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September 3, 2001

2001 Ken Phelps All-Star Team

Part One - Infield

by Jeff Bower

Of the many talents Bill James has a baseball writer and analyst, his ability to inform and entertain in a light-hearted, insightful way has to rank near the top of the list. In his 1987 Baseball Abstract, James introduced one of his most memorable concepts, the "Ken Phelps All-Star Team."

For those of you too young to remember him--or Yankee fans still trying to forget the trade that brought him to the Bronx--Ken Phelps was a patient, power-hitting first baseman, one of a record 13 players drafted in 1976 from Arizona State. Raised in the Royals organization, Phelps was soon putting up numbers indicating he could handle major-league pitching. After the 1979 season, the Royals acquired a similar first sacker with a better name in Willie Mays Aikens, and with Hal McRae establishing the gold standard for designated hitters, there was no space for Phelps in Kansas City, and he was traded to the Expos before the 1982 season for 39-year-old Grant Jackson.

Phelps's arrival in Montreal coincided with that of Al Oliver, who still had some lightning in his bat but lead in his legs. Oliver was given the first-base job, while Phelps spent a scorching summer in Wichita. Near the end of spring training the following year, Phelps was sent packing to his Northwest home for a small roll of dollars the Expos managed to extract from tight-fisted Seattle owner George Argyros. He spent the next three years collecting splinters on the Mariners bench, pinch-hitting and occasionally starting at DH. It wasn't until Dick Williams took over as skipper in 1986 that the Phelps's name was seen in the box scores more than twice a week.

Given regular playing time, Phelps proved he could mash in the big leagues like he did in the bushes. As the Mariners left-handed DH from 1986 until he was dealt to the Yankees in mid-1988, Phelps hit a robust .294/.415/.539. Despite languishing in the minors for what were probably the prime years of his career, Phelps logged seasons in which his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) ranks among the all-time best. (For more Phelps facts see www.kenphelps.com, a Web site dedicated to promoting Phelps and others like him.) Nonetheless, Phelps is probably is best remembered for breaking up Brian Holman's perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning (with a home run, of course) and for being the lesser half of one of the more lopsided trades in baseball history. That 1988 deal has been immortalized on Seinfeld, with Frank Costanza screaming at George Steinbrenner, "How could you have traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?"

Bill James used his Ken Phelps All-Star Team to further demonstrate the validity of major-league equivalencies for minor-league players. The Phelpsers were an assemblage of players with skills that made them useful, but who were generally not given a fair opportunity to prove their worth in the majors or had been given unwarranted labels they couldn't shake. We often refer to members of this fraternity as "freely available talent." General Managers who acquired players like Michael Tucker and Terry Mulholland at this year's trading deadline could have saved themselves a lot of time and payroll by instead nabbing some players from this overlooked group.

In selecting his 1987 Ken Phelps All-Star Team, James didn't have any hard and fast criteria for eligibility. All members had spent some time in the majors. Among position players, the at-bat totals ranged from a low of 28 to a high of 1,441. Pitchers' big-league experience ranged from 222 to 1,075 innings. Only a few of the members had remotely approached the success they had achieved in the minor leagues. Immediate and unequivocal success is critical for Phelpsers, as their parent clubs are looking for reasons to send them away, be it to validate organizational scouting reports or to insure that nobody blocks the way of a player who looks good in a uniform but can't play the game. Because defensive evaluation tends to be more subjective than offensive, defensive inadequacies are often cited as the reason a Phelpser can't cut the mustard.

As of September 1, major-league teams are allowed to expand their active roster from 25 to 40 players. For many of the deserving Triple-A veterans who are recalled, the opportunity to earn 1/6th of the major-league minimum salary for a month's work will be their only reward for years of anonymous effort and a job well done. For the others who aren't so lucky, the prize for an exceptional season will be another couple weeks of dingy clubhouses and $20 a day per diem as their teams battle for the International League or Pacific Coast League championships. Regardless of their plight, a few of them will at least receive a very small slice of notoriety, as here is one man's 2001 Ken Phelps All-Stars:

Catcher: Bobby Estalella

Label: Unable to make adjustments at the plate, strikes out too much

Okay, we probably went a little overboard when we predicted in Baseball Prospectus 2001 that Estalella would be an MVP candidate within the next five years. Still, he entered this season at age 26 with career numbers of .224/.326/.444, which equal or better any season plucked at random from the careers of established veterans such as Brad Ausmus, Dan Wilson, Joe Girardi, and Mike Matheny.

In July, the Yankees picked up Estalella for a song and sent him to Columbus, after he was designated him for assignment by the Giants. Since joining the Clippers, Estalella has posted a major-league EqA of .246, which would rank him in the middle of big-league backstops. Furthermore, he isn't a liability behind the plate, possessing a strong throwing arm and a take-charge attitude. Estalella's power and on-base skills more than compensate for a low batting average, so he earns the field-general position on this squad.

Reserve: Ramon Castro

First Base: Erubiel Durazo

Label: He doesn't have Mark Grace's experience

Before recruiting more volunteers for the campaign to "Free Erubiel Durazo!", rest assured that Roberto Petagine, who is tearing up Japan's Central League for the third consecutive season, has not been forgotten. Given Ichiro Suzuki's success this season, shouldn't there be renewed interest for Petagine's services, especially since he has hit .315 with 111 home runs in less than three years since crossing the Pacific? However, we'll limit our candidate pool to players currently stationed in North American outposts.

