26 November 2014

Should Melky Cabrera Be the O's 'Fallback Option'?


The possibility of Melky Cabrera as a "fallback option" for the Orioles does not seem overly enticing. Well, why is that?

Cabrera, 30, is a corner outfielder with a career wRC+ of 102. He was a relatively light hitter until 2011, when he posted a 118 wRC+ for the Royals. Until then, he had yet to produce a season with a wRC+ above 98.

After being traded from the Yankees to the Braves, Cabrera put up a 77 wRC+ in 147 games in 2010, while playing pretty bad defense as well. The Braves then released him, and he was picked up by the Royals. Cabrera had a strong 2011, as noted above, but was shipped to the Giants in exchange for Jonathan Sanchez. Cabrera went on to post even better numbers in 2012 -- a fantastic 151 wRC+ in 113 games -- and then was suspended 50 games for testing positive for testosterone. As a free agent, he signed a two-year deal with the Blue Jays -- his fourth team in four years. In an injury-prone 2013, he was awful (86 wRC+ in 88 games), but in a healthier 2014, he rebounded with a 125 wRC+ in 139 games.

Year Age Tm G PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2005 20 NYY 6 19 0 .211 .211 .211 .421 14
2006 21 NYY 130 524 7 .280 .360 .391 .752 95
2007 22 NYY 150 612 8 .273 .327 .391 .718 88
2008 23 NYY 129 453 8 .249 .301 .341 .641 68
2009 24 NYY 154 540 13 .274 .336 .416 .752 93
2010 25 ATL 147 509 4 .255 .317 .354 .671 83
2011 26 KCR 155 706 18 .305 .339 .470 .809 121
2012 ★ 27 SFG 113 501 11 .346 .390 .516 .906 157
2013 28 TOR 88 372 3 .279 .322 .360 .682 88
2014 29 TOR 139 621 16 .301 .351 .458 .808 126
10 Yrs 1211 4857 88 .286 .339 .415 .754 103
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/25/2014.

Since 2006, Cabrera has played in at least 88 games every season. In those nine years, he's posted an fWAR below zero twice. He has had one 0 fWAR season. He also has seasons with fWARs of 0.5, 1.4, and 1.6. And the other three? 2.6, 3.7, and 4.5. The latter three fWAR seasons came within the last four years -- 2014, 2011, and 2012, respectively -- with a -0.9 fWAR 2013 sandwiched between.

Cabrera is a much improved hitter from when he was younger, but he doesn't bring many other skills to the table. By Ultimate Zone Rating, he's a -13.3 defender in left field in more than 4,500 innings. He also has a -24.9 UZR in more than 4,500 innings in center field and has been about average (-0.3) in 625 innings in right field. Per Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera is average (0) in right field, -20 in center field, but is +9 in left. However, in 2006 and 2007, he was a combined +20 defender in left (in New York), but hasn't had a DRS above +1 since -- and has been a negative defender the last three seasons. Also, on the basepaths, he hasn't been above average for a couple seasons.



Cabrera declined the Blue Jays' qualifying offer, so signing him will require the O's to forfeit their first-round draft pick. As the O's showed last year, it makes more sense to sign multiple restricted free agents in a single year than, say, to sign one every season. Would the O's be willing to sign Cabrera and another free agent who declined the qualifying offer? That might be a lot to ask. Then again, if Nelson Cruz signs with another team, the O's will receive a compensation pick. That might soften the blow of signing someone like Cabrera. Or maybe the O's could sign Cabrera if Nick Markakis walks and then re-sign Cruz (though they'd still lose a draft pick because they didn't extending Markakis a qualifying offer).

If you believe in Cabrera's bat and don't have significant worries about his health, you'd likely endorse signing him. The 2012 suspension may be a minor concern, but as O's fans just demonstrated with Cruz, the only thing that really matters to a fan base is whether a player performs and helps a team win. Even with the ongoing circus, you don't think Yankees fans would cheer Alex Rodriguez if he manages to play well? But, unlike Cruz last season, whatever team signs Cabrera will be handing him a multiyear deal. That means more money and more risk.

The reaction to the deal Cabrera ends up signing should be fascinating. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that he'll receive a five-year deal around $66 million. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs thinks Cabrera will get a deal for three years and $39 million (and wouldn't be a fan of it). Perhaps those two are both a year off, and Cabrera will get four years.

If it comes down to four years for Cabrera or Markakis, I'd lean towards Markakis. I also feel better about Cruz despite the age difference, though giving him four years would be pushing it. But these three players shouldn't be the team's only options. Maybe the Orioles should go in a different direction.

Photo via Keith Allison

25 November 2014

Another Option for Getting Rid of Ubaldo Jimenez

This article was developed before the Braves traded Jason Heyward, hence their trading B.J. Upton is now less likely. Nevertheless, I thought there was still some points worth exploring.

No Orioles fan will be upset if this is the last appearance Ubaldo Jimenez makes for the Norfolk Tides. Photo courtesy of Christopher McCain / Norfolk Tides.
Ubaldo Jimenez has been a bust. Orioles fans want to get rid of him. Recently, the Depot has examined trading Jimenez to Cleveland for Nick Swisher, who had a bad 2014 with the Indians. But if that doesn't work out, and the Orioles really want to get rid of Jimenez, here's another idea that's so crazy it just might work.

