Monday, July 31, 2006

National Crisis

Looking back on today's trade deadline, there were a good number of deals, but nothing major like anticipated. The big names that had been thrown around, like Roy Oswalt, Andruw Jones, Jason Schmidt, Miguel Tejada, Brad Lidge, Mark Buehrle, Coco Crisp, Shawn Green, Barry Zito, Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta, Hank Blalock. None received that dreaded call around 4 PM today. There were a few surprises - like the Royals/Rockies trade, Kip Wells going to Texas, and the Lugo deal. However, the biggest surprise of all, in what seemed like a shocking move, was not a move at all. It was the Nationals' decision to not trade Alfonso Soriano.

Ok, he's been really good this year, one of the ten best players in the NL. His splits - .286/.363/.587 - are pretty strong coming from someone playing home games in RFK (inconceivably, Soriano plays better in RFK than away), and he plays well against both lefties and righties. Not surprisingly, there was a ton of interest in him by teams that were in the playoff hunt, unlike Washington. There was reported interest from Anaheim, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Seattle, Houston, Florida, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston. Needless to say, his market price was the highest it's ever been, and likely ever will be. For Washington not to trade him, they must think they're going to compete next year. Let's try to figure out just how the plan to do that.

C: Brian Schneider - .226/.297/.295 - What happened to this guy? Nobody expected him to be an All-Star but no one expected him to be a black hole of Brad Ausmus proportions. He's no one to count on, that's for sure. There's little chance of trading him - the Nats owe him $12.3 million over the next three years.

1B: Nick Johnson - .302/.435/.534 - Johnson should've gotten an invite to Pittsburgh for the All-Star game, and I thought he was snubbed in favor of homer happy Ryan Howard. Johnson has developed into a less powerful version of Jason Giambi, or else he looks like Giambi in his early years. He's definitely an offensive piece to build around, and they wisely signed him to a 3 year extension which runs through 2009 just before this season. He really won't cost them much, either, at only $16.5 million over 3 years. One of the few smart things Jim Bowden has done.

2B: Jose Vidro - .300/.363/.405 - Vidro appears to be something of a lost cause. He's very good when healthy, but in the rare event he's not on the disabled list, he's still playing with some sort of side effect from an injury. His slugging numbers have died through the years, but the potential is still there. I just wouldn't expect to see it on display much outside a batting cage. Sadly, they still owe Vidro $15.5 million after this season.

SS: Felipe Lopez - .266/.355/.388 - Ok, he's nothing to write home about this year, but I still don't think 2005 was a complete fluke. Lopez has some power and some good skills, and he's just entering his prime. If this year tells us anything, it's to temper our expectations of consistency for him. I'm not sure which year of arbitration he'll be in this offseason, but I think it's the 2nd.

3B: Ryan Zimmerman - .287/.351/.470 - I'll admit, I picked Zim to win the Rookie of the Year this year in the NL, and he's definitely in the race. It's remarkable how consistently he plays against lefties and righties. His defense is the best in the National League, and that's saying a lot when you consider Rolen and Wright.

LF: Alfonso Soriano - He's valuable this year, and his defense isn't as atrocious or team-killing as it would've been at 2B, but will it last? Is 3/5 of a season the outlier here or was the rest of his career, where he never hit well away from Texas? My bet is that he tails off a bit from here on out. He'll cost a pretty penny, though, to keep.

CF: Ryan Church - .250/.368/.511 - Ok, I just can't seriously think the Nats are gonna play Luis Matos in centerfield next year over Church, one of their best players. Granted, keeping Church in the minors early this season is up there with one of Bowden's dumbest moves, but at some point they have to realize what this guy offers, right? Right?

RF: Austin Kearns - .272/.358/.480 - Jose Guillen probably is through with the Nats, seeing as how his contract runs out this year and Kearns is still in arbitration years. His power is still blossoming, and if he can consistently make contact, he'll turn into a great hitter.

SP: Livan Hernandez - They couldn't find any takers for the most worn-out pitcher in baseball, and with $7 million on the hook for next season, I'm not surprised. If the Nats want at all to compete, Livan will have to bounce back.

SP: John Patterson - 2006 has been a lost season for Patterson. Really, all he can smile about is that he pitched pretty well when he was healthy enough to take the mound, totaling 42 K's and 9 BBs in 40.2 innings this year. He'll have to return from surgery well to make the Nats a contender.

