Archive for the ‘St. Louis Cardinals’ category

Maybe Free Agents Just Aren’t Worth It

February 3, 2019

On February 1st, I was planning to write a post about how strange it is that four of the top five free agents (at least according to mlbtraderumors.com) are still unsigned.  Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post beat me to it.  However, the title of his article got me thinking whether not signing free agents means not trying to win.

Analytics are showing that free agents aren’t worth the money they are getting in terms of actual performance on the free agent contracts they sign and that MLB teams are finally catching up, although it has taken them a long time to do so.

I thought it might be interesting to look at what last year’s top 50 free agents (according to mlbtraderumors.com) did in  2018, the first year of their free agent deals, when everyone expects free agents to be worth the most.  Everyone basically understands that signing a free agent is a win-now strategy and that players are overpaid in the latter years of their free agent deals to provide big value in the first year or two of their contracts.

So what were free agents worth in the first year of the new contracts they signed during the 2017-2018 off-season, which was the off-season when free agent contracts dramatically tightened up in terms of guaranteed seasons?  As it turns out, not what they were paid.

I used the average salary over the years of multi-year contracts, rather than the actual first year salaries, which are in many cases lower, because it was less work to calculate.  It also gives a more accurate value, in a sense, of what the team will end up paying annually for the term of the contract.

By my calculation, teams committed $441.9 million in first year salaries, and got total production value, according to fangraphs.com, of only $356.6 million in return.  Of the 47 free agents I included, only 12 players performed in 2018 at a level greater than their average annual average salary over the lengths of their contracts, while 34 performed worse, 10 of whom cost their new teams money by playing at a level below replacement level.  The 47 players have a remaining 62 seasons on their combined contracts, when as a group they will almost certainly perform at a lower level than they did in 2018, since free agents as a group do not age well at all.

Free agent contracts look like a lottery gamble for teams.  A team might hit it big with the kind of performance J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Miles Mikolas and Mike Moustakas gave their teams in 2018, but teams were more likely to get the the underwhelming and overpaid performances Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Zack Cozart and Jay Bruce gave their 2018 teams.

There are a lot of reasons why teams would continue to sign free agents, even if they are overpaid even in their first seasons with their new clubs.  It’s good public relations to sign free agents, particularly if you have lost one or more of your own players to free agency.  The cost in talent, compared to trades, of signing a free agent is very low (although the current collective bargaining rules make it more expensive in terms of talent for the wealthiest, highest spending teams to spend big on free agents, which has always been the driver of the free agent market).  It might be worth overpaying a free agent in order to plug a glaring hole in your line-up.

However, what I take from this information is that it makes little sense to sign a free agent, particularly one in the bottom half of the top 50, unless you are fairly certain one or two performances is all that is separating your team from making or returning to the post-season.  Rebuilding teams shouldn’t be signing free agents until they are truly ready to compete.  Even if you don’t have a replacement level player in your organization at the position you are looking to improve at, a replacement level player can probably be obtained cheaply from another organization, particularly when compared to the financial cost of free agents, even with the sharp tightening in the market the last two off-seasons.

While I still suspect that teams are engaging in some kind of soft collusion — maybe MLB is holding meetings where MLB’s analysts are lecturing teams on the actual value of free agents each November — in-house analytics departments for each team are probably telling teams the one thing they need to do with respect to free agents is sign them for fewer seasons than they did in the past.

mlbtraderumors.com predicted that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would get respectively 14 and 13 season contracts at $30M per.  The reason they may not yet be signed is that, while teams are willing to pay the $30M per, they aren’t willing to guarantee more than eight or 10 seasons, even for free agents so young and so good.  The only rumors I have heard for either is that the White Sox may have offered Machado somewhere between $175M and $1250M for seven or eight seasons only.

The current collective bargaining agreement terms are devastating the free agent market, because the ten richest teams can’t spend like they once did.  The talent bite that comes from overspending the salary cap for three seasons in a row, in terms of draft picks and international amateur spending, is steep enough that the richest teams are all trying to keep close enough to the cap amount that they can dip under at least once every three seasons in order to avoid the most severe penalties.  It is the richest teams that drive the upper limits of free agent contracts, so the current rules are bound to effect free agent contracts in a big way.

