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March 31, 2003

Prospectus Roundtable

Preseason Predictions Pontification

by Baseball Prospectus

With the season opening this week, BP's staff, led by Jonah Keri, has been kicking around their thoughts on what we'll see over the next seven months. Here's a sampling:

AL West

Jonah Keri: Why are so many people picking the A's to win the World Series when they've established a reputation as chokers in the playoffs?

I picked the A's because the Mariners don't have enough offense, have deluded themselves into thinking Gil Meche will help, and won't have Kazuhiro Sasaki healthy; because the Angels won't all have career years this season and will have their holes at catcher and first base exposed; and because the Rangers' pitching will improve, but not enough to get past second place. In other words, the A's have holes, but not as many as their competitors have.

Jeff Bower: I think it's critical that Billy Beane has shown that he can identify and, more importantly fill, the needs of his team as the season progresses. If the A's can stay close for the first 90 games--which they will--they'll sprint to the finish.

Nate Silver: The playoff thing is plain ol' bad luck, since the one undeniable difference between the playoffs and the regular season is a schedule that permits the use of a shorter pitching staff, a factor that plays to the A's strengths.

But I was surprised to see the unanimity with which the A's were picked to win the division. I picked them, too, but I think that division is going to be close. Very close.

JK: Will Beane's Outfield O' Terrible Contracts cost the A's the offense they'll need to win it all? Why should we expect Erubiel Durazo to stay healthy?

Gary Huckabay: I won't debate the merits of the contracts, but I think the A's should score plenty of runs. I think the A's bigger worry is a potential implosion of Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder. Rich Harden will be up in August after John Halama and Aaron Harang both fail, and he'll do his Barry Zito impersonation, winning eight games in the last two months and moving Mulder into the clear #4 spot in the rotation by mid-2004.

I don't know if Durazo can stay healthy, but I think he's coming to an organization that has a good record when it comes to keeping guys healthy, and an organization that appreciates what he brings to the table a bit more than the D'backs did.

Derek Zumsteg: Side question: how soon before the Rangers compete seriously for the AL West title? Next year?

JK: Yup, next year. Buck Showalter is as good as it gets, and the core of this team is actually young, if you figure Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez being gone after this season. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock to be significant contributors by 2004, and if ever a Texas pitching prospect had the goods to succeed, it's Colby Lewis. It's up to John Hart to put the icing on the cake by doing the one thing he couldn't do properly in Cleveland: acquire legit pitching help while at the same time not giving away premium young hitting talent.

Why do we all hate the Angels?

DZ: Their rotation is crap. We don't like good defensive teams when that's their calling card. People are convinced that batting average is subject to wild fluctuation, even on the team level, even over a whole season.

Also, I've been secretly trying to boost Matt Wise for years and he's injured.

GH: One, it's an incredibly tough division. A team could win 85 games and finish in last place, seven games out of first. Two, they were heavily dependent on two things last year that I'm not sure will be available to them this year: a tremendous batting average, and a world-beating bullpen. No one person on the club last year played out of his mind, but almost everyone except Darin Erstad was on the high end of reasonable expectations, and that's not likely to happen again.

JK: This is a byproduct of the divisions set-up. I picked the Angels for last in the AL West, but in the Central I might very well have picked them for first. I think the West is going to have everyone finish above .500 this year.

Other factors include the fact that they had one of the much talked about, rarely seen "if virtually everything goes right" years last year. A key player having an off year, or some inopportune injuries (see Washburn, Jarrod) and they're in trouble in that division.

AL Central

JK: White Sox/Twins is as close a race as we have, 7 to 6. Argue your case for either team.

DZ: Well, now that Jon Rauch is out, I want to change my pick back to the Twins.

Will Carroll: I'm a Twins guy: depth, depth, depth. Even if someone gets hurt, they're ready. Starting pitcher? Johan Santana steps in. Outfielder? Name one. Infield? They could mix and match or trade from depth.

The Sox need career years and health. The Twins can win with expected levels of performance.

