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February 13, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Outside Help, NL Central

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week I cracked open the new PECOTA projections to examine the winter's comings and goings on a team-by-team basis, division by division, starting with the NL East. This week's release of the PECOTA-based depth charts and projected standings brings the sum of these transactions-the trades and free-agent signings (or departures) which will have an impact on each team's 2009 model-a bit more into focus. What's represented here is just one piece of the puzzle, with no attempt to account for longer-term concerns such as prospect trades or multi-year deals. This is a rough guide to who's new and who's gone, and how much impact they're projected to have on the division races this year. Teams are listed in order of 2008 finish; for each hitter, WARP and EqA are listed, while for each pitcher, the figures are WARP and EqERA.

What's most interesting is that the NL Central finds teams feeling the pinch of hard economic times more acutely than those in the NL East. In the East, the Mets, Phillies, and Braves have all made at least two deals in which they committed more than $10 million to a single player this winter, while the Nationals stepped up to that tier with this week's signing of Adam Dunn. By contrast, the Cubs stand alone as the Central's only big spender. From Ryan Dempster's four-year, $52 million deal and Milton Bradley's three-year, $30 million pact, the next-largest outlay on an incoming player is the Reds' trade to add Ramon Hernandez at $9 million, and from there, things drop to the more modest $6-6.5 million range with the Cardinals' Khalil Greene, the Reds' Willy Taveras (a two-year deal), and the Brewers' Trevor Hoffman. While I haven't completed this series, a quick scan of the free-agent rolls suggests that only the AL Central might rival this one in its winter thriftiness.

Chicago Cubs

IN: C Paul Bako (0.3, .221), RF Milton Bradley (3.9, .311), OF Joey Gathright (0.6, .247), RP Aaron Heilman (1.3, 4.46), RP Kevin Gregg (1.9, 4.26), 2B Aaron Miles (0.4, .238), 2B Luis Rivas (-0.4, .217), RP Jeffrey Stevens (0.8, 5.08), OF So Taguchi (-0.1, .229), RP Luis Vizcaino (1.2, 4.22) 9.9
OUT: C Henry Blanco (0.4, .216), RP Jose Ceda (0.0, 6.26), SS Ronny Cedeno (0.8, .242), 2B Mark DeRosa (2.4, .275), CF Jim Edmonds (2.0, .288), SP Rich Hill (1.0, 5.16), RP Bob Howry (1.2, 4.22), RP Jon Lieber (0.8, 4.90), SP Jason Marquis (1.5, 5.23), 3B Casey McGehee (-0.1, .216), CF Felix Pie (2.6, .263), PH Daryle Ward (0.6, .284), RP Kerry Wood (2.9, 3.62), RP Michael Wuertz (1.0, 4.35) 14.5
NET: -7.2 WARP

The Cubs' impending sale has overshadowed their dealings this winter, preventing them from seriously pursuing a potential blockbuster to acquire Jake Peavy and forcing them to mind their payroll a bit more closely than usual. Then again, they did shell out to retain Dempster. Bradley is the biggest addition, and while he's an impact hitter, his production from the left side (.270/.362/.436 for his career) won't cover for the tilt of a lineup that offers only Mike Fontenot and Kosuke Fukudome as additional lefty bats. Add the fact that it's Fukudome's four-year, $48 million deal that's being papered over, that Bradley's arrival pushes him to center field, where he'll be stretched defensively (at least on those days that the fragile Bradley will be in the lineup), and that better center-field options like Edmonds and Pie have left the fold this winter, and suddenly the team's marquee acquisition has been somewhat neutralized. Departures like DeRosa and Wood only confirm the obvious talent drain in the face of rising payroll. Still, the initial PECOTA projections forecast the team with an NL-high 97 wins and an 11-game margin for error over the Brewers, testifying to the quality of the remaining talent on hand.

