category

Increasing Variability in Free Agent Contracts

February 21, 2017

The feeling I get from this year’s free agent signings is that we are going to have greater variability in free agent signings going forward than we’ve had in the past.  What I mean by this is that the best players are going to continue to get more, while the players who are only sort of good are going to get less.

I certainly haven’t done any meaningful analysis of this issue, so I’m just stating my general impression of this year’s free agency period as it reaches its close.

What I think is going on is that as teams get better at calculating a player’s total value, based on offense, defense, base running, etc., they are going to make their free agent signing decisions based on those increasingly accurate valuations.  Players whom a lot of teams value at more than 1.0 wins above replacement, regardless of how each team actually calculates that value, are going to continue to get increasingly large multi-year contracts.  Those players whom the vast majority of teams value below 1.0 wins above replacement, are going to get a whole lot less, either one guaranteed season or minor league offers.

Sometimes, it just takes one team who values a player much more highly than any other team does and is over-anxious to get that player signed early in the free agent period before prices might go up to result in a contract that seems divorced from the player’s actual value.  The Rockies’ decision to give Ian Desmond $70 million this off-season seems a case in point.  In fairness to Desmond, as a shortstop or center fielder, he may be worth the money the Rockies gave him, and it is quite likely he’ll end up playing plenty of games there, as well as possibly 2B or 3B, as many or more games as he actually plays at 1B in Denver, depending on who gets hurt.

Almost all the one dimensional sluggers did surprisingly poorly this year (Kendrys Morales is the one notable exception), because teams saw that a lot of these guys aren’t consistently worth more than 1.0 WAR when you take everything into account.  Also, there are always going to be a lot more available players around each off-season worth less than 1.0 WAR than there are available players worth more than 1.0 WAR.

In a somewhat unrelated note, Dave Cameron of fangraphs.com rates the San Francisco Giants signing of Mark Melancon as his sixth worst move of this off-season, mainly because the guarantee is so large and he believes Melancon only needs a slight drop in arm strength to lose a lot of effectiveness going into his age 32 season.  Cameron thinks the Giants might have been better off signing a couple of less expensive relievers and signing another left fielder.

Cameron certainly has a point, but it seems to me a little like asking a rooster not to crow when the sun comes up.  Everyone in MLB knew the Giants were desperate for a proven closer after their bullpen’s late season and post-season collapses, and everyone pretty much knew that Melancon was going to be their guy, since the Yankees, Dodgers and maybe the Cubs were probably going to price Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen out of their reach.  And indeed, both Chapman and Jansen signed for significantly more money plus opt-out clauses after the Giants signed Melancon.

Brian Sabean & Co. lusted for Melancon and were going to have him, and the $64 million guarantee they gave him was obviously the price to ensure they got him, since there had to be a lot of other teams that wanted an upgrade at closer but knew they couldn’t afford either Chapman or Jansen under any circumstances.

It’s also worth noting that Cameron listed the Dodgers’ signing of Sergio Romo at one year and $3 million as an honorable mention for best move of the off-season.  I understand why the Giants decides it was time to let Santiago Casilla move on, because they had different opinions regarding Casilla’s role going forward and Giants manager Bruce Bochy had obviously lost all confidence in Casilla by the post-season.  However, I still don’t understand why the Giants were willing to let Romo walk away, if he could have been signed late in the off-season for only one year and $3 million.  There’s definitely a strong possibility that Romo signing with the Dodgers for relative peanuts will come back and bite the Giants in 2017.

The KBO Is All in for 2017

January 24, 2017

South Korea’s KBO teams have been spending dramatically more money on free agents and foreign players this off-season than they did even a year ago.  I suspect the surge in investment is connected directly to the 2017 World Baseball Classic to be played in March, some of which games will be played in Seoul, South Korea.

Professional baseball in South Korea is heavily dependent on the national team’s showing in the World Baseball Classic to generate future attendance increases.  In 2009, South Korea surprised the world with a strong second place finish in that year’s WBC, and KBO attendance surged starting with the 2009 regular season.

