Monday, April 26, 2010


Or, how to ruin what had been labeled a potential dynasty.

You’ve probably already heard about Ryan Howard’s MAMMOTH contract extension for five years and $125 million. You may have even read some of the analysis that discusses just how crazy this contract is. Well, here are my two cents.

For starters, I just don’t understand why the Phillies are doing this now. Unless they have an economist on staff who is predicting that major league baseball salaries to spike, this is a bad deal now. According to FanGraph’s valuations, Howard has been worth just under $20 million per season over the last 4 years. Even if Howard maintains his current productivity, the Phillies will be paying a 25% premium for that production starting in 2012.

Of course, Ryan Howard won’t be able to maintain that level of production. Unlike some of the other players who have been locked up long term, Ryan Howard is already 30. The Phillies just committed $25 million per year until he’s 37 and baseball is typically not very kind to aging left handed sluggers. In fact, baseball is downright cruel to aging left handed sluggers. Ryan Howard’s top four comparable players coming into this season were Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, and David Ortiz. If that list doesn’t make a Phillies fan’s blood run cold, I don’t know what would. Sexson was pretty good at 30 and 31, terrible by 32, and out of baseball after his year 33 season. Fielder was all right in his early 30’s, but was out of baseball following his age 34 season. Mo Vaughn is widely considered one of the biggest free agent busts in history, after signing an enormous deal with the Angels following his impressive age 30 season, Vaughn was mediocre, before missing his entire age 33 season and was out of baseball following a brief and ineffective appearance in his age 35 season. Sadly, David Ortiz’s struggles don’t really need much explanation. Every one of these players had sharp declines following their age 30 or 31 season. The Phillies have now committed money well beyond that.

To top it all off, the Phillies are an NL team, so they won’t be able to hide Howard at DH. They’re committed to trotting him out there every day until he is 37, or they eat enough of the guaranteed money on his contract to move him to a power starved AL team. He’s a tolerable defender at first right now, but given his size, I can’t imagine his defense holds up over the course of the contract.

The sad thing is that the Phillies were positioned perfectly to avoid this whole mess. Sexson and Vaughn ended up being tremendous busts, but their original teams knew when to pull the plug. The Red Sox and the Diamondbacks both let their star first basemen walk, even though neither team had a star prospect moving up to fill the role. In fact, what makes it even more depressing is that the Phillies went through all this when they traded Jim Thome to the White Sox following the 2005 season. For the mere cost of Thome and $22 million (about half the money left on his contract) the Phillies received Aaron Rowand, who put in two solid, relatively inexpensive (if you don’t hold the $22 million against him) years in center field, before moving west to become a free agent bust in his own right.

So, if you’ve skipped ahead to the end for a Cliff’s Notes summary, this is a terrible, terrible deal for the Phillies because:

  1. Howard is already pretty old (30)
  2. Howard was already under contract for next season, so there wasn’t any reason to rush this.
  3. Howard is likely going to be overpaid in year 1 of his new contract extension.
  4. The baseball gods hate large, unathletic, left-handed sluggers.
  5. Howard’s mediocre defense can’t be hidden in the NL.
  6. And finally, perhaps most depressingly, they’ve learned nothing from their own mistakes and mistakes of other teams within the last ten years.

By all accounts Howard is an exceptional person and a pretty damn good ballplayer right now, but there is no doubt in my mind that this contract bites the Phillies in the ass down the line. The Red Sox are in a tough situation with David Ortiz right now, a former face of the franchise, but imagine if the Red Sox owed him $25 million a year for another 3 years AND he had to play the field. It would not end well.

A Prospect Check Up - Lars Anderson and Anthony Rizzo

Since writing this the Sox called up Lars Anderson to AAA. Not a bad plan to be a bit aggressive with a guy who has already spent a year and a half in AA, albeit with little success last year.

Coming into this season Anthony Rizzo and Lars Anderson seemed to be headed in very different directions. Anthony Rizzo was coming off a very impressive season split between the Sally League (the South Atlantic League, which is a low A league) and the Red Sox high A affiliate in Salem. Anderson, on the other hand, had a massively disappointing season at AA, hitting only .233/.328/.345 with 9 home runs in a repeat of AA Portland. Although Anderson came in to the season as the Red Sox #1 prospect, because of his poor showing and Rizzo's impressive 20-year-old season, analysts were split on who was the better prospect. Because of Rizzo's limited time in the Sally League and Anderson's poor performance as a SeaDog, the Sox kept both of them in high A and AA, respectively.

