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July 8, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Morning After: The acquisitions of Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett have accomplished exactly what the White Sox hoped they would, drawing praise from the Jay Mariottis of the world (well, sorta), grabbing some attention away from the Cubs on the eve of the All-Star game, and extending the life of the Williams administration at least for half a season.

    OK, enough with the Wag the Dog thing. As Joe Sheehan pointed out, the trades do address the team's single biggest deficiency--its lack of potency against right-handed pitching--and the AL Central is a division in which a couple of extra wins could make a lot of difference.

    But there's a lost man in all of this, and it's D'Angelo Jimenez, who was designated for assignment on Wednesday and traded to the Reds on Sunday for a minor league closer and a stick of bubblegum. Without getting into the whole debate about whether there were better ways to clear roster space--of course there were--Jimenez's story is revealing for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it indicates just how much the organization's time horizon has narrowed. Whatever the Sox can squeeze out of Alomar from here on out, Jimenez could have been a cheap, adequate solution in the middle infield for years to come. That they were willing to jettison him so quickly and for so little suggests that he carried baggage of the sort that only star performers can get away with, that Williams knows he needs success n-o-w in order to save his job, or a little bit of both.

    Jimenez's demise is also an indictment of new hitting coach Greg Walker. Jimenez's plate discipline, rehabilitated under Gary Ward, had completely fallen apart under Walker:

    Under Ward (includes 2002): 38 BB, 28 K
    Under Walker: 10 BB, 28 K

    Although the cause and effect can be tough to pinpoint here--pitchers have less incentive to throw carefully to a hitter like Jimenez when he isn't hitting the ball hard--the change is dramatic enough to suggest that coaching is at least partly responsible. Oftentimes, the natural instinct of a struggling player is to swing at the first good pitch he sees, but it's precisely in the event of a slump that a player needs to be reminded to keep his approach at the plate intact. In Jimenez's case, he responded to his struggles by transforming into a hacker, making his problems worse and turning him into a liability at the top of the lineup. The problem had grown bad enough that it required a solution, and Jimenez didn't have any options left, but one wonders whether it had to be this way. Jimenez is a player who requires a patient organization, and for better or for worse, that doesn't describe the White Sox right now.

  • Help Wanted. It's not often that a six-foot-five, 260-pound millionaire requires your assistance, but that's exactly the predicament that Frank Thomas is in, not having been selected as an All-Star reserve by the players or by Mike Scioscia, and stuck instead on the 32nd man ballot. Sure, Thomas contributes nothing on defense (even when he's in the field in an effort to keep his bat awake) but the Big Hurt's offensive numbers are far enough ahead of their competition that it really shouldn't matter. Here are the AL candidates, ranked by VORP:
    
    Thomas 40.2
    Giambi 30.9
    Byrnes 30.1
    Varitek 24.2
    Molina 9.1
    
    

    One would expect that Giambi and Varitek are at an advantage because of their respective fan bases, and Byrnes will get the teenage girl vote, so Thomas needs all the help that he can get. Not to get sentimental or anything, but Thomas is one of the great players of our generation, in the midst of a vintage season, and it would be fitting to honor him in his home park.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Stars and Scrubs: The Cardinals will be well represented at next week's All-Star Game, sending three starters and five players overall--only the Braves (seven) have more players on the roster. All of the Cardinal selections are deserving (it's not like there was a successful, last minute write-in campaign for Bo Hart or something). But what's striking is just how much top-level talent there is on a team that has struggled to keep its head much above .500; the Cards are currently on pace to win just 86 games. Is there precedent for a team with such a pedestrian record to have so many All-Star representatives?

    Well, this is baseball, so of course there are precedents. Here are a few recent examples:

    
    1996 Mariners: 5 All-Stars, 46-39 record at
    All-Star Break
    1995 Dodgers: 5 All-Stars, 34-35 record at ASB 
    1992 Padres: 5 All-Stars, 47-42 record at ASB
    1991 A's: 5 All-Stars, 44-38 record at ASB
    1991 Reds: 5 All-Stars, 44-36 record at ASB
    (finished 74-88)
    
    

    Some of these teams--the Reds and the A's--were benefiting from the halo effect of having won the pennant in a previous year. Others were fortunate to have a number of fan favorites on their rosters.

    The dangerous parallel here is the 1996 Mariners. As with the Cardinals, the Mariner All-Stars were worthy selections; Dan Wilson is the one name you wouldn't expect to see, but he was in the midst of a solid season. But that version of the Mariners never won anything, undermined by poor pitching (especially in the bullpen), untimely injuries (1996 was Randy Johnson's injury year), and a scrubby, Sojofull bench.

    While we'll often advise teams to concentrate their resources where they can be put to best use--and that means developing and investing in star talent--every strategy has its limits. Baseball isn't like the NBA, where having a superstar guarantees you success, and having two a championship. The Cardinal farm system is weak, especially at the upper levels, which hurts them in filling out their roster. Their approach to building a pitching staff, involving a mix of retreads like Cal Eldred, has been...um, a real boost for the National Association for the Advancement of Crappy Pitchers. What, Joe Boever wasn't available?

