Saturday, April 5, 2008

Tim Salmon: Definition of an Underrated Superstar

Every year, there is a lot of talk about overrated and underrated players, particularly now early in the season, when everyone is prognosticating. Unfortunately, players from certain teams that do not enjoy the East Coast bias in the media, or don't get press because they have quiet private lives, or for a variety of reasons, get put on the back burner of national media. Many of them don't get their due for years, and some never get the credit they deserve.

The average sports fan knows that Alex Rodriguez frosts his tips, that Manny Ramirez has no idea what's going on, who Derek Jeter is dating, etc. Those players have been excellent in the past, so they deserve a share of the national spotlight. But do they deserve as much of it as they get?

There have been some excellent players in past years that have not received their deserved share of national attention. One can imagine that the average sports fan does not necessarily know who Edgar Martinez was, or that he would be honked at incessantly on the freeway because he actual adhered to the speed limit, or that he was one of the finest hitters of the past 30 years.

Martinez at least got to play in the postseason a few times, was a part of the Mariners team that won a record 116 games in 2001, and was an All-Star 7 times. He earned all those accolades, but what about the players who didn't get the All-Star votes, or even the mention on the "Most Underrated Players List." Enter Timothy James Salmon, Exhibit A.

The Beginning

Tim Salmon was only 17 years old when he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 18th round of the 1986 amateur draft. The Braves saw the massive potential in the teenager, but Salmon wisely turned the Braves down to attend college at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. He was eventually drafted by the California Angels in the 3rd round of the 1989 amateur draft, and this time he signed with the team.

That same year, he went to low class-A ball in Oregon, was hit in the face by a pitch and had a disappointing season (.245/.357/.418) by his lofty standards, even though he showed off the discerning eye that he would possess his entire career. He earned a promotion in 1990, to high class-A ball in Palm Springs. He was again hit in the face by a pitch, but this time the results were disastrous: his jaw was shattered and he spent almost two months with his jaw wired shut.

Despite the setbacks, the Angels kept promoting Salmon, and he played a year in Double-A ball in Midland, Texas, before earning a promotion to Triple-AAA Edmonton. That 1992 season in Edmonton would prove to be his last as a minor leaguer, as he absolutely destroyed the league and won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award. He was part of an impressive list of players who won that award in the 1990s, a list which included Frank Thomas, Derek Bell, Salmon, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones (twice), Paul Konerko, Eric Chavez, and Rick Ankiel.

His 1992 season looked like this: .347/.466/.672, good for a video game OPS of 1.138, to go along with 29HR, 105 RBIs, and an excellent 103:90 K/BB rate. He was clearly ready for the major leagues, and he got the call-up in 1992, hitting his first home run at Yankee Stadium in his third major league game.

1993 AL Rookie of the Year

His first full season with the Angels was a success, to say the least. Even though his season ended prematurely with an injury late in the season, Salmon finished with a line of .283/.382/.536, to go along with 31 HR,95 RBI, and a 142 OPS+ (normalized league average OPS+ is 100) in what can fairly be defined as a below average team. Put another way, a lineup of Tim Salmon's in 1993 would have (in theory, of course) scored 1231 runs, or 7.6 runs per game. That's serious production, especially for a first year player, and it earned him a rare unanimous Rookie of the Year award.

Think back to a few of the recent Rookie of the Year winners, notably Angel Berroa (2003, 101 OPS+), and Bobby Crosby (2004, 93 OPS+), and it helps put into perspective how good Salmon was as a first year player.

He did not make the All-Star team that season, but he followed up his remarkable Rookie of the Year campaign with almost exactly the same rate stats in the strike-shortened 1994 season (.287/.382/.531, 132 OPS+). The Angels were a last-place team that season, and as such Salmon didn't get the exposure he merited, and was not chosen for the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.

Salmon quickly became a fan favorite (and still is to this day), and it wasn't just because of his play. Salmon treated fans with respect, following the motto of, "Treat others as you'd like to be treated." (A quick Google search of some Angels message boards and blogs will reveal the love Angels' fans felt for the player who acknowledged and embraced them.)

1995: Best of times, Worst of times

The 1995 season saw the Angels explode out of the gates, getting up to 26 games over .500 on August 15th of the strike-shortened schedule. Salmon got off to a slow start batting average wise in May, the first full month of the 1995 season, hitting .262. He was providing his club with plenty of value though, posting a healthy on-base percentage and driving in runs that month, but the relatively low average kept his performance under the radar, at least initially.

He wouldn't hit less than .330 any other month of the season, putting together the finest season of his career (.330/.429/.594, 34 HR, 105 RBI, 165 OPS+, 10.0 RC/G, 1620 runs/season). His performance was mixed in with fine seasons from several other Angels, so he again was passed over for the All-Star Game.