In 2013, South Korea was surprisingly knocked out of the WBC in the first round (three of the four teams in their initial pool went 2-1 with the South Korean team having the worst runs scored/runs allowed differential and thus failing to move on the second round).  KBO attendance dropped dramatically in 2013, and has only just in 2016 caught up to where it was before the national team’s ignominious 2013 WBC performance.

With Pool A’s games being played in South Korea, the South Korean baseball world is expecting the home team to have an advantage.  If the national team makes the final game again, I would expect KBO attendance to surge in 2017.  Anything less than a top four finish, however, it’s likely that KBO 2017 attendance will be down from 2016.

Right now, it’s looking like some of South Korea’s best players won’t be playing in this year’s WBC.  Jung-ho Kang is off the national team after being arrested recently on his third drunk driving charge.  Shin-soo Choo will miss the WBC because of injury concerns of his MLB team, the Texas Rangers.  Top starter Kwang-hyun Kim had or is going to have elbow surgery this month.

Needless to say, every national team has to deal with injuries to one degree or another.  However, with as much as the KBO has riding on this WBC, not to mention South Korea in general, the loss of any of South Korea’s top players has to be cause for consternation.

Japanese baseball fandom also puts a great deal of weight on their national team’s performance in international events.  I expect that a Championship performance, or, conversely, a disappointing performance in the WBC has a discernable effect on NPB attendance.  However, I very much doubt that the effect is anywhere near as dramatic as in the KBO.

NPB has roughly 50 years of history on the KBO, which only started play in 1982.  I, therefore, suspect both that NPB teams have solid fan bases and fans sophisticated enough to realize that performance in as small a sample size as the WBC doesn’t really prove much of anything, at least when Japan’s team doesn’t win.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the average baseball fan doesn’t spend much time thinking about the World Baseball Classic one way or another.  We have MLB, the undisputed world’s best baseball league, and most MLB stars don’t even play in the WBC because their major teams don’t want their players getting hurt in what MLB considers mere exhibition games.

As a die-hard baseball fan, I find the WBC interesting in terms of which teams perform well each go ’round, and I’m sure it would be interesting to attend individual games, particularly if you can see Asian stars we don’t see much of in the U.S.  However, I don’t put much stock in what amounts to a series of one-game series to determine the alleged “world’s best” national team.

Yomiuri Giants Sign Arquimedes Camerino

December 19, 2016

The Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s NPB just signed former Seattle Mariner and Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Arquimedes Camerino to a $1.15 million contract for 2017.  I don’t usually write about individual signings of players from the Americas to play in Japan or South Korea, because most readers don’t really care, but I decided to write about this one because it seems like such a good one for Yomiuri.

Most former MLBers who go to play in Asia for more money are 4-A players, who are a little too good to keep playing at AAA but haven’t succeeded in MLB in limited opportunities, or veteran players who are trying to squeeze out one or two more years of major league level pay at the end of their MLB careers.  However, there are surprisingly few proven MLB players still relatively close to their primes who elect to go to Japan or South Korea, like Camerino has now done.

Camerino did not pitch as well last year as his 3.66 ERA would suggest, particularly after the Pirates traded him to the Mariners.  The Mariners are reportedly deep in right-handed middle relievers and may not have had room for Camerino, even though he is not yet arbitration eligible and would have been a very low re-sign at somewhere between $550,000 and $600,000, depending on what the M’s scale is for not yet arbitration-eligible players with two-plus years of MLB service time.  Even if the Mariners didn’t want him, it’s hard to believe they could not have found a trade partner, in light of Camerino’s record over the last two MLB seasons (130 games pitched with a roughly 3.6 ERA) and the fact that Camerino has one of the best fastballs in MLB.

