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May 7, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

New York Mets, Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles

by Baseball Prospectus

New York Mets

  • Front Office: The buzzards are circling Mets GM Steve Phillips, who may be out of a job by the time you read this and certainly can't expect to hold his position past the end of this season. Phillips has assembled an old, expensive, fragile team that, like a list of Grammy nominees, is largely being rewarded for work done years ago.

    The Mets are in the exact same situation today that they were in following the 2001 season, when they followed up a World Series appearance in 2000 with a disappointing 82-80 record. At that time, Phillips had to choose between squeezing another run out of his World Series team, the Mike Piazza/Al Leiter Mets, or dumping the veteran talent and taking on a multi-year rebuilding process. He chose the former, trading for Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz and Mo Vaughn and signing Roger Cedeno in an effort to remake his lineup. The moves flopped, and the Mets fell all the way to last place.

    After last season, Phillips made Bobby Valentine the scapegoat for the disaster and again tried to squeeze something out of the veteran team, adding Cliff Floyd and Tom Glavine to his aging roster. A month into the season, it's clear that the endless acquisition of expensive, past-prime talent isn't going to lead to the promised land, and that a change--not a cosmetic one, but a cellular one--has to be made.

    It's time for the Mets to move on, to get someone with a player development background in the GM's seat and cut ties with the team that almost went all the way in 2000. The key is that the Mets must commit. They can't get caught up in the same cycle that the Madison Square Garden teams have in their sports, unable to rebuild for fear of alienating the fan base. The Mets have to sacrifice a year or two of relevance to be ready to take the city back in 2005, when the Yankees' backloaded contracts and own aging roster force them into a similar position.

    Jim Duquette might be the man for that job. Tim Purpura might be, or Paul DePodesta.

    Steve Phillips isn't.

  • Position Change: It hasn't happened yet, but watch what the Mets do in the absence of Mo Vaughn, on the DL with strained fat or something. They called up Jason Phillips when they placed Vaughn on the DL, giving them three catchers and just one first baseman (Tony Clark). The Mets may use Vaughn's absence to give Mike Piazza some innings at first base, on a trial basis.

    For all the discussion over the years about moving Piazza, he's made just one career appearance at a position other than catcher or DH, that all the way back in 1993. While much is being made of his six RBI through May 5, he's hitting about the same as he always has (.301/.389/.494), just doing so behind some wretched players at the top of the order. Still, with Vaughn out, the Mets can get Piazza some innings at the position without benching a big contract, and the added flexibility could help both player and team down the road.

  • Wretched Performer: Rey Sanchez has never been a great hitter, but his ability to post a .280 average has generally kept him from being an anchor. This year, he's off to a typoriffic .179/.216/.202 start. Adding to Sanchez's troubles, there's a report that teammate Mike Stanton found Sanchez getting a haircut in the clubhouse last week--during the game!

    While this sounds bad, consider the tradition of Mets players taking off mid-game to do things better done on their own time. Kevin Mitchell had to be rousted from the clubhouse to bat during the tenth inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, and Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson reportedly played cards in the clubhouse during an extra-inning game in the 2000 NLCS.

Colorado Rockies

  • A Tale of Two Pitchers: Last season Jason Jennings was productive enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year award while Shawn Chacon suffered through an ineffective, injury-ridden season that eventually landed him back in Triple-A. But the two pitchers have reversed roles in the first month of the 2003 season.

    Jennings didn't conquer Coors in his rookie season; he was not particularly effective at home. He earned his accolades with solid performances on the road--a 3.35 ERA, 68 strikeouts and 33 walks in 91.1 innings pitched.

    Jennings has only started twice at home so far this season--his struggles have been on the road. His main problem appears to be that he's not getting batters to hit the ball on the ground as often. His groundout/flyout ratio of 1.29 is down from last year's 1.64, and he's already allowed five home runs in road games after allowing only eight on the road all of last season. Jennings will almost certainly rebound from his rough start, especially when he gets his opportunities to start in the NL West pitcher's havens of San Diego, San Francisco and San Diego (where he had a 2.89 ERA last season). But there's no reason to think he'll improve upon last season in the near future.

    On the other hand, there's nowhere to go but up from last season for Shawn Chacon. After a promising rookie year in 2001, everything fell apart for Chacon in 2002. A rough April was followed by a month on the disabled list with a strained pectoral muscle. A 10 ERA in August resulted in a demotion to the minors, where he continued to be ineffective. The Rockies wanted to see progress in Chacon in 2002, but instead saw enough regression to make his Colorado future uncertain. His calendar year ended just as badly with an arrest for third degree assault in December after a bar brawl.

    Only a strong spring training and ineffectiveness from Scott Elarton and Darren Oliver won Chacon the fifth spot in the major league rotation this year. Since then Chacon has gone in the opposite direction of Jennings. Chacon had the best month of his major league career in April, posting an ERA of 1.04 in his 5 starts. His 25/9 K/BB ratio was also the best he has posted in any month. And he did this all in a month in which four of five starts were at home in Coors Field. Perhaps even more significantly, his groundout/flyout ratio went in the opposite direction of Jennings'--up to 1.61 (his previous career ratio was 1.19). Not surprisingly, his keeping the ball on the ground has resulted in only one home run allowed in 42 innings, a far lower rate than he has allowed in his previous major league seasons.

