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August 4, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Front Office, Help Thyself: The Astros failed to make a move at the deadline, not even picking up a starter to hedge against the probable loss of Roy Oswalt. In fact, the biggest trade pickup this year has been Dan Miceli was pulled from his last start suspiciously early. If both go down, and/or Ron Villone reverts to form, the staff could crater in a hurry.

    Now, the front office could improve the offense if so inclined, giving them a shot to weather any pitching storm. The vast majority of the offense comes from its corner hitters, with Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo, and Morgan Ensberg worth upwards of 14 runs apiece above positional average. Check out the up-the-middle mob:

    • Brad Ausmus, sparkly glove and all, has degenerated to being easily the worst starting catcher in the majors. Worth a whopping -22 runs at the plate, he more than offsets any 1 of the big 3, glove or no glove.

    • The Craig Biggio experiment is backsliding. He's down to -8.3 runs at the plate, with worst-third defense, though he does get brownie points for the 0 (count 'em) errors.

    • In just 2/3 of the season, Adam Everett is pushing -7 runs offensively. The defensive numbers do support his growing rep, but he and Biggio still combine to more than offset another 1 of the big 3.

    • Backup Geoff Blum is yet another terrible bat, and somehow manages to post Jeteresque range factors at every position despite semi-respectable zone ratings.

    • Even Jeff Kent has been terrible by his standards, crashing to a .283 EqA, a level not seen since 1997.

    • Now, PECOTA would have given at least four-to-one odds against any of these performances, so someone's bound to bounce back, most likely Kent. But it also means that it would be easy to help the club by replacing any of the others.

    • Any number of outfielders could be summoned from the minors, either replacing Biggio in center outright, or sliding Berkman back over; in fact, Colin Porter is already up. Almost any catcher in the organization would improve on Ausmus. They're kind of stuck on the Everett front, but that's what the waiver wire is for.

    Sadly, due to the millstones' various reputations, only an injury will remove them from the lineup. The Astros are in front, but their lead is tenuous, and they seem completely uninterested in addressing their faults, as easy as that would seem.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Shooting Star: Don't look now (OK, go ahead and look), but Scott Podsednik is having a tremendous year and, besides the most diehard, no one has noticed. However, for the cost of a simple waiver claim, the Brewers have found themselves a league average center fielder that has quickly become a fan favorite.

    Originally a third round selection by the Texas Rangers in 1994, Podsednik was traded to Florida for Bobby Witt after the 1995 season, and then was redeemed by the Rangers in the minor league portion of the 1997 Rule 5 draft. After three more non-descript years, the Seattle Mariners signed him as a minor league free agent and let him spend two years as the center fielder in Tacoma. The Brewers claimed him on waivers last October as the Mariners found a better use for their 40-man roster spot. Podsednik not only won a job with the team, but has become their third best offensive player and an unheralded contender for rookie of the year.

    
    Name		 AB   AVG  OBP  SLG  EQA   SB CS
    ------------------------------------------------
    Podsednik	358  .302 .372 .397 .276   22  7
    Baldelli	429  .303 .333 .455 .280   18  7
    Byrd		281  .310 .378 .427 .291    5  0
    
    While both Rocco Baldelli and Marlon Byrd were highly touted prospects, Podsednik has performed just as admirably in his first real major league opportunity. His list of PECOTA comparisons weren't kind coming into the year, and at age 27, he's likely enjoying his career year. However, as the Cubs have traded for both Kenny Lofton and Doug Glanville over the past few weeks, I'm not sure there is a better example of the concept of freely available talent than Scott Podsednik.

  • Coming Up Aces: Raise your hand if you knew that Ben Sheets was leading the National League in innings pitched. Now, among the three of you with your hands up, where does he rank in K/BB? Try fourth, behind Javier Vazquez, Mark Prior, and Jason Schdmit. That is some pretty solid company for a guy who is 10-8 with a 3.85 ERA. He's also tied for fourth in the NL in baserunners-per-innings-pitched. The giant improvement from last year has been in his command, as he has nearly cut his walks in half.
    
