Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Steak at Stake

It's almost time for games know what that means, right? Of course - gambling!

A few years ago, a friend and I, tired of the annual media wheeze-fest over whether another pitcher could ever get to 300 wins, decided to put our money where our mouths were: we decided to gamble for foodstuffs. Specifically, steak. Each of us chose a young hurler we thought most likely to get to 300 wins.

We made our choices in late 2005, a fact which turns out to be relatively important.

I chose a young lefty, age 24, portly of composition but already in his fifth full season. He won 17 as a rookie in 2001 but hadn't topped 13 wins since. I specifically passed on both Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt; both had slight frames and violent deliveries. My choice was made partly on talent and partly on the fact that his listed height-weight of 6-7, 250 sang to me a song of durability. I chose C.C. Sabathia. I chose Grimace.

My friend, on the other hand, chose a 23-year-old lefty whose star was, at that moment, bursting through the baseball firmament. In 2005, he was en route to a 22 win season and a second place in the NL Cy Young voting. He chose a high-energy, high-charisma player with a high-effort delivery. He chose Dontrelle Willis.

At the end of 2005, this seemed like a fairly even contest. Willis was nearly two years younger and already had 46 wins through his first three pro seasons. Sabathia had 69 wins, but was not racking them up nearly as fast as Willis.

It was sort of like the tortoise and the hare, if only the tortoise had a three-season head start and was pushing 3 bills. Incidentally, Baseball Reference has Sabathia weighing in at 250 - I mean, come on! Shouldn't a site dedicated to baseball statistics demand a little more accuracy in its data?

The 2006 season was a wash. Both players had 12 wins. For their careers, Willis had 58 wins, Sabathia 81.

Still, there had to be cause for concern for D-Train fans in the underlying numbers. Willis went from a 2.63 ERA in 2005 to a 3.87 ERA and both his walks and home runs allowed spiked upwards. Sabathia on the other hand went from a 4.03 ERA in 2005 to a 3.22 in 2006. His K/9 increased while his walks and home runs allowed both decreased.

Fast forward to 2007, where Willis' trend continued to deteriorate; his ERA rose again to 5.17. Perhaps more importantly, at least for the sake of steak, was the Marlins' fire sale that eroded Willis' hopes for run support. Wins are, after all, a team game. No huge surprise that with a 5+ ERA and a last-place team, D-Train could manage only 10 wins.

Sabathia, on the other hand, had his long-awaited breakout season. His peripherals didn't vary tremendously from 2006, but he stayed on the mound for more than 240 innings. Backed by a playoff-bound team, Sabathia won 19 and earned the AL Cy Young award.

Career tally: Sabathia 100, Willis 68.

The 2008 season marks a new chapter in Steak at Stake, as Willis moved to the Detroit Tigers in the off-season in a move that can only help his win totals. The two hurlers now find themselves not only on the opposite side of a steak wager, but also on the two teams vying for supremacy in the American League Central.

We'll be updating the tally as the season moves forward, but, for now....

Steak on!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Where Hype Comes From

I'm as much a fan of Jacoby Ellsbury as the next guy, although this post is liable to get me hate mail from at least one of the three people reading.

Jacoby is a fun player to watch, a good contact hitter, a stellar defender, often the fastest guy on the field. He made a terrific pro debut on the October stage, and he has a great personal story - the first player of Navajo descent to make the major leagues. If he does end up hitting for power like Theo says, then he'll be every bit of the star we all want him to be.

But but but - seriously now - can we just let the guy play and not try to make him into something he isn't?

Consider the mythmaking efforts of Wayne Thompson in The Oregonian, Ellsbury's home state paper (Ellsbury hails from Madras, OR):

With less than one-fifth of a year of major league experience -- he batted .353 in 33 games for the Red Sox last season -- Ellsbury starts this season with higher expectations than most veterans face.

Ellsbury's fans include 88-year-old Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky, another native Oregonian.

Boston's elder statesman, who has seen more Boston spring training camps than any other living person, compares Ellsbury's potential to that of the great Ted Williams and is not shy about saying so.

"I've taken a lot of kidding for saying that, but look here," Pesky said. "Ellsbury's got the whole package. He hits to all fields -- something Ted refused to do during his whole career. And his speed makes him slump-proof."

Ever since Ellsbury raced from second base to home on a wild pitch last July in his third major league game, the so-called Red Sox Nation has been enamored of his speed on the basepaths.

"When he scored all the way from second on a wild pitch, it was the greatest single play I've ever seen in all my years in baseball," Pesky said.

The single greatest play ever seen by Johnny Pesky, who presumably has seen at least seven different baseball plays at some point in his lifetime. I don't even know what to say here. Paging Red Sox fans - can someone tell me if Mr. Pesky checked out early from the padded hotel room he's been staying in?

