Tulowitzki: Proving the Defensive Movement Wrong

When I looked at the current 2014 statistics today, it was easy to see that one player is standing out, dominating the league with an incredible .421 batting average and a 1.317 OPS through 32 games. After the last two seasons, you may have thought that those numbers belonged to Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, maybe even Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, but you’d be wrong. In a season where we bid farewell to one of the greatest players ever, the torch has been passed along to Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to continue a tradition of slugging shortstops in an era where so many teams are focusing on strong defensive metrics up the middle.

Rockies’ SS Troy Tulowitzki

The thing is…Tulowitzki isn’t another Derek Jeter. Troy Tulowitzki, 29, has two Gold Gloves in his career, not that having Gold Gloves means anything when Jeter has five of them and has long been considered a defensive liability for the Yankees. The difference is that Tulowitzki is a very strong defender, posting a career range factor per nine of 5.01 (league average is 4.38) and a career fielding percentage of .986 (league average is .973), while he has a UZR of 38.7 over his career (3rd in MLB among shortstops since the start of the 2006 season). Tulo is an all-around star.

The biggest issue is his injury history. Tulowitzki has been on the disabled list five times in his career, missing a total of 267 team games since his arrival to the majors, nearly a season and a half of production, which is a big deal considering the investment that the Rockies made in their shortstop, 13-years and $167 million worth of extensions and commitments. Through the injuries, Tulowitzki continued to produce impressive overall numbers, as evidenced by his 162-game averages for his career:

162 Game Avg. 162 687 605 103 181 36 4 29 105 10 69 107 .299 .373 .518 .891 124 313
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/7/2014.

That’s very Alex Rodriguez at shortstop-esque, which, with continued production, could make Tulowitzki the best overall shortstop this side of Honus Wagner.

Braves' SS Andrelton Simmons
Braves’ SS Andrelton Simmons

Which begs the question, why are so many teams still settling for players who are one-trick ponies when there are still players capable of playing short and producing strong offensive numbers? It wasn’t long ago that Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and other, non-steroid using shortstops, like Nomar Garciaparra and Jeter, were ruling the middle of the infield around the league. Now, teams seem confident running out players like Adeiny Hechavarria, Alcides Escobar, Brandon Crawford, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Zack Cozart, who have a long history of not producing OPS numbers close to .750 while putting up solid numbers defensively; however, is an out saved defensively any more valuable than an unproductive at-bat? Those unproductive at-bats appear to be the norm over the last couple of seasons from the players thought to be defensive wizards by their clubs at one time or another (yes, Cabrera was supposed to be an upgrade defensively when he replaced Jhonny Peralta at short for Cleveland in 2009).

Consider the top five defensive shortstops in baseball currently: Erick Aybar, Cozart, Tulowitzki, Pedro Florimon, and Andrelton Simmons. Only Aybar and Simmons have an OPS over .700, along with Tulo, with Aybar checking in at .710 and Simmons checking in at .731 – which would rank them slightly better than the great Emilio Bonifacio, even with his strong start, in 2014.

So, why would a team settle for that type of production when there is enough talent out there to offset whatever defensive struggles a player has with a mighty stick at the plate?

Troy Tulowitzki is not a typical shortstop, and, as Jonah Keri wrote today, he could be heading towards one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The impressive numbers should be a reminder that there is talent out there that will overcome  and live beyond the current movement of defensive shifts, defensive metrics, and over-the-top focus on glove over offensive production. For every Didi Gregorius for Shin-Soo Choo trade, there will be a Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Francisco Lindor on the way who can produce solid offensive numbers while continuing to redefine a position.

Troy Tulowitzki is doing his part in keeping Ernie Banks, Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter and their production respectable. While Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio, and Ozzie Smith get love for their gloves, they couldn’t carry the other’s all-around jockstraps. Give me Troy Tulowitzki and overall production and you can keep your defensive metrics.

