Nationals 2011 Season Preview with Harper Gordek

Baseball is officially under way as pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training. Every team goes into spring training with hope as well as some pertinent questions. To get a feel for what other teams are looking for, I caught up with three SweetSpot bloggers: Peter Hjort for the Atlanta Braves blog Capitol Avenue Club, Joe Janish for the New York Mets blog Mets Today, and Harper Gordek for the Washington Nationals blog Nationals Baseball. As we don’t have a Marlins blogger, I also spoke with Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac. Those will be posted throughout the week once a day.

Today, we will learn more about the Nationals from Harper Gordek.

. . .

1. How would you rate the off-season for the Nationals?

I’d rate it as fair to good. The problem is, when viewed from what it could have been it looks bad. The Nats got rebuffed by several free agents and were turned down in a deal for Zack Grienke. GM Mike Rizzo almost promised the acquisitiion of a #1/#2 type pitcher. Jayson Werth could have been had cheaper and/or on a shorter contract. In a different world the Nats are celebrating a fantastic offseason, and that makes this one seem poor in comparison. When you look at what they did get objectively however, you do see improvement. Letting Dunn walk was tough, but this is Rizzo’s new goal. He wants a defense first squad. Dunn doesn’t fit in. Jayson Werth will be at least as productive when it comes to offense and defense combined, and is the type of plate-appearance battler that they needed to replace the walk-master Dunn. (contract be dammed – it’s a bad deal but that doesn’t mean the Nats won’t get 3-5 good offensive seasons first. Worry about it becoming an albatross when it does – am I right Ryan Howard fans?) Adam LaRoche is a perfectly acceptable slightly above average placeholder first-baseman, who’s offense will replace the healthy 2/3rd of a season departed Josh Willingham was likely to put in. I would have rather had Derek Lee or Carlos Pena but objectively they aren’t really better. Laynce Nix and Rick Ankiel give the Nats 4 meh guys to run through in left field, but meh guys who are still capable of having that career year. Tom Gorzelanny gets one more chance at maybe being a solid starter. The bullpen is filled again with cheap talent. The Nats are almost certain to be a better team this year, not much better, certainly not .500 better even, but better.

2. What should we expect from Jordan Zimmermann this year? Despite some ugly results upon returning from injury last year, he actually pitched well. Is that indicative of what we should expect in the future?

You should see the best Jordan Zimmermann yet this season. What that means though is anyone’s guess. Like you note he could be due for a breakout season. He’s well underperformed compared to his xFIP (4.63 ERA to a 3.39 xFIP in ’09, 4.94 to 4.08 last year) and he’s the type of high K pitcher you love to have. The problem with Jordan is that he’s a flyball pitcher who gives up way too many long balls. That 22% HR/FB ratio from last year will surely drop, but his 12% in 2009 was also high, and it’s an issue that he had in the minors as well. Most likely he’ll significantly improve over the ERAs in his first two years by a combination of luck and experience but the homers will keep him from being a great pitcher. I look for an ERA of around 4.00.

3. Is Drew Storen the Nationals’ closer, or is that role up for grabs during spring training?

It should be Storen’s job no matter what, but instead I think it’s merely his job to lose. If Storen looks a little shaky, I could see a Clippard or Burnett or Henry Rodriguez or even Todd Coffey taking that 9th inning role. I think Mike Rizzo is as interested as finding this year’s Matt Capps (who if you don’t remember he turned into Wilson Ramos) as he is trying to settle down the closer spot this season. I do think Storen will win and keep the job though.

4. The Nats have three capable catchers on their active roster: Wilson Ramos, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jesus Flores. How is the team going to handle that?

Rizzo is building a team defense first and Ramos is the better defender. Flores is likely to start the season “rehabbing” in AAA, while Ramos and Pudge split time behind the plate. Every at bat Pudge gets is a terrible, terrible mistake but the Nats want him around to tutor Ramos. If that means humoring him with a possibly futile chase for 3000 they’ll make fans suffer through it. Flores then becomes trade bait for the big deal Rizzo is dying to pull.

Flores can only get back to a starting spot if Ramos (and Pudge) are terrible at the plate and he forced the issue from AAA. This isn’t that far out a scenario. Ramos hasn’t shown any pop in the majors and doesn’t walk so he’s totally reliant on a high batting average. Flores on the other hand might have been putting together a break out offensive year before being injured. Still, if Ramos is merely passable, the Nats have another catcher they like, Derek Norris, in the pipeline and they can wait things out.

5. Are there any players we should be keeping an eye on during spring training?

Not in any interesting “young guy could win a position” sort of way. Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and Wilson Ramos are set in their roles (and ST stats are pretty meaningless so if they struggle or prosper I wouldn’t read much into it) LF is still undecided so keep an ear out for what they are saying about Roger Bernadina, Mike Morse, Rick Ankiel, and Laynce Nix. I think they’d like Bernadina to win the role, and a Morse/Ankiel or Morse/Nix platoon makes the most sense, but don’t rule out a Nix or Ankiel winning the role outright – especially if Rizzo likes their defense.

Keep an eye on the starting pitching situation, the Nats have 6 main contenders for starting roles. It’s a mix of injury returns, guys with little experience, and 4.50 ERA guys. It could break any number of ways. Personally I think Lannan is the most interesting because he was pitching an entirely different and more effective way after returning from injury. If he keeps that up he could sneak up on the league. But again – I don’t like to think anything is proven in ST. I’d also check to see how Henry Rodriguez is doing – I think Rizzo would love to push him into as important a role as possible to up his (or Storen’s) trade value.

