Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Small and the Big of It

A few appetizers before I get to the meat:

1. Mariano Rivera ain't going anywhere. I don't even want to write about it, to be honest, because it's a load of crap designed to sell papers. Nuff said.

2. Ron Villone on a minor league deal gets a Spring Training invite. Hmmm. Okay. Not a bad gamble. We know what we're getting, and if he can earn a spot, it comes cheap. I don't trust him in a big spot, but hopefully it will never come to that with the amount of late-innings guys we have to choose from now.

3. A Pavano sighting, actually throwing a baseball, means very little to me. When he's on the mound at Yankee Stadium in July, we'll talk. I expect the worst, although I think he might surprise people who have completely written him off. He's probably a league average 5th starter in the AL. We have better on the farm at cheaper prices. Maybe a good Spring and a healthy April and May will help Cashman to move him. (Has any guy in recent memory been less wanted?)

Now for the meat....and you thought I meant Pavano.....

Carlos Zambrano is telling people that the Cubs have to pony up Zito money before the season starts or he's going FA when 2007 comes to an end. The Cubs should make that move, if they're smart, but my gut tells me they won't. It's bound to set up an awkward situation around the trade deadline. Unless the Cubs are head and shoulders above the rest of their division, they risk missing the playoffs, and getting nothing for Zambrano. The likely scenario is that the team will keep him, make their run, and whatever happens bite the bullet when he hits the open market. They probably believe he prefers to stay in Chicago, and that they can match any contract offer that comes up in the offseason. The risk in that thinking is, if he is annoyed that the Cubs short-changed him on this year, he'll make an obscene gesture in their direction and sign with another club. You'd better believe that Zito money (and then some) will be waiting for Zambrano in New York, the South-side of Chicago, LA, Texas, and a handful of other places too.

You can bet that the Yankees, Mets, White Sox, Red Sox, Orioles, Angels, Dodgers, Rangers, Cardinals, and for all I know the rest of the teams in the sport are formulating plans to acquire Zambrano should he fail to get his money by Opening Day. It's useless to speculate who would offer the most money, but the number of team that would be involved would be staggering and his decision could well shift the fortunes of an entire division or league. He's that kind of impact pitcher, and they don't hit the free agents waters very often anymore. I've been saying for a long time that the Yankees should be the biggest shark in the sea if there's blood in the water. Johan Santana is the ultimate prize, but there's a lot of time and logistics in front of any conversation about the Minnesota ace. Zambrano is a now conversation.

A lot of people don't like Carlos Zambrano. His walk-rate is ugly. The thing about this pitcher though, is that he gets a ton of groundballs. He also has allowed the following batting line against him for his career and in 2006 (OPS+ in parentheses):

Career .224/.318/.344 (133)
2006 .208/.316/.351 (136)

This is a pitcher who will turn 26 in June, and has been pitching to a ridiculous stat line in the #6 highest rated park factor in baseball. For comparison, Yankee Stadium has the 27th rated park factor. If you adjust his NL numbers to the AL, and then re-adjust for the Yankee Stadium PF, you probably would see about the same stat line in pinstripes. He's a plus strikeout guy, AND a plus groundball guy in the same package. He got the lowly Cubs 16 wins last season, garnering an unusually high 5.97 runs per game of support from Dusty Baker's "unclogged bases", but looking at Unit, Mussina, and Wang last year we see that each got more than 6.30 runs per outing with Johnson at 7.50! The conversation for Zambrano in pinstripes starts at 16 wins and ends at whatever 6.50 runs of support would get you with a 3.30 ERA. (Assuming a decision every 9 innings pitches, and a 215 inning season, Pythagorean Expectations would have Zambrano at 19-4).

That's just the tip of the iceberg. The playoffs are where it really counts. The main reason for the Yankees to splash on this player, outside their own direct benefit, is that their AL rivals will all be in on the war. The Red Sox and Blue Jays figure to be aggressive, and that could tip the balance of the division in either team's favor. The Yanks have the young arms to impact the division long term, but they also have plenty of old guys who are nearing the end. They need to replace them with top quality, and as I've said, it doesn't come around often. When Mussina and Pettitte are done in 2 years, the Yankees will have internal options to fill their spots, but nothing in the way of guaranteed results. If it's not Zambrano, and Santana is still a question mark, then who? If the Red Sox replace Schilling or Wakefield with Zambrano, for example, they would have Zambrano, Matsuzaka, Papelbon, and Beckett for years and years to come. Ouch.

