Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another Strike Against Jack Morris

James Ronald and I have had a long-standing but good-natured feud over Jack Morris and his Hall of Fame qualifications. He always argues for Morris's inclusion; I always say that Morris should have to buy a ticket like the rest of us if he wants to get into the Hall of Fame.

I know all the arguments in favor of Morris - winningest pitcher of the 80s, clutch postseason performances, mystical ability to "pitch to the score" (since disproven here). I know my arguments against Morris - 3.90 career ERA, 186 career losses, no single season with an ERA below 3.00 despite fashioning a career in a pitcher-friendly era. There are a lot of pitchers like Morris in his era; they just weren't lucky enough to play for a team that handed him the ball in Game 7 of a World Series.

The amazing Joe Posnanski is not a believer in Morris's candidacy either. (He also supports Dan Quisenberry for the Hall of Fame, but that's a crusade for another day.) Posnanski has written about this before, but takes a different tactic here by comparing Morris to another one of his contemporaries - Dennis Martinez:

He is an interesting case to me because he is the first big league player from Nicaragua, he spread out his success over a very long career and, yes, when you add it all up he has a very similar case to Jack Morris, who is gaining Hall of Fame momentum.

Morris: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, 2,478 Ks, 1,390 walks, 1.296 WHIP, 28 shutouts, 105 ERA+.
Martinez: 245-193, 3.70 ERA, 2,149 Ks, 1,165 walks, 1.266 WHIP, 30 shutouts, 106 ERA+.

Morris pitched one of the great World Series games ever.
Martinez is one of 16 players since 1900 to have thrown a perfect game.

Morris led the league in wins twice, complete games once.
Martinez led the league in wins once, complete games twice, innings pitched once, shutouts once and ERA once.

Morris won 20 games three times and was selected to five All-Star Games.
Martinez never won 20, but he had three good years shortened by strikes and he was selected to four All-Star Games. And from age 32-40, he had a 129 ERA+ — Morris only once in his career managed a single season with an ERA of 129 or better.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Even More on Building the 2010 Mets - Starters

Notes about other starting pitchers in the Mets' organization who I haven't mentioned so far:

Jon Niese: Niese hasn't shown enough to be considered a lock for the fifth starter's spot, although I imagine the Mets will give lip service to the idea that he will be competing for the job next spring. That's fine - he will benefit from fronting the Buffalo Bisons' rotation in 2010. Niese is only 23 years old, so the Mets aren't exactly stunting his growth by asking him to stand tall in the International League first.

Nelson Figueroa: Figueroa has been jerked around by the Mets for two straight years now. I expect he'll be back for more punishment in 2010, unless there's a match with a team more likely to value his services. If Niese is the first man the Mets will call on to fill a hole in the rotation, than Figueroa is the second.

Tobi Stoner: Stoner isn't on the radar just yet, but he made 47 starts across three levels in 2008 and 2009 and had good numbers (3.59 ERA, 1.201 WHIP) to show for it. (Yes, he went 14-20 during that time, but if you're reading this blog than you already know not to measure pitchers strictly by their won-loss record.) Stoner's cameo in the Mets bullpen last September is not, as far as I know, a portent of things to come. He should be back in Buffalo next season, where another strong performance will surely gain Stoner a lot more attention.

Bobby Parnell: Back to the bullpen, unless Omar Minaya can sucker another general manager into giving up a competent baseball player. Think Brent Gaff, without the track record of minor-league success. To steal from The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that Bobby Parnell was a major league pitcher."

Tim Redding: If he hasn't been non-tendered already, it can only be chalked up to Minaya's benevolence. At this point, why ruin Thanksgiving at the Redding home?

Pat Misch, Fernando Nieve, Lance Broadway: These guys might be considered for Buffalo's starting rotation in 2010, but they have no chance of making it in New York. I would be surprised if they are all still in the organization by the time Spring Training starts.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

More on Building the 2010 Mets - Starters

Mack writes (via the wonderful Mack's Mets): Does Ollie really have to come back?

