Oswalt Overkill and Desperation

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In the category of unsubstantiated rumors of the day, the Angels are supposedly the “frontrunners” for fussy free agent righty Roy Oswalt and the Red Sox are thinking about moving Daniel Bard back to the bullpen.

Or not in both cases.

If there’s a grain of truth in the rumors, they’re connected to one another in what should happen.

Of course that has nothing to do with what will happen.

First, with the Angels and Oswalt, do the Angels need another name starter? Are they going to use whatever money it costs—even if the template for Oswalt’s contract is the Andy Pettitte deal with the Yankees—to bolster an overwhelming strength in the starting rotation?

With an innings-eating front four of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana, the Angels will be perfectly fine with Jerome Williams (who pitched quite well last season) as their fifth starter. In spite of the acquisition of Albert Pujols and what appears to be an overabundance of bats with too few positions to go around, the offense is still shaky with Vernon Wells a black hole; Bobby Abreu whining his way out of town; and the unknown of Kendrys Morales.

As of right now, the only true offensive guarantee they have is Pujols.

The bullpen may need boosting during the season as well. Are they intent on spending the money they have left now on a player they really don’t need in Oswalt?

Why?

Oswalt’s had multiple injuries in recent years and wouldn’t be ready to pitch until May.

And they don’t need him.

It makes no sense.

On the other hand, there’s one destination that makes sense for Oswalt, where he would be a need and not overkill—the Red Sox.

Another rumor that made the rounds this weekend (and was only reported as a possibility in one place—link) is that the Red Sox have seen enough of Bard in the starting rotation and he’ll be shifted back to the bullpen.

There are numerous possibilities surrounding this revelation if it’s true. The Red Sox could be dropping a rock into the water to see the ripples it causes in the public and media; perhaps they wanted to pressure Bard into pitching better in his next start (which was yesterday) after the story came out. His results were similar to what he’s done all spring—not particularly good—but manager Bobby Valentine made it a point to say he liked Bard’s demeanor better than he had in prior starts.

What that means for the future is anyone’s guess.

The Red Sox are not in a position to be putting Bard back in the bullpen. If they do that and move Alfredo Aceves to the starting rotation, they’ll be trading one problem for another. Aceves is not durable enough to be a 180-200 inning starter and he’s too valuable and versatile in the bullpen to start. If they determine that Bard can’t start, their only real option is Oswalt. Apart from that, they’re going to be in bigger trouble that I thought. And bear in mind that I picked them to go 81-81 this year. If Bard is unable to be at least a serviceable starter and they’re relegated to using castoffs in the number 4 and 5 slots in the rotation, they’re in trouble. A lot of it.

Oswalt would be their only choice and the same issues that make him a questionable fit for the Angels would make him a desperation shot for the Red Sox. If they continue down this line of thought, desperation might be all they have left.

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Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

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They Hired Jerry DiPoto To Do This?

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A team that spends their money in this way in free agency—C.J. Wilson ($77.5 million over 5-years); Albert Pujols ($250 million over 10-years); and LaTroy Hawkins (1-year, $3 million)—and to trade a top prospect starter Tyler Chatwood for Chris Iannetta and find a taker for Jeff Mathis, probably didn’t need to hire a new GM to do it.

That’s nothing against new Angels GM Jerry DiPoto who made a series of terrific trades while the interim GM of the Diamondbacks to help build the foundation for this year’s surprising NL West champion; nor the players he acquired—he got quality for the most part and/or filled the Angels’ needs—but don’t make it seem like the act of a genius when he had an owner in Arte Moreno who authorized the payouts.

As for the deals themselves, Pujols for 10 years is more palatable when there’s the DH option as he ages, but $250 million is a lot of money for one player no matter how it’s sliced; he’s a historic player and will produce in the foreseeable future for the Angels; one thing that will be very interesting is how he ages. Will the progression and decline be natural or will he maintain his excellence for the length of the contract leading to…questions?

Pujols is this era’s Joe DiMaggio in both performance and stature; even DiMaggio tumbled rapidly and was finished by 36.

My first reaction to the Wilson contract was: “That’s it?”

From wanting $120 million, he took $77.5 million?

Obviously the visions of riches Wilson had dancing under that thick lustrous hair weren’t available from the Rangers, Marlins or anyone else.

The Angels signed a pitcher for less than the extension they agreed to with Jered Weaver and bolstered an already excellent top three starters with Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.

Wilson isn’t young (31), but he has clean mechanics and hasn’t been a starter long enough for wear and tear to be a concern. He’s a good pitcher and will be good for the Angels.

This is a formidable team, but don’t place any appellations of “genius” or provide undue credit to DiPoto because he just did what former GM Tony Reagins and another whom was interviewed for the position, Omar Minaya, could’ve done amid all the criticism they received as GMs—he spent a load of money.