Advertisements

KT Wiz Re-Sign Mel Rojas Jr. for $1.5 Million

December 28, 2018

The KBO’s KT Wiz re-signed slugging outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. to a deal that will pay Rojas a $500,000 signing bonus, $1 million in salary (likely not guaranteed) and an additional $100,000 in performance bonuses.  Rojas fills the last of 30 KBO major league roster spaces reserved for foreign players, and his contract is potentially the third largest for a foreigner this off-season, after the possible $1.92M that pitcher Josh Lindblom could earn and the possible $1.7M slugger Darin Ruf could earn — all three contracts include performance bonuses which will presumably require the players to remain productive and healthy for the full 2019 KBO season.

I wouldn’t normally write a post just on a single, non-record setting contract to play for a KBO team, but I found this signing interesting because there was a lot of talk this off-season that after a huge 2018 KBO season in which Rojas set a Wiz franchise record with 43 home runs and slashed .305/.389/.590, both scoring and driving in 114 runs, Rojas was hoping for a return to MLB.  Most of the time such expressions of desire to return to MLB turn out to be a negotiating ploy with the player’s KBO or NPB team, as no MLB organization is willing to match what the KBO or NPB team is willing to pay the player for the next season.

Nevertheless, it is a tried and true negotiating position, and with more foreign KBO and NPB players making triumphant returns to MLB in recent seasons, it is a negotiating strategy that’s likely to be better today than it ever was.  In fairness to Rojas and other foreign players who have made noises about returning to MLB, they probably do wish they could return to MLB for roughly same money they made the previous year in Asia.  I don’t think it is easy for foreign players to adjust to living and playing in Japan or South Korea.

The reality, of course, is that the players (with the exceptions of the very best foreigners like Eric Thames and Miles Mikolas) typically can’t get an acceptable MLB deal for precisely the same reasons that sent them to Asia to play in the first place.  They went to Asia to make major league money when no MLB team thought they were worth a major league contract.

If Rojas is truly serious about returning to MLB, he needs to have a 2019 season in the KBO even better than his 2018 season.  That might be what it takes to convince at least one MLB organization that Rojas has really gotten better since he joined the KBO in 2017.

Most of the 4-A players who find success and earn major league money to play in Asia ought to stick to playing in Asia.  As I like to say, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a minnow in the ocean.  That said, a foreigner’s expressions of desire to keep playing for his current KBO or NPB team don’t generally carry a whole lot of weight with these teams.  The Asian teams want on-field production from their foreigners first, second and last and typically dump their foreign players as soon as they believe that their future on-field production won’t justify their substantial salaries.  Just ask Dustin Nippert, who was forced into what increasingly looks like an earlier KBO retirement than Nippert wanted or deserved.

In light of the lack of loyalty Asian teams show their foreign “mercenaries,” foreign players are certainly justified in using whatever leverage they have to obtain the best contracts they can.  In short, for as long as foreign players have successful seasons in the KBO or NPB, they will be threatening, or at least leaking the possibility, that they will return to MLB unless their Asian team makes it worth their while to stay.

St. Louis Cardinals Trade for Paul Goldschmidt

December 6, 2018

Arizona Diamondbacks’ fans must be sad today with their presumably favorite player shipped out to the Cardinals.  The D’Backs got a fair return in prospects (RHP Luke Weaver, C Carson Kelly and IF Andy Young, plus a competitive balance Round B draft pick between regular Rounds 2 and 3) for Paul Goldschmidt, but I wonder if they couldn’t have done just as well waiting until the 2019 trade deadline.

Perhaps the D’Backs feel that Goldschmidt is due for a drop in production in 2019, which certainly isn’t unlikely for a slugging 1Bman entering his age 31 season, and figured that they better get as much for him now as they can before his value drops.

With Patrick Corbin gone, and free agent A.J. Pollack soon to follow, we’ll see if the Diamondbacks decide to go full Seattle and try to trade away their other over age 30 stars Zack Greinke, David Peralta and Brad Boxberger.  They would obviously have to eat some money to trade Greinke, but packaged with either Peralta or Boxberger, and the D’Backs could get a really nice haul.

