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May 19, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • New Manager: On May 11, the Marlins handed the keys to the manager's office to Jack McKeon, who beat out a strong slate of diverse candidates, including Ralph Houk and Chuck Tanner. There has been some concern that McKeon, who was managing in the major leagues during the height of the Watergate scandal, would have trouble relating to the modern player. For some perspective, check out this list of players McKeon has managed: Dick Allen, Doc Ellis, Garry Templeton, Earl Williams, and Deion Sanders.

    Here is an All-Star team of players Trader Jack has piloted:

    1B Harmon Killebrew
    2B Roberto Alomar
    3B George Brett
    SS Barry Larkin
    LF Fred Lynn
    CF Ken Griffey Jr
    RF Tony Gwynn
    C Manny Sanguillen
    P Vida Blue

    Many of these players weren't particularly good when McKeon had them, but it's still a good group. Orlando Cepeda, Allen, and Vada Pinson are tough omissions. McKeon was George Brett's first manager and also Alomar's.

    The roster of pitchers isn't nearly as impressive, which brings us back to the 2003 Marlins. In Jeff Torborg's final days he was roasted on a spit for the injuries suffered by A.J. Burnett (torn UCL) and Josh Beckett (elbow sprain), tragedies possibly caused by overwork. Since McKeon is old school, or at least old, there is concern in South Florida that he might not be the one to shepherd all their young pitchers through their pitching youth. With all of the attention focused on the situation, McKeon is probably smart enough not to overwork Beckett when he returns from the DL.

    As for what kind of manager McKeon is likely to be, there are whispers in Miami that McKeon may be slow in adjusting to his return to managing. He's had trouble learning players' names, struggles at times to hear conversations as he now sports a hearing aid, and generally seems to have a lost a step compared to his former sharp self. McKeon will need to lean on his fellow coaches to get the most out of his positive traits. Meanwhile, McKeon says he will continue Torborg's little-ball philosophy:

    "This is a club that's got to do the little things: steal a base, bunt the guys over. If we get a home run, we'll take that as a bonus."

    The funny thing about that is that the Marlins are 8th in the major leagues in home runs, and 14th in OPS, yet a dismal 21st in runs per game. The team across the state, the Devil Rays, are trailing the Fish by 29 points in slugging and 15 points in on base percentage but are still scoring more runs per game. If all this hitting behind the runner stuff is doing any good, why do the Marlins have so much trouble converting their base runners and their extra base hits into runs?

  • Star Performers: Well, we put off mentioning Alex Gonzalez in the last two Triple Plays, assuming that the fantasy would soon end. It is still going to end, but let the record show that Gonzalez has been the fourth-best-hitting shortstop in the major leagues for the first quarter of the 2003 season. Gonzalez missed most of last season with a separated shoulder, but he is still just 26. If he can somehow sustain some of his early offensive improvement, he'll be a fine player.

    Moving a few feet to the left, Mike Lowell's 13 home runs are third in the major leagues. If the Marlins are out of the playoff hunt come mid-summer, an eventuality which must be regarded as likely, Lowell is the one Marlin most likely to be dealt. He makes a lot of money for a Marlin ($3.7 million) and can walk at the end of this season. The Cubs, desperate for a big stick at the hot corner, seem to be a good fit.

New York Yankees

  • Injuries: As good as the Yankees have been over the last seven seasons, a key part of their success has been their good fortune in keeping an aging roster on the field. For the most part, they haven't suffered key injuries that cost them players for extended periods of time. This year, that's all changed. Derek Jeter missed five weeks after dislocating his shoulder on Opening Day. Mariano Rivera has thrown just seven innings, sidelined for all of April with a groin injury.

    Both players returned to active duty in May, but the Yankees' woes continued this week. On Friday, they got the news that set-up man Steve Karsay would have to visit Dr. James Andrews for a second time. Karsay has been fighting a shoulder problem all season, and the latest visit to Birmingham is seen as a sign that Karsay's season is over. The Yankees have struggled to find effective relievers all season, and the news that Karsay isn't coming back is a blow to a team getting too much work from Juan Acevedo (9.15 ERA) and Jason Anderson (7.04 ERA).

    Also last week, Nick Johnson was diagnosed with a broken right hand. Johnson, who has been plagued by hand and wrist problems his entire career, suffered his latest damage Wednesday night. He'll be out four to six weeks, just when it seemed he had developed into the hitter (.308/.455/.517) he'd been expected to be. The Yankees will hand his playing time to Todd Zeile and Bubba Trammell, neither of whom will replace Johnson's OBP or his glove at first base. The Yankees should consider giving Fernando Seguignol, who's abusing the International League to the tune of .303/.391/.592, some of the at-bats.

