The Distant Future… the Year Two Thousand… (Nine.)

Finally, a bright point in this long, cold, and particularly boring offseason: Baseball Prospectus has released their 2009 PECOTA projections. There’s a lot of different projection systems out there, but BP‘s are almost always more accurate than anyone else’s. (I particularly enjoyed their predictions of the fall of the 2007 White Sox on the nose, and the larger amount of faith in the 2008 Rays than anyone else.)

Since this is a pay service, I won’t out-and-out post the spreadsheet here. But what I will do is point out some very interesting things that stand out related to the Dodgers.

Which Mediocre Starter Should Get Signed?
Wolf: 133 IP, 1.40 WHIP, 4.50 ERA, 14.1 VORP
Looper: 125.2 IP, 1.39 WHIP, 4.62 ERA, 9.2 VORP

And In the Outfield?
Dunn: .262/.396/.541 36hr 34.6 VORP
Manny: .295/.391/.538 30hr 49.0 VORP
Abreu: .282/.368/.436 13hr 20.8 VORP

More evidence that if we don’t get Manny, I strongly prefer Dunn over Abreu.

Notable MLB Position Rankings by VORP?
Martin: 5th, behind Wieters, McCann, Soto, Mauer
Loney: 17th, above Youkilis, C.Pena, Helton
DeWitt: 24th as a 3B. This score would get him 22nd at 2B, tied with Iwamura
Blake: 21st, above Rolen and Mora, but behind Mat Gamel and Brett Wallace
Furcal: 7th, above Jeter, Tejada, Young, Tulowitzki
Kemp: 5th among CF! above Hamilton, Granderson, Upton
Ethier: 3rd among RF! above Bruce, Pence, Markakis, Ordonez
Billingsley: 13th among SP, above F.Hernandez, Sheets, C.Zambrano, Lee, Cain
Kershaw: 38th, above Lilly, Slowey, Dice-K, Lester

Surprisingly Good!
Tony Abreu, after barely playing for two years: .261/.314/.377 7.6 VORP
Ivan DeJesus, despite not making it to MLB yet: .269/.338/.346 14.3 VORP

Surprisingly Bad!
Jason Repko, after a good year in AAA: .210/.284/.332 -14.4 VORP

Much Ado About Nothing

Manny’s coming. Manny’s going. Manny’s napping. Manny’s making a tuna fish sandwich. Manny’s visiting San Francisco. Oh, wait, that was just Manny watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Manny’s considering wearing Spock ears when he plays. Manny might go to Japan. Manny might just go to P.F. Chang’s instead.

Think we haven’t had enough of that yet? Just replace the name “Manny” in that sentence with “Randy Wolf”, and that’s basically the two things we’ve been living with around here. Constantly, endlessly, eternally. So lets ignore the both of them and catch up some of the other things, minor though they may be, affecting the 2009 pitching staff.

jamesmcdonald.jpg * James McDonald’s going to be a reliever! So says Rick Honeycutt to Ken Gurnick. In the vacuum of “James McDonald”, I don’t really have a problem with this for his development. It helps keep his innings down, it’ll give him a low-pressure way to ease into the majors, the jump in his velocity as a reliever last year has been well-documented, and – as Honeycutt mentions – it worked out well for Chad Billingsley. Besides, the thought of McDonald/Kuo/Wade/Broxton in the pen is pretty slick, and we haven’t even discussed Troncoso or Elbert yet. But the problem I do have with this is that the starting rotation is hardly overflowing with options, so I’m not quite sold on the idea of removing one of them. Assuming that Wolf or Looper does end up signed, that means that the #5 slot is… Jason Schmidt? Claudo Vargas? That said, Billingsley barely made it through half the season before he was pushed into the rotation (ironically, when Schmidt was injured the first time). Don’t be surprised when the same thing happens here.

* No one has to suffer through Jon Garland! Thanks to him signing in Arizona for one year and a mutual option for a second. Now, it’s true that I did say I’d prefer Garland over Wolf and Looper the other day. But don’t mistake that for meaning that I really wanted Garland on the team. For the price and durability, it’s a good deal, but the freefalling strikeout rates are an enormous concern – if it falls any further, the fact that you’ll get 200 innings out of him won’t matter if he’s allowing six runs per nine. I wouldn’t have minded having him; but I’m hardly crushed to have missed out. 

* Tanyon Sturtze is back! Uh, great? Our intense distaste for the never-really-that-good Sturtze was well detailed here last year, but I particularly enjoyed this take from Giambi Mustache Squad:

Sturtze, a favorite of Torre’s when he was managing the Yankees, is a right-handed reliever whose specialty is coming into close games and immediately letting up home runs.  He is a desirable asset to Torre’s pitching staff because his versatility allows him to serve as an ineffective spot starter as well.  