Trade Jimenez to the Atlanta Braves for B.J. Upton. Really.

WHAT??? I'm sure that's what all the readers of this post are thinking. B.J. Upton? The poster child for failed free-agent signings? We don't want him on the Orioles; why help the Braves out? And those are legitimately initial reactions. On further thought, however, the trade does have some positives, as we'll see.

Before I look at the trade in details, I should emphasize that I do not advocate trading Jimenez for Upton straight-up, without balancing the salaries involved. Upton is owed $46.5 million over the next three seasons; Jimenez only $38.75. I would insist that the Braves pay the Orioles the difference so that, essentially, the Orioles would be paying $38.75 million for three seasons of B.J. Upton; the Braves paying $46.5 million for three seasons of Ubaldo Jimenez ($38.75 million to Jimenez, the rest to the Orioles.) This trade leaves the Orioles and the Braves in the same position they are in now, except that the Orioles have B.J. Upton and the Braves have Ubaldo Jimenez.

Such a trade is plausible. The Braves are willing, if not positively eager, to move Upton. Earlier this season, there were rumors that the Braves were trying to move Upton to the Cubs for Edwin Jackson, who was owed less than Jimenez ($22 million over two years) but was also substantially worse. It is true that B.J. Upton was the regular center fielder for the Braves in 2014, and the Braves have dealt Jason Heyward. However, if the Braves keep Justin Upton, they could move Evan Gattis from catcher to left field and play prospect Christian Bethancourt at catcher. They also have several marginal-to-adequate prospects who spent much of 2014 in AAA - Jose Constanza, Todd Cunningham, Joey Terdoslavich. While none of them are great prospects, the Braves could play some combination of those players if they decide B.J. Upton is a poor risk.

And there's a reasonable argument that such an exchange would help both sides:
  • Despite our hopes and dreams, the money the Orioles have committed to Ubaldo Jimenez is committed; the Orioles can't trade Jimenez for anything other than another team's bad contract.I think that pretty much goes without saying; I can't think of any trade in which an expensive player on a multi-year contract, coming off a bad season, was traded for a quality player with a reasonable contract. So the $38.75 million owed to Jimenez is sunk; the Orioles will have to pay that money to Ubaldo or to someone else.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez is a poor risk for the Orioles.
    • Ubaldo Jimenez is not a very good pitcher. In the four seasons since Jimenez' outstanding 2010 with Colorado, he's had one good season (115 ERA+ in 2013); one injury-plagued and bad season (2011), and two bad, full seasons (2012 and 2014.) And a pitcher is responsible for only one thing; preventing runs. If Jimenez doesn't prevent runs, he is useless.
    • Ubaldo Jimenez is not necessary for the Orioles. Right now, Jimenez would be their sixth starter. It's true that a sixth starter is almost a necessity for a team, because it's very unlikely that the first five starters will be effective and healthy all season. But even without Jimenez, the Orioles have rotation protection. Although Mike Wright struggled for four months at Norfolk, he seemed to right himself in August and is close to being ready for a big-league job. Tyler Wilson pitched quite well at AA and AAA in 2014 and is also nearly ready. Wright and Wilson could easily start 2015 at Norfolk, awaiting a call-up if the Orioles need a starting pitcher.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez is probably more likely to pitch well with the Braves than the Orioles.
    • While the American League East isn't the division it was a couple of years ago, it's still probably easier to pitch in the National League than the American League. It's surprising but true - in every one of his seasons in the National League, Jimenez had an ERA+ better than 100. There's still no designated hitter in the National League, which provides a safety valve for pitchers (despite the occasional Madison Bumgarner.)
    • Turner Field is a better pitcher's park than Camden Yards. Oriole Park at Camden Yards lowered run production by about 3% in 2014, but that's a one-year fluke; historically, Oriole Park increased run production by about 3%. Turner Field had a similar fluke year in 2012, but otherwise has been essentially a run-neutral park.
    • The Braves have had some success with seemingly washed-up pitchers. In 2014, Aaron Harang had his third above-average season since 2007. In 2013, after the Orioles released Freddy Garcia, the Braves got three good starts out of him.
  • Although B.J. Upton was terrible overall, with the Braves, it's still possible that the Orioles could get something out of him.
    • Upton's problems in Atlanta may be circumstantial. He may have been pressing to live up to his contract. He may have been pressing because he was playing with his younger and better brother Justin. He may simply have been exceptionally negatively affected by Turner Field. It's certainly possible that a different set of circumstances may rejuvenate his career.
    • In the Showalter era, the Orioles have gotten value from players as far gone as B.J. Upton. Before 2014, Delmon Young was a disappointing veteran signed to a minor-league contract. Nate McLouth was released in mid-year after scuffling in AAA. There have also been some players who didn't recover, but there's at least a chance that that Orioles magic would rub off on B.J.
    • Unlike a pitcher, there are many ways a position player can help a team win. One thing that B.J. Upton did do well in 2014 was steal bases; he stole 20 bases in 27 attempts. And, despite their success, the 2014 Orioles didn't steal a lot of bases. I hesitate to bring this up because it's seemingly out of character and I can't explain it, but B.J. Upton did accrue a .336 OBP vs. left-handed pitchers in 2014. It's possible that he could be an interesting change-of-pace option against left-handed pitchers.
    • Andruw Jones, whose decline was even more complete than Upton's, did manage a couple of good bounceback years after his nadir.
I'm not saying that the Orioles should make this trade, or that it would work out brilliantly if they did make it. It's possible that B.J. Upton is through. I'm saying that as an Orioles fan, I'd be equally happy paying $38.75 million for three years of B.J. Upton as for three years of Ubaldo Jimenez; and as a Braves fan I'd be equally happy paying $46.5 million for three years of Ubaldo Jimenez as for three years of B.J. Upton. Considering that the players have failed in their current environment, this change-of-scenery trade has more upside than downside for both teams.

