Friday, February 24, 2012

Mike Minor is not Yunel Esobar

As you might have heard, yesterday, Mike Minor came out and said that if he's pitching well, he would rather be traded than sent back to the minors.  The immediate reaction was to draw up comparisons between this situation and the Yunel Escobar fiasco of 2010.

The trade of Escobar (and, of course, everyone's favorite pitcher, Jo-Jo Reyes) to the Toronto Blue Jays for Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Pastornicky, and Tim Collins was, both at the time and in retrospect, regrettable.  When it happened, Escobar's power stroke had seemingly evaporated completely.  He was a black hole offensively for the first two months of the season, and while he began to pick it up in June, it wasn't enough to counteract the real problem - he couldn't coexist with Bobby Cox.  To put it bluntly, Escobar had an "attitude," and his lack of hustle became intolerable to the organization when the talent wasn't there.

The Braves were left with Alex Gonzalez, an offensive black hole that Yunel only dreamed he could be.  (Gonzalez was in the midst of a "terrific" offensive season, so the trade was supported by the media, but everyone knew, deep down, that he couldn't keep it up for ever.  And he didn't.)  Sure, he had a glove, but Escobar was pretty good there, too.  It was a lopsided trade, and given the publicity of the Braves' dissatisfaction with Escobar, there was no way to get fair value in return.  Escobar has since matured, regained his stroke, likely become a top-10 (real life, not fantasy) shortstop, and been signed to a very team-friendly contract extension.  Pastornicky, a prospect in the trade, will be starting for the Braves on Opening Day this season, and if he turns out to be a league-average shortstop, most fans would probably be overcome with joy.

This brings us back to Minor.  It's an entirely different situation, really.  Minor has never been accused of slacking off, and his talent has always been there.  The issue has been all of the other talent clogging the rotation and preventing him from showcasing his own.  The opportunity is now there for Minor to seize, and barring a horrid performance in Spring Training, he should have the fifth spot in the rotation (and the fourth spot, while Tim Hudson is out).  Even if he doesn't get that spot, someone will get hurt (they always do) and he'll be back with the big-club in a jiffy.  In 15 major-league starts last season, Minor posted an 8.38 K/9 rate (compare to: Roy Halladay, Madison Bumgarner, C.J. Wilson) and a 3.27 BB/9 rate (...not as good, but not really a deal breaker), good for a 3.39 FIP that far outstrips his deceiving 4.14 ERA.  In the average case, Minor is a pretty damn good major-league starter this season with room to grow.  In the best case, which is not even that difficult to imagine, Minor is the Braves' best starter this season.

The most puzzling thing about this whole situation is why Minor actually said anything.  It's pretty obvious that if he's pitching well, he'd want a chance to stick in the majors.  He knows that he's being afforded every opportunity to have that chance.  Why risk creating tension with the manager, front office, and other players?  Hopefully, Minor pitches well and makes the most of his chance, and this storyline just fades away.  The kid's going to be a good pitcher, but it wouldn't hurt him to be a good diplomat, too.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The 5 Worst Offseason Signings

I've been desperately holding off on reading other people's lists like this because I wanted to write my own without any sort of bias.  Sadly, there's nothing as hilariously terrible as the Vernon Wells fiasco of yore... but it isn't like all of the GMs have suddenly become geniuses either.

5) Albert Pujols (Angels) - 10 years, $246 million
Make no mistake, Albert Pujols is still one of baseball's elite players.  This deal, though, is not one I would have made, because ten years is a long, long time.  The last two years have signaled that Pujols' decline may already have begun, and while I think the demise of  Prince Albert has been greatly overstated, it can't really be ignored.  Players age, and as they age, they get worse.  They get injured, and expecting Pujols to average the 155 games/season that he has thus far will become unrealistic soon.  Luckily, the Angels will have the luxury of putting Pujols at DH, and if they win a World Series or two, this might not matter one bit.  And who knows, maybe Albert Pujols really is a machine, and we'll look back at this contract in 10 years and see that he hasn't aged a day.

4) Heath Bell (Marlins) - 3 years, $27 million
10.21, 11.06, 7.32.  Those are Mr. Bell's K/9 rates for the last three seasons.  Just an outlier, you say?  Bell's best pitch, his fastball, didn't lose any velocity or effectiveness last season, but he threw it 15% less, replacing that 15% with a sinker that rated as below-average by PITCHf/x.  If that continues, there may be no reason to believe that he'll return to the pitcher he once was.  Leaving what is probably baseball's most pitcher-friendly park isn't going to help either.  The man is still an improvement over Leo Nunez/Juan Oviedo/no one, if whatever his name is doesn't get his visa problems sorted out, but the free-spending Marlins probably could have allocated this money better either way.

3) Michael Cuddyer (Rockies) - 3 years, $31 million
The thing is, Cuddyer just isn't a great player.  In the last four years, he's put up 0.0, 2.8, 0.8, and 3.1 WAR via below-average to dismal glovework and non-elite offense.  He's made appearances on many a fantasy team due to his positional flexibility, but the fact is that he can't play any of those positions very well, besides maybe 1B, where his bat doesn't really profile well.  He doesn't represent much of an upgrade for a Rockies team that, after the very weird offseason they had, may not end up contending at all.  Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez does not a contender make, and adding Cuddyer to the fold for $10 million per year doesn't make much of a dent.

