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May 12, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Surprise Performer?: Once again, an Astros outfielder is jockeying with Jeff Bagwell for the Astros' Calcium-Fortified Slugger award. But this year, it's not Lance Berkman, who's discovered that elbow owies aren't always so easy to play through, and has fallen back to a .268 EqA. Instead, it's Richard Hidalgo, who's putting up numbers reminiscent of the 2000 breakout year that had statheads drooling into their keyboards. But is this a true rebound, or just an isolated hot month? Here's Hidalgo's stat line through Friday's games, compared to 2000:
    
     Year    AB   H   2B/3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG  OBP  SLG  EQA
     2000   558  175   45    44  56  110  314  391  636  317
     2003   118   37    9     5  18   18  314  410  517  312
    
    

    While he's back to his old extra-base tricks, his homer rate isn't that far above his 2001-2002 levels, so we're not looking at a full power rebound here. This also means that, while his batting average has returned to form thus far, five of those hits are singles instead of homers; if those are bloop singles, then with typical luck his line would be closer to 280/375/480.

    However, his batting eye indicates that the rebound may be (mostly) for real. His walks are up more than 50% over 2000, and his strikeout rate is down slightly. If he really is seeing and hitting the ball better, a 300/400/500 line over the rest of the year isn't out of the question.

  • Houston, We Have A Problem: The production out of Houston's shortstops over the first month hasn't been anything to call your mother about:
    
     Player         RARP   EQA   MjEQA
     Adam Everett   1.6   .285   .285
     (At Triple-A)  3.6   .259   .216
     Jose Vizcaino -5.2   .125   .125
     Eric Bruntlett 7.0   .274   .228
     Tom Whiteman   7.0   .277   .212
     Julio Lugo    -0.3   .226   .226
    
    

    While it's hard to argue with the decision to cut Julio Lugo, at least he was doing a credible impression of replacement level. Jose Vizcaino has, predictably, cratered. Adam Everett has done OK in a small major-league sample, but it's impossible to believe he can keep it up, and his Double-A performance didn't even live up to his baseline PECOTA forecast. (Though, to be fair, none of the other guys on this list are meeting their baselines either.)

    Eric Bruntlett has been the most promising bat, but he's probably not cut out to play the position. And Tommy Whiteman hasn't done anything to prove they should have promoted him to replace Everett instead of shifting Bruntlett over. While Everett has apparently fallen out of favor with management, if not Jimy Williams, they'll probably run with him until his bat cools off. But once they get tired of watching Everett cost them net runs, a direct, internal solution would be to reposition Geoff Blum. He's played credible defense at short in the majors before (his track record really isn't that different from Lugo's), and his bat would be an asset, at least by NL standards. This would give them a couple of internal options for getting another bat into the lineup:

    • Play Morgan Ensberg. His forecasted 257/359/452 line would be good for more than a run a week over the average third sacker's bat, but a stubborn focus on defense and last year's scapegoating has relegated him to the bad side of a platoon. Why not roll him out there every day and confirm whether he belongs in the majors? Worst-case scenario, the Astros build up his trade value, cash him in, and revert to the Blum/Everett fetish.

    • Call up Jason Lane. He doesn't really have anything left to prove in Triple-A either, so should be playing every day. Berkman's elbow prevents him from playing center, so they'd have to try Lane out there, but it's not like the Craig Biggio experiment is deserving of rave reviews. Biggio could either move to third, or force Jeff Kent over.

    However, Blum seems entrenched enough that a trade is a more likely solution. Free Tony Graffanino?

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Down on the Dirt Farm: Going into Sunday, the Brewers were 13-23 and in last place in the NL Central. Their Triple-A affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians, had the worst winning percentage in the International League. Indy batters rank last in AVG, OBP, SLG, and, surprise--runs scored. Indy pitchers "lead" the league in runs allowed, hits allowed, and gopherballs.

    With attendance plummeting, Milwaukee needs help now. They're abysmal and not about to get any better, but how does one rebuild this franchise? There's more than one way, but since the Triple-A affiliate is even more bereft of talent than the parent club, an influx of college-primed players would be safe. The Brewers could begin the makeover as soon as next month's amateur draft. They could stop selecting so many high schoolers, especially in the early rounds.

    Dean Taylor's last three first-round picks were high schoolers: David Krynzel in 2000, Mike Jones in 2001, and Prince Fielder last summer. It's within Doug Melvin's power to stop that, but he would have to control scouting director Jack Zduriencik, who was responsible for taking those high schoolers.

    But there's money to be made in a bad market. Diligence and judgment can find success in bad probabilities. Milwaukee has gone and found some gems with their high school picks. All three of those high schoolers, and several others, including their top prospect, J.J. Hardy, have been solid in the low minors. Hardy, Jones, and Krynzel have led Double-A Huntsville to a 21-13 start and first place in their division, and it won't be long before Fielder joins them--he's hitting .349/.442/.579 for Beloit. These high schoolers are why the Brewers have moved from the bottom five in minor-league talent to the middle of the pack in two years. It might not be the way some of us would do it, but it's working for them right now.

