Sunday, November 23, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: Shortstops

For the final infield installment of my 2008 positional MVP picks, I’ll be evaluating big league shortstops. Like their double play partners at second base, shortstops need to be above-average fielders as well as solid hitters in order to be truly top notch at their position, but unlike at second base, the shortstop crop thinned out pretty quickly, making Installment #6: Shortstops the toughest piece for me to write so far.

The top three shortstops this year were easy picks. All three put up good-to-excellent numbers at the plate, and two of three were also very good defensively (the third was so good with his bat that he gets away with being mediocre with his glove). But after the top three, there are a whole lot of very one-dimensional and/or unspectacular shortstops.

Christian Guzman put up respectable numbers at the plate (OPS+ of 104, just over league average—though it’s worth noting that his lack of walks makes his OBP very dependent on BA) and was middle-of-the road in RF, ZR, and RZR, all of which make him a very valuable commodity at short. But he doesn’t really stand out in any one category, which keeps him out of the top five.

Yunel Escobar, on the other hand, was a standout defensive SS (2nd in the majors in RF, 4th in ZR, and 5th in RZR). But although Escobar got on base at a .366 clip, his SLG was terrible (.401) and he didn’t steal any bases (2 SB vs. 5 CS) to make up for his lack of power. So although, like Guzman, Escobar is a very good SS, he too misses out on the top five.

Jhonny Peralta is essentially the opposite of Escobar: he hits for power (.473 SLG) but doesn’t get on base enough (.331 OBP), and although his 4.56 RF was very good, his ZR and RZR were 2nd worst and 6th worst among qualified shortstops.

Rounding out the list of honorable mentions is Stephen Drew, whose 42.8 VORP was 4th among big league shortstops, but whose defensive numbers were so bad (last in ZR and RZR and second-to-last in RF) at such a crucial defensive position that I couldn’t justify putting him in the top five. Also working against Drew is his low OBP of .333, though admittedly his .502 SLG offsets this somewhat. But a 110 OPS+ shortstop with no defensive value to speak of shouldn’t crack the top five, at least not by my reckoning.

Of the five shortstops who did make the list, I am very confident with my picks for #1-#3. #4 and #5 are certainly arguable, though I don’t believe either should be replaced by anyone not already covered in my honorable mentions. I suspect that my pick for #5 is the pick that is most likely to cause disagreement, but in a weak field, I stand by an admittedly borderline call.

And now, on with the list:

5.) Mike Aviles is probably a surprise pick for number five due to his limited play in 2008 (only 102 games). But in a field of largely one-dimensional shortstops, Aviles put up excellent—albeit less statistically reliable—numbers both offensively and defensively. At the plate, Aviles compiled a line of .325/.354/.480 for an OPS of .834 (OPS+ 122) with 10 HR, a .288 EqA, 17 total win shares, and a VORP of 35.2.

In the field, Aviles was good for a 4.56 RF, 8.49 ZR, and 8.56 RZR, which would have been 5th, 4th, and 3rd among all big league shortstops had Aviles maintained his level of play for enough innings to qualify for qualitative (ie. averages) leaderboards.

The fact that Aviles only played in 102 games is the most obvious argument against his inclusion on this list. But because he played so well in those 102 games—he was 7th among shortstops in VORP, and 10th in total win shares with roughly 200 fewer at bats than the men higher (and, oftentimes, lower) on the leaderboards—and was good with both the bat and the glove, I gave him the nod at #5.

4.) J.J. Hardy proved that his 2007 season was no fluke, actually improving upon his numbers in 2008. Hardy’s line of .283/.343/.478 with 24 HR was good for an OPS of .821 (OPS+ 113), an EqA of .279, 20 total win shares, and a VORP of 40.4 (5th among shortstops).

Hardy was solid in the field, as well, as his 4.48 RF, .813 ZR (low, but not criminally so), and .826 RZR show. He won’t be winning any Gold Gloves soon (although Jeter did, so I suppose there is always a chance), but he is serviceable with the glove, which, coupled with his excellent offensive numbers, makes Hardy a very valuable shortstop.

3.) Jimmy Rollins regressed significantly from his 2007 numbers, particularly in power categories (most notably HR and SLG). That said, he was still a top-of-the-line shortstop and leadoff man in 2008, combining strong offensive numbers with excellent defense. Rollins hit .277/.349/.437 with 11 HR for an OPS of .786 (OPS+ 103), a .282 EqA, 24 total win shares, and a VORP of 44.4. His OPS may seem low, but unlike Hardy or Aviles, Rollins is an excellent baserunner and base stealer, swiping 47 bags against only 3 (!) CS for an astonishing .940 SB%. That’s about as efficient as base stealers get, and means that Rollins effectively turned a lot of singles into doubles (and doubles into triples) this year.

But Rollins was more than just a top-notch table setter; he was also a Gold Glover (not that Gold Gloves mean much) at short this year. His RF of 4.52 was sixth best among shortstops, and his .855 ZR and .849 RZR were second and fourth, respectively.

Rollins may not have been able to repeat his ridiculous 2007 power surge this year, but he remained one of the top shortstops in the game regardless. Although he is a better fielder than the next man on this list, my pick for #2 was much better offensively in ’08, and therefore got the nod. But Rollins has no real competition for the #3 slot, having drastically outperformed Hardy, Aviles, and the rest of the also-rans.

2.) Jose Reyes just keeps getting better and better each year. In 2008, he hit .297/.358/.475 with 16 HR for an OPS of .833 (OPS+ 118), a .294 EqA, 29 total win shares, and a VORP of 62.6 (second among shortstops and seventh among all position players). His solid OBP and high SB totals (56 against 15 CS for a SB% of .789—not nearly as good as Rollins, but high enough to legitimize giving Reyes the green light) once again made him a valuable leadoff man.

Reyes isn’t nearly as strong defensively as Rollins or the next man on this list, but he’s improved his glove work (though to far less fanfare than his improvements at the plate) in recent years, and in 2008 was a serviceable, if not great, defensive shortstop. His 4.07 RF was abysmal (fourth worst among qualified shortstops), as was his .812 ZR (also fourth worst). But his RZR, which takes into account Reyes’s ability to get to balls well outside his fielding “zone,” was a much more impressive .835 (good for 9th among shortstops).

I’m certainly not going to claim that Reyes is a particularly good defensive shortstop; he clearly isn’t. But he’s not bad enough to offset the runs he contributes at the plate. If Rollins had repeated (or come close to) his 2007 numbers, there’s no way Reyes would top him on this list. But Jimmy missed 20+ games and had a couple rotten months in 2008, and Reyes ended up with a more impressive resumé this season.

1.) Hanley Ramirez was the complete package in 2008. He got on base, he hit for power, he was a threat on the basepaths, and he played solid defense at short. His offensive numbers were downright ridiculous for a shortstop: .301/.400/.540 with 33 HR, a .940 OPS (OPS+ 146), .320 EqA, 32 total win shares, and a 79.4 VORP (second only to Albert Pujols among position players). His baserunning numbers were much lower than in his previous two full seasons (35 SB vs. 12 CS for a .745 SB%, down from consecutive 51 steal seasons), but Ramirez took 92 free passes in 2008, easily a career high and a very, very good sign that he is going to continue to be an excellent hitter for the foreseeable future.