Compared to Pesky, Peter Gammons' comments are practically a cold shower:
"I think he will develop more power over time, perhaps in the 20-home run range," Gammons said. "He'll hit for average and be a Gold Glove-caliber fielder. If I had to predict, I'd say his future career will fall somewhere between a Grady Sizemore and a Steve Finley. He's a great athlete, extremely focused, with an uncommon work ethic."
Phooey on you, Gammons, you nay-sayer. Grady Sizemore, is that all you got?

Let's hear from someone who actually has some faith in the young man:

Lou Gorman, a former Red Sox general manager who also was general manager with Seattle, Kansas City and the New York Mets, said Ellsbury's batting style reminds him of the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, noting: "He'll get his share of leg hits and he's already learned good plate discipline.

"I think he is about as fast as Willie Wilson was for us at Kansas City. Wilson was the fastest player out of the box I've ever seen. I'd expect Ellsbury to steal 60 to 70 bases a year if the Red Sox give him the green light on the bases."

So, let me tabulate my scouting report. Jacoby Ellsbury is Ted Williams crossed with Grady Sizemore and Ichiro, throw in a dash of Steve Finley and the speed of Willie Wilson. Do I have that right?

Let's see, doing some math, carry the one, by my count Ellsbury should hit .400 with 20+ HR and 60-70 stolen bases. That 's not too much to expect of a rookie. After all, he's young, he's got lots of energy.

Is there anybody willing to step away from the hype machine? Apparently, there's at least one guy:
"It's all new to me, being in a fishbowl like this," [Ellsbury] said. "I used to laugh about it when there was a lot of stuff said and written about other people. I don't think of myself as the next big anything, or the second coming of anybody, other than me. The comparisons are for others to make."
Godspeed, young man.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Who I'm Watching: John Patterson

This is the first in an occasional series on players that I'll be watching this year with special interest. I have a few in mind and there's no common thread.

Tonight's installment is John Patterson, the prototypical oft-injured power pitcher who was cut by the Nationals last week and this evening signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers. Call me a sap, but I hate to see players who can't stay healthy enough to enjoy the fruits of their own talent. There's something particularly poetic about Patterson, who has enjoyed just one shining season against a star-crossed career.

Patterson was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1996 and broke into the major leagues with Arizona in 2002. The owner of a power-fastball and a big-breaking-curve, he enjoyed by far his best season in 2005, when he struck out 185 batters in 198 innings with a 3.13 ERA, good for ninth in the National League. It was, to date, the only time in his career he topped 100 IP in a major league season, and he would follow it up with a disappointing 72 innings in 2006 and 2007 combined. Over parts of 6 MLB seasons, Patterson has started just 78 games and pitched just 454 innings.

Let's take a look at how his career has unfolded:

June 4, 1996: The Montreal Expos select Patterson with the fifth pick in the first round of the amateur draft, out of West Orange Stark High School in West Orange, Texas.

October 24, 1996: Granted free agency by Major League Baseball after Montreal failed to offer him a contract within fifteen days.

November 7, 1996: Signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for a reported $6 million.

1997: A nice pro debut in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, with a 3.23 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 78 innings. His walk rate is high, at 3.9 BB/9 IP.

1998: A big-time breakout campaign, especially given the very hitter-friendly California League as a context, with a 2.83 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 127 innings. He exhibits improved control to go with his power pitching; his walk rate drops to 3.0 BB/9.

[Side note: Patterson's home park in the California League was High Desert, which Baseball America described in a 2006 story as "a pitching purgatory--a place where the thin air and high winds regularly produce farcical scores." Unless the park has changed markedly in the meantime, that makes Patterson's line doubly impressive. Man, I would love to see what the 1999 Baseball America prospect handbook has to say about him after that 1998 season. Anybody spare a copy?]

1999: Signs of regression. Patterson posts a 5.29 combined ERA in AA and AAA. He's still striking people out, with 10.0 K/9, but his walk rate is higher than ever, at 4.1 BB/9.

2000: Injuries start to rear their head. Patterson throws just 15 innings all season; undergoes Tommy John surgery in May.

2001: Returning from surgery, Patterson struggles, with a 5.47 ERA in 102 innings for AAA Tucson. His strikeout rate is down, at just 6.0 K/9, while his walk rate is a relatively low-for-him 3.8 BB/9.

2002-2003: Makes his pro debut in 2002; bounces up and down between AAA Tucson and the major league club in Phoenix, pitching 30.7 MLB innings in '02 and 55 innings in '03.

March 27, 2004: Out of options and not likely to make the MLB team out of Spring Training, Patterson is dealt by the Diamondbacks to the Montreal Expos for Randy Choate.

2004: Patterson makes 19 starts for the Expos, compiling a 5.03 ERA over 98.3 innings. Evidence of a power arm is there, as he posts a very solid 9.1K/9. Poor control is equally evident, with a 4.2 BB/9.

Baseball Prospectus 2005: Patterson is "cheap, armed with good stuff, and might be a few adjustments away from becoming this rotation's #2 guy. PECOTA likes his profile, and we like his curveball; when that things's really breaking, it's almost hypnotic. Breakout candidate."

