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March 13, 2003

Prospectus Today

Desert Doodles, Part II

by Joe Sheehan

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Phoenix

I closed out my brief trip to Arizona by returning to the scene of my first spring training game last year. Phoenix Municipal Park absolutely lives up to its name: seats, bleachers, a ballfield and a view of the desert. The press box is a concrete bunker that, when the between-innings music plays, serves as a nasty reminder that maybe, just maybe, it could be too loud, and maybe, just maybe, I could be too old.

Like the Rangers, the Athletics have a lot of roster issues to sort through, but they have precious little time in which to do so. They leave for Japan on Wednesday, and play their first regular-season game on March 25. The A's will take 30 players across the Pacific for a pair of exhibition games, then cut to 25 for the two games with the Mariners before returning to the States for a couple more exhibitions.

I missed Ted Lilly, who threw four good innings in Mesa Monday night and impressed everyone but Mark Bellhorn, who jacked a hanging curve over the fence. Tuesday, I saw John Halama, who looks like the front-runner for the #5 slot that the A's won't need to fill until the middle of April. He hasn't been particularly effective this spring, but Aaron Harang has options and he doesn't, and Halama can serve as the second lefty out of the pen until the A's need a fifth starter.

The A's took three players in the major-league portion of the Rule 5 draft. While Paul DePodesta has said they can keep all three on the roster, it doesn't seem likely that Rontrez Johnson is going to be able to hang on in a crowded outfield mix, especially with Ron Gant now in camp. Of the two Rule 5 pitchers, Michael Neu is ahead of Buddy Hernandez, having impressed the staff and, in particular, pitching coach Rick Peterson.

The big story before the game was that the Rockies finally completed the long-rumored Jack Cust-for-Chris Richard deal. Richard isn't a bad player, and should be good for 250 league-average at-bats as a pinch-hitter and left-handed-hitting temp for Jay Payton and Preston Wilson.

Speculating about what could have happened is hard, because only the principals are privy to all the offers that were made, but it's hard to see this deal as anything but a failure on Dan O'Dowd's part. Cust's value slipped badly over the last year, as he proved beyond a doubt that he's a DH and capped his season with a brutal major-league stint. The Rockies never had a place for him, and that the best they could do is add a fourth outfielder to a team teeming with extra outfielders shows how far Cust's value has slipped in 12 months.

Cust immediately becomes the best hitter between Philadelphia and Atlanta. If Mike Hargrove can see fit to get him in the lineup at either DH or first base, he should be able to hit .270/.365/.465 in 2003, with absolutely no defensive value. He's not likely to have a long career or a great one, but he will be a very good hitter through his peak seasons, and the Orioles will get those cheaply. There's maybe a 10% chance that he turns into Edgar Martinez, which beats the 75% chance Chris Richard has of being Brant Brown. Overall, it's the best transaction by the Orioles since they signed Rafael Palmeiro 10 years ago.

The game itself wasn't anything special. Halama showed the problem with ball-in-play pitchers: balls in play. I've always found him to be strange to watch, an extreme even for a Tommy John/Jamie Moyer type. Sometimes, hitters just don't get fooled and drive the ball all over the place for singles and doubles. Other times, guys look like me mishandling a two-iron, and barely get the ball out of the infield.

The first inning Monday was the former. Five of the first six Rockies hitters got hits, and the A's were down 4-0 before first ups. Two more hits chased Halama in the third, and the game was effectively over.

While we're talking about balls in play...Denny Stark, who started and went three innings for the Rockies, had some unreal stats last year. He walked 4.5 men per nine innings, struck out batters at the same rate, gave up a homer every five innings, and still managed to post an ERA of 4.00. How? He allowed a .210 batting average on balls in play, which would be freaky for any pitcher. For one throwing 2/3 of his innings in Coors Field, where balls in play fall for hits about a third of the time, even in the humidor year, it's three-sigma stuff.

I get in trouble when I make bold statements, but file this one away: Stark is going to see his ERA rise by at least two runs this season, and he won't keep his rotation slot past June 15.

Watching the A's starting lineup--only Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis were missing--work Stark for two runs on one hit in the first inning, I realized that this may be the best A's team of the current run. With the addition of Erubiel Durazo and some improvement from Chavez, they might finally combine the OBP/power mix of the 1999-2000 teams with the pitching-driven squads of 2001-02. I would be shocked if they didn't win the AL West going away, and I'm not convinced that they're not the best team in the AL. They go seven deep in the rotation--Rich Harden was sent out the morning I arrived, because they couldn't get him enough work--they have a deep bullpen that does a little bit of everything, they score, and they have the best management team in the game.