In the field, Ramirez was very good. His RF of 4.40 was middle-of-the-road among qualified shortstops, but his .834 ZR and .840 RZR were fifth and sixth, respectively. Frankly, Hanley Ramirez is not a stud because of his glove; but the fact that he can play good defense at arguably the most important defensive position other than catcher is the icing on the proverbial cake. No other shortstop combined offensive and defensive production the way Ramirez did in 2008, leaving him all alone at the top of the heap (and the top of this list).

FA FA FA: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates (67-95)

Significant FAs: Doug Mientkiewicz (1B/3B)

Significant Gaps: SP, LF, RF, SS, 3B

The Pittsburgh Pirates face significant hurdles this upcoming season. While they don't lose any significant free agents, this past season saw trades that lead to the departure of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, and Jose Bautista. The return on these players include many prospects that will not be ready for a callup to the majors in the immediate future but also some players that will be immediate starters in the Pirates lineup/rotation, mainly Andy LaRoche, Brendan Moss, and Jeff Karstens.

The Pirates' pitching staff is the biggest weakness on the team. In 2008, the team posted a team ERA+ of 81. The only starter who pitched more than 10 games with an ERA+ over 90 was Paul Maholm. They desperately need some help and while Jeff Karstens has some decent minor league numbers (1.26 WHIP, 7.47 K/9) he has only pitched in 24 games over three years in the majors. The Pirates need some more quality two and three starters in order to be able to compete in the Central. The Pirates should attempt to sign someone like Mark Hendrickson (1.45 WHIP, 89 ERA+ career) or Jason Jennings (1.55 WHIP, 97 ERA+). They may also want to gamble on a player like Mike Hampton (1.43 WHIP, 109 ERA+; so many injury issues that Mike Hampton is a euphemism for injury issues) or Bartolo Colon (1.33 WHIP, 112 ERA+; probable Mike Hamptons). Their strongest starting pitcher prospect, Brad Lincoln, is coming off of Tommy John surgery so he will need much more rehabilitation work before he will be ready.

Pirates batters posted a team OPS+ of 99 this past year. This is really not that bad and would be very good for them coming into this season considering Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson had poor years (.271/.298/.371, .272/.312/.348 respectively) and they could hope for some more production from the two of them. However the team OPS+ of 99 includes Jason Bay (137), Xavier Nady (144) and Jose Bautista (95, but his replacement, LaRoche, was a staggeringly bad 24). Their likely replacement for Jason Bay is Brandon Moss, a good prospect (.287/.355/.460) but he has not had much production in the majors (.249/.312/.437, 261 AB). Replacing Xavier Nady I wouldn't be surprised to see Steven Pearce get significant playing time in RF. While his production in the majors (.266/.313/.412, 478 AB) has been poor, he has some monster numbers in the minors (.290/.361/.519) and may just need the chance to turn it around (or maybe he's pissed that those monster numbers didn't translate into a major league job in 2007, I don't know). Regardless, it may be wise for the Pirates to add a veteran OF to step in should one or both of these young players fail to perform. Moises Alou (.303/.369/.516, 42 years old next year and possible health hamptons), Eric Hinske (.254/.335/.438), Greg Norton (.252/.339/.427) or Brad Wilkerson (.247/.350/.440) would be good additions to the roster, although admittedly I don't know how any of these individuals would react to being offered a part-time job in the Pirates' outfield.

The Pirates' infield is pretty solid with Doumit, LaRoche, Sanchez, Wilson, and LaRoche (yeah, another one). Sanchez and Wilson, as I said, are coming off of bad years but I would expect them to be given the chance to bounce back in 2009. Even though I say this, it should be noted that while Freddy Sanchez played significantly below his career numbers in 2008 (.271/.298/.371 2008 vs. .300/.336/.417 career), Jack Wilson didn't significantly perform below his career numbers (.272/.312/.348 2008 vs. .269/.312/.375 career). I expect him to be given a chance to play up to his 2007 numbers (.296/.350/.440) however there are rumors that they could look to trade him. If this is the case and the Pirates don't receive a SS in return (or even if they do depending on the quality), they should look at Nomar Garciaparra (.314/.363/.525) despite him being all Mike Hampton and find a decent quality SS (Alex Cintron) to fill in if there is a problem.

Of the remaining players, the weakest and only player that they could look to improve on is Andy LaRoche (3B). While it's cute as hell that two brothers are playing in the same infield, Andy LaRoche's major league numbers (.184/.288/.272, 316 AB) are a cause for concern. He has some powerful minor league numbers (.294/.380/.517) and the small sample size probably is a major factor, and honestly the move to Pittsburgh to play with his brother may show dividends in improved numbers due to more comfort or some other anecdotal thing that I can't possibly look up. He should get a chance to play but the Pirates should have a backup plan. They traded Jose Bautista which takes away one option. They may want to try to retain Mientkiewicz (.271/.360/.405 career).

So the Pirates should be looking primarily at starting pitchers, emphasis on the plural. While it would be nice to land a big name pitcher this offseason, i.e. Randy Johnson or Derek Lowe, they have too many holes to fill and should instead focus on signing multiple pitchers that could be decent starters, i.e. Hendrickson or Jennings, or possible gamble on pitchers that have had All-Star years but recent problems, i.e. Hampton, Colon or Penny. A good outfielder to provide insurance to the young bats currently patrolling the outfield would be a good idea as well. SS and 3B are positions that they could improve on however honestly their efforts should be pitching before anything else and to enter into a bidding war for a quality infielder could take away team funds from acquiring pitching closer to league average.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

FA FA FA: Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds (74-88)

Significant FAs: Jerry Hairston Jr (SS), Ken Griffey Jr (OF)*, Adam Dunn (OF)*
*lost in trades, are FAs this offseason

Significant Gaps: SP, CF, SS, C

The Reds, or Dusty Baker's Imagination Station as they like to be called, are perennial darkhorse candidates to win the Central. Every year experts will take a wild shot and pick them to make the playoffs and then act shocked when "their young arms don't produce" and they end up warring with the Pirates at the bottom of the division (the Reds, not the experts).

I'm not going to jump on Dusty and blame him. This is about looking ahead, not back. So instead I will focus on the problems facing the Reds. Their biggest problem is that they enter this season with Dusty Baker as Coach.

Many people look at the Reds and see a talented pitching staff, focusing primarily on Edinson Volquez. While Volquez gets a lot of strikeouts (9.49/9IP in 2008) he also gives up a lot of walks (4.27/9IP in 2008). Unless he can get more control and limit the walks he is going to find himself in jams often, although the Reds do have many quality pitchers in their bullpen (Lincoln, Bray, Burton, Cordero). Arroyo and Harang have proven to be average or slightly better (1.34 and 1.31 WHIP; 108 and 105 ERA+ for their respective careers) that should anchor the rotation. The remaining starters are expected to be young, relatively untested arms in Johnny Cueto (22, 174 ML IP) and Ramon Ramirez (26, 27 ML IP). The team will need a quality arm to rely on if one of the younger players fails to perform. Their targets in FA should be a quality veteran, perhaps Jamie Moyer or Tom Glavine (assuming they both don't retire), or they could maybe gamble on Bartolo Colon or Mike Hampton.

