Saturday, October 29, 2011

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By Jonathan Northrop - AngelsWin.com Columnist

With a dramatic World Series concluding a few nights ago (Congratulations to the Cardinals and their fans), Hot Stove Season is finally fully upon us! As we approach the Winter Meetings, this series of articles can be seen as an Offseason Primer - looking at the different aspects of the Angels team, from the recent past, the year just ended, and 2012 and beyond (or, as the sub-title of the first part described, the "recent past, painful present, and hopeful future"). The other two parts can be found here: Part 1: Introduction and Catcher and Part 2: First Base and Designated Hitter.

Prelude: Stat Talk
In the first part I explained a few popular statistical metrics used by Fangraphs and other sites. In this part I would like to explain some terms that I often use to describe players of different tiers. These terms are largely subjective, although have rough correlates with WAR and other statistics.

  • superstar - one of the dozen or so best players in baseball; a 7+ WAR performer.
  • star - one of the best players at their position; a 5-7 WAR performer.
  • borderline star - one of the top third or so players at their position; a 3-5 WAR performer.
  • quality regular - an average or above average regular; a 2-3 WAR performer.
  • marginal regular/platoon player - a mediocre or below average regular or good bench player; a 1-2 WAR performer.
  • bench player - a 0-1 WAR performer.
  • scrub - a replacement level player; a 0 WAR or worse performer.
These terms are mainly used to describe a player, although they can also be used to refer to a single season. But most players fluctuate somewhat; the terms are mainly used to describe their overall (current) value. For instance, according to WAR Albert Pujols had his first sub-superstar year in 2011 since 2002, with a .907 OPS and a 5.1 WAR, and only his second season out of twelve that he had a WAR below 7.5--a truly remarkable feat. While Pujols, at age 32, may have seen his best years, it is still likely that he can maintain a superstar level for a couple more years or, at the least, he deserves the benefit of the doubt given his "superstellar" record.

To give some context to those WAR ratings, in 2011 there were 8 position players and 3 pitchers with a 7+ WAR (thus 11 superstars); 23 positions players and 12 pitchers with a 5-7 WAR (35 stars); 53 position players and 31 pitchers with a 3-5 WAR (84 borderline stars); and 87 position players and 58 pitchers in the 2-3 WAR range (145 quality regulars). There are year to year variations, but over the last decade those are about the norms. They also tell us that the average major league team has 1-2 stars or superstars, 2-3 borderline stars, and about 5 quality regulars - or, in total, 8-10 quality regulars or better. Of course there are few "average" major league teams, so that good major league teams have something more than that and poor teams something less.

As a general rule, when I use a term like "borderline star" I am talking about a player that is well above average and one of the top 100-120 players in baseball, which makes him in the top 10% of players on 40-man rosters, but not one of the true elite. When I say "star" I am roughly talking about a top 50 player, one of the better players at their position, but not one of the very best in the game. For a player to be called a "superstar" they need to be one of the 10 or 12 best players in the game and perhaps have an argument for best in the game.

This sort of system becomes dicey when you look at single-year performances only. Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance, was--according to WAR--the best player in the majors in 2011 with a 9.4 WAR, a truly incredible year. Ellsbury's two other full years (2008 and 2009) were 4.3 and 2.5 WAR respectively. Is he a true superstar? A star? Or more of a borderline star? It is too soon to tell, although my guess is that he'll settle in as a true star over the next half dozen years or so.

But the main purpose of this system is to get a sense of how a player compares to others in the game, especially others at their position. Now on to the Angels...

PART THREE: THE MIDDLE INFIELD

Erick and Howie
At first glance, one might ask the question, "Why even discuss the infield? If there is any area of the team, other than the first three spots of the rotation, that is more set for next year, it is the middle infield." And for 2012, that is certainly true. Howie Kendrick had his best overall season, hitting .285/.338/.464 with 18 HR in 140 games; that, coupled with excellent defense (16.7 Fielding Runs, second in the majors among second basemen after Dustin Pedroia), led to a 5.8 WAR, fifth best among major league second basemen. In other words, in 2011 Howie (finally) established himself as a very good second baseman--if not in the very elite, then in the tier just below. He may not be the batting champion that we had all hoped for, but he's a very good player.

