The 2013 ZIPS Red Sox Projections: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Will Middlebrooks

In the wake of the 2013 blizzard that dumped two plus feet of snow on most of New England at velocities upwards of 60 MPH, one could be forgiven for failing to notice that Fangraphs had finally released the entirety of Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections for the Boston Red Sox. But given that plenty of words have been written touting PECOTA’s 86 win, tied-for-second place in the AL East forecast for the club, it seems reasonable to assume more than the storm is at work. Specifically, Red Sox fans might be underreporting ZIPS because it forecasts a great deal of underperformance from our roster.

ZIPS is conservative by design, which is a useful counter to overly optimistic forecasts such as Bill James’ projections. Even so, the future ZIPS anticipates is not one kind to the Red Sox. If ZIPS projections for the starting rotation hold, in fact, it’s likely that the club will struggle to reach .500. It’s not all bad, but it’s definitely not good. Here then are the highlights and lowlights from the ZIPS 2013 numbers.

The Good

The good news from ZIPS is easy to summarize.

  • Pedroia will remain an effective, star-caliber player, putting up a .289/.357/.456 line from second base. That plus his defense makes him the only 5 win player on the roster.
  • Ortiz will remain an elite offensive force at .294/.288/.558, although the optimism here is tempered by ZIPS belief that Ortiz will be limited to 418 at bats. In spite of his DH status, ZIPS expects Ortiz to be the second most valuable position player at 3.4 wins. Which is a compliment to Ortiz and a criticism of our roster at the same time.
  • Napoli, though not projected to rebound to his 2011 levels of performance, will easily best the .275/.325/.425 line our first basemen put up last year at .248/.347/.488. Even so, the combination of his defense and limited playing time – presumably due to injury – leaves him just shy of a two win player (for context, Adrian Gonzalez was worth 2.6 wins to us last year, in spite of the fact that he was traded in August).
  • The playing time forecast for new shortstop Stephen Drew is actually relatively positive: ZIPS sees him accumulating 450+ at bats. The problem is that his expected offensive performance (.250/.322/.396) is a far cry from his 2010 peak (.278/.352/.458). Still, given that our shortstops hit .234/.272/.359 last year, Drew represents a considerable upgrade – assuming he’s healthy enough to field the position adequately.
  • David Ross was told that he would play more than a typical backup with the Red Sox, but ZIPS sees him getting fewer at bats, in fact, than last season: 163 versus 196. When he plays, though, he’ll be much better than a typical backup, getting on base 31.5% of the time and slugging .414. Given that our starting catcher (until he’s traded, anyway) didn’t get on base even 30% of the time last year and isn’t forecast to this year, I’ll take it.
  • ZIPS doesn’t love Koji Uehara’s health, calling him for to contribute a mere 39.7 innings, but it loves his performance when he’s on the field, anticipating a 2.72 ERA/2.80 FIP with 49 strikeouts against 6 walks. The fact that he’s the only pitcher ZIPS really likes is the real problem here.
  • One quick aside: ZIPS thinks Jackie Bradley Jr. could put up a .249/.329/.367 line in the majors right now, which would be more than adequate if the reports on his defense are even partially correct. He won’t make anybody forget Ellsbury’s 2011 season, but that’s not too far from what Ellsbury was when he came back last year. Good depth to have.

The Bad

  • Ryan Lavarnway already has questions as to whether he’ll stick at the catcher position – at least outside of the Red Sox organization – and his 2013 ZIPS forecast makes it improbable that he’d have a career at anywhere else on the diamond. Here’s hoping his .243/.311/.388 projection is light across the board, particularly because ZIPS sees him getting 500+ at bats. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, it seems at least possible that ZIPS is overweighting his major league numbers from last year; Lavarnway’s average on base percentage in five minor league seasons is .376.
  • If you were wondering whether Iglesias would ever hit, ZIPS is not likely to inspire much confidence. Last season, ZIPS forecast an anemic .251/.289/.311 line for Iglesias, which he actually underperformed – subtantially – with a .118/.200/.191 in 77 plate appearances. This season ZIPS expects little change with a .254/.298/.304. Everyone is rooting for the kid because his glove is that good, but the chances that he’ll ever be adequate at the plate are growing dimmer.
  • It’s easy to expect Jon Lester to improve this season, because established major league pitchers of his age do not typically drop off a performance cliff that quickly barring injury. Even if you buy into the regression to the mean theory, however, there are some alarming trends in his numbers that act to throttle expectations. Here are his K/9 numbers the past four years: 9.96, 9.74, 8.55, 7.28. And his average fastball velocity over that same span: 93.5, 93.5, 92.6, 92.0. Add it all up and ZIPS forecasts an improvement, but a modest one: a 3.97 ERA and a 3.91 FIP over 188.3 innings (which would be his lowest innings total since 2007). If Lester doesn’t throw something close to 200 innings, at a better rate than that, we’re likely in trouble.
  • If ZIPS is low on Lester, it’s lower on Buchholz. Which is certainly understandable given his early season struggles last season. What’s interesting about ZIPS is that it holds with Buchholz’ historical ability to outperform his FIP – often substantially so. Five out of his six seasons in the majors, Buchholz has underperformed his FIP. ZIPS continues this trend, forecasting an ERA of 4.16 against a FIP of 4.43. It also doesn’t expect Buchholz to exceed the 150 IP threshold, which he’s done two out of the last three years (2011’s back fracture held him to 82 IP). Like Lester, the Red Sox need him to outperform this projection if they are to contend.
  • ZIPS actually expects Doubront to improve somewhat from 2012. While the left hander started strong last year – and was actually the club’s best starter in stretches – his overall line was impacted by late season fatigue. In 2012, he put up an ERA of 4.86 and a FIP of 4.37. ZIPS expects a 4.59 and 4.36 this season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s forecasting only 120+ IP from Doubront, down from last season’s 160+. Given the already existing concerns about his innings jump last season and the fact that he reportedly showed up to camp overweight, the ZIPS projected innings mark could be more accurate than the Red Sox would like.
  • One of the few bright spots last season, Junichi Tazawa was stellar after his call up posting a 1.82 FIP over 44 IP with 9.20 K/9 and 1.02 BB/9 rates. It’s hard to expect a pitcher to improve on those numbers, but ZIPS forecasts a substantial regression. Specifically, it calls for a 3.94 FIP over 80 innings, with 74 strikeouts but a spike in walks to 30. Still a useful reliever, but hardly the revelation he was last season.

