Trading Season is Coming Fast

A few notes on the upcoming hilarity which will be trade season as we wait for Aaron Harang and the Dodgers to take on Brandon McCarthy (potentially my favorite non-Dodger pitcher) and the Athletics tonight…

* We can slow down on those Ryan Dempster rumors for now. Dempster was placed on the disabled list with a sore right lat. It’s not expected to be serious, and it won’t take him off the market entirely, since the trade deadline isn’t for another six weeks. He was expected to be a fast mover in the market, however, and now any interested buyers will not only have to factor in his health, they’ll have to note that they could be receiving 4-5 fewer of his starts than they might have otherwise. In some way, this is a good thing, because it hopefully lowers his value.

* The Red Sox are apparently very motivated to move Kevin Youkilis. Or at least, that’s what Ken Rosenthal & Jon Paul Morosi claim…

The last days of Kevin Youkilis in a Boston Red Sox uniform may be approaching.

Trade dialogue surrounding the beleaguered Boston third baseman has intensified in the last 24 to 48 hours, major-league sources told FOXSports.com. The Red Sox have made clear that (a) Youkilis is available and (b) they are willing to include cash to facilitate a better player return. In response, a number of clubs have indicated that they have interest in acquiring the three-time All-Star.

“He’s being shopped everywhere,” said one high-ranking official with a National League club.

Youkilis has struggled, with his single last night being his first in more than a week. Obviously, if he doesn’t start producing, it’s pointless for any team to want him; on the other hand, I’m still having a hard time believing that a guy with a .373 OBP last year is just done, and as we’ve been over, the 1B/3B bar in Los Angeles is so, so low right now. As with Dempster, the silver lining here may be that his trade value has plummeted; Chris Cwik at FanGraphs investigates just how much:

Even if those teams are desperate for help at their corner infield slots, they shouldn’t have to give up any significant prospects for Youkilis. Middlebrooks’ play has made Youkilis redundant. If the Red Sox continue to play Youkilis at third, they’ll do so at the expense of Middlebrooks. And since the Red Sox already have better players at first and DH, the Red Sox don’t have a lot of leverage. If the Red Sox were to cover most — or all — of Youkilis’ remaining salary, it’s possible they could receive a low-level impact player. Maybe a reliever or a good bat off the bench. But right now, there’s no reason for a team to break the bank on Youkilis.

Even with his struggles, there is going to be a market for Kevin Youkilis. And while he would represent upgrades at third for some contending teams, he would be even more valuable moving back to first base. That makes the Dodgers and the Indians two of the teams that should be inquiring about Youkilis. And considering Kenny Williams is no stranger to taking risks, the White Sox will likely be involved as well. He’s had a history of success, and there will probably be a team willing to take a risk on him turning things around. But unless he starts producing soon, the Red Sox are going to receive pennies on the dollar for him.

* How worried should we be about Ned Colletti being the man in control this July? We’ve long since come to terms with the fact that few of us are big Colletti fans, particularly when it comes to big-ticket free agents or high-profile trades. (He’s much better on the smaller stuff.) Over at Baseball Prospectus, R.J. Anderson breaks down Colletti’s reputation as a GM who loves to trade prospects, noting that of the 36 “young” players Colletti has traded, 17 never appeared in the bigs (so far, at least) and 14 more contributed almost no value. Of the remaining five – Edwin Jackson, Dioner Navarro, Cody Ross, Carlos Santana, & James McDonald – Anderson grades three deals as “fail” and two as “pass”.

Colletti’s evaluation mistakes cost the Dodgers two middle-of-the-rotation starters, an All-Star catcher, and a good fourth outfielder at most. But what about the flip side? What about when Colletti correctly evaluated his own prospects? Silver wrote, “One of [Colletti's] strengths seems to be knowing when to bail on his own players.” In the time since, Colletti has reaffirmed that notion. Some of Colletti’s better trades have come when correctly identifying the lemons in his own bunch. He traded Bryan Morris and LaRoche to acquire Manny Ramirez (easily the best deal of his career), used the intrigue of Joel Guzman to land Julio Lugo (whom, for whatever reason, fell to pieces, mitigating an otherwise clever deal), grabbed Jon Garland for Tony Abreu, got Jim Thome for nothing, and added Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot for Blake DeWitt and two prospects who were unable to make the Cubs’ top-20 list this preseason.

