01 April 2008

Yankees Need to Address Melky Problem

The New York Yankees start their season today.


Or at least they’ll try.

After getting rained out in what should have been their last first game of the season in the old Yankee Stadium, they’ll take another stab at it tonight. Fortunately for me, however, the unanticipated delay gives me a chance to discuss an issue that I have come to see as being of paramount importance to the 2008 Yankees’ chances, if not to the very future of the franchise.

Melky Cabrera.

The New York Yankees’ young center fielder is going to kill the Yankees.

OK, not exactly kill them, not yet anyway, but it’s just a matter of time before he does. For all the hype he brings, the “Got Melky?” T-shirts, John Sterling yelling “the Melk-Man delivers!!!” and etc., Cabrera really just isn’t all that good. Worse yet, he’s not likely to become good.

Cabrera, you have been told, “won” the starting center field job from Johnny Damon in 2007, but really, it was Johnny who lost it. He hit only .229 with four extra base hits in April, and though he bounced back a bit in May, his injuries thrust him into an even worse slump in June (.226 with no walks or power in 91 plate appearances that month). By the time he started hitting again, it was too late.

Melky, for his part, was nothing special either. He hit only .200 in sporadic duty in April, and then .254 in May, with a few walks but not much else. But he improved significantly in June, just as Damon was going back in the tank, and then got hot in July and August, just as the Yankees began gaining ground on the Red Sox. He averaged an RBI or a run scored per day that month. Though he tanked in September (hitting .180 with a .220 slugging percentage, thanks to only four doubles and no homers or triples in 100 at-bats), Damon hit well that month, and anyway by then the Yankees’ postseason berth was pretty secure, so nobody noticed.

For the season, Melky hit a respectable .273 with a .327 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage. That gave him a .719 OPS that ranked 53rd among the 57 outfielders who qualified for the batting title in 2007. His Secondary Average and Runs Created per 27 outs both also ranked 53rd, while his Isolated Power was 50th. Near or below him on most of those lists were Corey Patterson, Vernon Wells, Juan Pierre, Coco Crisp, Andruw Jones, Delmon Young and/or David DeJesus. Those guys are all center fielders as well, except for Young, who could be a center fielder if it weren’t for the presence of B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli on the Devil Rays’ roster.

Jones and Wells are both very good hitters who had awful years in 2007, but who should bounce back. Crisp has been plagued by injuries since he was traded to Boston two years ago, but he still manages to be a prolific and effective base stealer (60 steals, but caught only 10 times in 2006-07) and an excellent defensive player. Pierre isn’t much for defense, but he has speed to burn, and is an excellent base stealer. (The value of that skill, however, can hardly make up for his poor hitting, and he may be losing his job in LA because of it.) Patterson, too, steals bases often and well, and has shown a little power in the past, though he didn’t much in 2007, and had an off year on defense as well. Young is still, well, very young (21) and hit for some power in the minors (51 homers at three levels in 2004-05) so I suspect that the power will come for him, especially if he learns to lay off a bad pitch once in a while.

But Melky’s different. He’s decent at a lot of things, but not great at anything. He hits for a respectable average. He walks a little. He doesn’t strike out too much. He steals a few bases (13 for 18 in 2007). The jury’s still out on his defense. (Baseball Prospectus rated him as +14 Fielding Runs Above Average last year, but Bill James’ +/- metric says he was 22 plays below average last year, so who knows?) Regardless, it’s clear that he doesn’t stand out in anything, and that may be a problem.

A quick look at the ten most comparable players to Cabrera, (according to Bill James’ Similarity Scores) through their age 22 seasons, reveals some interesting names:

Sixto Lezcano
Max Carey
Chet Lemon
Rick Manning
Harry Heilmann
Roberto Clemente
Cliff Heathcote
Carlos May
Les Mann
Jimmy Sebring

That’s an interesting list. Three of the ten (Carey, Heilmann and Clemente) are Hall of Famers and Chet Lemon and Carlos May were All Stars two or three times each. Not a bad list of comps, all things considered. But remember, these similarity scores are through age 22 only. Part of the reason that Melky’s in such good company is the very fact that he was a regular player at ages 21 and 22, when most players are still in AA or AAA. The fact that he didn’t totally fall flat on his face in the majors at such a young age automatically bodes well for his long term success.
But what about in the short term? Lezcano, Lemon, Heilmann, Heathcote and May all got hurt and missed significant time during their age 23 seasons. That’s probably just a weird coincidence, but you can’t ignore the fact that the more you Play, the more likely you are to get hurt.

Carey, Heilmann, Heathcote and Mann all played in the Dead Ball Era, at least through their age 22 seasons, so any apparent increase in power for them (like Heilmann starting to hit 15-20 home runs every year) likely had more to do with the change in the nature of the game itself than to any real improvement in skills.

Carey was basically a slap hitter and an extremely prolific base stealer (738 of them, 9th place all time) who didn’t hit .300 in a full season between age 22 and age 31, when the Dead Ball Era was ending. Heathcote was decent but unspectacular for about 15 seasons, amassing 500 at-bats in a season only once, at age 28.

Les Mann had his best season at age 22, in the Federal League in 1915, so that hardly counts. He promptly returned to mediocrity in the National League when the Federal League folded. He held on long enough to parlay some success as a part-time player at the end of the Dead Ball Era into a few more years of work, but was never anything to write home about.

As for the others on the list…

Sixto Lezcano: Got a jump in his power at age 23 and hit 15-20 homers a year when he was healthy. At age 25 he hit .329 with 28 homers and 101 RBIs and finished 15th in the NL MVP voting, but never came close to those numbers again and was out of baseball by age 31.
Chet Lemon: Started to hit for some power at age 22, and hit .300 or better three times in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, though only once in a full season. He was a productive regular or semi-regular through age 33 and retired at age 35, after a couple of down seasons. The Yankees could do a lot worse than to have Melky turn out like this.

Rick Manning: Played for 13 seasons (1975-87) but never hit more than 8 homers in any of them. After hitting .285 and .292 at ages 20 and 21, he never did better than .270 in any other year of his career. He stole some bases, but not always well, and walked once in a while, but not enough to make up for hitting .250 with no power. The Tribe finally got tired of waiting for him to turn into Tris Speaker and traded him to the Brewers in 1983, when he was 28. By the middle of 1984 he was relegated to spot starter/pinch hitter status, and by 1987 he was retired.

Roberto Clemente: A terrific talent, and a deserving Cooperstown enshrine, but he didn’t start hitting for power until he was 25, and then he got some MVP votes every year for a decade. Still he had that great arm and a swing that produced doubles and triples even when he wasn’t hitting homers, so there was a little more reason to believe that Clemente would turn out like that than there is for Cabrera, I think.

Carlos May: May had hit .280+ with power at ages 21 and 22, and though he lost some of the power, he gained in batting average every year from age 21 to age 24, when he hit .308 and made the All-Star team, all the time with lots of walks. At age 25 he hit 20 homers, drove in 96 runs and got a few MVP votes, but after that his career spiraled downward quickly. His power and batting average both disappeared simultaneously, and with them, his playing time. He lost about 100 at bats at ages 27 and 28, then about 150 at age 29, when he hit .236 with a sub-Neifi .623 OPS, and then retired.

Jimmy Sebring: Played in the early 1900’s for the Pirates and Reds, as a regular at ages 21 and 22, but played less than half of a season, badly I might add, at age 23, and then disappeared except for a cup of coffee at age 27. An anomalous data point, at best, given the abbreviated career and the time in which he played.

Bill James’ Similarity Scores, however, are not the only tool for comparing players. Baseball prospectus, for example, has its own methods of comparing players, and they’re a bit more comprehensive than James’ approach, which is based entirely on stats. BP has a list of 20 “comps” to Malky Cabrera for 2007, and these are, in order:

Carlos Beltran
Coco Crisp
Pete Rose
Brian McRae
Rick Manning
Nick Markakis
Reggie Smith
Rondell White
Jim Wohlford
Hosken Powell
Mark Kotsay
Tito Francona
Bernie Williams
Marquis Grissom
Carl Yastrzemski
Shannon Stewart
Ellis Burks
Peter Bergeron
Tom Umphlett
Lee Mazzilli

Most of those guys had long careers, 10 years or more, though some of them were only marginally useful during much of their long careers. Others are in the midst of their career now, so we don’t know how they’ll turn out, though some of the players have been around long enough (Beltran, Stewart, Kotsay) that we have a pretty good idea of what they are.

It should be noted, however, that none of these guys is substantially comparable to Melky. BP indicates that for their scores, which are graded on a 0-100 scale, a score of 50 or higher means a player is substantially comparable to another player. A score of 40, I suppose, is only moderately comparable. Melky’s closest comp, Carlos Beltran, scores a 40, and everyone below that is between 30 and 36. By comparison, Bobby Abreu’s closest comp, Carl Yasztremski, also scores a 40, as does Beltran’s #1 comp, Tom Tresh. It’s like taking the SAT all over again!



When in doubt, you always answer “b”, right?

