Friday, September 26, 2014

Competitive Balance Draft Picks and the Decentivization on Spending for Teams that Need Them

Assessing Competitive Balance Draft Pick Value, and How the System Needs to be Improved

There is, apparently,  an uneven playing field in Major League Baseball that needs balancing, and “new”-ish competitive balance picks in the draft can and/or will improve this.  Instead of basing the decision of which teams receive a balance pick on a team’s record (you know, that thing that actually indicates how well you competed that year against your peers), the picks are doled out via a lottery system to a pool of the ten bottom teams in terms of both market size and revenue (although a team's odds in the lottery, once they're in, is based on their win-loss record from the previous year).  I won’t get into how evidence shows that market size has little to no bearing on how well a team can make and spend money, especially in today’s world of revenue sharing, TV contracts (both local and national), and publicly funded stadiums.  Today’s massive global market is a big factor in every team being able to have a hand in the pot.  But I said I won’t focus on that issue right now.  Rather, I want to discuss whether competitive balance picks (which take place between rounds one and two, and again between three and four) have so far helped to create balance between teams that “can” spend and teams that “can’t”, and what the MLB can be doing better to help stimulate free agent spending league wide.

Back in late May of 2013, MLBTradeRumors writer Charlie Wilmoth wrote a post discussing the value of competitive balance picks, and how their worth may lie in smaller market and low revenue teams dealing away role players for these draft picks, or even having them included in a deal when they trade away a high impact player that they can no longer afford, need, etc.  Since the new collective bargaining agreement in 2012, there have been five deals that included a competitive balance pick changing hands before the July non-waiver trade deadline.  So far, the swaps that have involved balance picks have included both richer teams and poorer teams (based on revenue) being on the receiving end.  St. Louis and Detroit (ranked 5th and 8th in MLB in terms of revenue, respectively, per Forbes as of March, 2014) have both received balance picks in trades, the former getting a round B slot and the latter a round A slot.  The others include Houston (twice) and Miami (twice, one of which was a balance pick swap with Detroit).  Pittsburgh has been able to use one of theirs as buyers at the trade deadline, and Oakland got more value out of their round B pick by trading it away to Boston, a club that was looking a little farther past this season to be competitive (and Boston, of course, will probably never qualify to win one of these picks as their market size and revenue are both near the top of all MLB).  

Teams that Don't Get Involved in Big Free Agent Spending Have Even Less Incentive to do so
Because these picks appear to hold the value that both the MLB Commissioner’s Office and the clubs eligible for them had hoped, they seem to be working.  So why then, if the teams that are in need of these extra picks actually need them, are they taken away if that team spends money?  If the Colorado Rockies, for example, decide that they want to sign one or more impact players (guys that have received a qualifying offer from their former team), they would lose their 2015 round A competitive balance pick under the current collective bargaining agreement.  Going into the last three games of the season, the Rockies are a lock to have one of the 10 worst records in baseball, and therefore their first round pick is protected should they wish to sign a player that has been extended a QO.  Their round A pick, a mid-30 overall spot in the draft, however, would be forfeited.  What gives?  Are the Rockies suddenly a competitive team based on one signing, and are no longer in need of the handout?  Even if they sign the best free agent on the market this offseason, their team isn’t that drastically different.  So why are they being punished for opening the checkbook?  Their market size will remain the same, unless people begin to move to the Denver metropolitan area in some sort of mass exodus style from wherever they were just to watch Max Scherzer pitch in a Rockies uniform.  Their revenue could increase due to the signing, if the team were able to improve and the market that is there started coming out to more ballgames, but it could just as easily dip because of the $20M a year being eaten up by one player.  

Robinson Cano alone does not a competitive team make
It’s not just the drafted player that a given team would be forfeiting, but that draft slot’s signing bonus money, as well.  Of the $8.3M in draft pool money assigned to the Rockies for the 2014 amateur player draft, over $1.64M of it would have been lost if the Rockies had signed, say, 2nd basemen Robinson Cano last offseason.  Does the upgrade that Cano offers over the Rockies current man at the keystone, DJ LeMahieu, make them so good that they need to be treated like their big spending rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers?  The Rockies would be 4.6 wins better than they currently are per Baseball-Reference’s calculation of both players’ WAR, which if rounded up, would make the Rockies 71-87 (and that’s after rounding up).  That makes them as good as the Chicago Cubs currently are.  But a signing like Cano could make them better when they are ready to compete, which could be as early as next season or the year after.  You don't sign a player to a multi-year deal solely as a win now move, but that is in effect the pressure the new collective bargaining agreement has put on small to mid-market teams.