    Year	   IP	BB    K	  ERA  BB/9   K/9  K/BB
    -----------------------------------------------
    2001	151.1	48   94	 4.76  2.86  5.60  1.96
    2002	216.2	70  170	 4.15  2.91  7.08  2.43
    2003	162.1	30  117	 3.88  1.67  6.50  3.90
    
    While his command was good enough the past two years, he's taken it into Curt Schilling levels. His strikeout rate has fallen from last year and is more in line with his minor league numbers, but he still looks poised to break out into a number one starter in the near future.

Oakland Athletics

  • Incoming: A's fans accustomed to seeing players with names like Jermaine Dye and Ray Durham showing up August 1 were probably a little disappointed by the trade for Jose Guillen. Jose Guillen is not a big name. Jose Guillen is cheap ($500,000), hitting the snot out of the ball, and didn't cost any of the A's untouchable youngsters (Nick Swisher, Bobby Crosby, and lately, Joe Blanton) that someone like Brian Giles or J.D. Drew would have.

    Guillen's line in Cincy this year (.337/.385/.629) would be a huge boost to the A's moribund offense, but the suddenness and vastness of his improvement this year over his previous seasons creates fear that an equally precipitous decline may be on the horizon. He's a low-risk, high-reward move by the A's who are banking any upcoming power outage won't be before November, at which point someone will mistake this year for a trend and overpay Guillen.

  • Outgoing: The arrival of Rich Harden made moving Aaron Harang all the easier. Harang, the biggest chip thrown in by Oakland, now officially joins the long list of failed fifth starters for the A's, along with such marquee names as John Halama, Mike Fyhrie, Micah Bowie, and Eric Hiljus. He is only 25 and still could turn into a decent pitcher, but it's more likely he'll bounce around the league as a fourth or fifth starter for a few years.

    Joe Valentine came over in the Keith Foulke-for-Billy Koch robbery, and has been pitching in Triple-A Sacramento. His K-rate is as good as it's always been, but walking 37 guys in 52.1 innings doesn't endear you to the A's front office. He's only 23 and so, like Harang, could work out in the future, but so could solar cars.

    The final piece, Jeff Bruksch, was a fifth round choice in 2001 out of Stanford who whiffed 163 batters in 149 innings at Single-A Visalia in 2002, but also walked 63. Back in Modesto this year, Bruksch has already walked 54 (with 19 WP) in 126.1 innings with a stark decline to 87 strikeouts. He is not a prospect.

  • Dominating: Through his first three starts, Rich Harden has more than lived up to the hype. In 21 innings, Harden has allowed only 2 runs, struck out 16 against 7 walks, and has a 1.94 GB/FB ratio. Despite being on a fairly strict pitch count, Harden has worked through seven innings in all three games and has been more efficient with his pitches than could be expected based on his performance in the minors so far this season, particularly in his first start when he retired 21 Royals with 15 ground ball outs against 1 fly ball and 4 strikeouts (he also picked Carlos Beltran off first).

    Harden's pitching style closely matches that of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, the A's two most successful starters this season. All three are extreme groundball pitchers (GB/FB ratios of 2.29, 1.99, and 1.94) who strikeout a healthy number of batters, a style that makes them extremely adept at maneuvering out of jams, a talent Harden has displayed several times already.

  • Struggling: Harden's style and success highlights the recent struggles of Barry Zito, now the staff's lone flyball pitcher. Earlier in the year, we pointed out that both Hudson and Zito were posting disturbingly high walk rates. Hudson has adjusted; his rate has fallen dramatically since he' s been able to get hitters to swing at his breaking pitches in the dirt again. Zito, however, has continued to struggle with handing out free passes, now ranking second in the AL with 62 walks issued. More importantly, his strikeout rate has fallen dramatically from previous seasons:
    
    Year   BB/9   K/9   GB/FB   HR/9
    --------------------------------
    2003   3.52  5.40    0.91   0.97
    2002   3.06  7.14    0.74   0.94
    2001   3.36  8.61    0.85   0.76
    
    

    Zito has posted much better numbers after the All-Star break both of the last two seasons, a trend he attributed last year to a conversation with his father and a simple mental adjustment. Oakland fans will have to continue to hope that the combination of the elder Zito and pitching coach Rick Peterson can turn around the reigning Cy Young winner again.

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