That management team is going to get a bit more publicity this year. Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker and The New New Thing, spent much of 2002 with the A's and is writing the experience up for his latest book, due out in late spring and tentatively titled Money Ball. Lewis was given significant access to the club's inner workings by Billy Beane, and his book is going to examine how the A's, with their $45 million budget, stay competitive with teams spending two and three times as much money.

How much the book will reveal is an open question; will it be so informative that it serves as a blueprint for other teams attempting to change the culture of their organization? The tools for doing what the A's have done are available to every team, and have been for years. Whether the spotlight shining on them causes the competition to notice, or simply to shrug their shoulders and go back to business as usual, is one of the best subplots to the upcoming season.

Notebook

I took a ton of notes in Arizona that I wasn't able to fold into my two columns on the trip.

  • When I was a kid growing up in New York, I thought of spring training as being a Florida thing. I don't think I knew until I was 10 or so that some teams trained in Arizona, and the concept always seemed alien to me.

    Now, though, I can't imagine why teams would train anywhere but Arizona. The weather is better--minimal chance of rain, much less humid--and the teams are much closer together, even accounting for the occasional 90-minute trip across the state. Local governments are falling all over themselves trying to attract teams with facilities and deals to match. Surprise, Ariz. did everything but give the Rangers and Royals mineral rights and seats on the city council to get them to come west.

  • Livan Hernandez has as much value as any innings-muncher, but he makes more money than he should, and the Giants have better pitchers available to them. They would be better off getting something, anything for him, even if they had to eat his salary. Better to pay $3.5 million for Kurt Ainsworth's performance than Hernandez's.

  • Damon Minor looks very awkward at first base, so much so that it will be tough for him to take time from J.T. Snow--or even hold off Felipe Alou's mascot, Andres Galarraga--for a roster spot. Minor probably needs a trade, as he could DH for any number of AL teams, and he might be the Devil Rays' second-best hitter. He hit what looked like a pop-up in the sixth inning that just kept going and became a three-run homer.

  • Pedro Feliz went to right field twice for singles. It's not surprising, given how much he matured this winter.

  • There's an epic battle to be the Rangers' situational lefty. It was almost painful watching Ron Mahay, who you have to figure is closing in on his last chance, surrender three straight hits, two to lefties. Aaron Fultz tossed a 1-2-3 inning to help his case, and C.J. Nitkowski still has a prayer. Somebody, please, send this article to Jerry Don Gleaton.

  • Francisco Cordero, who was quietly one of the best relievers in the AL last year, is without a role in 2003 following the signing of Ugueth Urbina and the expected return of Jeff Zimmerman. Cordero was obliterated Monday, giving up seven hits and six runs in an inning.

  • Ruben Rivera, who came in for defense for the Giants halfway through the game, was extremely tentative in center field on two balls that might have been catchable. If you were trying to make a team, wouldn't you want to try and make a play that would get someone's attention? Not to say a highlight-reel play should have an impact on a roster decision, but when you're trying to get a job that pays $300,000, why not pick up a bruise and some grass stains and hope for the best?

  • The Padres sent Dennis Tankersley to Triple-A awfully early in the spring. A year ago, I thought he was going to be a guy who came up in July and helped pitch the Padres to the division title. Instead, he was rushed up in May and was awful, posting an 8.06 ERA in 51 1/3 innings, with peripherals to match. Tankersley is now surrounded by questions about both his ability and his maturity.

    I think Tankersley has the stuff to be an effective reliever right now, but there's clearly a separation between he and Jake Peavy that wasn't there a year ago. Perhaps 25 starts at Triple-A will help Tankersley find a third pitch and some stability.

  • The Angels started Wil Nieves because, you know, two good-field, no-hit Latin catchers just aren't enough. Sandy Martinez, your life is calling.

  • Adam Kennedy went 2-for-3, and got me to thinking: Who is a good comp for Kennedy? I keep thinking Jim Gantner. Maybe Ken Oberkfell? There aren't a lot of players like Kennedy in baseball these days, and the changed offensive environment makes it hard to make direct comparisons to players in the past. Left-handed-hitting second baseman who mostly hit for average aren't common any longer.

    PECOTA says Gantner is Kennedy's fourth-best comp, with no Oberkfell to be found.

  • Dave Hansen is a hitter who deserves a job with the Padres. I'd love to see him have some late-career Jim Eisenreich seasons, maybe hitting .350 in semi-regular playing time and getting a ring.

  • Veterans get privileges in spring training, so Troy Percival came into the game in the fifth inning rather than waiting until the eighth or ninth. The second batter he faced was Francisco Cordova, which strikes me as something Amnesty International ought to be notified about. In an upset, Cordova blooped a fly to right field that was caught by Jeff Davanon.

  • Cordova entered the game with a 16.20 spring ERA, but struck out the first three batters he faced and went on to throw three good innings. That sounds good, but he was basically pitching against a Quadruple-A team, so it doesn't tell us too much.