Milwaukee Brewers

IN: RP Trevor Hoffman (2.2, 3.65), RP Jorge Julio (0.8, 4.57), SP Braden Looper (1.8, 4.98), 3B Casey McGehee (-0.1, .216), RP Eduardo Morlan (0.2, 5.85), RF Trot Nixon (0.8, .273), RP R.J. Swindle (1.5, 3.94), 1B Scott Thorman (-0.2, .238), SP Chase Wright (0.0, 6.22)
OUT: 4C Russell Branyan (2.3, .295), 2B Ray Durham (1.3, .274), RP Eric Gagne (0.7, 4.93), OF Gabe Kapler (1.3, .274), RP Guillermo Mota (0.7, 4.88), SP CC Sabathia (6.8, 3.48), SP Ben Sheets (4.2, 4.03), RP Brian Shouse (0.6, 4.75)
NET: -10.9 WARP (-6.7 not including Sheets)

Not that it couldn't have been foreseen after the team's go-for-broke effort to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1982, but it's been a rough winter for the Brewers. The rotation's big guns have departed as expected, with an additional crotch-kick: neither will yield the expected first-round compensation pick because Sabathia's signing was trumped, Elias-wise by that of Mark Teixeira, while Sheets' elbow injury sticks the team with the bill for his surgery and removes any incentive for another team to sign him before the June amateur draft. On that note, you can quibble with the accounting here since there's virtually no chance that Sheets lives up to his 4.2 WARP projection. Nonetheless, their young core talent-six regulars in the age-25 through age-29 window, the typical ballplayer's prime-will keep the Brew Crew from falling too far, as they still forecast as the division's runners-up and wild-card contenders. The arrivals of venerable closer Hoffman and promising LOOGY Swindle should help a rebuilt bullpen, while Looper provides the double benefit of solidifying the back of a rotation in need of an inning-muncher to compensate for the likelihood that neither Yovani Gallardo nor Manny Parra will push far beyond 150 innings, and pushing power arm Seth McClung back into a relief role, where he can build on his late-season success.

Houston Astros

IN: 1B Aaron Boone (0.0, .253), RP Jeff Fulchino (0.2, 5.87), C Toby Hall (-0.1, .218), SP Mike Hampton (1.3, 4.88), RP Clay Hensley (0.6, 5.59), OF Jason Michaels (0.5, .254), INF Jason Smith (0.3, .216)
OUT: C Brad Ausmus (0.7, .235), 2B Mark Loretta (0.3, .249), 3B Ty Wigginton (1.6, .277), SP Randy Wolf (2.4, 4.72)
NET: -2.4 WARP

It's been an extremely quiet winter for the Astros, who have steered clear of splashy moves due to budget concerns and a reality check. Last year's club left the gate with a 72-win projection, and while a 36-18 second-half charge carried them to 86 wins and the fringes of the wild-card hunt, PECOTA's even less optimistic about a follow-up. It pegs the 'Stros as contenders for the title of the league's worst team, with a forecast that tops the Pirates by a single win, 65 to 64, thanks to anemic showings on both sides of the ball. In light of that, it's for the best that the team is cutting costs; they abruptly withdrew a sizable three-year offer to Wolf in favor of a one-year, $2 million deal to the only slightly less durable Hampton, and went on the cheap at the hot corner by non-tendering Wigginton in favor of a third-base solution that includes Boone and Geoff Blum. Boone and Blum, gloom and glum-that's the forecast here.

