Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The New "Murderer's Row?"

Chris Haft of MLB.com who unfortunately writes for the sfgiants.com page recently decided to blog about the multitude of emails he’d been receiving from fans urging the Giants to take a look at Mike Jacobs here. He actually has all of the reasons that the Giants should not even think for one second to sign this guy, but fails to elaborate on them. His first clue should have been Jacobs’ agent (John Boggs) told Haft that he “…was the first reporter to ask him about his client this winter.” I’ve read Haft’s blogs on several occasions perhaps for some combination of comedy and outrage and now most recently it seems to have fueled inspiration to write. I can no longer ignore such things as when he claimed Jason Bay was the superior outfielder to Matt Holliday and that Marlon Byrd would be a good pick up for the Giants. I simply cannot endorse most if not all of the ideas he comes up with.

Though he more or less gathers the plethora of reasons that Jacobs is a non-option the fact that he even chose to blog about it him without completely disparaging the idea shows he doesn’t fully (or possibly even partially)grasp player value. And what are the reasons? Here they are. He can’t play 1B. He can’t make consistent contact. He can’t get on base. He is a left handed hitter. The reason I mention that he is left handed? Lefties (other than Barry Bonds) don’t typically hit for power at AT&T Park and about the only thing Jacobs does well is hit for decent power. He played 1B for the Royals in 2009 only about 15 times and was DH otherwise. Why? The longer he played regularly 1B from 2005 until 2008 the worse he got. The most reliable defensive metric today is UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and according to Jacobs’ fangraphs page from 2005-08 he posted ratings of (-0.8, -2.4, -4.2, -13.6). He struck out 132 times in just 478 plate appearances for the Royals in 2009 or nearly 28% of the time, hence the reason I say he cannot make consistent contact. Lastly, he doesn’t get on base (his OBP over the last 2 seasons is less than .300) so he would fit right in with the 2009 Giants but that’s not a good thing. If you can imagine a player who strikes out about as often as Fred Lewis if not more, who has no speed, doesn’t get on base (unlike Fred Lewis), has slightly better power than Bengie Molina (yet that won’t translate at AT&T) and cannot play well enough at 1B (the easiest position on the field) to even be considered anything but a DH…you can imagine Jacobs. Shouldn’t the fact that arguably the worst team in the AL (Kansas City Royals) released him also be a clue? Fangraphs actually assigns players a monetary value using a combination of sabermetric offensive and defensive statistics and over the past two seasons Jacobs was worth $-1.3 mil and $-3.3 mil. In other words, having him on the roster was actually detrimental to the team because he could not only be replaced but also the contributions of the replacement (league minimum salaried) could easily exceed those of Jacobs.

This brings me to my next point. Haft mentions that the Giants “…have contacted Jacobs’ agent…” You may now take relief in the fact that he also mentions that interest appears minimal. Brian Sabean has been at the helm of the Giants’ front office for about 14 seasons and became the longest tenured GM at the dismissal of Kevin Towers in San Diego. From 1997-2004 the Giants were one of the winningest franchises in baseball that nearly culminated in a World Series victory in 2002. Sabean even seemed like quite the shrewd executive when he made fantastic trades such as Matt Williams for Jeff Kent and others. But more recently it seems apparent that his magic hand has disintegrated with poor free agents signings (a la Zito, Rowand, Renteria) and worse trades (Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser & Joe Nathan* for A.J. Pierzynski). His teams seem to always be within the handful of the oldest in MLB and it should also be noted that while he was wildly successful during the first 9 years, that shouldn’t give him a pass on the last 5. He did, after all, have the best player in baseball and perhaps the greatest offensive force of all time on his roster during his successful earlier years. This is a classic case of, what have you done for me lately?

*Joe Nathan has been the most dominant closer in Major League Baseball since that trade not named Mariano Rivera. Whoops!