The Ugly

  • If there was one forecast it would be reasonable to question, it might be Lackey’s. Like all projection systems, ZIPS is based off on performance metrics, and Lackey’s are compromised at least in part by the fact that the last season he was on the field he was pitching with a damaged elbow ligament. It’s reasonable to expect a bit more upside, then, than projection systems will anticipate. The problem is that Lackey’s numbers are so poor, even outperforming them will leave him significantly below average. To begin with, ZIPS expects very little in the way of innings pitched: 127, or twenty starts or so. Over that span, ZIPS expects an ERA of 5.24, a FIP of 4.86 and a K/9 of 5.53 against a BB/9 of 3.19. ZIPS expects Lackey, ultimately, to be worth less than a win, to be less valuable than Rubby De La Rosa, Craig Breslow, Franklin Morales and Brandon Workman. If all of that is true, the Red Sox will have a serious hole to fill in the rotation.
  • The good news for Bard is that ZIPS expects him to throw 65+ innings at the major league level. The bad news is that it doesn’t expect him to throw well. ZIPS sees Bard putting up a 4.50 ERA / 4.68 FIP, which are not the numbers of a premier reliever. And while it projects something of a recovery in his strikeout rate – 8.05 K/9 (8.81 career) – it believes he’ll continue to have a problem with walks. Specifically, it expects him to walk 41 batters over those 66 IP (5.59 BB/9) – an entirely unacceptable number for a high leverage relief pitcher. If true, Bard’s going to be toiling in middle relief if he’s lucky, and more likely to be living in Pawtucket for a few months.
  • There was a great deal of skepticism in the industry following Cherington’s signing of Jonny Gomes, and ZIPS shares it. For the player commonly assumed to be the regular left fielder, ZIPS expects only 391 plate appearances. Which would be a blessing if his line approximates the forecast .240/.332/.423. That’s acceptable if you’re a catcher; it’s not a starter in left field – at least for a contender.
  • Perhaps the player that ZIPS is hardest on is the sophomore third baseman Will Middlebrooks. SBNation’s Marc Normandin, among other writers, believes that Middlebrooks is an anomaly that projection systems are ill-equipped to handle. As written here in December, I’m highly concerned about his approach at the plate. If ZIPS is correct, those concerns are appropriate. ZIPS expects Middlebrooks – whose 2012 line of .288/.325/.509 masked signs the league was adjusting to the rookie – to regress to .255/.292/.434. His defense and a projected 19 home runs make him almost a two win player, but a third baseman who can’t get on base even 30% of the time (the average major league third baseman last year had a .323 OBP) is not a positive. As indeed so little of the 2013 ZIPS projections are for the club.

The Most Unforgivable Sin of Baseball Writing

Old School Google

There are many reasons that sabermetrically inclined writers and fans are frustrated with their old school counterparts. The Hall of Fame voting debacle is probably Exhibit A, in which the very same people whose job it was to report on issues like steroids but failed to do so for decades now sit in self-righteous judgement of the “cheaters” who ruined the game by increasing attendance and inflating revenue. But for me personally, their most unforgiveable sin is their intellectual laziness.

Consider modern metrics such as FIP or WAR. As combinatorial, and more importantly – evolving – metrics, there are legitimate questions to be asked about their relative importance, design and efficacy. Handed down by God to Moses, these were not. And if the legacy sportswriters had considered them carefully, and discarded one or all for failures they perceived after studying them in detail, few if any in the sabermetric world would complain. These types of criticisms, after all, are relatively standard in sabermetric communities, where debates still rage on the merits of Baseball Reference’s WAR versus Fangraphs’ version.

