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May 23, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

    Don't Bench Me In: A strong farm system and a few astute player moves can stack a small-revenue team with enough front-line talent to be respectable or better. But dig down to the bench, and you're supposed to see glaring holes where depth is sorely needed. That's the theory, anyway.

    Coming into the season, the Expos looked like they might fall victim to that truism. The Expos have used the following bench during the season's first 47 games: Ron Calloway, Jamey Carroll, Wil Cordero, Jose Macias, Henry Mateo, and Brian Schneider. (We're cheating a bit here: Cordero was supposed to fight it out for the starting first base job with the favorite, Jeff Liefer, while Schneider was assured a healthy chunk of playing time behind the plate after a solid 2002.)

    Schneider turned in a strong performance last year, while Carroll parlayed a gaudy September call-up into impressive small-sample-sized numbers. Still, Carroll, Calloway, and Mateo had shown enough offensive anemia during their minor-league careers to suggest they'd combine to form an alarmingly punchless second half of the taxi squad, with Liefer and Macias not looking much better, especially for players being relied upon to play key corner and outfield positions. Here were the 2003 PECOTA projections for each player:

    
    Player        PECOTA Projection
    
    Calloway       .253/.325/.404
    Carroll        .239/.302/.308
    Cordero        .254/.319/.390
    Macias         .247/.303/.349
    Mateo          .247/.306/.338
    Schneider      .254/.318/.383
    
    

    Blech. Even minor injuries to key players like Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera, or (gasp!), Vlad Guerrero looked likely to wreak havoc on the team given the bench's lack of viable bats.

    Except...

    
    Player         2003 (through 5/22)
    
    Calloway        .250/.307/.397
    Carroll         .286/.297/.429             
    Cordero         .311/.374/.455               
    Macias          .269/.356/.442
    Mateo           .342/.390/.395
    Schneider       .243/.357/.486
    
    

    Only Calloway has performed below his projection thus far, and just slightly at that. The other five players have smashed their projections to date while helping out in multiple ways. Cordero has done so well he's been promoted to the job of everyday first baseman. This for a guy who last posted an OPS above .800 in a starting role when the Expos shocked the league with baseball's best record in 1994--in other words, eons ago. Mateo's cracked seven hits in 18 pinch-hit at-bats this year. Michael Barrett's horrendous start and recent hand injury have forced Schneider into heaps of playing time, where he's racked up 12 walks, five homers, and four doubles in 82 plate appearances.

    This week's Marlins series also forced Carroll into three straight starts at third, with Macias and Calloway splitting three starts in left, thanks to injuries to Fernando Tatis and Brad Wilkerson. The benchies responded with several key hits during the series, as well as steady glovework, with Carroll in particular helping Expos fans briefly forget the memory of Tatis waddling after grounders and weakly sidearming throws to first. Carroll may see regular duty for the next couple of weeks with Tatis facing a possible DL stint courtesy of an irregular heartbeat. The Expos have to hope that presented with regular playing time, Carroll and the other benchies don't get er...overexposed.

    Get these guys a nickname, tout de suite. If the 1989 Arizona Wildcats bench could be the Gumbys, these guys could be...what, les Gumbys? The Pokeys? Well, that's taken. Drop us a line and we'll post the best Expos bench nickname in this space two weeks from now.

  • Channeling Comic Book Store Guy: The Expos' three-game sweep of Florida left the team with a 30-17 record--best start...ever. The Expos have been solid at home (11-4 at the Big O), in their home away from home (6-4 in Puerto Rico), and on the road (13-9).

    They'll need to keep it going as the team embarks on a wild stretch of home, sort of home, and road games that will see them rack up enough frequent flyer miles for a free trip to...roughly Saturn. The Phillies come to Montreal for a three-game set this weekend. Though it's still early to attach a ton of importance to any one series, the division seems to have clearly stratified into the possible contenders (Braves, Expos, Phillies), and certain pretenders (Mets, Marlins), giving this weekend's series at least a dash of je ne sais quoi. The travel gods unleash their fury starting Monday, as the Expos jet to Miami for four, Philly for three, San Juan for six (vs. Anaheim and Texas), Seattle for three, Oakland for three, Pittsburgh for three, then back to Montreal to take on Toronto. Manager Frank Robinson's work at keeping the bench involved and productive could loom large over the next four weeks, as the Expos will need their regulars fresh if they hope to come out of this stretch still within shouting distance of the red-hot Braves.

San Francisco Giants

  • Implosion in the Pen: You can't beat Murphy's Law. Immediately after we sang the praises of the bullpen in our last Giants Triple Play, San Francisco relievers began a meltdown of Schiraldian proportions.