St. Louis Cardinals

IN: SS Khalil Greene (1.7, .262), RP Charlie Manning (0.5, 5.07), RP Trever Miller (1.2, 3.97), RP Royce Ring (0.6, 4.94)
OUT: RP Randy Flores (0.3, 5.29), RP Jason Isringhausen (0.9, 4.64), SS Cesar Izturis (0.8, .235), RP Tyler Johnson (0.3, 5.52), 2B Adam Kennedy (0.7, .244), SP Braden Looper (1.8, 4.98), 2B Felipe Lopez (2.2, .267), 2B Aaron Miles (0.4, .238), SP Mark Mulder (-0.1, 6.32), RP Russ Springer (1.3, 3.85), RP Ron Villone (0.2, 5.62), RP Mark Worrell (0.9, 4.76)
NET: -6.7 WARP

Yet another team that has invoked budget constraints to justify a relatively quiet winter, with far more departures than arrivals. The Cardinals have made ripples only with regards to turnover in the middle infield, and even there it's not clear that they're getting their money's worth. Back in December the team traded for Greene, who's coming off of a wretched .213/.260/.339 performance for the Padres that included a season-ending self-inflicted broken hand. Escaping Petco Park, where his career OPS is 144 points lower than on the road, could provide a shot in the arm, but he's got his work cut out to justify taking on a $6.5 million salary-tied for the fifth-highest on this team-in this economy. Meanwhile, the housecleaning at second base culminated with this week's sudden release of Kennedy, who's owed $4 million. The move appears to be a bone thrown to Tony La Russa amid an ongoing internal culture clash, though the team's remaining options at the keystone feature more quantity (Brendan Ryan, Brian Barden, Sloppy Joe Thurston, and Jarrett Hoffpauir) than quality. La Russa did a pretty fair job of cobbling together solutions at multiple positions to help lift a club projected for 75 wins last year to 86 wins, and now he's charged with repeating that feat.

Cincinnati Reds

IN: OF Jonny Gomes (0.3, .264), C Ramon Hernandez (1.5, .251), OF Jacque Jones (0.3, .245), CF Laynce Nix (0.2, .239), RP Arthur Rhodes (0.7, 4.18), CF Willy Taveras (1.3, .243), PH Daryle Ward (0.6, .284)
OUT: RP Jeremy Affeldt (1.4, 4.32), C Paul Bako (0.3, .221), SP Matt Belisle (1.1, 5.10), CF Ryan Freel (0.2, .253), SP Josh Fogg (0.9, 5.31), RP Gary Majewski (0.9, 4.46), CF Corey Patterson (1.5, .251), C Javier Valentin (0.4, .253)
NET: -1.8 WARP

With an impressive core of young players-Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Phillips, Edinson Volquez, and Johnny Cueto-forecast to push this team towards .500, the Reds have nonetheless had a low-impact winter, though not for lack of trying. In Hernandez and Taveras, they've brought in new starters at two positions, but neither forecasts as an above-average player, and again, it's difficult to conclude that they couldn't have done better for their money. With the team's fourth-highest salary, Hernandez is relatively pricey, though his acquisition offsets the money they would have paid Freel anyway. At least he replaces Bako, for whom there's little excuse to deploy as a regular, short of Mad Max-level post-apocalyptic conditions where the world's hoarding backstops instead of oil. As for Taveras, it speaks volumes about his shortcomings that PECOTA doesn't like him better than the departing Patterson, who last year was nothing less than the league's least productive hitter according to VORP. Among the rest of the arrivals, while neither Gomes nor Jones carry very optimistic projections, both were useful part-timers as recently as a year ago, and both are better deployed in platoon roles, so perhaps rebounds are in store. Few of the departed will be missed, though losing Affeldt is lamentable; he pitched rather well for a guy who spent more than half his time toiling in games where the Reds either trailed or led by four or more runs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

IN: 4C Eric Hinske (1.1, .275), C Jason Jaramillo (1.3, .232), OF Craig Monroe (-0.1, .244), 1B Andy Phillips (0.4, .252), OF Jeff Salazar (1.0, .276), INF Ramon Vazquez (0.6, .253)
OUT: INF Chris Gomez (-0.1, .234), OF Jason Michaels (0.5, .254), 1B Doug Mientkiewicz (1.1, .284), C Ronny Paulino (1.2, .239), 2B Luis Rivas (-0.4, .217)
NET: +2.3 WARP

The Pirates are the one team in the division that has taken on more talent than it has shed over the winter, not that it will make a bit of difference given their NL-worst forecast of a 64-98 record, or that the talent is all that talented. Luckily the Bucs haven't spent many bucks in doing so. Vazquez has his uses in an infield which could use some fortification, while Hinkse, who put together his best campaign since he won Rookie of the Year honors in 2002, might net something at the deadline from a team in search of a lefty bat to cover the corners.

