July 24, 2014

A WORSE TEAM

Whew, the Padres are bad.

A team is last in most offensive categories. The team batting average is hovering around a historic low of .215. There is only one real part time platoon starter in the line-up consistently, Seth Smith.
Smith is batting .285, with 11 HR and only 29 RBI.

The Padres are dead last in the NL in runs scored (291), hits (688), BA (.215), OBP (.274), SLG (.355), OPS (.609) and total bases (1075).

But the Pads are 3rd in the NL West because of pitching.

The Padres rank first in the NL in team ERA (3.18), runs allowed (341) and earned runs allowed (311).

The Padres play in a pitcher friendly ball park, but still, even a below average offense would dramatically improve their 43-56 record (.434 winning percentage).

The difference between runs scored and runs allowed is -50, and over 99 games a half a run per game.

July 23, 2014

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

In certain respects, the Cubs have mimicked the Astros in the course of recent draft history. The Astros have tanked many seasons in order to get the top draft picks. In theory, high picks like #1s are easier to identify potential star players.

But with all draft prospects, even picking high does not yield high grades.

In the past four drafts, the Astros have selected the following first round players:

2010 (#8) Delino DeShields Jr., OF
Currently AA ball: .239 BA, 5 HR, 34 RBI

2010 (#19) Mike Foltynewicz RHP
Current AAA ball: 7-6,  5.12 ERA, 1.469 WHIP, 1.96 K/BB


2010 (#33) Michael Kvasnicka C
Twins AA ball: .275 BA, 9 HR, 44 RBI

(Acquired RHP Gonzlo Sanudo: A ball: 3-0, 4.20 ERA, 1.283 WHIP)

2011 (#11) George Springer OF
Astros: 78 GP, .231 BA, 20 HR, 51 RBI, 5 SB, 1.8 WAR

2012 (#1) Carlos Correa SS
Current A ball: .325 BA, 6 HR, 57 RBI, 20 SB

2013 (#1) Mark Appel, RHP
Current A ball: 1-5, 10.80 ERA, 2.087 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB

2014 (#1) Brady Aiken
Current: Failed to Sign


While many teams have promoted their best 2010 prospects to the majors, the Astros, with three picks, have not had any one set the minor league world on fire. 2011 first rounder George Springer made a huge splash in his debut this season. He has shown the power numbers to stick in the majors, but his batting average (plate disclipine) is light. All in all, Houston is pleased with Springer's progress.

Likewise, 2012 #1 overall pick Correa is doing well in A ball. Remember, he was a high school draft choice so many teams allow for more low minor league time to get adjusted to pro ball.  However, 2013 #1 overall pick Appel has been disappointing in A ball.  A college standout pitcher, Appel was seen as a difficult signing in 2011. In 2012, he was classified as the best pitching prospect. Clearly, the hype has not translated into pro ball.

The fiasco about the injury-non-injury status of 2014's overall #1 pick Aiken also sets back the 2014 draft as a total bust. The juggling of the slot bonus pool with Aiken, and the pull back of offers, led to Houston losing their next two prized draft choices as well. 

This is a real cautionary tale that any major league baseball fan needs to appreciate. In 7 first round draft picks, the Astros have currently only 1 major leaguer (Springer). That is a 14.2% success rate. Of the other six minor leaguers, only 1 has met his pre-draft potential (Correa). So there is a 17% chance that another first rounder will become a major league starter. Even the best prospects don't necessarily pan out.

The Astros main strategy was to draft high and acquire six years of cheap control of  home grown major league players. With the lack of first round success, it will be hard to imagine the plan coming together any time soon.


July 22, 2014

A'S RUNAWAY

The Athletics are dominating the AL West. With 61 victories, they are cruising ahead of the competition. The Rangers are already 22 games behind in the standings!

What is remarkable is that the A's runs differential is an outlandish +150. This is more than double the next highest team.

Baseball is a simple game with one simple rule: score more runs and you win the game.

Oakland is the master of that rule.

The A's starting pitching staff has been outstanding in ERA. The bullpen has been solid with closer Sean Doolittle.

And the A's can manufacture runs and put up crooked numbers, even though they play in a pitcher friendly ball park.

But can the A's success turn into post-season victories?

One study concluded that the most important factors in the post season are:

a) power arms in the starting rotation;
b) plus defensive fielding.

Great power arms can shut down great hitters.
A good defensive team can save a run a game.
In short series which usually are fairly even in talent, the better pitching staff and defensive team will usually win close contests.

 The funny thing is that the team with the most regular season wins does not equate to World Series championships. More and more wild card teams are getting to the Series. Whether it is part underdog status or the ability to win "one and done" games, wild card teams position themselves with at least a mental advantage.

