Nationals: Pitching to the Max

 

The Washington Nationals have signed right-hander Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, shocking the world of baseball by locking-up the market’s top free agent arm, while creating a new philosophy in negotiating tactics that could influence free agent signings in the future. By extending the $210 million over 14 years by deferring $15 million per year, they also free up a bit of payroll for additional signings in years to come.

Perhaps that deferred money will allow them to lock-up Bryce Harper, who will be a free agent after the 2018 season; however, in the moment, this deal does much more for the Nationals than make them creative, financial gurus.

Max Scherzer will now lead the Washington rotation, a rotation that already featured Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, and Tanner Roark. Obviously, depth in a starting rotation is always nice to have, especially with two pitchers on club’s roster already having Tommy John surgery on their resume (Strasburg and Zimmerman), and Gonzalez having dealt with some shoulder issues last season. What is truly incredible about the Scherzer signing is that Roark appears to be the man who would be bumped from the rotation, even after the 15 wins and 2.85 ERA over 31 starts in his age-27, 2014 season.

The Nationals have the flexibility to deal an arm, with Jordan Zimmermann already rumored to be the one who could be moved.

The Red Sox certainly have the prospects to make a deal for Zimmermann or any other player in baseball, so this isn’t all that surprising. Mookie Betts would make an excellent long-term second baseman – if the Nationals are content with moving Anthony Rendon to third base long-term, and the club doesn’t, or any club this side of the Dodgers, doesn’t appear capable of locking up a Scherzer/Zimmermann/Strasburg trio to the nearly $90 million annually that it would require. Zimmermann, who is due $16.5 million prior to reaching free agency after the 2015 season, arguably, is worth the same type of deal that Scherzer received and possibly more.

"Nationals

After all, when comparing these two players, there are a lot of similarities and a lot of envy from other clubs:

Player A: 45-22, 2.96 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 608.2 IP, 496:112 K:BB

Player B: 55-15, 3.24 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 622.1 IP, 723:179 K:BB

Zimmermann is Player A and Scherzer is Player B. Those strikeouts are certainly a big difference, but Zimmermann is just as dominant in overall numbers – outside of the swing-and-miss stuff.

Still, the Nationals sit here today with the most feared starting rotation in baseball. Just a week ago, ESPN’s Buster Olney had Washington atop his top 10 starting rotations in baseball, and that was BEFORE the club added Scherzer.

Bryce  HarperAs long as Washington is able to produce some runs in 2015, they appear to be capable of winning 100 games. The rotation, as is, features five pitchers capable of 15 or more wins and ERAs under 3.20, so if Jayson Werth, Harper, Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, and company can do their part, this is a very, very dangerous team.

The rich continue to get richer, which appears to be a theme in Major League Baseball, and while the Tigers lose Scherzer from the rotation that they had in 2014, they still have one season with David Price at the top before they need to panic. The Nationals don’t look like they’ll be in that position for several years.

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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.

The Hot Stove Has Caught On Fire

It certainly hasn’t taken long for teams to begin dishing out large contracts that they’ll probably regret in a couple of years with free agency well under way. However, the last 24 to 48 hours have supplied the greatest number of gifts, with a lot of examples of “huh”, “why”, “seriously”, and “come again” worthy reactions.

The Trades

The Doug Fister Trade

Detroit Tigers get: 2B Steve Lombardozzi, LHP Ian Krol, and LHP Robbie Ray

Washington Nationals get: RHP Doug Fister

FisterIt has to be called the Doug Fister trade because no one really cares about any of the players that the Tigers got back, right? If this wasn’t a total salary dump, I don’t know what it was, as the “prize” return for the Tigers is Ray, who was a 10th round pick in 2010 and had a 6.56 ERA in 2012 in his first attempt at High-A Potomac before bouncing back and having a solid season between High-A and Double-A in 2013, really doesn’t seem like a tremendous prospect; though, we have been proven wrong by Dave Dombrowski before. After the Tampa Bay Rays received one of the top young prospects in baseball, Wil Myers, in return for two controllable seasons of James Shields, you would think that the Tigers could have received more for Fister, who had managed to post an impressive 32-20 record to go along with a 3.29 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 440.2 innings with Detroit. Fister now joins Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, and Gio Gonzalez within the Washington rotation, making the Nationals strong contenders for first-year manager Matt Williams in 2014.

Winner: Washington Nationals.

