Monday, December 15, 2008

Cleveland's Return on the Gutz Trade

Cleveland made a surprise move before leaving Las Vegas on Thursday, acting as a bridge for the Mariners and Mets to complete a 12 player deal. Part of the trade involved Franklin Gutierrez heading to Seattle, with the Tribe getting reliever Joe Smith from New York and second baseman Luis Valbuena from Seattle.

It was no secret the rebuilding Mariners were shopping closer J.J. Putz and the Mets had been inquiring about every available closer at the Winter Meetings before signing Francisco Rodriguez. Tribe GM Mark Shapiro had been in discussions with Seattle about Putz before, but pulled back once negotiations with Kerry Wood started to yield results. Combine that with Shapiro’s strong relationship with Mets GM Omar Minaya and it’s easy to see where much of the groundwork for Cleveland’s involvement came from. Shapiro admitted the deal came together “remarkably quickly,” often the case when a transaction occurs on the last night of the Winter Meetings at 2:00am.

Obviously the Mets main goal was to further bolster their bullpen, although some might argue that acquiring a second closer to go with Rodriguez’s new contract borders on overkill. Omar Minaya has some guts in trading for Putz and relegating him to the setup role. Putz had explicitly stated before the trade that he wanted to remain a closer, so he couldn’t have been too happy about becoming K-Rod’s sidekick. On the plus side, Putz will get to play for a contender again and may be in line for a big payday in two years depending on his performance.

After compiling a 1.86 ERA and 76 saves the past two seasons, Putz’s 2008 season jumped the track when he suffered a rib injury in April and a hyperextended right elbow in June. Putz’s trademark is the strikeout, backing up his 95 MPH fastball with an 11.04 K/9 average the past three seasons. If Putz makes a 100% recovery from his elbow injury, the Mets could have a ridiculous one-two punch to close out games. Putz’s two remaining contract years ($5 mil and an $8.6 mil club option) make him a pricey setup man, but he could turn out to be a bargain if he returns to form. There have been some questions regarding how sustainable Putz’s peripherals are and the recent injuries only compound the issue. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back from a sub-par 2008.

Seattle got back a slew of young players in the deal, including four major leaguers and three minor leaguers. Below are the 12 players on the move:

New York gets: J.J. Putz (RP), Jeremy Reed (CF), Sean Green (RP)

Seattle gets: Aaron Heilman (RP), Endy Chavez (OF), Jason Vargas (RP), Franklin Gutierrez (OF), Ezequiel Carrera (OF), Mike Carp (1B), Maikel Cleto (RP)

Cleveland gets: Joe Smith (RP), Luis Valbuena (2B)

With the obvious exception of Franklin, I don’t know much about the package of players Seattle received. In general, Mariners fans seem to like the trade, which is probably a good indicator of the value they got back. Since I’d like to focus on how the trade will impact the Tribe, I’ll leave the analysis of Seattle’s return in the hands of baseball guru Dave Cameron at U.S.S. Mariner.

Joe Smith

Year Age Level IP ERA WHIP K/BB K/9 BB/9 AVG ERA+
2006 22 A- 20 0.45 0.65 9.33 12.60 1.35 .151 N/A

AA 13 5.54 1.77 1.09 8.53 7.82 .251 N/A
2007 23 AAA 9 2.00 1.22 1.25 5.00 4.00 .216 N/A

MLB 44.3 3.45 1.55 2.14 9.14 4.26 .277 123
2008 24 MLB 63.3 3.55 1.29 1.68 7.39 4.41 .222 118

Smith is expected to start the season in the Cleveland bullpen and should see a significant workload in 2009. GM Mark Shapiro views Smith as “an important part of the back end of a 'pen," which probably means we’ll see him contribute in the 7th and 8th innings if all goes well. Smith broke in with the Mets in 2007 and has logged two successful Major League seasons. I don’t think I’d call Smith a prospect anymore because he seems to have established himself at the ML level at this point. Most of Smith’s appearances with New York came in the 7th and 8th innings in low leverage situations.

For what it’s worth, Smith’s 3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 1.67 K/BB over 63.3 IP made him one of the best options in the Mets’ bullpen for 2008. Historically, Smith has struggled against left handed batters. Lefties compiled a .309 / .427 / .454 line in 23.2 IP versus Smith over his career. Smith is very effective against righties though, posting a .223 / .317 / .326 career line in 84.0 IP. Smith’s struggles against left handed batters are probably in large part due to his sidearm delivery (batters in the left side of the box are able to pick up on his delivery better). Until Smith develops a way to better deal with lefties, he will continue to be limited as a righty-specialist in the late innings.

Smith had a solid K/9 rate of 7.39 in 2008, but his 4.41 BB/9 rate points to occasional control issues (he still managed to throw over 60% of his pitches for strikes). His sidearm style allowed him to induce a ton of groundball outs, with 62.6% of his batted balls going for grounders. Being an extreme groundball pitcher probably helps him stay out of trouble despite a high walk rate. Overall, Smith was an above average reliever in 2008 with a 118 ERA+.

Smith’s trademark is his sidearm delivery and sinking fastball. According to Josh Kalk’s Pitch f/x database, Smith’s fastball has an average speed of 91.19 MPH and was used almost 68% of the time in 2008. His fastball has such a strong bite that Pitch f/x actually classifies it as a sinker. Smith’s secondary pitch is a slider with good movement and an average speed of 82.05 MPH.

Smith takes advantage of his deceptive delivery and extreme pitch movement by pounding right-handers inside with his fastball before pulling the string with the slider outside. He rarely went inside with the slider and used it about 32% of the time overall. The slider is Smith’s go-to pitch in potential strikeout situations where he is ahead in the count. While the slider shows up over 55% of the time in a favorable count, the fastball is utilized over 90% of the time when he’s fallen behind.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video of Smith’s delivery, but his release point tends to fall between four and five feet off the ground (most pitchers have a release point of at least six feet). Smith switched to the sidearm delivery after his college coach recommended it as a way to improve his control. The suggestion worked so well that Smith went from a college baseball walk-on in 2004 to a 3rd round MLB draft pick in 2006. Smith describes how his delivery has evolved in a recent Washington Post interview:

"My delivery now is a little different than the way I threw in college. In college, the delivery was putting a lot more stress on my arm. Now, there's not as much stress on my arm, so I don't feel as sore. I'm still learning how to pitch to big league hitters. I don't think I'll ever stop trying to learn more about how to do this."

