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February 6, 2009

Got Problems?

The Ones Contenders Think Are Fixed That Aren't

by Jay Jaffe

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Perhaps the never-ending stream of grim financial news is causing teams to shy away from spending money if they think they can avoid it. Perhaps bad contracts are already hamstringing some payrolls. Or perhaps certain general managers have donned rose-tinted glasses to view half-baked solutions to problems that may well quash their bids for contention. Guided by the recently released PECOTA projections, here are six scenarios which aren't as fixed as some people would like you to believe as we count down to the day when pitchers and catchers report.

LA Angels of Anaheim: First Base (Kendry Morales)
We've already hammered the Halos over this, but it bears repeating: you can't plug Morales into the gaping hole left by Mark Teixeira's departure and expect what was already a below-average offense (4.7 runs per game, "good" for 10th in the AL) to pick up the slack. Going on 26, the Cuban defector has put up superficially gaudy numbers in Triple-A over the past three years (.335/.374/.483), but once you let the rarefied Salt Lake City air out of that performance, it's the equivalent to hitting .263/.301/.419 in the majors-a surprisingly good match for Morales' actual major league numbers over that span (.249/.302/.408 in 407 plate appearances). Given the Angels' pitcher-friendly park, PECOTA actually sees things getting worse for Morales in 2009, forecasting a .253/.295/.389 line, which is 0.2 WARP below replacement level.

Diamondbacks: Left Field (Eric Byrnes)
In the summer of 2007, Byrnes raced out to a stellar .286/.353/.460 showing with 21 homers and 50 steals, and the Diamondbacks responded by declaring their undying affection for their 31-year-old left fielder, handing him a three-year, $30 million extension. Alas, year one didn't go so well, as injuries to both hamstrings-double trouble for a speed-oriented player-limited Byrnes to 52 games and an injury-influenced .209/.272/.369 performance with four steals. Arizona passed on re-signing deadline acquisition Adam Dunn because it would have turned Byrnes into a fourth outfielder with an eight-figure contract, but by doing so the Snakes have settled for the return of a player whose .266/.327/.442 forecast is a drag on the offense when it's coming from a corner outfielder in a hitter's park, particularly amid or even atop an OBP-challenged lineup. Plan B, which would involve shifting first baseman Conor Jackson to left and using Chad Tracy (.274/.341/.467) at first, only spreads the subpar production across two key offensive spots.

Twins: Third Base (Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris)
While the 2008 Twins did take their quest for the postseason all the way to a Game 163 play-in (which they lost to the White Sox), there's little question they could have sealed a bid had they addressed either one of two problems earlier: ditching Livan Hernandez in favor of Francisco Liriano in the rotation, or punting on third baseman Mike Lamb (who hit .233/.276/.322) in favor of any option this side of Harmon Killebrew. Buscher and Harris were part of the solution once the team benched Lamb, combining to hit .300/.356/.436 during their time manning the hot corner. General manager Bill Smith plans for more of the same, with Buscher getting most of the at-bats in a platoon, but the .347 batting average on balls in play that fueled their performance isn't likely to be repeated. PECOTA projects a .254/.306/.392 showing for the duo, though that could improve if both players' at-bats against same-handed pitching are kept to a minimum.

Yankees: Catcher (Jorge Posada/Jose Molina)
Long a vital cog in the Yankee offense, Posada was limited to just 51 games last year, and just 30 behind the plate, due to a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum which required season-ending surgery. He may not be 100 percent to start spring training, and may never be 100 percent again; PECOTA recognizes the sudden dip in playing time in his age-36 season as the type of bad news usually written in 72-point bold headlines, forecasting him for .249/.336/.406 in 257 PA (1.5 WARP). That spells far too much playing time for repeat backup Molina, whose defensive strengths (44 percent of opposing stolen-base attempts caught, and 11 Fielding Runs Above Average) couldn't offset his wretched offense, the lowest OBP and fourth-lowest SLG of any catcher with at least 200 PA. Molina's 2009 forecast calls for a .229/.271/.325 line in 171 PA (0.6 WARP), and any expansion of his role beyond that would constitute a major drag on the Yankees' offense. As a result, the Yankees need Posada to resume everyday work behind the plate while approaching his career numbers (.277/.380/.477). A 60/40 split in playing time leads to a total .243/.304/.380 performance between them, not something the Yanks can afford.

