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June 16, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Rookie: A series of injuries to the Marlins' vaunted pitching staff has caused quite a bit of traffic between Miami and Albuquerque, much of it not of much help to the major league mound corps. On May 10, after the shoulder injury to Josh Beckett, the Marlins reached all the way down to Carolina (Southern League) to haul up Dontrelle Willis, a ballyhooed prospect the Marlins received when they dealt Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca to the Cubs in March 2002. Willis blew through the minor leagues, making just six starts in Double-A this season before hitting the show. His combined minor league line was 27-5 with a 2.31 ERA in 46 starts.

    So far, he has taken to the major leagues just fine. The 21-year-old southpaw is 5-1, 3.16 in seven starts, including 4-0, 1.25 in his last four. He is striking out a man an inning, and his K/BB ratio is over three. Not only that, but he is an absolute joy to watch. He's animated on the mound, constantly fiddling with his cap--off, on, off, on--before pulling it down, tilted, over his eyes. He is tall and lanky (six-four, 195 pounds) and employs a high leg kick and long stride straight out of the 1960s. He's sounded humble off the mound, still seemingly in awe of the major leaguers and the great players he's been facing.

    Many of you are probably shaking your head and saying, "yeah, right, another Marlins pitching prospect." Fair enough. The Marlins have been careful with Willis thus far, topping him out at 109 pitches. Yes, he could get hurt tomorrow, but he could get hurt at Carolina or Albuquerque just as easily. You've got to root for this kid.

  • Star Performers: This was supposed to be the year that the Marlins competed with pitching, defense and speed. The pitching has been ravaged by injuries, but the team has stayed close to .500 because of their offense, which is fourth in the league in EqA. Although several players, notably Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Castillo, and Juan Encarnacion have made solid contributions, Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez are having All-Star caliber years, both comfortably in the NL's top 10 in RAP (runs above position).

    Lowell hit two more bombs yesterday, giving him 21 home runs on the season, one less than the major league lead and three less than his all-time high, and he's tied for the league lead with 57 RBI. Lowell has always been a good player (although his best PECOTA comp is Ray Knight, disturbing on a few levels), but the Eddie Mathews impersonation is unexpected, to say the least. The Marlins have been fielding trade offers for Lowell for several months, and one would have to think those offers are getting better and more frequent. The Cubs and Dodgers, to name just two, are very interested.

    Alex Gonzalez is even more of a surprise. He had regressed considerably since his fine rookie season in 1999, and he missed most of last season with a separated shoulder. This season he hitting .332/.375/.594, and is on pace for 23 home runs and 106 RBI. His production is straight out of Derek Jeter's peak, while Jeter is hitting like the old Alex Gonzalez.

New York Yankees

  • The Big Story: The New York tabloids and airwaves were aflutter last week with talk that Joe Torre might be on his way out, a victim of his team's inability to stay in first place every single day, or play .650 ball, or wipe out SARS.

    No, it's not rational. Joe Torre has his peccadilloes as a manager, but he's not the Yankees' problem. This controversy is yet another indication that, after hibernating for a decade, Bad George is back. Bad George is the guy behind "Bronx Burners." He's the owner who bragged to Lou Piniella, "I just won you the pennant," after orchestrating a 1987 trade for Steve Trout (6.60 ERA as a Yankee). He's the guy behind Steve Kemp and Ed Whitson and Hideki Irabu. It was the absence of Bad George that allowed the latest Yankee dynasty to spring forth, and just as he led the 1976-1980 mini-dynasty into 13 years of hell, he seems intent on tearing apart all that was built since the day of his suspension in the wake of the Howie Spira fiasco.

    Firing Joe Torre would be an illogical move worthy of...well, the commissioner's office, but it's exactly the kind of nonsensical move Steinbrenner has made many, many times:

    • After a 103-59 team was swept by the Royals in the ALCS in 1980, Steinbrenner fired Dick Howser, perhaps the first instance ever of a manager being fired with a career winning percentage of .632. Howser would win the World Series with the Royals five years later.

    • Gene Michael started the 1981 season as manager, and led the Yankees to a 34-22 record before the strike. When the Yanks got off to a 14-12 record (48-34 overall) afterwards, Steinbrenner fired Stick and replaced him with Bob Lemon, who didn't improve the team\'s regular-season work but managed to win two playoff series before losing the World Series in six games.

    • Lemon was fired 14 games into the 1982 season--with a 6-8 record--and replaced by...Stick Michael. Michael yielded to Clyde King in August as the Yankees posted their first below-.500 season since 1973, but their third three-manager campaign (Howser notched a game between Billy Martin and Lemon in 1978) in five years.

    • Steinbrenner showed a bit more patience in 1985, giving Yogi Berra 16 games to clinch the division in his second year at the helm. With the team 6-10, he hired Billy Martin for the fourth time.