24 November 2014

T.J. McFarland's Tricky Platoon Split


This post was written by Ryan Romano. Follow him on Twitter.

Platoon splits are weird things. They often don't reflect a player's true talent level, meaning we must heavily regress them to get a more accurate projection. (Like many things in baseball, this applies even more when the sample size is small.) I don't take a bold stand by saying that — all sabermetricians agree on it. But the means by which we look at a player, particularly a pitcher, and determine if he has a platoon split can lead to fallacious thinking. While most people utilize the numbers of opposing batters, they should probably rely on pitching-oriented numbers instead, because the former can deceive.

T.J. McFarland illustrates this conundrum pretty well. Does he have a platoon split? By some statistics, no. For his career, he's faced 244 left-handed batters, who have a .322 wOBA against him; the 342 right-handed batters to whom he's pitched only top that by three points (.325). That's really not much of a difference at all, and most projections would reflect that. So we can expect him to consistently retire batters of any handedness going forward, right?

Well, about that. Those same lefties have struck out in 21.7% of their plate appearances, while walking a mere 5.3% of the time; when they've put the ball in play, it stays on the ground 63.3% of the time. By contrast, the righties own marks of 11.4%, 8.2%, and 57.4%, respectively, in those regards. Put it all together, and McFarland has a career xFIP of 2.77 against same-handed hitters, to go along with a career xFIP of 4.32 against opposite-handed hitters.

His repertoire corroborates the xFIP side of the story: The two pitches on which he leans the most — his sinker (65.1% of career pitches) and slider (19.5%) — also have two of the largest platoon splits among common pitches. In other words, sinker-slider pitchers will almost certainly have a significant platoon split. His increased implementation of his changeup against righties (18.5% against them, 0.4% against lefties) can compensate some, but as the aforementioned plate discipline and batted-ball marks show, it can't do it all.

Why does this matter, though? Maybe McFarland's wOBA splits do a better job of reflecting his true talent level than his xFIP. A closer examination of the splits reveals that to be, in all likelihood, false. The discrepancy between the two splits comes almost entirely as the result of home runs. Of the nine he's allowed since debuting last year, left-handed batters have hit five, despite facing him far less often than right-handed batters. With lower fly ball rates, they've done this by making the most of the few fly balls they do hit: Their HR/FB% of 16.7% dwarfs the 6.2% figure their opposition has posted. Since HR/FB% is a notoriously fluky statistic, especially with a sample as minuscule as this, this almost certainly doesn't have anything to it.

So what does this mean going forward? For the past two campaigns, McFarland has served as a solid long reliever, someone whom the team could trust to pitch effectively against any batter. In the coming seasons, however, that might not hold true; if it doesn't, McFarland could see his role reduced to a one-inning guy, or even a lowly LOOGY. He shouldn't decline notably overall — Steamer projects a 3.46 ERA and 3.64 FIP, in line with his career numbers of 3.58 and 3.59, respectively — but the good fortune that he's had so far, and that has given him the veneer of an equal-opportunity hurler, will probably come to an end.

Photo via Keith Allison

21 November 2014

Can We Trust Lough's Defense?


Before David Lough went on his hot offensive streak in the middle of last season, Jon made the argument that Lough is actually a starter in disguise due to his excellent defense. He noted that Lough’s defense has been consistent for each season and projects to make him nearly a 2 WAR player over a full season. Pat suggested yesterday that an outfield consisting primarily of Adam Jones, Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, and Lough could be acceptable. Certainly understanding Lough's value would be helpful. The main question is whether or not one can believe that Lough's defense is as valuable as UZR suggests.

Jon also noted in his earlier article that Lough’s defense may have been consistent for each season but that he’s played a limited number of innings in the field. So I looked at all outfielders that played at least 500 innings in the outfield from 2012-2014, and saw some surprising players in the top 20 in total UZR. For example, Lough’s total UZR was good for 11th out of 193 outfielders despite ranking 117th in innings. Lorenzo Cain and Juan Lagares were in the top five in total UZR despite ranking 58th and 87th in innings. Craig Gentry ranked seventh despite playing 12 more innings than Lagares. Dyson ranked ninth playing only 113 more innings than Lagares. This trend continues for outfielders that played 500 or more innings in the outfield from 2010-2012. Gardner ranked #1 in UZR and 59th out of 183 in innings. Peter Bourjos ranked #2 in UZR and 70th in innings. If outfielders with a minimal amount of innings playing in the outfield (i.e small sample sizes) have some of the highest UZRs then is there a correlation between innings played on defense and UZR? If not, then it may not make sense to say that an outfielders defensive value will improve if he plays more innings.

