NL East Preview: Atlanta Braves

ATLANTA BRAVES

2009 Record: 86-76, 3rd in NL East
Pythagorean Record: 91-71 (-5)
Current PECOTA Projection: 84-78(2nd in NL East)
BDD preview (by yours truly) will run on March 20

Armed with arms, the Atlanta Braves made an impressive push in the NL East in 2009. They had won only 72 games in ’08 and were expected to flounder again, but the emergence of Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, along with Cy Young candidate Javier Vazquez, propelled the Braves to an impressive 86-76 record, finishing just one game behind the second place Florida Marlins. However, a disappointing season from third baseman Chipper Jones and a weak-hitting outfield made it hard for the Braves to get on a roll. It wasn’t until the end of the season, when they won seven consecutive games twice in less than three weeks (15-2 from September 10-28), that they really made a push.

The 2010 Braves will be very different than the squad that opened up the ’09 season. Out are Casey Kotchman, Kelly Johnson, Garrett Anderson, and Jeff Francoeur. In are Troy Glaus, Martin Prado, Eric Hinske, Melky Cabrera, and — likely — rookie phenom Jason Heyward. They also sent Vazquez and hard-throwing relievers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano packing.

Are the Braves better than they were in 2009, when they finished five games below their Pythagorean record? It’s hard to tell. That’s why I talked with Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club and Beyond the Box Score, hoping he could tell me why I should fear the Braves in 2010.

. . .

1. In your estimation, who’s going to have a better 2010: Tommy Hanson or Jair Jurrjens?

Oh, man, Tommy Hanson by far. Both statistically and from other talent evaluation perspectives Tommy Hanson is a much better pitcher. We all love Jurrjens, but he’s more of a really good complementary player or weak star type, whereas Hanson is pretty much already super-star good. In terms of value, I expect a fully healthy Hanson to be worth about 5 wins and a fully healthy Jurrjens to be worth about 3 and 1/2 wins.

2. About half of the Braves’ roster has injury concerns. Does this dampen your enthusiasm, considering how poor health derailed the Mets last year?

We only have to look back *two* years to see how poor health derailed the Braves, when the rotation they broke camp with made only 84 starts, they got only 53 and 1/3 innings out of their three best relievers, and their starting center fielder played only 88 games.

Honestly, though, it doesn’t really do much to temper my enthusiasm. The Braves did their homework on all of the players they acquired this off-season. Even if they may look like injury concerns, I don’t think most of them are any more of an injury concern than a typical free agent. The two exceptions may be Troy Glaus and Takashi Saito, those guys do seem very risky. Losing either of those guys is something I feel like the organization could overcome, though.

3. Which team has the better #5: the Yankees with Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes, or the Braves with Kenshin Kawakami?

Hmm. That’s tough. Those three have combined to throw just over 630 MLB innings, which is about 1/4 of the sample size I’d like to answer a question like this.

Obviously Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are younger, cheaper, have a lot more upside, and throw a lot harder. So I’d rather have one of them on my team than Kenshin Kawakami, especially both. But I don’t think the production the Braves get out of their fifth starter will be all that different from what the Yankees get out of the same.

4. Chipper Jones said that he will have to “rebound” or else he will retire. Exactly how good does he have to be to talk himself out of it?

Last year was a disappointment for Chipper Jones, for sure. What he’s basically said is, if he isn’t playing the game as well as he’d like to, he’s not going to play. It’s anyone’s guess what that really means, but I think he’ll be a 4-win player in 2010. Normal BABIP and defense regression puts him in the 4-win range, and I don’t see any reason why a 4-win player would walk away from the game for performance reasons.

5. With Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, Eric Hinske, and Jason Heyward, is the glut of outfielders a blessing or a burden?

Honestly, it’s a burden. They’re all unpredictable and standing in the way of Jordan Schafer making an impact. They all have fairly similar skills at this point, some on base skills and doubles power without much home run potential. They all hit right handers better than left handers except for Matt Diaz. It’s not a particularly good defensive group without Schafer in the mix.

