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The A’s have been involved in trade talks for Brett Anderson. It makes sense. Anderson is young (he will enter his 26 year old season next year) and has shown flashes of brilliance. As I have argued in the past, I question just how much brilliance Anderson has actually shown, but that is neither here nor there. Teams are interested, with reports saying those teams include the very enamored Toronto Blue Jays to other less interested parties in the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners. But late yesterday there was a deal that was pretty confusing to all involved. There is a lot of weirdness to the economics of baseball. Mike Trout has been one of baseball’s best players the past two seasons though you’d never know it from his salary, while Alex Rodriguez‘ salary would make one think he the league leader in something other than New York Post Page Six stories. The A’s signed Scott Kazmir for $22M over the next two years, but one has a very reasonable argument saying that Tim Hudson (signed for $23M over the next two years) is worth more than just $500K a year than Kazmir. But so is the game of baseball. Yet all these deals influence others. One guy gets paid handsomely and another free agent says, well wait a minute, I am just as good if not better so I want that pay too and away we go. Trades have the same effect. The market for starting pitchers is notoriously wacky, but yesterday the Tigers basically gave one of the American League’s best pitchers to the Washington Nationals for nothing.
I will leave it to a Detroit Tigers blog to talk about what they think of the Doug Fister deal, but I have long been a fan of his and thought that Detroit got him in a steal from Seattle, but now Washington has equally ripped off the Tigers in acquiring his arbitration eligible and under team control through 2016 services for former Athletic farmhand Ian Krol, infielder Steve Lombardozzi and the highlight of the package pitching prospect Robbie Ray. This move makes no sense to me at all for the Tigers who are certainly a team with an open window of contention and deep pockets. But why then am I writing about it here on an Oakland A’s focused blog? Because if the A’s want to trade Anderson, what other teams are getting for pitchers means something. Anderson is no Fister, Fister in the past three seasons is ranked ninth in WAR behind David Price and ahead of Cole Hamels. No one is talking about Anderson in those circles. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs highlighted how a comp for Fister is realistically James Shields and look at what he brought back last winter (no less than American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers). But if Fister can be had for this weak haul (Ray projects in many circles as a reliever, Krol was a PTBNL just last offseason and Lombardozzi is at best a utility infielder) what can the A’s hope to get for Anderson? A bag of baseballs? Maybe a golf cart to ferry players from Papago to Phoenix Muni?
Yesterday morning’s deal was classic Billy Beane: Scott Kazmir, a recent reclamation project, could have probably net $12M or so on a one-year deal despite his high risk. Beane doubled down and convinced him to come to Oakland (which despite being a competitive team still requires some degree of convincing) and gave him two years $22M. Kazmir got less than he would’ve on a one-year but has $22M to sit and ruminate over through 2015. Great move. That is what made this evening’s move a bit more perplexing. Beane and the A’s are known as staunch believers (as am I) in the principle that relievers are largely interchangeable and thus not worth spending a ton of money on. That is why Grant Balfour‘s resigning was never considered a possibility even as he pitched what we all knew to be his final game against Detroit in Game Five of the ALDS.
So why did the A’s just go out and get a closer who is set to earn over $10M in arbitration for 2014? The Orioles who were contemplating non-tendering Jim Johnson, instead dealt him to the A’s at the last minute for second baseman Jemile Weeks. Weeks’ tenure with the A’s is well-documented by me, who has not been a fan. After a breakout rookie year in 2011 where he hit .303/.340/.421 for 1.7 WAR in 97 games and 437 trips to the plate, he slumped big time in 2012 before finally spending the majority of 2013 back in Sacramento. His 2011 year, I long argued was an illusion built upon luck. His .350 BABIP fueled his .303 batting average and hid his terrible 4.8% BB%. Sure enough in 2012 with the BABIP down to .256 (a number that was to me indicative of just a bad approach and weakly hit balls as someone with his speed should be able to muster at the very least a league average BABIP catching breaks on infield ground balls others wouldn’t) he slumped to .221/.305/.304 in 511 trips to the plate that were painful as a fan to watch. Apparently that too was the case for the A’s brass as they opted to go with virtually any and everyone else at second base in 2013 with Weeks only seeing eight games and nine plate appearances in Oakland (.111/.111/.111 for what it is worth with five of those nine trips resulting in a strikeout) and putting up a strong but nothing to write home about .271/.376/.369 in 614 plate appearances in Sacramento. To say Weeks will be missed by me is false. I didn’t think he fit well, he had speed but didn’t use it well, couldn’t get on base, wasn’t anything to write home about in the field. I felt psychologically he was all over the place and maybe then a change of scenery will do him well. But despite ridding of a player I felt had little utility, I am still not thrilled with this trade that net the A’s an All Star who finished seventh in Cy Young voting just two years ago.
