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October 30, 2006

World Series Prospectus

Looking Forward: Tigers and Cardinals

by Nate Silver

LOOKING FORWARD: THE DETROIT TIGERS

Losing the World Series was the best thing that could have happened to the Tigers.

Okay, that's just not true. In fact, it's hard to think of a franchise whose self-identity would have been more transformed by a championship. Nevertheless, the devastating loss to the Cardinals should serve as notice to Dave Dombrowski that the Tigers still have work to do if they want to play with the big boys. Here are three things the Tigers can do this winter to ensure that they aren't one-hit wonders:

  • Break the bank for a big First Baseman. The underlying dynamics are as follows. Reaching the playoffs can produce an economic windfall that is nearly as profound as the competitive one. The Tigers improved their attendance by 28% this season before accounting for the additional butts they put in Comerica Park seats during the playoffs. The team also stands to be in a position of power when negotiating its television and radio contracts. That bubble could burst, however, if the Tigers regress back to being an afterthought in the sports landscape.

    That's because the playoffs are hardly assured for the Tigers next season. They have the misfortune of playing in the best division in baseball--not only will the White Sox and Twins be hungry, but the Indians retain one of the most impressive talent cores in baseball. While there weren't too many individual performances among the Tiger roster that screamed "fluke"--Kenny Rogers' resurgence is one probable exception--it's a general rule of thumb that a 95-win baseball club has more room to go down than up. The White Sox didn't expect Mark Buehrle to implode in 2006, or for Scott Podsednik to post a .330 OBP, or for their bullpen to go from being an asset to a liability. They dropped nine games in the standings, in spite of having added talent.

    So the Tigers need to be willing to spend some money, and with all of the team's key assets signed through at least next season, there are only so many places at which they might do it. Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, the team's largest contracts, aren't going anywhere. Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge, though their warts were exposed in the World Series, are cheap, productive players in the prime of their careers. There's no reason to displace the middle infield tandem of Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco. And as many times as you can say that "you can never have too much pitching," the Tigers will return all four of their postseason starters next season, plus Mike Maroth, who should be fully recovered from elbow surgery, 24-year-old upstart Zach Miner, and top-rated rookie Andrew Miller. Nor should the bullpen present any problems.

    That leaves the jobs at the offense-first positions of first base, left field, and designated hitter. The Tigers could re-sign first baseman Sean Casey, who was one of their few bright spots during the World Series, but they need more offense out of the position than he'll provide. Fortunately, there are a couple of very attractive fits in the free agent market. Nomar Garcaiaparra is the first. The second-toughest man in the National League to strike out last season, Garciaparra would provide some respite from the Tigers' hack-happy ways, allowing them to remain feisty against all different sorts of pitchers. The .300+ batting average and 20+ home runs they could expect from Nomar wouldn't hurt either.

    Option 1-A is Carlos Lee. Contrary to his reputation, Lee is also a tough out, having struck out just 65 times last season when he wasn't hitting his 37 home runs; the only major leaguer with more home runs and fewer strikeouts was Albert Pujols. Lee would have to switch positions, but considering that his left field defense leaves much to be desired (and that he started off at third base), a shift to first might be overdue anyway.

    The Tigers already lean heavily right-handed, and both Lee and Garciaparra would compound that problem, but this is not something the Tigers should spend a lot of time worrying about. There's an awful lot of left-handed pitching in the AL Central, from Buehrle to Johan Santana to Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia. Besides that, we've got another solution in mind for the lefty problem.

  • Sign Barry Bonds. At first glance, it seems like the strangest possible fit: Bonds, the one-man sideshow, and the aspirational, team-oriented Tigers. But probe a little bit deeper, and the scenario makes a lot of sense.

    The Tigers need a hitter like Bonds. For all the talk of the empty shell that is Bonds without his chemical enhancements, he led baseball with a .454 OBP last season. If Bonds' power is so depleted, why did he have more intentional walks last season (39) than Ryan Howard (38)? Bonds can't play every day, but that's okay for the Tigers, who can take advantage of their depth and rotate him with Marcus Thames and Craig Monroe through the DH and LF slots. They can even consider using Bonds as their leadoff hitter if Granderson can't improve his pitch recognition skills.