Smith has weathered a pretty rapid transition from college ball to the Majors. Considering he is still developing as a pitcher in both his delivery and approach, I think there is a lot of potential for improvement over the next few seasons. Tony Lastoria believes “the key to [Smith] becoming more effective against left-handers and a potential setup man is the development of a changeup.” Hopefully the Tribe can continue to improve Smith’s changeup (he used it sparingly in 2008) and allow him to emerge from his current specialist role.

With the addition of Kerry Wood and Joe Smith and prospects like Adam Miller, Tony Sipp, Jeff Stevens, and John Meloan waiting in the wings, Cleveland’s bullpen is due for a major overhaul in 2009. Given his potential ceiling, previous experience, and dominance against right-handers, Smith is better than your average depth acquisition and could become a significant arm in the pen next season.

Luis Valbuena

Valbuena is considered the centerpiece of Cleveland’s return in this deal. Based on the suddenness of the trade, I had a feeling Valbuena was not meant as the answer to Cleveland’s infield needs. Shapiro confirmed this theory by stating Valbuena “could be a guy who factors into our big league picture, depending on how our offseason concludes. But he's not our infield piece right now." In other words, Valbuena will be starting the season with Buffalo so he can build on the substantial progress he made last season. The fact that Shapiro left the door open for Valbuena to contribute in the Majors in 2009 tells you something about his potential in the eyes of the GM.

I think Cleveland’s plan is to start Valbuena in AAA and allow him to build on his break-out season. Valbuena’s offensive numbers surged during his age-22 season, culminating in his Major League debut with Seattle. Below are Valbuena’s peripherals for the last two seasons:

2007 21 AA 505 .313 .378 .304 6.08 0.58 .140
2008 22 AA 277 .384 .483 .378 7.48 0.84 .179

AAA 246 .383 .373 .339 7.68 0.88 .071

MLB 54 .315 .347 .298 4.90 0.36 .102

There are a few positive signs in Valbuena’s minor league performance. He spent the entire 2007 season toiling in AA and only had modest offensive numbers to show for it. He was striking out almost 19% of the time and did not show much patience at the plate. Valbuena took what he learned in 2007 and ran with it, becoming a much more disciplined hitter in the process. By honing his batting eye and showing more patience, Valbuena was able to reduce his strikeouts and collect more walks. Once he started to get on base more, his overall offensive production (represented here by wOBA) improved by .074 points compared to his previous season in AA. Valbuena also started to make better contact with the ball, pushing his ISO up from .140 to .179.

Seattle rewarded Valbuena’s work ethic with a promotion to AAA mid-season. Even though his power numbers took a nosedive in his first exposure to AAA pitching, Valbuena’s OBP held steady while his strikeout and walk rates actually improved. This is the most important trend from Valbuena’s time in the upper-minors. Despite having to adjust to tougher pitching in AAA, his ability to reach base and earn walks continued to improve. Valbuena’s power numbers should bounce back naturally as long as he continues to see the ball well. He may also develop more power in his swing as he ages. Many young players tend to press and go for the long ball, so the opposite trend will occur (OBP and K head south at the expense of a few more extra base hits). Valbuena has done a good job of avoiding this pitfall.

Most Cleveland fans (my self included) haven’t seen Valbuena in the field before, but Jeff at Lookout Landing provides his take on Valbuena’s glove:

“The thing that excited me most about Valbuena, though, was his defense. Don't bother looking at his defensive statistics; given the sample size, they won't tell you anything. Trust your eyes. If you watched Valbuena around second base this past month, you saw him make a lot of plays deep to his right, along with a couple that required him to come charging in towards the plate. I don't recall seeing him go to his left very often, but that's kind of out of his control. What's important is that, in his limited playing time, Valbuena was able to showcase both above-average range and above-average instincts with a pretty good arm. That's big. This team [Seattle] badly needs some better defense going forward, and now that I've seen Valbuena play his position, I'm pretty confident saying that he could play a solid second base in the Majors Leagues right now.”

Sounds good to me.

The adjustments Valbuena made between 2007 and 2008 look like they have a good chance of sticking and probably made him an appealing prospect to the Tribe. It took Valbuena one and a half seasons in AA before he was ready to move up, so one more season in AAA would seem like a logical move here. Unless he really catches fire (or Shapiro fails to land a new infielder), I doubt we’ll see Valbuena in Cleveland until the rosters expand in September. Valbuena could break in with the club by taking over Jamey Carroll’s utility role in the 2010 season.

Bottom Line

I like this trade in theory: dealing from an area of depth (corner outfielders) to fill in two definite needs elsewhere (bullpen and high level infield prospects). As a fan, Gutz was one of my favorite players to watch, but I think it was a smart move to trade him. Cleveland has another wave of quality outfielders who are near-ML ready and there would have been a serious crunch on the 25-man roster at some point. Plus, Gutz's value probably wouldn't have gotten much better than it already was anyway. In a way, Cleveland did Gutz a favor because now he can be a starter in centerfield, taking full advantage of his defensive prowess. I figured Gutz would have gone as part of a package for a bigger return, but I'm satisfied with what we got back for him.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gutz to be Traded: Full Updates Coming Soon

Well, I was going to have a piece about Kerry Wood go up tonight. At least until I got severely distracted by a three team deal involving Cleveland, Seattle, and the Mets. Nothing has been finalized yet, but word on the street has Franklin Gutierrez going to Seattle, while Cleveland will receive reliever Joe Smith from New York and 22 year old second baseman Luis Valbuena from Seattle. Here's what the deal looks like as of 11:00pm:

Mets get: pitchers J.J. Putz and Sean Green, outfielder Jeremy Reed

Mariners get: outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, pitcher Aaron Heilman, first baseman Mike Carp

Indians get: pitcher Joe Smith, second baseman Luis Valbuena

I found this information on beatwriter Anthony Castrovince's blog, which tends to be a pretty reliable source for Tribe transactions.