Losing the Captain and the Heart of Baseball

Derek Jeter, Courtesy: ian-oconnor.com
Derek Jeter, Courtesy: ian-oconnor.com

Derek Jeter announced that the 2014 season would be his last on Wednesday, giving fans a full season of farewells, just as the league provided (along with some wonderful parting gifts) to the greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, during the 2013 season. After 20 seasons of Hall of Fame worthy production, it may be fair to wonder if a part of the New York Yankees will disappear with him.

Posada, Rivera, Jeter, and Pettitte - The "Core Four"
Posada, Rivera, Jeter, and Pettitte – The “Core Four”

The “Core Four” of the Yankee dynasty will officially be gone after the 2014 season. Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte, led the Yankees to five World Series titles and seven American League pennants over 17 playoff appearances since the start of the 1995 season. While Pettitte and Posada slowly faded away from the club, the departure of Rivera and Jeter seem to sting a bit more.

It was easy to connect Rivera to this generation of Yankee dominance – as he was responsible for finishing 952 games and collecting a save in 652 of them, not counting his 42 postseason saves and 0.70 ERA over 141 postseason innings. Rivera and “Enter Sandman” were connected to that dominance and the lack of hope that so many opposing teams felt from this era of Yankee success.

YankeesHowever, it was and always has been Derek Jeter as the heart and soul of this group. With the names of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio hanging behind him and around him, Jeter overcame the shadows of greatness to become a lingering figure for those who will come next, creating an unreasonable expectation for the man who steps foot at shortstop from Opening Day 2015 and beyond – just as David Robertson will face as the new closer in 2014.

The accolades were numerous for Jeter:

  • Five-time Gold Glove winner
  • Five-time Silver Slugger winner
  • 13 All-Star games
  • 3,316 hits (10th all-time) NOTE: Jeter is 198 hits from Tris Speaker (5th), 119 hits from Cap Anson (6th), and 104 hits from Honus Wagner (7th)
  • 1996 American League Rookie of the Year
  • 2000 All-Star Game Most Valuable Player
  • 2000 World Series Most Valuable Player
  • Two-time American League Hank Aaron Award winner (2006, 2009)
  • 2009 American League Roberto Clemente Award winner
  • 2010 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award winner

Jeter1While all of those awards and honors detail his effort and character, the immeasurable value of his leadership will remain one of his most impressive skills and traits. He overcame the distractions of Alex Rodriguez, Pettitte, and Jason Giambi, when their names were linked to the Mitchell Report and other steroid rumor. Additionally, he undertook a leadership role in leading baseball back to provide healing for America after the 9/11 attacks, and, while the Yankees dropped Game Seven to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, he has still found a way to cope with the insanity of the New York media circus and the audacity of those around him, or in the game, who have attempted anything to get an edge.

Based on what we know, Derek Jeter is clean – outside of the laundry list of women that he has cycled through over the years; however, Jeter is New York – he is the Joe Namath face of the game, he is the water cooler and hot dog stand conversation between fans, he is the neon lights and the hustle and bustle of Times Square, and he is pinstripes and the lore that comes with the Yankee franchise.

Sure, the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann, but none of those men will be Jeter. No one will ever be Derek Jeter. While some baseball players leave a legacy of numbers and amazing stories, Derek Jeter has touched the game in a different way. Even after being tied to the “Core Four” for such a large part of his career, Jeter separated himself to become a larger part of baseball in New York.

Jeter is the Yankees. Jeter is the pinstripes. Jeter is New York. Jeter is Major League Baseball.

When he leaves the game after the 2014 season, the heart of the game will need to beat a little harder for the rest of baseball to work. While the Yankees may wonder how to replace Jeter for quite some time, Major League Baseball as a whole has to do the same thing.

With all teams reaching Spring Training by the end of this week, the 2014 season just became a bit more special. While the tributes, gifts, and focus on Derek Jeter may become obnoxious by the All-Star break, he has earned it. Love or hate the Yankees, you still have to respect Jeter.

The Explosion of Javier Baez

Baez2After an incredible season in 2013 that saw him reach Double-A at the age of 20, Chicago Cubs’ shortstop (or third baseman…or outfielder) prospect Javier Baez seems to have enough helium in the world of prospects to reach the moon. Certainly, ripping 34 doubles and 37 home runs while driving in 111 runs and stealing 20 bases can lead to a lot of hype, and it appears to be warranted.

