Friday, July 27, 2007

Throwing the Iguchi Out With the Bath-Water

The trade of Tadahito Iguchi was inevitable. The White Sox acquired Danny Richar to be their every day second baseman by next season. Best to let him get his feet wet now. Iguchi is a free agent at the end of the season, and was barely above replacement value now.

But this is all we get for him?!? Three teams -- the Phillies, Mets and Pads -- all had targetted Iguchi as their first priority at a position of need. How is an 18th round pick, striking out less than a batter an inning in Low-A ball the best possible return here? Michael Dubee's professional career sounds like a favor to his dad, Rich, who just happens to be the Phillies' pitching coach.

Maybe the Mets and Pads weren't offering a real prospect for Iguchi either. But would the Mets or someone have offered to take Jose Contreras off our hands if we also threw in Iguchi? Quite frankly, that seems like better use of our asset. Also, rumor has it that no one is offering more than a B-level prospect for Jermaine Dye. Would someone have been willing to give us a guy with some real upside in exchange for both Dye and Iguchi? Could he have been packaged with Rob Mackowiak -- a lefty utility guy who clearly has more value on the bench of a contender than on a sinking Sox ship?

I'm not upset they dealt Iguchi. Heck, I'm now looking forward to seeing Richar this weekend (you hear that Ozzie, if I see Alex Cintron at second this weekend, I'm going to be really irritated). But you have to consider the move in the context of an overall strategy to be competitive again next season. Richar was going to be at second next year no matter what. So, I'm not sure how this move helps at all. It seems like we just wasted an asset.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Say it ain't so, Kenny!

First, Kenny Williams tells the Tribune that he's excited to see what the White Sox can do when Scott Podsednik and Darrin Erstad come back. Then, the Trib start murmuring about how the Sox can win 90 games if they just play .700 ball the rest of the way. Today, Ozzie tells the Sun-Times that there are no trades on the horizon. Maybe this is all just a smoke screen, but if it's not, then oy vey.

Contrary to Herm Edwards otherwise brilliant diatribe, you don't actually play to win the game. You play to win the championship. And, the White Sox can't do that this year. If they proceed as if they do still have some hope, instead of preparing now for next season, then all they can accomplish is to set the franchise back.

According to Baseball Prospectus's play-offs odds report, which runs the rest of the season a million times (based on current winning percentage and an expected winning percentage that starts with a team's third order winning percentage so far, and then allows for regression) the Sox have a .02% chance of making the play-offs, or one in 5000 chance if that makes the team's dire straits clearer. Yes, they can win 90 games if they play .700 ball the rest of the way. But 90 wins probably won't get them into the post-season. The AL wild card winner has averaged 95 wins. Plus, even the best teams don't play .700 ball. And, has this team done anything to indicate it has that kind of talent? That last point is emphasized by BP's Pecota-adjusted play-off odds report. If you adjust the teams' expected winning percentages the rest of the way based on Pecota's expected performance by the team's individual players, then the Sox chance SINK to .01%. Kenny, that's 1 in 10,000. In other words, the Sox are much more likely, based on their current roster, to fall further out of the race, than charge back into it.

This has implications. First, if the Sox allow guys like Podsednik and Erstad, and even the red-hot Rob Mackowiak, who should not be part of the team's future, to take at-bats from guys like Jerry Owens and Ryan Sweeney, then they shouldn't be allowed to run a franchise anymore. Owens and Sweeney, and even Brian Anderson, may not be the answers in the Sox outfield next year, but shouldn't we find out? It was reassuring to hear Ozzie say that Andy Gonzalez will play significant time at shortstop the rest of the way. I doubt he's the answer there. But let's find out because we know that Juan Uribe isn't.

Second, I don't care how little future value we can get for Jose Contreras, trade him now for whatever you can get. He has NO future value to this team, especially at his price tag going forward. As for Dye and Iguchi, if someone wants to give up a good prospect for them, grab him. If the team thinks those guys are better answers than anyone else they're likely to find at the right price next season, then great, keep them, but make sure you get them signed. If you're not going to re-sign them, then trade them for whatever you can get. But don't let guys with value leave for nothing.

The White Sox need to be realistic. They CANNOT contend this season. What's the point of wasting at-bats on Erstad, Podsednik, Uribe, or even Dye and Iguchi if they're not coming back? Why make a futile run at respectability. I think White Sox fans are smart enough now that they would be more excited about watching the kids play the rest of the way than watching this crew's last gasp.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Just How Good is Mark Buehrle?

