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June 9, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Disastrous Performer: "Bad" Ausmus never has much chance of being even an average catcher offensively, but this is ridiculous. Ausmus recently pulled into the lead in the race for worst regular catcher in the majors (as rated by VORP), underpowering the likes of Michael Barrett and Brandon Inge. He isn't even the best regular catcher in the Astros' system; >John Buck has been posting Einaresque stats at Triple-A, and even the Round Rock tandem has fared better.

    Why do clubs put up with bats like these? Defense, natch. Inge is supposed to be a great defender, despite a mixed major-league track record, and anyway, the Tigers traded away their only other option. Barrett doesn't have (or deserve) a glovely reputation, so Brian Schneider has grabbed at-bats and stated his case for the starter's job.

    Which brings us to Ausmus. He's always been a top-notch defender against the run, and this year's 39% CS rate matches his career exactly. Like with any catcher with a good rep, he's supposed to do wonders with the pitching staff. But does he?

    • Roy Oswalt: ERA up slightly, double the expected unearned runs push his RA half a run above his career mark.

    • Wade Miller: ERA about a run over his career mark even without his injury-shortened outing (two runs in 1/3 inning).

    • Jeriome Robertson: Adjusted RA of 6.51 as a starter, a small improvement over last year, and well in line with his minor-league track record.

    • Tim Redding: Adjusted ERA of 3.84, a big improvement over his career at any level.

    Among the top four starters, that's two disappointments, one doing about as expected, and a 25-year-old turning the corner. Overall, the rotation's adjusted RA is 5.23--it was 4.43 last year, 5.12 the year before. For his ball-handling skills to offset his bat, the pitching staff's 'true' ERA would have to be around 6, which can't be the case.

    If Ausmus doesn't help the pitchers, and he's hitting even less than usual, what's the point?

  • Draft: Houston lost their first-round pick to the Giants when Jeff Kent fell into their lap. While that's worked out a lot better than wasting a pick on a guy like Mike Magnante, the club was still stuck without a first round pick. In the second round they took juco pitcher Jason Hirsh.

    The club's next three picks were center fielders from a variety of levels. After watching several uninspiring defenders there over the last few years, you can understand their focus. However, it's still unclear whether third-round pick Drew Stubbs will go pro, or report to the University of Texas.

  • Amazing game: On May 31st, after 15 scoreless innings which saw almost as many Cubbie whiffs (22) as combined baserunners (24), Kent booted a Corky Sosa grounder, allowing the winning run to score. But perhaps the most amazing part was when radio broadcasters named home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman player of the game. Uh, guys? Umpires are not players? Ah, never mind.

  • Schedule: Now that the Astros have assumed the division lead, they embark on a brutal interleague trip to New York and Boston. Usually a club calls up a bat like Jason Lane to take advantage of the DH spot, but don't expect any roster moves. The DH should allow Jimy Williams to get Morgan Ensberg's bat into the lineup while indulging in his fetish for Geoff Blum's glove. (We're still awaiting an explanation of how Blum's glove could possibly offset an OPS advantage of more than a pitcher...no doubt the old school is involved.)

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Marketing Madness: The Brewers have decided to play off the foul play of the team's Royce Claytons and offer fans the promise of guaranteed foul balls. For $36, the Brewers will guarantee fans leave Miller Park with either a foul ball or a ball used during a game. "One of the great thrills for a baseball fan is to leave the ballpark with a ball used during the game," Jim Bathey, assistant vice president in charge of ticket sales, said recently. What, Keith Osik isn't thrilling enough?

    The tickets, in the outfield boxes at field level, come with a voucher that can be redeemed for a game-used baseball. The promotion started Friday against the Red Sox and will run intermittently throughout the season. Despite the promotion and the team's first interleague game of the year, against the star-studded Sox no less, the Brewers drew just 20,195 fans, a modest increase over the team's average attendance of 16,993 heading into Friday's game. Attendance was down 25% through 29 home dates heading into Friday's game.

  • Streaking: You can't blame the team's attendance woes on their recent play. The Brewers had won six of their last seven and seven of nine following Friday's 9-3 win over Boston. Before heading home to play the Sox, Milwaukee had enjoyed one of its best road trips in years, taking two out of three in San Diego, two out of three in L.A., and going two for two against the Mets at Shea Stadium (rain washed out the start of the series). Of course that was before Kevin Millar struck for three homers in five at-bats Saturday and Sunday, netting the Sox two straight wins to take the series 2-1.

  • Hot Hot Heat: Richie Sexson has asserted himself as one of the best first basemen in baseball this season. A recent hot streak has helped cement his status among the elite. Sexson has hit safely in six straight games through Sunday; he cranked three homers and a double over a recent four-game stretch in L.A. and New York. After dropping from 45 to 29 homers from 2001 to 2002 (while jumping from 24 to 37 doubles), Sexson has seen more balls clear the fence again this year. Through Sunday Sexson stood tied for second in major league homers, tied with Carlos Delgado with 19, while trailing Adam Dunn by one--Sexson's on pace for 50 bombs. He's hiked his walk rate as well, with 37 through 61 games, on pace for a career-high 98. Sexson leads the NL in VORP for first basemen at 17.1, trailing only Delgado and Mike Sweeney in the big leagues.