2005: And there it is, he puts it all together for one scintillating campaign: 31 starts, 198 innings, 8.4K/9 and a 2.9BB/9. Power and control combine for a 3.13 ERA. The Nationals reward him with terrible run support; he compiles a modest 9-7 record.

Baseball Prospectus 2006: "Eyeballs and PECOTA agreed when we touted Patterson as a breakout candidate last year, and he more than lived up to the billing...There isn't a lot of reason to expect him to regress; the park's still roomy, his elbow surgery is pretty far back in his past, and the time he missed in 2004 was a result of a strained groin."

2006: Alas, it was not meant to be. After a well-deserved turn as the Nationals' Opening Day starter, Patterson manages just 40 innings over 8 starts before being shut down due to elbow and forearm problems.

2007: Patterson was the Opening Day starter again, but he was clearly rushed back and manages just 31 innings over 7 starts.

That brings us to 2008. By now, the bloom is more or less off the rose - per Baseball Prospectus: "This will be Year Three since Patterson's 2005 breakout, and there's still no certainty about whether his elbow is really right...He's supposed to be back, and he's supposed to be fine, but we've heard that before. Give it ten starts before you drink the Kool-Aid."

For his part, Patterson reported to Nationals spring training this year with a feeling of optimism.
"It was right around the time the calendar flipped to December, out on a ballfield in far East Texas, when John Patterson reared back and threw -- and saw something that made his heart flutter. The ball took off, toward its target, but instead of merely dropping into the glove of his throwing partner, Patterson could swear to God it accelerated in midflight -- or 'hopped' -- just like it used to do, a couple of years and a couple of surgeries ago. And it was right then, and it was right there, that Patterson knew he was back."

"'The ball just had a little hop on it", Patterson recalled Thursday, as he sat in the clubhouse of the Washington Nationals' training complex. "And I hadn't seen that in a couple years. . . . When I started seeing that again, I said: 'Here we go. We're going in the right direction.' "
February 22, 2008: Patterson looked forward to a big step in his recovery.
Patterson threw an eight-minute bullpen session Friday and spent much of it tinkering with his mechanics. "Everything feels good," he said. "I'm ready to face some hitters."
March 1, 2008: Patterson's first outing reveals that he may not be as far along as the team had hoped.
A day after potential Opening Day starter John Patterson said he did not go all-out in his first outing of the spring so that he could refine his mechanics, General Manager Jim Bowden said he would prefer for Patterson to establish his fastball and build arm strength.

"I was just glad that he took the mound and he got his first outing out of the way," Bowden said of Patterson, who has been limited to 15 starts the past two years by a series of arm injuries. "That being said, he was trying to get them out. He threw too many breaking balls. He cut his arm off. He had very short arm action.

"My preference would be, 'Let's establish the fastball and build up arm strength and get hit.' "

Bowden stressed that in his bullpen sessions, Patterson has let the ball go and extended himself more, giving his fastball more jump. But after his two-inning outing against the Baltimore Orioles, Patterson said he preferred to tweak his mechanics before unleashing his best fastball in games. He said his stride was about six inches shorter than it would be normally -- 5 1/2 feet as opposed to six. He also said he is working to get his hand in the right position on the ball at his release point.

March 6, 2008: A rainout delays the John Patterson watch.

"I'd like to see the fastball," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

"I think everyone wants to see what he can do," veteran reliever Ray King said.

Patterson is now in a bit of an odd space in his own clubhouse. He is neither promising prospect nor presumed ace, not a reliable 200-inning veteran nor a hanger-on. Rather, the Nationals need Patterson to be something he has been infrequently in a professional career that dates from 1997.

"He doesn't need to throw 200 innings," said José Rijo, a special assistant to Bowden who reached that number just three times in a 14-year career hampered by injuries. "He just needs to go out there every five days. The best thing he can do is make the manager feel comfortable. One thing the manager hates is something that he has to worry about. Then it's harder for him. It screws up the whole program."

Thus, each of Patterson's starts -- be it in Viera or Washington -- is met with some mix of anticipation and trepidation. What might go right often is overlooked, replaced by what could go wrong. "History's there," Manager Manny Acta said. "You can't change it."

March 17, 2008: Patterson struggles in a spring game in Fort Lauderdale.
Trying to build arm strength after a season in which he made only seven starts, [Patterson] allowed six runs in four innings in an 11-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles and said his entire body felt "tight" afterward.
March 20, 2008: The Nationals release John Patterson.
Faced with the prospect of sending John Patterson to the mound every five days this season with perhaps 75 percent of the stuff that made him a budding ace three years ago -- while forcing a younger, more effective pitcher to the minors -- the Washington Nationals abruptly released him instead, a bold move that would have seemed unthinkable a month ago, when Patterson was spoken of as possibly throwing the first pitch at the Nationals' new stadium on Opening Day.
"I knew it could happen," said Patterson, who has battled arm injuries while making only 15 starts and winning just twice over the past two seasons. "It's understandable. If I was in [Jim Bowden's] position, maybe I'd have done the same thing. I knew it was a tough mountain to climb. It was [a matter of] how much time they were going to give me."

