The Talent Gap

Their starting catcher, Ramon Hernandez, is an established talent though not immediately an impressive figure. Around the infield, though, this team is good. Jim Thome at first base, Luis Castillo at second base, Alex Gonzalez at short, and Troy Glaus at third? That’s a pretty fine infield. But the outfield, with Brad Wilkerson, Milton Bradley, and Reggie Sanders, has the potential to be even better. That doesn’t take into account the stocked bench, where guys like Lyle Overbay, Mark Loretta, Matt Lawton and Mark Grudzielanek wait to play.

Then you get to the strength of the team … the pitching staff. Javier Vazquez, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Jeff Weaver and Esteban Loaiza? What a rotation! The pen? Oh, just LaTroy Hawkins, Kyle Farnsworth, Todd Jones, Julian Tavarez, Ron Villone, and Guillermo Mota.

What is this team? Is Burley on mood-enhancers again? No. This is the team of players who moved from the National League to the American League last season. Take note of it; these guys are about to make baseball’s most important and least-discussed inequity even wider.

The Gap

In February, waiting impatiently for my son to be born, I had a fairly leisurely lunch with my friend Robert Dudek. We discussed the Blue Jays, as we usually do, and the Burnett signing was extensively rehashed. Robert made the point that Burnett, for all the potential synergies the Jays could generate by matching him with his favorite pitching coach, was likely to take a hit to his raw numbers from Florida. Not only was he moving to a tougher park, and the DH league, but (as he suggested and as I immediately agreed) the AL was simply a much tougher league than the National League.

Is the talent gap really that significant? This isn’t merely a case of looking at anecdotal examples like Matt Clement‘s struggles in the AL after his NL success. For example, the AL played .540 ball against the NL in interleague play in 2005. That mark was just .508 in 2004, but the AL was still better despite being handicapped by having its pitchers have to hit in NL parks.

Then there’s the the record of the AL vs. the NL in the last eight World Series, in which the AL has won 29 games and the NL 12. That’s probably closer to the true mark of how far apart the leagues are. The top eight or nine teams in the American League probably could have made the National League playoffs last season, and I would say that there were only three or at most four teams in the AL worse than the NL West champs. There’s a big gap.

And during this offseason, those AL teams loaded up even more, facing the need to beat the hell out of each other to even get a sniff of the playoffs. Toronto, New York and Boston spending freely on talent in the AL East; Cleveland and Chicago in a nuclear arms race in the Central (which still has a fine Minnesota Twins ballclub who are adding a lot of talent through their farm system); the A’s, Rangers and Angels furiously adding new players to get a leg up on the AL West. Even the AL’s worst team, the Royals, went out and spent a pile on free agent talent in a quest to get better, and the Seattle Mariners brought in a guy who might yet be the AL’s best new position player.

Free Agents

Let’s take a look at the significant free agents that moved from the NL to the AL in this past offseason.

Free agent             2005 Win Shares

Ramon Hernandez          10
A.J. Burnett             12
Jeff Weaver              13
Esteban Loaiza           11
Kyle Farnsworth          11
Todd Jones               13
Julian Tavarez            4
Reggie Sanders           12
Matt Lawton              14
Alex "SS" Gonzalez       13
Mark Grudzielanek        18
Miguel Cairo              5 (OK, this is not a plus)
JT Snow                  10

Plus, the Mariners brought in Kenji Johjima, and the Devil Rays brought in Shinji Mori (although Mori is now out for the season).

From AL to NL, the list is a little shorter:

Free agent             2005 Win Shares

Tom Gordon               10
Jacque Jones             15
Bill Mueller             18
Pokey Reese               0

A massive transfusion of talent from NL to AL, basically. I may have missed a couple; please let me know if I have. In return, the NL are signing the AL’s castoffs as minor league free agents or are promoting young players. That’s 146 win shares of talent coming from the National League, and only 43 going the other way, a net gain of 103 win shares.

Trades

But most talent didn’t change leagues via free agency this offseason. As usual, the trade market saw much more (and more important) action than free agency. In interleague trades involving established (non-prospect) players of note, the AL loaded up:

New American Leaguer   2005 Win Shares

Troy Glaus               23
Jim Thome                 4
Javier Vazquez           14
LaTroy Hawkins            3
Milton Bradley           11
Lyle Overbay             18
Brad Wilkerson           23
Luis Castillo            17
Antonio Perez            10 
Mark Loretta             15
Josh Beckett             14
Mark Redman               3
Corey Patterson           4
Ron Villone               5
Guillermo Mota            2
Edgardo Alfonzo           9
Terrmel Sledge            1
Mike Lowell               9
Rob Mackowiak            12
Vicente Padilla           6
Marcos Carvajal           3
Sean Burroughs            4
Jon Leciester            -1 (OK, I think I've beaten this to death)

The NL got a less impressive collection:

New National Leaguer   2005 Win Shares

Edgar Renteria           14
Alfonso Soriano          16
Steve Kline               3
Miguel Batista            6
Orlando Hudson           15
Orlando Hernandez         5
Aaron Rowand             19
Tony Womack               3
Luis Vizcaino             7
Steve Finley              6
Damaso Marte              4
Yorvit Torrealba          2
Doug Mirabelli            5
Dave Bush                 6
Dewon (heh) Brazelton    -2

That’s a net transfer of 100 Win Shares (209 Win Shares to the AL, 109 going back to the NL). Add in the 103 gain through free agency, the AL has sucked 203 Win Shares, about 68 wins, of talent out of the NL this offseason. That’s about five wins per AL team, and that means that your typical AL team will need to be about five wins a year better (in terms of talent on hand) just to keep pace.

That’s a lot. That’s a major shift in the playing field; and it doesn’t count the fact that a number of the new American Leaguers are coming off of down seasons. I’m pretty confident that Jim Thome, Milton Bradley, LaTroy Hawkins and Corey Patterson aren’t going to combine for 22 win shares again.

Conversely, if you’re an NL team’s fan despairing of the hemorrhage of good players your team has suffered, keep the faith. The water level’s a lot lower than it’s been in the past. You’ll probably contend yet.

What’s more, this factor shouldn’t be forgotten in your fantasy and roto drafts. Good players in the National League are going to be competing in an even less talent-rich environment, and good players in the AL are going to be challenged more than ever. What’s more, watch out for some of these players actually changing leagues; the new ALers are going to find the going really tough in 2006.

The gap between the leagues is large, and widening. Don’t forget it.

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