Smelling Fowler

Houston Astros get: CF Dexter Fowler

Colorado Rockies get: RHP Jordan Lyles and OF Brandon Barnes

Fowler1Fowler seemed to be on the trading block for some time, but he was finally dealt on Tuesday. The Astros get two affordable seasons (two-years, $11.6 million) of Fowler while they wait for George Springer to prove himself ready, or…they just acquired a nicer trade chip than what they gave up. Jordan Lyles may still be just 23 years old, but he hasn’t put it together in 377 major league innings, posting a 5.35 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and a 6.2 K/9, and it seems very unlikely that shifting to Coor’s Field is going to assist his progression to sudden success. Brandon Barnes has some ability, but it isn’t as an everyday player, as his atrocious 127:21 K:BB and .635 OPS over 445 plate appearances goes to show. Barnes could be a fourth outfielder for the Rockies, with Carlos Gonzalez sliding over to center and Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson battling it out for the left field job, or Colorado could look to free agency to upgrade in center. This deal didn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Rockies unless they saw something in Lyles and didn’t feel that Fowler would ever live up to his hot start from 2013, when he posted a 1.032 OPS and then fell off of the face of the earth. Even if Fowler doesn’t live up to those numbers, he is the most valuable piece in the deal.

Winner: Houston Astros.

The Unimpressive Three-Way

Cincinnati Reds get: LHP David Holmberg.

Tampa Bay Rays get: RHP Heath Bell and cash from Arizona, and C Ryan Hanigan from Cincinnati.

Arizona Diamondbacks get: RHP Justin Choate and a PTBNL

The Rays are always viewed as a smart club and they were able to land another potential closer after losing Fernando Rodney to free agency, leaving the club with Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo to battle it out for the gig. On top of that, they received an excellent framing catcher in Hanigan, who has proved to be quite valuable to Cincinnati over the last several years in game-calling, while inking the backstop to a three-year extension upon the completion of the deal. The bad part, though, is that both Bell and Hanigan weren’t very good last season, with Hanigan, in particular, looking like a nightmare offensively, posting a .198/.306/.261 line over 260 plate appearances, leading to the Reds leaning on Brayan Pena, who was signed to a two-year deal earlier this winter, and Devin Mesoraco, the young, power-hitting catcher who will finally get a full-time look in Cincinnati. The Diamondbacks dumped some salary while dealing Bell for a young, breathing body. Choate pitched in the New York-Penn League in 2013 at the age of 22 and he isn’t much of a prospect. The Reds dumped Hanigan, who was arbitration-eligible, while getting a 22-year-old left-handed starter, who posted a 2.75 ERA in 26 Double-A starts in 2013 with a 116:50 K:BB in 157.1 innings. While Holmberg wasn’t as sexy as Tyler Skaggs or Archie Bradley within the Diamondbacks system, he could become a solid back of the rotation arm or a Sean Marshall-like relief pitcher for the Reds. The good news for Cincinnati is that Mesoraco gets his shot and Holmberg adds some near-ready pitching depth after the likely departure of Bronson Arroyo via free agency.

Winner: Everyone looks like a winner here, as the deal worked well for all three teams, but the Rays received the most help in assisting the team win in 2013.

Why Did Beane Make That (Michael) Choice?

Texas Rangers get: OF Michael Choice and 2B Chris Bostick

Oakland A’s get: OF Craig Gentry and RHP Josh Lindblom

ChoiceThis seemed like an odd deal for Oakland and GM Billy Beane, as Gentry is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and Lindblom has been pretty terrible since being traded from the Dodgers to the Phillies in the 2012 Shane Victorino deal, as he has posted a 5.10 ERA and 1.50 WHIP over 54.2 innings since leaving Los Angeles (2.91 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 77.1 innings prior to the trade). Maybe a return to the west coast is what Lindblom needs to be a useful reliever, but by getting the elite defensive skills and increasing salary of the light-hitting (.280/.355/.366 in 763 plate appearances), 29-year-old Gentry, and giving up the potential that still exists in the bat of Michael Choice, who is 24 and isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2017, Beane showed that he may be looking beyond three years from now and that he could be putting the A’s in win-now mode. Bostick is a nice second base prospect, having posted a .282/.354/.452 line over 555 plate appearances as a 20-year-old in Low-A in 2013, but the Rangers have quite a few young, up-the-middle prospects (Rougned Odor, Jurickson Profar, and Luis Sardinas) and they don’t seem to have a need there, while the A’s have run Jemile Weeks out of town in a trade with Baltimore and Eric Sogard was very…meh…in 2013 at the major league level. Winning now is important, but it doesn’t seem like the A’s really acquired anyone who can really help them in 2014 to get over the hump.

