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    Tuesday, December 28, 2021

    What Does the End of the Tanking & Rebuilding Process Look Like? Comparing the Orioles and the Astros, Part 3

    This is the conclusion to last week's series, and picks up directly where the last entry left off. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here.

    YEAR 4
    2014 Astros
    -Preseason: Traded Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes for Dexter Fowler; Released JD Martinez; Signed Chad Qualls, Collin McHugh, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain, Tony Sipp, Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams
    -Midseason: Traded away Kiké Hernandez and Jarred Cosart

    This was actually a really busy offseason for the Astros. For those who don’t remember, just the season before, Jesse Crain had been an All-Star reliever, and Scott Feldman had been a hot trading chip at the deadline; both were considered some of the top free agents of the winter (although Crain had injuries concerns at the end of 2013 that made him more of a bet on upside than a reliable signing).

    Qualls, Albers, and Williams weren’t as high-profile, but they were all still signings, as part of the over $40 million Houston spent on free agents, easily the team’s biggest foray into the market in years (whether you go by total expenditure or quality of top signings). And the Fowler trade was similarly notable; he hadn’t yet reached his peak, but Fowler was still already an above-average everyday player, and the team was giving up on their former top prospect in Lyles to acquire him. At the very least, it sure looked like a “win now” move, compared to the kinds of moves they had been making the last few years.

    Unfortunately, they didn’t all pan out. Williams was cut early in the season, Crain never played another game in the Majors, and the Astros had yet another losing season. However, this did end their streak of 100-loss, last-place finishes, with the team improving to fourth place and 72 wins.

    The Tony Sipp, Collin McHugh, and JD Martinez moves weren’t as notable at the time, but they wound up big in retrospect (although obviously, one of them was actually a net negative for the team). And the mid-season Jarred Cosart trade was another one that seemed questionable to some at the time, but which clearly paid off; Cosart never looked as good as he did in his 2013 debut, and the Marlins traded away Hernandez after the season. In return, the Astros got Jake Marisnick, Colin Moran (who was the other half of the package they used to acquire Gerrit Cole), and a 2015 first round pick that they used on Daz Cameron (who was later traded for Justin Verlander). Which serves another reminder: a big part of having a good farm system is using the extra depth to acquire players when you need them!

    Wednesday, December 22, 2021

    What Does the End of the Tanking & Rebuilding Process Look Like? Comparing the Orioles and the Astros, Part 2

    This is a direct continuation of Part 1, which can be found here

    YEAR 2

    2012 Astros
    -Preseason: Traded Mark Melancon for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland
    -Midseason: Traded away Brett MyersJ.A. Happ, David Carpenter, Brandon Lyon, Chris Johnson, Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, and others for prospects

    2012 marked the start of the Astros’ new ownership and front office, as they stepped in on the heels of the franchise’s first 100-loss season. There were again a number of reclamation project signings (Chris Snyder, Zach Duke, Livan Hernandez, Jack Cust…), and a lot of them didn’t even wind up playing a game with Houston. No Clint Barmes-like successes this time.

    They did, however, make a trade for a veteran player, sending Mark Melancon to Boston for Jed Lowrie. Lowrie was 28 at the time and had played in parts of four seasons, but hadn’t managed to lock down a regular starting role. He had a breakout campaign in Houston as the full time shortstop, marred only by an ankle injury that cost him a few months.

    During the season, the team basically traded away every notable holdover from the previous front office. Brett Myers went to the White Sox for three players (Chris Devenski being the most notable). Carlos Lee went to Miami for more than a straight salary dump. Wandy Rodriguez went to Pittsburgh.

    There were also two notable moves that weren’t simply trading away older players. First, the new management apparently had thoughts on J.A. Happ similar to what I mentioned in Part 1, not helped by Happ’s performance since the trade taking a nosedive (or rather, his FIP was rather consistent, but his ERA jumped, likely due in part to pitching in front of a worse defense). He was packaged with David Carpenter (also see Part 1) and Brandon Lyon (another big free agent overpay) and sent to Toronto, in exchange for a seven-player package (although one of those was veteran Francisco Cordero, as part of a salary dump). A lot of those players didn’t pan out, although one of them was Joe Musgrove, who would play key roles on the 2017 squad before being dealt for Gerrit Cole.