The White Sox lost season has left me largely bereft of topics to write about. And then, all of a sudden, today I've got 437 ideas. Oh well. We'll get to them over time. But let's start with this one: just how good is Mark Buehrle?

Last night was typical of the dilemma Buehrle presents. In 6.1 innings, Buehrle gave up only one run. Anyway, you cut it, that's a good outing. But he gave up 10 hits and struck out only three. Even Buehrle admits that those kinds of numbers usually don't add up to six-plus innings and only one run. But that's how Buehrle has lived in the majors: too many hits and too fews strikeouts, and yet very few runs allowed.

Readers know I was critical of the recent extension for Buehrle. Yes, the Sox got him for $30 million less than market value, but that's just because the market had him overvalued by $50 million. Buehrle doesn't miss a lot of bats. He has good command, and he gets hitters to put the ball in play on the pitch he wants them to hit. It forces ground balls and pop ups. But when a guy like that ages even a little, loses just the tiniest bit off his stuff, hitters turn those pitches into line drives and home runs. Guys like Buehrle have steep declines. Some have countered this argument by pointing to the extended decline phase of Greg Maddux's career. The comparison is flawed. Buehrle's best seasons have been comparable to Maddux's decline phase. Even if the two really were similar, what does that mean Buehrle's decline phase would look like?

And they're not that similar. In his career, Buehrle has struck out around five batters per nine innings. Maddux struck out six or seven hitters per nine innings at his peak. During his long slow decline, he's come down to Buehrle's strikeout ratio, but for his career he's still a full K per nine better. Buehrle really is comparable to Old Maddux (distinguished like Old Elvis from Young Maddux).

General perception aside, however, do pitchers like Buehrle really fade fast? According to PECOTA, Beuhrle looks a lot like two guys who briefly pitched for the Sox: Jerry Reuss and Jim Kaat. Let's take Kaat, who is PECOTA's closest comparable, and a really strong one at that. After turning 28 during 1967, Kaat went on to win 14 or more games another five times, including winning more than 20 for the Sox in '74 and '75. Reuss also won 14 or more games three times after turning 28, and picked up another 13 wins for the Sox in 1988, when he was 39. So far so good. As you continue down the list of Buehrle's comparables there are some more ominous comparisons. For example, number three on the list is another Sox hurler, Jim Abbott, who was pretty much washed up by the time he was 28. So, Buehrle's future is a gamble, but it is certainly one with some upside.

And, whatever Buehrle's future holds, unlike Abbott, he is definitely not washed up at 28. In fact, by some measures, he's having his best season of his career. His 2.98 ERA is the lowest of his career, and he has his second lowest walks and hits per nine innings. Only in 2001, his first full season in the bigs, did he allow fewer base runners per nine overall. Only the team's anemic offense and shoddy bullpen have kept Buehrle's win total down, and name out of the Cy Young discussion.

That's right, Buehrle is fifth in the majors, and third in the AL, in VORP among pitchers. I was shocked when I looked that up and saw how high he ranked. In the AL, only Dan Haren and Johan Santana have higher VORPs. Yes, those are the two guys everyone is talking about for Cy Young. Nor is it luck. Buehrle's batting average on balls in play is actually higher than Haren's or Santana's. But how exactly he is as effective as those two is a mystery. Haren strikes out nearly two more batters per nine than Buehrle, gives up two fewer hits per nine, allows fewer home runs, but somehow Buehrle has been almost exactly as effective as Haren overall. Santana also gives up fewer hits than Buehrle, and he strikes out more than four more batters per nine. Buehrle shouldn't even be in this guy's league, but he is.

Yesterday, as I marvelled once again at the fact that Buehrle was struggling to get anyone out, and yet no one could score on him, I began to become more optimistic about the next few seasons of Mark Buehrle. Maybe this guy just has a way of maximizing the utility of the skills he has. Statistics explain big picture developments, but there are always individual outliers who don't fit the model. Buehrle seems to be one of those guys. His peripherals suggest an ERA almost a run higher than his is. How does he do it? Maybe it's smoke and mirrors, but then Buehrle is one of the greatest and most consistent illusionists in all of baseball. Would I have bet $56 million dollars on Buehrle keeping this illusion going? No, but Buehrle's fooled me before.