Can't the Mets work out some kind of compensation deal with China and just add his cost to the debt already owed them?

Call me a sucker for left-handers who can't find the plate (I happen to be one myself!), but I think Ollie might be decent next year. I am really happy about his voluntary off-season regimen at that performance institute in Arizona. If they think of him as an SP4 and act accordingly in the trade/free agent market, the Mets might be pleasantly surprised this year.

Is it too late to non-tender John Maine, if the Mets sign, say, Lackey and Marquis?

The non-tender deadline is December 12. That gives Omar Minaya more than three weeks to acquire at least one starter and to explore the market for Maine and Mike Pelfrey. If the Mets have two new starters on December 11 and they can't trade Pelfrey, then I have to think Maine is a goner.

I didn't expand enough on this plan in the original post. Simply put, here's how I would fill out the starting rotation for next season, in the order of I would do it:

1) Sign Rich Harden or Erik Bedard (preferably Harden) to a one-year deal with a club option.
2) Sign Jason Marquis or Joel Pineiro to a two-year deal with a club option. I have no preference between the two - I just want the player who accepts the most reasonable deal. If Minaya's hand is forced, he may have to offer three guaranteed years. That is fine, as long as he wrangles a very club-friendly option year to the contract.
3) Explore the trade market for Mike Pelfrey. He has more trade value than Maine and a lot of teams would take a chance on a former #1 pick making only $500K next season. If a good deal can be struck, ship Pelfrey away and install Maine in the rotation.
4) Explore the trade market for Maine. Get any reasonable return you can for him.
5) Non-tender Maine, if Steps 3 and 4 are unsuccessful.

SP1 - Santana
SP2 - Marquis/Pineiro
SP3 - Harden/Bedard
SP4 - Perez
SP5 - Maine/Pelfrey

Building the 2010 Mets: Starters

With three intriguing position players ready to debut at Triple A-Buffalo next year (Ike Davis, Josh Thole, Fernando Martinez), the Mets can afford to concentrate their financial resources on starting pitching this off-season.

Johan Santana, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey will almost certainly make up three-fifths of the Mets starting rotation in 2010. The need for a consistent #2 starter to complement Santana is obvious, but with two gaping holes in the rotation the Mets might be better served by skipping the likes of John Lackey or Randy Wolf and focusing on using that money to get two starters.

Santana has been a legitimate ace in his first two seasons in New York, although elbow trouble at the end of last season has become the proverbial elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge the possibility that Santana's days as a stopper are over, despite four guaranteed years and nearly $100 million left on his contract. His 2009 numbers, while certainly solid, do not suggest that he can still be counted among the best pitchers in the National League. No matter - put him at the top of the rotation and (like so many other player personnel decisions from this front office) cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Oliver Perez was, somewhat predictably, horrible in 2009. Although the depths to which he sank may have been unexpected, there was an almost palpable sense that Perez was not going to live up to his free agent contract. He is untradable at this point, so the Mets will have to simply pencil him in as a mid-rotation option and (again) hope that he finds himself. Reports that he is involved in an off-season conditioning program are encouraging, especially since Ollie is not exactly renowned for his dedication to his craft.

Thanks to a quirk in the major league contract he signed with the Mets when he was drafted, Pelfrey is actually taking a pay cut this season. Reports vary on how much less he will be making, but Pelfrey will be paid a fifth starter's salary in 2010. That's exactly what he deserves these days - Pelfrey looks more like a busted prospect than a future star who cannot be counted on for even a league-average performance.


The Mets do not have a pitcher in their farm system who is ready to step into the rotation before the 2012 season at the earliest. There is no one to be blocked, and therefore no reason not to sign or trade for two starters with contracts that will extend over the next two seasons.

