Free Agency

October 30, 2006 · Filed Under Mariners · 34 Comments 

With the World Series ending, players are now eligible to file for free agency. They have fifteen days to do so following the last game of the season, so the filing period will end November 12th. So, for the next couple of weeks, you’re going to see headlines of non-news stories such as “Alfonso Soriano files for free agency.” Of course, this is about as newsworthy as “Alfonso Soriano rises from bed and ponders navel.” Players who are eligible for free agency almost always file. They want to test their market value, and in most cases, if they wanted to stay with (or were wanted by) their original team, they’d have already signed an extension.

This is also the period where we begin to hear the rumors of what players are asking for, as teams begin to get a feel for what a player thinks their value should be. A lot of the early numbers are going to be bogus; Alfonso Soriano’s not going to get $18 million a year, but it’s in his agents best interest to get that number out there now as they attempt to get him as much money as humanly possible.

One of the other annual traditions of the beginning of the free agent passage is that people start hauling out the old incorrect cliche that a player “is worth what the market will bear.” In an efficient economic model, this is generally true, but MLB’s salary structure isn’t anything like an efficient economic model, and it’s not supposed to be. Because of the existance of a massive player pool whose salaries aren’t determined by a free market, a rationale floor is created for the value of a certain production level. If a few general managers get together and decide that a 4 win player like Alfonso Soriano is worth $16 million per season, that doesn’t establish his actual value – it establishes that they suck at their jobs.

In general, the free agent market in the last few years has been significantly overheated, as teams have failed to hold a rationale line on market valued salaries, instead chasing after pennants by throwing good money after bad. It’s going to happen again this winter, and this might be the ugliest winter yet in terms of amazingly bad contracts being handed out to mediocre players.

When Randy Wolf starts signing for $30 million over three years, the correct response is not that the Mariners are just going to have to buck it up and get in the game if they want to contend, but instead, a well run organization would see their competitors wasting money and look for values elsewhere. There will be values on the trade market. There are values to be found in minor league free agency. There are often values in the low-end of the free agent pool.

If someone offers Jason Schmidt more than 3 years, $30 million (and they will, by a long shot), the Mariners need to have the stones to walk away. It’s not fear, it’s not a lack of commitment to winning, and it’s not an inability to read the market. Free Agency is a wildly inefficient market and, in general, a terrible way to build a roster. The Mariners would do well to let other teams spend themselves into oblivion. This is the worst free agent crop in recent memory, and it comes at a time when teams are flush with cash.

If the Mariners didn’t sign one free agent this offseason, I wouldn’t cry. There are other ways to build a roster. Better ways.

M’s minor league transactions: Nageotte gone

October 29, 2006 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

From Baseball America, in a long list of recent transactions you’ll find this:

Seattle Mariners
Released IF Dean Zorn
Released LHP Jose Suriel
Released OF Donato Ruiz
Released RHP Juan Colon
RHP Clint Nageotte declared minor league free agent

I once argued that Nageotte should be included on the Baseball Prospectus top prospect list. My basic argument was “his stuff is electric, if he improves his control a little he’ll be amazing.” Nageotte didn’t improve his control enough, and he never got that change-up down. Now he’s a minor league free agent, and I’ll bet the M’s aren’t crying over it.

Jason adds, Here’s the full list of the club’s minor league free agents:

C Omar Falcon
C Luis Oliveros
C Guillermo Quiroz
2B Jason Bourgeois
2B Ismael Castro
SS Scott Youngbauer
RHP Scott Atchison
RHP Cibney Bello
RHP Rich Dorman
RHP Jared Eichelberger
RHP Mike Flannery
RHP Jeff Harris
RHP Justin Huisman
RHP Aaron Looper
RHP Natanael Mateo
RHP Clint Nageotte

The Ichiro walk year speculation starts

October 29, 2006 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

John Hickey, in the PI, writes that Ichiro will not ask for an extension, but will certainly be listening if the team comes to him.

Let the circus begin!

