Thursday, December 14, 2006

an initial appraisal

major acquisitions are now behind as the cubs steam toward 2007.

"We'd like to do a few more things, but there's nothing urgent," Hendry said.

The new to-do list includes adding a left-handed-hitting outfielder, although the team seems to be in no hurry to sign free-agent outfielder Cliff Floyd, who has physical questions after missing parts of last season with Achilles' tendon problems.

And while a new list of free agents was created Wednesday after teams did not tender arbitration-eligible players, Hendry appears to have little interest in any of them. There's obviously a reason teams did not ask certain players back, and it's not always financial.

The Cubs did not non-tender any of their major-leaguers. They did let minor-league catcher Jose Reyes go but could re-sign him.

If a thorny spot remains, it is in the outfield, where the Cubs basically have no center fielder to replace the departed Juan Pierre. And another hole might open up if Hendry trades Jacque Jones, which is not an automatic.

So why didn't the Cubs get into the bidding for Kenny Lofton, who just signed with the Rangers for $6 million for one year?

Indications are they wanted to have a spot ready for top prospect Felix Pie. If Pie is ready for the big time, the $6 million would have been poorly spent and Lofton would have been unhappy on the bench. If Pie isn't ready, then the problem may be addressed in spring training. The Cubs' options would be to start Angel Pagan in center, or even Jones. And newcomer Alfonso Soriano could play there if Pie seems to be a long way off, which the Cubs don't believe is the case.

As for pitching, Hendry is satisfied, having earmarked $17 million per year on free agents Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis and by adding Neal Cotts in a trade with the White Sox.

"I've very comfortable with the pitching," Hendry said. "We wanted to add two starters and we did. We have options when we see if [Wade] Miller and [Mark] Prior are healthy. We have some depth there. We have people who are going to have to fight for jobs, and that's [good]."

with mark derosa being loudly proclaimed the starting second baseman, soriano is ticketed to play outfield on this team in 2007 with matt murton and jacque. one can even scour the recent archives of the cubs' obedient little strumpet to find soriano headed to the outfield as recently as three days ago -- in the same bit where it is said that jacque in fact has not formally requested the trade he clearly wouldn't be opposed to, a point further reinforced today by dave van dyck in saying that moving jacque is "not an automatic". murton's only outfield position due to physical limitation is clearly left, where he may or may not receive a platoon partner (likely the lefthanded cliff floyd if any). that leaves jacque and soriano to split center and right between them -- and given that the cubs put no pursuit on lofton, continue to maintain that hype-victim pie will man center at some point soon "when he's ready" (whatever that truly means) and to mention pagan as though he were really an option, this would seem unlikely to change despite entreats in the mouthpiece.

further, with marquis and lilly joining carlos zambrano and rich hill, the rotation looks largely set to emerge from spring -- as does the core of the bullpen with bob howry, ryan dempster, kerry wood, michael wuertz, scott eyre and one or the other of will ohman and neal cotts.

in short, dear reader, what you see is what you get. the time has come to start evaluating what jim hendry hath wrought. there are a number of possible methods of gauging expectation -- this page has in the past utilized normalized payroll as a proxy for doing so and will do so again. but one might also take another avenue, utilizing value over replacement in a comprehensive estimate of the team total vorp that has been found to correlate rather well with winning percentage.

this writer has undertaken a basic examination of the last three seasons in the national league using the published statistic of value over replacement with an eye toward developing in steps a method of prediction. a trailing three-year moving average of vorp for constituent roster players was taken as a reasonable first approximation of the next year's production; these approximations were then totaled to produce a total team vorp estimate for the upcoming season.

several simplifications were used. first, the moving average was simple and contained no method of adjustment or depreciation for age or any other factor. second, forward projections only included the starting members of the opening day active roster for the club -- eight position players and the top eleven pitchers. this may seem inadequate at first consideration, but (beyond being a convenient concession for prediction) in the majority of cases this is shown to be a quite reasonable presumption -- bench players and bullpen callups from the minors usually count for nearly nothing in aggregate terms of vorp over an average year, with positive contributions canceling negative. also, midseason acquisitions generally tend to have lesser impacts being frequently (though not always) roughly equivalent in contribution to the players they replace and in any case having a smaller time window to contribute in. in short, phil nevins and tony womacks vastly outnumber rick sutcliffes -- this is not to say that scintillating midseason acquisitions cannot happen, but it is to say that the hope for such saviors are a very thin straw upon which to wager. third, for the initial run of the study, only three years (2004-6) of one club (you know which) were used; this is a limitation granted to the initial examination to determine what merit might underpin the concept, if any, that may support further effort.

