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June 30, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • The Lineup: Which National League team has received the most offensive production from their infield? The following chart lists the teams with the best infield units in the major leagues, using Runs Above Replacement Player (RAP). (In all cases we simply sum the totals from the most used players at each infield position, which may include time spent at DH or elsewhere. All totals through Saturday.)
     Boston         109.2
    Texas 90.8
    Florida 86.5
    NY Yankees 85.1
    St. Louis 79.8
    Seattle 71.2

    The Marlins have the best infield in the National League, based on performance to date. This is not a situation like Seattle, which plays both Bret Boone (43.4) and Jeff Cirillo (-0.4). The Fish have received very good, or better, offense from all four positions. Mike Lowell (32.3) leads the league with 25 home runs, and is certainly the top hitting third baseman in the senior circuit this year. Alex Gonzalez (24.7) is among the NL's best shortstops. Luis Castillo (14.1) and Derrek Lee (16.6) are not All Stars and don't deserve to be, but are having fine seasons, and in other years would not be ridiculous selections.

    The outfield presents a different story. Florida's starting flychasers have all contributed below-average offense. While both Juan Encarnacion (52 RBI) and Juan Pierre (.297 with 35 stolen bases) have some superficial statistics that have obscured their mediocrity, Todd Hollandsworth has been awful.

    The recall of Miguel Cabrera to play left field is therefore good news on several levels. Cabrera is just 20, but was tearing the Southern League apart (365/.429/.609). He was moved from third base to left just days before his recall, a pleasant indication that the Marlins are not happy with their current outfield. If they finally deal Lowell, Cabrera is available to return to third, giving the Marlins some flexibility in who they get in the trade.

  • Dontrelle Mania?:...Not here. Dontrelle Willis was pimped in this space two weeks ago, just a few hours before his one-hitter against the Mets vaulted him into the consciousness of the rest of the baseball world. As you have likely noticed, he is now all over baseball Web sites and television. Comparisons have been drawn with Fernando Valenzuela's hot start in 1981, but I think Mark Fidrych's 1976 is a better comparison.

    Fernando had pitched in September 1980 and was the 1981 Opening Day starter, although he certainly exceeded expectations (8-0, 0.50 in his first eight starts). Fidrych made his first start on May 15 (Willis on May 9) and they had very similar records through June.

      Fidrych 1976   8-1 2.05 Willis 2003    8-1 2.26  

    There is one major difference between the two. Although Willis has certainly become a big story on Baseball Tonight, he has not yet had an effect at the box office in Miami. The first big Fidrych crowd was on June 28, when he beat the Yankees on national TV before 47,855 at Tiger Stadium. (His previous two starts, both victories, had come on the road. His previous home start drew 21,659 on June 16.)

    Willis drew 10,624 for his one-hitter, followed by 15,397 at home against the Devil Rays, and a start at Shea Stadium. His next start, likely Wednesday against the Braves, is the test. If he can't rouse up a big crowd on Wednesday, against the best team in the National League, it ain't gonna happen.

New York Yankees

  • Outstanding Performer: The hottest hitter this side of Albert Pujols is Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui. Matsui, who looked like just another HidekiBust one month ago, comes into the last day of June hitting .417/509/.688 for the month, a stretch that has yanked his seasonal line up to .305/.370/.458.

    Matsui has turned it around by getting the ball in the air more, following two months of putting up GB/FB ratios right out of Luis Castillo's stat line. He's done a better job of controlling the strike zone (15 walks and 14 strikeouts in June, 17 and 30 prior), and he's had better luck: after hitting .301 on balls in play in the season's first two months, he's at .455 (35-for-77) in June, a difference only partially accounted for by fewer ground balls.

    Matsui's hot streak has invigorated a Yankee offense which had all but disappeared following the injuries to Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson. Helped by a big dose of Devil Rays and Mets, the Bombers scored 76 runs in 13 games, going 11-2 and taking a 3 1/2-game lead in the AL-East.

  • Noteworthy Prospect: Brandon Claussen made his major-league debut Saturday, shutting down the Mets with 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball. That's not terribly newsworthy; beating the 2003 Mets is a line on the resumé of just about every interesting rookie pitcher in baseball, from Dontrelle Willis to Brandon Webb to Horacio Ramirez. It's a rite of passage, like having your first hangover.