Salmon excelled down the stretch, putting up a .364 average in the second half, to go with excellent power and run production. Unfortunately, he was but one man, and his team collapsed and gave back what was an 11-game lead as late as August 9th. The Angels had to win their last 5 games just to force a one-game playoff with the Seattle Mariners, and they had endured two separate 9 game losing streaks late in the season.

Salmon's performance, which otherwise should have garnered him serious MVP consideration, was lost amongst the sheer weight of losing almost every game for a month.

The collapse was arguably the worst in history, and at their season peak on August 20th, the Angels had a 99.98% chance of making the postseason. In other words, the Angels odds of collapsing at that August 20th peak (66-41 record at the time, 12.5 games ahead of the Mariners who won the West that season, and 12.5 games ahead of the Yankees who won the Wild Card) were 8,332-to-1 against.

The Angels ended the 1995 regular season with a 78-66 record, tied with the Seattle Mariners and forced into an uncomfortable one game showdown in Seattle. The one-game playoff, which at one point was full of drama, ended in a 9-1 slaughter. Randy Johnson struck out none other than Tim Salmon to end the game, putting an exclamation point on the most disappointing finish (and there had been many) to any regular season in Angels' history. That is the image most people remember from that 1995 season, and it does not do justice to how outstanding Salmon was, as well as a few other Angels hitters that year.

All-Star Production, Without the "All-Star"

Salmon continued to put up impressive numbers for years, but he always got off to slow starts in terms of batting average. That just always seemed to throw off any chance of an All-Star selection, even though batting average is not exactly a good way to gauge a player's offensive value.

Even in his slowest month, Salmon still put up a career OBP of .361 in April, and his career .831 OPS in that month is still better than the career OPS of players of his generation like Miguel Tejada, Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Lowell, Vernon Wells, Carlos Guillen, Torii Hunter, Jimmy Rollins, and a slew of other All-Stars and MVPs.

He just continued to produce through the end of the 1990's, putting up the following stats:

1996: .286/.386/.501 30HR 98RBI, 125 OPS+, 7.7 RC/27 outs (1,247 runs/season)
1997: .296/.394/.517 33HR 129RBI, 134 OPS+, 7.5 RC/27 (1,215 runs/season)
1998: .300/.410/.533 26 HR 88RBI, 142 OPS+, 8.7 RC/27 (1,409 runs/season)
1999: (injured) .266/.372/.490, 17HR, 69RBI, 119 OPS+, 6.7 RC/27, (1,085 runs/season)
2000: .290/.404/.540, 34HR 97RBI, 135 OPS+, 8.1 RC/27, (1,312 runs/season)

Salmon put together a fine eight-year stretch during which he was one of the top run producers in all of baseball. Injuries robbed him of some playing time, but he was able to produce despite not being 100%.

2002: Early Retirement?

The injuries that Salmon had managed to play with finally caught up to him, and he endured a down season in 2001. He was dealing with lingering wrist, foot, groin, and shoulder problems, and it showed. He ended the season with only 17 HR, and a career worst (for a full season) .227 batting average. Even with these problems, he was an asset in terms of on-base percentage, posting a .365 OBP (league average OBP was .336).

In 2002, Salmon got off to bad start by any account, posting an April line of .192/.333/.321. At this point, Salmon was starting to think he may be done, recently reflecting, "Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, I started the 2002 season in a similar slump. I began to wonder if my career was coming to an end and even considered retirement." He wasn't alone.

Talk show hosts began to question Salmon, and I vividly remember Jim Rome saying around that time that Salmon should probably just retire, that he was likely done.

The talk show hosts and pundits failed to factor that Salmon was a man of faith. Strong faith. They also failed to factor that Salmon was still talented, and that one month isn't enough of a sample size to judge a player's worth.

Regression to the mean

Salmon exploded in May, hitting .307/.411/.614, and he just continued to produce all season long. That's the recurring theme in Salmon's career, as long as he was healthy, he was producing. In fact, the only other month besides April that wasn't excellent was September, and that can be attributed to him missing a month after suffering a nasty hit-by-pitch on his hand.

If one takes out Salmon's slow April and September, he hit .325, with an OPS close to 1.000. Phenomenal production, but still not good enough for an All-Star invitation.

That year, Salmon was a big reason why the Angels won a franchise record 99 games. Their Pythagorean W-L record that season was 101-61; they were no fluke, and neither was Salmon's dramatic comeback. The reason: Salmon had performed at a high level like 2002 in every healthy season he had put together since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993. His 2002 line of .286/.380/.503 is almost identical to his .282/.385/.498 career line.

(Paradoxically, consistency probably hurt his chances at making an All-Star game, as fans expected and were usually delivered a .290/.390/.500+ season with 30HR and 100RBI, year in and year out. Outside of the 1995 season, where he blew his batting average out of the water, he was remarkably consistent, with no 40 HR, or 150 RBI season, though he did knock in an impressive 129 in 1997, to truly get him national attention.)

