Toronto Baseball Guys
Monday, July 28, 2008
  16 Million Reasons Bad Teams Stay Bad
Here's a pop quiz for aspiring GMs: your 30-year-old shortstop, a career .267/.305/.381 hitter (with no Gold Gloves) - is batting .300, leading the league in hits, and recently played in his 2nd all-star game. He becomes a free agent at season's end. Oh yeah, your team is currently 29 games below .500 and couldn't find their way out of last place with a GPS, a Sherpa and a ouija board.

Do you:

A) Trade the shortstop to a contender for some tasty prospects?
B) Re-sign the shortstop to a 2-year/$16 million contract extension?

If you're the Washington Nationals, you just picked B and will now have the services of Cristian Guzman through 2010. Or for roughly another 230 losses.

One of the worst mistakes a bad team makes is getting too attached to its best players and hanging on to them for more time and/or money than prudence demands. The thinking goes something like this: "We're already in last place and he's our best player - what happens if we lose HIM?" Then panic sets in, and suddenly you're stuck with a mediocre talent making superstar money (see Leafs, Maple and McCabe, Bryan).

Guzman IS a mediocre talent. Even .300 hitting, all-star Cristian Guzman. With no walks and few extra base hits, his .333 OBP and .413 SLG aren't putting many runs on the board, and at age 30, he isn't likely to get any better.

It's puzzling that GM Jim Bowden already dealt closer Jon Rauch for a prospect, but didn't seem to realize that the same strategy made sense with Guzman. Bowden defended the signing saying "we're a better team with him than without him." Certainly, that's true, if the options are Cristian Guzman vs. Gaping Hole between second and third base. It's still probably true if the options are Cristian Guzman vs. Raw Young Prospect. But what if we fast forward a year or two and suddenly it's Aging Cristian Guzman vs. Improving Young Prospect Plus $8 million dollars we aren't spending on Cristian Guzman?

It's possible that Bowden tried to deal Guzman and couldn't find a taker (though the Dodgers and Rays could both use an upgrade). Fair enough. But in that case, why not let Guzman walk in exchange for draft pick compensation and spend the $8 million to improve your last place team elsewhere?

The original 4 years/$16.8 million deal the Nats signed with Guzman was widely panned at the time, and it looks like the critics had a point. For their money, the Nationals have received:

2005 142 456 .219 .260 .314
2006 Injured
2007 46 174 .328 .380 .466
2008 100 433 .303 .333 .413

That's one terrible year, one decent year, a very good quarter of a season and a year and a half lost to injury.

So, having suffered through a contract in which the player was hurt or lousy more than half the time, the Nationals decided: Hey, let's bring him back for twice the money!

Residing in the basement provides a general manager a certain amount of freedom - and Bowden has made some promising moves, like snagging troubled but talented prospects Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge from other organizations.

There's no better time to experiment, after all, you can't finish worse than last. Though with moves like the Guzman signing, the Nats certainly seem to be trying.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
  Three to Deal at the Deadline
With the non-waiver trade deadline less than two weeks away, and the Blue Jays not in any position to contend, it's time to see what parts of the roster can be flipped to benefit the club in 2009 and beyond. Don't expect any huge moves, since most of the team's key players are signed to long term deals. Plus, there is some value in pursuing an 85-win season, which the team is perfectly capable of. So this isn't the time to blow things up. There are, however, some spare parts that could be dealt to a needy contender.

David Eckstein
Largely ignored since Cito Gaston returned as manager, Eckstein doesn't offer any skills that aren't already provided by the Inglett/MacDonald/Scutaro triumvirate. Unless, of course, you count "playoff scrapiness." Signed to a one-year deal, there's no chance that Eckstein will be be back in '09, and there's a perfect fit out there for him.

While most playoff contenders are set at shortstop, the Tampa Bay Rays are using Ben Zobrist, while waiting for Jason Bartlett to come off the DL. Eckstein has outhit Bartlett by a healthy margin this season, and with his two rings and a World Series MVP, he fills Tampa's playoff experience void that someone in Florida is sure to start fretting about any second now.

Expect a modest return for Eckstein, but a team awash in young players and on the cusp of the playoffs for the first time ever just might overpay.

Rod Barajas
Another player on a one-year deal, Barajas has been solid with the bat this season, hitting .256 with 8 homers - worthy numbers for any backup catcher. So long as we're dealing within the division, the Yankees - who have just placed Jorge Posada back on the DL - have a gaping wound at the position, and will go with Jose Molina for the forseeable future.

A.J. Burnett
This is a tricky one. Six weeks ago, it looked like a natural move, with the Jays boasting the best young starters in the league in Marcum, McGowan and Litsch. Since then, the young pitchers fulfilled the two "I"s of young pitchers: Injuries and Inconsistency. Marcum has missed a month with soreness in his forearm, while Jesse Litsch has been just a little too reminiscent of Josh Towers recently. The biggest concern is McGowan, who is shut down for at least a month with a tear in his rotator cuff. I can't recall hearing the words "tear" and "rotator cuff" without the word "surgery," so it wouldn't be at all surprising if McGowan is lost for the season or longer.

Suddenly, Burnett, who looked rather expendable, might be worth keeping around a little longer.

Any discussion of Burnett begins with his contract, the most debated, defended, reviled contract in club history and the move for which J.P. Ricciardi will likely be most remembered. A.J. Burnett: 5 years/$55 million.

So let's start by saying this: It's not a bad contract (In case you just spat coffee all over your keyboard and monitor, go grab a shammy or some paper towel - we'll wait).