The Reds have relied on their farm system to produce pitchers like Volquez and also bats like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Their system is strong with prospect position players however most are not yet ready for a call up to the majors (Soto, Frazier). As a result, the Reds are entering this season with a roster that had a 93 OPS+ with Griffey and Dunn. They are going to need some big production from Votto, Bruce, Phillips, and Encarnacion to make up for those losses.

In the outfield the Reds return zero regular starters from their 2008 season (Dunn, Patterson, Griffey) and currently have Freel, Hopper, and Bruce. Ryan Freel is a quality center fielder (.946 RZR in 151 innings in 2008) however his production at the plate (.272/.357/.376, 91 OPS+ career) needs to be improved upon in this relatively weak lineup. Freel, it should be noted, is a quality utility player so replacing him in center allows him to be used to fill in for injuries and for platooning purposes. The Reds may want to go after Mark Kotsay who has a bit more power than Freel (.281/.337/.414, 99 OPS+ career). ESPN has Norris Hopper projected to start in LF (.316/.367/.371 career), although why he would start over Chris Dickerson (.204/.413/.608; small sample 31 games in 2008, his first season, but in AAA he went .287/.382/.479) is for ESPN and Dusty Baker to figure out.

At SS, the Reds have two primary options: Jeff Keppinger or Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez (the other one, Dave) should get the nod (.248/.295/.399 career) over Keppinger (.287/..338/.390 career) if only to justify the final year of his 3yr/$14million contract. Both options are obviously lacking in offensive production although there aren't a lot of free agent SSs that will provide better numbers, and I am unconvinced that the Reds can outbid other teams for Furcal, Renteria, or Cabrera.

At C, the Reds are losing two players that didn't provide much offense (Bako, Valentin) and must now rely on a third player who doesn't provide much offense (.274/.367/.368). Catchers typically aren't offensively minded (and the ones that are become coveted, i.e. Mauer) and as such there aren't many available names that will provide much more offense that aren't named Rodriguez.

So where do the Reds focus this offseason? They need to add another quality bat to their outfield to replace Dunn and Griffey and add a solid veteran presence to their pitching staff. Even if they do these things this is a team with a lot of ifs and maybes in their lineup. But shaping these ifs and maybes into answers is why they brought Dusty in.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Whoever Gave Albert Pujols a 7th Place MVP Vote Should Lose His/Her Voting Privileges Forever

...and I'm not just talking about MLB regular season awards, here. I'm talking about voting for anything at all ever. Feel like casting a vote in that upcoming school board election, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Anonymous BBWAA Voter Person? Sorry; you picked Pujols 7th in the '08 NL MVP race. We've got your picture right here at the polling station to prevent you from failing democracy ever again. Trying to vote down your eight-year-old son's suggestion that your family stop at Arby's for lunch? Tough shit; you thought Pujols was only the 7th most valuable player in the National League in 2008.

And so on and so forth.

In fairness, I should mention that I've been pretty happy with the voting for most of the major regular season awards so far this year. Lincecum wasn't my pick for the NL Cy Young, but he was a good pick nonetheless (although Santana deserved a lot more love than he got). Lee followed by Halladay was the right choice in the AL, and the voters deserve a lot of credit for not sending a single first place vote K-Rod's way. Longoria followed by Ramirez was spot on in the AL Rookie of the Year race (as was Longoria's unanimous selection), and Soto followed by Votto was the right call in the NL.

And Albert Pujols was the right choice for the National League's Most Valuable Player award in 2008.

But Ryan Howard shouldn't even have been in the same area code as Pujols in the MVP voting, let alone only 61 points back (and with 12 of 32 first place votes, no less!). Not only did Howard have his worst full big league season to date in 2008, but he might not have even been the MVP of his own team.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First off, it's important to note that with the exception of HR and RBI, Pujols outperformed Howard in every single major offensive category. In most categories, Howard wasn't even close to Pujols. But just like seemingly every year, the definition of the term "valuable" was a major point of disagreement among writers (voters and voteless alike) when the time came to debate this year's MVP. There is little question that Pujols was the better player in 2008, but was he the more valuable player? After all, when the MVP voting took place, Howard's Phillies were gearing up for the postseason and Pujols's Cardinals were cleaning out their lockers, and typically league MVPs are expected to lead their teams to success (translation: October). Put simply, many voters equate "MVP" with "team success," and "team success" with "postseason berth," meaning the MVP should play for a postseason team.

And yet, while the Phillies outperformed their preseason PECOTA projected W/L of 86-76 and finished the year 92-70, ahead of a Mets team that, for the second straight year, folded like a cheap card table in September, the Cardinals blew their 75-87 projected W/L out of the water en route to an 86-76 record that kept them in the NL Wild Card hunt until the last month or so of the regular season.

To call the Cardinals' 2008 season a "surprise" would be an understatement. St. Louis lost their top two starters (Carpenter and Mulder) for the year and got a 75 ERA+, 1.641 WHIP season out of their former closer (Isringhausen). Their number one starter was Adam Wainwright. I'm pretty sure Busch Stadium was the site of at least a couple "who wants to pitch the sixth inning for the St. Louis Cardinals tonight?" promotions this year. And still, the Redbirds won 86 games in '08.

So even if we assume that a player's "value" is inextricably linked to his team's "success," defining a "successful" season presents some tricky questions. Does success mean outperforming preseason projections by 6 wins en route to a playoff berth, or winning 11 more games than PECOTA predicted and going home early after shaking up the playoff picture for most of the regular season?

I'm not trying to undercut Philadelphia's accomplishments this year. After all, the Phillies would have won the Wild Card by two games even if the Mets hadn't handed them the division. But to call St. Louis's season "unsuccessful" seems ridiculous to me. Sure, the Cardinals weren't the Rays this year. But they also weren't the Mariners, and they finished well over .500 (.531), when they had no business doing so, on the strength of Pujols and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Ludwick (and to a lesser, lesser extent, Troy Glaus).

Ryan Howard's supporting cast (which, notably, includes pitchers)? A few guys named Utley, Rollins, Burrell, Hamels, and Lidge.

Further eroding Howard's MVP case is the possibility that Chase Utley, and not Ryan Howard, was the Phillies's MVP this year. Utley outperformed Howard in VORP, WARP1, EqA, total win shares, OBP, OPS, OPS+, H, 2B, BA, and R, was only slightly behind Howard in batting win shares, SLG, and TB, and was dead even with Howard in XBH, all while playing excellent defense at a skill position (2B).

In St. Louis, Pujols was clearly his team's MVP, finishing ahead of teammate Ryan Ludwick (who, notably, outperformed Howard and Utley in quite a few categories himself!) in every major offensive category except HR and R while playing a strong defensive first base.