Like I said, this deal is not final yet and the players may not land in the exact places listed above. I just wanted to get something posted tonight, so there ya go.

I'll be taking a closer look at the Kerry Wood signing, this trade, and the free agent infielders in my next few posts, so remember to check back later.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Scouting the FA Closers

As you probably know by now, Cleveland is shopping for a closer this off-season. The Tribe is looking to either sign or trade for an established closer, although their budget is not entirely clear. I felt that the best combination of reliability, experience, and value on the free agent market was Trevor Hoffman, which you can read about here. Cleveland supposedly talked with Hoffman, Fuentes, Rodriguez, and Jason Isringhausen. I was originally going to do a list of free agents and trade targets, but I think I’ll just round out the free agents Cleveland has an interest in and pick up on any trade rumors after the winter meetings (in case you were wondering, Matt Capps is at the top of my wish-list on that front).

2.) Kerry Wood

2008 Team: Cubs
Age: 31
Previous Contract: 1 yr / $4.2 mil (2008), plus up to $3.45 mil for performance bonuses

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
K. Wood 34 (85.0%) 66.1 3.26 1.09 137 7.33 2.44 11.40 4.67

As much as I hyped up Trevor Hoffman earlier, I think I’d be pretty happy if the team went with Kerry Wood instead. Wood is an interesting option considering he has 10 MLB seasons under his belt, but just completed his first as a closer. After logging 174, 213, and 211 innings as a starter from 2001 to 2003, Wood struggled to stay healthy. Between 2004 and 2006, Wood suffered from an array of injuries and underwent surgery on his knee and rotator cuff. The Cubs finally decided to try and conserve Wood's electric arm by converting him to a reliever in 2007. The relief stint got off to a rough start as Wood spent most of the season battling elbow issues (he did not return to Chicago until August). Wood expressed a strong preference to stay in Chicago, taking an incentives based $4.2 million dollar contract after filing for free agency after the 2007 season.

Wood would have been the perfect Shapiro project a year ago; battered by injuries with a high payoff when healthy. Wood's 2008 run as the Cubs closer jump-started the former ace's career and probably put him in line for a hefty raise. Wood officially hit the open market Monday after the Cubs declined to offer him arbitration. The Cubs have made it clear they are moving on without Wood, even though he has offered to take a one year deal to stay with the team. Chicago balked at Wood's supposed $9+ million salary and have already anointed Carlos Marmol as closer.

Wood's value significantly increased after 2008 due to his success as closer and the fact that he was able to stay healthy for the entire season. The only major setback for Wood was in July when he suffered from a blister on his right index finger and was placed on the 15-day DL. Wood isn't exactly a veteran closer, but he is a veteran starter. He has already proven that he has the mentality to handle the closer role and is a seasoned playoff pitcher. His 85.0% save percentage last year was comparable to elite closers like Joe Nathan (86.6%) and B.J. Ryan (88.8%).

Despite owning the lowest save percentage and highest ERA between Fuentes and Rodriguez, I would take Wood if all I had to go by were the numbers. Wood’s ERA was inflated by a few bad outings, particularly in July when he was probably trying to work around a blister on one of his throwing fingers. Other than the three isolated appearances where he gave up three runs and a bad stretch in September where he surrendered 7 runs in 3.1 innings, Wood was very reliable. He may have blown six saves, but three of those came before May 2. After that, all Wood did was rack up consecutive saves.

Wood’s H/9 rate was slightly higher than K-Rod and Fuentes, but Wood’s outstanding combination of a 2.44 BB/9 rate and 11.40 K/9 rate really puts him ahead of the competition. Even though he gave up more hits, Wood had the best WHIP, K/BB ratio, and HR/9 rate of the three. Wood’s combination of strikeouts and precision place him ahead of pack in terms of overall pitching ability and I feel that his numbers are fairly sustainable. Several stats seem likely to regress based strictly on Wood’s career totals, although I’m not sure it’s fair to directly compare his time as a starter to that as a reliever. If you consider Wood’s ability as a starter and remove all the pitfalls of starting (late inning fatigue, loss of focus, multiple ABs per batter, etc.) it seems very reasonable to think that Wood would see a significant improvement in performance if all of his effort were distilled down to just one or two innings per outing.

If Wood can stay healthy this season, there’s a strong chance he’ll be a lights-out closer.

While I'm not sure about the exact amount, I think his price per year will fall between Fuentes and Hoffman. I don't see him giving other teams the option of a one year deal like he offered to Chicago (that was motivated more by his own desire to stay in Chicago than anything else). If I were Wood's agent I would advise him to seek a three to four year deal given that this is his first real venture as a free agent and his history of injury. The 31 year old Wood may not have another shot at a big, multi-year contract depending on how his body holds up. It's not clear how heavily teams are weighing Wood's prior injuries (no pun intended), but if other GMs hesitate to sign him to three or four years Cleveland may step in with the next best thing.

Considering how important it is that Cleveland's closer be a consistent presence (read, healthy) this season, I'm not sure Wood is the best choice for Cleveland. Still, K-Rod has been deflecting rumors about the condition of his arm this off-season, while Trevor Hoffman is 41 years old. It’s tough to tell where Cleveland would rank Wood in terms of injury risk (you can bet someone is poring over his latest physical and 2008 tapes though). Personally, I think I’d take a chance on Wood if he could be had for a reasonable contract.

I could see Cleveland offering a two year guaranteed contract at $6-8 million per year, plus a team option, with another $2-3 million in incentives based on appearances and DL stints. Again, the market will likely dictate whether Wood ends up considering anything less than three years at $9-10 million per. Texas is rumored to be pretty high on Wood and has a history of burning money in free agency, so expect some stiff competition to drown out concerns about Wood's past injuries.

3.) Brian Fuentes

2008 Team: Colorado
Age: 33
Previous Contract: 1 yr / $5.05 mil (2008)

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
B. Fuentes 30 (88.2%) 62.2 2.73 1.10 168 6.75 3.16 11.78 3.73

Fuentes appears to be the Mets’ primary target right now. Based on Fuentes' scheduled meeting with the Mets in Vegas and how desperate New York is for a closer to replace the ailing Billy Wagner, I'd say Fuentes will be off the market before the Winter Meetings conclude. While Cleveland did express an interest in Fuentes, I don't see them getting into a bidding war with the Mets (never a good idea).