6. If you had to guess on the Nationals’ final record and place in the standings, where would you put them?

Let’s say 74-88 and 4th place. Ahead of whichever of the Marlins or Mets self-destruct this season.

. . .

Thanks to Harper for taking the time to answer some questions about the Nationals. Be sure to check back with his Nationals Baseball blog throughout 2011 for more information about the Phillies’ division rival.

Mets 2011 Season Preview with Joe Janish

Baseball is officially under way as pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Every team goes into spring training with hope as well as some pertinent questions. To get a feel for what other teams are looking for, I caught up with three SweetSpot bloggers: Peter Hjort for the Atlanta Braves blog Capitol Avenue Club, Joe Janish for the New York Mets blog Mets Today, and Harper Gordek for the Washington Nationals blog Nationals Baseball. As we don’t have a Marlins blogger, I also spoke with Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac. Those will be posted throughout the week once a day.

Today, we will learn more about the Mets from Joe Janish.

. . .

1. How would you rate the off-season for the Mets?

D. The team did nothing but pick from the bottom of the junk pile all winter. It was a similar strategy to what Omar Minaya did in the past: sign players who once did something well, but are now undervalued due to recent injury and/or underperformance, and hope for the best. But instead of Minaya doing it, it was Sandy Alderson, so the PR angle is that it was a collection of “smart moves”. The major difference between this and other winters was that the Mets didn’t make at least one “big” signing to make the offseason appear successful … but with the news of the Madoff case, we now know why.

I realize that Alderson was working with a tight budget and had his hands tied by bad moves made by the previous administration. However, when I rate “the Mets”, I’m rating the entire organization, and that includes ownership — who is ultimately responsible for a team’s success or failure. That said, “the Mets” went backward, did not improve the club for 2011, and are relying on their annual strategy of “hopes and wishes”. I know that the stat-focused crowd is loving seeing the Alderson / DePodesta / Ricciardi regime in place and there are fans who are happy that it appears young players will get a chance to prove themselves, but, neither of these changes is likely to improve the big-league club in 2011. If I were grading Alderson, I’d say he did a good job considering the circumstances; but I’m grading the Mets.

2. The Mets acquired Chris Young and Chris Capuano, both with significant injury histories. Do you agree with taking a chance with them, or would you have preferred the Mets look elsewhere?

I really like the Capuano signing, because he never relied on velocity yet he now may have a little more than he’s had since his mid-twenties. Further, pitchers coming off TJ surgery tend to have a better chance of full recovery compared to other procedures, and Capuano has been through this once before. Assuming he is fully recovered and regains the command of his pitches he had in 2006, I think Capuano can be a pleasant surprise and give the Mets 200+ quality innings. Citi Field is the perfect place for him.
Speaking of, the main thing Young has going for him is a return to a pitcher’s park. I’m concerned about his health and his ability to pitch in more hitter-friendly stadiums such as Citizens Bank Park and Turner Field. But considering the price tag, the signing was a no-brainer and worth rolling the dice — certainly, a better gamble than the one the Mets made on Kelvim Escobar last winter.

Would I have preferred that Mets looked elsewhere? I guess, but where? The free-agent market was pretty limited, the best that was available wasn’t worth the dollar figures and the Mets couldn’t afford them anyway. Maybe the Mets could have explored the trade market further but they didn’t have many valuable, expendable chips to offer.

3. Do you expect Carlos Beltran to be wearing a different uniform by August 1?

Yes — assuming he stays healthy. If the Mets can get him on the field 4-5 times a week, they can probably fetch something from an AL team looking for a DH. His salary could be tough to move without eating some of it, though — he’s owed $18.5M this year. My fear is they’ll get nothing of value in return because they’ll be desperate to rid themselves of the cash commitment.

4. Offensively, what are you expecting out of this team? They were 13th out of 16 NL teams, averaging 4.05 runs per game last year.

The offense could be better compared to last year, but that’s assuming a few things break right; for example, if Jason Bay comes back 100% from his concussion and hits somewhere close to what was expected when he signed that 4-year / $66M deal. He doesn’t need to be a superstar, but he has to be able to hit at least 20-25 HRs and provide an .850 OPS. The Paulino / Thole platoon behind the dish could be productive, and if one of the younger kids can displace Luis Castillo at 2B, the lineup will be deep if lacking in power.

5. Are there any players we should be keeping an eye on during spring training?

The second base situation is the main thing to watch. We’re hoping that Rule 5 pick Brad Emaus, AAAA guy Justin Turner, or the positionless Daniel Murphy becomes Jeff Kent — and who knows, one of those guys might be able to do it. Career minor leaguer Dillon Gee makes up for his lack in talent with craftyness and a bulldog mentality; he could steal the #5 spot in the rotation. I really like the Mets’ other Rule 5 pick Pedro Beato, who has an outside shot at a bullpen role.

6. If you had to guess on the Mets’ final record and place in the standings, where would you put them?

I’m hoping they can finish fourth, but the Nationals scare me a little with their maturing youth and suddenly deep pitching (compared to previous years). It’s not impossible for the Mets to finish as high as third, but that’s going to require a lot of “ifs” turning out the way we’d like.

. . .

Thanks to Joe for taking the time to share some insight on the Mets. Don’t forget to add Mets Today to your bookmarks to keep tabs on them during spring training and throughout the 2011 season.

