Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ryan Howard's Contract Doesn't Look So Bad Now

Will the contract Joey Votto eventually signs make the Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols deals look obsolete? Will it put an exclamation point on how prescient the Rays and Rockies were when they locked Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki up to long term deals so early in their careers? How will Tim Lincecum’s decision to bet on himself and take short-term payouts rather than long-term security and wait for his free agency look?

Criticism of a contract at the time it’s signed is easy but the power of hindsight puts them into greater perspective and diminishes the impact.

Ryan Howard’s contract extension looked atrocious when he signed it because it was done so far in advance (almost 2 years) of his potential free agency and the market was going to be flush with other, better options—Pujols and Fielder among them.

Howard’s extension begins this season and, if he were a free agent this winter and signed it, the criticism for his representatives would be loud and endless.

5-years and $125 million?

Fielder is 4 1/2 years younger than Howard and is a more productive hitter, but they’re in the same realm and Fielder received 9-years and $214 million.

Of course, in reality, the deals are pretty much the same thing. But agents don’t want to hear about age and other factors when hawking their players to the highest bidders. Fans and analysts with an agenda don’t want to hear about the breakdown of the dollars equating identically. They’ll focus on $214 million vs $125 million as the common denominator even if it’s not so common.

The final number is the way they keep score in spite of it being inaccurate and twisted.

Pujols is another story.

He received the $240 million contract from the Angels—a contract that will pay him $30 million on 2021 at age 41—coming off of his worst season in the big leagues. In fairness, Pujols’s worst season still landed him fifth in the NL MVP voting in a season in which his team won the World Series, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it was his worst season.

As much as Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is lambasted for the way he lavishes long-term contracts on his players, signs free agents and has gutted the farm system to try and win immediately, I’m starting to think he’s savvier than any of us realize.

The market was going to be stacked with first baseman this winter. Had Amaro waited Howard out, Howard might’ve wanted a contract commensurate with Pujols—not close to what Pujols received, but certainly not half the guaranteed money that Pujols received either.

For Howard, he got paid, is staying in one place for essentially his whole career and the Phillies didn’t have to enter into protracted and contentious negotiations to keep Howard or consider alternatives.

It’s idiotic to savage the contract based on Howard’s torn Achilles tendon suffered—adding injury to insult—when he made the last out in the Phillies’ NLDS loss to the Cardinals. This isn’t a degenerative injury to a joint that was known to be a potential issue before he signed; it was a freak occurrence that could happen walking down a flight of stairs or getting out of bed. It happened and it’s no one’s fault.

The simplicity that outsiders place on running a club is astounding. To believe that front office people are “stupid” because they make a decision that some disagree with is the height of arrogance and I’ve done it myself.

Perhaps both sides weighed the pros and cons and made the conscious decision to avert what happened with the Cardinals and Pujols where a negotiation that was fait accompli (“Pujols isn’t going to leave the Cardinals”—something I also said repeatedly) and turned out to be completely wrong.

Putting a financial value on a player in an open market is a fruitless endeavor. Few teams stick to a stated budget if they have a choice and as Fielder and Pujols proved, there will always be that one owner who has a reason to spend a perceived loony amount of cash to get the player he wants. The best a GM can do is to make his recommendations to his bosses, come to conclusions of the best way to move forward and deal with the fallout if it fails or accept the accolades if it works. No matter how many people try to find a way to calculate what a player is “worth”, it has little to do with what he actually winds up getting.

Market dictates salary. Not the other way around.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Beware the Rejuvenated Rays' Castoffs

The Orioles are said to be considering signing Casey Kotchman.

What they’re going to do with him is a mystery since they just signed Wilson Betemit, have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis for first and third base. None are defensively adept at any of the positions although Reynolds occasionally makes a spectacular play to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. It’s similar to a weekend in which he’ll hit 6 home runs---many of the “ooh” and “ahh” variety in distance and hangtime to make it appear as if he’s better than he is. Then he reverts to hitting .200 and striking out every 2.6 at bats.

Kotchman is a very good defensive first baseman and had his career year at the plate for the Rays in 2011 with a slash line of .306/.378/.422 and .800 OPS.

That’s what should concern any team making a serious investment in Kotchman.