Johnson comes to the A’s having spent the past two seasons as the Orioles closer. After accumulating 21 saves between 2008 and 2011, the surprising 2012 O’s went with Johnson as closer and he delivered with an MLB-leading 51 saves despite strange for a closer peripherals (5.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 0.4 HR/9 for a 3.25 FIP to matc his 2.49 ERA). Last year he followed it up with a tied for MLB-best 50 saves, an improved 7.2 K/9 though slightly worse 2.3 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9 for a 2.94 ERA and 3.45 FIP. For me a more important metric is shutdowns and meltdowns and here Johnson has been stellar the past two years with an MLB leading 86 shutdowns, to just 15 meltdowns. Johnson is undoubtedly good, but did the A’s really need to part with Weeks (who could’ve been dealt elsewhere) to acquire someone so expensive? Is Johnson at $10M really that much better than Balfour potentially on a two-year $20M or so contract? Is Johnson furthermore even really necessary at all when the A’s have been rumored to be chasing Nelson Cruz? Isn’t this also just more money that could’ve been used to bring Tim Hudson (who I still think was the best realistic pitching option) to Oakland? Or even instead signing Phil Hughes to a deal comparable to the one he received from Minnesota (three-years for $24M)? Johnson is good, he makes the A’s better and the A’s win this trade. But as far as value given the A’s limited resources was this the real place to hone in on is what I question.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this move is a precursor to something else. Perhaps it is quintessential Beane. The A’s hold on to the American League’s best closer by several metrics (101 saves the past two seasons, 86 shutdowns) and then when the inevitable injury comes in Spring Training or a team finds out that their closer by committee or Bruce Rendon plan won’t work out for them, the A’s cash in big. Maybe that is in the cards? Who knows. Otherwise this deal is presently a bit of a head-scratcher to me.
The A’s have made what is likely their big offseason signing for the 2013-14 offseason when they agreed to a two-year $22M deal with lefty Scott Kazmir previously of the Cleveland Indians. Kazmir was of course once a very highly heralded prospect and pitched well early in his career with the Tampa Bay Rays, then a loss of velocity saw some scary results before he resurrected his career last year in Cleveland. In comparison to some of the other contracts being handed out, this deal doesn’t seem terrible, but given that the A’s were beaten by their cross bay rival Giants by just one-million to sign Tim Hudson this deal seems a little less fortunate.
This deal will entirely hinge on which Kazmir the A’s get. Do they get the 2013 Kazmir who pitched 158 innings across 29 starts for a 4.04 ERA, 3.51 FIP and 2.5 WAR backed by 9.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9? Or do they get the 2010 and 2011 Kazmir who for the Angels combined to earn -1.3 WAR care of reduced velocity and a mere 5.5 K/9, 4.8 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9 adding to a 6.17 ERA and 5.96 FIP in an equal 29 starts across 151 2/3 innings? While Hudson likely represented a degree of risk given his age and recent injury, Kazmir represents risk in that he has been all over the place All Star in 2006 and 2008 to not pitching anywhere in 2012. For his career Kazmir has thrown to a 4.16 ERA (4.06 FIP) with 8.8 K/9, 4.0 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9 so if he stays near equal the A’s should get good value from the deal. However as noted Kazmir has been either a meteoric star or crash-burn failure. Today it was also announced that the A’s will be tendering a contract to Daric Barton which represents one-million that perhaps could’ve persuaded Hudson to choose the eastern side of the Bay as opposed to the West.
The other thing this deal represents is clearly the end of the A’s relationship with Bartolo Colon. While there could be a surprise in there, Colon’s camp obviously feels he can garner a multi-year deal and this move makes it seem like they must be asking for more than $11.5M a season. Kazmir will be turning 30, so if he is in fact “fixed” he is in his prime, whereas Colon’s advanced age brings up a few more concerns. While I had questioned Colon’s durability, he proved me wrong in his two years with the A’s, time and time again making a low-strikeout, pinpoint control pitch-to-contact method work. He will be missed.