Tagging Colletti as a good or bad general manager adds no value. What can add value is breaking general managers down to tools and skills. Colletti seems to understand that future value is worth less than present value, particularly when his team has the ability to compete now and the resources to compete later. Proper evaluation is the engine in Colletti’s machine. That means the Dodgers have to continue to land potentially useful players and continue to evaluate and harvest the potentially overvalued prospects. Every once and a while, Colletti is going to miss on a player. It happens; even John Schuerholz, the master of farm system self-evaluation, lost a few times.

This isn’t to say that Dodgers fans should have blind faith in Colletti, just that cowering in fear seems to be equally as unreasonable.

I’d say that’s fair, and it’s amazing how much less negativity there is about Colletti when you look at trades only and forget the hundreds of millions wasted on Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, Jason Schmidt, Juan Uribe, and others. Still, I can’t say I have a ton of faith in him trying to out-negotiate Theo Epstein and many of the other GMs.

* Finally, please send your best wishes… to Roberto Baly of Vin Scully is My Homeboy, who is dealing with some health concerns. Roberto runs a great blog and is by all indications an even better person, and we all wish him the best.

Stan Kasten Should Not Fire Ned Colletti

…at least not now, anyway.

I’ve been seeing a surprising amount of unhappiness from Dodger fans over a series of notes from Bill Shaikin, Dylan Hernandez, and Tim Brown, who all claim that Stan Kasten not only plans to make no immediate moves in the front office, but that he has a good relationship with Ned Colletti, even meeting for dinner a few weeks ago. Since so many of us have been saying for so long that the potential of new ownership pushing Colletti out might be even more beneficial from a baseball perspective than Frank McCourt leaving, this has been taken in some quarters as a sign that we may yet be stuck with Colletti for some time to come. Fire up the red alarms, right?

To which I say: well, of course this is what’s happening. Say what you want about Ned Colletti – and believe me, I have – but I have yet to read a single report of anyone finding him anything less than friendly and personable. There’s a big difference between “being a terrible general manager” and “being an awful person”, and by all indications, Colletti’s the kind of guy who gets along with everyone and has few enemies in the business. Beyond that, Colletti & Kasten have mutual friends and Colletti was well aware that he was speaking to a man who very well might be his boss soon, and the real story here would have been if we were hearing that the two men weren’t getting along.

It works that way from Kasten’s end, too. Hey, he may very well plan to come in and fire Colletti. You know that I hope he does, because all of the stories you read about how Colletti’s hands were tied because of McCourt’s lowered payrolls are complete garbage. But when he says things like “I go in assuming everyone is doing their job properly” and that he wants to support the current team, keep in mind that it’s really the only thing he can say. Even if it was a good idea to fire the general manager the week before the season starts – spoiler alert: it’s not – don’t forget that Kasten and company don’t officially take power until May 1. Though it may be entertaining to imagine Kasten coming out and saying “Colletti? Ha, that guy is so unemployed, remember when he gave $117m to Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre, & Andruw Jones?” it of course makes absolutely no sense for him to start a public turmoil by saying that now when he couldn’t even follow through on it for another month.

I still think Colletti will be long gone by this time next year, and perhaps even by the July trading deadline if the team is struggling this season. But it’s not going to happen right now, nor should it.