Considering the lateness of the date and that spring training is approaching along with the availability of better hitters on the market like Derrek Lee, it’s doubtful the Orioles or anyone else is going to overpay for Kotchman, but a team considering a former player for the Rays who had his best season with the Rays needs to examine history and look at the decline of Jason Bartlett, Scott Kazmir, Rafael Soriano, Akinori Iwamura and just about every scrounged screapheap salvaged detritus from their patched together bullpen who’s been used for a brief time and dispatched only to revert to the performance that led them to winding up on the scrapheap to begin with. Sometimes, as with Lance Cormier and Carlos Pena, they wind up back with the Rays.

Is Kotchman as good as he was in 2011?

History proves he’s not. Even when he was at his best with the Angels and Braves in 2007-2008, he wasn’t a force at the plate. He was useful if surrounded by a few power bats and has always been a good fielder, but teams tend to want better power production from first base than what Kotchman provided. If they can make up for it in other areas, then fine; but setting a limit on the amount of money they’re willing to pay Kotchman is a wise move.

Was the issue with his eyes that Kotchman referenced in this NY Times piece and its repair the genesis of his struggles in 2009-2010?


But that doesn’t make a Rays' castoff any more of a guarantee to continue the work he did with the Rays as he reestablished his value. They seem to know which way the wind is about to blow and how to judge a player and determine whether he's "figured it out" or is enjoying his career years in Tampa. That’s a reason for interested teams to look at these players with a jaundiced eye and wonder if they’re getting the pre-Rays or post-Rays player and if they’ll be overpaying to do it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Oswalt as the 6th Man

When the Blue Jays were one of the frontrunners for---and in fact were widely expected to get---Yu Darvish, I wrote that their intention might have been to use Darvish in his familiar 6-man rotation to both make him comfortable and manage his workload while holding down the innings counts of their young pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow.

The Blue Jays missed out on the Japanese/Iranian righty and the Rangers eventually got Darvish.

After shifting Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation and signing Joe Nathan to take over as closer, the Rangers’ rotation appears set.

But their interest in Roy Oswalt lends another option into the mix along with questions as to why they need another established starter.

Could it be that the Rangers are also considering going with a 6-man rotation, but for different reasons?

Because the Rangers have gone so far against the new conventional orthodoxy of babying their starting pitchers and are telling them as they make their way up through the minor league system that six innings and 100 pitches (whichever comes first) aren’t going to cut it, they’ve been the subject of resistance from the Rick Petersons of the world who are invested in the “scientific” study of pitchers (along with selling their theories to information-hungry and desperate amateurs).

What would a team that specifically pushes their starters deeper into games have to do with a 6-man rotation?

If they implemented such a plan, the Rangers would be diminishing the workload of their pitchers in a different way than limiting their innings and pitches. The extra day of rest would allow the pitchers to go even deeper into games than the 7-8 innings and 120 pitches that are now seen as extreme. They’d be able to rest their bullpen periodically while not putting forth the perception of abusing their pitchers in some random experiment that has no basis in the hard (and ineffective) data that has led the Yankees to placing the likes of Joba Chamberlain in a plastic bubble and simultaneously destroying any chance he ever had of fulfilling his potential.

The Rangers, staffed by Hall of Fame former pitchers Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux along with the highly respected pitching coach Mike Maddux, can look at a pitcher and use their own experiences to say, “his back leg is dragging”; “he’s not following through completely”; “his hips aren’t turning with the same force they were earlier in the game”; or “he’s not showing the same ferocity” and determine that the pitcher is tired because of fatigue, not because he’s reached a previously prescribed number that they pulled out of the air and are referencing a series of studies to justify their paranoia.

Thinking one is tired and being tired are two different things. If a pitcher knows beforehand that he’s only expected to put in a certain amount of work, that’s how his mind will focus and he might think he’s got nothing left when he does have something left.

Not everyone is a Roy Halladay and wants to finish what he starts.

As pitchers, Greg Maddux and Ryan weren’t babied and stayed out on the mound in good health and effectiveness to a remarkable degree.

This isn’t to suggest that the pitchers should be told to toughen up and stay out on the mound if they’re not feeling right---Greg Maddux was criticized late in his career for pulling himself out of games after a certain number of pitches---but it’s understanding what they’re looking at and taking into account everything that goes into throwing a baseball in a repeated and stressful manner every 5 (or 6) days.

These men are in a unique position to say what they’re doing and why without adherence to outsiders telling them they're wrong.

