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July 14, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Making their Move: The Marlins took themselves out of limbo Friday, trading three prospects for veteran reliever Ugueth Urbina. After taking two out of three from the reeling Expos, the Fish still find themselves behind three teams in the NL East and behind five teams in the NL Wild Card chase, 13 games behind the high-flying Braves in the East and 4.5 games behind Philadelphia for the Wild Card.

    Despite facing those long odds, the Marlins showed they believe they can contend in grabbing Urbina, even while the Yankees and several other contenders had reportedly expressed interest in him. Of course knowing the Marlins and owner Jeffrey Loria, there could be other motives at work as well. After all, this is a man both obsessed with his team's image and clueless about how to improve it. For more on this phenomenon, just refer to Exhibit A (his misguided trade of Brad Fullmer for Lee Stevens), Exhibits B and C (the three-year, $9 million contract he handed Graeme Lloyd and trade of Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker for Hideki Irabu), and the coup de grace, the mysterious "unidentified fan" who bought 15,000 tickets for the last game of the 2002 season to finish ahead of the Expos and out of the cellar in major league attendance.

    Loria aside, did the Marlins do well in getting Urbina for the three prospects involved--Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Snare, and Will Smith?

    Looking first at Urbina, we find a pitcher having a pedestrian season in Texas. According to Michael Wolverton's Reliever ratings, Urbina managed just 1.1 Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) in 38.2 innings in Texas this year. Since ARP already adjusts for the nasty park effects of the Ballpark at Arlington, a quick rundown of pitchers with similar ARP figures and innings counts can give us a sound thumbnail of Urbina's performance this year:

    Not exactly Eckersley's Row. Well, perhaps the prospects the Marlins dealt were only Grade-B types, making this a low-risk trade. Let's take a look:

    • Gonzalez was rated the 24th-best prospect in baseball according to Rany Jazayerli's Top 40 Prospects list. In his report, Jazayerli noted Gonzalez's off-season surgery to repair torn wrist cartilage but reiterated his comparison to Keith Hernandez--first noted in Baseball Prospectus 2002, when Gonzalez was ranked as the 16th-best prospect in the game--based on Gonzalez's pitch recognition, line-drive swing and sweet glove at first base.

      That said, Gonzalez started the year with a horrific line of .216/.286/.288 in 139 ABs for Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League after the Marlins rushed him to Triple-A, and after being demoted to Double-A, has since put up a pedestrian line of .307/.368/.409 for the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League in 137 at-bats; the two stints combine for a Major League Equivalent Average (EqA) below .200. Half a season's worth of data isn't nearly enough to write off a prospect, especially one just 21 years old. But Gonzalez has definitely taken a step back from where he was a year and a half ago, when he seemed a strong bet for stardom.

    • Snare, part of the bounty from last season's Ryan Dempster trade, was a decent member of the Mudcats' starting rotation, with a K/BB rate of better than 2/1 and a scant four homers allowed in 103 innings. A strikeout rate of 6.7 batters per nine innings pitched in Double-A won't win many organizational Player of the Year awards though. Snare provides minor league depth and the promise of a potential back-of-the-rotation major league starter down the road.

    • Smith compiled a line of .293/.346/.374 in 123 AB with Carolina; serviceable for a 21-year-old, ugly for a corner outfield prospect. Delving into the component stats doesn't brighten the picture any: one walk for every 12 times up and just seven extra-base hits in 123 AB.

    While Gonzalez's best traits right now may be his youth and potential, the Marlins appear to have overpaid for the 2003 equivalent of a right-handed Ray King. Of course Urbina--a free agent after this season who doesn't shackle the Fish with any large financial commitments, now or later--has shown flashes of greatness in the past. And if the Marlins can claw back into the race in the second half and sneak into the playoffs, the deal will look a lot better. The '97 Marlins can tell you: flags fly forever.

  • All-Star Additions: Rookie phenom Dontrelle Willis and on-base fiend Luis Castillo were added to the NL All-Star team over the weekend, replacing the injured Kevin Brown and Marcus Giles. Willis ranked as the majors' 11th-best starter according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral figures heading into Sunday's start. Castillo rates as the seventh-best second baseman in the majors and fifth-best in the NL as measured by Keith Woolner's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). Along with fellow All-star inductee--and the top third baseman in baseball during the first half--Mike Lowell, the All-Star trio's a big reason for the Marlins' improved 49-46 record at the break.

New York Yankees

  • What Was: The Yankees finally had to deal with something they'd been ill-prepared for throughout their recent dominant run: injuries to key players up the middle. Derek Jeter missed 32 games following an Opening Day baserunning collision, and Bernie Williams sat out 38 games with a bum knee. Their replacements from the farm system, Erick Almonte (.263/.327/.358) and Juan Rivera (.237/.285/.351), played like the C+ prospects they are.

    Nick Johnson and Mariano Rivera also missed substantial time to injuries; Johnson may well be out for the year. The losses exposed the lack of depth in the organization, attributable to a combination of bad drafting and poor use of the secondary talent market. Throughout May and June, the Yankees fielded teams that barely resembled a contender with the game's largest payroll.

