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weekend discussion thread: fantasy baseball

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here's one of the main responses to those who (like me) have been questioning the cardinals' off-season moves: let's see you do better. ie, let's see you assemble a better roster than the cardinals' current one, for the same money. here's a representative example of this line of rhetoric, from cardinal stat consultant mitchel lichtman (mgl) at baseball think factory (1st comment in the thread):

If someone is going to criticize the Cards moves so far (and remember that the trading and signing season is far from over), all I ask is that they take the same amount of money already spent (it is not fair to say that a team should spend more money than they have) and tell us exactly who they should have signed or traded and why (value received in projected marginal wins).
fair enough; i'm gonna take the bait. as most of you know, via the roster matrix i've been conducting make-believe transactions all off-season, trying out diff'nt combinations of players and diff'nt ways of allocating the budget. i put together about 15 diff'nt rosters in all. most of the assumptions i made about the market in those exercises have proven to be pretty accurate, but some were off the mark; we now have much more information about how much certain players cost in free-agent dollars or in talent via trade. so i'll revisit, discard faulty premises, and take another couple of cracks at it. then you guys can question my "acquisitions" the way i've been questioning some of sir walter's.

disclaimer: i'm not arguing that the two rosters i'm about to present are objectively better than the one walt & co assembled. they are better in my opinion, but that's as far as it goes; you may think my ideas suck, and if you do i'm not going to haul out a bunch of numbers and show you where you're wrong. nor am i out to prove that i'm smarter than (or as smart as) jocketty. i'm not even trying to prove that the cardinals' decisions were bad ones.

i'm just trying to illustrate that they could have made other choices. the "let's see you do better" line implies that the market forced walter's hand, and that he had no other choice but to make the moves he did -- and i don't buy that. he had a range of options, and took the ones he deemed best; he has a great track record, and i hope this year's moves will work out as well as past ones have. but this course of action was far from the only one; there were lots of other ways walt could've gone.

i'm gonna lay out two of 'em. the first one assumes that the cardinal owners open their wallets and guarantee five years to aj burnett. the second assumes that aj signs with toronto, and it is built only with players who were still available after burnett's signing. brian giles doesn't figure into either scenario, because he signed while aj was still on the market and hence couldn't have been pursued after the fact. the cards, i think rightly, chose not to commit dollars to giles (or anybody else) until after the aj thing got resolved. you wonder how it might have played out if toronto had landed giles, to whom they reportedly offered 5 / $55m; those dollars, spurned by giles, ultimately lured burnett north of the border . . . . .

enough prelims. click "read more" to get to the rosters.

here's the first of my two parallel-universe 2006 cardinal rosters:

BURNETT FORTIFIED

STARTING 8 BENCH ROTATION PEN
molina c
$400K
rodriguez of
$330K
carpenter rhp
$5m
is'hausen rhp
$8.5m
pujols 1b
$14m
cruz if
$800K
mulder lhp
$7.5m
looper rhp
$3.5m
harris 2b
$1m
taguchi of
$1m
burnett rhp
$9m
fe rodriguez rhp
$1.5m
rolen 3b
$11m
miles ut
$320K
suppan rhp
$4m
flores lhp
$400K
eckstein ss
$3.5m
bennett c
$650k
an reyes rhp
$320K
thompson rhp
$350k
bigbie lf
$900K
duncan 1b
Memphis
wainwright rhp
Memphis
tyler johnson lhp
$320K
edmonds cf
$12m
hernandez c
Memphis
tankersley rhp
Memphis
mateo rhp
$320K
wilkerson rf
$4m
luna if
Memphis
reyes rhp
fix me
TOTAL
$47.2m
TOTAL
$2.9m
TOTAL
$26m
TOTAL
$14.8m
OVERALL PAYROLL: $90.9m

this was more or less plan A, as stated publicly many times by the front office: beef up the starting rotation (burnett), get younger in the outfield (wilkerson and bigbie) by trading malcontent pitchers (marquis and king), and fill out the roster via the free agent market. what advantages does this roster possess?

  1. top-of-rotation muscle to match any clemensoswaltpettitte-type trio in october
  2. excellent on-base ability throughout the lineup, especially at the top of the order (w wilkerson hitting 2d)
  3. adds youth and economy with three new 20something regulars (wilkerson harris and bigbie), joining 20x holdovers pujols and molina
  4. plus defenders at ev'y position
this is the type of roster jocketty hoped to construct this off-season; when he and tony said starting pitching was their #1 priority, they meant aj burnett and not sidney ponson. many cardinal fans were relieved that the cardinals didn't throw $50 million at aj, but i wish they'd given burnett the five guaranteed years he demanded and closed that deal. back on november 23 i explained why i would bet the farm on burnett (and you'll find an earlier roster scenario outlined there, by the way):
edmonds is in the final year of his deal [the team does hold an option] and perhaps the final year of his effectiveness. mulder and suppan are both in their walk years. rolen's body is older than his chronological age. the window is closing; the future is now. adding burnett to carpenter and reyes gives st louis three power-pitching starters for postseason 2006; add one decent setup man, a league-avg corner outfielder, and a gloveman at 2d and go for it. like i say all the time, sometimes you have to roll `em. . . . . yes burnett's risky, but caution rarely wins championships.
caution has served the stl front office very well since 2000. the cardinals have tended to proceed incrementally and above all to seek balance in their payroll / talent allocations. this approach has led st louis to arguably the highest plateau in the franchise's history, culminating in two seasons' worth (at least) of consistently superlative play. i'm not arguing with that approach; i'm appreciatively awed by it.

