Yesterday, my colleague over at Crawfish Boxes, David Coleman, posted his “Three Astros Things.”
One of the Astros things was actually a Rangers thing:
They lost out on Zach [sic] Greinke. They lost out on James Shields. What’s left for the Rangers?
Well, it appears our enemies to the north will try to load up on every other player they can. There’s talk that they may re-sign Josh Hamilton. There’s talk they may push through the Justin Upton trade. They may go after Michael Bourn, Anibal Sanchez, or any number of other players.
But, what if they don’t get anything? How much will the Rangers be hurt if they stand pat? It almost seems like they may be better off not making these moves. They need to replace Josh Hamilton’s offense, but adding Mike Olt may replace some of that offense, right?
Plus, they’d lose draft picks if they have to sign too many big-ticket free agents, which hurts the team down the road. In an Upton trade, they also would have to give up either Andrus or Profar.
I guess the question is are the Rangers good enough to contend without making a splashy move or can they still win the AL West with the team they have now?
My response will be longer than I’d feel comfortable posting in their comments section, so allow me to devote my own article to answering his article.
The usual caveats apply here – since I’ll be spending a lot of energy talking about WAR. WAR is a nice tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it’s certainly not the best predictive tool. But it does put us in the ballpark of a player’s value, so I’ll be using it as a catch-all throughout this article.
I think that, to answer this question, you first have to answer three other questions. Namely:
1. Were the 2012 Oakland Athletics a fluke?
It’s impossible to talk about the Rangers winning or losing the AL West without considering the team that did win the AL West in 2012, the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics seemed to overcome all odds in winning their division, despite having the second-lowest Opening Day payroll in all of baseball. They were built on youth without long major league track records: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Chris Carter, Derek Norris, and Collin Cowgill were all rookie position players who were worth more than replacement value. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley, Evan Scribner, and Jordan Norberto were all rookie pitchers who did the same.
Pythagoras only put the 2012 Athletics two wins behind their actual performance. Then again, the Rangers only finished one game behind the Athletics in 2012, so I think it’s safe to call that a toss-up. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers and Athletics were equally good in 2012. You could point at any of a number of reasons why the A’s may have a sophomore slump in 2013, or why an additional year of playing together – with postseason experience – could make them play even better. Obviously, it could go either way. But there’s no compelling reason, at this time, to assume that Oakland won’t be in the mix in September and October 2013.
One problem with a young team is trying to define regression to the mean, since they are currently in the process of establishing the mean. As a result, I have no reason to think that the 2013 Athletics will be significantly worse than the 2012 Athletics.
Additionally, the Angels and Mariners could easily improve next season, putting added pressure on Texas to make a move. Or so it would seem.
2. What have the Rangers lost since 2012, and can they replace it?
Since the end of the 2012 season, Texas has lost 11 players with relevant (read: within the last three seasons) Major League experience, and they’ve gained 11 players with relevant Major League experience.
Using a 5/3/2 regression on incoming players, and 2012 rates for outgoing players:
Between Feldman, Napoli, Hamilton, Dempster, and Adams, the Rangers have lost a significant amount to Free Agency this winter. The Geovany Soto “gain” is actually a wash, as Soto was also on the roster in 2012. All told, the Rangers have lost approximately 12 wins from 2012. Prospects, such as Mike Olt, Jurickson Profar, and Leonys Martin, might make up some of the difference, but it’s unlikely they’ll make up all of it. Sure, Mike Trout had 10.0 WAR in his second rookie season of 2012, but counting on 13 wins from a trio of rookies isn’t the best idea in the world.
I would pencil the trio in for somewhere between 4-8 WAR in 2013. We’ll split the difference and call it 6.0. That leaves the Rangers with a 7-win differential from 2012, and an 8-win differential from the 2012 Athletics.
3. What, exactly, constitutes a “flashy signing”?
8 wins is a lot. 8 wins is Buster Posey. Heck, James Shields and Zack Greinke combined would be just over 9 wins. Re-signing Josh Hamilton would eliminate the loss of just 4 wins, and it seems to me that re-signing Hamilton might be a losing proposition. Not only did the Rangers make it clear that Greinke was Option 1 over Hamilton, but they also seem to have downplayed his contributions to an extreme. If I was Josh Hamilton (and let’s make it very clear here that I am not Josh Hamilton), I would look for a payday elsewhere.
But what’s interesting is that re-signing Ryan Dempster would bring the Rangers almost as close as re-signing Hamilton would. Of course, if Dempster’s agent is to be believed, Dempster would rather go to an NL team with Spring Training in Arizona (that’s the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Reds, Rockies, Dodgers, Brewers, Padres, and Giants, incidentally).
Dempster might not be as flashy as Hamilton, but he brings you almost as close to making up the win-differential from 2012 to 2013. After that, it’s a matter of “finding” around 5 wins. Now we’re in Michael Bourn/Justin Upton territory. But, heck, now we’re in Jimmy Rollins territory, too. Or Miguel Montero territory. It’s a lot easier to find 5 wins than it is to try and land one big free agent who can bridge the gap by themselves.
In short, I think a couple of non-flashy signings might benefit the Rangers at least as much as a big signing would. Anibal Sanchez has never been worth as many as 4.5 wins. Michael Bourn is coming off a personal-best 6.4, but he has a skillset that deteriorates with age.