JK: Given how much flak Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon get for their pedestrian strikeout rates, why does the majority pick the White Sox to win the division, given they have essentially the same offense as last year with Joe Crede playing a whole year instead of 1/3 of the year and Ray Durham playing not at all instead of 2/3 of the year?

GH: I don't have that much faith in the White Sox; I have that little in the Twins. They need more plate discipline, and I don't think their bullpen of J.C. Romero, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, and--inexplicably--Santana can repeat their kick-ass season of last year.

I'm also concerned about the decision-making process of any organization that can't find a way to get Bobby Kielty in the lineup every day, that brings back Rick Reed for too much money, and won't make any moves during the season to fill their holes. Also, having Jacque Jones' and Torii Hunter's plate discipline out there every day is a little worrisome. This division is so thinly sliced that it might come down to Santana's playing time: 120 innings, and the Twins might finish second; 160, and they might play into October.

JK: How far are the Indians from becoming a contender?

Jeff Hildebrand: I think they'll be next year's trendy BP pick, just like the Padres last year and the Cubs this year. If they really stick to a rebuilding program and don't do anything too stupid, they might be contenders next year, with 2005 more likely. They may not be that good this year, but they'll be an interesting bad team, which should set them apart from the Royals and Tigers.

GH: Well, they're close, if they only take steps forward. Considering the pronouncements from people in the organization along the lines of "thank God we don't have to baby C.C. Sabathia's arm anymore," they're in danger of taking some steps back. That said, I love what the Indians are doing, and they remind me of the Oakland Athletics circa 1999. Then again, I'm probably higher on both Brandon Phillips and Travis Hafner than I should be.

AL East

JK: How much will the Red Sox's acquisitions of David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Jeremy Giambi and Bill Mueller help the offense, especially since they whiffed at landing a big-name free agent/trade target?

GH: I think that's a nice improvement over Tony Clark, Brian Daubach, Shea Hillenbrand, Jose Offerman, etc. The question is, can Theo Epstein buy enough liquor to find someone to take Hillenbrand for anything of value?

JH: I think they'll help some, but also the Red Sox seriously underperformed their Pythagenport last year, so a little bit better luck with small improvements that those guys represent should more than offset the fact that Derek Lowe probably won't be that good again. All that being said, their chances rest on Pedro Martinez staying healthy.

JK: Is this the year the Yankees' bullpen finally goes from one of baseball's best to a weakness?

GH: It depends on the health of Steve Karsay and Mariano Rivera.

JH: Odd as it may sound after all the talk about their stockpiling pitchers in the off-season, I'm wondering if they may find themselves a little short. Jose Contreras is looking lousy and Chris' vocal skepticism about Cuban pitchers may very well be on the money. Sterling Hitchcock is still a mistake contract, just like he was last year. As long as the injuries to Rivera and Karsay aren't that major, they should be OK, but I could see them going shopping for more pitching in July, especially if one of the starters gets hurt. That offense, though, will carry them a long way.

JK: Everyone's favorite sleeper/team on the rise seems to be the Blue Jays, but where will the pitching come from? Especially given that even their one reliable starter in Roy Halladay seems due for a big regression after posting an outrageously low home-run rate and a declining strikeout rate last year.

GH: There's enough pitching there. It's Attack of the Reasonable Starters, and that's not a bad way to go. Also, they do need another star. It can be Vernon Wells if he stumbles across the coveted bag o' 30 walks, or it can be Gabe Gross, or it can be John-Ford Griffin, or it can be Jason Arnold, but someone's gotta show up in the 2004-2005 timeframe and monster some booty.

NL East

JK: If the NL East is supposedly so wide open, why does only one author pick a non-Phillies/Braves team to finish in the division's top two?

DZ: Because the other teams suck and are hampered by poor management decisions. I don't doubt the Expos, Marlins or Mets could possibly bust out and have a really good season, but I think it's more likely they'll shoot themselves in both feet.

WC: Who said it's wide open? It's a two-horse race and the Braves almost put themselves down with the Kevin Millwood deal. I remember Joe saying that move could be worth four games either way. I suppose the Marlins could be better than I expect if things break right (Angels 2003?), but it would be a near-Biblical line of luck.