The A's traded into the team's strength when they picked up Samardzija and Hammel from the Cubs. It would appear that Oakland wants to make a deeper run in the playoffs.

July 21, 2014

THE CRUMBLED CHIPS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BAG

As the fans get re-energized with the reports of how well certain prospects are doing in the minors, attention away from the field play comes back around to what trading chips the Cubs have left.

Two of the names coming up in conversation are James Russell and Wesley Wright. Both are left handed relievers. Both are having good seasons. Both could solidify a contender's bullpen with a lefty specialist. But both will not bring back much in return.

I always felt that Starlin Castro would wind up with the Yankees. However, there have been several reports that the Mets are interested in Castro, and one proposal has the Cubs acquiring 29 year old second baseman Daniel Murphy. Murphy in 5.5 seasons has a career 10.6 WAR. This year he is hitting .289, with 7 HRs. Murphy and a package of prospects does not seem feasible to pry Castro from the Cubs. The good point in that discussion is that the Cubs would be receiving a major league player in return. The bad point is that Murphy does not help the long term roster, and the Cubs have more high ceiling players who can play second (Alcantara and Baez).

The one area of system need continues to be starting pitching. Relievers like Russell and Wright can not get a high level or major league ready AAA pitcher in a trade. Castro could get maybe one major league ready AAA pitcher.  More likely, the front office would want several lower level pitching prospects as greater numbers improve the chances that a prospect will turn out okay.

There are plenty of players who have played themselves into trade crumbs: Olt, Lake, Schierholtz, Barney, Villaneuva, and even T. Wood.


July 18, 2014

EVEN NUMBERS GUYS CAN'T ADD

The Cubs may be a woeful franchise, but at least they are not the Astros.Yet.

The Astros had the first pick in the draft (again). They made an under slot offer to their  selection, high school pitcher Brady Aiken. A deal was inked for $6.5 million, subject to passing a physical. The Astros also had a deal with their 5th round pick, Jacob Nix, for an over-slot deal. The same was rumored with another hard to sign guy, 21st rounder Mac Marshall.  The saber-guru plan was to move the slot money around to get three quality prospects for the price of one (and a half).

But the house of cards fell a part when the Astros front office, including sabermetric favorite and new GM Jeff Luhnow, had an issue with an undersized UCL ligament in his throwing elbow. The Astros medical concern was that this abnormality would lead to Tommy John surgery. So the team invoked an "injury" clause in the CBA to offer a 40% of slot deal to Aiken. Aiken and his camp balked, saying he was not injured. That is his natural body, and he throws fine with it. Aiken's advisors cried foul and were claiming the medical studies and opinions were false.

Today's signing deadline passed with MLB.com reporting that the Astros failed to sign Aiken, Nix or Marshall.  However, the Astros will receive the No. 2 pick in next year’s draft because the team Houston did at least offer Aiken 40 percent of his slot value ($3,168,840), which Aiken did not accept.

Obviously, losing three players will set back the Astros rebuilding plan. The Astros have been tanking for years to get back to back Number One picks to boost their core young talent. New owner Jim Crane has slashed the payroll to pitiful levels (according the players association). And the Astros new local cable deal has been a financial disaster.

All the elements of a disaster movie have come to roost in Houston.  Smart number crunching looking for loopholes to juice the system sometimes themselves get squeezed out of the action. As the Astros start to bring up good prospects like George Springer, then are other "great" prospects like pitcher Mark Appel crashing in Class A.

And this story is why Cubs fans have to be cautious about their expectations. The Cubs front office is following the Astro path more than the Boston Way.


July 17, 2014

STATE OF THE GAME

Sports columnist Mike Downey opined on CNN.com that the game of baseball is not as healthy as the headlines around All-Star break claim to be.

"Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies' attendance is down 8,290 per home game from a year ago. Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, each down more than 4,000. Minnesota Twins, more than 3,000. Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, 2,000-plus.

Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays .... down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down."
Downey writes that  17 of the leagues' 30 teams have poorer attendance than a year ago at this time. World Series television ratings get more disappointing year after year.

He also concludes that Baseball is losing its luster. As ticket prices get higher, interest goes lower. he writes. As options on television expand, baseball's grip on the American public gets ever more slippery. He cites that for Game 1 of the 2004 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals came to approximately 25.4 million viewers. When the same two teams met in the World Series last October, Game 1's viewership was pegged at around 15 million.

One year earlier a series between the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers attracted the worst TV ratings of any World Series in the past 30 years.

As great players like Derek Jeter retire, there are new baseball starts like Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen,  Robinson Cano, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout,  Jose Abreu, Yu Darvish, and Yasiel Puig. But do these new players have the lasting draw of the old ones?

Apparently not, if one sees both attendance and television ratings falling in a majority of major league teams. I agree with some of Downey's assumptions. But there is a larger picture.