So I don’t really know what to make of those comparisons, except that we should probably take them with a grain of salt. Still, if you look at the players on that list, and particularly how well they did at age 23, Cabrera’s current age, you can get an idea of how they turned out. The average, age-23 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) among those players was about 3.6. Twelve of the 20 players on the list came close to or exceeded that mark at age 23, or at least demonstrated such ability before that, even if they had a down year at age 23. These were:

Hitter      Yrs. OPS+   Age-23 WARP
Beltran 11 116 1.5
Williams 16 125 3.3
Kotsay 12 100 2.6
Manning 14 84 2.8
Rose 24 118 4.4
Markakis 2 114 6.8
Smith 17 137 7.4
White 17 108 4.6
Yastrzemski 23 129 8.4
Burks 18 126 6.3
Umphlett 3 65 3.9
Mazzilli 14 109 6.6
Average* 15 116 4.7

*I threw Markakis out of the average calculations because this was only his second year, though it was a very good one. In case you’re curious, if you throw Umphlett out, too, the numbers go up to 16.6 years, 117 OPS+ and 4.8 WARP.

The following eight players did not demonstrate the ability to produce at least a 3-3.5 WARP season by age 23:

Hitter      Yrs. OPS+   Age-23 WARP
Crisp 6 94 1.4
McRae 10 92 1.9
Wohlford 15 84 2.9
Powell 6 79 2.5
Francona 15 107 1.3
Grissom 17 92 2.4
Stewart 13 107 1.2
Bergeron      5    56    -1.1
Average 11 93 1.6
Crisp’s career is hardly over, as he’s only 28 this year, but there’s little reason to believe he’ll ever be a star. McRae was a useful player for a while, supplementing his modest hitting skills with his speed, but was washed up at 31.

Francona took a while to get going, thanks to the Korean War, injuries, and managers with the Browns/Orioles and Tigers who never gave him a shot, but when he finally got to play in Cleveland, he did not disappoint. He parlayed the success of hitting .363 at age 25 into four more years of regular work, but by 30, he was basically a spot starter and pinch hitter.

Though he didn’t do much before age 24, Grissom was very good for about 6 years, a 5-tool player, and was useful for another 5 years or so after that. Stewart’s no star, but he’s had four of the 5 tools (no power, really) at one point or another in his career, so teams keep giving him a chance. He’s probably got a year or two left as a fourth outfielder before he can’t hit for enough batting average to keep his job anymore.

For Yankee fans, the really scary names on that list are Jim Wohlford, Hosken Powell and Peter Bergeron, not to mention Umphlett. Wohlford was never really a good hitter, and made a career for himself as a defensive replacement. In other words, these days, he’d never make it. Powell, like Bergeron, never hit, and didn’t last long. Umphlett looked solid as a rookie, getting the only RoY vote that didn’t go to Harvey Kuenn in 1953, but fizzled out quickly after that. Melky has, it seems, already demonstrated superior talents to any of those three, but not vastly superior, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the guys on the list of Cabrera’s comparables who turned out to be any good had done something to establish themselves by this age. Rose and Beltran each won a Rookie of the Year Award at age 22. Francona and Reggie Smith each finished 2nd in the RoY voting at the same age. Yaz was getting MVP votes at age 22, and was an All-Star and serious MVP candidate at 23. Ellis Burks hit 20 homers and stole 27 bases at age 22. And Melky?

Well, he’s got those T-shirts!

In my mind, that’s just not enough. Granted, he’s still young, so he’s cheap, and the Yankees should have plenty of offense, it would seem. But the Yankees do not have the luxury of overlooking a spot in the lineup. Not this year, in which they expect two aging veterans and three sophomore starting pitchers to help carry them into the postseason. Not in a year when Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez are bound to suffer significant declines from their 2007 production levels. Not in a year in which the Red Sox look like they’re well equipped to defend their World Championship.

So here’s the plan: The Yankees still have four outfielders, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Abreu and Cabrera, plus Shelley Duncan on the bench. They don’t have much in AAA, but they could probably get by with Jason Lane or Greg Porter as the 5th outfielder. Damon’s under contract for this and next year and is blocking Cabrera, but his contract and his health (or lack thereof) make him essentially untradeable. Abreu and Matsui are both still productive, so that makes Cabrera the odd man out.

He’s young enough and cheap enough that other teams will want him on his “potential” alone, not to mention the fact that he’s not eligible to be a free agent for three more years. That, and maybe some other mid-level minor league swag, might be just enough to fetch a decent starting pitcher in mid-summer, before the trading deadline.

Some other team, conceding that they need to go into re-building mode, might give up a superfluous pitcher making a little too much money, especially a lefty like Jarrod Washburn or Mark Buehrle, who might do well in Yankee Stadium. Guys like Derek Lowe, Jon Garland or Ben Sheets, in the last years of their contracts and unlikely to be re-signed, could become available if their teams are out of contention in July.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that the Yankees should mortgage their future for a fleeting shot at the 2008 postseason. I am saying that Melky Cabrera is NOT the future, not if he doesn’t start getting really good at something. His pitiful spring (.222 with one extra-base hit – a double - in 63 at-bats) does not bode well for him.

A centerfielder with a good arm but questionable range is destined to be a right fielder, and there are no right fielders who can’t hit 10 homers in a season, or hit .320, or steal 30 bases, or something. If Cabrera wants to be in the future plans for the Yankees – and really, who wouldn’t? – then he’s got to start hitting like a future star.

It’s high time for the Melk-Man to deliver.

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25 March 2008

Canseco's Juice is Running Out...

Rob Neyer's got a blog entry today about Jose Canseco's new book. Apparently someone named Joe Lavin got a copy from a bookstore a little sooner than anticipated, though it would surprise me if some of the usual book-reviewing types had not already been given a copy.

Of course, River Avenue Blues thinks that the original is a satire anyway, a fake. Looking at the original column, I don't see how it can be anything but a fake. Lavin says that Canseco includes a profane, personal attack/insult to Alex Rodriguez at the end of one chapter, which is something I can't imagine a publisher allowing, or even a ghost writer, as Jose had last time with Steve Kettmann. I doubt he's so refined his writing skills in the last three years that he no longer needs a ghost writer, and I can't imagine that even the most ineperienced one would let something like that through.

Lavin says that Canseco was upset that he didn't get mentioned more in the Mitchell Report, quoting him as saying "I was Mitch-slapped!" There is no way on God's green Earth that Jose Canseco is clever enough to have thought of that on his own. And if his ghost writer suggested it, he would have just looked at him quizically, like your dog looks at you when he can't figure out what you've done with the rest of the coookie you were eating, the one that's now "hidden" in your other hand.

Lavin says that Canseco attests to having taken two lie detector tests, and that the results are in the book. This is ridiculous. I've seen the movies. I know how these things work. The results of a polygraph test would take pages and pages of space in a book. You get readings of heart rate, pulse, body temperature, stuff like that, and it all comes out on a running chart on which there are lots of jagged lines, none of which are meaningful unless you know

A) What questions were being asked when those particular readings were taken

2) What the readings looked like when he was asked innocuous questions with either true or false answers, and

iii) How much of a difference in those readings is significant.

He could have published the results of a seismograph machine from somewhere under the San Francisco Bay and 99% of us would never know the difference. In other words, you have to be a trained polygraph reader, and even then, the experts can disagree. Which is one of the reasons these things are not admissible in court. (The other being that all judges are psychic and can tell when you're lying, anyway!)

Toward the end, Lavin says that Canseco describes a lengthy conversation with CBS's octogenarian news anchor Mike Wallace about he potential benefits of HGH, and Levin ends his column as follows:

Yes, apparently, Mike Wallace could be juiced. It makes sense. How else to explain how Wallace has stayed on top of his game well into his eighties? No word yet on whether Andy Rooney is juiced too.

This is tongue-in-cheek, here, folks. Wallace took a lot of flak last year for his interview with Roger Clemens, in which he clearly was NOT at the top of his game. He's a big name, certainly, but he's a soft touch these days, and a personal friend of Clemens, which was exactly why Roger chose him for the interview. He violated two of the three classic journalism blunders, the most famous of which is 'never get involved in a land war in Asia', but only slightly less well known are 'ask tough questions' and 'make sure you can remain objective'.

And besides, even if Mike Wallace did want to learn about HGH, do you think he would actually risk talking to Jose Canseco about it? He may be old and crotchety and not much of an interviewer anymore, but the man is not stupid. Jose Canseco wrote a book three years ago, and is publishing another one in which he supposedly divulges confidential information form personal conversations with people who trusted him at the time...why would Wallace confide in this guy?

Getting back to Canseco, I read and reviewed his book Juiced as well, and found it mostly pretty interesting, but that was because it was chocked full of what were (at the time) mostly new revelations.

This new one, whether Lavin actually read it or not, appears to be just an effort by Canseco to make a few bucks by jumping on the bandwagon. Though it should be noted that he started this whole thing by pushing that bandwagon down the hill three years ago. At the time, many of his accusations were based on first hand experience of injecting or supplying other players, though now it just sounds like he's accusing anyone who's a big name and might make a splash for his book to get some press.

I've already got a couple of other books to review, both of which seem like they'll be more interesting and better written than Canseco's new offering, and I won't even get to them until I've gotten through Baseball Prospectus 2008 and drafted my fantasy team. I expect that Canseco's sequel to Juiced will be a lot like The Matrix: Revolutions and everything Erik Hinske's done since he won the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year - a lot less interesting, and only still there because there's a lot of money involved.