Winner: Texas Rangers.

The Free Agent Splashes

The Yankees Spend Like Crazy…Again.

Who They Signed: C Brian McCann (five-years, $85 million); OF Jacoby Ellsbury (seven-years, $153 million);

McCannWhy It Matters: Notice that the Yankees have committed nearly $240 million after having been rumored to be on a mission to avoid the $189 million threshold of the payroll luxury tax, while not having signed their All-Star second baseman, Robinson Cano, just yet. And, don’t forget, the team is rumored to be interested in signing Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who could be had at a lesser amount after the posting fee was limited to a maximum $20 million bid on Wednesday. McCann is a huge upgrade over the combined .213/.289/.298 triple slash that Yankees’ catchers posted in 2013, while Ellsbury provides great defense and speed as the Yankees try to move on from all of the injuries that suffocated their success this past season. Even if the Yankees are done with the big name signings, including Cano, they should be a better team in 2014.

Twinkies Filled Their Rotation

Who Minnesota Signed: RHP Phil Hughes (three-year, $24 million); RHP Ricky Nolasco (four-year, $49 million);

Why It Matters: The Twins starting pitchers posted a 5.26 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP in 2013, worst in the majors, and the ERA was a whopping 0.45 points higher than the Toronto Blue Jays’ starters (4.81), who finished 29th. Hughes still has youth and potential, but he needs to start tapping into that potential after posting a horrific 5.19 ERA over 29 starts and 145.2 innings. Shockingly, Hughes’ numbers would have made him a solid number three starter for the Twins in 2013…they were that bad. Adding Nolasco was special, but he isn’t an ace. He will likely be the Twins’ Opening Day starter in 2014 by default and he should make the rotation slightly better; although, it couldn’t get much worse.

Kazmir Rejuvenates and Cashes In Athletically

Who Oakland Signed: LHP Scott Kazmir (two-year, $22 million)

Why It Matters: Signing Kazmir to a lucrative contract could lead to another movie about the Oakland A’s after the success of Moneyball. While Kazmir’s resurgence was quite surprising, an eight-figure deal, after making all of one total appearance in the majors in 2011 and 2012 due to severe shoulder woes, was even more surprising. Possessing a mid-90’s fastball and a left arm appears to be all that it took to find a big deal. Kazmir’s story is worthy of attention and praise, but it is a story that needs to be monitored to see if he can maintain the same success in Oakland over the next two seasons. His presence will allow the A’s and Beane to shop LHP Brett Anderson at the winter meetings next week, which could net the club some additional win-now resources.

The Tigers No Longer on the Prowl for a Closer

Who Detroit Signed: RHP Joe Nathan (two-year, $20 million)

Why It Matters: Detroit needed a lockdown closer after shuffling through Jose Valverde, Phil Coke, Jose Veras, and Bruce Rondon at closer before Joaquin Benoit took over and did a nice job over the rest of the season. They got their man after signing Joe Nathan away from the Texas Rangers. Nathan closed 80 games out the last two seasons, while posting a 2.09 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, and at 38 years of age, he doesn’t look to be slowing down after missing the 2010 season due to Tommy John surgery. After dealing Prince Fielder to improve at second base with Ian Kinsler, moving Miguel Cabrera back to first, and plugging Drew Smyly into the rotation (after dealing Fister), the Tigers will have a completely new look in 2014. With their strong rotation, Nathan’s shutdown ability makes them quite dangerous.

Fish Hook Their Catcher and the Red Sox Snag Another

Who Miami Signed: C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (three-year, $21 million)

Who Boston Signed: C A.J. Pierzynski (one-year, $8.25 million)

Why It Matters: With a lot of focus heading towards catcher defense and framing, highlighted by the Rays commitments to Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan this winter, other clubs continue to look towards offensive-minded catchers, and the Miami Marlins and Boston Red Sox locked down their backstops this week. The Marlins seem to have very little hope for a quick turnaround and Saltalamacchia isn’t going to be the other piece to help Giancarlo Stanton and Miami to an NL East title, but it is a start…as long as they don’t trade him before the 2014 season starts. Pierzynski will be on his fifth organization and, despite being hated by some of his competition, he could be a tremendous asset to the character and chemistry that existed within the Boston World Series clubhouse. I guess he is better to have on your team than to play against him.

 

 

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.

