- Alright, We’re Spent: Arizona made an early splash during the Hot Stove season when, within a matter of days, they consummated the first two major trades of the off-season, dealing Curt Schilling to the BoSox and getting Richie Sexson from the Brewers in a classic quantity for quality deal.
Schilling, despite making just 24 starts, was the 10th best starting pitcher in baseball according to Michael Wolverton’s nifty Support-Neutral reports. The package they received for him included promising lefty Casey Fossum, set-up man Brandon Lyon and a pair of prospects, one of whom they sent to Milwaukee for Sexson. Talent-wise, the deal is heavily in Boston’s favor, even if Fossum develops into a solid #3 starter. Even though they were not going to extend Schilling’s contract, waiting until the trading deadline may have been a smarter move.
The others in the Sexson deal included former NLCS MVP Craig Counsell, one-year wonder…we mean, All-Star Junior Spivey, Mark Grace-lite Lyle Overbay, backup catcher Chad Moeller and fungible lefty Chris Capuano. Getting rid of Spivey ($2.4 million) and Counsell ($3.15 million) make Sexson’s $8.6 million contract more palatable, and he is a clear upgrade over Overbay at first. The trade was a good move as long as this doesn’t lead anywhere; because at 29, Sexson isn’t someone to sign to a lucrative, long-term deal.
Other than the flurry of activity of that week, Arizona didn’t do much, besides quietly signing the remnants of Roberto Alomar‘s career. At just $1 million for one year, it’s a cheap and smart bet that he won’t continue his way down the Barry Larkin career path. The days of the Jay Bell/Matt Williams contracts are thankfully in the past.
- One (Small) Step Forward: Despite a home park that played as Coors Field-lite in 2003, the D’backs finished just 10th in the league in runs scored, due in large part to this collection of dead weight:
Player PA EqA VORP Rod Barajas 235 .198 -8.5 Craig Counsell 346 .226 -3.4 Mark Grace 151 .200 -8.1 Quinton McCracken 218 .189 -12.5 Tony Womack 229 .206 -4.4
The fivesome totaled nearly 1,200 plate appearances while performing at around four wins below replacement level–meaning that if guys replacing them like lefty-mashing Greg Colbrunn (whom they wisely flipped McCracken for, thanks to Bill Bavasi), Carlos Baerga, Matt Kata, Luis Terrero and Brent Mayne merely don’t suck really, really hard, that’s a few wins in the standings. Which is good because…
- One (Small) Step Back: Because of the Coors impression that B.O.B. executed last season, Arizona’s stellar pitching performance was overlooked nationally–evidenced most strongly by the Dontrelle Willis chugging right past Brandon Webb to take home the NL Rookie of the Year Award. According to the Support-Neutral metrics, the D’backs had the best starting staff in the majors, and their bullpen ranked fifth. The optimistic Arizona fan might point out that this was without a healthy Randy Johnson or a full season of Schilling, but the losses of both Schilling and Miguel Batista and a dose of regression to the mean results in this:
2003 2004 Pitchers VORP Pitchers VORP -------------------------------------------- Johnson 11.9 Johnson 33.3 Webb 49.8 Webb 32.6 Schilling 48.7 Fossum 8.8 Batista 38.2 Reynolds 13.5 Dessens 5.7 Dessens 18.2 Kim 10.4 Sparks 8.5 Villareal 22.4 Villareal 9.8 Mantei 17.9 Mantei 18.3 Valverde 15.9 Valverde 15.7 Koplove 12.9 Koplove 13.2 Randolph 10.3 Randolph -0.4 Patterson -3.6 Patterson 6.2 Good 0.6 Good 10.6 Others 2.6 Lyon 8.8 Villafuerte 6.2 -------------------------------------------- TOTAL 243.7 TOTAL 203.3
This is still a good pitching staff, as the losses of Batista and Schilling are partially balanced out in part by Johnson’s return and a very solid bullpen. Astute PECOTAites might notice that the optimistic forecast for Edgar Gonzalez isn’t included in the chart on the right, because it’s not very likely he’ll spend much time with the big club in 2004.
The slight downgrade on the staff combined with the slight upgrade to the bench means that it will be up the underperforming offense to have the team improve on its 84 wins from last year. PECOTA currently has them pegged at 83, which puts them in dead heat with the Giants and Padres for the “race” to the top of the weak NL West. With an elderly core, the first three months will determine whether they go for broke or whether we see Randy Johnson in pinstripes come August.
- Outstanding Performance: Quick–name the last time Allard Baird made a mistake!
If you had to think long and hard before coming up with an answer, well, you’re not alone. Baird has followed a season in which the Royals improved by 21 wins, the most in the majors, with an essentially flawless off-season.
He sifted through the usual bundle of Royals who became free-agents this winter, and correctly identified which ones the Royals ought to keep, whether for lack of alternatives (Joe Randa, Brian Anderson), because another team was paying 97% of their salary (Kevin Appier), or because the player was actually good, dammit (Curtis Leskanic).
He also correctly identified which Royals not to re-sign. In particular, he didn’t let sentiment get in the way of making the right decision on Raul Ibanez. Using the leverage that comes from having top prospect David DeJesus in the minors, Baird allowed Ibanez to find his millions elsewhere.
Baird also set out to improve the team’s depth, a weakness that was critically exposed last season, by signing Matt Stairs as a platoon partner for Ken Harvey, Tony Graffanino to be a jack-of-all-trades around the infield, and Scott Sullivan to be a jack-of-all-trades out of the bullpen.