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19 March 2008

2008 Cincinnati Reds Preview

It's been a long time since the Cincinnati Reds were any good. The team has not finished a season with a winning record since Y2K, but even that team was not exactly "competitive", finishing 10 games back in the NL Central, and nine back in the Wild Card race. They did win 96 games for a Wild-Card tie with the Mets the year before that, which they lost, but the team has not been in the playoffs since 1995, when they won their division handily.

The Cincinnatis were once the proudest franchise in baseball. Of course, that was 1868, and there were no other professional baseball teams. Once the rest of the country caught on, the Cincinnati club, well, them, not so much...but lets not be picky.

They had some pretty good moments in the 20th century, too, but in this one? They've won more games than only six of the 30 MLB teams (and only 2 of 16 NL teams): the Brewers, Orioles, Tigers, Pirates, Royals and Rays, in that order. And the Tigers have actually turned themselves around recently. But the Reds, despite a great fan base, a new ballpark, and as rich a history as any team in baseball this side of the Bronx, haven't done diddly-squat in this milennium.

But that could all change in 2008.

Not so much because the Reds are any smarter or better than they have been. Just because the NL Central division is, by all accounts, up for grabs. With apologies to the 2006 World Champion Cardinals, no team in the division has won more than 85 games in either of the last two seasons, and the teams that have competed did not do much to upgrade themselves over the winter.
Not that the Reds did. But their young talent may be at a point where it can help them in the ways that free agency and trades, due to their exhorbitant prices, cannot.

Starting Rotation:

The pitching staff is headed up by Aaron Harang, who has been, believe it or not, one of the best starters in the major leagues for the last three seasons. I know, it's hard to fathom that a guy who has averaged fewer than 15 wins and a 3.77 ERA in that span should be allowed to lay claim to such a title.

However, when you consider that he's been on lousy teams and has had to pitch half his games in the Great American Phonebooth, it starts to make sense. Only eight pitchers in MLB have totaled at least 650 innings and an adjusted ERA of 120 or better, and among them, Harang is 3rd in Innings, 2nd in complete games and strikeouts.

With that said, his 120 ERA+ is the worst of that small bunch, and it's not likely he'll ever be any better than this, but he's a solid workhorse, and nobody should be surprised if he racks up another 225 innings with an ERA around 3.75 or so. And if the Reds hit like their projections suggest they will? He could win 20 games.

The #2 man in the rotation is Bronson Arroyo, who is also an unspectacular workhorse, though one who's much better than his 9-15 record in 2007 would suggest. If he can give the Reds another 200+ innings with a slightly better than average ERA, they'll have no reason to complain.

Free agent signee Josh Fogg, despite a lackluster resume, has pitched well this spring and should easily make the rotation in the #3 hole. After that, it's anybody's guess. The incumbent rotation members, Matt Belisle, and Homer Bailey, have done nothing this spring to secure themselves jobs. Bailey had racked up an 8.44 spring ERA that got him sent back to the minors, and Belisle has been even worse.

In their place, most likely, will be young hot-shots Edinson Volquez (5 runs and 3 walks in 13 innings, with 19 strikeouts so far this spring) and Johnny Cueto (3 runs in 13 innings, with 12 K's and 4 walks). Young pitchers are a volatile commodity, and it would be foolish to expect these two to go Fernando on the league, but it would be even more foolish to send them back to the minors to start the season. If they can meet projections for this year, i.e. a roughly league average ERA and pitch 25-30 games, the Reds' potent offense could get them some wins.
It's dangerous to read too much into spring stats, but 19 strikeouts and three walks is impressive no matter the context. And really, these guys have got to produce this year if the Reds are to contend. If they don't, Cincinnati cannot reasonably expect Jeremy Affeldt or (if he ever comes off the DL) Eric Milton to carry them to the playoffs.

And the minor league well is pretty shallow. The pitchers who got the bulk of last years starts for the AAA Louisville team are mostly either gone (Mike Gosling, Elizardo Ramirez, Phil Dumatrait, Victor Santos), injured (Bobby Livingston) or ineffective this spring (Bailey, Tom Shearn, Richie Gardner). There's not much left.

One (small) ray of hope, however, comes in the form of Matt Maloney. (Predicted Bermanism: The Maloney Ranger, which would be much better if he actually pitched for Texas, but what can you do?) Maloney came to the Reds from the Phillies in the Kyle Lohse trade last year. Maloney nearly won the pitching "triple Crown" in the Sally League in 2006, finishing 16-9 for Lakewood with a 2.03 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 168 innings. He was doing well in Reading in 2007 when he was traded, and then got a couple of starts for the Reds' AA team before he was promoted to Louisville and did well there too. He finished 2007 with a combined record of 13-10 with a 3.64 ERA and 177 strikeouts in 170 innings.

Most important, perhaps, he dropped his walk rate from 3.90/9IP to just 2.85/9IP, a huge improvement in control. Unfortunately, he's been awful this spring, so he'll likely have to re-prove himself in AAA before they give him a shot in the majors. Bullpen: Newly-signed Closer Francisco Cordero brings the sexiest name Cincinnati has had in that role since Rob Dibble, not to mention a much sexier face than David Weathers.

Of course, even Amy Winehouse could meet that requirement, even with that weird fungus consuming her face. I mean, I know my momma told me if I can't say anything nice I shouldn't say anything at all (or was that Thumper?) but seriously, this guy is not attractive.

Anyway, Cordero has had success, averaging more than a strikeout per inning since 2003, when he took over closer duties in Texas. He's not exactly automatic, as his ERA has been well over 3.00 two of the last three years, and close to three in two more years since 2003, but then you don't need perfection to be a closer. Just ask Joe Borowski.

Cordero strengthens the Reds' bullpen if only because he adds another quality arm to it, and therefore decreases the number of important innings that have to be assigned to pitchers like Jeremy Affelt. That's not worth $46 million dollars, of course, but it's worth something.
Weathers becomes the main righty setup man, and though Mike Stanton is penciled in as the main lefty right now, he's going to be 41 on June 2nd, and he had a 5.93 ERA last year. It would be nice to see him pass Jesse Orosco to be first all time in relief appearances, but he'll need about two more seasons for that, and I don't see him lasting out this season, much less two.

More likely, the main lefty out of the pen will eventually be Affeldt (if he can keep his 2007 successes going), or some combination of youngsters Bill Bray and the vaguely-dirty sounding Jon Coutlangus. Righties vying for time in the pen should include 25-year old Jared Burton, who went 4-1 with a 1.84 ERA after the All-Star break last year, Todd Coffey, who's been excellent this spring despite a 5.82 ERA in 2007, and anyone who doesn't make the rotation.

Additionally, it seems that Gary Majewski is working his way back after a year in which he was either injured, or filming a movie about The Three Musketeers, I'm not sure which.

The Reds' bullpen should be greatly improved over 2007, in which the team's 5.10 ERA in relief was no relief at all, worst in the NL by over a quarter of a run and 4th worst in the majors.

Simple regression to the mean by the likes of Majewski and Coffey should help, as will the departures of Kirk Saarloos, Eddie Guardado, Rheal Cormier, Victor Santos and Mike Gosling, who all posted very high ERAs. Mike Stanton will be gone if he's not any better than last year, as this is the last of his contract, which should also help. The pitchers taking their places should help to keep the likes of Bill Bray and Marcus MacBeth in the minors if they're not ready for the Show, as it seemed last year.

Starting Lineup:

The expected lineup on Opening Day is:

1) Corey Patterson, CF
2) Brandon Phillips, 2B
3) Ken Griffey Jr., RF
4) Adam Dunn, 1B
5) Edwin Encarnacion, 3B
6) Scott Hatteberg, 1B
7) David Ross, C
8) Jeff Keppinger, SS
9) Aaron Harang, Pitcher

The Reds do not have a bonafide leadoff hitter, but Patterson is the closest thing, at least in the mind of new field manager Dusty Baker. He frequently employed Patterson in this manner when they were both Cubs, and he's planning on doing it again. Unfortunately, if Patterson falters, Ryan Freel is seen as the next best option. Both players posted an adjusted OPS just slightly above 100 in 2003, and neither has done it since. This is, as they say in France, not good.
Of course, batting order does not matter nearly as much as batting quality, and the Reds are flush in quality hitting prospects, with both OF Jay Bruce (Baseball America's #1 overall prospect in 2008) and 1B Joey Votto. If Baker can be convinced to give these guys a chance, and thereby displace their veteran competition (Patterson and Scott Hatteberg, respectively), he might find that his team is the better for it.

If Baker understood OBP as he ought to, he'd probably try Edwin Encarnacion (.359 and .356 each of the last two seasons) in the leadoff spot instead. Griffey and Dunn are both much better at getting on base, but both hit for consistent power as well, and are therefore more valuable hitting 3rd and 4th. Brandon Phillips won't hit 30 homers again, but 15 or even 20 probably are not out of reach. PECOTA's got him hitting .274/.325/.444 with 20 homers, which sounds about right.