In the same vein, it seems reasonable to presume that players with more plate appearances produce more runs than those with fewer plate appearances because teams are far more likely to demote a player that is struggling offensively than one that is not struggling offensively. In other words, there should be correlation between plate appearances and total offensive production.

It's possible to answer this question. For each player from 2002-2014, I downloaded the number of innings they played at each position, their UZR at each position, their total number of plate appearances, and their “batting” score as derived by Fangraphs. Fangraphs "batting" score attempts to quantify the value of an offensive player by determine the number of runs above average his offensive production was worth in a given season. Then, I did a correlation analysis between innings and UZR as well as between plate appearances and “batting”. If there is a relationship between innings and UZR then I would expect to see a moderate correlation between these variables and a similar correlation between those statistics and the correlation between plate appearance and “batting.” Here's a table with the results.


The results suggest that the average correlation between innings and UZR is about .077. Defense intensive positions such as second base, third base, shortstop, and center field have larger albeit still low correlations than those for positions like first base, left field, and right field. The results for the correlation between PAs and "batting" tell a different story.



The average correlation between PAs and “batting” was .376. The largest correlations were at offensive positions such as first base, left field, and right field while there was practically no correlation at shortstop. It should come as no surprise that teams don't give shortstops playing time based on their ability to hit.

These results suggest that there is correlation between offensive production and plate appearances but not between UZR and innings played in the field and therefore it doesn’t make sense to give a player credit for a high defensive score that occurs in only part of a season. This explains why outfielders  that only play a limited number of innings consistently have some of the highest UZRs.

There is another possible way to interpret these results. These results could mean that managers don’t value UZR highly while valuing offensive production. If this is the case then there should be a similar correlation between innings and the absolute value of UZR as well as plate appearances and the absolute value of the “batting” statistic.

The average correlation between innings and the absolute value of UZR is .65 while the average correlation between plate appearances and the absolute value of “batting” is .52. This suggests that there is a moderate to high correlation between innings and UZR. It’s just that players that play a lot of innings at a position have a high absolute value that is either positive or negative. In other words, managers care less about whether their players have a low UZR than they do about whether their player is producing offensively. If UZR does measure defense accurately then this suggests that managers don’t value defense as highly as offense especially at offense-oriented positions.

This test is inconclusive in determining whether one should feel comfortable projecting Lough to be an excellent defender based on his UZR and performance in a limited sample. This should make us pause before overly valuing a limited period of good defense. Indeed, players like Nyjer Morgan, Ryan Sweeney, Andrew Torres, Tony Gwynn Jr., Gerardo Parra, and Ben Revere are all guys that put up strong defensive numbers in a limited amount of innings and then came crashing back to earth, and Lough could follow the same path.

This suggests one of two things. Either teams have better defensive metrics than UZR and therefore don't give its ratings high credence or that teams simply value offense more than defense especially for corner outfielders. This second scenario is probably bad news for outfielders like Jason Heyward. If UZR isn't a good defensive metric then it's likely that Lough's value is highly exaggerated. If UZR is a good defensive metric then finding a corner outfielder with good defense is an easy and undervalued way to improve. If so then even if the Orioles don't trust Lough's defense they should consider finding a proven player with similar strengths.

Photo via Keith Allison

20 November 2014

The 2015 Orioles Outfield Will Be Fine Without Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis

Photo by Keith Allison


Two key members of the Orioles' 2014 outfield, Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, are free agents. Cruz, as expected, rejected the club's qualifying offer, which means the Orioles will get a draft pick as compensation if he signs with another club. The club declined Markakis' mutual option and did not extend him a qualifying offer, so there is no compensation if he signs elsewhere.

Many people still think the Orioles are the favorite for Cruz, and he has made it clear that his first choice is to return to Baltimore. While most people around the team still expect Markakis to return to the club, that outcome seems less likely than it did a week ago.

Losing both of these players would mean a loss of 6.4 fWAR from the Orioles outfield (For the sake of simplicity, I'm considering Cruz, Jones, Markakis, and Lough the Orioles 2014 OF. Yes, Cruz did DH. And Pearce played some OF, but Lough played a lot more innings in the OF than him). This is obviously a noticeable loss and it would be understandable to start scouring the list of free agents and potential trade candidates to replace this loss of production. Here and elsewhere, the name Nori Aoki has been thrown around as a possible replacement.

But, the Orioles outfield will be perfectly fine in 2015 as it stands right now. This isn't to say that they won't or shouldn't make any moves, but there's no need to panic if they don't.

