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May 9, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • Lineup Change: For much of April, Expos manager Frank Robinson trotted out the following lineup:
    CF Chavez
    2B Vidro
    RF Guerrero
    SS Cabrera
    1B Liefer/Cordero
    3B Tatis
    LF Wilkerson
    C Barrett/Schneider
    

    While the stathead tenet that lineup order doesn't matter generally holds true, there are certain basic goals you want to achieve. One of those goals: Get your best hitters as many times at bat as possible. Putting the likes of Orlando Cabrera, Jeff Liefer, Wil Cordero, and Fernando Tatis ahead of Brad Wilkerson goes a long way toward giving up whatever few runs a manager would lose with a sub-optimal lineup.

    Robinson began addressing the issue by sliding Wilkerson into the fifth spot in the order, starting May 2 in St. Louis. In the six games since the move, Wilkerson has hit a robust .429/.538/.810. Granted, he'd begun pasting the ball in the prior Milwaukee series. But hoisting Wilkerson's bat up in the order had the added effect of producing that most team-dependent of stats, RBI. Batting behind hitting machines Jose Vidro and Vladimir Guerrero, Wilkerson had knocked in nine runs over the same six-game stretch. Beats having the lineup's lesser lights stranding the big boys on base game after game. And while moving Cabrera even further up in the order to the number two spot may not work out long-term, the swing-for-the-fences shortstop with frequent warning track power had reached base eight times in 11 times up.

    Of course the biggest change a manager can make to his lineup comes when he brings in new bodies rather than merely shuffling old ones around. After spending the first month of the season flipping back and forth between Liefer and Cordero, Robinson opted to give each player regular time in a kind of in-season mini-tryout. The plan called for Cordero to start a week's worth of games in a row, then give way to Liefer, who'd do the same. A novel plan, but one that may never come to fruition. In the six games since being inserted into the everyday lineup, Cordero had mashed to the tune of .522/.542/.783. It's a stretch to say Cordero will hit anywhere near that rarified air over the next 128 games. But Robinson will likely ride the hot hand anyway, given that neither player's track record warrants much preferential treatment outside the here and now.

    The Expos' new lineup:

    CF Chavez
    SS Cabrera
    2B Vidro
    RF Guerrero
    LF Wilkerson
    1B Cordero
    3B Tatis
    C Barrett/Schneider
    

    The starting eight will have their hands full, given the Expos'...

  • ...Upcoming Schedule:...which includes the Dodgers and their major league-leading 2.71 ERA in town for three this weekend. They'll then fly to San Francisco to face the Giants, who lead in that most important of categories, won-lost record. The pitchers then get a workout as the Expos hit Colorado for a three-game set. With 2002 dynamo Tomo Ohka scuffling, Claudio Vargas getting his feet wet, and Orlando Hernandez and Tony Armas still rehabbing from injuries, the bats will have to keep clicking for the Expos to stay within shouting distance of the sizzling Braves.

  • Wretched Performance/Down On The Farm: A double dip, as the Expos have able replacements at Triple-A waiting to push the big-league dregs aside. Dan Smith has yielded five earned runs, seven hits, two walks, and two homers over 3.1 innings covering his last three appearances. His season ERA now stands at 5.28, with 29 baserunners allowed in 15.1 IP.

    Meanwhile, Julio Manon has put up a 0.61 ERA in 14.2 innings in the hitter's haven at Triple-A Edmonton, with 20 Ks and just 14 baserunners allowed. Discussing Manon in Baseball Prospectus 2003, we cited the 29-year-old Manon's 51 strikeouts and four walks in 39 innings at Double-A Harrisburg and solid work at Triple-A Ottawa, noting: "He could be another Brendan Donnelly if the Expos give him a clean shot at a bullpen job." A late bloomer who's been held back the last couple of years largely due to off-field troubles, Manon heads the list of Triple-A arms who deserve a shot at sending Smith packing. The pending returns of El Duque and Armas may put the move on hold for a while, but Manon should get a chance later this year, assuming the Expos run the team as a meritocracy.

    It's not clear who the obvious choice for demotion would be should the Expos call up Terrmel Sledge. But like Manon, Sledge is a late bloomer who's put up great numbers in the minors and deserves a shot at the Show. Sledge is hitting .305/.444/.514 after posting a line of .301/.402/.437 last year in Harrisburg. The 26-year-old Sledge is that rarest of players in the Expos organization: a consistent, dangerous on-base threat. PECOTA doesn't think Sledge has enough power to claim the up-for-grabs first base position (or to play LF every day with Wilkerson moving to 1B). But he'd be a valuable addition to a weak-hitting bench. If the Expos continue their strong pitching and maintain at least enough hitting to be competitive, the contributions of support players like Manon and Sledge could loom large come September.

San Francisco Giants

  • Robb-ed of a Good Pen? Now that it's official that the Giants have lost closer Robb Nen for the season, we're hearing more rumblings about the shallowness of the Giants bullpen. There's no question Nen's injury is a big blow, and it leaves the Giants more reliant on question marks like Scott Eyre, Chad Zerbe, and Jim Brower. But the situation isn't as desperate as you may have heard.