so what has been found? the results are summarized in this table.

yearoffensepitchingoverallwin pct projectionactual win pct
avg dev 42.0 58.6 73.1   
2007193.2 194.0 387.2 0.534  

over the total of the three-year trial, expected values for both overall team vorp and for offensive and pitching subsets converge upon the subsequent actual values within 1.3%. variance within each individual year is considerable, with an average deviation from the overall of 6%, the variances of each year being 30.3%, (-1.4%) and (-26.8%) in the most recent season.

considerable variations occur of course from year to year among individual players. some have to do with injury, others with playing time, others with distortions of insufficiently large sample size ("slumps" and "streaks"). but what can here be seen is that, even over a window as small as three years and in the context of a team, these variations perhaps matter less than may be initially thought -- projected values closely approach actual, with such variations being symmetrically distributed about a zero mean. even unexpected large negative events -- such as a major injury to a player like derrek lee in 2006 -- are over time compensated by other events of similar proportion and inverse direction -- such as the unlikely contributions of glendon rusch and an initially-injured mark prior in the second half of 2004.

seasons can be parsed in retrospect for the effects and possible expectations of such events -- one could say, for example, that prior's contribution in 2004 was not entirely unexpected and that therefore some outperformance in the pitching component of 2004's season was to be anticipated. likewise, in the negative direction, some might suggest that sammy sosa's 2004 performance -- significantly diminished from his trailing three-year average -- was also not to be unexpected and constituted a negative likelihood evident to the observer but unaccounted for by the projection. this page would not disagree that in isolated cases such anticipations are possible; they remain, however, outside the scope of this study and fodder for subjective argument. they are also often minor in comparison with unanticipated and probably unpredictable events.

on the whole, then, it would appear that further investigation is in fact merited, but that any projection should be taken with the appropriate caveat that past projections have been shown to be at variance with final totals of up to one-third of the final in either direction.

using the same methods applied to these past seasons, the probable opening day roster for the 2007 cubs has been included here. a breakdown of the appropriate estimates by player follow.

cmichael barrett31.328.124.828.1
1bderrek lee7.595.632.145.1
2bmark derosa21.53.7(13.9)3.8
3baramis ramirez44.542.350.845.9
sscesar izturis(4.6)(4.2)21.74.3
lfmatt murton16.212.5--14.4
cfalfonso soriano48.839.431.039.7
rfjacque jones24.69.61.812.0
alloffense     193.2
spcarlos zambrano53.851.262.855.9
spted lilly25.62.341.123.0
sprich hill16.8(9.1)--3.9
spjason marquis(4.9)20.741.719.2
spwade miller2.86.921.810.5
lhrpscott eyre16.520.97.715.0
lhrpwill ohman14.212.6--13.4
rhrpbob howry23.823.315.620.9
rhrpmichael wuertz13.510.44.69.5
rhrpryan dempster3.921.84.310.0
rhrpkerry wood0.29.228.812.7
allpitching     194.0
alltotal     387.2

it is notable, perhaps, that for all the cries of joy and relief regarding the acquisitions made by this team during this offseason, the projected team overall vorp is -- while at a four-year high -- just 2.7% greater than the three-year average of expected vorp for the club. this hardly constitutes a revolution in firepower or expectation.

to the extent that events looking forward can be anticipated beyond the scope of study, there are reasons for optimism. neither kerry wood nor prior factor prominently into the projection -- which was also the case in 2006 but has not always been in the past -- and positive surprises of some size are quite possible from prior and rich hill, who has not done a great deal on the balance of previous major league seasons despite his promising performances. on the offensive side, questions remain in the aftermath of a career year in 2005 about the true normal level of lee's output -- can he surprise to the upside of a 45 vorp projection in 2007? like questions can be applied to mark derosa and alfonso soriano as well.

but the cold-eyed analysis must clearly suggest that the cubs are made up of some different names but in similar basic form to years previous that saw them compile a .481 overall winning percentage. it would seem from this vantage point that the club is again riding the whirlwind of random variation, hoping for the fates to spin them a long yarn.

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