Saturday, September 3, 2011

Flash in The Pan or Glimpse of The Future? Part 1

A look at some of the surprise performers of 2011.

The Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks all have had surprisingly good seasons, even with the Pirates going into a strong tailspin in the second half.  No one expected these teams to contend this year but the Indians and D-backs are still in the hunt.  The question however is are they showing us a look into the future or were they simply the recipients of good fortune.  Let's break each team's season down and look to see what we can expect from them looking forward.

First the Indians. Last year the finished 4th in the AL Central with a record of 69-
93. Coming into the year most the prognosticators predicted them to finish near that mark again if not a little worse. Their opening day starter was Fausto Carmona who has been less than impressive since his break out 19 win campaign in 2007. He would be followed by Carlos Carrasco, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Mitch Talbot. On paper that didn't look like a team strength in April. Last season the five of them combined for a record of 37-46. The starting rotation was expected to be the biggest weakness of a young struggling team that was waiting for some of their recent draft picks to finish their grooming in the minors.

The starting lineup didn't look much better. Shin-Soo Choo was expected to be the bright point in an other wise extremely weak lineup. Asdrubal Cabrera, Orlando Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Matt LaPorta, Jack Hannahan, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Austin Kearns and Travis Hafner. None of these names outside of Choo and Santana inspire much confidence with the bat coming into the 2011 campaign. Hannahan was nothing more than a place holder while Lonnie Chisenhal finished learning the position at AAA. Austin Kearns was expected to be the fourth outfielder as soon as Grady Sizemore could finish his rehab stint in the minors to return from micro-fracture surgery. Orlando Cabrera, well past his peak years, was to help add a veteran presence and leadership until Jason Kipnis was ready. Asdrubal Cabrera was considered and everyday player with a great glove and .300 BA ability and little power. Brantley and LaPorta, both coming to the Tribe in the CC Sabathia trade, were expected to break out and settle in to be every day players of the future. Hafner having battled injuries over the last couple of seasons was figured to be past his prime. No one was expecting much from the club this year however, it was just going to be a chance for the Tribe to see what they had and build for next season.

After opening weekend the predictions looked correct. However after that opening set with the White Sox the Tribe pitchers got into a rhythm and the bats came to life. They went on a tear through April and into May posting 30-15 record after 45 games. They burst into first place in the division and looked like they may put a big enough gap between them and the rest that they could just coast into the playoffs. In June however injuries began to set in and the team cooled off. By the All-Star break the had fallen to second in the division and most assumed that was the end of a nice fairy tale. However they haven't gone into the tailspin most expected. They have managed to stay within reach of the division crown all the way into September. Although it's unlikely that they will be able to catch the red hot Tigers, it appears they aren't going away and should at least make it an interesting season ending series with their Motor City Rivals.

When looking at the Indians season to date it's easy to write it off to an extremely hot start and little more at first glance. However a closer look really does grant some excitement for a Tribe fan. The big contributors have been young players who are under contractual control for a few more years at least. Justin Masterson has shown that he has ace type ability and would likely be in the discussion for the Cy Young award if the team had been able to grant some run support to his amazing season, (and Justin Verlander wasn't having the season he is having). Masterson has posted an 11-8 record and an ERA of 2.92.

Josh Tomlin has shown that he has the ability to hang in a game nearly every time he takes the mound. Until his final start before going on the DL with elbow swelling he had made 37 consecutive starts of 5+ innings to start his career becoming the first player in MLB history to do so in his first 37 appearances. His high 80s fastball isn't impressive but he can control it to both sides of the plate and keeps batters off balance.

Fausto Carmona got off to the start that most would have expected. Coming out of the gates showing flashes of brilliance followed by complete blow ups. After a brief trip to the DL however he has been amazingly effective. His over all 4.84 ERA is largely the result of his early season blowups. Over his last 40 innings he has put up a respectable 3.38 ERA with 28 Ks and only 10 BBs.

Asdrubal Cabrera has emerged as one of the best offensive shortstops in the game. He has given above average defense up the middle to back up the Tribes sinker ball heavy rotation and put up a .278/.337/.467 line with 22 HRs 16 SBs, and 80 RBIs thus far. Getting the starting nod for the All-Star game in the first appearance of his career.