The Angels entered October as underdogs, and Salmon entered as the active player with the most games played without tasting playoff baseball (1,388 games).

In a way, it was Salmon's choice to endure the years of disappointment. He had opportunities to test the free agent market, but twice he skipped free agency to stay on with his struggling franchise. (Apparently Salmon is so low key that, upon signing his first big contract, he skipped the announcement to go mow his lawn.) With his performance in the mid-90s and beyond, he could have had his choice of massive eight figure contracts from a bevy of teams. He instead chose to stick it out with his franchise. He had faith.

1,388 Games Later, World Series Hero

That faith was rewarded with an October that will not be forgotten by any Angels supporter. Salmon was phenomenal in the World Series, hitting .346/.452/.615, hitting 2 critical home runs, including the game winner in a thrilling 11-10 Angels victory in Game 2. Not surprisingly, his postseason line of .288/.382/.525 is very similar to his career line.

That game winning home run was very memorable for Angels fans, as the usually reserved Salmon showed some emotion rounding the bases and upon reaching his teammates in the dugout.

Barry Bonds would later comment on Salmon's performance, "It was too much Salmon. It's phenomenal. He did everything any player could do in one game except steal home."

Then Giants manager Dusty Baker later commented, "It was one of the best games I've ever been in." That came from a former player who played in over 2,000 regular season games and over 40 postseason games, not to mention plenty of games managing.

It was a special month, for a long suffering organization, for Salmon, and for all Angels fans. Salmon's remarkable comeback from the depths of 2001 won him the 2002 AL Comeback Player of the Year award, as well as the 2002 Hutch Award for, "...honor, courage and dedication to baseball while overcoming adversity in their personal or professional lives."

Injuries Return With a Vengence

That was the pinnacle of Salmon's career, and unfortunately injuries wiped away the better part of 2004 and all of 2005 for him. It was unknown if Salmon would ever play again, and he was now a free agent with a lot to prove.

The injuries took a big toll on Salmon, as he reflected, "I think, more than anything, the past few years have sucked the joy out of it for me...It got to the point that the game I'd loved my whole life I didn't like anymore. My body couldn't do the things I wanted it to do, and I just didn't enjoy it."

Salmon decided to put off retirement to attempt a comeback from the major shoulder and knee problems that ended his 2005 season. He did not want to remember the game with the last two injury plagued seasons lingering over him. The Angels gave him an opportunity in 2006 to go to spring training and win a spot on the roster. He looked like a long shot to make the team, given his health problems and lengthy hiatus from the game.

Much like the early part of his career, Salmon was not given enough credit as not just a phenomenal talent, but also a brave competitor. The two injury riddled seasons lit a fire in Salmon, in his own words, "One of the goals I had was to come back and enjoy this game and if I could come back and play the game as I was accustomed to playing. I wanted to make sure that when I left the game, I had that joy and appreciation. I wanted to experience that one more time."

Salmon underwent a strenuous rehabilitation program, 2 hours on the shoulder and 2 hours on the knee everyday for long stretches at a time. He came back to the Angels in spring training fit and ready to battle for a roster spot that was by no means guaranteed. It was the definition of an uphill battle; a player who was prone to slow starts, given only 3 weeks or so to prove he had overcome 2 years of injuries. Not an easy situation, but Salmon was no ordinary player.

Salmon's performance in spring training was nothing short of remarkable: his bat speed came back, and he hit well over .300 with his typical sabermetric mix of excellent pitch selection and power. His performance showed he was healthy, in shape, and ready to contribute. The only thing that seemingly could get in his way was the health of one of his best friends on the team, Garrett Anderson.

Anderson was struggling with his own injuries, and a problematic foot could have relegated Anderson to a full-time DH, leaving Salmon with no options to make the team. Salmon mentioned, "He [Anderson] told me he doesn't want his position to be DH because he doesn't like to DH. There is a sense of irony there, though, us being such good friends and all...I've joked with G.A. about it, I told him, 'You don't want to be the reason I have to retire, do you?'"

Anderson proved healthy, and Salmon did what he had to do to make the team. Every one of Salmon's at-bats during spring training were cause for standing ovation, as the fans showed their appreciation for one of the true legends of the franchise.

Salmon made the team and was given the opportunity to split DH duties with Juan Rivera . He performed admirably, still flashing one of the best mixes of power and patience on the team. Unfortunately, he did not get as much playing time as his production deserved, especially since the Angels were a team that lacked power and rally stretching on-base percentage. No one has ever confused Angels manager Mike Scioscia with Bill James.

Even though he didn't play nearly as much as his skill merited, he played well, and he showed that he could defy the odds and overcome the injuries that cut his prime short. He went out on his own terms, just like he set out to do during spring training.