In 2011, if the Braves keep all of their outfielders (except Hinske), they’ll have committed about $800,000 to center field and right field (Schafer, Heyward), and $14 million to Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, and Melky Cabrera–all vying for one spot (LF) plus center against LHP. Rather than trying to pick which tweener you want to keep, I’d prefer they just blow up left field–getting rid of McLouth, Diaz, and Cabrera–and acquire a real power hitter to play left.

Regardless of how much quality depth they’ve got, they’re still a good outfielder away from being above average. Bobby has lots of options, but not the greatest track record in extracting wins from outfields.

Predictions

MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners

NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki
AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL ROY: Jason Heyward
AL ROY: Brian Matusz
NL MOY: A. J. Hinch
AL MOY: Ron Washington

Braves regular season win total

87

Place in NL East

2nd

. . .

A hearty thanks to Peter for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions. Bookmark Capitol Avenue Club to keep tabs on the enemy during the season, and stop by Beyond the Box Score to read more of Peter’s excellent analysis.

That wraps up the NL East previews. If you missed any of the others, here’s a run-down:

Stay tuned tomorrow for a thorough preview of the Phillies with a bunch of different Phillies bloggers from across the Internets. And make sure you vote for me in The Phield, the NCAA-style tournament for Phillies blogs.

NL East Preview: Florida Marlins

FLORIDA MARLINS

2009 Record: 87-75, 3rd in NL East
Pythagorean Record: 82-80 (-5 differential)
Current PECOTA Projection: 79-93 (3rd in NL East)
BDD’s Preview of the Marlins will run on March 22nd

Somehow, with a payroll that hasn’t exceeded $37 million since 2005, the Florida Marlins manage to stay competitive more often than not. They have developed a wealth of talent over the years, including Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Volstad, and Chris Coghlan. When those talented players become too good and too expensive, the Marlins help them pack their bags and acquire another plate of young players. None of the Marlins regular position players last year were in their 30’s, including their eight in the field, seven pitchers who made 10 or more starts, and their two closers.

Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane wrote the book — well, kind of — on how to win a lot with a little, but maybe Larry Beinfest and Michael Hill are writing the sequel. However, unlike the “fire sale” Marlins in previous years, the franchise has taken strides to sign its core players to contract extensions. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez was re-signed to a six-year, $70 million contract in May 2008. Ace right-hander Josh Johnson was recently extended through 2013 for $39 million over the four-year period.

To learn more about what is in store for the 2010 Marlins, I had a Q&A with Michael Jong of Marlin ManiacBeyond the Box Score, and HEATER Magazine.

. . .

1. What’s it going to take for Hanley Ramirez to win the NL MVP award over Albert Pujols this year?

For Hanley to be MVP, I would imagine it would take a weaker Albert Pujols season than he’s had in the last few years. An offensive year like Pujols’ 2002 or 2007 seem like Hanley’s best chance. Making the process more difficult is the aspect of defense. While shortstops get a premium traditionally in the MVP voting, Hanley is still widely regarded as a poor defensive shortstop. Furthermore, Pujols is considered one of the best defensive first basemen in the game, and while the positional adjustment between shortstops and first basemen is wide, voters may not pay close attention and assume Hanley is the weaker defensive player. It would take not only a weak offensive season for Pujols’ standards, but a strong offensive and defensive year for Hanley, which would likely include a batting title and less than 10 errors at one of the hardest positions on the diamond. Not an easy feat.

2. The starting rotation, save Josh Johnson, was a disappointment in 2009. Do you see it improving this year?

The rotation still has a few question marks, but it remains promising. One thing that seems almost a lock is an improvement from Ricky Nolasco. His peripherals were sparkling last year despite his ERA, and if whatever caused his early-season runs spike does not flare up again (and it shouldn’t), the Marlins are in for a 1-2 punch easily capable of seven or eight wins on their own. The rest of the rotation needs a combination of health, regression, and improvement from young players to be competitive. Chris Volstad should improve just via regression, as his true talent at preventing home runs is nowhere close to what he showed last year. Getting more than 100 innings of Anibal Sanchez may also prove useful to the team.

