As the line goes, the Tampa Bay Rays, who will be spending much less money this year than they did last year, are done. They've lost outfielder Carl Crawford, they've lost first baseman Carlos Peña, they've lost most of their bullpen, and now they've reportedly traded Matt Garza for something less than the best prospects in the Chicago Cubs' farm system, and so now they're cooked.
This is a lot of nonsense. Don't believe it.
Garza is a very good pitcher, but something like the typical Rays starter in that he wasn't nearly as good as you might think last year. With a 3.91 ERA in 204 2/3 innings, he was basically average, and the only Rays starter other than ace David Price who was even that good.
What this means is that the team has slack. Jeremy Hellickson may be the best pitching prospect in baseball, and has good odds of giving the Rays more this year than Garza did in 2010. James Shields is unlikely to run up a 5.18 ERA again as he did last year. Elsewhere, the team is unlikely to get as little production out of rightfield and designated hitter as they did in '10, especially if they sign Manny Ramirez, who for all his faults is still one of the very best hitters in the game. Meanwhile, Dan Johnson and Desmond Jennings should be able to replace enough of what Peña (.196, 28 home runs, 84 RBIs) and Crawford (.307, 19 home runs, 90 RBIs, 47 stolen bases) brought to the lineup for the team to continue to score runs, and their system is more than deep enough to produce a few arms for the bullpen. What they lose in some places, they'll gain in others. They remain a real threat in the AL East.
Their excellent system gets better with the new imports from the North Side. Pitcher Chris Archer, 22, needs to work on his control a bit -- he walked more than four batters per nine innings last year between high Class A and Double A -- but he could contribute for Tampa Bay as soon as this year, while Class A shortstop Hak-Ju Lee gives the Rays a potential future starter. The other prospects in the deal are a bit fringier but of some use.
For the Cubs, this is just a good, sensible trade. They have other pitching prospects as good as Archer, and Lee is blocked by Starlin Castro, who is just a few months older and already a competent major leaguer. Garza helps them this year, where even as the nominal fourth-best team in the National League Central they're still a perfectly viable contender given the weakness of the division, and he'll be under contract for two more years after this one. He'll probably put up very good numbers given the weaker competition he'll be facing, and even if Archer develops well the Cubs will be unlikely to regret the trade.
A deal that helps both sides is good. This does that. My favorite angle, though, might be the exchange of reserve outfielders with fancy pedigrees. Sam Fuld, who goes to Tampa Bay, went to Phillips Exeter; Fernando Perez, who goes the other way, attended Columbia.
One of the great sabermetric insights that doesn't really count as one has to do with park effects. True fact: In the olden days when men wore hats and ballplayers traveled by train, observers actually were aware that it was harder to hit a home run to left-centerfield in Yankee Stadium, where the fence was 490 feet from home, than it was to flick one over the rightfield fence in Philadelphia's Baker Bowl, 280.5 feet out.
As many teachers reminded you, though, knowledge and application are different things, so while we know that parks play differently, it's easy to forget how drastic an effect that can have on statistics. Take the case of Adrian Beltre, who just signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Texas Rangers.
In 2004, Beltre hit .334 with 48 home runs and drove in 121 runs in the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He promptly signed a rich, five-year deal with the Seattle Mariners and averaged .266 with 21 home runs and 79 RBI over its length. On a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox last year, he hit .321 with 28 home runs and 102 RBIs, and led the American League in doubles. "Aha!" many have cried. "Beltre is a fraud. He only works hard when a contract is on the line."
This may or may not be nonsense; I haven't shared a bottle of wine with Beltre and coaxed him into telling the truth on the matter, and neither has anyone else. It's clear, though, that the difference can largely be explained by the parks in which he played his home games. Safeco Field cuts offense for righthanded hitters by four percent; Fenway Park inflates it by six percent. More than that, Beltre tends to hit the ball to left-center, which is a vast canyon in Seattle and famously not a vast canyon in Boston.
All along, Beltre was a pretty good player in Seattle, and a league-average hitter who fields historically well at third base does a team a lot of good. He'll probably be a pretty good player in Texas, too; his defense is still terrific, and his new park is just as nice a place for righthanded hitters as Boston's is. He probably won't hit .321 or lead the league in doubles again, because he's not that good at hitting. He'll be a championship-grade player, though, and hopefully those questioning his integrity will notice.
Carlos Gonzalez and the Colorado Rockies reached a deal this week that also might inspire one to think about park effects, a seven-year, $80 million extension that will keep the defending National League batting champion under team control until he's 31. The Rockies have spent a lot of time and effort on understanding how Coors Field affects hitters, and clearly don't think their man is an illusion. I wonder.
In 2010, Gonzalez hit .380/.425/.737 at home, and .289/.322/.453 on the road. In 2009, the split was .305/.361/.582 against .263/.344/.467. In two years, he's hit 33 home runs at home, 14 on the road. Those are dramatic differences.
Now, for technical reasons you should never just compare home statistics to road ones. Everyone hits better at home and worse away, and there is evidence of a hangover effect for Colorado hitters as well. (A week of seeing curveballs not curve, the theory goes, makes it hard to hit them for the first couple of days on the road.) If Gonzalez is uniquely able to take advantage of Coors, too, that has real value. Still, something is off. As a Rockie, Gonzalez has struck out 124 times in 424 at-bats on the road, and 81 times in 441 at-bats at home.
Even if you were to just pretend that his road numbers tell you everything you need to know about how good he is, Gonzalez would look like a valuable young player once defense was accounted for and well worth an extension. But the strikeout rate would be pretty scary. It's hard for a player who doesn't walk a lot to keep up a good on-base average while striking out three times in 10 plate appearances, as CarGo did on the road last season.
Gonzalez isn't the new model Dante Bichette, which is to say he isn't a total mirage. Still, he may not be the sort of player to tie on to for seven years.
The Baltimore Orioles are just a strange team. Squint, and you'll see a team that could probably contend in the National League Central, one perhaps lacking in pitching depth but rolling out a lineup with few holes, a pretty good defense, and enough young players like Adam Jones and Matt Wieters that you expect one or two of them to break out as real stars. For such a team to sign a warhorse like Derrek Lee to a one-year, $7.25 million contract makes a lot of sense. He fits a need, is unlikely to embarrass himself at the plate, and for what it's worth is even a respected veteran type who's played on some very good teams and can probably be counted on to give the kids what for if they loaf, miss signs and the like.
This same team, though, is bringing back shortstop Cesar Izturis, a symbol of everything wrong with the franchise, on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Izturis is a very good defensive player and has his uses, but he's also the man who finished with the worst slugging average in the league last year, as well as the third worst batting and on-base averages. Yes, fragile starter J.J. Hardy needs a backup, but why this one? Small mistakes compound in the American League East. The signing itself is nothing immensely bad; the lack of ruthlessness it signifies is.
There is a sort of prototype of a player you don't want to commit a lot of money to: A stocky second baseman with little speed and sketchy defense, who hits for mediocre averages and whose value is all tied up in his walks and home runs. Such a player will be quite worthwhile while he's going well, but once he loses that bit of athleticism that allows him to .260 rather than .230 and sort of play second base rather than move out to left field, he'll be worth pretty much nothing.
If you can tell me how Dan Uggla differs from this theoretical player I would be very interested to hear it. In fact, I would be interested to hear any explanation for why the Atlanta Braves just gave their new second baseman, acquired in an offseason trade with the Marlins, a $62 million contract extension that will lock him up through age 35. A team that has had Marcus Giles and Bret Boone on the roster within relatively recent memory should have learned its lesson, and that is that Uggla is likely as not to be utterly done years before this deal is up.