According to Bowden, the Nationals felt Patterson's stuff was actually better last spring than this one, as his fastball has been clocked consistently in the 83-86 mph range, down from the low 90s at his best in 2005. It Patterson was truly healthy, as he claims, the Nationals believed it was possible this was as good as he would ever be again.

Patterson emphasized he had no regrets or hard feelings toward the Nationals over the move, but acknowledged feeling "caught in between" the forces he said were pulling him in different directions this spring, with Acta wanting to see him retire batters and Bowden telling him to throw his fastball more.
March 24, 2008 - The Texas Rangers sign John Patterson to a minor league contract.
Patterson, who was the Nationals' Opening Day pitcher in 2007, was pursued by a number of teams, but chose to go with the Rangers because of a long-standing relationship with pitching coach Mark Connor from their time together with the Diamondbacks.

"He understands what I need," Patterson said. "He's a big part of why I am here."

Patterson was 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA for the Nationals in 2005, but has made just 15 starts over the past two years, because of nerve damage in his right forearm. He underwent surgery on Sept. 14. The Nationals then released him .

He passed his physical on Monday and will begin a long-toss throwing program on Tuesday. The Rangers don't expect him to be ready to pitch in the Minor Leagues until late April or early May.

"I just need to throw," Patterson said. "I need to get out there and start throwing again. With the work I did in the offseason, I see my velocity getting there. It's just a matter of getting my strength built up and maintaining it over the course of the year."

You can hear it in his words: Hope springs eternal. There's something admirable about the fact that he just wants another chance to throw the baseball. Is it persistence? Is it denial and delusion? What's the difference?

John Patterson will get a chance to revive his career in Texas. If that doesn't work out, he'll probably get another chance somewhere else down the line. He's made a good living as a professional athlete, even if his body prevented him from cashing the really big paychecks. If he never starts another major league game, he'll always know that for one splendid summer he was among the best in the game. As long as he's willing to pick up a baseball, I'll be watching to see if he can do it again.

Next time on Who I'm Watching: Mark Reynolds.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I'm Kind of a Big Deal Now, I Guess

So is this what fame is like? It still kind of looks like my Mom's basement.

Thanks to Aaron Gleeman for the mention of this humble blog. For all you new visitors, welcome and please come back often.

I'm just getting started, but I hope there's something here for everyone. If not, let me know. I'll respond to all e-mails, just as soon as I finish my paper route.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Carl Yastrzemski, the Louisville Courier-Journal and Fantasy Baseball

Okay, I'm officially outing myself as a fantasy baseball nerd (or is it geek?).

I've been playing since 1994, often with friends and sometimes with complete strangers. That first year we had eight of us, all good friends, and a points-based system that we invented out of thin air. It was pretty a bare bones setup, with starting lineups of just five hitters and two pitchers, but the data collection was such that we had to take turns as commissioner. The scores had to be hand-tabulated from the newspaper every morning. I still remember walking to the bookstore on Saturday morning to buy the street edition of The Washington Post for the late box scores from the West Coast. Our first season was derailed by the strike, but it didn't deter us. We've since spread out to the four corners of the country, but the league did survive a solid seven seasons.

The truth is, I wish I'd discovered the game far earlier. I was always following baseball as a kid. My Dad tells a story of coming down to breakfast when I was three years old and I was already sitting at the dining table perusing the Louisville Courier-Journal for box scores. I'm sort of proud of that, for reasons I can't fully explain. My Dad also likes to tell people my first word was Yastrzemski. That seems...improbable.

I have two core ongoing leagues, one annual, one keeper. I'll probably have something to say about those in future posts.

This year, I've decided to branch out and play in a league created by my friend Tim Dierkes, the genius auteur behind the insanely popular MLB Trade Rumors site as well as the Roto Authority Fantasy Baseball site. I say he's my friend because I applied to enter his league in the comments section on his web site and he did not turn me down.

Tim has committed to blog about the league on his Roto Authority site, and has already done so here, here, here, here, here and here. Six posts already and not a game has been played! No wonder he's a multi-media mogul.

You can download the teams and the draft results from these links. It was a very aggressive draft. If you wanted a specific guy, you had to know that reaching was the only way to get him, and it started early. I frankly think Tim is to blame - he took Corey Hart in the fourth round, at #46 overall. I took OF Chris Young next, at #47, and the race was on. I had planned to take Hart at 47 and Young at 50, but it was not meant to be.


My team is Santa's Magic Janitor. I don't think I have the strongest team, but I'm certainly not the weakest. According to Tim's latest post, PECOTA likes my team pretty well, for whatever that's worth.

Hope you'll follow along as I compete for a gentleman's fifth - and, please, make sure you patronize my friend Tim's burgeoning multimedia empire.

Finding Ways For Evan Longoria To Fail

With no clear word from the front office yet, speculation is rising in Tampa that the Rays will send hot-crap prospect 3B Evan Longoria (no relation) to AAA to begin the season.