What To Do With Beachy…

Beachy2The Atlanta Braves are 32-22, 4.5 games in front of the Washington Nationals in the NL East heading into Saturday’s game in the nation’s capital. After starting the season 12-1, the Braves have struggled to find consistency out of two of their (expected) star, offensive talents, as B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward have combined to hit .183/.285/.244 over 305 plate appearances, with 14 extra-base hits and 16 RBI. Atlanta is doing it all with pitching, as the group has performed very well, ranking 10th in MLB in starter ERA (3.71):

Rk Pos W L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1 SP Mike Minor* 7 2 2.48 11 11 72.2 53 21 20 7 14 66 0.922 6.6 8.2 4.71
2 SP Paul Maholm* 6 4 3.74 11 11 67.1 65 31 28 5 21 51 1.277 8.7 6.8 2.43
3 SP Kris Medlen 1 6 3.48 11 11 64.2 64 30 25 8 24 48 1.361 8.9 6.7 2.00
4 SP Julio Teheran 3 2 3.71 10 10 63.0 70 26 26 8 13 44 1.317 10.0 6.3 3.38
5 SP Tim Hudson 4 4 5.37 11 11 62.0 65 37 37 8 17 45 1.323 9.4 6.5 2.65
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/1/2013.

With the starting rotation looking very good overall, what will the Braves do with Brandon Beachy, who has now made two rehab starts as part of his return from Tommy John surgery. Beachy has had a pretty remarkable career to this point:

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2010 23 ATL 0 2 3.00 3 3 15.0 16 9 5 0 7 15 1.533 9.6 9.0 2.14
2011 24 ATL 7 3 3.68 25 25 141.2 125 62 58 16 46 169 1.207 7.9 10.7 3.67
2012 25 ATL 5 5 2.00 13 13 81.0 49 24 18 6 29 68 0.963 5.4 7.6 2.34
3 Yrs 12 10 3.07 41 41 237.2 190 95 81 22 82 252 1.144 7.2 9.5 3.07
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/1/2013.

Prior to his injury in 2012, Beachy was putting up ace-like numbers, and over his brief, 41-start career, he has been pretty fantastic, averaging over a strikeout per inning, as well as above-average ERA and WHIP totals. With his return, the Atlanta Braves will have a difficult decision to make with their rotation: Who goes to make room for Beachy?

Hudson1If you took Tim Hudson, who has five quality starts in 11 tries (45 percent), and his numbers out of the current rotation, the staff ERA would be 3.33, which would be 3rd (behind St. Louis and Cincinnati). Hudson is in the final year of his contract and he turns 38 years old in July. One could question if he has what it takes to thrive over the rest of the season, given the team’s inability to find offensive success, especially as the races heat up in the later months of the season, but is his “experience” worth keeping around?

Julio Teheran has been nothing short of spectacular over his last seven starts, compiling a 2.49 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and a 32:6 K:BB over 47 innings. Teheran turned 22 years old in January and after being rated the No.4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and the No.5 prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2012 season, Teheran has reinforced his skills, his status, and his ability to contribute at the major league level; however, is his lack of extended success and experience capable of forcing the Braves to remove him from the rotation?

Courtesy: USAToday.com
Courtesy: USAToday.com

Kris Medlen may not have the greatest record, but he has proven himself as a starting pitcher over his career, compiling these statistics:

I W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
16 8 2.98 41 2 1 250.2 224 92 83 27 61 213 1.137 7.6 3.49
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/1/2013.

Medlen’s success, despite his current 1-6 record, would seemingly keep him locked into the rotation; however, due to his success in the bullpen (2.92 ERA, 1.19 WHIP over 90 appearances), should the Braves consider another switch for the 27-year-old, 5’10” right-hander?

Mike Minor looks like an ace in 2013 and he has been since the All-Star break of 2012, having compiled a 2.31 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP, and a 133:30 K:BB over 160 innings. He would seem to be going nowhere anytime soon, having shown that he is a shutdown arm for the squad, in spite of his career 4.00 ERA.

Paul Maholm has been very consistent for Atlanta since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs last season. While he doesn’t thrive in any particular part of the game (ERA, WHIP, or K:9), Maholm is a very good mid-rotation starter that will give the team an average to above-average start every fifth day.

Should the club go to a six-man rotation? The move could make some sense. Why?

  • Julio Teheran will be on an innings limit due to his lack of experience at the major league and minor league level
  • Kris Medlen had Tommy John surgery on 8/18/2010
  • Brandon Beachy had Tommy John surgery on 6/21/2012
  • Tim Hudson had Tommy John surgery on 8/8/2008 and back surgery on 11/28/2011

While there has been some time between several of those surgeries and today, would the extra day of rest keep the Braves starters fresher and keep them in the rotation this season, so they don’t have to make a Stephen Strasburg-like shutdown of any of their starters when their presence matters most?