JB: My basic philosophy is "In Leo We Trust." I'm assuming that Mazzone's going to find some way to get Mike Hampton back on track and piece together another outstanding bullpen. The Braves still have a good offensive core in the Jones Boys and Gary Sheffield. They'll win in the low 90s, which will be enough to take the division.

Michael Wolverton: I agree with Bower; I'll trust Cox and Mazzone to get the Braves to the postseason until it's proven they can't. They've assembled top-notch pitching staffs out of spare parts and Scotch tape before, and the Braves have more offensive potential than they showed last year.

GH: People talk about the Braves being in trouble, but with Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones in their primes, and a hopefully healthy and forgotten Marcus Giles hitting his stride, they might be able to stave that off fairly effectively.

JK: Have Nate and I gone insane in picking Larry Bowa as Manager of the Year?

DZ: No. There's a good chance he'll get it because his team will improve hugely, but at the same time it's likely that if the team falters, at all, Bowa is going to go so crazy it'll kill his chances.

WC: But this raises the question...when the team improves, how much of it is Bowa? Should someone win Manager of the Year for staying out of the way? Perhaps, but Bowa has some serious implosion potential.

NS: I think we might all be making too much of Bowa. Sure, there's a risk he sends Jimmy Rollins to the psych ward or something, but this is a good, deep team, and I don't see a mutiny happening.

Also, the Phillies' schedule looks pretty favorable in terms of their getting off on the right foot. Sixteen of their first 24 are at home, and they've got a bunch of early games against the Marlins and the Pirates.

DZ: I like Rollins. Oh, I know he doesn't have the comps, really, that he's not tall enough, he's never going to be Alex Rodriguez, but he didn't have that awful of a sophomore season: of his 156 hits, he had 33 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs...that's what, 35% of his hits for extra bases? And at the same time, his plate discipline didn't go into the toilet.

I think he needs some TLC and quality supportive coaching from someone who'll see what he can do, rather than...Bowa.

NL Central

JK: I'd love to hear from Will and Joe on why they picked the Reds to finish first in the NL Central. No division has nearly as much disagreeance among the authors.

WC: For me, the NL Central is a toss-up. I think the Reds are due some good luck after suffering through the last couple years. I think Ken Griffey Jr. contributes nearer a reasonable expectation, I think Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns take steps forward, I think Aaron Boone plays well enough at second base to approximate Jeff Kent, and that their pitching will be just good enough to win. Being me, I think the team with the least injuries will win this division since everything else seems very equal.

I don't see what everyone sees in the Astros. I fully expect every baseball team in the division (this disqualifies the alleged Brewers) to be in serious contention on Labor Day and I'd guess that every team in the division will finish within five games on either side of 500. Sure, the Astros could win, but Jimy Williams making indefensible moves like Orlando Merced over Jason Lane and inevitable injuries make me worry.

JK: Why does everyone love the Cubs when their offense still looks mediocre at best?

JB: Because they're the Cubs, for crying out loud, all cuddly and snuggly. Like most folks, I'm expecting another step forward for their group of young pitchers, enough to carry a so-so (or is that So-sa?) offense to a stirring second place finish in a division where two-thirds of the teams have a legitimate shot at bringing home the flag.

MW: I suspect the Cubs will be this year's version of the 2002 Padres: a team heading in the right direction that some BP authors get excited about in March, but that is not yet ready for prime time. Granted, this year's Cubs have some things going for them that last year's Padres didn't--especially a dismal division--but the enthusiasm about the Cubs is at least a year too early. The Astros and Cardinals (in that order) will rule the NL Central once again.

JK: Are people being premature in picking Mark Prior to have a better year than the likes of Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Roy Oswalt, et al.?

DZ: Yes.

WC: Yes, but his upside is so unlimited that it's hard to discount his performance entirely.

Ryan Wilkins: Why? Just because he's young? I know that There's No Such Thing As a Pitching Prospect [TM], but Prior is just in another league when it comes to young, talented, hurlers. Sure he's an injury risk, but no pitcher--not Oswalt, not Zito, not Josh Beckett (yet)--has his immediate upside potential. Had he qualified for the ERA title last year, he would have finished second in the league in strikeout rate, only about 0.2 behind Johnson. Granted, Dusty Baker doesn't exactly have the best record with the young'uns, but I'm willing to bet that Prior gets through at least this season before the effects of overuse start to show up.