Shunning the armchair experts like Keith Law, who vomit scouting terminology and say things to make it sound as if they’re insiders when they’re only putting forth a pretense of such; or looking at the specious and self-indulgent reasoning behind writer Tom Verducci’s so-called “Verducci Effect” aren’t indicative of resistance to an ever-changing reality, it’s actual analysis without cowering amongst the masses in an effort to avoid criticism if it doesn’t work.

Calculating an individual on a chart, graph or by sputtering randomness because it sounds good and having the hypnotized sheep take every word said as gospel doesn’t make one an expert. For all of his down-home, country simplicity in a pleasant Southern drawl and known old-school Texas conservatism, Ryan was one of the first pitchers to lift weights; he paid close attention to his mechanics and was willing to listen to others like the late Angels coach Jimmy Reese, who showed him the value of vitamins and good nutrition. Ryan trusted his own instincts and understanding of his body and he’s transferred that to his work as an executive.

In certain circles, a 6-man rotation would be seen as a concession to the times. Some would probably twist it to validate themselves. But if the Rangers consider it, it will be because they have a method behind doing it and not because they want to place their pitchers in a sealed sarcophagus and protect them from the war of attrition known as pitching, preferring failure to the risk of injury and a misinformed public’s vitriol.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Leyland’s “Principled” Charade

It’s best to take what a manager says in January and pretty much ignore it. Because of that, when Jim Leyland insists that Miguel Cabrera is going to move to third base---his tone signifying no ifs ands or buts---you should nod politely and expect it to be proved as “baseball”.

That’s not a lie.

It’s “baseball”.

Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four of the episode in which teammate Mike Marshall received two different stories regarding his demotion to the minors from the manager and GM---both of them nonsense. Bouton explained Marshall’s view of this in the following line:

Now, some people would call that a contradiction. Others might call it a lie. Mike Marshall called it baseball.

Is Leyland “lying” or is he giving Cabrera time to get used to the idea of sharing first base and DHing before he has to report to spring training? Will he give the player a chance to lose a few pounds and have a look at him at the position in March before bowing to the inevitable reality and figuring something else out?

Initially, I felt that was the case, but Leyland is insisting that Cabrera’s going to play third.

Anyone questioning him on this decision will be subject to Leyland’s cigarette-ravaged voice in an extended, “I’m a baseball guy and you’re a dumb writer” tirade. With Leyland being so adamant that Cabrera’s going to third base, Tigers fans should be concerned that Leyland’s going to ignore his eyes and the entreaties of his pitchers and put Cabrera at third base for the sake of being contrary.

That’s not managing. That’s being arrogant and difficult for no reason other than ego and it’s going to hurt the team if he follows through on it.

I still don’t think Leyland will do it, but when listening to the rhetoric and considering the involvement of his “principles” of saying something and sticking to it, I’m not so sure.

But principles are floating just like Marshall’s interpretation of lies.

It’s not going back on them to accept that Cabrera can’t play third and to react accordingly.

It’s baseball.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Warning Signs Abound for the Phillies

It’s no secret that the window for the Phillies to continue dominating the National League East is closing rapidly. Looking at their roster, age and contracts, there were concerns before the news that they intend to go with Ty Wigginton as their regular first baseman and a platoon of John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix in left field to replace Raul Ibanez.

(Domonic Brown? What’s a Domonic Brown?)

A left field platoon of Nix and Mayberry should be productive enough. Nix’s good defense and pop will counteract---to a point---his lack of on-base skills. Mayberry deserves the chance to play every day, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said there will likely be a platoon.

Wigginton can’t field, Jim Thome can barely move, and Chase Utley’s range is compromised by his physical breakdown. The Phillies strength on the mound will be damaged by porous defense on the right side of the infield.

The National League East no longer automatically belongs to the Phillies. The Marlins have made major free agent acquisitions; the Nationals are improved; and the Braves are being ignored because of their lack of movement, but are still very good.

The Phillies are old, expensive and trapped by a payroll that’s at its limit. Despite assertions to the contrary, Roy Halladay is human and can’t keep up his excellence forever. They can rely on their top three starters for 2012 as Halladay and Cliff Lee are still at the top of their games and Cole Hamels is singing for his free agent supper.Vance Worley is entering his second go-round through the league and, much like Jason Isringhausen proved with the Mets from 1995-1996, it’s not as easy as Worley made it look in 2011 by blasting fastballs and swagger.

The Phillies offense was a problem last season in spite of the pitching carrying them to 102 wins. They didn’t hit in the playoffs and it was the main reason they got bounced in the first round.

