Part 2: The Case Against Ed Wade

Now that Ed Wade has been defended against the fans looking for someone to blame for the debacle that is the 2011 Astros, it is time to lay siege and tear down the walls.  For every up there is a down, for every to there is a fro, and everything else one can learn from Merlin in the moat.

While it is true that Wade walked into an unenviable situation by taking over the Astros in late 2007, he is paid to do a job with the resources he is given, the same as every other hard-working man or woman.  A case can be built showing that Ed Wade took a bad situation and quite possibly made it worse.

The sources for this article were Baseball Almanac, Baseball Prospectus, MLB Trade Rumors, Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Fangraphs, and of course, Wikipedia.

P.S.  Sorry for the length.  It’s hard to do justice to this subject without elaborating.

EVER HEARD OF MONEYBALL?

It is obvious to a modern baseball fan that Ed Wade’s staff relies on outdated methods for scouting and evaluating players.  Scouting is an invaluable tool, but it is not the only tool.  Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, about the early 2000’s Oakland A’s, opened the curtain on a fledgling industry of statistics and sabermetrics that have revolutionized baseball more than old-school baseball execs would like to admit.

In various places below, this article illustrates how Wade’s group whiffed on even the basics of using statistics to evaluate players.

As shown in an earlier post, the Wade-era Astros have left their mark as one of the most absolutely and abhorrently abysmal clubs in the history of baseball at getting on base.  Getting on base is good, if the players want to, you know, score runs and stuff.  The basic stat of On-Base Percentage (OBP) is one of hundreds of metrics available to quantitatively judge players.

For starting pitchers, it has been common for years to calculate a pitcher’s effectiveness while disregarding team defense.  The simplest (and one of the oldest) measures for this is Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP.  FIP is measured on roughly the same scale as ERA, so if one looks at an ERA of 5.00 and says, “That’s bad,” then one can say the same for a FIP of 5.00.

Another commonly used measurement is the concept of grading a player in terms of the number of Wins he is worth, compared to an utterly average player who neither hurts nor helps his team.  In this article, Fangraphs’ WAR is the metric used to illustrate this

THE NEVER ENDING QUEST FOR A ROTATION…

The Ed Wade Astros have featured a revolving door in the starting rotation for his entire tenure.  For the most part, this time is filled with a sequence of bad pitchers, injured veterans, and large contracts.  Better options were available at the time these pitchers were signed, some for similar money, some for less.  It is obvious that Wade wanted to catch lightning in a bottle with some of these signings, perhaps with the hope of trading them for minor-league talent.   But more often than not, the pitchers he gambled on were the ones that should have been sent to the glue factory years prior.

STATS?  WE DONT NEED NO STINKING STATS!

  • Prior to the 2008 season, Wade tried to patch the rotation by extending Brian Moehler and signing Shawn Chacon as a Free Agent.  Chacon was released after beating up Wade in the team cafeteria mid-season.
  • Prior to the 2009 season, Wade signed Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz, and most fans said, “Wait, they’re still alive?”  Predictably, neither had a revival with the Astros that season.  Between 2003 and the day Ortiz signed with the Astros, he missed 194 games due to injury.  In that same time period, Hampton missed 585 games!
  • Prior to the 2010 season, Wade acquired Brett Myers.  Myers surprisingly went on to have a career year.  His career stats indicated that 2010 was likely a statistical fluke, and 2011 is proving this.
  • Finally, Wade patchworked the 2011 season by handing the fifth starter role to Nelson Figueroa.  To keep Figueroa honest, he signed starters Ryan Rowland-Smith and Gustavo Chacin, who had not pitched more than 90 innings in the majors since 2005.

The table below shows the pitchers mentioned above, along with their FIPs for the five previous seasons before Wade signed (or re-signed) them.  WAR/Y represents their average WAR over that time span, and DL represents the average number of games missed due to injury over that time.

Pitcher FIP WAR/Y DL
Mike Hampton 7.32 0.7 117
Russ Ortiz 5.13 0.7 36.8
Brian Moehler 4.77 0.4 53.6
Shawn Chacon 5.07 0.5 21.2
Nelson Figueroa 4.49 0.3 2
Gustavo Chacin 6.62 0.7 44
Ryan Rowland-Smith 7.73 0.2 19.4
Brett Myers 4.48 1.9 31.8

WAIT, YOU PAID THEM HOW MUCH?

To rub pepper juice into the open wound that is the Astros rotation, the contracts Wade handed to some of these pitchers were just silly.
  • Hampton:  $2MM, though he had not pitched since 2005.
  • Chacon:  $2MM.  That’s a lot of money for a guy with a career ERA of 5.00 and who would eventually beat Wade up.
  • Myers’ Extension in 2010:  $23MM, hurting his trade value and overpaying for the best season of his career.
  • Wandy Rodriguez’ Extension in 2010:  $34MM, severely hurting his trade value, even knowing he would be the Astros’ best option to trade for top-shelf minor league talent.  He was not an impending free agent, and now many teams do not want to pay top dollar for a pitcher that they see as a 2nd or 3rd starter.  Wade then tacked on a $14MM club option for 2014 that turns into a player option if Rodriguez is traded before the end of his contract.

It did not take long to find a pitcher with comparable stats to Rodriguez.  The table below shows both pitchers, what they “earned”, plus their stats in the five previous seasons before they were extended.  (Note: excludes Hudson’s 2009 season, which he missed due to surgery.  According to his GM, Hudson’s extension was based on his previous body of work.)

Pitcher Amount Duration FIP WAR/Y DL
Wandy Rodriguez (2006-2010) $34MM* 3 3.85 2.8 14
Tim Hudson (2004-2008) $28MM** 3 3.88 3.5 25

* plus 2014 $14MM club option with $2.5MM buyout, or $14MM player option if traded.
**plus 2013 $9MM club option, $1M buyout

MANAGE YOUR BOSS

Wade’s job is to run a successful baseball franchise, and part of that includes convincing the owner when it is time to move on.  Every Houstonian knows Drayton McLane’s stance against rebuilding.  The Astros’ championship run of 2005 was smoke and mirrors built on all-time great pitching, but terrible hitting and defense.  If Wade knew that (which he may not, based on his apparent non-use of statistics), it was his responsibility to prove it to his boss, so that the team could move forward, not back.

He failed to do so.  For four years, McLane and Wade tried to patch together a team that could recapture glory in the face of overwhelming impossibility.  Had Wade used the available evidence to convince McLane that rebuilding was necessary, Berkman and Oswalt would have been traded for top prospects years earlier, rather than during the down-slope of their careers, for prospects without star-level upside.  Carlos Lee might even have been traded before age caught up to him and declined his skills.  Kazuo Matsui might never have happened at all.

To all appearance, Wade went along with McLane’s misguided vision that the Astros could be “Champions” by adding to an aging and talent-thin club, when instead he should have stood up and said, “This house will never be built until we repair the faulty foundation.”

THE NEVER ENDING QUEST FOR AN INFIELD…

As mentioned, if one were to rank the roughly 1,400 team-seasons played by major league baseball since 1962 (the first year of the Astros), the 2010 Astros would rank as the 78th-worst at getting on base of the past 50 years.  That puts them in the lower 5% of all baseball clubs since 1962.  A general manager with a healthy respect for statistical analysis should have identified the Astros’ weakness in this area and used subsequent moves to correct the problem.

The past few years have seen the passing of Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg, Aubrey Huff, Ty Wigginton, and Adam Everett around the infield, and the following moves were how Wade chose to address their loss:

  • Prior to the 2008 season, Wade signed Geoff Blum to man 3B, Kazuo Matsui to play 2B, Mark Loretta to play as a super-utility player, and traded for Miguel Tejada.
  • Before the 2009 season, Wade signed Aaron Boone to platoon with Blum at 3B.
  • Prior to 2010, Wade extended Blum as a bench player, signed Pedro Feliz to play 3B full-time, and handed the SS job to non-prospect Tommy Manzella, with no expectation to “earn” the job through competition in Spring Training.
  • Going into 2011, Wade used recent tradee Angel Sanchez as a super utility player, traded for Clint Barmes to play SS, and signed Bill Hall to play 2B, trusting BABIP-inflated Chris Johnson to handle 3B duties.