Kazmir has the potential to be a signing akin to the deal that landed Brandon McCarthy. Whereas McCarthy “clicked” in Oakland, Kazmir “re-clicked” I suppose you could call it, in Cleveland. McCarthy wasn’t someone to count on for 30 starts a year but he was good when he was out there. Likewise, Kazmir has some durability concerns but if he can be good when out there the A’s depth can help them a great deal. The A’s now have seven starters for their starting rotation still, so it’d be interesting to see if they deal one (Brett Anderson the most likely candidate), or if they keep their depth (remember last year the Dodgers seemed to have way too many capable starters and yet ended up plucking from the Albuquerque Isotopes lineup numerous times throughout the summer). High upside deal that won’t sink a franchise, typical Billy Beane, no complaints here.
The A’s signed Nick Punto today to a one-year contract worth $2.75M that includes a vesting option for 2015 also worth $2.75M. The option is really complicated so I am just going to quote Susan Slusser’s report from the San Francisco Chronicle where she explains,
“[Punto's] 2015 option for the same amount vests in complicated fashion, all centered around days on the active roster. Some specific injuries would count for more days, some less. The short explanation: if Punto spends less than 30 days on the DL next year, his option for 2015 kicks in. It also could vest with more days on the DL, depending on the reasons. He did not land on the DL at any point last season, but has 11 DL stays in his career, including three in 2011.”
While there are thoughts that this move might portend some truth to the Jed Lowrie to St. Louis rumors, the A’s insist it isn’t the case and I frankly believe them. Punto is uber-versatile with 358 career games at third, 356 at second base, 320 at shortstop, 11 in the outfield, and five at first base. This is really useful for teams with playoff aspirations as the A’s proved 2012 was not a fluke with their second straight division crown. In 2013 with the NL West champion Dodgers, Punto hit .255/.328/.327 with a .296 wOBA and 90 wRC+, a plus defender helped him reach 1.9 WAR making his value last year $9.3M. While Punto is aging, he will be 36 for the 2014 season, he has been worth at least $2M every year since 2004 and over $2.75M every year save three (2004, 2007 and 2012) in that period. Punto provides a great insurance plan at numerous positions for the A’s in 2014 and also gives Oakland more options. While people will argue his production doesn’t justify offsetting Eric Sogard who also has shown some versatility, I think there is a great deal of utility in having a veteran on a young club and Punto provides that as well. This is a small signing, but I think that this is a solid one for Billy Beane and the A’s.
Coco is someone I had complained about when this deal was initially signed but he silenced those complaints this past season putting up a 3.9 WAR year (his best season since 2007) backed by a .261/.335/.444 slash line with a career high 22 home runs and career high (for a full season) 10.4% BB%. He also had a career high 117 wRC+ to go with a solid .339 wOBA. He did all this despite a low .258 BABIP which is odd given that his speed (which resulted in 21 steals in 26 attempts) should help him manage a better mark in that regard. With just a $7.5M option for 2014, if he can put up numbers anywhere near what he has put up in Oakland where an average season looks like a .264/.327/.417 slash line with 12 home runs and 35 steals and 2.9 WAR he will be well worth it as his value (roughly $14.5M) has been nearly twice that amount. No brainer. Now there is discussion of him possibly being considered for an extension and there I might balk given his age (34) and what should be declining range in the outfield and diminishing speed. But yes, no brainer on Crisp for 2014 at $7.5.
Anderson isn’t quite a no-brainer but at $8M (and given that it also provides the A’s access to a $12M option for 2015) it is a fairly conservative call. Rumors state that Toronto might be interested in Anderson along with other clubs, so keeping him at the very least gives the A’s options. Anderson’s value has dropped every year going from being worth $16.3M in 2009 to $9.7M, to $4.6M, to $4.1M to last year’s $1.4M. Obviously Oakland doesn’t want to pay $8M for $1.4M of production, but the hope is Anderson stays on the field. That is frankly the biggest question, can he stay healthy? The record shows the answer should be a very clear: no. Only one season with more than twenty starts (2009, his rookie campaign). Last year he was not good at all throwing 44 2/3 innings of 6.04 ERA baseball though FIP (3.85) likes him more based on his 9.3 K/9, 4.2 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9. Can’t complain with the move.
Suzuki was never going to be picked up. Selected merely so the A’s would have more options down the stretch with John Jaso and Derek Norris injured there is no place for him on the 2014 roster and furthermore there shouldn’t be if the A’s were to pay him the $8.5M required by picking up the option. Instead, Zuk who put up a .303/.343/.545 slash line in just 35 plate appearances for the A’s in their stretch run since coming over from Washington (he had a total .232/.290/.337 between both clubs in his 316 plate appearances) will get a $650K buyout.