3. How confident are the Marlins with Leo Nunez as their closer?

The Marlins’ brass seems pretty confident in Leo Nunez, though I cannot imagine why they would be given the way he played last year. He gave up way too many homers, but it’s unlikely that that rate will continue. Still, even improving in that department makes him a middling reliever at best. The team did get some insurance in the form of Mike MacDougal, but MacDougal’s walk rates do not inspire confidence. I think the team will give Nunez every chance to succeed, but if he continues to give up home runs like late last season, expect MacDougal to start off ninth innings soon.

4. At 20 years old, Mike Stanton has had an incredible past two years in the Minors. How soon do you expect to see him in the Majors?

I expect to see Mike Stanton in the majors next season. The worst-case scenario has him getting his cup of coffee in September, while the best case has him opening up 2011 as the starting right fielder. Though he is extremely young, he has already shown flashes of brilliance and towering power. He’ll spend most of his time in Double-A this season, and his development there will be crucial to determine when he’ll arrive in the majors. If he continues to struggle with contact and strikeouts, the team will delay his arrival. However, if he has a monster year, expect him to get the Jason Heyward treatment in Spring Training of 2011.

5. At HEATER Magazine as the Marlins expert, you have Gaby Sanchez eating up 80% of the playing time at first base. He had a .475 SLG in AAA New Orleans last year. Do you think that power will translate to the Majors?

The rap on Gaby Sanchez has always been that he did not have the bat to stick at first base, and I believe that. Sanchez has never really been known as a power hitter, profiling more as a gap hitter, so I do not think a high slugging percentage will stick in the majors. He has a decent approach at the plate, with good patience and strike zone recognition. However, he isn’t an athlete on defense and is likely to be a .280/.360/.430 hitter at a position that, due to its ease of play, is far more replaceable. Sanchez is our starting first baseman barring any major problems, but a better prospect (Logan Morrison) is waiting in the wings, and Sanchez is only a part-time solution for the Marlins.

Predictions

MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners

MVP: Albert Pujols (he’s the best player in the NL, though the gap is shrinking)
Cy Young: Tim Lincecum (he’s the best pitcher in the NL, and there isn’t a real comparison)
Rookie: Jason Heyward (all signs point to him playing right at the start of the season, and with few big-name rookies coming up this year, I think he’s a shoe-in)

Marlins regular season win total

83 (I think that’s closer to their true-talent, but they’ve beaten Pythagorean quite a few times before)

Place in NL East

3rd (I don’t think they push past Atlanta, but the Nats aren’t close to competitive and I don’t think the Mets will do well without Beltran and Reyes early).

. . .

During the regular season, stop by Marlin Maniac for great analysis of the Florida Marlins. When Michael isn’t writing there, you can find him atBeyond the Box Score and at HEATER Magazine.

NL East Preview: New York Mets

NEW YORK METS

2009 Record: 70-92, 4th in NL East
Pythagorean Record: 72-90 (-2 differential)
Current PECOTA Projection: 77-85 (4th in NL East)
BDD Preview of the Mets by Bo Wulf

Meet the Mess, meet the Mess
Step right up and greet the Mess

A year separated from winning 89 games, the Mets won a meager 70 games last season. Only three players logged 400 or more plate appearances and only three starters toed the rubber at least 20 times. Five Mets crossed into double-digits in home runs with Daniel Murphy’s 12 leading the pack. Ryan Howard, by himself, out-homered the top-four Mets sluggers, 45 to 42. Third baseman David Wright’s SLG dropped from a previous career low of .523 to .447. John Maine, with a 4.43 ERA, was the second-best starter on the squad and he made just 15 starts.

It was a nightmarish season as most experts, including 14 of 21 polled at ESPN, expected the Mets to win the division over the defending World Series champion Phillies. The injuries piled up early and often. By season’s end, $55 million of their nearly $150 million payroll (37%) had been spent on players on the disabled list, according to Jeff Zimmerman at Beyond the Box Score. The only way the season could have gotten worse for Mets fans is if both of their rivals made it to the World Series.

