30 Shades of Hot: Take Notice of These Scorching Players

Over the last month, some players have inflated their production to incredible levels. With all of the excitement from the NBA and NHL Playoffs, the Supreme Court, and…the Women’s World Cup…perhaps you’ve missed it. Below are some players who are getting back on track or having career seasons.

Arizona 1B Paul Goldschmidt for MVP?  Courtesy: USA Today
Arizona 1B Paul Goldschmidt for MVP?
Courtesy: USA Today

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

Last 30 days: .394/.525/.713, 6 2B, 8 HR, 22 RBI, 15:27 K:BB, 5 SB

You could argue that Goldschmidt has been the best player in MLB this season, even though he ranks 3rd in WAR (4.3) behind the Nationals’ Bryce Harper (5.1) and the Indians’ Jason Kipnis (4.6). Goldy has compiled a .354/.473/.654 line to go along with 15 doubles, 20 home runs, 60 RBI, and a league-leading 59 walks (17 intentional). While the Diamondbacks sit at 35-37, they are just 4.5 games out of the Wild Card hunt. Goldschmidt will continue to be pitched around as the primary source of fear within the Arizona lineup.

Todd Frazier, 3B, Cincinnati Reds

Last 30 days: .354/.381/.770, 14 2B, 11 HR, 26 RBI, 2 SB

Frazier is the Reds’ Ambassador for the upcoming All-Star Game in Cincinnati, utilizing his friendly personality and love of Frank Sinatra to become a beloved figure in Reds Country. He is becoming a beloved figure around baseball, especially fantasy circles, due to his incredible power outburst over the last month. Frazier has been the 4th most valuable position player in baseball (based on WAR, 4.1), as he has become an asset not only for his bat, but his slick glove at the hot corner.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels

Last 30 days: .333/.416/.818, 3 2B, 15 HR, 30 RBI, 5:13 K:BB

“Prince Albert” has found the stroke that made him such a force in his Hall of Fame worthy time in St. Louis. After averaging “just” 25 home runs, 91 RBI, and an .810 OPS in his first three seasons for the Angels, many thought the days of 40 home runs, 121 RBI, and 1.037 OPS, his average year in 11 seasons with the Cardinals, were long gone. Pujols currently leads the AL in bombs (23), and will continue to be a part of the two-man wrecking crew that the Angels have with him and Mike Trout in the order.

Giants' 2B Joe Panik - career year or start of something special?  Courtesy: goldengatesports.com
Giants’ 2B Joe Panik – career year or start of something special?
Courtesy: goldengatesports.com

Joe Panik, 2B, San Francisco Giants

Last 30 days: .336/.405/.542, 10 2B, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 12:12 K:BB, 2 SB

Panik likely wasn’t on your list of players who could post a .300/.400/.500 season, but he has been that player over the last month, and very good over the entire season. Panik’s .310/.380/.463 line, 19 doubles, six home runs, and 141 wRC+ (2nd among second basemen in MLB) aren’t all that different from his .296/.365/.403 line over his minor league career, yet, he has nearly reached each of his season-long projections that were set forth by Steamer and ZiPS. His 2.8 WAR has allowed him to show more value than the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Kolten Wong, Brian Dozier, and Jose Altuve. Panik was a first round pick out of St. John’s University in 2011. At just 24, he has shown himself to be quite productive, and, if all else fails, he has a slick glove at second.

Justin Turner, INF, Los Angeles Dodgers

Last 30 days: .361/.418/.639, 6 2B, 5 HR, 17 RBI, 11:7 K:BB

Based on 190 plate appearances, Turner is the 15th most valuable position player in MLB (2.9 WAR). He is having an excellent month, while continuing to shine in the opportunities that he is provided, which are coming in bunches since the Dodgers traded Juan Uribe. While Corey Seager continues to mash in the minors, it is likely Jimmy Rollins at short who is more likely to be replaced than the do-it-all Turner. A career .260/.323/.361 hitter over his first five seasons (2009-2013, 926 plate appearances), the 30-year-old third baseman has hit .334/.400/.526 triple-slash over 512 plate appearances since the start of the 2014 season, with 33 doubles and 17 home runs.

Yovani Gallardo, RHP, Texas Rangers

Last 30 days: 2-0, five starts, 0.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 31 IP, 26:10 K:BB, .193 BAA

Gallardo looked like a lost cause early this season, posting a 4.05 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in his first five starts for the Rangers. With the way that the ball flies out of Arlington, it was only a matter of time before the Mexican hurler’s numbers would look even worse. However, that hasn’t been the case. Since May 1st, Gallardo has a 2.51 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 61 innings, including his impressive run of starts over the last 30 days. While the velocity and strikeout totals continue to dip, Gallardo is finding more success by cutting back on his curve and increasing the use of his slider and change. We’ll see if he can continue to stay hot as Texas heats up.

Braves' RHP Williams Perez - will the league catch up to him?  Courtesy: foxsports.com
Braves’ RHP Williams Perez – will the league catch up to him?
Courtesy: foxsports.com

Williams Perez, RHP, Atlanta Braves

Last 30 days: 4-0, six games (five starts), 2.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1 save, 32 IP, 20:15 K:BB, .219 BAA

Who? Unranked by Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com prior to the season, the 24-year-old has moved quickly through the Atlanta system since reaching full season ball in 2013. He jumped to Triple-A to start the season and made five starts before joining the Braves bullpen. He made all of two appearances before he joined the rotation – minus a random save opportunity on June 13th. In his seven starts, Perez has a 2.14 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. While the walks would need to come down for him to become a more valuable option, Perez has youth and results on his side to this point.