Instead, however, the old school (with notable exceptions like Peter Gammons) treats them with disdain, undeserving of legitimate consideration – where they will deign to acknowledge such measurements at all. The origins of this attitude are variously attributed to fear, ignorance and arrogance, but whatever the cause the manifestation is laziness. A failure to study the latest research in your field – whatever field that might be – is nothing more or less than an intellectual failure. This is bad enough.

What is worse, however, is that many long tenured baseball writers don’t seem to be motivated to do even basic research – forget the advanced metrics. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, an unfortunate successor to Peter Gammons’ Notes column at that paper, is a case study in this behavior. Here’s Fire Joe Morgan, six years ago, on a piece of Cafardo’s:

Would like to just make note of some ordinary, run-of-the-mill shoddy research in a major metropolitan newspaper, The Boston Globe.

If this was a one time event, so be it. It’s a bit unexpected to see at a major media outlet, which has editors in place to catch such things, but mistakes happen. This is, however, something of a habit for Cafardo.

  • In September his Sunday column suggested that BJ Upton could be a trade candidate this offseaon. Upton was, in fact, a free agent, and eventually signed with the Braves. A simple check of Cot’s Contracts provides information on current contractual status for any player in the league.
  • In this past Thursday’s mailbag, when questioned about potential pitching project signings to complement the major league staff, he answered with “You have guys like…Ben Sheets out there as well.” Which would be fine, except that Ben Sheets retired in October after a brief comeback attempt with the Braves. A Google query of “Ben Sheets” returns the retirement story in the top five results, assuming one missed the announcement at the time.

But it was an answer about Rick Porcello that grated the most. In the mailbag, Cafardo was asked about a potential Detroit/Boston swap involving Andrew Bailey and Porcello. And in the interest of full disclosure, this was a trade I myself had proposed:

Detroit is rumored to be willing to trade the young starter, who has been negatively impacted by the club’s poor defense, and having lost Valverde to free agency they’re currently projected to enter the season as a division favorite backed by a rookie closer who throws hard but has little idea of where the ball is going. Match that to our current bullpen surplus, which includes two capital C closers, and it would seem that there’s at least the basis for a conversation between the two teams. Which, to his credit, Cafardo agrees with. But then he went on to say:

Don’t know how good Porcello will be as he seems to be declining.

Declining? Based on what? Here are Porcello’s FIP numbers for the four years he’s been in the league:

  • 2009: 4.77
  • 2010: 4.31
  • 2011: 4.06
  • 2012: 3.91

So, the exact opposite of a decline. What about his strikeouts (K/9)?

  • 2009: 4.69
  • 2010: 4.65
  • 2011: 5.14
  • 2012: 5.46

Low enough to be concerned overall, but certainly not indicative of a decline. Maybe his walks are spiking? Here’s his BB/9:

  • 2009: 2.74
  • 2010: 2.10
  • 2011: 2.27
  • 2012: 2.25

That’s not it: he didn’t walk that many his rookie year, and he’s never again walked even that many. And as far as declines go, this year was better than last. Has he become home run prone, perhaps? How many is he giving up per nine?

  • 2009: 1.21
  • 2010: 1.00
  • 2011: 0.89
  • 2012: 0.82

So he’s been given up fewer home runs on a rate basis every year he’s been in the league, in other words. Not that Cafardo would trust it, but what do Porcello’s WAR numbers look like?

  • 2009: 2.0
  • 2010: 2.0
  • 2011: 2.7
  • 2012: 2.9

According to the advanced metrics, then, Porcello’s value is climbing rather than declining. As a traditionalist, however, Cafardo is probably most concerned with ERA. Maybe that points to a decline?

  • 2009: 3.96
  • 2010: 4.92
  • 2011: 4.75
  • 2012: 4.59

It is true that Porcello has never again equalled his rookie ERA (which advanced metrics indicated was unsustainable), but it is categorically untrue that his ERA indicates a decline. It’s evidence of the contrary, in fact. After a sophomore slump, Porcello has improved in every year since, in nearly every measurable statistic. Which you would never know if you read – and relied upon – Nick Cafardo. Undoubtedly, there are conversations being had in Boston right now about how it would be unwise to trade for Porcello in light of his “decline.”

This to me is a fundamental violation of the trust journalism depends on. Shouldn’t a reader be able to trust that a simple declarative statement from a senior writer at the newspaper with maybe the best history of sports journalism in the country roughly corresponds to the known facts? How can readers take anything Cafardo says at face value at this point, when his history demonstrates conclusively that neither he nor his editors are doing even basic research? This seems to be the definition of contempt for the reader.

When old school writers claim, then, that newer fans or writers are angry about being stuck in the proverbial “mother’s basement,” then, don’t buy it. We’re frustrated because the people charged with informing the public about the game of baseball – and who style themselves as its gatekeepers – have become too lazy to even use Google, and are proud of that.