    Chacon's streak of quality starts has already been broken in Chicago, and there's no reason to expect that even the best pitcher in baseball could maintain Chacon's level of April performance through an entire Colorado season. But it's clear that Chacon has gotten over his 2002 difficulties, and it's likely that he'll outdo his rookie season as well in 2003. It's only a month of evidence, and that's a very short sample size, but in that month Chacon has shown more "ace" potential than Jennings ever has.

  • Schedule: The Rockies continue their road trip in Atlanta and Florida before returning home to face the Mets and the Expos. These teams, save maybe the Braves, are all stronger in the pitching/defense department than they are offensively, so look for relatively low-scoring games. The Rockies need to take advantage of series with weak teams such as the Mets and the Marlins if they want to stay in contention all year.

Baltimore Orioles

  • Rotation: The Orioles broke camp with a set rotation of (in order) Rodrigo Lopez, Omar Daal, Rick Helling, Sidney Ponson, and Jason Johnson. Nearly six times through the rotation, they never deviated from that lineup. A combination of a rainout plus makeup doubleheader and Lopez's strained oblique muscle led to Eric DuBose being called up from Ottawa, and he started what would have been Lopez's seventh start the day before Johnson made his sixth.

    After 31 games, the Orioles' game score log looked like this:

    DuBose	62						avg 62.0
    Johnson	70	53	45	64	60	51	avg 57.2
    Ponson	23	56	54	60	54	76	avg 53.8
    Helling	54	31	52	78	13	40	avg 44.7
    Daal	46	40	19	64	48	50	avg 44.5
    Lopez	47	16	57	25	43	43	avg 38.5
    

    The best average goes to the guy who couldn't make the rotation out of spring, and the rest have performed in the opposite order of their their slots in the rotation.

  • Looking Over Their Shoulders: Members of the Orioles who are being outperformed by minor leaguers at the same position:

    Deivi Cruz, SS .167/.175/.245, .116 EqA
    vs.
    Brian Roberts, 2B .297/.387/.373, .297 EqA at Triple-A Ottawa, .253 DT-EqA

    In the latest EqA report, Deivi Cruz is rated at 8.6 runs below replacement level for a shortstop (Runs Above Replacement Position, RARP), and Dean Palmer is the only player in the majors who is rated worse. Roberts has played SS in the past, but the Orioles haven't been happy with his fielding there, but a move back shouldn't be considered a ridiculous suggestion...especially since by leaving him at second he'll be blocked by Jerry Hairston.

    Gary Matthews, CF .218/.242/.371, .212 EqA
    vs.
    Luis Matos, RF/CF .330/.390/.509, .329 EqA, .280 DT-EqA, Triple-A Ottawa; Tim Raines, CF .341/.431/.534, .356 EqA, .276 DT-EqA, Double-A Bowie; and Darnell McDonald, CF/RF .314/.395/.362, .280 EqA, .238 DT-EqA, Triple-A Ottawa

    Matthews should be nervous. He's the third-worst CF in the majors by RARP, ahead of only Roger Cedeno and Aaron Rowand. He had never hit for an EqA better than about .240, translated, at any level before suddenly hitting .291 last season. It was unreasonable to expect that he would duplicate that performance, but the O's dealt their only major league alternative, Chris Singleton, in the off-season (Singleton, by the way, has a .271 EqA for Oakland). In Ottawa, Matos and McDonald have been alternating between center and right fields (both are capable center fielders and prefer it). Both are hitting for high average, while Matos has also hit the gaps (10 doubles, three triples). Down in Double-A Bowie, Tim Raines has rebounded from last season's disaster to do a credible impersonation of his father (he is 13-2 as a basestealer), and currently rates as one of the top best performers this year in Double-A. Matos has probably been the best of the bunch so far, and is the oldest and most experienced of the group, but he is also out of options (meaning they won't be able to just send him back to Ottawa); McDonald and Raines still have them.

    Geronimo Gil, C .215/.271/.277, .200 EqA; and Brook Fordyce, C .239/.280/.348, .236 EqA
    vs.
    Steve Lomasney, C .324/.361/.397, .286 EqA, .244 DT-EqA, Triple-A Ottawa

    The Orioles have gotten virtually nothing from their catchers this season. Gil has been so bad that he's lost his starting spot to Fordyce, who had nearly become a pariah for his play over the last few years. Lomasney is a former Red Sox prospect, highly touted, who suffered a severe head injury in 2001, fell out of favor, and was waived this off-season. He's played 21 games in Ottawa, and through the first seven did nothing to make the Red Sox regret their decision: 3-24 with 13 strikeouts. Since then, he's run off a 13-game hitting streak, going 19-44 with 12 strikeouts (that's a .432 average).

  • Royalty: Three players, all of whom were originally signed by and played for the Orioles, were knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands last week. All three of the players (Sidney Ponson, who is still with Baltimore, Calvin Maduro of the Dodgers, and Gene Kingsale of the Tigers) hail from the tiny Dutch possession of Aruba, and were signed by Chu Halabi, an Orioles scout who settled in Aruba. Apparently, the Governor of the island nominates potential Knights, and he's a big baseball fan.

    Andruw Jones, talk to Curacao governor.

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