    Just as importantly, Bonds needs a team like the Tigers. He'd be reunited with his first manager in Jim Leyland. He'd steer clear of the frenzied media environments on the East and West coasts. And he'd have the chance to win a World Series, which could go an awful long way toward rehabilitating his reputation.

    Surely, the Tigers would take some risk in bringing on Bonds. But this is a team that should be looking to take risks; the AL Central is the wrong division in which to play it safe. The competitive and reputational risks that Bonds presents should be priced into his contract: the Tigers might well be able to sign both Bonds and Garciaparra for less than the annual salary they'd need to pay to Alfonso Soriano. Bonds will be looking for a one-year contract, which means that the Tigers can wash their hands of him whatever happens in 2007.

    Besides, methinks the Tigers could use a little growl…

  • No More Mr. Nice Guy. This means a couple of different things. It means that Jim Leyland needs to quit worrying about bruising Tiger egos, whether in making the long overdue move of giving the closer's job to Joel Zumaya, or in waking the Tigers up early for an extra round of pitchers fielding practice. But it also means that the Tigers could afford to play with just a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. One of Leyland's most effective moments during the season was when he tore into the Tigers, who were already exceeding expectations with a 7-6 record, following a blowout loss to the Indians on April 17th. The Tigers responded by winning 28 of their next 36 games. If the Tigers had displayed the same fire after the Game Three loss to the Cardinals, perhaps the World Series result would have been different.

LOOKING FORWARD: THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Usually, when your team comes out of nowhere to win the World Series, your biggest fear is that the general manager gets complacent and refuses to tinker with his roster. The Twins won the World Series in 1987. The didn't make a major off-season move, settled for shaking up the club early in the season by trading Tom Brunansky for Tommy Herr, and settled for finishing 13 games behind the A's in the old AL West in 1988. The Reds won it all in 1990, kept their entire roster intact, and finished at 74-88 the next season. The Angels followed up their 2002 championship by standing pat beyond looking forward to a full season with postseason secret weapon Francisco Rodriguez in their pen, and finished 2003 with a losing record despite him.

Fortunately for Cardinals fans, that won't happen in St. Louis, because the team has so many free agents that the alternative to spending some of their hard-earned money is fielding the Memphis Redbirds. Twenty-nine percent of the team's at-bats were accumulated by players that will be free agents this winter, or are already no longer with the club, including Jim Edmonds, Ronnie Belliard, and Scott Spiezio. Fourty-four percent of the team's innings pitched fall into the same category, with Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Jason Marquis, and Mark Mulder all eligible for free agency.

Rather than regarding this as a weakness, Walt Jocketty should savor the leverage that his situation provides him. With Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen signed to perfectly reasonable salaries, and Chris Carpenter inked at well below market rate, the Cardinals don't have any real bad contracts to get out from under, although they'll probably regret the $8.75 million owed to Jason Isringhausen. Having drawn more than 3.4 million fans to Busch Stadium during the regular season in a market that knows how to differentiate good baseball from bad, the Cardinals have no excuses for not opening the checkbook.

The question is just how the Cardinals should spend that money, and I'll share some ideas about that in a moment. In the meantime, let's get a couple of easy concepts out of the way:

  • Pick up Jim Edmonds' option. Edmonds' 2007 option would cost the Cardinals an even $10 million. He was easily worth that much over his first four seasons with the Cardinals, but fell short of the mark last year between his declining range in center field, his diminishing power, and his increasing propensity to get injured. The catch is that Edmonds is owed a $3 million buy-out even if he doesn't play for the Cardinals, which reduces the true cost of the option to $7 million. He's an easily worthwhile signing at that number. The Cardinals need at least a little bit of certainty amidst all this winter's chaos, and while Edmonds' physical tools are declining with age, he retains one of the game's highest baseball IQs.
  • Avoid the hometown surcharge. The term "hometown discount" is more familiar to baseball fans, but teams coming off a championship have shown more of a propensity to overpay to retain their own talent. The Red Sox signed Jason Varitek to a four-year, $40 million deal following their 2004 title, and are now stuck with a catcher with bad knees and a .238 batting average. If they could, the White Sox would take back their expensive three-year extension to Jose Contreras.