Since I do not think that two blue-chip starters are attainable this off-season, the Mets will have to take some short-term risks. John Maine is a wild card right now - if the Mets cannot swap him for another non-tender candidate, they will have to think seriously about whether or not it will even be worth offering him a 2010 contract. If they end up spending $15 million-plus on Lackey or a package of free agent starters, the Mets may have no choice but to keep Maine and hope that he or Perez steps up to be a #3 starter. I am tired of hoping.

That said, I am actually confident that Maine will outperform Pelfrey next year, so a bold move would be to trade Pelfrey and his very reasonable contract to a team looking to dump an "overpriced" starter. Indeed, it might be the only chance the Mets have of getting a decent starter on the trade market.

Trading for a starter will be very difficult. The Mets need to hold onto the precious few prospects they have, and even those young players may not be enough to acquire someone of substance. Forget about Roy Halladay - there is no way on God's green earth that the Mets have the horses to pry him away from the Blue Jays. Unless the Mets can move someone like Luis Castillo to take on a starter owed a lot of guaranteed money, I don't see how they can address their needs in their trade market.

If that proves to be the case, the free agent market will be the only alternative. I am never a fan of signing multiple free agents, but this is a rare season where it may make sense. The Mets have a protected first-round pick, so they can afford to sign one of the two Type A free agents (John Lackey and Randy Wolf) without giving that pick up.

Lackey is the only free agent who is a legitimate #2 starter when healthy, but Tim Marchman quite correctly points out that his injury history and the mileage on his arm do not suggest a starter who can be counted on to pitch regularly in the future. I would pass. Wolf was dominant in 2009, but that performance just screams "contract year." Some poor team is going to regret giving a multi-year contract to Wolf; I can only hope that it will not be the Mets.

The Type B free agent market has a few starters who are worth looking at, provided they can be signed for a reasonable length of time and annual rate. Rich Harden has the best raw talent of any free agent, with risk/reward potential so high that he is worth a one-year deal with a club option at a comparatively high price. He CANNOT be counted on as a second starter, even if he gets paid like one; Harden needs to be slotted in as a #5 and used judiciously this season.

Otherwise, Joel Pineiro is the best of a mediocre lot - he has become the type of groundball machine that Pelfrey should be by now. Jason Marquis claims to want to come to New York; will he come here for two years and $13 million? Erik Bedard has made only 30 starts in the last two seasons, but like Harden his risk/reward potential is worth a one-year flier if Pineiro or Marquis go elsewhere.

Best case scenario: The Mets sign Harden or Bedard to a one-year deal with a club option, who gives them 30 dominant starts and finally puts his injury history to rest. They also guess right on either Pineiro or Marquis and he performs well over the next two or three seasons. Perez uses his time in Arizona to finally realize his potential and becomes the best #3 starter in the league. Maine or Pelfrey succeeds as a fifth starter - the other one leaves town quietly.

Worst case scenario: The Mets dedicate too many years and too much money to Lackey or Wolf. They keep Maine, Pelfrey and Perez to round out the rotation and none of them are healthy or effective. They go into 2011 with their top two starters signed for three more years at financial rates far beyond their return, to go along with one more year of Bad Ollie and the same two holes in the rotation they have right now.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Targeting Non-Tender Candidates

There's a new market inefficiency waiting to be exploited by astute major league general managers - non-tender candidates.

Non-tendering is a term used when an arbitration-eligible player is not offered a contract for the upcoming season. That player, in effect, becomes a free agent and can sign with any club. This offseason may see an explosion in non-tendered players, which would flood the free agent market with young veterans who may still have something to offer.

Three such players switched teams last week - the Royals sent Mark Teahen to the White Sox, the Marlins sent Jeremy Hermida to the Red Sox and the Brewers sent JJ Hardy to the Twins. The White Sox may have slightly overpaid for Teahen, but Boston and Minnesota have filled holes while giving up relatively little in the process.

