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November 21, 2003

Prospectus Today

Awards, Deals, and Stupid Owner Tricks

by Joe Sheehan

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Too much to cover, but I'll give it a shot. Once I get done with my writing for Baseball Prospectus 2004, I'll be back to a regular schedule.

Awards

For the first time in a while, I didn't think there were any major mistakes in the BBWAA awards. Or more accurately, I didn't find any outcome that I couldn't understand.

That's not to say that everything was perfect. The one award that clearly went to the wrong person was the NL Rookie of the Year honor. Dontrelle Willis had the story, though, and combined with his clear advantage over Brandon Webb in the W-L column, there wasn't much doubt that Willis was going to win. It was the wrong choice, but one that had been a fait accompli for some time.

American League voters got their rookie honors right, although perhaps for the wrong reasons. Angel Berroa came from behind to grab the award, something that rarely happens with this particular balloting. Berroa was helped by the refusal of two voters to put Hideki Matsui on the ballot, despite Matsui being eligible by the rules of the voting and pretty clearly one of the top three rookies in the AL this year. The two writers, Bill Ballou and Pat Souhan, both cited Matsui's experience in Japan as a factor in their decision, and both are wrong for doing so. Matsui was a rookie, and acceptance of a ballot in this process should mean acceptance of the eligibility rules, not an opportunity to make a statement against them.

On the other hand, Berroa was also left off two ballots. Last I checked, Omaha isn't in Japan but rather in one of those flat, boxy places in the middle of a map--Oklaska or Kanhoma or something, one of the flyover states--so I don't know what motivated Pat Caputo and Bill Campbell to omit the Royals' shortstop.

The big story was that the MVP awards actually went to the most valuable players in each league. Alex Rodriguez, in a wildly split vote, and Barry Bonds in a a landslide, took home the trophies, leaving statheads with nothing to bitch about for four months.

I'm done trying to figure out the American League MVP balloting, because each year it gets about 10% stranger. At this rate, the 2011 AL MVP will be a female dentist from Marseilles. After the top three of Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, and Jorge Posada, The ESPN.com candidates, Shannon Stewart (Jayson Stark) and David Ortiz (Peter Gammons), managed to finish fourth and fifth, respectively, despite objective qualifications that shouldn't have had them in the room. I'm willing to chalk it up to how widely read and respected Stark and Gammons are, because neither player measures up to the next batch of players in the voting.

All told, 10 guys got first-place votes, including Jason Giambi, who received one first-place vote, one fourth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-place vote each, and three 10ths. One guy thought he was the MVP, and 20 of his peers didn't think he was in the top 10. That wasn't even the weirdest Yankee story; Derek Jeter was named on just two ballots, but on one of them he was listed second. No, I didn't know Tim McCarver-Jeter had a ballot, either.

The National League appeared to come down to Bonds' performance being too good to ignore. While he won in convincing fashion, I'm inclined to believe it had as much to do with the failure of the Cardinals to show up for September as any recognition of Bonds' value. Had Albert Pujols played past September 28--for no reason other than his teammates played better than they actually did--I fear the "he lifted his team into the postseason" storyline would have swayed many voters. Never mind that the Giants would have had a better record, with Bonds' play having allowed them to effectively clinch in the middle of August. A Cardinals' playoff appearance would have given Pujols the MVP award.

So while the outcomes were objectively the "right" ones, and I think the spread of performance analysis and the availability of advanced metrics is starting to make inroads in the mainstream media, I don't think this year's MVP votes reflect anything more than the unique circumstances of one year. It's a data point, not a trend.

The one conclusion I might be inclined to reach is that we've left behind the emphasis on runs batted in that ruled MVP voting for a time. There were dominant RBI men in the middle of the discussion in both leagues, and both finished second. The last time an RBI champ won the MVP was in 1998, when both Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez turned the trick. If RBIs are going to mean less than OBP or defensive position, that's a good thing, and a real evolution in the process.