Nate Karns, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays

Last 30 days: 1-1, six games (six starts), 2.65 ERA 1.26 WHIP, 34 IP, 31:12 K:BB, .238 BAA

Karns has stepped up to take on a major role while the Rays battle health issues that have landed Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly on the disabled list for extended time this season and Matt Moore continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. The 27-year-old late bloomer, drafted in the 12th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, had shown some impressive strikeout skills in the minors (10.3 K:9 over 449.1 minor league innings), but, though he hasn’t reached those numbers to this point, he has certainly shown that he can get major league hitters out. Over 15 starts, Karns has a 3.28 ERA and 1.22 WHIP to go along with his 8.2 K:9. The Rays continue to have a process to maintain success, even after losing Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers from their front office. Karns, acquired by Friedman and Company in February of 2014, looks like a solid, long-term option for the Rays.

 

 

 

 

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2015 Season Previews: Los Angeles Angels

Over the next several weeks, The Baseball Haven will be creating season previews for all 30 MLB teams. You’ll find their projected records (based on PECOTA records from Baseball Prospectus, as of 2/15/2015), each team’s top three players (based on Steamer WAR projections from FanGraphs), and some valuable notes on each team, including likely bounce-back candidates, potential breakout players or fantasy sleepers, as well as a look back at offseason transactions which led to each team’s projections. Stop back frequently to see where your favorite team ranks!

Los Angeles Angels

Courtesy: MLB.com
Courtesy: MLB.com

2015 Projected Record: 90-72 (1st in AL West, 3rd in MLB)

Manager: Mike Scioscia (1,331-1099 in 15 seasons with the Angels)

Top Three Players: OF Mike Trout (8.6), OF Kole Calhoun, SS Erick Aybar (3.0)

Bounce-back Player: 3B David Freese

Freese is entering his age-32 season and has only had one “really good” season, which was 2012. It’s fair to wonder what he actually is, as he appears to be more of a 25 double, 10 home run, 60 RBI-guy than the 25 double, 20 home run, 80 RBI-guy that he was a few years back. Still, Freese has an excellent lineup around him, so he should see plenty of fastballs and be capable of a rebound, but what the ceiling of that rebound is…that’s the big question. A healthy Freese should get to 15 home runs and 75 RBI this season.

Is Calhoun capable of more than what he showed in 2014?  Courtesy: Zimbio.com
Is Calhoun capable of more than what he showed in 2014?
Courtesy: Zimbio.com

Fantasy Player to Watch: OF Kole Calhoun

In just 127 games, Calhoun reached 31 doubles and 17 home runs. Given an entire season of at-bats and entering his age-27 season, Calhoun may be capable of more. With Josh Hamilton‘s status for the season still uncertain, he may even move into a larger, run-producing role. Everyone drools over the opportunity to have Mike Trout on their team, but Calhoun isn’t chopped liver as far as Angels in the outfield.

Offseason Overview: The Angels added a solid young starter by acquiring LHP Andrew Heaney from the Dodgers for 2B Howie Kendrick, who was set for free agency after the 2015 season. Heaney doesn’t have top-of-the-rotation stuff, but he could be a nice mid-rotation option for a number of years, and the Angels aren’t known for developing talent, so it was a nice get. To fill the void at second, the Angels acquired Josh Rutledge from the Rockies and Johnny Giavotella from the Royals. Neither are offensive forces, but they’re solid defenders and with Trout and Pujols around, the pressure isn’t on them to produce. If Hamilton misses significant time due to his possible drug suspension, Grant Green, Colin Cowgill, or Matt Joyce, acquired from the Rays in December, could step into larger roles or a platoon situation.

The Verdict: Josh Hamilton’s suspension could be a huge issue for the Angels, and I’m betting against PECOTA on this one. The Mariners and the Athletics are in a better position to take the AL West. The Angels have plenty of talent, including the best player in baseball, but Mike Trout can’t carry an entire 25-man roster (this isn’t the NBA) and the Hamilton questions, the Pujols aging issue, and the lack of consistency from the remainder of the lineup leaves me thinking that this is an 83 to 85 win team. While that isn’t awful, it won’t be enough in 2015.

Best Of The Baseball Haven

I’ll be on a 10-day hiatus with little to no internet access, so I figured I would link to the articles that I am most proud of over my three years of running the site. Additionally, feel free to check out Wahoo’s on First, a Cleveland Indians’ blog, where I am co-editor, and you’ll be able to hear podcasts, read about the trade deadline, and other Tribe news. Thanks for finding me and enjoy the second half!

 

"Twins

2014 Top 50 Mid-Season Prospects: Self explanatory title.

The Sudden Emergence of J.D. Martinez: A look at the breakout Tigers’ outfielder.

Why Matt Kemp to the Reds Makes Sense: Mat Latos for Matt Kemp and some cash? Read why that makes sense.

Time for Cincinnati to Extend the Toddfather?: Todd Frazier is breaking out and soon he could break the bank. The Reds need to extend him.

Is 755 Still Meaningful?: A look at the number and if it will last longer than Barry Bonds‘ number.

Beyond Color: The Value of Jackie Robinson: Jackie Robinson is much more than the No.42 and the man who tore down the color barrier.