Pence, Johnson, and Bourn have never been high-OBP players, and the Astros traded Berkman, who with a career OBP around .400 has led the Astros offensively for a decade.  The table below shows Wade’s infield acquisitions and their stats in the previous five seasons leading up to their tenure with the Astros.  (League-Average OBP is usually around .335)

Player OBP WAR/Y
Geoff Blum 0.294 0.5
Kazmuo Matsui 0.325 0.9
Mark Loretta 0.369 2.7
Miguel Tejada 0.356 4.5
Aaron Boone 0.321 0.5
Pedro Feliz 0.295 2.0
Tommy Manzella
(minors stats)
0.329 NA
Angel Sanchez
(minors stats)
0.342 NA
Clint Barmes 0.293 0.7
Bill Hall 0.310 1.7

Of all Wade’s infield acquisitions, only Loretta and Tejada had above-average OBP’s before coming to the Astros, and Loretta was the player Wade targeted to be a bench guy.  Minor League stats do not translate directly to the majors, so one could reasonably assume beforehand that Manzella’s and Sanchez’ OBPs in the majors would hover in the .290-.300 range.  Instead of addressing an obvious issue with the Astros, Wade’s acquisitions actually exacerbated the problem, directly leading to the offensive doldrums seen in 2010 and thus far in 2011.

WILL WORK FOR MONEY.  LOTS OF MONEY

As with pitchers, Wade doled out several bad contracts to his infielders.

  • Kazuo Matsui was paid $16.5MM over three seasons, even though he had only been incrementally better than a league-average replacement player.
  • Pedro Feliz was paid $4.5MM during 2010, only to get cut because he was predictably terrible at getting on base without the Phillies’ dynamic lineup hiding his flaws.
  • As noted in Part 1 of this series, the Astros were in an increasingly tight financial situation during Ed Wade’s reign, through no fault of his own.  He might have been better served to spread money around to several players, rather than trading for Miguel Tejada, who had $13MM for each of the next two seasons coming to him on an existing contract.  Speaking of Miguel Tejada…

BAD TIMING

While several early moves made during the Wade regime were questionable, one in particular stunk like a beached whale.  On December 12, 2007, Ed Wade traded Luke Scott, Troy Patton, Matt Albers, and spare parts to the Baltimore Orioles for Miguel Tejada.  The merits of player-per-player value of this trade are debatable and will not be explored here, but other aspects of the trade led astute fans (and national media) to wonder if Wade was playing with a full deck.

Tejada’s contract made him the highest paid player on the Astros for the 2008 season.  Take that, Carlos Lee!  Tejada was also coming off statistically his worst season since 1998, was (arguably) 33 years old, and…

…the Mitchell Report would come out the very next day, naming Tejada as one of the many players implicated in the MLB steroid scandal.

Wade was ridiculed, along with team owner Drayton McLane.  Both insisted they had no knowledge that Tejada’s name would be in the report.  This smacked of dishonesty or incompetence because, years earlier, Rafael Palmiero publicly stated that Tejada had supplied him with the substance that caused Palmiero to fail a PED test.  It was in the papers.

WILL PAY TOP DOLLAR FOR AVERAGE RELIEF…

The bullpen is an unsexy topic.  It is hard to get worked up about a player who pitches three innings a week, but a good, low-cost bullpen is a proven key to success.  Some major league clubs staff a cheap and effective bullpen through astute trades, smart drafting, waiver wire claims, and journeymen minor leaguers.  Other GM’s choose to throw money at free agent relievers.  A brief glance at the 2011 bullpen confirms that cobbling together a bullpen did not work for the Astros, who currently sit 28th in team ERA in the majors.  Consider how Wade has done with some major bullpen acquisitions:

  • Wade traded Chad Qualls, Juan Gutierrez, and Chris Burke for Jose Valverde.  First of all, Burke would have been no worse at 2B than Matsui, but that’s beside the point.  Qualls was almost as effective as Valverde in the seasons prior to the trade, and has been a major league closer at times since then.  Gutierrez is still a useful mop-up pitcher in the majors and would be no worse than the current Astros relievers.  Wade ended up paying Valverde $12.7MM during his two seasons in Houston.
  • Wade spent $3.5MM on LaTroy Hawkins, a 36 year old reliever with a career of below-average performance.  Wade lucked out – Hawkins had the best season of his career in 2009, proving that sometimes blind mice do find cheese.  Luck does not excuse the contract.
  • Wade signed Brandon Lyon for an incredible 3 years, $15MM.  Prior to 2010, Lyon’s claim to fame was that he managed to not lose the Diamondbacks 2008 closers’ job to a far superior…Chad Qualls.  Lyon’s career ERA and FIP were well north of 4.50 at the time of the signing.  Pitchers with better resumes who signed for less money for the 2010 season:  Matt Capps, Jose Contreras, Jose Arredondo, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Betancourt, Octavio Dotel, Kevin Gregg, Bob Howry, Darren Oliver, J.J. Putz, Takashi Saito.  And more!

DRAFT STRATEGY

Right or wrong, Ed Wade’s reputation was built on the fact that he helped mastermind the farm system that led to the Phillies playoff runs and World Series win in the late ‘aughts.  But many experts have opined that the Astros have been drafting “safely” under Wade.  When the Astros drafted Jason Castro 10th in the 2008 draft, the prevailing opinion was that while Castro will be an average major league catcher, he has a limited ceiling and the Astros over-drafted to get him (picked him ahead of players with higher upside).  Players drafted behind Castro:  SEA 1B Justin Smoak, OAK 2B Jemile Weeks, HOU 1B Brett Wallace, CF Aaron Hicks, 2B Brett Lawrie, P Andrew Cashner, 2011 #1 overall pick Gerritt Cole, CLE 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, P/SS Casey Kelly, P Tanner Scheppers, HOU SP Jordan Lyles, and P Mike Montgomery.

The same was said about Jio Mier.  Drafted behind Mier:  LAA OF Mike Trout (Baseball Prospectus’ #1 prospect for 2011), OF Timothy Wheeler, and Scheppers (again).  The same was said about Delino DeShields Jr.  Drafted after:  ball-hammering OF Michael Choice and CHA SP/RP Chris Sale.  Though scouts and front office types have more information on their draftees than is ever made public, it certainly appears as if the Astros have been drafting based on sign-ability rather than upside.  These types of safe drafts rarely result in a superstar.

For example:  In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays drafted a high school shortstop named Tim Beckham at #1 overall, because they feared the bonus demands by the eventual #2 pick, Buster Posey.  Fast forward three years.  Buster Posey was the star of a world champion Giants team in 2010 and was NL Rookie of the Year.  Tim Beckham is finally having his first above-average minor league season after hitting .256 at High-A in 2010.

THE PHILLIES CONNECTION

While certainly not the only team Wade has dealt with during his tenure with the Astros, fans can not help commenting on the frequency with which he deals with his former club, the Phillies.  It is hard to criticize this, as perhaps he was in the best position to know the strengths of the players he received, and in the case of at least Bourn, he ended up with the best player in the deal.

The players acquired by Wade who impacted the major league roster, either by signing as free agents after leaving the Phillies, or through trade with the Phillies are:  Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary, JA Happ, Anthony Gose, Jonathan Villar, Brett Myers, and Pedro Feliz.

Bourn turned out to be a good player, if not a star.  Geary was a serviceable bullpen arm when healthy, and it is too soon to judge JA Happ and Jonathan Villar in context of the trade.  Anthony Gose was flipped for Brett Wallace, and the jury is still out there as well.  The point is not to slam these moves, but rather to speculate:  what could the Astros have acquired from other teams if perhaps Wade did not favor dealing with the Phillies?  This point is not a very strong argument for or against Ed Wade as an effective GM, but speculation among Astros fans has been loud enough to mention it.

