Friday, June 17, 2005

Point / Counterpoint: Management Offseason Decisions 

I thought another Point/Counterpoint would be fun, so I asked Jim from AZ Snakepit to fill in the blank in the following sentence:

"The Diamondbacks' offseason maneuvers have worked out ___________ thus far."

Jim's response starts us off, with mine below his. I wrote mine without looking at his, so look for comments in the days ahead as I respond to his specific, er, charges. Dear readers, join in as well.


[Jim's response]

My contention is that the offseason maneuvers of the Diamondbacks have generally worked out poorly thus far. Not necessarily less-well than expected; certainly, less-well than hoped.

Few teams have gone through such a swift + radical reconstruction as the 2005 Diamondbacks. 4/5 of the starting rotation didn't play for the team last season, and there was only one survivor from the Opening Day 2004 lineup. The turnaround has been little short of spectacular: a team that lost 111 games the previous season is, at time of writing, not just playing above .500, but is a mere two games out of first. So, a hearty "well done" to management for their off-season moves, then.

Hang on just a minute there. It might seem churlish to complain, but decent though things are, I find myself contemplating the darker side of things. My concerns are mostly over the long-term contracts handed out to Glaus, Green and Ortiz, because I didn't (and still don't) expect us to be playoff-bound in 2005. Given this, it's little more than a mild irritant to see money wasted on the likes of Royce Clayton.

I admit that expensive, long-term contracts are pretty much a no-win situation for management. Players get one of these by being very good (or at least, perceived that way), so if they merely continue to be very good, this is only what's expected. But equally, this should make them a low-risk investment. Of course, there's always the chance of injury - see Richie Sexson for details - but otherwise, you should expect a very good level of performance.

Troy Glaus is the poster boy for "performing as expected". He's batting within about 15 points of his career figure, and is on pace for 39 homers, which is spot on the average of his last three full seasons. His is probably the contract I'm least concerned about, as long as he can stay healthy - and so far, there's been little or no indication there'll be any repeat of the shoulder issues which crippled him in 2003 + 2004.

This isn't to say I'm entirely happy with his performance so far, particularly his at-bats with runners in scoring position. Overall, he's hitting only .205, and in situations where there is a man on third, he's 3-for-29. While we're still talking a small sample size, it's his approach that annoys: he swings for the fences almost every time, even in a close game where getting that runner on third home is the important thing. But he is a threat every time he comes to the plate, and that's worth having.

Shawn Green, on the other hand, should never have been signed. It's simple as that. Hang on, you say. He hit five home runs in twenty-odd at bats! He's the reigning NL Player of the Week! How can you say that? Even with this recent offensive outburst, which I applaud, he's still ranked 9th of twelve qualifying NL right fielders in OPS, with a mediocre .815. We pay Green $8.5m this year: former D'back Jose Guillen ($3.5m) has a better average and more homers, while Jeromy Burnitz, a half-price alternative spurned for Green, also has a better OPS (.819).

Green's OPS has declined every year since 2001's .970. Last season in LA, it was .811, which is basically where it's at now, despite moving to a much more hitter-friendly park [from the 25th to the 9th, according to ESPN]. This move has barely countered Green's dropoff, which I see no reason to believe will stop in the future. And we've signed him through the 2007 season.

In a worst-case scenario, Green's declining arm and unshiftable contract could end up moving him to first base, blocking uber-prospect Conor Jackson. And the D'backs seem to have perpetual nightmares handling the first-base position. As well as the Sexson fiasco, we've got rid of Erubiel Durazo and Lyle Overbay, and sold Alex Cabrera to the Seibu Lions for $600K - who then merely tied the Japanese single-season homer record in 2002.

This is why Green is, in my mind, the worst long-term signing: Russ Ortiz may be performing below average (we'll get to this in a moment), but our system isn't exactly stuffed with pitching prospects. And even if it was, Ortiz would occupy only one slot in the rotation, so could be worked around. Green has the potential to be an much bigger albatross around our necks, and cause more long-term damage to the Diamondbacks organization.