That sounds about right. Assuming that Sturtze’s Medicaid doesn’t expire before March, he’ll be… what? Can I even say “competing for a spot in the bullpen?” There’s already five locks to make the roster in Broxton, Kuo, Wade, Mota, and McDonald, plus Troncoso and Elbert kicking around, plus the possibility that a 5th starter loser like Schmdit or Vargas ends up here, plus the fact that Colletti’s said he still wants to sign another reliever. What is it, would you say, you do here, Tanyon? 

* Knuckleball knuckleball knuckleball! Signings don’t get much more minor than picking up a guy that the Padres just non-tendered, but still: I’m firmly rooting for Charlie Haeger. How could you not love a knuckleballer? The Dodgers haven’t had one since Tom Candiotti nearly twenty years ago, and have one of the best knuckleteachers around in Charlie Hough. Haeger’s only 25, anyway, so he’s still got time to put in twenty years as the next Tim Wakefield. Until he goes to Albuquerque and gives up eleven homers in his first start. Charlie Haeger: favorite MSTI minor league signing in years.

* It’s still cool to read if it’s about baseball! Finally, congrats to Dr. Weisman and his new book, 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Check it out.

Did Kansas City Just Help Define the Market for Chad Billingsley?

It’s not often I get to feature Kansas City Royals news on this site, so let’s take a moment to reflect on trading Odalis Perez for Elmer Dessens, considering Esteban German, and the unfortunate acquisition of Angel Berroa as recent - though tenuous – ties between Los Angeles and Kansas City. Since I’m pretty sure that the Royals could dump their entire roster and still not be in on Manny Ramirez, what could they possibly have done now that’d affect the Dodgers? CBS Sports and their suspiciously Pete Hornberger-looking columnist Danny Knobler have the answer:

We’d known for a while that the Royals were interested in signing Zack Greinke to an extension, but today’s news of a four-year deal is still noteworthy. Finally, the Royals have shown a willingness to keep a young talent rather than trade him away.

Greinke’s deal will pay him $38 million, sources told

Somewhat lost in the Manny-mania, Furcal-kerfluffle and… uh… starting-rotation flu of this offseason is the need to start identifying which of the crop of young players is worth keeping around and getting them signed to long-term deals. Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, and Jonathan Broxton each reached arbitration this year; James Loney, Matt Kemp, and Chad Billingsley aren’t far behind. You just can’t go year-to-year in arbitration with all of those guys; not only will their prices increase every year, the complete lack of cost certainty ruins your planning. I think we’d all agree that Martin is the highest priority due to the utter lack of catching, and there are rumors that discussion towards that end have been had. Logically, wouldn’t a top young ace like Billingsley be next in the queue?

It’s not exactly a fair comparison between Greinke and Billingsley right now, because Greinke was arbitration-eligible while Billingsley still has one more year of low-priced servitude. That being said, let’s compare Greinke, Billingsley, and another young starter who recently signed a deal – Cole Hamels.

Pitcher Yrs/$ ’09 Age  Service  Yrs Bought IP ERA+ Extra Credit…
Hamels 3/$20.5m 25 2.143 3 arb-eligible 543 133 married Survivor babe
Greinke 4/$38m 25 4.057 2 arb, 2 FA 658.7 105 missed ’06 w/anxiety
Billingsley 24 2.110 1 more until arb 437.2 132 broke leg in November

Hamels and Billingsley are actually surprisingly similar – look at those ERA+’s – though the fact that Hamels was a postseason hero and already arbitration-eligible as a “Super 2″ player skews the comparison slightly. Still, Hamels is making $6.8m/year to skip out on arbitration, while Greinke is getting $9.5m/year to bypass his first two years of free agency as well. Assuming that Billingsley has another solid year, he’ll enter 2010 with three arbitration years left, but with better stats than Greinke. I mean, there’s no longer any remaining question about whether we want him around, right? So why not buy out his three arbitration years and the first year of free agency with a 4 year, $36 million deal? It’s more per year than Hamels, because it includes a year of free agency where Hamels’ does not; it’s slightly less than Greinke because while Billingsley is the superior pitcher, it only takes away one free agent year whereas Greinke just signed away two.

I really don’t expect anything to happen with Billingsley this offseason; not with him still being a year from arbitration and coming off a broken leg. But by this time next year, other young stars like Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester will be coming up on arbitration years, and if they’ve signed even bigger contracts than Greinke and Hamels, it could pull Billingsley’s price up even further. We all know we want him – let’s get it done.

Time To Play Pin the Pitcher On the Dodgers

We all know that the Dodgers are going to sign a starting pitcher to help replace Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Greg Maddux. (No, monkeys – Claudio Vargas and Shawn Estes do not count.) Now, I’ve advocated here several times why Ben Sheets should be that man, especially with his price dropping so far. He’s the only pitcher available who has the chance to be great rather than average, and a team as close as the Dodgers are really ought to be taking a small-money chance on him, even with his injury history. But from everything we’ve heard, Sheets to the Dodgers just isn’t going to be happening. So let’s forget him for the moment and try to make a choice about the guys that have been linked to Los Angeles: Randy Wolf, Braden Looper, and Jon Garland.

jongarland.jpgWe discussed Wolf and Garland in our look at the available free agent pitchers back in December, and I’m still not happy that Randy Johnson went to San Francisco rather than put on the Blue. But really, we always knew that judging whichever one was signed was going to be strongly influenced by the type of deal they’re given. It’s one thing to prefer Garland to Looper with no questions asked; it’s quite another if Garland was expecting four years while Looper only two. However, if you believe Peter Gammons, they’re all coming in on a level playing field:

Essentially Randy Wolf, Jon Garland and Braden Looper are getting similar offers in the range of $5 million per year (plus options and incentives). As of Friday, Wolf was not close to reaching a deal with any team.