FINAL VERDICT

Part 1 of this series showed Ed Wade as a victim of circumstance, placed in the unenviable position of building a champion with rising costs and decreasing budget and talent.

This article shows that when given lemons, rather than making lemonade, Ed Wade made lemony-tinted water with a few seeds still floating in it.  His largest shortcomings show up in his apparent disregard for freely-available statistical information and a tendency to hand out contracts that are much higher than the market dictates at the time .  These two things have made a bad situation worse, though it is impossible to tell by how much, other than in the Wins column.  Every GM makes mistakes, and hopefully some of Wade’s will be offset by the clear improvements in the farm system under his direction, and by some of his trades that are too early to judge.  (Author note:  I am sure this will generate some comments, but I personally think that Ed Wade has done a decent job with his trades for the most part, given the contract hurdles he had to overcome.)

Given all the information researched and presented, it is clear that the Astros need to go in a different direction, if only to start fresh with a new owner and a new front office.  This is not necessarily fair to Ed Wade and his team, who honestly appear to have tried their best under difficult circumstances, but the Astros need to hit the reset button and upgrade using a foundation that includes accountability of their scouts, statistical analysis of player performance, and a General Manager who has not earned the ire of several million Houstonians, whether fairly or unfairly.

Final Grade on Ed Wade:  C-minus

That’s a passing grade, but nothing to be proud of.

The Case For Ed Wade

It is easy to be down on the Astros right now.  At 31-64, they are stating their case as the most embarrassing team in the history of Houston sports.  Hoards of angry fans with torches and pitchforks are tramping down Crawford Street, intending to make the responsible people pay for the travesty that is the 2011 Houston Astros.  The most common target, if one were to take a spot survey of callers into local sports radio programs, is General Manager Ed Wade.

A little history:  in 2007, coming off of two disappointing years in which they predictably failed to return to the playoffs after their first ever World Series berth, the Houston Astros fired then-GM Tim Purpura and hired Ed Wade to right the ship.  Rightly or wrongly, some circles credited Wade for overseeing the farm system rebuild that eventually led to the Phillies’ success, though he was sent packing after eight years of playoff-less baseball.  The hiring was seen as questionable by some people, who pointed out Wade’s prior relation to team president Tal Smith.

The for-and-against cases judging Wade’s tenure as Astros GM, with respect to managing player rosters in particular, are actually quite interesting.  This article will present the viewpoint that Ed Wade is mostly a victim of circumstance, and that his presumed vision for the Astros has not had time to bear fruit.  A future article will give the opposite case, that Wade has botched the job and made a bad situation worse.

My major sources for this article were Cot’s Baseball Contracts, MLB Trade Rumors‘ excellent transaction tracker, Wikipedia (of course), and MLB.com

A Situation Inherited

In 2007, the Astros boasted a payroll of $87,750,000, well within the top half in all of baseball.  This included several large contracts backloaded to increase with coming years.  To make matters worse, the farm clubs were so barren of talent that Baseball America ranked it among the worst in the majors.  So on a failing club with no farm system, Wade faced immovable contracts, rising costs, and the expectation to trim payroll once it was clear the Astros could not buy their way into contention again.

Heavyweight Contracts:

  • In 2006, GM Tim Purpura signed Carlos Lee to a 6-year, $100MM contract with full no-trade clause.  Lee was well-known as an excellent hitter with a bad body and bottom-barrel defensive skills.  In addition, the Lee contract was back-loaded, which payed him $11M in ’07, $12M in ’08, then $18.5M for each of the next four seasons.  Meanwhile, Lee got noticeably heavier, his bat became noticeably slower, and his outfield defense worsened to an unplayable point.  But what choice did Wade have but to instruct his managers to keep running the big guy out there?
  • In 2006, Purpura signed 40-year old soft-tosser Woody Williams to a 2-year, $12.5M contract, essentially throwing money away at a bad starter obviously well past his sell-by date.
  • In 2006, Purpura extended Roy Oswalt to a 5-year, $73M contract, also backloaded to increase from $13M in ’07 to $14M in ’09, to $15M in ’10, to $16M in ’11 and beyond.  With a full no-trade clause and a player option for 2012.  Incidentally, as part of the agreement to trade Oswalt to the Phillies in 2011, the Astros still have to pay $7M of his contract.
  • In 2005, Purpura extended Lance Berkman with a 6-year, $85MM contract.  Again, backloaded.  After $10.5M in 2005, it jumped to $14.5M annually, until his $15M club option for 2011 kicked in.  The Astros were required to pay $4M of his contract after trading him to the Yankees in 2010.

Organizational Talent

Back when Gerry Hunsicker was GM of the Astros, the team was widely considered to have one of the top–if not the top–farm systems in basball.  A series of trades later (Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Jason Jennings, etc), de-emphasis on scouting and player development by the GM’s and the owner, too many Class-A and -B free-agent signings, and refusal to pay over-slot for draftees, and the Astros were cellar-dwellers to stay.  Ask the Pirates, Royals, and Rays:  building a farm system can take a decade.  It can be ruined overnight.

  • In 2005, Baseball America ranked the Astros #22 in organizational talent (farm system).
  • In 2006, they were ranked #20.
  • In 2007, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Astros #28 of 30.
  • In 2007, Purpura failed to sign any of the team’s top four draftees from the 2007 draft.

Ownership Instability

Team owner Drayton McLane is in the process of selling the Astros to Houston busienssman Jim Crane.  Two years ago, McLane attempted to sell the Astros to Crane before the deal fell through.  For years, it is obvious that McLane has been trying to sell the Astros, and it is not a leap to consider that he would not want to heavily invest himself in the future of a franchise that he knew he would not be a part of.

During this time, McLane has gone on record refusing to allow “rebuilding”, meaning that any trades of major players to acquire young talent could happen only after those major players were well past the prime of their careers (Oswalt, Berkman).

This meant that through the years of ownership instability, Wade has been expected to improve a club with inconsistent resources.

Resources Available

As shown above, Ed Wade was hamstrung from the beginning by an old-fashioned ownership philosophy about paying premium dollar for aging vetarans.  The Astros have been financially inflexible during his tenure, weighed down by bad contracts from previous regimes, tied with the expectation to continually lower payroll.  He had no young talent in the farm system to fall back on.

Positive Steps Made

Given the restrictions, Wade did what he could.

Reinvestment in the Farm System

  • Wade hired Bobby Heck, the well-respected manager of scouting and player development who groomed such players as Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Yovani Gallardo during his tenure with the Brewers.
  • Under Wade’s direction, the Astros opened a new facility in the Dominican Republic to serve as a baseball academy, recruiting ground, and school for promising young Latin American baseball players.
  • Wade reversed owner Drayton McLane’s refusal to sign over-slot for draftees, signing well-regarded prospects Jordan Lyles, Jason Castro, Delino DeShields Jr, Mike Foltynewicz, J.D. Martinez, and Jiovanni Mier, in addition to the 2011 draft class.
  • Wade refocused efforts to sign foreign free agents, including new Baseball Prospectus Top-50 prospect Jose Altuve, Ariel Ovando, and others.
  • Wade acquired prospects in trade to contribute to the depth of the farm system, including Jonathan Villar, Jimmy Paredes, and Mark Melancon, who currently serves as the Astros’ closer.

Acquisition through Trade

  • Wade acquired gold-glove winner and NL Steals leader Michael Bourn in trade for embattled closer Brad Lidge.
  • Wade acquired current Astros 1B Brett Wallace, current Astros starter J.A. Happ, and more for Roy Oswalt, despite the prohibitive contract and no-trade clause.
  • As noted, Wade acquired current Astros closer Mark Melancon (and more!) for a broken and listless Lance Berkman, despite the prohibitive contract and no-trade clause.
  • Wade controversially acquired shortstop Miguel Tejada for Luke Scott and a bag of nothing.  Say what one will, Tejada was one of the better offensive players for the Astros in 2009, with team-leading .313 batting average.
  • Jeff Keppinger, traded from the Reds in 2009, has been one of the most invaluable Astros players since, at a very low cost.
  • Randy Wolf was a good starter for the Astros as they made a late push in 2008.
  • Clint Barmes, though no star, contributes adequately at shortstop, and only cost Wade a starting pitcher with control problems.