His sending off was phenomenal
, as he was given a hero's goodbye from an adoring Angels' fanbase in his last game as an Angel, as well as all season long. He is treated as a living legend by many Angels fans, and he was recently voted the #1 Greatest Angel on the Halos Heaven website in their Top 100 Greatest Angels list.

Some interesting facts about Tim Salmon:

-He has the greatest amount of career home runs for a player never selected to an All-Star team (299).

-He purchased tickets in right field for years, donating over 300,000 tickets in the "The Fish Bowl," to charities and youth groups.

-Former teammate Darin Erstad said, "We've broken him down, from what we refer to as Timmy Land...He's very focused. He's very prepared. He's coming in here every day to win a baseball game, and he's not going to let anything get in the way of that."

-Salmon is known for taking time for every fan, sometimes not realizing how important that can be.

-Salmon had his share of "Timmy-isms," like the time in 2000 Salmon ran into the dugout with a perplexed look and asked Erstad, "Who's that guy?" about pitcher Al Levine, who had joined the team in 1999.

-Salmon and his wife Marci reached out to troubled children in Orange County group homes, sharing hope with the children through Salmon's Christian faith.

-"I felt like, from the standpoint of an athlete, it was important for me to be a role model," Salmon said. "The big leaguers I modeled myself after — the Cal Ripkens, the Robin Younts, the Dave Winfields — were guys that played the game with integrity and class and treated people the way they wanted to be treated."

--Salmon was named the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation's 2006 Sportsman of the Year, and was honored in a ceremony where his Angel teammates game him a mini "Celebrity Roast."

- The Tim Salmon Foundation donated $100 per RBI to two family-oriented Orange County, Calif. charities, Family Solutions and Laurel House.

-Salmon is Academy Award winner Holly Hunter's cousin.

-The Annual Tim Salmon Golf Classic benefits the abused and at risk children of Family Solutions and Laurel House.

-"We were on a mission to get him out of Timmy Land, to at least get him to say hi to us when he came into the clubhouse. We accomplished that." ~Erstad

-Many fans have stated that Salmon was one of the few players that would sign every ball, take every picture, and actually listen to fans when they asked something of him.

-"He won't swear." ~Erstad

Thank you Tim for being a great player, great role model, and humanitarian. Good luck finishing your degree and raising your kids. You will be missed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Starting Pitching Blues: Fantasy Strategy

Rany Jazayerli, one of the baseball minds over at Baseball Prospectus, said in 1998:

"The injury rate of pitchers, in particular young pitchers, is astonishing. Pitchers are several times more likely to get injured than hitters, and for every prospect that becomes a successful major league pitcher, a dozen more have their careers stalled or ended by injury. This is a reality of baseball that has persisted since the game was invented; the act of throwing a ball overhand is inherently unnatural, and the repetition of throwing, even with excellent mechanics, can lead to inflammation or injury to the muscles of the rotator cuff, or in the ligaments that hold the elbow in place."

Pitching in 2008

Spring training isn't even in full swing yet, and there are already injuries to report for the 2008 season. Not surprisingly, they are injuries to starting pitchers, the most important and concurrently brittle parts of baseball organizations today.

Kelvim Escobar and Curt Schilling, important arms from two of baseball's deepest, most talented rotations, are going to miss time in 2008 due to injury. There hasn't been a pitch thrown in the Cactus League or the Grapefruit League, and there's already talk about a DL stint for Escobar and a prolonged absence for Schilling, if he's not done for the season.

Fantasy owners need to be mindful of the inherent danger of drafting starting pitching, which is unlike any risk that drafting a position player presents. By the nature of what they do, pitchers are just never more than one pitch away from the operating table. Throwing a baseball is simply an unnatural motion, and it will lead to problems for almost all pitchers at some point.

In real baseball, teams need good starting pitching if they want to have any chance at postseason success. That bulldog ace can be the difference in losing a series in 6 games and winning it in 7. Those 14-15 innings over two starts can make a world of difference in baseball playoffs, but fantasy baseball just isn't set up like that.

In fantasy baseball, teams obviously need starting pitching, but owners do not need to invest early picks (or big dollars for auctions) in pitching to win fantasy leagues. An owner can succeed with a big bullpen and three decent arms anchoring the pitching staff.

The beauty of fantasy is that Yahoo or ESPN doesn't care where those 7 innings of 2-run ball came from. They can just as easily come from 3 middle relievers taken in the 15th round or later, or they can come from Jake Peavy. The Padres can't throw Heath Bell out there 162 times a year, but your fantasy rotation can be built of Heath Bell types that end up putting together solid ratios in 70 or so innings.