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The C.J. Wilson Free Agency Profile

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Name: C.J. Wilson.


Position: Left handed pitcher.

Vital Statistics: Age-31. Height-6’1″. Weight-210. Selected by the Texas Rangers in the 5th round of the 2001 MLB Draft.

Agent: Bob Garber.

Might he return to the Rangers? Yes.

Teams that could use and pay him: Texas Rangers; New York Yankees; Boston Red Sox; Toronto Blue Jays; Baltimore Orioles; Detroit Tigers; Kansas City Royals; Minnesota Twins; Los Angeles Angels; Seattle Mariners; Washington Nationals; New York Mets; Florida Marlins; Milwaukee Brewers; Cincinnati Reds; Chicago Cubs; Los Angeles Dodgers.

Positives:

Wilson is durable and hasn’t had the massive workload that accompanies being a starting pitcher throughout his big league career. He has a clean motion and was a starter in the minors before switching to the bullpen in 2006; he made it to the big leagues and was a reliever until 2010. He’s still fresh.

His versatility will make him useful even if he no longer has the ability to start by the waning years of his contract—he was a closer for the Rangers.

He throws a good, moving fastball; has a nice curve and change-up; is willing to pitch inside; strikes out a fair number of hitters; and despite pitching in a notorious hitters’ ballpark, allowed only 26 homers in 427 innings as a starter over the past two seasons. Wilson induces a lot of ground balls, so he needs a solid infield defense.

He’s very, very pretty according to female purring when he’s on the mound or on camera.

Negatives:

He’s can get wild and has a big mouth which might irritate teammates; players who love to hear themselves talk tend to grate on the nerves.

His results in the post-season have been terrible. With his personality, he appears to get too excited when pitching in a big game, tries to throw too hard and forgets what it was that made him successful. When a pitcher tries to throw too hard or the adrenaline is pumping too heavily, his pitches tend to flatten out and stay up in the strike zone; his post-season struggles weren’t due to a lack of stuff.

What he’ll want: 6-years, $105 million.

What he’ll get: 5-years, $87 million with a club option for a 6th year pushing it to a possible $105 million; plus an opt-out after 3 seasons.

Teams that might give it to him: Yankees; Red Sox; Orioles; Blue Jays; Tigers; Royals; Angels; Mariners; Nationals; Marlins; Dodgers; Cubs.

The Yankees are playing their cards close to the vest so far, but you can bet that they’d dearly love to get rid of A.J. Burnett and replace him with Wilson; how feasible that is remains to be seen, but someone will take a chance on Burnett’s talent at the right price.

The Orioles desperately need pitching and have money to spend, but with the demand Wilson will be in they’d have to overpay drastically to get him and they don’t have a GM yet.

The Nationals also need starting pitching.

Wilson is from Southern California putting the Dodgers and Angels in play; the Angels love to collect 200-inning starting pitchers and a rotation of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Wilson and Tyler Chatwood would be devastating.

The Marlins are diving into free agency and don’t discount the Cubs.

Would I sign Wilson if I were a GM? Yes.

Will it be a “bad” signing for the club that does pay him? No. He’s not a kid—he’s 31-years-old—but as said earlier, his pitching age is different from his actual age because he was a reliever for the first 5 years of his career. It’s almost like an individual placed in a controlled environment—they don’t age as fast. The wear on his tires is lessened; the clean motion and lack of overuse bodes well for him staying healthy into his mid-30s and remaining effective.

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Early Season Oohs And Ahs

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Let’s have a look at some of the early seasons positives and whether or not they’re real or a mirage.

The rampaging Indians:

Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin are a combined 7-0; the bullpen has been brilliant; Travis Hafner is healthy and killing the ball; Asdrubal Cabrera has 4 homers(!); and Grady Sizemore is looking like his old self returning from microfracture surgery.

All of these occurrences won’t continue.

Hafner’s inevitable health problems and the tricky nature of microfracture surgery for Sizemore will be counteracted—to a point—when Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana start to hit; but the Indians are still playing journeymen Orlando Cabrera and Jack Hannahan regularly; and Asdrubal Cabrera cannot keep up his hot start.

The pitching is the question. Masterson will return to earth; the bullpen won’t be as good as it has been; and they’ve beaten up on struggling/mediocre/poor teams.

A brigade of “Indians are contenders again” believers will gather steam, but they’re not contenders. At best they could hover around .500 all season and fade out towards the end. But that’s it.

Weaver and Haren is plenty good:

And Ervin Santana is underrated as well.

Who could possibly have thought that the Angels—with their top three starting pitchers and history of success—were going to recede into the Pacific Ocean and leave the AL West for the Rangers and still-overrated Athletics without a peep?