    It's often the little things that tell you the most about how an organization evaluates talent. In this case, we see that the Cards are still a little bit too fixated on toolsy offensive players and "proven" veterans, and not fixated enough on strikeout rates and medical records when selecting pitchers. Sometimes, the star talent lets you get away with that stuff, and sometimes it doesn't.

  • Pythagoras was not a Redbird Fan: In fairness, though, it might be premature to brand the Cardinals as a mediocre team. The Cards are four games under their Pythagorean record. While some of that has to do with the problems described above--a weak bullpen and a poor bench--it's safe to say that there's also been some bad luck involved, including a gawdawful 5-15 record in one-run games. Although the Astros, Cubs and Reds all have a shot if it takes 86-88 wins to grab a division title, the Cardinals are the one team in the N.L. Norris with the talent to pull off a monster second half and finish with 95 wins or so.

    Fun fact: Prior to their 4-1 Sunday afternoon win at Wrigley, the Cardinals had scored at least eight runs in 17 straight previous victories. A seasoned Scoresheet player would be bitching up a storm about run clumping.

  • Injury Update: A big part of turning that one-run record around will be the return to health of Jason Isringhausen, who is back on the roster and closing games. While the command on his trademark curveball doesn't seem to be there quite yet, the early returns have been favorable--a sparkly 0.93 ERA and three saves in nine appearances. A healthy Izzy means both saved ballgames and saved prospects, as the Cardinals would have had little choice but to overpay for help from outside the organization in the event of his continued absence. Forget Spahn and Sain and pray for rain. How about Williams, Morris, and call Scott Boras?

Texas Rangers

  • IgorGate: Joe Sheehan recently discussed the multiple reasons why the Rangers should bench Juan Gonzalez. The two most relevant ones:

    • Sitting Gonzalez clears playing time for Kevin Mench, Mark Teixeira, and Ryan Ludwick to play every day. Those three all stand a much better chance of being part of the next contending Rangers team than does Gonzalez.

    • Gonzalez's no-trade clause gives him leverage in any trade the Rangers may attempt for him. Benching him strips away that leverage: Gonzalez's value in the open market will go way down if he sees only a smattering of playing time in the second half. If the Rangers threatened Gonzalez's playing time, then followed through on that threat after he vetoed the announced trade to Montreal, that could prompt him to think twice about another veto should the Rangers find another trading partner.

    So what has Texas done? Played Gonzalez the last four games in a row, at the expense of young talent. Gonzalez has responded by going 6-for-18 during that stretch, with two homers and two doubles. With L.A., Arizona, the Yankees and several other teams expressing interest, Texas seems to be showcasing him for another deal.

    The question now is, will Gonzalez accept a trade this time around? Staying away from the killer turf at the Big O's about as good a reason as any to veto a trade. Placed on a natural grass surface, Gonzalez stands a better chance of staying healthy playing the outfield every day in a National League park. The Yankees would DH Gonzalez if they get him, though why a team with Hideki Matsui and Raul Mondesi already platooning in the outfield, Bernie Williams due back any day now--possibly tonight--and Karim Garcia, Juan Rivera, and several other internal options already on hand would want Gonzalez remains a Steinbrennerian mystery. With George Costanza busy with other projects, maybe The Boss needs a new calzone delivery man.

  • More Trade Talk: While Ugueth Urbina looked like a four-month rental from the moment he signed with Texas this past off-season, Rangers fans have developed a bond with Rafael Palmeiro after years of strong, steady production. Still, while hindsight may be 20/20, we can't help but wonder if the Rangers may have fared better by following the old Branch Rickey adage of trading a player a year too early instead of a year too late. The 38-year-old Palmeiro ranks a pedestrian 14th among major league first basemen with a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) figure of 14.2 this season. Last year he ranked sixth at 53.3, bunched up with Mike Sweeney, John Olerud, and Ryan Klesko in the tier just below MVP candidates Jason Giambi and Jim Thome.

    While it's way too early to write off pitching prospects like Colby Lewis, the Rangers were certainly hoping for better than an 8.66 ERA, more walks than hits allowed, and the rank of fourth-worst starter in the majors according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral W/L Report this season. Joaquin Benoit and other young arms have fared somewhat better, but also remain extremely raw. With the spectacular flameout rate of pitchers in Arlington, the Rangers would do well to gather as many pitching prospects with strong peripherals and clean health records as possible, handle with care, and see who sticks. That means bidding Raffy farewell and good luck, and trading him to a team that fancies itself a contender, has a hole to fill at first base, and can offer suitable--less than Rich Harden, more than Joe Shlabotnik--pitching prospects in return. That list includes:

    
    Team        Incumbent 1B                             Pitching Prospects 
    
    L.A.      Fred McGriff (inj) Andrew Brown, Jonathan Figueroa
    Montreal  Wil Cordero        Seung Song, Josh Karp
    
    

    Hmmm...short list. Teams like Seattle, Oakland, Boston, Toronto, Kansas City, Minnesota, the Yankees, Houston, Atlanta, and Arizona all have adequate or better in-house solutions, and even HACKING MASS favorites like Tino Martinez and J.T. Snow have been adequate this year, or at least comparable to Palmeiro. While the Dodgers could look to replace McGriff if his torn groin injury keeps him sidelined for an extended period of time, the uncertainty surrounding the injury means they may not want to dance either. It's a pretty good bet that John Hart still has Omar Minaya's number on speed dial.

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