This Week’s “Old-Time Baseball Photo of the Week” features a 1920s newspaper photograph of cajun sensation LaRascadoux Bartine (le-RAS-ce-do bar-TEEN). The switch hitting right fielder from Louisiana had a reputation for being so greasy, he was simply referred to as the “Swamp Shark.” He commented on his nickname in one of the only extant interviews conducted by him:
“Dey’s caw me da Swamp Shark cuz me always so slippree, like um bin flappin n slithrin in da mud, in da nasty, sticky ol’ mud, ya see.”
He played only three seasons in the majors, but continued in semi-pro ball for fifteen years. When his crab farm was overrun by seagulls, during his time with the Indepedent Des Moines Sheepteets in 1933, he was, for two seasons, forced to live in the dugout in a sleeping bag, which he called “da sleepy sleeve” in accordance with his regional vernacular.
A copy of an IQ test completed by Bartine is preserved on micro-fiche, the results of which reveal he had an IQ of “nope.”
In the first installment of a five part series, I have begun projecting the rosters of each of the NL West teams. Below, I have picked a roster of 25 players for, but not for Opening Day. The players listed below are the 25 players I think will get the most playing time at their respective positions, over the course of the entire 2013 season. This week: my beloved Friars.
The 2013 San Diego Padres
C – Yasmani Grandal
1B – Yonder Alonso
2B – Jedd Gyorko
3B – Chase Headley
SS – Everth Cabrera
LF – Carlos Quentin
CF – Cameron Maybin
RF – Rhymer Liriano
As with any team headed even remotely in the right direction, most of the names I’ve penciled in are surrounded by very little controversy. But three bear mentioning.
Jedd Gyorko was tabbed for the Opening Day job at second as far back as mid-season last year. The club will let him start the year there with a long leash, barring something very unusual or unfortunate.
Yes, Yasmani Grandal is suspended for 50 games. But John Baker and Nick Hundley should both play poorly enough that it will be easy for him to earn more starts there this season than either of them. Either Hundley plays himself back to the minors again, or John Baker will probably be released or traded for next to nothing when Grandal gets back.
As for rightfield, Chris Denorfia and Will Venable are just keeping this spot warm for Rymer Liriano at this point. Neither of them have done anything special, though Venable has been a pretty good value in a platoon role. I’m going to dream big here and say that Liriano forces the Padres’ hand in 2013, pushing his clock forward a season. He is coming off a strong year and a great showing in the Arizona Fall League. There is nothing Rymer can’t do. At 22 years old the he should manage 30 steals, has a cannon arm, and should grow into plus power, though 12-15 HR is probably more where he is at now. He won’t start on Opening Day, but may surface around midseason, and when he does it will be to play every day for a long time.
1. Clayton Richard
2. Edinson Volquez
3. Jason Marquis
4. Casey Kelly
5a. Anthony Bass
5b. Cory Luebke
Yes, six listed here. With Luebke out until the All-Star break Anthony Bass deserves a regular turn in the rotation at least until Luebke returns. He has shown promise in stints both in the rotation and out of the pen the last two seasons, and should give the Padres the luxury of being able to take their time with Luebke. If the Padres don’t let him start, instead opting for Eric Stults, they are making a mistake. Eric Stults has no future in the organization and it would be asinine to take development time away from a pitcher that does. Eric Stults should do nothing more than try out for other teams during Spring Training before being given the option of going to Tucson or hitting the pavement.
Casey Kelly is a guy who the Padres didn’t want to start the clock on last year, but when pitcher after pitcher went down due to injury, they were forced to. Now that his clock is ticking, they need to use him. The athletic righty showed he is ready for the big leagues and should get the chance to make 30 starts in 2013. He and Bass are two reasons I think the Marquis signing was a waste of money and innings. Marquis is another guy that has nothing to do with the contending teams the Padres can field in 2014 and beyond.