Prior to the 2013 season, Baez was already a top 20 prospect, earning the No. 16 ranking at both Baseball America and MLB.com, and No. 20 at Baseball Prospectus. So far this winter, that number has climbed significantly, mainly due to his extreme ceiling, while having very little to do with major league graduations. Just a quick look at the rankings that Baez has earned from prospect sites this off-season:

The Baseball Haven: No. 8

Baseball Prospectus: No. 4

MLB.com: No. 7

MinorLeagueBall.com: No. 8 (end of 2013, 9/27/13)

FantasyAssembly.com: No. 5

Prospect361.com: No. 5

TopProspectAlert.com: No. 11

RotoAnalysis.com: No. 2

FantasySquads.com: No. 10

Scout.com: No. 13

DeepLeagues.com: No. 13

There are, obviously, some differences in opinion on his true value, but Baez has quite a few nice things being said about him, as well:

“Baez could end a 40 HR shortstop. That’s his ceiling. That’s actually a possibility. Likely? Not sure. But its possible. How many prospects in baseball can make such a claim? That’s a truly elite ceiling. That’s a generational talent. That’s why he has a case for #1.” – Jason Parks, Baseball Prospectus

“The young infielder has all the ingredients necessary to be an all-star for the Cubs, regardless of where he ends up — shortstop, third base or even the outfield.” – Marc Hulet, FanGraphs

“Otherworldy bat speed and an aggressive approach plus the tools to (maybe) stay at shortstop if he can get the errors down. If not, he’d slot great at third base. There’s some risk here due to contact but I think he can be a Giancarlo Stanton-type hitter. The commonly-used Gary Sheffield comp works in terms of bat speed, but Sheffield had a much more refined approach and I don’t think Baez will hit for a Sheffield-like average. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a star.” – John Sickels, Minor League Ball

“There is no mistaking the bat as a game changing thumper. But what places Baez at #1 (in the Cubs’ system) is the fact that he is going to remain in the infield. A move to 3B is in the cards most likely where the Cubs have a dire need to finally fill the spot. Still on target with a 30 HR type with double digit SB and sticking in the INF. With an IsoP of .200+ the strikeout rate will be digestible and his approach should mature over time. Again, 37 HR over two levels with a total of 75 XBHs with 20 SB. His numbers were outstanding and through it all he actually improved the dismal walk rate from 2012 to 6.2% in High-A and then 8.1% in Double-A. A total IsoP number of nearly .300 on the season is other worldly. But that K rate is still a major issue although not one that will limit his ability to be a Major League regular. He handled SS really well and it looks like the Cubs are giving him every shot and being that Future SS. With the draft selection of Kris Bryant, the Cubs have a lot of flexibility with their future. I see Baez as the 3B answer.” – Thomas Belmont, Baseball Instinct

“The upside that Baez holds from a fantasy perspective is likely second to only Byron Buxton—and the likely gets added in there because Baez may actually have more, given his potential eligibility. The tools are crazy and even though he doesn’t have the strongest run tool, he’s still 46-for-55 in stolen bases during his 215 minor-league games. Even if you can’t put him at shortstop (which is far from a definitive outcome), you’d take 30 homers, 15-plus steals and a .280 average from just about anywhere on the diamond. He’s a no-doubt top-five fantasy prospect in baseball.” – Brett Sayre, Baseball Prospectus

Baez1The consensus seems to be an All-Star caliber talent with some flaws, as far as contact, who can become a game changer, in real-life or fantasy baseball, due to his quick hands and raw power. With Baez, Addison Russell, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Xander Bogaerts coming up through various systems, it appears that the game will be taken over by offensive-minded shortstops, as the Alex RodriguezDerek JeterNomar GarciaparraMiguel Tejada Era of Major League Baseball was impacted.