Erubiel Durazo has done nothing but hit since signing with the Diamondbacks' organization before the 1999 season. After four months of battering Texas League and Pacific Coast League hurlers, he was promoted to Arizona to replace a struggling Travis Lee at first base. Since joining the Snakes, Durazo's problem hasn't been performance, but bad luck. He was the starter going into last season before tearing ligaments in his wrist in late May. Rushed back into the lineup, he re-injured the wrist, necessitating a second surgery. Knowing that wrist injuries can be dicey, and with owner Jerry Colangelo desperate to win with an aging lineup, the D-Backs inked Cub castoff Mark Grace to a two-year deal in the offseason. Durazo was relegated to pinch-hitting and the occasional spelling of Grace at first base.

Durazo's wrist proved to not be a problem, as he hit .282/.368/.607 before suffering a concussion in late June, followed by back problems. Though he has taken balls in the outfield, he lacks the instincts and the arm for the position change. At age 27, Durazo shouldn't be consigned to being the second coming of Smoky Burgess.

Reserve: Fernando Seguignol

Second Base: Mark Bellhorn

Label: Old for a prospect, somewhat forgotten due to injuries in 1998 and 1999

With the Texas Rangers finally recognizing what they have in Frank Catalanotto to the point that he has enough plate appearances to qualify for the American League batting title, the obvious choice at second base has been pulled off the board. In Catalanotto's place, we'll substitute the versatile Mark Bellhorn.

Because he has the arm for it, the A's currently have Bellhorn adding the outfield to his resume while he plays in Sacramento. However, he'll man the keystone for the Ken Phelps All-Stars because we want to get as much offense in the lineup as possible and outfielders who can hit are a dime a dozen. Bellhorn isn't on our team because Oakland doesn't recognize they value of his skills; rather, it's because he can't get playing time with the Athletics because Billy Beane is one of the few general managers that does, giving the A's one of the deepest benches and bullpens in the majors. The Athletics' roster is littered with players who entered the 2001 season as potential Ken Phelps All-Stars: Frankie Menechino, Billy McMillon, Mario Valdez, Tom Wilson, Cory Lidle, Erik Hiljus, and Chad Bradford. Bellhorn only makes our squad because he got caught in a numbers game and is back in Triple-A.

While defense tends to be a secondary concern on the Ken Phelps All-Stars, Bellhorn is very solid around second base, having earned All-American honors at shortstop while at Auburn. Baseball men frown at his strikeout totals, which are high for a middle infielder, but Bellhorn has a keen eye and supplies above-average power for a second baseman.

Reserve: Chad Meyers

Shortstop: Jorge Velandia

Label: Slick with the glove, but can't hit

Sounds a lot like the $19-million shortstop that Velandia is behind on the Mets' depth chart, doesn't it? Velandia will never be mistaken for Alex Rodriguez at the plate, but his three-year stint in the Athletics' system made him proficient enough with the bat to stand out from the most of the other creatures of the oh-so-fashionable leather scene. With Norfolk in the International League, Velandia has a major league EqA of .219, an offensive output that would equal or be a step up from the incumbent shortstop for about half a dozen big-league ballclubs. Velandia's defensive reputation is deserved, as he makes the difficult look routine and is worth two wins a year with his glove.

Aside from starting pitcher, shortstop is the toughest position to fill on the Ken Phelps All-Star Team. However, when the fact that he suffers the indignity of losing major-league service time to Rey Ordonez is added to Velandia's skill mix, the choice becomes obvious.

Reserve: Jose Flores

Third Base: Kevin Orie

Label: Brittle, didn't meet expectations

Before the Cubs' successful run the past few years (in Cubs-speak, two winning seasons in four qualifies as a "successful run"), the Wrigley Field faithful used to while away time counting the number of third baseman the team had auditioned since Ron Santo was dealt to the Southsiders in 1973. In the spring of 1997, Kevin Orie joined a host of others--75 to be exact--when he was dubbed the latest solution at the hot corner.

Orie was coming off a 1996 campaign in which he was voted the best hitting prospect in the Southern League and the top prospect in the Arizona Fall League. He was handed the Cubs third-base job out of spring training in 1997 and, despite nagging injuries, didn't play all that badly, which created greater expectations for 1998. However, Jeff Pentland, the Cubs' hitting coach at the time, decided to remake Orie's swing, fueling a miserable start. The club was only too happy to deal him to the Marlins at the trading deadline. A groin injury in May of 1999 sabotaged a fast start in Florida, and Orie became organizational tumbleweed, drifting to the Dodgers, Royals, and Yankees in 2000 and picking up the dreaded "Triple-A Filler" tag along the way.

Besides catcher, there is no more physically pounding position on the diamond than third base, but in the past two seasons, Orie seems to have swatted away the injury bug that followed him. He signed a minor-league contract with his hometown Phillies this year and currently ranks among the top five in the International League in hits, doubles, and on-base percentage. Through all the turmoil, the 29-year-old never has become a hacker at the plate, an affliction that frequently strikes minor leaguers anxious to return to The Show. Orie brings gap power, good range and strong arm to the hot corner of the 2001 Ken Phelps All-Star Team.

Reserve: Jose Fernandez

Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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