Which bring me to Ortiz. So far, he has failed, absolutely and totally, to justify a four-year, $33m contract - almost any other free-agent in the market would have been a better signing. Where to start? Third most walks in the NL. A 5.88 ERA that ranks 52nd of 55 qualifying pitchers, and he's been lucky - his DIPS is even worse, only Eric Milton beats him. A WHIP of 1.78, putting him 53rd of 55.

I know it was always going to be a difficult sell, trying to get any free-agent to come to the middle of the desert, and join an 111-loss outfit. But this contract drew gasps from most of baseball - especially those who were convinced the D'backs teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Rather than overpay horrendously for mediocrity, a sounder plan would have been to make smaller acquisitions, show improvement, and get better value next close season. Though in the D'backs defense, the free agent pitchers available for 2006 don't look that strong.

But Ortiz? The warning signs were on the wall: he hasn't had an adjusted ERA below league average since 2000 - despite a 67-35 record since then, and I think it was these wins that seduced Joe Garagiola Jr. into offering him a long-term contract. Me, I wasn't expecting him to go 21-7, like he did in 2003. I was expecting someone who would suck up six-plus innings, as he has over his career. But of his 14 outings so far, he's only gone past the sixth frame three times, and he's averaging about seven hits and three walks per start.

I expect this will flatten out somewhat - he's lasted seven innings two of the last three appearances. But I do believe his overall performance will be no better than that of a an average #4 starter. However, at $7.4m, we're paying him the money of a #2 starter, and should get that level of production, instead of something that's going to be an unnecessary drain on team resources for years to come.

So, two of the three expensive, long contracts signed by the D'backs still seem, on performance thus far (and likely future performance) to be questionable. What of the shorter-term ones? There, the picture is somewhat brighter; the performances of Tony Clark and Craig Counsell, in particular, have been a very pleasant surprise. However, it's unrealistic to expect Clark to continue to bat .352 over the course of the season, and Counsell is slipping, hitting just .200 in June. They'll probably end up about as expected; Counsell will be back in 2006.

Shawn Estes, another one-year rental has been much as advertised too, albeit with a lower ceiling than Glaus. For $2.5m, you'd expect a back-of-the-rotation guy, and up until Monday night's gem, that's what we had got, with a 4.46 ERA. I think it's optimistic to expect many more complete games from Estes, but if he wins more than he loses, we'll take that.

Cruz and Clayton - along with Clark, the C-Force, if you like - have posted very similar averages, both below .225, and nothing to write home about. Cruz does at least bring some pop, with a homer every 15.9 ABs, a figure close to Glaus's (15.1). But his back is leaving him day-to-day, and likely will do for the rest of the season - plus we did lose a player for him, albeit only Fossum. The party line on Clayton is that he's been unlucky, and hit the ball right at people. While the latter is true - especially when we have runners on base, Royce leads the team with 9 GIDPs - it's hard to argue "luck" is a serious factor, given a three-year average of only .254.

My problem with both these, is that we had younger, cheaper and arguably better alternatives. Rather than Cruz, give Terrero a full season in CF. Why bother with Clayton, when Alex Cintron's massive superiority with the bat more than outweighs the defensive upgrade Royce allegedly provides - and after last night's fiasco, even that would seem in doubt. We should have treated 2005 as an audition year, to see what these guys can do, and whether they can help us down the line, when we will be genuine contenders rather than pretenders.

The final piece was, of course, the Big Unit trade, and I will give that a thumbs-up. Any time you can turn one productive starting pitcher into two, you should make that move, and while Vazquez has not been as dominating as Johnson, he's been very solid. Halsey sprinted out of the gate, but I really think he'll burn out. He's currently on pace for 190 innings, which would easily be a career high. Still, his current 3.87 ERA as a starter beats your average throw-in.

In previous discussions, Stefan and I have tossed around the value of deals which are not made - like not trading Conor Jackson for relief help. And this brings me to the area of our team which saw almost no action, and which has now become a large, throbbing Achilles' Heel for Arizona. I refer, of course, to our bullpen: the very worst in the major leagues.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but we signed Koplove and Choate to multi-year deals - and the Tucson bullpen is now better-paid than the one in Phoenix. We spent the off-season telling ourselves everything would be alright, even though only one returning arm had a 2004 ERA under 4.00. Somehow D'backs management convinced themselves this was fine - blame injuries! As a result, we are now reduced to combing the waiver wire, hoping to find someone who can post an ERA that isn't in double digits.