In all, last year's top two finishers are the ones who have shed the most talent over the winter, but they're also the ones with the most talent to shed, as testified to by this year's projections, which see the Central as the league's weakest division. With a better winter, the Reds might have been positioned to enter the wild-card fray, but their peculiar choices may hamstring them, and when it comes to the middle infield, the same could be said for the Cardinals. Given the shows of economic restraint, it will be particularly interesting to see if any of these teams take on salary during the year in a playoff push.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Excuse the strength of this language, but it is positively idiotic to consider the Central weaker than the West. I can't imagine a credible projection system drawing this conclusion.

Feb 13, 2009 10:30 AM
rating: -7
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

PECOTA's reputation for credibility can probably survive your strong dismissal, but that's an issue you'll have to take up with Nate. The Central is projected to have the league's best team and two of the top six, but it's also got the only two teams projected under 72 wins, with both well below that, and thus the most extreme spread of any division.

The overall numbers as of today's batch (division, wpct, run dif):

ALE .544 294
NLE .515 151
NLW .499 43
NLC .485 -79
ALC .478 -203
ALW .475 -198

As Clay noted in his latest U., there's still another step to be taken with regards to the team defensive impact on the pitchers, but that happens at the Nate level with regards to generating the individual forecasts.

Also keep in mind that the NL West is more likely to gain the impact of one M. Ramirez, hitter, given the likelihood that his potential destinations seem to have dwindled to the Dodgers or Giants.

Having said all that, it's worth looking back at last year's final projections (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=7314), which also had the Central trailing the West, .495 to .492. The Central wound up with a .515 winning percentage, the West .463, so maybe the system just hates the flyover states ;-)

Or -- and this is a topic for further exploration -- perhaps the system just likes the youth of the West, where the Dodgers, D-Backs and Rockies have lots of good players who are under 27. I noted the Brewers and Reds but the rest of the division doesn't seem to have a lot of young impact talent and therefore sees a lot of regression up ahead. I don't know this to be true, but I'd guess some combo of that and the net talent emigration are what's driving what may seem like a counterintuitive projection.

Feb 13, 2009 12:20 PM

In fact, it was last year's complete miss on the flyover states -- not for the first time -- that's the main reason behind my inability to grok this prediction. Nearly as important, however, is what I now see in your response: apparently the system actually LIKES the NL West, putting them well over break-even in run differential. That is completely incomprehensible to me. The division's run differential last year was something appalling, worse than -250 if I do my math correctly, and the "lots of good players who are under 27" aren't going to make *that* much difference.

I have the highest respect for the ability of PECOTA to predict individual performances, but something ain't right here when it's applied to the teams. And yes, I consider it credible that the system "hates" the flyover states, in the sense that there is something about their teams that it undervalues.

Feb 13, 2009 13:24 PM
rating: -1
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Actually, a simpler answer for the Central's low ranking may be the lack of high-upside pitching. The Cardinals lack a single pitcher projected for 20 VORP, as do the Pirates, while the Astros have one and the Reds two. The Cubs have four and the Brewers have two. Meanwhile, the Giants and D-backs have three apiece, the Dodgers four, the Padres two and the Rockies one (or two, if you count Cook's 19.9).

Last year's NL featured 48 pitchers with 20 VORP, three per team. By my quick count the West teams have the edge 13-8 (not including Cook) in this arbitrary cutoff, including four of the majors' top 10 in Webb, Haren, Lincecum and Peavy, with Billingsley and Scherzer in the top 15. Harden and Oswalt are the only two from the Central in the top 15.