Historically, baseball has been a mirror to the American population growth. At the turn of the 20th century, it was played by white men and an influx of new immigrants. As each immigrant type, whether it be Jewish, Irish, Polish, etc., came to the United States in numbers, those groups would become Americanized and take up baseball. Each new group contributed to the baseball rosters. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, black players made their contributions to the sport. Likewise, the current wave of Hispanic/Latin immigration has fueled the increase in Hispanic/Latin players in the majors. 

So why are the influx of new talent and new immigrants not kept baseball moving forward in attendance and ratings? Economics and culture may play a part. The current wave of new immigrants are mostly semi-skilled laborers who do not have the disposal income to take a family to the major league game. It is too expensive. In addition, they come from countries where baseball is not the number one sport - - - soccer is the national game. Also, cultural in the 21st century, there has been a movement NOT to assimilate new immigrants into the American culture. Politics has made it possible to keep your own language and culture as a "special interest" group than become part of the silent majority.

Finally, there are vast more entertainment choices today than 50 years ago. Baseball would have been a priority summer event several generations ago. But today, organized sports for kids and the electronic babysitting age has fractured demographics into small diverse sub-culture groups with smaller attention spans.

Baseball may not fit the needs of the next generation.

July 16, 2014

HOW THE A'S DID IT

Tim Britton of the Providence Journal has an excellent break down of how the Oakland Athletics became a quality team.

He acknowledges that the A's  operate on a smaller budget than most major league teams due to their market and stadium deal.  Oakland opened the season with the game’s 25th-highest payroll at $85 million, and its seven All-Stars — including recently acquired Jeff Samardzija — will make a grand total of $28.55 million this season. The Athletics have acquired those seven players in very different ways, most of them highlighting superior evaluation of unknowns — and of course a healthy dose of good fortune.

The A’s have built through the draft. All-Star closer Sean Doolitte was a first-round pick in 2007 out of the University of Virginia, albeit as a position player. Doolitte shifted to the mound after his development stagnated at the plate, and he’s quickly evolved into one of the game’s best late-inning relievers.

The A’s have built through the international market. As fewer big-name stars hit free agency — and the ones that do hit it at a more advanced age — the international market has grown in significance. Fifteen different All-Stars signed with their current teams as international free agents, including seven who were into their 20s and played in the majors almost immediately. That includes pitchers from Japan in Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, and multiple sluggers from Cuba, like Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes was 26 and known mainly for an over-the-top workout video when the A’s inked him to a four-year, $36-million deal shortly before the 2012 season — a surprising outlay of cash from the Athletics. Cespedes’ production has exceeded that expense already — something that can rarely be said about free-agent outfielders these days. (That same offseason, Michael Cuddyer signed a three-year deal in Colorado for $31.5 million; he’s been about 60 percent as valuable as Cespedes since.)

The A’s have built through other teams’ farm systems. Oakland has long had to deal established players in order to get something of value in return before they departed in free agency. Catcher Derek Norris and third baseman Josh Donaldson both came to the Athletics as minor-leaguers in deals for veteran pitchers — Norris from Washington for Gio Gonzalez, Donaldson from the Cubs for Rich Harden. It’s rare for a team to hit on that kind of return more than once. Just look at how little Cliff Lee brought back each of the three times he was traded as an ace.

The A’s have found value in the free-agency clearance aisle, snatching Brandon Moss on a minor-league contract after the 2011 season. At the time, Moss had been a replacement-level player; in five seasons for three different organizations, he was worth exactly 0.0 wins above replacement. Since, he’s slugged 71 home runs and been worth seven wins to the Athletics.

Finding that kind of value on the cheap allows room for the occasional expense, like shelling out $22 million this past winter for Scott Kazmir. The approach of using free agency to find complementary pieces obviously worked quite well for the Red Sox last season.

In a pool of 81 All-Stars overall, Kazmir is one of just 15 who signed with their current team through the regular free-agent market. The Zack Greinkes and Robinson Canos are increasingly the outlier among All-Stars, not the rule.

Drafting well will always be the best strategy for building a consistently competitive team. But compensating for poor drafts in the free-agent market has become harder and harder as more and more of the game’s best players stay home with long-range extensions. Creating a talented roster demands a varied approach to collecting that talent — something the A’s have excelled at in recent years.

I call this a balanced approach tempered by the financial realities of the club. Draft well in June and sign good international players; make good trades to acquire other teams best prospects; find value in second tier free agent market; and make occasional big trade or premium free agent signing. But that is easier said than done.

Unlike the Cubs, the A's went into the international market to land major league starters. Finding gold in toss in players in trades like Donaldson are quite rare. But once you get new players into your system, a team needs to finalize their development which the A's have an excellent track record in doing, especially with their pitching staffs.