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August 1, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • Trade of the Year: What went through Omar Minaya's mind when he called Brian Sabean late in Spring Training to inquire about embattled Giants pitcher Livan Hernandez? Minaya had to know by then that the key player acquired in the off-season trade of Bartolo Colon to the White Sox, Livan's half-brother Orlando Hernandez, wasn't progressing as hoped from a shoulder injury. He may have also noted the inexperienced candidates lined up to claim spots at the back of the rotation. If nothing else, Livan Hernandez was a veteran, one who could soak up copious innings to save the bullpen so that the relievers could take the burden off the Zach Days of the staff.

    But did Minaya, even for a second, close his eyes and imagine Dennis Martinez-reincarnate? Hernandez appears on his way to a career year. Through 22 starts, his SNWAR score of 2.0 ranks just below the top 30 starters in the majors. After years of flashing lukewarm peripherals--even in his better seasons--Hernandez has rolled up an outstanding three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio this season. Like El Presidente--the 12-year anniversary of "El Presidente, El Perfecto" was Monday...time flies--Hernandez has found himself in Montreal after a long bout of mediocrity elsewhere. Also like Martinez, he's done it by featuring a sweeping curveball to go with a fastball that he's spotted impeccably all year long.

    If Minaya saw all that coming, he had a few brain cells up on the rest of the world. Transaction Analysis saw the deal as low-risk for the Expos, with only pedestrian reliever Jim Brower and a player to be named later (later revealed to be Quadruple-A starter Matt Blank) going to San Francisco in exchange for Hernandez, utility man Edwards Guzman, and cash. Still, the deal mostly looked like addition by subtraction for the Giants, who even after paying Hernandez's salary, were rid of a player who'd had problems off the field in the off-season who was also clogging a rotation slot the Giants felt would be better filled by a member of the Ainsworth-Foppert-Williams troika.

    Hernandez's stellar season has presented the Expos with a problem they didn't expect to face. A clause in Hernandez's contract stipulates that a $6 million option be automatically triggered for 2004 if he pitches 217 innings this season. Though he'd thrown 240, 226.2, and 216 innings in 2000-2002, the Expos likely figured they'd pull him early multiple times during the season due to ineffectiveness. Fat chance. Hernandez's shortest outing of the year came on June 18 when the Pirates racked him for six runs on eight hits in 4.2 innings (he still ringed up seven strikeouts, no walks in that game). That marked the only time Hernandez had failed to go five innings all season. In fact, he's pitched six innings or more in 19 of his 22 starts, averaging 6.95 innings a start. Hernandez ranks third in the National League with 153 innings pitched, second in the league in complete games with four.

    With two months left to play, only 64 innings needed to trigger his option, and the Expos slipping out of Wild Card contention, the onus shifted to Minaya to turn the best trade acquisition of his career into young talent through another deal. At press time he'd failed to do so, leaving only the waiver-deal deadline of Aug. 31 as the Expos' escape hatch from what'll likely become a large contract obligation for 2004, a season that already promises to give whoever runs the team plenty of financial headaches. As much as we've slagged Hernandez with Eric Gregg/World Series-related cracks in the past, he'd still help any contender if he continues to shine the way he has all season. A deep-pocketed team could live with next year's option, if the upshot is acquiring one of the best number-three starters in the game for a run at a championship.

San Francisco Giants

  • With the Giants sitting on top of a seemingly insurmountable 12-game lead in the NL West--and having made themselves even better with the Sidney Ponson acquisition, albeit at a high price--we'll allow ourselves to get complacent and look past the remainder of the 2003 season. Instead of spending our 600 words this week extolling the virtues of the Boys From China Basin (see the previous two Giants PTPs for that), we'll take a quick, selective tour of the Giants minor leagues. Here are three of the more interesting position player prospects in the farm system, all of whom we've seen on recent scouting trips.

    • Todd Linden: Last year, the switch-hitting corner outfielder's pro debut season saw him scorch Texas League pitching at a .314/.422/.482 clip, finish as the fourth best hitter in that league by Clay Davenport's numbers despite an abbreviated season there, and win the organization's Player of the Year award from USA Today. So his 2003 line of .280/.362/.408 at Triple-A Fresno has to be considered a disappointment. But don't give up on Linden yet. He's picked up his offensive game of late after starting the season with a dismal .210/.304/.222 April. He's still quite young, having just turned 23 a month ago. While he hasn't shown the home run power the Giants have hoped he would develop, his doubles total (22, tops on the team) and his swing show the possibility of home runs to come. And he can more than hold his own in a corner outfield spot, with good range and a decent arm. In short, there are still plenty of reasons to think that Linden will develop into more than the Marvin Benard/Armando Rios generic fourth outfielder that the Giants' system typically produces.

