Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wasteful Spending: Chicago Cubs

Over the past couple of season, there have been some head scratching contracts in baseball. The Brewers have been the victim of one of those in Jeff Suppan, but in actuality it could be much worse. Many other teams have fallen victim to longer contracts worth more money, setting themselves back even further. One of those teams is certainly the Chicago Cubs.

I have really never understood why Jim Hendry has been given such a pass in Chicago. He continues to make bad signing after bad signing. His streak was extended today when he resigned John Grabow to a two year contract worth $7 million. This contract really makes no sense. Grabow, 31, is only declining in his career. He has seen his walk total rise consistently and his strikeouts drop. He was able to keep his ERA under 4 again this season, but that was only due to his extremely low BABIP. His production over the next two season could easily be equaled by a much cheaper left handed pitcher. Sure $7 million isn't going to kill the franchise, but this money could be spent in a much better fashion.

This is just the tip of the iceberg with Hendry's contracts. The Cubs current roster is riddled with overpayed players locked into long term deals.

After his career year in 2006, Alfonso Soriano received plenty of attention in the offseason when he became a free agent. Soriano posted a .351 OBP, which was 33 points higher than his career average of .318. A lot of signs pointed to a fluke season, but teams had money and Soriano was going to get paid. Lucky for the Brewers, the Cubs and Hendry came calling. The Cubs signed Soriano to an 8yr/$136 million deal. When this contract was signed, I couldn't have been happier. I realized the Cubs would be a better team in the first couple of seasons, but the final years of the deal were going to be brutal. Why sign a below average LF to an eight year deal that will pay him until he turns 39? It just doesn't make sense. After a solid 2007 and 2008, Soriano was awful this season. He posted a .241/.303/.423 line to the tune of a .726 OPS. A .726 OPS is awful, but it is even worse considering he plays LF and is one of the highest paid players in baseball. This contract is only going to get worse. Soriano has five years left on his deal and will be payed $19 million in each of those seasons. He is only getting older and will be a huge drain on the Cubs for the remainder of his deal.

Hendry has shown a pattern of bad contracts in the past.

Before the raises in arbitration, the Cubs currently have $123 million committed to the 2010 team. All but $4 of that $123 million is locked up in just eight players: Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, Derrek Lee, Ted Lilly and Milton Bradley. Each of those players will make more than $10 million this season. Let me repeat that, the Cubs have eight players making more than $10 million this season! In contrast, the Yankees have seven and the Brewers have just two (Suppan and Fielder).

If this doesn't prove the value of building a farm system, I don't know what does. The Brewers have one of the best players in baseball locked up cheaply by doing this. In 2008, the Brewers signed Ryan Braun to an eight year deal worth $45 million, locking him up until 2015. Braun signed the deal to buy out his arbitration years and receive financial security in the future. So, let's compare what building a farm system can get you. The Brewers drafted Braun and watched him rise through the minor leagues. After success at the big league level, Braun signed the same length deal Alfonso Soriano received from the Cubs. However, over the length of their contracts, the Brewers will net $91 million more than the Cubs. Also, Braun is entering the prime of his career, while Soriano will only decline.

I really can't stress enough how important saving money is in baseball. While it may look very attracting to sign John Lackey long term this offseason, the Brewers need to be careful. The Brewers have more than $20 million coming off the books in 2011 when Suppan and Hall's contracts are off the board. Will that money be spent to put together an extenstion for Fielder, or sign a pitcher like Lackey? It's really tough to say, but this franchise is in dire need of arms. Lackey has been consistent throughout his career, but is getting older. There are cheaper options out there that can be explored. Lackey would require a long term deal worth a boatload of cash. Could that deal work well in Milwaukee? Yes, but if it were to fail the Brewers would be crippled financially. Our young players are going to be hitting the market soon and cash will be needed to lock them up. Just use the Cubs as an example of what can happen if too much money is spent on expensive free agents.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mistakes must be avoided

The Milwaukee Brewers are coming off a season that saw their pitching staff post a 4.83 ERA. That was good enough for 15th in the national league, just ahead of the Washington Nationals. With pitching clearly the main reason behind the disappointing season, Doug Melvin has labeled it his main priority for the offseason. While there is no question this should be the case, Melvin needs to be careful who he pursues.

The Brewers have been linked to basically every pitcher on the market this offseason. I heard numerous reports about John Lackey, Randy Wolf, Jarrod Washburn and Doug Davis. Let's look at the possible consequences that go around with each player.