Erick Aybar also had a very good season. He was his usual streaky self but managed to finish with a respectable .279/.322/.421 line with 10 HR and 30 SB. Aybar's defense was erratic, but overall a bit above league average (1.2 Fld), earning him his first--and probably undeserving--Gold Glove award; his total WAR was 4.0, 8th in the major leagues among shortstops. To put that in context, Aybar had a higher WAR than Jimmy Rollins, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Starlin Castro (the latter two are better hitters but poor defenders).

So, in 2011, the Angels had the 5th best 2B and the 8th best SS, both in their prime at 27 years old. All seems well, right? For the most part, yes, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Neither has established a truly consistent level of play; look at their WAR over the course of their careers:

  • Kendrick: 0.7, 2.5, 2.0, 2.3, 1.9, 5.8
  • Aybar: -0.8, 1.9, 3.8, 1.4, 4.0
Aybar has, in four almost-full major league seasons, alternated from being a marginal regular to a borderline star; if you average that out, you have a quality regular. Kendrick has generally been a quality regular for most of his career, although it has only been the last two years that he has played close to a full season (with 158 and 140 games played); in the four years prior he had played 72, 88, 92, and 105 games. If we adjust those WAR to 150 games played, Kendrick has been more of a 3-4 WAR player for most of his career, which is on the lower half of borderline star. Will he be able to sustain his 5.8 WAR? My guess is that the offensive gains are legitimate but that his defense will drop a bit and that he will settle into being a 4-5 WAR player for the next half decade or so, with one or two seasons above or below that range.

All things tolled, in Erick Aybar the Angels have a quality regular player and in Howie Kendrick a borderline star.

The second complication is that both are free agents after 2012. Next year, then, we could see strong performances from both because they will both be playing for their biggest payday of their careers. They will both be 29 years old entering 2013, still in their primes, and due for multi-year contracts, probably in the 4-5 year range. How much will they get? That remains to be seen. If Howie maintains or improves his 2011 performance (.290+ with 20 HR is certainly possible), he could garner as much as 5/$60-70M. If he drops a notch or is injured, he could get as little as 3/$25-30M. Aybar's range is probably a bit below on both ends of the spectrum.

Let us not forget Maicer Izturis who, like Aybar and Kendrick, is signed through 2012. Izturis has been a very useful player for the Angels, producing 12.8 WAR in 659 games over seven years, which averages out to a bit over 3 WAR per 162 games. That's a solid, quality regular, and very good for a part-time, "super utility" player. Izturis is at his best when he's used in a limited role; whenever Scioscia has given in to the temptation to use him on a daily basis, his numbers start to suffer. That said, the Angels have a group of solid middle infield prospects a year or less away, so 2012 might be the last year that we see Izturis in an Angels uniform--why pay Izturis $4-5 million a year when you could pay a similar player half a million?

The next question, then, is whether the Angels can do without any or all of Kendrick, Aybar, and Izturis beyond 2012. What sort of middle infielders are coming up on the farm?

Down on the Farm
A common complaint among serious Angels fans has been that the organization is bad at drafting and developing corner infielders and outfielders--the "big bat" positions--but good with pitchers and middle infielders. Scanning through the minor leagues, the Angels have a deep selection of middle infielders, from near elite to future utility players.

In AAA, the Angels have two potentially useful players, Alexi Amarista and Andrew Romine. Amarista could be a quality regular second baseman in the majors who will hit for average but not much else, perhaps a poor man's Placido Polanco, but as a plus defender. The only real knock on Amarista is that his average and overall offensive numbers have declined each year as he has ascended the minor league ladder, from .340 and .332 in two years of Rookie ball to .319 in low-A to .303 in A+, .288 in AA, and .292 in AAA. The fact that Amarista played five positions in Salt Lake last year, including all outfield spots, 2B and SS, probably means that the Angels envision him as a utililty player, perhaps the replacement for Maicer Izturis.

Andrew Romine could also prove useful as a utility player. His offensive skills are limited, but he does boast good plate discipline, some speed, and a decent average, as well as plus defense.

In AA, Darwin Perez had a BA over .300 and an OBP over .400 for much of the season before slumping terribly in the second half to end at .257/.366/.335. Perez possesses a similar skillset to Andrew Romine but has a few things going for him: he's young, was only 21 last year, and walked 69 times. While Perez projects as a marginal to quality regular, he's young enough that he could surprise.