    What is interesting is what Claussen was doing less than one year ago: recovering from Tommy John surgery. Claussen was pitching in anger just 10 months after having the procedure last June 25, which is one of the fastest comebacks on record. The Yankees allowed him to move up quickly based on performance: a 1.64 ERA and 26-to-3 K/BB ratio in four starts in Tampa, a 1.36 ERA and 27/5 ratio in six starts for Columbus.

    Whether Claussen makes it to August 1 in this organization is an open question, but right now, he's arguably the fourth-best option the Yankees have for their rotation. He's also a significant data point in the argument that Tommy John surgery has moved from career-threatening procedure to the pitching equivalent of having a wisdom tooth removed.

  • Transaction Analysis: The Yankees continued to make minor moves compensating for their lack of depth, this time trading a player to be named to the Indians for Karim Garcia--14 months removed from waivers--and Dan Miceli--38 days removed from waivers. Every time it looks like the Yankees can't shine a brighter spotlight on their complete ineptitude in the winter secondary talent market, they one-up themselves.

    Garcia will step into half the left-field job, platooning with Juan Rivera until Bernie Williams returns from the DL, at which point the Yankees will have a logjam of lousy choices for the DH slot. The way the Yankees bullpen has worked, Miceli could be the top right-handed setup guy by the time you read this, which would be a hell of a comeback for someone the Rockies didn't want six weeks ago.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • In Name Only: Is Mike Williams the worst anointed closer in all of baseball this season? According to Michael Wolverton's reliever evaluation tools he's not one of baseball's 10 worst relievers, but confine the pool to closers and you can make a strong case.

    Consider Williams' 2003 numbers:

      30.2 IP, 21 Saves, 30 H, 13 K, 19 BB, 3 HR, 5.58 ERA  

    His unsightly ERA sticks out, of course, but it's his grisly peripherals that really tell the story: 3.82 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, 0.68 K/BB. Wow. He's probably lucky to have the ERA that he does. Williams' strikeout-to-walk ratio is criminally bad, particularly for someone supposedly entrusted with the game's most crucial innings. That he's on pace to record 44 saves in spite of his miserable performance to date tells you all you need to know about the dubious value of the saves statistic.

  • Trade Winds: When, if ever, is the time to cut bait on Brian Giles? He was probably the best non-Bonds hitter in the NL last season, and he's long been coveted by contending organizations of every philosophical stripe because of his productivity and reasonable contract. He's 32 and, although it's possible he'll still be a productive player by the time the Pirates are again consequential, it's highly likely his best days are behind him. We're only half a season in and he's missed a significant amount of time to injury, but he's still suffered a considerable decline in power (.487 SLG in 2003, .622 SLG in 2002).

    The time to trade him could be nigh. In hindsight, this winter was when his trade value was highest, if not earlier. So you may see GM Dave Littlefield move him within the next 30 days. The Yankees have expressed interest, and some form of a Giles-Kris Benson for Nick Johnson-Jeff Weaver deal has been discussed. The A's have long cherished Giles, but they'll have payroll constraints. In any event, he's still highly moveable.

    That may not be all the Pirates have in mind. This winter, after they ponied up for mid-tier veterans Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders, many interpreted the signings as part of an ill-advised and rather puzzling charge for 75 wins. But if swirling trade rumors are to be believed, that may not have been Littlefield's motivation after all.

    Lofton and Sanders aren't performing terribly well this season, but Sanders has platoon value and Lofton plays a key position and boasts speed and modest on-base skills. They also both have cachet as veterans with post-season experience and are signed to modestly priced one-year deals. All of that is going to make them reasonably attractive trade targets as the July 31 deadline approaches. Perhaps that was the plan all along.

    Littlefield is a fairly heady executive, and it's possible he saw Lofton and Sanders (neither of whom were offered arbitration last off-season) as a means to an end in terms of fortifying the farm system. In the present corrected market for major-league talent, guys like Lofton and Sanders--recognizable names, once very good, now serviceable--will probably be available cheap and willing to sign one-year pacts. Signing them, running them out there every day and then flipping them to contenders for prospects at the deadline shouldn't be too difficult.

    We hear a lot about the "new economics" of baseball. One element of that is the "audition approach" to signing mid-tier free agents. It's not exactly a new strategy, but the corrected market might mean it's a more effective gambit for small-payroll teams. It's probably what the Pirates have been up to this whole time.

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