Beachy3There could be injuries that ease Beachy’s transition back into the rotation or the Braves could make a trade for more offensive help, but if those things don’t happen, their pitching depth will only help them be a stronger team. It’s just unfortunate that someone may have to go to an unexpected bullpen role or be sent to the minor leagues.


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Manny is Macho

Machado1Manny Machado was the 3rd pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, a product of Brito Miami Private School, which led to numerous comparisons to another big shortstop from Miami, the one and only Alex Rodriguez. It seemed like an unfair comparison for someone to live up to, and despite several “the next fill-in-the-blank” prospects to come and go without any success, Machado is already reaching fantastic levels of production just three years removed from his senior prom.

Machado moved to Baltimore quickly, earning just 170 plate appearances in Low-A, 260 plate appearances in High-A, and 459 plate appearances in Double-A before earning a promotion with the Orioles. His overall minor league numbers suggested a pretty drastic learning curve was to be expected:

Year Age Tm Lev G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB
2010 17 2 Teams A–Rk 9 39 36 3 11 1 1 1 5 0 3 3 .306 .359 .472 .831 17
2011 18 2 Teams A+-A 101 430 382 48 98 20 5 11 50 11 45 73 .257 .335 .421 .756 161
2011 18 Delmarva A 38 170 145 24 40 8 2 6 24 3 23 25 .276 .376 .483 .859 70
2011 18 Frederick A+ 63 260 237 24 58 12 3 5 26 8 22 48 .245 .308 .384 .692 91
2012 19 Bowie AA 109 459 402 60 107 26 5 11 59 13 48 70 .266 .352 .438 .789 176
3 Seasons 219 928 820 111 216 47 11 23 114 24 96 146 .263 .344 .432 .776 354
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

Surprisingly, his small sample size in Baltimore in 2012 was relatively close to his overall minor league numbers:

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB
2012 19 BAL 51 202 191 24 50 8 3 7 26 2 9 38 .262 .294 .445 .739 85
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

The OPS and batting average were very similar, but the OBP was pretty low. The 2013 season, however, has been a dramatic difference in ability:

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB
2013 20 BAL AL 33 152 140 24 44 12 1 5 21 3 9 24 .314 .356 .521 .877 73
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

Machado2Machado is hitting, hitting for power, and showing pretty good plate discipline. His walk rate is up to 5.9 percent in 2013 from the 4.5 percent that he had in 2012, and his strikeout rate has fallen to 15.8 percent from 18.8 percent in 2012. These are all fantastic signs for a player who won’t turn 21 until July 6th.

Certainly, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout deserve a lot of attention for their skills and production at such a young age, but it seems as though so many other excellent young players get lost in the hype. Obviously, Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and Brett Lawrie get some well-deserved attention, but Manny Machado deserves to be known as how special he already is, rather than another top talent to file with Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken, Jr. in the legacy of Baltimore Orioles’ infielders.

While his fielding is probably further along than his bat, Machado’s bat is damn good, as well.

Manny Machado is good enough right now to become the 2013 version of Mike Trout. In fact, due to the potential that he has in potentially moving back to shortstop when J.J. Hardy reaches free agency after the 2014 season, one could argue that Machado could become a more valuable player over the long haul.

Machado3ESPN got on board with his skills after a recent feature article by Jerry Crasnick, so it will only be a matter of time before he is getting too much focus. Everyone will see what he is made of at that point, good or bad, but he looks to have the skills worthy of “the next Alex Rodriguez” label, regardless.

 

Matt Harvey Is Greater Than Everyone Else

Courtesy: NY Daily News
Courtesy: NY Daily News

To say that Matt Harvey has been impressive in his first 17 starts to his career would be an understatement:

Year Age Tm W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2012 23 NYM 3 5 2.73 10 59.1 42 19 18 5 26 70 1.146 6.4 10.6 2.69
2013 24 NYM 4 0 1.28 7 49.1 22 7 7 2 12 58 0.689 4.0 10.6 4.83
2 Yrs 7 5 2.07 17 108.2 64 26 25 7 38 128 0.939 5.3 10.6 3.37
162 Game Avg. 14 10 2.07 34 217 128 52 50 14 76 256 0.939 5.3 10.6 3.37
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.
Courtesy: mythicalmonkey.blogspot.com
Courtesy: mythicalmonkey.blogspot.com