SP: Ramon Ortiz - Really? Ramon Ortiz? There's a mutual option on him for next year for $4.55 million, and I figure if they'll let this guy near a mound these days, they'll let him do it again next year.

SP: Tony Armas - Ok, Tony, you've reached the Jeff Weaver point, where potential starts to mean much less and what you do on the field suddenly becomes glaringly clear. Sure, he could break out, but it's much more likely he'll either break down or help some opposing hitters break out instead. He's never been more than league-average, despite all the potential he's had.

SP: Brian Lawrence - The Nats can re-up him for $5.7 million, and he's certainly not worth it. What that means is that they'll probably pick up the option.

Chad Cordero - He's not quite at that level where he's lights out all the time, but he could definitely reach the point one day. Actually, he SHOULD reach that point.

Mo Money Mo Problems
Ok, so let's see what Bowden's on the books for next year already:
Jose Vidro - $7.5 mil
Cristian Guzman - $4.2
Nick Johnson - $5.5
Brian Schneider - $3.5
Marlon Anderson - $.925
Livan Hernandez - $7.0
Luis Ayala - $1.3
Total - $29.925 million.

Ok, now let's assume in arbitration Kearns gets a raise to roughly, oh, $4.50 million.
That'll put this payroll at around $35 million.

Next, let's assume Bowden does one of his stupid, stupid, offseason signings, and gives $4 million to someone like Vinny Castilla or Cristian Guzman or Brian Schneider, who won't help at all: $39 mil

Let's say they resign Soriano to play the outfield. At cheapest, it'll cost them $12 million per. Most likely, it'll be around 14 per and start around 11. That'll push the payroll to $50 million or so.

Resigning Soriano and allotting for a patented dumb Bowden move means that 10 players will make $50 million dollars, or 79% of the opening day 2006 payroll. Let's say ownership decides to increase payroll by $10 million in the first year. That still leaves $23 million for 15 more players, including 4 starting pitchers and more guys going through arbitration.

Basically, unless one of several things happens, I can't see the Nats being a contender next year, for these reasons:
- As good as the offense can be, it's somewhat injury prone and not good enough to carry a team
- The rotation is about as weak as you'll find in the national league. The only truly dependable guy is an injury risk (J-Patt).

What needs to happen?
- Ownership will need to spend more than $73 million, in my opinion. There are too many holes, and if they go get Barry Zito or another difference making pitcher, it'll go a long way.
- These annual duds like Ortiz, Lawrence, and Armas need to all realize their potential in some near-magical way. It won't happen, but I thought I'd list it anyway.

The point of all this is that Washington made what will probably turn out to be a foolish move today. They could've acquired a multitude of pitching prospects - Florida offered Yusmeiro Petit among others, Anaheim offered Earvin Santana, and the Twins are loaded with talent enough to make the deal. I don't even think '07 played into the decision until Bowden realized he wouldn't get his exorbitant asking price. Now, they might not even re-sign Soriano, and all they'll get out of him is a 1st round draft pick. Not exactly Earvin Santana there, is it? If they do resign him, in all likelihood there won't be playoffs in the Nats' near future, unless ownership allows Bowden to go after some pitching, for better or for worse. The scouting department there has made improvements, but it doesn't look like there's imminent help on the way in terms of pitching (or, really, anything).

How could they have acquired the pitching depth they needed to set themselves up for the longterm? By trading Soriano and using the spare cash from that deal to sign a couple of decent starters to some short contracts. Re-sign Jose Guillen to an incentive laden deal, and have a Kearns/Church/Guillen outfield for much cheaper. The bottom line is that the difference between Alfonso Soriano and who they could replace him with is not as big as the difference between guys like Armas and Ortiz and who they could've replaced them with.

