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May 29, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Down on the Farm: The Diamondbacks have two first-round picks in next week's draft, selections 19 and 29. Just a couple of years ago Arizona had such a poor minor league system that the organization rated dead last on Baseball America's annual list. In their desperation to field a championship team quickly, the Diamondbacks depleted their minors by using their best prospects to acquire veterans. After three strong drafts under scouting director Mike Rizzo the system has vaulted to number 21. The improved ranking is not simply a matter of Pollyannaish projections based on the physical gifts of pimply mesomorphs. Rizzo has focused on collegians, and because of it the system is stocked bottom to top. The Diamondbacks now have a premium prospect at every infield position, and all of them could be major league regulars by 2005. Four of these prospects have come from the last two drafts. The other, Lyle Overbay, is already in the majors.

    Arizona's 2001 draft class brought them third baseman Chad Tracy and second baseman Scott Hairston. Tracy was a seventh-round pick from the East Carolina University. Hairston was selected from Central Arizona Junior College. We wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2003 that Tracy could challenge for major league batting titles; Hairston is probably the best slugging middle infielder in the minor leagues. That might sound like hyperbole but it isn't. The numbers so far back it up.

    After the 2001 draft, Tracy did a short tour in rookie ball before getting 215 at-bats in the Midwest League, where hit .340/.393./.447 and had as many walks as strikeouts. Last year he hit .344/.389/.486 in Double-A, again with good control of the strike zone. This year in Triple-A he's at .347/.402/.484 with more walks than strikeouts. He's not drawing many walks but he's hitting so well he's obviously getting his pitch, and he can be forgiven for not waiting around for an even better pitch. Hairston is slightly behind Tracy on the promotion track, but he's been a beast at every level:

                          At Bats     AVG       OBP     SLG     BB    K
    2001  Rookie           291       .347      .432    .588     38    50
    2002  A                394       .332      .426    .563     58    74
    2002  Advanced A       79        .405      .442    .797      6    16
    2003  Double A         180       .311      .374    .517     16    40

    Hairston's patience has abandoned him a bit this year but batting skills like his don't go away. He and Tracy have gotten a boost from playing in good hitting environments, but even if we strip away the park and league effects we can see that the Diamondbacks' renewal might be quicker than any of us would have expected. Tracy's major league EqA is .258, 11 points higher than Matt Williams' .247 but still nine points lower than Craig Counsell's .267. It might not be a bad idea for the Diamondbacks to promote Tracy for the interleague games at Kansas City and Minnesota June 10 through 15, to get another left-handed bat into the lineup and begin phasing him in. Hairston's .229 is a ways behind Junior Spivey's .249, so he's not ready to assert himself yet. But Arizona's need at second isn't as critical as its need at third, and Hairston needs the extra time to work on his defense. Still, there's no doubt that in spite of his excellent season last year Spivey isn't irreplaceable.

    As for the 2003 draft, the Diamondbacks have been so successful with college talent that Rizzo can be expected to stick with it this year too, though Baseball America is reporting that Arizona plans to split its first-round picks on one collegian and one high schooler.

Kansas City Royals

  • Warning: Third Place Ahead: It certainly doesn't rank among the great collapses in baseball history, but the Royals' descent deep into second place occurred with truly impressive rapidity. As recently as May 5th, the Royals was in first place with a comfortable 5.5-game cushion. Even on May 15th, after splitting a four-game series in Minnesota, the Royals left town leading the Twins by 2.5.

    Here's what has happened since:

    May 16th: Royals lose 18-1 vs. Toronto; Minnesota wins 18-3 vs. Chicago. Royals lead by 1.5 games.
    May 17th: Royals lose 7-4; Minnesota wins 3-1. Royals lead by 0.5 games.
    May 18th: Royals lose 4-3; Minnesota wins 3-2. Royals trail by 0.5 games.
    May 20th: Royals lose 7-4 @ Seattle; Minnesota loses 4-1 @ Oakland. Royals trail by 0.5 games.
    May 21st: Royals win 14-5; Minnesota wins 4-3. Royals trail by 0.5 games.
    May 22nd: Royals lose 5-1; Minnesota wins 6-5. Royals trail by 1.5 games.
    May 23rd: Royals lose 4-1 @ Oakland; Minnesota loses 5-2 @ Seattle. Royals trail by 1.5 games.
    May 24th: Royals win 3-1; Minnesota wins 7-2. Royals trail by 1.5 games.
    May 25th: Royals lose 4-3; Minnesota wins 3-1. Royals trail by 2.5 games.
    May 27th: Royals lose 15-7 vs. Seattle; Minnesota wins vs. Oakland 4-3. Royals trail by 3.5 games.
    May 28th: Royals lose 5-2; Minnesota wins 6-5. Royals trail by 4.5 games.

    It took only 11 games for the Royals to fall from 2.5 games up to 4.5 games down, a seven-game swing in the standings.

    This is what psychologists call reality therapy. The Royals are playing down to their level, which isn't bad--it's still better than what anyone expected this year--but it's not going to be enough to catch the Twins. According to Clay Davenport's Adjusted Standings, in terms of true quality the Royals trail Minnesota by nearly eight games. Barring a near-miraculous turnaround, it's almost time to stop Believing and start planning for 2004.