When Arguing By History Goes Horribly Wrong: Albert Pujols thinks he’s as big or a bigger deal than Mike Trout…or he did…should he?

The Flaw of Sabermetrics: How WAR Can Ruin Payrolls:  Can the statistic of Wins Above Replacement take a larger role in free agency, and, if it can, how could that ruin the game or increase spending to new heights?

"<strong

Losing the Captain and the Heart of Baseball: Derek Jeter is retiring. If you watched the All-Star Game, you may have heard. Why is it really such a big deal?

Vladimir Guerrero: Overlooked Greatness: I interview Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe and discussed Guerrero’s Hall of Fame resume, along with how his JAWS system compares him to other greats.

Pitchers Who Won’t Come Up Short: Short pitchers that throw hard – it’s a thing, but so is the label of not being able to hold up due to their height.

Jack Morris: Why He Isn’t a Hall of Famer: Self explanatory.

MLB TV Contract Eliminates Excuses for “Small-Markets”:  Don’t tell the fans you don’t have the money when this is out there.

2014 Top 100 MLB Prospects: The preseason list.

When Arguing By History Goes Horribly Wrong

Angels 1B: Albert Pujols
Angels 1B: Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols should be a first ballot Hall of Famer, even if you only consider his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols posted an 83 WAR (FanGraphs) from 2001 to 2011 in the “Gateway to the West”, winning three MVP awards and earning nine All-Star appearances in those 11 seasons. He parlayed that success into a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels prior to the 2012 season.

Since joining the Angels, the Pujols that you grew to love (or hate) has played in just 253 games, compiling a .275/.338/.485 triple-slash with 47 home runs and 169 RBI, while amassing a 4.4 WAR over the last two seasons. “Prince Albert” certainly hasn’t lived up to expectations, but the partial tear of his left plantar fascia played a major role in his sudden decline in 2013, as his 30 home runs and 105 RBI in 2012 can’t truly be considered a failure – unless your own expectations could have been judged in the same way.

Bob Nightengale posted a piece at USA Today which detailed a response that Pujols had to an interesting question:

Are you motivated to put up the same numbers as Mike Trout?

Pujols’ response was intriguing, to say the least:

“Can you imagine someone saying that to me? I felt like saying, ‘Come on, are you serious? Are you really asking me that? Check out my numbers. I know what Mike Trout has done in his first two years is pretty special, but will you look at my numbers. I’ve been doing this for almost 14 years. The only guy in baseball who can match the numbers I’ve put up is Barry Bonds, and someone is actually asking if I can put up numbers like Mike Trout? Are you freaking kidding me?”

We do seem to forget greatness rather quickly in our society, which lives in the now thanks in large part to social media and a non-existent attention span; however, does Pujols have a point?

pujols1You could argue that what Pujols has done – nearly 500 home runs and a little over 2,300 hits – will reach numbers that guarantee a legacy and enshrinement into Cooperstown. If he continues to stay clean, which has been an argument from some in the past, that seems to be a lock, but, as we all know, one wrong move, one wrong vitamin, and one wrong trust in a trainer could leave Pujols waiting on steps of the museum with Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, and others.

Let’s just say that Pujols remains the clean producer that he has been. Pujols will still be considered a monster, likely the second player with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs in Major League history (joining Willie Mays). Does he need to prove anything to anyone, considering that he could post 100 hits and 15 home runs per season over the next seven years to reach those milestones? He certainly wouldn’t be worth his average annual value with that type of production, but given the Angels’ television revenue and the gate revenue that comes along with the milestone chase, perhaps the Halos could still break even.

Here is a bigger question: Is it fair for a member of the media to ask if Pujols can put up numbers that Mike Trout has the last two seasons?

No. Pujols never has posted those numbers and he certainly won’t as he continues to age and decline.

Angels OF Mike Trout
Angels OF Mike Trout

You see, for all of his greatness, Pujols will forever lose value in the battle of statistics. With Wins Above Replacement being such a dynamic measuring tool in player values, Albert Pujols has to understand that he has NEVER been as valuable in a single season as Mike Trout has been in his first two full season. Mike Trout has accumulated a massive 20.4 WAR (FanGraphs) in those two seasons, establishing himself as the top player in the game, even though he has not managed to snag the last two American League MVP awards from Detroit Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

For all of the 14 years of production that Pujols can stand on, for the nine All-Star games, for the three MVP awards – baseball has moved on from legacies and histories to projection. By developing statistics that measure player values currently and in the future, like Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system, there is information available to teams and fans to dissect and look towards the future with, while hoping that their teams utilize the seemingly endless media revenue streams to lock-up their young stars, like Trout, to long-term deals. Albert Pujols has very little projection left and it seems unlikely that in today’s market, just two years removed, that Pujols would have received the type of contract that he did in Los Angeles.

As for the history that comes with Albert Pujols, he isn’t the player that the Angels are building their franchise around any longer. Although Mike Trout isn’t under team control as long as Pujols, the franchise is aware of the future success of the club, and it lies in the all-around skills and dominance that comes along with the generational talent that they drafted and developed, not the man that they committed a quarter of a billion dollars to in free agency.

If Mike Trout continues to be Mike Trout and he isn’t crippled by injuries like Grady Sizemore or Tony Conigliaro, Pujols will look back at this question and statement to remember that he was the one that could have used a serving of humble pie. Trout’s overall numbers may not reach the 700 home run plateau, but his WAR value could lead him to becoming the greatest player ever.