    Some time between now and the end of July, it could make sense for Brian Sabean to dip into his obscene wealth of minor league pitching to fetch a genuine quality reliever--a Scott Williamson, Steve Reed, or Mike Stanton. But there's no need for him to give up something of value for another team's problem--Jose Jimenez, Kelvim Escobar, or Billy Koch--to fill the role of High Career Save Total Guy.

    For one thing, the outlook is pretty rosy for the big three in the current Giants pen (the numbers for all the Giant relievers are here):

    • Tim Worrell is pretty well suited for the traditional closer role, if for no other reason than the closer typically doesn't deal with inherited runners. This year, for the sixth year in a row, Worrell is below average at preventing inherited runners from scoring. Since 1998, Worrell has allowed 78 of the 187 runners he has inherited (42%) to score; both the 78 runs and the 42% failure rate are fifth-worst in the majors over that time. And he's dead last over that period when you account for the difficulty of the situations he inherited, as we do with our Inherited Runs Prevented stat. He was worst in the league in 1999 and third-worst in 2001 That's an astonishing track record for someone who's been a very effective reliever otherwise.

      What's causing these difficulties with inherited runners? We don't have room here to go into the possible reasons. It could even be a fluke--Worrell isn't a bad pitcher with runners on base in general. But if it's a fluke, it's a pretty big one, so Felipe Alou is well advised not to tempt fate. As closer, Worrell is seeing far fewer inherited runners per appearance than his bullpen-mates, and he's filling the role pretty well.

    • Felix Rodriguez is looking more and more like he's back to his 2001 form. His fastball is back in the mid-90s, faster than he threw at any point last year. His strikeouts are up, and his walks are down. The reemergence of Rodriguez could give the Giants a reliever every bit as dominant as Nen was last year.

    • Joe Nathan is probably the biggest bullpen surprise in the majors in the early season, ranking as the third-best reliever in the majors in run prevention. (The full list of the top 30 relievers can be found here.) Now, a lot of people see "surprise" and "early season" and think "one-month wonder", and that's not an unreasonable thought. But don't pay too much attention to Nathan's mediocre minor league numbers when assessing his future. He spent the last two years in the minors working his way back from shoulder surgery, and his performance those years doesn't say much about what we can expect from him healthy this year. Granted, he won't finish 2003 with a 0.39 ERA, but with mid-90s heat and good control of a wicked breaking ball, he looks like the real deal.

    Factor in the imminent return of Jason Christiansen and Ryan Jensen (at which point either Jensen or Jesse Foppert could join the bullpen), and the prospects for the Giants bullpen are looking up, not down. There's no need to panic.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Star Performer: Frankly, almost everyone on the roster has gone bananas in May; the Blue Jays have won six of seven and outscored the Rangers and Angels 42-26 over that span. The usual suspects--Carlos Delgado, Shannon Stewart, and Vernon Wells--have been key offensive players, but off-season acquisition Frank Catalanotto is right there with them. The Blue Jays right fielder has 19 hits in his past 10 games to bring his average up to .339, good for seventh in the AL as this is written, and his .295 Equivalent Average is second among Jays regulars.

    Catalanotto was one of the many unfortunates in the 2003 free-agent market. His 2002 is partially to blame for that; he was merely effective when he wasn't battling injuries, which was a disappointment following his banner 2001 (.330/.391/.490) for the Rangers. He ended up signing a one-year deal with the Blue Jays, where he was looking to get playing time.

    With the return of Jayson Werth, manager Carlos Tosca plans to platoon Catalanotto with Werth in right field, but it'll be tough to sit F-Cat much when he's hitting like he is now. He won't stay this hot all season, but he should continue to pile up the base hits and he's got more on-base ability than he's displayed in 2003.

    A full season at a single position makes Catalanotto less flexible to the creative organization, but it also further distances him from the souped-up utility-player typecasting he endured earlier in his career, and the gaudy batting average he's capable of should make him a sought-after player in next year's free-agent market.

    (From the archives, here's a 1997 interview of Catalanotto.)

  • Lineup Changes: The adroit snarfing of Doug Davis off the waiver wire has sent the winds of change blowing through the rotation. Davis, a soft-tossing former Ranger, is by no means a great pitcher, but he's a perfectly respectable bottom-of-the-rotation innings sponge. He's also 27 and he works cheap, so at this point, you make the move, hope for a performance spike, and worst-case you've got a replacement for Mark (Don't call him Lance) Hendrickson or Pete Walker in place. Davis scattered eight hits over six innings and allowed one run in his first start as a Blue Jay on May 3; he and deposed closer Kelvim Escobar will be competing for starts for the rest of the season.

  • Usage Pattern Fun: Tosca is a manager who strongly believes in the platoon advantage. He and the Jays are wielding the bullpen strenuously; Jays relievers have pitched 101 innings in 113 appearances, giving them an average of 0.89 IP/G. That's much lower than the major-league average of 1.15--heck, that's much lower than Los Angeles, second on the list at just above 1.00 IP/G. It will be interesting to see how such usage patterns play out over the course of a major-league season.

Catch the Doug Pappas World Tour as it rolls into California. SoCal Pizza Feed this Saturday, May 10. NoCal Pizza Feed Wednesday, May 14. Special guests, mystery guests, and more. Head here to sign up.

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