    Leading the collapse was Joe Nathan, whose current ERA of 2.57 masks his abysmal work with inherited runners. Nathan inherited bases loaded situations four times in a nine-day period between May 12 and May 20--two of those times with two outs--and he allowed 11 of those 12 runners to score. Those disastrous outings shot Nathan to the top of the list of the worst relievers at handling inherited runners in the majors (the full list of arsonists is here). Overall, Nathan has allowed six more inherited runners to score than you'd expect from average pitching. If you would add those six runs to Nathan's ledger, you'd come up with an ERA that better reflects his pitching this season: 4.50, almost two runs worse than his actual ERA.

    Giant starters have born the brunt of Nathan et al.'s struggles, as they've been watching their ERAs skyrocket from the dugout. Rookie Jesse Foppert, for example, has seen all four of the runners he turned over to relievers score, raising his ERA by almost a run compared to what you'd expect if he'd gotten average relief support. Foppert ranks second in the majors on our list of starters most hurt by their relievers. And he's not the only Giant there; Kurt Ainsworth is the ninth most-victimized in the majors, and Damian Moss ranks 13th.

    The bullpen problems, coupled with Ray Durham's ankle injury and Jose Cruz's recent slump, have brought the Giants down to earth and created an opening for the Dodgers to climb back in the NL West race.

  • On the Farm: A couple of recent trips to San Jose's Municipal Stadium gave us a look at two of San Francisco's lesser-known prospects, pitching for the Giants' high-A affiliate:

    • Greg Bruso: Last year's Northwest League ERA champion has skipped over low-A without showing any ill effects, putting up a 2.88 ERA with 45 strikeouts and only 8 walks in 50 innings so far in San Jose. The 23-year-old righty out of UC Davis doesn't overpower anyone, and because of that he faces some serious challenges as he moves up the ladder. But he does a great job of keeping hitters off balance, and he looks ready to join Jeff Clark, Francisco Liriano, Matt Cain, and Noah Lowry in the second tier of Giants pitching prospects, which would be the first tier for a lot of teams.

    • James Garcia: We saw Garcia face the Modesto A's last Sunday, and came away really impressed, at least as much as you can be by a reliever in A-ball. His out pitch is a changeup, and it's a thing of beauty. It was fun playing Steve Stone: "Now, here comes the changeup." If I knew it was coming, the A's hitters certainly did as well, and they couldn't hit it. Garcia now has 48 Ks in only 32 innings, to place him among the top 10 in the Cal League in strikeouts. Not bad for a reliever.

    By the way, if you're wondering why we haven't covered any Giants hitting prospects in Triple Play entries so far, you can have a look at the SF affiliate hitting numbers yourself: here's Fresno, Norwich, San Jose, and Hagerstown. Keep in mind, though, that many computers have filters installed that prevent them from accessing obscene material.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Batman Sound Effects: This is being written before calculating in the effect of Carlos Delgado's in-progress abuse of Andy Pettitte and the rest of the Yankee pitching staff, but there's something strange going on in Toronto, and I don't mean Keith Law's consistently increasing resemblance to Stewie Griffin. On the offense, everyone is doing something right. If a guy's not hitting for average, he's drawing walks, or hitting for power. The entire offense is doing to pitching around the league what Fargo's wood chipper did to Carl Showalter. Most horrifying for the rest of the league is that no one player is way above and beyond reasonable expectations; they're towards the top of reasonable expectations, but some sizable percentage of their league-leading performance is sustainable.

    For those of you keeping track at home, The Jays lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and, naturally, runs per game. But, in all fairness, they have had the advantage of facing Jose Contreras.

  • Outstanding Performance: Remember when you used to be able to laugh at Blue Jay outfield prospects? You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a Turner Ward or Sil Campusano, inexplicably-hyped minor leaguers who, unsurprisingly, didn't perform in the majors. No more. Check out Vernon Wells' May thus far:
     
    AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   AVG  OBP  SLG 
    83    14   31   8    0    6   21    4    6  .373 .404 .687
    
    

    His April wasn't great (.245/.294/.465), but Wells has now put together nearly a full season at a reasonable level of production--his second half last year was .286/.304/.484, and he's 24 years old. Look out.

  • Miserable Performance: The entire freaking pitching staff, with the small-sample exception of Doug Linton, and possibly Cliff Politte. No Blue Jay reliever shows up on our Top 30 ML Relievers by RRE chart, and as a group, they're clocking in with a cool -11.0 ARP. Grim. The rotation hasn't been notably better, with a support-neutral 14-18 record for the club. The Blue Jays are on the right path, but a #1 starter falling out of the sky couldn't hurt.

  • Schedule: While Kansas City was getting a ton of press at the season's outset for drubbing the internal organs from the inept Tigers, the adrift White Sox, and the currently-morphing Indians, the Blue Jays drew attention primarily as the sidebar in stories about SARS. They struggled through an early season consisting of three weeks against the Yankees, Boston, and Minnesota--none of whom were likely to start either Mike Maroth or Steve Sparks, and Joe Mays doesn't count… yet. The Blue Jays are entering a "fair" part of the schedule, starting on the road against the Yankees, then home against random-colored Sox for a couple of series, before taking on the NL Central in what should be some really outstanding baseball.

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