Is it a pricey contract? Sure. Was it risky? You bet. But a bad one? No, THESE are bad contracts:

Mike Hampton (8 years/$121M) 53 48 134 813.1 4.80
Denny Neagle (5 years/$51M) 19 23 65 370.1 5.57
Jaret Wright (3 years/$21M) 16 15 43 214.1 5.08
Carl Pavano (4 years/$40M) 5 6 19 111.1 4.77
Darren Dreifort (5 years/$55M) 9 15 26 205.2 4.64
Mike Sirotka (2 years/$6.8M 0 0 0 0 NA

(Dreifort also pitched 60 games in relief)

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have gotten value out of A.J. Burnett. Has it been optimal value? Visions of 230 inning seasons and Cy Young contention haven't panned out, but Burnett - for all of his ups and downs - has been an above average starter.

Burnett 30 25 67 435.1 4.16

The key with Burnett's contract is that he can opt out and become a free agent after this season. So any team that trades for him assumes that risk. If he pitches a contender into the playoffs, he can walk away after three months for greener pastures. If he trips over the rosin bag and sidelines himself in his first start, then his new team is on the hook for the final 2 years and $24 million of his deal. That could slow down a potential bidding war, but a market for Burnett may heat up closer to the August 31st deadline, as teams get more desperate. Burnett would be a good bet to clear waivers with his contract.

Ultimately, the Jays don't have to panic with Burnett. If he stays and opts out, which is likely, they can spend the $12 million elsewhere. If he doesn't opt out, he continues to fill a hole in the rotation, which could be important based on the health of McGowan. Sure, there are better ways to spend $12 million, but there are far worse onces, too. Carlos Silva, anyone? Besides, Burnett has been a fairly durable starter since Ricciardi offered his "suck it up and pitch A.J." speech.

With no urgency to deal Burnett, the Jays can sit back and see what offers roll in. For an above average starter, who happens to lead the league in strikeouts, the target should be nothing short of a Jeff Kent-type deal. No, that doesn't mean we're scouring for surly highway-patrol lookalike second baseman, but rather a top young prospect who happens to be blocked in his current organization. Think a shortstop with the Yankees, or a Mets third baseman.

It was Kent, trapped behind Robbie Alomar, that the Jays parlayed into David Cone. That kind of return would make even the most ardent Burnett critics ask "what contract?"
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
  All-Star Game a True Classic, But No More Home Field
The 79th All-Star game showcased precisely why baseball's version of the game is vastly superior to that of any other sport. You had:

- Mariano Rivera's hero's entrance and the strike-out/throw-out double play
- Ryan Dempster striking out the side to force extra innings
- Rivera escaping first and third with one out in the 10th
- Aaron Cook escaping bases-loaded, none out in the bottom of the 10th
- Aaron Cook escaping first and second with one out in the bottom of the 11th
- Aaron Cook escaping a runner on third one out in the bottom of the 12th
- Russell Martin guarding home plate like a bulldog
- Ryan Ludwick laying out to rob Ian Kinsler of a hit
- The trials and tribulations of Dan Uggla

And that was just from the ninth inning on.

The game also exposed the flaw with Bud Selig's "winner gets home field in the World Series" stipulation. It was brought in following the tie game debacle in 2002, under the assumption that with something at stake, the players would be more motivated to perform, the managers would be more motivated to win, and the all-star game would never again be sullied with a tie (moreover, the commissioner would never again be booed out of the building by an unhappy crowd).

And then, last night, during one of the most hotly-contested games in all-star history, it very nearly happened again.

The problem was never the motivation of the players. Because baseball is a series of one-on-one confrontations, you very seldom have anyone dogging it. Imagine going to work and having your performance appraisal plastered on video boards all over the place, while being watched by 50 000 people. Would anyone ever phone it in?

That's why it was so easy to sympathize with poor Dan Uggla, as he struck out and bad-hopped his way to the worst performance in all-star history.

The easy way to avoid any threat of a tie in the future is a more judicious selection and usage of the respective pitching staffs. Terry Francona burned through five of the six starting pitchers on his staff after just six innings. Roy Halladay threw all of nine pitches. Joe Saunders threw 12. Francona then used all six of his short relievers before calling on Scott Kazmir.

First off, SIX short relievers? K-Rod and his 38 saves? Fine. Mariano Rivera and his 1.06 ERA? Sure. But George Sherrill and his 4.08 ERA? Brian Wilson's 4.58 ERA and 1.53 WHIP? The short relief role lends itself to lots of saves and few innings, so it's easier to pile up gaudy numbers than it is for starters.

I know we need an Oriole, but Jeremy Guthrie has been a more valuable pitcher than Sherrill, with a 3.49 ERA in 129 innings. Then again, a 5-7 record doesn't get you to the mid-summer classic. How about Daisuke Matsuzaka, 10-1, 2.65 over Jonathan Papelbon?

Managers should limit themselves to the top 3-4 relievers in the league. Closers are generally elite pitchers, but are half of them truly all-star worthy?

More starting pitchers would help to alleviate the problem, as would using them properly. Why not let every starting pitcher pitch two innings? You would never again see a tie in an all-star game. Sure, not all the pitchers would get into the game, but so be it.

Perversely, I found myself rooting for a tie just to see what Selig's backup plan would be to determine home field advantage in the World Series. Perhaps he wouldn't have allowed a tie. There are rumblings that J.D. Drew and David Wright would have been called upon to pitch had the game continued. One can't imagine Red Sox or Mets management being too happy about that prospect.

Home field in the World Series should belong to the team with the best record, period. Instead of trying to artificially inflate the importance of a game that's already widely watched, why not heighten the importance of regular season games for teams that have wrapped up a playoff spot? Based on last night's performance, the All-Star game doesn't need any added gimmicks.
Discussion of all thing Blue Jays.

Christopher Casuccio
Sean Doyle
Rob Metcalfe
Matthew Graf
Yoni Grundland
Mark Rottmann
Jim Turner
Joel Williams


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