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April 28, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros

by Baseball Prospectus

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Noteworthy Prospect: We received e-mail this week about Daryl (D.J.) Clark, a Brewer outfielder who's disemboweling California League pitching in roughly the same fashion as a methed-up Alaric the Visigoth in the non-appointment line at the Encino DMV Office. Clark's not young for the league at 23, but he's already pounded 10 HR in 92 AB, is hitting .391, and is showing some plate discipline, with 11 walks already this season. Another couple weeks of this Barry Bonds impersonation will probably earn Clark a promotion to Huntsville. Teammate Kade Johnson, a 24-year-old catcher is also killing the ball, to the tune of .351/.394/.639, but with a K/BB rate reminiscent of Oscar Azocar. He's also a dead ringer for Eric Bruskotter's Rube Baker in Major League II. Eerie.

    The Brewer prospect everyone wants to know about is Prince Fielder, who apparently is the one American whose weight is of more concern than Oprah's. Well, in answer to the many queries, he's killing the ball at Beloit in the Midwest League, and the only weakness in his game so far is with the leather, where he's making about an error every four games. Despite the seemingly endless press about Fielder's potential weight problems, he's an outstanding athlete, but his technique at first base is immature at best, and he's spending time in low-A to work on that as much as anything. He won't be in Beloit long, and he can most definitely rake, so if you're nearby, get out there and watch him. And keep sending Oprah those good vibes, too.

  • Great Game: Apparently Shane Reynolds is mortal. On Friday, John Vander Wal and Richie Sexson logged a full house off Reynolds and Trey Hodges, slugging two and three HRs respectively. Reynolds' ERA went from 0.00 to 5.75 in just over an hour, a rate of increase known in the scientific community as 0.84 Lima.

  • Star Performer: Remember a couple of years ago, when Matt Kinney was the sleeper prospect in your fantasy draft that someone grabbed in a late-middle round and caused a few groans from the hyper-geeks in your league? He's back, and he's pitching well. Kinney's K rate is over one per inning, he's been solid in four outings, posting a 2.57 ERA, and none of those outings have been against Detroit. Most importantly, his velocity and movement have both been excellent, and his arm's been free of pain, apparently for the first time since his 2001 shoulder injury.

  • Upcoming Schedule: The Brewers are just starting out a stretch where the play 19 of 25 at home, including home and home series with the Reds and Cubs, with the NL West's weaker sisters coming in, along with those scalding hot, incredibly exciting Mets, led by dynamo Art Howe. If there's a story about the resurgent Brewers on Baseball Tonight in the middle of May, don't be fooled.

Oakland Athletics

  • Noteworthy Prospect: After giving up just four runs in 25 innings between Double- and Triple-A, Rich Harden finally looked human last Thursday in Sacramento's loss to Las Vegas. Harden, 21, was perfect in his first 13 innings at Double-A Midland and struck out a total of 19 batters in his first two starts with Triple-A Sacramento. Despite a fastball that looked a little flat at times, his splitter was working well enough in his first home start to strike out seven batters in a row at one point, all on "excuse me" swings. Harden's repertoire has three plus pitches--his fastball consistently reaches 95, his changeup is improving, and his splitter's trajectory looks like a graph of Julianna Margulies' career. However, his low walk totals hide his propensity to throw a few too many pitches. His Nuke LaLoosh act during warm-ups (turfing one and sailing another into the screen, not far from the trembling mascot) didn't inspire any confidence that increased control is on the horizon, but it might have kept the Edmonton lineup from digging in too much in the batter's box. Regardless of the hiccup last Thursday, Harden is ready for the major league rotation, and everyone in green and gold except John Halama and perhaps A's mascot Stomper is eagerly awaiting his arrival.

  • Economics/Finance: The A's ability to develop players is a nice building block for a franchise with any revenue stream. But thanks to a rare understanding of risk and reward, the A's are positioned to continue their excellent performance on the field despite not having enormous revenue streams. Thanks to the organization's due diligence and risk acceptance, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are all signed through 2005, for contracts that total $6.2 million in 2003, $11.7 million in 2004, and $16.8 million in 2005. Considering the large contracts players like Freddy Garcia are being awarded in arbitration, signing the Big Three early and under market value has become essential to keeping the A's in contention on their budget. Of course, that risk acceptance can lead to signings like Terrence Long or Jermaine Dye too.

    By keeping their top pitching prospects in the minors for an extra month or two at the beginning of their first major league season, the A's ensure that their service time remains under the free agent and arbitration thresholds, effectively netting the A's four months' playing time that doesn't count against the six-year free agency clock. Harden is on the same schedule that Hudson (debut 6/8/99), Mulder (4/18/00), and Zito (7/22/00) were on; by waiting to call up Harden until later this year, the A's will make sure he won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2009 season. Still, Halama should probably focus on the rental market.

