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June 2, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Prospects: In the 2000 amateur draft, the Marlins took slugging high school first basemen in the first two rounds--Adrian Gonzalez and Jason Stokes--who were, by the end of 2002, two of the best hitting prospects in the game. Gonzalez is in Triple-A, playing for the Albuquerque Isotopes, but hitting just .216 with one home run in 39 games, for an EqA of .205. Stokes, rated the better prospect by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus this off-season, is the same age but playing two levels lower, for Jupiter in the Florida State League. After dismantling the Midwest League last year (.373 EqA) he is still adjusting to the FSL, with a .272 EqA in his first 196 plate appearances.

    The most positive development is in Carolina, where third baseman Miguel Cabrera is tearing apart the Southern League, hitting .373 with 22 doubles, 8 home runs and 20 walks in 51 games, for a league-leading .364 EqA. Cabrera was signed out of Venezuela in 2000 and is just 20 years old. He was originally a shortstop and moved to third base in 2002. With the looming possibility of a teardown in Florida this summer, Cabrera could find himself in the major leagues sooner than expected.

  • Atmosphere: What with the drama and controversy surrounding the injuries to A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett, the firings of manager Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, the curious hiring of Jack McKeon, and the near-constant trade rumors, there is a growing sense that the Marlins are playing out the string. The hiring of McKeon, which resulted in a fine from the commissioner's office because the teams did not interview minority candidates, is more problematic for what it says about the team's long-range plans. This is probably not earth shattering news to you, but there is no plan. Every decision the Marlins make seems unconnected to anything else. The off-season signing of catcher Ivan Rodriguez--what exactly was the point?

    Most of the players assume that the team will be torn asunder in mid-season, with Mike Lowell nearly certain to go, and Derrek Lee, Brad Pennyand Carl Pavano likely to have their suitors as well. It is hard to work up much sympathy for the people who "run" this franchise, but the players who have to go to work every day deserve better.

  • Attendance: After some last-minute cheating allowed the Marlins to beat out the Expos to finish 29th in attendance last year, there is a third strong contender to finish last in 2003. Per game attendance through Saturday:
    
    Tampa Bay 11,852
    Montreal 12,389
    Florida 13,373
    
    

    Who do you like?

    Devil Ray fans, shockingly, have not been rushing the turnstiles to watch local boy Lou Piniella change pitchers. Their fans' performance in staying home thus far has been impressive considering all of the buzz associated with their new manager, center fielder Rocco Baldelli, and other assorted newcomers.

    Montreal, the defending champion, has two big disadvantages: (1) they are a good team, which at some point might attract a crowd or two, and (2) they play 13 more games in Puerto Rico, which will almost certainly bring in 14,000 or more people per game. The Expos big edge is that their "owners" don't give a rat's ass about them, which could allow them a few clutch crowds of 2,500 in August.

    Although it's an uphill fight, the Marlins are more than capable of making up the gap. They have antagonized the people of South Florida a lot already, but if they start dealing off players, they could gain ground in a hurry.

    It's a race worth watching.

New York Yankees

  • Contreras Conundrum: One start, it seems, changes everything for the Yankees, from a new role for Jeff Weaver to the end of the Ed Whitson jokes. George Steinbrenner had made his desire to get a return on his four-year, $32 million investment known to anyone who'd listen. That meant carving out a spot for Contreras in the Yankee rotation, one way or another. With David Wells back pitching (he tossed 5.2 innings of relief in Sunday 17-inning marathon) the Yanks had too many arms on deck--six starters, five starting jobs.

    On Friday night, Contreras gave the Yanks the excuse they needed to slide him into the rotation and send Weaver, author of a 5.81 ERA in May, to the pen. Never mind Weaver's track record. Never mind Contreras' 15.63 ERA through his first six relief appearances, followed by a another rough outing in his first game back from the minors.

    No, instead Contreras gets the benefit of the doubt, thanks to two relief outings that yielded five scoreless, one-hit innings, followed by Friday night's start. It was a beauty, no doubt it. Seven innings, no runs, two hits, one walk, six strikeouts, an efficient 81 pitches thrown. Unfortunately Contreras' start came in Detroit, against the lowliest of lowlies, the Tigers. That night's lineup:

    
    CF Alex Sanchez
    2B Jeff Bower
    RF Bobby Higginson 
    LF Dmitri Young
    1B Kevin Witt
    DH Mario Mendoza
    3B Eric Munson
    C  Brandon Inge
    SS Lara Flynn Boyle
    
    

    OK, Ramon Santiago, Craig Monroe, and Omar Infante played 2B, DH, and SS, but would anyone have noticed if Bower, Mendoza, and Boyle got spot starts in their stead? Here's each player's OPS this season, through Sunday:

    
    CF Sanchez 653
    2B Santiago 576
    RF Higginson 736
    LF Young 842
    1B Witt 819 (in 35 AB)
    DH Monroe 602
    3B Munson 704
    C  Inge 503
    SS Infante 513
    
    

    Color us unconvinced. Contreras may turn out OK, or he may not. But this was a decision borne of politics, not ability or performance. With the already-strong Red Sox adding Byung-Hyun Kim and the Blue Jays terrorizing the league with baseball's best offense, the Yankees can ill afford to make key personnel decisions on a whim--the owner's or anyone else's.