They’ve done nothing to improve that offense and will be without Ryan Howard for at least the first two months of the season.

Have they repaired the problems that contributed to their playoff losses in 2010-2011? An upgrade was made by replacing their on-again/off-again closer Ryan Madson with one of baseball’s best in Jonathan Papelbon, but it's not an upgrade so significant that it will account for worsening offense and defense.

Considering their payroll issues and that their farm system is largely gutted, they won’t be able to do anything drastic at mid-season to fix their issues as they have in the past.

Flashing warning signs are everywhere and teams that have had five year runs as the Phillies have tend to come apart quickly. Due to reality, circumstance, personnel errors, desperation trades, overpriced contracts and compromises to the present, the Phillies fall might come a year or two early.

That fall will be rapid. Don’t be stunned if it begins in earnest in 2012.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Darvish is Coming

Totaling up the posting fee and the reported contract for Yu Darvish, the Rangers have made a commitment of $111.7 million over 6-years for what amounts to a talented unknown.

I’ve repeatedly said that I think Darvish is going to come to North America and become a sensation reminiscent to the true trailblazer for all Japanese stars who’ve come to the big leagues in the past 17 years, Hideo Nomo.

He’s not a guarantee though.

While comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Irabu and any other Japanese imports are silly and somewhat stereotypical bordering on racist, the questions with Darvish are viable.

In Japan they use a smaller ball. The Major League season is longer. The schedules and workout regimens are different. Pitchers in the majors are used in a 5-man rotation rather than pitching once a week as they do in Japan.

Those are just a few of the differences he’ll have to overcome before getting to culture and comfort.

But stuff is stuff and Darvish’s stuff is legit. The Rangers are a smart organization with one of baseball’s most respected pitching coaches, Mike Maddux and the newly added front office assistance of his brother, the future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Plus Nolan Ryan is running the place.

Darvish has a two-seam and a four-seam fastball, a wicked off-speed curve, a forkball and a slider. His motion is reminiscent of Tim Lincecum and he hasn’t been overused and abused as Matsuzaka was. He’s pitching in Texas and not New York as Irabu was and his boss won’t be calling him names as George Steinbrenner did with Irabu. Ryan will be able to understand why he’s struggling and take steps to help him rather than screaming and ripping him in the press with no means to an end other than expressing his frustration that his high priced investment isn’t an immediate superstar.

Looking at it under a financial and practical microscope, would the Rangers have been better off having spent that money to keep their own free agent C.J. Wilson or signed a free agent such as Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson or Mark Buehrle?


With those pitchers, you know what you’re getting. With Darvish, he’s not quite an amateur draftee; nor is he an established commodity who’s done it in the big leagues before.

The posting fee for Darvish doesn’t count against the luxury tax. That’s a consideration for a team with financial limitations like the Rangers. But the total is still $111 million+.

Saying he might wind up as a Matsuzaka is, as mentioned before, based on nothing other than their Japanese heritage—they’re totally different pitchers. Saying he could be a disastrous free agent signing like Carl Pavano or John Lackey isn’t based on anything other than the risk of giving any pitcher a large check.

It happens.

We don’t know.

Before seeing clips if Darvish, I fell in line with the school of thought that he wouldn’t be worth the fee and the contract. After seeing him, I felt that he had all the tools to be a megastar on and off the field.

Now he’s coming.

Now we’re going to see.

Campos is Cashman's Misshapen Key

This is a small but striking piece from yesterday’s New York Times---link.

Phil Hughes agreed to a 1-year contract to avoid arbitration. The contract pays him $3.2 million, a raise of $500,000.

There’s nothing notable about a four-year veteran receiving a contract with those dollar figures. But it was the conclusion that caught my attention. It says:

Teams are likely to inquire about Hughes, and the Yankees will be willing to listen to trade offers.

It was only four years ago when Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy were in the nascent stages of redefining the Yankees developmental apparatus. They were to be homegrown talent providing competence-to-brilliance at an affordable price.

Of course it didn’t work out that way.

Kennedy was traded and fulfilled expectations in a Diamondbacks uniform. Chamberlain was shuttled between the starting rotation and bullpen and is now recovering from Tommy John surgery, a mere shell of the dominating force and sensation he was on his arrival in 2007. And Hughes was also used as a starter and reliever, saw his velocity drop to levels where he couldn’t get anyone out in early 2011 and returned to some semblance of effectiveness late in the season.