The Red Sox 2013 Plan

Fork in the road

Having reset the roster in late August, the Red Sox effectively had two paths open to them for 2013. The first path, best described as Win Now, would have entailed bidding heavily on free agents like Greinke, Hamilton or Sanchez, and in all three cases offering contracts of five or more years. This was never likely, given that it was not even six months ago that the Red Sox pulled the ripcord with a first-time-in-major-league-history $250M trade in an attempt to dig us out from just these sorts of contracts. But you’d never know it from the baseball writers, who are disappointed in the Red Sox for not pursuing one big ticket item or another.

The second option available to the club – “Compete Now, Win Later” – was probably the only realistic one given John Henry’s feelings on free agency risk. The basic idea is to overpay in the short term for middle tier free agents – smaller contracts that individually represent fractional risks – in an effort to buy time for the farm system. While Keith Law among others had the Red Sox organization in the bottom half of minor league talent entering 2012, it was a good year for many players in the system. From Barnes to Bogaerts to Bradley Jr, several Red Sox prospects took steps forward last season – some quite significant. Add to that two legitimate, high ceiling arms in De La Rosa and Webster, acquired via the Dodgers trade, and the Red Sox farm system looks better than it has in recent memory, particularly at the upper levels of the system.

The club cannot hope for much help in 2013, however. The roster will see contributions from a variety of prospects next season, of course, but the bulk of the real pitching and positional talent is at least a season away. Lavarnway is probably major league ready now, at least offensively, but Bogaerts, Bradley Jr, Brentz, Iglesias, Shaw, et al need consistent at bats. Both for the player to grow and for the club to assess whether they’re pieces for the roster or pieces with which to acquire talent for the roster. Likewise, our potential crop of starting pitchers is either young and inexperienced (Barnes, Owens), coming off of injury (De La Rosa) or both. It’s probably realistic for the club to hope that of Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster and possibly Owens, Workman and Ranaudo, they’ll find a young starter or two.

Just not this year.

If we assume that the Big Ticket Free Agent plan was never an option, both because the club’s been burned by it recently and because this year’s crop of free agents all came with question marks, Cherington’s course was clear. After last year’s implosion, bottoming out in 2013 by betting everything on the likes of Kalish, Iglesias and Lavarnway wasn’t in the cards. Which meant plugging holes with pieces like Dempster, Napoli, Victorino and Stephen Drew. None are superstars, but neither are any of them being paid like it. Thirteen million might seem like a lot to you, and it sure as hell sounds like a lot to me, but in today’s game that’s the going rate for a mid tier free agent – just ask 37 year old Torii Hunter.

Rather than place all of their financial eggs in one or two baskets, then, the Red Sox front office has obtained bona fide major league candidates for left field, right field, first base (assuming Napoli is finalized), shortstop, catcher, set up man and the fourth spot in our rotation. The aggregate cost has us back within hailing distance of the luxury tax threshold, but it seems inevitable that a few bodies will yet be moved along (my bets would be Salty and at least one reliever). For around $13M less than what Greinke will cost the Dodgers, then, the Red Sox added Dempster, Drew, Gomes, Napoli, Ross, Uehara and Victorino. While I might quibble with some of the individual signings, or their terms, it’s difficult to build the case that Cherington’s dollars would have been better invested in Greinke given the number of holes he had to fill. You pay the cost for a Greinke or a Hamilton or a Dickey if you’re a win or two away from contention; you don’t if you gutted your roster coming off of a 69 win season.

It remains to be seen what the “Compete Now, Win Later” strategy yields in 2013, but Cherington’s approach to the roster is as logical as it has been unexciting. Worst case, they’re improved from last season, best case they’re the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and challenge for a Wild Card spot. Either way, they’re better in 2014 than if the Red Sox had spent like drunken sailors – in dollars or prospects – seeking a quick fix to a long term problem.

It may not be popular, and it will mean the end of the sellout streak, but it’s the sensible approach.

I Said One Year, Ben, Not Three

Center Fielder, Shane Victorino

If Ben Cherington’s been reading this blog, it’s not too closely. While Victorino was a suggested target, the recommended contract length was one year, not three. But instead the Red Sox have bought themselves a new right fielder for almost the exact contract that Mike Napoli got.

The early reactions to the deal are, to put it kindly, not positive.

The most devastating review is probably Keith Law’s, however. In a post entitled “Victorino’s Deal Doomed to Fail,” he writes in part:

Shane Victorino’s three-year, $39 million contract with the Boston Red Sox vaults to the top of the rankings of the worst contracts signed so far this offseason, giving him virtually the same total dollars that Angel Pagan — a superior player — will receive in a contract that’s a year longer.

The Sox have now squandered a substantial amount of the payroll flexibility they obtained over the summer when they traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers just to rid themselves of two awful contracts, yet they have little to show for their recent spending spree.