Here's how the numbers break down (NL rank in parenthesis, assuming league rankings were readily available and the player was high enough on the list that I didn't get tired of counting):

Pujols: 96.8 (1)
Utley: 63.7 (6)
Ludwick: 54.8 (10)
Howard: 36.6 (29)

Pujols: 13.0
Utley: 10.4
Ludwick: 10.1
Howard: 5.0

Pujols: .372 (1)
Ludwick: .320 (4)
Utley: .308 (12)
Howard: .291

Total Win Shares
Pujols: 35 (2)
Utley: 30 (5)
Ludwick: 26 (10)
Howard: 25 (16)

Batting Win Shares
Pujols: 33.0 (2)
Howard: 23.8 (9)
Utley: 23.2 (10)
Ludwick: 22.7 (11)

Pujols: .462 (2)
Utley: .380 (T-12)
Ludwick: .375 (T-17)
Howard: .339 (T-48)

Pujols: .653 (1)
Ludwick: .591 (2)
Howard: .543 (7)
Utley: .535 (10)

Pujols: 1.115 (1)
Ludwick: .966 (4)
Utley: .915 (8)
Howard: .882

Pujols: 190 (1)
Ludwick: 150 (4)
Utley: 135 (10)
Howard: 124

Howard: 48 (1)
Pujols/Ludwick: 37 (T-4)
Utley: 33 (T-9)

Pujols: 44 (T-4)
Utley: 41 (T-10)
Ludwick: 40 (T-13)
Howard: 26 (T-60)

Pujols: 187 (3)
Utley: 177 (T-10)
Ludwick: 161 (T-30)
Howard: 153 (T-43)

Pujols: 81 (2)
Ludwick: 80 (3)
Howard/Utley: 78 (T-5)

Pujols: 342 (1)
Howard: 331 (4)
Utley: 325 (6)
Ludwick: 318 (T-7)

Pujols: 104 (2)
Howard: 81 (T-13)
Utley: 64 (T-29)
Ludwick: 62 (T-31)

Howard: 199 (2)
Ludwick: 146 (7)
Utley: 104 (T-40)
Pujols: 54

Pujols: .357 (2)
Ludwick: .299 (15)
Utley: .292 (19)
Howard: .251 (T-58)

Utley: 113 (T-5)
Howard: 105 (9)
Ludwick: 104 (10)
Pujols: 100 (14)

Howard: 146 (1)
Pujols: 116 (4)
Ludwick: 113 (6)
Utley: 104 (11)

By the numbers, Pujols was far-and-away the best player of the four; I'm not going to insult the intelligence of anyone who has read this far by presuming it necessary to perform a Pujols vs. Howard statistical analysis. But Howard vs. Utley is tough to call. For my money, Utley was the better hitter in 2008, and his defensive contributions at second were far more valuable (there's that word again!) than Howard's at first. But even if I believed that Howard was the MVP of the Phillies this year (which I don't), the fact that he was not clearly better than Utley while Pujols was so clearly better than Ludwick, coupled with the Phillies' depth in 2008 as compared to the injury-riddled-but-nevertheless-86-win Cardinals, makes Ryan Howard a poor MVP choice in my book.

And yet, somehow, enough people overlooked Howard's low VORP, WARP1, and OBP—not to mention the fact that he hit behind Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and was protected by Pat "The Bat" Burrell—and overrated his HR and RBI totals as well as his team's playoff berth enough to make this year's NL MVP race far more competetive than it should have been.
I suppose I should be grateful that, despite Howard's absurdly strong showing, Albert Pujols still took home his second NL MVP award this year. And I am. But I'm disheartened by definitions of "valuable" that allow such a clearly inferior player (inferior to Pujols, that is—I mean no offense to Howard) to come so close to beating out the best player in the league for the MVP.

And c'mon...7th place???

So congratulations, Albert. Here's hoping every one of your trips to Wrigley ends with the Cardinals losing despite your valiant 4-for-4 effort at the plate, and that the BBWAA finally gets comfortable with sending MVP votes your way every single year in this, the post-Bonds era.

FA FA FA: St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)

Significant FAs: Braden Looper (SP), Mark Mulder (SP), Jason Isringhausen (RP), Felipe Lopez (2B), Cesar Izturis (SS)

The St. Louis Cardinals led the National League in OPS+ last year, but were 8th (of 16) in team WHIP. So naturally, their big publicized move this off-season was to be in the running for Matt Holliday.

The Cardinals need pitching and this off-season has many available names on the market that could step in and be a number one starter for this team. Wainwright, while a quality starter (1.18 WHIP 6.2 K/9) could easily be improved upon with the addition of a name like Peavy, Burnett, or even Johnson. That would help fill out a rotation that is losing two starters (neither are huge losses in themselves) and maybe push Joel Piniero (1.38 WHIP, 5.79 K/9 career; 4.7 VORP in 2008) out of the rotation. Chris Carpenter should be back next season as well although how the surgery will affect his performance is difficult to predict.

The Cardinals should be in the running for Peavy. They supposedly were willing to deal Ludwick and if that is the case then they have several good/decent pitching prospects (Perez, Garcia, Ottavino, Herron) to include in the deal to get this done. The Cards have the ability call up Colby Rasmus to replace Ludwick or make the deal and go after a FA to fill the hole in left. (I have no reason to think this will happen but I will throw the name Adam Dunn out there just to scare Dave with the prospect of an order that goes Pujols/Dunn/Glaus. Seems more likely that the Cards could at least land someone like Garrett Anderson or Juan Rivera.) I have yet to hear their name mentioned in trade talks although that may have something to do with Peavy's no trade clause. Regardless, the Cardinals should be trying to get this done and if not Peavy then they should be trying to land another big name starter for 2009.

Offensively the Cardinals were very solid with a team OPS+ of 111. That is impressive and there are only a couple positions that have sizable holes. Their biggest weaknesses are up the middle at 2B and SS. Felipe Lopez came over in a late season trade and in 43 games for the Cardinals played out of his mind (.385/.426/.538). While I wouldn't expect him to have a SLG .143 above his career average every year (and therefore would understand if the Cards let him walk), at 2B the Cardinals are predicted to start Adam Kennedy (.280/.321/.372) and his career 87 OPS+. They could easily go after Ray Durham (.289/.380/.432 in 2008), who, despite his age of 37 in 2009, should be much better to insert in top of the order.

At SS the Cardinals played defensive specialist Cesar Izturis for most of last year. As a result they got the production that a career 67 OPS+ hitter provides. Admittedly, SS is a defensively minded position but there are plenty of available players that can provide much more power at the plate and still field the position decently. If the Cardinals want to maintain a primarily defensive presence at SS then there are about a million MLB journeymen and minor leaguers to choose from. If they want to add some kind of offense at the position then they could look at Orlando Cabrera (.274/.322/.399) or, and I hope Jay and Steve read this, Edgar Renteria (.290/.347/.405).

I mention those names skirting a big one in Rafael Furcal (.286/.352/.412), who would be a great fit in the Cardinals lineup. I did this because in writing these previews I wanted to avoid just naming the biggest name on the market possible at the position in need and instead focus on how much the club should devote versus how badly they are in need. Most teams won't be able to afford even two FA players ranked in the top five at their position (by which I mean among available FAs at a given position). Therefore, I suggested that the Cardinals go after big name pitching talent because it is their biggest need and quite frankly they could play their position players as is and be competitive. I doubt they will be able to get Durham and Renteria even though they are not the best players available at their respective positions simply because of market demand.

Even so, the Cards should be trying to get some offensive help at least at 2B or SS. They are already defensively focused at C (Yadier Molina .262/.316/.360) and to give up three positions to defensive players is a large gap to fill.

Seriously their best bet is to get the fastest guy they can find, and convince teams to let him play second and first at the same time in exchange for batting Pujols twice.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

This Should Not Be a Sports Cliché

Several days ago, I was reading Phil Rogers's winter forecast for the Chicago Cubs at (I know, I know; a bad call on my part) when, only three paragraphs into the piece, I stumbled upon this gem:

"The Cubs have built one of the strongest teams in their history, with no glaring voids, but have gone all Alex Rodriguez in the playoffs."

Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have no intention of making NL Central Stage simply a platform for critiquing bad sports journalism. The fine folks at Fire Joe Morgan have that well in hand already [EDIT: Until November 13th, that is; FJM, you will be missed]. I am not trying to be the next Coach Ken Tredakniorbles, and neither is Caleb (as far as I know).

That said, I am not going to stand idly by while paid journalists spew such wrongheaded clichés, particularly when the cliché in question is based on a false assumption (A-Rod chokes in the playoffs).

First thing's first: in 39 career games, Alex Rodriguez's postseason batting line is .279/.361/.467 with 7 HR and 41 hits (16 for extra bases). That's pretty damned good. A-Rod's career batting line is .306/.389/.578, so his performance in the playoffs is worse than his regular season performance, but then again, he's played in 2042 regular season games and only 39 postseason games. 39 games is a statistically insignificant sample size, and A-Rod is still pretty good within that sample.

To put things in perspective, Derek Jeter, the face of the Yankees, has played in 123 postseason games—three times Rodriguez's total. In those 123 games, his batting line is .309/.377/.469 with 17 HR and 153 hits (42 XBH). His numbers are slightly better than A-Rod's, but even assuming that A-Rod were to maintain his "Choke-Rod" numbers until he played in roughly as many postseason games as Jeter (117, for ease of calculation), he would have 21 HR, 123 H, and 48 XBH, putting him right up there with Jeter.

Of course, no Yankee (and perhaps no player at all) casts a longer shadow over postseason performance evaluation than Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. So how did Reggie do in the postseason? In 77 postseason games, Jackson hit .278/.358/.527 with 18 HR and 78 H (33 XBH). For the sake of argument (and I'm well aware that my mathmatical methods for extrapolating Jackson's and Rodriguez's statistics are shaky at best, but bear with me on this one), let's multiply Jackson's numbers by 1.5 to bring him roughly in line with Jeter and 117-game "Choke-Rod." Maintaining his career postseason production, 114-game Jackson would collect 27 HR, 117 H, and 49 XBH.

The similarities are telling. Sure, A-Rod's line is probably the worst of the three, but he's also played in far fewer postseason series than either Jeter or Mr. October. A-Rod gets a bad rap for 2005 and 2006 postseasons in which he went .133/.381/.200 and .071/.071/.071, respectively, but where's the love for his other postseason accomplishments with the Yankees (.267/.353/.467 just last year, not to mention .258/.378/.516 in the 2004 ALCS and an absolutely monstrous line of .421/.476/.737 in the ALDS that same year)?

In five postseason series in pinstripes, A-Rod has put up solid-to-excellent numbers three times. Admittedly, in his two worst series (the '05 and '06 ALDS's), Rodriguez has been significantly outperformed by Jeter (.133/.381/.200 vs. .333/.364/.619 in 2005; .071/.071/.071 vs. .500/.529/.938 in 2006). Those are some fantastic numbers from Mr. Jeter. But where's the vitriol for Jeter's awful 2007 NLDS (.176/.176/.176 vs. Choke-Rod's .267/.353/.467) and subpar 2004 ALCS (.200/.333/.233 vs. Rodriguez's .258/.378/.516)? Add the only other postseason series A-Rod and Jeter have played in together (the 2004 ALDS) to the equation, and A-Rod has actually outperformed Jeter in three of his five postseason series as a Yankee: Jeter put up an excellent line of .316/.350/.526, but A-Rod's .421/.476/.737 was otherworldly.

Getting back to Mr. Roger's piece, going "all Alex Rodriguez in the playoffs" appears, in light of the numbers, to mean "slightly underperforming based on career regular season numbers and/or unrealistic fan/media expectations, largely due to inconsistency that is not offset by sufficient sample size." Obviously, that's not what Rogers was going for. I'm sure what he meant to write was that the Cubs went "all Alex Rodriguez in the 2006 ALDS," or "all Derek Jeter in the 2007 ALDS," or "home after getting the everlasting shit kicked out of them by the Dodgers."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

FA FA FA: Houston Astros


Significant FAs: Brad Ausmus (C)

Significant Gaps: SP, OF, 2B, C

The Houston Astros were a slightly above average team last year, and they fell somewhere around league average as a team in most categories. As a team, their pitching staff was 14th in the league in WHIP (1.36). This can certainly be considered decent but they need to look to make improvements if they want to compete in the central division. Roy Oswalt had a good year (1.18 WHIP, 10.71 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 44.1 VORP) and can be considered a dominant starter. Beyond that, their pitching staff was comprised of players with decent years or poor years, although Wandy Rodriguez showed a lot of promise and should have a better year next season. (1.31 WHIP on .323 BABIP which should come down some although his career average is .311.)

The biggest problem the Astros face is a lack of prospects for call-up purposes or for trades. They traded many of their top prospects to acquire Miguel Tejada (who I will discuss shortly) and Jose Valverde. As a result, their prospects are very young and will require more years of development before they are ready for MLB experience. To make matters worse, their top pitching prospect Felipe Paulino suffered a pinched nerve in his throwing arm this past year. As a result, the Astros will have to make a move on the free agent market to improve their rotation or go with their current starters and hope for improvements from this past season. Brandon Backe in particular has to improve from a 1.67 WHIP, 6.86 K/9, 4.16 BB/9, -7.9 VORP in 2008 in order to even stay in the rotation. Yes, that was a negative VORP.

Regarding Miguel Tejada, he posted a .283/.314/.415 line this past year. It was his second consecutive year of drops in all three categories. His VORP for 2008 was 19.2 which I am guessing was all defensive since his EqA was .249. (I'm still not sure where Dave gets his defensive stats and I am leery of most defensive metrics, but I will say that at least they analyze something other than anecdotal evidence of how good someone is at fielding.) This is not the kind of performance the Astros need out of Tejada in order to justify trading five prospects for him. Although he turns 35 next year the Astros need to stick with him and try to let him return to MVP quality form, mainly because they have no other options.

In the outfield the Astros have one quality starter in Carlos Lee. The other two positions could see significant upgrades as Michael Bourn, while fast, posted a .229/.288/.300 line last year, good for an EqA of .223 and a VORP of -12.0. Hunter Pence had a significant drop from his rookie season in 2007 of .322/.360/.539 to his 2008 of .269/.318/.466. His EqA went from .298 to .264 so I guess the question is which Hunter Pence will show up in 2009? The Astros are hoping for 2007 Pence but unfortunately for them it appears 2008 Pence is more likely closer to his career expectations. His BABIP in 2007 was .378, a number that is almost impossible to sustain, which he didn't as it dropped to .303 in 2008. His production may go up and he at least deserves the chance to make that happen.

At second the Astros are projected to start Kazuo Matsui, who had a decent 2008 with a .293/.354/.427 line, .278 EqA, and 21.2 VORP. What's the problem? He has a career EqA of .256 and has never played more than 114 games in a season. They are going to need help at second due to lack of production, injury, or both.

