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July 18, 2013

Changing Speeds

The All-Vindication Team

by Ken Funck

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Here at Baseball Prospectus, one of our main jobs is to have opinions on just about every move made by every organization ever. Over the years, as the analytics revolution has spread throughout baseball—a process that amateur and semi-pro sabermetricians can take some credit for—the percentage of ridiculously unwise decisions that we can get all snarky about has been significantly reduced. Still, we do occasionally criticize a move, and even less occasionally, our opinions turn out to be wrong.

With that in mind, I present to you the midseason All-Vindication Team—one player at each position whose acquisition, retention, or handling we (and others in the media) may have decried, but who has thus far outperformed our rather low expectations. For each player I’ll note the move in question, our take on it, the results so far, and whether or not the organization should feel confident enough to beat their collective chests about outsmarting the peanut gallery. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and there may be better candidates—if you disagree, please feel free to criticize my choices in the comments.

First Base: James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays

The Move: Tampa’s second fling with Carlos Pena went sour last summer, so the Rays once again cruised the free agent night spots for an inexpensive veteran first baseman and settled on serial disappointment Loney.

Our Take: Ben Lindbergh weighed in on the move in a Transaction Analysis column, and was less than impressed. “Combine the batting average of Carlos Pena with the power of Casey Kotchman and you get James Loney…but even after adding up all the points in his favor, it’s hard to see how he makes Tampa Bay better (except in the sense that the team didn’t have a first baseman before).

The Results: As Ben expected, choosing to place a biped at first base has ensured throws from other infielders are often caught and turned into outs, earning Loney at least 50.0 WAMP (Wins Above Missing Player). What’s been surprising, however, is the sudden re-emergence of Loney’s bat—his .315/.366/.466 line represents his highest mark in each slash stat since 2007, and he’s already been 1.7 wins better than an actual replacement player.

True Vindication?: Yes. For $2 million the Rays are likely to get at least two wins out of Loney even if his bat cools down, as foretokened by his empty .295/.335/.389 line since June 1st. Two years after squeezing a solid season out of a stone Casey Kotchman, the Rays seem to have once again confounded the naysayers by finding cheap production at first base.

Second Base: Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

The Move: A contending team with a hole at second base that prospect Kolten Wong was not quite ready to fill, the Cardinals eschewed signing a free agent or handing the job to glove man Daniel Descalso. They instead asked Carpenter, a former non-prospect third baseman, to learn the keystone over the winter, and handed him the keys out of spring training.

Our Take: Back in February, Sam Miller took the Cardinals to task for seemingly standing pat. “The Cardinals didn’t do anything to fix this spot,” he noted. Sam reviewed the record and found that “the average Cardinals second baseman was a gamer who had no tools, and there’s very little deviation within the subset. The average second baseman had nearly the same OBP (.341) as SLG (.360) and hit three home runs per season and was 5' 10" and was scrappy….Carpenter's no slugger, but he does have the potential to break the mold a bit. He's tall, basically."

The Results: Carpenter is, in fact, taller than your average Redbird second sacker, and has sometimes been described as a gamer with few tools. But the cat sure can swing, building on his solid rookie year by posting a .321/.394/.497 line, playing a creditable second base, and earning both 4.5 WARP and an All-Star Game berth.

True Vindication?: Yeah, I guess. It’s not an in-your-face, Christopher Columbus-style vindication, since most observers already knew Carpenter was a decent hitter. It’s more of an adaptive, MacGuyver-style vindication, as if the Cardinals fashioned a power ice auger from a post hole digger, a starter motor, and a set of jumper cables they had lying around the garage.*

*I’ve seen one of these. A friend of mine inherited it from an uncle. It’s awesome.

Third Base: Juan Uribe, Los Angeles Dodgers

The Move: Fresh off his unexpected post-season heroics with the 2010 Giants, the 32-year-old bad-bodied swinger signed a multi-year deal with Ned Colletti’s Dodgers.

Our Take: From the 2013 Baseball Prospectus Annual: “Two-thirds of the way through his three-year, $21 million deal, Uribe has already taken his seat alongside Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones among Colletti's biggest boondoggles….The bet here is that the Dodgers cut bait by Opening Day.”

The Results: Rather than cutting bait, after two years of sub-replacement production the Dodgers have benefited from Uribe’s .270/.343/.413 line, solid defense, and 1.5 WARP in the season’s first half. See, Ned told us he could play!

True Vindication?: Not really. Uribe is still only 0.3 wins in the black overall for the Dodgers, and still has two full months to get his OBP back down to .300 where it belongs and erase any evidence of positive value he’s ever provided his current employers.