Pujols has never had a season as valuable as the last two that Trout has managed to post. If he thinks that he is the more valuable player of the two still today, he has to be kidding all of us, right?

How the Cincinnati Reds Ruined Their Window

Over the last nine games of the season, the Cincinnati Reds were 2-7, including their National League Wild Card loss in Pittsburgh, which would be their fifth loss against the Pirates in the nine game span. Needless to say, after a disappointing collapse in the 2012 National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants, the collapse at the end of the 2013 season wasn’t pleasing to the fans, or the front office. Dusty Baker was canned shortly thereafter, replaced by pitching coach Bryan Price, who, in his first year as manager, has been dealt with the task of rebuilding a roster with a lot of question marks into a perennial power, all the while continuing to look up at the St. Louis Cardinals, who have built a system of winning from within.

Now, the Reds must replace their lead-off hitter, Shin-Soo Choo, who only managed a .423 on-base percentage and 107 runs scored while reaching base 305 times by hit, walk, or hit-by-pitch, after watching Choo run to the Texas Rangers in free agency for seven-years, $130 million.

BruceCertainly, it wasn’t within the budget to re-up with Choo at $18.7 million per year, not with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips combining to make $33 million in 2014, $38 million in 2015, and $45.5 million in 2016, that is, of course, if one of them isn’t traded. The Reds have long had a payroll between $80 and $100 million under current owner Bob Castellini, but is it time to start questioning what the long-term goal of the franchise is, after sputtering around the free agent market while trying to replace their best lead-off hitter since Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were flapping and flopping around Riverfront Stadium. Whether television contracts and Major League Baseball Advanced Media revenue will allow the “small-market” Reds to increase their payroll further is a valid question, but with Matt Latos, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake under team-control through 2015, and Homer Bailey headed towards free agency after the 2014 season, how else can the team remain contenders, especially with St. Louis constantly reloading and the Chicago Cubs reaching their contention window, just as the Reds is becoming questionable?

This offseason was difficult, clearly. The Reds couldn’t be in on Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, or any other big-name free agent, but with very little money to spend, GM Walt Jocketty could have been more active in the trade market, or at least the minor league free agent route. Dick Williams, the VP of Baseball Operations, told me during the Reds’ caravan that the club lost out on Grady Sizemore due to his relationship with one of Boston’s trainers, who had been with Cleveland during his time there. While Sizemore wasn’t a lock to produce, or stay healthy, he fit the bill as a low-cost centerfield option. He wasn’t a leadoff hitter, though, at least he hadn’t shown those skills since his last somewhat healthy season, 2009. Which left the club with little choice but to give their in-house candidate, Billy Hamilton, the job.

The issue with Hamilton, though, is that, though he has otherworldly speed, is he capable of thriving long-term in center, a position that he has been playing since the start of the 2012 season. His experience in Triple-A left a lot to be desired, as he posted a .256/.308/.343 triple-slash, stealing 75 bases and scoring 75 runs in 123 games for Louisville. We all know about his brief September audition, when Dusty Baker allowed him to receive all of 22 plate appearances, while Baker pinch-ran him often to allow the speedy Mississippian to accumulate 13 stolen bases in 14 tries.

In addition to plugging Hamilton into center, here is the laundry list of exciting moves that the Reds have made this winter:

October: Signed LHP Trevor Reckling and RHP Timothy Adleman to minor league contracts; signed OF Jason Bourgeois to a minor league contract and invited him to Spring Training;

November: Signed LHP Manny Parra, 2B Skip Schumaker, and C Brayan Pena to major league contracts; Signed OF Mike Wilson, LHP Nick Schmidt, and RHP Ross Ismail to minor league contracts; Signed C Max Ramirez, LHP Lee Hyde, and 3B Rey Navarro to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training;

December: Signed 3B Ruben Gotay and RHP Trevor Bell to minor league contracts; Invited non-roster RHP Jose Diaz and 2B Kristopher Negron to Spring Training; Signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang, C Corky Miller, and SS Argenis Diaz to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training; Acquired LHP David Holmberg from Arizona for Ryan Hanigan;

January: Sign RHP Bob Keppel, RHP Sean Black, OF Thomas Neal, LHP Jeff Francis, 2B John Tolisano, and 2B Hernan Iribarren to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training;

So, the club lost Shin-Soo Choo, Xavier Paul, and Derrick Robinson from last season’s 90-72 squad, so why should fans feel like this offseason is a failure?

Well, Choo’s production won’t be replaced by Hamilton, speed or no speed. Even if Hamilton increases his on-base percentage to .340 over 600 plate appearances, he doesn’t have the patient approach that Choo had, and, while he can move himself from base to base with his wheels, he just won’t be on as often. If Choo’s production is a clear downgrade, where are they upgrading?

Mesoraco1Is Devin Mesoraco set for a breakout season, replacing the putrid production that Ryan Hanigan provided in 2013? Is Todd Frazier going to post an .829 OPS, as he did in 2012, or something similar to his .721 OPS from 2013? Is Zack Cozart even worth starting anymore, given his career .680 OPS over 1,256 plate appearances? Ryan Ludwick had a nice 2012 and his 2013 was ruined due to his Opening Day shoulder injury, but was he ever worth a two-year, $15 million extension, especially when you consider it was back-loaded with an option for 2015, making him guaranteed $13 million, including his 2015 buyout? Brandon Phillips, 103 RBI or not, saw his OPS fall to .705 in 2013. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce seem like locks for success, but Bruce continues to be one of the streakiest players in all of baseball, while Votto’s patience seems to have overtaken his ability to actually produce at his 2010 MVP level ever again.