Carlos Santana started the season slow after his amazing rookie campaign that was cut short with a torn MCL in 2010. Santana has looked a bit rough around the edges to say the least behind the plate this year. His BA of .240 is rather uninspiring however his .72 BB/K rate is very impressive as are his 21 HRs. His 67 RBI are not overwhelming but are pretty decent especially for a catcher.

Matt LaPorta has not yet seemed to find his groove in the Majors and is currently back in triple-A for that reason. He has shown flashes of the right handed power bat the Indians where hoping he could become but has failed to be consistent and has turned into a simple hacker at the dish. Brantley on the other hand played a good left field and put up good at bats until he was shut down with a wrist injury.

The thing that is truly amazing though about this Cleveland team is the number of injuries to key players that they have managed to move past. Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley, Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot and Josh Tomlin have all had trips to the DL. Just a look at the roster that took the field tonight as I write this is quite telling. Eziquiel Carrera, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Santana, Jim Thome, Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Lonnie Chisenhall, Cord Phelps, and Jared Head with David Huff pitching. Only 2 of the 10 starters were on the opening day roster. However even with the amazing number of roster moves needed this season and the fact that the Tribe's triple-A team is starting for them right now they are still in contention.

In short I would say the Indians have a bright future. Key players seem to have emerged this year and shown amazing resilience. Even though it seems unlikely that they will win the division this season it seems likely that they will be in the hunt for years to come. If this season is any indication to the true potential that these young players have, the Indians are going to be more than just competitive.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How About the O's

The Orioles made a lot of noise this off season with the signings that they made, but did they make moves that will push them into the winners circle. Last season they struggled, to say the least, with a record of 66-96.  They play in one of the most challenging divisions in sports, the AL East and they have very little budget to work with. This off season though they went out and picked up quite a few free agents to bolster their roster.  Vlad Guerrero, Derek Lee, Kevin Gregg, Justin Duchscherer, Koji Uehara and Jeremy Accardo  all signed to join the club.  The Orioles invested over $25 million to bring them on board, will it pay off?
Looking at the acquisitions the first thing to jump out at me was the number of position players they went for.  Derek Lee is a solid first basemen in most regards but his age has driven down his value significantly.  Last season his batting average dropped to .260, the worst it's been since 1999 and his strike out rate jumped 4%.  At $7.25 million, which is what the O's are paying him this year, they must believe last season was a fluke.
Vlad had a solid year last year embracing the DH role batting .300 with 29 HRs for the Rangers.  He should be able to at least come close to those numbers in the hitter friendly confines of Camden Yards, but now where do they play Luke Scott?  Scott was just behind Vlad last year with a batting average of .284 and 27 HRs and looks to be fighting for at bats in left field or spelling Lee at first.
They also made the trade with the Diamondbacks for Mark Reynolds who will take over at 3rd base.  He will likely hit quite a few home runs for them as last year he had 32 but only batted for an average of .198.  He struck out an amazing 42.3% of the time last year against the NL West pitchers.  Although the Giants had quite possibly the best pitching in the league last year I don't think moving to Baltimore where he will have to face the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays will be much help for him.  He will be replacing Melvin Mora who batted .285 last season but only hit 7 HRs.  So apparently the O's are planning on hitting enough long balls to push them to the top.
Last season they scored only 613 runs, it is likely that they will increase that number by a few this year.  However even with more long balls I don't see them getting over 660 or 670.  The real problem last year for them was pitching.  They gave up 785 runs with a team ERA of 4.59.  To address their pitching woes they picked up Kevin Gregg and Duchscherer.
With a team ERA of 4.59, I don't see a couple of relief arms bring them down into contention.  Duchscherer was a low cost pickup at $700 K for the season.  This is obviously them hoping that he can stay healthy and give them a full season which would make him a bargain.  In his 5 games last year he posted a 2.89 ERA for Oakland, but he hasn't pitched a full season in the majors since 2008.  If he can stay healthy he could significantly help this Baltimore staff.
The Orioles are hoping for some of their young starters to take big steps forward this year if they want these signings to be worth what they paid.  Although Duchscherer may help by giving them a potential ace to the staff, without break out campaigns from Matusz, and company they are still looking at a weak rotation, by far the weakest in their division.  I don't see the O's finishing very high in the standings, although they may win a couple more games and finish around 70 wins $25 million is a lot to pay for 4 more wins.  Even if Duchscherer stays healthy and Matusz breaks out, Reynolds bats over .220 and Derek Lee brings his average back to where it has been the O's still look like a team missing too many pieces to put together a winning campaign.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Is It Time For A Salary Cap?