  • Disastrous Performance: To allay the fears of the 510 and 925 area codes: Miguel Tejada will not hit .155 for the season. However, he will continue to hit well below last year's career high of .308 if he doesn't reel in his overaggressive swing a little more often. This year, Tejada has returned to chasing pitches out of the zone. His walks have declined three years in a row, so despite his higher average, his OBP has been fairly steady, and fairly mediocre. Tejada will work his way out of the slump at some point, but pitchers will continue to take advantage of his approach at the plate with breaking balls down and away until he starts demonstrating that he won't get himself out.

  • Upcoming Schedule: The A's finished 10-9 in the initial AL West round robin to start the season, a total that could be considered disappointing for the defending division champions, except: (1) the AL West is filled with vicious, nasty, piranha-like clubs, and (2) the last time an A's team that mattered had a hot April, Jose Canseco was on it. With the Mariners, Angels, and Rangers off the calendar through the end of May, the A's have an opportunity to improve their record by playing the AL Central, a division they've treated like NyQuil-laden Washington Generals the last two years, posting a 59-23 record. (Perhaps Washington Bullets is closer to the mark.) Two series with the Yankees (5/2-4, 5/9-11) break up the monotony, but 30 games against the Midwest again provide the Athletics a chance to create some breathing room in the AL West.

Houston Astros

  • In the Minors: It's early to be evaluating prospects, but this'll make you sit up and take notice:
        13  0  0  0  0  17
    

    No, those aren't the Dixie Chicks' poll results for the last few weeks. It's the line Rich Harden put up against the Round Rock Express during his first two starts of the year. How much of this was Harden, and how much was due to the Express' division-worst (and basically league-worst) bats? Here are the most promising batters who faced Harden:

    • Chris Burke: He'd been compared to Craig Biggio in college, but MjEQAs of .205 and .210 bear more resemblance to Chris Gomez, his #2 comparable according to PECOTA. He's also pegged as weakly comparable to Placido Polanco, with an outside shot of turning into David Bell (this season he's been around .250 MjEQA).

    • Tommy Whiteman: His comparables list features Fernando Tatis and Royce Clayton, but also a ton of fungible shortstops from the 1950s. With a MjEQA in the .220's he may be 50 years too late.

    • Tony Acevedo: The most established player in his comps is Paul Sorrento, but promising players like Brad Wilkerson and Geoff Jenkins also show up. Like Burke, Acevedo's MjEQA is around .250.

    • Jason Alfaro: The second player on this list to have Bell as a top comparable, and a very strong one at that. However, other strong comps include Pedro Feliz and Jose Nieves. With a .077 unadjusted EQA it's clear he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

    Given this list of lackluster comps, and the Tigeresque performance from the rest of the lineup, it looks like the A's may have read too much into these starts when they promoted Harden.

  • Lineup Changes: There's a fine line between 'scrappy' and 'crappy', and Biggio isn't doing much to earn his 'S'. When Houston landed Jeff Kent over the winter, many teeth were gnashed over where to play him. Biggio's Exalted Lifer status prompted discussion of moving Kent to third despite having really grown into the position in the last couple of years, while Biggio just hasn't been the same since blowing out his knee in 2000.

    Instead, the Astros chose the "second to center" option. There are two big reasons to wonder why this is ever considered a good idea: 1) Second basemen's biggest defensive strength is turning the double play, which has nothing to do with playing the outfield, except for gaining experience in avoiding collisions with other players. 2) Center fielders need good arms, yet second basemen often played there because their arms were too weak for the left side. Maybe the move makes sense for young prospects going nowhere, but casting a 37-year-old with a suspect knee into the role sounds like almost as bad an idea as the barely-averted disaster of David Schwimmer as Agent J.

    Early results are mixed. Biggio's range factor is under two, bad even for a corner outfielder. His zone rating is strong, so it could just be the Astros' pitching staff skewing his numbers. But Lance Berkman was a defensive liability with a CF range factor in the 2.2-2.3 range, so the truth is probably closer to the range-factor story.

    Offensively, Biggio's six homers are cool and all, but his two other extra-base hits and .301 OBP are not what you look for in a leadoff hitter. He'll have to rebound to at least 2000 levels to be an asset with the bat, and PECOTA's betting 3-to-1 against. With Jason Lane kicking Triple-A pitchers around, it might not take too much more sub-.500 ball for the Astros to reconsider their outfield (and infield) alignments.

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