  • Celebrity Deathmatch: One bright spot during the Royals' tailspin has been Angel Berroa, whose performance as a rookie more closely resembles his promising 2001 season than his disastrous 2002 campaign. Berroa is hitting .253 with fair power (13 extra-base hits, .379 slugging), and while he has only walked seven times in 46 games, he has also been hit by pitches eight times, which ranks second in the league to Josh Phelps. Berroa is averaging a hearty 3.8 pitches per plate appearance, so his plate discipline may yet be salvageable.

    None of this means that he's any better than Mark Ellis, the player the Royals threw into the Johnny Damon trade to cinch the deal, but at least it's now a fair fight. Let's match the two up:

    Player   AB     H    D    T   HR   W+HP   K    AVG    OBP    SLG
    Berroa   162   41    9    1    3    15    34   .255   .316   .377
    Ellis    192   50   14    0    4    21    30   .260   .329   .396

    Ellis is the better hitter, playing in a much more difficult park for hitters. Berroa has the positional advantage of a shortstop over a second baseman, but only because with Miguel Tejada around, the A's don't need Ellis at his natural position. (Berroa has made 13 errors to Ellis' seven, and has the lower range factor (4.90 vs. 5.73) even though shortstops typically make more plays than second basemen.)

    So that leaves only Berroa's age advantage in his favor…which is a whopping seven months.

    Berroa's not a bad player, and he's got a chance to be a pretty good one. But Mark Ellis is still better, and may always be so.

  • Patience is Next to Godliness: Mike Sweeney is starting to heat up--he's 7-for-12 with two doubles and two homers in his last four games--but the real story behind Sweeney is his newfound patience. He's drawn 34 walks in 44 games, and is on pace to draw 112 this season. Not only would this shatter his previous high of 71, it would be the highest total by any Royals batter since Darrell Porter led the league in walks in 1979 with 121. As a result, Sweeney has reached base safely in all but two games this season, including his last 29 straight.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Slumping: The Phillies' bats have been struggling lately, thanks in large part to prolonged slumps by the expected big three of Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, and Bobby Abreu. There is not much in the way of immediate help waiting in Triple-A, with only two current members of Scranton-Wilkes Barre putting up numbers that would qualify as decent. Chase Utley has gotten a couple cups of coffee in the major leagues so far this year, and while his .293/.341/.409 offense is hardly spectacular, it's certainly acceptable for a middle infielder. Since he hits lefthanded and current second baseman Placido Polanco hits lefties far better than righties, some form of a platoon would be worth considering.

    The other solid performer at Scranton is third baseman Travis Chapman. Chapman was lost in the off-season in the Rule 5 draft, but when Detroit decided to move Eric Munson to third, they returned him to the Phillies. While a failure to stick with the Tigers would seem to be a very poor recommendation, Chapman has continued to display the increased power that he showed for the first time at Double-A last year. His OBP is actually down somewhat from last year (.360 versus .394), though not dramatically so. Unfortunately for Chapman, he is unlikely to get much of a shot at the major league level, at least with the Phillies, due to the unwise decision to sign David Bell to a four-year contract. Look for Bell to be trade bait come July. That is, if anyone in their right minds would trade for a mediocre third baseman in the first year of a four-year, $17 million contract.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Interleague play arrives next week and the Phillies would be justified in being somewhat upset with the schedule makers this year. This year the teams in the NL East are nominally supposed to play the team in the AL West along with home-and-home series with their "geographic rival," which is the excuse MLB came up with to schedule series between the Mets and the Yankees every year. In the case of the Phillies this has meant the Orioles, a pairing that makes more geographic sense than many of them. However due to the scheduling difficulties caused by having different numbers of teams in each league, the Phillies' schedule has been moved around somewhat and they have lost series against the Rangers and the Orioles. The Rangers series has been replaced by an extra series against the Reds, so in that case they are merely trading one good-hitting, no-pitching team for another. But one of the Orioles series has been replaced by a series against the Red Sox, which is most definitely not an equal trade.

    One of the usual questions that tends to arise with the start of interleague play is the question of who will wind up serving as the DH for National League teams playing in AL parks. The best option for the Phillies among players currently on their roster is that Jason Michaels will be added to the lineup either as the DH himself or playing in the outfield allowing either Burrell or Abreu to serve as the DH. One intriguing possibility however is that recently acquired Damon Minor might be called up, possibly to play first base and let Thome act as the DH. Making this somewhat less likely is the fact that the Phillies play only two interleague series on the road, separated by over two weeks. Plus, once up in the majors Minor would have to clear waivers to be returned to Scranton.

  • From the Clubhouse: We've been pretty critical of Larry Bowa at times in the past, so it's only fair that we he says something reasonable, we recognize that. Last Saturday when talking about Turk Wendell being out of action with a strained groin muscle, Bowa offered the following comment about Wendell hiding the severity of the injury.
    "He doesn't realize how bad he's hurting the team. I understand 'I want to pitch.' I understand that mentality and I respect that. But there comes a time where you just have to forget about yourself and think about the ballclub."

    Baseball has a long history of insisting that players "play with pain" and just "suck it up" whenever they are faced with an injury. A recognition of the absurdity of this attitude is long overdue, since a major leaguer playing at 75% is not going to be an asset to a ballclub (with a few notable exceptions) and playing through injuries often does nothing other than prolong the healing process. While Bowa seems like an unlikely source for such insight, it is still welcome and we can only hope that attitude becomes more common in the game.

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