CL – Huston Street
SU – Andrew Cashner
SU – Luke Gregerson
RP – Brad Boxberger
RP – Dale Thayer
RP – Tommy Layne
No surprises here, I don’t think. Cashner will likely not start much if at all following his refusal of a winter ball assignment and a hunting accident that will cost him the first month of the season. This is a young man that the Padres feel needs to get his priorities in order. Meanwhile Tommy Layne takes the LOOG-ie role from Joe Thatcher. “Thatch” has been mentioned in trade talks and I wouldn’t be surprised if the team dealt him. If they don’t though, Layne may make the team in place of Boxberger, depending on the righty’s control and command.
C – John Baker
UT – Alexi Amarista
IF – Logan Forsythe
OF – Chris Denorfia
OF – Will Venable
OF – Mark Kotsay
As for the bench, John Baker is here because I don’t have faith that Nick Hundley is going to recover from a nightmare 2012 season. Alexi Amarista is too inconsistent at the plate to warrant regular time, but provides extreme flexibility and energy off the bench. Logan Forsythe is a better bat than Everth Cabrera, but cannot do what the Nicaragua native can do on defense or on the bases. When Headley goes (if that is this year or next) Forsythe starts at second, and Gyorko heads back to third.
As mentioned above, Venable (pull-happy) and Denorfia (awful defender) just haven’t been able to provide real consistency in right. It would not be a shock for them to platoon again all season, with Venable getting the better end of a 65/35 split in time. Mark Kotsay is basically a coach that can play first and left, and knock the fastball around as a pinch-hitter.
You will notice that Jesus Guzman is not on this list. This is because he has been rumored as a throw in on a few deals this winter, and presents almost no value to the club, with so many other quality options off the bench. His DH’s glove and lack of power make him a candidate to get waved in Spring Training.
Don’t expect the Padres to contend this year. They had a good second half last season and Chase Headley became a true franchise player. The club even added two capable young pieces to their lineup in Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso. They should add one if not two more this year. But the window is not open for the Padres just yet, these are only signs that the blinds have finally been drawn, the light let in. Hopefully the organization can recognize this and use 2013 to get pieces of the old era out of the way, to make way for the young players that will contribute to what can be an era of sustained contention.
Coming up next, I’ll project roster of the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers. I am anticipating having a hard time piecing together what their pitching staff will look like after Kershaw and Greinke.
A couple weeks ago the guys at Fangraphs had a contest (with no prize, vuggin’ Gypsies), for fans and all their writers to come up with a Villanelle. A Villanelle is a style of fixed verse poem, meaning it is really old and has all these bullshit structural rules that date it pretty badly. But it was a lot of fun, and they posted all the entries (there weren’t many), including mine.
I didn’t quite follow the rules, because I didn’t really pay attention to them that carefully. I mainly wanted to write a tribute to some part of the game most people would not give a shit about, and then know that someone read it, that probably appreciated it. Below, I have included my personal entry. And here is a link to the rest of them, that you might follow in search of internet fun times.
A Look At Old Baseball Cards
How many Luis Polonias gone
How many lost Todd Pratts
For every Ruth, Gibson, Bonds?
Brothers of clay and pentagon
Seed shells and tar stained bats.
Whose stars are returned as time goes on
And the sunning seats before the lawn
Fill with epochs in squatcho’d hats
So a Kozma can thrill the vagrant throng.
The seventh is split. They sing the song.
A pack of sharps against a house of flats.
The last few frames pass into yawns.
Kurt Manwaring, Terrence Long,
Archi Cianfrocco and the Blanco catch
From prospect’s promise to skipper’s pawn
‘Til time pulps the cardboard we keep them on.
There is something I have always known. It is a truth that is to me, so unquestionable in every regard, and yet somehow still seems blurry for many. I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos: alone with my discovery, knowing much of the world will continue on as before, in spite of it.
Kevin Towers is Two Very Different General Managers
I have been saying it since I was 13; a bitter Padres fan, disappointed by an awful season, following a brutal World Series loss at the hands of the unstoppable 1998 Yankees. Kevin Towers has always had one great skill, which is to evaluate pitchers. This makes him one of the most proficient executives in the game, when it comes to building a bullpen from nothing. He did it many times in San Diego. The problem is, that an entire bullpen is likely worth about as much as one average position player in terms of WAR.