Most observers, including some of Longoria's teammates, have concluded that the reason will be to delay Longoria's service time clock thus allowing the team to control his rights for an additional year. One could certainly argue that this is a smart move for a small market team. However, Andrew Friedman, executive vice president of baseball operations, specifically denied that economics would be a factor in the decision.

So, what's left?

According to club officials, spring training was for evaluating Longoria on all kinds of things.

Friedman and manager Joe Maddon say they'll consider a series of factors beyond actual performance and results, everything from how Longoria carries himself and interacts in the clubhouse; his thought process at the plate and how he makes adjustments during, and between, at-bats; his preparation, work ethic and knowledge of the game; how he plays defense and does the "little" things. And they'll try to gauge other things more subjective such as how he'd handle the frustrations of what would be his first extended slump as a pro.

By all accounts, Longoria has passed the spring tests with flying colors. He's delivered on the tangibles and the intangibles. Coaches have raved, teammates have raved. The only thing he failed to do, it would appear, is fail.

Let's look at that last line again.

And they'll try to gauge other things more subjective such as how he'd handle the frustrations of what would be his first extended slump as a pro.

So, isn't this what it really comes down to? They want to see him fail, because they want to see how he reacts to failure. It's difficult, the story goes, for a hot-crap player to experience failure for the first time at the major league level. I have no idea if there's anything to this, but it has a certain logic and is often offered as a reason why, for example, Brandon Phillips' development curve got skewed.

The flip side of the argument is that a player yet to fail at any level is highly unlikely to fail on a return trip to the International League.

Or, as Cork Gaines puts it:
This is not the first time that the team has stated their concern over the fact that Longoria has yet to experience a slump as a professional.

If this is the biggest concern the Rays have with Longoria, then they have no concerns. "He has never slumped" is not a reason to keep somebody in the minors. "He can't handle curveballs" or "He smokes too much weed" are reasons to keep somebody in the minors. "He is too good" is not.

I think Rays officials are going about this all wrong; if they really want to give Longoria a taste of failure, there must be hundreds of ways.

Here's a few:
  1. Make him buy ice cream for spring training teammates and coaches using only spare change found in dirty laundry carts of visitors' clubhouse

  1. Eat 100 hot dogs in 5 minutes

  1. Resolve nuclear contest between India and Pakistan

  1. Compete on American Gladiators

  1. Compete on Project Runway

  1. Prove that methamphetamine is not addictive

  1. Adapt The Wire into Broadway musical

  1. Adapt The Eliot Spitzer Story into Disney animated feature

  1. Develop perpetual motion machine

  1. Foot race with B.J. Upton

  1. Crazy race with Elijah Dukes

Just pick one and let's get this over with.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Why Costas' Inane Comments Should Be Celebrated, Not Ridiculed

As noted in a few places across the Interwebs today, Bob Costas became the latest in a long line of journalists to denigrate bloggers:

''I understand with newspapers struggling and hoping to hold on to, or possibly expand their audiences, I understand why they do what they do,'' Costas said. 'But it's one thing if somebody just sets up a blog from their mother's basement in Albuquerque and they are who they are, and they're a pathetic get-a-life loser, but now that pathetic get-a-life loser can piggyback onto someone who actually has some level of professional accountability and they can be comment No. 17 on Dan Le Batard's column or Bernie Miklasz' column in St. Louis. That, in most cases, grants a forum to somebody who has no particular insight or responsibility. Most of it is a combination of ignorance or invective.''

``It's just a high-tech place for idiots to do what they used to do on bar stools or in school yards, if they were school yard bullies, or on men's room walls in gas stations. That doesn't mean that anyone with half a brain should respect it.''

If you click through to some of the other sites and read the comments you'll see some not too surprising reactions: Costas is an idiot; Costas is a hypocrite; He's arrogant, he thinks sportswriters should be allowed to just issue proclamations from above; How can he say sportswriters are accountable and bloggers are not, what a load of crap; Wow, that's too bad, I used to kind of like Bob Costas; Sure, me, too, but he's been irrelevant for a decade at least; Wait a minute, maybe he's got a point, there's a lot of crap blogs out there.

Anyway, there's one obvious reaction that's mission: elation.

Ask yourself why a giant of the sports media world like Bob Costas would deign to speak about a few dudes clickety-clackin' away in their Mom's basement? I mean, seriously, why would he care enough to say anything at all?

I'll tell you why - warning: BASELESS SPECULATION ™ ahead - he's scared shitless feeling the pressure of a growing and challenging medium.

Read his words again. That's what the last gasp of a dying order sound like.

Okay, maybe that's a stretch. But let's understand what's happening here: he's not analyzing the blogosphere and making a factual statement or offering a reasoned analysis, he's making a defensive, emotional attack on something he doesn't understand. In short, he's lashing out. And here's the beautiful thing: you only lash out at something you fear.

Memo to bloggers everywhere: keep doing what you're doing. If Bob Costas is unnerved, then you're winning. Go back to your Mom's basement at once and re-double your posting.