As far as the rotation, it remains pretty deep, but once you get past the top five, there are question marks. While that wouldn’t be a huge deal for most clubs, you have to remember that Johnny Cueto only had one full season and he immediately got hurt in the first game of the 2012 playoffs. Bailey, Latos, and Leake are very good options, and Tony Cingrani was impressive, even with just one good pitch, but having Wang, Francis, and nothing else as fallback options is rough, which may lead to the club rushing top prospect Robert Stephenson if there was an injury in 2014, not to mention how the rotation is going to function if Bailey leaves via free agency or Cueto’s 2015 option isn’t picked up. Who will be starting games and why don’t the Reds have options waiting like the Cardinals?

The bullpen is still built to dominate, as Aroldis Chapman is as shutdown as it gets. A full season of Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton, a former closer in his own right, serving as a setup man, and J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Manny Parra, and Alfredo Simon rounding out the group helps the Reds bullpen look tremendous for another season…but a bullpen doesn’t have a lot of value if they aren’t protecting more leads than deficits.

The Reds haven’t been active enough. The Reds haven’t drafted enough high-ceiling talent. The Reds haven’t had enough success on the international market.

Braun1The Reds are a lot like the Milwaukee Brewers, locking up talent for just a little while, and then watching that talent and the contention window fly way in the breeze. You see, the Brewers were a competitive team until Prince Fielder left. They traded a lot of good, young talent to acquire Zack Greinke and CC Sabathia to help them contend. They bought in to that window and went for it. It is hard for a small-market to commit a lot of money to talent like Greinke and Sabathia, only to watch them leave for big-markets once they hit free agency, but the revenue that comes with a playoff run or a World Series title would alleviate a lot of those dollars. The Brewers, then, went into quite a funk the last several seasons, and they have yet to recover, but the worst part is that their farm system is terrible. If Ryan Braun doesn’t rebound, the club still has Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura, but the rest of the organization is quite barren.

The Reds are a lot like the Brewers because they haven’t had many successful recent drafts. While a lot of the key names on the major league roster are homegrown, there isn’t a whole lot of depth currently in the minor league system. The Reds did trade a couple of solid young players (Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, and Brad Boxberger) to acquire Mat Latos and Choo (Didi Gregorius and Drew Stubbs), but outside of Stephenson and Hamilton, much of the high-level talent was in Low-A or the Rookie levels last season, specifically Phillip Ervin, Jesse Winker, and Nick Travieso.

So, what will happen when 2015 rolls around without an Oscar Taveras waiting to take over left field for Ludwick? Who fills the rotation without a Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon ready to step in for A.J. Burnett? Who will push Todd Frazier at third base without a Kris Bryant or Javier Baez?

While the Reds and Brewers have weaker farm systems and question marks at several spots, the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates have done it right. They have managed to stay active and have taken risks with draft picks to make sure that they are getting the talent necessary to maintain solid depth within their organization. Sure, the Pirates and Cubs have had higher picks due to their lack of success over the years, but the Cardinals have a lot of talent and they haven’t had a season below .500 since 2007, while making the playoffs in 11 of the last 18 seasons, including four World Series and two titles.

PujolsThe conservative nature of the current regime in Cincinnati may not look awful as the Reds compete in 2014, but when Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have their high-level minor league talent stepping in within the next two to three seasons, Reds fans will forget about the nightmares that Albert Pujols used to bring, and will instead be kept awake by Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Gregory Polanco, Oscar Taveras, and others who will make their names in the depths of the thriving systems in the rest of the National League Central. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Reds will continue to cry small-market when they have, instead, chosen to be smarter at the right times.

There are still names on the free agent market that can help the Reds contend, but none of them will make them as good as they were last season, in 2012, or in 2010, when Cincinnati has reached the playoffs. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this point to scrap what has been built. Instead, run out there with what you have and hope for the best, which, apparently, was Walt Jocketty and Bob Castellini’s plan all offseason.

Wacha, Wacha, Wacha: There’s Nothing Funny About How Good St. Louis Is

fozzyIt is easy to look back on the 2012 MLB Draft and see that 18 players were picked before Michael Wacha and notice that only two of those players (Mike Zunino for Seattle and Kevin Gausman for Baltimore) have reached the majors; howver, none have had the success that the St. Louis Cardinals, 6’6″ right-hander has had to this point. After another dominating start on Saturday, a 1-0 win over Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Wacha has now dominated in his two postseason starts, posting a 0.64 ERA and 0.64 WHIP over 14 innings after posting a 2.78 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over 64.2 innings in the regular season.