    • In '88, Steinbrenner fired Martin with the Yankees at 40-28. Lou Piniella stepped in and presided over a nasty midsummer meltdown that led to a 45-48 finish.

    • Buck Showalter had the most success of any Yankee manager since Martin in the late 1970s, going 88-74, 70-43 and 79-65, but when the Yankees failed to hold a 2-0 lead in the 1995 Division Series, he was gone.

    His manager's track record hasn't mattered to Steinbrenner before, a fact that has been neatly whitewashed by Torre's run of championships. Never mind that Torre is the third-best manager in team history, never mind that he hasn't missed the postseason as Yankee manager, never mind that he has the team in first place despite the complete failure of last winter's international signings and the loss of two of the team's best hitters. Steinbrenner will dump him, because somewhere in his brain, he thinks it will work.

    He's wrong.

    If Steinbrenner fires Torre--and the commotion appears to have died down since last week--it will eventually be seen as a turning point in Yankee history, the moment when the fourth act of Steinbrenner's reign ended and the fifth began.

    It will also be a critical moment in the history of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, the day the door opened on their era in the AL East.

  • Injuries: You want the Yankee problem? Here's the Yankee problem:

    Bernie Williams: .286/.397/.457; out since May 21
    Nick Johnson: .308/.455/.517; out since May 14

    The Yankees haven't come close to replacing these two guys. The bulk of Williams' at-bats have gone to Juan Rivera, who is hitting .231/.291/.321. Johnson's playing time has ben distributed to Todd Zeile (.206/.282/.382) and Bubba Trammell (.220/.304/.320). Ruben Sierra's hot week is just that: a hot week, completely out of context with his previous 600 at-bats.

    The Yankees need Williams back, and either a decision on Johnson's availability or an actual major-league DH, or they won't score enough runs to hold off the Sox and the Jays.

  • Outstanding Performer: Jason Giambi took a couple of days off to try and wait out his eye problem (May 10 and May 11), and struggled for about a week after that. He broke out with a 2-for-4 game against the Blue Jays on May 22, and has been on a tear ever since:
        AB    H    2B   3B   HR   BB  SO    AVG   OBP   SLG
        70   23     6    0    8   21  18   .329  .484  .757
    
    There's no reason to expect anything but Big G performance from here on out.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • First Round Follies: When draft day rolls around, most organizations take the "best player available" tack, since unlike other major sports, MLB draftees aren't going to immediately help their new ballclub. The needs of a major league team can change dramatically in the two-to-four years it usually takes for a first-round draft choice to reach The Show. Even with that caveat, it's hard to decipher the decision-making process the Pirates used in making their first selection in this year's June draft.

    With the eighth pick in Round One, Pittsburgh had the opportunity to snag the best college hitter not named Rickie Weeks when their turn came up. However, instead of calling Tulane first baseman Michael Aubrey's name, the Corsairs opted for Mississippi State southpaw Paul Maholm. Adjectives used to describe Maholm include "polished" and "advanced," which is a nice way of saying that Maholm could develop into a decent fourth starter if he stays healthy. Aubrey isn't considered to be far away from the majors either, and comes with a sweet bat that will play at first base or an outfield corner.

    A statistical snapshot of the Pirates shows a team well on its way to finishing next-to-last in the NL in run scoring for the third consecutive season. While its starting staff isn't going to be confused with Oakland's anytime soon, it is right around league-average. Furthermore, the Bucs' best minor league prospects are all pitchers--they don't have a potential impact hitter above High-A ball. Aubrey would have immediately become the system\'s best hitter closest to the majors.

    The Pirates' draft day track record hints that GM Dave Littlefield subscribes to the old baseball axiom that you can't ever have too much pitching. Although Littlefield wasn't around for all of them, this is the sixth consecutive year that Pittsburgh has used its top choice on a pitcher. It's worth noting that none of the previous five have toed the slab in the majors thus far.

  • Disappointing Performer: How much is a good first impression worth? At least 170 additional at-bats, based on Reggie Sanders' 2003 campaign. Sanders blasted four home runs in his first four contests as a Pirate on his way to winning NL Player of the Week honors the inaugural week of the season. Since then, he has hit .225/.286/.361 in an updated remix of Operation Shutdown, minus the media announcement and ridiculously baggy trousers. Signed on the cheap last winter to add some pop to the lineup, Sanders instead has become part of the special rally-killing unit known as the bottom half of the Pirates' batting order.

    All hope is not lost, though. The reverse curse of the Pirates Triple Play has been shown to have wondrous curative powers. Both Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez embarked on 20+ game hitting streaks after being cited in this space for their poor play. However, despite being a notoriously streaky hitter, the 35-year-old Sanders will be a severe test for the phenomenon.

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