Teahen, Hermida and Hardy were all considered solid young prospects just a few years ago, but each have failed to live up to expectations so far. Hardy has had the best career so far - he hit 50 home runs as a shortstop in 2007 and 2008 combined and developed a reputation as a sure-handed fielder. Unfortunately for Hardy, he struggled mightily in 2009 and was even sent to the minors in August (a move that some saw as an attempt by Milwaukee to delay his ability to become a free agent).

Teahen and Hermida have not been as successful as Hardy, but are intriguing players nevertheless. A natural third baseman, Kansas City has jerked Teahen all over the diamond in the last few years and his offensive production has suffered as a result. Hermida has failed to build on on a promising 2007 season in which he hit 18 home runs and put up a .296/.369/.501 line at the age of 23.

Once the season ended, all three men were at risk of being released by their former team if they weren't traded first. Why would these clubs want to give up on young, moderately-priced talent so quickly? The answer lies in the arbitration process.

A quick explanation: baseball players are bound to their original team for up to six major league seasons before they can become free agents. The club can unilaterally set the player's salary for the first three seasons he is in the majors. For the next three seasons, the player and club can attempt to negotiate a deal that is considered fair by both sides. If no agreement can be reached, the club retains the player's rights but the salary is set by an independent arbitrator.

Each side submits a salary recommendation and the arbitrator decides to accept the player's proposal or the club's proposal. In general, the previous year's salary and the salary of players with similar skill sets are strongly considered when it comes time for the arbitrator to make his decision.

Suddenly, the rumblings about the arbitration process have gotten louder and clubs appear less willing to pay $4 or $5 million a year to players whose production may be easily replaced with cheaper talent. In one sense, that suggests an increased business acumen - I also suspect that it's more a matter of mid-market and small-market teams trying to control payroll.

As a result, players like Teahen, Hermida and Hardy - who in the past never would've been non-tendered - are suddenly in danger of losing their jobs. General managers are taking a harder look at arbitration-eligible players and wondering if they are headaches better passed on to another club, even if the players gotten in return pale in comparison.

In any event, a new undervalued commodity has developed. Big-market clubs - like the New York Mets - should be looking to snap up arbitration-eligible players who may not always be good enough to start, but are still young enough to salvage a respectable career. Why not take a chance on former prospects who haven't quite panned out yet, especially when the commitment is minimal and the price is still reasonable?

Hardy is a natural shortstop, so obviously he would not have made sense for a team still committed to Jose Reyes at that position. However, Teahen and Hermida would've made for terrific reserve options on a team that simply must stop stocking their bench with over-the-hill free agents.

Teahen could've challenged for the first base job in the spring and served as a competent alternative to David Wright on those rare occasions when the workhorse needed a day off. Hermida can play either corner outfield position and could've challenged Jeff Francouer in right field. Both are left-handed and both are better pinch-hitting options than Alex Cora, who the Mets might re-sign this winter.

Was Omar Minaya ever in talks with Kansas City and Florida for Teahen or Hermida? If not, he missed out on an opportunity to strengthen his bench with two young, versatile players who still have time to make something of themselves. On a team with so many holes to fill, Minaya can't afford to miss out on too many of these opportunities.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Building the 2010 New York Mets

I still plan on doing an in-depth analysis of the Mets' 40-man roster, but I want to set that up with a more general look at the five main components of the big club - starting pitching, relief pitching, catching, infield and outfield. The Mets need help in all five of these areas before Opening Day, but it's highly unlikely that they will be able to address everything this winter.

The truth is, building the 2010 Mets is really about laying the foundation for the 2011 Mets. Right now, it appears that the Mets need one or two starters, one or two relievers, a catcher, a first baseman and at least one corner outfielder to seriously challenge the Phillies in 2010. Omar Minaya isn't going to find seven free agents to fill those holes, and the Mets simply don't have the chips to make more than one good trade to improve the on-field product.

I just don't think that this Mets team has it in them to be competitive next season. Minaya's job may depend on a successful 2010, and I fear that the players he pursues will reflect that, but the franchise would be better off if Minaya was patient and looked at roster reconstruction as a two-year process.

