Appreciating Ben Zobrist

All references to WAR in this article are based on Baseball-Reference.com’s measurement of the statistic.

Who has the highest WAR from 2009-2012? From the title, I’m sure you’ve figured out that it is Ben Zobrist, who has just one All-Star selection in his career. To put that in perspective he is ahead of the likes of Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera, who have 5 MVP awards combined. Zobrist has a very uninspiring .260/.355/.441 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line. Zobrist has never had a season with a .300 batting average or 30 homers or 100 RBI.
So how can Ben Zobrist have the highest WAR in all of baseball since 2009? Although Zobrist does not stand out in any one area, it is his ability to be above average in every aspect of the game that makes him the most valuable player in the MLB since 2009. Zobrist’s offensive, defensive and base running skills are all above average. From 2009-2012 Zobrist has a .268/.369/.458 slash line, but in that same period, Zobrist is 5th in all of baseball in walks with a total of 357 base on balls. On defense, Zobrist is only 2nd to Brett Gardner in fielding runs above average based on UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). This is even more impressive considering Zobrist has played every position on the field other than catcher and pitcher. Based on his UZR, Zobrist has been able to play each position with great effectiveness. And in one of the most overlooked areas of the game, Ben Zobrist ranks 12th in his base running efficiency. Base running efficiency takes into account stolen bases, caught stealing and taking an extra base in order to determine how many runs above average a runner has created.
How underappreciated is Ben Zobrist? Well, from 2009-2012, Zobrist has been worth $106.1 Million, according to Fangraphs.com. In that same span, the Rays have paid him approximately $10.06 Million, which is more than 10 times less than what Fangraphs says he has been worth. Even though Zobrist has the highest WAR since 2009, he has only been an All-Star once in those four seasons. This clearly shows that many fans have yet to embrace the sabermetric revolution.
So, is Zobrist a star or merely an above average player? His statistics clearly tell two different tales. Based on sabermetrics, he is a star, but his basic statistics suggest he is just above average. Tell me what you think in the comments section.

Anthony Cacchione

Cardinals Seek Closure

This past week, news broke that Jason Motte has a slight tear in his UCL and will undergo Tommy John surgery unless significant progress is made by May 1. Because it is so likely that Motte will have Tommy John, the Cardinals need a replacement for the ninth inning. In the interim, the Cardinals are using Mitchell Boggs, who certainly has the stuff to succeed as a closer. Even with Boggs’s inexperience as closer, he is certainly the first choice within the organization to close games because of his capabilities in the 8th inning of last season. However, Boggs has already had three rough outings this season and seems to be battling his mechanics, and consequently, his control. Among Cardinals Nation, many fans have called for Trevor Rosenthal to assume the role of closer. Such suggestions have been fueled by Rosenthal’s electric fastball, frequently touching 100 mph, and above average breaking pitches. However, it takes more than electric stuff be a closer and Rosenthal is still adjusting to being a reliever, as he was a starter throughout his minor league career. Rosenthal has only 29 2/3 Major League innings under his belt and even though he has been very successful in those innings, he still must adapt to pitching in high leverage situations. This spring, the Tigers watched as their first choice for the closer’s role, Bruce Rondon, struggled to throw strikes in high leverage situations. While Rosenthal has the talent to be the Cardinals’ closer should Boggs falter, I believe he needs more time to acclimate to the life of a reliever before he can successfully assume that role.
Cardinals’ GM, John Mozeliak, has never been afraid to acquire “rental players” at or around the Trade Deadline, so a midseason trade for a closer cannot be ruled out. If the in-house options fail, Mozeliak has the pieces to obtain a ninth-inning reliever. Three options come to mind when considering closers who could be dealt mid-season: Steve Cishek, Huston Street and Chris Perez. Steve Cishek only has 15 career saves, but all five came last season after he replaced Heath Bell as the Marlins’ closer. Cishek is still only 26 years old and is in only his third full season in the Majors, but in that time he has a 2.79 ERA and a 2.1 WAR. Cishek is not arbitration eligible until after the 2014 season, but in order to maximize value the Marlins will likely trade him this season. Huston Street is the most experienced of the three options, but he is also the least durable. Street will likely take the most talent in return because he signed through 2014 with a team option for 2015. The Padres may wish to hang on to Street because he is signed through 2014, but if they are out of contention they will likely seek prospects instead. The most intriguing of the three available closers is Chris Perez. Perez was drafted by the Cardinals in 2006 and made his Major League debut with the club in 2008, but in 2009 he was dealt to the Indians. While the Indians seem committed to winning this season, Perez seems to have fallen out of favor in Cleveland after questioning the commitment of the ownership. Even if the Indians are in contention at the deadline, they would likely be willing to trade Perez for a solid prospect or two. On the field, Perez has 98 saves total over the last three seasons and a career 3.22 ERA.
If Boggs’s struggles continue, then the Cardinals will likely give Rosenthal an opportunity to close, while the front office surveys the trade market. If the Cardinals do make a trade for a closer, I believe Cishek is the best fit. This is because he has had success both as a closer and as a set-up man, which is important because Motte will likely return as the closer in 2014.