Those 70 innings each from a few relievers pile up, and one can put together spectacular ERA, WHIP, and saves totals, while still being competitive in strikeouts and wins. Most leagues have innings limits, so again, you can get those innings from whoever you'd like, and I'd prefer to get them mostly from relievers than big starting pitchers that can easily flame out. Some owners prefer 8 starters to lock up wins and strikeouts; I'd rather chase ERA, WHIP, and saves, three stats that are more predictable and cheaper to acquire.

The choice is yours, but I speak from experience when I say that my worst fantasy teams have been those built around starting pitching. I started playing fantasy baseball in 2003, and that season Randy Johnson was my first pick. He was going into 2003 with 6 straight healthy seasons under his belt, not throwing less than 213 in any of those seasons. He seemed like a good bet, and I pulled the trigger, leaving a bat like Manny Ramirez on the table for someone else to take.

That season, Randy Johnson won 6 games and put together an ERA of 4.26 in 114 painful innings. Last season, owners took Chris Carpenter in the second or third round of drafts, and got 6 innings out of him (not good innings either) before he was lost for the season. This year, it could be Jake Peavy, projected to go in the second round of most drafts. It could be Erik Bedard in the third round, or Josh Beckett in the fourth.

All those pitchers could of course turn in brilliant 34 start seasons, but I wouldn't bet on it. At least one of those pitchers will miss time this season, and it could be completely without warning and leave fantasy owners scrambling.

Some will say, well position players get hurt too, which is absolutely true. Carl Crawford could miss 80 games this season with a torn ACL, and owners could be out their second round pick. There's no question about that and I will not dispute that notion, but I can tell you that playing left field doesn't require Carl Crawford to repeat an unnatural motion over 100 times a night, 30+ times a year.

Starting pitchers just are not as likely to make it through a full season, and they also have another distinct disadvantage when compared to position players: they can only contribute in 4 categories. Johan Santana can have a season for the ages, pitching 235 innings of 2.25 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 250 K dominance. He will contribute 0 saves, and he could end up with only 13 wins, based on poor run support which he has no control over. If you don't think so, check out Roger Clemens' stats from the 2005 season.

I hope that by now the dangers of drafting starting pitching early are clear, so I'd like to present some alternatives for owners who agree with this line of thinking.

Alternative Draft Strategy

Picks 1-6 are spent on the best available hitting talent when your turn comes up, being mindful that the top speed/power combinations will be gone after these rounds. Be sure to address potentially problematic positions like catcher and shortstop here, as those positions really dry up after the top handful of options are gone.

Picks 7-10 can be where owners start to think pitching, and grab a closer (Wagner, Cordero, Valverde, and Jenks seem like reasonably gambles here), and a bargain ace around your 10th pick, if there are any left (John Smoltz, Aaron Harang, or Roy Oswalt).

Owners should do their best not to get wrapped up in different runs that start, like a run on closers where K-Rod, J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan, and Jonathan Papelbon all go in the same round. That run just means that you will get an opportunity to grab a bat later than you would normally. It just creates a value opportunity for owners who don't get caught up in runs.

From the 10th round on, you can start to look for opportunities to draft pitchers with upside that have been discounted for whatever reason. Arms like Ian Snell, James Shields, Rich Hill, Matt Cain, John Maine, Ted Lilly, Zack Greinke, etc., provide upside potential at a good price.

Look for pitching indicators like K/BB (strike zone dominance) and K/9 for good value opportunities. Also, look at fielding independant pitching statistics "FIP", which can reveal pitchers that were unlucky in 2007. ESPN has an excellent page with statistics that can help unlock undervalued pitchers.

This strategy can work, but you will have to do your homework, it's not for those who aren't willing to find the intrinsic value of pitchers.

The important thing to remember is the price you pay dictates your returns. If you spend a 5th round pick and get a 14-8, 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, with 160 Ks, that is not a great return on your investment. If you get that production from, say, Ian Snell in the 13th round, now you have value and return on your investment. All the bargain pitches listed above, and that is not an all encompassing list, have the talent to deliver nice seasons at a good price.

Three or four pitchers of that caliber, mixed with a strong bullpen, minimizes the pitching risk that could derail an owner's season.

The bullpen arms that I would look at include the aforementioned Heath Bell, Brad Lidge, Carlos Marmol, Rafael Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, etc. Relievers that are second in line to a mediocre closer (for example Betancourt is second to Joe Borowski) are especially attractive, as they have a chance to contribute saves down the road.

This mix of bargain pitchers with upside and power bullpen arms allows fantasy owners to draft big bats and put out a balanced, scary lineup. If an owner decides to go pitcher heavy or take arms in the 1-7 rounds, be aware that there are statistics available to help see what pitchers were overexerted in 2007.

The brilliant minds at Baseball Prospectus keep a statistical called "PAP," or pitcher abuse points. This statistic encompasses the abuse pitchers have endured in a given season, based on a calculation derived from starts in which pitchers throw over 100 pitches. For a better explanation, go here.