It is unfair to mock or pick apart the teams that drafted ahead of St. Louis, though. Here’s why:

1. Houston Astros: Carlos Correa, SS

2. Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton, OF

3. Seattle Mariners: Mike Zunino, C

Wacha4. Baltimore Orioles: Kevin Gausman, RHP

5. Kansas City Royals: Kyle Zimmer, RHP

6. Chicago Cubs: Albert Almora, OF

7. San Diego Padres: Max Fried, LHP

8. Pittsburgh Pirates: Mark Appel, RHP

9. Miami Marlins: Andrew Heaney, LHP

10. Colorado Rockies: David Dahl, OF

11. Oakland A’s: Addison Russell, SS

12. New York Mets: Gavin Cecchini, SS

13. Chicago White Sox: Courtney Hawkins, OF

14. Cincinnati Reds: Nick Travieso, RHP

15. Cleveland Indians: Tyler Naquin, OF

16. Washington Nationals: Lucas Giolito, RHP

17. Toronto Blue Jays: D.J. Davis, OF

18. Los Angeles Dodgers: Corey Seager, SS

19. St. Louis Cardinals: Michael Wacha, RHP

Courtesy: stlouiscardinalsbaseball.com
Courtesy: stlouiscardinalsbaseball.com

Before Wacha was selected, several of the current top prospects in baseball were selected before him. While Wacha was a collegiate arm who was always expected to move quickly, he was not even the Cardinals’ number one prospect prior to this season, ranking 6th in the organization by Baseball America and 5th in the organization by John Sickels at minorleagueball.com prior to the 2013 season. With Oscar Taveras in the organization, who was ranked in the top three on nearly every prospect list in the world prior to the season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wacha wasn’t number one; however, it seems as though others are forgetting that Shelby Miller was a rookie this season, as well, and he only went 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 2013.

Regardless of where Wacha was selected in the draft, his quick ascension to dominance is just another example of the St. Louis Cardinals being better than everyone else in baseball when it comes to player personnel decisions and development.

The 2013 St. Louis Cardinals were playing their 2nd season without Albert Pujols, who they replaced with Allen Craig. Craig was an All-Star this season who battled through injuries. When he wasn’t on the field late in the season when St. Louis was battling for the NL Central title with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, it was the big boy, Matt Adams at first, who managed 31 extra-base hits and 51 RBI in just 319 plate appearances while posting an identical 131 OPS+ with Craig.

The Cardinals went into the 2013 season with Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Miller, Jake Westbrook, and Jaime Garcia within their rotation. When Westbrook and Garcia went down with injuries, who was there: Wacha and Joe Kelly, who did this in his 15 starts:

I Split W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
as Starter 9 3 2.28 15 0 0 87.0 82 27 22 5 34 2 46 1.333 4.8 1.35
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/13/2013.

Oh…and Kelly is only 25.

Carlos Beltran is heading towards free agency and it is fair to wonder whether the Cardinals will even bother trying to re-sign him, as they could move Craig to right field (he has started 42 games there over the last two seasons) to make room for Adams at first, or they could just plug in the best pure hitter in the minors, Taveras, to reload on the fly.

Wacha1St. Louis was the team that decided to NOT pass on Albert Pujols with the 18th pick of the 13th round back in the 1999 MLB Draft. They received Adam Wainwright from the Atlanta Braves for J.D. Drew back in 2003. They may have gotten lucky and they may be in the process of continuing to get lucky with their success in decision-making and drafting, but while everyone is creating headlines with Wacha, Wacha, Wacha…other teams shouldn’t take this as a laughing matter. Instead, they need to challenge themselves to be as successful as the bar that the St. Louis organization has set.

It isn’t that your team chose the wrong player, it’s that the Cardinals chose the right player when it was their turn. Time will tell if Wacha is better than the 18 players picked ahead of him, but right now, it is hard to not envy what is happening in the “Gateway to the West”.

Should MLB Teams Refuse the Mega-Contract?

Another free agency period is ahead with another Major League Baseball offseason. With so many superstars being signed to lucrative contracts with their existing clubs, players who reach free agency can make exorbitant amounts of money due to fewer players being available and television contracts that teams are using as revenue generating machines. With that being said, is a big-time contract a smart investment for a needy team this winter?

The Yankees as a Model

With Robinson Cano heading towards free agency after the 2013 season, the New York Yankees will be faced with a decision that could alter their original plan of getting under Major League Baseball’s $189 million luxury tax threshold. With $92.4 million due to six players (Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Alfonso Soriano (the Cubs are covering $13 of the $18 million owed to him), Mark Teixiera, Vernon Wells (the Angels are covering $18.6 of the $21 million owed to him), Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter (who has an $8 million player option), the Yankees, on the surface, appear to have some wiggle room in an offer to their superstar second baseman; however, the players mentioned above are the only players with guaranteed contracts next season.

Yankees vs. MarinersAdam Warren, David Phelps, and Eduardo Nunez are all pre-arbitration, so they can have their contracts renewed at the league minimum, but the club will have to deal with David Huff, Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Jayson Nix, Shawn Kelley, Brett Gardner, and David Robertson within arbitration, and determine whether Cano, Hiroki Kuroda, Kevin Youkilis, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Mark Reynolds, Boone Logan, Travis Hafner, Joba Chamberlain, and/or Lyle Overbay are worthy of being tendered a qualifying offer prior to reaching free agency. With up to 19 spots available for next season, the remaining $96.6 million doesn’t appear to be going very far.

While relief could be on the way with a possible 2014 suspension for Alex Rodriguez, from which his $25 million contract would be forfeited, the long-term contracts that the Yankees have handed out like candy are now causing financial issues as the club’s attendance continues to decline (43,733 in 2012 vs. 40,002 in 2013) along with the talent of the aging players.

Consider this:

Alex Rodriguez is 37 years old and is owed $86 million over the next four years.

C.C. Sabathia is 32 years old and is owed $76 million over the next three seasons (including his 2017 buyout).

Mark Teixiera is 33 years old and is owed $67.5 million over the next three seasons.