I could see the SF Giants trading for Greinke and Peralta, although it would almost certainly cost them Heliot Ramos, since the D’Backs just picked up a young catcher, and aside from Ramos and Joey Bart, the Gints don’t have much prime talent in the minors.

David Harris and Other Winter League Batting Leaders

November 12, 2018

A player who has caught my eye this year is David Harris.  He turned 27 last August and was the best hitter in the Indy-A Can-Am League this past summer, slashing .331/.435/.590 in more than 400 plate appearances.  Although he’s still reasonably young, no major league organization was willing to sign him, even to fill in for late season injureds.

After 25 games in the Mexican Pacific League (LMP) this Fall, Harris is leading LMP with a 1.066 OPS.  Sure, it’s only a 25 game sample, but if Harris manages to stay hot and finish in the LMP’s top five in OPS, it will be a distinctly more impressive feat than leading the Can-Am League, particularly for a non-Mexican player.

Harris washed out of the Blue Jays’ system after two 100+ plate appearance trials at Class A+ Dunedin a few years back, and he may already be too old to seriously tempt MLB organizations.  Where does a player like Harris go from here?

The most likely answer is that Harris will be playing in the Atlantic League or Mexico’s summer league (LMB) next summer.  A really hot first half in LMB in 2019 could get him a contract to play in Japan’s NPB, but the odds of him being LMB’s OPS leader (or at least in the top three) in the first half of 2019 are probably slim.  It takes a lot of luck to be a consistent league leader even at the LMB/LMP level if MLB has already made a judgment that you don’t have the talent to merit another contract even though you haven’t yet reached age 28.

Ramon Urias, Saul Soto and Japhet Amador are other top hitters in the LMP this winter.  Ramon Urias had some big seasons in LMB until the Cardinals finally purchased his rights, and he’s still young enough to have some kind of an MLB major league career in the future.

Saul Soto is one of the best LMB players of his generation.  Soto slashed .262/.366/.401 as a 22 year old C/1B in nearly 300 Class A Sally League plate appearances, but was returned to LMB the next summer season.  Playing summers in LMB and winters in LMP mostly as a catcher, which equates to about the same number of games as a full MLB major league season, Soto has slugged well more than 350 career home runs south of the border.  At age 40 now, he’s been exclusively a 1Bman since the start of the 2016 winter season.

Japhet Amador had a nice little NPB career going until a positive steroids test this summer likely sent him back to LMB/LMP for good.  He’ll hit a lot more home runs in Mexico until his 300+ lbs body breaks down for good.

Soon to be 26 year old middle infielder Hanser Alberto is currently leading the Dominican Winter League with a .911 OPS.  Alberto has already received MLB major league playing time in three different seasons, but has batted dreadfully because he has no strike zone judgment.  Alberto appears to have the raw batting abilities of a major leaguer, particularly when you take into account his defense, but he may have to go to Asia to become a major league star.

Delmon Young is currently tied for the Venezuelan Winter League lead with five home runs.  Young played pretty well in LMB this past summer, and I’m not particularly surprised.  He only turned 33 in mid-September, and he had the raw athletic and batting abilities to be a No. 1 overall MLB draft pick once upon a time.

However, I don’t see Young returning to MLB.  He’s the same player now he was as an MLBer, meaning he won’t walk enough to be successful at the MLB major league level.  If he can lead the VWL in home runs, though, he might be able to catch on with an NPB team in search of right-handed power.

World Series Excitement

October 29, 2018

You know who was really excited about this year’s Dodgers-Red Sox World Series, aside from Dodgers and Red Sox fans?  Fox Sports.

If it was up to the network broadcasting the World Series, at least every other World Series would feature the Red Sox or Yankees playing the Dodgers or the Mets playing the Angels or Red Sox, with the Giants, the Cubs, the Phillies, the Astros and maybe the Cardinals, Nationals, Rangers and Braves making the Series just often enough to keep MLB fans from getting too bored.

Obviously, teams from across the country playing in the largest markets make for the highest World Series television rantings.  In fact, the top viewership for the last ten years was 2016, when the Cubs made the World Series for the first time since 1945 and won for the first time since 1908.  The viewership in 2004, when the Red Sox won for the first time since 1918, was even better.  However, none of the BoSox’ three subsequent World Series have drawn as well.