There is only one certainty should the Cubs fail to lure Zambrano to an extension. CZ is going to be a VERY wealthy man when it's all said and done. Can you say $20 million per?


Chris V said...

Despite predictions of doom and gloom, I expect Igawa and Pavano to fit in quite nicely at the end of our rotation. If you look at Pavano's numbers (K/9, WHIP, etc), he's not worth the contract we gave him, but for the money, he's getting less than Meche and worth more. And what, Meche is a #1 starter in KC?

As for Zambrano, my favorite part of his diatribe against the Cubs is his continual use of third person speech. "If they don't sign me, sorry, but I must go. That's what Carlos Zambrano thinks." Classic.

I'd love to have him on the team next season, but dropping nine figures on a pitcher makes me queasy. Nine...that's a lot of digits. That's a social security number, not a salary for a pitcher.

jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jim said...

My only concern with Z is the price tag (money and prospects). I think he's a legit #2 - indeed very solid there. But he's never been a true ace (no CY - highest at 5th (twice), career ERA+ 133).

I'd now give serious pause if he's available in a trade. The Sox don't have the prospects to get him anyways. The cost will be really high and I'm not sure the Cubbies would trade him and admit their season is over, even if it looks bleak. Worst case they lose him and get the pick.

If Z's available as a free agent, then the Yanks should bite the bullet and sign him. With a potential very young rotation for the next few years, he could be their only big ticket expense there. And even at 7 years, by the end of Phil Huge's arbitration that's only two years left.

Mike Plugh said...

Jim....a 133 career OPS+ places him something like 10th all-time. He's still young so he could either head up that list or down, but he's entering his prime, and these kind of pitchers just are available. Pay for them!

If he ends up with the Sox, we'll be sorry.

brant said...

Frankly, I'm really rooting for the Cubs to botch this one BADLY, so that 'Big Z' pitches angry all year & has one of those contract years that people talk about for the next decade.

Mike Plugh said...

I'm skeptical about this situation. I think the Cubs will give him the money. It makes too much sense to give him the money over the next 3 years instead of waiting until their only chance is to sign him to a Zito long term deal in the offseason.

They hold all the cards right now, and I can't imagine that they'd be so dumb as to blow that hand they're holding. I'll wait until after ST is over to get excited about it, but I have to believe that he's out of Chicago if there's no money on the table by Opening Day. The payday is potentially historic for him...

One more thing...Jim....I don't think the lack of success in the Cy Young voting defines a guy in any way as an ace or not. In fact, the definition of ace is so wide open it's hard to really use that word. When I do, I mean one of the top 5-7 pitchers in the sport. A #1 starter is less than an ace on most teams.

Since he turned 22, CZ has posted the following ERA+ numbers:

2003 136
2004 165
2005 131
2006 136

If that's not an ace, I've never seen one. In every one of the year's I just listed, he was top 4-8 in ERA+ in the entire sport. He's also only 26 this season. The other pitchers who have been putting up numbers like him, and rated around or above him in the last 4 seasons are Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Roy Oswalt, Tim Hudson, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy, Roger Clemens, and maybe a couple of one-hit wonders.

On that list, Clemens and Randy Johnson are nearing the end. Halladay and Carpenter don't figure to be available anytime soon. Likewise with Webb. Peavy is still a little young and hasn't done it consistently. Can the Yankees count on acquiring Santana or Carpenter? Zambrano is the only guy in this elite group that is immediately on the radar. That's why he's going to get paid like a box office star.

jim said...

Sorry, I just see him as a very solid two but lacking in the true ace department. That 2004 is certainly worthy but otherwise more like a solid #2.

Look at Moose (even though completely different pitcher). Before age 32 he was at a 130 ERA+ for his career. But was he a true 1 back then? I don't think so. Still it didn't prevent the the Yanks from giving him ace money. And it shouldn't in the case of Z either. By all means sign him to a huge contract.

But for some reason I keep looking at Z and seeing Bartolo Colon. Z is a slightly better pitcher but walks and K's more guys.

Yes, the Yanks should sign Z - I have no problem if the only risk is money. But I'd rather they don't trade chips on top of it. Luckily I don't see the Cubbies trading him, unless they're 15 games out in July.

brant said...

BTW - if Z gets $20M per... what does Johan get?

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