The RAB Radio Show: March 28, 2011

The Yankees have the roster pretty much figured out. Mike and I open with the rotation and bullpen decisions, which came down over the weekend. That leaves just a few odds and ends to figure out before Thursday.

We discuss the backup catcher situation at length, particularly as it regards Jesus Montero. Plus, if the Yankees are looking to trade Romulo Sanchez, will they get back a catcher better than Gustavo Molina?

Podcast run time 41:14

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

Simulating the 2011 AL season

Today is a wonderful time if you love season projections and simulations. Which is to say that it’s a great day for the nerdiest of the nerdy. Today at Replacement Level SG has posted his 2011 Diamond Mind simulations for the American League. For those unfamiliar, Diamond Mind is a simulator that takes input stats, runs hundreds of thousands of simulations, and spits out probabilities for wins and losses, among other things. For the inputs he uses five projection systems: Bill James, CAIRO, Marcel, Oliver, and PECOTA.

The Yankees come out with 92.4 wins, two wins behind the Red Sox, but six wins ahead of the Rays. That puts them comfortably into a playoff spot. Make sure to check out the whole post for the full standings. Most of all, check out the disclaimers. SG lays out all the stuff we should know — we can’t predict injuries, these aren’t predictions, etc. — but often forget when looking at simulations.

2011 Season Preview: Baltimore Orioles

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It’s been 13 years since the Orioles last qualified for the postseason, and four years since they finished somewhere other than last place in the AL East. Despite that, they made some noise in the second half of last season, hiring former Yankees manager Buck Showalter in late-July and going 34-23 under his watch, the best record among AL East teams during that time. Before Buck came aboard, Baltimore won just 32 of 105 games.

After employing the American League’s third worse offense (.309 wOBA, 613 runs), worst starting rotation (4.74 FIP), and fifth worst bullpen (4.25 FIP) in 2010, the O’s went out and made several notable moves in the offseason. They traded four young relievers for Mark Reynolds, Brendan Harris, and J.J. Hardy, then signed free agents Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Justin Duchscherer, and Kevin Gregg, among others. Koji Uehara, Mark Hendrickson, and Cesar Izturis were also retained. Those additions undeniably help improve the team, but just how much?

Strengths

Last year’s Orioles had exactly two well-above-average regulars on offense, and both are returning. Luke Scott led the team in pretty much everything, including wOBA (.387), homers (27), walk rate (11.4%), and ISO (.251). Nick Markakis finished second in wOBA (.353) and led the team in OBP (.370), producing yet another solid season in a young career full of them. Reynolds might be a whiff machine, but .241 career ISO’s don’t grow on trees, and neither do guys with legit 30+ homer power (at least these days). Vlad isn’t really as good as his 2010 first half (.319/.364/.554 with 20 homers) but probably isn’t as bad as his 2010 second half (.278/.322/.426, nine homers), so the middle ground (.355-ish wOBA) is the best bet this season. That’s four legit middle-of-the-order bats, two more than Baltimore had last year.

The defense has been upgraded at short with Hardy, who has the second highest UZR (+21.4) at the position over the last three years. Lee’s reputation with the glove is stellar, far better than what the incumbent Ty Wigginton can do at first. Reynolds is hardly a wizard at the hot corner, but he’s better than Miguel Tejada, so three of the four infield positions have been upgraded defensively. They’re not the ’99 Mets, but the infield defense has been massively improved.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Orioles also boast what should be an improved relief corps. Uehara was brilliant late last year as closer (11.25 K/9, 1.02 BB/9, 2.40 FIP) and has some competition from Gregg, who’s had a sub-3.90 FIP in four the last five years, including 3.57 in 2010. Mike Gonzalez missed much of last season due to injury, and he overcame his early-season struggles to post a stellar 2.79 FIP. Left-handers that can strike out double-digit batters per nine innings are a rare breed. Add in Jason Berken (3.59 FIP in 2010) and Jim Johnson (3.08), and Showalter should have a solid set of middle relievers and setup men at his disposal.