    What this means for the Cardinals is not to break the bank to bring back postseason heroes like Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. If the Cardinals determine that they want to give a three-year, $20 million contract to a #3 starter, then Weaver might be the right man for the job. But if there are better pitchers available for the same price, the Cardinals need to be willing to ditch the horse they came in on.

  • Set a wins budget, not a payroll budget. It's my belief that most major league baseball teams go about their budgeting the wrong way. Sometimes it's worth spending more than you might have been planning on if you can acquire a player who will get you over the hump and into the playoffs, since the financial rewards for making the postseason are substantial. Other times, your team is so far from making the playoffs--or such a cinch to make them--that paying market price for free agent talent just doesn't make sense.

    Put differently, rather than figuring how much money they want to spend, baseball teams should determine roughly how many wins they'll need to make the playoffs, and spend on payroll until that they have the talent on hand to realistically reach that goal. For the Cardinals, the magic number is probably 90 wins; it would be higher if they played in a tougher division.

    The "wins budget" concept requires the ability to make an honest assessment about the strengths and weaknesses of your current roster. The Cardinals won 83 games last year, and according to Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) statistic, free-agents-to-be Ronnie Belliard (0.2), Marquis (1.1), Mulder (0.2), Spiezio (2.7), Suppan (3.9), Weaver (1.1), and Preston Wilson (0.8) were responsible for ten of those wins. That means the Cardinals are left with a 73-win roster under the Memphis Redbirds scenario, provided that they re-sign Edmonds, and that they'll have to add 17 wins worth of talent to reach their budgetary target.

    Seventeen wins is a lot of ground to make up, roughly equal to bringing on three very good players, or one superstar and two solid major league regulars, plus a couple of bit parts along the way. Jocketty needs to be patient and flexible, and play the market rather than letting the market play him. However, here are some players the Cardinals might target:

    Carlos Lee, LF. Lee should ideally be a designated hitter, but the Cardinals need to find a way to end their revolving carousel in left field. Lee has plenty enough bat for the position. Estimated impact: six wins.

    Ray Durham, 2B. Durham might not be cheap after a career year in San Francisco, but the Cardinals get virtually no power out of their shortstop and catcher positions, and Durham's one of the few middle infielders around with a plus bat. Estimated impact: five wins.

    Brad Radke, RHP. Radke pitches to his defense, which makes him a perfect fit for the Cardinals' strong group of fielders. Assuming his shoulder is sound, the attention paid to Jason Schmidt, Barry Zito, and Daisuke Matsuzaka could hold down his price. Estimated impact: five wins.

    Jeff Weaver, RHP. We cautioned before about the Cardinals' overpaying to re-sign their own free agents, but Weaver's checkered history could short-circuit any bidding war for his services. He's a better keeper than Jeff Suppan on account of his superior strikeout rate. Estimated impact: four wins.

    Aubrey Huff, 3B-OF. Huff would most likely slot in at left field for the Cardinals, although he'd also provide an insurance policy in the event of the annual Scott Rolen injury. Huff boasts a good left-handed bat that might be overlooked after his quiet performance in Houston. Estimated impact: four wins.

    Octavio Dotel, RHP. The Cardinals came up roses by taking a chance on Chris Carpenter following his Tommy John surgery in 2002, and have the opportunity to do the same with Dotel. Although Dotel pitched only ten major league innings last year, he's one of the few available arms with closer-worthy stuff that won't come at a closer-worthy price, allowing Adam Wainwright to move into the rotation. Estimated impact: three wins.

These players are meant to be representative of the many options the Cardinals will have available to them in the market. They could get to 17 wins by signing Durham, Radke, Huff, and Dotel, for example, but they could also go after a big-ticket item like Matsuzaka or Alfonso Soriano, and fill out the roster with guys like second baseman Adam Kennedy or outfielder Dave Roberts. Either way, the point should be clear: the Cardinals are going to have a busy winter.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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