Creative Free-Agent Signings and Waiver Claims

Despite a shrinking budget and increasing obligation to pay rising contract costs, Wade managed to field a competitive team until 2011, when all of the above factors came to a head.  Keep in mind, as unexciting as these players were, they were likely the best Wade could afford, given budget constraints.

  • Brett Myers was signed to a one-year deal and had the best season of his career in 2010.
  • Kaz Matsui performed admirably at 2B until repeated injuries brought his career in America to a messy end.
  • Jason Michaels is a fine fourth outfielder
  • Matt Down was claimed on waivers and led the majors in pinch-hit home runs for a time
  • Nelson Figueroa was a cheap and excellent 5th starter in 2010
  • Alberto Arias and others currently serve for the major league bullpen
  • Doug Brocail had his best years as a member of the Astros at the end of his career, and is now the pitching coach for the major league team.

Conclusion

As shown, Ed Wade was put into an impossible position:  an inflexible, shrinking budget in the midst of increasing costs, a league-worst farm system that held no grade-A talent for the future, an unstable ownership situation, and unreasonable expectations.

He planted the seeds for a farm system that is growing in grudging respectability, has managed to field a team that until 2011 was at least not an embarrassment, has managed the egos of disgruntled former stars, has managed an out-of-touch owner who aggressively resisted progress, and has managed to shrink the yearly budget, as instructed.

Given the situation, it is difficult to believe any other GM could have performed any better than Wade has.  No GM has a spotless record, and Wade’s resume as Astros GM has its share of blemishes, but as any employed person knows, being expected to do a job while being withheld the resources to do so is an impossible task.

What I Would Like to See The Astros Do…

This is a follow-up on my last post, where I decried the Astros’ lack of entertainment value.

Here’s what I would do to boost interest in the Astros while at the same time trying to catch lightning in a bottle:

Trade $$$ or a PTBNL (Player to Be Named Later) for Brandon Wood to play Shortstop

Yes, Wood has had a horrible major-league career to date.  Yes, his minor league offensive juggernaut statistics were a product of a hitters’ park in a hitter-friendly league.  But Wood is a good defensive shortstop.  He plays a position that the Astros have an obvious need, is still very young, and quite possibly could benefit from regular playing time and a change of league and scenery.  Best of all, he can likely be had for nothing.  Trading for a name-brand shortstop like Wood (even if only known for his minor league numbers) and playing him every day during 2011 and 2012 while paying him pennies.  What’s the downside?  At worst, he’ll be no worse than Barmes, Sanchez, or Manzella.  At best, he thrives under a new setting and revives a fraction of his minor-league glory.

Trade a flaming sack of crap for Scott Kazmir
Kazmir, once the major-league strikeout champion, has hit the skids.  He can likely be had for a song, if the Astros agree to absorb his entire contract, and the Angels would love them for it.  Kazmir is a Houston kid, still well south of age 30, and has had major-league domination on his resume as recently as 2008.  Even if he continues to suck, he brings a fun “what-if” interest to Astros fans, a local interest, and a lot moer entertaining baseball than Nelson Figueroa.

Trade a functional bullpen arm that you don’t need for Lastings Milledge
Then let him play!  Milledge has had tons of chances in the majors, and hasn’t capitolized.  The one-time top prospect is now a has-been top prospect.  But still very young, brash and obnoxious, very fast on the bases, and has a potentially exciting bat.  The Astros are paying Carlos Lee regardless if he plays or not, but the fans really don’t care.  Sit him down and play an outfield of Milledge, Bourn, and Pence.  Better yet…

Trade Michael Bourn for prospects
There are still plenty of GMs that are stupid enough to think that it’s ok to carry a leadoff hitter with an OBP of .300 if he’s got “great wheels”.  Take advantage, and trade your 60 SB center fielder for some useful minor league players that will help your larger plan.  Bourn is not a part of the solution in Houston.  Don’t wait too long to trade him.  Jason Bourgeois is no star player, but he could easily match Bourn’s stolen base totals.  Get something for Bourn now when it can do you some good.

Trade Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez at the deadline for a ton of prospects
Both of these guys are excellent pitchers, and both of them will have expired contracts and be in their mid-30’s by the time the Astros are relevant again.  In that sense, their only value to the team is not to get wins (they don’t because the team can’t hit), or draw crowds (they don’t because the team is boring), but as trade bait.  Are the Astros serious about building a legitimate contender or not?  Because if so, trading two of the NL’s upper echelon pitchers to a team in the playoff hunt is the quickest way to get your club back into relevance.

Hire Biggio and Bagwell to do announcing at Minute Maid Park
Marketing, baby.  Fans will show up for this.  Put their mugs in one corner of the new big screen 100% of the time, and they’ll still have an acre of screen left over for stats and junk.  Old-School Astros fans would show up for that.

Kick Tires on other young players who are expendable to their major league teams
Players that come to mind: 
Kila Ka’aihue – The Kila Monster would quickly marginalize Wallace at 1st.  Will be redundant when Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas reach the majors.  Should see a shift to outfield for Mike Aviles, and DH is plugged with Billy Butler.
Chris Davis – Lord knows he wants out of Arlington now that he’s stuck behind Moreland, Young, and Beltre.  In a pinch, he could be an upgrade over Wallace or Johnson, and hey maybe one of those guys can learn second base or left field.
Sean Rodriguez
– (2B) Will S-Rod ever get a real shot in Tampa?  Good fielder, good hitter with no real lefty/righty split.  And yet he’s still being utilized as a utility player.  Can also play shortstop.
Ryan Raburn – Ditto everything said for Rodriguez.  Great bat, indifferent fielder.  Put him at 2nd, where at least he’d be an offensive upgrade over Bill Hall.  Will age nicely until little Jose Altuve is major league ready in a couple of seasons.

Astros Attendance Problems…

This morning on Sportstalk 790 in Houston, Matt and Adam spent a great deal of time speculating about why the combined attendance at last night’s Rockets and Astros game were less than the attendance at several major league teams’ stadiums.  The Dodgers were the most commonly-cited club for comparison.  Call-In answers ranged from “I work and don’t have time to attend a Tuesday afternoon baseball game,” to “Winning, duh!  Nobody wants to see a team suck!.”

Neither of these answers are factually true, since fans regularly came to see the Rockets (1 playoff series win in 10+ seasons) and the Astros (no playoffs since 2005) until this season.  Throwing out timing and winning, there is one other thing that separates the 2011 Astros (and Rockets) from previous years.

Take the Dodgers.  A Los Angeles fan can go to a game and see Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and until recently Manny Ramriez, Rafael Furcal, and Russell Martin.  The Dodgers boast a star-power name in the dugout, Donnie Baseball himself.

How about the Astros?  Who do you want to see?  Fans came in droves to watch the Astros lose with Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, and a younger Carlos Lee.  These guys were interesting.  The Rockets lost enjoyably with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.

The 2011 Astros boast one lineup regular who qualifies as an above-average household name in Houston.  Hunter Pence made a huge buzz when called up from the minors.  He had a Batting Average well over .300.  He had speed.  He had power.  He had enthusiasm and a cannon arm.

That was four years ago.  Only Pence remains from the 2006 & 2007 cast of interesting characters, and he has never built on the promise shown in his rookie season.  Four seasons without eclipsing 91 RBI, 25 Home Runs, or 20 Stolen Bases.  No Batting Average north of .282.  This is not a crowd-drawing player.  He became boring.