I believe it’s a combination of things that led to the Giants’ demise 2004-2008. Buster Olney recently wrote an article for the January 11th issue of ESPN The Magazine (available now on ESPN Insider) about how Moneyball is here to stay. He notes that in terms of Moneyball, “Rival GMs say the Giants and Mets are the two slowest adapters.” This is absolutely no surprise to me whatsoever. Without going into great detail, the Mets also have made some pretty horrible decisions (this trend will continue if and when they ink Bengie Molina as expected) and ultimately have been unable to sustain continued success despite having far greater financial resources then their division foes and the rest of the NL. Matt Klassen mentions (see below) the Dodgers have similarly had recent success under Sabean’s protégé Ned Colletti with the help of money, not skill. As the rest of baseball adapted to statistical analysis and far better player evaluation Sabean continued to stick with his gut feeling and traditional baseball mindset. To make matters worse, he didn’t put much stock into the amateur draft or spend internationally and thus the Giants first homegrown offensive talent since Will Clark is Buster Posey. Thankfully, this trend has turned 180 degrees and the Giants not only have begun to spend much more on each of these facets of roster assembly but also they have drafted extremely well recently netting Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the Giants have plunged themselves into greater statistical analysis and thus many teams around baseball have left them in the dust in that capacity. Matt Klassen of fangraphs made an interesting argument that one of the possible reasons that the AL is a much stronger league than the NL in recent years is the relative skill of the GM’s. He made a list of what he believes to be the 5 best and 5 worst GM’s in baseball. The tallies were: 5 Best = 4 AL, 1 NL and 5 Worst = 1 AL and 4 NL. The worst included the Giants’ very own Brian Sabean as he called these 5, “Murderer’s Row,” but in a much different meaning than the great 1927 Yankee lineup. Read his article here.

To make all these matters worse, not only are the other teams spending more wisely and making far greater decisions based on the way that they value players, but they are also spending more in many cases. This is specifically the case with the Red Sox and Yankees. Theo Epstein is an excellent executive who really knows his stuff when it comes to roster assembly. As it turns out, so too is Brian Cashman now that he was given full power and isn’t the puppet of old George. What’s the major difference? They are working with unlimited resources. The overall quality of their rosters is astonishingly better. The Red Sox and Yankees are running the show, period. What’s more? They can spend more internationally and on the draft. The Pirates are never going to pay to see if Aroldis Chapman is the next Sandy Koufax, but the Yankees, Angels and Red Sox might. And if he does become great, that’s a distinct advantage for the wealthy teams that can afford to take such risks. Any injury or a mistake on a large contract of a player can be devastating to a small market team. The Giants are hampered by Zito and the Jays by Wells. Were those the mistakes of those teams? Absolutely and they have to own them. That being said, if the Yankees make a mistake like that it won’t affect the decisions they make for the next 6 seasons. They see it as a sunken cost and move on. The small market teams carry that burden and it impairs their ability to compete. The Rays had a great season in 2008 in which they made the World Series, but they have to be perfect to sustain a persistent presence in that division. They have all the odds against them, period.

Finally, even the players that are financially attainable to each team often end up with the Red Sox or donning the pinstripes. Why? Because they want to win and when they see the roster being assembled by these powerhouse franchises they can’t help but believe that is their best shot to get the ring. For example, Adrian Beltre just signed with the Red Sox for 1 year and $9 mil with a $1 mil buyout. He was reported to be seeking 4-5 years at $10-15 mil per year. It seems clear he is attempted to reestablish his value but he clearly realizes that playing for a World Series caliber team is the best way to do that while also giving him a very good shot at winning his first title. He would have fit right into the Giants’ lineup providing phenomenal defense and more than likely quality offense after getting out of Safeco. Either he didn’t want to go to SF or Sabean couldn’t realize his value. Either way, the Giants never had a chance. The A’s also had interest but couldn’t meet Beltre’s demands. Could he have been asking for more given the pitcher friendly confines of the Coliseum? Perhaps. But anytime both Epstein and Beane are bidding on a player you can bet whomever they are tugging on is valuable and or undervalued. So too did Nick Johnson jump to the Yankees despite seemingly having more lucrative offers elsewhere. He too would have nicely fit into the Giant’s two hole while providing the ability to get on base, something the Giants so desperately need.

Instead, baseball has become a case study for arbitrage in which several factors are fueling the disparity. A huge part of the problem is money and some of it is executive incompetence. In terms of those who don’t affect the games on the field, the writers covering the game, in general, don’t have a clue and the fans, in general, don’t have a clue. What a mess. Rant over.

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