Michael Bourn, 2013
For competitive balance picks to truly create a level playing field, assuming that the current one is uneven, they need to both be correctly doled out to teams in the first place, and they need to be protected.  That protection would need to continue even if they were traded to a big market, high revenue team such as the Yankees or Dodgers, so that the pick would retain its current high trade value.  The last thing that will create balance in the MLB is decentivizing teams that traditionally haven’t spent big on the free agent market from ever wanting to spend big on the free agent market, for fear of the loss of a draft pick and draft pool money.  In the event that a team isn't afraid to spend and forfeit one of those picks, like the Indians did going into 2013 by signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, thereby forfeiting their Round B pick, MLB is effectively telling teams that they need to select their window or even year in which to compete.  Sacrifice a piece of your future for a chance at winning now.  That doesn't seem very balanced, especially compared to the teams that are willing to outspend their mistakes every year like the Yankees and Dodgers.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison (Cano) and Erik Drost (Bourn)

The Boston Athletics: Part Four

I See What You’re Doing Over There… and I Like It (’05- Present)

The length of this post is due to the fact that A's GM Billy Beane has enjoyed a great deal of success by putting together a roster of Theo Epstein's "leftovers" and "unwanted parts" from his tenure as Boston's GM.  A quick look at Beane's everyday roster reveals that 25% of his guys either came up through Boston's organization (Moss, Reddick, Lowrie, Lester) or spent a good chunk of time there while younger (Crisp).  This selection of players is really what fueled the idea for this series in the first place.  So let's get down to some long winded player histories.

1st Base: Brandon Moss
Brandon Moss, 2012

Moss never got much of a chance with Boston, amassing just 115 Pas over two seasons, while mostly playing both corner outfield spots.  His overall offensive production was solid, however, posting an OPS just north of .800, but was mainly blocked from regular playing time by Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew in left and right, respectively.  Moss would spend time with Pittsburgh (’08-’10) and Philadelphia (’11) before finally finding an everyday, productive role with Oakland in 2012.  Maybe it was all the familiar faces from 2008 that made Moss feel at home, as he joined fellow Red Sox teammates Coco Crisp and Bartolo Col√≥n on the surging A’s roster.  Even Jed Lowrie and Jon Lester got in on the ’08 reunion after coming over in ’13 and ’14, respectively.  It’s easy to say that Oakland’s core is the beneficiary of unwanted or unneeded parts by Boston’s front office at this point, with Moss being the big power bat of the bunch.  His line of .257/.340/.508 has been a big reason why the A’s have had so much success going on 3 seasons now, although there is cause for concern.  Since the All Star Break, Moss’s bat has completely vanished.  While some will be quick to point out that the loss of Cespedes to Boston (more on that beast in a bit) and the lack of lineup protection may be the cause, Fangraphs Chris Mitchell actually presents some data to the contrary: Moss is still seeing pitches in the same areas, but he’s swinging at 6% less of pitches in the zone and 6% less of pitches outside the zone.  Maybe he’s too busy wistfully remembering the days of watching Cespedes from the on deck circle?  Bottom line: Moss can’t afford to slump offensively, as his defense grades out pretty poorly; despite excellent offensive contributions, he’s only averaging 2.3 WAR a season overall (per Baseball-Reference).  Still, he’s the best 1st basemen on this mutant baby squad of A’s and Sox.

Middle Infield: Jed Lowrie
Hungry Jed Lowrie, 2011

Although he has predominately spent most of his time at Short since making his major league debut, Lowrie has played a fair amount of 2nd base as well.  While not being particularly amazing at either on defense, he’s not so bad that he’ll kill you every night; over his career he sports a 0.2 UZR/150 at SS and 1.6 UZR/150 at 2nd (per fangraphs).  His bat is where he gives teams value playing from the 6 spot on the diamond, as he’s hit .260/.329/.412 over the course of his career.  After spending 188 games with Boston over the span of three seasons and being blocked by OUTSTANDING HITTER and scumbag Julio Lugo and later MarcoScutaro, Lowrie was shipped to Houston along with Kyle Weiland for relief pitcher and current Pirates closer Mark Melancon.  He then came to the A’s in a deal with the Astros revolving around slugging centerpiece Chris Carter the following year.

Starting Pitcher: Jon Lester
Jon Lester, 2008

In one of the more bizarre “win now” moves I’ve seen, the A’s traded for two months of a bona fide ace.  The bizarre part was, they traded their bona fide 4th hole hitter, who’s under contract for at least one more season, in Yoenis Cespedes (who just barely missed this squad… but give it a couple more years, and he could easily vault past Dave Henderson).  Rather than gawk at what they gave up though, I’m going to go ahead and gawk at what they got: at age 30, Lester is probably one of the top 3 left handed starting pitchers in the game right now (the other two being Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale).  While his career ERA of 3.58 (nearly identical to a career FIP of 3.59), spanning from ’06 to present, is very good, it doesn’t tell the whole story of the pitcher that Lester is.  After struggling a bit with command and homerun tendencies in ’12 and ’13, his career numbers were inflated by a 4.28 ERA over 418.2IP (3.84 FIP).  The amazing part of the A’s and Red Sox swap, though, is that Lester has actually made Oakland better according to WAR (if you’re a slave to such statistics) than they would have been if they had stood pat with Cespedes.  Lester’s WAR since coming over to Oakland is a sparkling 1.9 over just 69.2IP.  Cespedes?  He’s been good too, just not as good, checking in with a 1.4 WAR over his first 44 games with Boston.  While there is much that can be said about comparing an outfielder that plays every day to a pitcher that only gets the ball every fifth, sabermetrics are inclined to siding with Lester over Cespy.

