October 18, 2012
The Lineup Card
Seven Moves that Helped LCS Teams
1. Marco Scutaro
Scutaro has served as the Giants number-two hitter and has performed admirably. His walk rate with the Giants is the lowest it has been since 2004, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone critical of an approach that led to a .362/.385/.473 slash line. Scutaro makes a lot of contact and proved to be the most difficult player to strike out amongst qualifying hitters this year. It's safe to say that the minimal investment of dealing Charlie Culberson and taking on a bit more payroll has paid off handsomely for San Francisco. —Josh Shepardson
2. Hiroki Kuroda
A few weeks before pitchers and catchers were due to report, they decided that Hiroki Kuroda was jusssst right. Astronomers use the term “Goldilocks planet” to refer to a planet inside the slim habitable zone surrounding a star (the area in which a planet could theoretically sustain liquid water). Kuroda was a Goldilocks free agent. He was expensive, but not too expensive, compared to the market rate. He was successful, but not in the ways that would’ve driven up his price (flashy fastball, lots of strikeouts). He was old, but not ancient. Best of all, he could be had for one year. So for three years less than it took the Marlins to sign Buerhle and $1 million less than the Nationals paid for Jackson, the Yankees landed Kuroda, who went on to finish second to Darvish—third, if you count Sabathia—in 2012 WARP among free-agent pitchers signed over the offseason. At $10 million, Kuroda didn’t come cheap, but given the Yankees’ budget, their position on the win curve, and the short commitment the contract required, he was a darn good deal.
Kuroda entered the season with a 3.45 career ERA in Dodger Stadium and posted a 3.32 mark in a better hitter’s ballpark in a better division in a better league. Best of all, he made a career-high 33 starts and pitched a career-high 219 2/3 innings, not counting two superb starts in the postseason. Paying for wins from free-agent starters is a good way to waste money, but the Kuroda the Yankees got was even better than the one they bargained for. —Ben Lindbergh
3. Anibal Sanchez
4. Darin Downs
Downs, a lefty, was a Cubs fifth-round draft pick in 2003 but spent all but 22 games of the first six years of his minor-league career below Double-A. He was acquired by Tampa Bay as a swingman in 2008. On August 17,, 2009, in his second start for the Rays’ Double-A affiliate (Montgomery) since his promotion from High-A Port Charlotte, Downs threw a fifth-inning fastball to Christian Marrero. Marrero lined it back up the middle and the ball hit Downs flush on the side of the head, then ricocheted into the third-base camera well.
Downs fell but never lost consciousness. Blood pooled in his head, swelling his skull. His fiancée (now wife) was in the stands. He could not answer the questions he was asked as he lay there. In the hospital, they thought he might die.
Nine days later, he was discharged.
Downs struggled when he first came up to Triple-A in 2010, but the lefty adjusted and finished the year well. He was probably the nicest guy in the Durham clubhouse, and the only observable effect of the previous year’s near-fatal injury was a stutter, or hitch, in his speech. He became a free agent at the end of the season and signed with Marlins. His 2011 season, split between Double-A and Triple-A, was uninspiring, but lefties who can throw 90 mph are long-lived. He latched on with Detroit, and on July 3, 2012 at Comerica Park, right after Joaquin Benoit gave up a leadoff, ninth-inning home run to Joe Mauer that extended the Minnesota Twins’ lead to 8-6, the just-called-up Downs was summoned to face Justin Morneau.
Got him to fly out to right-center field. Deep.
5. Not Signing Albert Pujols
Pujols got his 10 years and seven billion dollars, and despite early-season struggles still had a decent year (3.7 WARP). Instead, the Cardinals opted for two years of Carlos Beltran, himself 35 at a mere $13M per year, and spread the rest of the money around. Signing Beltran allowed the Cards to slide Lance Berkman's defensive liabilities to first base (before he got hurt), move Matt Holliday from right field to left, and free up playing time for Allen Craig. All told, the Cards probably would have been better off with Pujols this year, but the drop wasn't as major as some feared. It never is, but humans have a tendency to irrationally hold on to whatever is in their hands.
Beltran is the key element here. In baseball years, he is now a high-risk player to sign, due to his age. Older players get hurt more often and are more prone to sudden losses of effectiveness, but there is risk in every signing, and risks can become over-valued in a market. Beltran's recent track record suggested that he is still able to produce a good amount of value, and his age dictated that he would not be demanding a five-year commitment. He got two. In this case, the risk paid off. If we assume that the Cardinals will spend the "Pujols money" on payroll, investing in such older veterans might be a smart move. For one, it allows them to select a player who plays a position of need, rather than being stuck with having that money committed to Pujols at first base. Secondly, it allows them to choose which of a couple of options make the most sense in terms of risk. If there are three potential free agents who fit the Cardinals' needs, they can bid on the one whom they believe has the least amount of risk (or the best risk-reward ratio). If the Cards had gone to the altar with Albert Pujols, they would have been tying their options to the risks inherent in Albert Pujols, and it's impossible to predict what will happen to Pujols over the next 10 years. In financial terms, the Cardinals diversified their risk portfolio, freed up some money for other expenses, and all it cost them was shifting to a slightly less effective player in Beltran. If they can repeat that maneuver for the next few years, they may come out ahead of where they would have been with Albert Pujols wearing Cardinal red. —Russell Carleton
6. Miguel Cabrera Moves to Third Base
Cabrera's pivotal position-switch enabled Detroit to shock the world by signing Fielder, arguably the off-season's most valuable free agent, to a nine-year deal worth $214 million. Cabrera had not played regularly at third base since 2007, and though his waistline has expanded in the interim, the former Marlin was able to switch back to his old haunting grounds and play close to the level that he had established in his mid-20s. Skeptics were anticipating a disastrous season in the field, particularly after a bad hop plugged his eye socket in spring training, yet Cabrera set out to prove (along with Pablo Sandoval) that a player shaped like a beer keg can still handle the hot corner.
The Tigers had the worst record of the AL playoff seeds, and it took every ounce of Prince Fielder's bat to surge past the White Sox in the final weeks of the season. The Tigers $20 million trio of Fielder, Cabrera, and Justin Verlander are three of the top players in the sport, and the tournament format of the postseason will magnify their ability to carry Motown's title hopes on their collective shoulders. —Doug Thorburn
7. Hiring Mike Matheny