Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 Positional Rankings: Relievers

I'll open this brief post with the caveat which always applies when considering future major league relievers - a lot of them are minor league starters. One need look no further than Chad Jenkins. His odds of being a productive long term major league pitcher are substantially higher in the bullpen than in the rotation. Among those who've already appeared on the starter lists, it's easy to identify pitchers who may end up making their career as a reliever.

Marcus Stroman, for instance, is often cited as a guy who could pitch in the majors from opening day if it was in relief. John Stilson is said to have electric stuff, but also health and mechanical issues that lead some scouts to suppose his future is late-inning relief. Sean Nolin may simply be pushed to that role because of the depth of the rotation options and the value of a quality lefty reliever (which is the one pitching related "position" in which the upper level depth is too thin, if Oliver retires. It's not practical to list guys who've been mentioned before on more than one list, but I'll make one exception.

1. Sam Dyson (5/7/88) - Ihave to admit I'm basing this report on the exceedingly high praise of scouting reports. Dyson is a high groundball-rate pitcher who's ratios do not really reflect the talent that had John Farrell calling him one of the best arms in the system. Dismiss Farrell if you want, but the Jays would not have promoted him mid-season and thus force themselves to protect him on the 40 man roster this off-season if there wasn't something to the praise.

2. Chad Jenkins (12/22/87) -  This ranking is based heavily on proximity to a major league job as compared to those who follow. I'm not really high on him, but the closer you are to the majors, the less that can go so significantly wrong that you don't make it. I expect him to pitch in the Buffalo rotation out of ST ad while a spot start can't be ruled out, if he stays Blue jays property, he's almost certainly going to do so as a reliever if he's in the majors at all.

3. Dan Barnes  (10/21/89) - On the other hand, if you are looking at pure results then it's hard to not think very highly indeed of Danny Barnes. It would be pretty irrational to ask more from a minor league reliever than Barnes has already delivered. In over 156 minor league innings, the 6'1 RHP has a masterful 2.13 ERA and 12.5 K:9 (as compared to 2.9 BB:9). He has yet to be significantly challenged and he should open the season in New Hampshire. It's not at all impossible that he could pass both Dyson and Jenkins this year by the time the jays have need to call on one of them.

4. Evan Crawford (9/2/86)- No less an evaluator than Alex Anthopoulos spoke in growing terms.about Crawford last spring. He'd opened everyone's eyes with a great campaign at New Hampshire in 2011 and impressive work in the AFL. But this year went quite poorly, both in his major league opportunity and upon his return to the minors (Las Vegas caveat applies). The hill is a bit steeper to climb now, with Cecil in the pen, Happ squeezed out of the rotation, and Aaron Loup staking his claim last year (and don't forget that Luis Perez will be back sometime in the second half if there's no setback). but I'll give him one mulligan and be watching to see if he regains his form in Buffalo.

5. Matt Wright (5/7/87) -Wright is, statistically, following in the footsteps of Crawford and Loup.He's a LHP and his rations have been good to great all through the system. He's been a tic old for the level in most seasons but still, on paper he should be something to get excited about - yet I was stunned as no one took him in the Rule 5 draft. So maybe the scouts know something I don't.

6. Griffin Murphy (6/7/92) - my one exception, he DID spend pretty much all of 2012 pitching in relief. but he seems a sort of high profile guy to be so quickly moved out of the starting role and so i'll wait and see how it goes in 2013.

7. Alan Farina (8/9/86) - After 2010, it seemed Farina had re-invented himself in relief and climbed into the prospect radar. He'd put a miserable 2009 (also spent in relief, to be clear) behind him and was on his was. He opened 2011 with 17 effective innings - and then was disabled and on his way to TJ surgery. Results were mixed upon his return last year, but there may be something there in his second year post-surgery. however, at his age he needs to be challenged so Buffalo, or at least New Hampshire, will have to be the scene of any success worth being impressed with.


Coming soon, my (radically altered) combined top prospect list.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

There's a New Sheriff in Town

Notice is served.

There's so much excellent commentary out there that a lot of this is simply going to be a paraphrase of things you've heard others say and I acknowledge that but they are consistent with my own thinking so when I happen to parallel an already expressed view so be it.

And also, they are sort of random thoughts because, as usual, I'm reacting to the reaction since I am not a breaker of news.

First, the contract. given the cost in dollars of landing a legitimate #1 pitcher (and a Cy winner has to be considered such until it's demonstrated on the mound he's not) from outside your organization in today's market, the $24 million the Jays will pay Dickey in the extension over two years (or $36 mil in three) is an insanely good deal. Getting to pay him less than John Buck is going to make in 2013 just takes you into LSD trip fantasy land.