Given his age (he’ll be 30 next season), it certainly makes sense for Camerino to jump at the chance to make twice as much money to play in Japan in 2017 than he’d make in MLB.  His odds of success in Japan have to be considered high.  He reminds me, in terms of major league track record, of Dustin Nippert and Randy Messenger, both of whom have made my lists of the most successful foreign pitchers to pitch in the KBO and NPB respectively.  Camerino’s big fastball but not quite MLB command reminds me of Marc Kroon and Dennis Sarfate, the most successful foreign closers (in terms of career saves) in NPB history.  With a slightly wider strike zone and hitters who aren’t quite as good as MLB hitters and thus can be challenged with a high 90’s heater more often, these pitchers can be absolutely dominating in NPB.

Why don’t NPB and KBO teams sign more somewhat successful major leaguers like Camerino?  It mostly comes down to money.  A few KBO teams are now willing to invest $1.15 million on a foreign rookie to KBO.  However, KBO teams want starting pitchers for this money, not relief pitchers like Camerino.

Even in NPB, $1.15 million is a lot of money for a foreign rookie relief pitcher, and Yomiuri is one of only three wealthy NPB teams reasonably willing to make this kind of commitment.  Yomiuri, the Hanshin Tigers and the Softbank Hawks could all reasonably afford to sign a better class of former MLB players than they typically do, but they for the most part obey an unwritten league-wide salary structure which allows these teams to spend just enough more than the other nine teams to consistently remain in the top half of the standings each year and no more.

Asian teams tend to treat their foreign imports as a fungible commodity until an individual player actually develops a track record in NPB or KBO.  Given the money Asian teams are willing to pay, and the quality of players they typically sign, it is really hit or miss whether any one player will succeed or quickly wash out in Asia (Asian teams are not patient with the rookie foreign players except in rare cases when the player’s entire contract is guaranteed), so Asian teams don’t want to make a big financial commitment, even for only one year, to a foreigner who hasn’t yet proven he can excel in Asia.

Add to these facts, the fact that a lot of players from the Americas don’t want to play in Asia under any circumstances.  Camerino is also somewhat exceptional in that he is definitely a late bloomer.  A pitcher only two years younger than Camerino with the same MLB track record and service time would be far more likely to want to take his chances remaining in the MLB system.  Camerino is the kind of pitcher who can blossom late, because his fastball is so big that he’s got more time to improve his command than a typical professional pitching prospect would.  That’s also exactly what makes him such a promising prospect to become a major star in Japan.

San Francisco Giants Sign Mark Melancon and Other Developments

December 7, 2016

There was an article in the SF Chronicle today entitled, “New Giants Closer Mark Melancon Explains Why He Picked SF.”  Surprisingly, the quote, “They gave me a sh*$-load of money!” appears nowhere in the article.

The Giants were determined to sign Mark Melancon and they did by the basic expedient of offering him the most money.  It’s an all-in kind of move since Melancon will be 32 in 2017, but now is the time for one last run at going deep into the post-season with this core of players.

Today’s big news is the Chris Sale trade.  It’s a hard pill to swallow for Chi-Sox fans, given that they had a good chance at their first over .500 season since 2011 going in to the upcoming season, and now they most certainly do not. The team went 18-14 in Sale’s 32 2016 starts, which means the team without him is going to have to be about 12 games better than they were last year to finish 2017 with a winning record.

From White Sox management’s perspective, though, the move makes a great deal of sense.  Sale was definitely a squeaky wheel in 2016, and the White Sox got a boat-load of young talent in exchange for the three years of now bargain-price control on Sale’s contract.  Yoan Moncado, Michael Kopech and Luis Basabe all look like great prospects, and Chicago got a fourth B-level prospect to boot.  Things might look up dramatically for the White Sox in 2018 or 2019.

Joe Biagini Was Great for the Toronto Blue Jays, or Mark Melancon on My Mind

October 16, 2016

Joe Biagini pitched two shutout innings in a losing cause to the Tribe today, and it finally made me take full notice of just what a great rookie season he’s had for the Blue Jays after they claimed him in the Rule 5 draft from the San Francisco Giants.

I had written up Biagini before about his great start at AA Richmond in late May of last year.  I remember noting in my own mind, at least, that the Jays had claimed him in the Rule 5 draft, but apparently didn’t think it was worth writing about.  I also seem to recall noting that he had made the team out of Spring Training and that he was off to a good start.