Shortstop: Didi Gregorius, Arizona Diamondbacks

The Move: The Snakes, frustrated by the rugged individualism shown by top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer, packaged him off to Cleveland as part of a three-way deal that netted Gregorius.

Our Take: In his review of Arizona’s Top 10 Prospects, Jason Parks wondered whether Gregorius would be worth the price, noting that his “bat has question marks and could end up playing as an empty tool, which could make the return for Trevor Bauer an underwhelming player at the highest level.”

The Results: While no one is about to confuse him with Cal Ripken, so far Gregorius has wielded more than enough stick. His .313/.379/.479 line against right-handed pitching has helped him provide solid value both at the plate and in the field, something our prospect honcho noted in these pages just the other day.

True Vindication?: So far, yes. But Bauer is a wild card who could eventually put it all together in Cleveland. If that happens, Arizona may still wind up holding the short straw.

Center Field: Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers

The Move: In an attempt to free up money to sign starting pitching and make room for top prospect Alcides Escobar, the Brewers shipped shortstop J.J. Hardy to Minnesota for toolsy out-maker Carlos Gomez. Oh, and this was way back in November 2009, so if there’s vindication here, it’s had time to age in sherry casks.

Our Take: From the 2011 Annual: “It would be great that the speedy Gomez set a career high in on-base percentage last year, if only the OBP in question weren't .298. Combine that with a low batting average, little power, and strikeouts in almost a quarter of his plate appearances, and no amount of speed or defense will ever make starting Gomez in center field a defensible every-day plan.” Full disclosure: I wrote that. Then, after Gomez put together a reasonably productive 2012 season based on speed, defense, and suddenly burgeoning power, I went on the BP Daily Podcast to preview Milwaukee’s season and proceeded to express absolutely no faith in Gomez duplicating such production.

The Results: I was right that Gomez wouldn’t duplicate his 2012 production. He’s blown past it like, well, like Carlos Gomez flying around the bases en route to one of his league-leading nine triples. The power is still there, the speed and defense are stellar, and while we have him at a very respectable 2.9 WARP, Baseball-Reference currently lists him at 5.7 WAR. Yes, you read that right.

True Vindication?: Absolutely. Milwaukee deserves credit for showing patience with their young, impatient outfielder until his power bat developed, and valuing him for what he can do rather than pillorying him for what he can’t.

Right Field: Michael Cuddyer, Colorado Rockies

The Move: After he gifted the Twins with a relatively modest career year in 2011, the Rockies inked Cuddyer to a multi-year deal.

Our Take: From the 2013 Annual: “The Rockies' signing of Cuddyer to a three-year, $31.5 million deal raised eyebrows when it happened in December 2011, four months shy of his 33rd birthday. After a 98-loss season, it looks even worse. Cuddyer's offensive skill set is best suited to the bottom of the order, and he struggles to hit right-handed pitching.” We went on to describe him as a more expensive version of Scott Hairston. Ouch.

The Results: Cuddyer has raked to the tune of .330/.391/.568 this year, which even at altitude translates to an excellent .308 TAv. As for his struggles to hit same-side pitching, he’s posted a .314 TAv against right-handers.

True Vindication?: Not really. Cuddyer’s glove leaks so much value that the Coors Field grounds crew has to Shop-Vac right field between innings, and there’s plenty of doubt about whether he’ll be able to produce enough at the plate over the next 18 months to make his contract worthwhile.

Left Field: Marlon Byrd, New York Mets

The Move: The Metropolitans signed Byrd last February with the idea that he maybe still had some idea how to play baseball and could help in the outfield.

Our Take: John Perrotto listed him as one of his least favorite off-season moves, stating that “when the Mets signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to major-league spring training over the winter, the move was the equivalent of putting a bandage on a gaping wound. And not a regular bandage, but one of those tiny Band-Aids you would use on a baby.”

The Results: Byrd has inexplicably broken out his boom stick, launching 15 bombs and posting a .271/.316/.502 line good for a career-high .300 TAv (so far).

True Vindication?: Seriously, isn’t Matt Harvey the definition of awesomesauce? Oh wait, we were talking about Marlon Byrd. The Mets aren’t going anywhere this year, Byrd isn’t a long-term solution, and if they can deal him for even a middling prospect at the deadline, it was a worthwhile signing.

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

The Move: There isn’t really an apt short-term candidate for this list at the catcher position, so I’m going to take the opportunity to check in on Mauer, who was signed to a mega-contract in 2010 by the Twins. It was a risky move in many ways by one of the most seemingly risk-averse organizations in baseball, particularly given the question of Mauer’s health if he stays behind the dish, and the possibility that his relative lack of power would make him unworthy of such largesse at first base.