Friday, July 13, 2007

What You Get For The Money

$20 million a year for Ichiro. $35 million a year for A-Rod? $17 million dollars a year for Big Z, who will play in, at most, 35 games each season? Even Mark Buehrle's contract just seems ridiculous to me. And, I don't mean in an, "Oh my God, these guys make so much money," kind of way. From a baseball perspective, it just doesn't make sense.

These contracts are part of a bigger problem though: baseball people seem entirely incapable of valuing baseball talent. And don't give me that, "If the market will pay, then they're worth it," nonsense. If you can get the same production for less money, then it's not worth it.

I think the problem stems in part from the lack of a salary cap in baseball. I'm not advocating for a cap, that's another debate for another day, and anyway, if I had to give a knee-jerk reaction, I'd say that I'm against having a cap. But the absence of a cap has allowed GMs to become lazy about valuing production. If you know you have exactly $100 million dollars to spend, then you have to carefully determine whether a player is worth X percentage of your payroll. But without the cap, you can pay a guy you like whatever you have to in order to sign him, and it doesn't feel like you're sacrificing anything.

But you are. See, every team, even the Yankees, has a budget of what they can afford to spend for on-field talent. And every dollar you spend at one position IS a dollar you can't spend elsewhere. So paying more for a player than his production is worth will eventually kill you. Not so quickly if you're the Yankees, immediately if you're the Twins.

Say two teams are getting the same production out of one spot in their starting rotation -- let's say a VORP of 28. One team signed their guy off of waivers, and will pay him $380,000 this year. The other team signed their guy as a big name free agent, and will pay him $6.3 million this year. Both teams are really happy with their signing, but team A now has an extra $5.5 million to spend on talent somewhere else, that they might not have had if they signed the expensive free agent. Now, in this example, baseball's financial imbalance, and the incompetence of some of its GMs, are relevant. Team A is the Orioles, who while they made a great signing when they grabbed Jeremy Guthrie off of waivers, generally have no clue about how to spend the money they saved by acquired an ace for less than half a million bucks a year. Team B is the Red Sox, who being at the top of baseball's financial heap, can afford to spend serious cash for a guy Daisuke Matsuzaka without sacrificing a whole lot at another position.

But for a team like the White Sox -- among baseball's "haves," but not obscenely wealthy, and blessed with a GM who generally seems to spend money in a way that is at least somewhat productive -- having an extra $5 million bucks to spend at, say, second base, could be the difference between returning to contender status, or languishing in the cellar for a few years

You could put together a near all-star team for the $30 million a year A-Rod will get paid next season. If the Mets can get fairly comparable production from David Wright for $1.2 million, as someone is getting from A-Rod for $30 million, then the Mets are better off, even if A-Rod's production is somewhat better. Which is why, no matter how good A-Rod and Ichiro are, overpaying for their services -- as measured by how much similar production would cost on the open market, as opposed to how much the market is willing to pay for that specific player -- is a mistake.

The inability of GMs to properly value production is hamstringing the trade market too. Teams are starting to value their own young prospects more. Pre-arbitration talent is key in the current economic scheme because that's where you can most readily find players whose salaries are actually below the cost of comparable production on the open market. It's why the Mets are paying $1.2 million bucks for Wright, whose production would cost about $26 million a season on the market (using BP's MORP stat, which measures, coincidentally, the value of a player's production on the open market). Anyway, all of a sudden teams won't offer their top prospects for average big leaguers. No one wants to be the next guy to trade Jeff Bagwell. Nevertheless, when another team offers a good prospect for an average established player, the GM with the established guy often feels as if he's being offered 30 cents on the dollar. "They won't offer their top prospect for this guy because they value their prospects, so the prospect they are offering is a low-ball offer."

It doesn't work this way. While teams are starting to properly value their own prospects, they continue to undervalue everyone else's prospects. People always value that which they have more than that which they want. Plus, GMs are more familiar with their own prospects. But part of the problem is that GMs continue to underestimate the value of cheap, young, productive talent.