The three have been worth a combined WAR (Fangraphs) of 2.6 in 2013 while costing the Yankees $73.5 million in salaries. For comparisons sake, San Diego third baseman Chase Headley, Atlanta third baseman Chris Johnson, San Diego outfielder Chris Denorfia, Baltimore outfielder Nate McLouth, and San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford have each posted a 2.6 WAR in 2013…individually. If the Yankees had all five players this season, they would have spent just under $16 million, about $6.5 million less than they spent on Teixiera alone in 2013!

Why These Contracts Don’t Make Sense

By investing large sums of money into veterans when they reach free agency in the post-steroid era, teams are taking immeasurable risks.

1) They are assuming that a high-performing player will be capable of producing into their mid-30’s, and…

2) They are assuming that the high-performing player will stay healthy enough to be worth the investment.

When a player reaches free agency, they have at least six years of major league experience. The player likely had three seasons of pre-arbitration followed by three years of arbitration prior to reaching free agency. Considering that most players make their debuts between the ages of 21 and 24, a free agent is typically between the ages of 27 and 30. The magic prime age in baseball is apparently going to happen in a player’s age-27 season, lasting roughly three to five seasons. A player has reached their physical peak at this point, which allows the player to utilize their various tools to take advantage of the opposition through the use of their experience and mental approaches gained through those experiences. When a multi-year contract is given to a player at the age of 30, say a five-year contract, and that player is then declining for nearly three-fifths of the contract, what is the value to the club? Without performance-enhancers, normal aging processes, such as shoulder fatigue for aging pitchers and chronic knee soreness for a veteran position player, become normal once again. Can teams count on a 39-year-old shortstop to play in 162 games? Ask Derek Jeter how his season went.

Unfortunate Recent Examples

Albert Pujols signed his ten-year, $240 million deal with the Angels following his age-31 season in St. Louis. To make the deal more affordable and to allow the Angels some financial flexibility, Pujols’ contract was heavily back-loaded, meaning he will be making the most money at the end of his contract when he is approaching or passing the age of 40. In fact, in Pujols’ tenth season with the Angels, he is scheduled to make $30 million, the highest annual salary within his contract. After making a combined $28 million in 2012 and 2013, Pujols’ contract will jump to $23 million in 2014 and climb $1 million each season before reaching $30 million in 2021.

VottoHowever, Pujols hasn’t really lived up to the contract based on his production over the first 11 seasons in the majors, as he has posted the lowest WAR of his career in consecutive seasons (3.7 in 2012 and 0.7 in 2013). He was shutdown on August 19 due to a partial tear of his left plantar fascia and he  should be ready to go next season; however, since he isn’t undergoing surgery, how well will this injury heal? Although the tear supposedly did what the surgery would have, one has to wonder if it can be aggravated, torn further (since it is still a partial tear), and debilitating enough to plague Pujols throughout the remainder of his massive contract.

And what about the contract that the “small-market” Cincinnati Reds gave to Joey Votto? The Reds handed Votto a ten-year, $225 million extension in April of 2012. The contract hasn’t even started yet, as the first year of the extension will be the 2014 season, Votto’s age-30 season. For ten years, the Reds will hope that Votto will produce numbers similar to his 2010 MVP season, something that he hasn’t seemed capable of reproducing over the last three seasons, despite leading the National League in on-base percentage the last three seasons, four including 2010. When you consider that the Reds are winning in 2013 and they still average just 31,479 in attendance (16th in MLB), how will the team be able to contend when Votto is making $25 million per season beginning in 2018, when he is 34 years old?

Even worse, the contract that the Philadelphia Phillies gave to first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard received his extension in April of 2010 and it didn’t go into effect until the 2012 season, a five-year, $125 million deal that would begin in Howard’s age-32 season. Since the start of the 2012 season, Howard has played in 151 games while posting a .244/.307/.445 line with 31 doubles, 25 home runs, 99 RBI, and a whopping 194 strikeouts in 609 plate appearances. The previous seven seasons, Howard had a .275/.368/.560 line with an average of 26 doubles, 41 home runs, and 123 RBI per season, and that was including his declining 2010 and 2011 seasons, in which Howard posted the lowest OPS of his career (.859 in 2010 and .835 in 2011)…that was, of course, until his dreadful 2012 season (.718 OPS).

The Problem With TV Deals

I was able to get a response from Baseball Prospectus’ Ben Lindbergh when I asked him via Twitter, “Do you think MLB teams are going to shy away from mega contract due to the Pujols/Howard/Hamilton deals in post steroid era?” His response:

The TV money, which was mentioned previously, is an interesting enhancement to the revenue stream for major league teams. With the Los Angeles Dodgers getting over $6 billion over 25 years from Time Warner in  their TV deal, which will give the club nearly $240 million per year in revenue, the already crazy expenditures of the boys in blue could become even more egregious this winter. The club seems capable of locking up left-hander Clayton Kershaw to a contract worth $30 million per season or more this winter, AND signing Robinson Cano to take over second base from Mark Ellis, who has a $5.75 million option for 2014 or a $1 million buyout. By taking on those types of contracts on top of the Carl Crawford ($20.25 million in 2014), Matt Kemp ($21 million in 2014), Adrian Gonzalez ($21 million in 2014), Zack Greinke ($26 million in 2014), and Andre Ethier ($15.5 million in 2014) deals, the Dodgers will be willingly entering the luxury tax threshold in an effort to win the World Series.