Player
‘14 wRC+
Player
‘15 Projected wRC+
Jones
117
Jones
115
Cruz
137
Pearce
129
Markakis
106
De Aza
104
Lough
95
Lough
92
wRC+ weighted by PA
118
wRC+ weighted by PA
113

While the loss of both Cruz and Markakis feels significant, the drop in offensive production would not be too significant. The Orioles outfield was 18% above league average last season, offensively speaking. In 2015, they are projected to be 13% above average,

The main issue would be the fact that De Aza and Lough both struggle against LHP, but the impact of this could be softened by bringing in a Delmon Young-type player for some AB's against LHP. Those concerned that Pearce will fall harder back to earth than projected raise a fair point, but a spot in the everyday lineup is his to lose entering 2015.

And this says nothing of the defensive improvements this potential 2015 outfield could bring. The positive impact of giving Lough more innings in the outfield has been touched on here before. Swapping out Markakis (career -0.6 UZR/150) for De Aza (3.6) would also provide an upgrade defensively. On top of that, Pearce is an adequate outfielder (career +5.0 UZR/150), while Cruz (+ 2.9) has okay numbers, but he's 34 and not getting any more agile. On top of that, Cruz sure looked a lot worse than +2.9 UZR/150 outfielder last season.

It's still entirely possible that the Orioles will bring back both Cruz and Markakis. If both players leave, I'd expect the team to do something to address the outfield position through trade or free agency. But the need to do so isn't urgent and there's no reason to panic if they enter 2015 with the outfield currently on the roster.

19 November 2014

Should the Orioles Trade Ubaldo Jimenez for Nick Swisher?


It appears as if the Orioles only have three rotation spots for Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, and Ubaldo Jimenez, so someone has to be the odd man out. (At the very least, Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman should be considered locks.) Keeping one of them around in the bullpen isn't the worst idea -- rotation depth can be extremely beneficial -- but it's also not the best use of resources. And, of course, the Orioles could always explore a trade; they did that last year, when Gonzalez was seemingly available. And Norris may be available as well.

Understandably, the Orioles are doing their best to somehow find a suitor for Jimenez, and Cleveland could be a potential landing spot.
So would the Indians be willing to deal Nick Swisher to the Orioles in exchange for Jimenez (and possibly some cash)? Swisher is essentially the Indians' version of Jimenez -- a player who was awful last year, is not a guarantee to help the team much, and still has a sizable amount of money left on his contract.

I recently exchanged e-mails on a possible Jimenez-Swisher swap with Adam Hintz of It's Pronounced Lajaway, the ESPN SweetSpot Network affiliate for the Cleveland Indians. Here's our conversation:

Matt Kremnitzer: Should the Orioles and Indians swap Nick Swisher and Ubaldo Jimenez? Swisher will make $30 million over the next two years. He also has a vesting option for 2017 based on plate appearances and health that's unlikely to be met. Meanwhile, Jimenez has three years and about $39 million left on his contract. His contract also calls for $2.25 million to be deferred annually. So it's possible the O's would have to throw some money in to make the deal happen.

Still, there could be a match. Jimenez could provide some back-end rotation relief for the Indians. Swisher could provide the Orioles with a 1B/OF/DH type player, which could be important depending on what happens with Nelson Cruz in free agency.

That's sort of the surface-level analysis of the deal. Do you think Cleveland would be interested?

-----

Adam Hintz: Let me preface all of this by saying -- I'm the guy in my fantasy football league who makes crazy big deals for the sake of making them, so this hypothetical trade is right up my alley: two guys who were big names and big acquisitions for their teams (Swisher signed the richest free-agent contract in Indians history, if I remember correctly) who completely fell apart in 2014.

If I am in the front office in Cleveland, I am willing to do this deal immediately -- extra money from Baltimore be damned. The fans in Cleveland (at least from the ones I've spoken to) hate Swisher and his bloated contract. They were only lukewarm on him in 2013 when he had a typically good Swisher year (because none of his stats jump out at you, he doesn't seem like a $14 million per year player), and they absolutely hate him after the abysmal 2014 he just suffered through.

Then again, he was injured this year and he has such a track record that he's a good bet to bounce back to some degree. If healthy, he won't post a .608 OPS again... I feel confident predicting that. I could see why Baltimore would be interested, though.

But Swisher's role on this team is gone, and that's the problem. He arrived in 2013 with the promise of being able to play RF, LF, 1B, and DH, and by the end of 2014 there are very real concerns that he's now a 1B/DH. The Indians can't play him at 1st base with Carlos Santana there, they don't want to move Santana back to C with Gomes there, and they don't want to pay $14m to a DH who hits 20-ish home runs at best. At this juncture, I would guess that the Indians would be thrilled to be rid of Swisher.

Likewise, in Baltimore, Ubaldo signed a fairly sizable deal on the heels of that 3-month stretch of competence in 2013. If you take 2014 at face value, the Ubaldo of summer '13 was a mirage in the desert and no longer exists... by the end of the season he was out of the rotation and buried on the roster. It certainly seems like he's on the outs in Baltimore.

But I'll tell you why the Indians would love to get Ubaldo back (at least in a swap that sent Swisher away): Mickey Callaway. Callaway has been nothing short of a pitching guru on Terry Francona's staff, turning Corey Kluber into a Cy Young winner (did that really happen?), Carlos Carrasco into a monster, and Ubaldo into a guy who looked like he was worth 4/$48. The logic goes like this: whatever fairy dust Callaway sprinkles on pitchers worked on Ubaldo once, why couldn't it work again? A rotation of Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Salazar, Jimenez has the on-paper potential to be something special.