Jeremy Guthrie, while no All-Star, is a fine rotation option with three straight years of 190+ IP plus a mid-4.00’s FIP in three of the last four seasons. He has a knack for outperforming his peripheral stats, posting a sub-4.00 ERA in three of the last four years. Behind him will be southpaw Brian Matusz, one of the very best young pitchers in the game. He had a fine rookie season (4.05 FIP in 175.2 IP) and was nothing short of brilliant down the stretch (2.18 ERA, 3.35 FIP in his final 11 starts). The O’s have a chance to win whenever either of those two guys is on the bump.

Weaknesses

Just as was the case last year, this Orioles team is only going as far as the pitching staff takes them, and it won’t be that far. Beyond Guthrie and Matusz is a group of has-beens and never-wases, highlighted by Duschscherer. He started just five games last season after missing all of 2009, and has already been setback by nagging issues with his surgically repaired hip a few times this spring; the Duke of Hurl has two whole Grapefruit League innings to his credit and is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Say what you want about Kevin Millwood’s awful season in 2010 (4.86 FIP, 5.10 ERA), but at least he made 31 starts.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Behind Duchscherer lies Brad Bergesen, a low-slot righty with a career 4.70 FIP, the inability to miss bats (5.7% swinging strikes), and a considerable platoon split (5.32 xFIP vs. LHB, 4.09 vs. RHB). He’s young (25) and a ground ball guy (49.3% career), but the AL East is a tough place to live if you can’t get strike three consistently (4.48 K/9). Jake Arrieta showed flashes of good and bad in his debut last season, ending up with a 4.76 FIP and nearly as many walks (48) as strikeouts (52) in 100.1 IP. Chris Tillman is still struggling to find his way at the big league level (6.00 FIP in 118.2 IP), but has more talent than either Bergesen or Arrieta. Young pitchers tend to take a lot of lumps in this division, and it probably won’t be any different for Baltimore this summer.

Aside from Duchscherer, both Brian Roberts and Lee offer major health concerns. Roberts missed more than three months last year with an abdominal injury and has been limited by neck issues in camp. Lee had offseason wrist surgery and has already been slowed by soreness in the wrist, and the duo has combined for just 16 games played this spring. If they miss any length of time this year, the likely replacements are some combination of Izturis, Robert Andino, Jake Fox, and Josh Bell. Yikes.

The offense is still below average at short (Hardy has a .302 wOBA over the last two seasons) and behind the plate (Matt Wieters has a .315 wOBA in his young career), though both are capable of much more. Markakis’ cannon arm doesn’t make up for his shoddy range (-11.0 range runs over the last three years), and although Scott isn’t as bad with the glove as you’d think, going from Felix Pie in left to him is a step down.

Furthermore, the Orioles have one of the weaker farm systems in the game, ranked in the bottom third by most publications. Zach Britton, arguably the best left-handed pitching prospect in the game, will make his debut at some point this year, but as we saw with Matusz early last year, quick success is no guarantee. Bell, Wynn Pelzer, Brandon Snyder, and Ryan Adams are more solid contributors than future cornerstones. There just isn’t much help on the way right now.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Overall Outlook

If the Orioles are going to make any noise in the AL East this year, it won’t be because of veteran additions like Vlad, Gregg, and Duchscherer. It’ll be because the young guys all take a major step forward, a step forward that will inevitably be attributed to Showalter. Markakis has flashed MVP potential in the past, and Wieters has all the talent in the world. Adam Jones is a fine player, but a .325 wOBA and just 5.5 fWAR is not what everyone expected in his first 1,800 PA. Matusz, Tillman, and Britton are the makings of a stellar rotation, but progress must first be made by all three. Again, the talent is there, it just has to turn into performance.

Are the Orioles a better team than they were 12 months ago? Sure, I don’t think there’s a doubt about that. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a 74-76 win team being better than a 66 win team. The improvement under Showalter is real but only to a certain extent. Anyone thinking they’ll maintain that 97-win pace they had under Buck over a full season is going to be very disappointed. The O’s are not going to be a total pushover in 2011, but they’re not going to be a real threat to the three AL East powers either.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 28th, 2011

Record Last Week: 3-2-0 (18 RS, 18 RA)
Spring Training Record: 13-14-3 (109 RS, 124 RA)
Spring Training Schedule This Week: vs. Rays (Mon. on YES), vs. Tigers (Tues. on YES/ESPN), Weds. OFF
Regular Season Schedule This Week: vs. Tigers (Thurs.), Friday OFF, vs. Tigers (Sat. & Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