Oh, and Bob? I used to think you were a pretty smart guy; surely you must be familiar with the meaning of this word.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Baldelli Conundrum, Day 2

So, twenty-four hours after my last post comes this out of Tampa:

Rays right fielder Rocco Baldelli is going on the disabled list for an indefinite period due to an abnormality that has kept him in a constant stage of fatigue.

Baldelli addressed a room full of reporters shortly before Wednesday afternoon's game between the Rays and the Yankees at Progress Energy Park, and the 26-year-old outfielder said he had some type of "metabolic, and/or mitochondrial abnormalities."

If you haven't read my previous post, I hope you still will. In the absence of what's been revelead today as a rare or at least elusive diagnosis, I thought Tampa's looming decision over whether or not to pick up the 2009 option of a talented but injury-prone player was an interesting case study that might tell us a good deal about franchise decision-making. Today, no such study is necessary:

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters the Rays will stick by Baldelli to the best of their abilities to help him out in whatever way they can. He also said Baldelli's condition will likely lead to the Rays not picking up the outfielder's option for the 2009 season.

Let's hope this is not the end of the road for Rocco. I know that he'll get another chance somewhere - talent always does. What we don't know yet and may not for some time is whether his body is up for the challenge.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Baldelli Conundrum

It's one of the cardinal rules of sports: talent always gets a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. And so on.

Carlos Pena was a first round pick by Texas in 1998, but bounced around five different American League organizations before landing an every day job in Tampa last year at age 29 and fulfilling long-deferred projections of stardom. Pena set club records for home runs, RBI, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Knowing that a talented but enigmatic player might figure it out later on can be a complicating factor for organizational decision-making. If you're the Rays, fresh off finding the shiny quarter that is Carlos Pena, what do you do with Rocco Baldelli? A 26-year-old outfielder, Baldelli is a classic 'what if' guy who flashes tantalizing speed and power between increasing intervals of time lost to injuries.

Drafted in the first round (6th overall) in the 2000 amateur draft out of high school in Warwick, Rhode Island, Baldelli rose quickly through the minors, peaking as the #2 prospect in the land in 2003. He also debuted in the majors in 2003 at the age of 21, putting together a solid season that culminated in a third place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Perhaps most notably, Baldelli accumulated more than 670 plate appearances over 156 games. In terms of durability, it was all down hill from there.

In 2004, he managed 136 games. Over the subsequent three seasons, he totaled 127 games, missing the 2005 campaign entirely. In between ailments, he nevertheless offered glimpses of something close to greatness - or at least very goodness. In 2006, he put up a triple-slash line of .302/.339/.533, with 16 HR, 57 RBI and 10 SB in just 364 at bats. Pro-rated to 600 at bats, Baldelli would have had 320 total bases, good for 10th in the American League - a fine season for a 24-year-old.

Alas, that Baldelli looks like something of a mirage now.

For all intents and purposes, health is a skill that Rocco does not possess. It's no surprise that he's frustrated and defensive:
I’ve been tested for everything under the sun, the whole gamut, trying to find the stem of what all these problems are that I’m having. I can tell you I don’t have MS, there’s no chance. … I know it sounds bad when I’m denying specific things.
He's right, it does sound bad. Can you ever remember a professional athlete so injury prone that he has to specifically deny having multiple sclerosis?

Baldelli's career is at a crossroads, and it comes at a bad time for him. While he has yet to make an appearance this spring, Tampa is forced to make a decision on Baldelli's 2009 option - essentially whether he fits in the team's plans for the future - by April 1.

Baldelli's 2009 option would cost the team $6 million. Even with baseball's escalating salary structure, that seems like an easy no given his precarious health. However, the buy out is $4 million, so the net cost to the team of retaining Baldelli for 2009 is $2 million.

Smart organizations ignore sunk costs. Two million isn't a huge sum in the baseball universe, but it was more than enough to snap up Pena last year or the talented but flawed Corey Patterson this year, or even to make a big splash in Latin America. For a small market team, every $2 million counts.

Still, you have to wonder if emotion will enter the picture in this case. One doesn't have to delve too far into the past to find a time when Baldelli was viewed as one of the cornerstones of the next (first) great Rays squad. A team never wants to give up a player like that for nothing, particularly if he could come back to haunt them in another uniform. Tampa's fans are scarred by sour memories of Josh Hamilton's departure. Hamilton was drafted by Tampa in 1999, the year before Baldelli, and was the #1 overall pick in the draft. Tampa watched him flash prodigious talent in the minors briefly before losing him to addiction.

When team control over Hamilton lapsed and forced a decision about his future, Tampa made him available in the Rule 5 draft in December 2006. Cincinnati took a chance on him and it paid off. Tampa fans who had suffered through the highs and lows of the Hamilton saga for SEVEN years saw him resurrect his career just months later in somebody else's town. It was like putting down a Russian novel after 700 pages only to hear from somebody else that the book had a Hollywood ending and that Steven Spielberg is doing the film adaptation.