Are the Phillies Missing Right-Handed Power?

On Saturday, a commenter left a few comments in favor of trading for Michael Young. The responses (including mine) were mostly snarky, but the suggestion that the Phillies need right-handed power is not uncommon — even Mitch Williams said as much on MLB Network. So I think it is a topic worth discussing.

The claim that the Phillies need right-handed power is another way of saying “opposing teams should be punished for bringing in a LOOGY”. One does not want to organize his lineup such that the opposing manager can bring in his LOOGY for three or four hitters. Having an order that alternates left- and right-handed hitters punishes the opposing team in the following ways that a lineup of same-handed hitters would not:

  • Forces the LOOGY to face a right-handed hitter if the manager wants him to face the other lefties; or,
  • Allows your left-handed hitter to face a tired starter or a right-handed reliever; or,
  • Forces the opposing manager to burn through more relief pitchers than he would like (Tony La Russa style)

The Phillies’ lefties actually handle left-handed pitchers quite well. Chase Utley, surprisingly, has a higher career wOBA against southpaws than he does against right-handers. Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez are both around the league average, each posting a career .329 wOBA.

The other side of it is that Howard is extremely productive against right-handed pitchers. His career wOBA against right-handed pitchers (.424) is 95 points higher than it is against lefties. To put that in perspective, Miguel Cabrera had a .429 wOBA and Michael Cuddyer was at .329 during the 2010 regular season.

In the scenario where the Phillies trade prospects and/or Major League players for Young and his remaining $48 million, we need to ask ourselves if it is really worth the trouble. Remember that these LOOGY situations only come up once per game. Even if it occurs in every game, we are still only dealing with 162 plate appearances per player, quite a small sample size.

By comparing the Phillies’ wOBA splits to the league averages, we can find out approximately how many runs the Phillies are gaining or losing in each match-up. wOBA is converted into runs with the following formula:

( ( Player’s wOBA – League average wOBA ) / 1.15 ) * Player’s PA

We’ll start with Chase Utley:

  • vs. LHP as LH: ( ( .390 – .314 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 8.1 runs
  • vs. RHP as LH: ( ( .382 – .325 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 10.7 runs
  • Difference: 2.6 runs in favor of facing LHP

Ryan Howard:

  • vs. LHP as LH: ( ( .329 – .314 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 2.1 runs
  • vs. RHP as LH: ( ( .424 – .325 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 14.0 runs
  • Difference: 11.9 runs in favor of facing RHP

Raul Ibanez:

  • vs. LHP as LH: ( ( .329 – .314 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 2.1 runs
  • vs. RHP as LH: ( ( .367 – .325 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 5.9 runs
  • Difference: 3.8 runs in favor of facing RHP

Michael Young:

  • vs. LHP as RH: ( ( .362 – .330 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 4.5 runs
  • vs. RHP as RH: ( ( .344 – .311 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 4.6 runs
  • Difference: 0.1 runs in favor of facing RHP

The benefit of having a right-handed hitter, for the Phillies, is to give opposing managers a deterrent to bringing in a LOOGY for Howard. So let’s compare two similar situations, one where the manager leaves his left-hander in to face Young, and one where he allows his right-handed pitcher to face Howard. Then, we will compare it to the status quo.

  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Young: 8.1 + 2.1 + 4.5 = 14.7 runs
  • RHP vs. Utley-Howard-Young: 10.7 + 14.0 + 4.6 = 29.3 runs
  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Ibanez: 8.1 + 2.1 + 2.1 = 12.3 runs

Over a full season (just 162 PA), if opposing managers let right-handers face Utley and Howard because they are scared of Young, the Phillies gain about 15 runs (about 1.5 wins). Young’s presence is not a strong enough deterrent. Furthermore, he provides an upgrade of only one-fourth of one win. Roughly ten runs equate to one win, and Young only provides a 2.4 run boost. Keep in mind, though, that this is relative — we are only dealing with 162 PA, or one PA per game.

What if the Phillies kept Jayson Werth? What is the optimal strategy?

  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Werth: 8.1 + 2.1 + 10.0 = 20.2 runs
  • RHP vs. Utley-Howard-Werth: 10.7 + 14.0 + 5.9 = 30.6 runs

Not even Werth’s presence would make it optimal to allow Howard to face a LOOGY.

Just for fun, what if the Phillies had Albert Pujols hitting behind Howard?

  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Pujols: 8.1 + 2.1 + 17.6 = 27.8 runs
  • RHP vs. Utley-Howard-Pujols: 10.7 + 14.0 + 16.6 = 41.3 runs

Not even Pujols could dissuade a manager looking to bring in his LOOGY. Opposing managers would rather face one incredibly productive hitter (Pujols’ 17.6 runs) with his left-hander than two (Pujols’ 16.6 runs and Howard’s 14.0 runs) with a right-hander.

Howard’s production is so extremely good against right-handers and his production is so average against left-handers, that there is no reason to allow him to face a right-handed pitcher in a high-leverage situation. If the Phillies want to see Howard face LOOGYs less, Howard needs to vastly increase his production against lefties (or, conversely, drastically lower his production against right-handers).

(Remember, the above graphic is in a sample size of only 162 PA)

There are no right-handed hitters that should cause opposing managers to pause before bringing in a LOOGY unless those hitters are equivalently (or more) extremely good against left-handed pitching compared to right-handed pitching. The basis of platoons is maximizing the number of these favorable match-ups.