At the beginning of 2013 it appeared Young’s option would certainly be picked up but he had a miserable season in Oakland hitting an anemic .200/.280/.379 slash line with 12 home runs, a .289 wOBA and 82 wRC+ in 375 plate appearances. His 0.5 WAR was far off his pace from 2010-2012 with Arizona and made this an easy decision to cut him loose.
The Oakland A’s are far from media darlings. Hell, even me, a fan of the team, doesn’t pick them to win the division figuring that 2012 was a fluke. Yet here they are back-to-back division champs. No one really talks about the A’s. Our “stars” (are there any really?) are unknown to others. How many back-to-back division champions see only three combined All Star appearances featuring Bartolo Colon, Grant Balfour (a last minute sub!) and Ryan Cook? Not too many. But one enduring myth about the A’s persists and I see it everywhere and that is the myth of Oakland being able to generate young pitching talent as if it is an effortless endeavor. The origins of this myth likely are from the early 2000s when the A’s put together Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, followed up with the likes of Joe Blanton, Rich Harden and Dan Haren, who in turn were followed by the likes of Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and now onto Sonny Gray, A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily. This never ending fountain of young pitching. Today that myth persisted in this piece by Drew Silva of HardballTalk. Writing about the somewhat old (three days or so is old in internet land) news that the Toronto Blue Jays have interest in Anderson he wrote,
“Oakland is stocked with good, young starting pitching. Which makesBrett Anderson — who finished the year in the bullpen — a potential trade candidate this winter. Anderson carries an $8 million club option for 2014″
To be fair, I feel there are many reasons to trade Anderson. Despite being heralded an ace and named this year’s Opening Day starter, Anderson really hasn’t shown his stuff at the MLB level that has people in Oakland singing his praises. His career has spanned five seasons during which he has made just 73 starts and pitched just 450 2/3 innings. During that time he has put up a respectable but hardly ace-like 3.81 ERA with a slightly better 3.56 FIP. He has an alright 7.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9. The biggest problem of course is that he has pitched just 450 2/3 innings in these five seasons for an average of 90 1/3 a season. That is because he is brittle, finding himself on the disabled list time after time. In fact one must go back to his first season (2009) to find a season in which he made 30 starts. His next best total came from 2010 (19) and next best after that 2011 (13) and well you get the drift as he sunk to six starts in 2012 and just five this past season. Since his debut season of 2009, 138 other pitchers have thrown more innings than Anderson. Not a sparkling statistic and nothing he has done has proven him to be an ace. This past season was his worst as a pro as he pitched just 44 2/3 innings across 16 appearances and just five starts sporting an awful 6.04 ERA (though FIP liked him much more at 3.85 the victim of an irregularly high .359 BABIP and absymal 61.5% strand rate) with 9.3 K/9 and a career worst 4.2 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9. Is this a guy to pay $8M for next year? Might not be the wisest of investments.
That said, the premise of the post was that the A’s can do it because of their deep pitching staff, not necessarily because the pieces that Anderson could net may be worth more than the uncertainty that is Anderson. This myth is just so deep. Let’s look at the A’s starting pitching depth for just one second. First, Colon is not assured to re-sign so as it stands the A’s have Parker, Griffin, Straily, Gray and Tommy Milone. Who is next? Andrew Werner who is not what I’d call stocked with “good, young starting pitching” as he had a 5.78 ERA and nearly as ugly 4.28 FIP in 165 innings with the River Cats, furthermore he will be 27 next year? Arnold Leon and his underwhelming strikeout totals in AA and AAA who just turned 25? On the 40-man roster you have Michael Ynoa who has 21 innings to his name at High-A Stockton and with a 7.71 ERA and 7.3 BB/9 there to boot! The idea that the A’s have a lot of pitching depth is pure crap. Yet it persists. Foul ground and a never ending turnstile with good live arms, that is what Oakland is apparently known for. Just wish the latter were true.
I love Grant Balfour. This year, I bought a shirsey of his – a level of commitment that is reserved for so few players in my world. He is everything you want in a closer, boisterous, exciting and clearly most importantly effective. When a guy is good at what he does, normally you want to lock them in, re-up them. But with closers that simply isn’t the case. Relievers are replaceable. Quite easily so.