but there are times when urgency trumps cautious care, and i think the cards have reached such a pass. as good as they have been the last two summers, they have fallen one or two key pieces short in each of the last two octobers. at least one division rival (the brewers) is getting better quickly, and the rest of league won't stay down forever. now is the time to try to grab a series title while it's still there for the grabbing.

you'll notice by the way that many of walt's less popular acquisitions -- bigbie, looper, cruz, miles -- are preserved here. when you slot those guys in alongside one or two high-impact additions, they make a lot more sense, no? as mgl notes, the trading season is far from over; if walt can find a #2 pitcher out there somewhere, he may yet end up with a roster that looks similar to this one.

********************************

ok, on to the next scenario: having failed to land aj, what other course could walt have taken? no other #2-type starters were available on the f.a. market, and the trade market wasn't great (as they found when they tried to land vazquez). so . . . . .

they could've traded marquis for an outfielder anyway, then compensated for the weakened rotation by shifting the burnett budget to the bullpen and adding power arms there instead.

such a model has been used successfully before, most recently by the angels, who won a champ'ship in 2002 with an unremarkable rotation but a powerful offense and a suffocating bullpen that included donnelly weber k-rod and percival. there were plenty of bullpen guys available even after the burnett signing, and the cards negotiated with many of 'em before backing away.

the cards also missed a major opportunity in mark loretta, who got traded to boston for a backup catcher. loretta could've provided two important services -- superior middle-infield defense and superior top-of-order on-base ability -- and done it very affordably ($3m a year). losing out on a risky, pricey aj burnett is disappointing but understandable; losing out on an affordable sure thing like loretta is something else. when the cards missed on loretta but traded the next day for aaron miles, that's when the alarms went off around cardinal nation. . . . . ok, to the matrix (and suddenly i feel like laurence fishburne):

AJ-FREE DIET

STARTING 8 BENCH ROTATION PEN
molina c
$400K
rodriguez of
$330K
carpenter rhp
$5m
is'hausen rhp
$8.5m
pujols 1b
$14m
cruz if
$800K
mulder lhp
$7.5m
to jones rhp
$6m
loretta 2b
$3m
taguchi of
$1m
ponson rhp
$2.5m
fe rodriguez rhp
$1.5m
rolen 3b
$11m
miles if
$350K
suppan rhp
$4m
dotel rhp
$3m
eckstein ss
$3.5m
bennett c
$650k
an reyes rhp
$320K
thompson rhp
$350k
bigbie lf
$900K
duncan 1b
Memphis
wainwright rhp
Memphis
flores lhp
$400K
edmonds cf
$12m
hernandez c
Memphis
tankersly rhp
Memphis
ty johnson lhp
$320K
wilkerson rf
$4m
luna of
Memphis
reyes rhp
fix me
TOTAL
$48.6m
TOTAL
$2.5m
TOTAL
$19.3m
TOTAL
$20m
OVERALL PAYROLL: $90.4m

things to like about this team:

  1. outstanding on-base ability in slots 1 thru 6
  2. as above, youth and economy -- wilkerson, bigbie make team younger, cheaper
  3. three experienced closers (izzy jones dotel) in bullpen
  4. excellent defense
here we've put nearly 80 percent of the budget into the starting 8 and the 'pen, making both units champ'ship-caliber. as long as anthony reyes has a strong rookie season, the rotation looks plenty strong enough, too --- but what if either he or ponson falters? if one of them washes out, you have to give wainwright or tankersley 15 starts, and if both reyes and ponson wash out that could spell trouble . . . . but manageable trouble, i believe. look at it this way: marquis and morris were about 2 wins apiece above replacement level last year, and they combined for 60 starts; if you give half of those starts to guys who merely pitch at replacement level, you're only losing 2 games in the standings. the cards have won the division by 10+ games in three of the last four seasons -- including one (2002) in which they gave a combined 34 starts to replacement-level pitchers jason simontaachi and travis smith. given the strength of this roster's bullpen, they could get away with at least one five-inning starter; and i think the offense would be strong enough to lift shaky rump-of-rotation pitchers to within shouting distance of .500.

assuming you make the playoffs, the rump-rotation ceases to matter; your top three guys throw most of the innings, and the beefed-up bullpen makes every game a 6-inning affair. but this would be risky -- that word again -- rather than balanced.

that's all i got; look forward to hearing all your thoughts. have a safe and happy new year, ev'ybody.