How does this play out? Jose Contreras makes about $9 million a year. His production is worth about $4 or $5 million a year. So, if the Sox can trade him for a decent prospect, one who can give comparable production even, but for less money, then they've won the trade. The Mets won't give the Sox a top prospect like Lastings Milledge for Contreras, but they might give up Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey has struggled mightily this year, but clearly has the talent to be a middle of the rotation kind of guy: 10-15 wins a year, and ERA in the 4.00 to 4.50 range. That sounds a whole lot like what the Sox get out of Contreras, but because Pelfrey is still young, it comes at a lot lower price. Pelfrey may have lost some of his sheen, but that doesn't mean that he's a low-ball offer. In fact, if the Sox could get him for Contreras, they should jump at the opportunity.

Or take another player the Sox covet: Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. The Dodgers won't cough up Kemp for Contreras straight up. Kemp can play all three outfield spots and has top of the order skills, all for the low, low price of $380,000 a year. Signing a guy who could give the team comparable production on the open market this off-season would run about $16 million a year, based in MORP. So, if the Dodgers want Contreras and Jermaine Dye for Kemp and some lesser prospects, the Sox should do it. They cut $16 million dollars from their payroll and replace Dye's production in the outfield. That leaves a whole lot of money to both replace Contreras's production on the mound (which remember, should only cost about $5 million a year), and to upgrade at SS, 2B, or one of the other outfield positions. That's how you build a winning baseball team for the long haul. I sure hope Kenny Williams gets that.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Woe, Oh, We're Half Way There! Woe, Oh . . .

I've returned to the country, we've reached the All-Star Break, and frankly, other than rumors of a horrible on-field melt down last Friday, the White Sox are pretty much as I left them. Hrm. Obviously, this is a bit of a lost season at the big league level, but that makes it extremely important as a season for building a foundation for the short and intermediate term future. Obviously, the biggest step, one way or the other is the new Mark Buehrle contract. We'll get to that, but let's touch on some other things first.

Speaking of the future, he's coming, and his name is Faustino De Los Santos. He's a couple years away still, but in Low-A ball this season he has 96 Ks in 77 innings, and only 42 hits allowed. He's got a devastating fastball/slider combo, and looks like he could someday lead the rotation or bring up the back end of the bullpen.

Another pleasant development on the farm, and one that could make an impact by next season, is the continued potential, and improved production of Gio Gonzalez. There's a reason they like the prodigal prospects best. Gonzalez has a 2.91 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 92 double-A innings. Depending on what happens with Jose Contreras, Gonzalez may be in the rotation by next season.

Speaking of rookie members of the rotation, perhaps the best development at the big league level is John Danks demonstration that he belongs. Danks has a 4.62 ERA and 68 Ks in 89 innings of work. His PRAA (pitching runs above average) is two. In other words, he's been two runs better than an average big league starter so far this season. Being almost exactly league average, if not the tiniest bit better, is really good for a rookie who many believed was pushed into the bigs too soon this spring.

Also showing he belongs in the bigs is third base prospect Josh Fields. His .252 batting average, five home runs and 18 RBIs don't look great. And, he still strikes out at an alarming rate. But Fields has also been almost exactly league average. He's -1 BRAA (batting runs above average) and 1 FRAA (fielding runs above average). I suspect his numbers will improve during the second half as he gets into a real rhythm and comfort zone with the big club. He's raised his batting average and on-base percentage 20 points, and his slugging percentage 40 points, in the first 10 days of July. Fields has always been a little slow to settle in at each new level as he moved through the organization. His emergence gives the team some flexibility, along with Joe Crede, in its approach to third base and left field next season. They could keep both and send Fields to the outfield, or trade Crede to fill a need in the outfield.

Part of the reason the Sox very much need to address the outfield this off-season is the refusal of their top outfield prospects to develop. Brian Anderson is forgotten and Ryan Sweeney may be headed that way. His potential has always been based partly on his physical build, which suggests that a lot of home runs are locked away just out of sight. Well, another season is passing, and those home runs still haven't emerged, at AAA or in the bigs. He hit one home run in 45 at-bats with the Sox and five home runs in 244 at-bats for Charlotte. He is still very young, but he is also still all potential and no production.