The 1986 World Series between the Mets and Red Sox was the most viewed Series since 1984, and viewership has tumbled steadily since the late 1980’s early 1990’s to the present decade.

My proposed solution to declining World Series viewership?  It’s the same as my solution to a number of MLB’s structural problems — expansion.  You have to grow the pie and get MLB in more markets if you want to increase World Series, play-off and regular season major network viewership.

However, while attendance was good for MLB’s top 12 teams this year, it was way, way down compared to recent seasons for the bottom eight teams.  MLB is going to be reluctant to expand if most of the current small-market teams are drawing poorly.

It might also be time for MLB teams to consider building bigger ballparks so that there are fewer home runs and more singles, doubles and triples.  However, history has shown that fans (in terms of overall attendance) prefer more offense over less offense.

World Series Indifference

October 29, 2018

The 2018 World Series is now officially in the books, and I have to admit that I found it hard to get excited about this one, even aside from the fact that it turned out to be pretty one-sided.  As a Giants’ fan, I can’t root for the Dodgers as a team, and as a non-Red Sox fan, I find it hard to root for a team that spends as much money as they do and has enjoyed as much recent success even before this year’s World Series.  Also, with the spate of racist, terrorist attacks this week, baseball seems trivial (although it is precisely because the World is sometimes an awful place that we need distractions and entertainments like baseball).

When I can’t root for the teams, I root for individual players.  However, I can’t say I’m a particularly big fan of many players on either team.  I like Kenta Maeda, because he’s a small right-hander and I sung his praises as a potential major leaguer for years before he signed with the Dodgers.  I like late-bloomer Justin Turner, although I don’t enjoy looking at that ugly, bushy, bright orange hipster beard of his — I don’t like Craig Kimbrel‘s beard either.  I’m eagerly waiting for both the don’t-shave-until-season’s-over baseball trend and the larger hipster trend to finally run their respective courses.

I root for Clayton Kershaw to pitch well in the World Series, so long as it can’t hurt a team I care about, because he’s such a good pitcher, but I root for David Price and Chris Sale for the same reason.  But if they don’t pitch well, my attitude is f@#$-’em, because you got to get it done when it counts the most.

The Red Sox and Dodgers have plenty of bright young stars, but since I don’t root for either team, I haven’t developed any particular fondness for most of them. They’re fun to watch, but that’s about it.

I was also a bit disgusted to see chronic steroids cheat Alex Rodriguez getting paid big money to provide commentary at the end of the games.  I can see why Fox hired Rodriguez — he’s a big name, he knows plenty about MLB baseball, he’s good looking (and relatively light skinned), and he’s reasonably well spoken.  It still rankles me, though, the way that Barry Bonds got black-balled by MLB for being an obstreperous black man, while arguably bigger steroids cheats like AFraud and somewhat less obstreperous white men like Mark McGwire are able to continue drawing big paychecks from the game.

In a just world, Bonds will get into the Hall of Fame before either Rodriguez or McGwire, but I wouldn’t count on it.  See racist, terrorist attacks above.

It must have given Red Sox fans pleasure to watch somebody’s else Manny being Manny for a change.  Machado went 4-for-22 with no extra base hits in the Series, which will probably cost him more this off-season than failing to run out the ball hit off the wall, although it really shouldn’t.  Even great players can have bad World Series.  Mickey Mantle went 3-for-25 with a lone double in the 1962 World Series, but hit 18 home runs in the nine other World Series in which he played regularly.

At the end of the day, though, I still expect Machado to get his $300M+ free agent deal this off-season.  You can’t under-perform in the World Series if you don’t get there in the first place, and Machado improves any team’s chances of making it there.

Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2018/2019

October 20, 2018

With the MLB success of Shohei Ohtani, Miles Mikelos and Yoshihisa Hirano in 2018, I think we’ve reached a point where MLB teams realize they need to look to Japan’s NPB as a source of potential prime talent every off-season.  Without further ado, here’s a list of Japan’s top pitching prospects for MLB purposes, as I see it:

Yusei Kikuchi (28 years old in 2019).  Kikuchi is clearly the top NPB prospect for MLB this off-season.  He’s a left-handed starter with stuff, he’s got an MLB sized body (6’0″, 220 lbs), and his NPB team, the Seibu Lions, have already announced that they are willing to post him this off-season.