At catcher the Astros have a small problem in J.R. Towles. Long thought to be a top prospect of the Astros system, in 54 games in the majors last year he posted a line of .137/.250/.253. He had significantly better numbers in the minors upon demotion (.287/.361/.575) so he appears to have regained whatever he lost but he needs to be able to perform at the MLB level this upcoming year in order to restore faith on the part of the Astros. Until he is ready, the Astros appear to be going with Humberto Quintero, a career .230/.271/.304 hitter. I'm sure they are hoping Towles is ready soon.

The question becomes which FAs do the Astros go after? I believe they should make a play at a veteran CF, probably Jim Edmonds or Gabe Kapler. They also need to be going after another starting pitcher. I don't know their salary situation but I think they could at least acquire a midlevel talent like Freddy Garcia, Josh Fogg, or even Sidney Ponson.

My inclusion of Ausmus as a significant FA was more in a nostalgic sense for their organization than production (career .251/.325/.344).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: Third Basemen

The corners of the diamond tend to be where the top hitters lurk, and the hot corner was no exception to this rule in 2008. Although I found that narrowing down the third basemen list to seven names was as simple, if not simpler, than the process was for second basemen, determining actual rankings once I was down to seven finalists was extremely difficult. But difficult or no, I plugged away at the numbers until I was satisfied with my rankings and ready to bring you Installment #5: Third Basemen.

In 2008, there were basically three classes of third basemen: the top three, numbers four through seven, and everyone else. But I’ve tried to keep my positional MVP picks at five players, which meant two players had to be dropped from the short list.

The second honorable mention (7th place) was easy enough: Jorge Cantu, despite being a solid hitter (.277/.327/.481 with 29 HR for an OPS+ of 110), was a terrible fielder in ’08 (16th among twenty qualified ML third basemen in range factor [RF] at 2.51, dead last in zone rating [ZR] at .720, and 18th in revised zone rating [RZR] at .662). True, at least two of the third basemen who made the top five are below-average to terrible fielders, but they are also vastly superior hitters to Cantu.

The first honorable mention was much more difficult to determine. Troy Glaus had an outstanding season in his new St. Louis uniform, putting together a line of .270/.372/.483 with 27 homers and an OPS of .855 (OPS+ 124), and his VORP of 35.2 actually led my pick for #5 by .4 runs (though Glaus was nearly ten runs behind 4th place). But Glaus wasn’t as good with his glove as the first man on my list, and so will have to settle for an honorable mention.

As for the players who made the list, I’m actually very confident in my #1 pick, but there are legitimate arguments, with which I will engage later, against both #1 and #2 being ranked as high as they are. #2 and #3 were almost too close to call, #4 was all alone (he has no business being rated either higher or lower than fourth), and #5 is hanging on to his spot by the skin of his teeth (or, perhaps more appropriately, by the leather of his glove).

So without further qualification, I present the top five MLB third basemen of 2008:

5.) Evan Longoria started the year in the minors, landed on the DL with a broken wrist, and only played in 122 games, but still managed to put together an excellent season. Longoria’s first-year resume includes a batting line of .272/.343/.531, an OPS of .874 (OPS+ 125), 27 HR, .302 EqA, 20 total win shares (including 4.8 fielding win shares, higher than any other Major League third baseman), and a VORP of 34.8. Among qualifyied third basemen, he tied for sixth in the majors with a 2.72 RF, was seventh with a .797 ZR, and fourth with a .731 RZR.

Longoria should be the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year award, particularly since he was such an important part of the Rays’ division title (and end-of-season award voters love playoff berths!). And although I think playoff berths are overrated with regards to individual awards (and am glad that, traditionally, the RotY has been much less linked to pennants than the MVP has), I use the word “should” with regards to Longoria’s expected RotY for two reasons: one, because I’m fairly certain that he will win the award, and two, because I believe he deserves it.

Longoria’s partial season was not strong enough for him to make it any higher than fifth on this list, but he is only 23 years old; give him another (hopefully full) season or two in the bigs, and he’ll be significantly higher on the short list of premier third basemen.

4.) Aramis Ramirez may be a statue at third, but my God can he ever crush a ball, and now that he’s taking more walks, Ramirez has become even more dangerous at the plate. Aramis’s 2008 stats include a batting line of .289/.380/.518, an OPS of .898 (OPS+ 128), 27 HR, a .297 EqA, 25 total win shares, and a VORP of 44.7 (solidly ahead of Glaus and Longoria, but nowhere near the top three).

Defensively, Ramirez is significantly worse at third than Longoria. His 2.16 RF was easily the lowest among qualified third basemen, and his .751 ZR and .659 RZR were 17th and 19th, respectively. But because offense is so much more important than defense, particularly at the corners, Ramirez gets the nod at #4.

There is no reason in heaven or on earth, by the way, that Aramis Ramirez should have won the NL Hank Aaron Award (see my previous post for a more detailed explanation), nor is there any reason for him to move into the top three on this list. But there is also no reason why Ramirez should be anything lower than #4.

3.) David Wright regressed slightly from his 2007 numbers, but still put together a monster year in ’08. Wright hit .302/.390/.534 with 33 HR for an OPS of .924 (OPS+ 141), an EqA of .319, 29 total win shares (tops among third basemen), and a VORP of 66.2.

And unlike Ramirez, Wright is a good fielder. Although his RF of 2.51 and ZR of .765 (both 15th among qualified third basemen) are hardly impressive, his RZR of .714 was good for 6th in the majors (and second only to Longoria among third basemen on this list).

Had Wright put up his 2007 numbers this year, he would easily have overtaken the next man on my list. Even in 2008, one could argue that Wright is worthy of the #2 spot. But in my estimation, Wright falls just short of the top two this year.

2.) Alex Rodriguez was once again the most valuable American League third baseman in 2008, though this year he’ll have to settle for second place on the overall list. Rodriguez had a bit of a down year in ’08 (which, in mere mortal terms, means “an amazing year”) thanks to a stint on the DL that limited him to 138 games, but his numbers were still obscene: .302/.392/.573 with 35 HR, a .965 OPS (OPS+ 150), .323 EqA, 25 total win shares, and a VORP of 65.6.

A-Rod was respectable in the field, beating out Wright with a 2.59 RF and .786 ZR, but lagging behind the Mets third baseman with a .703 RZR. Of course, defense is not and has never been the reason that Rodriguez is one of the most valuable players in all of baseball, let alone at his own position.

Which brings me to a topic that, surprisingly, I haven’t seen many writers address: Alex Rodriguez is a legitimate MVP candidate. In a year in which the Yankees were devastated by injuries to catcher Jorge Posada, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, and outfielder Hideki Matsui, and disappointed by serious regressions from their young talent (Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera) as well as their veterans (Derek Jeter), A-Rod led the American League in VORP and SLG, was second in EqA and OPS (and OPS+), third in HR, and top five in a slew of other offensive categories, all while keeping the Yankees competitive in arguably the toughest division in baseball (it’s easy to forget that the Yankees would have won the AL Central or the NL West, and been only one game out in the NL Wild Card despite playing so many games against the Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays). In fact, if I had a vote, I’d almost certainly cast it for A-Rod this year.

As for this list, the A-Rod vs. Wright debate comes down to qualitative vs. quantitative statistics. Wright played in 160 games; A-rod played in 138. Wright’s countable statistics (VORP and win shares, for example—though notably, not HR) were higher than Rodriguez’s in 2008. But A-Rod’s averages (EqA, OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+) were all higher than Wright’s.