Who else should a fan get excited about?  Michael Bourn?  Wandy Rodriguez?  Brett Wallace?  Even bad players can be stomached if they are public characters (thinking fondly on the memory of Jose Lima, perhaps the most overrated pitcher in the history of baseball, and a beloved fan fave).  But the 2011 Astros are boring and average.

Why should a fan show up?  Management has not held up their end of the bargain.  Clubs cannot win every year, especially when rebuilding.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining.  The 2011 Astros fail at entertainment as spectacularly as they are failing on the field, and the fans are unconsciously (or purposefully?) responding in kind.

Some Objective Predictions

The last predictions published here were completely subjective, based on the smell test.  Below are predictions based on math.  Crazy!

Method:
The theory behind these predictions are that a formula can get win loss records more-or-less close to what they should be if there are no random variations.  But random variations are real!  In baseball, such variations might be the weather in April, the tendency for a team to start or finish slow for whatever reason, park effects, a team’s historical tendency to improve by the trade deadline or bring up good prospects.  Over a long period of time, there may be large swings in these random variations (new GM’s, parks, and management philosophies for example), but over a short period, say five years, the effect these tendencies have might be somewhat repeatable.

I subscribe to Baseball Prospectus, and every year there are the same questions:  “Why do teams like the Angels and Astros consistently outperform their third-order/pythag/(insert fancy term) projections?”  As yet, no convincing answer has been forthcoming.  But here’s an idea…what about CHAOS?  Completely random variation, or the effects of outside influences that can not be modeled into an equation?

Based on that premise, I averaged the runs scored and runs allowed for each team over the past 5 years to develop a baseline for comparison.  Then I averaged their Wins and Losses.  Baseball Prospectus uses some fancy equation to project W/L record based on runs scored and runs allowed.  I used their RS and RA numbers to alleviate the pain of coming up with a separate RS and RA projection system.

From there I did two simple proportions. 

RS(AVG) / RS(BP) = W(AVG) / W(Proj.)
RA(BP) / RA(AVG) = W(AVG) / W(Proj.)

These two proportions yielded two projected “Wins” numbers for each team, which I averaged to get the final Win projection, using the arbitrary assumption that baseball is half hitting and half pitching and defense.

The results were SIMILAR to BP’s final rankings with a noticeable difference:  The teams that consistently outperform BP’s mathematical projections were significantly bumped up compared to BP’s W/L projections!

Here are the results:

NL EAST

Phillies 91 71
Braves 83 79
Marlins 83 79
Mets 82 80
Nationals 68 94
NL CENTRAL
Cardinals 86 76
Brewers 84 78
Reds 81 81
Cubs 79 83
Astros 73 89
Pirates 67 95
NL WEST
Giants 87 75
Dodgerqs 86 76
Rockies 84 78
Padres 80 82
Diamondbacks 76 86

AL EAST

Red Sox 95 67
Yankees 95 67
Rays 84 78
Blue Jays 76 86
Orioles 73 89
AL CENT
Twins 86 76
White Sox 84 78
Tigers 83 79
Indians 74 88
Royals 67 95
AL WEST
Angels 86 76
Rangers 83 79
A’s 81 81
Mariners 75 87

The major differences between the rankings above and BP’s rankings (found here), are at the top of the AL West, where my system projects 11 more wins (!) for the Angels than BP, and at the bottom of the NL Central, where my rankings are more forgiving to the Astros and less enthusiastic about the Pirates.  Note that these are some of the teams explicitly mentioned above as historically outperforming their mathematical projections, for whatever reason.

In the case of the Angels, the uptick lies with the fact that Baseball Prospectus projects them to have far fewer runs allowed in 2011 than they have averaged in the past five years, while scoring roughly the same.  The rankings above use that fact by taking into account whatever random effects help the Angels to consistently over-perform, and award them eleven additional wins, a huge amount.

These rankings like the Twins a little more than BP, but like the Braves a little less.  The differences are all based on a recent historical context and it should be interesting to see if these trends continue.

Note that all projections are moot once the season starts going and teams shore up their team with trades, promotions, or injuries occur.  Perhaps these rankings should be revisited after the trade deadline to provide another point of comparison?  Either way, it’s interesting that this completely arbitrary method of introducing historic variation into mathematical rankings produce a projection that is closer to passing the smell test.

Fantasy Draft Strategies: Reaching on Players

An article on Yahoo! Sports today prompted this entry.  Scott Pianowski insists that huge reaches on players is usually bad strategy.  I disagree.  Whether or not this is a good strategy depends on three things only:  1) What type of league you are in, 2) The ranking system being used, and 3) Your needs as a team.

Circumstance 1: League Type

I usually play in Head-to-Head leagues, because I enjoy pitting my managerial skills against those of another human player.  Roto leagues make me snooze.  How many points does my team have this week?  One-Hundred?  Oh, ok.  Big deal.  I also tend towards Keeper leagues for various reasons.  Reaching on a player with upside (either injury-related or prospect-related) makes perfect sense in a keeper league.  Were I looking to stock prospect spots or bench spots with my eye on the 2nd half of 2011 or 2012, I would grab Eric Hosmer and his elite prospect friends pretty early in the draft, despite a Yahoo! O-Ranking of around 700.  Obviously, this does me no good for winning early in 2011, but that doesn’t make it an invalid long-term strategy.

Circumstance 2:  Rankings system

As much as Yahoo! would hate to admit it, their O-Ranks suck for leagues larger than a “standard” 12-team format.  Honestly, how many serious Fantasy Baseball enthusiasts play in competitive 12-team leagues?  One of my competitive leagues has 20 players, one has 16.  The others are throwaways.  Once you start reaching the 300’s in most ranking systems, you get garbage in, garbage out.  It’s like they stop trying altogether.  A host of never-will-play AAA pitchers populate O-Ranks 450 thru 600, then a ton of injury plagued veteran and prospect hitters between 700 and 900, then a mish-mash of random guys from 900 to 1100.  But if you mine those lower rankings for gold you will find many players worth taking that chance on.  This season, using Yahoo’s ranks, looking in the 600-1100 rank range yields players such as Brett Wallace (likely to at least hit 70-20-80 with 550+ AB in Houston’s lineup), Jorge Cantu (ditto with full playing time in San Diego), Scott Kazmir (he’s struggled, but he’s still 25 and has lead the league in K’s in his young career…he’s better than the 900’s where he’s ranked, and a smart manager will grab him with a last bench spot), among others that I’m not naming because I want to draft them.

In this case, even taking one of these players in Round 18 of a 20-team draft would be a reach of over 600 ranking spots.  If reaching is really such a bad strategy, Yahoo and other outlets should look at their rankings and realize that smart managers are taking advantage of the system by “reaching” on completely mis-ranked players.  Konerko has had multiple 40 HR seasons and plays in a homer-happy haven.  Yet he was ranked near 400 going into 2010 by Yahoo.  Smart managers know that makes no sense, and do what I did – draft him in Round 11, where other managers are grabbing “awesome” players like Juan Pierre at rank 200-ish.  Colby Lewis was ranked in the 700’s by Yahoo last season, despite numerous reports of a reworked approach in Japan, leading NPB in strikeouts, an utterly dominant spring, and a guaranteed spot in the Texas rotation.  Heads up Yahoo…that’s not managers reaching.  That’s YOUR bad.

Circumstance 3:  Your Needs

I have no 2B this season.  2B is one of the most shallow positions in baseball this season due to injury and lack of talent.  You better believe I’m going to reach on a player like Sean Rodriguez, because even at his rank (mid-250’s), there is absolutely nobody behind him worth considering for a full-time fantasy 2B position.  You have to consider position scarcity, your competition, and your draft placement and situation.  To say that I shouldn’t reach 50 ranking spots beyond my draft position to take the last useful player on the board at his position (or last elite player, as the case may be), is crazy.  At the end of our 400-pick draft, there will still be starters and outfielders and 1B’s worth owning in the free agent pool.  There will not be 2B’s 3B’s, or SS’s.  So get them when you can, not when some ranking system that doesn’t consider scarcity says you should.