Fuentes managed to have the best season of his career in 2008 despite logging over half his innings in the Major’s third best hitters park (Coors Field). Below are his home/away splits for the past three seasons:

Brian Fuentes 2008 Season Splits

Home 2006 34.2 3.63 1.21 .410 4.44

2007 31.1 1.72 0.83 .292 3.00

2008 33.1 3.51 1.29 .357 4.80

Away 2006 30.2 3.23 1.11 .324 1.94

2007 30.0 4.50 1.43 .350 2.13

2008 29.1 1.84 0.89 .210 3.40

Finding success in Colorado as a pitcher is no easy task. You either face a thin-aired, slugger’s paradise at home or a foreign, hostile environment on the road. I guess it’s not that surprising that Fuentes’ home and away splits tend to fluctuate each year. I expected his ERA and SLGA to heavily favor his time at Coors, but if you take the past three seasons as a whole, there seems to be a rough equilibrium. In 2006, Fuentes posted similar numbers at home (3.63 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and away (3.23 ERA, 1.11 WHIP). In 2007, he dominated batters at home (1.72 ERA, 0.83 WHIP), but got roughed up to the tune of a 4.50 ERA and 1.43 WHIP on the road. In his walk year, the splits reversed: stellar away (1.84 ERA, 0.89 WHIP), significantly less so at home (3.51 ERA, 1.29 WHIP).

Even Fuentes’ slugging against (SLGA) follows this pattern, although you’d expect opposing batters to consistently collect more extra base hits against him at Coors Field than in most other stadiums.

Fuentes’ overall performance as Colorado’s closer has been pretty solid, averaging 62.8 IP, 3.08 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 155 ERA+ over the past three seasons (his 78.7 save percentage represents some really shaky stretches in ’06 and ’07 though). The main thing I was curious about was if Fuentes would see a significant improvement in performance once he got away from Coors Field. Based on a rough analysis of his splits, I don’t think he’ll see any major improvements in the future, at least not due to a change of address. I don’t see Fuentes’ value slipping very much, but his 2008 season will probably go down as a career year for him.

Again, as long as his contract remains reasonable (unlikely) then Fuentes will provide an experienced, quality arm, but probably won’t meet the Mets’ expectations as closer based on his inability to dominate in high leverage situations on a consistent basis (career 80.0 SV%)

4.) Francisco Rodriguez

2008 Team: Anaheim
Age: 26
Previous Contract: 1 yr / $10 mil (2008)

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
F. Rodriguez 62 (89.8%) 68.1 2.24 1.29 198 7.11 4.48 10.14 2.26

I’m probably going to get torched for ranking Rodriguez near the bottom...oh well (not that my made-up “ranking” system ever meant anything).

The market seems to have cooled on Rodriguez and his record 62 saves. At one point, Rodriguez was seeking Mariano Rivera money (you know, 1.40 ERA, .66 WHIP, 39 saves for the umpteenth time in his career…that Rivera), or around $15 million a year on a long term contract. Amazingly, no one appears to have taken the bait and the hype surrounding Rodriguez is dim heading into the Winter Meetings.

Except for a 2.24 ERA and 62 saves, Rodriguez was only average in a direct comparison to Wood, Fuentes, and Hoffman. Rodriguez actually had the worst WHIP and K/BB ratio, which doesn’t make sense when paired with his sparkling ERA. At first glance, it looks like Rodriguez had quite a bit of luck on his side to allow so many baserunners with minimal damage. Let’s peel back another layer here:

2008 Closer FIPs

B. Fuentes: 2.24
K. Wood: 2.32
F. Rodriguez: 3.22
T. Hoffman: 3.99

Rodriguez’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full point higher than Wood and Fuentes, which suggests he was getting a significant boost from his team’s defense and other factors beside his performance on the mound. Would Rodriguez be able to duplicate his 89.8 save percentage without improving his WHIP and BB/9 rate next season? Probably not.

Speaking of walks, 2008 marks the second consecutive season Rodriguez has seen his BB/9, H/9, and HR/9 rates rise, while his K/9 rate dropped. The rising walk rates and apparent decline in control may be a sign of some early wear and tear in Rodriguez’s throwing arm. Regardless of why these issues are popping up for the 26 year old flamethrower, allowing an exponential amount of baserunners and taters each year is going to catch up with him at some point (probably sooner than later if his K rate fails to rebound).

Another issue that may be causing reluctance amongst GMs is Rodriguez’s declining velocity. I wouldn’t have thought to look it up before (the kid throws hard), but Rodriguez has lost at least a MPH off his fastball every year since 2006. Rodriguez threw his heater 56% of the time with an average speed of 94.8 MPH. In 2008, he had cut back on his fastball usage by 5.3% and had an average speed of 91.9 MPH. The same can be said of his slider, which lost 4.6 MPH since 2006. To compensate, Rodriguez threw nearly twice as many changeups in 2008 as he had in the past.

Normally, a 26 year old whose fastball is his bread and butter wouldn’t have to compensate for lost velocity by mixing in a new pitch. It’s not the combination of the pitches so much as the timing (plus the declining K/BB rate). If I were talking to K-Rod’s agent about a long-term deal, that would be a major point of concern for me.

So why am I digging into Rodriguez when there are plenty of other flawed closers on the market? Well, I felt that Rodriguez was severely overrated in 2008 (Cy Young, are you kidding me?) and find it interesting how his breaking the saves record seemed to overshadow a few red flags (like the persistent drop in velocity). Anaheim has never been afraid to spend to retain a player. You have to wonder, what did they see that caused them to pass on Rodriguez?

Basically, I feel sorry for the team that signs Rodriguez to a four or five year deal because I think they’ll be lucky to get two good years out of him. Then again, maybe the abundance of closers and lack of spare change will see some GMs (not to name anybo-Sabean) show a bit of restraint this off-season.

No matter how scouts are interpreting the above trends, Rodriguez is one of the most important free agents this winter (Sabathia and Teixeira are the others), since he will set the precedent for every reliever’s contract after him.

