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June 18, 2003

Analyze This

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

 

Baltimore Orioles

 

  • Can It Be Two?: For the last two years, the Orioles have not had a genuine All-Star caliber player to send to the Midsummer classic. Cal Ripken was their 2001 entry, an obvious sentimental choice, who made it because of his career and in spite of his season; last year's selection of Tony Batista was of the "we have to take somebody from the Orioles" variety. This year Mike Scioscia could very well give the Orioles two All-Stars for the first time this millennium. The surprising Melvin Mora is a virtual lock (leading the AL in batting average and, much more importantly, Equivalent Average) and provides positional flexibility galore (and who knows how important that might be under the new All-Star rules?). Also presenting himself for consideration is Sir Sidney Ponson. He is now 9-3, second in the league in the oh-so-important (to voters) win category, and has raised his game to go with his new social status. Here's his stat line, before and after knighthood:
             G   IP   H   R   HR BB SO   W-L    H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9  R/9
    Before   5   30.0 32  17  3  8  23   2-2    9.6  0.9  2.4  6.9  5.10
    After    8   59.0 54  21  2  19 45   7-1    8.2  0.3  2.9  6.9  3.20
    
    

    So what's different about Sidney, other than being a minor noble? Far and away, the eye-catching difference between these Ponson lines and those of the past is the HR column. From the rest of his career, you would have expected him to give up 13 in 89 innings, not 5. His ground/fly ratio is around 1.50--about the same as last year, and well above his 1.21 career mark. His recent success is all about following an old formula: keep the ball down and throw strikes.

     

  • He's Back: While the Orioles are undoubtedly happy to have Ponson pitching like a #1 starter, that role was supposed to be filled by Rodrigo Lopez, coming off a remarkable 2002 season that saw him pitch the Culiacan Tomato Growers to the Caribbean World Series title, go 15-9 season in the majors, and finish just short of the Rookie of the Year award. Fate, however, has been cruel to him and the Orioles, as he began badly (0-3 in 6 starts, with a 7.36 ERA) and then went on the DL for six weeks with a strained oblique muscle. Lopez was supposed to make a couple of rehab starts, but was so dominating at Double-A Bowie (6.1 innings, 3 hits, no runs, no walks, 13 Ks) that they decided one was probably enough. He beat the Brewers on Saturday to get his first win of the year. His return mercifully forces Pat Hentgen (1-4, 5.90 in five starts) back to the bullpen.

     

  • Interleague Play...: ...did not suit the Orioles this year, going 4-8 through the first phase. The stars of this PTP did fine--Ponson won his two starts, and Lopez won his one--which means the rest of the pitching staff went 1-8 in the other nine games, while allowing 75 runs. Partly, that is because three of the four series were against the Astros, Cardinals, and Cubs, all above .500 and contending for the NL Central title. It is the first time this season that the Orioles have run into a series of good teams, and it won't get easier. From now until the All-Star break, they will face the Blue Jays, the Braves, the Jays again, the Phillies, the Yankees, the Jays yet again, the Mariners, and the A's, eight series and six teams with an average record of 40-27...with more Yankees, Jays, Red Sox, and Twins after the break. Between now and August 11, nearly two long months away, the Orioles only have two games (out of 50) against a team that is currently below .500.

 

Colorado Rockies

 

  • Zero Stars: In two weeks we'll look at the Rockies' possible all-stars, but this time out we'll look at the zero stars--those Rockies who are playing at a rate below replacement level.

     

    • Brent Butler: Butler was expected to compete for the 2B or 3B job, or at least claim the primary utility infielder slot, but a wrist injury in spring training and a wretched 483 OPS this season has left his roster spot in jeopardy when Ron Belliard returns from the disabled list.

       

    • Greg Norton: Norton was in the mix for the 3B job this spring but lost out to Chris Stynes. Norton so far has been ineffective at providing a bat off of the bench, hitting only .224/.277/.327.

       

    • Gabe Kapler: Kapler was unable to beat out Jay Payton for the left field job this spring and has been ineffective in limited playing time, posting only a 561 OPS. He was designated for assignment yesterday.

       

    • Jose Hernandez: Seemed like a good signing as the Rockies' new 3B, but his offense as the Rockies' SS (replacing the injured Juan Uribe) has been a major disappointment. After hitting 25 homers last year for Milwaukee, Hernandez has hit only eight so far this year, despite the Coors Field effect. Rockies management helped Hernandez make major changes in his approach at the plate last week, figuring he has nowhere to go but up.

       

    • Aaron Cook: Having allowed 97 hits and 37 walks in 76 2/3 issues while striking out only 27 batters, Cook has earned himself a ticket back to Triple-A despite a decent Coors ERA. A control pitcher who can't dominate hitters in any way, it's hard to imagine future success with the Rockies for him.

       

    • Todd Jones: After a solid 2002 in which he thrived on the road and survived Coors, Jones was mentioned as a possibility for a closer job. But 2003 has been a complete nightmare for him so far, with a resulting ERA of 7.78. The Rockies are uncertain what to do with Jones, and in fact gave him his first major league start last week, but no other team is likely to take him off Colorado's hands.