Roster management and why it’s important

October 28, 2006 · Filed Under General baseball · 24 Comments 

(another in our series of more basic explanatory articles, like Dave’s excellent evaluation post. I’ve been chewing on this one for a long time, and am likely to substantially revise it again, so if you’ve got comments, suggestions, questions, please let us know)

Roster management is how an organization puts together the team on the field. It’s how to build a whole that is as great as possible given the parts available. Bringing the subject up for debate and study is one of the great and unrecognized contributions of the stathead community, and also one of the reasons it’s frequently mocked.

Bad roster management can be overcome with great talent, and great roster management can’t save horrible teams, but between those extremes it makes a great deal of difference to a team’s success. There are two ways this happens:
-Managing the 25 man and 40 man rosters
-Picking the day’s lineup (including role management)

The general manager does the first, with a lot of input from different people in the organization, and the team’s manager does the second, with the general manager’s influence depending on the organization.

I’m going to focus on the rosters and how they’re put together (roster construction). Lineup construction will be a different article.

Let’s talk about knapsacks. Or the knapsack problem. Here’s the knapsack problem as short as I can get it: the knapsack is small, and you need to put items in it to go camping. Start packing.

For any major league team, the knapsack starts partly filled. Even the worst organizations have players they’re committed to. They’re good and under contract, young and promising, or at least decent and cheap.

But as every team heads into the off-season, they really only have some portion of the puzzle assembled.

Here’s an example. A team’s headed into next season and it considers a few positions inked in:
1 starting pitcher, young, erratic, amazingly talented, still under team control
1 starting pitcher, modest in talent, signed to a long-term deal that makes him essentially impossible to trade
4 good young relief pitchers, all right-handers
1 center fielder, productive, immensely popular with fans
1 LF/DH, left-handed, the public face of the team, popular, with a long-term deal that makes him essentially impossible to trade
2 middle infielders, good, young, under team control
… and so on

Ideally now, the manager wouldn’t be a consideration, but realistically, he is. If a manager only succeeds with a veteran bullpen, the team’s shopping list will include “1 veteran reliever”. If they can’t handle platooning, it would include “regular starter for each position”. You’d love to have a manager who could use any tool handed to them but they’re amazingly rare and generally not available.

What happens then for each remaining roster spot is a tradeoff. This is where serious baseball analysts and people who don’t commit a ton of thought to these kind of issues really clash. For every roster spot, there’s a tradeoff between:
– Player talent
– Player cost
– Player’s potential contribution to the team, given the team’s current composition

One way to look at this is to make a list of the team’s existing weaknesses and attempt to fill them. Some are easy: if you need a catcher, for instance, the number of people with that skill set are small. If you need defense in a backup catcher, there are more options than if you want offense from your catcher, but in both cases the list of potential candidates is fairly short.

In the same way, some needs are more naturally met from particular positions. If your team is slow, and you need some subs to play against weak-armed catchers and work into close games as pinch-runners, generally speaking you’re shopping on the outfielder/middle-infielder aisles.

This is why catchers with odd skillsets seem at times like fetish objects of the stathead community. If a generally unremarkable catcher steals 35 bases in AAA, he’ll be known to everyone who spends time thinking about this stuff. On a roster, by filling the “catcher” need as well as the “speed” need, you’re freed up to try strange things at other positions.

So we can look at an outfield and say “the left fielder really needs a glove for the late innings, so the primary use of a backup outfielder will be defense…” and whittle it down to a couple of names.

At the same time, you can see that obviously that means that certain qualities in bench players would be sought after and potentially valued far outside their actual value to a team. This happens. General managers love flexible players who can play multiple positions, for instance, and switch-hitters are often valued far above what you’d reasonably expect. Experience and the seeming certainty of next year’s performance mean that a track record sometimes nets a player a contract his talents don’t warrant.

This is why sometimes, teams throw up their arms and say “screw it”. They run out a bullpen entirely composed of right-handed relievers, or burn an extra roster spot for a second backup corner infielder to get a switch-hitter.