Ken Griffey's not the superstar he used to be. Heck, "Junior" is 38 now, and has not played a full, healthy season since 1999. When he plays, however, he can still hit, patiently and with power, even if he's not likely to ever crest .290 again. PECOTA suggests that he'll hit about .268 with 20 homers in 417 plate appearances, but also warns that he's got a better than 1-in-4 chance of losing a bunch of playing time due to injury.

When that happens, Jay Bruce should get to play, and may impress. He's hit for average and power in the minors (over .300 with 26 homers at three levels in 2007) and will take a walk, but is young and raw and will strike out a lot in the majors, as most young players do. Only 21, he's got some time to develop, but again, if the Reds are to compete this year, they need him to come into his own pretty quickly, and to supplant the at-bats that Patterson or Freel would have gotten, not to take Griffey's playing time when he sustains his annual injury.

Behind Griffey in the lineup is seamhead favorite Adam Dunn, who walks a ton, homers a ton and strikes out a ton and a half. He's hit exactly 40 homers each of the last 3 seasons, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say he hits...oh, let's say 39 this year.

I suggested that Encarnacion could be a good leadoff option, which is based moistly on the fact that the Reds don't really have a good leadoff option, but he's the closest thing, this side of Keppinger. PECOTA has him projected to hit 23 homers this year, though, and I doubt that Baker would want power like that leading off. However, Encarnacion never hit more than 17 homers in the minors, and that was in the Midwest league, where power is cheap, so I'll believe that when I see it. In any case, he's developed into a solid major league thirdbaseman, and at only 24 year sold, should only get better.

Hopefully, Baker has enough sense to let Joey Votto play every day instead of Scott Hatteberg, whose time as a useful starter, if indeed there ever was such a time, has clearly come and gone. Granted, he hit .310 last year with his typical patience (and his typical lack of power), which could fool Baker into thinking he'd be a good option to start, but he's 38, and that was the first time he'd really been "good" since, well, ever.

He posted a 116 OPS+ in 2002, but had not been over 109 since, until he posted a 120 mark last year. He set single season career highs in batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS and OPS+, all at the age of 37, though he did not get enough plate appearances for the season to qualify. Is it really likely that he's going to be anywhere near that good again? I don't think so, and neither do the guys at Baseball Prospectus, who have him slated to hit .278 with 7 homers.

Votto, meanwhile, should hit about .280 with 25 homers if he gets to play daily. Unfortunately, Votto's hitting only .158 this spring while Hatteberg is clipping away at .382, so it very unlikely that Baker has seen enough from his young prospect (ranked #4 in the Reds' system and #44 in all of MLB) to give him the first base job at this point.

Catcher Dave Ross barely cracked the Mendoza Line last year, hitting just .203 after he surprised the hell out of everyone by hitting .255 with 21 homers in 2006. He'll share catching duties with seasoned (read: OLD) veteran catcher Javier Valentin, making something of a Hitting/Catching platoon instead of the classic Righty/Lefty thing. Except that Valentin isn't much of a hitter anymore either. He's just better than Ross.

If one of them gets injured, minor league veteran Ryan Hannigan can step in, but he's no long-term solution, as he doesn't have enough power to light one of those new-fangled LEDs, much less to keep an opposing pitcher honest. This will be a trouble spot for the Reds all year.

Phillips' double play partner is currently slated to be Alex "No 'S'" Gonzalez, who hit .272 with 16 homers for them last year, but is more likely to hit something like .255 with 10 homers this year, assuming he's healthy enough to play. The Reds might be well served to let Jeff Keppinger get a shot this year at short, as PECOTA thinks he'll hit .305/.364/.418, which would also make him their best option for a leadoff man.

Keppinger's done nothing but hit everywhere he's played: .325 in Lynchburg, .337 in Altoona, .362 in Binghamton, .337 in Norwich, .300 in another stint in Norwich, .354 in Omaha, .368 in Louisville, and then .332 with the Reds last year, and always walking more than he strikes out. So why is he listed second to a proven mediocrity like "No 'S'" on the ESPN.com's Reds Depth Chart? Perhaps because he doesn't do much else. He's not a great defensive player, doesn't steal, doesn't hit for power...but if you can hit .300 in the majors, even without much in the way of secondary skills, there's a job for you somewhere. Between second, third and short in Cincinnati this year, he should get every opportunity to prove himself.


Almost everyone on the bench has already been mentioned, given that there are so many position battles in the Reds' camp this spring. The ones who lose out (hopefully Hatteberg, Patterson, Freel, Valentin, and Gonzalez, if he's healthy) could be joined by the likes of Norris Hopper, Andy Phillips, or Paul Bako, but none of those is likely to get much, if any, playing time. The Reds' bench should be pretty strong, but that's only because they have a lot of question marks in the starting lineup and seem to have stocked up on guys who could be good fall-back options.


There are too many question marks on this team right now for me to have much confidence about it going into 2008. They've got a lot of talent, but there are so many things that obviously have to break just the right way for them. Mostly they need their old players to not get hurt and their young prospects to all pan out at once, neither of which is likely to actually happen.
My best guess: we get a chance to see flashes of brilliance from each of the youngsters, but only Votto and probably one of the young pitchers, let's say Volquez, really does anything significant. Griffey gets hurt, Bruce isn't ready yet, Patterson and Freel combine for 550 at-bats (and 400 outs), and the Reds finish 82-80. A big jump from their 4th place finish in 2007, but not ready for the bigtime yet.

Look for them to take the NL Central by storm in 2009.

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13 March 2008

2008 Los Angeles Dodgers Preview

I don't intend to do a preview of every team in MLB -because, really, who has the time? - but it seems to me that it is worthwhile to look at some of the teams on the edge, teams that could go either way. Anyone can predict that the Giants or Royals will lose 100 games or that the Red Sox will win 95 or more. It takes real talent to predict that the Phillies will win 84 games. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.

So, in this vein, I'm now going to analyze the chances of the 2008 Dodgers, a team about which I know almost nothing, and in which I have absolutely no rooting interest.


The 2007 Dodgers finished 10th in the 16-team Senior Circuit with 735 Runs scored, despite the fact that they were 2nd in batting average and 4th in OBP. This is because they showed so little power, ranking 13th in slugging and 15th in home runs. They were basically a singles hitting, slash-and-dash team, 3rd in the NL with 137 steals. Nobody hit more than Jeff Kent's 20 home runs. Dodger Stadium is a pitchers' park, so that's not a total surprise, but they actually hit a little worse on the road than they did at home, so the park factor doesn't explain it. They just weren't that good. That explains it.

The Dodgers had a lot of old veterans last year, but many of those are gone: Mike Lieberthal, Luis Gonzalez, Mike Sweeney, Marlon Anderson, Brady Clark, Shea Hillenbrand - all overpaid, underproductive and on the wrong side of 30, some on the wrong side of 35. Of those that are left, basically Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, at least they can still hit, if not field. Well, Kent can hit. Nomar can pinch-hit, but that's about all he's good for these days.

Kent just turned 40, and is unlikely to play more than the 136 games he played last season, but they need all they can get out of him, because the remaining 30 or so games will mostly go to 22-year old Tony Abreu. Baseball Prospectus thinks Abreu will hit .276/.323/.401, well below the production levels of even Jeff Kent's quatragenarian bat. Abreu hit for average in the minors, but with little patience and no power, so it's unlikely that the team can withstand any sustained absence by Kent. (Delwyn Young is strictly outfield material, not a secondbaseman, despite what ESPN.com's depth chart says.)

Most of Nomar's at-bats last year should get taken by Andy LaRoche, who's projected to hit .278/.362/.481 by BP, but could easily out-pace that. (He averaged about .310/.400/.570 the last two seasons in AAA, which, even accounting for how much the PCL inflates offense, is still pretty impressive. Unfortunately, LaRoche has a thumb injury that will likely keep him out of commission until mid-May at the earliest. Now, whether new manager Joe Torre will actually let the young, unknown LaRoche play in lieu of a "proven commodity" like Nomar will depend on how well Garciaparra does for the first 6 weeks of the season. If he's hitting .260 with no power and demonstrating his usual lack of defensive prowess at third base, LaRoche will get a shot. Torre may not trust youngsters, but even should be able to tell the difference between Andy LaRoche and Andy Phillips.

The rest of the infield consists of shortstop Rafael Furcaland first baseman James Loney. Furcal, now 30 and not the superstar some expected him to be, is still a decent lead-off man and an excellent fielder. Loney hit like crazy in a truncated 2007 season, mostly because he hit .400 whenever he put the ball in play, which he won't do again. Still, a .290/.350/.450 line or better, as Baseball Prospectus predicts, would be fine if they can get a whole season out of him. The trouble is that Loney's got a history of wrist injuries, and may get hurt again. Worse yet, he may not get hurt enough to be placed on the DL, but just enough to rob him of the power he seemed to regain last year.

Catcher Russel Martin became a fan favorite last year with his quick bat (.293, 19 homers) and hustling style of play (21 steals and a Gold Glove). Given the fact that Dodger Stadium is still a pitchers' park, Martin's performance was even better than it looked on paper, a near-MVP caliber season from a 24-year old catcher, a truly rare commodity.