It's a fascinating conundrum. It should be easy to say goodbye to a chronically frustrating player who apparently has legs made of vermicelli.

Yet, having snapped up Carlos Pena for nothing, and having lost Josh Hamilton for nada, haven't the Rays' experienced both the positive and negative reinforcement of always giving talent another chance?

While the numbers of can't miss prospects who miss are legion, teams will always value tools and talent. Some team will gamble on Rocco Baldelli. Will it be Tampa? We'll know soon enough.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Carlos Gomez, Meet Joe Mauer

New Minnesota center-fielder Carlos Gomez, the centerpiece (from the Twins' perspective) of this winter's blockbuster Johan Santana trade, was recently asked by The St. Paul Pioneer Press if he could make an impact at the major league level this year:
"Sure!" he said the other day. "They don't have no speed like me. I know I can help this team. Especially when I hit ahead of Morneau and the catcher and the other guy."

Uh, does anybody think maybe they should have had a meet-and-greet in the clubhouse before they started practicing?

"Morneau and the catcher and the other guy."

Hey, Carlos, meet Joe Mauer. We like to call him franchise. Hmm? No, that's not his real name. That's just what we call him. His real name is Mauer. Mauer. M-A-U-E-R. Mauer. Sounds like sour.

Best guesses on "the other guy"? Delmon Young? Michael Cuddyer? Harmon Killebrew?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Corey Patterson signs, a.k.a. The Year of Living Resurgently - Take Two?

I expected 28-year-old free agent CF Corey Patterson to find a home - most likely on a short deal - quicker than this. Not that he's been any great shakes with the bat, but Corey still offers a very solid glove at a premium defensive position. And, in the shadow of 2007, in which Josh Hamilton, Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel all forged remarkable comeback/breakthroughs out of the ashes of nearly-ruined careers - let's call it The Year of Living Resurgently - it's reasonable for major league teams to make a small gamble on a once-promising player.

Still, it surprises me to find him signing with the Reds. I want to like this move but it brings into conflict two of my most cherished notions about putting a baseball team together: 1) Thou shalt take inexpensive chances on players with talent and 2) Thou shalt not block prospects with veteran players just because of "experience."

The Patterson signing puts him in direct competition with Jay Bruce for the CF slot, as LF and RF are presumably locked down for Dunn and Griffey. Bruce is the consensus top prospect in baseball, and clearly ready for the major leagues. My biggest fear here is the Reds send Bruce down to AAA because 'he hasn't failed yet' - this was mentioned publicly in the Reds' deliberations over Homer Bailey last year.

[In addition, members of the Rays' front office were recently quoted saying the same thing about Evan Longoria. This seems to be a fervent belief among front offices - that it can be very dangerous for a talented player to face adversity for the first time at the major league level. I'm skeptical, but trying to remain open-minded.]

To be fair, the Reds may just view Patterson as a fourth outfielder, a motivational ploy for Bruce to perform in Spring Training, or an insurance policy in the event Bruce does struggle. The dream scenario for Cincy is probably that Bruce starts out as the most-days CF and Patterson shows enough in limited at-bats where he creates some value to the team either in production or in trade. Certainly the minor league nature of Patterson's deal means there's little financial downside to the Reds if Bruce is truly ready.

So what do the Reds have in Patterson? I suspect Dusty Baker looks at him and sees the "true" leadoff hitter he covets, i.e. a slap singles hitter with speed. Never mind that Patterson won't take a walk to save his life. He has some power and some speed, but he has no patience, so pitchers never throw him anything to hit. Since he's 28 it's probably a poor bet that will change.

Dusty said yesterday, in a burst of spring optimism,
The main thing is he's still young. What's Corey? 28 years old? To me, he hasn't scratched the surface as to what he can do.
That's a nice sentiment, but 28 is pretty far along in the life of professional baseball player. There's a lot of evidence as to what he is and what he isn't.

The thing he gives you is pretty good CF defense, which should not be dismissed. I could see him on a one-year deal with a team that needs OF defense and maybe has a CF prospect who needs one more year in the minors. The team that made sense to me was Atlanta, who has Jordan Schafer making his way through the minors, doing a very nice Grady Sizemore impression with plus defense in CF and a nice power/speed combo on offense. The Braves probably have enough offense to trade a little bat for glove. Patterson's also an Atlanta native, so I thought it made tons of sense on a one year deal, but the Braves seem to believe in Mark Kotsay, which seems a little like wish-casting to me.

The Padres might have considered him, but they also preferred an older, more-injury prone player in Jim Edmonds, who is - see if you can guess - already hurt this spring.

Looking back on Patterson's career for just a second:

2003 Age 23 329 AB 298/329/511 13 HR, 16 SB

2004 Age 24 631 AB 266/320/452 24 HR, 32 SB

2005 Age 25 451 AB 215/254/328 13 HR, 15 SB

For the past few years, he's become a pretty one-dimensional speed player, with key counting stats of 8 HR and 37 SB last year for Baltimore.