Indians: Left Field/First Base/DH (Ben Francisco + David Dellucci/Ryan Garko/Travis Hafner)
For a likely contender, the Indians don't look very threatening at the positions where the offensive expectations are the highest. As noted last week, the left-field platoon of Francisco (forecast for 260/.328/.424) and Dellucci (.254/.316/.425) is of a piece with the Tribe's seven-year trend of mediocrity from its corner outfielders, while Garko at first base is similarly lacking in punch (.261/.333/.420). There's slightly more room for optimism here than in some other quarters, however. While shoulder problems eroded Hafner's performance from .308/.419/.611 in 2004-2006 to just .248/.364/.417 in 2007-2008 (including a sub-Mendoza showing last year), off-season surgery to clean out scar tissue offers hope that he can outdo his .248/.352/.422 forecast, even if living up to his $57 million contract through 2012 is a pipe dream. Additionally, top prospect Matt LaPorta, a 2007 first-round pick obtained from the Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade last summer, will start the year in Triple-A, and could provide more punch by slotting in at left field or at first base by mid-season.

The Rest: With Ryan Church, Nick Evans, Dan Murphy, and Fernando Tatis forecast to hit a combined .256/.318/.415, the Mets' corner outfield situation could make this list, though we've offered them multiple solutions already. ... With the Yankees' catching situation making the list, it bears mentioning that a similar 60/40 split for the Red Sox between Jason Varitek and Josh Bard comes in at .246/.319/.386-20 points of OPS higher-in an offense that's better equipped to withstand that lack of production from a lineup slot. ... Having failed to replace departed free agents CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the Brewers' rotation might seem ripe for this list, but PECOTA sees four of its five principals coming in with ERAs under 4.52, though Seth McClung's projection probably heads in the wrong direction if he's considered a starter instead of a reliever. ... The White Sox, on the other hand, forecast to have just one starter below 4.58; their situation was discussed here.

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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32 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

nschaef

I like the article, and the idea behind the article. I'm not sure if that link at the end of it, regarding the White Sox situation, is working though.

Feb 06, 2009 10:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Try http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8474

Feb 06, 2009 12:53 PM
 
nschaef

Link fixed. Thanks!

Looper was the solution I had kind of hoped for for the White Sox - especially if they have $8 million to play with, if those reports are to be believed. Although, how much weight would you put into Looper saying he wanted to pitch for an NL team?

Feb 07, 2009 09:39 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

I have to be missing something, because I can't see how the Indians are a "likely contender." Their entire rotation's either a question mark (yeah, that includes Lee - can you say "Loiaza?") or outright sucks, the bullpen's no better, and they're going to have a lotta trouble scoring runs. OK, the Sox and Twins have issues and aren't any great shakes, either - is that basically why Cleveland's "likely" to win the AL Central?

Feb 06, 2009 11:06 AM
rating: -2
 
SaberTJ

The Indians may not have any superstars besides Sizemore, but they have more depth at a lot of positions on the diamond. If someone falters, they have a lot of options to plug the hole with in the lineup, bullpen and rotation. I don't think anyone would say the Tribe is a dominant favorite in the Central, but no one in that division did anything this off season to make Cleveland getting into the playoffs a remote possibility either.

Feb 06, 2009 12:18 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Others have touched on it throughout the comments section, but given the lack of a dominant team in the division, the Tribe at least appear to be contenders at the moment. After coming within one game of a pennant in 2007, they did disappoint last year at 81-81, but their 34-21 finish suggests they found their way towards the end.

Feb 06, 2009 12:51 PM
 
greensox

How many times has a Mark Shapiro GMd team finished ahead of a Ken Williams GMd team.
Once.
Williams 7
Shapiro 1

Feb 09, 2009 20:50 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Our PECOTA depth charts have the Indians leading the Central with 84 wins, and the Sox last at 74, so don't yell at me for calling the Tribe contenders.