    Aversion to high schoolers is about minimizing risk, which is especially important for teams with little margin for error. So far, the Brewers have bucked the Beaners, bet against the house, and won some bets, but they shouldn't press it. With the foundation of young players established, it's time to draft collegians.

  • Hot Prospect: The Brewers need Krynzel to be their centerfielder by 2005. His offensive game is based on speed, so he needs to be on base. This year, in his first full season in Double-A, his slugging percentage is down 90 points, but he's playing in a park and league that's better for pitchers than he was used to in the Cal League. More important than his power numbers was the improvement in his control of the strike zone. Last year, Krynzel more than doubled his walk rate from 2001 and cut his strikeouts from 30% of his plate appearances to 23%. In recent years, the Cal League has had exceptionally high walk rates and strikeouts, so Krynzel's raw numbers need some adjustment, but the improvement in his walk-to-strikeout ratio appears to be real, and it's an improvement he has maintained this year. If he keeps his OBP over .380, he's genuine.

  • Attendance: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that no team playing its second season in a new ballpark lost more attendance than the Brewers did last year. And while MLB attendance is down 5%, with 6,400 fans fewer per game than last year the Brewers are down 29%. The Brewers blame it on their persistent tendency to lose games.

    People will come to watch good baseball anywhere, but they'll only pay for bad baseball when the park is pleasant. Not many people outside of Wisconsin would have cause to know this, and not many within the organization would have the stomach to admit it, but Miller Park just isn't particularly nice. It's New Comiskey North. The mass of steel that girds the roof looms like Stalinist iconography, and when the roof is open the park has the charm and elegance of a troop transport. The park isn't going to help this club over the long term. The Brewers' only hope is to win. Since they can't spend their way to prosperity, the draft is their future.

Oakland Athletics

  • Injury: Outfielder Jermaine Dye has been out since the April 24 game against the Tigers with a torn meniscus. Dye's absence has finally provided playing time for fan favorite Eric Byrnes, the A's fourth OF who plays like he's auditioning to be Terry Tate's successor in Reebok commercials. Despite fielding techniques that sometimes make one pine for the return of Fred Lynn, Byrnes has played well in all three outfield positions as he, Terrence Long, and Chris Singleton seem to draw their fielding assignments out of a hat before every game. Byrnes has already pulled back two clear home runs, though he wasn't able to hold onto one hit by Magglio Ordonez on May 7, resulting in a triple.

    Having spent last season in a pinch-running role, Byrnes has shown pop at the plate (.426/.475/.630) since entering the regular starting lineup, more than replacing Dye's early soggy lumber (.189/.262/.284). Byrnes has showed power and patience in the past, hitting 20 home runs in Triple-A Sacramento in 2001 after posting an OBP over .400 between Double- and Triple-A in 2000. But Byrnes saw only 94 ABs in five months with the A's last year. Scheduled to be out 3-5 weeks, Dye has been progressing well, but it remains to be seen what manager Ken Macha will do when his pricey outfield bat is ready to return to full-time duty. Long (.258/.331/.450) and Singleton (.307/.337/.420) have been masquerading as productive hitters most of the season, so it will likely take a significant slump from one or both of them to allow Byrnes to break into a regular starting role. Byrnes' performance could warrant a platoon with Singleton, whose numbers against LHP are not good (.228/.294/.333) the last three seasons. At the least, Byrnes' performance has given the A's options, both in the lineup and at the trade desk.

  • MicroStudy: Billy Beane's baseball philosophy focuses on controlling the strike zone. To that end, the A's seek out hitters who draw walks and hit for power, and pitchers who don't give out free passes. So far this season, however, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson both find themselves near the top of the AL leaderboard for walks (Zito 24, Hudson 20).
    
            Year    ERA     BB/9    K/9    GB/FB     BA     OBP
    Hudson  2002    2.98    2.34    5.74    2.03    .263   .312
            2003    3.12    3.12    5.31    2.42    .216   .284
    Zito    2002    2.75    3.06    7.14    0.74    .218   .286
            2003    2.62    3.93    5.40    0.89    .195   .284
    
    

    Despite the drastically increased walk rates, Hudson and Zito have actually held opposing batters to a lower OBP than last year, owing to their significantly lower batting average allowed. Zito has been particularly wild, walking three or more batters in six of eight starts. Considering that H/BIP regresses to the mean, Hudson and Zito will have to reverse their current strikeout and walk trends if they expect to continue their success so far this season.

  • TA, Revisited: On December 3, 2002, in a move that was criticized by a number of mediocre Bay Area sportscreatures, the A's acquired Keith Foulke, Mark Johnson, and Joe Valentine for Billy Koch and two minor leaguers (Neal Cotts and Daylan Holt). Koch is reaching 100 on the gun, and his ERA isn't far behind at 7.98. Foulke usually takes two pitches combined to reach 90 on the gun, but he's been his normal boring, effective self, saving 10 of 12, and posting an ERA of 2.89.

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