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June 7, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

Upton Our Necks in Debt

by Michael Jong

This past week, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported that nine MLB teams were in violation of MLB's debt service rules, which state that teams can not hold debt greater than 10 percent of their annual earnings. Four of those nine teams were residents of the NL East, including the Florida Marlins, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Washington Nationals. Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball offered his explanations for eight of those teams here, with the one puzzling team missing being the Marlins. The Fish do not share the Phillies' large payroll, the Mets' significant financial liabilities, or the Nationals' payroll-to-attendance disparity. Of the four teams mentioned, you have to figure that the Mets are in the biggest trouble, which is part of the reason they might consider moving some of their star players.

 ---

The Mets might have been planning on moving David Wright, but his injuries might have rendered the issue moot. Doctors informed Wright that he was to remain inactive for three more weeks, pushing the start of his baseball activities into later June. This certainly hurts any chances the Mets may have of remaining in contention (they stand at a 1.1 percent chance through Saturday according to Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report), but it definitely hurts the return of a potential Wright trade. If he is out until early July with the injury, the receiving team would expect to get 0.6 WARP less than they would if they received a healthy and ready-to-play Wright.

Half a win certainly does not sound like a huge drop in value, but the fact that Wright's $16 million 2013 team option becomes invalid if he is traded adds more complications. Prior to the start of the season, PECOTA projected a stable 5.1 WARP for Wright's 2012 and 2013 seasons, and such a projection seemed like a happy medium between his pre-2009 6.0-WARP pace and his post-2009 4.5-WARP average. His salary for the next two seasons would have guaranteed the Mets more than enough surplus value to make a profitable trade, but losing the 2013 seasons cuts his trade value in half. Of course, given what his owner has said about him and the fact that apparently some teams think he is just the“third or fourth best player in the lineup,” it is doubtful the Mets would have gotten anything resembling his true value to begin with.

---

The Phillies had lost four straight before Sunday's win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a consequence of losing those games, we have not seen much of closer Ryan Madson lately, and that is a shame because he has established himself as one of the better relievers in baseball. Some might suggest that he has only recently set himself up to be this good. In fact, Madson himself credits his success to, of all things, a discussion with Scott Boras.

Absolutely," he said before Wednesday's game against Washington at Nationals Park. "It's just the whole approach. It wasn't mental. Mental is such a broad term. People use it because it's easy for people to understand it. What he talked to me about I don't think people would understand unless they were in my position. I think it was about my personal approach to pitching and relief pitching and late-inning relief pitching."

Far be it for me to question Madson's opinion on what might have helped him, but the numbers so far are similar to years past.

Year

K%

BB%

ERA

SIERA

2009

24.4

6.9

3.26

3.18

2010

29.5

6.0

2.55

2.49

2011

27.7

8.5

1.88

2.90

The major difference between Madson's stellar performance this season and in seasons past? He has yet to allow a home run this year, an aspect of the game on which Scott Boras has no expertise. Outside of that, it seems Madson is the same dominating Madson to whom the Phillies have grown accustomed.

On the other hand, it could just be a matter of the inning in which Madson is performing. Maybe he never had the “closer's mentality” to handle the ninth inning. But it seems like that is not necessarily the case either.

Year, 9th inning

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

2009

23 1/3

28.1

6.3

3.47

4.44

2010

18 1/3

31.2

6.3

4.42

3.42

2011

16.0

27.0

9.5

2.25

2.20

Again, the differences in his performances have all been in terms of home runs, as he has maintained consistent strikeout and walk rates in the last two seasons. Eight of Madson's 11 home runs allowed in 2009 and 2010 came in the ninth inning. If Boras's talk really straightened out Madson enough to have him avoid home runs in the ninth entirely, then we have yet another reason for relievers to flock to Boras's new form of voodoo magic. Otherwise, Madson might just have some regression heading his way; here is hoping that if and when that regression comes, it does not hit hard enough to deprive a great reliever of his due respect.

---

Speaking of closers, the Marlins have been unable to finish games lately, dropping four straight one-run games with Sunday afternoon's loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. This dropped their seasonal record in one-run affairs to 14-9, still an abnormally high mark that explains why the Fish are still 31-26 and sitting in second place in the NL East (at the time of writing) despite scoring just one more run than they have allowed.