And so we come to the Sox biggest move so far: re-signing Mark Buehrle for four years, 56 million dollars. I'm torn about the decision. Buehrle's value will never be higher to someone else, or lower to the Sox. If he could have been turned into Lastings Milledge or Jacoby Ellsbury, then I think that would have meant more long term to the team. With this new deal, and its trade escalator and no-trade clause, that can never happen now. On the other hand, the price on the extension sure seems right given the cost of starting pitching these days. That's a lot less than guys like Barry Zito are getting. And yet, it's still too much. Buehrle is a finesse pitcher. The slightest loss of stuff with a guy like that and pop-ups become home runs, ground balls become line drives. As Buehrle ages and his stuff declines just a little, he figures to go down hill fast. I can't express joy that the team is strapped on for that ride. As Baseball Prospectus pointed out last week, Mark Buehrle's career numbers are almost identical to the downside of Greg Maddux's career, from 2001-2007. What will the downside of Buehrle's career look like?

I know the Sox got Buehrle for 30 million less than the market would have dictated. I still think they paid too much. Yes, better to spend 50-plus million dollars on Mark Buehrle than Ted Lilly or Gil Meche, but I like that Kenny Williams has always refused to succumb to the market pressure to overpay for starting pitching. So, I don't like that he abandoned his usual philosophy here.

Monday, July 02, 2007

What's a Buehrle Worth in American Dollars?

It is becoming ever more apparent that Mark Buehrle will not be with the White Sox next season. If they could have resigned him at a significant discount, then I was fine with that. But the truth is that evidence shows most finesse guys don't age well, especially ones who can't miss bats with their breaking stuff either. Just the slightest decline in quality and guys like Buehrle go from giving up ground balls to giving up line drives, from giving up pop ups to giving up home runs. So, rather than be saddled with a potentially fading and untradeable player (it was Buehrle's demand for a no-trade clause that apparently torpedoed negotiations), I agree with Kenny Williams that his best course is to maximize his return on Buehrle now.

So, what is that maximum return? The Mets, Braves, Cardinals, and Dodgers are apparently after our dependable lefty. So, I've compiled a quick wish list of prospects from these teams. I leave for Italy tomorrow. I return on the 8th. I'd be a happy man if one of the following guys was in a White Sox' (or Charlotte Knights') uni by the time I re-enter the country.

I'm going to cover the teams in the random order I listed them above. From the Mets, I want outfielder Lastings Milledge. The White Sox will need to replace at least one corner outfielder this off-season (unless Jermaine Dye makes a shocking return for '08). Milledge was on a 13 for 39 streak at AAA before being sidelined by injury. And PECOTA projects a WARP on 19.9 for him from 2008-2011.

From the Braves I covet shortstop Brent Lillibridge. He runs, he draws walks, he plays D. He also strikes out a lot, but not enough to stifle his numbers too badly. He's probably a little further away than Milledge, as he seems to be struggling somewhat from the move to AAA from AA. But the Sox will definately need to address the short stop spot this offseason, and short stops are a lot harder to come by than corner outfielders. Also, the Braves have a shortstop prospect they like even more ahead of Lillibridge (note, I prefer Lillibridge, which I suppose is obvious from the column), so he should be quite available. PECOTA projects a WARP of 21.2 over the next four seasons, which is pretty remarkable.

The Cardinals have always seemed like a likely landing spot for Buehrle, a St. Louis native, when he reaches free agency. Knowing they have a better than most chance of signing a new deal with the lefty has put the Cards squarely in the derby. The name going around is Anthony Reyes. Reyes is 0-10 with a 6.40 ERA this season. His PECOTA projection is an 11.6 WARP for the next four seasons, which is well below Milledge and Lillibridge. I'm not sure the Cards have the young, nearly-ready prospect to entice the Sox when their are so many other possible trading partners out there.

Finally, the Dodgers have been discussed as a possible destination for several Sox players, including Dye and Buehrle. On interesting piece in play is Chad Billingsley. Billingsley is 5-0 with a 3.44 ERA in a swing role. PECOTA projects an 11.6 WARP for him as well, but his greater success this season makes him more attractive than Reyes to me. The Sox will need a starter or two over the next couple of years. Billingsley may be a piece of a package to acquire Buehrle. I'd be a lot more interested, however, if the Dodgers made talented outfielder Matt Kemp part of the package.

Anyway, as I mentioned, I'm off for the next week to Florence. Wine, food, spectacular art and architecture, and the Redhead will just have to suffice to keep me from pining to badly for another week of exciting White Sox baseball. The face of the team may have changed significantly by the time I return. I'll be hoping someone like Milledge, Lillibridge or Kemp is part of that new look.