Relief Pitcher: Andrew Bailey
Andrew Bailey, 2013

Originally, I had intended to use Keith Foulke as the third relief pitcher for this squad, but then remembered his ungraceful exit from Boston and decided against him.  I’m not a huge fan of Bailey, either, but he has had a few very dominant seasons with Oakland.  In 2009, his rookie season, Bailey burst onto the scene with the A’s by making an All Star appearance, posting a sub-2.00 ERA, and winning Rookie of the Year.  He also posted a 9.8 K/9 and 0.876 WHIP over his 83.1 innings of work.  His next season started out strong again, making another All Star team and posting a 1.47 ERA, albeit over just 49IP.  This was the first year that injuries started to plague Bailey, as he hit the DL twice; once for an intracostal strain, and then again to have loose bodies removed from his pitching elbow.  In 2011 he put up a decent ERA of 3.24, but spent more time on the DL due to a forearm strain and was limited to 41.2 innings that season.  If you’re starting to notice a trend, it’s because there’s a trend.

Somehow, Billy Beane managed to land outfielder Josh Reddick in a trade that involved Bailey as the centerpiece and A’s 4th outfielder Ryan Sweeny.  Once Reddick was given the chance to play every day, he took off with it by producing solidly on both sides of the ball (and may have won one of the roster spots on this team, were it not for its already insane outfield depth).  Bailey wasn’t all that impressive in Boston, as he battled more and more different injuries (a thumb that needed to be surgically repaired and shoulder surgery, to name a couple of the main ones).  He only tossed 44 innings in his two years in Beantown, to the tune of a 4.91 ERA, before being non-tendered after the ’13 season.  There’s definitely still time for Bailey to get what was once a promising career back on track (he’s currently under contract with the Yankees through next season), shoulder surgeries are never easy to come back from, and his long list of injuries outside of that are worrisome as well.

Starting Pitcher: Bartolo Colon
Bartolo Colon warming up before a game, 2009

This is the story of a biogenetically enhanced frog-man and his quest to pitch solid baseball for the duration of his existence.

When Colon’s Major League journey began in 1997 with the Cleveland Indians, he was still a tadpole (how are these frog jokes doing?  No?  Okay).  From that year through 2002, his final year in Cleveland, he put up a solid 3.85 ERA (4.02 FIP) over 1146.2 innings.  Considering that it was one of the richest power hitting eras that sport has ever seen (gee, I wonder why…), Colon was a big part of the Indians’ success during the late ‘90s to early ‘00s.  

After signing a four year deal with the Angels before the start of the ’04 season, Colon rewarded his new team with a Cy Young award in ’05.  Injuries hurt him the next two years, however, and it started looking like his career was winding down.  For the two remaining years that Colon had in LA, he posted just 140IP.  

2008 saw him with a limited number of innings yet again, although that year it wasn’t due to injuries; after signing on with Boston in late February on a minor league deal, Colon (after failing to make the team out of spring training) was called up to the big league club in mid-May.  He tossed just 39 innings for the Red Sox, putting up a 3.92 ERA, before abruptly leaving the team for the Dominican Republic to attend to “personal stuff”, as Manager Terry Francona put it to  The departure landed Colon on the restricted list in September, and after the end of postseason play, he filed for free agency.
Colon posted similar numbers the next season with the White Sox as he did with Boston the year before, and in 2010 he didn’t pitch at all.  Due to discomfort in his shoulder and elbow, Colon sought surgery.  Undergoing a procedure that used stem cells to repair the torn and damaged ligaments, the ageless fat one has managed to be productive ever since.  Colon gave back to back solid seasons for Oakland during the ’12 and ’13 seasons (making an All-Star appearance in the latter) a sub 3 ERA, 342.2IP, and a PED suspension.  I didn’t say it was all good for Colon in his time with the A’s…

I think this pick just goes to show what the pitching depth for this team looked like when I went to put together the roster; Colon is a good pitcher, don’t get me wrong.  In fact, for just about any rotation, he is probably still a decent number three, probably number four, even today.  He also loves making hitters produce flies.  Because he’s a frog-man.  FROG-BASEBALL HUMOR!!!

Sunday I'll wrap up the series with this groups Manager, and talk a little bit more about the current trend of many of Beane's Athletics having cut their teeth with the Red Sox.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison (Moss, Lowrie, Lester, Bailey) and MomentCaptured1 (Frog)