It's interesting to note what pitchers endured the most abuse in 2007, as Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka tops the list. He had 9 starts of 101-109 pitches, 13 starts of 110-121 pitches, and 4 starts of 122-132 pitches in 2007. Just this week Matsuzaka admitted, "I think what happened last year was that the peak of my fatigue arrived at a time when I wasn't exactly expecting it to arrive, not at the time that it usually arrives and I think that was part of the difficulty last year."

He was overworked, and a prudent fantasy owner needs to note that and include it in Matsuzaka's valuation for 2008. I'm not saying don't draft Dice-K, I'm just saying be careful, he was the most overworked pitcher in baseball last season.

Other names that appear high on the list include Carlos Zambrano, A.J. Burnett, and Roy Halladay. These pitchers, by my estimation, represent an extremely big gamble if taken high in the draft, and fantasy owners should probably avoid them unless they are available at a price that makes sense.

The moral of the story, do your homework with pitching for your draft. You can be competitive and win leagues without Jake Peavy, Johan Santana, Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia, and all the other arms that will go in the first 5 or 6 rounds. Focus on what you can reasonably predict health-wise, and take the bats early that should stay healthy over the course of a season.

No strategy is perfect, but I believe a value pitching focus puts fantasy owners in the best position to succeed in 2008. Here's to another epic season of baseball, good luck to all fantasy owners.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Angels Trade Rumor: Khalil Greene

In recent weeks, there has been speculation in the media, as well as on message boards and blogs suggesting that the Angels could consider acquiring Padres shortstop Khalil Greene to replace departed shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

Most of the speculation centers around an Angels offer of center fielder Reggie Willits, infielder Erick Aybar, and either pitcher Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana.


At this point in time, it's assumed that Erick Aybar has the inside track to become the Angels starting shortstop in 2008, but he will be battling it out with Maicer Izturis. Those two players present an interesting situation for the Angels, since both players seemed better suited to be utility players for different but equally valid reasons.

On one hand, Aybar represents the prospect that has yet to establish himself in limited opportunities. He began his professional career with a lightning start, posting a .326/.374/.469 line in 67 games, good for an impressive .843 OPS in his first year in rookie ball at age 18. He followed that season up with a nice season at A ball, posting a .308/.331/.436 line at a still very young 19 years old.

His third season has been his finest as a professional, posting a .330/.359/.485 line at high A ball. He counterbalanced a mediocre walk rate with a good contact rate of 88%, (A rate above 90% often, but not always, indicates a .300 hitter), and this was a recurring theme throughout his time in the minors.

I much prefer to see players with high walk rates and poor strikeout rates, as this can be indicative of a player who waits for his pitch and may strikeout as a result of working deep counts. Players like Adam Dunn and Jason Giambi are excellent data points to support this notion, so I'm not thrilled to see Aybar being the opposite. He's a player that may make contact at a higher rate, but is not necessarily hitting pitches he should be swinging at (see Kendrick, Howie).

Maicer Izturis, the Angels other internal option to play shortstop, has shown a better understanding of hitting in his major league service. Izturis is more disciplined at the plate, showing greater skill than Aybar in two key aspects of hitting: avoiding the strikeout and swinging at a pitch he can handle. The numbers support this, as he has a career contact rate of 88% and a career walk rate of 9%. (At the major league level, Aybar has posted a contact rate of 83% and a walk rate of 4%, although in a very small sample size),

Izturis has a problem staying healthy, as a result he's logged a season high of only 399 plate appearances. He's had extensive hamstring problems, and he seems stretched as a starting shortstop. That's not a knock against Izturis, as being able to plug a bench player into a lineup and know he has hitting ability as well as versatility (he plays multiple infield positions) is incredibly important. He's just a step below being good enough to be a starter for the Angels, but he's an excellent option during an injury or to come off the bench.

At this point, Aybar does not seem ready to be a full-time major league player. His stints in AAA and the major league club just haven't impressed enough to be confident in him as a starting shortstop for a club with World Series aspirations. He was below replacement level in 2007 with the Angels (.211 EQA, which is well below the .260 league average), and he also seems stretched as anything more than a utility player at this stage of his development. He is certainly capable of more, but he needs to develop and at the same time not be a 650 at-bat liability for a club that has spent money to win now.


Khalil Greene has 2 years left on his contract, and according to a update, " San Diego's efforts to sign Greene to a long-term deal have not been fruitful. He may leave for an East Coast team after the 2009 season, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports."

With this in mind, the Padres may try to trade him if they can't lock him up to a long-term deal, and the Angels appear to be a natural trade partner given excess of outfielders and infielders.