Feb 11, 2009 12:35 PM
 
jetson
(660)

I think Vic Martinez will be in the 1b/DH mix for at least 300 PAs.

Feb 06, 2009 11:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Rob_in_CT

There's not really anything the Yankees can do but pray Posada is healthy.

Feb 06, 2009 11:58 AM
rating: 0
 
GoTribe06

I think that everyone is making too big of a deal out of the Yankee's catcher concerns. I would argue that even with Molina starting, their offense is better than any other teams'. At least they are running out a solid defender if Posada isn't his old self. And I disagree that the Red Sox lineup is better equipped to handle a lack of production from the C position.

Feb 06, 2009 13:07 PM
rating: 0
 
James Martin Cole

The Yankees were the 7th best offense in baseball last year, and they lost their second and third best hitters. Big Texy makes up for some of that, but I'm not sure if he propels them to having an offense that is "better than any other team's." They'll probably be around average again, next year.

Feb 06, 2009 13:34 PM
rating: 2
 
GoTribe06

I hate to argue a point in support of the Yankees, but Teixeira's projected VORP is greater than that of Abreu and Giambi combined. Add Swisher who is 7 years younger than either of them and in his prime, and on paper their line-up has improved. I understand that the games aren't played on paper, but I haven't found a team whose line-up projects better. I certainly wouldn't make the assertion that they need Posada to keep their offense going.

Feb 06, 2009 14:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Christopher Taylor

Have to agree with eighteen. To call the Indians a contender is strange. The Blue Jays look like a powerhouse in comparison.

Feb 06, 2009 12:18 PM
rating: -2
 
SaberTJ

If the Blue Jays were in the Central they'd be a lock for the playoffs. It's all about logistics here, the Indians play in the right division. No one is referring to these Indians as the late 90s teams, but they are good enough to take advantage of holes in the other Central teams' rosters.

Feb 06, 2009 12:21 PM
rating: 3
 
TGisriel

Heck, if the Orioles were in the Central they could be a contender

Feb 06, 2009 12:40 PM
rating: -2
 
ScottyB

Why is BP so down on Ryan Church? He was having a very good season before the concussion...

Feb 06, 2009 12:36 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Church is a classic tweener, a guy whose offensive production would be fine for center field if he could carry it defensively, but one who's a little light with the stick for a starting corner outfielder. His career line is .272/.347/.457, good for a .285 EqA where the average corner's was .276 last year, but he's 30 and has topped 360 plate appearances only once in his career for a variety of reasons. PECOTA's just not that into him.

Feb 06, 2009 13:05 PM
 
destro55

You may be the only person on Earth who thinks the RedSox's catching situation is in a better position going into 2009 than the Yankees. Even with full, perfect health, both Sox catchers are wretched hitters. Conversely, if Posada is anywhere near healthy, he'll outproduce both of them handily. So, please explain your math there?

Feb 06, 2009 12:43 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The math is right there: 60/40 splits in playing time for the two situations, projected over 650 PA using the four players' weighted mean PECOTA projections. Yes, Posada projects that badly, presumably because the history of 36-year-olds whose power and playing time go over the cliff due to injury isn't full of many happy rebounds.

I don't think the Sox catching is in a better position relative to the Yanks so much as the Sox are in a better position to withstand their lack of production. Of course, if Pedroia regresses, if Ortiz can't bounce back, and if a few other things go wrong that lack of production from the backstops will hurt them too.

Feb 06, 2009 12:58 PM
 
destro55

Ah ok, better team position, I get your point now. I don't think either team needs an above average hitting catcher to field a solid offense, though.

Feb 06, 2009 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Well, Posada has been a more vital piece of the Yankee offense in recent years than Varitek has; his 2007 was the best-ever Age-35 season from a catcher, and the Yankee offense fell 179 from 2007 to 2008 due in part to his absence. Meanwhile, Varitek stopped hitting and the Sox offense fell by just 22 runs from 2007-2008, outscoring the Yanks by about 60 runs in the latter year. Hence, I see the Yanks as needing an above-average Posada far more than the Sox need an above-average Varitek.