Towers has always been employed by ownership groups weary of signing huge free-agents, which makes drafting well all the more imperative. Unfortunately this is an area of incompetence. He is incapable of picking diamonds from the rough, and while proudly referring to his scouting pedigree, if you read between the lines, even he seems to admit that his greatest weakness is evaluating position players.
For the last two months he has been broadcasting this deficiency in high definition, while also showing that his ability to handle the task of managing a pitching staff is untarnished.
I’m not going to grade each move, because I don’t think that makes any sense, but here is the rundown.
Traded Chris Young for Heath Bell and Cliff Pennington.
Heath Bell got too much money from Miami (3yrs/$27MM). Closers are easy to come by, their impact on the game is minor, and Heath Bell isn’t a very good one. But with Towers only taking on $8MM of the remaining $21MM on Bell’s stupid contract, it’s a safe move. He could be a solid setup man, but nothing more.
As for the rest of the trade, Young had become expendable with Adam Eaton looking very polished in his debut. But the fact that the Diamondbacks returned no talent in the form of cost controlled prospects ranks this as the first of three trades in which Towers sold a talented player for fifty cents on the dollar. Meanwhile the A’s have again stolen a useful piece for another underdog campaign.
Pennington is a good defender, but awful with the bat (65 wRC+ in 2012), and will serve as a utility infielder with Didi Gregorius likely getting the shot as the everyday man.
Signed Cody Ross 3yrs/$26MM
A decent corner outfielder with pop, yes. And he is likely to find Chase Field very hosbitable. But for a club who, at the time had four starting-caliber outfielders and a built-in fifth in young, cheap A.J. Pollock, spending dough for Ross is bizarre. Even given the club’s desire to deal Justin Upton or Jason Kubel. An outfield of Kubel, Eaton and Parra, or Parra, Eaton and Upton is a fine one. It’s not that bringing in Ross hurts the club, but putting money into positions of strength, rather than weakness could. Unless the D-Backs deal Kubel, I’m not seeing the rationale here.
Signed Brandon McCarthy 2yrs/$15.5MM
Going into the offseason, the market for starting pitchers had the potential for three great bargains. Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, and Dan Haren. Of course there are risks associated with all three, but the arm with the most favorable dollars to worries ratio is certainly McCarthy, 29. Towers diagnosed the situation perfectly, bringing in McCarthy, a pitcher tailored for success in Arizona, to make up for the loss of Daniel Hudson until July or August. Concerns over his head injury are an overreaction. A history of shoulder issues is the reason for the discount.
Traded Trevor Bauer and two others for Didi Gregorius, Lars Anderson, and Tony Sipp.
I don’t think Trevor Bauer stands much of a chance of living up to the hype. I just don’t see a way that his command improves as much as it needs to for him to be even a number 2 in the big leagues. But I think there are clubs who still think he can be a top of the rotation pitcher. The problem with this deal is that Towers sent him to one of the clubs that doesn’t.
The Reds and Indians sent a paltry package to Arizona, including a surplus shortstop in Didi Gregorius. His bat was below average at AAA, he rarely steals a base, and he is only above average defensively. He can hold down the position, but will not be impressive in any facet of the game. How Towers could not manage to snag a surplus shortstop from a talented mix of four players, spanning the minors in Cleveland’s organization is beyond me. The deal netted Cincinnati Shin-Soo Choo.
Rule of Thumb: Trading a high ceiling starting pitcher just to help another club get an outfielder is a poor tactic for competing with the juggernauts in your division (SF and LA).
Traded Justin Upton and Chris Johnson for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury.
Towers was able recognize a good trade package for Upton when offered one, agreeing to send him to the Mariners for Nick Franklin and Taijuan Walker, both very good prospects, Walker being elite. But Upton blocked the trade; Seattle being one of four teams on his no-trade list. The talent involved in the M’s package was more a reflection of Seattle’s desperation than any skill on the part of Towers. Just this offseason The Mariners essentially traded John Jaso for Michael Morse, signed Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay, and traded Jason Vargas for Kendrys Morales, giving them six DHs (including Jesus Montero). The M’s are arguably still bat starved, but now can claim to have six of the game’s worst defenders as well. But back to Towers…
After signing Cody Ross while already in possession of Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra, Upton, and Adam Eaton, Towers had to unload an outfielder. With zero leverage, he eventually parted with his extremely talented 24 year old superstar and an average third baseman (Johnson), for one year of Martin Prado, a third competitor for the fifth spot in the rotation (Delgado), a shortstop who stands a decent chance of never making the big leagues (Ahmed), a minor league reliever (Zeke Spruill) and a non-prospect first baseman (Drury). With Upton’s name being dragged around in shit every 3 days, it was only a matter of time before they had to give him away for free.
