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June 6, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • Apocalypse Now?: Punch up your favorite team in your mind. Now try and imagine the worst-case scenario for that team.

    • Bud Selig takes over control of the team.

    • You play in a state of neverending limbo, teetering back and forth between the brink of relocation and extinction.

    • You lose 3/5 of your starting rotation.

    • You lose your best player--one of the best players in baseball.

    • Doug Flynn becomes your new cleanup hitter.

    OK, we haven't seen the return of "Foot In The Bucket" Flynn yet--he used to bail out on every pitch like he had his foot in a bucket--but the rest is all, amazingly, true. The Expos started the year with serious shoulder injuries (are there any other kind?) to Orlando Hernandez and Tony Armas Jr..

    Then Zach Day, who barely eked out a rotation spot out of spring training with El Duque's injury, then improbably became a staff savior (3.44 ERA in 11 starts despite a 30:32 K:BB ratio, thanks to the most extreme GB/FB rate in the majors and plenty of luck), jumped to the DL after colliding with Wil Cordero on a freak play at first May 28. Day's now out for six-to-eight weeks with a torn rotator cuff, which is kind of like saying he'll be out two days with a broken leg; given the history of torn rotator cuffs, the Expos will be lucky to see him healthy on Opening Day 2004.

    The death blow may have come yesterday, when an MRI on Vladimir Guerrero's ailing back revealed a herniated disc. As Will Carroll notes in today's UTK, Vlad will get epidural injections to control the inflamed disc and attempt to reduce the nerve impingement in his back. The severity of the injury's still not entirely known however: Guerrero had reported pain all the way down to his legs, to the point where he could barely get up to walk to the bathroom. The Montreal Gazette reports that Vlad will "probably be sidelined for an extended period of time." Vlad is expected to see spine surgeon Robert Watkins for a second opinion.

    Despite the team's run of bad luck and horrendous road trip (they're 2-8 during their 22-game, 25-day sojourn from Florida to Philadelphia to Puerto Rico to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh), the Expos remain atop the Wild Card standings with a half-game bulge over the Dodgers, thanks to the team's best-ever start of 32-18. Guerrero's injury would seem to ring the death knell for the team's playoff hopes this season though. The Expos' final hope: Ewing Theory, anyone?

  • Wretched Performers: Fernando Tatis is a serious contender for the title of worst regular in the majors. Tatis has put up a mesmerizing line of .211/.281/.299 this season while playing third base with the range of Steve Balboni and the arm of...what has no arm?...a snake, that'll do. Jamey Carroll and Jose Macias have filled in decently at times, but neither has the bat to be respectable in full-time duty. For all the Mike Lowell trade buzz floating around, no team could use Lowell more than the Expos. Injuries have turned their already thin trade bait to nil however.

    Speaking of trade bait, Michael Barrett could have been a valuable trade chit to the Expos, with his 2003 salary of nearly $3 million being used to partially offset a mid-salaried trade acquisition, a la Lee Stevens and prospects for Bartolo Colon last year. Except that Barrett has gone from promising young catcher to disaster, "hitting" a mind-boggling .138/.210/.257 this season. Tatis has competition in the Pantheon of Ugliness.

  • Amazing Debut: All Julio Manon did last night in his major league debut was pitch four scoreless innings in the 10th to 13th, saving the gassed bullpen, wiggling out of several huge jams and playing a pivotal role in halting a nasty five-game losing streak. He'd racked up 12 saves as the closer for Triple-A Edmonton, with an ERA of 0.99 in 22 games this season. In 27 1/3 innings, Manon gave up 17 hits, walked 12 and struck out 35.

    In BP 2003, we wrote: "Manon has pitched well as a starter and in relief in Double-A, Triple-A, and the winter leagues over the last two seasons. Domestic disputes and other off-field troubles have prevented him from taking the next step. Demoted to Harrisburg last year to give him time to straighten himself out and to make room for pitchers acquired in trades, Manon posted an outrageous line of 51 strikeouts to four walks in 39 innings. He may have been a 29-year-old at Double-A at the time, but the organization was happy to see him thrive in a playoff atmosphere. He could be another Brendan Donnelly if the Expos give him a clean shot at a bullpen job."

    Next up, Operation Free Terrmel Sledge.

San Francisco Giants

  • One Rookie Down, Another Up: Kurt Ainsworth was pitching his best ball of the year the past couple of starts, but he'll be on the shelf for two weeks after coming up with a sore shoulder. The injury isn't thought to be serious--tests revealed inflammation but no serious damage--but the Giants put him on the DL anyway to make sure he gets plenty of rest. Smart move with a young pitcher.

    Taking Ainsworth's place in the rotation is fellow righty phenom Jerome Williams, the number one pitching prospect in baseball in our Top 40 Prospects list (also found, with detailed commentary, in Baseball Prospectus 2003.) Williams has impressed with his stuff if not his results in his two major league starts so far.

    Giants announcer Mike Krukow sees a lot of Livan Hernandez in Williams--yes, that's supposed to be a compliment--but he reminds us more of Greg Maddux. Now obviously, we're not saying he's going to have Greg Maddux's career, but he has a similar motion and a similar mix of stuff to the Braves great. He's shown good command of four pitches, he'll throw any of them at any time in the count, and he mixes speeds well. And, in a non-Madduxian twist, he has a nasty move to first.

    At this point in a description of any promising young pitcher, it's customary to write that he's shown maturity beyond his years and is the consummate poised professional on the mound. Uh, no. Williams is a 21-year-old kid, and he acts the part. He's shown cases of nerves in Fresno the past two years, and at times in his big league appearances he's looked like he's about to hyperventilate, even when he's pitching well.

