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August 5, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • It's All About the "D": Buzz on the Nomar trade has centered primarily on defense, thanks in part to the explanation offered for the trade by GM Theo Epstein. Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz are, without question, defensive improvements; as the mainstream press has been screaming about this team's perceived (and actual) lack of glovework for months, Epstein has jumped at the chance to reinforce the press' early praise of the two players' defense. With the Boston Globe wasting front-page space this week on stories about how "5-, 6-, and 7-year old" fans will be hardest hit by the loss of Garciaparra, Epstein's remarks provide a ready-made explanation for parents of bawling Hub little-leaguers: "Stop crying, Jimmy. The new guys are both Gold Glovers." Voila!

    Unfortunately, old-school platitudes about the supreme importance of leather don't carry much weight with the analytical crowd, and we here at BP have reamed Epstein for the deal--going so far as to speculate that he's not really in control of the team and accusing him of caving to mob mentality. Here's another thought: Epstein at the microphone looks an awful lot like the legions of politicians who descended on Boston last week. He's not lying, he's just trying to promote the fan-friendliest of many explanations for the move. Might we have been taken in by Epstein's public message, when he's keeping his real reasons for the trade private?

    What Epstein knows is that the business of baseball probably isn't as meaningful for little Jimmy as it is for us seamheads. Privately, there's got to be another side to the story. Sure, "D"efense is nice--but "D"ollars and "D"urability do a much better job of explaining this trade.

    Simultaneous Nomar/Pedro/Varitek/Lowe free agencies demand some tough decisions for a team on a budget. But as we noted last time in this space, 2004 is not a must-win for the Red Sox. The Sox owe nearly $100 million to Manny Ramirez over the next four and one-third seasons, but he's still pounding the ball--as are the rest of the Sox, Nomar or no Nomar. Meanwhile, the Yankees are leveraged like Donald Trump from here until the conclusion of "The Apprentice Part XXIV." And the Yankees' commitments extend to the failing likes of Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams, not to mention the departed Roger Clemens.

    Dollars and durability--for now, and for the future.

    According to the Sox press release announcing a trip to the disabled list for Mark Bellhorn, the 2004 club just surpassed the 750 games-lost-to-injuries mark. The 2003 Sox, by contrast, lost 497 games over the entire campaign. So here's the trade in a different light: The Sox give up the short remainder of Garciaparra's Boston tenure--some say 30 games, depending on health--plus single-A prospect Matt Murton, plus about $1 million. In exchange, they get two players who they can use right now. Assuming 60 games remaining in the 2004 season, here's how the money in the deal works out:

    
    Nomar            $(4,259,259)
    Mientkiewitz      $1,037,037
    Cabrera           $2,222,222
    Cash out          $1,000,000
    -----------------------------
    Total                     $0
    
    
    Nifty, huh?

    Cabrera, despite a back injury suffered in 2002, has played every game over the past two seasons. Quick, who would you rather have: Nomar for 30 games plus Pokey Reese/Ricky Gutierrez for 30 games, or Cabrera for 60? Mientkiewitz, meanwhile, becomes a high-OBP, good-glove weapon in Terry Francona's mix-and-match bag of tricks. He's no bargain at $3.75 million next year, with a half-million dollar buyout for 2006, but neither is he a potentially crippling risk. Joe Sheehan is right that Minky was free with purchase. It's Cabrera that Epstein was really after.

  • Will the Real Orlando Cabrera Please Stand Up?: Continuing to look at the bright side, how about the value of a first shot at signing Cabrera for 2005 and beyond...especially given the slow start in this, his walk year? One apparent hitch in our analytical get-along has been the total writeoff of Cabrera's offensive skills. Coming into this season, PECOTA pegged the 29-year-old as one of the top five or six shortstops in all of baseball, with a projected .293/.350/.444 line. Along with the rest of the sad, wandering Expos crew, Cabrera got off to a miserable start, struggling to a .246/.297/.343 so far. Yes, 100 games is a healthy sample; still, should we be so quick to believe he's that bad?

    For the 2001-2003 seasons, Cabrera accumulated a .279/.331/.424 line over 477 games. Last year, he hit .297/.347/.460 and stole 24 bases in 26 attempts. Buy low, sell high...right?

    It might be useful in assessing Epstein's big bet to consider the analogous poker concept of implied odds. Say you hold a pair of deuces in Texas Hold 'em. Normally, it's a garbage hand. But once in a while you might have a bunch of players already in the pot, with the option to see the flop (three more cards) very cheaply. The pot might only be offering 5-to-1 for your 7.5-to-1 shot of nailing a third deuce, but it's still a good wager. Miss, and you haven't lost much. If you happen to hit, there are plenty of players and three subsequent rounds of betting to pay you off on your monster.

    What if Cabrera returns to form, and Epstein can resign him at a bargain? Longshot, you say? Well, fine; sometimes longshots pay. And speaking of longshots: what were the odds of Nomar playing 50 or more games?

Cincinnati Reds

  • The Eternial Optimist: BP had the opportunity last weekend to hang out at the racetrack with an 80-year-old "Cincinnatuh" native, a retired salesman with two true loves: The Reds and the men's basketball team of his alma mater, the Xavier Musketeers. By all accounts, the octagenarian has never written the Reds off prior to their mathematical elimination from the playoffs. Ten games out, ten games to go? Game on.

    But this year, clutching a fistful of cockeyed parlays, longshot on longshot on longshot, even the optimist says wait 'til next year. Optimism is not dead in Cincinnati, mind you--Xavier will win the NCAA tournament, that's a dead solid guarantee--but it's those 2005 Reds to look out for. The 2004 version's cooked.