KempBut what happens when money can’t buy titles? The New York Yankees seemed to always have the highest payroll in baseball and they haven’t won the title every season. Spending doesn’t quantify wins, it is, as Lindbergh referenced, the winner’s curse. This concept is outlined in Colin Wyers 2009 Baseball Prospectus piece titled The Real Cursewhich Wyers states:

The market for baseball players seems to more closely resemble a sealed-bid auction than it does a market. Since the person who wins that sort of auction is typically the person with the largest bid, it stands to reason that the person who “wins” is in fact the person who overbids…

The curse is then being the winning bid on a contract that was probably more than what another team was willing to bid. By evaluating players and making smart investments, teams that break the curse are able to get production out of what they spend, while teams that suffer from the curse are those that fail to get production out of their investment, as in the suffering that the Cubs went through with Alfonso Soriano, the joint suffering of the Blue Jays and Angels over the Vernon Wells contract, and the Giants’ suffering through the Barry Zito contract.

When spending goes wrong, it can financially cripple a franchise, who is then responsible for allocating funds to an under-performing player while still trying to field a competitive team around that player. Teams seem more likely to take those types of risks, though. Due to the incoming revenue from the TV deals, teams like the Cleveland Indians, who celebrated the sale of the franchise owned SportsTime Ohio to Fox Sports this winter by signing Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, are more capable of making these potentially fatal bids.

Will the money continue to be there for clubs to take on these large, risky contracts?

Pete Kotz had an amazing story about the leagues finances, and while discussing television deals, he says:

With no one saying no, the networks see sports as a no-lose racket, with ESPN as its piper. The sports channel charges cable companies $5 a month per customer, by far the highest monthly fee in national television. While that may seem a pittance, it’s big money when spread over the 100 million U.S. households with pay TV. And it’s made the other big boys envious.

NBC and CBS have launched their own sports channels. Another from Fox is on the way. Even regional sports channels are starting to broach that $5 mark. Their bet is that viewers will always be willing to pay more. And more. And more.

…Today, the average TV bill rests at $86 per month, about half of which pays for sports programming. That’s more than double a decade ago. So it’s no coincidence that the cable and satellite industries have been jettisoning customers for nine years straight.

 “I can’t tell you what will be the trigger,” says Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association. “But I am certain that at some point in the very near future, that balloon will burst.”

As cable and satellite customers are forced to pay more and they continue to leave those companies in an effort to save money, the money will eventually not be coming in. The cable and satellite companies will likely battle with the club’s networks to get lower rates, and there could be something drastic, like CBS being taken away from major markets. Eventually, the boom in finances and long-term contracts will go away and the inevitable crash will make it harder for clubs to make large financial commitments to star players. Imagine if the housing market was responsible for financing people’s salaries and when the market for home sales crashed how disastrous that could have been…but it did and it was miserable for the entire economy.

Major League Baseball is exempt from some things due to anti-trust laws, but nothing is too big to fail.

Who Is Worth a Mega-Contract?

harper troutIt may seem easy to say that locking up players within their pre-arbitration or arbitration years to lucrative, long-term contracts seems more intelligent than waiting until free agency, as the annual salaries can slowly increase rather than starting and sitting at $25 million per year for eight straight seasons. A few examples of players who could be worth a long-term investment in this scenario:

  • Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout is earning $510,000 in 2013 and he is pre-arbitration in 2014 before being eligible for arbitration in 2015, 2016, and 2017. If Trout continues his torrid pace for the next four seasons and reaches free agency in 2018 at the age of 26, what types of maniacal offers will he be receiving at that point?
  • Nationals’ outfielder Bryce Harper signed a major league contract and will be arbitration eligible in 2016, 2017, and 2018 before reaching free agency at the age of 25 in 2019. Like Trout, he has posted absurd numbers, given his age, and, with Scott Boras as his current agent, could own half of a franchise based on what he will be offered in free agency.
  • Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, Nationals’ right-hander Stephen Strasburg, Marlins’ right-hander Jose Fernandez, Marlins’ right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton, and Mets’ right-hander Matt Harvey (upon his return in 2015 from elbow surgery…if he is just as productive and dominant) are additional players who fit this mold.

Why are these types of players worth a long-term investment? Because they are young, producing prior to their prime years, and are more likely to continue producing towards the end of a 10 to 15 year extension than a player who turns 40 or 41 in year ten of their long-term contracts, like Joey Votto and Albert Pujols.

These are the types of mega-contracts that seem more reasonable and realistic for franchises, while being less likely to provide a curse on the investing bidder. Because the player is within the grasp of the franchise already, the team has all kinds of data available to analyze, they have coaches and front office personnel who have strong relationships with the player, and the fan-base, media, and community surrounding the player are already familiar, so it could be assumed that there are fewer outside influences that could impact player performance.

SeligRegardless of the potential that these younger players possess, any long-term contract remains a risk for the franchise. If the clubs suddenly refuse to offer these types of contracts, however, the league and its owners would likely be accused of collusion. The mega-contract isn’t going away anytime soon. Despite future reluctance to meet the demands of players and agents to attain these large salaries, there will likely be enough money, or a few teams with large enough revenue streams, for at least one of these deals to be made each offseason. As fewer and fewer star players seem to reach free agency due to long-term commitments with their existing franchise (like Votto, Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Gonzalez), the stars that do reach free agency will likely continue to get the lucrative deals.