I think a flashy signing might look nice to the fans in Arlington, but I have no reason to think that it’s the best thing the Rangers could do to stay competitive. They’d almost be better off letting the prospects play and trying to catch lightning in a bottle the way Oakland did in 2012.
Of course, there’s a reason why Oakland is Oakland, and why Texas is Texas. And I’d certainly never say that a team who has appeared in back-to-back World Series recently has any sort of a flawed method. But I do have to think that rushing out and signing a free agent just to sign a free agent isn’t the best thing the Rangers could do for themselves right now.
Because I live in Los Angeles, many of the conversations I have about baseball involve, in some way, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I almost never blog about other teams here, but I feel compelled to write a bit about the Dodgers’ offseason.
The Dodgers used to be owned by a man named Frank McCourt, who by all accounts horribly mismanaged the team and put a disappointing product on the field. In 2012, however, the team was bought by Guggenheim Partners.
Entering the 2013 season, Guggenheim has already changed the landscape of baseball in the Southland. Far from stingy, they are now being accused of throwing money at free agents. With the Yankees looking to reduce payroll to get under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, the Dodgers are quickly taking their place as the free spenders of merit.
(Incidentally, it’s extremely interesting to watch people get mad at the Dodgers for spending money, while simultaneously getting mad at the Yankees for not spending money.)
With the recent signings of Zack Greinke ($147mm) and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu ($36mm), the blogosphere is alive with talk of the 2013 Dodgers and their free-spending ways.
The 2013 Dodgers could have the highest payroll in history. The 2013 Dodgers could have a luxury tax penalty higher than most teams’ entire payrolls.
These sorts of enormous signings, usually done by east coast junior circuit teams, always seem to raise a lot of questions. Namely: Do free-spending teams ruin baseball, and Can you buy a championship?
The short answer for both is: No. Teams from different-sized markets make the playoffs every year. The Yankees, historically the biggest spenders in baseball, haven’t won it all since 2009. Before that, they hadn’t won since 2000.
So the door is open. Let’s get that out of the way.
The next question I have to wonder is: What’s wrong with building a team this way? If a team had traded for or developed a roster like the Dodgers have, they would no doubt be praised by every blogger, every baseball fan in America. The basic problem with this, of course, is that no team in the modern era has ever fielded a team made entirely of their own draft picks, or players received in trades.
But the question goes even deeper than that. What, in essence, is the problem with building a team via free agency, instead of through drafts and trades? It’s a mere matter of money, and if the Dodgers have money to spend, what exactly is wrong with them building their team by using it? They’ve been mishandled far too long to rely solely on their farm system, and there is a definite sense of needing to be relevant right now.
Astros fans may shudder to remember trading away prospects to receive players on the decline. When paired with bad drafts and poor development, the Houston front office ran the cupboards dry until there was no present, no future, and no money. The current Astros roster is proof that, when not properly handled, this is a method that doesn’t always work.
But I do say it is a legitimate way to build a roster, particularly when there aren’t a ton of bright spots in the minors.
So, then, the real question is: Are the 2013 Dodgers going to be any good? The problem with throwing a lot of money at players in free agency is that it really puts the spotlight on a team. So I decided to try a little comparative exercise.
Using MLB Depth Charts, I isolated the Opening Day rosters of nine teams from 2012, spanning both leagues and several tax brackets:
1. New York Yankees (highest payroll in baseball)
2. Philadelphia Phillies (highest payroll in the NL, 2nd-highest in baseball)
3. Boston Red Sox (3rd-highest payroll in baseball)
4. Detroit Tigers (5th-highest payroll in baseball, AL champs)
5. San Francisco Giants (8th-highest payroll in baseball, world champs)
6. St. Louis Cardinals (9th-highest payroll in baseball, defending champions going into the season)
7. Cincinnati Reds (largely home-grown team, 17th-highest payroll in baseball)
8. Tampa Bay Rays (6th-lowest payroll in baseball and considered to be a great developmental organization)
9. Oakland Athletics (2nd-lowest payroll in baseball, also considered a great developmental organization)
I used a 5/3/2 analysis of their 25-man roster’s fWAR from 2009-2011 to get a rough idea of what they should have been expecting heading into the season: ((5*2011fWAR)+(3*2010fWAR)+(2*2009fWAR))/10. This is obviously a crude way to determine expected value, as WAR is not only imperfect, but it’s a counting stat, and changes dramatically with increased or reduced playing time. For instance, Ryu will be counted as a replacement-level pitcher for the purposes of this exercise.
Given the ability to look at the actual 2012 results, this generally puts us somewhere in the ballpark. Close enough, at least, to satisfy me. I’m no great statistician, so it’ll do for the purposes of my evaluation.
I then used MLB Depth Charts’ projected roster for the 2013 Dodgers and applied the same methodology to see where they fit in. The only difference, of course, is that I used fWAR data from 2010-2012.
All but three of these teams – Boston, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia – made the playoffs in 2013. Interestingly, all three of those teams finished in the top half of this list. Simply put, the Phillies, Rays, and Red Sox were disappointments in 2012. The 2013 Dodgers’ projected roster fits squarely in the middle of the group, just one win from being tied for third on the list.