    The Yankees' injury problems go beyond guys not playing. Jason Giambi has been a disaster this year (.203/.333/.373), in large part because of eye infections that have hampered his ability to read pitches. He hasn't missed a game to the problem yet, but his inability to be an offensive force hurt the Yankees in their recent 11-13 run through the AL West.

    Staying healthy is a skill, and it's one the Yankees have demonstrated throughout their recent dynasty. If this is the year they lose that skill, Brian Cashman is going to have to do some quick stepping to keep the team ahead of the Red Sox and atop the AL West.

  • Back From Exile: After proving he could retire International League hitters, Jose Contreras will take another crack at the American League. The Yankees could use the bullpen help, and Contreras is unlikely to replace any of the current starters, barring injury or Jeff Weaver continuing to underperform his talent.

    Contreras did well at Columbus (1.20 ERA, 18 strikeouts in 15 innings) but the memory of his ineffectiveness in March and April lingers. There's reason to think he's older than his listed age of 31, and unless we missed a memo we have next to no idea what kinds of workloads he carried in Cuba. Until Contreras strings together some good outings in the majors, he'll have to be considered more Arocha than El Duque on the scale of Cuban contributions to mound work.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Four weeks ago, the Yankees were 16-3 with a three-game lead in the AL East. After an 11-13 stretch against the AL West, however, they find themselves in a dead heat with the Red Sox at 27-16. Starting Monday in Fenway Park, they'll play the Sox six times in 10 days, catching Pedro Martinez twice in that span. With their injury problems, the Yankees have to be concerned that a season that began with comparisons to 1998 might very quickly look like something out of the 1980s.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Disappointing Performer: One of Lloyd McLendon's strengths as a manager is that he doesn't point fingers when his ball club is floundering. However, even he has a breaking point. Thursday, following the Corsairs' 11th loss in 13 tries, the skipper took the opportunity to blast one of his players in the press. The amusing aspect is that his target was Kris Benson, the number one starter in a pretty good Pirates' starting rotation. McLendon's misplaced grousing was not unlike blaming your car's brakes when the engine doesn't turn over in the morning.

    A more appropriate target would have been one of the non-functioning cylinders in Pittsburgh's offensive engine. While there are many to choose from, Aramis Ramirez's performance to date has been the most disappointing.

    Most observers anticipated Ramirez to return to his 2001 form when he arrived in Bradenton this February wearing a fully healed ankle and 20 fewer pounds. Those expectations grew after he tied for the Grapefruit League lead with seven homers. However, when the green flag dropped on the regular season, Ramirez's bat went silent. Exacerbating matters is McLendon's steadfast refusal to drop him from the cleanup spot, resulting in dead rallies on the few occasions when the offense shows signs of life.

    How bad has Ramirez been this year? In over 175 trips to the plate, he is hitting .238/.302/.350 with just two home runs, and even worse (.103/.255/.154) with runners in scoring position. Equivalent Average ranks him as the fifth-worst starting third baseman in the majors through Sunday. Interestingly, two of the players below him are Fernando Tatis and Adrian Beltre. Just a few years ago, all three were expected to be among the best at their position by now.

  • Overlooked: The rulebook definition of what is required for a pitcher to earn a win often leads to goofy results. A couple weeks ago, Orioles' reliever B.J. Ryan chalked up a win without throwing a pitch. Meanwhile, Kip Wells has totaled but one win in his last 14 starts dating back to last year even though his ERA over that time is 3.07. Consequently, his emergence as one of the better starters in the NL has gone undetected. Fortunately, there are better tools at our disposal to measure a pitcher's effectiveness; Support-Neutral W/L pegs Wells as the 10th-best regular starter in the Senior Circuit thus far in 2003.

    A hard thrower with tremendous movement on his pitches, Wells has allowed only 40 hits in 57.1 innings this year, while striking out 49 batters. He's that rarest of pitchers--the high strikeout groundballer. Wells' devil remains the free pass, ranking 50th out of 57 National League ERA qualifiers with 4.4 bases on balls per nine innings. One less walk a game and he becomes the ace that McLendon says Benson isn't. Of course, until the Bucs' offense scores enough runs to put a "W' next to Wells' name in the box score, don't expect anybody to notice.

  • Time for a Promotion: Dave Littlefield instituted a "one year, one level" player development program when he was named general manager in 2001. However, a couple of the team's recent first-round draft choices are causing the Pirates' brass to re-think that philosophy.

    John Van Benschoten has a 2.08 ERA and a 44/15 K:BB ratio with High-A Lynchburg. He has yet to allow a home run in 43 innings. Meanwhile, Bryan Bullington, the number one overall pick in last year's draft, has a 1.60 ERA, 43 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 39 innings at Low-A Hickory. The MAC-men (both hurlers hail from Mid-American Conference schools) are clearly dominating their respective leagues, and to leave them there another three months would be pointless. Expect to see them simultaneously elevated to the next rung on the minor league ladder by the end of the month.

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