Reggie Willits appears to be a good fit for the Padres, as he can play all three outfield positions and be a flexible 4th outfielder. This can be invaluable for the Padres, as he could be backing up injury plagued Jim Edmonds and aging Brian Giles. Willits' offense will not suffer at all from being at Petco, as he is a singles hitter that walks a good amount, and that lead to a good OBP. He showed his best defense in left field, and he could at least be adequate in the other slots as a backup.

Aybar presents an inexpensive option with upside to replace Greene at short for many years to come. That alone could make him attractive for a team who's not known for making big splashes in free agency.

Another potential part of an offer, either Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana, must be carefully accessed in the context of the hyperinflated pitching market. Even though Saunders isn't a highly projected starter, he's serviceable and young. Ask Carlos Silva how much that's worth in free agency.

Santana is a highly rated pitching prospect, and his poor 2007 wasn't as bad as it looked on paper (fielding independent stats suggest he was unlucky). He is worth a heck of a lot in a trade and should be considered a valuable trade chip.

The question becomes, is Khalil Greene worth pursuing via trade, and what is a good bidding price for him?

A quick analysis of Greene will show a couple of noteworthy things in his pedigree. First, Greene has big league power. He hit 27 home runs in 2007, and this came playing half of his games in a pitcher friendly environment (Petco Park). Petco Park was the worst ballpark in baseball for run scoring and second worse for home run hitters.

Second, Khalil has a hard time getting on base, as evidenced by his .291 OBP last season (NL average was .330). For his career, his OBP stands at .312, compared to a NL average of .329 over that same time. It is a little unfair to compare him to the league however, given his difficult home ballpark.

In Greene's case, it's better to look at statistics that have been adjusted to take away (as best as possible) the Petco Park effect. His OPS+ for his career is 101, suggesting he's been a little better than average in terms of OPS at least. His career EQA (a statistic that encompasses all offensive production) is .266, a little above the .260 universal average.

Greene's defense is open for interpretation, but I think the consensus, and the stats don't show otherwise, is that Greene is at worst an adequate shortstop defensively.

Is he worth giving up a package of, say, Willits, Aybar, and Saunders in a three for one?

It's difficult to project what Greene will become outside of Petco because the park adjusted stats still don't paint a beautiful picture of Greene's offensive capabilities.

Some will point to the 27 HR and 97 RBIs from 2007, and his severe home/road splits, to say he is worth the talent. To them I say, I caution: inexpensive young players are not only valuable in terms of what skills they possess, but they are even more valuable because they are inexpensive.

The skilled youngsters give more production per dollar than most players who have been acquired via free agency. Khalil Greene will command free agent money in after 2009, but Erick Aybar won't for several more seasons. That has serious value.

The final metric to examine is the aforementioned split stats, which look like this for Greene's past 3 seasons: .250 BA/.301 OBP/.446 SLUG totals.

Greene HOME: .227/.273/.389
Greene AWAY: .273/.328/.500
LEAGUE (adjusted): .260/.330/.420 (approximate)


Going forward, the only thing that seems certain is that Greene will provide above average power production, even if it comes with only an average OBP. His strikeout rate and walk rate suggest he has not yet mastered the strike zone at an elite level. He can hit at a high level through, no question about it. If he can duplicate his road production of .270/.330/.500 for the Angels, that would be a welcome addition to the lineup.

At the end of the day, the Angels need power production in their lineup, and they would almost certainly get that in Greene. He is a power bat at a position where power is at a premium, and he is someone that should be considered by the Angels brass.

Aybar is a mystery going forward, as he could turn into anything from Felipe Lopez to Orlando Cabrera to Jose Reyes light. He is talented enough to suggest he may just need more time to develop, he is only 24 after all.

Willits has a much lower ceiling, but he's also much more predictable. Given enough time, one can predict with relative certainly that Willits is a good bet to put up a line of .265/.365/.340, with an upside close to what he did last year (.293/.391/.344). His OBP is worth a lot, and he's a very good bench option as a result. If he could improve on his contact rate (81%), he could be an even better bat, given the nature of his hits.

Given the depth the Angels have in the outfield currently and some talent on the way (Terry Evans), Reggie Willits should be made expendable for this trade.

From the Santana and Saunders group, I say Santana should be off-limits given his potential and low salary for the next few years. Saunders would be a good option to include, as he is a valuable left-handed pitcher with a little upside.

For Khalil Greene, that Angels should offer a package of Reggie Willits and Erick Aybar to start the negotiations. If the Padres counter with Willits, Aybar, and Santana, I would come back with Willits, Aybar, and Saunders. I would ask the Padres to include an arm if I have to give up a third player, and I would probably ask for Joe Thatcher, but settle for Mauro Zarate.

I like Greene and his potential, but his price tag is only going up and that reduces the returns from this trade. The price paid will always dictate the returns, and I could see Greene becoming a $10-12 million per year player. A lot of young, inexpensive players with talent is a lot to give up, but Greene is a guy who will help the Angels win now, and the signing of Torii Hunter signals that now is the Angels' time.