It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out, but if Soriano isn't resigned by October, Bowden should get fired for letting this HUGE opportunity slip away. Not that he'll care - he just wants a higher profile job anyway.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Under Pressure

"Pressure pressing down on me/ Pressing down on you..." - "Under Pressure" by Queen/David Bowie

Pressure. That's what I chalk today's biggest trade up to. The Phillies have traded Bobby Abreu, their best hitter, to the New York Yankees. Why? I really don't know. There are various reasons, none of which make a whole lot of sense.
1. Money - Abreu is owed $13 million in '06 (the Yankees are picking up $7 million this year, I think), and $15 million in '07. Yeah, it's a lot, but it's certainly manageable. Especially when the team has an $88 million dollar payroll. Furthermore, Abreu loves playing in Philadelphia, and he was committed to turning Philly into a champion. If the Phillies were looking to dump salary, why not simply dump the guys who had no chance of factoring into the future? They still owe Pat Burrell $27 million through 2008. Jon Lieber is owed $7.5 million next year. To Philly's credit, they're trying to deal Lieber right now and he could be gone (to Texas?) by the time this post is completed. Closer Tom Gordon, 38, is owed $12.2 million through '08. Outfielder Aaron Rowand is due either $3.25 or $5 million next year. The point is, rather than morgaging their best player to save $22 million dollars, they could have dealt these other, less vital players, and saved over $50 million dollars.

2. Home Runs - Much has been made about Abreu's power shortage since the 2005 Home Run Derby, but it's not like he's been completely unproductive. He's still stealing bases with efficiency, 20 for 24 this year. Despite the power loss, he's still getting on base at a Bondsian rate, at .427 this year. When you're on base every other time you come to the plate, you're not going to negatively affect your offense. Also, who is to say the power won't return? Jim Thome's disappeared and returned. The same goes for Jason Giambi. The power, however, isn't the point. Abreu, even in his days of 30+ HRs, never seemed like a home run hitter. The homers were an afterthought when compared to his practice of working counts and getting on base.

3. Pressure - Ah, the power of media. Abreu, as Philly's 3rd best hitter this season, was a pretty vital part of their offense. His salary wasn't a huge issue, especially when Pat Burrell is due for more money than Abreu. The Phils have looked to deal Bobby before, but only when the market seemed right for it, when it seemed as if they could really rake in some talent to improve the club. Every player has their price, but this wasn't the right time to trade Abreu. With Soriano, Lee, and Tejada on the market, Abreu was no longer the premier player available. If the Phillies didn't see him in their future, I think the offseason would've been a much smarter point in which to trade him.

Having discussed the unwise decision to trade him, along with serviceable though not great starter Cory Lidle, let's take a look at what they received for their star.
- CJ Henry: The centerpiece of the NY side of the deal, Henry was New York's top draft pick in 2005, which really only implies that he has some raw talent. So far this season, as a 20 year old in the A-Ball South Atlantic League, Henry has been largely unimpressive. He has a .232/.321/.341 split, and that mirrors his performance in nearly every situation that's calculated. There are no signs of budding power, and there's really only one bit of hope: The Yankees were never good with developing prospects, so maybe the Phillies can turn Henry into whatever he was supposed to be.

- Matt Smith: The 27 year old lefty can't excite Phillies fans. Sure, he's only given up 4 hits in 12 scoreless innings this year, but when you've issued 8 walks in that span, I wouldn't bother swinging either. A 9:8 K:BB ratio doesn't inspire me to believe greatness is to come from Smith. He was slightly better at Columbus, but he was prone to giving up homers and issuing walks (although not that many).

- Jesus Sanchez: To be honest, I don't know much about Sanchez, but I hope he's one heck of a defensive catcher. It's not often you see an On-Base Percentage (.357) larger than a Slugging Percentage (.333). That's a somewhat bittersweet honor - Sanchez gets on base really well but does so little with the bat when he swings that you wonder if it's worth it. Hence, my defensive wish.

- Carlos Monasterios: At least the Phillies got someone with something to show for themselves besides a scouting report. This guy has been absolutely dominant in the Gulf Coast League this year, with a 8:1 K:BB ratio, and allowing a .541 OPS. It's obviously too soon to get excited over these numbers, considering it's rookie ball, but his kind of dominance shouldn't be ignored on any level. He's several years away, but he could be promising.

Verdict: The Phillies gave up too much and got too little in return. At least, they traded the wrong overpaid outfielder. The Yankees are probably now my pick to win the AL East.

For Starters...

(What an appropriate title for my first post)

Let's say you're going to throw a party. To make this particular party a great one, you need:
100 8 oz. soft drinks
20 bags of chips
100 hot dogs

You have:
100 8 oz. soft drinks
18 bags of chips
40 hot dogs

You're pretty limited when it comes to funds, but you go shopping nonetheless. If forced to choose between buying hot dogs or chips, you buy the hot dogs, because you need them more. Right?