Bottom line is this: Indians' fans have seen enough of Swisher and the Orioles organization (if not the fans) have probably seen enough of Jimenez. The numbers are so close in terms of salaries... why shouldn't this be a case of "one man's trash / another man's treasure"?

Of course, it makes too much sense to actually happen.

-----

MK: I could see the Orioles being interested in this trade first of all because the money is pretty close (I doubt they want to throw in a bunch of cash), and second, they already have five other starting pitchers who they'd probably rather have in the rotation. They could always trade away Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, or Bud Norris instead, but getting rid of Jimenez would make sense. It's not that they have five other aces -- far from it. But you may be more likely to get a subpar performance out of Jimenez from game to game now than a solid one. With an outstanding defense, the Orioles also don't want a pitcher around who's going to walk 5.5 batters per nine innings, even if he's unlikely to be quite that awful again.

Also, like you noted, the Indians recently had success with Jimenez in 2013, though the concern would be that he'd revert to his 2012 self. I guess the reality, or maybe even the hope, is that his current talent is somewhere between the two. If he's able to be a 1.5-2 win pitcher, then he'd be a serviceable back-end arm.

Swisher is not really a good defender anywhere, though I would seriously doubt the Orioles want him to play anywhere in the outfield. Then again, they let Nelson Cruz and even Delmon Young see some extended time in the field last season, so they may be able to get away with it. If Chris Davis returns, there really isn't a spot open at first base, though Swisher could serve as a fill-in at both first base and designated hitter. That would probably move Steve Pearce to a corner outfield/DH role.

Considering that Swisher played at least 145 games in every season from 2006 to 2013, it's not surprising that he broke down. He missed a good chunk of the season and eventually had surgery on both knees, so there's certainly some injury risk. Perhaps the knee injuries were the primary reason for his awful numbers; that would be the optimistic view for the acquiring team.

Steamer projects that Swisher will post a slash line of .234/.321/.386 next season. Obviously that wouldn't be very good for a 1B/DH, let alone one making $15 million each the next two seasons. But that's the type of risk a team takes on when getting rid of a player they don't want.

-----

AH: Let's just get one thing out of the way: both of these guys are overpaid, and both guys don't really have a role on their teams right now. Ubaldo is the 6th man in that rotation and Swisher is below Santana, Gomes, and realistically Murphy on the depth chart.

What is the best/worst case scenario for each guy? Here's how I see it:

I think Swisher's basement is 2014. At least... I hope that's the basement. I don't want to live in a world where we can go deeper than that. I could write it off as injuries and bad luck, but there were real concerning signs outside of the slash line, too. Swisher, a guy who made his money on his OBP seemed to lose all semblance of plate discipline last season, swinging at balls and shaking his head at the umpire on called 3rd strikes game after game. Will that come back? I don't know. I'm not optimistic.

But if he does come back, and he DHs a bit, there's no reason a healthy Nick Swisher can't put up .265/.320/.440 with 20 HRs again. If the Orioles lose Cruz, I could see the match there.

What about Ubaldo? I was one of the few people at IPL to think 4/48 wasn't ridiculous -- though I was proven very wrong last season. I remember watching him in early 2013 (before his Renaissance) and it was a painful experience: nibbling his way to 100 pitches through 5 innings, walking too many guys... and this was the best Ubaldo we had seen since the trade. But then things clicked, and everything he did in the second half of 2013 looked sustainable (except of course... for the fact that it was Ubaldo and we should have known better).

Do I think it's likely Ubaldo regains that amazing form he had in 2013? No. I think it's more likely Swisher is a contributor to a good team. But if the Cleveland Indians are going to pay $14m or so to someone, I'd rather it be to a lottery ticket like Ubaldo than a guy we don't need (even when healthy) in Swisher.

Why would the Orioles do it? Would they NEED Swisher's production?

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MK: The Orioles wouldn't necessarily need Swisher's production, just like they surprisingly didn't need much from Jimenez last year. But $12 million, or $15 million, or whatever is a lot of money to pay someone who isn't adding much to a team. Bad contracts happen; that's the risk of free agency. But if the O's do acquire Swisher, Buck Showalter would figure out some role for him.

If the O's do bring back Nick Markakis but not Nelson Cruz, Steve Pearce will probably see lots of time in left field and/or DH instead of first base. And if the O's keep Chris Davis, he'll be the primary first baseman. I assume if the Orioles acquire Swisher, then he'd get some time at first and DH. Maybe they would make him the primary DH, at least to start the season. But depending on how much Manny Machado and Matt Wieters are able to contribute after returning from season-ending injuries, the O's probably wouldn't need Swisher to be great or anything. But a competent hitter would help.

It's not a perfect trade, but there does seem to be a fit. Both teams would be trading one risky player for another.

Do you think the Indians would demand that the Orioles include some cash in the trade? If so, how much? Or would a straight swap suffice?

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AH: I'd have to think that a straight swap would suffice.

The Indians have some money at the moment, because they're free of Justin Masterson (who was quietly making 8 figures last season). I know they're a smart team and all, but it would surprise me if they wanted anything really drastic in terms of money in a hypothetical Swisher/Ubaldo swap.