Overall, this is a singlarly unimpressive set of off-season moves. While there's no doubt this team is better than the one we had last season, a good chunk is down to the return of Gonzo, and the improvement in control shown by Brandon Webb. And despite our recent blitz against the White Sox, we've still conceded 45 more runs than we've scored. Despite my loathing for Pythagenport, even I have to admit this is no recipe for long-term success.


[Stefan's response]


Baseball is unique in that its 162-game season forces its fans to adopt a long-term perspective and not get too worked up about individual events. Of course, there are 162 unique events, and comparably few discrete events within those games, which makes it easy to get worked up about certainly plays or, er, non-plays. Indeed, it's a lot easier to notice the offensive failures and, in particular, the pitching and defensive miscues as opposed to the successes.

So every time Royce Clayton flubs a ground ball or Russ Ortiz walks a batter, it's easier to focus on that than on a Javier Vazquez strikeout or Tony Clark double.

I say this as prelude to a discussion of the Diamondbacks' offseason maneuvers, which I am going to describe with the awe-inspiring adjective of "adequate."

Jim mentioned in the first brief discussion of this issue that some of the moves made or not made were relatively unimportant, akin to the Titanic "avoiding the icebergs."

Well, as you remember, the Titanic didn't avoid all the icebergs. And so I think "avoiding the icebergs" is a not unreasonable standard to hold a team to. There are higher standards, of course, but I don't think that one is all that bad.

So let's talk about the offseason moves in three parts -- trades, free agent signings, and non-moves.

But there's one more point I'll make -- you either need to look at moves either by expected value or actual value. No fair saying, "See -- Shawn Green is playing just as poorly as I expected" while simultaneously dismissing Tony Clark's success as fluky. (I'm not saying Jim has done this; it's just a broader criticism that I'm trying to avoid.)

OK, here go. I'm going to rate moves on a 1-5 scale, 1 being bad, 5 being great.

Trades -- these are somewhat easier to evaluate because you can look at the value of the player given up.
-- Johnson for Vazquez and Halsey. Let's see... trade a player who doesn't want to be here, who's a free agent in a year and will cost $50 M over three years in return for a somewhat less talented pitcher and an OK possible major league pitcher plus a solid catcher prospect. For half the cost. Remember, last summer the Yankees offered just two prospects. For an extra half season. As much as I hated to see Randy go, this was a great trade for the Diamondbacks. This team is cheaper, younger, and better for the trade. Score: 5
-- Navarro and, uh, some pitcher or three for Green and some cash. For all the criticism leveled at Green this season, he's actually slightly outperforming his VORP prediction for this point in the season. My impression at the time was the deal was as good as could be expected for a management infatuated with Green. That infatuation is the problem, of course -- with all the 1B-corner outfielder talent in the D-Backs' system, this trade was wholly unnecessary. When you see Carlos Quentin misplaying a ball in centerfield next spring, this trade is the reason why. Score: 1
-- Hillenbrand for Peterson: Right idea, poor execution. The Diamondbacks didn't need Hillenbrand and his likely ~$4 M salary, but chose... poorly in getting Peterson in return. No longer in the organization. Score: 2
-- Fossum for Cruz: A pitcher who had a lousy year and didn't figure to do much for the Diamondbacks for a one-year $4 M halfway decent centerfielder. Score: 4