Come to think of it, Dusty's probably remembering that 2004 season since he was Patterson's skipper in Chicago that year. I look at that line - warning: BASELESS SPECULATION ™ ahead - and guess that he saw a lot of pitches to hit in 2004 but by the next year pitchers knew he would chase the ball out of the strike zone. I seem to remember his at-bats in 2005 were cut back due to being sent down to AAA rather than injury; a quick check of Baseball Reference confirms he played 24 games for Iowa in '05. In short, we have a guy with a lot of tools who never learned how to lay off the cheese.

It would seem like a correctible flaw just to lay off pitches out of the zone. Of course that's easy for me to say typing this in my Mom's basement.

It's certainly been a long way down for Patterson from the lofty heights of can't miss prospect status. He was Baseball America's #3 prospect in all of baseball in 2000 and #2 in 2001. But a year ago you could have said similar things about Hamilton, Ankiel and Pena. That's the great thing about spring. There's always hope.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Blue Jays' prospect Travis Snider; a.k.a. The Story of How Brian Giles Used to Be Really, Really Good

Ah, prospect-watching. Sometimes the fun is in dreaming about what might be; sometimes it's about remembering what was.

Over the weekend it was announced (or revealed? how do these things come out?) that hot-crap Blue Jays' OF prospect Travis Snider would skip the high-A Florida State League this season and go straight to AA Vermont. Despite being only 20, Snider is on track to play for the Blue Jays next year.

UPDATE (3/7): I wish I could remember where I saw this item because it's only now being talked about by the team.

Blue Jays outfielder Travis Snider will likely skip high Class A Dunedin and head right to Double-A New Hampshire to start the season.

"It’s almost completely decided that he’s going there" said Blue Jays farm director Dick Scott.

Snider was taken 14th overall in the first round of the 2006 draft out of high school in Washington state. He was considered by some to be the best high school hitter in the draft, but fell due to concerns about his size (5-11, 245). Those concerns appear misplaced. Though he probably should avoid bacon cheeseburgers gaining much additional weight, his size is to some degree mitigated by his athleticism; he was a running back in high school. Like fellow big boy Prince Fielder, Snider can flat rake.

After hitting an impressive 313/375/525 as a teenager in the most pitcher-friendly of all the minor circuits, the low A Midwest League, Snider is considered one of the best prospects in baseball, ranked #7 by ESPN's Keith Law ($), #7 by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, and #11 by Baseball America.

Okay, full disclosure: I'm more than just a disinterested fan; I have Snider in a lifetime keeper league. His was one of the first write-ups I flipped to when I recently put my hands on the Baseball Prospectus Annual for 2008. I won't risk copyright infringement other than to say they think highly of Snider and compared his ceiling to 'peak Brian Giles.' That just about curdled my milk. I can't remember the last time I thought of Giles as any good.

I checked out Baseball Reference and was astonished to find just how good 'peak Brian Giles' was - observe:

1999 Age 28 315/418/614 39 HR 115 RBI OPS+ 156

2000 Age 29 315/432/594 35 HR 123 RBI OPS+ 157

2001 Age 30 309/404/590 37 HR 95 RBI OPS+ 150

2002 Age 31 298/450/622 38 HR 103 RBI OPS+ 177

That's what some of my more up-market peers might call down-ballot MVP seasons.

His peak included some pretty stellar seasons, all accomplished more or less anonymously amidst the chronic losing in Pittsburgh: the Buccos averaged ~91 losses a year during Giles' four year peak, including a round 62-100 in 2001.

In 2003, Giles was dealt to San Diego. He managed OPS+ of 145, 128 and 146 in his age 32, 33, and 34 seasons. He's in full decline phase now.

Interestingly, his age 28 season was the first one where he exceeded 500 AB. He must have been a real late bloomer, because he was still rookie-eligible at 26 in 1997.

Snider is off to a much quicker start in his career, and it looks like he'll make his major league debut at 21 or possibly sooner. One can hope that he'll have a longer productive peak than Giles, but perhaps the Giles comp serves as a reminder that while the bigger bodies can shine just as brightly, they may not shine for as long. [In case you're wondering why the Phillies are reluctant to ink Ryan Howard to a long-term deal....]

Still, lesson learned. Peak Brian Giles is a pretty high bar.

UPDATE (3/4): Here's footage of Travis Snider in which he does a nice Brian Giles impression.


This is a blog about baseball.

I have no favorite team, no favorite player, no editorial or political axe to grind. I'm not a scout. I'm not a sabermetrician. I'm just a guy who loves baseball and wants to understand the game better.

I'll cover whatever interests me. This will include players, teams, games, great plays, terrible plays, issues, ideas, books, magazines, articles, other blogs, farm teams, prospects and maybe even a little fantasy baseball. Or maybe not.

I read a lot. I need a place to process my thoughts and share my inspirations, my frustrations and, inevitably, my blind spots.

I hope it's interesting for you. I don't know why it would be.