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June 20, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • If It's Friday, It Must Be Montreal: BP took a scouting trip to Montreal in late May to catch the Phillies and Expos in the final two games of a three-game set. The Expos were riding high back then, getting contributions from unlikely sources on a nightly basis. They didn't disappoint that Saturday night, as more than 33,000 fans packed the Big O for $5 ticket night and a chance to see the red-hot Spos against NL East rival Philadelphia. Wil Cordero sent the crowd home happy with a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, Brian Schneider clubbed a dramatic three-run shot in the bottom of the 7th to put the Expos in the lead and send them on their way to a series win and the best 50-game start in franchise history. The team was fired up, the city of Montreal was finally waking up to the club's terrific play, and the media even started to wake from their slumber and began covering the team (the hard-working Stephanie Myles of the Montreal Gazette excepted--she never left). Talk even began surfacing for a local TV deal--a given in 29 other major league cities, a veritable winning lottery ticket in Montreal.

    That was then. As noted in the last Expos edition of Prospectus Triple Play, Vladimir Guerrero's herniated disc in his back dealt the team the one blow it wouldn't be likely to overcome. Injuries to Orlando Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr. and Zach Day had left the rotation grasping for answers. But surprisingly solid work from Giants dumpee Livan Hernandez and Marlin throw-in Claudio Vargas kept the pitching staff alive and well. Sadly, Ron Calloway, Jose Macias, and company haven't been able to do the same in Vlad's stead.

    Actually, it wasn't that simple. For a while, the Expos looked like they might channel some bizarre intergalactic force and keep winning without Vlad:

    
    6/5 vs. Anaheim (Puerto Rico) W 8-7
    6/6 vs. Texas   (PR)          W 13-10
    6/7 vs. Texas   (PR)          W 5-4
    6/8 vs. Texas   (PR)          W 3-2
    6/10 at Seattle               W 7-3
    6/11 at Seattle               W 3-1
    
    

    Just glancing at those scores, you can see how the Expos did it in different ways while going 6-0 after Vlad's injury. The team bombed away when it had to, then found pitching, defense and timely hitting when it needed to. The list of heroes from the streak read like the Ottawa Lynx 2002 media guide. Luminaries like Calloway, Julio Manon, Luis Ayala, Jamey Carroll, and Endy Chavez played the hero at various times during the streak, shocking everyone except maybe their moms.

    It didn't last. The team has gone 1-6 since then, managing a 5-2 win in Pittsburgh to avoid a would-be second straight series sweep and seventh straight loss. Thursday's win ended an 8-14, 25-day road trip for the Expos that took them from Montreal to Florida to Philadelphia to Puerto Rico to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh to Tanzania and back to Montreal. Given the crush of injuries and bad luck--three rainouts resulting in doubleheaders during the trip, all sweeps, plus the resulting roster strain while trying to make do with four starters--it could have been worse. The Expos are 13-5 at the Big O thus far this year after acquitting themselves well there last season. Not that the...

  • Upcoming Schedule:...will be a cakewalk. The Spos start a three-game series tonight against the scorching-hot Blue Jays. After hosting the Pirates for three, they travel down the 401 to Toronto for three more against the Jays before starting a stretch where 25 of their next 28 games come against division rivals. Sun-Woo Kim gets his second start of the year Saturday after getting tonked in his debut June 4 in Puerto Rico. Livan Hernandez goes on three days rest against the unconscious Roy Halladay Sunday. Yikes.

  • Down On The Farm: The Expos have tapped so far into their Triple-A roster--for mostly fringe prospects as is--that little talent remains that could help the big club. Except for one man, of course. All Terrmel Sledge has done this year is put up a line of .343/.445/.567. Yes that's in a hitter's park (Edmonton) in a hitter's league (PCL). But Sledge also leads the PCL with 33.9 runs above replacement level, to go with his .356 EqA. That works out to a .296 Major League EqA. Here are the Expos on the active major league roster with an EqA higher than .296, which we will read in alphabetical order: Vidro, Jose. Wilkerson, Brad. That is all.

    The Expos' continued refusal to promote Sledge, despite his league-leading performance and the Expos' awful major league roster, has gone from cute Free Erubiel Durazo takeoffs to downright astounding and punched-hole-through-the-keyboard-inducing. At press time, the Expos were reporting that they'll consider calling up Sledge if he hits for the cycle in his next at-bat, ends three-and-a-half decades of political strife and language wars in Quebec, and raises the dead.

San Francisco Giants

  • Foppert's Heat is Lukewarm: Jesse Foppert's velocity was the subject of a mini-scandal in the Bay Area media last month. The Jesse Foppert who blew away Texas League and Pacific Coast League hitters in 2002, and who was regarded by many to be the top pitching prospect in baseball, was reputed to possess a 97-99 mph fastball. But the Jesse Foppert who showed up in San Francisco in 2003 came with much more routine velocity. Bay Area reporters looked into the discrepancy, and found that the "97-99" reports were just your garden-variety unfounded minor league hype. Foppert actually throws 92-93, the new story goes--occasionally touching 95, he says--not the high 90s the exaggerated reports would have you believe. Mystery solved, right?