Now rumors are circulating that there will be two complementary moves as a result of this deal.
Signing Prado to a 4-year extension.
This is the stranger part of the Upton trade. With 22-year old Matt Davidson mashing at AA last season and destined for AAA Reno in 2013, my original thought was “why in the hell would you sign Martin Prado to an extension?” But there are two possible reasons. Maybe Towers is thinking of keeping Prado on as an outfielder after Davidson debuts, declining Kubel’s mutual option for 2014. Or perhaps the club will not resign Aaron Hill, when his contract expires after 2013. Prado has been a comfortably above average defender at 2B, 3B and in LF over his career. He is also one year younger than Aaron Hill.
Still, better to acquire a cost controlled young player than a guy you have to extend just to make a deal come close to being worth it, and to avoid giving up a draft pick.
Dealing Ahmed for Rick Porcello.
This obviously would not be a one-for-one swap, in fact I will be somewhat surprised if this comes together at all. But if Skaggs, Corbin or Delgado are involved in the deal, I guess I also wouldn’t be shocked if they agree on something. If I’m Dave Dombrowski, I’m trying for Skaggs. On the surface, shipping one of those cost-controlled arms might seem unintelligent, but when you have a solid surplus, it starts making some sense. Porcello’s ground ball rate, FIP, K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 are all trending in the right direction, he’s only 24 and he has been very durable.
You see? Kevin Towers has a plan, and he is trying to execute it, but he just can’t fight his nature. Some of the moves on the pitching side are savvy, and could really pay off, but any value they create is undercut by the clueless valuations of the position players traded away as well as the position players brought in. To summarize, Kevin Towers traded Chris Young, Trevor Bauer and Justin Upton for a utility infielder, a declining reliever with a bad body, a below average shortstop, a lefty specialist, a sixth starter, Martin Prado, a handful of boring prospects, and a couple of guys who have no business thinking of playing in the major leagues. At this point in Towers’ career, where we are seeing the same mistakes occurring again and again, it’s time he is required to have a strong assistant GM tasked with evaluating position players both inside and outside the organization. That is, if the Diamondbacks don’t bag him after the season, when the Snakes finish 4th.
I have travelled to the Future to a Padres game. The wormhole opened below a speaker on the concourse. Field level. Third base side. I heard the following announcement:
“We’d like to remind all fans attending this game that Saturday July 16th is Cucumber Night, come lubed as the Padres take on the Washington Nationals! All fans in attendance will be on the receiving end of a locally grown cucumber!”
This has confirmed my fear that the coming era will be one of more-of-the-same-ness. I shuddered and trudged back to my rightful place in the space/time arrangement we have so aptly named a continuum.
More of the same to follow.
*A special thanks to Jeff Walters. I can’t remember which one of us came up with the joke this emerged from.
Baseball as a game has been changing between the lines for as long as the game has been played. Since the beginning of free agency alone, we have seen an era of speed on artificial turf give way to a game of power in beautiful, classic parks. That age, too has come to pass and we enter a period of balance, with due attention paid to defense and baserunning. Baseball as a business has boomed, and as TV networks are built in its service, it booms again. But strangely, the richest clubs do not have as much of an advantage as they did before. Indeed the era of balance has reached into baseball’s economics as well.
In 2008 The Tampa Bay Rays found themselves analyzing how to build upon the success they had just achieved, having made the World Series after enduring a decade of humility in the cellar of the AL East. They could not spend their way into perpetual contention like the Red Sox and Yankees. Nor could they trade away the young talent that had just won them an American League Championship, in exchange for established stars; at least not sustainably. They struggled now with question of how to retain their own players, as they headed toward the open market. They would solve this problem for themselves in a way that would have wide influence on the league and could be permanently altering the nature of how organizations and players approach free agency.