How do you judge who is a good closer? Let’s go the most simplistic route: saves a category in which Balfour ($4.5M) finished tied for eighth in MLB with 38. Ahead of him were: Craig Kimbrel ($655K), Jim Johnson ($6.5M), Greg Holland ($539.5K), Mariano Rivera ($10M), Joe Nathan ($7M), Rafael Soriano ($14M), Addison Reed ($520K) and he was tied with Aroldis Chapman ($2M). The key thing here is those bracketed numbers – the amount these players each earned in 2013. The numbers are just so dramatically divergent with closers. Even if you took out the pre-arbitration elibgle guys here, you have Soriano being paid tied as much as Nathan who in turn is being paid about one and a half times what Balfour is being paid. There is a lot of variance. But maybe saves is a poor measure of quality?
Let’s try something like wins above replacement. I have filtered out everyone with at least ten saves (and arbitrary number but these are guys who were closers for at least a decent chunk of 2013). Balfour falls to 25th on this list (out of a total of 35) with his 0.6 WAR. Yet he is ahead of the aforementioned $14M man Rafael Soriano (0.5). WAR isn’t always the greatest at measuring closers, so let’s go with a method I prefer which is the shutdown to meltdown ratio. This means how many times did a closer affect his team’s chance of winning by 6% or more (shutdown) or 6% or less (meltdown). Important stuff. Relievers are there to close out games, ensure victory. If they come in with a team having an 80% chance of victory and shut it down? Shutdown. Likewise if they blow that same 80% chance of winning? Meltdown. Simple stuff. Pretty fair. Here Balfour fares very well, fifth in baseball with a 6.6 ratio behind only, Holland (at an incredible 10.25), Nathan (9.75), Kimbrel (7.8) and Benoit ($5.5M) (7.3). These are in my mind the best at what they do and I think few would take issue with any of these guys being considered among the top five closers in baseball. But again look at that disparity on pay. While that will exist many times, here again we see it at work. Let’s do this list yet another way, by pay.
Here are the nine highest paid relievers in baseball: Soriano ($14M), Jonathan Papelbon ($13M), Rivera ($10M), Carlos Marmol ($9.8M), Heath Bell ($9M), Chris Perez ($7.3M), Nathan ($7M) and Frank Francisco ($6.5M) and Johnson. Would anyone agree that that list is the nine best closers in baseball? There is a reason for this, closers from year to year are wholly inconsistent. Let’s replicate the three measurements of quality for 2012.
So we start with the inexact but simple example of saves. The first perfect example is that Balfour wasn’t even the closer all year. It was a role shared with Brian Fuentes and Ryan Cook, so in terms of total saves he finished a distant 22nd (further proving my point right off the bat). The top ten on that list were: Johnson ($2.625M), Fernando Rodney ($1.75M), Kimbrel ($590K), Jason Motte ($1.95M), Soriano ($11M), Perez ($4.5), Chapman ($2M), Papelbon ($11M), Nathan ($7M) and Joel Hanrahan ($4.1M). First of all the discrepancy pay wise remains, secondly look at the turnover. There are wholesale different names on this list. In fact of the guys on this list, several Motte, Perez and Hanrahan, weren’t even closers in 2013. Let’s look at WAR, why may provide some insight.
Balfour does well on the WAR count in 2012 at 1.5 as he was tied for eighth among those pitchers who had at least ten saves. The list ahead of him includes some familiar names and some first time mentions in this piece with: Kimbrel leading the way followed by, Chapman, Rodney, Holland, Kenley Jansen, Nathan and J.J. Putz. In the shutdown to meltdown ratio category, which again I see as most important, Balfour again performs well finishing ninth among the 34 qualifying pitchers with a 4.6 mark, behind Rodney (17.0), Johnson (15.3), Kimbrel (9.3), Chapman (6.8), Sergio Romo ($1.575M) (5.6), Hanrahan (5.2), Soriano (5.1) and Perez (4.9). These guys represent the best but again their pay doesn’t match that assessment at all.
The point is simple. The best closers vary from year to year. There might be some who are consistently among the best, and Balfour very well may be one of them. But you can get that same production from other people both on the free-agent market who aren’t currently closers, or from converting someone else (and the A’s have several candidates including Cook who served admirably in the role) to become your closer. As far as value, there is so little as everyone knows in paying big on the guy who will shutdown your ballgame. Of the nine highest paid closers in baseball this year, one is playing postseason baseball (Marmol), and he isn’t even his team’s closer. That says something doesn’t it?