His career minor league slugging percentage was only .419, and that was bolstered by spending the whole 2004 season at Vero Beach, a power hitter's paradise, so those 19 homers he hit last year may prove to be a career high. In any case, he's got a solid bat, hitting both for average and a little power, with decent patience as well. He might want to be a little more selective with base-stealing, however, both because of the injury risk associated with it and because his 9 times getting caught essentially negated any benefit from the 21 times he was successful.

The Dodger outfield, with the recent addition of Andruw Jones, now has impressive depth, if not a bonafide superstar. Jones is probably expected to become a great Dodger centerfielder, in the mould of Duke Snider, but of course he hit only .222 last year, so if he can just make the fans forget about Milton Bradley, he'll be a success. Expect him to bounce back to his more typical .260/.350/.500 type of production, maybe just a tick below that because of the pitchers' park thing.

Jones is flanked by Matt Kemp and (hopefully) Andre Ethier. Kemp is still quite young, having just turned 23 in September, has hit for average everywhere he's played, and has power to burn, though he's never really walked much. Like Loney, Kemp hit over .400 when he put the ball in play last year, so don't expect him to hit .342 again, but if he hits the .293/.346/.497 that BP predicts, nobody will much care that he only walks about once a week. Especially if he goes back to stealing 15-20 bases per year, as he did in the minors.

Ethier, by contrast, does not steal bases, but he can hit a little, and since he's entering his prime (he'll be 26 in about a month) he could easily outpace the .281/.349/.444 that PECOTA suggests. Ethier, however, is not so obviously talented that he can rest on his laurels. Incumbent centerfielder Juan Pierre, pressed out of a job by the acquisition of Jones, will be vying for playing time in Left.

Pierre, nowhere near as productive a talent as Ethier, is nevertheless a Proven Veteran, except that Joe Torre doesn't realize that what he's proven is that he shouldn't be playing every day on a championship team. His defense, which was terrible in CF, won't be so bad in Left, but his bat will be that much worse. He's got plenty of speed, but little pateince and no power, so the apparently decent batting averages he puts up tend to be hollow. He's been in the top 3 in the NL in Outs made each of the last 5 years, leading it twice, with his only real competition coming form Jimmy Rollins, who at least hits for some power and plays better defense.


Still, having Pierre on the bench to spot start, pinch-run, or try to slap a key single in the late innings can be helpful. Just not worth the $55 million contract he signed. Pierre and Delwyn Young give the Dodger bench a range of useful skills and the ability to suffer some injuries to the starters, if they should happen.

The rest of the bench consists of run-of-the-mill backup catcher Gary Bennett, standard-issue 5th outfielder Jason Repko and back-up shortstop Chin-lung Hu. Hu has a career minor league stat line of .299/.346/.425, and has hit for average, taken walks and stolen bases during his minor league career. Unfortunately, he's really never done more than two of those at once, and usually only one. His real asset is his defense, for which he's gotten raves everywhere he's played. Someone who hits Hu's 50th percentile BP projection (.274/.318/.403) and plays Gold Glove defense would be a starter on most teams, but this one's committed to Furcal for two more seasons at about $13 million each, so that won't happen any time soon.

With all the injuries ot Dodger infielders, he might get a little playing time at third base, but his bat won't carry that position for any length of time. For now, Hu's greatest contribution to the team may be as the start of a "Hu's on First" type of gag, like this one:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation consists of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Esteban Loaiza, all righties.

Penny, who was 10-1 with a 2.39 ERA at the All-Star Break, looked poised to win the NL Cy Young Award for most of last year, but went only 6-3 with a 4.25 ERA after June, so Jake Peavy won it instead. Still, Penny was one of the 5 best pitchers in the NL last year, and there's no reason he should be much different this year.

Lowe, whose performance was wildly erratic his last few years in Boston, has been the very picture of consistency in the three years he's spent in LA. He's pitched between 199 and 222 innings, with 12 to 16 wins and an ERA between 3.61 and 3.88 each of those three years. The big differences have come in the Loss column, due to bad luck and/or poor run support. He's 34 now, and therefore probably due for a slight drop-off, but not anything severe.

Chad Billingsley has got the size (6'1", 245) and the stuff (95 mph fastball, slider and curve) ot be a stud in the majors. His MLB record right now is 19-9, 3.47 in 237 innings over two seasons. He walks a lot of batters, but can get a strikeout or a groundball when he needs one, so that's less of a concern than it would be if he were a pure fly-ball guy.

The key for him will be staying healthy. He's a big, stocky guy, with a high, almost El Duque-style leg kick, and his list of comparables on Baseball Prospectus includes Jaret Wright, Kelvim Escobar, Wilson Alvarez, Tony Armas Jr., and several other big, stocky guys who got injured at a young age and never met their potential. On the other hand, he could do worse than to turn out like Tom Seaver or John Smoltz, or even Dan Petry and Mark Gubicza, who are also on his list of comps.

PECOTA's projections for him are modest, probably because of his youth/inexperience and all those walks, but don't be surprised if he wins 18 games next year either. He could turn out to be the best pitcher on the staff.

The nominal 4th starter is a 33-year old Japanese veteran named Hiroki Kuroda, who went 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA last year for the Hiroshima Carp. Baseball Prospectus has what seems to me an overly optimistic 10-8, 3.94 projection for him. For comparison, last year they predicted 12-9, 3.99 for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who actually went 15-12, 4.40. Still solid, but hardly dominant, with higher walk- and homer-rates than they expected, hence the higher ERA. And you don't even want to know what they projected for Kei Igawa. If those two are any indication, Kuroda may be in for a rough season.

Rounding out the top five is Esteban Loaiza, who's trying to get healthy and pitch a full season for the first time since 2005. He made two starts for Oakland last year and pitched well enough to sucker the Dodgers into picking him up off waivers and assuming his $8 million in remaining contract dollars. While in LA, he pitched only 22 innings and racked up an 8.34 ERA, which, on a scale of one to ten, is 8.34.

Loaiza's doing well enough this spring (3 ER in 7 innings, 7 strikeouts and 2 walks) to make it seem that he may be healthy, but at 36 years old and following two years of injury trouble, he may be near the end. If Jason Schmidt can get healthy later in the year, perhaps in June, they could get a nice boost, but that's unlikely at best. Another option is Hong-Chih Kuo, who was a strikeout machine in the minors but is yet to have much success in the majors. If not him, then Joe Torre has Yankee cast-off (and inexplicable favorite) Tanyon Sturtze on whom to fall back. In any case, the front four should be good enough that the #5 man doesn't matter too much.


Closer Takashi Saito has been nothing short of brilliant since he crossed the Pacific two winters ago: 63 saves in 69 chances, 185 strikeouts in 142 innings, and a Mariano-esque 1.77 ERA. He also has a Mariano-esque age of 38 years, so he may miss a few games due to the sorts of nagging injuries that older pitchers sustain, but it appears that he is as good as any reliever in baseball when he's on the mound.

The bullpen workhorses are young Jonathan Broxton (32 Holds and a 2.85 ERA in 83 innings last year) and Scott Proctor (3.65 ERA in 86 innings), both of whom were equally solid in 2006. Proctor earned Joe Torre's trust in new York, and should see a significant share of the middle relief work as long as he continues to perform.

The main lefty is 30-year old Joe Beimel, who held lefties to a .188 BA against last year. Righties hit .294 off him, albeit with no power. He's totaled 137 innings the last two years, with ERAs of 2.96 and 3.88, and should continue to do well in that role in 2008. Rudy Seanez, now 39 years old, is also in the mix.

The mop-up duty will likely be handled by youngster Jonathan Meloan and minor league veteran Eric Hull. The former has been great everywhere he's pitched, but has only 27 innings of experience above AA ball, and therefore probably will get osme more seasoning before the Dodgers call him up for good. Hull was quite good in Las Vegas last year, after a couple of seasons of growing pains. His minor league numbers do not suggest future stardom, but he should be an effective mop-up man. Re-tread Yhency Brazoban may get some work, if he can get his weight under control, and Mike Myers is trying to eek out one more year as a resident wacky, laredo LOOGy. He's probably better off trying to make more Austin Powers movies.


In total, the Dodgers look really, really good on paper. They've got a starting rotation that is the equal of almost any in the national League, and a bullpen that is both very good and quite deep. The offense is not likely to be anything special, but is probably good enough, and with a full season from Ethier and Kemp, and Juan Pierre's out-making at-bats mostly replaced by Andruw Jones, who has a good shot at bouncing back from an off year, they could improve significantly from their 2006 numbers. Whatever they can get from Andt laRoche, once he's healthy, should be an improvement on the terrible numbers they got from the Hot Corner last year as well. Those improvements, if Torre can bring himself to make them, should more than offset any age-related decline from Jeff Kent and/or a return to earth by Russel Martin.

The Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with, and have as good a shot as anyone in the NL West to win 95 games and take the division. In a division full of contenders, Los Angeles has the best chance to come out the champion.

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03 March 2008

2008 Philadelphia Phillies Preview

But first, a recap of 2007...

What went right?


They won the NL East and therefore got into the playoffs for the first time since 1993!