  • Cold Draft: Most observers applauded the Brew Crew's selection of Southern University 2B Rickie Weeks with the second pick in the draft. Weeks hit .483 with 17 homers and became the second player in Division I history to lead the nation in batting average for two straight seasons. He also stole 31 bases without being caught this season, 65 in 66 tries over his collegiate career. Weeks has been almost universally praised for his tools, a double-edged sword; he'll need to ratchet up his plate discipline and improve his defense to make and excel in the majors. Still, Weeks was considered such a slam dunk that several prospect hounds rated him as the top player on their draft boards.

    Draftniks were far less impressed with the Brewers' second-round pick, San Diego State OF Anthony Gwynn. A spray hitter known for speed and defense, Gwynn has shown little power while posting less-than-overwhelming walk rates. If you're Tony Gwynn and can hit .330 every year in the majors, that formula can work. We'll see if TGwynn's son can do the same--whispers around draft day pegged Anthony Gwynn as a reach driven by name value. Granted, the Brewers drafted Cecil Fielder's son Prince Fielder in the first round last year. But Prince can mash, as he showed in high school and has continued to show this year--he's posted a .325 Minor League EqA this season, among the leaders in the Midwest League. Though whispers of nepotism didn't pop up in the Brewers' later rounds, several of the club's picks were seen as reaches given expected draft slots.

    This raises an interesting philosophical question: If Weeks becomes a star and no else pans out, how do you grade the Brewers' 2003 draft? Readers?

Oakland Athletics

  • Draft Recap: The last few seasons, the Oakland Athletics have built their highly effective draft strategy the past few years on the theory that high school hurlers are as likely to reach their potential as Cecil "The Glacier" Fielder is to reach on a drag bunt. Judging from the 2003 MLB First-Year Player Draft completed last week, the rest of the league is beginning to follow Oakland's lead with regards to high school players, especially pitchers. While prognosticating the fortunes of the players drafted last week is as dubious an idea as taping yourself as a Jedi on the school video camera, looking more closely at whom the A's acquired confirms their stated draft strategies and provides insight as to some players who should be moving up through the Oakland system in the next year or two.

    • Brad Sullivan (RHP, Houston) posted a 1.82 ERA and a 13-1 record. How did he slip to the A's at #25? Because he posted that line in 2002. In 2003, he was 6-7 with a 2.71 ERA. For those paying attention though, he maintained his strong K/9 numbers (11.4) and kept his walks down. After a stellar performance for Team USA last summer, Sullivan was overshadowed by his Houston teammate Ryan Wagner (selected 14th by the Reds) who posted a ludicrous 16.7 K/9. Sullivan's unfortunate W-L record is nothing but a run of bad luck at the perfect time for the A's. Houston's strong schedule and Sullivan's large data sample size make him a safer bet than other pitchers available. Look for him to advance quickly through the A's minor league system and further clog the Sacramento and Midland rotations with top-flight pitching prospects.

    • Brian Snyder (3B, Stetson) was among the Division I leaders with a .504 OBP and 45 walks. It's no surprise that he posted extremely similar numbers (.508, 50) in 2002. Detractors point to Snyder's lack of power, but though his home runs declined from 14 to 10, his other extra-base hits increased from 17 to 25, a strong indicator of power to come in the future. The Blue Jays were reported to be very interested in Snyder before the draft, and it's likely that the A's could have taken him with a later pick if J.P. Ricciardi wasn't flying the great ship SkyDome.

    • Omar Quintanilla (SS, Texas) is an intriguing pick because his offensive numbers stand out very distinctly from the rest of the top eight hitters the A's drafted. Unfortunately, they don't stand out in a good way. Quintanilla has registered a mere 28 free passes the last two seasons combined with OBPs of .379 and .408. He has shown slight power potential with 21 and 16 XBA, but he'll have to improve these numbers significantly before he ascends the minor league ladder. Perhaps this was a budget pick, considering the $9 million it took to sign last year's draft class, but the reasons for drafting Quintanilla at this point are unclear.

    • The A's second round pick, Andre Ethier (CF, Arizona State) also bears watching. Ethier was actually drafted by the A's out of Chandler-Gilbert CC two years ago on a flyer in the 37th round, but instead became a Sun Devil for two years. While his 31 BB, .463 OBP, and 21 XBA in 2002 were impressive, his 51, .487, and 25 in 2003 were a significant improvement, especially when noting that those additional XBHs were HRs. Considering the quality of play in the Pac-10, Ethier's numbers become even more impressive, and he could move up to high-A ball very quickly.

    Other players to keep an eye out for in a couple years: Vasili Spanos (3B, Indiana; .513 OBP) and Luke Appert (2B, Minnesota; 27 2Bs) taken in the 11th and sixth rounds, respectively. In total, the A's stuck by their now well-publicized draft strategy of taking college players; the A's drafted but one high schooler on the first day of the draft with their 21st pick overall, though they did take a couple fliers on high school pitchers on Day 2. Though none of these picks have garnered the same publicity that players like Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks, they conform well to the A's low-risk, low-cost draft strategy that is keeping the farm well stocked with replacements for departing free agents and fodder for Billy Beane's trades.

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