D’oh!

Fans who lived through the 1995-2000 era in Phillies history know exactly how Mets fans are feeling right now. But I wanted to see exactly how confident they are going into 2010, so I caught up with Steve Keane of Kranepool Society and had him answer a few questions.

. . .

1. The black cloud that hung over the Mets in 2009 seems to have lingered going into 2010. Do the absences of Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes have you concerned, or can the Mets overcome another bout with bad luck?

Very concerned. Not only do Reyes and Beltran play the two most important defensive positions, they occupy the two critical spots in the line up, Reyes leading off and Beltran in the 3 hole. At least when Beltran does come back, his understudy Angel Pagan is a very good backup so Beltran can get a day off to rest his knees, with Reyes it may be his Thyroid condition limits his games played and his backup Ruben Tejada is too green and Alex Cora is, well Alex Cora.

2. David Wright had quite a power outage last year. As his splits will show, it wasn’t due to the new ballpark. Was it just a fluke, or is there a reasonable explanation for the power outage? Do you expect Wright to get back on the horse this year?

I think it was part fluke, part trying to carry the offense single-handedly with no protection in the lineup. To start the season Wright will bat 3rd but when Beltran comes back he’ll drop the 5th where I feel he will thrive.

3. Ike Davis: A great prospect, or the greatest prospect?

So far this spring a great prospect and the first baseman of the future. Greatest prospect? To be determined.

4. Aside from Johan Santana, what can we expect from the Mets starting rotation?

Your guess is as good as mine. Will Mike Pelfrey make the jump to reliable starter? Which Oliver Perez will show up every fifth day, Bad Ollie or Good Ollie? Does John Maine have the stamina to log 180-200 innings pitched? Like I say, it’s a guessing game.

5. What’s up with all the catchers? Barajas and Coste and Blanco and Santos and Thole… and no Bengie Molina!

One of the few moves the Mets front office got right. I wanted Rod Barajas from the get go and Henry Blanco brings a solid defender and game caller behind the plate. Coste goes to Buffalo to tutor Josh Thole and Omir Santos becomes a very valuable trade chip. It also shows that Omar Minaya does not have full autonomy over the baseball ops as in his heyday he’d have given Bengie Molina a 5yr deal.

Predictions

MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners

MVP: Chase Utley ( I feel dirty typing that by the way)
Cy Young: Brandon Webb
Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward
Manager of the Year Bobby Cox (a going away present)

Mets regular season win total

81

Place in NL East

4th place

. . .

Check out Steve Keane at Kranepool Society for more on the Mets as we head into the regular season. Whether he believes it or not, I do hope the Mets find a bit of good fortune, as it’s great for baseball when both they and the Phillies are competitive simultaneously. The rivalry was really starting to heat up but the Mets angered the wrong gods or broke a thousand mirrors or something like that. Let’s hope that 2009 is the last time the Mets are the butt of a Sporcle joke for the wrong reasons.
Get well soon, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran!

Vindication for Brad Lidge, Kinda

With a doff of the cap to Baseball Think Factory, former Houston Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg tells us why he was partially responsible for the go-ahead, three-run home run Brad Lidge served up to Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.

What’s my point?

Eckstein’s hit in the “5–6? hole was the difference in the game.  I was not positioned properly at third base.

Why does it matter?

If Eckstein gets on base, Lidge had to face the lefty Edmonds. In 2004 and 2005, Edmonds hit 4 home runs into the left field Crawford Boxes.   Behind Edmonds is Pujols, the best hitter the game has ever seen.
Click on through to find out exactly why Ensberg wasn’t positioned properly. It’s a fascinating read and just goes to show you once again that we will never be able to fully account for all of the variables in the great game of baseball.

Placido Polanco Suffers Injury

During today’s spring training game with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, third baseman Placido Polanco was injured attempting to catch a pop-up on the pitcher’s mound. He limped off the field with the help of two trainers. Cody Ransom took his place in the game.