Victorino is a platoon outfielder at this point, and paying him $13 million a year, even with the rapid salary escalation we’re seeing this offseason, is mad as pants. His bat speed was noticeably slower in 2012, especially later in the season, and despite being a switch-hitter, he doesn’t really hit right-handed pitching

Well, why don’t you tell us what you really think, Keith. And while his concerns regarding the “squandered” financial flexibility are probably overblown – Alex Speier for one believes the club has “plenty” remaining – it’s difficult to argue the point that Victorino is, in fact, a platoon player at this point.

Career, he’s an .881 player against left handed pitchers, .727 versus right handers. The recent numbers are even worse: 2010-2012, Victorino put up a .701. And while it’s true that there are a lot of left handed starters in the American League East these days, that’s not a good number for an outfielder, and it’s downright poor for a right fielder. Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris writes that, adjusting for the positional switch, Victorino becomes a two and a half win player instead of a three and a half win player. Meaning he’d be worth about $27M over three years, which in turn implies that the Red Sox overpaid him by $12M. Which is one reason rumors are beginning to circulate that this is merely a prelude to a trade of Ellsbury: Victorino’s bat is slightly less of a liability in center than it is in right.

Still, I’m a bit surprised at the depth of some of the criticism. For one thing, a $12M overpay means the annual penalty for Victorino’s contract is $4M per year, which is absorbable for the Red Sox. It might not even be that much, in fact. Torii Hunter, who is admittedly a better player than Victorino but five years older, is making the same annual salary. The Cleveland Indians, meanwhile, were reportedly willing to go to four years, albeit at the slightly discounted rate of $11M. As Peter Abraham put it, the market is the market.

It’s also interesting that even statistically minded analysts like Law are so profoundly negative on the deal, given his value on the basepaths and in the field. Since Victorino became a regular in 2006, he’s been worth 3.88 wins a season per Fangraphs. More interesting, he’s been worth on average $16.7M per season by their math over that span, and apart from his rookie year has never been worth less than the $13M he’ll be getting for the next three years. In other words, Victorino has been a valuable player in spite of the platoon splits. Much of his value comes from his defense, where he grades generally as well above average, but he adds value on the bases as well. He’s stolen 34 or more bases four out of the last six years, with 39 coming last season. Even acknowledging that his move to right field and the fact that he’s entering his decline years are likely to negatively impact his value, characterizing this deal as “doomed” seems slightly hyperbolic.

The dollars involved in this deal are not ideal, clearly. But unlike Swisher, the Red Sox do not have to sacrifice a draft pick, and more importantly the $1M allocation for that pick, to sign Victorino. And while it seems like a clear overpay, the contract is a rounding error next to what we unloaded on the Dodgers. If we’re talking about platoon players and doomed contracts, then, compare the newly signed Victorino to the recently traded Crawford. Victorino’s R/L career splits, remember are .881/.727. Carl Crawford’s are .810/.688. Victorino’s going to get $39M over three years; Crawford’s owed $102.5M over the next five.

Crawford’s terrible contract doesn’t mean Victorino’s is good, of course. But it does provide some context: if both are mistakes, the choice between them is clear. Even if Victorino is in fact a platoon player, and of lower value in right field than center, he still has value in other areas of the game. He’s signed for high dollars, but not prohibitively high, and provides an insurance policy in the event that Ellsbury is hurt or traded, as well as a hedge in the event that Bradley’s not ready to take over when Ellsbury leaves.

It’s not a great contract, but neither is it the disaster it’s being made out to be.

A Tale of Two Players

J.J. Hardy, Will Middlebrooks

For obvious reasons, most of the offseason Red Sox chatter has focused on free agents. From Mike Napoli to Zach Greinke, the allure of the shiny baubles on the open market has proven too much to ignore. Which is expected, but misguided. As the front office has said on more than one occasion, the best improvement the 2013 club can make it by getting more out of their existing roster.

When Cherington says that, he is primarily talking about pitchers like Buchholz or Lester who substantially underperformed expectations last season. But it will be nearly as important to extract value from further down the roster; one of the real failings of the Red Sox front office the past few years has been in our depth, or lackthereof.

On that note, here’s a look at two players who are criminally underdiscussed this offseason. For better, and we hope not, for worse.

Rubby De La Rosa

Here’s Keith Law on Rubby de la Rosa following the Dodgers / Red Sox trade:

Rubby de la Rosa blew up as a prospect before blowing out entirely back in 2011, but he’s back from Tommy John surgery and, by 2013, should be able to pick up where he left off when his elbow snapped. He has touched 100 mph as a starter and sits comfortably in the mid-to-upper 90s, offsetting it with an above-average changeup with good fading action in the mid-80s, and, before the surgery, could throw both pitches for strikes. His slider is hard but really short, 82-86, but it doesn’t have a lot of tilt to it because he tends to get on top of the pitch, often coming out higher than he does on his fastball; his curveball, a pitch he seldom throws, is in the mid-70s, breaking down but without tight rotation.

Even an average slider would give him No. 1 or No. 2 starter potential, and I think he can get there if he can release it from a slightly lower spot, closer to where he releases the fastball. It’s a huge arm in any role, and, as long as he’s healthy, he should be able to start.