After a break out season in 2017, when he was arguably NPB’s best pitcher (he lost the Eiji Sawamura Award to Tomoyuki Sugano, who is listed two spots down), Kikuchi was merely very, very good in 2018.  He finished 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA, which was second best among qualifiers in NPB’s Pacific League.  He struck out 153 batters, good for fourth in his league, in 163.2 IP.

Kikuchi hit 98 mph with his fastball in a regular season game in late July or early August 2017, but I didn’t see any reports of him matching that number in 2018.  MLBtraderumors.com provided a good scouting report on Kikuchi when the Seibu Lions announced they were willing to post him.

Takahiro Norimoto (28; 2020-2021).  Norimoto is a small right-hander (5’10”, 180 lbs) with tremendous strikeout stuff, who could be described as Kenta Maeda with more strikeouts or NPB’s answer to Tim Lincecum.  The problem with Norimoto is whether he can last any longer than Lincecum did.  (In fairness to Maeda, he’s got that harder to define “ability to pitch,” which produced better NPB ERAs than Norimoto without the same strikeout stuff.)

Norimoto had a mixed 2018.  He went 10-11 with a 3.69 ERA, sixth best out of nine Pacific League qualifiers, but he led the league with 187 Ks in 180.1 IP.  His walks and home run rate were up, and his strikeout rate was down (although still excellent).  However, he also became the fifth fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 NPB career strikeouts this year, and three of the four who accomplished the feat faster pitched in MLB.

We will have a better idea a year from now, which may well be when he gets posted, if his 2018 season was just a blip or an indication that he’s been pitched too many innings over too many years at a young age in Japan.

Tomoyuki Sugano (29; 2022).  Sugano is a virtual lock on winning his second consecutive Eiji Sawamura Award (NPB’s Cy Young) in 2018.  He’s a tremendous pitcher who led NPB in ERA (2.14), innings pitched (202) and strikeouts (200).  He threw eight shutouts in the regular season (NPB starters only pitch once a week, so teams let a starter go deeper in the game if he’s pitching well) and a no-hitter in the first round of the play-offs, a game in which he was one walk away from a perfect game.

Alas, his team, the Yomiuri Giants, have never posted a player in their history, and it’s unlikely they will start with Sugano.  That means he won’t come to MLB before his age 32 season.  However, I’ve read reports that Sugano does want to pitch in MLB eventually.  Maybe he can be the next Hiroki Kuroda.  He’s got the talent for it.

Kodei Senga (26; 2023-2024). Senga is not real big (6″1″, 185 lbs), but he’s not real small either.  He’s not one of NPB’s top tier starters, but he’s consistently very good and has the kind of strikeout rates you want to see in an MLB prospect (630 NPB career Ks in 559 IP).

In 2018, Senga went 13-7 with a 3.51 ERA.  He struck out 163 batters in 141 innings pitched.  He’s just good enough every year that, if he stays healthy, at least MLB team will look to him as a low cost, high upside sign when his time comes.

Shintaro Fujinami (25; 2021-2023).  I don’t have enough information to know what’s wrong with Fujinami.  He’s a tremendous talent, who may or may not have been overworked to the point where he is no longer a good NPB pitcher.

Fujinami had his second suck-ass season in a row, but it’s unclear whether the criminal overwork the Hanshin Tigers put him through early in his career has taken it’s tole, or he’s just lost the ability to throw strikes.  On July 29, 2017, he hit 98 mph with a fastball in an NPB minor league game.  This year, he had a major league 5.32 ERA with 70Ks, but 47 walks, in 71 IP.  This was actually an improvement in his command compared to 2017.  In the NPB minors this year, he had a 1.14 ERA with 60Ks and only 23 walks allowed in 63 IP.

Fujinami is still young enough and talented enough that he has to be on this list.  It remains to be seen whether he can regain the success he experienced in 2015, when only Shohei Ohtani’s star shown brighter.