    The other was trading away Chris Johnson. I remember people making a bigger deal about this at the time, but in retrospect, he was a 27-year-old third baseman with a decent bat and a bad glove. He would play okay for Arizona down the stretch, then the D-backs would flip him and Justin Upton to Atlanta for a big package of players. The Braves would immediately sign him to a three-year deal, which would give them his single above-average season (by Baseball-Reference WAR, at least) and two bad ones. Given that, the Astros probably sold on him at close to peak value; the biggest gripe you could probably put on their side of this whole sequence was that the prospects they got for him didn’t really pan out, either.

    2020 Orioles
    -Preseason: Mark Trumbo departs as a free agent; Dylan Bundy traded away for prospects; Jonathan Villar waived and traded away; Signed Jose Iglesias, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone
    -Midseason: Traded away Rich Bleier, Mychal Givens, Tommy Milone, Miguel Castro for prospects

    The Jose Iglesias signing was again one of a number of small pick-ups, and it was the most successful. Iglesias would have a strong season, the team would pick up his 2021 option, then ship the then-31-year-old shortstop to the Angels. That’s basically what you want rebuilding teams to do.

    I don’t know what to make of the Dylan Bundy trade just yet; Bundy had long been a top prospect for the Orioles who the team had failed to develop to his full potential (maybe some of it is bad luck or something on the prospect’s end, but at this point, it’s happened so frequently that I just assume it’s due to the Orioles). His 2020 season with the Angels was so good that it got him Cy Young votes, but he struggled hard in 2021. I suppose we’ll see this year if ‘20 or ‘21 was the fluke, but either way, pitchers who look immediately better upon leaving Baltimore is a clear, frustrating trend.

    The other two preseason deals really feel like they accentuate some of the difference in the Orioles’ and Astros’ strategies. Maybe Trumbo leaving was inevitable, as he wasn’t exactly some hot trade candidate; but then again, the Astros got something for Carlos Lee. Maybe it’s a shift in philosophy or a change in the league strategies or some other underlying change in attitudes, but it’s a difference all the same.

    The other was the Villar dealings; Villar was arguably the best player on the 2019 Orioles, a shortstop who could handle the position and provide above-average offense. He was 28 and entering his final season of control, so he might not be a leader on the next Orioles winning team, but he should at least be able to fetch the team something in return if they shopped him around effectively. Instead, the team waived him at the end of November, basically guaranteeing they wouldn’t have him on the roster in two weeks time. Paying for his raise was never seriously under consideration.

    With that, the Marlins were basically able to get him for very little, a former 14th round pick who the GM said could maybe be a back-end starter if he developed right. Because, again, if there’s one thing the Orioles have become synonymous with in recent memory, it’s properly developing their young pitching talents. Again, it’s hard not to look at this next to, say, the Lowrie deal in Houston; sure, he wasn’t going to be in Houston for the long-term either, but the team actually kept him around until they got something for him.

    The reliever sell-off is what it is. A good bullpen wasn’t going to fix the other massive holes on this team; we’ll see if the prospects they got ever develop.

    Monday, December 20, 2021

    What Does the End of the Tanking & Rebuilding Process Look Like? Comparing the Orioles and the Astros, Part 1

    I figured that, with the lockout, now would be a good time for an in-depth breakdown. However, this article got substantially longer than I originally planned.  I didn't want to cut any of the information out, and it's not like the lockout appears to be ending any time soon. So instead, I'll be running my whole breakdown in three parts over the next two weeks or so. Check back later in the week for the next part!

    I’ve seen a few headlines about the Orioles and their plans for this winter. Most of them say that the team is unlikely to spend big in free agency this year, which… I suppose is understandable. They are a rebuilding team, after all, although something about it stuck in my brain.