John Lackey

He is clearly the top pitcher in this year's free agent market. He is coming off a solid 2009, where he posted a 3.83 ERA in the American League. He struck out 139 batters in 176.1 innings, posting a 3:1 K:BB ratio in the process. Lackey will surely be sought after, but it really depends on what kinds of teams are in on Lackey to determine his possible payday. If teams like the Yankees, Phillies, or Red Sox get involved, the Brewers need to stay away. They do not have the financial resources to get in a bidding war with those franchises. However, if those teams stay away and Milwaukee gets in a bidding war with mid-level market teams, Lackey could be had for a reasonable price. I am really against giving long term deals to pitchers (see Jeff Suppan), but Lackey has been amazingly consistent throughout his career.

Randy Wolf

Wolf is coming off a stealer 2009 with the LA Dodgers. He went 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 34 starts. Wolf is a rather tough pitcher to analyze. He struck out 160 batters in 214.1 innings, while walking 58. He has always posted a respectable amount of strikeouts and hasn't surrendered a ridiculous amount of walks. His numbers last season need to be taken with a grain of salt. He pitched in the NL West, a division consists of the Padres, Giants, Diamondbacks and Rockies. I'm pretty sure Jeff Suppan might even be able to hold his own facing those offenses, well maybe not. Wolf is likely going to want a two year deal and a healthy contract. He would not be a bad option, but he is going to be 34 next season.

Jarrod Washburn

Alright, let's give credit where credit is due. The Brewers were frequently criticized for their inability to complete a deal for Washburn at the deadline. After his hot start for the Mariners, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers at the deadline. Well he went onto start just eight games for the Tigers and was a huge disappointment. In those starts he went 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA in 43 innings. He struck out just 21 batters, while walking 16. So, kudos to Melvin for not forcing a trade and giving up a top prospect. Well, hold on I can't give him credit yet because he is accordingly planning to pursue the 35 year old free agent. This is the main deal I am afraid of. Washburn has consistently been a under performing starting pitchers and is only getting older. During the past four seasons, he has not had more than 100 K's. Couple that with a rising walk rate and him coming off an injury and this signing reeks bust. He is represented by Scott Boras and is seeking a two year deal, minimum. He is interested in coming to the Brewers (he was born in Wisconsin). Even with a hometown discount, the Brewers need to stay away from Washburn.

Doug Davis

Davis has confirmed he is interested in returning to Milwaukee. Davis has always shown an ability to strike out batters, but has always struggled with high walk totals. There is speculation he is looking for a 2/3 year deal at around $8 million per season. While I wouldn't be opposed to Davis, he has done little to warrant a contract of that magnitude. He is a good option at the back of a rotation, but paying $8 million per season for a 4/5 starter is way too much.

The Brewers need to realize what they have at stake over the next couple of seasons. While the contracts of Suppan and Hall will be coming off the books, there is no need to spend money without caution. This is why I think the best options are available elsewhere.

My favorite candidate for at trade at the deadline was Carl Pavano and my stance on him has not changed. There is little doubt in my mind Pavano will lower his ERA of 5.10 he posted last season. There is no reason a pitcher whos K:BB ratio is nearly 4:1 ERA should be anywhere near 5. If anything, that ERA is a blessing for teams trying to sign him. He would come very cheap and would likely only demand a one year deal. It seems to be the same story for another free agent starter.

John Smoltz signed a one year deal in Boston, but after a rough couple of starts, Smoltz was released. He caught on with the St. Louis Cardinals and finished the year out nicely. Combined between the two teams, Smoltz struck out 73, while walking just 18 in 78 innings. He is another victim of unlucky runs and would be a great bargain in Milwaukee.

While Pavano and Smoltz might not be the names on the minds of fans in Milwaukee, there are cheap options who are likely to rebound in 2010. There is little doubt in my mind a combination of Smoltz and Pavano would make a huge impact. Not only would that combination outperform the other options, they would come at a fraction of the cost.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why I like Advanced Statistics

When I was a kid, my best times were spent at County Stadium and Miller Park. My dad would take would take my brother and I to watch the Brewers throughout the 90's and into the early 2000's. Although the Brewers were generally over matched in talent, the games were always a blast.

I remember looking at the scoreboard at County and seeing three main stats: batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. These were the tools to identifying a good player. If he hit .300, he was an excellent contact hitter. If he drove in runs, he was clutch. Sure I was just a kid, but I understood these stats were the ways to tell if a player was any good.

It was under this line of thinking were Alex Sanchez became one of my favorite players. Sure he wasn't a power hitter, but leadoff hitters weren't supposed to be. Heck, in 2002 he batted .289, while stealing 37 bases. I was disappointed when the Brewers cut ties with Sanchez because of an attitude problem. Sanchez went onto bat well over .300 for the Tigers over the next two seasons, thus further angering me.