Trades

While most teams have been content to announce that they're slashing payroll and aren't interested in any good baseball players, the A's have been busy replacing their Folger's crystals with a major-league outfield.

For the sake of my deadline, let's assume that the A's trade with the Padres will actually be completed. As reported, the swap would bring Mark Kotsay to Oakland in exchange for Ramon Hernandez and Terrence Long. With Hernandez and Long having backloaded contracts, the money washes out (the A's actually gain some payroll flexibility in 2004 and 2005), so the deal can be evaluated on its baseball merits.

In that regard, you have to like the swap for the A's. Hernandez is a good catcher who adds value, but he's not going to get much better than last year's .273/.331/.458 performance. He might improve a little, probably by adding power and picking up another 10 points of average, but he is what he is: Terry Steinbach without the big years. Long is just a fifth outfielder, and for the A's, trading him is addition by subtraction. Kotsay, even if his back still gives him trouble, is a two-way upgrade over what the A's have been playing in center field. If Kotsay is healthy, he'll be the best center fielder in the division, and one of the three or four best in the AL (faint praise, admittedly).

The Padres have moved aggressively to fill what they see as their biggest hole, catcher, but in doing so have created a comparable hole in center field. If this trade means Brian Giles has to play a significant amount of time in center, with Xavier Nady and either Phil Nevin or Ryan Klesko flanking him, they'd better hope for the strikeout/groundball staff from hell. Given the Padres' logjam of corner talent, it's hard to see how they won't have to play Giles in center field, and in doing so, give up as many runs on defense as Hernandez adds on offense. All this, and they'll pay Terrence Long $8.75 million over the next two years to be an extra outfielder.

That deal may not yet pass, but if it does, I have to think it favors the A's over the Padres.

The deal that is in the books strikes me as good for both teams. The A's and Blue Jays dealt from strengths to shore up weaknesses by making a one-for-one swap: Ted Lilly-for-Bobby Kielty. The Jays needed at least one more starting pitcher; Lilly should be able to provide innings, he has some upside and he's not that expensive (arbitration-eligible in 2004, I doubt he'll even end up swapping figures, and will probably make $1.5 million). They could afford to move Kielty because of the glut of good outfielders they have coming through their system. It's possible that the starting outfield at Syracuse on Opening Day--Gabe Gross, Alexis Rios and John-Ford Griffin--will be better than half the outfields in the AL.

Kielty's reputation as an underappreciated OBP guy who just needs a job probably needs to be examined. He's 27, and has a career line of .261/.367/.428 despite having spent his entire career in pretty good hitting environments. That line is barely acceptable for a corner outfielder, and Kielty doesn't look like he's going to be a center fielder (certainly not in Oakland, with its large outfield). Other than in 2002, he really hasn't hit from the left side (career: .244/.350/.382, vs. .293/.401/.518 from the right side). He's moving to a ballpark that crushes batting average, so Kielty may have to rely even more on his plate discipline in order to put runs on the board.

I'm not saying Kielty can't contribute, just that expectations have to be tempered. Much as Jeremy Giambi never played up to expectations in Oakland, and Erubiel Durazo was a mild disappointment in his first year in green and gold, it may be that Kielty, too, will settle in at a level that keeps him in the lineup but doesn't make him a star or the A's a run-producing machine.

Honestly, I think the A's traded the wrong left-hander. Lilly is a decent pitcher who is unlikely to be a star, and well-suited to the big outfield in Oakland. He's not very highly regarded, which you can probably tell by his being dealt straight up for Bobby Kielty. The A's got in the trade about what Lilly is worth.

The key in trading, though, is to swap a player whose perceived value is greater than his actual value, taking advantage of that gap to come out of a trade with more talent than you had before. Right now, there are few players in the game for whom the gap between perception and reality is greater than Barry Zito. Zito is just one year removed from a Cy Young Award, but he's been regressing ever since his best year, which was actually 2001.


