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Sheets Leaving Home (bye bye)

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Does anyone else out there love the Winter Meetings as much as I do? It's just such a fun time of the year; at no other time (not even the trade deadline), do you ever have a rumour mill like this. Both the sane and the completely absurd are legion, and sifting through them is just more fun than I can possibly believe is morally acceptable.

But I digress. I do have a specific topic upon which I plan to pontificate on this chilly December morn, and I shall move on to it posthaste.

This little nugget comes to us courtesy of Mr. Joe Strauss (aka Droopy), in his chat over at the Post Dispatch website yesterday:

therealdealankiel: Joe,

Jon Garland, Oliver Perez, Andy Pettitte, Randy Wolf or Ben Sheets. You can have one of them for a 1-2 year deal and they bolt. Who do you sign?

Joe Strauss: Garland for durability reasons. Next.
From the sound of it, Joe didn't even really think about it, did he? Maybe he should have.

Now, I'm not looking to pick on Mr. Strauss here (or at least, that isn't my primary goal), but I'm really bothered by this line of thinking. See, the thought process here is that hey, Jon Garland is a durable, dependable pitcher, right? Right. He absolutely is. Garland has made at least 32 starts every year that he has played in the major leagues, with the exception of his rookie season. So yes, Jon Garland is very, very durable. He will take the ball every fifth day.

But here's the problem with Jon Garland: he's just an average pitcher. Hell, by some measures, he's a bit below average, but I'm willing to give him averageness. I shall endeavor, in fact, to deliver avergeosity to Jon Garland on a silver platter. So average it is.

Last year, Garland had an ERA of 4.90. See, that's not so good. What's worse, though, is when we look at his FIP. It was 4.80. Unfortunately, that means that Garland wasn't just unlucky for the season, the victim of bloop singles and well-placed groundballs. No, Jon Garland is the victim of not striking out pretty much anyone, to be perfectly frank. Now, he also doesn't walk hardly anyone, but with such low K rates (he struck out just a hair over 10% of the hitters he faced last season), the margin of error for Mr. Garland is always going to be razor thin.

Now, the real problem with this is that Garland is going to get paid. And you know what? That's fine. A guy that takes the ball every single day should get paid. But, along with all of that comes the knowledge that some team out there is going to give Garland a multi year deal, probably somewhere in the four or five year range, for big money. (Every time I hear the phrase big money, I immediately think of the old Nintendo game Smash TV. Anyone else?) Now, I realise that the above question was asked of Mr. Strauss as a hypothetical, a which-guy-do-you-want-if sort of thing, and was predicated on a two year deal or something, but I think Strauss' answer is still very illuminating. Looking at Jon Garland as the best guy of that group above because of durability is really kind of a bad idea.

See, Jon Garland made 32 starts this season past, throwing 196.2 innings. That's the good part of his skillset; again, he is very durable and dependable. Ben Sheets, one of the guys on that list that I'm sure everyone is scared of due to his durability issues, made 31 starts and threw 198.1 innings. Sheets probably would have thrown even more than that, except he missed a couple of starts, as he very nearly always does.

But here's the rub: in those 196.2 innings, Garland amassed a VORP score of 11.6. Normally, I'm not a big fan of VORP, honestly, as I tend to prefer rate stats, but it's all kinds of useful here. Sheets, in less than two additional innings, posted a VORP of 51.7.

Just let that sink in a second.

Little longer.

Okay. Got it?

In less than two innings more than Jon Garland, Ben Sheets accumulated slightly less than five times the VORP rating. I don't know about you, but that's mighty impressive to me.

Since 2005, when Garland broke out with the White Sox, the two players have put up these FIPs:

Year     Garland Sheets
2005 4.33 3.37
2006 4.40 2.40(!)
2007 4.44 4.05
2008 4.80 3.36

Look at that. In every season but one, Sheets has been almost a full run or more better than Garland. Hell, in 2006, Sheets was two full runs better. That's ridiculous.
Of course, the equalizing factor here is the innings pitched. In 2006, for example, when Sheets was putting up that absolutely absurd 2.40 FIP, Garland threw 211 innings to Sheets' 106. You can't just ignore that.