2011 NL Predictions

2011 NL Prections

NL East
It’s pretty clear who the favorite should be going into 2011.  After that, very difficult to project.

1st:  Philadelphia Phillies - The Phillies boast the best rotation most fans have ever seen, and that’s no exaggeration.  If their lineup can stay healthy (a big if), they also boast the most potent lineup in the NL, and maybe in baseball.  There’s just not a lot more to say.

2nd:  Atlanta Braves
- The Braves did themselves a favor and upgraded at 2B by grabbing Dan Uggla.  They did themselves another favor by moving Martin Prado’s bat to the outfield, their biggest weak spot in 2010.  If Chipper Jones stays healthy, that’s a plus, but Prado can sneak in at third with no harm done if necessary.  Giving up on Betancourt at short was a mistake, and it’s always risky to hand-deliver a full-time gig to a 20-year old rookie (Freddie Freeman at 1B).  Not everybody can be Jason Heyward.  But the strength here is the pitching staff.  Braves fans should enjoy a fun season.

3rd:  Florida Marlins - The Marlins rank here on the strength of their pitching.  Their lineup is much less exciting than last season, and there is not a lot to add to the conversation.  The only reason Florida is ranked here is because they’re the best of the three bad teams at the bottom of this division.

4th:  Washington Nationals - One of these years, the Nats won’t finish last.  Their solid infield of Zimmerman, Desmond, Espinoza, and LaRoche should quietly be very good, and their outfield addition of Jayson Werth gives Zimm another big bat to protect him.  Rick Ankiel is not an upgrade over Roger Bernadina in right.  Pitching-wise, Jordan Zimmermann and Tom Gorzelanny give the rotation a little power that it was lacking previously, and a strong late-season return by Stephen Strasburg should be enough to make them slightly better than embarrassing.  That all said, the rotation is still better than the Mets.

5th:  New York Mets - Speaking of the Mets, remember when this team was the next big deal?  Jose Reyes.  David Wright.  Carlos Beltran.  Johan Santana.  Well, all four guys are still there but the only one who can stay healthy is Wright.  Reyes should bounce back in a huge way, but the rest of the lineup is vanilla or worse (what’s worse than vanilla?  Tripe?  Sardine?).  Opposing pitchers should pitch around the big bats.  Wright still isn’t showing the same power that he had in the old Shea Stadium, and Ike Davis is as over-hyped a prospect as they come.  Never mind that statistically he is a bottom-tier first baseman when it comes to plate production, the fans and media seem to love him.  The rotation…the rotation.  Under-powered, injury-prone, and uncertain.  Pelfrey, Niese, and Dickey are light throwers with no long track record of success.  Chris Young has never stayed healthy, and ace Santana will be out until mid-season after arm surgery.  His strikeout rate has fallen for three seasons running.  There’s just not a lot to like about this team beyond the left side of the infield.  Their best hope is that Taylor Buchholz, Oliver Perez, and Chris Capuano reclaim some past glory and learn how to start again, giving the team eight below-average starters to choose from instead of four.

NL Central
Hard to project due to the number of offseason moves made by the top teams.

1st:  Milwaukee Brewers - Ryan Braun had a down year.  Prince Fielder had a down year.  Randy Wolf had a down year.  Prospect Alcides Escobar (since traded) did not pan out.  Basically, the only Brewers who lived up to their billing in 2010 were RF Corey Hart and SP Yovani Gallardo.  Look for their luck to change.  With much fanfare, the Brewers made two of the best acquisitions of the offseason by adding Cy-Young winner Zach Greinke and underrated AL East starter Shaun Marcum.  The Brewers pitching staff go from below-average to top five in one fell swoop.

2nd:  Cincinnati Reds - The pitching is still suspect, no matter what the media would have fans believe.  The lineup has a lot of questions at third, short, center, and catcher for various injury and performance related reasons.  Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez still have not answered whether or not they can live up to their potential, and stud 2010 rookie Mike Leake’s fade at the end of 2010 is a concern.  A lot of questions, but they have the overall talent to stay near the top of the division.  

3rd:  St. Louis Cardinals - Mr. Albert Pujols is a good baseball player.  One man does not a lineup make, but he does a better job of it than anybody else.  Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus are still around, and look for a significant bounceback at the plate for new Right Fielder Lance Berkman, though at the expense of defense.  But that infield – oh, the infield.  If Prince Albert leaves the field, what remains are Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Yadier Molina and David Freese.  That is as hit-less an infield as one can find in the National League.  Teams can only hold so many bad hitters before the results are shown in the standings.  Luckily, an excellent rotation (though questionable bullpen) should mask the worst of the problems.  But…can Chris Carpenter really stay healthy for two seasons in a row?  Can the magic fairy dust of pitching coach Dave Duncan work miracles with underwhelming veteran Jake Westbrook?  Lots of questions.

4th:  Houston Astros - Public opinion is solidly against the Astros for lots of reasons.  But they aren’t as bad as most people think.  The Astros’ rotation led the majors in ERA after the All-Star Break in 2010.  That isn’t sustainable, but this group of pitchers is quietly one of the most consistent and strong bunches in the NL.  That goes a long way towards helping the Astros avoid rock bottom during their quest for improvement.  As long as Rookies and Sophomores Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace, and Jason Castro move forward in their development instead of backwards, the offense can’t be worse than its historically bad showing in 2010.  Carlos Lee is a better hitter than this, and suffered from a low BABIP (bad luck) last season.  Hunter Pence should continue his slow plod towards mini-stardom.  The Astros are not as bad as the nation thinks, but they’re not as good as their front office pretends.

5th:  Chicago Cubs - The Cubs did very little to help their chances moving into 2011.  As noted in the AL Predictions (previous post), Carlos Pena gives them power and very little else.  He is not an upgrade over an aging Derrick Lee in any category except homers and possibly defense.  Catcher Geo Soto can hit, and one can reasonably expect a bounce-back from 3B Aramis Ramirez.  Beyond them, the lineup is either unproven and inconsistent, aging uncontrollably, or over-hyped.  The outfield just is not good at the plate.  On to the pitching, Matt Garza is a nice addition, but Demptster showed in 2010 that he is not the ace fans hoped he was after a stellar 2009.  Wells is a BABIP-adjusted miracle, and Carlos Silva’s career numbers do not support that he can repeat last season.  Zambrano is a volcano waiting to erupt, and never had the control it takes to step into ace-hood.  There are too many disasters waiting to happen here, and not enough sure things.

6th:  Pittsburgh Pirates - There are many fun players to watch here, including Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jos
e Tabata.  Beyond them though, the offseason moves were questionable.  Ronny Cedeno is not a good shortstop.  Chris Snyder’s defensive problems are well-documented.  And Lyle Overbay is Lyle Overbay.  Consistent, but not going to provide typical 1B power numbers.  Alas, the conversation begins and ends with the Pirates’ pitching.  They just don’t have any.

NL West
Top-to-bottom, the most exciting division in the National League.  The top three teams can be comfortably shifted around in the rankings with no hard feelings.  1A, 1B, 1C.

1st:  Los Angeles Dodgers - An odd unsexy pick.  The Dodgers have that nice balance of hitting, defense, and pitching that none of the other West teams have.  Kershaw, Lilly, Billingsley, Garland, and Kuroda are as consistent a rotation as one can find in all of baseball, with Vicente Padilla thrown in for good measure (why?).  The bullpen should be dominant.  The lineup is quietly potent, with very few stars, but no noticable holes oustide of the Jay Gibbons/Marcus Thames platoon in Left.  But Thibbons could end up being utilized in a way to maximize those players strengths, and a mid-season acquisition doesn’t seem unlikely.  Rod Barajas is the most unheralded catcher in the majors.  He can hit well enough, plays defense well enough, and he’s backed up by one-time star Dioner Navarro, just for grins.