Pitchers fit into this a little differently, since they’re all throwing a ball to a catcher. The job of a any pitcher in the rotation is the same as the others, and the relief staff, invented and artificial roles aside, all have the same job. Some pitchers aren’t required to throw farther, for instance, or use a different-sized ball.

Within that, though, the same principles apply. Given the constraints a team has to work with, you want to find players who will help the team as a whole, and who will have the chance to make the most of their skills.

For instance, if a team knows that their pitching staff isn’t particularly durable and is likely to leave a lot of games in the fifth or sixth inning, it becomes more important to have some relievers who can pitch long relief well, because a bullpen entirely of one-inning wonders who burn out after 20 pitches would collapse quickly.

And knowing you’ve got a fragile rotation, it makes sense to spend more to stash a couple of reasonable starters on your AAA team (and the 40-man roster) for the probable breakdown of one or more of those guys.

You also will want to play to your home park and team. In a spacious home park with a good outfield defense, you can take on fly ball starters. In a much smaller one, you’ll want to find groundball machines, and hopefully your infield defense is up to the task.

To sum all of that up, then, the problems at hand are
-limited roster slots
-limited resources
-requirements of the manager

Why do fans grind their teeth over this stuff?

Right player, wrong role, meet wrong player, right role
Given a glaring need for a bench player who can play shortstop defensively, the team manages to turn up a perfect backup catcher they stick on the roster – even though they already have one.

Sometimes, this can be hidden opportunity: a team that can accumulate a surplus of a valuable commodity can trade it for what they need. Most of the time, though, it’s pointless gluttony.

Give a monkey a FN-FAL
I touched on this a little earlier, but managers have certain tendencies that put additional requirements on the roster. This shows up two ways – a manager who doesn’t get a defensive sub will find, somewhere on his roster, a guy he decides is the best man for the job and use him as that. The player may be the best defensive sub, relatively, on the bench, but may not be an effective player used that way. It’s like if a manager, with a staff of ace right-handed relievers, decided that he needed a left-handed reliever so badly that he forced two of them to throw left-handed. When this happens with position players, it’s sometimes just as weird to watch.

Similarly, if a manager doesn’t want or doesn’t know how to use a certain tool, it doesn’t matter if you provide them with the greatest tool ever. Finding a fragile slugger who’d make a stellar pinch-hitter and occasional left fielder or first baseman doesn’t help the team if the manager doesn’t pinch hit or rest his regular players.

(The issue of picking the right player for a position is going to be in the second post)

I’ll give you a million – no, no, two million – for that Camaro
This is where the most words are written and energy is expended – teams spending too much on something they think they need, showing that they’ve got a narrow focus and aren’t adaptable.

No matter how you define it, the concept of the replacement level player is pretty easy to understand: what do you get if you’re willing to pay next to nothing? Depending on who you’re talking to, there are different ways to measure how good that player is, but defense is the easiest thing to find. You could, if you were willing to, sacrifice offense entirely and find a best-of-class center fielder who hit .000/.000/.000 for the season, but that would kill your team (possibly the worst full-time center field season ever was Darren Lewis’ 1999, and he hit .240/.303/.309).

My point, though, is that finding a utility infielder who can’t hit is extremely easy. It’s easier than finding a random DH in the minor league free agent list. Or a pinch-runner who can’t hit or field. There’s no need to pay a ton of money for a skill set that’s easily replaceable.

How great is the effect of all of this, this seemingly trivial selection of players and Tetris-style fitting of skills to gaps?

There’s no good way to tell. The complementary skill part is smaller than we sometimes make it out to be, while the player selection for the complementary roles is significant.

Sucks, I know.

Here’s the problem. For many of the advantages of good roster construction, we can’t put numbers to it. If you have a good backup catcher who can play regularly to keep the starter well-rested, we can’t know how badly the starter would have declined through the season otherwise.

Say that there’s a catcher who can hit but can’t throw, and I argue that he needs a defensive replacement, especially for late-and-close games against a speedy team. The team instead picks a random cheap guy who is never used as a defensive replacement.