Not if you're John Schuerholz. Schuerholz opts for the two bags of chips, plus a few more soft drinks for kicks. What's the point of this little example?

The Atlanta Braves, as of yesterday morning, were 12.0 games out of first place in the NL East, and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card. There are several popular reasons for this deficit, but the most popular in the Atlanta media has been the bullpen. Granted, the bullpen has been pretty terrible by comparison to some of Atlanta's past bullpens, but is it really the problem?
ATL ERA Innings 1-6: 4.72
ATL ERA Innings 7 +: 4.62

ATL SP's ERA: 4.77
ATL RP's ERA: 4.69

Not only has the Braves' bullpen been better than the rotation, but the poor bullpen ERA is partly a result of an even poorer rotation, which wears out the bullpen by rarely pitching deep into games. According to Baseball Prospectus' VORP ratings at http:// , two of Atlanta's three best pitchers have been relievers. So, with the trading deadline upon us, our fearless General Manager has elected to acquire, like never before.... relievers.

Trade 1: Braves get Bob Wickman, Indians get Max Ramirez. Ok, I can't blame JS for making this deal, since Ramirez was not very high in the system depth chart and Wickman provides a veteran closer at minimal cost. The Braves needed a closer more for psychological reasons than on-field reasons. It seems that the bullpen performed better when there wasn't perceived closer pressure. Now, they can rest assured they'll be pitching "meaningless" 7th and 8th innings instead of the 9th, which isn't really any different from the 7th or 8th except chronologically, but whatever. Good trade for Atlanta.

Trade 2: Days after acquiring Wickman, the Braves ship hot commodity Wilson Betemit to Los Angeles for Danys Baez and Willy Aybar. Herein lies the reason for that party example. Don't get me wrong - it's a great trade if you only consider the players involved without the context of team need or team necessity. First of all, Betemit was considered ultra valuable in Atlanta as much out of respect for Chipper Jones' growing frailty as his play on the field. Second, Betemit's greatness is as built upon streakiness as anyone I've ever seen. Last June, he put up strong enough stats to make his season look better than it was. He was on his way to doing the same thing this July. Those are the only two months of his short major league career in which he has managed to get 50 ABs with an OPS over .800. Those standards, by the way, are pretty meager.
As for Baez, he's well-known for his two year stint in Tampa Bay redefining the closer as a guy with pretty average skills pitching his way out of jams and racking up saves while not doing anything spectacular. Still, he immediately becomes one of the 3 best options in the Braves' pen, along with Wickman and Kenny Ray. In fact, if you toss out a meltdown against Philadelphia on June 2 and all his games against the AL, Baez' ERA is 2.79. Other than that particular meltdown, he hasn't been scored on by any team in the NL East this season. He certainly knows how to pitch, because he always seems to outperform his skill set. That's the type the Braves love, so he will fit in.
Willy Aybar, interestingly, is a strikingly similar player to Betemit. Both were signed to major deals as teens out of the Dominican Republic. Both were considered top prospects but eventually slid on their systems' priority charts as younger prospects surpassed them. Both have versatility in the infield. Both have no more than two outlier hot streaks to give them credentials. Luckily for the Braves, Betemit's outlier came just before the trading deadline, while Aybar's came last September and this May. Aybar plays superior defense, in my opinion, and is a year younger.
Like I said, when considering the personnel involved, this is a fantastic trade for Atlanta. Unfortunately, the trade has the context of a playoff chase. The trade doesn't address the starting rotation, which has kept the Braves safely out of the game in two straight games against the Mets.

Schuerholz needed starters to win the wild card. Instead, he found a great deal on relatively unnecessary parts and took it. Now, we Braves fans have a plethora of drinks and chips for our stretch run party, but not enough hot dogs. And isn't that what a rotation is when compared to the bullpen? We need meat to add to the staff, and we're adding side items.

In a related story, I'm taking donations to buy some cushions for Wickman and Baez to have in the bullpen. As much sitting as they're going to have to do out there with stalwarts like Jason Shiell and Horacio Ramirez pitching every day, I would like to keep them comfortable for the rare occasions in which we have a late lead.