However, in those 106 innings, Sheets also put up a 24 on the VORP-o-meter, as compared to Garland's 32.4 in his 211 innings. In a little over half the innings, Sheets put up 75% of the value that Garland added to his team.

Here are the same years of each man's career as above, with VORP scores this time:

Year    Garland Sheets
2005 50.7 32.1
2006 32.4 24.0
2007 26.6 31.4
2008 11.6 51.7

I was honestly a little surprised to see just how good Garland was in 2005; I was under the impression that he had a good season and looked even better due to the team he was on, but he was, in fact, absolutely brilliant that season. Sadly, he hasn't approached that kind of outstanding performance since. He's been pretty solid at times, just okay at others.

Now, Sheets is another story entirely. In the only season in which both pitchers had a similar number of innings, 2008, Sheets simply destroyed Garland's performance. Despite innings totals that are consistently much, much higher, Garland hasn't added more real value to his team.

And the best part? Sheets shouldn't cost you a four year deal. According to mlb.com, the Yankees have offered Sheets a contract for two years, worth somewhere in the 26-30 million dollar range. (The mlb story says 30, but I've heard a little lower. Regardless.) Now, which would you rather have? Garland for, say, four years, at the end of which he'll be 33 years old, and whose performance has dramatically declined over the past four seasons, or Sheets for two, at the end of which he'll be 32, and whose performance has remained quite consistent, with only nagging injuries conspiring to keep him off the field? For me, it's not really a tough question.

The other question, of course, is whether or not the Cardinals could, or should, beat that offer. Well, I think they definitely could do as well, and maybe do a little better if necessary. Personally, I've always gotten the feeling that Sheets likes it here in St. Louis; if the offers were the same from the Yanks and the Cardinals, I actually think he might be inclined to take the Cards' offer. Note that I'm not advocating the so-called 'hometown discount'; one, I don't know where Sheets is from, nor do I particularly care, so the hometown in question may not be anywhere near here, and two, I've always thought that was kind of bullshit anyway. If a player likes playing for your team and in your city, he may take a little less. But trying to lowball people constantly leads to mediocre talent. If the talent is there, pony up.

The other big rumour that's been flying again the past twenty four hours is that the Cardinals are supposedly big in on Brian Fuentes again. Oy. I can't tell you how disheartened I am to hear this sort of thing. Luckily, it appears that there may not be much to this rumour, as Mozeliak was fairly quick to dispel it last night, but still, one hopes this isn't a where-there's-smoke situation.

See, the thing about relievers is this: relievers simply don't throw enough innings to save enough runs to justify the difference in salaries you're going to pay for the elite ones. In order for a reliever to make even one wins' worth of difference in the run column, he would have to put up an ERA a full run lower than some other reliever over the course of 90 innings. Given the fact that no reliever throws 90 innings anymore, you start getting into a situation where the difference in performance between two relievers simply isn't large enough to be worth large amounts of salary.

What sort of salary are we talking about? Well, there has been a lot of speculation, but say that the Cardinals were able to get a good deal on Fuentes, say, 2 years, $18 million. (I'm not saying that's a good deal to me, but given the market costs for closers...) Now add on to that salary the loss of the Cards' first round draft pick in 2009. Now, tell me: how much better than Chris Perez/ Jason Motte/ Kyle McClellan would Brian Fuentes have to be to justify those costs? One win? Two? More? Chances are, and I mean this strictly from a mathematical standpoint, Fuentes has zero chance of being that much better, whatever number you chose. We're talking about a strictly marginal upgrade for non-marginal dollars, plus a draft pick. No thank you.

The other thing that I hear a lot about Fuentes is that he would somehow come in and fulfill the Cards' need for a shutdown lefty. No, he wouldn't. This one, in particular, really sticks in my craw, because it's based on a terrible assumption.