Free Agent Signings -- harder to evaluate because you're competing against the market. Just because the market is insane doesn't mean you can automatically decide not to participate.
-- Ortiz: In the preseason I merely thought the contract was overpriced and overlong, the extra price a team pays for recruiting players to a team that won just 51 games the year before. Clearly based on actual results, the score is a "1," but we're being consistent here. Score: 2
-- Estes: There are almost no bad 1-year free agent signings. This wasn't one of them, either. A bit expensive, perhaps, but clearly better than any of the internal options available. Again, if you used actual results, this is a "4," but before the season, this was a... Score: 3.
-- Clayton: We expected good defense and poor offense. For 1 year, given the absolutely miserable offense and defense Alex Cintron and Scott Hairston provided in 2004, this was not a completely unreasonable signing. Score: 2.
-- Counsell: We expected good defense and poor offense. We expected slightly more from Counsell than from Clayton, but we also had to sign him for 2 years. On the other hand, the number of 2B prospects in the system made a 2-year contract not entirely bad. Score: 3
-- Clark: Not entirely pointless, someone who could provide guidance to Tracy and spell him in spots. Who would've thought Clark would have had such an incredible season thus far? Not me at the beginning of the season. Score: 2
-- Glaus: Despite what Jim has said before, this signing was pilloried by the national media -- "untradeable," said Joe Sheehan. They were wrong, the Diamondbacks were right. Score: 4

Things Not Done -- Look, you read the forums and every third thread talks about the fear that management will trade Carlos and Conor for some useless cog. And guess what? It hasn't happened. Or that Randy would be traded for nothing. Didn't happen. They didn't bother signing the failed players (Mantei, Baerga), overachieving players (Bautista), or non-entities (most of the bullpen). They didn't get any bullpen help, clearly a problem in retrospect, but most statheads were OK with Koplove's and Choate's extensions because they were two of the few bullpen members who actually contributed in 2004.

If you look at actual results, you shouldn't look at Ortiz without looking at Estes, Clayton without Counsell, Green without Vazquez. In other words, for every player that's underperformed, there's another that's overperformed. Glaus has outperformed Sexson and at a far more valuable position defensively.

At worst there are 2 contracts that are difficult to defend, and only one could be remotely called as threatening to the team's future success, and that's the Green signing, which will force Carlos Quentin into centerfield for at least a year. Ortiz' signing is costly, but then so were the other raft of second-tier FA pitching contracts in the offseason.

No, there won't be a lot of free-agent signing by the team this offseason, but in a poor FA market, that may be an advantage. With a 2006 lineup of Gonzalez, Quentin, Green, Glaus, Drew, Counsell, Tracy/Jackson, and Snyder, the Diamondbacks will be in a position to compete in a NL West division that will not have a de facto leader.

Calling this offseason bad is wrong. I would hesitate to call it good, but a complete review of all the decisions made (and not made) would show few stumbles and a few good moves as well.

With some perspective, I think it's worked out decently.

Going by the strict sentence, I'd say that the offseason moves have gone fairly well thus far. I mean, the fact that we're roughly a month and a half ahead of our pace for wins last year alone kind of makes that statement. We've had a good amount of offense, and a lot of that can be attributed to the off-season.

But part the question is how these moves are going to affect us next season and the year after that.
Baseball is unique in that its 162-game season forces its fans to adopt a long-term perspective and not get too worked up about individual events.

You're perfectly right. Fire Jim Tracy has advocated that position since last year.
Also, I suppose the situation with Ortiz came into even greater clarity now that he's gone on the 15-day DL, with a strained right ribcage.

But I think this is somewhat beside the point. Garagiola & Co. had a serious job to do in 2005, and that was to prove to the fans that the Diamondback franchise was not going to allow a relapse of 2004. To some extent they've been successful, especially given their worst-to-second (and at times, first) performance thus far this year. But as you have observed, the free agent contracts they signed, while useful in 2005, are likely to become busts towards their ends, especially Shawn Green (who has far too many years) and Russ Ortiz (whose decline was well underway at the time he signed). Metro Phoenix isn't a huge market, so they have to have good penetration to make things work financially. Garagiola was right about this: it wouldn't take much for the fans to abandon the club if they showed signs of consistent sucktitude, inviting a Brewers-style death spiral. The model for the Diamondbacks should ideally have been rather more like Cleveland's, but I'm not sure that would necessarily translate to more wins, as the Indians themselves are proving this year.
< No fair saying, "See -- Shawn Green is playing just as poorly as I expected" while simultaneously dismissing Tony Clark's success as fluky. >

Actually, it kinda is, not least because Green has almost twice as many at-bats as Clark. And Green's performance is exactly line in with expectations, I predict that Tony Clark will end the season batting below .300. Which would still be better than expected by many, me included.