The fact of the matter is Alex Sanchez is, and was never really a good baseball player. So why did I think this all along?

Well, the basic statistics of baseball let me down.

If I just looked at Sanchez using the three basic offensive stats, he was a good player. Problem is, those stats are so misleading. The year the Brewers got rid of Sanchez, he walked just seven times in nearly 200 at bats, posting just a .316 OBP in the process. I really can't blame myself, because OBP wasn't shown on the scoreboard in Miller Park until 2004. Also, when I saw Sanchez had 51 stolen bases in his time in Milwaukee, it never dawned on me to realize he was caught 22 times. That 69% success rate only hurt, not helped, his below average offensive production.

Recently, a good defender has been defined by how many times he appears on "web gems." Well, I swear Sanchez appeared on a couple of highlight shows for his speed running down balls in the gaps, so he must have had some value in the field. Wrong again. In his time in Milwaukee, Sanchez was an absolute terrible defender. His UZR/150 was a -12, thus costing the Brewers another 12 runs per season in the field to go along with poor offensive production.

Even though the scoreboard now shows "better" stats like OBP and OPS, the basic fan is still not understanding the game. I bet if I went around asking fans at Miller Park if Ryan Braun's UZR/150 was above, or below average I would get 40,000 confused looks and be labeled a baseball geek.

The problem with all of this is so many fans just don't get the game. I don't care if someone has no interest in the game and is just going to have a good time. These are not the fans that bother me. What bothers me are the fans who insist players like Mike Cameron and Rickie Weeks are bad players because they strike out too much, or how good Jason Kendall is because he is a veteran who has experience and knows how to put the ball in play.

This is not to say baseball has not improved somewhat. I think it's cool I can now see what a pitcher's WHIP, or batter's OPS is. Sure these are not the best ways to identify is a player is good, but it is a start.

Who knows in 20 years, WAR (wins above replacement) and wOBA (weighted on base average) might find their way onto the scoreboard. I can't say this is entirely the fans faults. I also watch the Brewers every night and I am subjected to the baseball knowledge of Bill Schroeder. Of coarse statements like "you can't measure what Jason Kendall brings to this team, nobody calls a better game" are sure to influence the common fan. However, the stats are out there. It is very frustrating to have conversations with people who not only don't understand what you are saying, but have no interest trying understand it. Sometimes it's just better to take a step back and realize it's really just not worth it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ok, Let me Clarify

When the trade for Carlos Gomez went down, I was disappointed to say the least. Looking back a couple of days later, while still questioning the move, I have calmed down a bit.

My biggest problem with the trade is it really didn't fit into the path this organization was taking. Gomez is a young player, who could turn out to be good. That talent is unlikely to be realized within the Brewers given time frame to win. With Prince Fielder likely leaving in two years, the Brewers needed to make a decision this offseason. Should they trade him or not? If they do end up trading Fielder, this trade seems to make more sense, but recent quotes from the Brewers organization would suggest otherwise. Thus, the Gomez trade was kind of confusing to me.

Some projections are out for next season. Bill James currently projects Gomez to post a .310 OBP with a .375 slugging percentage. If this projection proves accurate, Gomez would be in store for another sub-.700 OPS season. While the centerfielder is not usually the strongest hitter in a lineup, that kind of production is not what the Brewers need. Like I've said, Gomez is fast, but not that great of a hitter at this point in his career.

The one main encouraging offensive stat I found on Gomez was his walk rate increased this season, while his strikeout rate went down. Gomez walked just 4.2% of the time in 2008, but rose that to 6.5% last season. His K rate in 2008 was 24.6%, but that fell to 22.9%. Neither of those are anywhere near where Gomez needs to be, but with a player like him, baby steps need to be taken.

Gomez' high K/low BB rates are largely due to his free swinging approach. In his career, Gomez has swung at 52% of the pitches he has seen, which is very high for a major league hitter. During those swings, Gomez has chased pitches out of the strike zone 35% of the time, which is again alarmingly high.

Gomez' biggest problem has come when he tries to muscle up. You know the old baseball saying, "you're fast, keep the ball on the ground," well Gomez takes that to new levels. Gomez' career slugging percentage on fly balls is .373. It's tough to realize just how bad that is without a reference point. Well, the major league average for fly balls is over .600. In 2009, Gomez hit a home run on just 3.7% of the fly balls he hit (the league average is around 11%). One reason for these terrible numbers could be his inability to center on pitches. He has an incredibly high amount of pop ups that don't leave the infield. Gomez' infield flyball rate in 2009 was 20%. That means when Gomez hit a ball into the air, 20% of the time it failed to reach the outfield. Gomez is not using his greatest asset, which is his incredible speed.

