Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jed Lowrie feels "better than ever"

We're just under three weeks from the Astros heading to Kissimmee for the start of another Spring Training, and Jed Lowrie is feeling aces.

What could the Astros have looked like this offseason?

There's been some increasing chatter amongst some of the fanbase that Luhnow shouldn't have sat on his hands so much this offseason. Even those that buy into the rebuild say that we should have been more active in signing the guys that were willing to take one year deals this offseason. So, let's see what might have been.

I was trying to wait out the final ZIPS projections before making this post, but given the response we've received from this post I thought I'd go ahead and throw this out there now. For any player that doesn't have a projection already available, I took their average WAR from the past three seasons. Not very scientific, but good enough for these exercises.

Right now the Astros are sitting on a roughly $21.5M payroll (not including amounts owed for players no longer on the team) and, according to ZIPS, that buys us a team WAR of about 18. A zero WAR team should be expected to win about 45.5 games. Let's go with 45. So the roster, as constructed today, should expect to go 63-99.

Next, let's see who signed one year deals that would offer a projected upgrade over the current roster. For these purposes let's assume that Houston would have had to offer ten percent more than what the player actually signed for in order to woo them away from their true destination.

Pitching makes the biggest difference here, so let's look at that first. The biggest signing would have been Dan Haren is the biggest splash here, good for 4.1 WAR. We'll give him $14.3M to steal him from Washington and replace Phil Humber's .8 WAR and $800k. Next we'll take Scott Baker's 3 WAR away from the Cubs for $6M and let Jordan Lyles ($500K and .6 WAR) spend the season in AAA. Our next signing will be Koji Uehara at $4.7M for 1.2 WAR, replacing Hector Ambriz at $500K and (-) .9 WAR. Rounding out the bullpen, let's sign Ryan Madson for $3.9 M with 1.4 WAR and take Josh Fields off the roster ($500K and (-).2 WAR).

Now that we've spent $28.9M (minus $2.3M on the guys we bumped out, for a net $26.6M increase) on upgrading the pitching staff by 10.3 WAR, let's turn to the position players.

Congrats fans, Houston has resigned Lance Berkman at 1B! Though it cost us $12.1M, the massive increase in ticket sales more than makes up for it, right? His 2.4 WAR means we move Wallace to the bench and don't have room on the roster anymore for Nate Freiman's $500K and (-) .3 WAR. Next let's sign a whole new outfield!! We'll take Juan Pierre in left at $1.8M and 1.3 WAR, Andres Torres in center at $2.2M and 2 WAR (removing his outlier 2010 season), and Nate Schierholtz in right at $2.5M and 1 WAR. This takes the Martinii off the roster (combined $1M and 1.1 WAR) and means we don't sign Ankiel at $500K with .7 WAR.

There we just spent another net $16.5M for an increase of 5.3 WAR.

Here's the new depth chart:

1B: Berkman
2B: Altuve
SS: Lowrie
3B: Dominguez
LF: Pierre
CF: Torres
RF: Schierholtz
DH: Pena

BE: Corporan
BE: Wallace
BE: Greene
BE: Maxwell

SP: Haren
SP: Baker
SP: Norris
SP: Bedard
SP: Harrell

RP: Ely
RP: Cedeno
RP: Rodriguez
RP: Veras
RP: Uehara
RP: Wright
CL: Madson

We added $43.1M to payroll, for a total of $64.6M and increased our projected WAR by 15.6 to 33.6. Now we're talking! The new team should go 79-83!!

Is it worth it?

The Astros are not the Marlins

With all due respect to Peter Gammons, who has been honored by the Hall of Fame for excellence in baseball journalism (which, incidentally, does not make him a "Hall of Famer"), he is slightly full of crap.

Gammons tweeted early this morning that:
It's awfully hard for Bud Selig to come down on the Marlins for slashing payroll when the Astros are at $21M.

There's your typical national journalist, who simply looks at numbers, and not the reason behind them. The Marlins are a totally different animal than the Astros. How so?

1. "Slashing payroll?" Come on.

The Astros have not slashed payroll. They cleared out dead weight. 

