With all due kudos to Barry Bonds for passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run leaderboard, I’m hoping his efforts to fell Hank Aaron’s mark of 755 come to grief. I’m not wishing injury upon Bonds, and this sentiment of mine is not borne of any animus toward Bonds himself. I’m gleefully untroubled by the steroids issue, and I’m also not one of these who levels his selective misanthropy at the modern ballplayer. I’m just someone who has a deep and abiding admiration for Hank Aaron, such that I want to see him cling to this record until we do a collective header back into the primordial soup whence we came.
The Phillies make a commitment they might regret, Jimy Williams makes
decisions that Astros’ fans might regret, and the Twins and Orioles sever some
ties, without regret.
The lone major trade of DePo’s young tenure is one that made horse sense for both teams. The Tribe endeavored earnestly to ignore and address Bradley’s mounting peccadilloes, but even a forward-thinking organization can’t entirely discount matters of personality. Somewhat counterintuitively, the Indians were wise to deal with a GM as smart as DePodesta, who, despite Bradley’s waning credibility, still realized what a talent he was and, if pressed, was prepared to barter fairly for him. That’s what happened. Tribe GM Mark Shapiro walks away with the whiff of the earnest disciplinarian about him and a top-shelf power prospect in Gutierrez (who, at the age of 20, slugged an impressive .513 in the hurler-philic FSL) to boot. If the PTBN is anyone of consequence, it’s an even better deal for the Indians. As for the Dodgers, they get a genuine middle-of-the-order hitter who happens to capably man a key defensive position. Back in his native SoCal, Bradley can convalesce his rep, enjoy the charms of troop-friendly Jim Tracy and get back to wielding his considerable talents on the diamond. Everybody wins.
Is Michael Tucker really going to bat third for the Giants on a permanent basis? The Giants chapter in BP ’04 (you have your copy, right?) homed in on the indecent degree to which the Giants depended upon Barry Bonds for their offensive production last season. Well, a rewrite may be in order. Not since Liam Neeson defiled his career by appearing in Satisfaction has an elite performer been surrounded by such drek (yes, Julia, you’re drek).
I’m going to write about the Cardinals today. I’ve been a ruthlessly devoted fan of the Cards since I was old enough to eat bugs, so know that I embark on this exercise while holding more stake than usual in the outcome. Time was when I would pick the Cardinals to win their division every single year, but since I began pontificating on baseball for modest pay and an audience, I’ve had to adopt more of a clinical remove when talking about them. That’s why, as things stand, I think they’re the third best team in the NL Central (although the recent flurry of decisions and happenstance on the North Side of Chicago have me dreaming fond dreams of second place).
Grumpy about this, I’m going to brazenly second guess all that has passed before the eyes of Cardinal Nation this off-season. It’ll be one part bang-spoon-on-high-chair sense of entitlement and one part desultory wallowing in what might have been. I call it “What My Favorite Team Should Have Done This Winter.” I’ll try to avoid indulging in castles-in-the-air schemes like: Sign Vlad! Trade for A-Rod! Swap Bo Hart for Marcus Giles! Additionally, I’ll attempt to maintain some semblance of fiscal verisimilitude in what I recommend.
With bullet points, for the busy executive…
In a paradigm shift that will drop jaws around the league, the Blue Jays have eliminated all amateur scouting positions within the organization. Instead, for the past few weeks, they’ve relied on prospective draftees to conduct scouting assessments of themselves. Yes, you read that correctly. The Blue Jays, in their unquenchable search for the grail of minimized labor costs, will rely on the player to scout himself.
I’m one of the many observers picking the Phillies to prevail in the NL East. Like many prognosticators, however, I make this prediction with a sense of foreboding that a certain team down in Atlanta isn’t quite ready to cede the division. Rationally, I know the Braves’ rotation has been systematically disemboweled by age and departure. I also know that last season’s Panzer division of an offense has lost its two best performers, Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield, to the AL East. Still, the last 13 years have taught me that betting against the Braves is a cockamamie endeavor. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at what PECOTA says about the division and determine what needs to happen for the Braves to dish out yet another dynastic noogie to the collective scalp of the NL East.
I’m going to type “it’s time to answer some reader mail” into AltaVista’s Babelfish, translate it from English to German, from German to French and then from French back to English. Then, I’ll take what comes out of the wash, translate it from English to French, French to German and then back to English. And we have: “it is a time, in order to answer to the station of the reader.” This entertains me.
If you’re anyone other than a key decision maker for most teams in baseball, you’re probably aware that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on spring training stats. Besides the obvious (to most) sample-size caveats, there’s also a litany of other reasons not to take Cactus or Grapefruit League numbers terribly awfully really very seriously. For one, an inordinate amount of the playing time goes to reclamation projects, prospects not quite ready for competition at the highest level, minor league vagabond types or veteran performers tinkering around with a new pitch or reconstructed swing. It’s simply not the sort of premium level of competition you’ll find in regular season contests. While spring training numbers should be taken more seriously than, say, laundry instructions or warning labels on beer, they’re still not to be imbued with head-slapping importance. All that said, this time out I’m going to take a look at a handful of spring performances that do have a reasonable degree of import for one reason or another.
It’s been a fairly bustling off-season with more than its share of meaty trades and free-agent signings. The winter derring-do of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels have been sufficiently analyzed in other spaces and in this one, but some of the sage moves of the past few months have passed by seemingly unnoticed, with church-mouse quietness (you can only if hear it if you’re pure of heart and listen oh-so closely). So today, I’m going to look at a trio of front-office decisions that haven’t garnered much bandwidth, but nevertheless merit praise.