I chose to go with qualitative statistics, but the choice is certainly arguable, particularly within an MVP-type context; after all, one might argue, isn’t the player who plays more games, even at a lower level, likely to be more valuable to a team? The answer is almost certainly “yes,” and A-Rod’s and Wright’s VORPs support such an answer. But because Wright was unable to convincingly pull away from A-Rod despite 22 extra games (Wright’s VORP was only .6 runs higher than Rodriguez’s), I went with the better player over fewer games.

1.) Yes, he cooled off after the All-Star break. Yes, he played in only 128 games due to a lingering thigh injury. But Chipper Jones was the most valuable third baseman in the Major Leagues in 2008. The Braves third baseman hit .364/.470(tops in the majors)/.574 for an OPS of 1.144 (OPS+ 174) with 22 HR, a .362 EqA (second only to Pujols), 24 total win shares, and a VORP of 75.4 (easily tops at third base, and third overall in the majors).

Jones isn’t a terrible fielder (his 2.73 RF and .820 ZR were fifth and second in the majors, respectively, though his .695 RZR—14th among qualified third basemen—tells a different story), but with the year he had at the plate in 2008, he could have trotted to the hot corner with a cinderblock strapped to his left hand and still been a fantastic everyday third baseman.

Like with A-Rod, the fact that Jones didn’t play everyday is really the only strong argument against him at #1. But whereas such an argument could potentially unseat Rodriguez from the #2 spot, it doesn’t work as well against Jones. Jones outperformed Wright so dramatically in qualitative statistics like EqA (.362 to .319), BA/OBP/SLG (.364/.470/.574 to .302/.390/.534), and OPS+ (174 to 141), as well as in arguably the best quantitative offensive statistic for comparisons of players within the same year/league/position (VORP, 75.4 to 66.2) despite playing in 32 (!) fewer games, that losing out to Wright in home runs (22 to 33) and total win shares (24 to 29) does little to refute Jones’s claim to the #1 spot.

Chipper Jones won’t sniff the NL MVP award (Pujols or, God forbid, Ryan Howard has that trophy locked down), but despite playing in only 128 games, he was far and away the best (and most valuable) third baseman of 2008.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

FA FA FA: Milwaukee Brewers


Significant FAs: C.C. Sabathia (SP), Ben Sheets (SP)

Significant Gaps: 3b, 2b, C, SP

Ben Sheets, Ben Sheets, Ben Sheets. The Brewers need to sign him in order to hang on to the dominant #1 starter for their rotation cannot be overstated. He is the face of their franchise. The only knock against him would be health issues but if they can get even 130 innings of sub 1.2 WHIP, 7.5 K/9 and 3.85 K/BB out of him (career averages) he will be worth it.

They have publicly made an offer for Sabathia, but seeing as how he is the most coveted FA pitcher in a shallow market it seems unlikely for him to sign unless he fell in love while he was in Milwaukee or something. That being said, their rotation looks relatively solid without him (provided they hang on to Sheets), with Gallardo (1.27 WHIP, 8.24 K/9, 2.73 K/BB in 2007) and Bush (1.14 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.27 K/BB in 2008). Suppan is nothing special but he stays healthy and can chew up innings as a fourth starter.

Offensively the Brewers need to change some things. They were 9th in the majors in slugging but 21st in OBP. Some things need to change and the positions I have identified are where to start. In the OF, they have Braun, Cameron, and Hart. Braun is a stud (.285/.335/.553, .294 EqA, although a few more walks would be great), Hart can be good and hopefully gets closer his 2007 line (.295/.353/.539) than 2008 (.268/.300/.459). Cameron is the weakest of the three (.243/.331/.477) but is more than servicable. A utility fielder to platoon with him might not be the worst idea but there are bigger needs to address.

At 3b, the Brewers are currently projected to start Bill Hall. While I think Bill Hall seems like a great guy, a .225/.293/.396 line is not going to cut it and it marks the second year of sharp decline from his .270/.345/.553 2006. I think it would be interesting to see them resign Russell Branyan (.230/.328/.484) or go after maybe Hank Blalock (.274/.337/.465) or Joe Crede (.257/.306/.447). I say this because the Brewers have a hot prospect in Mat Gamel (.329/.394/.537) at 3b and getting one of Blalock or Crede who have health issues (123 and 144 games played the past two seasons respectively), or Branyan who has never really been an every game major leaguer (139 games the past two seasons, 113 games with Cleveland in 2001), would still leave you with a viable option in Gamel should something not work out.

At 2b, Rickie Weeks has been the Brewers project player for four seasons and quite frankly I think it would be nice to upgrade. His career .245/.352/.456 and .270 EqA just aren't at the levels you want from a speedy infielder who is expected to leadoff. The Brewers picked up Ray Durham for half a season last year but a 36 year-old wasn't what I had in mind as a replacement, although he admittedly put up a respectable .280/.369/.477 in 41 games with the Brewers. He may not be a bad option to resign and keep the pressure on Weeks to improve. Admittedly, there aren't a lot of free agent options (as of this writing) that are any more attractive so unless they want to make a trade (Dan Uggla maybe? .260/.360/.514 last year and the Marlins are always selling.) Ray Durham is probably the best option.

At C, Jason Kendall is a veteran player that I'm sure brings a lot of intangibles to the team, because a line of .246/.327/.324 is not good enough to justify a starting role in this organization. He's still around which is actually fortunate for the Brewers who have three very solid catching prospects in Angel Salome (.360/.413/.539 in AA 2008), Jonathan Lucroy (.292/.367/.479 in A+ 2008), and Brett Lawrie (last year's first round draft pick). I'm sure Kendall can mentor one of these guys (probably Salome) and groom them for the majors.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

FA FA FA: Chicago Cubs

I decided I'm going to do short previews for the offseason for each team in the NL Central. I will be focusing on free agent losses and availability at desired positions. I will call these previews FA FA FA until someone gives me a reason not to.

CHICAGO CUBS (97 - 64)

Significant FAs: Ryan Dempster (SP), Kerry Wood (RP), Jim Edmonds (CF)

Significant Gaps: None

A team with the fourth highest EqA and second highest OBP in the entire MLB is lucky to be returning most of it's starting lineup. They could improve in some positions, of course, but until they get a stronger reason to they won't. As far as Jim Edmonds is concerned, a .256/.369/.568 line will be hard to replace, but a) that was in a half season and b) he turns 39 next year. Reed Johnson, the heir apparent to the position, put up .303/.358/.420. You are admittedly losing power (a lot of it) and if they can sign Edmonds they may as well, but Johnson provides similar defensive ability in CF, although I may be biased because of his freak of nature catch in Houston last year. It's a matter of if they can find that power some other place in the lineup (move Soto up) or find a better replacement.

Their highest priority should be Ryan Dempster. Granted, he may have had a career year in 2008 (1.21 WHIP, 2.46 K/BB) his career stats indicate that his WHIP should stay below/around 1.5. That is not bad for your fourth starter. The Cubs are keeping Rich Harden for 2009 and along with Zambrano and Lilly that makes a very good pitching staff for a team that is strong defensively and offensively.

Kerry Wood should be signed not even necessarily because he had a good year last year (1.09 WHIP, 4.67 K/BB) but because he is a franchise player and keeping him will be good for the public image. That being said, I am of the belief that dominant closers can be made/broken easily and wouldn't devote too much payroll to them. If necessary I will clarify this statement.