    • Daniel Ortmeier: Another switch-hitting corner outfield prospect, this one is a 2002 third round pick out of UT Arlington. Ortmeier is hitting a healthy .294/.371/.465 at high-A San Jose. He's a big, powerfully built guy--6' 4'', 220--who runs the bases surprisingly well for someone his size. As with Linden, Ortmeier's production comes with a good number of doubles (28, vs. seven homers), indicating the potential for a surge in homers sometime in the next few years. However, Ortmeier does not have Linden's defensive ability, and he's two levels below Linden despite being less than a year younger. He could start showing up on the prospect radar screen next year, but only if he proves that this year's numbers are no fluke.

    • Travis Ishikawa: History's best-paid 21st round draft pick has hit some road blocks in his second pro season. Ishikawa was highly regarded coming out of Federal Way (Washington) high school prior to last year's amateur draft, but his commitment to attend Oregon State was strong enough that he fell to the 637th overall pick. The Giants used their considerable powers of persuasion--that, and a $955,000 bonus--to convince the left handed hitting first baseman to bypass college and give the minors a try. After a reasonably promising (albeit powerless) pro debut in two short season leagues last year, Ishikawa was overmatched by low-A Sally League pitching to start this year, putting up a .206/.329/.278 line in 194 ABs. He was sent back to the Northwest League, where he's been better, but hardly awe-inspiring: .271/.352/.388. He's still a teenager--he turns 20 next month--so it's way too early to say the Giants flushed away a million dollars. Also, for what it's worth, he really looks like a hitter. He showed a command of the strike zone and a smooth swing that really made him stand out among his Hagerstown teammates earlier this year, despite his numbers. While looks can be deceiving, especially in player evaluation, Ishikawa's still worth keeping an eye on.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Wait 'til Next Year: A month ago, the Jays were in the thick of the AL East pennant hunt. Now, they're 13.5 games out of the race, and any thoughts of the postseason have gone the way of Carlton Dotson's sanity. It was a bad month for the Jays, who went 8-17 and ended the month with a series sweep at the hands of the brutal Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but it did provide a sense of closure and resolve the question of whether the Jays should trade for reinforcements.

    While the Yankees and the Red Sox went ape on the trade market, picking up new players left and right, they did it with a ton of cash and a few prospects. There was no way Toronto could match the depth of New York and Boston, and with restraints on spending the other two teams didn't have, this was a fight they were wise to keep their dog out of.

    So what are we looking at for next year? Obviously, the offense is there. The Blue Jays sport an attack that ranks fourth in the league in Equivalent Average and is keyed by young outfielders Vernon Wells and newly-acquired Bobby Kielty. In fact, with Keilty's acquisition, the Blue Jays have swapped out two of their three starting outfielders and their designated hitter from opening day last year. Their lines this season:

    
    Player              AGE   OBP   SLG   EQA  RARP
    Jose Cruz, Jr.       29  .363  .434  .280  15.2
    Raul Mondesi         32  .329  .470  .283  15.5
    Shannon Stewart      29  .371  .471  .291  17.0
    
    Frank Catalanotto    29  .328  .441  .263   5.7
    Bobby Kielty         26  .370  .422  .282  11.7
    Josh Phelps          25  .343  .436  .268   5.3
    

    At first glance, this might look like a mistake was made on the Jays' part, but we're leaving an important component out of this table. The Jays are sporting three players with a combined salary of around $3 million, while the other guys make, uh, just a little bit more than that. Paying less for your complimentary pieces is a great way to adequately compensate your superstars with a reasonable budget, which is what the Jays are doing with Triple Crown and MVP threat Carlos Delgado. Kielty and Phelps can both be expected to improve over the next year or two as well.

    The Jays have an interesting situation brewing in the pitching staff, where they weren't able to move Kelvim Escobar and Cory Lidle. This is par for the course for the management team in Toronto; a player's compensation-to-production ratio has got to be absolutely out of control to be traded for garbage. Stewart was moved a year later than many people expected for a real player. There are plenty of charity cases auctioning real players for cash or semi-warm bodies in baseball these days, and it's refreshing that the Jays aren't among them.

    Toronto is now working on resigning Escobar, which is pretty surprising on both sides considering Escobar's sometimes-contentious relationship with the organization. The team needs a deeper staff to contend with Boston and New York next year, and it'll be an interesting to see what Toronto does on the pitching front this offseason.

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