See, if Fuentes and his big contract were brought in here, it would be as a closer. Closers aren't lefties. They aren't righties, either. Closers are closers. When people talk about a lefthanded or righthanded reliever, they're talking about a guy who will be used in a certain way, to get out batters of the same orientation. That's not how closers work. Closer usage patterns don't conform to the patterns you see in the rest of a bullpen. What side a closer throws from is completely irrelevant; he's going to be used the exact same way either way. Now, we can argue about whether or not that's the best way to do things or not all day long, but it is what it is. Thus, thinking that Fuentes is going to come in and help out the left side of the Cardinal bullpen is just flat wrong. He's here, he's closing, and the hand he throws with becomes irrelevant.

So what I say is this: if the Cards are really serious about having another $15-14 million to spend, I think there's only one player out there right now that would justify the cost. They don't like Randy Johnson, for whatever reason. Personally, I think the Unit would be a good one year stopgap, but if the organisation is committed to not bringing in old guys just looking for another year or two, then I can respect that. But guys like Garland, while durable, don't add enough value to justify the extended contract. Burnett is a hell of a pitcher, but again, I don't like giving up draft picks, and he wants a four or five year deal too. Any closer you can sign is going to be a marginal upgrade over the triumvirate of young arms the Cardinals already have. I know it's tempting to just look at that 31 blown saves number from last year and say, "With even an average bullpen, the Cardinals would have...", trust me, I do. I've done it myself plenty of times. But that's overly simplistic. The Cardinals need to improve the team, period. The best bet to significantly do that, where value (two year deal), meets performance (ridiculous numbers when healthy), is Ben Sheets.

Just take the rest of the money you have to spend this offseason and give it to Sheets. Plug him in to the rotation. You've still got fifty outfielders on the roster; someone has to have a good LOOGY they'd be willing to give up for Skippy. Deal whatever outfielders you can, trying to maximize the value return. If Ankiel can get you an upgrade at second, do it. If not, go with Kennedy. It's the last year of his deal, and he'll help the pitching staff. You can do worse. Seriously.

The bullpen will take care of itself. You've got Perez, Motte, McClellan, Franklin, and Kinney all down there from the right side, plus a couple of prospects that look to be very close to stepping in. Maybe a Wainwright-style apprenticeship for Boggs would be in everybody's best interest? Point is, there are lots and lots of relief arms available, nearly all of them with significant upside. You've got Trever Miller from the left side, along with possibly the returning Tyler Johnson and some other spring training invite type guys. I know, it's tough to be so casual toward the 'pen after last year's implosion, but it's kind of just the nature of bullpens. Any other good relievers you can bring in for one or two of those outfielders would be welcome, of course, but even as is, I think that's a pretty good group.

The bottom line, as I see it, is this: the Cardinals need to field a better team this year than last if they want to have a chance at really contending. Most of the upgrades we're hearing about are going to be marginal, at best, while costing an arm and a leg and a pick. Sheets has the potential to be much more than a marginal upgrade, you don't have to hand him a deal that'll keep him here through the next presidential election cycle, and he won't cost you the draft picks that the Cardinals need to have in order to keep building this thing. Is he an injury risk? Yes, he is. But as we saw above, even while missing time, often significant time, Sheets still managed to contribute comparable value to his team as one of the pitchers on the market that's most likely going to get a deal twice as long due to the virtue of durability. And just think of what kind of numbers he could put up with the Cardinal defense behind him if he were to stay healthy. It boggles the mind.

So there's my plan to fix the team by the end of the Winter Meetings. Did I tell you how much I love this time of year?

Editor's Note: I screwed up; Sheets was offered arbitration and is, in fact, a Type A free agent, meaning that he would cost the Cardinals their first round pick in '09. I had confused Sheets with Randy Johnson, the other pitcher I've been stumping for this offseason. It makes Sheets less attractive to me, but I still think the other factors (short contract, quality of pitcher, etc.), make him a big enough upgrade to justify the loss of the pick. My apologies for the mistake.
                                                                                             -RB