In spite of the glowing reviews, however, de la Rosa’s name is rarely if ever mentioned as a realistic rotation candidate this season. Career, de la Rosa’s struck out 8.8 per nine, a good if not overwhelming number, although he’s walked too many over that same span (4.84). In 2010 with the Dodgers Single A affiliate, he struck out 55 in 59.1 IP; in 2011 with the Dodgers, it was 60 in 60.2 IP. He’s not yet 24, he’s demonstrated the ability to miss bats, he shows no major platoon splits (< .100 OPS difference L vs R), he maintains his velocity, and with the player a full season removed from Tommy John surgery, de la Rosa should at least be in the conversation for a back end starting role, his control issues notwithstanding.

Will Middlebrooks

As much as it’s a surprise that de la Rosa’s abilities remain off the radar, the lack of concern about Middlebrooks’ plate discipline is even more perplexing. People seem to be taking it for granted, on the basis of a few hundred at bats, that Middlebrooks is a middle of the lineup fixture for years to come. The problem is that the data is much less conclusive on that subject.

Granted, he tore up the minors last year (.333/.380/.677), and his partial season line (.288/.325/.509) in the majors is respectable if light on on base percentage. But after a hot start Middlebrooks cooled off significantly before breaking his wrist. The wrist injury is itself enough cause enough for concern, as such injuries tend to depress power for a season or more. But his performance prior to the injury is also problematic. Here’s his OPS by month: May (.922), June (.836), July (.785) and August (.673). His numbers also benefitted from a slightly elevated BABIP (.335). Worse, his contact issues point to a real potential problem.

Looking at MLB third basemen with a minimum of 250 at bats last season, here’s how Middlebrooks fared in contact categories:

  • BB%: 40th of 45
  • K%: 6th of 45
  • BB/K: 44 of 45 (only Pedro Ciriaco was worse)
  • OBP: 23rd of 45

In general, plate discipline is regarded as being a good predictor of future performance, and indeed is core input to many projection systems. It should come as no surprise, then, that ZIPS’ preliminary projected numbers for Middlebrooks are not promising: .255/.292/.434. For context, the average third baseman last season put up a .267/.328/.426 line. ZIPS predicts, in other words, that Middlebrooks will be a below average third baseman next season.

Best case for the Red Sox is that Middlebrooks’ power and plate coverage buys him time to improve his pitch recognition skills, and that his above average slugging percentage offsets his on base percentage. But it’s worth noting that the players that Cherington has pursued this offseason, even while shopping in the bargain aisle, have had reasonable on base skills.

It’s an acknowledgement that OBP was, for the first time in years, a weakness for the Sox, one that needed to be remedied. It may also be an acknowledgment that while Middlebrooks will be the team’s third baseman next season, he may be more likely to be part of the problem in that regard than the solution.

How I Would Not Rebuild the Red Sox in 2013


When Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on the deal sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Dodgers, it was in effect a commitment to at least a partial teardown and rebuilding effort. As has been much discussed, it left the club a substantial amount of available payroll in a market short on attractive free agent options.

Many, myself included, have offered Cherington recommendations for re-allocating that capital, with the options ranging from tactical to strategic to absurd. Given the seller’s market in free agency, it’s logical that many general managers turn to trade as a more efficient means of obtaining talent. Certainly this is the approach that Alex Anthopoulos took in Toronto, where in a trade with Miami he obtained a frontline starter, backend starter and starting shortstop at a bearable cost both in terms of talent traded and salaries assumed.

And it is to the trade market that co-founder of Baseball Prospectus Christina Kahrl would have the Red Sox turn in 2013 to restock their roster. Specifically, her major recommendation is the following:

Trade to get Alfonso Soriano’s next two seasons and the last year that Matt Garza is under club control, sending Chicago a package of Kalish, Saltalamacchia and minor-league prospects Alex Wilson and Matt Barnes.

On a superficial level, this trade makes some sense. Barnes is at least a year, more likely two, from impacting the roster. The addition of Ross makes Saltalamacchia redundant. Wilson has potential but is far from a dominant prospect, and Kalish’s star has fallen in the wake of shoulder and neck issues, respectively. In return for these assets, the Red Sox would address their left field vacancy for two years and their mid-rotation starter need for one.

This is, however, a poor deal for the Red Sox. To begin with, it’s built on the following assumptions:

  1. That Soriano is closer to the 4 win player he was last year than the 1.5 win player he was the year before or the zero win player he was two years before that.
  2. That Matt Garza is healthy (he was just given leave to begin preparing for spring training a week ago) and closer to the 5 win player he was two seasons ago than the 1.4 wins he averaged the years before and after.
  3. That the Red Sox are a borderline playoff team next season.

Initial projections see Soriano putting up a .770 OPS for the Cubs next year (or, about forty points shy of Cody Ross’ production last season), with Garza throwing around 150 innings with a sub 4.0 ERA – all in the NL Central. Adjusting for the AL East, both numbers would unquestionably represent well above replacement player value, but well shy of elite or even All Star levels of performance.