    Okay then, with an eye on tomorrow, here's the good news. Sure, Ken Griffey Jr. will be an overpaid Cincinnati Reds billboard--far more visible in video games than on the field--from here to kingdom come. But fan fave Sean Casey, who is locked up at an semi-reasonable rate, is the Reds only other substantial commitment going forward. The Reds have more or less a clean balance sheet with which to work.

    There are blue chips in Dan O'Brien's stack, and at the trade deadline this year he wisely saved all of them. The Dunn/Kearns/Griffey/Casey/Jimenez/Wily Mo PECOTA nucleus remains intact, and O'Brien even flipped Todd Jones for an interesting gamble on a replacement for Larkin/Castro. Things are looking up, as the optimist would say. Just not this fall.

  • Go Casey, Go!: Somewhere over the Great Lakes, an airport-bought copy of Sports Weekly reminded us breathlessly of Casey's ongoing batting race with Barry Bonds. It was good for a chuckle. If there's one thing that illustrates just how futile resistance to Bonds really is, it's Casey's so-called "race." Just like Tuesday's 11-0 shellacking at the hands of Bonds and his Giants illustrates how bad the 2004 Reds have really been.

    Bonds' 2-for-3, 2 HR, BB outing isn't anything to be ashamed of, but letting Bonds rack up five RBI behind the likes of Ricky Ledee and J.T. Snow surely is. Snow matched his career high with four hits, including two doubles and his fifth homer in 219 ABs. Altogether, Barry and the eight dwarves accumulated 15 hits.

    On the night, the Reds managed just three hits off the Giants' Noah Lowry, and Casey didn't have any of them. Bonds' lead in the batting race expanded to .352-.329, and while Baseball Prospectus Statistics doesn't lay odds on overcoming a 23-point deficit vs. Bonds, suffice to say our money is not on Casey.

    Meanwhile, at the rate the current staff is headed, Casey, nicknamed "The Mayor" for his ability to make friends with opposing runners at first base, could consider challenging William Howard Taft's great grandson for governor--he's going to have that many people to talk to at first.

    Even the bright side is a bummer. Paul Wilson, Cincinnati's 2004 ace, ranks 46th best in the world according to VORP, within spitting distance of the likes of Kenny Rogers and Doug Davis. He's thrown like a .500 pitcher, allowing more than a hit per inning, and ridden a whole lot of run support to a 9-2 record. He's one of the ten luckiest starters in Major League Baseball thus far this season. Cory Lidle, meanwhile, ranks as one of the ten flakiest.

    Luckiest, flakiest...and overall the staff has been very close to the plain old worst, subtracting 6.3 expected wins from the team's performance so far.

San Diego Padres

  • At the Ballgame: The first thing a California native, transplanted to New England, does on a vacation to San Diego is go to "Taco Fiesta," at 9:55 a.m., for a carne asada burrito. The second thing he does is hightail it down to Petco Park for his first in-person look at the Padres' new digs. The matchup: Adam Eaton vs. Eric Milton, he of the 4.64 ERA and 11-2 record, Major League Baseball's luckiest pitcher so far in 2004.

    It wasn't much of a game; the Phillies scored four runs in the top of the third after a leadoff walk to Milton. San Diego hit a pair of solo homers in the bottom of the same inning, then with Rich Aurilia batting the scoreboard operator puts up the following message: "Rich Aurilia led the National League in home runs and RBI from 1999-2001." We're assuming the word "shortstop" was misplaced.

    On that bizarre note, at the beginning of the top of the sixth, with the Padres trailing 7-4, Bruce Bochy double-switches for Eaton...by replacing Brian Giles with Terrence Long. One row ahead, a Pads fan justifies the move by saying "Giles has been in a slump, the bullpen's tired so Bochy needs three innings from [new pitcher] Stone, and there's a lefty [Milton] on the mound."

    Predictably, a heated argument ensues regarding several of these points. "Brian Giles in a slump, versus a lefty, is still better than Long on a hot streak versus a pitching machine" is the jist of our position. Long goes 3-for-3 out of spite. Jimmy Rollins hits an inside-the-park homer during the game and the Phillies win. Baseball, what a game.

  • My God, Look Over There!: The division has changed. Like bank robbers taking advantage of Bush and Kerry campaign stops in the same town on the same day, Paul DePodesta calmly went about fleecing the Florida Marlins while the baseball world focused on a rumored Unit-to-the-Yankees deal. The division-leading Dodgers are vastly improved, and they were already a solid ballclub. Here's a good analysis of that trade.

    Simultaneously, Brian "Sabermetrics give me a headache" Sabean fixed his bullpen problems by... trading Felix Rodriguez for Ricky Ledee? Afterward, Sabean whined to SF Chronicle staff writer Henry Schulman about what he called an "asinine" trade deadline system. C'mon, now Brian... what was it, two years ago that you were being called a genius for a string of successful deadline deals? The result of all that wheeling and dealing is a farm system largely bereft of prospects, and that's what kept the Giants from improving this year, more than anything else. And anyway, how does one improve a bullpen by subtracting key arms? Just like that, the NL West has become a two-team race.

  • Slow and Steady: One potentially major point in San Diego's favor coming down the stretch in that race is their absurdly well-rested starting staff, which is perhaps a byproduct of their absurdly good bullpen. Keep and eye on this one, folks. Jeff Weaver hasn't been that great to begin with, and he won't get any better if his arm falls off.

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