Traditionally, the transformation from draftee/signee, to prospect, to Major Leaguer, to free agent would have unfolded like this: A franchise drafts and signs a player out of high school or college, or at the age of 16 internationally. Then the player works his way up to the Major Leagues, where the club enjoys 3 years of very fixed cost performance, followed by modest increases in pay (compared to free agents) through arbitration, each year for the next three seasons. After these six years of “club control,” the player becomes a free agent, and in the case of the young star, the player hits the open market at age 28 or 29 with considerable ability to earn prime wealth during his prime years.
The Era of “Prime Shrink”
During the PED era a star player’s prime could last from ages 28-36 – perhaps longer – during which he could possibly sign 2 rich free agent contracts. One at the end of the club control phase, and one after the expiration of the first free agent deal. One major aspect of the astronomical sums paid for free agents surrounding that era was the fact that the player could be expected to sustain a high performance plateau into his mid 30s.
Now, a player’s prime again lands within a sweet spot of about 28-32, with a natural decline coming more surely. This means that players reaching free agency at age 28 are far more likely to live up to a rich new deal than players reaching free agency at the age of 32 or older. This fact is still not being totally reflected in the market for players over 30, but it is being reflected in how general managers are dealing with players still under club control.
The Present Trend
in April 2008, after just half a season in the big leagues, Evan Longoria signed a $17.5MM, 6 year contract extension, and signaled the beginning of an era. The Rays had began to buy out years of club control and arbitration years at a cost slightly higher than they would have payed, if they had let the player reach arbitration naturally. But they also began buying out several free agent years at a substantially cheaper price than the player would have commanded on the open market. In 2011 Matt Moore became the most recent of the Rays to signin this way. After a phenomenal call-up and post season, he signed a 5 year extension worth $14MM, plus three club options, which could bring the total contract to 8 years and $37.5MM.
The rest of the league took swift note. One month after the Rays inked Longo to his extension, the Brewers locked up star leftfielder Ryan Braun for 8 years and $51MM. A year later, the Nationals got third baseman Ryan Zimmerman signed to a $45MM pact covering his arbitration years, as well as 3 free agent seasons. Even the Pirates, one of the most poorly run and perpetually underfunded clubs in the league, managed to extend star center-fielder Andrew McCutchen for 6 years.
But the clubs aren’t the only party benefitting from this wave of early extensions. The players realize that $30-50MM after one or two years of productive baseball, has the ability to make them a rich man for life. They know that nothing is guaranteed in professional athletics, and the security of tens of millions of dollars today, outweighs the appeal of an uncertain jackpot 4 or 5 years down the road. The players union has made no effort to work against this practice, and we have yet to see a club get truly burned by one of these deals. So, thus far it appears both sides have found something equitable and secure about doing business this way, which seems to suggest it will face no obstacles in its proliferation.
What is Next
With the rise in club friendly extensions, a lot of great players will not hit the open market until they turn 30, 31, or 32. This, coupled with the increasing ineffectiveness of aging players, means that lengthy, super-rich contracts like the one Albert Pujols received last year from the Angels, are going to become increasingly rare. It’s a long shot, but if aging superstars become a market inefficiency, watch for Billy Beane to exploit this in order to fill out his rosters for a couple of years.
Additionally, as teams who have extended young stars fall out of contention, they will be able to garner considerable prospect hauls by trading players under such club-friendly pacts. This incentive to trade in the service of rebuilding quickly could lead to a rise in trades, that see teams entering or already within contention selling quality prospects for players in their mid-20s. Whereas the Yankees model of buying high-priced, aging stars should see a steep decline.
With aging stars no longer looking as attractive to teams, more short-term deals can be expected for players 32 and older. Players like Shane Victorino probably could have expected to get a longer deal in the past, instead of settling for 3 years at $39/MM, as he did this off-season. So concerned are teams that players are going to break down sooner, that Victorino was talked about as a fourth outfielder in rumors this winter. Meanwhile, even guys that are just comfortably above average, who hit free agency at age 28 can expect ferocious competition for their services. Anibal Sanchez is certainly an example of this phenomenon.