Year    W-L    ERA     IP    BB/9   K/9   K/BB   HR/9
-----------------------------------------------------
2000    7-4   2.72    92.2   4.37  7.58   1.73   0.58
2001   17-8   3.49   214.1   3.36  8.61   2.56   0.76
2002   23-5   2.75   229.1   3.06  7.14   2.33   0.94
2003   14-12  3.30   231.2   3.42  5.67   1.66   0.74

Pull away the Cy Young Award, the association with a great team and two other great starting pitchers, and the image of the flaky left-hander that doesn't get bothered by anything, and what you have is a pitcher who is heavily dependent on his defense and his ballpark, both of which have kept Zito's ERA down as his core stats regress. Subjectively, Zito has thrown a ton of pitches from ages 23-25, many of them sharp-breaking, joint-rending curveballs. He's the worst of the big three pitchers, but the only one with a gaudy trophy on the mantle. He's marketable, personable, and signed through 2006 at a total of about $16.5 million.

Zito is a mid-rotation starter with an ace's reputation. Trading him in the right deal--and the right deal would almost certainly be available--would be the kind of bold move that would solidify the team's spot atop the AL West for years to come. Think the Mets wouldn't have to consider a Zito-for-Jose Reyes trade? The Yankees are falling all over themselves to deal Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano this winter. Either would improve the A's; getting both--and would you put it past George Steinbrenner to trade both?--would make them a truly great team. Zito is a SoCal guy; both the Angels and Dodgers have good prospects within their system and new owners dying to be loved. The Cubs want a left-hander and appear to have no use for Juan Cruz or Hee Seop Choi.

There are any number of possibilities, all available because Zito has a superstar's name and a fourth-year player's price tag. What makes a move like this sensible is that Zito isn't likely to continue being one of the league's top pitchers, and I have to believe a performance-conscious braintrust like the A's have sees the degradation in his performance and would concur with that idea. All they need to do is leverage that knowledge.

With Lilly gone, the A's have probably sealed off this route, but perhaps not. After all, they have Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer and Mike Wood available right now, and Joe Blanton could be ready by midseason. Patching the hole left by Zito's absence would likely only be a problem for a short time, and the potential benefits, when you consider Zito's market value, are huge.

Stupid Owner Tricks

One more time, for whoever Tom Hicks has assigned to read overopinionated Internet columnists:

ALEX RODRIGUEZ IS NOT THE RANGERS' PROBLEM.

In the abstract, Rodriguez is worth whatever he's making, because he's one of the 10 greatest players ever, he plays every single day, and he's a good citizen, someone you can use to market the team. In reality, he probably can't generate enough marginal revenue to cover his $23 million salary, but that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the rule changes brought on by the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement.

By trading him, though, the Rangers would be killing themselves. They would effectively be dealing Rodriguez so they could subsidize Chan Ho Park's albatross of a contract, which is silly. Many baseball players are fungible; Alex Rodriguez isn't one of them, and losing him isn't something that can be replaced with good work in the free-talent market.

Rodriguez is the same building block of a championship team today that he was when that deal was reached nearly three years ago. Rodriguez's salary isn't a barrier to success; Hicks spending about $80 million a year over and above Rodriguez's salary on players not worth nearly that much is a barrier to success. In fact, given that the Rangers will have Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira at bargain prices for the next couple of years, it's fair to say that the Rangers should be able to succeed even with an artificially low payroll of $75 million. It's spending that money wisely that has presented a challenge.

Lastly, can we stop with the bleating about how Rodriguez chose to go play with a losing team? The Rangers looked to have as good a future as any team in the AL West when the contract was signed. Some pitchers didn't develop, a number of players got injured, and two general managers executed poorly. It happens, and none of it is the fault of the shortstop.

--

I know I didn't get to everything. If there's something you want me to cover, drop me a line by Monday. I'll get a Mailbag column done Tuesday or Wednesday that should serve as good reading material for the long drive to grandma's for Thanksgiving.

Go Blue!

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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