In 2010, the Astros' payroll was $93.2m. In 2011 it was $71.1m. In 2012, they closed the season at $37.7m. That's a decline of 59.5%, before you get into the possibilities of 2013's payroll (which looks to be in the $25-30m range). But you look at the salaries of whom they were ridding themselves: Brett Myers' $11m contract. Wandy Rodriguez's $34m contract. Brandon Lyon's $5.5m. No more Carlos Lee at $18.5m per year. Just stopping there represents an impressive amount of money. Yet when each were traded, the response was either "It's about time," or "Luhnow is a genius."

Does Gammons want the Astros to replace all that payroll, especially after his September 2012 column in which he wrote:
What Crane, Postolos and Luhnow inherited was a team that was in the World Series seven years ago but was drained of talent because former owner Drayton McLane did not invest in the Draft.

You simply cannot retroactively blast the Astros for doing what everyone agreed should have been done at least three years earlier.

The Marlins have a special case. They dumped $181m in contracts in one day. That's not slashing payroll, that's 1929 on Wall Street. Their Opening day payroll in 2012 was $107.7m. Baseball-Reference estimates their payroll in 2013 to be $45m - a 58.8% decline in three baseball months.

Nobody wrote about how the Astros' rebuilding plan was "a baseball tragedy" as Jeff Passan did regarding the Marlins. Nobody wrote about the Astros disgracing baseball, as Time Magazine did. Nobody called the Astros' actions "inexcusable," as the Sporting News did.

2. The Astros didn't commit fraud.

Late in 2011 the SEC opened an investigation into the Marlins' ballpark deal.

CBS Sports wrote at the time:
The city and county are paying for nearly 80 percent of the $634 million stadium. The subpoenas focus, the report says, on the Marlins trying to determine the team's ability to pay for the financing of the stadium. Last year, the Marlins' financial records were leaked and they showed that the team had received the most money in Major League Baseball from its revenue-sharing system, while not investing it back into the team. The team said it was financial strapped and needed help from the city and county to build the stadium, which it ultimately received.

And then they went out and signed those $181m in contracts, wooing Albert Pujols, promising to put a competitive team on the field, a promise which didn't make it to the All-Star Break. Passan wrote in the above-linked article that, by the time the balloon payments are due on the ballpark, it will cost Miami-Dade taxpayers $2.4 billion.

Of owner Jeffrey Loria and president David Samson, Passan wrote:
And these were two men who for years lied about their finances, lied about their intentions, lied all to get Miami to build them a $634 million ballpark that was supposed to end this wretched cycle of turning a major league franchise into a swap meet.

For Peter Gammons to mention the Marlins' long-term plans with the Astros' long-term plans is, at best, lazy. At worst, it's ignorant.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why I am Excited About the Bedard Signing, And Why You Should Be Too

Okay, "excited" is too strong a word. And so is "should." I don't want to tell you what to think. Let's try that again.

Why I am More Than Ambivalent About the Bedard Signing. You Can Feel How You Want.

As you have read, the Astros signed Erik Bedard to a minor league contract, with an invitation to Spring Training. This has been met mostly with ambivalence. Understandably so, considering he put up a 5.01 ERA last year and was released by the Pirates. If he was any good, he wouldn't be available to sign to a minor league contract, right? But I am slightly more than ambivalent.

From 2008-2011, Bedard was good. 3.41 ERA, and a ERA+ of 121 in the American League. In 2012, Bedard was not very good. 5.01 ERA and an ERA+ of 74 in the National League. What changed? Did Bedard fall of a cliff between his age 32 and 33 seasons?

Well, Bedard's 2012 peripherals were right in line with his numbers from 2008-2011. He was still striking out more than 8 batters per 9. His walk rate jumped from 3.7 to 4, but that doesn't seem to be enough to cause his numbers to dip that much. His line drive percentage also rose, which accounts for some of the difference. But I think the primary culprit is the spike in his Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP. After keeping hitters to a .280 batting average from 2008 to 2011, that number spiked to .314. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and expected Fielding Independent Pitching  (xFIP) are both tools which attempt to take into account the fluctuations of BABIP, among other things. Both of these peg Bedard's 2012 nearly a run lower, with a 4.07 FIP and a 4.05 xFIP. Still not great, but significantly better. There is a very real chance, with some regression in Bedard's BABIP, that he can be an effective starting pitcher at the back of the Astros rotation. Woo Hoo.