Our Take: Back in early 2010, Colin Wyers did some figuring and deduced that “the odds are that Mauer won’t be able to remain a full-time catcher much more than halfway through this contract, so by then the Twins better have a contingency plan in place.”

The Results: In his third of eight years earning $23 million annually, Mauer has one injury-plagued year followed by one-and-a-half typically outstanding ones, and remains primarily a catcher, though we could argue about the meaning of “full-time.” He isn’t a slugger, but didja know he has the highest career batting average (.323) among active players, and his .405 OBP ranks fifth?

True Vindication?: Not yet. The Twins have been awful while Mauer’s been earning the big bucks, and he’s just crossing into his thirties. The real test is whether he’ll still be worth his pay when the Byron Buxton/Miguel Sano Twins start taking the field in a few years.

Designated Hitter: Raul Ibañez, Seattle Mariners

The Move: In order to add a little punch to their lineup, the Mariners brought back long-time favorite Ibañez on a one-year, $2.8 million deal. We’re listing him at DH—his best defensive position—but the Mariners often run him out in left field.

Our Take: In a wonderfully expressive post last Boxing Day featuring visual evidence of the then 40-year-old outfielder’s difficulties in the field, Colin Wyers was less than impressed. “Let's face it: Ibañez should probably be kept out of the field as much as possible. His ability to hit for average is lost in time like tears in rain. The Mariners already signed one seemingly toasty OF/DH type in Jason Bay, and while you can cobble together a platoon from the two it's hard to see how that's a huge improvement on going barefoot.”

The Results: Ibañez has been a revelation, posting a .267/.314/.578 line with 24 home runs, good for a .343 TAv. His defense can still be more painful to watch than a Jeff Dunham concert (YMMV), although FRAA’s punishment is relatively light, leaving him with 2.6 WARP (compared to a bWAR of 1.0).

True Vindication?: So Taijuan Walker drinks coffee now? That just proves he’s so ready for The Show! Oh, wait, we were talking about Raul Ibañez. The Mariners aren’t going anywhere, and if they can flip him to a contender that needs a DH, it will have been a good signing. If they keep him and his work ethic and professionalism rub off on the M’s young players, then it probably will have been a good signing, but much harder to eventually quantify.

Starting Pitcher: Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates

The Move: The Pirates signed Liriano to a reduced contract after the ever-frustrating lefty broke a bone in his arm while punking his kids at Christmas.

Our Take: In another Transaction Analysis column from last Boxing Day, Ben noted that “Liriano is a better pickup for Pittsburgh than Correia was for the Twins, but unless the Pirates can fix his persistent sequencing issues—and remind him where the strike zone is—he’ll continue to be a disappointing pitcher whose stat line doesn’t match his stuff.” This on top of Steph Bee’s Lineup Card entry from last October predicting Liriano to be a free agent bust.

The Results: So far, so wonderful. Consistency has never been one of Liriano’s trademarks, but after 12 starts his 2.54 FIP sits fourth in the NL, behind Matt Harvey, Adam Wainwright, and Clayton Kershaw.

True Vindication?: Absolutely. Liriano has long been a tease, and the whole broken humerus imbroglio could easily have convinced the Pirates he wasn’t worth the trouble. Instead, they signed exactly the type of player they needed—low cost, high risk, high reward—and are reaping the benefits.

Relief Pitcher: Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs

The Move: Looking for yet another backup plan for yet another Carlos Marmol meltdown, the Cubs signed the recently-released Gregg to a minor league contract in mid-April.

Our Take: Gregg earned no more than a Lineout entry in the 2013 Annual: “Despite once being valued as a ‘proven closer,’ Kevin Gregg is now a proven liability.” Furthermore, in a Transaction Analysis column shortly after his signing, R.J. Anderson recalled that “the last we saw of Gregg can be described by many s-words, though solid is not one.”

The Results: Relievers often exist in an unfair shadow world of barbaric arbitrariness, where they are haunted or enriched by ever-smaller samples sizes. This year, Gregg has been enriched, earning 17 saves in 19 chances and pitching reasonably well … so far.

True Vindication?: Maybe. If the Cubs can convince a contender the Gregg still has both the stuff and the intestinal fortitude to pitch high-leverage innings, they might be able to flip him for something a little younger, shinier, and more likely to help the next good Cubs team. If someone does offer something up for Gregg, however, we’ll probably write up something snarky criticizing the move—and we’ll probably, but not certainly, be right.

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

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