       

    • Jose Jimenez: Jimenez has pitched more bad baseball this year than any other closer with 10 or more save opportunities (Jorge Julio and Jose Mesa come close), yet he's somehow still blown only two of 18 save opportunities so far this season. That trend will not continue if he keeps imploding.

     

  • It's a Virtue: Rockies manager Clint Hurdle and hitting coach Duane Espy emphasized patience at the plate in the preseason, and the Rockies seem to have successfully absorbed the lesson. Of the nine Rockies who have gotten more than 150 plate appearances, eight are receiving more pitches per plate appearance than they did last year. A number of players have become significantly more patient in 2003. They include:

     

    • Ron Belliard, who has increased his pitches per plate appearance from 3.56 in 2002 to 4.12 this season

       

    • Larry Walker, 3.40 in 2002 to 3.90 this season

       

    • Charles Johnson, 3.58 in 2002 to 3.87 this season

    The only player with more than 150 plate appearances for the Rockies who has seen fewer pitches per plate appearance in 2003 than last year is Preston Wilson, whose previous team, the Marlins, had made him too tentative at the plate by trying to fix his high strikeout rate, resulting in the worst batting average and isolated power of his career in 2002. The Rockies have thus been wary of fixing him (though Wilson did combine patience and success in earlier years of his career).

    Wilson aside, as a result of their newfound patience, the Rockies are not only seeing more and better pitches. They're also walking at a rate one-third higher than they did in 2002. Overall, the team OBP is up 16 points so far this year, from .337 to .353.

 

New York Mets

 

  • Front Office: The Mets finally fired Steve Phillips, replacing him on an interim basis with Jim Duquette. The dismissal was long expected, as Phillips was never able to steer an aging roster back into a pennant race after winning the 2000 National League pennant. His frantic efforts--which were arguably the right thing to do--left the Mets old, expensive, fragile and out of the picture in the NL East.

    Duquette's background is in player development, and this is his first GM job. He is theoretically a candidate to keep the job, but is more likely placeholding until this winter, when Fred Wilpon will go shopping for a high-profile GM. Billy Beane's name will be high on the list, as will Beane's second-in-command Paul DePodesta.

    The fun scenario that's hanging in the distance would give the Mets an accomplished general manager and back-page space for weeks. George Steinbrenner may well make GM Brian Cashman the fall guy for the Yankees unforgivable run of title-free seasons. If that happens--or if Cashman simply gets fed up with Steinbrenner's meddling and quits--Wilpon should swoop in and give Cashman free rein to remake the Mets' roster.

     

  • Prospect Watch: Prospect no more, Jose Reyes made his major-league debut last week, the first of the Mets' big five (Aaron Heilman, Justin Huber, David Wright, and Scott Kazmir are the others) to reach Shea Stadium. He's not off to a shining start: .200/.194/.333 in 30 at-bats, with no walks (though his grand slam on Sunday in Anaheim grabbed headlines).

    Reyes is an excellent prospect, but it's starting to look like he's being rushed. A year ago, he was playing for St. Lucie in the Florida State League. Now he's playing for the Mets. That kind of progress makes sense if a player has earned it, but Reyes is moving forward largely on the strength of his reputation and skills; it certainly isn't warranted by his performance. Since leaving Florida::

                                    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   BB   SO
    Double-A Binghamton (2002)     275   .287  .331  .425   16   42
    Triple-A Norfolk (2003)        160   .269  .333  .356   15   25
    New York (2003)                 30   .200  .194  .333    0    2
    
    

    Setting aside three months in the Florida State League, Reyes' strikeout-to-walk ratio as a pro is 177-to-69 in 1,004 at-bats. That doesn't mean he's not a prospect--he's 20, for crying out loud--but it does call into question whether he's overmatched at these higher levels.

    The path that Reyes has traveled calls to mind Vernon Wells, who shot through the Blue Jays' system at the age of 20 in 1999, flying through three levels and ending the year with 88 at-bats in Toronto. The rush to declare him another Andruw Jones was fierce, and perhaps obscured the deterioration in his K/BB numbers as he rose through the system:

                                    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   BB   SO
    High-A Dunedin                 265   .343  .403  .543   26   34
    Double-A Knoxville             106   .340  .400  .519   12   15
    Triple-A Syracuse              129   .310  .357  .481   10   22
    Toronto                         88   .261  .293  .352    4   18
    
    

    Wells spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A, and didn't take hold of the Jays' center-field job until last summer. He's now an excellent player and a big part of a contending Blue Jays team. It may take Reyes, who displays many of the same characteristics, just as long to help the Mets win.

     

  • Outstanding Performer: Jae Seo ripped off his sixth consecutive quality start last night, throwing 6 2/3 shutout innings to lower his ERA to 2.66. Seo doesn't strike out a lot of guys, but he gets ahead in the count and keeps the ball in the park, a terrific combination. Seo looks like he can be a reliable mid-rotation starter, making him the perfect complement to Aaron Heilman as the Mets eye contention in 2005.

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