Here's how I think about it: I was okay with a $10-$12M per year deal with Ubaldo anyway (meaning Swisher was on the team as well). Now, the Indians could take that chance while getting rid of a bad contract (and essentially not owing any additional money).

I don't know much about the Orioles -- who is Steve Pearce? Is he a quality piece or is he replacement level? How do you feel about Nelson Cruz? I know Cruz had a huge year last year, but is there real fear it was a fluke?

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MK: Steve Pearce is a journeyman who filled in admirably and gave the O's a huge boost (161 wRC+ in 102 games). Considering Chris Davis's struggles and the season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, Pearce's production was a big reason why the O's ran away with the American League East. He never hit this well in any previous season, and there's no reason to believe he's really this good. But he's certainly useful -- he hits well against left-handed pitching and can play first base and corner outfield adequately -- and he isn't eligible for free agency until 2016. So he'll be in Baltimore for at least one more season and should fill in as needed.

In fewer plate appearances and games, Pearce was better than Nelson Cruz. But Cruz also played in 159 games, something he'd only accomplished one other time, and accumulated 40 home runs. And now he's trying to parlay his 137 wRC+ season into a four- or five-year deal. I don't know if last year was a fluke or not, but he probably won't be as good going forward (career 118 wRC+). I certainly would be wary of any deal longer than three years (he turns 35 in July). I could certainly see the Orioles bringing him back and it making sense, but I also think they would be OK without him.

I'm not sure the Orioles would be willing to re-sign Nick Markakis and Cruz, tender Chris Davis a contract, and also trade for Nick Swisher. That's a lot of money tied up in first base and corner outfield options, even though Davis is scheduled to be a free agent after next season (along with Wieters). It's possible that the O's would trade for Swisher instead of re-signing Cruz, and then use Swisher mainly as the DH and reallocate that money to other areas of need. Swisher is a few months younger than Cruz and is similar overall offensively (more on-base skills, less power), though the injury concerns and decline over the past two seasons are two huge red flags.

But here's one option that could make a lot of sense. Considering Swisher had surgery on both knees, I doubt the O's want him running around much in the outfield. So the Orioles could instead choose to trade Davis (he'll make about $12 million next season in his last arbitration-eligible year) and install Swisher at first base. Swisher can then split his time between first and DH; Pearce can play at first as well. Davis and Swisher are both about average to below average defensively at first. Davis has the higher ceiling offensively, as his great 2013 season demonstrated, but he took a huge step back in 2014. He could end up walking after next season anyway, and I would not be in favor of a long-term deal for him. The O's could then also re-sign Markakis and Cruz, which they seem interested in doing anyway. Or they could go a different route.There's a lot of moving parts.

Like you mentioned before, the Indians don't seem to need Swisher and have better options under contract. If they keep him, would Swisher mostly DH? And who would Ubaldo Jimenez be replacing in their starting rotation?

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AH: That's the thing, I don't know if Swisher has a role on this team right now.

Francona obviously loves him for his clubhouse presence and his loyalty to veterans (which is maddening at times, but I understand it). Yan Gomes has emerged as one of the best catchers in the AL, if not all of baseball, and Santana has settled in at 1B with a surprisingly proficient glove at that position. Both Gomes and Santana are better offensively than Swisher, so it would feel really awful to have a DH making 14-15 million and only putting up slightly-above-average numbers.

Swisher was valuable to this team when he could move around and play different positions and occupy different slots in the lineup. More than anything else, his lack of additional dimensions as a player has torpedoed his value to this team.

Ubaldo, on the other hand, presents such an interesting insurance policy for the rotation. There were so many guys on this team who could be total flukes going forward -- Carrasco for one and Kluber for another -- that having a lottery ticket at the back of the rotation would seem to temper some of that risk. If Ubaldo can regain any semblance of 2013 under Callaway, he has a definite spot in the rotation -- but if he can just be serviceable, he projects as a solid depth option. I have to believe bad Ubaldo is better than average Zach McAllister or any iteration of Josh Tomlin, so I can see a clear role for the mercurial pitcher... as opposed to Nick Swisher (outlined above).

So yeah, I'd do the deal because I think it makes sense for both teams right now. Baltimore has no space for Ubaldo barring a total Renaissance, but has a place to theoretically play Swisher, where Cleveland has no place for Swisher but a potential role for Ubaldo is almost too easy to project.

I'm not saying it's a slam dunk trade that needs to happen -- both organizations know it could blow up in their faces -- but the positional battles seem to have mitigated some of the risk in the cases of both players, and I just can't get over how much sense it makes.

*****

Thanks again to Adam Hintz, who was able to provide further insight into Nick Swisher and the Cleveland Indians' side of things.

It's worth noting that another IPL writer recently discussed Jimenez and completely disagreed with the Indians bringing him on board. Similarly, I'm sure many O's fans would want no part of Swisher.