And no, I don’t think Cleveland will make him a serious offer.

5.) Jason Isringhausen

2008 Team: St. Louis
Age: 35
Previous Contract: 3 yrs / $25.75 mil (2005-07), plus $8 mil club option (2008)

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
Isringhausen 12 (41.67%) 42.2 5.70 1.64 78 10.12 4.64 7.59 1.64

After seeing his name on the list of pitchers Cleveland is talking to, I was forced to take a closer look at Izzy. Overall, I think a return to form is a definite possibility for Isringhausen. I wouldn’t bet the bullpen on it, but certainly possible. That said, I hope Shapiro views Isringhausen as a sort of last resort (including trades) in case the market goes totally nuts or something.

Isringhausen is currently rehabbing from September elbow surgery to repair a torn tendon in his throwing arm. He should be 100% healthy by the time Spring Training arrives. The veteran closer will have plenty of motivation after suffering through his worst season since 1999 when he was traded from the Mets to the Athletics mid-season. His 2008 campaign was derailed by a series of injuries including a hand laceration (kids, don't punch a tv after you blow a save; water coolers are a much cheaper alternative), knee strain, tendonitis, and the torn tendon. To add insult to injury, Izzy had his closer status revoked (twice). Isringhausen probably would have retired if he had reached his goal of 300 saves last season (he needs seven more).

I'm convinced Isringhausen's ugly season can be blamed solely on his injuries and he could be a fairly productive closer in 2009. The trouble is, most of Isringhausen's past struggles were caused by injury issues. He got off to a terrible start in 2006 as well. After an erratic season, he finally succumbed to a hip injury in early September and was left off the Cardinal's post season roster (Adam Wainwright closed out the World Series victory). A newly repaired Isringhausen went on to have a career year in 2007, posting a 2.48 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 32 saves (93.7%) in 65.1 IP. Over his age 31-34 seasons (2004-2007), Isringhausen averaged 64.4 IP, 162 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP, 2.07 K/BB ratio, and an 84.8 save percentage (a couple good seasons, one great one, and one with a major injury, seems about right). At worst, Isringhausen is a top 15 closer (actually, at worst he's a top 15 closer on the DL) and at best he's a top 5. Which Izzy is going to show up in 2009? No idea.

Isringhausen is kind of like a watered down Kerry Wood (minus the filthy K rate): when he's healthy he can be very productive, but the risk of injury tends to run high. However, if I had to choose one injury prone closer over another, Wood is the obvious choice. One benefit of signing Isringhausen is that he'll probably have one of the friendliest free agent contracts of 2009. After expressing his desire to pitch again Isringhausen described his next contract as an "incentive-based thing." Izzy would make sense as a depth signing, but not as the full-time closer. Since he has clearly stated he wants to close, Isringhausen won't be signing with Cleveland.

All contract information was taken from Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Trevor Time?

Many apologies to any esteemed readers who may have stopped by in search of an update in the last two months. I haven’t made a blog post for quite some time due to my new job and subsequent change of residence. Fortunately (or not, depending on what you think of the blog), I have a working internet connection again, but it seems I have some catching up to do on the state of the Tribe and the Hot Stove League. I’ll try not to repeat too much of what’s already been covered by other writers lately, but I do have a few topics I’d like to cover regardless.

Cleveland’s shopping list this offseason has two big items right at the top, in bold letters, underlined, and highlighted: a closer and either a second or third baseman. Despite a strong showing by Jensen Lewis in the final month of 2008 and Kerry Wood impersonator Adam Miller waiting in the wings, the Tribe has placed a priority on bringing in an experienced reliever to man the ninth. I went into detail in a previous post how the bullpen had some cracks in it heading into 2008 and still feel strongly that a lack of a solid contingency plan for when Borowski would inevitably fall off the cliff cost the team a pretty sizable chunk of wins.

I do think Betancourt will bounce back, with positive contributions from Perez, Lewis, and a couple fresh arms (Miller, Sipp, Meloan?), but I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing the closer gig to anything less than a proven commodity in 2009. The fact that Cleveland has three potential closers in Lewis, Perez, and Miller is great, but their services are needed elsewhere. Its one thing to draw on the bullpen depth in a pinch (injuries, etc.), but I think it would be a mistake to not take advantage of a deep free agent class. The team dug itself a steep hole last season while they were scrambling to find a replacement closer in-house; that can’t happen again.

GM Mark Shapiro made it clear that he would not make the same mistake twice and is determined to acquire a legit anchor for the bullpen who won’t end up sinking the ship (although Borowski was more like a torpedo…).

So who has Cleveland been talking to? Apparently, everyone:

"If there's a back-end bullpen alternative out there, then we're going to explore it," general manager Mark Shapiro told

Shapiro has reportedly been talking to agents for several relief pitchers, but the only two that have been confirmed by the GM as targets are Trevor Hoffman and Jose Valverde (via trade). After that, a whole slew of whispered names pop up in connection with Cleveland.

I’ve compiled a list of the top six relievers I would like Cleveland to pursue via free agency or trade, loosely ranked by how likely their acquisition is. I’m running a little short on time heading into my Turkey Day road trip, so the rest of the list will show up in my next post. Today I’d like to focus on the pitcher who I think is most likely to sign with Cleveland.

1.) Trevor Hoffman

2008 Team: San Diego
Age: 41
Previous Contract: 2 yr / $13.5 mil (2006-07), plus $7.5 mil option (2008)

There were two closers that I didn’t think would hit the market this off-season: one was Kerry Wood, the other was Trevor Hoffman. After the turbulent San Diego front office bungled negotiations by low-balling their longest tenured player, Hoffman opted to take his 554 career saves elsewhere.

Cleveland has shown early interest in Hoffman and has had experience dealing with him before. Hoffman nearly came to Cleveland three years ago before re-signing with San Diego (the fact that he had spent 13 years with SD and was still on good terms with their GM back then makes that near-miss very significant in rumored negotiations now). In a recent interview, Hoffman showed no preference in his next destination:

"I'm absolutely open to anything," said Hoffman. "National League, American League, just something that's a good fit in a number of arenas. A lot of it is going to depend on what teams come into play."