Going For That 2006 Division Title

We’ve been joking for some time around here how the recent collection of veterans that Ned Colletti has put together would have been a lot more attractive in 2006 than it’s going to be in 2012 (and, sigh, 2013). So, beset by an unfortunate case of insomnia at 5:50am, I thought, let’s put that to the test. If you’ll indulge me a few non-roster invites, you can put together an entire squad…

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0ArLdII1V6aPZdGpMUW1Dc19iQjNrVUhtb04wRlRLckE

If not an immediate championship contender, that’s a team that might at least be in the hunt. Josh Bard had his career year, while Juan Rivera & Andre Ethier were middle-of-the-order bats; Juan Uribe still couldn’t get on base but at least showed power, and Mark Ellis, Adam Kennedy, and Matt Treanor were all reasonably useful. On the mound, the rotation may have been an ace short but at least comprised a legitimate top four, while the bullpen had enough to get by. Other than Jerry Hairston, who was absolutely atrocious that year, is there a single one of the newcomers we expect to be better in 2012 than they were in 2006? Doesn’t seem likely.

By the way, of the entire list above, only Lilly, Uribe, and Kennedy made more than $3m that season. You don’t want to know what the total is now.

Coming Monday: pros and cons of potential new ownership groups.

MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Management

Don Mattingly (B+)

Sometimes, I think we underestimate just how bad of a situation the 2011 Dodgers were for a rookie manager to get shoved into. As if getting handed the reins to a team with no managerial experience wasn’t tough enough, Don Mattingly was lucky enough to finally get his dream job on a team that suffered through one of the worst off-field seasons of any club I can remember in decades. That’s on top of an on-field collection that featured two superstars but far more dead space than bright spots.

That’s a team that could have collapsed, and not just in a traditional “we’re going to lose 98 games” sort of way, but in a “we’ve totally given up and we’re going to be an embarrassment on and off the field” sort of way. You don’t have to squint to hard to envision a scenario where we’d have been calling for Mattingly’s head at the end of the worst season in the long history of the Dodger franchise.

But it didn’t happen. The team was awful for the first few months, losing games and being uninteresting while doing so and losing nearly the entire bullpen to injury, but we never questioned their effort. Save for Andre Ethier’s usual outbursts, we never heard about problems in the clubhouse, and from our external view, Mattingly was able to keep the club focused on the field and not in the courtroom. By the end of September, as the team suddenly turned into a second-half force, I had no choice but to praise Mattingly’s performance:

Now let’s be clear, because we talked about this last week when discussing Jeff Pentland vs Dave Hansen: with the exception of the new-and-improved James Loney, this team largely turned around because they turned over their roster. They had more Juan Rivera & second takes of Jerry Sands and Dee Gordon, as opposed to hundreds of plate appearances wasted on the gimpy and useless like Juan Uribe, Dioner Navarro, Marcus Thames, and a less-than-healthy Ethier. A manager, no matter how beloved or despised, can only have so much impact on a game. But had things been allowed to fall apart even more than they had in the middle of the season, there might not even have been the opportunity to rebound.

No, he hasn’t been perfect, because this is the same guy who has killed us with bunts, used Mike MacDougal in big spots, and who once chose Juan Castro over Sands and others to pinch-hit with the bases loaded, which also meant Kershaw came out too early and Lance Cormier had to be used to blow the game. Then again, what manager is? Perhaps I’m colored because I was very vocally disliked Joe Torre, but complaints with managerial decisions seem to be cut by a factor of five this year.

Don Mattingly isn’t going to win the NL Manager of the Year award, nor should he, yet he probably will get some back-end support, and it’s well deserved. If a year ago at this time, nearly to the day, we were worried that with everything else the Dodgers had going on, they’d also have to deal with an inexperienced manager no one could count on, now we’ve seen that Mattingly is capable of keeping the players focused and working, no matter what kind of garbage is coming from the outside. In a season of small victories and big defeats, that’s one to be proud of.

Two months later, my opinion hasn’t changed. Mattingly’s not the perfect manager, just because nobody who likes bunts as much as he does could be. But in a trying season, he proved masterful at keeping the clubhouse focused and the players under control; his (and Davey Lopes’) impact on Kemp alone should be worth a raise. Considering how little I thought of Torre and how worried we were about Mattingly to start the year, 2011 was a successful one from the bench. Now let’s hope that Mattingly spends his winter checking out run expectancy charts, can we?

Ned Colletti (D)

(As a reminder, this covers only Ned’s moves from the end of the 2010 season to the end of the 2011 season, so it’s not the place to complain that this year’s club had Dioner Navarro instead of Carlos Santana, or that Juan Rivera was re-signed for far too much.)