Second, the price in prospects. Look, the Brewers gave up a better prospect than d'Arnaudto get Saun Marcum. No one really blinked. The Royals gave up a very similar package (assuming you think Syndergaard is enough better than Ororizzi to make up forthe deficit between Myers and d'Arnaud) and there are other examples. This is not an above market payment, although admittedly it is painful if you are emotionally invested in your prospects (as i am in d'Arnaud).

Furthermore, the eternal negativity of many Jays fans won't seem to die. for years they whine Rogers is cheap, then Rogers spends which is good, but during those years the refrain was often something like "prospects don't win games in the majors, we need to  acquire guys can help now" and when that happens they whine"we paid too much!"

That said, as Mike Wilner and others point out - a LOT of highly regarded prospects fail. The classic example is that many Jays fans are disappointed in Colby Rasmus, despite him having been a top 5 prospect in baseball TWICE. But one that cuts closer to my heart and probably yours is Travis Snider. As a prospect he was certainly more highly praised than d'Arnaud is as I write this, he was THE guy we'd build the next decade around. if we'd traded him before he ever got to the majors the GM would have been burned in effigy outside the stadium. How's he worked out so far? Look, Syndergaard was the cost of doing business, you were never going to deal for ANY ace pitcher without including him or Aaron Sanchez. Anyone who's upset with that is simply not realistic. No, d'Arnaud is the one who hurts. But, again let's cite Wilner - d'Arnaud is not remotely as hyped as Matt Weiters was and Weiters still hasn't turned into an All-Star and that typical of young catchers (Posey and Piazza aside) and not at all uncommon among prospects in general.

So factoring in BOTH contract and player costs, this deal is an astonishing success in terms of the return and how it elevates the team.

Third - the obvious comparison to the Yankees and Rays will have to wait for another day, in terms of detailed comparisons, But I'm prepared to argue that this roster, on paper ("gel" issues aside) is THE best team in the AL and possible the Majors right now. While I acknowledge that Adam Lind seemingly can't hit lefties at all, those who persist in whining about that particular issue are irredeemable negativist. Just shut up.  If Lind starts at DH every single AL game, he's going to face a LHSP less than 40 times, and maybe a quarter of those being really good examples of the type. Put another way, Lind had 89 at bats against lefties last year in 135 games played. So lets round that up to 100. He hit .276 v. RHP so the same rate would amount to 28 hits in those 100 at bats. He had 18 vs. LHP last year. You see that? We're talking about the difference of less than TEN hits in the whole season. So chill the f*** out, eh?

Let's enjoy this. After last season, we deserve it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Trade Forthcoming?

It's been a while since I posted here. Just a classic case of real life getting in the way of baseball. Anyways, nothing has happened yet (at least not officially), but as you all have heard already, there is a rumored deal between the Jays and the Mets. Normally I wouldn't analyze a trade before it actually happens, but in this case I'll make an exception. I figure if it goes through I'd obviously analyze it, and even if it ends up falling apart, I would still like to write my thoughts about why that happened, and whether it's a good thing for the Jays or not.

Before I get into the analyzing, just for completeness I should state that the rumors out there at this point suggest it will be D'Arnaud, Buck and Syndergaard plus, for Dickey, Thole plus. The truth is though, that the only thing that really seems to have any truth to it is that the deal will center around D'Arnaud (=TDA) for Dickey. All the rest, if you read the reports (or tweets) carefully, is pure speculation. Therefore, I'm going to just look at the idea of a TDA for Dickey trade, and assume (or at least hope) that whatever the other pieces are end up being relatively balanced in the end.

The way I see it, there are three important issues here. First, is Dickey really this good? Second, how should we evaluate deals where prospects are traded for proven players? Third, how valuable a prospect is TDA?

Let's deal with the first question first. While as recently as a week or two ago the majority of bloggers and writers seemed to focus on the fact that Dickey is no run of the mill Cy Young winner. He's 38 years old, throws a pitch whose effectiveness can fluctuate pretty easily, and he doesn't really have the track record of a "true ace". Yes, he's a nice pitcher, but nobody is going to mistake him for Justin Verlander.