2) Prince Fielder (Tigers) - 9 years, $214 million
These last two are, I think, on a different tier than the rest.  The only way this signing is defensible is if the Tigers actually win it all.  Some people thought Fielder put them over the top, and that they are now the prohibitive favorites... but that really isn't the case.  The Yankees were already great, and they went out and had a great offseason.  The Angels, Rangers, and Red Sox are still fantastic teams.  The AL is just really loaded with talent.  But this contract, man.  Prince Fielder, at this moment, is no Albert Pujols, and he probably doesn't deserve to be paid anything like one.
Year Albert Pujols' OPS Prince Fielder's OPS
2007 0.997 1.103
2008 1.114 0.879
2009 1.101 1.014
2010 1.011 0.871
2011 0.906 0.981
Fielder's performance at the plate has varied wildly from year to year.  Some years, he has been elite, and some years, he has been somewhat mortal.  In addition, his defense at first is definitely below average, and he runs... like he looks like he should run.  Which brings us to everyone's biggest concern about the contract: Prince Fielder is a large man.  Historically, the aging curve for heavy-set players is much steeper, and some say it's unlikely that Fielder will even be starting for the Tigers at the end of this contract.  I wouldn't be too shocked if those people were right.

1) Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies) - 4 years, $50 million
Ah, Ruben Amaro.  You just always have to have your man, don't you.  Charting the reliever market from beginning to end, you will note that Ryan Madson, the former Phillie who Amaro may or may not have planned to sign for 4 years, $44 million, landed with the Reds for a single year at $8.5 million.  Papelbon, however, was signed before any sort of market for relievers was established, and was grossly overpaid.  The issue is not even the fact that Papelbon will not produce the value of this contract, which depends on whether or not you think he is the second coming of Mariano Rivera, but the fact that if Amaro had just waited longer, he would have certainly gotten much better value for his money.  Not that I'm complaining, of course.  Between this and the Ryan Howard deal, the Phillies have a couple of the worst contracts in baseball.  (And, sadly, it may not even matter a bit.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Welcome to the Blog, Fredi

I had anticipated not having the opportunity to talk about Fredi Gonzalez until Spring Training had begun, but I miscalculated.  Earlier today, Braves beat writer David O'Brien tweeted that Fredi has said that Julio Teheran and/or Randall Delgado would be bullpen options if they don't make the starting rotation for Opening Day.  It might be safe to assume that we can't pin this all on Fredi, and that I'm shooting the messenger here... but it might not.  Fredi is that kind of guy.  In either case, my reaction was an emphatic "huh?"

The Braves bullpen, it has been well documented, was incredible in 2011.  Craig Kimbrel was likely the most valuable reliever in the league, Jonny Venters was certainly one of the best set-up men, and Eric O'Flaherty didn't do so bad for himself either.  The pieces beyond these three generally made solid contributions as well (besides Scott Proctor, bless his little heart).  This was accomplished despite injuries to Kris Medlen and, to a lesser extent, Peter Moylan, who were supposed to be important pieces in the 'pen.  The 2012 bullpen, before this tweet, was expected to be staffed by Kimbrel, Venters, O'Flaherty, Medlen, and some combination of Arodys Vizcaino, Anthony Varvaro, Cristhian Martinez, Jairo Ascensio, and other less likely candidates.  While some of them may regress from the stellar performances of last season, conventional wisdom would rank the Braves' bullpen as being among the best in the league in this upcoming season.

Teheran and Delgado are very highly regarded prospects, and are going to be starters for the Atlanta Braves at some point soon.  They will make starts in 2012, and if they aren't full-fledged members of the 2013 rotation (at least Teheran), I would be surprised.  Why stick them in the bullpen, then?  The whole point of the minor league system is to allow these players to develop.  These players need to improve their durability by pitching every fifth day and get a better feel for their repertoire, not be stuck in a bullpen where they are called on every... who knows how many days to pitch a single inning.  There was a case for putting Vizcaino, another highly regarded prospect, into the bullpen last year because of his history with injury, but that is not so much the case with these two.  There is no need to rush these two and possibly stunt their development.  While it may improve the bullpen, it isn't by enough that it is worth damaging the performance of the rotation in the long term, or, for that matter, the future payroll by inordinately increasing their service time without good reason.  The relievers that the club will use in high-leverage situations are set in stone, and the low-leverage relievers will be completely adequate.

So, was Fredi just letting the world know of another genius idea that occurred to him, or is this something that has been discussed with the front office and the player development staff?  Only time will tell, but I'm willing to put my money on the first.  If either one of Teheran or Delgado is sitting in that bullpen on Opening Day without a solid excuse (e.g. some disaster befalling... a large number of relievers), I will not be happy, and the future Braves might pay for it in one way or another.