What does that cost the team? Say there are sixteen games a year that cry out for the catcher the team doesn’t have, and the manager is fully willing to do it if only he had the tool to use. During those sixteen games, during the innings the hypothetical backup catcher would be replaced by his defensive whiz counterpart (say two innings a game, so 32 innings), even against aggressive opponents, there might be six steal attempts. Heck, call it ten.

Astounding Arm will throw out half those guys, Horrible Arm will throw out 20%. A runner advancing from first to second increases the run expectancy ~ +.2, while throwing that runner out is good for ~ -.4 (and yeah, this is straight run and not “chance to score one run… bear with me).

AA gains two runs by throwing out five, loses a run for allowing five. HA gains .8 by throwing out two, and loses 1.6 by allowing eight. That’s only a difference of .8 runs between the two. A run! What’s that worth, really?

Now I would argue that it’s quite likely in a situation like that those outs are going to be particularly important, because it means the team’s better in close and late situations holding on to a lead (or a tie). And it’s also likely that one of those outs might be the difference in a particular game between winning and losing, which is worth a lot of money.

It’s still not huge. And the same thing holds for decisions like putting a good defensive replacement on the roster to sub in for a lead-gloved second baseman, or for that matter an immobile left fielder. A 4th outfielder who can get some quality pinch-hitting appearances as well is still only going to make a few extra runs in that capacity all season.

Picking the actual players is a lot more important than the kind of fine potential matches we like to speculate about (a left-handed outfield requires a right-handed 4th outfielder). The difference between a really crappy backup catcher and a really great one might be twenty runs, though – that’s two wins on the board, and it far outweighs considerations like whether one of them can switch-hit or not.

Given the choice, of course, you want the team to press every advantage and put together a harmonious unit with well-balanced skills. When they go shopping,

In assembling a pitching staff, it’s potentially huge. Take the example of stashing a decent backup pitcher in AAA. If that guy gets only sixty innings in ten spot starts over the season, the difference between getting those innings from a horrible pitcher and a not embarrassingly bad one is easily ten runs over those starts, and that’s a game.

Which brings me back around to the original point. Why care about roster construction if the difference is only a game in any of these choices? It’s because no team makes just one choice. Depending on where their starting point is, every team makes a handful of decisions on how to build a complete 25-man roster, and then another handful in who they choose to put on the 40 man (and so be readily available to sub in).

Each of those decisions isn’t that important, and it’s rare that teams have a choice between great backup catcher and horrible one, or awesome long reliever or no long reliever, but each of the decisions they make helps or hurts the team, and totaled, can determine a team’s success or failure.

Take, for one example, the A’s. The A’s spend an enormous amount of energy on this kind of thing. What happens if we lose our second baseman? Our outfield defense sucks, what can we do about it, and who’s available who might help us? Is it worth it to find a backup corner infielder? Who’s interesting on the minor league free agent list, and what’ll it take to stash them in Sacramento? Every waiver wire transaction gets looked at by someone, and if they think there’s a player available that’s better able to help the team than the guy they already have, they’ll start that conversation.

Sometimes they suck at it, and sometimes they decide not to take chances, but this is part of why the A’s only take so much damage from injuries: they’re rarely stuck running out guys who are significantly below replacement level, because they make roster management a priority. Many teams will look at a decision like the backup catcher and go “enh, the kid plays good defense, he’s cheap, let’s go worry about our rotation”. The A’s may end up accepting that that kid is the best option for now, but not because they don’t care, or because they don’t think it’s worth their energy.

What if the decision to get a perfectly suited fourth outfielder only means a few runs a year? Do you want to leave those runs on the table? I know if I was in charge of a team, if anything I’d run the risk of overthinking all of this stuff (“Undersecretary for Minor League Catching, find me all switch-hitting catchers in AA or AAA last year. I need names, stats, projections, and summary scouting report…”)

It’s the same thing that makes me love the Earl Weaver-style managers, who look for any possible advantage they can find in matchups, strategy, or in-game tactics, trying to squeeze out an extra run they shouldn’t be able to get and turn those advantages into games, pennants, and championships.

