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May 13, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Buzzards Circling: He's received Kenny Williams' vote of confidence, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Jerry Manuel's days in a Sox uniform are numbered. The Sox not only have the Royals' juggernaut to worry about; they've also fallen behind the Twins, and are playing the kind of ball that's hard to get anyone excited about, ranking 12th among the 14 AL clubs in per-game attendance.

    The natural tendency in these cases is to try and work backward to divine how much of the underperformance is the fault of the manager. In this case, the alternative hypotheses are pretty strong. As Joe Sheehan pointed out, the Sox have a serious roster construction problem, in that they're too heavy on right-handed hitting. And Williams didn't keep the right pitchers, as Billy Koch and Jon Garland struggle while Keith Foulke and Kip Wells thrive in greener pastures. Neither of those things are Manuel's fault.

    Manuel is distrusted in Chicagoland in part because of his soft-spoken nature--this is a city that likes its Daleys, its Ditkas, even its Doug Collinses. That criticism is about 45 degrees off the mark; Manuel would not be a better manager if he tossed around obscenities or liberated bases. But while meekness doesn't always translate into indecisiveness, Manuel does have a track record of vacillation when it comes to personnel matters, whether it's pulling Foulke out of the closer's role after a bad month, shifting Jose Valentin between three different positions, or abortively attempting to use Paul Konerko as a third baseman. The thing that Dusty Baker is so good at across town--managing expectations by defining a clear role for each man on his roster--is Manuel's area of greatest weakness.

    Still, even that obscures the real question, which is what is the best for the team going forward. Manuel is a likeable man who has his strengths, but as each day passes toward another forgettable 80ish win season, the Sox have less to gain by sticking with the status quo. It might not be fair to fire him, but that's not the point.

  • Game Report: One of Manuel's moves that received particular attention was his lifting of Koch in the May 1 victory over the Athletics. Here's the situation: Sox lead by two in the ninth. Ramon Hernandez draws a leadoff walk, with most of the pitches nowhere near the strike zone. Koch falls behind in the count to Scott Hatteberg but gets him to fly out to center. Mark Ellis follows and takes Koch deep, but the wind knocks the ball down a bit and Willie Harris makes the catch on the warning track. Erubiel Durazo singles to left, advancing Hernandez to second.

    Two out, two men on, two-run lead, Koch doesn't have it, and Eric Chavez, who looks locked in at the plate and already has a homer in the game, is due up next. Damaso Marte is warming in the pen, and Manuel brings him in. Koch is visibly disgusted and throws his glove into the stands on his way off the field (he'll say later that he was aiming for the dugout). Chavez grounds out weakly to second; Sox win.

    It's clear that Manuel made the move that gave the Sox the best chance to win the game in question; Koch wasn't pitching well, Marte had been, and Chavez really struggles against lefties. If it wasn't for all the usual silliness about closers, nobody would have thought twice about the substitution.

    But did Koch have the right to be upset? Sure, because he had a reasonable expectation for what his role would be, and that expectation was violated. Most of us would have reacted the same way. If Manuel wants to be more flexible in how he's using his relievers, we're all for it, but that's exactly the sort of thing that needs to be communicated ahead of time.

  • Disastrous Performance: There's no clearer sign that a guy is pressing than when he's swinging a lot early in the count, and that is exactly what is happening with the struggling Joe Crede, whose average of 3.19 pitches per plate appearance is among the lowest in the league. Crede's defense is an asset, and he has nothing more to prove at Triple-A, so the Sox are going to have to stick this one out, and work on getting his confidence back up, perhaps resting him against tough right-handed pitchers.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • They've Been Lousy, Isringhausen: Since last we wrote about them, the Cardinals' bullpen woes have only worsened. They aren't winning the close ones--of their last 11 losses, six have come by one run, and the other five have come by two runs; a Cardinals reliever took the loss on six occasions. While, it's easy to pin the problems on Izzy's injury, the entire bullpen deserves some of the blame. The Cardinals had six relievers who pitched 50 or more innings last year and had an ERA of 3.54 or better; all of them in one way or another have been shifted out of the roles in which they were effective:

    • Mike Crudale. 2002: 1.95 ERA in 50.2 IP. 2003: Started the year in Triple-A, just 2 IP on the year.

    • Mike Timlin. 2002: 2.06 ERA in 56.2 IP. 2003: Disposed to Boston.

    • Jason Isringhausen. 2002: 2.48 ERA in 65.1 IP. 2003: Hurt.

    • Steve Kline. 2002: 3.39 ERA in 58.1 IP. 2003: On the roster, but has been ineffective when stretched into different usage patterns. Just 25% of his plate appearances have come against lefties this year, versus 41% a year ago, and righties are hitting him hard.

    • Dave Veres. 2002: 3.48 ERA in 82.2 IP. 2003: Moved on to Chicago, though he's hurt too.

    • Luther Hackman. 2002: 3.54 ERA in 56 IP. 2003: Traded to San Diego.

    We've praised teams like the Angels and the Braves for building effective bullpens on the cheap, relying on a combination of waiver wire pickups and unheralded in-house talent. But there's downside risk to that strategy, and the Cardinals are bearing the brunt of it. Relying on avenues other than the conventional free agent market doesn't absolve a team of its need to evaluate talent effectively--rather, it enhances it. When the best answers a team can come up with involve Cal Eldred, well, maybe spending a few extra bucks would have been the better way to go.