Jered Weaver is one of the best pitchers in baseball and is looking to get paid in the not-so-distant future (free agent after 2012; Scott Boras is his agent—do the math).

Dan Haren has been brilliant as well. Those who looked at the Angels off-season and scoffed because their acquisitions were limited to Vernon Wells (who’s going to hit), Hisanori Takahashi and Scott Downs, conveniently forgot that the Angels traded for Haren at mid-season 2010.

Joel Pineiro will be back soon and rookie Tyler Chatwood has been solid. Manager Mike Scioscia didn’t hesitate to make Jordan Walden the closer and Fernando Rodney is more comfortable as a set-up man.

Is anyone still laughing at the Angels? And will they admit how stupid they were (and still are) now?

I doubt it. I’ll be more than happy to point it out though. With enthusiasm.

Burying Josh Beckett and the Red Sox:

More partisan silliness.

Beckett was hurt last year. Now he’s not hurt. And he’s pitching brilliantly.

It was idiotic to think that a 31-year-old post-season hero with Beckett’s career history was “done” because of maladies that had nothing to do with his arm.

After their hideous start, the Red Sox have righted the ship and will be a run-scoring machine when Carl Crawford starts to hit. And he will start to hit.

On another note, it’s only a matter of time before Mike Cameron is playing center field regularly. The frustration with Jacoby Ellsbury is legitimate; I was never a fan and his power display is a mirage. He’s done nothing at the plate aside from his 4 homers; is mediocre defensively in center field; and the other players don’t seem to like him.

John Lackey will also have to be dealt with. Even though he pitched well against the anemic offense of the Oakland Athletics, his behavior and body language were both troubling. Nobody’s saying that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is Johnny Bench in terms of handling pitchers, but the open animosity between pitcher and catcher can’t go on. Lackey isn’t endearing himself to his teammates with his miserable attitude and it has to be handled from the inside. If that means Jason Varitek, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis have to corner and threaten him physically, so be it.

Later on today, I’ll post about the negatives so far in early 2011.

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Mania

Hot Stove

The speed with which we get information today can be a good or bad thing. Many times it’s positive as in cases of Amber Alerts and dangerous occurrences; other times it’s not. From the premature reports of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’s death to the comparatively trivial injury to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in which he was accused of giving up and begging out of the NFC Championship on Sunday when he was really hurt, people’s lives and reputations are affected.

It’s reactionary and ill-thought out.

Now we’re seeing the same thing with the Los Angeles Angels and their so-called “desperation” trade for Vernon Wells.

In the immediate aftermath of the deal’s announcement, I too was bewildered at why any team would want to take Wells’s contract from the Blue Jays with negligible relief (said to be $5 million) on the remaining $86 million guaranteed. That the Angels gave up two productive and cheap pieces in Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera made it all the more confusing.

But then I looked at it more deeply.

The trade, after cursory internet reaction, was awful. When examined closely, it made a certain amount of sense. Now, after studying the Angels; their situation; their division; their needs; and what Wells and subsequent additions will provide, it could get them back into the playoffs.

The Angels faded out last season for three reasons: a lack of scoring; injuries; and a bad bullpen.

If the Angels make one more acquisition to bolster the lineup, the scoring problem will be mitigated. The negatives of Wells—apart from his salary—are known and accurate: he’s streaky, doesn’t get on base and is overrated defensively. But for the Angels, he fits into what they want to do.

Affording them the option of not having to rely on a 24-year-old Peter Bourjos to save their season, they can play Wells in center field if necessary. This would free them to do a couple of things. They’re pursuing Scott Podsednik or Vladimir Guerrero.

The Podsednik talk elicits ridicule in stat zombie circles, but isn’t a terrible idea at all. He can still run and play solid defense in left; with a career .340 on base percentage, he’d give RBI chances to the bats behind him. Plus he’d be cheap.

I’d go after Guerrero before Podsednik. Guerrero’s rejuvenation in Texas was not due simply to him being in a hitter’s heaven of a ballpark at home; I think he was healthy again. Guerrero hit well on the road last season and if he returned to Anaheim and provided 25 homers and 90-100 RBI—not absurd requests—the Angels offensive woes at DH are solved.

In addition to that, who can tell how much Guerrero’s absence as a father figure to Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis contributed to their poor seasons? If Aybar and Izturis hit somewhere close to the way they did in 2009, the Angels will have far more scoring opportunities.

The offensive woes were evident in greater detail after Kendry Morales‘s season-ending ankle injury. Right there, the Angels went from having a power hitting first baseman and a rightfully part-time power hitting catcher in Napoli to having Napoli playing every day at first base and the no-hit Jeff Mathis catching.