All of the roster construction mistakes and successes a team makes might not amount to the difference that a breakout season by a young prospect or the collapse of an aging regular does. That doesn’t make it unimportant, though, because unlike the success or failure of any one player’s season, how successful a team is in managing its roster is almost entirely a product of how smart they are, how prepared they are, and how hard they’re willing to work at it. The wins are there. All teams need to do is work for them.

World Series Game Five

October 27, 2006 · Filed Under Mariners · 158 Comments 

5:27, supposedly, Verlander v Weaver.

Rafael Soriano, Relief Pitcher

October 27, 2006 · Filed Under Mariners · 63 Comments 

According to John Hickey, who gives Lee Pelekoudas as his source, the Mariners are not considering moving Rafael Soriano to the rotation for 2007.

Because, you know, that would make too much sense.

World Series Game Four, try two

October 26, 2006 · Filed Under Game Threads, General baseball · 101 Comments 

First, how’s the weather in St. Louis? From the National Weather Service, it’s 54 degrees, 90% humidity, and their forecast should make you wince:

Tonight: Areas of drizzle, then occasional rain after 1am. Low around 50. South wind 5 to 7 mph becoming east. Chance of precipitation is 90%.

Friday: Periods of rain. High near 52. Breezy, with a north wind 6 to 9 mph increasing to between 17 and 20 mph. Winds could gust as high as 28 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%.

Niiiiiiiiice. Anyway, if this games goes off, it’s Bonderman v Suppan, which brings me back to my frustration with the Tigers rotation.

How would you order these pitchers in a playoff rotation that goes 2-off-3-off-2?

A. RHP 4.08 ERA, 2.69 BB/9, 8.50 K/9, .76 HR/9
B. RHP 3.63 ERA, 2.9 BB/9, 6 K/9, 1.02 HR/9
C. LHP 3.84 ERA, 2.74 BB/9, 4.37 K/9, 1.01 HR/9
D. LHP 3.84 ERA, 2.89 BB/9, 5.91 K/9, 1.25 HR/9

An average pitcher walks 3 guys in 9, strikes out 6, gives up a home run, more or less.

But wait- say the other team’s vulnerable to lefties, and scores a third of a run/game less against them. That might bump a couple guys around, but assuming that this year’s lines are a good measure of the talent level right now, I’d arrange this ADBC, with the thought that with this scheduling, you’re looking at AD(off)BCA(off)DB, with the added benefit that in Game 7, you could conceivably start A on three days rest, and certainly pitch him out of the bullpen, along with C.

That ADBC rotation is Bonderman-Robertson-Verlander-Rogers. Now, I don’t care how you weight the relative intangibles of these guys, Bonderman is clearly the pick of the litter, and if you start him #1 you may well wring three starts out of him if it comes to that. The other guys don’t really matter so much

What if there’s a rainout, say, for game four, and you lose the second travel day and you’re down in the series? If you were super-aggressive, you could go AD(off)B(off)ADBC and immediately get another start out of the best pitcher in the rotation to give you your best shot at evening the series.

This has been driving me nuts all Series. Bonderman is, by far, the best pitcher in the rotation, and he’s #4, so you get one start out of him and then maybe you can bring him out again in game seven.

Anyway. Hoping for a good game.

No Matsuzaka, but you may get another CO

October 26, 2006 · Filed Under Mariners · 58 Comments 

Kirby Arnold, in the Herald.

Last week when Mariners baseball executives and scouts met in Arizona to map their strategy for improving the team, general manager Bill Bavasi asked for recommendations on potential free agents the M’s should pursue.

Nobody mentioned Matsuzaka’s name.

Hmm. Really? Technically he’s not a free agent. Maybe it just wasn’t in that discussion.

The bigger issue is whether Matsuzaka is worth the financial stretch it will take to get him. It may take a winning bid of $20 million or more just to gain the right to negotiate a contract with him and, with Scott Boras as his agent, it’s a good bet that he’ll get a deal worth millions over multiple years.

Bottom line is that Matsuzaka will get No. 1 starter money with no guarantee that he’ll become that kind of pitcher in the majors.