    Injuries weren't the only problem. Jeff Weaver and Jose Contreras traded lousy performances in the #5 starter slot, and the weakest Yankee bullpen since the days of Rich Monteleone was a key culprit in an 11-17 May that dropped the team into second place in the AL East. The back end of the roster showed itself to be inadequate, and the front office--not just Brian Cashman, but a cast of many--spent most of the first 80 games scrambling to patch the bench and bullpen.

  • What Is: With all their starters but Nick Johnson back on the field, Yankees are about at full strength for the first time all year. Hideki Matsui, who was hitting .258/.306/.362 at the end of May, is now the front-runner for Rookie of the Year in the American League. Matsui's good play in center field was a huge boost for the Yankees in Williams' absence. He'll be in Chicago for the All-Star Game, carrying a .301/.358/.449 line. For the second straight season, Jason Giambi is his old self; he had a monster June (.373/.554/.819), helping to cover the loss of Johnson's .455 OBP. Jorge Posada and Alfonso Soriano have been among the 10 most valuable players in the league.

    The rotation looks as effective as it has in some time, now that Jeff Weaver is throwing well, pitching through the seventh inning in three straight starts. Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, and David Wells are all among the top 15 starters in the AL; the latter is on pace to set all kinds of control records, with six walks in his 127 innings. With few good options in the organization, the Yankees are relying on the two 40-year-olds to stay healthy and effective through the end of the season.

  • What Will Be: Trades. Despite a paucity of young talent--after Brandon Claussen and perhaps Julio De Paula (now known as Jorge De Paula), the Yankees don't have much to deal--you can bet that the Yankees will make at least one deal to improve the bullpen. They may also try to add a bat to upgrade right field, where Raul Mondesi has been slumping, or the DH slot, which is currently a semi-platoon of Karim Garcia and Todd Zeile. What the Yankees lack in tradable talent they make up for in willingness to assume contracts, which gives them a big edge in the current market.

    It's hard to see this Yankee team not making the playoffs. While they still have enormous defensive problems (11th in the AL in Defensive Efficiency), the front-line starters keep the ball out of play a lot and don't walk people, and the offense will reach 900 runs. While that probably isn't enough to hold off the Red Sox for first place, it should be enough to hang on for the Wild Card ahead of the runner-up in the AL West.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • First-Half Surprise: All hail Jason Kendall and his return to respectability. At this writing, Kendall is putting up a .308/.388/.407 line, and has the fifth-highest VORP in a surprisingly strong crop of National League catchers. After logging EqAs of .233 and .247 in 2001 and 2002, respectively, he's putting up a .281 EqA this season. And although his walks haven't returned to 2000 levels, that remains the only full season in which he's posted a high walk rate, suggesting a possible outlier. Kendall's also showing a reverse platoon split this season, hitting much better against right-handers than against lefties. That's plainly out of step with the rest of his career. His power stroke has yet to return and the length of his contract is still onerous, but Kendall is once again a productive player.

  • First-Half Disappointment: The preponderance of the evidence suggests that Aramis Ramirez's "breakout" 2001 season was but a fluke. In 2001, Ramirez logged 655 plate appearances and hit to the tune of .300/.350/.536. Bookending that fine season are some far less alluring numbers: 1,569 PAs and a batting line of .246/.312/.390. This year, Ramirez has an EqA of .266. While that's hardly abysmal, it's still well short of the promise he showed just two seasons ago. The Bucs hope Ramirez's improvement over the last few weeks will stick, even he doesn't quite return to 2001 levels.

  • Farm Notes: The Pirates' farm system doesn't normally garner a lot of ink, but on a holistic level there's been none finer this season. The Pirate affiliates have a cumulative record this year of 243-160 (60.3% winning percentage) and a winning record at every level. In fact, they have a comfortable margin at every stop; Lynchburg of the High-A Carolina League is the team most in peril with a record of "only" 49-36. Elsewhere on the farm:

    • The much-traveled Brian Meadows is no one's idea of a pitching prospect, but he's making a mockery of the Pacific Coast League. Thus far for Triple-A-Nashville, he's logged 42 innings, posted an ERA of 1.71 ERA, struck out 36 and walked not a single hitter.

    • Pirate hitters in the high minors are showing little plate discipline. Of all the hitters at Nashville or Double-A-Altoona, only three (Brad King, Joe Caruso and Kevin Nicholson) have posted walk rates of at least one walk per 10 plate appearances. None of them is much of a prospect.

    • Chris Shelton won't stop hitting. Since being drafted in the 33rd round in 2001, Shelton hasn't stopped hitting. In 2003, he's putting together his finest season yet. The Carolina League is generally unaccommodating to hitters, but Shelton is raking: .351/.471/.626, 57 walks, 265 ABs. He's splitting his time about equally between catcher and first base. He's already a tremendous hitter, but needless to say his value will be much greater if he settles in behind the plate.

    • Lefty Sean Burnett, one of the organization's top pitching prospects, continues to thrive despite sub-par strikeout rates. He's striking out a meager 5.1 batters per nine in Double-A this season, but he's once again posting a sub-3.00 ERA. This is how it's been his entire career. His excellent control and stinginess with homers (only one allowed this season) allow him to thrive.

    • The Bucs have signed their top pick of the June draft, Mississippi State lefty Paul Maholm. The Pirates selected him with the eighth overall pick and signed him to a bonus of $2.2 million. They've now signed 11 of their top 12 draftees.

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