  • Injury. The Cardinals' Sunday game against the Cubs was rained out before the game became official, wiping out the stats and costing the Cubs about a half-million in their arbitration dealings with Matt Clement, but not erasing the injuries. Eli Marrero's slip on the wet Wrigley grass was brutal to watch--about a 6.0 on the Theisman Scale--as his right leg buckled under him. The early diagnosis is a severely sprained ankle; Will Carroll will have all the details once X-Ray results are in. Marrero hadn't been playing particularly well, but his loss really hurts the Cardinals in terms of roster flexibility, as Marrero had already started games at four different positions, and allowed the Cardinals to get away with carrying just one-and-a-half catchers. Hell, they might actually have some use for Joe Girardi, but he's hurt too.

  • Trade Rumor: Roberto Alomar for Fernando Vina. That'd be a clear win for the Cardinals, right?

    Using Keith Woolner's season-to-date MLVr numbers, Alomar is still the better offensive player, with a difference that would project out to a little bit more than 20 runs for the balance of the season. The PECOTA projections expected both players to be a wee bit better, but with a similar gap between the two.

    But Vina is the superior defensive player at this point in his career, and the Cardinals' infield defense has been one of their strengths, something that's pretty important since the Cardinals don't strike out a lot of batters. Throw in the extra salary Alomar would be getting, and the deal is pretty close to a wash, especially if it deters the Cardinals from picking up help where they need it more. The best solution, as we suggested last time around, is to stick with Vina, but hit him eighth. Or, given that we're dealing with TLR, should that be ninth?

Texas Rangers

  • An Itchin' For Pitchin': The names may change, but the results have stayed the same for the Rangers.
    
    Year        ERA
    ---------------
    1998       5.00
    1999       5.07
    2000       5.52
    2001       5.71
    2002       5.15
    2003       5.90 (last in MLB)
    
    

    Adjust for park, league, Ryan Drese effects, whatever. The Rangers' pitching is still ugly. Has been for a long time, and shows no signs of getting better. For as much ink as handling the Coors Effect gets in mainstream, alternative, and stathead circles, the Rangers are either secretly shifting their home park's elevation up 10,000 feet every start, or they can't figure out how to draft, develop, sign, or trade for good pitching.

    Of course it's way too early to write the epitaph for Colby Lewis' career. But it's been a nightmarish start to the 2002 season for the Rangers' prospect with the best combination of great stuff and gaudy minor-league results since...well, it's been a while. Lewis fanned 323 batters in 319 Florida State and Texas League innings in 2000 and 2001 while walking just 107. He followed that up with 99 Ks and 29 walks in 106.2 innings last year at Triple-A Oklahoma City, earning him a strong 21 Stuff score (pitchers with Stuff scores of 20 or better have a 75% chance of a major-league career lasting 300 or more innings (see Clay Davenport's essay in Baseball Prospectus 2002 for more details). Yet in eight starts covering 36 innings this year, Lewis has been wild (29 walks vs. 24 Ks), hittable (46 hits), and tateriffic (eight home runs allowed).

    Two weeks ago we urged the Rangers to send Mark Teixeira down to OK City, given the logjam of corner infield/DH types with the big club and the fact that T-Rex hadn't yet devoured Triple-A pitching. Given Lewis' runaway success last year in the pitcher-crushing Pacific Coast League and the Rangers' lack of viable alternatives in Arlington, Colby should get the opposite treatment. He and fellow young pitcher Joaquin Benoit (103 Ks, 37 walks, 3.56 ERA in 98.2 Triple-A innings last year, 14 Ks, 2 walks over two big-league starts and 12.1 innings this year) should be given every opportunity to claim the #1 and #2 spots in the rotation. If they scuffle, there's always the Earl Weaver route--drop Lewis and Benoit into the pen for two months and the Rangers would sport one of the collections of bullpen power arms in baseball while the future of the staff works out its kinks. Just as long as Texas doesn't yo-yo the dynamic duo between the majors and minors, eventually needing to play roster hide-and-seek with them. We've seen what can happen when the Rangers try that.

  • D-Minus-fense: Just as they did last year, the Rangers' defense has only made the pitching staff's job harder. Texas ranks last in the majors in Defensive Efficiency so far this season, letting an alarming 32.6% of balls in play fall for hits (AL average: 28.8%). The acquisition of Doug Glanville was supposed to bridge the yawing gap between Carl Everett and Juan Gonzalez. Glanville's injury opened the door for Ryan Christenson, who's gamely tried to cover the Ballpark's spacious pasture, to little avail. Christenson's hitting a paltry .200/.293/.319 to boot, doing zippy to claim the starting center field job that's very much up for grabs, even after Glanville's return.

    Making the on-again, off-again rumor of Carlos Beltran to Arlington come true would be the perfect fit to end all perfect fits. The way Hammerin' Hank Blalock is swatting the ball though, John Hart will want to find different bait to dangle in front of Allard Baird. Baird has maintained he'd like to get an impact player in the infield, preferably the hot corner, so we'll see.

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