There is not one minor leaguer ready to be a league-average player next season, but intriguing bats like Josh Thole, Ike Davis and Fernando Martinez will benefit immensely from a full season in Triple-A. If Thole, Davis and Martinez pass the test at Buffalo, the Mets will have three promising, low-cost options in their starting lineup for 2011.

For that reason, the Mets need to be wary of committing to multi-year deals with a catcher and a first baseman, and simply cannot sign Jeff Francouer to a long-term extension. There are internal options at first base, and Minaya can offer one-year, incentive laden deals to a veteran catcher and left fielder that won’t block Thole and Martinez.

Daniel Murphy and Chris Carter can battle it out for the first base job in 2010; they will make less than $1 million combined and would allow Minaya to pursue a free agent starter or to take on a big contract elsewhere. If neither has a breakout season, both can be pushed aside for Davis (if he’s successful) or for an established star in 2011.

Francouer, meanwhile, hit just well enough that he’s worth another look in 2010 as the starting right fielder. He is incredibly overrated offensively by Mets fans and he will probably revert back to his uninspiring career norms next season, but Francouer is young enough and good enough defensively that he will do little to no harm batting seventh and playing on a one-year deal.

Will Minaya resist the temptation to indiscriminately spend all those Wilpon bucks that apparently weren’t lost in the Bernie Madoff scandal? I seriously doubt it. Met fans can only hope that Minaya doesn’t do any more damage to the franchise in his quest to save his job.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Organizational Philosophies

It’s easy to forget that the New York Yankees are world champions today in large part because they didn’t make the playoffs last season.

The Yankees finished third in the AL East in 2008, behind the upstart Tampa Bay Rays and their arch-rival Boston Red Sox. They weren’t a bad team – 89 wins in a division featuring the league champions and the wild card winner is nothing to be ashamed of. The 2008 team simply wasn’t good enough by the franchise’s lofty standards.

It was the first time since the doomed 1994 season that the Yankees stayed home in October – and they didn’t take it lightly.

The Yankees went out and bought the two best pitchers on the market – CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett – and paid them a combined $30.5 million to pitch for them in 2009. Sabathia is an ace in every sense of the world; durable, effective and he can pitch on three days’ rest without crawling into the fetal position in fright. Burnett is more inconsistent, but has an electric fastball/breaking ball combination that can dominate any lineup in baseball when his stuff is working.

Not content with shoring up their starting rotation, the Yankees also went out and bought the best position player on the market – first baseman Mark Teixeira. They also traded spare parts for outfielder Nick Swisher, who fell out of favor with the White Sox after a .219/.332/.410 line two seasons into a five-year, $26.75 million deal. Swisher was hurt by an absurdly low .249 BABIP, which suggested he was due to rebound in 2009. That’s exactly what happened; Swisher put up an .249/.371/.498 line with 29 home runs and has proven to be a good fit on the field and in the clubhouse.

Sabathia, Teixeira and Swisher all have something in common besides their hefty price tag – they are all under the age of 30, which suggests that each player in still the prime of his career. Burnett is 32 and a veteran of 11 major league seasons; he was the grand old man of the Yankees' free agent class. Only Swisher could be considered a “risk” coming off a bad season – the other three were stars in 2008 and there was no reason to believe they would regress any time soon.

This very long lead-in has a specific purpose – to compare how the Yankees responded to missing the playoffs in 2008 with the road the Mets chose to go down instead. The Yankees used their natural financial advantages to fill all of their holes and to create a championship-caliber ballclub. The Mets, on the other hand, superficially patched some of their holes and blatantly ignored others, choosing to rely on hopes and dreams instead of reality.