It is not worthwhile for the Phillies to acquire a hitter simply because he is right-handed. And, as pointed out last Wednesday, Young would not provide an upgrade at third base or shortstop, the only two positions where he would reasonably fit in, effectively washing out — and worse — any match-up related advantages.

Braves 2011 Season Preview with Peter Hjort

Baseball is officially under way as pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Every team goes into spring training with hope as well as some pertinent questions. To get a feel for what other teams are looking for, I caught up with three SweetSpot bloggers: Peter Hjort for the Atlanta Braves blog Capitol Avenue Club, Joe Janish for the New York Mets blog Mets Today, and Harper Gordek for the Washington Nationals blog Nationals Baseball. As we don’t have a Marlins blogger, I also spoke with Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac. Those will be posted throughout the week once a day.

Today, we’ll start with Peter Hjort and glean some knowledge about the Braves.

. . .

1. How would you rate the off-season for the Braves?

They did well. Frank Wren was able to upgrade the offense and balance the line-up by acquiring Dan Uggla and only had to part with a 25-year old potential set-up man and a 29-year old utility player to do it. They won’t have as strong of a bench or bullpen in 2011, but Braves fans have to like the team they’ll be going with next year as well as the fact that their farm system is still more or less completely intact.

2. Does Jason Heyward have a shot at winning the NL MVP award in 2011?

Sure, if he stays healthy. He was hitting like an MVP-candidate before he injured his thumb last year. If he can put that injury behind him and manage to play 140+ games at full strength, there’s no telling what Heyward will do. Heyward staying healthy for an entire professional season would be unprecedented, so we must temper our expectations in that regard, but, regarding ability, the hype is real.

3. The offense figures to be much improved with the addition of Dan Uggla, prospect Freddie Freeman, and a healthy Chipper Jones. Will they be among the NL’s best offenses?

Yes, I think so. They’ve got a good amount of power in the line-up and their first five or six hitters figure to all post on-base averages between .350 and .420. There are some question marks surrounding Alex Gonzalez and Nate McLouth, but even if they get very little from the pair they should be among the NL’s best offenses. If the aforementioned question marks fall on their faces, Atlanta has the flexibility to make an in-season acquisition.

4. Billy Wagner‘s retirement leaves a void in the 9th inning. Fredi Gonzalez hinted that he will platoon Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. Do you prefer the platoon, or would you rather Kimbrel have the role all to himself?

I don’t really care that much. Obviously you’d prefer to have them leveraged in situations that are most beneficial to the team (read: platoon), but I don’t think endorsing one strategy over the other is worth more than a quarter of a win a season or so. Of the two, I’d probably rather see Kimbrel close full-time because Jonny Venters‘ ground-ball tendencies and left-handedness give him more opportunities to be matched up favorably.

5. Are there any players we should be keeping an eye on during spring training?

Nate McLouth, for one. He’s the starting center fielder and nobody seems to know what he’s capable of–though I expect a better season than he managed in 2010. Jason Heyward‘s thumb is something to monitor, as well as Chipper’s ACL. Rookies Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Freddie Freeman, and Stephen Marek all figure to have some type of impact on Atlanta’s 2011 season. Finally, all eyes will be on Julio Teheran–the organization’s top prospect–as he gets his first extended look in Spring Training.

6. If you had to guess on the Braves’ final record and place in the standings, where would you put them?

94-68, 2nd in the NL East, Wild Card winner.

. . .

Thanks to Peter for sharing his thoughts on the Braves. Keep up with the Braves during spring training and throughout the 2011 season — bookmark Capitol Avenue Club.

Phillies Kick Tires, Inquire About Michael Young

ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that the Phillies contacted the Texas Rangers to discuss Michael Young. Nothing happened, but the idea is at least interesting.

The Philadelphia Phillies recently contacted the Texas Rangers to express an interest in infielder Michael Young, three Major League Baseball sources confirmed to ESPN.com. But the trade talks failed to yield much common ground, and discussions between the clubs are no longer active.

One source said the discussions were “brief” and amounted essentially to “tire kicking” on the part of the Phillies.

Should the Phillies have any interest in Young, who is owed $16 million in each of the next three seasons? Young has played at least 2,500 innings each at second base, third base, and shortstop over his 10-year career. Additionally, he is right-handed and has some power, two features that are noticeably absent now that Jayson Werth plays for the Washington Nationals.

Jimmy Rollins is currently in the last year of his contract and becomes a free agent at the end of the season. The Phillies may feel that Rollins’ best years are behind him given his recent struggles in terms of production and simply staying on the field. Young could supplant Rollins at shortstop, but even an injured and struggling Rollins is comparable to Young in a typical year.

Is Rollins finished, though? I debated with Mike Petriello about the issue at Baseball Prospectus.

Despite the injuries last year, Rollins was about as good as the average National League shortstop. His triple-slash line was .243/.320/.374 compared to the average .266/.325/.388. He will have had nearly four months to recuperate and should go into the 2011 season 100 percent healthy. With even a moderate bounce-back year, Rollins should find himself among the league’s top shortstops (still light years behind Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki, of course).

Young’s average triple-slash line over the past three seasons is .295/.346/.451, much better than Rollins. Young’s offensive WAR, per Baseball Reference, ranged from 2.7 to 4.2 while Rollins was 1.1 to 1.5 in the last two.

Rollins, however, makes up the difference with his defense and his base running. In over 13,000 defensive innings since 2002, Rollins is at +5.3 per 150 defensive games. Young has tallied over 6,700 innings at shortstop but earned a depressing -10.2. Assuming UZR reflects actual defensive talent (which is not at all clear), the 15.5 run difference amounts to about one and a half wins.