    Not exactly. The 92-93 reports from last season were accurate; they come from several reliable sources who have no interest in artificially inflating Foppert's reputation. But Foppert is throwing noticeably slower than that now, and he has been all season. Here are his velocity readings from a recent start against Minnesota (from the Pacific Bell Park gun):

    
    MPH      #Pitches
    79-82       18
    86           3
    87           7
    88          29
    89          10
    90           7
    91           1
    
    

    Readings for other games, and on other guns, are about the same. He may touch 90 once in a while, but he's really living in the high 80s, three-to-five miles an hour slower than he was throwing last year.

    So what? No one cares if he's lost some velocity from last year as long as he's still getting the same kind of results--i.e., he's still blowing guys away. But the record on that front isn't all that encouraging either. Last year, he struck out Double-A and Triple-A hitters at a rate of nearly 12 per game. This year, he's struck out a little more than seven major leaguers per game--not too far above the NL average. That's a pretty big drop, even considering the change in leagues.

    The cause of Foppert's lost velocity could be physiological, or it could be mechanical. The most worrisome possibility is that his arm is showing fatigue and/or the early signs of an injury. But even if it's as simple as an inadvertently altered pitching motion, Foppert and pitching coach Dave Righetti should be spending some late nights in the video room trying to recapture last year's zip. There are plenty of pitchers with high 80s fastballs who succeed in the big leagues. But it's not likely Foppert will live up to the dominating potential he showed last year if his fastball is more reminiscent of Kirk Rueter than it is of Roger Clemens.

  • Submitted For Your Consideration: With the Dodgers' pitching staff on a tear and the Giants' offense stagnating, there have been a lot of unhappy callers to San Francisco sports talk programs lately. But one bright spot for the Giants--and one that hasn't gotten a lot of attention--has been the play of Ray Durham.

    While the All-Star picture is crowded at second base in the National League, with Marcus Giles, Jose Vidro, Jeff Kent, and Mark Loretta all putting up good numbers, Durham is right there with them. He's hit better than any other NL second baseman according to EqA, and he's in the top half of the league in fielding according to Zone Rating. The only thing dragging his counting stats down is the time he missed due to an ankle sprain. You could make a reasonable case for any of those five to get the starting nod in Chicago, but don't overlook Durham when you're filling out your ballot.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Star Performer: As the Blue Jays continue to play some excellent baseball, there are many players to choose from here.

    • Jays outfielders have had some fun lately--both Reed Johnson and Vernon Wells have had multihomer games in the past week. Wells is continuing his steady improvement as a hitter--he's sitting at .300/.340/.550, with 23.5 VORP. In overall production, his age 24 season is starting to look pretty similar to a recent campaign by another young, plus-defense center fielder:

      
                     AB   H 2B 3B HR SB CS   SO  BB  AVG  OBP  SLG  
      Beltran, 2001 617 189 32 12 24 31  1  120  52 .306 .362 .514
      Wells, 2003   307  92 25  2 16  1  1   38  20 .300 .340 .550
      

      Wells trails in steals, triples, and a little bit of on-base percentage, but he's way ahead in doubles and homers. Carlos Beltran's season was good for a .302 Equivalent Average, while Wells is sitting at .297 through Friday.

      Yeah, he's pretty good.

    • Doc Halladay won his 10th straight decision--something you might have heard about in the media--by holding the Orioles to two runs over seven innings on Wednesday. Over his winning streak, Halladay has fashioned a sterling 3.27 ERA and made it at least 6.2 innings into every start, which gives the team a lift by keeping its weak bullpen out of action.

    • For all that, Kelvim Escobar has been the better pitcher over the last few weeks. Since he stopped setting fires in the bullpen and was moved into the rotation, Escobar has been one of the best starters in the league. He's made seven starts this season, all since May 18, and he's hanging a 2.25 ERA on some pretty good offensive teams. His 1.2 SNWAR ties him with Halladay for best on the team, and he's gotten there in less than half the starts.

      Escobar has always talked about wanting to start, and if he keeps this up, he'll never be sent back to the pen.

  • Lineup Changes: There haven't been many, but with the team's continued success the thought of reinforcements is at the forefront of every Jays fan's mind. With Johnson's success in the outfield in place of the injured Shannon Stewart, there has been talk of finally moving Stewart to another team. But Toronto has already proven--by its retention of Stewart during the wholesale rebuilding of the Ricciardi era so far--that it doesn't look at Stewart as another Raul Mondesi, who you want gone at any price. Johnson is still basically unproven, and Stewart's got a long track record of success against major-league pitching.

    The team could really use another starting pitcher, but here's something to consider: instead of going out and getting one, they'll probably refrain from moving Cory Lidle in August, as has been the plan all season. Chances are he'll be the guy they need.

    
    Lidle, 2000-2002        IP        ERA
    Pre All-Star           230       5.17
    Post All-Star        246.2       2.92
    

    We all remember the huge second halves Lidle had in the A's rotation, and if he sticks to that schedule, he and Halladay would be a formidable top two down the stretch.

  • Schedule: Sooner or later, the Jays are going to run into a team they aren't going to manhandle, but the team could be forgiven for looking ahead of their next few series. After wiping the floor with the toothless Orioles, the Jays get two more long series against them before the All-Star break. Toronto visits the always-ripe-for-the-picking Tigers for three games at the end of the month. Toronto's home-and-away with the slumping Montreal Expos looks like an opportunity to gain even more ground on Boston and New York.

    By the All-Star break, they could easily be atop the dogfight in the AL East.

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