I think Cleveland could easily sign Hoffman if that’s the direction they want to go in. Hoffman appears to be the best fit in terms of a proven track record, length of contract, and salary. A 1-2 year deal for around $7-8 million annually seems like a reasonable estimate based on his previous contract. There’s a possibility that a chunk of that could be incentives based, but since Hoffman did not miss significant time due to injury in 2008 that seems less likely.

Hoffman only threw 45.1 innings in 2008 after posting at least 50 in 15 of his 17 seasons (the last time he failed to reach this mark was 2003, where he only had 9 IP due to injury). This is due to a lack of save opportunities on a bad team and the fact that San Diego was trying to pace Hoffman’s innings. While reliable, Hoffman would have to be treated somewhat cautiously over the course of a season and would probably have to take the occasional save opportunity off depending on how his arm feels. Given the team's projected bullpen depth, I don't see this being much of an issue. Hoffman did not miss any significant time due to injury last season. He was day-to-day in May with arm soreness and had arthroscopic surgery after the season to remove a few bone chips from his throwing elbow.

The Tribe has several young arms in the pipeline and having Hoffman there for a couple seasons to hold down the fort and mentor his heir apparent would be an ideal development timeline. Three seasons ago, I would have been absolutely stoked to have Trevor Hoffman suit up with the Tribe. Based on his 2008 performance though, I can’t help but be wary of relying on Hoffman to captain the bullpen in 2009.

Hoffman didn’t have a particularly bad season, but there was clearly some regression occurring. It’s hard to critique a guy who hadn’t blown back-to-back save opportunities for 11 years before last season. There were a few interesting trends in 2008 though.

The first thing that jumped out at me was how many homeruns Hoffman gave up last year. Hoffman saw his HR/FB ratio jump to 13.8%, a 7.6% increase from his career total. Considering Hoffman logged 65.7% of his innings at a home field with the most pitcher friendly park rating in the Majors last year (.796, where 1.000 is neutral), this was a surprise. In fact, Hoffman gave up all but one of his eight homeruns at home, where he posted a 4.25 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 29.2 IP. His performance on the road seems better at first glance (2.87 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 15.2 IP), but his K/BB rates (5.40 home to 4.75 road) are similar while his WHIP and BAA increase by 0.27 and .047 respectively. Hoffman got hit harder at home, but he allowed fewer baserunners as well.

I’m not sure what to make of Hoffman’s longball numbers, but they seem a little flukey to me. While Hoffman’s K/BB ratio of 5.11 was better than his career average of 3.85, his hits per 9 IP were not especially high compared to previous seasons either, so no Byrd Effect here. He did get hit harder than in previous years though. Hoffman has a career SLGA (slugging against) of .340, a number that has increased over the past three seasons at .316, .358, and .394 from 2006 to 2008.

Normally, a pitcher who starts to get smacked around more will see a drop in velocity or control, but Hoffman’s average velocity has held steady the past four seasons (85.2 mph FB, 80.9 mph SL, 74.1 mph CB, 73.9 mph CH). Hoffman has had great success working with these pitch velocities in the past and I don't see any reason for his approach to suddenly hit the fan. As I mentioned earlier, Hoffman's K/BB and H/9 ratios are strong compared to previous seasons, so he does not appear to be suffering from control issues on the surface.

Hoffman’s overall numbers in 2008 are heavily weighted towards a poor first half, particularly in April (6.52 ERA, 9.2 IP) and June (6.48 ERA, 8.1 IP). Before the All Star break, Hoffman posted a 5.08 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 17 saves in 28.1 IP, while after the break he had a 1.59 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, and 13 saves in 18 IP. This isn’t to excuse the two crappy months earlier in the season, but I would have expected a (*ahem*) more experienced arm like Hoffman’s to wear down in the second half, not get stronger. Of course, the opposite happened in 2007 when he posted a 1.91 ERA before and a 4.44 ERA after the break. I was going to make a nifty point about how Hoffman still displays durability late in the season, even at age 41, but the two seasons contradict themselves. So yeah, never mind….

I’m not sure what to make of Hoffman for 2009. I’m not particularly worried about his occasional bad months translating into more consistent, um, inconsistency. Every pitcher hits a few rough patches, which tend to get amplified due to the small sample sizes available for relievers. I'm not too worried about his homerun totals either, since he has given up 6+ in a season a few times before. Also, five of the eight against him came in his two ugly months (May and June), but gave up no more than one homer in any other month. The homerun trend did not dog him throughout the season, which is a good sign.

What I am worried about is how his SLGA has been steadily increasing in an extremely pitcher friendly park. Even if I'm misinterpreting some of the other stats, I think the rising SLGA is a valid concern. I’m also slightly concerned about how he’s never pitched in the American League before, but I’m not sure relievers see their numbers inflate as much as starters making the move since they only have to face a handful of batters as opposed to an entire AL lineup three to four times.

Hoffman is far from fragile and has been very durable even after his rotator cuff surgery back in 2003. Is relying on the 41 year old Hoffman significantly less risky than the 37 year old Borowski was last season? Will he have more success than a player like Jensen Lewis? That’s something the Tribe will have to answer this off-season. Hoffman’s 554 saves and healthy track record set him far from the uncertainty that was associated with Borowski, in my opinion. I think regardless of how confident the team is in Lewis, Miller or who ever, they still have to sign a closer to mitigate the risk associated with using an unproven pitcher at closer.

The main reason I'm hesitant to totally endorse Hoffman is the mess with Borowski last year. I think if you were to remove that experience I might have a different view. It almost seems insulting to compare Hoffman to Borowski, but the risk of injury or fatigue is (was) there for both of them. Both were nearing the end of their careers, although Hoffman obviously has more of a reputation (that's an understatement). Both entered free agency after having a good year, where Borowski posted a 3.75 ERA and 36 saves with Florida. Plus there's the whole speech I made about not taking such a big risk at closer. I'm just not sure how to properly represent the degree of risk (if it were strictly financial this would be easy) associated with Hoffman right now.

Several of the top free agent closers have their own baggage as well. Kerry Wood’s injury history is well known. Fuentes may end up not being much better than Hoffman, but will probably cost a lot more for longer. Even Rodriguez has questions regarding his velocity and endurance at this stage of his career.

