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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. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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