Feb 06, 2009 13:11 PM
 
destro55

Also, I think that projection is terribly pessimistic to project a potentially healthy Posada will be worse than a very hurt Posada.

Feb 06, 2009 13:06 PM
rating: 0
 
GoTribe06

Taking catchers out of the lineup, the Yankees have a projected VORP of 185 and the Red Sox have a projected VORP of 150. The Red Sox are paying less for their questions at catcher, but I think it is just as glaring of a weakness.

Feb 06, 2009 13:17 PM
rating: 0
 
J Scott

Posada's OPS last year, playing WITH the torn rotator cuff and WITH the torn labrum was .775. So, now that he's had BOTH repaired, he's projected at... .740?

Let's turn the "prayer possession arrow" in the opposite direction. The Red Sox and Rays better PRAY Posada has fallen off this cliff. Nothing I've heard about his rehab leads me to believe it will be less than 100%. I anticipate the Yankees will ease him back into the line-up in April; avoiding anything that looks like inclement weather. By May I think he'll be there...or thereabouts.

Feb 06, 2009 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

PECOTA logic

Feb 06, 2009 15:38 PM
rating: -3
 
sordfish

The Indians at least partially fixed all of their semi-gaping holes except left in the off-season (I say semi-gaping because going from 17 games or so under 500 in midyear to finish 81-81 would indicate they had already done some work there). Also, the analysis entirely ignores the fact that Victor Martinez, a proven producer, is in the 1B/DH pool. The person who compared Lee to Loaiza might be reminded, since he obviously doesn't remember, that Lee finished high in the CY race a few years ago where Loaiza was indeed a "one-year wonder". He also doesn't remember that Carmona was 19-7 just a year ago, throwing stuff that made Torii Hunter say that he felt "drunk" trying to hit it. Not to mention showing a lot more composure in dealing with gnats than the allegedly-great Joba. Lots of teams would like that kind of sucking at the top of their rotation.
And obviously the lack of improvement among their opposition (except KC) doesn't hurt them in their division. And didn't the mighty Blue Jays lose their best pitcher; maybe I only imagined that.

Feb 06, 2009 12:50 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Victor Martinez's weighted mean PECOTA is .272/.342/.408, which does nothing to change my analysis. He's a minor assest offensively as a catcher, but another drag on the lineup if he's playing first base while Shoppach (.248/.324/.468) catches.

Feb 06, 2009 13:00 PM
 
Dougie4512

Jay, how much would the type of injury Martinez had (absolutely no power after being a 15-25 HR guy for most of his career) factor into the projection? Does that automatically make it pessimistic or is type of injury and power sapped factored in? I would guess that objectively it would be hard to quantify falling off the extra base hit cliff without knowing about a specific type of injury? Correct me if I'm wrong.

Feb 06, 2009 20:14 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

PECOTA is ignorant of the type of injury but it seems pretty obvious that it can recognize career patterns, and that it would assume a more pessimistic projection for a guy who missed a lot of time and saw his performance decline versus a guy who just missed a lot of time while upholding a performance otherwise in line with his career stats.

As with Posada, the system is probably thinking bad thoughts regarding V-Mart over his drop in playing time and loss of power. His attrition rate (33%) is more than double what it was last year (15%) and only slightly ahead of Posada (42%, skyrocketing from 12% last year), which is pretty surprising given their seven-year age gap. What PECOTA knows, in other words, is that such patterns are often the beginning of the end for catchers, regardless of age.

Now, the fact that it was just bone chips in V-Mart's case leads me to believe that regardless of age, he's a better bet to recover than Posada, who had the deluxe messed-up shoulder platter.

Feb 07, 2009 08:31 AM
 
jetson
(660)

I'd give 90/10 odds against the likelihood of that line for Victor. .290/.350/.460 would be my edumacated 50%-tile expectation.

Feb 07, 2009 18:00 PM
rating: 0
 
smallflowers

What about Luke Hughes in the mix in Twinky-town? If his '08 MiL blow-up was for real, why does there appear to be no consideration for him anywhere?

Feb 06, 2009 16:48 PM
rating: 0
 
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