I think the Angels should go for it, but if the price tag becomes too high (Santana), there is no shame in turning the deal down. Greene is very good player but he's not elite, and he could end up costing too much too soon.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Trade Target: Paul Konerko

The Angels are reportedly interested in acquiring 32-year-old White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko.

The Angels pursued Konerko as a free agent in the winter of 2005, only to see him re-sign for the White Sox in November of that year.

It's no secret that the Angels have been trying to upgrade their offense this off-season, failing in an attempt to acquire a young impact bat in Miguel Cabrera. With the free agent market bare, the Angels are now turning their attention to acquiring talent via trades.

I've already started discussing what the Angels should do in this off-season, and I must admit I didn't see a need at first base.

Angels' first baseman Casey Kotchman enjoyed a very productive 2007 on offense as well as on defense. Kotchman absolutely excelled at first base, posting a major league best .918 zone rating amongst first baseman. He was brilliant on the field, and he was quietly solid at the plate as well.

Kotchman's numbers don't pop out at first glance, as he hit only 11 home runs and drove in only 68 runs. Not exactly earth shattering numbers, and certainly not great for a first baseman.

A more in-depth analysis will reveal that Kotchman was a valuable contributer on offense, as his .372 OBP was third on the team only to Vladimir Guerrero (.403) and Chone Figgins (.393). He has the second best plate discipline on the team, behind Reggie Willits, with an above average 10.5% walks per plate appearance.

He also was able to do what few ballplayers can: he walked (53) more than he struck out (43). That takes exception skill, and this as well as the other stats presented lead to the conclusion that Kotchman could develop from anywhere from a solid to a special hitter.

In short, Kotchman has one of the best approaches to hitting on the team. This is important to note, because if he is able to develop the power that his 6-3, 215 lb. frame suggests, and many think he will, he will be equipped to be a great player.

He already has the wait-for-your-pitch approach that the great hitters have, and he could very well turn into a perrenial .300/.380/.500 hitter. That's the kind of production the Angels have been lacking, and his youth (24) is only working in his favor.

Paul Konerko has been producing in that same .300/.380/.500 frame for several years now, but he's 32 and coming off a down season for him. Konerko and Kotchman are two players which may be heading in different directions, and last year their offensive production was eerily similar in 2007.

Kotchman posted an .839 OPS, while Konerko posted an .841 OPS. If you adjust that OPS for the ballparks and other factors, Kotchman earns an 119 OPS+ while Konerko earned a 116 OPS+.

One can start to see that this trade doesn't make much sense if it involves substituting Konerko for Kotchman at first base, especially when you factor in Kotchman's all-world defense. There is one scenario, and only one, which would make this trade a clear upgrade opportunity for the Angels.

If you guessed trading Gary Matthews Jr., then you've been reading my previous posts, and I thank you.

Trading Matthews makes sense, as the White Sox don't have a great center field option, and the Angels are well stocked in outfield options. I realize that Matthews alone won't get it done, but I have no problems if the Angels include an arm in the deal.

Joe Saunders makes a lot of sense, as he's only 26 and has a bit of upside. The fact that he's left-handed could appeal to the White Sox, and I think he could turn out to be a slightly better than average pitcher someday. As it is, he's not invaluable to the Angels, and he should be made expendable in this potential deal.

The deal for Konerko should not include any of the following players: Howie Kendrick, Ervin Santana, or Chone Figgins. I think the Angels made a catostrophic mistake in not trading Kendrick for Miguel Cabrera. I think Kendrick has been overrated by the Angels, he took a measly 9 walks in 2007 and doesn't have a great approach at the plate. Until he learns to wait for his pitch, he will always be a step behind the great hitters.

He could no doubt become a great hitter, but he has an approach to hitting which doesn't convince me yet.

I think the Angels should keep him now, unless they get another chance at a Miguel Cabrera/David Wright/Hanley Ramirez type young talent (unlikely at best). Kendrick is too good of a pure hitter to trade at his age (24) for a player on the wrong side of 30 like Konerko, even if Kendrick is raw and may never become a great hitter.

Santana has too much potential, and his youth makes it more likely he will recover from 2007, which wasn't as bad as most think. (Look at his K/BB, K rate, and his fielding-independant stats, which show he was unlucky with balls hit in play).

Figgins is not my ideal 3rd baseman, but seeing as the Angels have no better options at the moment, he must stay. He's not as valuable to the team as he used to be, as the team is deep in outfield options. He's still valuable as a leadoff man if he can repeat his 2007 OBP or come close to it.

I would not mind it at all if the Angels acquired Konerko, but as I've shown, it has to be for the right price. If the White Sox are willing to take a package of Matthews Jr. and a pitcher like Saunders, then this one is an easy deal to make.