Jimmy Rollins won the NL MVP Award that should have gone to Hanley Ramirez or David Wright. Ryan Howard followed up his 2006 MVP award nicely, and might have netted another one if he'd been healthy all year. Chase Utley finished 8th in the voting, and was better than either of them, though he missed 30 games with an injury.

Pat Burrell heald (almost perfectly) steady from his solid 2006 campaign. Aaron Rowand set career personal highs in Games, At-Bats, Runs, Hits, Doubles, Homers, Walks RBIs, OBP, Total Bases (and strikeouts). The bench was mostly solid, with Greg Dobbs, Jayson Werth and Tadahito Iguchi, who were all picked up for nothing or something very close to that, being particularly good.

Youngsters Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick combined to go 25-9.

What went wrong?

Pretty much everything to do with the pitching, and anyone who had anything to do with third base.

Brett Myers adapted well to closing after struggling through a few rough starts in April, but his work in that role was forced when Tom Gordon got injured and everyone else in the bullpen forgot how to get guys out. Taking the guy who should have been your best starter and turning him into a reliever cannot be considered a victory in any sense.

Jamie Moyer won 14 games, but he also lost 12 and had an ERA of 5.01. Adam Eaton "won" 10 games, but his 6.29 ERA and 30 homers allowed in 161 innings are much more telling of his season. By the end of June, both Freddy Garcia and Jon Leiber were gone for good, and by the end of July, so was Ryan Madson.

Third base was a revolving door, through which Charlie Manuel deperately sent various players to their doom. Abraham Nunez was almost comically bad (.234/.318/.282 with zero homers in 252 at-bats) and Wes Helms was not much better (.246/.297/.368 in 280 at-bats). Dobbs was decent, but didn't get enough playing time.

Ryan Howard, though he adapted well to Jan's old job, set a new MLB record by striking out 199 times.

The team, as a whole, spent it's whole stash trying to get into the playoffs and then had nothing left, and got swept out by the red-hot Rockies.

Looking ahead...

There have been some significant turnovers for the Phillies in the 2007-08 offseason.

The Offense:
...will be hampered both by its losses and its acquisitions, but the Phils probably will still be one of the top 5 hitting teams in all of MLB.

Rowand's big year netted him a 5-year, $60 million contract from the Giants, which was WAY more than Philly (or anyone else) was willing to pay. Rowand's departure, however, doesn't hurt nearly as much as the arrival of thirdbaseman Pedro Feliz. Feliz got a 2-year, $8.5M contract and, it is hoped he will provide "stability" to the third base situation. "Stability" being a euphemism for "mediocrity" in this case. He offers no more quality than incumbent Greg Dobbs did, but he comes with ten times the pricetag.

Another new acquisition, Geoff Jenkins, has a little power but not much else to offer. He can be decent as the lefty-hitting half of a platoon with Werth in RF, but probably isn't worth the $13 million they've promised him for 2008-09.

Carlos Ruiz, after a solid 2/3 of a season in 2007, should have a stranglehold on the starting catcher's job, and while he's not likely to be confused with Mike Piazza or even Joe Mauer, he should do well enough. Baseball prospectus has him projected to hit .270/.341/.413 in 389 at-bats, and that sounds about right, though I would give him a little more playing time, now that Rod barajas is out of the picture.

The rest of the offese, assuming everyone's healthy, should be great. Howard and Utley and Rollins are all MVP-type players, and more than make up for OM/3B Feliz. Burrell is as solid a left fielder as any in baseball, and Shane Victorino's proved that he can play every day. His modest offensive skills and exceptional speed will play better in CF than they did in right anyway.

The bench, while not spectacular on offense, has some worth (and one Werth!). Chris Coste can hit a little as he backs up Ruiz. Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs can play either corner once in a while, though hopefully neither will start in Howard's place unless they need a DH. Werth showed that he's healthy for once, and So Taguchi can be a useful pinch hitter or defensive replacement for any of the corner outfielders.


The Phillies will do well to let Brett Myers start and only start this year. The rotation is thin enough without turning a 200-inning pitcher into a 59-inning pitcher. Hopefully he bounces back and wins 15 games with a 3.85-ish ERA. Cole Hamels did exactly that last year but still needs to prove he's able to stay healthy if he wants the team to give him the kind of respect (read: money) he thinks he deserves.

Kyle Kendrick impressed a lot of people last year, but he'll need to prove his performance wasn't a fluke. Last year was the first of his 5-year pro career higher than A-Ball. he was doing well enough in AA that the desperate Phils gave him a shot in the majors, and he managed to stick, but the smart guys over at Baseball Prosectus have him projected for a 9-11 record and a 5.35 ERA this year.

The rest of the rotation should be just that: rotating. The nominal 4th and 5th starters are 45-year old Jamie Moyer and (God help them) Adam Eaton. Moyer was at least durable, if not "good" last year, and the Phillies could do worse than to have a guy like him as their #5 starter, someone who can keep the team in games and let the mashers win it against the soft underbelly of the opposition's rotation.

But Eaton? He was dreadful last season, and the Phillies are stuck with him for two more. I can't see him pitching like he did last year and staying employed for the whole year. They'd be better served giving someone from their AAA team a long look, someone like John Ennis or J.A. Happ. Even the Dust-Bin Durbins (J.D. and Chad, no relation) might be better than Eaton, who keeps trying to prove he can't pitch, but nobody wants to believe him. In any case, the Phillies have no shot at repeating as the Wild Card if they don't do something to shore up the pitching rotation.

The Bullpen should be better than the rotation, but until they get Brad Lidge back healthy, the whole group is weakened. Lidge's knee surgery makes Tom Gordon the closer again, temporarily, which makes Ryan Madson the primary right-handed setup man instead of the long-man. That, in turn, forces them to use the likes of Clay Condrey, Scott Matthieson, and the Dust-Bin Durbins more often. At least they've got J.C. Romero, one of the more consistent lefty relievers in the majors.


I have a hard time imagining that the Phillies offense can compensate for their lack of pitching. If the chances of Cole Hamels staying healthy enough to pitch 200+ innings and win 15+ games are slim, then the chances of Brett Myers rebounding to again be one of the 10 or 15 best starters in the NL are all but nonexistent. A dozen wins and an ERA around 4.25 might be more realistic, and that just won't be enough. Kendrick's future is anybody's guess, and the rest of the rotation is likely to be a revolving door of guys with ERAs on the wrong side of 5.00, as they were last year. The bullpen can't make up for that, and they don't have the minor league talent to either plug in or trade for another solid starter.

My best guess is something like 84-78, no playoffs.

The Wild Card will come out of the NL West.

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27 February 2008

The Curious Logic of Tony LaRussa

This is an interesting time of year, in a remarkably interesting year for Major League Baseball. Since the MLB training camps are all open, and nobody has started playing actual games or releasing players yet, there is literally nothing else to talk about besides steroids. I mean, you can talk about position battles, how good each team's starters/lineup/bullpen/batboys compare to those of other teams, how well new managers are fitting in...but really, none of that much matters. That's all stuff the sportswriters usually use to pad their columns until Something Important happens.

But of course, one of the most Something Importants in MLB history happened two months ago, when the Mitchell Report was released, and people are still talking about it, as they should be. Everyone has his own take on it. Most of us haven't read the whole thing, but we know enough about it to be dangerous, and of course we can follow the fall-out from the report in the daily news media. Some people think the players mentioned in it were all cheaters, some think they were all innocent, or that if they did use performance enhancing drugs, it wasn't cheating because it wasn't banned at the time. Most of us are somewhere in between.

But Tony LaRussa?

Believe it or not, the MLB manager most closely associated with steroids and the proverbial Steroid Era, doesn't believe any of it. Not a word, it seems.

With credits due to Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (who interviewed LaRussa) and to ESPN's Rob Neyer, who made reference to the story in his blog, I would like to take a few moments to analyze the odd thought processes (or lack thereof) that allow LaRussa to maintain his innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Burwell: When you were deciding on bringing in Juan Gonzalez, were you at all concerned about his name being linked to the Mitchell Report? This isn't even a moral issue. Just from a pure baseball standpoint of not knowing what kind of guy you're getting now?

La Russa: "There are a lot of players who have done something to enhance their performance who don't have that swing. It's one of the best swings of our time. [...] The issue of that stuff from the Mitchell Report doesn't cloud my mind because we're going to evaluate him only on what he does now."
That initial response makes it sound like LaRussa's saying, "Heck with the cheating rumors...look a that swing!" but really he's saying that Gonzo has enough talent still that he might be worth the risk, and really, for the Cards, the risk is minimal, since he's only got a minor league contract. That makes him something of a bad example. Now, if they had Barry Bonds (whom LaRussa wanted but upper management nixed) and were paying him millions of dollars in guaranteed money, that would be a different story.

And as for "evaluating him only on what he does now" well, fair enough. If you presume that he's clean now because there's a pretty stiff testing program now, then you can evaluate him purely on what he does now. Of course, you should do this anyway, shouldn't you? With a guy who's trying to make a comeback, what else would you use to evaluate him? "Well, he's hitting .163 with no walks and no extra base hits...but he did win MVP awards in 1996 and 1998...let's give him another month!" Not gonna happen, and it should not be a surprise.