Lars Anderson is currently hitting .328/.388/.672 in Portland. While it is a small sample size, his slugging percentage is nearly double that of last year, plus he's already hit 5 home runs in 58 at bats, compared to 9 in 450 last year. Anderson is currently leading the Eastern League (one of the AA leagues) in slugging, OPS, and home runs. While there are still four months to go in the minor league season, it is great to see Anderson excelling after such a poor 2009. Anderson turns 23 in late September, so it wouldn't be shocking to see him as a September call up this year.

Just like Anderson, Rizzo is also hitting extremely well to start the season, posting a .304/.380/.507 line to start his season in high A Salem. The knock on Rizzo has always been that he might not have enough power to be an above average first baseman at the major league level. The .500 slugging thus far is a nice bump from the .420 in high A last year, although he'll need to maintain that power as he moves up the minor leagues. That said, with his batting eye and defensive abilities, he has a great shot at being a solid major leaguer.

So far it seems that not moving Rizzo or Anderson up has paid off. It wouldn't shock me to see one or both of them move up to the next level within the next month or so. Rizzo can't really be promoted without also promoting Anderson, although fortunately Anderson already has a full season and a half at AA, so he may be heading down to Pawtucket before too much longer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Should we be concerned about Jon Lester?

The Red Sox have been struggling lately, even with two impressive walk-off wins against the Rangers, much of which is due to the heroics of Darnell McDonald. The Sox haven't been very good at just about everything so far this year, for a nice example, the Red Sox have caught 3% of the runners attempting to steal on them. Three. A 97% success rate is absolutely unheard of for a single player, but V-Mart and Tek are turning every baserunner into a super Ricky Henderson. But their starting pitching, which was supposed to be their greatest strength, has been particularly disappointing. The Red Sox rank 13th in ERA in the AL, just beating out the lowly Royals.

Jon Lester was supposed to be the ace of the staff. Despite a slow start to 2009, he ended up with a 3.41 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, and 225 strikeouts. To top it all off, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which is calculated based on strikeout, walk, and home run rates) indicated he was a bit unlucky, as his peripheral stats indicated he should have had an ERA of 3.15. After 3 rocky starts, Lester is sporting an 8.84 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP. Obviously he isn't that bad, but can he recover to ace status?

First, the good. Started off poorly last year, and may simply be a slow starter. Lester's ERA didn't get below 5.00 until June 12 of last year, and his monthly ERAs for April and May were 5.40 and 5.86 respectively. For the rest of the season Lester didn't post a monthly ERA above 3.07. But, when you take a closer look, things aren't quite so rosy. In 2009, Lester's strikeout and walk rates were excellent - over the course of April and May he struck out 74 batters in 65 1/3 innings (10.2 K/9 IP, which is actually higher than his strikeout rate for the entire season), while only walking 24. Because of the good strikeout and walk rates, we can probably chalk up Lester's poor start in 2009 to bad luck, and some bad defense. So far this season, Lester seems to be being bitten by bad luck too, giving up a .364 batting average on balls in play (.300 is average, and previous studies have shown that pitchers have very little control over their BABIP).

However, this season the strikeout and walk numbers have not been nearly as impressive as they were in 2009. A combination of fewer strikeouts (14 in 16 IP, which is still above average) and a much higher walk rate (9 in 14 IP, nearly twice the rate from last year) is a bit worrisome. , having already walked 9 batters, three in each of his starts. I'm not worried about Lester just yet, but control has been an issue for him in the past. The key here are the walks - he only had one three game stretch where he gave up 9 BB last year, but that was in 21 innings instead of 14. If he can't reign in the walk totals, he'll have to cede the title of "Red Sox ace" to Lackey or Beckett.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Meet the new Javy Vazquez...

The same as the old Javy Vazquez. Vazquez was amazing last year in Atlanta, following up on a solid season with the Diamondbacks. After the Yankees reacquired him all the writers, fantasy and regular, told us baseball fans not to think that the Javy Vazquez from his last stint with the Yankees (4.91 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) would reappear. Vazquez has always been a bit of a stathead darling. His strikeout rate and walk rates are elite, yet he always seemed to underperform with regard to ERA. The conventional wisdom was that Vazquez had trouble pitching with runners on base, which was supported by Derek Carty's article at Hardball Times, among others.