Javier Baez seems like an athletic freak, producing power from his 6’0″, 195 pound frame. Below is a video of highlights from Baseball Instinct (via YouTube), where you can observe all of the otherwordly power and bat speed that was suggested by prospect insiders:

The term “generational talent” doesn’t get thrown around very often, although the label has been given to the likes of Mark Prior, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout over the last decade. Injuries can always be a deterrent for players to reach their full, long-term potential, but the types of seasons that those four players have provided, even if it is just two to four seasons of that production, would be welcomed by any club. Risks aside, Baez is worthy of the high praise, the high rankings, and the sudden discussion of his eventual rise to dominance and stardom in Chicago. With all due respect to Starlin Castro, Baez shouldn’t have to move off of shortstop once he reaches Chicago – his potential dwarfs that of Castro, who has quickly become an afterthought to the hype of the Puerto Rican slugger.

Greatness in Being Simple

One team. One pitch. Both of those things define the greatness of Mariano Rivera while detailing how special he was.

Rivera’s career is full of dominance. After starting 10 of 19 games in 1995, he was locked down in the New York Yankees bullpen for the next 18 years and he has been the club’s closer since 1997…my sophomore year of high school. While I’ve toiled in dead-end jobs, earned a degree, had a child, and have married and re-married, there have been two constants to the changing world around me during that time…baseball and Mariano Rivera dominating baseball.
Over his career, Rivera has accumulated 652 saves and 952 games finished, both MLB records (Trevor Hoffman is second in saves, 601, and games finished, 856). While dominant in the regular season (2.21 ERA, 205 ERA+, 1.00 WHIP, 4.10 K/BB), Rivera was unequal to any other pitcher when it came to the postseason, posting and incredible 0.70 ERA, a 0.76 WHIP, and a 5.24 K/BB over 141 postseason innings, helping to lead the Yankees to five World Series titles.

While the New York Yankees have taken heat for their enormous payrolls, superstar-loaded rosters, and winning ways, Rivera seemed to always have the respect of his peers. Much to the dismay of those fans who have spent years ripping on the club for their finances, loathing Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, and rooting for anyone else to come out of the American League East besides the Yankees, they likely don’t have a negative word to say about Mariano Rivera, and in the free agency era, Rivera’s career in New York is certainly worthy of some sort of praise; although, it would be difficult to even dream of Rivera pitching for another club.

Courtesy: FanGraphs.com

A single pitch, or at least a single speed (roughly 90 to 93 miles per hour), has been the weapon for as long as most fans can remember, and as Rivera has lost a tick on the fastball as he has aged, the cutter remained just as dominant. While old-timers mention telling the opposing batters what was coming to “one-up” them, Rivera didn’t need to do that. He pitched with a stern look on his face, confidence in his stuff, and a simple “I dare you to hit it” mentality that allowed his grip, his release, and his god-given abilities to overcome fantastic players who had no chance, even when they knew what was coming.

Rivera was a quiet leader who took pride in his craft and accepted the role of being the last player to ever wear the number “42”, something that he did with honor and respect, completely worthy of the other player to have his No. 42 retired by the Yankees (and every other team), Jackie Robinson. The 2013 season was a farewell tour for Rivera, who received everything from a sand sculpture featuring his likeness from the Tampa Bay Rays to a rocking chair made out of broken baseball bats (something he was quite good at creating with his cutter) from the Minnesota Twins. If he doesn’t take the mound again this weekend in Houston, his final farewell at Yankee Stadium on Thursday was the perfect tribute, receiving hugs from his longtime teammates Jeter and Andy Pettitte, while walking off to a sea of fans thanking him for his years of service, and finishing it up with a tearful hug from his longtime teammate, and current manager, Joe Girardi.

There are a lot of things to remember about the 2013 season, and while a farewell tour seems absurd (especially when you see the gifts that he has received), Mariano Rivera deserved it.

A sure-fire first-time ballot Hall of Fame member, Rivera may be the most dominant player that I have ever seen play in my 32-plus years on Earth. Even if it was one to two innings at a time, you knew that when Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” began playing at Yankee Stadium, the game was over. The likelihood of anyone ever breaking Rivera’s records for saves and games finished are about as likely as someone breaking Cy Young‘s career wins record or Pete Rose‘s career hits record. Why? Because you simply don’t see players dominate for as long as Rivera has.