The Cubs are also losing some bullpen players (Lieber, Howry) and could use some help there but I honestly think that statement applies to every team in the league and premium bullpen help is hard to predict and even harder to find.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: Second Basemen

For this round of positional MVP picks, we move from a traditional power position (first base) to a position where offensive production was long considered a bonus rather than a primary responsibility. Although the days of second basemen being almost exclusively glove men are decades past, there are still far fewer sluggers up the middle of the diamond than at the corners, which made writing Installment #4: Second Basemen more of a “balancing act” than previous positional MVP lists.

Put simply, choosing which metrics to apply to second basemen to determine their relative worth was far more difficult than the “offense is everything” approach I took for first basemen. Middle infielders may be expected to contribute more offensively now than they were forty years ago, but they still have to be strong defensively, so simply scanning the offensive leaderboards won’t tell the whole story of a second baseman’s season. Fortunately for me, there are far fewer top-tier second basemen (both offensively and defensively) in the major leagues than there are first basemen, so the need to account for defense didn’t result in a need to spend an absurd amount of time poring over extra statistics.

In fact, narrowing the field to seven or eight players was actually quite easy, and once I started crunching numbers, the top five pulled away from the rest of the pack pretty convincingly. An honorable mention goes to Mark DeRosa, who had an excellent year at the plate (.285/.376/.481 with 21 HR), and kept pace with numbers four and five on this list offensively, but whose defense (though solid) and VORP (35.7, 6.8 runs lower than my pick for #5 and 15 runs lower than #4) kept him from cracking the top five.

The gap between DeRosa and the rest of the field this year is, in my mind at least, significant, particularly since I still privilege offensive statistics over defensive statistics at second base—both due to their higher reliability and due to my belief that offense, even for middle infielders, is more important to winning ballgames than defense.

Here’s the top five:

5.) Dan Uggla’s batting eye is starting to catch up with his power stroke, resulting in 2008 being Uggla’s strongest season in the big leagues. The Florida second baseman hit .260/.360/.514 for an OPS of .874 (OPS+ 128) with 32 HR, a .296 EqA, 25 win shares, and a VORP of 42.5. He set career marks in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, HR, and BB despite playing in fewer games (146) than in either of his previous two seasons.

Uggla may not have the best glove at second, but he’s not a liability, and he certainly isn’t as bad as he looked during the All-Star Game. Uggla’s range factor (RF) for 2008 was 4.86 (well behind the top glove men, but not exactly terrible), and although his zone rating (ZR) was a bit low at .803, his revised zone rating (RZR), which takes into account plays made outside a fielder’s “zone,” was a slightly more impressive .812, good enough for 11th among qualified fielders.

Uggla is in the Marlins lineup (and on this list) for his bat rather than his glove, and his mediocre fielding marks don’t undo the value he adds at the plate. However, they do prevent him from climbing higher than 5th on this list.

4.) Brian Roberts may not have anything even approaching Uggla’s power, but he’s a better fielder and an excellent top-of-the-order hitter. Roberts’s 2008 line was .296/.378/.450 with 9 HR and 51 doubles for an OPS of .828 (OPS+ 117), a .295 EqA, 21 win shares, and a VORP of 50.6.

The Orioles second baseman also stole 40 bags against only 10 CS for an 80.0% success rate (as opposed to Uggla, who was 5-for-10 in 2008 and is 13-for-25 over the course of his three year career), which was a major factor in pushing Roberts’s VORP 8.1 runs higher than Uggla’s.

Defensively, Roberts really pulls away from Uggla. Roberts’s 4.98 RF, .829 ZR, and .829 RZR were all higher than Uggla’s marks, and, coupled with his superior baserunning skills, made the Orioles second baseman the more valuable player in 2008.

3.) Ian Kinsler continued to develop into one of the top second basemen in the big leagues in 2008, hitting .319/.375/.517 with 18 HR, an .892 OPS (134 OPS+), a .311 EqA, 26 win shares, and a VORP of 54.6. Like Roberts, Kinsler can run, swiping 26 bases with only 2 CS for a 92.9% success rate, and Kinsler has significantly more power than the Orioles second baseman.

What makes Kinsler’s offensive numbers even more impressive is that he ended the 2008 season on the disabled list and only played in 121 games. Had he played in 20-30 more games, he may have overtaken one or both of the players ahead of him on this list, at least offensively.

On the defensive side, Kinsler is a bit more difficult to evaluate. His 5.77 RF led all Major League second basemen, but his .819 ZR and .801 RZR are much less impressive. Kinsler is so good at the plate that he’s an easy choice for #3 on this list, but his defensive shortcomings and partial 2008 season prevent him from climbing any higher.

2.) Dustin Pedroia has a very legitimate shot at the 2008 AL MVP (in fact, he’s my pick to win the award), and although I don’t believe he should be this year’s MVP, he certainly put up some impressive numbers: .326/.376/.493 with 17 HR, 54 2B, an .869 OPS (122 OPS+), a .298 EqA, 26 win shares, a VORP of 62.3 (tops among Major League second basemen), and 20 SB in 21 attempts (a 95.2% success rate).

Pedroia was solid defensively, as well. His 4.75 range factor is unimpressive, but he did a good job at handling what he got to, posting an .854 ZR and .829 RZR, and although I think it is a potentially misleading statistic, it is worth noting that Pedroia was second at his position (behind only Mark Ellis) in FPCT at .992.

My problem with Pedroia’s likely AL MVP award is not that I don’t believe he is a deserving MVP, but that, like Cliff Lee’s all-but-inevitable AL CYA, Pedroia’s award will probably be for the wrong reason (wins for Lee, and Boston’s playoff berth for Pedroia). Pedroia was the most valuable American League second baseman in 2008, and he was the most valuable player on the Red Sox this season, but the AL MVP should be about more than just the most valuable player on a playoff-bound team. However, Pedroia is not a bad pick for the award, so I won’t be terribly upset if he wins it, though I would cast my all-too-hypothetical vote elsewhere.

1.) Chase Utley once again put together a monster year, particularly for a middle infielder, in 2008, posting a line of .292/.380/.535 with 33 home runs (and 78 total XBH!) for an OPS of .915 (OPS+ 135), an EqA of .308, 30 total win shares, and a VORP of 62.2 (only 0.1 behind Pedroia’s). Utley, like Pedroia, was efficient on the basepaths, racking up 14 SB against only 2 CS (87.5%)—not an overwhelming total, but Utley is a 3-hole hitter rather than a leadoff man like Pedroia and Roberts, and he bats in front of Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell, both of whom rack up a lot of XBHs.

Not only did Utley have a better (or at the very least, more multi-dimensional) offensive year than any other second baseman on this list, he had a better defensive year as well. His 5.18 RF was fourth among all second basemen, and his ZR of .844 and RZR of .839 were third and fourth, respectively. Of the other second basemen on this list, only Uggla had a better RF (5.77 to 5.18), and only Pedroia a better ZR (.854 to .844); Utley’s RZR was tops among my top five.

Put simply, no other second baseman excelled at so many facets of the game as Utley did in 2008 (and 2007, and 2006, and 2005…). He hit for power, he got on base, he ran the bases well, and he fielded his position superbly, and was an easy choice for the top second baseman of 2008.