2nd:  San Francisco Giants - It’s painful to look at this lineup and project them to finish any higher than 3rd.  But they just won the World Series.  As inconsistent as players such as Miguel Tejada, Pat Burrell, Andres Torres, and Pablo Sandoval are, not one of them can be considered below-average at their position.  Pitching wins the day here though.  Oh, that pitching.  Great bullpen.  Better starters.  Does any pitcher get less love than Matt Cain?  He should get love.  He’s fantastic.

3rd:  Colorado Rockies - Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez bring star power to this team, leading them to become the media darlings.  Not so fast.  Seth Smith should hold his own in LF, but Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, and Chris Iannetta haven’t proven anything yet.  Jose Lopez should have a career resurgence if he gets playing time at 2nd, but Todd Helton is a sadly fading star, fizzling out under the light of his younger teammates.  Ty Wigginton is a great bench piece who should play almost every day, filling in for Smith, Stewart, Lopez, Herrera, and Helton on their off days.  He can even catch a little.  The rotation is decent without being great, and it remains to be seen if Jimenez can sustain greatness throughout the season.

4th:  Arizona Diamondbacks - The Dbacks are the little train that couldn’t.  Several years ago, young up-and-comers Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Max Scherzer, Edwin Jackson, and Dan Haren were supposed to turn the NL on its ear.  Instead, lack of plate discipline brought the franchise to its knees, and only Young, Drew, and Upton remain. But this rotation is waiting for the arrival of Jarrod Parker, and a staff headlined by Joe Saunders and Ian Kennedy is not going to scare anybody … particularly in that launching pad of a ballpark.  Justin Upton must blossom for the franchise to have a solid building block.  If not, they become…

5th:  San Diego Padres - Looking at this team should make a fan sad.  Former prospects that have not shown anything over three or more seasons:  Chase Headley, Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, Rob Johnson.  Flamed-out retread veterans:  Brad Hawpe, Ryan Ludwick, Jason Bartlett, Orlando Hudson, Aaron Harang.  In the rotation, things are a little bit brighter, but only Mat Latos has the potential for stardom.  Luckily, the best bullpen in baseball should remain so.  But who buys tickets to see a godly bullpen?  Last year’s record was smoke and mirrors – the Padres just do not score enough to maintain any kind of positive winning percentage, and now they are without their offensive workhorse, Adrian Gonzalez.

2011 AL Predictions

AL Predictions:

AL East:
The top teams are not as picture-perfect as pundits would have people believe.

1st:  Tampa Bay Rays – A bold prediction, considering the headlines grabbed by the Sox this offseason.  But wait – The Rays still have the best rotation in the division and a top-knotch defense.  They shored up weak spots in their lineup with Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon.  Little known factoid:  Dan Johnson, the replacement for Carlos Pena at first, hit 303/430/624 with 30 homers in only 340 AB at AAA-Durham last season.  If he can keep up that walk rate, Rays fans could be saying, “Carlos who?” by the end of the season.  Rookie starter Jeremy Hellickson will make people forget Matt Garza ever played in St. Pete, as he could be even better than rotation-mate David Price.

2nd:  Boston Red Sox – Gained:  Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.  Lost:  Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre.  Is the net result so great that this team should be a sure thing?  Last time I checked, they still have an inconsistent and unpredictable rotation.  Clay Buccholz’ miniscule ERA is going to come back to reality after a low-BABIP (luck) driven 2010.  Please stop naming Josh Beckett an “ace”.  He isn’t one.

3rd:  Toronto Blue Jays – Yes, really.  They boast a rotation stronger top-to-bottom than the Yankees.  They hit the most home runs in the majors in 2010.  Yunel Escobar, Adam Lind, and Aaron Hill should bounce back from uncharacteristically terrible seasons.  Travis Snider should continue to grow.  Juan Rivera will be no worse than Vernon Wells in the outfield, and now Bautista is back at 3rd, where he should have been all along.  Rajai Davis is a great cheap grab to play center.  A re-worked bullpen should be one of the best in the league.  Brandon Morrow is a dark horse to be this year’s stud young flamethrower, ala Max Scherzer or Gio Gonzalez from 2010.

4th:  New York Yankees – One year older, one year slower, and this time without a starting rotation.  What good is 22 wins from CC Sabathia if the rest of your rotation includes the likes of AJ Burnett, Phil Hughes, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia?  This is the year that age catches up to A-Rod and Jeter.  Their defense will negate the positives added by their bats.  Gardner was a disaster after the 2010 All-Star break, and Granderson holds a 215/274/346 career line against lefties.  He should be left in the locker room when a southpaw is on the mound, that’s how bad he is.  This team is the Titanic, ready for its iceberg.  It’s the Hindenburg, one accident away from going down in spectacular, media-covered flames.

5th:  Baltimore Orioles – They’ve done a nice job plugging holes and would see better fortunes if they played in any other division.  Mark Reynolds is a nice power add at 3B, but the strikeout artists in Boston, Tampa, and Toronto will eat alive the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place all-time strikeout king.  Pitching is, was, and will continue to be the thing that holds this club back the most.

AL Central:
Predicting the AL Central is like playing darts blindfolded.  Nothing aimed at is likely to be hit, and one could get embarrassed in the process.

1st:  Minnesota Twins – Give a reason not to pick them.  A healthy Morneau keeps them on top and the young starters should continue to improve.  Middle infield is still a silly mess, but it’s no worse than it has been, and at least this group can play defense.

2nd:  Chicago White Sox – The rotation is not bad.  The hitters can bash the ball.  Adam Dunn adds some patience to a low-OBP lineup, and his approach might, could, and hopefully should rub off on the hacking youngsters of the group.  The Sox lost nobody of real significance during the offseason.

3rd:  Detroit Tigers - Max Scherzer will win the Cy Young, or at least come close.  Miguel Cabrera will win the AL MVP.  Unfortunatly, other than a few solid vets like Justin Verlander and Magglio Ordonez, there are just too many questions surrounding this team.  Victor Martinez is a great new bat in the lineup, but he never could play catcher very well, which doesn’t help.

4th:  KC Royals - What?  Not finishing last?  Their saving grace will be early and mid season callups of Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, or any other of their ridiculously talented Double- and Triple-A talent.  They will start slow, but by seasons’ end, Royals fans will have cause for hope in 2012 and beyond.

5th:  Cleveland Indians - Only one AL team could possibly be worse than KC.  The Indians were awful last year.  They should be less awful in 2011, but not by much.  Carlos Santana will need to have a Buster Posey-esque impact.  Matt LaPorta needs to have a post-hype breakout.  Grady Sizemore will have to show that he can stay healthy.  But alas, none of this solves the biggest problem.  Quick, name a starting pitcher in the Indians’ rotation.  Currently, they boast Fausto Carmona as their opening-day pitcher.  Carmona held a 6.32 ERA in 2009 and 5.44 in 2008, though he had a luck-fueled ERA of 3.77 in 2010.  3.77 ERA and a K/BB of 1.72 shouldn’t be anybody’s 1st starter.  Or 2nd or 3rd.  After him, the rotation gets ugly.  Somebody will need to step up.

AL West:
This should be an interesting race, almost to the end of 2011

1st:  Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim / Orange County -
Remember when they were the California Angels?  Those were simpler
times.  The return of Kendry Morales and addition of Vernon Wells add
punch to a beleaguered lineup that was missing last season.  When will
Howie Kendrick show us his batting title potential?  Will Brandon Wood
get another chance?  Let’s hope so, because power like his doesn’t come
along very often, especially on the left side of the infield. 
Rotation?  Check.  Jered Weaver is now a bona fide ace, and so is Dan
Haren, his number two.  Ervin Santana and Joel Pinero are quietly
excellent, and maybe this is the year that Scott Kazmir recaptures his
past glory.  Either way, Kazmir is a number five that most clubs would
love to have.

