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March 10, 2003

Prospectus Today

Leaving Scouting to the Experts

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm writing from Scottsdale, Ariz., eagerly anticipating live baseball in just 15 hours. While here, I'll catch the Rangers and Giants just down the road at Scottsdale Stadium, the Padres and Angels in Peoria, and the A's and Rockies at Phoenix Muni. That's three games in 26 hours, followed by a quick flight back to the L.A. area Tuesday evening.

With 0% chance of rain, Cactus League > Grapefruit League.

While I'm excited to be here, I can't help but reflect on last year's trip to spring training. I definitely learned some lessons about allowing what I see to have too much impact on what I think, and about my limitations as a baseball analyst. For example, after seeing the A's Carlos Pena come to the plate four times against the Diamondbacks, I wrote:

I'd mentioned wanting to see Carlos Pena in action. Well, I did, and it wasn't pretty. He looked very bad against Brian Anderson, terribly indecisive and hesitant. Pena struck out twice, walked twice, and grounded to second base... The A's would probably be best served by having Pena start the year at Triple-A Sacramento.

Pena eventually ended up at Sacramento, but only after starting the season like a house on fire, with three home runs in the first week. Maybe he wasn't ready, but making that call based on four PAs was rash.

I also watched Eric Chavez have a couple of good at-bats against Brian Anderson and wrote:

The one A's left-handed hitter who looked good against Anderson was Eric Chavez. After upgrading his defense last year, Chavez was left with basically one weak spot: his performance against left-handers. He was .257/.299/.415 against them last year. In three at-bats against Anderson and Mark Holzemer--no, really--Chavez looked great, powering one double to center field, another to the right-center field gap, and pulling a solid single to right. If Chavez has learned to hit southpaws, then the question "who's the best third baseman in baseball?" gets that much tougher.

Chavez's success against lefties that day didn't carry over: He hit .209/.261/.362 against them last year, and that remains a huge hole in his game.

Then, there was this, just a few days later in my American League preview, where I picked the A's for third in the AL West:

I'm the only BP staffer who doesn't have the A's in one of the top two slots, and I freely admit I may be allowing what I saw in Arizona last week to weigh too heavily on my mind. I saw a sloppy team with some major issues defensively, and while some of that will be rectified if Jermaine Dye comes back healthy, I have to be skeptical about how much his range will be affected by the broken leg.

That I was wrong just brings the real issue into sharper focus: I'm not supposed to be making these judgments. Don't get me wrong, I know baseball. I played the game, and just about every variant of it, for many years, and I watch as much of the game as anybody you'll find. (Just ask Sophia.) But my talent isn't in observing, and when I let my eyes make decisions for me, I end up doing silly things like projecting the A's to finish behind the Rangers and Mariners.

My niche is performance analysis, using the statistical record to analyze players and teams. I'm not trained as a scout, to look at a snapshot of a player on a particular day and break down what he's doing right and wrong, and I've certainly lobbed my share of grenades at those who would make grand statements based on watching one game or one series.

I fell into that trap last year, enamored with my access, and I ended up writing some silly things, reaching some indefensible conclusions. I abandoned the position I'd staked out long ago--informed outsider--and overreached my abilities. Even though I made some observations that held up--that Junior Spivey looked good, that Jay Bell looked done, that Pena could play some serious first base--the point stands. I need to take what I see with a grain of salt.

As I often do, I come back to the central theme of my work: It's not about performance analysis being better than skills analysis, stats being superior to observation. It's about how the two, together, make for better baseball teams and better baseball, period. If you can get that in one person, great, but as often as not, you need a team of talent evaluators, because there are damn few people qualified to do both types of analysis.

I know I'm not one of them. So over the next few days I'll enjoy the sunshine, I'll watch some baseball, I'll talk to some people, and I'll write about all of it. I'll also remember that it's just two days, and it doesn't mean much when compared to what we know based on the years of information we have on all of these people.

Notes

  • Phil Nevin may be out for the year, following a dislocated shoulder suffered last Friday. He could have reconstructive surgery as early as Tuesday.

    Nevin had already had a strange career path, and missing the lion's share of the 2002 and 2003 seasons with injuries makes it even stranger. The four-year, $34-million contract the Padres have with him through 2006 has to be making them a bit nervous. They're looking at having three years and $27 million committed to a 33-year-old coming off a missed season. Nevin will have no trade value, and you'd expect a perfectly healthy 33-year-old to experience some decline, so who knows what the Padres will be getting out of a player coming off major surgery. With Trevor Hoffman also out, for perhaps the whole season, the Padres may end up tossing $16 million, or 30% of their payroll, out the window.

    Even at that, the outlook isn't so bad. Without Nevin, Brian Buchanan is the default left fielder. He'd be best served as a platoon player (843 career OPS against lefties, 727 against righties), so the Padres might want to look at one of the remaining free agents, Ray Lankford or Kenny Lofton, to share time with him. Rule 5 pick Shane Victorino almost certainly will get a roster spot now, although he looks more like the new Eric Owens than a real solution in left field.

    The real result may be to accelerate the arrival of prospect Xavier Nady, who could conceivably break camp as the left fielder, and at worst, will come up at the first intersection of a hot streak at Portland and a Buchanan slump. Nady can hit, and if the Nevin injury gets him 400 at-bats against MLB pitching, it probably makes the Padres better in 2004 and beyond.

  • Eric Milton will be out for a while, too, going back under the knife. Like the Padres, the Twins are well positioned to replace him, but again, they'll have spent just shy of $10 million over two seasons for less than 200 innings.

    If you're looking to make the case that this winter's limited bidding for free agents was just teams growing smarter about their investments, rather than collusion, you'd be hard-pressed to find better examples of the perils of long-term contracts than Nevin and Milton. Both good players, both signed by their teams to keep them from free agency, and both now millstones on relatively small payrolls.

    I don't want to make this comparison, because the two players don't really look alike, but I wonder if Milton is going to suffer the same fate as Sid Fernandez. The two are similar in repertoire and performance; extreme flyball pitchers with good strikeout rates and big breaking balls. Both pitchers were expected to be dominant, and neither lived up to expectations. Fernandez's inability to keep his weight down led to knee problems that derailed his career. Milton, while not as rotund as Fernandez, is also a big guy with a healthy arm but a bum knee, and the parallels are getting eerie.

  • I can't remember getting this deep into spring training with this many free agents left. Maybe 1995, the Homestead year, or one of the collusion seasons. In addition to Lankford and Lofton, Rickey Henderson, Chuck Knoblauch, Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley are all looking for employers. Knoblauch is probably done, but it's not hard to see the other guys all helping a team, at least in a limited role. Heck, Rogers is sixth months removed from being a staff ace, and Finley was about as good as Rogers while pitching for two teams.

    Before the year is over, Rogers and Finley will be pitching big innings in a pennant race. Perhaps they'll become even more desirable as the season goes on. Rather than trade for a pitcher who will cost talent and who may have a couple months of wear on his arm, teams may have the option of signing a player who will only cost money, and with his 2003 odometer set to zero.

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

Related Content:  Eric Chavez,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury

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