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.

Is This Real Life? The Rangers and Their Bad Contract

Andrus1Since this was announced on Monday, which was April 1st (aka April Fool’s Day), it feels like this isn’t happening; however, after it was made official, giving a career .275/.342/.353 line an eight-year, $120 million seems like a nightmare, especially after the club was unwilling to give Josh Hamilton an extension or make the first offer when he hit free agency this winter. After allowing a player who has averaged a .305/.363/.549 line to leave for their biggest rival, they gave Andrus $15 million per season on an extension, all while Jurickson Profar waits for a position to open up in Texas.

Andrus is a fine player. Since arriving in 2009, he has posted a 13.0 WAR, which is sixth among shortstops during that time. He leads shortstops in stolen bases (123), he is second to Derek Jeter in runs scores (341), and he is 21st among shortstops in OPS (.695). TWENTY-FIRST.

Andrus provides a solid batting eye (8.4 percent walk rate vs. 13.2 percent strikeout rate) to go along with his solid speed, which allows him to utilize his skills on the base paths to score runs in a very potent offense. While he can get on base and score runs, his defense is where his true value develops.

Andrus’ UZR/150 rating is 7.8, fourth among shortstops since 2009 behind Brendan Ryan, J.J. Hardy, and Alexei Ramirez. His .971 fielding percentage is 15th among shortstops since 2009. Of the three players above Andrus in zone fielding who have higher fielding percentages than Andrus, only Alexei Ramirez has a higher OPS. If Ramirez can field better and post better numbers at short, is he worth $15 million or more per season?Andrus2

Ramirez is 31 and doesn’t have the favorable upside that Andrus possesses, but we’ve seen speed become useless several times before. In 2004, Cesar Izturis had his best season at the age of 24:

2004 24 LAD NL 159 728 670 90 193 32 9 4 62 25 43 70 .288 .330 .381 .710 255
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2013.

While he didn’t post numbers close to what Andrus did prior to his age-24 season, he displayed solid gap power, speed, and, of course, impressive defensive skills. He won his first and only Gold Glove in 2004, posting a .985 fielding percentage and a 3.8 WAR.

Compare that production to Andrus’ career stats:

2009 20 TEX 145 541 480 72 128 17 8 6 40 33 40 77 .267 .329 .373 .702 179
2010 21 TEX 148 674 588 88 156 15 3 0 35 32 64 96 .265 .342 .301 .643 177
2011 22 TEX 150 665 587 96 164 27 3 5 60 37 56 74 .279 .347 .361 .708 212
2012 23 TEX 158 711 629 85 180 31 9 3 62 21 57 96 .286 .349 .378 .727 238
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2013.

Is there a whole lot of difference in the abilities of these players, outside of the fact that Andrus’ had four seasons completed prior to his age-24 season, which will be the 2013 season? Certainly, Andrus is better than Izturis, but would anyone have paid Izturis $15 million per season if every one of his seasons had been as solid as his 2004 season?

Luis Castillo was an excellent second baseman early in his career for the, then, Florida Marlins. Sure, he wasn’t a shortstop, but he had the same type of skill-set, possibly better, with more speed and on-base skills, while Andrus seems to have more gap power. Once Castillo hurt his feet, though, his 50+ steals potential was also hurt, and he became a 20 stolen base, empty .300-hitting middle infielder. If Andrus gets hurt or loses speed, where is his value? He can’t cover as much ground defensively and his ability to create runs with his legs is gone, as well.

Shortstop is a very tough position, but the value of defensive metrics have taken over the player’s ability to help the club in other ways, specifically with their bat. Cal Ripken, Jr., Barry Larkin, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada did a dirty, dirty thing to the position, allowing solid contribution across the board to become a reasonable expectation. Today, only Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes seem like those types of dynamic, offensive-minded shortstops, and for that reason, they appear to be worth exorbitant contracts.