The way I see it, given 200 healthy innings Prior, Johnson, and Schilling all share about the same expectation when it comes to their performance in 2003. Prior is the youngest of the three, and therefore has the greatest chance of taking a big step forward. Is that really such a silly way of looking at the situation?

DZ: Having the most upside potential of any young pitcher does not mean that person is likely to be the best pitcher in baseball.

Most improved? Sure. Best? I don't see it.

NS: OK, but the chance of 200 healthy innings are not equal for all three of them. Prior has the most beautiful mechanics this side of Lara Croft, but he hasn't pitched 250 innings in a season like Johnson and Schilling have-repeatedly--and he damned well shouldn't for another couple of years if Jim Hendry knows what he's doing.

NL West

JK: Do the Diamondbacks have enough offense to contend this year, especially since, as Nate noted in his article, Junior Spivey took a gigantic leap last year, Lyle Overbay replaces Durazo and Greg Colbrunn, and both Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez should probably be expected to decline given their age?

JH: That's one of the reasons I didn't pick them for the playoffs. They have too many players at an age where they might start to slide somewhat. They aren't going to be an awful team or likely even a team with a losing record, just a team that's solid but not quite good enough to make the playoffs.

GH: I believe they do have enough. I don't think they're going to need as much offense as in past years, because I believe their pitching will actually improve--despite the presence of Elmer Dessens, not because of it. I expect one of John Patterson or Byung-Hyun Kim to be a quality starter for them behind the big two.

WC: I took the D'backs because they actually have a deep rotation, if you believe Dessens can be league average or that Kim and Patterson are for real and Miguel Batista is in the pen. That should only make Unit and Schilling that much better (and ridden less hard.)

MW: The team whose geezers stay the healthiest will win (surprise, surprise). I'm going with the Diamondbacks to edge the Giants once again.

Miscellaneous Notes

JK: Are there any NL teams that jump out at you as being a year away, where when we do the 2004 Predictions you'll be writing them in for a playoff berth?

JH: I put the Cubs in this position. They've got young talent, but I'm thinking they'll just be good this year but will take a year or two more to reach their peaks which is when the Cubs will be legitimate playoff contenders.

GH: Possibly the Padres, depending on the development of Jake Peavy, Sean Burroughs, Khalil Greene, Xavier Nady, Tagg Bozied, and ten zillion young flamethrowers. Kearns, Dunn, and a healthy Griffey could make things interesting in Cincinnati, too.

JK: No one thinks Barry Bonds misses a bunch of games due to bumps and bruises, further depressing his already mortal counting stats, opening the door for a 160-game performer on a first-place club to sneak away with the NL MVP award, especially with a potential bias against a three-in-a-row winner?

I was the only person to choose Lance Berkman for MVP, but really you could make the case for someone like Albert Pujols, Jim Thome, or, for a Cubs supporter, Sammy Sosa. The Vladimir Guerrero votes I don't get, because with no one picking the Expos to do anything, he'd pretty much have to obliterate everyone else to win support on a mediocre team, and there would seem to be too many great alternate picks (both Bonds and non-Bonds) to make that happen.

WC: I think Bonds hits .400 this year with many fewer home runs, like in the 20s or low 30s. Hitting the magic number will make it near unanimous. NS: Here's what PECOTA has for the NL East.


Philadelphia Phillies   94-68
Atlanta Braves          85-77
New York Mets           82-80
Montreal Expos          82-80
Florida Marlins         79-83

I don't know that the Expos are that much less likely to make a playoff run than the Cubs or something, and if they do, there could be some crap about Guerrero holding the team together through turmoil and everything.

WC: The Expos may be mediocre to bad, but the NL East shouldn't be a horrid runaway, Nate's numbers notwithstanding. Add in a lot of focus on them with the trip to Puerto Rico, the short alleys in that park, and very good numbers, and Vlad could well get a lot of press in spite of his team.

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