The Test of Time
Early extensions are still young, but already seem entrenched in the economy of the sport, and appear poised for a long stay. Their tests will come, as players who turn out to be one year flukes, or as players who end up extremely limited by injury become beneficiaries of the practice. In the 2000s advanced statistics changed baseball strategies regarding what to spend money on. Now, we can watch a chain reaction started by their most ardent disciples, the Rays, do the same by maximizing returns based on when, in a player’s career arc, to spend it.
Recently Corey Brock wrote what was somehow deemed an “in-depth” piece on Padres third-baseman Chase Headley. He really just cooked up a pancake about Chase as a person. He sounds like a delightful guy, but the piece could have appeared in Us Weekly if people cared as much about ballplayers as they do about whores and douche-bags, or whatever.
Many claimed Brock offered answers to the question of how Chase Headley was able to make the sudden leap from solid big leaguer to silver slugger. Brock absolutely did not do this. (Nor did he claim to, for the record.)
Brock is the brand of baseball writer that functions as the fertilizer, which the nothing farm that is MLB.com uses to maximize the amount of nothing it can pull from the otherwise fertile soil of Major League Baseball. So, true to form, the following quote is used as a stand-in for actual analysis in Brock’s piece:
“[He] dedicated himself to being more of a run producer.”
Gee, that seems a little thin, don’t you think? I’m fairly certain every third baseman has dedicated himself to being good at baseball.
Open your mouth and open your mind, Corey, for this sweet, frosty “perhaps-icle” I’ve prepared. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with actual baseball stuff. You’ll see what I mean.
The Flippy Swing
I’ve been watching Chase Headley his entire career. Chase has always had an excellent eye and elite discipline, and has always been able to sting off-speed stuff over the plate. He rarely gets fooled, and his contact skills have never been in question. But prior to 2012, Chase Headley had a problem squaring up the mistake fastball. Why?
In order to make consistent contact and to prevent Petco from swallowing high fly balls, Chase developed a swing that was low risk and low reward. My father and I have taken to calling it the “flippy” swing. Sean Burroughs invented it. The scared-to-drive-the-ball approach may have been drilled into Chase as he entered the big leagues, or perhaps like so many other Padre hitters, he just psyched himself into adopting it.
Either way, pre-2012, Headley’s hands lagged behind his hips at the beginning of his swing, which meant he was always a tic behind the heater, and wasn’t getting as much out of his lower half as he could have.
Here is a gif of 2011 Chase Headley. Notice how the hips fire and the hands drag.
You’ll still see Headley using this swing to keep his hands back on off-speed pitches, but he uses another swing when he gets a fastball he can drive. His hands fire instantly with the hips. He also added a leg kick to help crank more leverage out of his core. The added juice from the lower half adds the pop that was always present, but never utilized in his cut.
Behold: 2012 Chase Headley.
That’s how you hit a bomb 20 rows back off a 90mph heater at the letters. Later in the same game he hit a second tater from the left side on a 93mph two-seamer, out over the plate. Same quick hands. This is Chase Headley dialed up to 11. This is what he is capable of.
Proof in Numbers
We can watch and watch, but the problem is that sometimes we see what we want to see. In this case, the pitch/FX data backs me up.
Since 2009 Chase Headley’s runs above average against fastballs has been below average, and actually got worse each year until 2012. At -1.7 in 2009, it bottomed out in 2011 at -4.6. In 2012 that number leapt to +24. No other pitch saw a spike near that magnitude. The change-up came closest, going from -1.1 in 2011 to +14.1 in 2012. The league noticed, as they threw him the lowest percentage of both fastballs and change-ups of his career. All the while, he was able to maintain near his career norms in runs above average against all other pitch types.
The New Headley
José Bautista is another hitter who we have seen make minor adjustments to become a major threat. Chase Headley didn’t just want it more last season, he actually changed something about his swing mechanics, which allowed him to add another tool to his game. To say that he just tried harder is to discount both Chase’s work ethic, and the talent of the Padre hitting coaches (Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell). But most dangerously, it provides the impression that last season was a fluke. It was not.