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March 6, 2003

Prospectus Today

Love Notes

by Joe Sheehan

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My god, I love baseball...

  • I've been holding off on writing about the Giants' lineup, because a lot can change in March, but right now, Felipe Alou seems determined to not get the most out of Barry Bonds, intending to bat him fourth behind two teammates who don't have high OBPs.

    I've argued in the past that Bonds' incredible skill at reaching base demands that he bat higher in the order, both to get him more plate appearances and to increase the caliber of the hitters batting behind him. My second choice would be to bat him third, conceding that the hassle of batting him second might not be worth the effort. Batting him fourth essentially swaps Bonds PAs for Rich Aurilia and Jose Cruz PAs, which is a bad idea.

    The central mistake here is rather than putting focus on the skills of the players themselves, the focus is placed in how one player's skills might affect the performance of his teammates. The "protection" myth persists, and it motivates the decision to bat Cruz in front of Bonds so that "he'll see more fastballs."

    The way to maximize run scoring with Bonds in the lineup is to have runners on base in front of him--to increase the number of times teams feel obligated to throw him strikes--and hitters who are good at bringing runners around behind him, especially ones who aren't prone to hitting into double plays. The Giants signed Ray Durham and Edgardo Alfonzo in the off-season, which at the time looked like the perfect answer to the first problem. Jose Cruz, a flyball hitter with good speed and power, solves the second problem, and holdover Aurilia is a high-slugging, low-OBP player. By doing this:

    Durham 2B
    Grissom CF
    Cruz RF
    Bonds LF
    Alfonzo 3B
    
    Alou is getting everything backward but the leadoff spot, with high-SLG, low-OBP guys hitting in front of his best OBPs, who in turn hit in front of the bottom of the lineup. This:
    Durham
    Alfonzo
    Bonds
    Cruz
    Aurilia
    
    ...or variations that flip the top two and the 4-5 slots, do a better job of sequencing the most likely events in a way that gets guys across home plate.

    Yes, I know, lineup effects are minimal. Well, I would argue that we're at the outer bounds of what a simulation can tell us, and when you have a historical outlier in a lineup full of average to average-plus players, you have to look at the possibility that you're leaving 3-5 wins on the table with suboptimal, or even poor, lineup construction.

    I've picked the Giants to win the NL West, but I'd feel a lot better about it if I didn't see the potential for Bonds to walk 225 times and post a .340/.615/.625 line in just 400 at-bats.

    I should do a full column on this, but I want to wait until the season starts. For now, though, it seems that Alou is not leveraging the available talent to best advantage.

  • A side effect of Eric Milton's injury is that Adam Johnson could make the Twins in the same role that Johan Santana filled so effectively last season. With Santana moving into the rotation, the Twins will need a back-of-the-bullpen guy capable of throwing multiple innings. Breaking in Johnson, the team's No. 1 pick in 2000, with 90 low-leverage innings would be a play right out of the Earl Weaver handbook, and provide the 23-year-old a chance to redeem himself following an off-year at Triple-A in 2002.

  • Last week, Dusty Baker praised Eric Karros for the amount of time he was spending working on his stroke in the batting cage. This week, he's emphasizing how there's too much expected of the young players in his charge, while at the same time saying he'll stick with them if they start slowly.

    The mixed signals are a concern, especially given how Baker apportioned playing time and roster spots in San Francisco. The Cubs can't waste too much playing time on Karros and Mark Grudzielanek and Tom Goodwin and Shawn Estes and still expect to win this year. Baker has to ride the young core, especially Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill, or the Cubs won't score enough to win.

  • One of my favorite spring rituals is the Matt Mantei Watch. At a BP Pizza Feed last month, one of the attendees asked about the Diamondbacks closer situation, wondering whether Mantei would be the man this year. I couldn't help but laugh, because I'd gotten the exact same question one year prior at the first Pizza Feed I ever attended.

    Since being acquired in midseason 1999 for three prospects--only one of whom, Brad Penny, has amounted to much--Mantei has thrown 108 innings in about three-and-a-half years, missing most of 2001 and 2002 following elbow surgery. He's made nearly $9 million in that time, thanks to an ill-considered four-year deal.

    There's all kinds of happy talk coming out of Tucson about how Mantei has his velocity back, and how he's going to be the closer, especially with Byung-Hyun Kim gunning for the No. 5 slot in the rotation. I don't buy it; Mantei hasn't been both healthy and effective since I could run an eight-minute mile, and I'm skeptical that he'll ever be both again. Right now, the biggest thing he has going for him is his contract, which pays him $6.75 million this year and guarantees him multiple shots at a job. Without that deal, he would have been non-tendered years ago, and would probably be an NRI for the Brewers or Devil Rays this spring.

    Bob Brenly can go with Mantei as his closer, Kim--of whom he's been critical--as his No. 5 starter, and Miguel Batista as his long man, or he can just stick everyone in the roles they had last year. I expect him to choose the road more traveled.

  • Ted Lilly threw three shutout innings yesterday, striking out six along the way. I'm so ridiculously high on him right now that it's not even funny. With the A's upgrading their outfield defense to turn his many fly balls into outs, and Rick Peterson working on his mechanics to improve his command, I can see Lilly having a big year, something like 15-17 wins with an ERA around 3.00.

  • Hope springs eternal. The following people are in spring-training camps, according to Baseball America: Bill Pulsipher, Nigel Wilson, Mel Rojas, Matt Walbeck, Pat Borders, Sherman Obando, Chris Tremie, Jon Nunnally, Quilvio Veras and Roberto Kelly.

  • Thursday evening, I'm going to be taking part in my first rotisserie auction since 1992. It's the Rotowire staff league, which I'm in because I did some writing for their fantasy baseball magazine. Well, also because Jeff Erickson waxes me on the golf course, and this is the only way I can get my money back.

    I'll do a full write-up of the event for Friday's column, but if any readers have thoughts on the best way to handle the inaugural auction for an 18-team perpetual league with 17-man reserve roster, drop me a line. While I have the broad outline of a plan, I'm open to suggestions from fantasy veterans. (Not that kind of fantasy.)

  • I swear, I'm not going to start posting music recommendations on a regular basis...but I have to mention a birthday gift that arrived Monday: the box set from Prince's "One Night Alone" tour. It's a great listen, especially if, like me, you've never had the pleasure of seeing the man live.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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