    But the more shocking reports say that they’re considering trading John Means, which in contrast, doesn’t seem like the type of move a rebuilding would make. Means, who turns 29 in April, has had about as strong first three years as a team could hope; he finished runner up in the 2019 Rookie of the Year race, he’s already been an all-star, he threw a no-hitter last season that might be the best game pitched in team history* (no small feat on a team with the pitching history of the O’s).

    *If you go by Game Score, Means’s no-hitter had a score of 99, which as far as I can tell, is higher than any other pitching performance in team history. That’s not a bad opening argument in the discussion, at least!

    We can’t really know how serious the team is about this; maybe they’re actively considering offers, or maybe it’s just the principle of “anyone can be moved if a team is willing to overpay enough”. But it did get me thinking about their larger rebuilding process, which has been going on since the trade deadline of the 2018 seasons. Here we are, three and a half years later; how far along should the team be at this point? Are they really still at the “trading away stars for prospects” stage? Or should they maybe be looking at picking up some free agents?

    Each rebuild is of course different, and I’m no expert on prospect evaluation. But I did want to compare it to another major rebuild, that of the early 2010s Houston Astros. Partly because both teams started from a similar place, partly because I’m fairly familiar with the Astros’ rebuild, and partly (perhaps mostly?) because Orioles GM Mike Elias was a key part of the front office of those Astros teams. They won’t be identical, but we should see at least some overlap in strategy, right?

    When comparing the two, it seemed like the best place to start was during the 2010 season for the Astros, and the 2018 season for the Orioles. That makes it easy to line both of them up chronologically (since we’d be starting at a trade deadline for each team), and both represent the point where both teams really started to dismantle their existing teams (including trades of Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Manny Machado, and others). If we use that alignment, our general equivalencies in this scenario would be:


    And as a reminder, 2015 was the year the Astros returned to the postseason as a Wild Card team. Of course, one major complicating factor here is that we didn’t lose most of the 2012 season to a pandemic like we did 2020, but there’s not a ton we can do about that other than to just keep it in mind. However, it’s also worth considering that the Elias administration in Baltimore got an earlier start on their project than Jeff Lunhow and company did in Houston; Ed Wade was the Astros’ GM through the 2011 season, while Elias was already in place for the 2019 Orioles season. I don’t know if those factors balance everything out perfectly, but at least it’s not extremely lopsided in one team’s favor, I suppose.

    So, with that out of the way, how do these team’s seasons line up? And is there anything we can learn about where the Orioles should be in the process, and what they potentially should be doing this winter after the lockout?

    Sunday, December 5, 2021

    The 2022 Hall of Fame Season Starts with a Bang: Six Elected by Veterans Committee

    Hall of Fame season is in full swing. The 2022 Baseball Writers ballot is out, and some voters have already submitted their vote (in fact, there are already 9 ballots in Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker-and Scott Rolen already has one new voter!). And on Sunday evening, we got our first announcement of inductees for the 2022 Hall Class: the Veterans Committee would be adding six members to Cooperstown.

    The selections came across two separate ballots. The Golden Days vote (covering 1950 to 1969) voted to induct Minnie Miñoso, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, and Tony Oliva,* while the Early Baseball vote (everything pre-1950) selected Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler. I have long been critical of the Veterans Committee as an electoral process (for a fairly comprehensive list of reasons, this two-part series from earlier this year is a good starting place), so I want to congratulate them here: this is definitely a good result, in my opinion, even if it’s not perfect.

    *Since I always talk about Retired Numbers, I will note here that Miñoso and Oliva are already honored by the White Sox and Twins, respectively. The Dodgers have a policy that a player must be in the Hall to be honored, which has long been the stumbling block for Hodges’s case. Either way, it’s worth noting that the Dodgers’ #14 and the Twins’ #36 were both absent from their rosters this past season, so maybe expect some movement there soon.

    If you didn’t go back and re-read my old pieces, one major problem was that contrary to its reputation, the Veterans Committee had generally become too stingy in its inductions. For the last few years, they’ve started to reverse that trend and let in a number of players, including some strong snubs (and non-player Marvin Miller certainly fits into that category as well). Sure, not every induction was an overwhelming win, but I’ll take “correcting some errors and maybe inducting a few too many players” over “never inducting anyone” any day.