Scouting Report, Yordano Ventura

Yordano Ventura was signed out of the Dominican Republic as an international free agent in October 2008 by the Kansas City Royals. Ventura is 21 years old and stands just 5’11”. During the 2012 season, Ventura enjoyed success across three levels in the Minor Leagues, and I was fortunate enough to watch him pitch for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Across three levels, Ventura pitched to a 3.62 ERA and a 10.7 K/9 as a starting pitcher. His success in the Minors led to him being selected as the starting pitcher for the World team in the Futures game last season, in which he had a perfect inning of work. He works with a three pitch mix, including a fastball, curveball and change-up. His fastball is by far his best pitch, as it is in the mid-to-upper 90s and can reach 100 mph with frequency. His fastball has good late life to it, which makes it difficult for hitters to square it up. Ventura also has a hard curveball that he uses as his best secondary pitch. The curveball has great downward action that is very tough on right-handed hitters. He can throw both his fastball and his curveball for strikes. His change-up is his weakest pitch and he will need to improve it if he is going to reach his potential as a top starting pitcher. He has a tendency to leave the change-up high in the zone, leading to it being hit hard. Mechanically, Ventura has a clean arm action in back and is able to get it into position by foot strike. He is able to create a little deception by slightly turning his back to the hitter, which also helps him keep his front side closed. As Ventura begins to drive towards home, he has a subtle hip tilt, which allows him to utilize his lower half well and generate more velocity on his fastball.  Ventura currently projects as a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, but he will need to improve his secondary stuff, especially the change-up. The Royals are giving him the opportunity to develop as a starter, but with his velocity and curveball, it must be tempting to call him up early as a late inning reliever. Presently, two things hold Ventura back from being a sure starting pitcher in the Majors: his change-up and his walks. In 2012, Ventura had a 3.5 BB/9, which must come down for him to be a starter. However, the real X-factor for him becoming a starter is the change-up, which he must be able to locate in the strike zone and leave down in the zone. He is beginning the season in Double-A and I believe he will be utilized as a reliever in the Big Leagues once rosters expand in September. Long-term, Ventura should be able to be a starting pitcher and at the very least can certainly be a shut down pitcher out of the bullpen.

Anthony Cacchione

General Managers on the Hot Seat

This post will look at the GM’s that are currently on the hot seat. They are arranged in no particular order because all five are possibilities to be let go if their team fails to reach the postseason.

Kansas City Royals, Dayton Moore

Since Dayton Moore took over the duties of General Manager just 2 days after the 2006 Amateur Draft, the Royals have finished in last place 3 of 6 years and have never finished higher than 3rd place in the AL Central. One of Moore’s first big moves was signing Gil Meche to a 5 year, $55 Million contract after the 2006 season, in which the royals finished 62-100. Meche posted 2 strong seasons for the Royals before collapsing in the final two seasons of his career; however Meche’s two good seasons did not help the Royals as they went a combined 144-180 in those two seasons. Moore’s real skill has been acquiring young talent both through the draft and through trades. On the Royals’ Active 25-man roster, Moore has 4 players that he drafted and has had as many as 7 on the roster at once. He also has 4 players, whom he traded for as prospects, on the 25-man roster: Chris Getz, Tim Collins, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. Unfortunately, Moore has been unable to make all these acquisitions translate into wins. Growing tired of losing and understanding that his tenure could be coming to an end, Moore made a few high-profile acquisitions. He traded for Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis and also brought back Jeremy Guthrie on a 3 year, $25 Million deal. Santana is coming off the worst year of his career, in which he posted a -1.3 WAR, but he has also shown he can be a reliable starter with a career 98-80 record. James Shields and Wade Davis both came over from the Rays and cost the Royals the system’s top prospect, Wil Myers, as well as a few other high ceiling prospects. Guthrie was acquired midway through the 2012 season and posted a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts for the Royals while also accumulating a 2.1 WAR. Many pundits felt the James Shields acquisition, especially, was an act of desperation in order for Moore to make one last effort to save his job. If the Royals do not reach the postseason or at least show large indications of improving, then Moore will not be with the Royals for 2014.