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Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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The Ultimate Small Sample Size

"This might send the Yankees to the World Series!" (AP/Charles Krupa)

It can only take one game – one play, even – to make a career. With a single pitch, throw, hit or game, a player can lock in their legacy forever. The funny thing is, the play that makes the player can be absolutely nothing like the rest of his career.  I don’t think this is Yankees or even baseball specific. Olli Jokinen, once a New York Ranger, will always be remembered by Rangers fans for the shot he missed in the shootout in the last game of the regular season last year, knocking the Rangers out of the playoffs and allowing the Philadelphia Flyers to go on their Stanley Cup run, even though they were bested by the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals. Jokinen had been, by most hockey measures, at least a half-decent player all his career. The one-play legacy is the ultimate example of small sample size, the very thing that we basement-blogging nerds rage against. Small sample size is the worst enemy of most statistics. Alex Rodriguez batting .156 looks pretty terrible before you find out that’s only in eight games. Francisco Cervelli batted .360 with a .848 OPS….in April 2010.

Think about it. As Yankee fans, we’ll always remember Aaron Boone’s game 7 home run off Tim Wakefield.  Boone played major league baseball for thirteen years, and out of all those years (4329 career plate appearances), he showed up in a hundred games or more for only half of them. He was traded for in the middle of 2003 and appeared in only 54 regular season games with the Yankees. He never hit over 30 home runs. He never batted over .300. His career batting numbers are .263/.326/.425 with a 94 OPS+. There is absolutely nothing notable here.  He was a Randy Winn or a Josh Towers. But then, of course, he came up in the eleventh inning of the ALCS Game 7 after pinch running in the eighth, and now no one will ever forget him. The ad on his baseball reference page even features the play.  My favorite part about the Aaron Boone home run is that we lost that World Series against Josh Beckett’s Marlins, and this never, ever comes up in the Aaron Boone discussion. That memorable home run, viewed through the lens of contemporary Yankees success mentality (World Series or bust!) was ultimately futile. It did nothing aside from give Yankees fans one more year to rub “the Curse of the Bambino” in Boston’s face. Little did we know what awaited us next year….

Just like Boone’s single plate appearance lifted him from forgettable bench player to historical Yankee figure, one play can make fans think a good ballplayer is worth absolutely nothing. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go into detail about Luis Castillo given my audience, but he dropped a routine pop-up in an effectively meaningless summer game, allowing the Yankees to score two runs, win the game, and eventually win the World Series. Okay, maybe the two things weren’t connected, but Castillo’s error lead to an exaggeration in his vilification (which was already prevalent) by Mets fans and a massive increase of ribbing by everyone else in baseball. When Castillo was released not too long ago, even Sandy Alderson was quoted over at ESPN saying, “I don’t think there’s any question that there’s some linkage between his situation and a perception of the Mets that has existed to this point. That’s something that was taken into account. At some point, you have to make an organizational decision that goes beyond just an ability to play or not play.” As Mets blog Amazin Avenue, pointed out, Castillo was certainly good enough to be on the Mets: his career .290/.368/.351 is solid, and the 2009 where he hit .301 is closer to his norm than the .234 he hit in 2010. It’s worth noting that he also only played in 84 games last year due to a lingering foot injury caused by a nasty bone bruise.  Castillo’s not a bad baseball player, but the fact that everyone knows him for one error makes him seem far, far worse than he actually is.

Bill Buckner. Bucky Dent. Armando Galarraga. Dallas Braden. These names have plays – or in the case of the two pitchers, games – that stand out in their careers. Despite throwing an almost-perfect game (for our purposes, it was perfect on Galarraga’s end), the Tigers wouldn’t even carry him on their roster in 2011, and he’s now pitching for Arizona. Braden’s 4.00 FIP and 4.20 ERA are not as remotely impressive as the perfect game he threw on Mother’s Day. It’s these kind of events that highlight the unpredictability of baseball and, even more so, remind both us as fans that anyone can do anything – but when you’re trying to build the best baseball team you can or blame a losing streak on someone, it’s probably worth looking at the long-term numbers and not just remembering the best or worst play you can think of.