It is unknown at the moment how serious Polanco’s injury is [EDIT: Right knee strain sprain], but I will update this post as more information comes in. Also be sure to follow the beat on Twitter:

In the event that Polanco is out for an extended period of time, the Phillies could use a platoon of the left-handed Greg Dobbs and the right-handed Cody Ransom. It is unlikely that the team will make a trade for a third baseman unless the injury will cause Polanco to miss most or all of the 2010 season.

Polanco was sidelined for three days back in 2008 due to right knee soreness, but otherwise has had no lingering issues.

UPDATE: Per Todd Zolecki:

Polanco added he is day to day. Could miss 2-3 days with no game Thursday. Thinks he’ll be fine.

NL East Preview: Washington Nationals

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

2009 Record: 59-103, 5th in NL East
2009 Pythagorean Record: 64-98 (+5 differential)
Current PECOTA 2010 Projection: 76-86 (5th in NL East)
BDD Preview of the Nationals by Jeff Lubbers

The Washington Nationals will kick off the NL East previews this week here at Crashburn Alley. I was able to flag down my favorite Nationals blogger Steven Biel of Fire Jim Bowden to answer some questions about his team. No, the Nationals aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot nor are they even expected to sniff .500, but it’s not all doom and gloom in Washington. Phenom Stephen Strasburg is on the horizon and ready to take the Majors by storm and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has emerged as one of baseball’s most productive players, finishing 2009 as one of eight position players with 7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or more.

Are Strasburg and Zimmerman enough to bring hope to the nation’s capital? Let’s see what Steven thinks of the Nats going into 2010.

. . .

1. When should fans plan to buy tickets to watch Stephen Strasburg’s MLB debut?

Mike Rizzo really emphasizes not rushing prospects, and he seems to have decided (correctly in my view) that regardless of how wicked Strasburg is on the mound, it would be rushing to ask him throw his first professional pitch in a big league game. Also, you have the risk of funky weather in April and the financial incentives to delay the start of the arbitration clock… all that I think points to a mid-June call-up at the earliest. Jim Riggleman spoke this week about a 158 inning limit for Strasburg this year, so I would imagine that you’ll see him pitching for the Nationals from shortly after Memorial Day until maybe Labor Day, and then they’ll shut him down, again, assuming all goes well.

2. Ryan Zimmerman was one of eight position players in the Majors worth 7 WAR last year. CHONE projects 5 WAR for him in 2010. Where do you see him finishing?

A 5-win player is still a perennial all-star, and with his glove, he’d have to really regress at the plate to fall below that level. I would say 5 WAR could be pretty close to his floor, assuming he’s healthy. I would expect some regression though from last season at the plate. He just took a huge leap from 2008 to 2009, and usually there’s some fall-back after a breakthrough year like that. So I’ll put the over-under at 6.0.

3. Adam Dunn drew some ire from the likes of Marty Brennaman and J.P. Ricciardi prior to coming to Washington. Is he well-received in Washington?

Getting criticized by J.P. Ricciardi is kind of a sign that you’re on the right track, no? Dunn has a dry sense of humor and mellow, country boy personality, so you can see how that might have been misread as complacency when he was younger. But all you hear from the team is that he’s a great presence in the clubhouse and a great competitor. He’s close with Zimmerman and Josh Willingham. Rizzo loves Dunn, and he cares a ton about clubhouse chemistry–more than he should, in my opinion, though that could be a function of just trying to clean up some of the worst excesses of the Jim Bowden home for misguided youth. Bottom line, Dunn is well-liked by fans and in fact probably quite a bit overrated as a player, given his enormous defensive deficiencies.

4. Besides Strasburg, give the readers a hint at another young pitcher who could contribute a lot to the Nationals this year.

Drew Storen was drafted as a signable, low-ceiling, major-league ready college reliever with the #10 pick last year. If he’s not pitching in at least medium-leverage innings by July 4, something’s gone wrong.

After that, there isn’t anything close to an impact arm anywhere in the organization–just a lot of guys who project as 5th starters at best, like Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Matt Chico, etc.