Let’s start with the positives, because there honestly weren’t many. Aaron Miles, Mike MacDougal, and Dana Eveland were the kind of decent zero-cost, mild-return scrap-heap pickups that Colletti does a good enough job of finding every year, and swapping out Marcus Thames for Juan Rivera at basically no cost worked out wonderfully, at least at first. Getting a decent reliever in Blake Hawksworth for the brutal Ryan Theriot was solid, though somewhat marked down because Colletti had acquired Theriot in the first place, and while trading away Rafael Furcal he picked up an interesting if somewhat fringy prospect in Alex Castellanos. Oh, and he signed Chad Billingsley to a reasonably priced three-year deal, which was nice, and even though it completely failed to work out, trying to go overboard in pitching depth by signing Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla to round out the rotation was a clever idea, at least until Garland let it slip that other teams didn’t like his medical reports.

Got that? Good. Now let’s recall how we felt about the 2010-11 offseason back in Februrary:

I’ll be the first to say that this hasn’t exactly been the brightest offseason around here. We’ve been dismayed at the seemingly excessive contracts handed out to Matt Guerrier, Rod Barajas, and Juan Uribe. We’ve cringed at the impending disastrophe of the JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr. situation in left field, wondered why they couldn’t find a righty partner for Andre Ethier, been disappointed over the inability to upgrade on Casey Blake, and resigned ourselves to another year of mediocrity from James Loney. We’ve been terrified at both how there’s no good option for a #2 hitter and how the lineup as a whole seems to have been assembled with no regard for OBP. We’ve worried about atrocious outfield defense and considered what things may have looked like if the near-misses for aging vets Aubrey Huff , Michael Young, and AJ Pierzynski hadn’t been misses at all. We’ve fretted that minor-league deals or not, historically poor players like Juan Castro and Aaron Miles are in the mix and just may make the team, and we’ve wondered when and if proven young talents like Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley would see long-term deals.

With the exception of the fact that Billingsley did end up getting signed, how much of what worried us before the season no longer seems accurate after it? Not a whole lot; we expected most of those moves to work poorly, and they largely did. Besides, that list doesn’t even include the fact that Colletti had actually picked up the team half of Scott Podsednik‘s 2011 option, which Podsednik miraculously declined, or that Dioner Navarro was handed a job that he in no way deserved.

And that’s what really bothers me the most, you know. It’s one thing when a well-thought-out plan doesn’t pan out, because that’s happened to every general manager in the history of baseball, and it’s happened to all of us in our day-to-day lives… and it’s another thing when a collection of moves which you know aren’t going to work don’t work. We knew a lineup full of low-OBP guys would have trouble scoring runs. We knew Blake couldn’t stay healthy. We knew Ethier wasn’t going to hit lefties. We knew going after Huff was an awful idea, and consider it a bullet dodged that it didn’t happen. We knew Navarro wasn’t better than A.J. Ellis. We knew Thames and Jay Gibbons were not the solution in left field. We knew that Guerrier wasn’t going to be a difference-maker in the bullpen. I’ll grant that we didn’t exactly know that Uribe would be quite this bad in year one, but we knew that he wasn’t worth the contract. Those things were almost certainly not going to work, and they didn’t; pressures from the McCourt divorce aside, these are the reasons why the Dodgers were such a lousy squad through the first few months of the year.

I basically said as much in June, as things really looked bleak

The point is, this was always a flawed team, one that few thought was going to head anywhere unless everything worked out completely perfectly. It hasn’t, and while the depths we’ve seen lately may have been deeper than expected from a team we thought would be at least competitive, little here has been a complete surprise. For once, that’s not entirely Frank McCourt’s fault. Off-field distractions aside, the Dodgers were one of the more active teams in free agency last winter, and though the payroll isn’t to the levels it really ought to be, it’s also not a $50m shoestring budget like other teams have to deal with. This is the team that Ned Colletti put together, and it hasn’t been pretty.