Even the questionable acquisition of the nebbish Rich Thompson in the Rule 5 draft made considerable sense a few weeks later, when Baird finally nabbed his Great White Whale and ensnared Juan Gonzalez. Thompson’s speed and defense complements Gonzalez’s bat nicely, allowing the Royals to keep DeJesus in Triple-A at the start of the season and not burn up service time prematurely.
Toss in the nifty pilfering of Jamie Cerda from the Mets for cannon fodder Shawn Sedlacek, and Baird arguably had a perfect off-season. Many a General Manager, coming off his team’s first winning season in nine years, would stand pat out of fear of disturbing whatever ingredients led to his team’s success. Baird deserves credit for realizing that, as impressive and as gratifying as the Royals’ success was last season, he still had much work to do.
It’s time to acknowledge that the GM of the Royals is not the same man that once traded Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez. The notion that Allard Baird is to General Managing what William Hung is to singing needs to be buried once and for all. Today, Baird is a Top-10 GM. With a bullet.
- For Want of a Nail: The #1 question facing the Royals as they go into Spring Training doesn’t revolve around a positional battle or the readiness of a hot prospect or the return of a veteran player from injury. The question is simply this: Is Jeremy Affeldt over his blister problems or not?
Statistically and scout-istically, Affeldt is the Royals’ best pitcher, but his future as a starting pitcher has been jeopardized by chronic blister problems involving the middle figner on his throwing hand. A recurrence of the problem last season forced the Royals to move him into relief for the season’s final two months.
This off-season, Affeldt and the Royals finally took definitive measures to correct the problem. Affeldt underwent a partial nail avulsion, in which the portion of his fingernail that was pinching into his skin and causing the blister was removed, in October. When the nail grew back in just two months–about three times faster than normal–he underwent the same procedure in December, only this time he had acid applied to the base of the nail afterwards to prevent the nail from ever growing back.
Early returns are positive, and Affeldt is tentatively pencilled in as the Royals’ #3 starter. If he truly is cured, he could be the dominant ace the Royals’ rotation has been lacking since Appier got hurt in 1997. And better still, we can stop providing you with tedious dermatologic updates in the pages of PTP.
- Great Scott!: The way the Phillies talked about the Billy Wagner deal, you’d think they knew how to turn back time. Yes, if Wagner had been closing in Philadelphia last year instead of Jose Mesa, the Phillies would have beaten out Florida and made the playoffs, and maybe they’d have been the ones celebrating in October when Brett Myers shut down the Yankees on short rest. But Wagner can save games till the cows come home and that won’t change what happened last year.
The Phillies’ thought process was showing itself to be way too linear: they seemed to be entering an offseason where they would plug holes in last year’s team. Their budget has limits, and with Kevin Millwood hitting free agency, throwing $8 million at a guy who pitches one inning every other day didn’t seem like the best use of resources.
But credit the Phillies, at least, with identifying holes and filling them. This is not the type of club that will ever swing a deal like the one the Red Sox were talking about all December; they don’t think that creatively. But they did have a plan, and even if you can’t change the past, Billy Wagner’s a pretty good guy to have for the future.
- Just Call Him Warren Buffett: Ed Wade didn’t score any bargains this winter in the Miguel Batista mold, but he did a pretty good job of reading the market. First, he didn’t offer arbitration to Terry Adams, and signed Tim Worrell for less money than he would have had to give Adams. Then he turned to the rotation.
First he got Eric Milton and gave up nothing of value. Milton has one year at $9 million left on his contract. He’s got a bum knee and is a terrible long-term bet. But who cares? It’s only one year; if Milton’s great, the Phillies can resign him at their peril, and if he isn’t, they’re not relying on him to be their ace anyway.
Wade also saw what kind of attention Kevin Millwoodwas getting and offered him arbitration. If by chance Phillies lost Millwood, this would ensure a draft pick coming back. More likely, it meant that if Millwood wouldn’t accept a large but not excessive multi-year offer from the team, they could keep him for just one more year at $11 million.
These are great deals. Let’s look at projected 2004 VORP vs. dollars for the free agent pitcher class of 2004:
2004 Pitcher Avg. Salary VORP ------------------------------------ Bartolo Colon $12,750,000 37.8 Andy Pettitte $10,500,000 34.6 Sidney Ponson $7,500,000 24.8 Greg Maddux $7,500,000 33.8 Kelvim Escobar $6,250,000 22.4 Kevin Millwood $11,000,000 27.0* Eric Milton $9,000,000 17.5*
At first glance, the Phils don’t look so wise: Millwood’s making a little more than he should, and Milton is way overpaid. But Milton’s got more upside potential than anyone on this list; we’ve been waiting him to break out for years, and if he can pitch 200 innings, that VORP shoots up to 27.6.
The biggest reason, though, that these are good deals is that they’re only for one year. Can Colon earn that $12.75 million this year? Yeah, maybe. Can he also earn it in 2005, 2006, and 2007? Probably not. Can Ponson repeat his breakout year not just once but three times? Don’t bet on it. And what if Pettitte’s elbow goes next spring? If Milton’s knee pulls a Mo Vaughn, the Phillies can wash their hands of the whole thing.
Pitchers aren’t good long-term risks, and Ed Wade has managed to improve his pitching staff tremendously without making a single new long-term commitment. He looked at the market, saw that Colon was too fat and expensive, Ponson too iffy, and that Maddux wouldn’t play in Philly, and acted accordingly.
The Phillies are now the best team, on paper, in the National League. As they’re saying in Clearwater, now is the time. Given that, you could argue that Ed Wade should have risked some future breakdowns and gotten the absolute best talent he could have, instead of a short-term risk like Milton. But this team is young enough and good enough that now can be the time for the next five years. Who wants to risk that? The Phillies didn’t, and they’re still in great position for 2004.