I’ll give you one guy who your readers probably haven’t heard about–Aaron Thompson, the lefty who came over from Florida in the Nick Johnson trade last summer. He’s a former #1 pick (2005) who has progressed slowly but steadily and really turned a corner last year in AA. His fastball sits at 90-91, and he has the strong groundball tendencies Rizzo loves. I would be surprised if you don’t see him at some point in 2010.

5. The Nats are expected to take Bryce Harper with the first pick in the draft this year, but he won’t help out the 2010 squad. Jesus Flores has had shoulder issues and won’t be ready for Opening Day, making Ivan Rodriguez the everyday catcher. Do you think he still has enough left in the tank?

Derek Norris is actually their top catching talent in the organization and one of the best catching prospects in baseball. The job will be his by hopefully next year. It’s awfully hard to say what position Bryce Harper will play eventually. I don’t think they’ll draft for positional need with that pick anyway.

As you said, Flores hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but he also hasn’t actually been that good. He had great luck on balls in play in a small sample size last year, so this line looks better than it was. In 2008 he was really pretty awful and should have been in the minors. His strikeout rate just keeps going up. He’s actually not a particularly strong defensive catcher. In a better organization, a guy like this wouldn’t get nearly so much ink.

Predictions

MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners

For the Nationals, MVP will be Zimmerman, Cy Young will be I guess Jason Marquis by default, and their rookie of the year will be Strasburg of course.

In the NL, I’ll go with Albert Pujols for MVP and Roy Halladay for Cy Young. Hard to pick against those two. For rookie of the year I’ll go out on a limb and say Jason Castro. For manager of the year, I’ll guess Bobby Cox wins in a sympathy vote for his last season.

Nationals regular season win total

I’m not ready to make the official prediction that I’ll be held to, but it won’t be far from 70 in either direction.

Place in NL East

Last place.

. . .

Keep up with the Nationals this season by checking out Fire Jim Bowden, one of my favorite blogs on the Internets.  Aside from being a great blogger, Steven Biel was among many responsible for helping send Mark Zuckerman to Viera, Florida to cover the Nationals during spring training. The team had no independent beat writers, and Zuckerman was asking for a meager $5,000 to take the case himself. With the help of Biel and other kind souls throughout the baseball blogosphere (including Brian Oliver of Nationals Farm Authority and Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner and FanGraphs), Zuckerman was able to afford the trip and provide Nationals fans with the independent news that fans of other the 29 teams enjoy and often take for granted.

Tomorrow, we will preview the New York Mess Mets with Steve Keane of Kranepool Society.

Begrudgingly Addressing the Howard-Pujols Rumor

If you were away from the Internet today, you missed the big rumor. Per ESPN’s Buster Olney:

[…] according to sources, an idea has been kicked around the Phillies’ organization internally, with discussions about proposing a swap of slugger Ryan Howard for St. Louis superstar Albert Pujols.

Hold on to your hats, folks.

It’s not fully clear whether the Phillies actually have approached the Cardinals with the idea, and even if St. Louis were to seriously consider such an offer[…]

In other words, don’t expect this trade to actually happen.

The last time we bloggers called B.S. on a trade rumor, we got burned big time by Ken Rosenthal. However, as The Yankee Universe noted on Twitter, the difference is that “we knew Roy was getting traded, just not for what”. There has been no real momentum in Ryan Howard trade talks (except by yours truly) and this is really the first legitimate mention of an Albert Pujols trade.

Overall, the pieces don’t add up to make this rumor realistic. The Cardinals recently signed outfielder Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract. That was a good will gesture on the part of the Cardinals organization to show Pujols that they are committed to putting a competitive team on the field year after year. Pujols, of course, will be a free agent after 2011 and the Cardinals want to do as much as they can to convince him to stay in St. Louis and perhaps even take a hometown discount.

The Cardinals payroll currently sits at about $90 million going into 2010. Holliday and Pujols, at $17 million and $16 million respectively, represent about 37% of the Cardinals’ total payroll. That percentage only figures to increase when Pujols does eventually re-sign. That may sound like bad economics but the Cardinals wouldn’t have signed Holliday to that contract if they didn’t feel like they could make a legitimate pitch to Pujols to keep him in St. Louis.