The bottom line for any closer is earning the save and Hoffman did that as well or better than any of the other free agents I just mentioned. Hoffman’s 86.7 save percentage matches up well with Rodriguez (89.8%), Fuentes (88.2%), and Wood (85.0%) in 2008 (a down year for Hoffman and a career year for everyone else, what does that tell you?). In that regard, Hoffman may end up as the best value on the relief market this year (seriously, K-Rod is going to end up with a fat, long term contract somewhere and he was only slightly more efficient at doing his job than Hoffman last year).

I have no idea how high Hoffman is on Shapiro’s white board. Based on what I know about Hoffman's health and effectiveness compared to other top closers last season, I would feel comfortable signing him. I know Cleveland wants to move quickly on locking up a closer if possible, so they can allocate funds towards settling the infield. If the price for Fuentes or Wood becomes too steep, Hoffman will quickly become the most appealing free agent for the Tribe.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Does Sabathia Deserve the Cy Young Hype?

If you had asked me at the beginning of August who I thought should win the NL Cy Young, I probably would have said Webb, Lincecum, or Santana depending on how they fared down the stretch. Sure, C.C. Sabathia had been shredding National League bats into dust for over a month at that point, but I didn't consider him a serious CY candidate.

First, the fact that Sabathia had split his time between two different leagues made him seem like a tough sell for an award traditionally given to NL-exclusive pitchers. Second, it seemed like Sabathia's credentials for the NL CY were being hyped up because he happened to get traded to Milwaukee in the middle of a playoff race. I was rooting for the Brew Crew to make the playoffs, but there was no way Sabathia would be able to keep up such a torrid pace, right? It almost seemed like a slight to the other candidates, several of whom were fighting for their own playoff berth, to discuss awarding the recently arrived Sabathia the title of the NL's Best Pitcher.

The trouble is, Sabathia hit the ground running in Milwaukee and never slowed down. Sabathia made 17 starts from July 8 to September 28, posting a 1.65 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 128 K over 130.7 IP. Milwaukee made no effort to temper C.C.'s competitive nature either, unleashing him in the midst of the wild card race with little concern for a pitch count. To get an idea of how far Sabathia pushed himself in the second half of the season, remember that the Major League leader in complete games was Roy Halladay with nine. Sabathia collected seven CG in about half that time (he had three in the first half with Cleveland, marking his second consecutive year with 10 CG).

Sabathia went on to pitch a complete game shutout on the final day of the season to punch the Brewer's first ticket to the postseason in 26 years. The must-win season finale was Sabathia's third consecutive start on just three days rest (he's in line to make a fourth straight start on short rest against Philly in Game 2 of the NLDS). Besides dragging a struggling Brewers club over the finish line, Sabathia's season is a testament to his durability, athleticism, focus, and outstanding skill as a pitcher. In fact, Sabathia has far surpassed his 2007 Cy Young winning campaign (19-7, 241 IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 209 K) in every category except win percentage and total wins, making 2008 the best overall season of his career.

Would his stats be so impressive if Milwaukee hadn't given the 27 year old Sabathia free reign over his pitch counts though? As effective as Sabathia has been, there is a potential downside to letting him go like it's 1950 again (but not for Milwaukee). Milwaukee's desperation combined with Sabathia's confidence and competitive nature may have valuted C.C. beyond his peers in terms of performance this season, but I just hope 2008 doesn't come back to haunt him down the road. Interestingly enough, Tim Lincecum is ahead of Sabathia in Baseball Prospectus' Pitcher Abuse Points metric by 62,699 points. Sabathia is still well ahead of the field though with a 33,826 point buffer.

The risks associated with logging so many pitches per outing would grind down most pitchers, but who's to say Johan Santana wouldn't have dominated in the same way as Sabathia if the Mets didn't have millions of dollars still invested in their ace's arm. Santana could have easily reached the 20 win level without the Mets' bullpen holding him back, likely pushing him to the front of the pack in CY consideration. In that sense, it could be argued that Sabathia had an unfair advantage over more restricted (and sane) pitchers.

A similar argument of circumstance can be made on behalf of Tim Lincecum and the fact that he plays for a basement dweller like the Giants. Many voters feel that whether a player's team makes the playoffs is an important part of the awards equation, but I personally disagree with this notion. The player doesn't get to choose the environment he pitches in, all he can do is give his best effort and suck it up when the offense gets shut out or the bullpen implodes. Interestingly, Lincecum, Sabathia, and Santana are all within two wins of each other overall, partly negating the disparate teams issue. All three pitchers have had to deal with either a poor offense (Lincecum, C.C. with Cleveland) or leaky bullpen (especially Santana) on multiple occasions this season.

Even with the pitchers' decisions removed from consideration, Sabathia is arguably at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the NL CY field. The NL features much softer lineups compared to the AL, but Sabathia has had to deal with both leagues over a roughly equal number of starts (18 AL starts, 17 NL starts). Meanwhile, Lincecum and Santana have had twice as many starts logged against NL lineups and appear to have an edge against Sabathia if his entire season were to be taken into consideration.

This brings us to the biggest sticking point in advocating Sabathia for the NL CY. Should C.C.'s entire season be considered in the voting process?

Rick Sutcliffe is the only player to be traded mid-season and end up winning the Cy Young for the league he was traded to. Sutcliffe was dealt from Cleveland to the Cubs on June 13 in 1984. Given Sutcliffe's less than stellar performance while with Cleveland (4-5, 94.3 IP, 5.15 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 58 K) and his near perfect run in Chicago, it's seems the voters didn't give his time in Cleveland much thought. Sutcliffe also faced a seemingly better pitcher in the voting that year. It may have been because he was a rookie or his team finished second to Sutcliffe's Cubs, but Dwight Gooden was better than Sutcliffe over 68 more innings and didn't get a single first place vote (Sutcliffe won unanimously).