If we assume for the sake of argument that Garza and Soriano both skew towards the higher end of their projections, however, the last assumption is the real problem for this proposed transaction. Whatever one thinks of the potential of Barnes, Kalish or Wilson, the fact is that each has a chance to be a contributor to a major league club. And more importantly, each represents multiple years of low cost service time in those roles.

Player and prospect value, of course, is contextual. The marginal value of wins added increases the closer the roster as a whole is the playoffs, which is important in considering Kahrl’s trade proposal. The immediate impact of the transaction would be a net upgrade of a few wins in 2013, but the value would drop – potentially precipitously, depending on Soriano’s readjustment to the AL East – thereafter, as Garza is a free agent after the upcoming season.

To make this deal, therefore, Cherington would have to be convinced that the sacrifice of the years of potential service time from the prospects would be offset by the benefit to the club next season alone. Which, given the other holes on the roster, would seem to be a difficult case to make. In discussing his offseason plans, Cherington has been careful to emphasize the need to build for the present without jeopardizing the future; Kahrl’s proposal may satisfy the former, but certainly not the latter.

The Red Sox would also be selling low on Kalish, whose minor league line (.279/.366/.429) is competitive with Josh Reddick’s (.278/.332/.500). It could be argued as well that the Red Sox would be undervaluing Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His .742 OPS in spite of the 25 home runs underscores just how problematic his on base skills are, but in a league in which the average major league backstop put up a .718, Salty’s a two win player. Or roughly twice as valuable as Garza was last year in an injury marred campaign.

Ultimately, prospects are assets, to be used to better the club – whether that’s playing for them or bringing assets in who will. But in general, when multiple years of service time are being traded, it’s important to get either an elite performer or multiple years of service in return. This deal would accomplish neither goal. Exceptions to this approach can, and arguably should, be made when the existing roster is championship caliber, and the marginal value of a few added wins is great. But having gutted the roster in August, such is not the case for the Red Sox.

Hopefully, Cherington – in spite of being from Amherst – will recognize this and avoid it or similar transactions this offseason.

How I Would Rebuild the Red Sox

Construction Nightime Pano

In many respects, this is baseball’s real silly season. Every club has “interest” in every potential free agent, but unlike at the trading deadline, clubs lack hard data on the strengths and weaknesses of their roster. And so the market is long on rumor and short on actual facts. Yesterday’s David Ross signing is actually a good example of this: admidst all of the media speculation on how the Red Sox would fill their holes in the rotation, outfield, first or short, the club signed a third catcher.

Projection, then, seems a pointless exercise. Instead the focus here is on acquisitions and signings that would fit the twin goals of making the roster more competitive and being disciplined in their approach to the market.

Here’s what I would do this offseason.

SS: Sign Stephen Drew to a 1 Year Deal

Two seasons ago, Stephen Drew was a 5 win player for the Diamondbacks. An excellent fielding shortstop that hit 15 home runs and got on base 35% of the time, he was the definition of an asset. In between then and now, he suffered a catastrophic injury, came back too slowly for Arizona and played like a shell of his former self – a .2 win player. Presumably, Drew would prefer to be paid like a 5 win player rather than a .2 win player. The way to do that is a so-called pillow contract: a one year, reasonable money deal that allows a player to rebuild his value and re-enter the market on his own terms. What he needs is a club that needs a major league shortstop, even one with some injury questions, for a single season. Which is the Red Sox.

One of the more baffling narratives this offseason has been whether or not Iglesias is ready to assume the starting shortstop role offensively. He is not. There is no evidence to suggest that Iglesias could be even below average for a shortstop in the major leagues at present. As much as everyone wants to watch him play the position defensively, the club cannot afford an automatic out in the lineup. And while we have other interesting shortstop prospects – Bogaerts, if he can stay at the position, Marrero, and so on – they are at least a season away.

Signing Drew would give the Red Sox another season’s worth of at bats for Iglesias, as well as additional time to see what they have in Bogaerts, Marrero. Not to mention a season’s worth of production from a player who is strongly incented to produce and another season removed from the original injury.

1B: Sign Mike Napoli to a 2 Year Deal

Napoli reportedly wants to remain at catcher, which is logical because his market value is higher if he can credibly claim to be an option at the position. But the question that the Red Sox should be asking his representatives is whether that assumption is in fact true. Napoli’s calling card is now and always has been his offense. As a catcher, his defensive ratings have ranged from barely average to very poor. And as a larger player on the wrong side of thirty, it’s almost certainly true that his continued work at catcher is depressing his offense.

If the Red Sox were to move Saltalamacchia, they could approach Napoli with the following: the opportunity to primarily man first base, but to periodically work in with Lavarnway and Ross to keep their innings manageable. And should Lavarnway fail to produce in his third major league trial, to catch even more. Averaging out his last four seasons, including 2012’s down year and 2011’s explosion, Napoli’s been worth $14.55M per season according to Fangraphs. If the Sox approached him with a two year deal at close to that annually – say a twin of Ortiz’ 2/$26M – he’d have to consider it. He might get a longer deal elsewhere, but he’s probably not going to get more per year.