As for the Phillies, it doesn’t make sense from their end either. Both Pujols and Howard are free agents after 2011 and both are expected to strike big in free agency if they aren’t re-signed. Both will net their teams a first round draft pick and a sandwich pick if they sign elsewhere. Pujols, clearly the better player, will make $2 million less than Howard this year and $3 million less in 2011. While it appears that the Phillies would save money, they likely would have to send money along with Howard to offset the difference.

Presumably the Phillies would want to sign their first baseman to a long-term contract. They are much more likely to accomplish this with Ryan Howard than with Albert Pujols, who may join Alex Rodriguez in the annual $30 million salary club.

This is all without mentioning the obvious chasm in value between the two players. Last year, Howard was worth 4.8 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs. He has accrued about 19.5 WAR since 2006, an average of about 5 WAR per season. Pujols was worth 8.5 WAR and has been worth 33 WAR since 2006, an average of 8.25 per season. Whether the Cardinals and Phillies value their first basemen in this fashion is unknown, but it seems ludicrous to think that anyone would put Howard anywhere near the pedestal upon which Pujols rests.

Adding to the lack of realism of this rumor is the Jayson Werth situation. Werth is a free agent after this season and the team will decide if they can afford to re-sign him and if they will choose to offer him a contract. If Werth doesn’t re-sign, then the Phillies will have to re-sign Ryan Howard or they will face the prospect of having two significant holes to fill in two consecutive years (and only one can be filled with Domonic Brown, an unproven quantity). GM Ruben Amaro has been very stingy with the length of contracts he offers to players, adhering to a limit of three guaranteed years.

Losing Werth (avg. 4.5 WAR) + trading Howard (avg. 5 WAR) + trading prospects + sending cash for 3-4 years of Albert Pujols (avg. 8.25 WAR) simply isn’t worth it. For the amount of money that the Phillies would have to pay Pujols, they could re-sign Werth and Howard while clearing salary by trading Shane Victorino, for example (which has the added effect of losing a lesser player in creating a job for Domonic Brown).

What the Cliff Lee/Roy Halladay mega-deal showed us was that Amaro is very cognizant of his Minor League system and isn’t willing to mortgage the long-term goal for short-term gains. Simply put, if Amaro was the type to trade Howard, cash, and two top prospects to St. Louis for Pujols, Lee would still be wearing Phillies pinstripes in 2010.

Besides, what kind of a season do you think Brad Lidge would have with Pujols in the clubhouse?

Programming Note: NL East Previews

It’s March and that means team previews are popping up around the baseball blogosphere. If you haven’t been following along, there’s a new one every day in March at Baseball Daily Digest and they’ve been great so far. Personally, I like to nail a bunch of birds with a few stones, so I’m going to be interviewing some of my favorite bloggers around the NL East for thoughts on their teams going into 2010. Here’s what it will look like (hopefully):

On Friday, I’m hoping to get a bunch of Phillies bloggers together to tackle a bunch of questions. I already have about 15 bloggers signed up, but there’s no limit. If you have a Phillies blog (doesn’t matter how big or small) and would like to participate, send an e-mail to CrashburnAlley [at] Gmail.com and let me know. Include your blog URL so I can link to it.

As for me, I’ll have a couple Phillies previews popping up at Baseball Daily Digest and The Hardball Times at the end of the month as well as providing a short blurb for ESPN’s Rob Neyer. Stay tuned for that.

Placido Polanco Doesn’t Need Your Pity

When speaking about a woman, saying “she has a great personality” is interpreted as “she’s ugly”. It’s a weak compliment, and it’s weak because there isn’t much else to compliment. The baseball equivalent is to laud a player by saying that his contributions don’t show up in the box score, for they are intangible (and thus can never be disproven). David Eckstein can barely hit the ball out of the infield, but he’s gritty and scrappy and has heart.

