General managers are getting smarter. That's no secret. Broken-down veterans with little upside aren't getting three-year contracts and promising young players are being locked up after very little major league experience. Today's transactions increasingly reflect an understanding, conscious or not, of replacement-level talent. The Billy Beanes and Kevin Towers of the world still have an advantage over the Brian Sabeans and Ed Wades, but the gap is shrinking. Chalk it up to progress.
Player evaluation is one thing, but GMs are also responsible for team evaluation. An underrated management skill is the ability to realistically assess the talent of the team relative to the league and choose a corresponding direction. Knowing an organization's position relative to its competitors is (or ought to be) the primary responsibility of management. It ought to be so in baseball, too.
I happen to think that this kind of evaluation is a strength of Billy Beane and his management team. When we were close and needed pieces to get over the top, he took risks on Milton Bradley, Frank Thomas, and Esteban Loaiza. The trades of Nick Swisher and Dan Haren are defensible from this perspective: we ain't going anywhere with 'em, might as well get something we can use many years down the line.
Whether the rebuilding approach was the right one or not is debateable. On paper, the Angels are the best team in the AL West, while the Mariners and A's are close. But the Angels aren't a slam-dunk as many think. A few weeks ago, devo pulled out his prognosticatin' hat and came up with the following:
(All standard forecasting caveats apply)
One thing that we're just not that good not predicting is injuries. Hey, if Chavvy bounces back from his 12 surgeries and Rich Harden's bionic arm tranpslant is successful, we could maybe compete with an Angels team that loses a few key pieces...
We don't know about Chavvy and Harden yet, except that the former still isn't ready to play, but we do know a bit more about the Angels: they're a little banged up. John Lackey, one the most underrated pitchers in the league, won't be sticking his f'ing them out there until Mid-May. Kelvim Escobar is out for the season. Vlad's knee is hurting. Gary Matthews has a sore calf. Following the Angels lately has been like following the A's, sans the spiritual and emotional fulfillment that comes from being an A's fan.
Nobody is happy about injuries. But - be truthful - you're a little excited, aren't you? Down an ace. Down a number two. Gimpy legs for one of the premier hitters in the league. Could this open the door for the A's to make a surprise run in the AL West?
Let's go to the numbers, starting from devo's post a few weeks ago...
The Angels were projected to score 790 runs and allow 742 runs.
Escobar was projected to give up 89 runs 180 IP. Let's allocate those 180 IP as follows: 50 to Chris Bootcheck (bringing his total up to 120 from 70), 30 for Ervin Santana (150, up from 120), 30 for Joe Saunders (150, up from 120), and 70 for Nick Adenhart. Prorating their projections, the 180 innings from Bootcheck/Santana/Saunders/Adenhart would allow 99 runs (I didn't have Adenhart's projection, but he seems like a pretty good prospect so I just assumed he'd give up 4.8 runs per 9, or about a 4.40 ERA.
(You can quibble with my esimates of lost playing time and who substitutes for whom, but devo and I have given you the tools to crunch your own numbers. If you think I made a bad assumption, tell me why and where, and use this method to tell me what you think will happen. )
If Lackey misses 8 starts, that's 55 innings that need to be replaced. Halos Heaven says that Dustin Mosely will get a bunch of starts, so lets say that those are innings are soaked up by Dustin Mosely. He was projected at 5.55 runs per nine innings, so that's 34 runs. Lackey would have given up 25 runs. That's a difference of 10 runs, or about one win.
That's some good depth the Halos have. Losing their number two starter for the year and their ace for a six weeks is only going to cost them 20 runs, or about two wins. That would be significant if the AL West was projected to be a close race - but the Angels can probably weather the storm.
Okay, let's venture into the unknown and say Vlad gimpy knees cost him a month, and his plate-appearances are eaten up by Kendry Morales. That's costs the Angels a grand total of...4 runs. Let's round that up to five runs. And let's say that a deranged Expos fan goes Gilooly on Vlad's knee and he misses two months. That's 10 runs, or about one win.
So Lackey and Escobar's known absences will cost the Angels about two wins. And if Vlad goes down for a significant amount of time, then the Angels go down another win. That knocks the Angels down from 86 wins to 83 wins. That's not very good for a division winner.
But the A's and Mariners and Rangers don't project out to that high of a win total, so the West may be won with not much more than a .500 record this year.
According to devo's PECOTA translations, the A's graded out as a 79-win team. Now, the difference between 79 wins and 83 is not a lot. It's well within error bars of forecasting imperfections and dumb luck. And if Harden stays healthy for even 20-25 starts, he could add a few wins to the Oakland total and make the whole thing a tossup. But that's asking for a whole lot to go our way, and we didn't consider what might happen if everything broke right for the Mariners or Rangers.
Even with their injuries, the Angels are still the favorites in the AL West. It's just not a slam dunk. In my 2008 THT season preview, I suggested that if everything breaks right for the A's (and wrong for the Angels), we could find ourselves only a few games out of the playoff chase by midseason. It's unlikely, but not impossible.
If that happens, the upgrade from Emil Brown/Mike Sweeney to Barry Bonds might just make the headache that is his Barry-ness worthwhile.