Hughes is a tradable commodity fighting for his spot in the starting rotation with non-existent on-field value. Other teams will be attracted by his age and the hope that he can fulfill that potential away from the usage guidelines imposed upon him by the Yankees, but aside from their own headaches or projects, they’re not going to give up much of anything to get Hughes.

This is why it’s so ludicrous to think that the same Yankees front office is suddenly learning its lessons as they acquire Michael Pineda and Jose Campos from the Mariners for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi.

The concept that Campos is the “key” to the trade---at 19-years-old and having spent last season in low-A ball---is either delusional or a transparent attempt at propaganda to assuage the anger that Montero was traded at all.

Have the Yankees proven that they’re able to assess pitchers under Brian Cashman? The same GM who signed the likes of Kyle Farnsworth, Steve Karsay, A.J. Burnett and Pedro Feliciano?

There are some instances in which Cashman gets a pass. Carl Pavano was a disaster that, had it not befallen the Yankees, would’ve hit someone else because there were about four other teams prepared to pay Pavano the same amount of money the Yankees did.

But these examples of dropping the lowest grade haven’t happened often enough to warrant deferring to his or anyone in the organization’s judgment when it comes to pitchers.

Now they’re waiting and following the same trajectory with Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances as they did with Kennedy, Chamberlain and Hughes. They point to studies---both medical and historical---to validate the babying that’s gone on since both joined the organization.

Is it paranoia?

Is it fear?

Is it arrogance?

Is it a calculating desire on the part of the GM to accrue the credit that the likes of Theo Epstein has for being a “genius”?

Any reason is an explanation.

I’d be very concerned if Cashman is doing these things because he thinks they’re the right way to go about nursing a pitcher to the majors. That would indicate a total obliviousness to what's happened right in front of his eyes to all of these starting pitchers who will go on his ledger as, at best, disappointments. The mandates on innings and pitch counts not only hindered the development of the three pitchers from 2008, but both Hughes and Chamberlain got hurt in spite of them.

They couldn’t pitch effectively and didn’t stay healthy, so what was the point?

Some refer to the development of Ivan Nova as “proof” that the Yankees can nurture pitchers. But Nova was never considered a prospect and the Yankees repeatedly left him exposed to other clubs. Nova was selected by the Padres in the Rule 5 draft of December 2008 only to be returned to the Yankees the next spring. They didn’t know what he was and as recently as last season, they sent him to the minors as the odd man out when they had too many starting pitchers.

Was it so hard to look at Nova and see something different? Didn’t it impress the organization when he buzzed Jose Bautista and Bautista took a few steps toward the mound attempting to intimidate the rookie and Nova didn’t back down an inch?

There are aspects to pitching more important than high draft status a dazzling array of stuff. Nova's fearless. That counts for something.

Is it poor recognition skills or did they want to bolster the pitchers that were “supposed” to be the centerpieces?

Cashman was once adept at speaking to the media, saying three notebook pages worth of stuff, yet saying nothing at all. As he’s aged, he’s dispatched the circular dialogue sprinkled with non-committal corporate terminology to allocate blame and place the onus on players in an unfair manner.

Feliciano's shoulder injury was left at the door of the Mets when Cashman said the pitcher had been “abused”. Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen shot back asking how the Yankees didn’t know about Feliciano’s workload before they signed him.

A few days ago ESPN’s Jim Bowden revealed this Cashman analysis of Pineda:

Brian Cashman told me last night that Michael Pineda better improve the change-up & develop into a #1 starter or he will have made a mistake

Cashman also compared Montero to Mike Piazza and Miguel Cabrera.

Is Cashman really putting that yoke around the neck of a 23-year-old as he enters a new clubhouse to stand behind CC Sabathia in the starting rotation, pitching for a team and fanbase to whom anything less than a World Series win is considered disastrous?

I would not have traded Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos. I would have done as the Yankees did simultaneously to the trade being announced and signed Hiroki Kuroda and moved forward with what I had. Unless Cashman has something else on the burner, his reservations about Pineda and blustery proclamations about Montero made it too high risk a decision to feel good about. If he doesn’t feel cocksure about Pineda, how does he justify trading a bat he valued so highly?

Those who are trying to play up the inclusion of Campos as important had better look at the Yankees history of pitchers and how many of them have fulfilled the hype---not the promise, but the hype.

It’s right there in black and white, on the medical reports and in the trade buzz.

If you’re thinking that Campos is their new discovery and saving grace for a risky trade, you’d better look at history and think again.