    This year’s induction is firmly in that category. I even mentioned Miñoso and O’Neil as long-overdue snubs in that older piece that I linked. I am less familiar with Fowler’s case (pre-1900s baseball, especially the earliest days of the sport, is not my strongest sub-topic), but he also seems like a very strong choice. And I don’t know that Hodges, Kaat, or Oliva were my top choices on the Golden Days ballot, but I also think they’re all fine choices, and there are plenty of people who have long considered them snubs.

    Perhaps the biggest key for Kaat and Oliva: they were two of the three candidates under consideration who were still alive (the other being Maury Wills). I am not surprised that either was inducted, as both long seemed to be the sorts of candidates who would make it eventually, for a variety of reasons. And if that’s going to be the case, it’s much better to honor them while they’re alive to enjoy it. Unfortunately, that might have been a factor that hurt Dick Allen, who fell one vote short of election following his death last year.

    Which kind of gets us into the second half of this topic: this year’s veterans committee really did the best that they could working around the limitations of the system, but those limits were still very present, just out of sight.

    For one example, let’s go back and look at the ballot math again. I feel like I break this example out all the time, and I’ll stop beating this drum once it stops being relevant. From the Hall’s press release, we have:

    Golden Days Ballot
    Minnie Miñoso: 14 votes
    Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva: 12 votes
    Dick Allen: 11 votes
    Ken Boyer, Roger Maris, Danny Murtaugh, Billy Pierce, Maury Wills: less than 4 votes

    The voting body was comprised of 16 people, so to reach the 75% needed for induction, a player needed 12 votes. Also keep in mind that the voters met and discussed the ballot prior to casting their votes; I wouldn’t be shocked if there had been some discussion of maximizing votes in this year’s discussion.

    Because it is genuinely difficult to achieve a result like this in the current system absent that, especially when none of the candidates were unanimous. Voters only get 4 votes, so between 16 voters, there are only 64 total ballot spots to go around. The four inductees this year plus Allen combined for 61 of them. We fell one stray vote shy of the maximum possible inductees.

    Which kind of just highlights what’s frustrating about the process. It’s really dumb that Allen falls one vote short again.* It’s also really dumb that the next chance anyone will have to adjust this problem is in five years, the next time the committee will tackle this era (which only serves to underline the importance of getting the living players in this time). And it’s really dumb that the only way to avoid this problem would have likely come at the expense of Hodges, Kaat, or Oliva, since I imagine there were some potential Allen voters who had him as their fifth choice, and would have had to cut someone else to make that happen.

    *It last happened on the 2015 ballot. I will also take a brief moment to publicize this new and amazing tool by Hall of Fame experts Adam Darowski and Graham Womack, which is the most complete record of Veterans Committee ballots that exists.

    The other ballot faced similar issues, but more extreme:

    Early Baseball Ballot
    Buck O’Neil: 13 votes
    Bud Fowler: 12 votes
    Vic Harris: 10 votes
    John Donaldson: 8 votes
    Allie Reynolds: 6 votes
    Lefty O'Doul: 5 votes
    George Scales: 4 votes
    Bill Dahlen, Grant Johnson, Dick Redding: less than 4 votes

    This is what happens with less coordination, you get a lot of spread out votes and fewer inductees. Of course, it’s hard to argue with any of them getting serious consideration; this was especially strong bunch, thanks in part to the renewed attention given to Negro Leagues stars following their recent official classification as Major Leagues (if you’d like to learn more about any of candidates, I highly recommend Jay Jaffe’s series over at Fangraphs). Of course, even more frustratingly, the next time any of these candidates will get another chance at consideration is in ten years (since the Early Baseball group meets even less frequently than the Golden Days one).

    Even with all of those frustrations still present and looming over the proceedings, it’s hard to not take this as a win. Some great and deserving players finally got their due, that’s really the most important part; and the Veterans Committee seems to be moving far away from its worst instincts. Hopefully, things keep trending in the right direction and the Hall itself finally institutes some fixes to its process, but at least in the meantime, the voters seem to have recognized some issues and how they could work around them.