Baseball traditionalists use stats to compliment a player truly worthy of praise. Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs; Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games played, etc. are prominent examples. Even if one is completely ignorant of Sabermetrics, people still default to numbers, which makes the praise of a player’s intangibles all the more transparent. If a player is good, his numbers are cited. If his numbers aren’t brought up, then he probably wasn’t that good.

John Finger of CSNPhilly.com recently wrote an article praising Polanco, saying that his contributions can’t be found in stat form. It’s amusing because Polanco is not in need of the assistance. He’s been a second baseman with a career .761 OPS. Not exactly Chase Utley numbers, but he’s been about average offensively at a premium defensive position. He also happens to have been a very, very good fielder at second base.

This is not David Eckstein we’re talking about, he of the career .358 slugging percentage; he of the noodle arm who must muster all of the strength in his body to toss the ball to first base.

This is Placido Polanco. Among second basemen in the 2000’s, there have been just 20 player-seasons in which a player has racked up 500 or more plate appearances and struck out 46 or fewer times. Polanco is responsible for six of them (30%). Three of the top-five slugging percentages belong to him. He doesn’t strike out much and can hit for some power (despite being quoted as saying he can’t in Finger’s article).

At second base, where he has racked up nearly 8,500 innings, his UZR/150 is at an even 10.0, meaning that for every 150 opportunities, Polanco will make ten more plays than the average second baseman. At third base, a position he hasn’t played regularly since 2002, he has a 9.9 UZR/150.

As for base running, Baseball Prospectus thinks he’s been a boon as well. Using EqBRR (definition), he’s been at 1.3, 3.0, and 0.8 over the last three years. Pedro Feliz, on the other hand, was at -5.6 and -0.7 in 2009 and ’08 with the Phillies.

Bringing it all together, FanGraphs values him at 28 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2002, an average of about 3.5 WAR per season. In that span of time, he’s been worth $100 million ($12.5 million per season) and been paid a meager $31.6 million (about $4 million per season). On average, Polanco has been worth about three times as much as he’s been paid, meaning that the Phillies and Tigers have really gotten their money’s worth with him.

Among all second baseman over the past three years, only Chase Utley (23.6 WAR), Dustin Pedroia (15.7), and Brian Roberts (12.5) have been more valuable than Polanco (11.4).

Finger writes, “there’s just something the grizzled baseball men see in Polanco that defies measurement.”

This is insulting to Polanco! The numbers beautify his contributions on the baseball field. No, he’s not the “three true outcomes” basher that have been popularized by Sabermetrics, like Adam Dunn. However, would a “grizzled baseball man” claim that Polanco was more valuable than both Ryan Zimmerman and Jose Reyes in 2007? More valuable than Carl Crawford and Derek Jeter in ’05?

It’s true that there may be some facets of Polanco’s game that aren’t quantified on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus. I’m sure he’s great in the clubhouse. However, to focus on those aspects instead of what is staring you right in the face — his average offense, his incredible defense at second base, his ability to run the bases intelligently — is to completely misunderstand and underestimate Polanco’s value on the baseball field.

Polanco does not need the window dressing compliments reserved for the David Ecksteins of the baseball world. He’s been good enough to throw his hat in the ring with the best in the game.

Despite being complimentary of Polanco here and admitting that GM Ruben Amaro signed Polanco for well under market value, I still remain a critic of the signing. I don’t like signing an aging player to a multi-year deal to play a position he hasn’t played regularly since 2002. I don’t like paying $6 million on average for Polanco when Chone Figgins, who has more upside, was signed for $9 million on average.

To criticize the signing is not to criticize the player, however. We can say, at the same time, that the Phillies should not have signed the fourth-most valuable second baseman of the past three years to a below market contract. We can recognize Polanco’s value while still being critical.

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My first entry at Baseball Prospectus should be up at 9 AM EST today. Click here and it should be at the top at that time.

EDIT: Here it is.

I am currently working on Phillies previews for The Hardball Times and Baseball Daily Digest. Both should run at the end of the month. Additionally, ESPN is also asking for my input on the Phillies. Stay tuned for that. I’ll provide appropriate links as they become available.