2nd:  Texas Rangers - Losing the Cliff Lee race was a blow, but this team is loaded.  If the club does the right thing, stud closer Neftali Feliz will be stretched out as a starter this spring, and rookie Tanner Scheppers will take his place in the bullpen.  Colby Lewis was no fluke as an out-of-nowhere excellent pitcher, and Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland should rebound.  C.J. Wilson is a good pitcher, and let’s not forget Brandon Webb, who won a Cy-Young a couple years ago.  The lineup is simply loaded, with no questions at any spot, except for a flexible 1B shared by a couple faded prospects who are primed to prove everybody wrong in Chris Davis and Mitch Moreland.  One of the best offenses in the majors got better this offseason.  No matter their success last year, it’s hard to pick this team to finish first when they play in that park, unless they have the best pitching and defense in baseball.  And the Rangers just don’t.

3rd:  Oakland Athletics - There’s just not a lot to say.  They may have the best rotation in the division (sorry Angels fans…you may not have heard of Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, or Gio Gonzalez, but you will after 2011) but they just won’t hit a lick.  Their “big bat” is now Josh Willingham, a guy who’s had trouble holding a full-time job for years.  A pity to waste such pitching talent.  This will be an unbelievably good bullpen.

4th:  Seattle Mariners - The “defense or bust” strategy clearly didn’t work in 2010, so naturally, the Mariners went out and signed “no bat” Brendan Ryan to shore up the infield.  Their depth chart currently lists three rookies in their everyday lineup: Michael Saunders in left, Dustin Ackley at second, and Justin Smoak at first.  Until Erik Bedard proves himself healthy, their rotation consists of King Felix and cats with names like “Fister”, “Vargas”, “Pauley”, and “French”.  This sounds more like the characters in a mafia movie than it does a major league rotation.  The Bullpen contains questions as well, headed by the volatile David Aardsma, who seems to be on a great-season/terrible-season pattern.  Hopefully Michael Pineda can offer a lift to the pitching staff, but he has yet to stay healthy for long.  Seattle is playing it right by letting the rookies gain experience and damning 2011 to prepare for a hopefully good future.  But it will be painful to watch the Mariners this season.

Alomar, Bagwell, and PED’s…briefly

Roberto Alomar was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2011, and deservedly so.

Jeff Bagwell was not close to achieving election, undeservedly so.

Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus created the JAWS metric, which uses cross-generational performance and WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player, a metric that measures how many wins a player is worth more than a league-average replacement player) to compare players to those already in the Hall of Fame.

By JAWS, Jeff Bagwell is the fourth most valuable first baseman of all time, ahead of such players as Jimmie Foxx, Ernie Banks, Mark McGwire, Willie McCovey, Rod Carew, Eddie Murray, Jim Thome, and Rafael Palmeiro.  By default, he should be a no-brainer first-ballot hall of famer.

Alas, Bagwell has been stigmatized by some mind-boggling assertions that he is somehow connected to the steroids era because he played with Ken Caminiti. 

Let’s make a list.  I like lists.

  1. Jeff Bagwell never failed a PED test
  2. Jeff Bagwell did not appear in the Mitchell Report
  3. Jeff Bagwell did not appear in the BALCO investigation
  4. Jeff Bagwell was never named or suggested by Jose Canseco or any other player who has outed steroid users.
  5. Jeff Bagwell was not one of the names leaked from the 104-player list of players who tested positive a decade ago, while Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and David Ortiz among others were.

Did Bagwell take PED’s?  Maybe.  It’s possible.  I could sadly believe it of any player who played during that era.

Does Bagwell deserve to be kept from a deserving enshrinement based on the information available about his career?  Heck no.

Here’s the problem:  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion about who they think did what.  But the media members leaving him off this ballot while voting for Roberto Alomar are hypocrites and are holding a double standard.

There is no clear evidence that PED’s make you hit more home runs.  Rather, PEDs increase your endurance, allowing you to train longer and harder.  They help with recovery from injury.  They increase your durability.  They generally improve your ability to play baseball over along season and along career.  Home runs are not a good indicator of who are users and who aren’t.  Brian Roberts used PED’s.  He is not a slugger.  Jeremy Giambi used PEDs.  He was not a slugger.  Jason Grimsley used PED’s, as did Andy Pettitte.  They are not flamethrowing strikeout artists.

The fact is, the current case for Bagwell as a PED user is no stronger than is the case for Alomar to be a PED user.

Both player’s career peaks occured between 1995 and 2002, the heyday of PED usage in baseball (MLB started testing for PEDs in 2001).  Both enjoyed a long career of unequivocal success.  Both players peaked (power wise) in the middle of their careers.  But what hitter doesn’t, barring unusual circumstances?

I certainly am not accusing Alomar of PED use.  Rather I am decrying the unfair stigma that has been placed on Bagwell and will assuredly be placed on others of his ilk – sluggers from the 90’s.  We’ll have this discussion with Thome.  And Thomas.  And many others.  But how does keeping the obvious 90’s power hitters out of the Hall justify allowing in players with different skill sets, if the evidence of PED usage is the same for both?

This is once again a case of media double-standard and hypocrisy.  Jaffe put it best in his recap after the vote.  Keeping Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame based on the suspicion of PED usage says much more about the character of those voters than it does about Bagwell.

OBP and the Astros Offseason

I am not a negative person.  I dearly wish to write something positive about the Astros.  But not today.
In 2010, the Astros were an historically bad offensive team, specifically in On-Base-Percentage (OBP).  OBP is a stat that measures the number of times a player or team reaches base per plate appearance.  It includes Hits, Walks, and Hit-By-Pitch.  An excellent OBP for an individual player is around .400.  For an entire team, it is around .350.  Players with OBPs under .300 are generall fringe players who have some other skill that keeps them around or they do not last very long.
Statisticians, sabermetricians, and knowledgeable fans know that a high OBP directly leads to more runs scored.  Almost everybody agrees that scoring runs is a good thing if you are trying to win.
A lot of writers throw around the term ‘historically’ as a means to convey a sense of melodrama, and are often exaggerating.  In this case, the Astros really were historically bad at OBP in 2010.
Since 1962, the beginning of expansion-era baseball and the year a Houston team was added to the major leagues, there have been about 1,400 team seasons played in 49 years, give or take a few dozen for strike-shortened years.
The 2010 Houston Astros finished with a team OBP of .303.  This places them as the 78th-worst team OBP since 1962.
Now, 78th-worst doesn’t sound that bad, and it’s not even the worst in 2010 (thanks, Seattle!).  But 78th-worst puts them in the lower 5th percentile, meaning that 95% of all teams since 1962 posted a higher OBP than the Astros.  That really is historically bad.
I’m driving to a point.
From the info above, I am convinced that OBP is the Astros’ biggest problem going into 2011.  Let’s take a look at the moves that have been made since the trading deadline in 2010:
1)  Astros trade away Lance Berkman, who holds a career OBP close to .400, one of the highest in all of baseball.
2)  Astros sign Clint Barmes to play everyday shortstop in 2011.
3)  Astros sign Bill Hall to play everyday second base in 2011.
I have no beef with the Berkman trade, as it achieved the purpose of helping restock the farm and move a large contract off the books.  But it definitely hurts team OBP going into 2011.
Bill Hall has a career OBP of .310 over nine major league seasons.  There is a reason he has been a utility player his whole career, and that is it.  His versatility and power is why he is still in baseball.
Clint Barmes is channeling his inner Spartan, as he holds a career OBP of .300 over seven seasons.  There is a reason HE has been a utility player most of his career, and that is it.  His excellent infield defense and above-average power is why HE is still in baseball.
So there is the Astros’ solution to their offense problem: two guys who may knock about 40 home runs between them, but who get on base at a worse rate than the entire 2010 squad, excluding pitchers.
Without improvement from Lee, Wallace, Castro, and Bourn, the Astros could very easily score less runs in 2011 than in 2010, which would place them in an even worse historical context, close to the Tigers of the early ‘aughts.
There is only one scenario for which I would be okay with these additions, and that’s if both Hall and Barmes (or at least Hall) is traded away at the deadline to continue rebuilding the farm system.
Either way, it’s clear the Astros are not serious about fielding a competitive offensive team in 2011 as they try to sell the franchise.
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