Rollins also picks up some extra runs with his ability to run the bases.

On average, Rollins adds about an extra half-win per season than Young just by running the bases well.

In order for a Rollins-to-Young transition to work for the Phillies, Young would need to come at an amazingly low price or he would need to provide a substantial upgrade in terms of production. Neither is true.

Young could also play third base, but is he better than Placido Polanco? Young is slightly better offensively (his career .346 wOBA beats Polanco’s .334) but is, as usual, a mess defensively. Polanco earned a +11.3 UZR/150 at third base last year and has a career +10.7 mark. Young was -5.8 last year and -7.5 for his career. Even accounting for UZR’s unreliability and making a super-conservative  estimate, Polanco is at least one win better just on defense.

Over the last three years, FanGraphs has Polanco at 2.8, 3.1, and 3.7 WAR for a total of 9.6 and an average of 3.2. Young earned 2.4, 3.9, and 2.7 WAR for a total of 9.0 and an average of 3.0.

Polanco is also signed to an economically-friendly contract through 2012 with a mutual option for ’13. There is no reason to push out Polanco for Young, especially when such a maneuver would involve taking on more money and giving up useful prospects and Major League players.

The only conceivable way Young fits with the Phillies if he takes over in left field, but he would provide only a marginal upgrade over Raul Ibanez. Furthermore, Young has never played an inning in the outfield during his Major League career.

Ultimately, the idea is fun to think about, but highly unrealistic. Young is a useful player but his contract makes him an undesirable trade target.

The Bad and the Ugly on Bleacher Report

*Warning: This post has nothing to do with baseball or the Phillies. You may have ascertained that by the title, but it’s worth mentioning before a 1,400-word essay.*

If you’re one of my followers on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me make and re-tweet snarky comments about Bleacher Report. For the uninitiated, Bleacher Report “provides news and fans’ opinions of sporting events”, per Wikipedia. Essentially, if you have a pulse, know what sports are, and have a computer with an Internet connection, you are qualified to write for Bleacher Report — just as you are with typical blogs.

Regular bloggers and mainstream media types, often in opposition to each other on many other subjects, seem to agree that BR is a travesty and an eyesore. One need only peruse the home page to get a feel for the quality of content provided at BR. Some examples as of this writing:

  • Full Scream Ahead: 10 Teams With the Most Momentum Heading Into 2011
  • Dwight Howard Trade Rumors: 10 Moves Orlando Magic Can Make To Keep Him Happy
  • Penguins Show the NHL Who has the Biggest Johnson

For more examples, check out Dustin Parkes’ list of the “Top Eight Worst Bleacher Report Baseball Posts Of All Time Ever In The World”.

Just a cursory glance at BR provides a window into the authors’ thought processes:

  1. Think of a player, team, or issue that is interesting or in the news (Dwight Howard)
  2. Think of a way to talk about it in list-form (Trade rumors)
  3. Think of things to put in a list (Trade proposals, realistic or not… mostly not)

(And the irony of the above list hits… now.)

BR’s style encourages thoughtless list-making. Anybody can make a list. Anybody can Google “Dwight Howard trade rumors” and find a picture of him on Google Images. One need possess no writing skills and no analytical skills to publish a post at BR. Most people do not have elite writing and analytical skills, so BR is a perfect venue for them to see their name in a byline, unchallenged. That makes BR a content factory.

This is why most bloggers and mainstream writers dislike BR. For the mainstream guys and gals, they (and I speak entirely in generalities here) had to go into debt to earn a college degree in journalism and worked long hours covering high school field hockey for a small-town newspaper before landing their professional baseball/football/hockey/etc. gig. They constantly have to answer to editors and superiors when their work is subpar, and must adhere to strict journalistic standards.

The blogosphere is a meritocracy, as Will Leitch famously said on Costas Now on HBO. For the most part, bloggers with poor writing and/or analytical skills do not succeed because people will end up going to the blogs with better writing and/or analytical skills. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part this holds true. Most bloggers pay money out of their own pockets to purchase a domain name and to acquire server hosting (or otherwise join on with an already-existing blog), spend many hours per week writing and editing multiple posts, and following up with commenters because their writing is a passion.

Bloggers have to earn their keep. Phillies Nation didn’t become the best Phillies blog on the planet (R.I.P. The Fightins) by making top-ten lists of arbitrary names and details. They certainly didn’t start out with over 125,000 Facebook followers. At the start, they were a passionate group of Phillies fans who had to prove themselves to the community, just like everybody else.

What BR provides is a platform of equal significance to the best and worst of the community. Better writing and analysis is not rewarded in the slightest, which means the bad writing and analysis is subsequently rewarded.

Thumb through the biographies for BR authors. On most of them, you will find self-admitted “aspiring writers” looking to break into the sports writing business. They are on BR for fame and notoriety; they are not there out of genuine love of sports and writing about them. In other words, they are leeches feeding on BR’s ability to put them in the spotlight, deserved or not. Are these the people you want to shine a light on and say, “Yeah, this is what we’re all about”?

Furthermore, a requisite of list-making is having a pre-developed idea. This list is titled “10 Current Players Freddie Freeman Could Develop Into” and authored by Will Brown, who is “going to school in hopes of being a sports journalist in the future”.

