Friday Rockpile: Upside Gambles

It sure looks like this pitch is heading to the backstop - Jim McIsaac

What do you do when you're a low payroll team trying to compete in a division with Dodgers? You have to take some gambles.

They say you get what you pay for, and the Los Angeles Dodgers certainly took that to heart. Per Cot's Contracts, they spent a cool $216,753,286 on their baseball team in 2013, while bringing in any player who could help the team, regardless of cost. Don't like your James Loney? Trade for a $21 million Adrian Gonzalez! Frustrated with your Dee Gordon? There's a $16 M Hanley Ramirez available. Are your Andre Ethiers ($13.5M), Josh Becketts ($15.75M), and Chad Billingsleys ($11M) either hurt or terrible? Well let me introduce you to Zack Greinke ($17M), Yasiel Puig ($2M), and Hyun-Jin Ryu ($2.5M)*

*Yes, those last two are relatively cheap, but A) they were big-risk foreign imports and B) they have a bunch more years on their contracts and will get more expensive.

This is a really great business model. If you are unbounded by the constraints of money, why wouldn't you buy up every asset available? That's how the Dodgers won a bunch of games in 2013, and will almost certainly win a bunch in 2014.

Alas, the Rockies do not operate on the same plane of existence. They have a budget, and it's a smaller budget than most teams'. They can't paper over roster problems with an ocean of money. The only way to build a competitive roster is to target the right assets. They have to find guys who are affordable but might--just might--equal the production of the 20 million dollar men the Dodgers have collected.

So can the Rockies' off-season targets fit that bill? Well, you have to squint a little bit. Let's look at Justin Morneau first. Quite honestly, his last three years have been either average or a little below, depending on how charitable you're feeling. It's hard to get too excited about a first baseman that has hit only a tick above average the past two seasons.

Morneau Avg OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
2012 0.267 0.333 0.440 108 0.3
2013 0.259 0.323 .           .411 102 0.8

Buuuuuut there are extenuating circumstances, and thus potential upside. Morneau's 2006 through 2010 were extremely productive years, with an average of 3.44 WAR. In 2010 he was on a monster pace, putting up 4.9 WAR in 81 games until a fluky headfirst slide into second base resulted in an extremely persistent concussion. He missed the rest of that season and much of the next dealing with the after-effects. His didn't miss much time in his 2012 and 2013 seasons, but his production was far below his early Minnesota years. He just didn't seem like the same guy.

So the question is obvious: is there any chance he returns to that pre-concussion level, or even 75% of that level? Most projection systems will say "no", since they emphasize most recent performance. But they don't have access to medical information. Perhaps that one more year past his injury is what he needs to clear away the last of the cobwebs. For what it's worth, Michael Cuddyer said, "Justin told me he's feeling better than he has in a long time. I think he can be very productive for us."

Who can say? He turns 33 in May, which isn't that old. Plenty of sluggers put up good seasons at 33. Todd Helton put up 4.3 fWAR at 33. David Ortiz put up 6.2. Lance Berkman posted a perfectly solid 2.6 WAR at 33*. Furthermore, Morneau played in new Target field in 2012 and 2013, which is death to lefty power hitters (Pittsburgh, where he played for a couple months in 2013, isn't much better). The short porch at Coors Field beckons...

*Yes, I pulled these comps basically at random, but they seemed like similar players.

So Morneau is a buy-low candidate with a history of excellence and an affordable price tag. His upside is far more significant than, say, James Loney's. He's a gamble, sure, but with a higher jackpot than most other lottery tickets.

Same deal with Brett Anderson. He's apparently made of balsa wood, but when he's actually on the mound, he's awesome. In terms of WAR per inning pitched for his career, he stacks up with the 2013 seasons of Homer Bailey, Madison Bumgarner, Patrick Corbin, and Justin Masterson.

WAR IP WAR/IP
Madison Bumgarner (2013) 3.7 201.3 0.018381
Homer Bailey (2013) 3.7 209 0.017703
Patrick Corbin (2013) 3.7 208.1 0.01778
Jordan Zimmermann (2013) 3.6 213.3 0.016878
Justin Masterson (2013) 3.4 193 0.017617
Brett Anderson (career) 8.2 450.6 0.018198

So he's a solid #2 or #3 in a rotation, when healthy. Which he never is...

Anderson had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and dealt with a stress fracture in his ankle in 2013. Plenty of pitchers have returned from TJ, and I see no reason why an ankle injury would be chronic. Maybe Anderson is inherently injury prone, and something else will befall him in 2014, burning the Rockies as he so often burned the A's. But that's why he was so cheap (it's hard to believe Drew Pomeranz would have ever amounted to anything in Colorado). It's another high-upside gamble.

It's not a given that either of those two plays will pay off. It isn't even particularly likely. But players that are certain to pay off get paid commensurately, so they go to the Dodgers or the Yankees. It's just the nature of MLB. But y'know, after the last three years, the Rockies are just about due for some good luck.

LINKS


Uh, okay. That's a bit steep for a Lefty One Out GuY, but this Free Agent market is wacky. Logan had surgery last year on his elbow, but it wasn't the dreaded Tommy John, and the Rockies think he's healthy. He has spent the last few years with the Yankees racking up Ks against predominantly left-handed hitters. Visit his Fangraphs page here. He joins Josh Outman and Rex Brothers as another hard throwing lefty in the Rockies' pen.

If you want a first person account of the fight between two agents that took place during the winter meetings, you're in luck...

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