The Rangers aren’t the only team that feels that defense is very important, though. When the Cincinnati Reds turned Didi Gregorius and Drew Stubbs into Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Donald in their trade with the Cleveland Indians this offseason, that was one thing, as Choo is a free agent after the 2013 season, but when the Indians flipped Gregorius to the Arizona Diamondbacks with Lars Anderson and Tony Sipp for Matt Albers, Bryan Shaw, and, potential ace, Trevor Bauer, the new value of shortstops in baseball was apparent. Slap-hitting, defensively skilled middle infielders now have quite a bit of value.

So, if Gregorius, a career .265/.317/.370 hitter in the minor leagues, had that sort of value, then what is Xander Bogaerts worth? Bogaerts, a Boston Red Sox farm hand, hit .307/.373/.523 with a 4.13 range factor and .959 fielding percentage as a 19-year-old over High-A and Double-A in 2012. Gregorius had a range factor of 3.96 and a .964 fielding percentage as a 22-year-old over Double-A and Triple-A in 2012.

TuloFurthermore, if Elvis Andrus is worth an eight-year, $120 million contract, then shouldn’t Troy Tulowitzki fire his agent? His extension for the 2015 to 2020 seasons gives him roughly $19.67 million per season, which isn’t nearly enough considering Andrus can’t carry his compression shorts with cup, since jock straps aren’t used anymore.

The good news for Andrus is that he has an opt-out clause after the 2018 season, allowing him to reach free agency during his prime, potentially earning more money if he reaches higher levels of production; however, if he under-performs or gets hurt, the Rangers don’t have an opt-out clause. The question now is: Was this a good contract for the Texas Rangers?

Kinsler1With Ian Kinsler signed through 2017 (with a 2018 team option) and Andrus locked up, where does Jurickson Profar go? What if Kinsler has another poor season, as his .749 OPS in 2012 was the worst of his career? Can they trade him?  There have been leaks of Kinsler getting moved to left field or first base, but what happen to Mike Olt, another Rangers prospect, who is blocked through 2015 at third (possibly 2016, since Beltre has a vesting option)? Can Kinsler hit enough to play left? Do the Rangers trade Olt? Does Profar move to center even though Leonys Martin is hoping to prove himself there in 2013? Should they trade Profar?

The Rangers have committed to defense by signing Andrus and they have committed to spending a lot of money on mediocre offense. After letting Josh Hamilton walk, not addressing their No.5 starter situation this winter, and building excellent talent that they seem to be unwilling to commit to from their minor league system, the Rangers, who have made three straight playoff appearances, seem to have no clear direction to their roster makeup going forward.

We’re Going Streaking!!!

old-school-streaking-o JordanWhen the Chicago Bulls beat the Miami Heat on Wednesday night, the hopes and dreams of ESPN died a little. How can they compare them to the 1995-1995 Bulls anymore? Why were they doing it in the first place is the bigger question. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, and Steve Kerr led the team to a ridiculous 72-10 record and an NBA title. They had a winning streak of 13 games and another of 18 games that season, which falls well short of the 27 straight wins that the Heat racked up behind LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, but the 1995-1996 Bulls have already shown that they were better. The Heat have lost  15 games this season and the Bulls lost three games in the playoffs (one to the Knicks in the semifinals and two to the Supersonics in the NBA Finals), finishing with a 87-13 record if you count the playoffs.

There is no need for this discussion. Certainly, the physique and game-play in today’s NBA and today’s athlete can leave one to wonder if LeBron could beat MJ in their prime, but I’ll take MJ’s six titles and be happy, while doubters of his greatness wait on James.

While thinking about this streak and the so-called greatness that went with it, it made me wonder which streak is the most impressive in sports. So, I’ve created my own list:

dimaggioJoe DiMaggio‘s 56-game hitting streak: Ted Williams once said “I think without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball “, but DiMaggio made it look easy. After this streak was snapped, he started another 16-game hitting streak. There just aren’t many who could live up to the media hype and pressure today, as the expectations and stress that go along with this type of greatness are unattainable in the pressure-cooker of today’s sports media. If the last person to hit .400 in a season can say that it’s the hardest thing to do in sports, and DiMaggio did it for as long as he did, how great is the player who does match or beat that number going to be?