I'd largely agree with your scores of the individual trades, though I don't think Fossum for Cruz deserves a four - once again, we blocked a position where we had a perfectly serviceable prospect. Cruz is hitting just .216, and his slugging advantage over Terrero is only 17 points. Given Cruz is earning twelve times as much, this one was pointless: a 2 at best.

I take Rob's point about needing to demonstrate we hadn't caved in, but it's clear our moves didn't impress the season-ticket holders, who vanished in droves. Attendance has slumped, and I doubt the presence of Green, Estes and Ortiz really attracts many to the ballpark. The same result could have been achieved cheaply, and fans feel much more attachment to "local" talent [see the Baby Backs in 2003] than mercenaries bought in for a year.

If there are no adequate free agents in the marketplace, don't buy them - and, certainly, don't sign them to long contracts. Instead, Garagiola + co. spent the money as if it had an expiry date on it, and with no apparent awareness of the future.

< The model for the Diamondbacks should ideally have been rather more like Cleveland's, but I'm not sure that would necessarily translate to more wins, as the Indians themselves are proving this year. >

Well, there's only one team on an nine-win streak and seven games above .500 right now, and it's not Arizona...
Let's tackle Jim's original piece, then move on to the comments...

I can't say that I entirely disagree with Jim's original comments. I do think (and said so) that Glaus is performing better than expected (his VORP thus far this season is ahead of his projected pace). And, yes, the Green signing is difficult to justify given the corner strength the D-Backs have. And Ortiz has been fairly pointless this year.

But Jim undersells the other maneuvers. Craig Counsell and Tony Clark both have VORPs over 20, trailing only Luis Gonzalez -- with Clark, he could get injured today, and he'd already have earned his contract. Yes, they probably will return to earth (they already exceed BP's 90th percentile for the season, not season-to-date, SEASON). But they've provided tremendous value already.

As for the comments, Devin and Jim are right -- how does last offseason affect future offseasons? Well, with the exception of the Green contract, the situation is not dire. The D-Backs will have good, young talent (Jackson, Quentin, Drew) ready to take the stage in 2006 -- major free agency is not a route the D-Backs will need to take. The singular fly in the ointment is Green's presence, which will require moving Quentin to CF or trading talent (e.g., Tracy, others) to get a CF.

And, yes, Rob points out the Diamondbacks' need to create a good team more immediately.

Finally, then, Jim's follow-up comments, of which I only want to comment on Green and Clark. It doesn't matter that Green has had twice as many plate appearances. What matters is that they've combined for a VORP of about 32, on pace for a season's VORP of 71. If I had been told at the beginning of the season we'd get a combined VORP of 71 from those two players, I would've been satisfied with the trade. I realize, of course, that Clark will probably regress here, but it's also possible that Green will have his traditional strong second half of the season to make up for it.

You are a hard man to make happy, Jim. ;-)
Not sure why you lump Green together with Clark, and call it a success. Those are independent transactions, and should be analyzed as such.

I agree that Clark has outperformed everyone's expectations. However, this undoubtedly includes the Diamondbacks, and so they deserve little credit for signing Clark: put simply, we've got lucky. I can no more praise management for signing him, than I can slate them for the Sexson affair last year.

Any team can take fliers on a bunch of vets, and probably half of them will work out okay. That's pretty much what we did: Counsell and Clark have been good, Cruz and Clayton not so.

But expectations are much lower for a backup first baseman earning $750K, than a long-term signing of a starting right fielder earning $8.5m - justifiably so. And when managment gets the latter wrong, IMHO, it takes more than a couple of over-achieving veterans to make up for it.
Ah, but Jim, you're now mixing expectations with results. If we're looking at how the offseason moves have actually turned out, you can't dismiss Clark's success as being "lucky." Because then I could dismiss Ortiz's lack of success and injury as "unlucky." I realize that even if Ortiz had performed exactly at expectations, the contract would still have been a bad one. But not nearly as bad as the first half of the season would indicate.

And, frankly, using VORP, Counsell's and Clark's fluky success *have* made up for Green's comparative lack of success thus far.

I think we agree on the basic facts of the case, you just see the old lady, and I see the young one. ;-)
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