Photo via Keith Allison

18 November 2014

Orioles Trade Target: Michael Saunders

Michael Saunders (photo via Keith Allison)
Now that the Orioles have decided to officially not take my advice by declining the $17.5 million team option on Nick Markakis, they should probably take our own Matt Perez’s advice and not bring him back for the 2015 season at all.  Yesterday, while discussing whether Markakis is even an everyday player at this point in his career, Matt Kremnitzer touched on the rumors that the Orioles free agent right fielder is looking at contract offers going for 4 years, at anywhere from $40-48 million.  If that’s the case, the team should probably let Markakis walk, and either replace him or go into the 2015 season with an outfield of Adam Jones, Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, and David Lough.

Whether or not the Orioles will have suitable outfield depth without Nelson Cruz and Markakis is debatable, but personally, I’m a little uncomfortable with the non-Cruz, non-Markakis outfield situation, and would lean towards acquiring a replacement for one of them.  As I mentioned in my previous post on Markakis, the free agent market for outfielders this offseason isn’t inspiring, so the best option is likely through a trade.  And one of the best values on the outfield trade market appears to be Seattle outfielder Michael Saunders.

If you take a look at Michael Saunders’ career numbers, they are a little underwhelming.  In 553 career games (almost 3.5 seasons worth of plate appearances), Saunders has produced a triple slash line of .231/.301/.384, which equates to a 92 wRC+.  In other words, he’s been 8% worse than your average major league hitter since he debuted in 2009.  Combined with above average baserunning and below average defense, and he’s been worth 5.0 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs.  However, if you take a look at his seasons individually, you start to see that he may be much more valuable than his career line shows.

Michael Saunders career numbers by year
As you can see from the table, Saunders has been an average or above average hitter in each season since 2012, and he’s produced nearly all of his positive career fWAR during those 3 seasons.  However, if you look a little closer at the 2012 and 2013 seasons, you can see that his overall value has been held back by his defense, when he played the majority of his games in centerfield.  Needless to say, advanced defensive metrics don’t approve of Saunders’ play in centerfield, as he’s accumulated -9.8 UZR (-6.0 UZR/150) and has been worth -25 defensive runs saved in 2,161 innings.  Obviously, that’s not good.  But the good news is that the Orioles wouldn’t need Saunders to roam centerfield since that position is currently occupied by one of the best in the game.  They won’t even need him as a backup centerfielder either, as long as David Lough is on the roster.  If the Orioles were to trade for Saunders, he would be in one of the corners (most likely right field), where he grades out as a much better defender.

Michael Saunders career defensive stats in LF and RF
Saunders had his best year offensively by far in 2014, getting on base, and hitting for much more power in previous years, finishing the season with a 126 wRC+.  He also spent the majority of his time in right field, which helped put him on the overall positive side of defensive statistics for the first time since 2010 (a year mostly spent in CF that now looks like an outlier).  It may be a little too optimistic (more on that in a second), but if you prorate Saunders’ 2014 season out to a full 600 PA’s, he would have produced just over 4.3 fWAR, which is great, especially for someone who made just $2.3 million in 2014, his first year of arbitration. That’s another reason to trade for Saunders: he has two more years of team control before becoming a free agent.  And since he hasn’t put up big numbers in his career to date, his final two years in arbitration shouldn’t break the bank.  In fact, Tim Dierkes is projecting Saunders to receive $2.9 million in 2015, only a modest raise from last year’s salary.

The knock on Saunders is that he hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and his injury table at Baseball Prospectus is a little bit intimidating, as it initially appears to be longer than one would like.  However, he was listed as day to day for the majority of those injuries, and has only been on the disabled list 3 times during his career, missing a total of 82 games, most of which was the result of a left oblique strain.  Unfortunately, 2 of those DL stints occurred in 2014, while the other was in 2013, and it’s the primary reason he didn’t get more plate appearances last year.

The other concern with a Saunders acquisition would be the potential (or more rather likely) platoon issues.  While Saunders hit well against southpaws last year (100 wRC+), he’s typically been a much weaker hitter when facing left-handed pitching.  Over the course of his career, his 78 wRC+ against left-handers pales in comparison to his 99 wRC+ against right-handers.  It’s possible that his ability to hit left-handed pitching improved last year, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it, since he only faced left-handers in 61 PA’s, and despite a 30% line drive rate against them, his BABIP of .372 seems unsustainable.  If his platoon issues persist, the addition of Saunders would appear to be redundant, as he would be the 3rd “good defense, can’t hit left-handed pitching” outfielder on the roster.  However, adding Saunders would allow the Orioles to shop and/or non-tender Alejandro De Aza, which would likely save them approximately $3 million (MLB Trade Rumors projects De Aza’s 2015 salary at $5.9 million), while also adding a player with an extra year of team control.

The acquisition of Michael Saunders allows the Orioles to replace the production they would have received by keeping Nick Markakis, at a lower cost and without a 4-year commitment.  In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that Saunders could be at least twice as productive as Markakis in 2015 and beyond.  Saunders shouldn’t cost too much in terms of a return either, since the Mariners basically announced to the league earlier this month that they were looking to deal him (with some comments from Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik questioning Saunders’ conditioning sprinkled in for good measure).  The Mariners are looking to win now and could use another starter, so maybe offering Miguel Gonzalez would get the job done.  Although, depending on how sour the relationship between Saunders and the Mariners has gotten, it may not even take that much.