We'll see what happens when the defensive adjustments get taken into account, but that's a pretty striking imbalance.

Feb 13, 2009 20:57 PM

Well, that "last year's NL" figure kinda makes my point: despite >50% more of these "elite" pitchers in 2008, the NL West got whomped in comparison to the NL Central. You're saying that that elite-pitching imbalance looks about the same this year, right? In my opinion that's rather generous to the West -- I have a very hard time seeing Billingsley and Scherzer as top-15 performers in 2009, and I'll be quite stunned if Adam Wainwright, to name one, doesn't reach 20 VORP, unless he's injured again -- but even accepting it for the moment, are you saying that the West OFFENSES have improved so much as to close the gap? Because lacking that, I don't see what leads to the conclusion that 2009 will be different from 2008.

I look forward to seeing the PECOTA predictions, Jay.

Feb 14, 2009 10:28 AM
rating: 0

Certainly a lot of ugliness here.

Given the Eastern teams' ability to add players, I'd guess the chance of a wildcard team from the central is pretty low this year, and this pretty much confirms it.

Feb 13, 2009 10:37 AM
rating: 2

Why does everyone insist the Central is the NL's weakest division, because we have the reds and pirates? Why are the pirates in the central anyway, they should be in the east...give that division 6 teams. Truth be told, only 2 divisions had 4 teams with at least 86 wins last year, the AL East, and thats right, the NL Central.

Feb 13, 2009 12:40 PM
rating: 0

there's room to object to that distinction about the Central being the weakest in the NL.

This year's projected standings show that the top 3 teams in the Central will have better win totals than the top 3 teams in the West.

And,each division looks to have 1-2 embarrassingly bad teams this year (Marlins & Nationals in the East; Padres in the West). The Pirates and Astros are projected to be sub-70 win teams, but that shouldn't tell the story of the entire division.

I think the thing that may make the West better than the Central is if the Giants perform even just a bit above their projections (signing Manny would help but may not be necessary for a few more wins than their projection).

Feb 13, 2009 14:48 PM
rating: 0

The Cardinals need to get on the horn with Ray Durham's agent, stat.

Feb 13, 2009 13:47 PM
rating: 0

I'd much rather have Orlando Hudson than the statue-in-the-field Durham. Honestly though,I think Skip Schumaker can fill the void at 2B and it gets our top 8 position players in the lineup instead of 1 outfielder having to stay on the bench.

Feb 13, 2009 16:31 PM
rating: 0

I still don't see what's so good about the Cubs, but then again, I don't have to.

Feb 13, 2009 16:35 PM
rating: 0

Mike, they are a high OBP team, that will score alot of runs. Most in the majors, probably. They have good starting piching and a good bullpen if Marmol can close. And they are good defensively. I hope that helps you.

Feb 14, 2009 06:24 AM
rating: 0

I guess when I look at the Cubs, I see a lot of average talent across the board. Their starting pitching is all right, I mean Zambrano's peripherals continue to deteriorate, Harden has injuries, Dempster I need to see it again. However, they do have talent. I mean, it has potential to be good, but there is a strong chance they wont come close to last year's performance. Their everyday lineup is not very intimidating. But I guess the Cubs are a case were there's really no outstanding talent on the team (Except Harden, when healthy), but there's nobody BAD on the team, really, so the balance makes them good.

Feb 14, 2009 07:21 AM
rating: 0

I agree with you, Mike, and you, Guy. They have hitters who can get on base, and the ones that follow will knock them in. But no one is exceptionally scary. Look what the Dodgers did to them in the playoffs last year: Lee and Ramirez, their two best hitters, were horrid. I won't even get into Soriano. Mike, I do see the pitching staff not being as effective as last year, notably Dempster. If Harden is able to stay healthy, he will be lights out. The division they're in will work to their advantage, but I see them one and done in the playoffs again.

Feb 16, 2009 11:01 AM
rating: 0
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