Seattle Mariners, Jack Zduriencik

Since Zduriencik took over as General Manager of the Mariners after the 2008 season, the Mariners have not made the playoffs and have finished in last place 3 of the 4 seasons.  In four seasons under Jack Z’s leadership, the Mariners have a record of 288-360, which is the 5th worst record in that span. Prior to being the GM for the Mariners, Zduriencik was the Director of Amateur Scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers. He was brought in as GM in order to rebuild the Mariners’ weak farm system and has both drafted and traded for high-profile prospects. However, many of his high-profile prospects have yet to produce at the Major League level. Prospects definitely take more patience than veterans, but 4 of the Mariners’ top prospects have experienced serious setbacks as they have continued their progression through the Mariners’ organization. Last year Dustin Ackley, 2nd overall pick in 2009, saw his batting average drop nearly 50 points from his rookie season; Justin Smoak, formerly the Mariners top prospect, has yet to make an impact at the MLB level with a .3 career WAR; Jesus Montero, Seattle’s young catcher, struggled in his first full big league season accumulating a .1 WAR; and Danny Hultzen, the M’s top pitching prospect, faced serious command problems once he reached Triple-A where he walked 43 batters in 48 2/3 innings with a 5.92 ERA. This is not to say that these players will never fulfill their potential, but Jack Z may not be around when they do because M’s fans are growing tired of their team losing after 12 seasons since their last postseason birth. Zduriencik has also undergone a change of course in which he attempted to turn the Mariners into competitors before the team was prepared to do so. This was most evident heading into Jack Z’s second season as GM, when he signed Chone Figgins to a four year contract worth $35 million and traded two top prospects, Tyson Gillies and Phillippe Aumont, to the Phillies for Cliff Lee. These moves were intended to propel the Mariners to the postseason, but both acquisitions proved to be ill-advised and unsuccessful. Chone Figgins was recently released before completing his contract. In his three seasons with the Mariners, Figgins hit .227 with a total -.9 WAR. Cliff Lee was outstanding in his 13 starts for the Mariners in 2010, but because the team was so poor, he was traded for prospects, including Justin Smoak. Zduriencik is likely making one last push at success as the M’s GM as he has tried to acquire more offense-first players such as Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez. If this last attempt fails, the Mariners’ ownership will have no choice, but to cut ties with Zduriencik.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Neal Huntington

Neal Huntington took over as General Manager of the Pirates near the end of the 2007 season and Huntington had the Pirates immediately undergo a full-blown rebuilding attempt. He traded away many of the teams starters for prospects and explained his actions by saying, “We don’t feel like we’ve broken up the ‘27 Yankees. If it doesn’t turn around, I get fired”. It is nearing the time for the Pirates to cut ties with Huntington as many of the prospects he acquired during this process have not panned out. Huntington has also done a poor job acquiring talent through the draft with only 2 of his own draft picks on the Pirates’ Active 25-man roster, in contrast, the Cardinals’ GM, John Mozeliak, has 7 of his own draft choices on the Cardinals’ Active 25-man roster, even though they have each participated in the same amount of drafts. Fortunately, Huntington has avoided any major gaffs in regards to free agency and contract extensions and overall has handled the restricted budget well. However, when running an organization with limited funds, one must develop talent well and that is something Huntington has not done with much success. The Pirates have come close to ending their streak of losing seasons, but have collapsed in the 2nd half of each of the past 2 seasons. However, Huntington was unwilling to sacrifice any quality prospects to acquire influential Major Leaguers; he traded fringy prospects for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011. Ludwick batted .232/.341/.330 slash line and Derreck Lee played well until injuries slowed him. In 2012, Hunting was more aggressive acquiring Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez and Chad Qualls. These four players accumulated a combined 1.1 WAR over the final two months of the season. Late last season, details surfaced that Neal Huntington had implemented Navy Seal training drills for the Pirates’ top prospects, which resulted in much criticism from inside and outside the organization. The Pirates’ top prospect, Jameson Taillon, suffered a non-serious injury during the hand-to-hand combat drills. Without a winning season this season, Huntington will likely find himself looking for work this offseason.

Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro Jr.

Since Ruben Amaro Jr. succeeded Pat Gillick as General Manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Phillies have won 3 NL East titles in 4 seasons. Even with this amount of success in such a short amount of time, Amaro Jr. is on the hot seat because the Philadelphia fans may very well be the most impatient fans in all of sports and will not tolerate a second season in a row without a playoff appearance, especially with one of the 5 highest payrolls in baseball. Amaro’s situation is much different from many GM’s on this list because he has a track record of success; unfortunately, the Phillies’ performance last season seems like the beginning of the end for this core group of Phillies: Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. In order to replace the production of these aging stars would take young talent, which the Phillies do not have much of. Amaro Jr. traded away many of the Phillies’ top prospects in order to acquire Major League talent to extend the reign of the Phillies. However, actions have consequences and the Phillies are beginning to experience the opposite end of the spectrum due to Amaro’s decisions. Amaro Jr. has also given out a few regrettable contracts: Ryan Howard ($125 Mil, 5 years), Cliff Lee ($120 M, 5 years), and Jonathon Papelbon ($50 M, 4 years). Amaro has made the weak farm system worse by not drafting very well, none of his draft picks are currently on the Phillies active 25-man roster. While some of this can be explained by the Phillies’ infatuation with drafting high-ceiling high schoolers in the early rounds even though their 2008 and 2009 draft picks look like long shots to ever reach the Majors. Amaro Jr. has allowed the Phillies’ core to grow old with 8 of their 9 highest-paid players older than 30 years. An aged roster with little help ready in the minor leagues often leads to a long rebuilding process, but Amaro Jr. and the Phillies chose to make another run at a championship instead. The only thing that may prevent the Phillies from having to undergo a drastic rebuilding process is the fact that they are one of the highest spending organizations in baseball. However, with the recent string of contract extensions for stars prior to them reaching free agency, free agency will not provide as many top players for the Phillies to pursue and trades are much easier to come by when you have talent to swap. If the Phillies do fail to reach the postseason this year, then the only thing that can sustain Amaro Jr.’s tenure with the Phillies beyond this season is using Charlie Manuel as the scapegoat.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Ned Colletti

Ned Colletti assumed the role of General Manager for the Dodgers after the 2005 season and the Dodgers have made the playoffs in three of the seven seasons he has been in charge. Since the take over of new ownership, the Dodgers’ financial situation has been well documented and the pressure has never been higher on members of the organization. Prior to this influx of cash, Colletti never was very effective in the draft as the Dodgers only have 2 players on the 25-man roster that were drafted by Colletti. Colletti has certainly put the new money to use, but not always in the best fashion. Colletti gave out a 6 year, $159 Million deal, largest contract for a right-handed pitcher at the time, to Zack Grienke. Zack Grienke is a very good starter, but his performance has not merited the biggest contract for a pitcher in the history of baseball. Grienke has never pitched up to his peripherals since his Cy Young season in 2009. In Grienke’s 9 seasons at the MLB level, he has only one All-Star appearance and only one season with a top 10 finish in Cy Young voting. Colletti also traded two top prospects, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, to the Red Sox for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto. Three of the four players are extremely talented; however their contracts are also ridiculous. In this deal, Colletti and the Dodgers really only wanted Adrian Gonzalez, but the Red Sox were only willing to deal if the Dodgers took on the other contracts. Crawford still has over $100 Million left on his deal and has undergone a serious decline since signing his new deal 2 years ago and Crawford is just returning from Tommy John surgery. However, Dodgers’ ownership does not care about how many mistakes Colletti makes as long as they win. The Dodgers have more than $200 Million invested in the team this season and their owners will not be patient as they expect to win immediately.

Anthony Cacchione