Once the season started, Colletti’s main role was filling in holes of a roster decimated by injury and looking around to see what was out there if Hiroki Kuroda accepted a trade. Kuroda didn’t, but credit to Colletti for at least acknowledging the team was in sell mode this year. Of course, the former PR man did have his usual “foot-in-mouth” moment early in the season, publicly stating Jonathan Broxton was out as the closer weeks before that was actually true. And then out of nowhere came the Trayvon Robinson deal, just seconds before the July 31 deadline, which was so universally reviled that it turned Colletti into a national punchline. (Okay, more of a punchline.) My thoughts on the matter are well-known, and I’m not going to repeat them all here… but okay, I wrote a ton about it, so here’s two paragraphs:

That means that fans – not just Dodger fans, this happens on all teams – tend to overvalue their own players, and even yesterday on Twitter I saw people groaning about losing Robinson before even knowing who was coming back. I think that’s short-sighted, because I have no problem with trading prospects. A solid farm system exists to provide value, and while the obvious outcome is “good young player comes up to join the big club”, value can also come from “good young player is traded for immediate impact veteran or another good young player”. Depending on the circumstances, trading a top prospect is not always a bad thing – as long as you get value back. If the Dodgers are deep in outfielders and short in catching, than the idea of trading Robinson for an impact catching prospect is not a terrible plan.

The problem here is that few think Tim Federowicz is an impact catcher, and many doubt he can hit enough to even be a viable major league starter. This isn’t a new theme, because so far in Ned Colletti’s tenure, he’s often spent prospects to get players who were not of equal value. I didn’t mind trading Santana when we all thought Russell Martin would be here for 5-7 more years; I hated trading him for two months of a good-but-not-great third baseman. (If Santana had been sent to Cleveland for CC Sabathia that year rather than Blake, I guarantee you there wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same outcry.) I didn’t mind the idea of trading James McDonald & Andrew Lambo, two players unlikely to be stars, but the problem was a team that had no business going for it in 2010 trading them for an elderly reliever who wasn’t going to make a difference. This is why the Robinson trade stinks so bad, because you’re trading a top-5 Dodger prospect for three guys who are barely top-25 Red Sox prospects.

And even though Robinson had an uncertain debut in Seattle and may never pan out, that’s still the point – the idea that you likely could have gotten more in return for him than what they did. Even if neither Robinson or Federowicz become anything, it doesn’t feel as though Robinson’s value was utilized fully. Though we’ve never doubted his passion or humanity – made clear in a rare August interview – we’ve also never doubted that one of the brightest moments of his tenure was that flickering hope that the Cubs might actually be interested in bringing him aboard.

But Ned is what Ned is, and he’s been around long enough that it’s foolish to hold out hope that he can change. If anything, watch the rush for a new owner closely, since new owners often like to bring in their own people.

******

That wraps up this year’s edition of the season in review series. Thanks as always for reading and indulging the need to fill up down time in the fall months with such a long series.

The Dodgers and Advanced Statistics


Since the Dodgers have seemingly managed to go nearly 24 full hours without signing anyone (though not without filing yet another lawsuit!), let’s do something different. Let’s talk about sabermetrics, which I understand is a dirty word for some. Or “advanced statistics”, or “Moneyball”, or “new school philosophy”, or whatever you want to call it. Though some teams rely on this kind of evaluation more than others, it’s a myth that there are teams who are completely “Moneyball” and teams who aren’t. Every single team uses some combination of scouting and statistics to make decisions; despite what you might have heard, Oakland’s baseball operations department is not entirely Billy Beane and a bunch of computers. The A’s still use scouts, and teams seen as “behind the curve” still use statistics. This is a good thing, because any organization who doesn’t take advantage of all of the information available is cheating themselves.