Why ten players? Why not nine or eleven? Obvious questions, but being beholden to round numbers is the bane of solid analysis. What if there are only seven legitimate players to compare to Freeman? The additional three are thrown on arbitrarily to suit the list format.

What is the criteria for comparison? Flipping through the slideshow yields no answers. The one thing in common is that they mostly play corner infield spots and are well-known players. Most likely, the author went to a leaderboard for MLB players, sorted it by 1B and then 3B, and picked out a few recognizable players haphazardly.

A good analyst would have a defined system for comparison. So if the results yielded James Loney and Daric Barton rather than Michael Young and Ryan Zimmerman, the author’s conclusion isn’t affected since it wasn’t made beforehand, despite that those players aren’t as interesting or noteworthy. Even better, perhaps he learns that his hypothesis is wrong and goes back to the drawing board, rather than publishing a flawed theory.

BR recently hired King Kaufman, a former writer and editor for Salon.com. In his first post from his new home, he talked about BR’s reputation, admitting some of BR’s faults, and change. “My main job here is to try to help improve the overall quality of the writing,” he wrote. Many have poked fun at him for trying to put lipstick on a pig.

I’ve had no contact with Kaufman other than participating in a Scoresheet league with him last year (and I stopped paying attention to my team in May), and he certainly didn’t ask for my thoughts on his project. From what I’ve read of his work, he seems like a smart guy and a great writer — a perfect candidate to tackle an enormous project like this. But if I had to offer some unsolicited suggestions to him, they would be:

  • Lose the slideshow/list format. Entirely. Prove that your community is not comprised of page-view scavengers. Some of them — more than I gave credit to, probably — are in it for “the love of the game”.
  • Do not judge the writing based on page views and comments. They are not great indicators of quality. Remove the page view counters on each article.
  • Hold writers to a standard. Maybe you lose page views from the lack of “WAG” posts featuring pictures of scantily-clad women, but you bring your website up several notches in credibility. And, you know, you lose that whole misogynistic, objectifying women thing. I’m not a businessman, so maybe this idea is foolhardy.
  • Feature writing, not pictures. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with losing the slideshows, but compare BR’s main page to that of Baseball Prospectus. On BR, I am being enticed to read articles for the subject; on BP, I am being enticed to read articles for the content. A subtle distinction, yes, but it does make a difference — especially for a website that wants to foster a community.
  • Reward better writing with better real estate. Have real BR moderators (community-based or hired) read posts and reward the better ones with “featured” status and being listed on the front page. It’s basically the system they have in place now, but with some legitimacy behind it.

Bleacher Report can continue being nothing but a content factory. They can continue to call upon average Joes to be, as Dustin Parkes called them, “boner providers” — luring men to click on more pages and more ads with the allure of scantily-clad women and top-ten lists. If, however, King Kaufman wants Bleacher Report to have any future credibility as a first stop on the Internet highway for quality sports content, then he needs to clean slate and take away the incentives for his content providers to be lazy and incompetent. Or, more accurately, the disincentives for them to be hard-working and competent.

Maple Street Press Phillies Annual 2011

With pitchers and catchers due in Clearwater in a week, 2011 season previews will start sprouting up like spring flowers. Not one of them, however, will rival the output of the Maple Street Press Phillies Annual 2011. As you can see on the image to the right, this year’s edition will feature content from some of your favorite Phillies writers, including:

What’s included in the 128 pages of advertisement-free Phillies coverage? Just about everything under the sun:

  • Pitch-level scouting reports revealing the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of every key player
  • In-depth looks at all the Phillies’ NL East rivals for 2011
  • Ryan Howard cut down on his strikeouts, but where’s the power?
  • Roy Halladay’s no-hitters, and the best pitching performances of the year
  • Hollywood once again: How Cole Hamels got his groove back
  • Interview: Doug Glanville on life in, and after, baseball
  • The top 30 Phillies prospects and a look at the Sally League champion Lakewood BlueClaws
  • Culture change: The Phillies dynasty, where it ranks with other great teams, and how it has affected the Philly mindset

In my article, I broke down in specific details Roy Halladay’s perfect game and NLDS no-hitter. I had a blast researching and writing the article, and I hope it comes through when you read it. I’m thrilled to have my name alongside an All-Star cast of writers.

If you’re interested, follow this link directly to the Maple Street Press website where you can place an online order for $12.99. They will be shipped beginning on February 17. If you would rather pick it up in person, the Annual will hit newsstands on March 1.

That Mighty Fine Starting Rotation

Yesterday was quite an important day in the United States. Many got together with friends and family, cooked food, downed a bunch of beers, and enjoyed each other’s company on a most joyous occasion. Not the Super Bowl — it was Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday!

Kidding aside, if you were busy yesterday with that game of hand-egg, you missed ESPN’s incredibly poor decision in handing me the reins to the SweetSpot blog for an entire day. In Rob Neyer’s stead, they called upon us bloggers to fill in while they search for a new queen- or kingpin. In my first article, I looked at how historically great the 2011 Phillies starting rotation could be. Using WAR, I concluded that only two starting rotations included four members compling at least 4 WAR apiece: the 1991 and ’97 Braves. With a little bit of luck and good health, the Phillies could be the third to accomplish the feat since 1960.