    But the nervousness is not a big long-term issue. As Williams gets more major league experience he'll be less prone to being rattled. If there's any question mark on Williams' future, it's the velocity he's shown in his Giants appearances. Granted, two starts isn't that much to go on, but he hasn't yet cracked 90 on the network guns, and he's spent much of his time living in the mid-80s. Even Maddux throws harder than that.

  • Not a Dry Eye in the House: Rich Aurilia's relatively slow start has some Giants observers concerned, but much of his meager production at the plate can be blamed on an eye problem that's since cleared up. Aurilia struggled through the latter half of April with dry eyes under his contact lens, eventually forcing him out of the lineup for three days. His numbers before the layoff--.242/.298/.389--make him look like a run-of-the-mill shortstop, or worse. But since coming back he's been hitting .276/.346/.414 --much closer to the Aurilia of old.

  • Draft The Giants packed their minor league system with yet more pitching in the amateur draft earlier this week, spending their top two picks, and 30 of their 52 overall, on pitchers. Their top pick was right hander David Aardsma of the soon-to-be College World Series Champion Rice Owls (not that we have a rooting interest). Aardsma is a reliever at Rice, but the Giants plan for now to develop him as a starter.

    Given the Giants' recent success in developing minor league pitchers, it's hard to argue with them for going with what they know. A recent scouting trip to Hagerstown, Maryland's Municipal Stadium gave us a glimpse at the Giants' use of high draft picks on position players. Fred Lewis, center fielder for the Giants' low-A affiliate Hagerstown Suns and the Giants' second pick in the 2002 draft, looks a little like Willie McGee, with his slappy swing and smooth coverage of center. But his .255/.375/.340 work at the plate won't cause any confusion with McGee. Lewis is still young, and it's not impossible that he'll develop into a good fourth outfielder or even a decent lead-off hitter, but he's a long way from being an impact major leaguer.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • How Do You Spell M-V-P?: On a Blue Jays team with plenty of contribution to go around, nobody has been more essential to the team's early success than slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado. As this is written, Delgado is leading the AL in Equivalent Runs, and his .321/.437/.642 line looks a lot more like his monster 2000 season than either 2001 or 2002 did.

    What's the difference, besides a contending team? An easily overlooked part of the equation is Delgado's performance against lefties. Like fellow left-handed sluggers Ryan Klesko and Jim Thome (both among Delgado's most comparable players according to PECOTA), Delgado has his troubles hitting portsiders. Last year, he was at his worst against them, hitting more like Wilson Delgado on greenies in almost a third of his plate appearances. So far this year, he's back to respectability, with a line against left-handers that wouldn't look out of place in Trot Nixon's career.

    
               Overall              vs. Left
    Year    AVG  OBP  SLG      PA%   AVG  OBP  SLG
    2000   .344 .470 .664      31%  .319 .422 .537
    2001   .279 .408 .540      28%  .246 .338 .433
    2002   .277 .406 .549      32%  .238 .325 .360
    2003   .321 .437 .642      33%  .263 .364 .487
    

    Sub in last year's performance against lefties for this year and Delgado's hitting .314/.425/.605--still very good, but with less separation from Boone, Martinez, and Mora (!) among the AL batting leaderboards.

    Obviously, its early to be talking about MVP performances. With that disclaimer out of the way, first base has been uncharacteristically weak so far this season--only Nick Johnson and Mike Sweeney have half of Delgado's RARP in the AL, and Johnson's not going to improve his standing from the DL. Traditional first base powers Jason Giambi and Thome are either having off-years or have moved on to the NL. The Blue Jays have the surprise contender campaign going for Delgado thus far, and Delgado will have an excellent chance of besting his 2000 fourth-place finish if he and his team can keep this up all season.

  • Schedule: Toronto fans have a lot to be excited about, as the team has played very well and pulled themselves into contention over the last five weeks.

    
                  Overall    Since
    Team           Record    May 1
    New York        34-25    13-19
    Boston          33-25    15-16
    Toronto         32-29    22-11
    Baltimore       28-30    15-18
    Tampa Bay       22-36    12-19
    

    Understandably, the confluence of mediocre months by the Red Sox and Yankees and a month-long hot streak has Blue Jays fans looking towards changing the balance of power in the AL East sooner than expected, but that talk's as premature as discussing the MVP at this point. J.P. Ricciardi and the Jays are showing commitment to sticking with the rebuilding plan, and as Joe Sheehan notes, that's still the right thing to do. The Yankees look too deep to be scuffling for long, the Red Sox aren't firing on all cylinders either, and the Jays will need another month of sustained success before thinking about the postseason makes much sense.

    They're headed into the right part of the schedule to get that month, with two series against the suddenly-vulnerable, possibly Vladless Montreal Expos, a run at the Reds pitching staff (they're scheduled to catch HACKING MASS superstar Jimmy Haynes in his second start since his return from the DL on Sunday--tasty), three games against the always-hapless Pirates, and a series at Detroit.

    A great barometer for how seriously to take this team will be the ten games versus the surprisingly spry Baltimore Orioles in the next month. If the Blue Jays come out of June in fourth place in the division, it's time to start working the phone lines to trade players away, not acquire them.

  • From The Mailbag: In response to our earlier entry on Frank Catalanotto, reader M.S. reminds us that Cat will be one day short of the service time requirement to be a free agent following the 2003 season. That's true; it's our guess that if Catalanotto hits .320, he'll be too expensive for the Jays' liking, but the organization certainly has the rights to him until that point.

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