Narrowing Down the Options, and the Variance

Baseball’s off-season got a kick in the pants yesterday when the Florida Marlins, days after trading away the last memories of the failed Miguel Cabrera deal in Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, sent second baseman Dan Uggla to the Atlanta Braves for a $20 gift card to Applebee’s. (They actually got Omar Infante and Michael Dunn.)

The Braves were a veritable thorn in the Phillies’ side for most of the 2010 season — a playoff team, now much better adding a second baseman who averages about 4 WAR per season. Naturally, Phillies fans want to see their team keep pace and make some splashes this winter. Obviously, Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee are at the top of the list, but so are names like Justin Upton and Adrian Beltre.

Other fans are concerned with finding a right-handed platoon partner for Domonic Brown or Raul Ibanez. Names like Marcus Thames and Jeff Francoeur have been bandied about.

Still more fans are getting creative, trying to find the diamond in the rough — the next Werth, if you will. I had a nice conversation via e-mail with a reader who suggested that the next diamond could be Jeremy Hermida, a former Marlin. Hermida’s had a rough go of it since an impressive showing in 2007, posting a .619 OPS with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics. It would be neat to give Hermida a shot and try to strike lightning in a bottle as the Phillies once did with Werth.

The difference between the Phillies pre-2007, when they signed Werth, and now is that the Phillies then were about an 85-win team that had consistently missed the playoffs. Teams that are close to .500 should take chances on riskier players like Werth then and Hermida now. A perennial 95-win team like the 2008-10 Phillies should attempt to reduce the variance in their players’ performances by going with known quantities.

(Note: All of the examples will use arbitrary numbers.)

Let’s say that the threshold for making the playoffs in any capacity (by winning the division or the Wild Card) is 90 wins. If the 2007 Phillies are an 85-win team with a variance of four games, they miss the playoffs a very large portion of the time, with a min-max of 81-89. If they add a question mark like Hermida — or Werth — who increases their variance by another two games, they likely win between 79 and 91 games, good enough for the playoffs. The 2007 Phillies have nothing to lose taking a flier on a player who, with a favorable roll of the die, can take them into the post-season.

On the other hand, if the present Phillies are a 94-win team with a variance of four games, they have a min-max of 90-98 wins, still making the playoffs almost all of the time. By adding more variance — Hermida’s two wins — they could potentially miss the playoffs if the player has a bad roll of the die.

Top-flight teams like the Phillies have more to lose with bad luck than they stand to gain with equivalently good luck. Middle-of-the-pack teams like the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies are the ones that should be swapping out some low WAR players for some risky but potentially high-WAR guys — reclamation projects like Hermida.

In the wake of the Uggla heist by the Braves, the best thing we can hope for as Phillies fans is that only the surest of sure things are taken. Standing pat is, as odd as it may sound, a decent strategy, especially this off-season with very few attractive options available.