Over the last few days, however, the tone seems to have changed significantly. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote an article that saw Dickey in a very favorable light. It compared him to David Price, showing (correctly) that their results over the last three seasons have been pretty similar to each other. A reasonable argument one could make is that if the Jays were getting 3 years of David Price in this trade rather than 3 years of Dickey, we would expect the return the Rays would demand would be much more than TDA, and we'd probably be happy to pay it. Well, the logic is simple. If Price>TDA, and Price=Dickey, then it follows that Dickey>TDA. Sounds like a good deal for the Jays, right?

The problem is that Cameron fails to realize that Dickey is not David Price. In 2010 when each posted similar results, Dickey was 36 years old, and nobody had heard of him. David Price was 24 years old, a hot-shot prospect in his first full season in the big leagues. Price's skills showed a linear improvement from 2010-2012 (as seen by his decreasing xFIP each year) in a demonstrable way, and he has the pedigree and the stuff that we're used to in an ace. He is still trending upward, and is just now entering his prime.

Dickey, on the other hand, is just a hard guy to pin down. Yes, he's been pretty consistently good over the past three seasons, but because of his pitch arsenal, he's not really somebody we can analyze using our go-to advanced metrics. He's not someone trending upward in the way Price is. He's certainly well past his prime even if aging isn't such a concern with knuckleballers, and he lacks the typical "ace pedigree/stuff" that we're used to. As someone who analyzes baseball players, Dickey just makes you feel uncomfortable.

So Dickey is not David Price. But that's fine. You don't need a David Price in return to be willing to give up a top prospect. Dickey is not David Price, but he's still a huge talent, even if we can't really understand him statistically. To get a top of the rotation guy for 3/$30M is a pretty rare opportunity, and that kind of haul has a lot of value. Is that worth TDA and Syndergaard? I'm not sure, but it's not so far off to say that it is.

Let's look at the second question quickly: how do we see prospects in trades. This has been discussed in many places, and I just think some simple balance is in order. I'm not saying anything really new here. Yes, prospects are question marks, and therefore when you can trade question marks for established players, that's generally a good thing. When what you give up in prospects has the potential to be better than what you're getting in return if things go right for the prospects is also normal and expected. Especially when you're in win-now mode which the Jays most certainly are. But this just has to be balanced with an eye to the future as well. Being in win-now mode shouldn't have to mean going all in and mortgaging the future. AA has put enough pieces in place that he should be able to continue with his plan of sustained long-term success. This trade would obviously hurt the Jays farm system. Between all that has happened this winter, if this deal goes through as rumored, the Jays will probably drop from having one of the best farms in the league, to having an average to below average one. Their farm isn't empty at all like how JPR left it, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that even after this deal the Jays would still have plenty of pieces they could make available in trade.

And that brings us to the final question: what is the value of TDA? It's here where I actually come to hope that this trade ends up falling through. I think that the value of a guy like TDA is actually underestimated, even by those who are overly enamored with prospects. And that's because contrary to popular belief, I actually think a big time catching prospect who is MLB ready has more value than a top pitching prospect, and perhaps even as much value as an established top of the rotation pitcher.

Now, if you turned to WAR or other such metrics that we often use to determine the value of players, it would come out that I'm wrong. Aces typically produce more WAR in a season that good catchers, as a general rule. The thing is though, even though WAR does take positional scarcity into account, I'm not sure it does so enough for catchers. Take a look as these facts:

This is a list of catchers who have accumulated 6.0 WAR or more over 2011-2012:

1Yadier MolinaCardinals277108130436120141167.2 %9.2 %.173.314.310.362.484.36513214.9-9.911.2
2Buster PoseyGiants1937952242895124410.9 %15.8 %.188.358.324.399.512.39015110.5-4.59.8
3Miguel MonteroDiamondbacks281112627833130174110.7 %20.2 %.170.338.284.372.454.3581208.7-9.39.3
4Matt WietersOrioles28311442624513915149.4 %17.1 %.187.275.255.329.442.33510821.0-6.39.1
5Carlos RuizPhillies2468932372210510858.6 %11.0 %.155.322.303.382.458.3641294.8-2.28.7
6Mike NapoliRangers22184919854125131513.4 %24.7 %.277.312.275.379.552.398146-4.7-3.07.6
7Alex AvilaTigers25798522628105130513.6 %23.9 %.181.343.272.372.452.358125-7.4-4.17.4
8Carlos SantanaIndians298126726045156155814.8 %18.5 %.194.270.246.358.439.347122-9.3-7.27.1
9Joe MauerTwins22997425913119115812.5 %12.9 %.111.348.308.397.419.357126-2.8-0.16.5
10Brian McCannBraves24910142274495138610.0 %16.3 %.182.261.251.326.433.3261044.2-6.26.1

Now, after this past season it seems more likely that Avila was a one-year-wonder in 2011, Ruiz was on steroids, and Napoli isn't going to be a catcher anymore going forward (at least not full time), so we should remove them from the list. We can add Salvador Perez to the list, because he produced more than 3.0 WAR in 2012, his only semi full season. That leaves us with 8 catchers. Now, WAR is designed so that the league average player at a given position should produce about 2.0 WAR. So the fact that there are only 8 players of a position that produced more than 3.0 WAR per season is not so strange on its own. However, I don't think that tells the whole story here.