The starting rotation in 2008 remained unchanged, except for the addition of Livan Hernandez in the fifth spot. Hernandez was actually better than expected; he was merely medicore instead of being outright dreadful. Oliver Perez was re-signed to a three-year deal above the market rate and promptly tanked. Mike Pelfrey was penciled in for a breakout campaign over 2009, even though there was no clear reason to explain why he pitched more effectively in the second half of 2008. John Maine was brought back and it was assumed he would resemble the 2007 model more than the 2008 model. Both Pelfrey and Maine failed to live up to expectations.

The starting lineup remained virtually unchanged as well. The only difference was that Daniel Murphy was handed the left fielder’s job despite having played in only one game above Double-A to that point and having been an infielder for his entire minor-league career.

The graveyards of baseball history are littered with the bones of hot-shot young rookies who make a name for themselves on 200 at-bats only to fade into obscurity afterwards. The Mets chose to believe that Murphy would buck that trend, and passed on the opportunity to give players like Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu below-market deals so that Murphy could be a starter. Murphy ended the season as the Mets' starting first baseman, putting up Darin Erstad-like numbers at a position where one expects to have a competent hitter.

No, when the time came to build the 2009 Mets, Omar Minaya went the myopic route and declared that the bullpen was the only need to be addressed. The first step was signing Francisco Rodriguez to a multi-year deal to be their closer. This was the Mets' big free agent splash, despite several years of declining peripherals that suggested that K-Rod's best years may be behind him.

He responded in kind, putting up the highest ERA, WHIP and walk rate in his eight-year career. That wasn't all - Rodriguez also had the lowest K/9 rate he's ever had since making the major leagues. On top of it all, he is signed for another two years, with an easily-obtainable option based on games finished that would balloon his salary to $17.5 million in 2012. The idea of paying any closer not named Mariano Rivera that much money to finish games is absurd to the point of hysteria.

Minaya then traded two relievers, a utility outfielder and four minor-leaguers to bring back … two relievers and a utility outfielder. Sean Green and Joe Smith cancelled each other out, just as Jeremy Reed and Endy Chavez did. The deal, then, was essentially Aaron Heilman and four-minor leaguers for JJ Putz, a former closer coming off an arm injury and ineffectiveness the season before.

The temptation to compare the Putz deal to the Swisher deal is obvious, until you realize that the Yankees had a clear reason to expect Swisher to rebound – an unsustainable BABIP that would improve Swisher’s numbers if he simply regressed to the norm. The Mets had no objective reason to believe that Putz’s injuries and ineffectiveness in 2009 would simply cease to be a factor and that he would return to his previously dominant form.

As we know now, Putz was a $5 million bust, contributing just 29.3 innings with a 5.22 ERA and a 1.636 WHIP. He has an $8.6 million option for 2010; the Mets would have to be clinically insane to pick that option up. Meanwhile, here's a look at the minor leaguers they traded:

Mike Carp (23): a .315/.415/.463 line in a cup of coffee with the Seattle Mariners; a .271/.372/.446 line and 15 home runs with Triple-A Tacoma
Ezequiel Carrera (22): a .337/.441/.416 line and 27 stolen bases with Double-A West Tennessee
Jason Vargas (26): a 3-6 record with a 4.91 ERA and a 1.331 WHIP for the Mariners; a 4-3 record with a 3.14 ERA and a 1.219 WHIP for Triple-A Tacoma
Makiel Cleto (20): an 0-4 record with a 5.54 ERA and a 1.923 WHIP in the low minors

The pitchers haven't done much (although Cleto is young enough to bounce back), but the Mets certainly could use bats like Carp and Carrera in a minor-league system that is painfully thin at the upper levels.

The Yankees are world champions today because they didn’t make the playoffs in 2008 and reacted decisively. The Mets are also-rans because they didn’t make the playoffs in 2008 and refused to react decisively. Instead, the Mets acted as though they were merely a few tweaks away from being world champions.

On a day where it’s tough enough just to be a Mets fan, knowing that the difference between the two organizational philosophies led to such disparate results makes it that much more difficult to root for them.