I was asked this question the other day and realized that to give a real answer could take me a little bit of time.  In short I don't feel that there is a legitimate need for a salary cap in baseball.  At face value it seems like there is a glaring need, teams have drastically different salaries and it often feels like the post season is the same group of teams every year.  However I feel that not using a salary cap has made MLB a great example of how well capitalism can work.
Prior to the introduction of free agency there was no real need to discuss the possibility of a salary cap, each team got players through their ability to find and sign amateur players or through trades made with other teams.  In 1976 however that all changed.  Players where granted the ability to become free agents and seek out contracts with which ever team they chose.  That opened the door for more lucrative salaries to players and the ability of teams to buy the talent that they wanted, if they where willing to pay enough.
Since that time the Yankees have established a reputation around the fact that they will pay as much as is needed to win championships.  They have had a good bit of success in that regard, since the first World Series was held in 1903 they have a record 27 championships.  20 of those, however, came before the 1976 introduction of free agency, meaning they won nearly 30% of World Series before 1976.  Since then they have only won 7. That is more than any other franchise in the same time frame but not as dominant as it may seem, it is only about 20%.
In the 34 years since the introduction of free agency there have only been 9 franchises to win multiple World Series.  Of those 9 only the Yankees have more than 2.  In 34 years though you have 20 different franchises with at least one World Series win.  The NFL has a salary cap and over the same time frame they have only 15 different winners and only 8 with multiple titles.
The idea of introducing a salary cap would be to try and create more parity in the sport by evening out the playing field for free agents.  However there doesn't seem to be a need to create more parity at this time.  Although the Yankees have more titles than any other team they haven't accomplished that at any more dominant of a pace then they had before free agency came into play, in fact it seems to have slowed them down a bit. 
In the early 2000s Bud Selig thought there was a need for a cap and he hired a group of economists to look into the problems.  They looked over historical data and found no proof that a need existed. As a result of their failure to find what he wanted, we now have revenue sharing.  The current revenue sharing system was created to help some of the smaller market teams produce more competitive teams.  The teams that pay the most for players have to give a percentage of their revenue to MLB who then will divide it up to the teams who pay the least.  Instead of creating greater parity though and helping the poorer teams out it has helped make it profitable to lose.  The Pirates have reported profits every year since revenue sharing despite not having a winning season.  Tampa Bay had profits each year leading up to their World Series appearance in 2008.
What MLB has shown through all of this is that there are many different ways to win baseball games.  Likewise there are a number of different ways to produce profits for their clubs.  The key for the smaller market teams is finding ways to be creative in team construction.  The more creative a general manager becomes the more likely the team is to succeed.  Introducing a salary cap would take some of the freedom currently available to GMs and potentially slow the growth of the game.
Recently the idea of a salary cap has been in the news again as Kenny Williams of the Chicago Whitesox mentioned his opinion on the matter in relation to the Pujols contract talks.  What he says, in a nutshell, is that paying a player $30 million a year is crazy and that is evidence of need for a salary cap.  However, if the market is willing to pay the money then I see no reason for Pujols, or anyone else, to turn it down.  If the price truly is too high then the market will not pay it and Pujols will be forced to sign for less money than he wants.  Introducing a salary cap to say that a player is simply getting payed too much would only cause problems.  Similar in many ways to the disputes going on right now with the NFL owners and Players Assoc.  The NFL is the most profitable sport in the world and the Players Assoc. feels they deserve more of the profits, but in part because of the salary cap teams can't pay more.
Last year MLB brought in nearly $7 billion in revenue.  Teams averaged around $180 million each, with the Yankees making double the average revenue.  With that much of a gap in team revenue where would you put the cap?  And, if you did put in a cap what purpose would it serve?  Players play for the right to be paid for their contributions, putting a cap on what a team can spend most likely would lead to players having to accept less for the same body of work.  If you start paying them less eventually it could lead to another lengthy dispute and possible another lost season due to strikes.  Allowing each team to decide for themselves how much they are willing to pay, allows for the ingenuity and innovation that capitalism thrives on.  It allows men like Billy Beane to revolutionize small market teams.  It provides for the romance that makes the game great win a smaller market team pushes for the play offs.