Now, Erik Bedard is not a workhorse. In fact, Bedard and workhorse have never appeared in a sentence together, excepting sentences which read "Bedard is not a workhorse." He has not thrown more than 130 innings since 2007, and has never exceeded 200. That's a big problem if you traded Adam Jones, Chris Tillman and George Sherrill for him to be your ace. Much less of a problem if you gave up nothing for him. If the Astros can get 100-130 innings of near 4.00 ERA from Bedard in 2013, he will be more than worth what they gave up for him, which is, again, nothing. If he stays healthy and effective enough to flip him for a prospect, that's a bonus.

Erik Bedard, worth giving up nothing for, with potential for more. If that doesn't scream "More than Ambivalent," I don't know what does.

Astros sign Erik Bedard

I have known about the signing of Erik Bedard for approximately 12 hours, but I cannot think of an opinion about it.

Bedard will be 34 in March. He throws the ball with his left hand. He is Canadian. He was good. In 2006, he went 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA/1.35 WHIP for Baltimore, with 7.8 K/9. Then in 2007, he was better, going 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA/1.09 WHIP, his K/9 jumping to an AL-leading 10.9, and his 7.0 H/9 also led the American League. Bedard finished 5th in the Cy Young voting.

Then in February 2008, Bedard was traded to Seattle for Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Chris Tillman, and two other players. That trade did not work out for the Mariners. In parts of three injury-plagued seasons with Seattle he made just 46 starts and was traded in a big, complicated, multi-player three team trade to Boston, where he made eight starts, going 1-2 with a 4.03 ERA/1.55 WHIP.

Then he signed with Pittsburgh for 2012, and made 24 ineffective starts, going 7-14 with a career-worst 5.01 ERA to go along with a 1.47 WHIP, and was released on August 28. He still managed a 1.3 WAR (according to FanGraphs).

So with the news that the Astros signed him to a minor-league deal with an invitation to Spring Training, it's the very definition of low-cost/high-reward. Any reward at all will be high. He'll compete for a spot in the rotation, and Jeff Luhnow says he has a good chance to make the rotation.

That's fine, I guess. It gives the younger guys more time in the minors, and would bring a guy who has spent eight years of his Major-League career in the American League a chance to help the team. I still have no opinions. Could be fine. Might not. But, and this isn't an indictment of Luhnow/Front Office, this is precisely the move that we would have hammered Ed Wade over.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Can Houston Win With a 23 Million Dollar Payroll?

The 2013 Astros' payroll is projected to be under 23 million dollars this season. Unless Houston decides to spend on the remaining free agents, they will have the lowest payroll in the AL and possibly MLB. It got me thinking about how teams have fared with a payroll so low. So using I looked at payrolls from the last 13 seasons and took note of teams with payrolls under 40 million and their respective records.

In 2012 there were no teams with a payroll under 40 million.

From 2000 to 2011 their were a total of 35 teams who entered the season with payrolls under 40 mil. Of these 35 teams 9 had winning seasons. The 3 teams who featured payrolls under 40 mil the most were Tampa (6 times), Florida (6), and Pittsburgh (5).

Payrolls under 40 mil were more common early in the 2000's. Florida was the last team to have a payroll lower than what Houston's projects to be, and that was 21.8 mil in 2008. Florida also has bragging rights to the lowest payroll during this time span, 14.9 mil in 2006, with Tampa a close second in 2003 at 19.6 mil. Oakland in 2001 and Florida in 2000 had payrolls under 23 million. Houston will be the 6th team since 2000 to feature a payroll under 23 million.

The best records I found from these teams were much better than I anticipated. I expected the teams who had winning seasons to hover around the .500 mark, which about half did, but there were 5 90+ win seasons of the bunch.

2010 San Diego 91-71
2002 Oakland 103-59
2001 Oakland 102-60
2000 Oakland 91-70
2000 Chicago White Sox 95-67

Still, of these 90+ win teams only Oakland had a payroll under 30 mil, at 22.8 mil, very close to where Houstons' payroll will probably end up. The other 4 teams' payroll was closer to the 40 million dollar mark.

The average record of these 35 teams sits around 74-87.

I took it a little further and isolated the teams with payrolls under 25 mil. This left 8 teams with a average record of 79-82. Of these 8 teams only 3 have had winning seasons, with Oakland (2001) being the only team to win 90+ games.

So based strictly on payroll, is it possible for Houston to compete with a 23 million dollar payroll? Yes. Is it likely? No. Winning with a payroll under 40 mil is more the exception than the rule.