RipkenCal Ripken, Jr.’s 2,632 straight games played: With so many factors, like getting hit by a pitch or being taken out as a shortstop turning a double play, the fact that Ripken didn’t miss a game for nearly 16 years is absolutely crazy, especially when players today are getting “mental days” off when they are struggling, or they take a day game off after a night game on get-away days. The “Iron Man” doesn’t get enough credit for this record, nor the way that he paved the way for slugging shortstops like Barry Larkin, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez with his excellent career in the batter’s box.

Orel Hershiser‘s 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988: Nearly seven straight games games worth of innings without allowing a run led Hershiser to a 23-8 record and a 2.26 ERA in 1988, as he won the Cy Young Award and helped the Los Angeles Dodgers win the World Series that year. While it is arguable that this would be simple to match by having a pitcher go five or six scoreless each start before bringing in relief pitchers, that starter would have to go six scoreless for 10 straight starts to beat this record. Even in today’s coddled pitching era, this record doesn’t look likely to fall.

1972 Miami Dolphins/2007 New England Patriots/2010-2011 Green Bay Packers: Going 14-0 like the ’72 Dolphins is fantastic in the NFL, where parity, injuries, and weather play a role in the weekly battles. While the Dolphins are the only team to have a perfect season, they, too, won 18 games in a row, counting three playoff games (Browns, Steelers, and Redskins) and one game in 1973 (49ers), before their streak came to an end. The Patriots lost in the Super Bowl in 2007 to the New York Giants, but, shockingly, it’s the 2010-2011 Green Bay Packers, who won five straight, including the Super Bowl, in 2010, before winning 14 straight in 2011, who hold the record for the longest winning streak in NFL history. Perfect seasons seem to be overrated.

1971-1972 Los Angeles Lakers, 33-game winning streak: If ESPN wants to compare the Miami Heat to anyone, why not the team with the longest winning streak in NBA history? Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor led the club to 33 straight wins before winning the NBA title, finishing 69-13 that season…better than the 2012-2013 Heat, even with a declining Baylor.

Johnny Vander Meer‘s two straight no-hitters: When someone throws a no-hitter, they tend to have coverage by sports networks for each pitch, right until someone gets a hit in the top of the 1st inning, and then it is all over and forgotten. Vander Meer’s feat of pitching two straight no-no’s is nearly unbreakable, especially in an era where pitcher’s arms are babied by bullpens and pitch counts. Look at what happened to Johan Santana after his 132-pitch no-hitter on June 1, 2012 – just three quality starts over his next eight starts, while his ERA ballooned from 2.38 to 4.85 – and you’ll see why theories in today’s game management would prevent a pitcher from tossing two straight no-hitters.

Boston Celtics, 8 straight NBA titles, 1959-1966: Free agency, salary caps, and fan boredom in this type of dynasty would prevent this from happening in the NBA today, but that didn’t stop Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, and Bill Russell from kicking butt and taking names for over a decade, winning 11 titles in 13 years, including eight straight. This is the group that the Miami Heat wanted to become when they threw their championship party after signing James and Bosh to play alongside Wade a few years ago. They aren’t there yet.

WoodenUCLA, 7 straight NCAA Men’s Basketball Titles, 1967-1973: John Wooden could recruit and coach like no man in the history of his sport. Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sidney Wicks, and Jamaal Wilkes were a part of this era and legacy in UCLA basketball, but Wooden’s fingerprints still last today, where successful UCLA coaches can’t stick around long if they aren’t winning titles, as they just fired their 8th coach since he left the program after the 1974-1975 season.

There are many more, like: Wayne Gretzky’s 51-game points streak, A.C Green’s NBA 1,192 straight games played, Brett Favre‘s 297 straight games played, and Lance Armstrong’s sev- oh, he doped and that got taken away. Nevermind.