Losing the big power threat affects everything. Napoli was admirable in an unfamiliar role, but it meant that he was playing every day; that Mathis was playing regularly; and that Bobby Abreu was relied on more than was feasible given his age.

Certain players are better off not playing every day because once they play every day, they’re exposed. This is what happened to Napoli playing first base in place of Morales.

With Wells in and Napoli and Rivera out, the Angels not only have another power bat in their lineup, they’re free to address other needs at either DH or left field.

The Angels troubles were exacerbated by Howie Kendrick‘s poor year accompanying the down seasons from Aybar, Izturis and Abreu. Was Kendrick exposed like Napoli after he was forced to play every day following the free agent departure of Chone Figgins? Considering his career in the majors and minors, I’d say no; he’s been a .300 hitter at every level.

Abreu, despite his age, has been too good for too long to have another down year like he had in 2010. Being left alone in the lineup didn’t help Abreu either. The lineup’s better, Abreu will be better.

So let’s say Abreu gets back to 20 homers, and a .370 on base percentage; that Wells hits 25 homers and drives in 90; that Morales bats .300, has 25 homers and 100 RBI; that they get either Guerrero or Podsednik; that Kendrick, Aybar and Izturis have better seasons—don’t you see how much that will improve their offense?

In addition to losing Morales, the injuries to Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir sabotaged the Angels badly in 2010. Pineiro was on his way to a fine season before a strained oblique landed him on the disabled list. Kazmir hadn’t pitched all that well, but he provided innings at the back of the rotation.

Amid all the stories of the failed pursuits this winter—most notably Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre—it’s forgotten that the Angels made a significant mid-season upgrade in their starting rotation when they got Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks. Replacing the hittable Joe Saunders with Haren gives the Angels two top-tier starters fronting their rotation with Jered Weaver and Haren; right behind them is another very good pitcher, Ervin Santana; then you have Pineiro and Kazmir.

That’s one of the top rotations in baseball.

The bullpen?

Even if you don’t trust Fernando Rodney as closer, they acquired lefties Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi. Downs—durable, underrated and able to get out hitters from both sides of the plate—will help a lot. Takahashi was invaluable to the Mets in a variety of roles from starter to long reliever to set up man to closer. He’s fearless and the Angels are presumably going to use him in a similar way as the Mets did. There were many games that Takahashi entered with the Mets trailing by multiple runs; he quieted things down and gave the club time to chip away. The work he did as a closer was impressive.

The Angels have a slight hole behind the plate with the departure of Napoli, but they do have a prospect in Hank Conger to share time with Mathis and Bobby Wilson. Conger has hit at every minor league level—minor league stats.

Manager Mike Scioscia—a tough as nails, defensive-minded catcher as a player—likes his catchers to be able to handle the pitching staff first and foremost. If Conger can do that, he’s an under-the-radar Rookie of the Year candidate.

I’d shut my eyes and play Conger.

As for their competition in the AL West, is it so crazy to think the Angels could emerge from the three team scrum with the Rangers and Athletics?

The Rangers can really hit, but have questions in their starting rotation; their bullpen won’t be as good as it was last season; and their manager Ron Washington is a walking strategic gaffe waiting to happen. They’re the American League champs and will be so until they’re knocked off the perch, but they’re beatable.

The Athletics are a trendy pick (again) because of the aggressive acquisitions of David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Hideki Matsui in the their lineup; Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour for the bullpen. But their starting rotation is very, very young; young pitchers tend to fluctuate in performance as they’re establishing themselves. It’s not an automatic that Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden will repeat their work from last season.

There’s an eagerness to leap back onto the Billy Beane bandwagon—an overeagerness based on the desire to “prove” Moneyball as having been accurate in advance of the movie even though there’s no connection to what Beane did this winter to Moneyball the book or film.

But I digress. I’ll swing that hammer when the time comes.

Are the Angels, with their success over the past decade, suddenly fodder for ridicule? Isn’t it possible that they calculated the pros and cons of taking Wells’s contract for Napoli and Rivera and decided it was worth it?

Regarding the money, what’s a reasonable amount to pay for the top earners on a club? How much of a percentage is doable? For the Blue Jays, with an $80 million payroll, Wells’s onerous deal, with $23 million coming to him this season, had to go; for the Angels, with a $120 million payroll and substantial money coming off the books after this season, it’s not crazy to handle Wells’s deal without complaint. How much is a viable percentage for a team’s big money players in relation to the club’s payroll? For the Blue Jays, Wells didn’t make sense; for the Angels, he does.

The key for the Angels in 2011 is that they score enough runs to support that starting rotation. With Wells and one more offensive player added, they’ll have achieved that end. In the final analysis, that’s all that really matters in making them a legitimate playoff contender again; and no matter what print and online criticism they receive, they are contenders again because of the acquisition of Vernon Wells.