Look at that list of 8 catchers carefully. I think if we just used general scouting/opinion/knowledge about baseball players (forgetting about WAR), we'd say this list of 8 is a pretty accurate list of the catchers that we'd describe as being "good." These 8 can hold there own defensively (or better) at a tough position, and put up at least respectable wOBAs. Their bats are at least good enough that they could play another position and still be able to be a starter, even if a below average one. We're not talking 8 Pudge Rodriguez's or Mike Piazza's here. We're talking "good" here, not superstar. And 8 is not a lot when there are 30 teams. Yes, the players who didn't make this cut are still solid. There are Russel Martins and AJ Pierzinskys and Saltys and Avilas and Lucroys out there, but there really is a drop off that is at least somewhat significant. Just for the record, JPA comes in at 30th on this list, behind even Buck who comes in at #21... (Just saying)

Now take another look at our list of 8. What else do they all have in common? With the exception Brian McCann (who had a very bad 2012 and is now missing a chunk of 2013 due to surgery), all other 7 of these guys are locked up in long term deals on their teams, and they're all unlikely to go anywhere. And that for me, is the key point. There aren't many of these guys around. Most teams don't have them, and most teams have a lot of trouble developing them. And for that reason, when one of them does come along, they get locked up fast, and for the long term. And by the time their contracts expire, they're usually too old to be seen as full time catchers from then on (or at least not with the same skill level that they had at the beginning of their contracts). In other words, these guys are extremely hard to come by.

Compare that to pitchers. Pitchers stay productive for a lot longer than catchers, and there are also a lot more good pitchers out there than good catchers, simply because of demand. Teams need 5 pitchers, while they only need one catcher. And for these and probably other reasons, good top of the rotation pitching is actually (if surprisingly) available more than you might think, and certainly more often that top catchers are available. Last winter Yu Darvish and CJ Wilson were available, and Mat Latos and Gio Gonzales were traded. Latos was traded from the Padres because they got a good haul and they knew they weren't ready to contend yet. The A's traded Gio because they didn't expect to contend. This winter Greinke and Anibal Sanchez were available, and so was James Shields and now Dickey. David Price will almost certainly become available in the next year or two, and there will be others. There always are. Pitchers become free agents when they're still good. Teams trade good pitchers. And that's not even mentioning the myriad of solid middle of the rotation guys who are constantly available, and who are more than adequate for a team that already features Johnson and Morrow atop their rotation.

Catchers don't become available. Maybe McCann will be available next year. Maybe not. If he is, you can be sure teams like the Yankees and Dodgers will be in on the bidding, with lots of money to spend. There wasn't a single elite catcher to become available this winter, and there wasn't one last year either (okay, last year Jesus Montero was traded, but he was seen as more of a DH than a catcher anyways).

So, yes, I know TDA is still just a prospect. And yes, I know prospects are question marks. And yes, I remember that Jesus Montero was the top catching prospect last year, and he even had some MLB success under his belt, and he still completely flopped this year. But I also remember that Carlos Santana and Matt Weiters and Salvador Perez and Buster Posey were once prospects. And while they may not have become quite as elite as people might have hoped, they're still on our list of 8. These guys don't come to you in trades or as free agents, usually. They come in one way, and that's homegrown. They're so rare, that when a team actually gets one, they don't let go. And so, even though TDA is no sure thing, when you have a player who at least scouts think could make our list grow from 8 to 9, even if he won't be Joe Mauer or Buster Posey, even if he'll just be a bit above league average with the bat, and a bit above league average with the glove (and that's all it really takes to make our list when you're a catcher), you grab that player and you don't let him go. Because if July 31st comes and you find you need another pitcher, or if 2014 comes and you want another ace, one will be waiting there for you if you're willing to spend the money or the prospects (or both). But if those times come and you want to upgrade at catcher, you're gonna be left staring at a blank page of available options.

-Martin