Then I forgot about him.  As I had written in May 2015, Biagini’s final numbers in AA that year essentially matched his numbers at the time I wrote about him.  Biagini finished the year with a 2.42 ERA in 130.1 innings pitched.  However, he struck out only 84 batters, a sharp drop down from previous years to a 5.8 strikeout rate.

Figuring out that Biagini might be much better in relief was either a based on scouting or an educated guess.  He struck out 62 in 67.2 IP major league innings, an 8.4 rate, which is fine for a top set-up reliever.

One thing I hadn’t taken into account from his numbers is his very low home run rate, which at 0.5 is terrific.  His ability to keep from giving up the long-ball really helped him this year.

I certainly wish the best for Biagini going forward, particularly since he didn’t necessarily have a role in the Giants’ pen this year, which already had lots of relievers as good Biagini.  What killed them was not having someone who could consistently pitch the 9th inning.

So, the Giants are reported to be interested in Mark Melancon as the least expensive of the big three free agent relievers available this Winter.  Well, the Giants can certainly afford him.  I could see him getting five years and $50+ million, given how bad management probably wants a top closer.

Some Notes on Asian Players in the U.S. and Vice Versa

September 26, 2016

Jung-ho Kang and Hyun-Soo Kim were both in the news today for very different reasons.

Kang made a play on Bryce Harper today that is probably acceptable in South Korea’s KBO, but that doesn’t fly in MLB, to say the least.  Harper hit a ball into the right field corner and legged it out for a triple.  The relay throw was well off line and threatened to disappear somewhere up the left-field foul grounds, and Kang faked a tag on Harper, forcing Harper to slide and thus likely preventing Harper from scoring on the play.

The TV announcer’s comments pretty much said it all: [I’m paraphrasing] “You don’t make that play in MLB, or anywhere in [American] baseball because you might cause the base runner to hurt himself thinking he has to slide at the last minute.”  In fact, that’s exactly what happened.  Harper hurt his thumb on the play, the same thumb he had operated on in 2014.  He stayed in long enough to score the run later in the half-inning, but then came out for a defensive replacement.

The next time Kang came up to bat, the Nationals pitcher threw a pitch well behind him and was promptly ejected.  The fans were then treated to classic baseball “brawl” with players pouring out of the dugouts and a lot of pushing and shoving and bear-hugs and not many, if any, punches thrown.

It’s worth noting that Kang was seriously injured last year on a take-out slide at second base, a play no less dangerous and probably much more dangerous than Kang’s fake tag.  After the game, Kang said he was simply trying to prevent Harper from scoring on the play.

In short, absent playing in the U.S. from the start of your professional career or someone telling you not to do it, there is no way for an Asian player to know what dangerous plays are permissible under the MLB “Code” and which ones are not.  That said, I will not be surprised if a Nationals’ pitcher succeeds in plunking Kang next season in the first series the two teams play against each other, particularly if Harper’s injury impacts his play-off performance.  It’s well recognized in MLB that you protect (and take vengeance on behalf of) your teammates.

As for Kim, he was in the news for slugging a two-run homer that proved to the difference in a 2-1 Orioles’ victory.

Kim has become a remarkably successful platoon player for the O’s.  He is a dreadful 0-for-18 against left-handed pitchers this season, but has an on-base percentage just shy of .400 against righties.  The O’s have been remarkably successful at making sure Kim does not bat against lefties while still getting him more than 300 plate appearances against righties.

This is a big advantage Asian players playing in MLB have compared to former MLB players playing in the top Asian leagues.  Given the relative salary structures of the different leagues, Asian players can have success in MLB as relievers or platoon players and still make as much or more money than they can make in Asia.

Kim got a two-year $7 million contract from the Orioles, which is the same amount he’d have received over four years to remain in South Korea’s KBO.  He probably could have made the same money in two years playing in Japan’s NPB.