Yuki Matsui (23; 2022).  A small (5’8.5″, 163 lbs) left-hander with electric stuff (457 Ks in 370 career NPB innings pitched), Yuki Matsui was used in a variety of roles by the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2018.  He started the season as the team’s closer, was apparently demoted to a set-up role and then late in the season was used as a starter.  His 3.65 ERA was high, but so were his 91 Ks in 66.2 IP.

As I wrote two years ago, it’s anybody’s guess whether a pitcher this small and this young can hold up to the often high-stress workload of a closer (or however the Golden Eagles elect to use him) long-term.  If his arm holds up, he’ll be young when his time to get posted arrives.

Naoyuki Uwasawa (25, 2022).  A right-handed starter big enough (6’2″, 196 lbs) to interest MLB teams, Uwasawa had his best season so far in 2018.  His 3.16 ERA was third best among Pacific League qualifiers, and he struck out 151 batters in 165.1 IP.  He had a strong rookie season in 2014, but this year was the first time he had the kind of strikeout rate you’d like for an NPB pitcher to be a legitimate MLB prospect.

Yasuaki Yamasaki (26; 2023).  A small right-hander (5’11”, 187 lbs) who has saved 133 games in his four NPB seasons and has a career 2.44 ERA and 274 Ks in 236 IP.  My guess is that he would be a set-up man in MLB.

Pitchers available this off-season include Yuki NIshi, Spencer Patton, Jay Jackson and Geronimo Franzua.  Yuki Nishi will be 28 next season, and he earned his domestic free agent option this season. He reportedly asked his team, the Orix Buffaloes, to post him this off-season, but the Buffaloes reportedly refused.  Nishi is a good pitcher, but he’s a small right-hander (5’11”, 176 lbs) whose strikeout rates don’t match most of the Japanese pitchers who go on to MLB success.  The Buffaloes are reportedly likely to offer him a three or four year deal this off-season, and that might well be his best option financially.

I like Spencer Patton’s chances of returning to MLB as an inexpensive set-up man at the two-year $4M amount that Chris Martin signed for with the Texas Rangers last off-season.  Martin’s 2018 performance was not particularly impressive on paper, but fangraphs says it was worth $4.4M, which means Martin has already paid off his full contract amount with another season to go.

Patton had an ugly 6.26 ERA in 54.2 MLB career innings pitched, but he also struck out 58 batters.  There’s no question that he has major league stuff, but his lack of command hurt him in the past.  His command seems to have improved in Japan, where over two NPB seasons, he struck out 133 batters in 116 IP while walking only 35.  Patton will be 31 next season.

Jay Jackson will also be 31 next year, and he’s put in three strong seasons as a reliever in NPB.  Jackson doesn’t have as strong an MLB system track record as Patton, but MLB teams might be interested in signing Jackson if the price is right.

Geronimo Franzua is a left-hander who washed out of the Dominican Summer League years ago, but caught on with the Hiroshima Carp through a try-out in the Dominican Republic.  (It was a good year for the Carp in this regard: they signed another low minors castoff, Xavier Batista, at a tryout, and he hit 25 HRs for them in only 302 plate appearances this season.)  Franzua had a 1.66 ERA mostly in a relief role and struck out 81 batters in 65 innings of work.  He only just turned 25, so he could well appeal to MLB teams.

It’s possible, however, that the Carp have Franzua signed to long-term, low-salary deal, to take into account that the team would have to develop him at the minor league level when they signed him.  MLB teams might also want to see Franzua do it two years in a row in NPB before shelling out to bring him back to the Americas.

Bookmark “EmShinnosuke Ogasawara (age 21 next season), Naoya Ishikawa (22), Katsuki Azuma (23) and Haruhiro Hamaguchi (24) are some young, talented NPB pitchers who still have many seasons in which to blow out their arms before they might become available to MLB teams.  I’ll be keeping an eye on them going forward.

As a final note, Takayuki Kishi and Hirotoshi Masui are two excellent NPB pitchers we’ll probably never see in MLB.  Both are small right-handers who are well over 30 and in the middle of multi-year contracts with their current NPB teams.