I spoke with Dan Szymborski, of ZiPS projection fame, about these awesome front-fours. He wrote about his projections for the current batch of Phillies back in December — he has them slated to post 19.8 WAR. Szymborski notes that that would be the 13th-best among front-fours in the past 41 years and the third-best since 1993 according to his calculations. It would also be more than five WAR better than the Phillies’ next-best rotation, found in ’83. That rotation featured future Hall-of-Famer and four-time Cy Young award winner Steve Carlton, the ’83 Cy Young winner in John Denny, Charles Hudson, and Marty Bystrom.

The 1993 rotation, which included Curt Schilling, Danny Jackson, Tommy Greene, Terry Mulholland, and Ben Rivera (the quintet remarkably made 152 of 162 starts), came in fourth at 12.8 WAR according to Szymborski. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the current amalgamation of starters vastly exceeds the ’93 bunch, but the Phillies would love to mimic that exceptionally clean bill of health such that their front four are able to accrue 200+ innings individually. And looking backwards, the Phillies have one-third of baseball’s top-12 pitchers in 2010.

PECOTA is here, by the way. Let me just say that I am very excited about the projections for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. Joe Blanton, too.

It’s going to be a fun year. One week left until pitchers and catchers report!

The Overlooked Bullpen

Rob Bradford of WEEI posted his Major League bullpen power rankings this morning. Naturally, the first thing I did was a Ctrl + F for “Phillies”. Much to my surprise, they were in the top one-third, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Lost in the talk about the Phillies’ four aces and how many innings they ought to accrue, the bullpen is actually quite formidable.

Faithful readers of the blog know how highly I think of Ryan Madson, but even outside of him, there are quality pitchers capable of getting outs reliably. But let’s start with Madson and get him out of the way.

Madson is awesome. It aggravated me to no end to see him shunned for an apparent inability to close games despite never really getting a fair shot. He was not given the benefit of the doubt when a small sample size can produce a wide variety of results irrespective of skill. During the 2010 season, he posted a 10.9 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. His 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was ninth-best in the Majors among relief pitchers, sandwiched by Luke Gregerson and Billy Wagner, two very highly-regarded bullpen arms. And among relievers with at least 50 innings in Phillies franchise history, Madson joined Doug Jones as the only ones to post a 4.9 or better strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 2.49 SIERA was 12th-best in baseball. His change-up is arguably the best in the Majors — even better than Cole Hamels‘. If there’s a Phillies reliever you don’t want to face, it’s Madson.

How about Brad Lidge? He is cast aside as a reliever at the end of his career with not much left to offer. As I mentioned yesterday, the Phillies need to decide on what to do with the closer situation, and it likely won’t include Lidge going forward. Still, he is a well above-average reliever. His 3.55 SIERA was right there with highly-respected closer Andrew Bailey and a tenth of a run behind Mariano Rivera.

Lidge’s 2010 season turned around after Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals hit a walk-off home run on July 31. To that point, Lidge had a 5.57 ERA with a BB/9 of an even 6.0. After the game, Zimmerman hinted that Lidge was tipping his pitches. From August 1 through the rest of the season, Lidge corrected his flaws and posted a 0.73 ERA with a 3.6 BB/9. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. Lidge appeared to make the correct adjustments in the final two months last year, and he can only learn from that and benefit going forward. He is not by any means a washed up reliever; in fact, he is still among the most feared in baseball.

Jose Contreras finished 2010 with a 3.19 SIERA, certainly a great accomplishment as it was his first full season as a reliever. He averaged just over a strikeout per inning and was stingy with the free passes as his 2.5 BB/9 indicated. He even induced a good amount of ground balls (45 percent) to help limit the damage. Because he is not in a glorified position with its own title, such as “set-up” or “closer”, Contreras is assumed to be just another reliever, but he is good enough to close on quite a few teams. He may have worn down towards the end of the season as his second-half ERA was more than a full run higher than his first-half ERA, but now that he is going into his second full season as a reliever, he can make the proper adjustments in terms of preparation and conditioning.

J.C. Romero is responsible for the poorly-groomed fingernails of many a Philadelphian, but I insist it’s not his fault. As mentioned various times here on the blog, Romero should be used strictly against left-handed hitters. His xFIP against lefties is a paltry 3.61, but against right-handers, it rises to an unacceptable 5.34. Charlie Manuel has limited Romero’s use to lefties more and more, but never entirely. It would behoove Ruben Amaro to demand that Romero never be used against a right-handed hitter in a meaningful situation. When used properly, Romero is a remarkably effective lefty.

Antonio Bastardo will likely be the team’s second lefty out of the bullpen. He seems to have been given this reputation as a good-but-not-quite-good-enough reliever, but in limited action, he posted a 2.90 SIERA. He can attribute that to an incredible 12.5 K/9 (in about 19 innings), which is not a fluke. Over his Minor League career, he posted a 10.3 K/9. Bastardo’s goal should be to limit his walks, but he is right now an MLB-capable reliever. Consider that his 4.3 BB/9 last year is comparable to Lidge’s 4.1 career average. Those walk rates are not good by any means, but you accept it with the amount of swings-and-misses they induce.

The bullpen will round out with a slop-throwing long reliever (probably Kyle Kendrick) and perhaps a young arm. Scott Mathieson is one such candidate whom I feel hasn’t been given a fair shot at keeping a job as a Major League reliever. He had all of one and two-thirds innings in 2010 including one appearance in mid-June in which he struggled and was immediately jettisoned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The kid, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, has done just about everything he can possibly do in the Minors — he’s thrown 566 innings in the Minors with a 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 3.82 ERA — so it’s time to use him or lose him.