On the other hand, MLB platoon players going to Asia are at a distinct disadvantage because they are being paid to play every day in Asia.  If they are good enough or lucky enough, they can hit enough against lefties to keep them in the line-up so they can chew up right-handed pitchers.  Often, however, they have just as much trouble with Asian lefties as they did with port-siders States-side, and their Asian baseball careers are short-lived.

Dan Otero Very Quietly a Big Part of the Cleveland Indians’ Very Quiet Success This Year

June 20, 2016

In light of the Cavaliers winning Game 7 of the NBA finals tonight, it’s going to be awhile before anyone but die-hard Tribe fans notice just how well the Indians are playing this season.  Even when people start to notice, assuming the Indians keep winning, one guy who probably won’t get enough credit for that success is Dan Otero.

Otero was originally a 21st round draft pick by the San Francisco Giants in 2007.  His stuff merited the low draft pick, but from the moment he reached professional baseball, his command and his ability to pitch made him consistently successful, at least when he was healthy.

He caught my attention when he had a fantastic season in AA ball in 2009.  However, he promptly hurt his arm, and wasn’t fully back until 2011, his age 26 season, when his age made him barely a prospect.  He should have gotten a September call-up that year, but his lack of stuff and his tough luck made him easy to overlook.

He pitched well in AAA in 2012 and got a look from the Giants in his age 27 season.  Not surprisingly, he was hit hard in his first major league trail, because Otero is almost certainly a pitcher who benefits from learning and exploiting the weaknesses of the hitters he’s facing.

That off-season he was claimed off of waivers, first by the Yankees and then by the A’s.  He was terrific at AAA Sacramento to start 2013 and terrific for the A’s to finish the 2013 season.  He was nearly as good for the A’s in 2014 when he pitched in 72 games.

However, the bottom fell out in 2015.  Otero is a guy who relies on his ability to avoid free passes and keep the ball down.  In 2015, I have to conclude from his numbers that he wasn’t keeping the ball down that year with predictable results.  Batters beat him like a dusty rug and he allowed seven home runs in only 46.2 IP.

Here’s where the Indians come in.  A lot of teams would have thought that Otero’s two years of success in 2013 and 2014 were a fluke based on the fact that the American League’s hitters weren’t familiar with him.  In fact, the Phillies claimed Otero off waivers and then sold him to the Tribe for cash considerations, which probably weren’t very great.

However, the Tribe appear to have signed Otero to a major league contract  — baseball reference lists Otero’s 2016 salary as $520,000, which strongly suggests a major league contract for a couple of reasons.  First, the major league portion of minor league deals generally don’t get listed on baseball reference, and for a player with Otero’s experience a minor league deal would typically call for a minor league salary of $125,000 to $250,000 and a major league salary of $600,000 to $800,000.

At any rate, I suspect the Indians saw something in Otero they thought they could fix and decided he was worth a major league deal, even though pitchers with Otero’s track record typically don’t get them.  The Indians were apparently right, because Otero has been quietly tremendous for the 2016 team.  He currently has a 0.98 ERA with 26 Ks in 27.2 innings pitched.  He still gives up plenty of base hits, but he doesn’t walk anybody, and he has yet to give up a home run this season.

Otero isn’t going to take closer Cody Allen‘s job, because Allen has true closer stuff.  However, Otero has effectively bridged the gap between the Tribe’s strong starting pitching and Allen and turned the 8th inning into a dead zone for opposing offenses.

Another former San Francisco Giant and very low draft pick who is helping the Indians in a big way this season is Rajai Davis.  I have long wondered why Davis, with his plus speed and ability to play center field was not selected until the 38th round of the 2001 Draft.  He played at a secondary campus of the University of Connecticut, and I would guess his college offensive production and his college swing left a lot to be desired.

Davis eventually figured it out, and in his age 35 season he continues to be a valuable fourth outfielder who ends up playing almost every day because of injuries and his ability to play all three outfield positions.  It was certainly a blessing for the Tribe to have Davis around when Marlon Byrd tested positive for PEDs a second time.