1984 NL Cy Young Award Results
Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K 1st Place Votes^
Rick Sutcliffe CHC (.596) 16-1 150 2.69 1.08 155 24
Dwight Gooden NYM (.556)* 17-9 218 2.60 1.07 276 0
Bruce Sutter STL (.519)* 5-7 (45 SV) 123 1.54 1.08 77 0
Joaquin Andujar STL (.519)* 20-14 261 3.34 1.10 147 0
*Team did not reach playoffs
^Out of 24 possible votes

The precedent set by Sutcliffe shows that voters are not necessarily swayed by total innings or even if the pitcher has spent the entire season in the same league. Sutcliffe struggled the entire time he was in the AL that season (C.C. had a bad April, but was dominant after that), but like Sabathia, dominated after being traded to the NL. If anything, Sutcliffe's poor first half should have worked against him, but instead the voters saw the impact he made during a partial season in Chicago and ran with it. I think there is a strong chance Sabathia will benefit in the voting by helping Milwaukee to the playoffs in a similar manner.

I probably wouldn't vote for Sabathia if his time in the AL was banned from consideration. Technically, the NL CY is only supposed to consider innings logged in that league and the Sutcliffe vote showed that any AL starts tend to be ignored (that 5.15 ERA in the first half really sticks out).

If C.C. is limited to his NL starts, the gap in innings (over 100), wins (7), and strikeouts (over 130) compared to Lincecum is just too great to truly justify voting for Sabathia. The seven complete games and five shutouts are impressive, but unfortunately don't deserve to carry as much weight since Sabathia appeared to gain an edge from the fact that the Brewers' didn't need to worry about his arm beyond 2008. As great as Sabathia's impact was on the Brewers' second half, his 14.2 pitching win shares trail Johan Santana by 4.1 and Lincecum by 9.6.

I figured Sabathia would have been closer in win shares considering how bad the rest of the Brewers have been lately. Milwaukee went 49-40 (.550) before the trade and just 41-33 (.554) after, so it's safe to say they would have missed the playoffs by a wide margin with a slumping offense and an injured Ben Sheets had they not made the trade (again, a matter of circumstance).

The NL leader in wins, Brandon Webb, doesn't really deserve to be grouped in with those three pitchers; he just isn't good enough this year. I opted to include Webb into the table below anyway because he is still a serious candidate for the CY in the eyes of the voter. There are a few other pitchers who have come close to or surpassed Webb's performance this season (Cole Hamels gets honorable mention here), but have not been as good as the Big Three and are too far behind Webb in wins to have a realistic shot at getting many first place votes this year, so they were excluded from the conversation.

2008 NL Cy Young Candidates

Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K CG SHO Pitching WS
C.C. Sabathia MIL (.554) 11-2 130.7 1.65 1.00^ 128 7^ 3^ 14.2
T. Lincecum SF (.444) 18-5 227.0 2.62 1.17 265^ 2 1 23.8
J. Santana NYM (.549) 16-7 234.3 2.53^ 1.14 206 3 2 18.3
B. Webb ARI (.506) 22^ -7 226.7 3.30 1.19 183 3 1 18.8
^Leads or ties NL

The Sutcliffe precedent may ultimately work against Sabathia because his AL starts are impressive in their own right. Here are Sabathia's total stats for 2008:

C.C. Sabathia Totals for 2008 Season
Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K CG SHO Pitching WS
TOTAL (.493) 17-10 253.0 2.70 1.11 251 10 5 22.4

After taking all of the above factors into account, I think I would stop just short of calling Sabathia the best pitcher in baseball this season. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are the only two pitchers who would cause me to pause in terms of who has compiled the best overall season (yes, I'm backtracking a bit and saying Halladay may be more deserving of the CY than Lee).

Considering Sabathia only had a 116 ERA+ (adjusted by league, 100 indicating an average pitcher) with Cleveland and a ridiculous 262 ERA+ with Milwaukee, I think the difference in leagues has to be taken into account when comparing Halladay, Lee, and Sabathia in 2008. Lee's ERA+ of 175 and Halladay's 155 actually makes their respective campaigns even more impressive since they weren't able to feast upon National League lineups after the All Star Break.

So in conclusion, does Sabathia deserve the National League Cy Young Award?

Probably not.

Will he win it?

No, I'd put my money on Lincecum by a slight margin over Santana.

Fun Fact

The Cy Young Award was initially given to the single best pitcher in the Major Leagues from 1956 to 1966. Sandy Koufax was the last pitcher to win the unified title of best pitcher in 1966.

Isaac Out as Bullpen Coach

Longtime bullpen coach, Luis Isaac, was dismissed from the team this week. The announcement was made by Manager Eric Wedge, who apparently had the last word on the decision. Fans and the media alike seem to be surprised by the move, as there was no indication that Isaac had done anything to warrant getting fired this season. Even insiders like Tribe beatwriter Anthony Castrovince said he was "stunned" to hear the news, so the events leading up to the firing were really kept quiet.

A legitimate explanation has yet to be released and we may not find out why Isaac was let go for a while, if at all. Wedge did point out that Isaac was not being fired on account of the bullpen's poor performance this year, which led me to believe this was a personal matter. My initial guess was some sort of confrontation or rift occured between Isaac and another member of the coaching staff. Whatever it was, the team doesn't want to share the details.

The Diatriber provided a likely scenario in a post on Let's Go Tribe:
I think this is a move to clear the way for Scott Radinsky to replace Luis in the bullpen. Radinsky is ALWAYS lauded by the organization for righting players that are sent to him (Jen Lewis) or trying to put the finishing touches on young arms (I seem to remember a piece on him wanting to keep Stevens in AAA until he was “ready” for MLB) before they come to the parent club.

Who knows how the Isaac thing went down and why he wasn’t simply re-assigned, but my guess is that they decided that they wanted to get Radinsky into the Tribe bullpen and asked Luis to take another position. If he refused, he’s shown the door. Maybe more was in play, but I think it’s a matter of getting Radinsky up here with all of the young arms that he’s helped develop over the last few years.
This makes sense in terms of trying to advance the organization and Radinsky does seem like a logical replacement for Isaac. Still, I'm sad to hear that Luis is no longer with the team after 43 years. Isaac was first appointed bullpen coach in 1993 and has become sort of an institution at the Jake; one of the few constants left from that era of Indians baseball.

I wish Luis good luck at the next stop in his career, I'm sure he won't have much trouble finding an organization that values his pitching expertise.