Another pleasant surprise in AA was the re-emergence of Ryan Mount as, if not a top prospect (he's no longer young at 24 last year), at least on the radar again for a future major league career. Dialing back to 2008 and Mount was an up-and-coming top Angels prospect, having hit .290/.337/.512 in A+ at age 21. Mount followed with two sub-par and injury plagued years but then re-surfaced with a strong start in AA in 2011, hitting .329/.401/.509 through 47 games before going down for the rest of the year. Mount is a good hitter and should be able to claw his way to the majors if he's able to stay healthy enough. He projects as an above average hitter for the position, although with merely average defense (Angelswin.com, in their Top 50 Angels Prospect list for 2008, compared him to Todd Walker, although perhaps over-zealously described him as "somewhere between Todd Walker and Chase Utley" in the following year, after Mount's break-out 2008 campaign). Mount played some games in the OF last year, and 30 in 3B in 2010, so he may have a career as a platoon player. At the least, consider him a dark-horse candidate to have a good major league career.

The real jewel of Angels middle infield prospects is Jean Segura, who established himself as a top prospect after hitting .313/.365/.464 with 50 SB in A-ball in 2010, inspiring Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein to rank him as a five-star prospect. Segura's 2011 was a bit disappointing in that he was injured for most of the year but still managed a .293/.341/.447 line in 52 games in A+ ball and a rehab stint in Rookie ball. Perhaps more importantly, the Angels tried him at shortstop and all accounts so far are positive. Segura has been playing, and playing well, in the Arizona Fall League, a sign that the Angels don't want to stall his developmental clock due to his injury and are likely to start him in AA next year. 2012 could be the year that Segura establishes himself as a truly elite prospect or that he drops down to the merely good to very good range.

When we get to Rookie-level Orem, we find the Angels' second best middle infield prospect, Taylor Lindsey who can flat-out hit: he had a .362/.394/.593 line, earning the Pioneer League MVP. Whether or not Lindsey's defense will keep him at 2B remains to be seen, but with a strong year in A-ball next year he could establish himself as a premier 2B prospect, with a similar skill-set to Howie Kendrick.

Finally, another prospect that bears keeping an eye on is AZL shortstop Wendell Soto. Soto is raw at this point and may not stick at shortstop, but has the tools to develop into a major league player--but that would likely be many years away.

All in all, the Angels have two very good middle infield prospects in Jean Segura and Taylor Lindsey, a darkhorse prospect in Ryan Mount, and a handful of useful players that project as anything from bench players to quality regulars in Amarista, Romine, and Perez. This wealth of talent gives them a lot of different directions they could go, from extending Kendrick and Aybar and trading Amarista and/or Segura, to extending only one of the current starters (probably Kendrick), letting Aybar go and filling in shortstop with a combination of Izturis, Amarista, and Romine until Segura is ready for a regular job in 2013. My guess would be something along the lines of the latter. I certainly hope to see a 2013 (and beyond) lineup that includes Mike Trout and Jean Segura at the top of the lineup, two players that could produce high on-base percentages and steal a ton of bases.

Crystal Ball
In 2012 we'll have Aybar and Kendrick again, with a small (but possible) chance that Aybar is traded before the deadline or, more likely, offered arbitration a year from now and let go of. The Angels will probably extend Kendrick to a four or five year contract, depending upon how he performs. If Segura isn't ready in 2013, the Angels can use some combination of Izturis, Amarista, Romine, and Perez at shortstop. But Segura should move quickly if he's healthy. He will probably start 2012 in AA Arkansas and could potentially earn a late season promotion to AAA and even a cup o' coffee in September, although more likely he'll get his first taste of major league action in 2013.

I envision Segura as a player something akin to Ray Durham, but as an average or above defensive shortstop, making him a borderline star. Imagine a player that hits .290/.370/.450 with 15 HR, 40+ SB, and plays an above average shortstop--that's a pretty damn good player.

Taylor Lindsey probably needs another three or more years in the minors but could be major league ready by late 2014 or 2015. How exactly he'll enter the picture remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that the Angels are pretty much set in the middle infield for the next half-decade or more.
Love to hear what you think!

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