Burwell: You have more than your fair share of Mitchell Report guys on this team. Does it bother you that there's a perception that you give safe harbor to steroid guys?

La Russa:
"No, and I'll tell you why not. One way I was taught to survive is my No. 1 accountability factor is myself. This is my 30th year doing this at the major league level. There isn't anybody — the commissioner, our owner, the fans, you — there isn't any person, man or woman, who can make me any more accountable than I am now right now because of myself. And I know there isn't anything we've done in all those years that was — with one small exception where we stole signs, a little hiccup — there isn't anything else that has happened on our ballclubs in Oakland or St. Louis that there's a hint of illegality. There isn't anything that we didn't actively and proactively attempt to do it right."
Ummm...Tony, I dunno if you've been paying attention or not, but there have been LOTS of hints of illegality. There is a huge, 400+ page report, several books (including Juiced, by Jose Canseco, who played and cheated for you in Oakland). Heck, there was a column by Tom Boswell of the Washington Post over 15 years ago alleging that Canseco was using steroids at the time. how many more "hints of illegality" do you need?

Burwell: But that's not what most of us think.

La Russa: "You're missing my point. If I'm going to base the way I survive on everything that others think, I have no chance."
Bryan Burwell is right: most of us don't agree with Tony's view. Because we can read. And we've been paying attention for the last 20 years. Tony, it seems, has taken to focusing only on what he thinks and feels in order to ignore everything going on around him that he might someday be held accountable for. By someone besides his own, strange mind.
And besides, that wasn't his point at all. His point was that he doesn't think he did anything wrong, or allowed anyone to do anything wrong.

Burwell: Does it bother you that rightly or wrongly, you and (assistant coach) Dave McKay have gained the unflattering label as the so-called godfathers of baseball's steroid era with your connections to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire?

La Russa: "That's one of the crosses you have to bear, but let me tell you something about Dave McKay (the strength and conditioning guru of those Oakland and Cardinal teams). Dave McKay has as much or more integrity as any man I've ever met. He's so pure in his integrity, and that's why I fight so hard to defend what we've done. There's no chance that what happened officially at Oakland was tainted. Does it mean that we were policemen or that when our guys are not in our facilities, are not in our weight rooms that guys didn't experiment? No, you can't make that claim.
Kudos to Burwell for the follow-up question, which is basically a re-phrasing of the previous one.

And as for, "There's no chance that what happened officially at Oakland was tainted."? Really, Tony? Because one of your own players wrote a book about how essentially his entire career was owed to his use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, and that he taught McGwire to use it too. That means that his "official" AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1986 and his MVP in 1988 were in fact "tainted" along with (probably) McGwire's 1987 RoY award, plus your three AL pennants and the 1989 World Series win over the Giants. We're not talking about third-party allegations, here. Canseco has confessed. He's proud of it! I mean, sure, he could be lying, but why? And in any case, I think that at least qualifies as a "chance", don't you?

If, for your own emotional well-being, you need to plead ignorance of those events, that's one thing, but you can't pretend they didn't happen. Canseco, unlike Clemens, has admitted his usage.

Burwell: Would you have cared if you did know they were "experimenting"?

La Russa: "Yeah, I would care because when I saw a guy who got stronger quickly without working hard, oh yeah, that implies a lot of other things about what he's willing to do."

What other things? Isn't cheating with banned substances enough? What else does he have to do? Doctor baseballs? Steal signs? The Hidden Ball Trick?

More from Burwell. LaRussa's assertion that both McGwire and Roger Clemens' success was due solely to their fanatical work ethics:

"There's a certain amount of credit that should be given to a guy who's worked hours and hours to get stronger and bigger," he [LaRussa] said.

I [Burwell] reminded him that the whole point of using many performance-enhancing drugs is to increase the ability to work and train harder. "So working hard doesn't give you an alibi that you didn't use drugs," I told him.

"Well, that's what you believe and you're probably right according to testimony, but that's not what I believe," La Russa said. "I watched Mark McGwire work."
Welcome to the Post-Modern world, boys and girls! A wonderful place where you can believe anything you want, as long as, well, you believe it a lot. You can ignore any evidence that disagrees with your own worldview simply by saying that it is someone else's worldview, and therefore does not apply to you. There is no absolute truth excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth. It's great! Unless you don't think so. In which case it's not. But only for you, get it?

Pat Jordan wrote about some interactions he had with Clemens in 2001, while he was profiling him for an article in the New York Times, and suggests that Clemens' maniacal workout routine was perhaps because of the PEDs he was taking (though Jordan never actually says this outright). Jordan cites himself and Tom Seaver as world-class athletes who, at a similar age, could not do a fraction of what Clemens did in his training regimen. That's just anecdotal evidence, of course, but it's still evidence. LaRussa, in support of his own opinion, cites no evidence at all.

Speaking of Evidence, here's some:
Now (or about a year ago):

The first picture is, presumably, from the height of the Steroids Era, i.e. the late 1990's. The second picture was taken about a year ago (I think), at Cal State-Fullerton, and is the best example of a recent picture I can find of McGwire. McGwire doesn't look all that much bigger than the guys he's with, who's just a kid from the college newspaper, not a fellow athlete. Big Mac is still big, and he appears to be in great shape, but he could lose 40 lbs of muscle from his peak playing weight and you might still not necessarily notice it if he had a suit on instead of the double-knit, skin-tight baseball uniform. In any case, I think his face looks a little thinner.

Interestingly, with the exception of that appearance, last January, which he probably scheduled before he knew about the Hall of fame vote, and the one before Congress last year, we've hardly seen anything of McGwire since he retired after the 2001 season. I think he's been keeping a low profile in order that people would not use his appearance, whether its changed much or not, to support their arguments for and against his use of PEDs. That's just a theory, of course, but it's a sound one.
Getting back to Burwell, his piece ends with a he-said, he-said about whether or not McGwire's physical appearance has changed appreciably since he stopped playing, which is hilarious. I would read the article just for that. But it basically ends with the two agreeing to disagree about the steroid stuff, and "talk baseball" as Clemens said we should yesterday.
But this conversation is not over.

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20 February 2008

Andy Pettitte Interviews Self, Disappointed in Self

Embattled New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte appeared in training camp after a delay that the Yankees had granted for him to deal with the congressional hearings about the Mitchell Report, in which he is a key figure.

Then, in a move reminiscient of Woody Allen in Bananas, Pettitte posed questions to himself about the controversy surrounding his use of PEDs. For nearly an hour, Pettitte patiently and thoroughly answered questions he had posed about the Mitchell Report, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, his relationships with Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee, and the season ahead.

Pettitte began his interview with himself by stating that,"Part of me was a nervous wreck and scared to death to come up here today."

Pettitte did not clarify whether it was the "Pitcher" part or the "Interviewer" part of him that was nervous, though both guessed that it was the other. But Pettitte reassured himself that "we're all friends here" and that he need not be apprehensive, that he would be fair with himself.

With that assurance, Pettitte had the following dialogue with himself:

"Was it stupid? Yeah, it was stupid. Was I desperate? Yeah, I was probably
desperate," he said. "I wish I never would have done it, obviously, but I don't consider myself a cheater, no."
Pettitte justified this to himself this way:

"I didn't do it to try to get an edge on anyone. I didn't do it to try to
get stronger or faster or throw harder. I did it because I was that it might be
able to help me," he said.

When he challenged himself on the issue, however, Pettitte had to admit to himself,

"Well, I guess I did it to get an edge on the guys who couldn't or wouldn't use
HGH to try to recover from an injury faster. But that doesn't count, does it?"
"If people think I'm lying, they should call me a cheater," Pettitte said, before he reminded himself that there have been literally thousands of articles, columns and blog entries calling him exactly that.

Pettitte had no comment to himself on that.

Changing his own subject, Pettitte said, "I felt like I need to come out, be forward with this. Whatever circumstances or repercussions come with it, I'll take and I'll take like a man and I'll try to do my job."

He then clarified the statement for himself:

"No, my job as a pitcher. This interviewing gig is just a hobby."

Pettitte then brought up Roger Clemens' name and asked himself if there's any animosity between himselves and Clemens.

"Obviously it's put a strain, I think, on our friendship. I love him like
a brother."
Pettitte agreed that there was a strain there, though it was unclear which Pettitte had been responsible for the rift. When he asked himself about the allegations levied by Clemens that he had "misremembered" one or more conversations with Clemens about steroids and HGH, Pettitte responded,

"I'm just not going to go there. I've had to testify under oath. So has Roger. And, you know, I don't think that's anything I need to sit here and try to elaborate on with anyone else."
"Or even myself," he added.

Pettitte then apologized for bringing up the issue, but promptly forgave himself.

"I am relieved … [because] I felt like I had all this bottled up inside me," he said as he handed a urine sample to a testing technician for Major League Baseball's drug program.

Later in the afternoon, Pettitte got into uniform and worked out for the first time this spring, including throwing 35 pitches off a mound, also to himself.

"I'm hoping that, now that this HGH thing is behind us, I can focus on baseball, and that as I get into game shape, my fastball will return and I won't be able to do that anymore," he said.