After 17 starts, he has roughly a half of a season under his belt and he can now officially be compared to Stephen Strasburg, whose first 17 starts looked like this:

Year Age Tm W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2010 21 WSN 5 3 2.91 12 68.0 56 25 22 5 17 92 1.074 7.4 12.2 5.41
2011 22 WSN 1 1 1.50 5 24.0 15 5 4 0 2 24 0.708 5.6 9.0 12.00
                                   6  3  2.54  17  92    71  30  26  5     19 116  0.98   6.9   11.3  6.11
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

Matt Harvey deserves the hype and he deserves more hype than he has received. Tossing another in which he allowed four or fewer hits, which has happened in six of his seven starts, shows just how dominant Harvey is. It’s arguable that he has had the best start to a pitching career in baseball history.

Who would supplant him in the argument?

Fernando

Fernando Valenzuela was an All-Star from 1981 through 1986 and won the Cy Young award in his 1981 rookie season. Fernando-mania was in full effect early in his career and his numbers supported his skills; however, the strikeouts don’t measure up to the pure dominance that others, mentioned earlier and later, will have presented to this argument.

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA GS GF CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1980 19 LAD NL 2 0 0.00 0 4 0 0 17.2 8 2 0 0 5 16 0.736 4.1 8.2 3.20
1981 20 LAD NL 13 7 2.48 25 0 11 8 192.1 140 55 53 11 61 180 1.045 6.6 8.4 2.95
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

Gooden

Dwight Gooden had, quite possibly, the greatest start to any career in history. He dominated at the age of 19 and kept things rolling for several years. It is debatable as to whether it was a substance-abuse issue or the innings that he accumulated early in his career that caused his demise, but from 1984 through 1991, he was a four-time All-Star, one-time Cy Young winner, and he received several MVP votes.

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1984 19 NYM NL 17 9 2.60 31 7 3 218.0 161 72 63 7 73 276 1.073 6.6 11.4 3.78
1985 20 NYM NL 24 4 1.53 35 16 8 276.2 198 51 47 13 69 268 0.965 6.4 8.7 3.88
1986 21 NYM NL 17 6 2.84 33 12 2 250.0 197 92 79 17 80 200 1.108 7.1 7.2 2.50
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

Hideo Nomo was the first true Asian sensation, coming to the United States from Japan and paving the way for Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Yu Darvish. Nomo was the Rookie of the Year in 1995 and continued to impress in 1996. His career was derailed by shoulder issues but Nomo did produce a couple of solid seasons later in his career upon his return to Los Angeles.

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1995 26 LAD NL 13 6 2.54 28 4 3 191.1 124 63 54 14 78 236 1.056 5.8 11.1 3.03
1996 27 LAD NL 16 11 3.19 33 3 2 228.1 180 93 81 23 85 234 1.161 7.1 9.2 2.75
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

Certainly, others, such as Mark Fidrych, have had excellent starts over the last 30 years, but when comparing dominance, it is undeniably absurd to say that Dwight Gooden wasn’t the pitcher with the best start to his career over the last several decades; however, based on what Matt Harvey has done over his first 17 starts, he has not only put better numbers up than Stephen Strasburg, but his statistics rival Gooden’s 1985 season, which was one of the best ever, particularly Harvey’s seven starts in 2013.

Harvey1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Harvey has been absolutely dominant, which is surprising given his minor league numbers:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2011 22 2 Teams 2 Lgs A+-AA 13 5 3.32 26 135.2 125 56 50 9 47 156 1.268 8.3 3.1 10.3 3.32
2011 22 St. Lucie FLOR A+ 8 2 2.37 14 76.0 67 24 20 5 24 92 1.197 7.9 2.8 10.9 3.83
2011 22 Binghamton EL AA 5 3 4.53 12 59.2 58 32 30 4 23 64 1.358 8.7 3.5 9.7 2.78
2012 23 Buffalo IL AAA 7 5 3.68 20 110.0 97 46 45 9 48 112 1.318 7.9 3.9 9.2 2.33
2 Seasons 20 10 3.48 46 245.2 222 102 95 18 95 268 1.290 8.1 3.5 9.8 2.82
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

The walks were high, the hits per nine were high, and the ERA was high. It just goes to show that harnessing a dynamic repertoire can go a long way in the elevation of a player’s abilities. Matt Harvey’s abilities, to this point in his brief career, appear to be better than nearly everyone else’s.