Part of the blame has gone to Leo Nunez, who has never been considered a “good” closer in his career. On Friday night, he blew just his second save of the season by giving up a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Ryan Braun, a situation that brought on memories of the awful Nunez of 2009. Of course, he is not that player anymore.

Year

K%

BB%

ERA

SIERA

2009

20.8

9.2

4.06

4.03

2010

26.3

7.8

3.46

2.98

2011

25.0

7.8

3.54

3.29

Nunez has performed at a good level for a closer for the past year and a quarter, signaling a significant change in talent that goes beyond his 75-for-92 performance in save opportunities since 2009. One possible change has been in his use of the slider, something that was contentiously debated in the offseason. His slider usage dropped to just three percent in 2010, resulting in a massive increase in strikeouts and ground balls. This year, the Marlins brass insisted on him switching back to using the slider against right-handers, and the move has not resulted in a drop in those strikeouts. It has, however, caused a decrease in ground balls, down to a career-low 32-percent mark this season. This should result in more home runs, but with the strikeout and walk rates remaining static between 2010 and 2011, it is safe to say that Nunez can be trusted despite Marlins fans' memories.

---

The only NL East team to get away unscathed in the debt reports was the Atlanta Braves, and this coincides with their being the only team playing well in the NL East as of late. The Braves are the only team in the division with a winning record in their last 20 games, and this is happening despite the team hitting .252/.319/.372 during that time span. The Braves are instead playing the run-prevention game, allowing just 3.50 runs per game in that same span.

One surprising element about the Braves' pitching staff is the dominance of Jair Jurrjens, who was named NL Pitcher of the Month for the month of May. Jurrjens had a 1.65 ERA in May, but it was accompanied by a 2.91 FIP that once again signaled a potential regression in his play. Indeed, his 4.08 SIERA for the season continues an annual trend of Jurrjens outpitching his peripherals.

Year

ERA

SIERA

2008

3.68

4.16

2009

2.60

4.38

2010

4.64

4.38

2011

1.75

4.08

While SIERA finds Jurrjens a consistent 4.30 ERA pitcher, his actual performances have fluctuated, and his career 3.37 ERA still vastly outstrips his 4.35 SIERA. This season, he has improved on his walk rate, decreasing it to just 3.9 percent down from a career 8.0 percent mark. The one interesting note in this season is that he has been throwing his fastball slower and as a result forced more balls in play than in those previous seasons. He has maintained a 23.5 percent rate of balls in play for the last two seasons, and combined with the lower walk rate and a a .266 BABIP this year, it has helped him tremendously. Jurrjens may be one of those pitchers who will consistently outperform his peripherals, but the changed approach and improved results may be in for less regression than SIERA would care to admit.

---

The news of the Washington Nationals taking interest in Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton came with these somewhat familiar words (emphasis mine):

The Nationals are looking to trade for a center fielder and leadoff hitter, according to a baseball source, who also said the club is willing to overpay to get what they want.

The Nationals are no stranger to overpaying for talent, as they were widely considered to have overpayed for Jayson Werth this past offseason. What is particularly interesting about the Nationals' apparent willingness to overpay is that their status in this season's race appears to be all but over just two months into the year; the Playoff Odds Report has the team at 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs, one of only two teams to hold such a distinction in the National League (unsurprisingly, the other team is the Houston Astros).

Of course, the move is supposed to be a long-term one, with Upton being placed as the anchor of a strong Nationals defensive outfield that will one day welcome Bryce Harper into the fold, but the Rays are smart enough to know that Upton holds enough defensive value to make up for his offensive shortcomings, and news that the Nationals would be willing to overpay makes it all the more likely that the deal will seem lopsided. And the “long-term” benefit of the move is not even entirely apparent, as Upton has only one arbitration season remaining before free agency. A trade now would only net the Nationals a year of potentially meaningful baseball, albeit at a manageable salary. There is no guarantee that Upton would extend with the Nationals or that the Nationals would not have to overpay again just to keep him in town long enough for Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and the rest of the young nucleus of Washington is ready to compete.

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

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