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18 February 2008

Clemens Controversy out of Control, Credibility Questionable

The steroid controversy surrounding Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, their former trainer Brian McNamee and others has spiraled way out of control.

Originally, there was The Mitchell Report. Everyone had something to say about it. Some of them had even read it. Or, you know, some of it.

That was almost two months ago. At the time, Roger Clemens said he was "...shocked, SHOCKED, to find that his name was going on in there." He said that he had no idea that he was named until the report was issued. He said that he would have spoken to the Mitchell investigators if they had let him know that he was going to be named. Well, that was a load of crap.

Last week it came to light that Brian McNamee had tried to warn both Pettitte and Clemens that they were going to be named in the Mitchell Report, and that he had been the one to finger them, even though federal investigators had warned McNamee not to talk to anyone before the report came out. McNamee spoke to one of Clemens' many lawyers, and Clemens even heard a taped recording of the conversation, as much as a week before the Mitchell Report was released. Now, he says, he didn't talk to the Mitchell people because he didn't think they'd want to talk to him. These are the same people, it should be noted, who had repeatedly tried to get in touch with Clemens while they were researching the report, just like they had everyone else who might have had any tied to steroids and the like. So that, too, is a load of crap.

In the last two months, Roger Clemens has tried just about everything to deal with this situation, short of taking any actual responsibility and/or telling the truth. He's tried:

1) Righteous Indignation
This tactic rarely works, even when it's appropriate. It didn't work for the Hollywood Ten, half a century ago when the Red Scare had everyone hunting for Communists under their couch cushions. It didn't work 35 years ago when Richard Nixon and some of his top aides were found to been complicit in the burglary of their political opposition's headquarters. It didn't work 14 years ago when both sides of the pending MLB strike kept insisting that the other side was already getting too much of the profits and should not be entitled to any more than that. It didn't work a decade ago when President Clinton told us that he "...did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now. Usually, this is because the person exhibiting the righteous indignation is not, well, righteous. But even if they are completely innocent, the approach generally proves ineffective, if only because nobody likes to see someone act like that. The public likes humility and contrition and a perspective outside oneself, which the Righteous Indignation approach typically makes you look like a pompous jerk.

2) Discrediting the Witness:
Brian McNamee's been called a "drug dealer" and his criminal history has been brought to the forefront, even things of which he was accused but never convicted. In addition, there are indications that he was pressured into helping the Mitchell investigation, though it's not clear that they had any authority to get him convicted of anything, given that this was, in fact, a private investigation. He was not, however, offered immunity.

A standard legal defense, this one actually has some merit. If you can make your accuser look like something less than a fine, upstanding citizen, or if you can demonstrate that they had some reason to make up lies about you, you can gain some ground. In the court of public opinion, where this fight has mostly been staged to this point, this will win you some supporters, or it will at least give the people who already wanted to support you an excuse to do so. In criminal court, painting your accuser in such a bad light can be just enough to establish a reasonable doubt, and therefore get you off the hook. In a government hearing, however, especially one in which a report written by a formerly high-ranking member of that governing body is being discussed, it's unclear how much this does to help you, other than force people to take sides. Which brings us to tactic #3...

3) Divided We Conquer
If you can't beat 'em...get 'em to beat each other! A lot has been made of the apparent situation that has Republicans generally believing, or at least supporting Roger Clemens, and disparaging the name of Brian McNamee, while Democrats tended to believe McNamee more and regard Clemens' statements with greater skepticism. Though there are various possibilities as to why this might be the case, I think Occam's Razor will help us a lot here, i.e. the simplest answer is usually also the correct one:

The Democrats who run the committee brought Clemens in because they're concerned about this whole Steroid Thing and Clemens has publicly stated that the allegations made against him in the Mitchell Report are not true. They want to know why he thinks that (or at least says it). And the Republicans? Well, they're Republicans. So if the Democrats are going to bring in Roger Clemens and accuse him of doing something wrong, then he MUST be innocent, and by golly, they're going to defend him. It's their duty to the Fox News Channel! Or America! Or something.

If the Democrats were going to haul the sky into a congressional committee hearing and accuse it of being blue, the Republicans would line up to scoff at them and tell any reporter they saw that the sky is so obviously green that they can't even believe they're still talking about this. And naturally, it works the other way around, too. It just happens that the Dems are in charge of Congress right now.

And then, as if this were not enough, we get to hear one of Clemens' 5,237 lawyers telling a reporter that he's convinced that Clemens will get a Presidential pardon for anything he's done wrong, because he's such good friends with the Bush family. That's not wholly implausible, since Roger apparently knows G.H.W. Bush (i.e. Bush-41) from all the time that the the former president spent at Houston Astros games whil Roger was one of those. Bush-43 (the one everyone hates) is a huge baseball fan, and surely appreciates Roger Clemens' legacy to the game, even if he couldn't appreciate Sammy Sosa's potential when he was the GM of the Texas Rangers. (I'll bet he gets tired of hearing about that.) Of course, this Bush is presumably a Rangers fan, and Clemens never pitched for them. In fact, he beat them 18 times in his career, so George Junior may just let him fry. Revenge, served cold. Another problem with this approach is, rightly or not, if Bush were to pardon Clemens, he would essentially HAVE to pardon Barry Bonds. Their cases are so eerily similar: Both were world-class athletes, winning the highest award for their positions three times in their younger days, and both had a late-career resurgence allegedly fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. Both won 4 more awards in that timeframe, played well into their 40's, and then got slammed with drug allegations. Whether we like it or not, whether it's appropriate or not, the Public will see them as the same, and for Bush to pardon one and not the other would be unforgivable. And because one of them is white and one of them is Barry Bonds, at least some of the public will have a reason to call President Bush a racist. I mean, someone other than Kanye West. Of course, if Clemens' lawyers had any brains at all, they would not count on that. Rob Neyer, whose job it is NOT to figure out these kinds of things, pointed out that by the time the dust settles on this case, there won't be a Bush in the White House any longer, and therefore nobody with any reason to pardon him. Well, if the Yankees are in the Series next year and Hillary Clinton decides to be a Yankee fan that week, she might do it. On the other hand, if John McCain gets elected, Jason Grimsley might have a shot at getting off the hook. 4) Try to Look Cooperative Even if you're not going to be helpful, it's helpful to look like your being helpful, you know? So Clemens goes to the hearings, he meets privately with committee members, he answers questions at a public hearing. He even holds his own press conferences and brings tape-recorded phone calls PROVING that he didn't do anything wrong, because, you know, in any 15-minute telephone conversation he has, if he's done something wrong, either he or the other party would definitely mention it, right?

5) Weapons of Mass Distraction

If you can't beat 'em...get 'em to focus on something else!

This is slightly different from tactic #3 in that instead of making your accusers focus their energies on someone else, you make them focus on something else. Like, for example, you take a 400+ page report with dozens of witnesses and pages of references and volumes full of appendices...and you use the questionable nature of one little statement in that report (namely, whether or not Roger Clemens actually went to a party at Jose Canseco's house one day ten years ago) to call the veracity of the entire report into question. This is basically the same approach that got O.J. Simpson acquitted in his criminal trial, and we don't have anywhere near as much evidence that the Rocket's a Juicer as we did that the Juice was a killer.

In the same vein, there was also a so-called statistical analysis report demonstrating that Clemens' late-career success was not so unusual. Of course, when you actually looked at it intelligently, this wasn't really true, but in any case, it gave people something else on which to focus for a while.

With that said, we do have plenty of evidence. Proof? Proof doesn't really exist, not in a scientific sense. All you have is evidence for and against something, and you have to figure out which weighs more. What it comes down to is this:

In order to believe that Clemens was clean all those years, you have to believe:

A) That Brian McNamee, Kirk Radomski, Andy Pettitte, Jose Canseco, and several other people are lying or that they "mis-spoke" or "misremember" the facts. (Personally, I find it easier to believe that Clemens is full of "mis-malarkey".)

B) That, whether he suggested it himself or not, Roger Clemens would allow his wife to take HGH in order to get her in shape for a photo shoot, but that he would never consider taking it to improve his own game.

C) That Clemens played a whole season with Jose Canseco in 1998, watched Canseco have one of the best years of his career, but never asked him how he did it, never heard him when he talked about steroids (which, if you read Juiced, you know he did all the time) and never tried the same things himself.

D) That George Mitchell and all of his investigators, professionals whose job it is to root out the truth, were all duped by a amatuer like McNamee.

E) That Andy Pettitte, a self-avowed devout Christian, who therefore values the truth, would either lie about his good friend Roger Clemens or would risk telling a falsehood based on sketchy recollections and/or misunderstandings. You'd have to believe that Pettitte would risk pissing off both Clemens and Jesus by doing something like that.

F) That Clemens' resurgence late in his career was either the result of his maniacal workout regime, which in itself shouldn't even be possible for a man in his late 30's or early 40's without a little chemical help, or that it was a fluke.

There are probably a few other intellectual gymnastics you need to do to buy the Clemens party Line, but those are the big ones.

On the other hand, if you want to believe the opposition, all you really need to believe is that

A) Clemens is lying, and

2) He's getting others to lie for him. People like his wife, and highly-compensated lawyer-types.

That's not so hard to believe, is it?

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