Another name to keep in mind is Justin De Fratus (he’s on Twitter!). The 23-year-old has been nothing short of impressive in his brief professional career. Last year, between Single-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, he posted a 1.94 ERA with a 9.8 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. ESPN’s Jason Grey is very high on De Fratus as well:

De Fratus absolutely looks like a big league bullpen arm, with a 92-95 mph fastball that touched 96 mph once when I saw him, and good tilt on an 83-85 mph slider that can get strikeouts. A strong pitcher with a good frame who uses his lower half well, De Fratus does a good job finishing his pitches. De Fratus isn’t far from a call-up and looks like he could fill a seventh- or eighth-inning role at the big league level, and from there anything can happen. Then again, he’s also in an organization that left Scott Mathieson behind to dominate Triple-A hitters all year.

The Phillies are expected to have a formidable offense and baseball’s best starting rotation, but don’t forget about the bullpen. Their role may have been condensed, but they still have a say on exactly how successful the Phillies will be in the regular season and how far they will advance in the playoffs.

Potential July Departures

There is next to nothing going on in the baseball world right now, but the Phillies could be very busy come July. With eight potential free agents in 2012, the Phillies may want to move some players before they walk away. Who are they and under what circumstances could they be moved?

Roy Oswalt

Oswalt is due $16 million in 2012 but the Phillies can buy out that final year for $2 million and let him walk. There is some speculation that he could retire as well. If the Phillies are in contention for the playoffs, which is nearly guaranteed, there is no way Oswalt is moved. But, if the Phillies anger the baseball gods and fall out of the hunt by July 31, Oswalt could waive his no-trade clause and agree to be traded to a team in contention for a few prospects or a Major League-capable left fielder that would be under team control beyond the 2012 season.

If the Phillies are very strong in 2011, they will just keep Oswalt on board through the ’12 season. No reason to break up the four aces if you don’t have to, right?

Brad Lidge

Like Oswalt, Lidge has an expensive price tag for the 2012 season but the Phillies can buy him out for $1.5 million. Due to his struggles in ’09 and the early part of last season, the Phillies may be more comfortable with Ryan Madson in the ninth inning going forward. The only way Lidge would be an attractive trade target, though, is if he is healthy and pitching well, and if that is the case, the Phillies are going to want to keep him through the post-season. So for Lidge to be moved, he would need to be healthy and pitching well and the Phillies will have to be out of playoff contention.

The haul for Lidge wouldn’t be too impressive — perhaps a Ben Francisco-esque jack-of-all-trades outfielder at the most; more likely a fringe prospect or two. The Nationals may have ripped off the Minnesota Twins last year in getting prospect Wilson Ramos in exchange for closer Matt Capps, but don’t expect the Phillies to get such a deal.

Raul Ibanez

Ibanez’s availability will depend on the progress of Domonic Brown, particularly the rookie’s performance in spring training. Essentially, if Brown impresses enough in spring training to merit a full-time job in right field, the likelihood of an Ibanez trade increases. Based on what the organization has said publicly, though, expect Brown to platoon in right field with Ben Francisco. In that case, if both Brown and Francisco produce, Ibanez does become expendable if and only if Ibanez agrees to waive his trade protection.

The problem is, of course, finding a market for a 39-year-old corner outfielder. The American League, where Ibanez’s shoddy defense can be hidden, is the place to look. Unlike Oswalt and Lidge, the point of trading Ibanez would be to recoup some of the $11.5 million he will be owed in 2011. The Phillies would be willing to trade Ibanez for next-to-nothing as long as the receiving team takes on the remainder of his salary, which would be about $4 million.

Ryan Madson

Thinking about this breaks my heart, but there is a possibility that Madson won’t be wearing Phillies red in 2012. He will earn $4.5 million this year, the last leg of his contract. Given his age and great performance over the last four years, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies not wanting to keep him around. However, Madson’s agent is Scott Boras, who may not advise his client to sign another team-friendly contract like he did in January of ’09.

Madson, who turns 30 at the end of August, is among the best relievers in the game but is not regarded as such. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was ninth-best among relievers last year and his 2.49 SIERA ranked 12th among pitchers with at least 50 innings of work. Despite that, Madson has never had an extended opportunity to close, and in the scant opportunities he has had, no one was impressed by his performance.

His age and overall good performance in the set-up role should allow the Phillies to get a couple of useful prospects, but I would be shocked if GM Ruben Amaro doesn’t have Madson, Rollins, and Cole Hamels signed to two- and three-year extensions before it’s too late.

Shane Victorino

As with Ibanez, Victorino’s availability depends a lot on Brown’s ability to transition into the Majors. Because Victorino is a center fielder and the Phillies have never seemed enthused about having either Brown or Francisco in center, such a trade would have to involve a center fielder coming back. The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp will be named in trade rumors until he is actually traded or signed to an extension and would be one such trade target for the Phillies. Kemp will earn $550,000 less than Victorino this year and will likely match Victorino’s $9.5 million salary in 2012, his last year of arbitration eligibility. Many have felt that a change of scenery would benefit Kemp and the Dodgers, so the thought has some merit — just not much.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on the caveats throughout this article, it’s quite obvious that such trades aren’t likely and involve a confluence of factors to actually occur. A team like the Phillies, built to win now, can’t really afford to sell off their parts, even if it means swallowing a net loss in terms of prospects and draft quicks left on the table. Stranger things have happened, though, like last year when the Phillies appeared to be throwing away the season and Amaro traded for a tractor-loving pitcher named Roy Oswalt.