Freshly minted Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta has plenty of challenges ahead of him. The Dodgers, a team historically accustomed to success, haven’t made the postseason since 1996 and don’t appear poised to break that trend in the upcoming season. If they don’t, it’ll be the organization’s longest glory drought since they wallowed in mediocrity from 1921 to 1940.
This season, the club does have well defined needs, but those needs–offensive production of some kind–are sweeping and not easily addressed. Although there have been a few rumors floated by the press (Jose Canseco, Adam Dunn, Jason Kendall, Larry Bigbie), DePodesta has yet to make the headline-grabbing move that Dodger nation awaits with bated breath. Although his tenure in L.A. will certainly bring its share of major trades, I’m not so sure that one is in the immediate offing. A panic move isn’t in order; a reevaluation of the “Dodger Way” most certainly is. The organization has famously relied on pitching since moving Westward, and it served them well for many years. Stockpiling quality arms is praiseworthy, but not when it’s achieved at the utter neglect of the offense. The Dodger Way must change.
What do these teams have in common this season: the Red Sox, Cubs, Reds, Expos, Yankees and Cardinals? They’re not all contenders, they’re not all pennant-race non-entities, they’re not all possessed of similar strengths and weaknesses, they’re not all of a the same economic strata, not all their mascots have feathers, fur or nylon stitching. So what could it be? The answer is that all of the aforementioned teams are poised to open the 2004 season without a lefty in their rotation. What’s more is that the Pirates, if they do indeed dispatch Oliver Perez to the minors to start the season, and the Blue Jays, if Ted Lilly’s wrist injury keeps him off the opening-day roster and he’s replaced by Vinny Chulk, will join their ranks.
I can’t really say whether this is a historical oddity, but my suspicion is that when more than a quarter of the league has not a single left-handed starter among them, something’s afoot. And, mind you, other than the Reds, these aren’t teams that have performed the industry equivalent of dumpster diving to assemble their pitching staffs. In fact, you’ll find among these sans-lefty squads the probable top three pitching staffs in all of baseball. Additionally, the Padres may become the first nominal contender since the ’94 Expos to go with an all right-handed bullpen for the bulk of the season. So is there any reason for this, ahem, southpaucity?
With the rise of quantitative analysis in baseball and the prominence of Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball (which, contrary to the ruminations of Joe Morgan, was not written by Oakland GM Billy Beane) there has been cultivated a turf rivalry of sorts between traditional scouting types and their propeller-head assailants. It’s my position (and the position of probably all of my colleagues here at Baseball Prospectus) that this rivalry is silly, unnecessary, and ultimately counterproductive. That’s because as organizations begin to recalibrate their approach to making player personnel decisions, they don’t need to be asking: which method do we choose? Instead, it should be: how do we integrate both approaches?
You see, there’s no need to replace traditional scouting with performance scouting (a term sometimes used to describe what we do here at Baseball Prospectus), and there’s no need to ignore the latter completely in blind preference to the former. In a column I wrote last year, I made a “beer and tacos” metaphor out of the dilemma. It’s a little like asking the question: “Which do you want, beer or tacos?” The answer, of course, is: “Both. Now, please.”
You might recall that last year I wrote a trio of articles that examined the minor league pitching statistics of two distinct populations of major league hurlers. One group was manifestly successful at the highest level, while the other group, while not as bad as a Slim Whitman concept album, still didn’t fare to well in the bigs. While far from conclusive, the findings of the study were more confounding and counterintuitive than anything else. It provided more questions than answers, which is usually what happens when you give a former English major the keys to Excel. It was quite surprising to find that Group B outperformed Group A in several key measures like K/BB ratio, K/9 and BB/9. In short, they struck out hitters at a higher clip, had better control and demonstrated more command. The only thing Group A did do better, albeit modestly, was keep the ball in the park and prevent hits (and the latter probably wasn’t entirely of their own making). As such, I’ve decided to revisit this matter with an eye toward home runs and hits allowed–the two measures that favored Group A in the original study. Additionally, this time I’ll remedy an oversight in the first study and bring age into the equation.
Comerica’s change in fence dimensions make it easier to hit homers, but it changed what, in the previous two seasons, was a terrific park for triples. Comerica’s triples factor in 2003 was 126, but from 2001-2002 the figure was a whopping 209. Kauffman Stadium’s homer factor for left-handed batters last season was 94, but for right-handed batters it was 120. That’s in keeping with the previous three seasons. Network Associates Coliseum was quite rough on lefty power hitters last season; it yielded a home run factor of 75, while right-handed batters enjoyed a factor of 114.
In my last column, I made a throwaway remark about the Blue Jays possibly and concomitantly being the third-place team in the AL East and the third-best team in all of baseball. It’s an intriguing notion–unassailable quality knuckling under to circumstance. Even so, it’s worth asking whether Toronto might have the goods to displace Boston or New York in the junior-circuit pecking order. With the Red Sox and Yankees already brimming with talent and throwing cash around like Marion Barry sans tracking collar, the Jays, in spite of their substantial merits, will likely be resigned to the brand of pre-October respectability to which they’ve accustomed in recent years. Nothing terribly wrong with that. That’s especially the case for a team on a hermetically sealed budget and facing an unbalanced schedule packed with tilts against the Sox, Yanks and the suddenly passable Orioles. Unaccommodating circumstances notwithstanding, one’s led to wonder: What would need to happen for the Jays, undeniably a fine team with a highly intelligent front office, to pass playoff muster this season?