    There's a rant coming up next week about the complete meaninglessness of spring stats. Having seen how teams play these games, I'm close to concluding that the numbers generated in March have no evaluative value.

  • Padres CloserWatch continued, with two of the three candidates pitching. Well, I'm the only one who considers Kevin Walker a candidate, but he did scuffle through one scoreless inning, walking two. Brandon Villafuerte, who looks more like a closer--facial hair, less pudgy than Walker--threw a perfect eighth. Jay Witasick didn't pitch, but remains a bit ahead of Villafuerte. Bruce Bochy has made some encouraging noise about not using just one guy, which would be a good move.

  • Donaldo Mendez, a Rule 5 guy two years ago, can really pick it at shortstop, although he may not have the arm to make the longest throws. He really can't hit.

  • Tuesday, those of us at Phoenix Muni were treated to maybe the best amateur rendition of the anthem I've ever heard. It had a good pace, no Star Search moments, and the notes were hit. Kristen Drathman, thank you very much.

  • At that same game, they had a kid reading a weather report from East Coast cities. "In Hartford, Conn., it's 22 degrees. In our nation's capital, Washington D.C., it's not much warmer. But we're lucky to be here in Phoenix, where it's 85 degrees." Big cheer.

    That's just cruel. I mean, there could be people back in the Northeast, say, those related to a sportswriter or good friends of his, who are going to have to read about that while waiting to regain feeling in their toes as the worst winter in 10 years continues. It's just not right; I'd never throw 80-degree weather, with blue skies and a bright, warm sun, in anyone's face. Especially not in March.

  • Is Steve Reed the best pitcher in Rockies history?
    
                            IP     ERA    W-L    Sv
    Steve Reed           369.7    3.68   25-15   15
    Armando Reynoso      503.0    4.65   30-31    0
    John Thomson         611.0    5.01   27-43    0
    Pedro Astacio        827.3    5.43   53-48    0
    Curt Leskanic        470.0    4.92   33-20   20
    
    A qualified maybe. Reed's edge in quality may outweigh the 2:1 innings advantage held by Astacio, but you probably have to get into ERA+ or VORP or something a bit more sophisticated to make that call.

    By the way, Reed was backwards last year, which is one of the great statistical upsets in my lifetime. Reed, a sidearmer, has posted some huge right/left splits over the past few years, and has long been death on righties. Check out his 2001 and 2002 splits:

    
                 vs. LHB             vs. RHB
             AVG   OBP   SLG     AVG   OBP   SLG
    2001    .519  .620  .904    .149  .190  .220
    2002    .181  .258  .217    .259  .307  .342
    
    I don't know how you do that. I really don't.

  • Garrett Atkins is interesting at third base, just not at first. He had three hits in Tuesday's game, including a home run off Roy Smith in the seventh. The domino effect of the Juan Uribe injury could include a chance for Atkins to win the third base job at the start of the season. Think Pat Tabler, without the freaky bases-loaded thing and with a bit more upside.

  • The counter to the take and rake approach is to throw lots of first-pitch strikes. I've really believed that the next evolution in the game is a return to the Robin Roberts approach, with walks traded for solo home runs. It's more dangerous in an era when everyone can hit it out, but it takes away the walks that drive OBP and the hitters' counts that drive everything else.

  • The knock on Mark Johnson in Chicago is that he was too patient at the plate. I have no real idea if that's true, but he certainly seemed passive in the three PAs I saw Tuesday. He took a called strike in all three, and put just one of the 13 pitches he saw into fair territory, grounding to second base and striking out twice.

  • The Rockies ran quite liberally on Chris Singleton, sending runners twice who had barely reached third base when Singleton was fielding the ball. Both were safe.

  • Terrence Long took a called strike in his first three ABs, singling twice and walking once. For the A's to be great, they need Long, no longer being stretched defensively, to show some development as a hitter, to have the .290/.350/.450 season he appeared to be capable of based on his rookie performance.

  • Esteban German has been passed by Mark Ellis for the second base job and is behind Frank Menechino for the backup infielder job, so he will probably start the year in Sacramento. He could help a lot of teams right now, and will probably end up as a good stopgap solution a couple of years down the road, when he exhausts his options and goes elsewhere. Given the dearth of good leadoff hitters, German could be a useful trade chit for the A's at this year's deadline.

  • You can't score these games. It just can't be done. I came toward the end of camp last year and it was hard. On March 10, there were lots of wide receiver and defensive lineman numbers suddenly appearing on the field. We're at the point where guys not even on the spring roster are in the game.

  • Thanks to the Giants' Jim Moorehead, the Padres' Luis Garcia, and the A's Jim Young for their help in making the road trip a success.

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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