  • Drafty: While we won't try to play the Mel Kiper Jr. role for Tuesday's amateur draft, there's talk that the Yankees may be in the running for Rice first baseman Vince Sinisi. The lefty-swinging slugger has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Rice alum Lance Berkman and could end up in the outfield down the road, though his arm is reportedly weak. We'll refrain from calling him Berkman Jr. for now, but Sinisi's a polished hitting prospect with power and strike zone judgment--he put up a line of 361/444/526 with 39 BB and 29 K in just under 300 plate appearances this year, against good competition, according to Boyd Nation's strength of schedule ratings. Repped by Scott Boras, Sinisi's expected to command a heavy price tag at the draft table, which may drop him down to the Yankees' 27th overall pick. We'll see: This is a draft that's light on college hitters, and Sinisi may thus go earlier. Drafting a college-groomed hitter will usually earn kudos from BP. When you're a team like the Yankees, desperately lacking upper-level hitting prospects, it's a doubly good move, if available.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Interleague play kicks off for the Bombers with a three-game set at Great American Ballpark against the Cincinnati Reds. The Yanks then travel to Wrigley Field to face the Cubs before heading home to face the Astros and Cardinals. They end their nine-game homestand with three against the Devil Rays. Jason Giambi will slide over to first base for the six games in NL parks, with Todd Zeile taking a seat. The four NL teams sport a collective .516 winning percentage, so the Yankees aren't getting any favors out of interleague play. Watch out for flying objects in Cincinnati though. Soriano, Posada, Jeter, and company have to be licking their chops at the prospect of facing the Reds, the NL's worst team in terms of run prevention at 6.18 runs a game.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Misplaced Priorities: Last Wednesday afternoon, Pittsburgh squared off against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Having won the first two contests in the three-game series, the Pirates were looking to sweep the NL Central leaders and pick up some more ground. The task was daunting with Mark Prior on the mound, and made more difficult by manager Lloyd McClendon's decision to rest the Bucs' hottest hitter, Kenny Lofton.

    In spite of the obstacles and a couple of bad umpiring calls that went against them (one of which earned McLendon an ejection), the Corsairs had a chance to pull the game out in the ninth inning. Down 5-4 with runners on first and second and two outs, feeble-hitting Abraham Nunez was due to face Chicago closer Joe Borowski. The situation screamed for a pinch hitter…a left-handed pinch hitter…Kenny Lofton. The screams went unanswered. Left to hit away, Nunez grounded out weakly to second.

    Why was Lofton, batting over .400 in May and in the throes of a 25-game hitting streak, left on the pine with the game hanging in the balance? Simply because McClendon didn't want to be responsible if Lofton's hitting streak came to an end. McClendon decided that Lofton's personal achievements were more important than greatly increasing his team's chances of winning the ballgame.

    Given the right set of circumstances, there are times when such a decision is defensible. However, a third of the way into the season with an opportunity to pull within six games of the division lead is not one of those times. McClendon has been getting a lot of undeserved criticism from Pirate fans for the team's poor performance this season. In this instance, he earned it.

  • Drop the Curtain: Kevin Young has been something of a BP whipping boy since the previous administration foolishly signed him to a four-year, $24 million contract after what was obviously a career year in 1999. As expected, Young's numbers have fallen off the table, but the deal has kept him in Pittsburgh long enough to allow him to rank third all-time in games played by Pirates' first basemen.

    Happily, in spite of our insufferable grousing, Young has remained a relatively popular figure in the Steel City. That popularity and his being just 10 base knocks short of the 1,000-hit milestone were the primary reasons the Pirates decided to ride out the last year of his contract and make him the lesser half in a job-sharing arrangement with Randall Simon this season.

    Any warm fuzzies that management might have anticipated from a KY Farewell Tour are long gone, though. Since collecting hit number 1,000 on April 23, Young has managed only four more over the past six weeks. And in response to the team's string of crummy performances at PNC Park, resulting in a league-worst 8-19 home record, Young chose to point fingers at less-than-enthusiastic fans for not creating a home-field advantage. It all adds up to the Pirates carrying an immobile fielder hitting .209/.312/.343, with an immovable contract, who is booed whenever he steps on the field.

    At this point, Young brings absolutely nothing to the ballclub. It's well past time to cut bait, hand his at-bats to Craig Wilson and start taking the job of winning ballgames a little more seriously.

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