$20m, eh? Hmm. I love “millions over multiple years”. Ya think? Like $2m over 3 years? Plus, we just gave #1 starter money to Jarrod Washburn, and he sucks. At least Matsuzaka doesn’t suck. And really, if you get him for a cheap contract and a $20m fee, that’s not #1 money.

I would chalk this all up to the predicted mind-games. But here’s the jarring part:

And, like last year, spending what it will take to land Matsuzaka could severely hamper any other moves the Mariners need to make this offseason. Right now, the Mariners’ baseball people don’t seem interested in busting the 2007 payroll for one player, especially considering they need three more pitchers and, if there’s anything left, a corner outfielder.

Okay, first, Matsuzaka’s impact won’t be on payroll, it’ll be in the posting fee. But this is an interesting view, and continues the team’s long retreat from the “posting fees and foreign acquisitions are a separate account” position they espoused for a couple of years.

But here’s the really grating part — A corner outfielder. Really.

A corner outfielder.

This team needs another corner outfielder like they need to clone Mike Hargrove so he can occupy all the coaching positions at once. We keep pounding on this, but the team’s got a roster crunch already:

Ibanez LF (below average)/DH/1b (yech)
Broussard DH/1b (yech)
Sexson 1B (ergh)
Snelling LF/RF/DH, who for everyone’s sake he should probably play at least one game out of 3 or 4 at DH next year, just for safety

and that doesn’t include Reed, obviously. They shouldn’t be looking for free agent corner outfielders with any kind of substantial payroll impact right now, they should be moving Sexson, Broussard, or both of them, and then… you know all this, so I’ll skip on.

On Matsuzaka, though – if I were the Mariners, and I’m not, I would absolutely play a game that would appear identical to what we’re seeing from the team:
– personally talk to Lincoln/etc and get permission to pursue him
– with two, three people you know are absolutely leak-proof, figure out a posting number to bid
– internally, tell everyone else you’re not interested. Have them work on the backup plan in the guise of it being the real plan
– leak that you’re not interested, have other priorities, are concerned about his health, don’t think there’s any additional marketing benefit from having another Japanese player, Ichiro doesn’t like him, whatever
– submit the bid

Hopefully you’ve lowered the posting price, because the Yankees drop way down thinking you’re out of it. Then if you win, surprise! Everyone’s happy, and you’ve done a masterful fake-out. If you lose, no big deal, you’ve been prepping the public for it for ages, and you’ve got this great backup plan.

There’s really no way the M’s don’t bid, and make – if not a $20m-30+m bid – a serious offer.

#28 with a bullet

October 26, 2006 · Filed Under Off-topic ranting · 19 Comments 

My upcoming book “The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball” ($11! You can’t lose!) is currently ranked ~#10,000 overall, making it, to my great delight, #28 (among, uh, Baseball Bestsellers) Baseball Prospectus 2006, which is now a full season old, is #32, but Tim McCarver’s “Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans” is #49. Yeah! Take that, Tim McCarver!

Hee hee hee. So if you pre-ordered yesterday, thanks. If you haven’t, there’s still time! Hurry! Or.. it might come out! And you don’t have to use Amazon — you should be able to go to your local independent and get them to order it.

Update! #11, just ahead of Game of Shadows! HA! And just behind Seth Mnookin’s Red Sox book which, unless I’m mistaken, is BP’s “Mind Game” with a different title and cover, released much later. Yes, I’m talking trash about other baseball books now.

World Series Game 4

October 25, 2006 · Filed Under Game Threads, General baseball · 93 Comments 

Another World Series played in poor conditions, it looks like. So what do we get?

CF Granderson
LF Monroe
SS Guillen
RF Ordonez
1B Casey
C Rodriguez
2B Polanco
3B Inge


SS Eckstein
RF Duncan
1B Pujols
CF Edmonds
3B Rolen
LF Wilson
C Molina (Y)
2B Miles

Pasco native Jeremy Bonderman v Suppan… well, one of those two is good. I can’t believe the Tigers are down a game going into this one and Bonderman hasn’t pitched yet. It’s crazy.

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