Despite being a stathead darling and having posted a 2.87 ERA and 1.03 WHIP last year with Atlanta, I'll admit I was ecstatic when the Yankees reacquired Vazquez. Sure, the Yankees didn't give up much in terms of prospects to get him, nor does he have a long term contract which will hurt the Yankees, but he sure can hurt the Yankees in 2010. Well, after the first start, Vazquez is now sporting a gaudy 12.71 ERA after giving up 8 runs in 5 2/3 innings. Vazquez pitched well with the bases empty, holding the Rays to a .214/.313/.286 line in 14 at bats, with 4 strikeouts. Unsurprisingly, Vazquez got annihilated with the runners on, with the Rays going 7/14, picking up 15 total bases good for a .500/.533/1.071 line.

It sure is nice to have Javy Vazquez back in the AL East.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Beckett's Extension

Although it was rumored to have been done for nearly a week, the Red Sox officially finalized a 4 year, $68 million extension with Josh Beckett this afternoon. The deal was not announced until today due to MLB rules on calculating the luxury tax - if the deal had been signed before the season began, then the average annual value (AAV) of the new contract would have been used for luxury tax purposes, rather than the AAV for the previous contract. Unsurprisingly, all the doom and gloom about Beckett leaving due to the Lackey signing proved unfounded. From everything I've read there weren't any blows to egos about who should be the highest paid pitcher on the team. For what it is worth, the AAV of the extension is slightly more than what Lackey earns, however, over the next five years Lackey will earn slightly more. Unlike the Lackey deal, there is no injury protection.

According to Fangraphs, Beckett has been worth just under $81 million over the last 4 years, with $73 million of that value coming in the last 3. If he can stay healthy and maintain his production the Sox could come out ahead. However, looking five years down the road is a guessing game for any player, let alone a pitcher. It worries me that the Sox are sinking over $30 million a year into 30+ year old pitchers from now until the end of the 2014 season. Last I checked, betting on pitchers in their mid thirties is what undid the Yankees...

Some thoughts from opening night

So much for that weak offense. As Joe Morgan and John Miller repeatedly pointed out, the new guys all hit very well, going a combined five for nine with two runs and three RBI. I was a bit surprised to hear Miller refer to Cameron as a guy who doesn't walk much, though. While a .340 career OBP isn't anything special, when it comes with a .250 career average you have to walk a lot.

Neither Beckett nor Sabathia looked particularly sharp. Both had lots of long at bats. Beckett seemed to generate very few swings and misses, while Sabathia had trouble finding the plate, only throwing 58 strikes in 104 total pitches. Both struggled to throw first pitch strikes as well (9/23 for Sabathia, 13/24 for Beckett).

Overall it was a pretty sloppy game. Defensively Youkilis' triple may well have been a long single if Swisher hadn't misjudged the ball and I still don't really know where Gardner was trying to throw the ball when he airmailed it. The Red Sox botched the double steal in the fourth, and Damaso Marte was an absolute disaster between the balls in the dirt, the passed ball, and the eventual walk to Ortiz. Okajima wasn't that much better, but managed to get out of a sticky situation with a nice double play. Although he ended up winning the game, he also let Ramon Ramirez' two inherited runners score. This is something that has come up in the past, and may be one of the reasons the Red Sox kept lefty Schoeneweis on the roster.

Although you can't get too excited about a LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy) with middling career numbers, it is hard not to root for Schoeneweis, considering the personal tragedy he went through last year

The new Sox D didn't make any spectacular plays, although Cano's broken bat liner that Ellsbury tracked down with easy might have dropped in front of Manny or Bay. That would have made the 9th a heck of a lot more nerve-wracking.

Speaking of the ninth, it was good to see Papelbon go to the splitter to finish the game. He had gotten away from using the pitch last year, but was working on it a lot during spring training this year.

One down, eighteen to go. I'm not sure how I feel about the imbalanced schedule these days. It really does make it brutally hard for the O's, Jays, and Rays to compete when they're playing one quarter of their games against the Red Sox and the Yankees and their combined $378 million payroll. Plus, it seems to dilute the meaning of each Yankees/Red Sox regular season game.