Carlos' main value to the Brewers is going to be his defense. The ground he is able to cover is simply incredible. The UZR/150 is a way to determine the effectiveness of a defense. Bluntly, it states what a player saves/hurts its team in value per 150 games using runs. In his career, Gomez has averaged a UZR/150 of right around 15. The current outfielders Gomez will be paired with are Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. In 2009, Braun's UZR/150 was a -14.4, while Hart posted a -9.1. One could argue those numbers were negatively influenced by the great range of Mike Cameron, but neither player's defense is gold glove worthy. With a very "average" (and I'm being generous) outfield surrounding him, Gomez should really help the Brewers defense.

If there was any truth to the speculation the Red Sox offered Michael Bowden, I don't understand why Doug Melvin didn't pursue it further. I know the Red Sox were trying to not part ways with Daniel Bard, or Clay Bucholtz, but Bowden is another prized prospect. If Bowden was really offered, I think the Brewers could have figured out a way to pry one those pitchers away by using another piece. Sure Bowden is not in the same class as those two, but he is not miles away from them.

Doug Melvin took a really big risk in putting the teams stock in Carlos Gomez. Gomez seems to be his worst enemy. If he is able to become more selective and keep the ball on the ground, this move could look brilliant for Melvin. I am just not sure if 2010 was the right time to take such a huge gamble on a player that could easily fail.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Breaking Down the Hardy/Gomez Trade

Today the Brewers shipped off J.J. Hardy to Minnesota in exchange for Carlos Gomez. While I understand what Doug Melvin is thinking here, I don't agree with it.

In Gomez, Melvin has stated the "Brewers have found their future centerfielder." My question is why? What has Carlos Gomez done in the major leagues that warrants this type of guarantee?

Carlos Gomez biggest asset is his defense. I remember going to a couple of Twins games and being frustrated watching Gomez run down ball after ball in the gap. He is arguably the fastest player in the game today.

Problem for the Brewers is that Gomez can't steal first base. He just can't hit, period. His on base percentage last season was .287. Yes, you read that correctly, .287. I know what you're thinking, it must have been a down year. Well, in 2008 he walked just 25 times in 577 at bats, posting a .296 on base percentage in the process. Those numbers are simply incredible. If Gomez bats anywhere but eighth next, the Brewers are in trouble.

In Hardy, the Twins are getting one of the better shortstops in the game. Hardy is coming off a rough 2009 offensively, but maintained his amazing defensive prowess. There is little doubt in my mind Hardy will rebound offensively and help the Twins offense next season.

Sure Gomez is under team control for the next four years, but he is not the answer. I don't understand why Melvin forced his hand so soon. Hardy was the best shortstop available via trades, or free agency. He really back himself in a corner when he stated either Hardy or Escobar would be traded. Escobar was obviously going to be the starting shortstop in 2010, but there is no sense in trading Hardy just for the sake of making a trade. Hardy was only going to make $4.5 million next season. While that would expensive for a bench player, Hardy could have raised his trade value. Starting Hardy in 2010 made sense because I'm not sure how ready Escobar is. Escobar would have benefited from more seasoning down at AAA.

With the trade, the likely lineup today looks like this.

Weeks 2B
Escobar SS
Braun LF
Fielder 1B
McGehee 3B
Hart RF
Gomez CF
Kendall C

All I can say is yikes. This lineup would likely score 50-60 less runs than the 2009 Brewers. Sure the top five are solid, but the bottom of the order would struggle mightily. Kendall remains unsigned and now is the main piece the Brewers can improve on in 2010. His offense inabilities were somewhat hidden amongst high run outputs, but his spot now needs production.

The trade also lays out the offseason. It is highly unlikely Mike Cameron will be back next season. While he continues to age, Cameron's numbers have not slipped. It will be a tough transition next season for the Brewers offense. Losing Cameron in favor of Carlos Gomez is a huge downgrade offensively. I wasn't completely opposed to letting Cameron go, but not giving the job to Carlos Gomez. Jody Gerut is now the best option in CF. There is no doubt in my mind Gerut would outproduce Gomez in 2010. I just cringe to think that Gomez might see 600 at bats next season.

While losing Cameron will hurt run production, money has been opened up. Melvin still plans to add two starting pitchers and now has money to spend. I look for the Brewers to be active in free agency. The top starting pitching option remains John Lackey. This trade only strengthen the chances of Lackey wearing a Brewers jersey next season.

Words cannot express how disappointed I am in this trade. I have generally been a supporter of Melvin in the past, but this is inexcusable. Trading coveted shortstops for below average players is not the way to improve this team. Prince Fielder is most likely going to leave in two years. The window to win was closing, but a trade like this might just close it for good.