Still, facts rarely get in the way of a good story, and with the recent hiring of Alex Tamin as the Dodgers’ new “Director of Baseball Contracts, Research, and Operations,” there’s suddenly this belief among some that the club has “gone sabermetric”; hell, SI‘s Tom Verducci outright said as much:

The Dodgers and general manager Ned Colletti, with his three decades in baseball, have gone sabermetric. In September the Dodgers hired Alex Tamin, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and UCLA School of Law, as Director of Baseball Contracts, Research and Operations. That was a confirmation that Los Angeles is joining the “new school” franchises with a strong belief — not just an obligatory nod — that quantitative analysis plays an important role in building a winning team.

Tamin’s addition is welcome, particularly since his legal background and baseball experience make him an ideal replacement for Kim Ng when it comes to negotiations and arbitration hearings. He’s represented the Dodgers and other clubs as an outside counsel in arbitration hearings before, and he most recently maintained a legal practice specializing in commercial litigation. If he brings a touch of outside thinking that might differ from a baseball lifer like Colletti, all the better, though that hardly seems to qualify as “going sabermetric”, particularly when half the point of Colletti being hired in the first place is that he was about as far removed from Paul DePodesta as you can possibly be. So kudos to the Dodgers for what seems to be a worthy hire.

This, however, is not sabermetrics (also from Verducci’s article):

So Colletti will have to apply his increased sabermetric vision to improving this team around the edges. For example, Colletti re-signed righthanded hitter Juan Rivera ($4.5 million) because his quantitative analysis showed the Dodgers’ lefthanded hitters posted a .566 OPS against lefthanded pitching. Only the Padres, Pirates and Nationals were worse in the NL. Rivera, who can play first base or the outfield, gives manager Don Mattingly an option against lefthanded pitching in place of either Loney (.561 OPS vs. lefties) or Ethier (.563), who ranked 215 and 217 out of the 226 players who were given at least 100 plate appearances against lefties.

I’m pretty sure you don’t need an advanced degree in astrophysics from an Ivy League school to spend 30 seconds on baseball-reference to see platoon splits for James Loney and Andre Ethier – issues, by the way, I’ve been calling out here for years. A true “quantitative analysis” might have shown that the narrative around “Juan Rivera, Savior of 2011″ was massively overblown, particularly when he was DFA’d by one of the most well-respected front offices in baseball (Toronto), and that as he heads into his age-34 season, he was awful for five of the six months on the baseball calendar last season, redeemed only slightly by a decent-ish August that just so happened to be some of his first weeks as a Dodger.

This, also, is not sabermetrics:

Colletti said the team chose Mark Ellis for defense first, with analysis by new front-office number cruncher Alex Tamin. Ellis leads all active MLB second basemen in “zone rating,” a calculation based on ground-ball chances in a defined zone by position.

Similarly, the idea that Ellis is a quality defensive second baseman hardly required a team of NASA scientists – it’s the main reason Ellis has had a career, and it’s backed up by both the eye test and defensive metrics, nearly all of which rate him as above-average. If you needed to hire a dedicated statistician to tell you that Mark Ellis is a good fielder, you might be doing it wrong. Sabermetrics isn’t about confirming the obvious, or at least it shouldn’t be; it should be about looking deeper than the usual surface stats to find undervalued assets who are likely to improve, hopefully allowing you to acquire them for a discount, and buying older, declining players like Rivera and Ellis – even if they fill a hole, which each arguably does – at a premium doesn’t really qualify.

I know it sounds like I’m ragging on the Dodgers here, and I’m really not. The point here is not that Tamin isn’t a valuable addition (even though he’s apparently gone from “arbitration lawyer” to “Bill James disciple” in six weeks) or that the Dodgers shouldn’t start using more advanced statistical methods (it is still 2003, right?), or even that I have enough knowledge of the inner workings of the front office to know exactly what Tamin is spending his time on. Hey, maybe he really is helping to build some new advanced player evaluation system, like so many other teams already have – I have no idea. It’d just be nice if the media would cool it on this “Dodgers have gone sabermetric” business by pointing out examples that really don’t support that theory at all. If anything, the moves the Dodgers have made so far this offseason are the exact opposite of what a supposed “sabermetric” team would do.

Good? Now, time to work on competing “Clayton Kershaw wins NL Cy Young” and “Clayton Kershaw disappointingly places third” pieces for tomorrow.