Setting aside the question of what Napoli might ultimately require financially, there’s the question of whether it’s worth signing him in the first place. Napoli’s 2011 campaign – .320/.414/.631 – has been revealed to be an outlier, and he gave up ground in average, OBP and SLG last year at .227/.343/.469. But given that the average major league first baseman, let alone catcher, put up a .257/.330/.436, Napoli remained well above average offensively even in a down, injury marred year. And while it’s possible to go overboard with his splits, over the 73 at bats he’s had at Fenway, he’s put up a .306/.397/.710 line. I joked at one point that we should pay Napoli not just to play for us but to stop playing against us, and in truth I was only partially joking. Just for fun, too, it’s worth noting that Napoli’s even better at the new Yankee Stadium: .375/.531/.625.

Napoli comes with questions: age, injury and his willingness to fill the role we need. But I think the first two are overplayed, and the last is a solvable problem with the right offer.

SP: Sign Dan Haren to a 1 Year Deal

No player this offseason has lost more value than Dan Haren. When the Angels failed to complete the transaction with the Cubs for Marmol, the obvious if as yet unconfirmed conclusion was that Haren’s medicals blew up the trade. The Angels ended up dumping him for no return, and it’s not as if they have a rotation surplus. As Keith Law notes, Haren wouldn’t be the first pitcher to lose his career to back problems. It’s possible, of course, that Haren is done.

But if he’s damaged goods, it should on some level be apparent in his numbers. The logical manifestation of a chronic injury like a back would probably be decline; as the damage accumulates and the pain worsens, his numbers should suffer as a result. Except that’s not what we see. Here is his OPS allowed by month from April/March through September/October: .716, .672, 1.018, .855, .763, .697. His strikeout to walk ratio, same period: 6.0, 4.0, 2.11, 2.00, 3.2, 6.2. What those numbers seem to indicate here is a pitcher who was injured and then recovered to pitch effectively.

On a long deal, the risk here would be entirely unacceptable. But given the collapse in Haren’s market value in the wake of the failed Cubs transaction, it seems at least possible that he would be open to a higher dollar, single season pillow contract similar to the one Drew is undoubtedly seeking. And if he was signed and did break down in mid-season, it’s possible that De La Rosa or one of the other minor league arms would be ready to step in by that point.

OF: Sign Shane Victorino to a 1 Year Deal

This might be a stretch, as Victorino is likely to field at least one if not multiple multiple year offers. But the question he’ll have to ask himself: at what average annual value? Your 31st year is not the ideal time to post a career worst OPS, particularly if you’re seeking a new contract. But that’s exactly what Victorino did, seeing his OPS drop by nearly 150 points between 2011 and 2012. His track record will earn him multi-year offers, but they will presumably price in a discount based on the down year. It doesn’t seem impossible, therefore, that the Red Sox could offer Victorino a higher annual salary for a single season, offering him the chance to rebuild his value in a major market then seek one last big free agent contract next offseason.

He’d be worth having if he could be convinced. Even in a down year offensively, Victorino was nearly a three and a half win player thanks to his contributions in the outfield and on the bases. His ability to play center would be of value, thanks to Ellsbury’s difficulty in staying on the field the past few seasons.

The End Result

If the Red Sox could complete these moves, this is what the roster would look like come spring training next year.

C: Lavarnway / Ross
1B: Napoli
2B: Pedroia
SS: Drew
3B: Middlebrooks
LF: Sands / Nava (Sands career OPS vs LHP is .904, Nava’s vs RHP is .768)
CF: Ellsbury
RF: Victorino

SP: Lester
SP: Buchholz
SP: Haren
SP: Doubront
SP: Lackey

To my eyes, that is a respectable roster. And while it assumes that Saltalamacchia is moved, it does not factor in a return.

The offense has the potential to get on base and score runs, and the pitching – assuming a regression to the mean for Lester and Buchholz, at least – would keep the team in games more often than not with real upside to the first three spots in the rotation. The roster carries a not insubtantial amount of risk, principally in the form of the injury or underperformance potential of some of the players, but this is true of every club. Defensively, if Drew continued to recover from his injury, the club would feature average to above average defenders at second, short, third, center and right field, while catcher, first and left field would be problem areas.

Most importantly, all of the above could be accomplished while avoiding the kinds of long term deals that the club has had a mixed at best track record with. This is important not only because of the risk inherent to longer term deals, but also because the club does not want major commitments to block the next wave of prospects likely to arrive in Fenway Park. One outfield spot remains open in the event that Kalish returns to form or one of Jackie Bradley Jr and Bryce Brentz pulls a Middlebrooks. Three outfield spots open the following season, and shortstop will be available for the best performer out of Bogaerts, Iglesias or Marrero. As for the starting pitching candidates like Barnes, De La Rosa or Webster, injuries will create openings for the would be starters: they always do.

As none of the above is particularly likely to occur, however, it will be interesting to see what the actual plan of attack is from the front office.