So, it seems that the money will be the same, and there’s a 98% chance that one of these men will be wearing Blue next season. That being the case, let’s pick one, so that we can say “I told you so!” when the Dodgers inevitably end up with one of the others. Remember, none of these guys are ace-quality types.

2009 Age!
Looper: 34
Wolf: 32
Garland: 29
Advantage: Garland, by a surprising amount. I had no idea Looper was that old, but then again, he has been around since 1998.

Looper: After eight years as a reliever, was converted to starting in 2007; has made 30+ starts in each of his two seasons in the rotation.
Wolf: Missed most of 2005 and 06 after undergoing major arm surgery; after a successful first half in LA in 2007 missed most of the second half with more arm pain. Did bounce back to throw 190 innings last season.
Garland: Seven consecutive years of 30+ starts and 191+ innings. Has never been on the DL.
Advantage: Garland, again. Wolf is less reliable than Sheets (it’s true, look it up) and while Looper hasn’t been hurt, he is the oldest and has a short track record starting.

Looper: ERA+ of 89 and 102, WHIP of about 1.32 as a starter.
Wolf: ERA+ of 100, 84, 97, 93 the last four seasons. However, he was awful in a great park in San Diego in 2008 (81 ERA+) and fantastic in a tough park in Houston (119 ERA+) after being moved. So, who the hell knows.
Garland: Steady, but boring. After three good years to finish off his White Sox career (128, 105, 112 ERA+) he was lousy in Anaheim last year (91 OPS+, 1.505 WHIP).
Advantage: None. All three of these guys are basically mediocre. Wolf gets it done with more strikeouts than Garland and Looper, but sometimes with less success. Choosing one on this point would be like choosing who’s hottest of Helen Hunt, Brooke Shields, and Katey Sagal: they all get a solid “meh.”

Looper: is going to be 34, so there’s not much upside left here.
Wolf: It’s hard to say that a 32-year-old with an injury history has upside, but he was near the top of the NL in strikeouts before he got hurt in 2007. Again, last year’s bizarre performance really skews this – he was fantastic with the Astros, but how could he have been so bad in San Diego?
Garland: none, with the caveat that moving into the NL West from the AL would certainly help him. What you see is what you get: 200 innings of reliable, low-strikeout, roughly average performance.
Advantage: Wolf. I guess.

Bill James 2009 predictions from FanGraphs!
Looper: 11-10, 4.03 in 187 IP
Wolf: 10-12, 4.29 in 195 IP
Garland: 10-11, 4.38 in 186 IP
Advantage: Push. If this doesn’t show you how mediocrely average all of these guys are, nothing will. No wonder they’re all in the same financial ballpark.

Fun “hometown boy returns” angles for local papers!
Looper: Zero. Grew up in Oklahoma, went to Wichita State.
Wolf: Huge upside for Wolf here; we already lived through all the “he went to Pepperdine!” and “he grew up watching the Dodgers!” stories in 2007.
Garland: But a late contender in Garland, who’s from Southern Cal and apparently grew up a Dodger fan as well!
Advantage: Push, Wolf and Garland.

Well, Braden Looper didn’t win any of these categories, plus he’s the oldest and has the smallest track record. He’s out. Really, it comes down to the differences that Wolf and Garland can offer you. Wolf is probably the more talented pitcher, and if he’s healthy and on his game he’s a better option than Garland. But on the other hand, if these are the three guys you’re choosing from, you don’t need an ace. With the other questions in the rotation, you want a guy who you know can pick up innings. Between Billingsley’s leg and big innings increase, Kuroda’s shoulder, and Kershaw’s youth, there’s no one we can say will almost definitely give us 200 innings. Garland, by all accounts, can. They won’t be great innings, but league-average innings do carry value. So when one of those three hits the DL – and trust me, one will – I’d rather know we have a steady horse like Garland than a question mark like Wolf.

So, I guess I’m going to have to swallow hard and say, that assuming the money and length are about equal… I choose Jon Garland over Randy Wolf. Which of course means we’ll be welcoming Braden Looper to LA in a few days.

(Who are we kidding, though? Ben Sheets is still the only right answer. I know it sounds like that goes against what I just said in choosing the reliability of Garland over Wolf, but it’s not quite the same. Sheets is without question a more talented pitcher than Wolf and he’s more durable, as well. With how low his price has dropped, and how close this team is, it’s worth it to take a gamble on an ace-quality pitcher. Draft pick be damned.)