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August 11, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Something in the Water: C'mon, admit it. The Marlins completely blind-sided you, didn't they? The Marlins' first two months were somewhat of a disaster. By early May their vaunted young pitching staff had suffered A.J. Burnett's season-ending torn elbow ligament, followed quickly by Josh Beckett's elbow sprain and Mark Redman's broken thumb. At least partially because of the first two injuries, on May 11 the team fired manager Jeff Torborg (and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg), and handed the rudder to Jack McKeon, who was widely perceived to be the wrong choice. On May 22, they stood at 19-29, dead last in the National League East, 13.5 games behind the Braves, and 11 back of the Wild-Card leading Expos.

    Since May 22, the Marlins are an astounding 45-24, the best record in all of baseball during that span, and are now tied for the Wild Card lead with the Phillies. Jack McKeon, the butt of jokes in May, is a legitimate Manager of the Year candidate. He inherited a club with a pitching staff in disarray, a team that was the lightning rod for several national media stories on pitcher abuse. He has completely righted the ship, as the Marlins employ the NL's third-best rotation. Pro Player Stadium is a good park for pitchers, but Michael Wolverton's tools rate all five Marlin starters above the league average.

    • Dontrelle Willis: Recalled on May 9, Willis has been one of baseball's biggest stories. With a record of 11-2, 2.56, 3.2 SNWAR, he even managed to sell out Pro Player Stadium on July 30 when he faced off against (and beat) Randy Johnson.

    • Redman: Returning from his broken thumb on May 30, Redman has delivered consistently good starts every five days since (9-5, 2.92, 3.1 SNWAR, for the season).

    • Beckett: After missing eight weeks, Beckett came back on July 1 and is showing flashes of his promising potential--41 strikeouts in 38 innings and a 2.79 ERA since his return.

    • Brad Penny: Supposedly the most fragile of the Marlin hurlers entering the season, Penny has not missed a start all year, and has provided many quality performances (10-9, 4.18, 1.5 SNWAR).

    • Carl Pavano: Although it seems like he was a prospect 10 years ago, Pavano is still only 27. He is having by far his best season (9-10, 4.35), and has also made all of his starts.

    Other than Redman, McKeon has been pretty careful with his young starting corps. (Inexplicably, Redman has had several high-pitch count outings, including starts of 138 and 140, since his return, and leads all full-time major league starting pitchers in average pitcher abuse points.) Although the team's offense has continued to exceed expectations (fourth in the NL in EqA), if the Marlins are going down to the wire, it will likely be on the backs of their starting pitchers.

    The Marlins have finished over .500 just once in their 10-year history, when they won 92 games in 1997. South Florida knows very well what can happen when you squeak into the playoffs, as that 1997 squad captured the Wild Card, played well in October, and took home the gold.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Beginning Monday, the Marlins will host the Dodgers and Padres for seven games before heading for Denver, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. It will be interesting to see how many fans they attract this week. Although the Willis-Johnson matchup got a lot of attention, the team's very next game, with Josh Beckett facing the Astros, drew 12,392. Early in the season it looked like a three-team race to achieve the majors' lowest attendance, but Montreal and Tampa Bay have pulled safely ahead, or, rather, behind.

New York Yankees

  • Hot Corner, Cold Future: The Yankees turned over nearly a quarter of their roster in the two weeks around the trade deadline, with the big move the acquisition of Aaron Boone to play third base. The Yankees paid a steep price for Boone, whose numbers have been inflated by the Great American Ballpark (.297/.366/.530 there in 2003, .235/.290/.378 everywhere else) and who, despite perceptions, had been about as good a player this year as the third baseman he was replacing, Robin Ventura (.272 EqA at the time of trade, vs. Ventura's .269).

    Of course, Boone isn't just a two-month pickup. At 30 years old and arbitration-eligible after the season, he'll almost certainly be back at the hot corner for the Bombers in 2004. That places him squarely in the way of Drew Henson, and again calls the former Michigan quarterback's lack of development to the fore:

    
                  AB   2B  3B   HR   UIBB   SO    AVG   OBP   SLG
    2003 (AAA)   417   33   2   12     24  104   .235  .291  .410
    2002 (AAA)   471   30   4   18     37  151   .240  .301  .435
    2001 (AAA)   270    6   0   11      9   85   .222  .249  .367
    
    

    Other than a hot streak in the Arizona Fall League a couple of years ago and some good work at Double-A Norwich, Henson has been a failure as a professional baseball player. While he is a strong, athletic man, he can't hit, and a third baseman who can't hit can't play in the major leagues. He's not young anymore: at 23, he's at the classification he should be playing for his age. He's not inexperienced anymore, with more than 1,200 Triple-A plate appearances under his belt. He is what he is: an athlete unable to transfer his physical tools to baseball.

    Henson still has three seasons and $12 million to go on his baseball contract, and shows no signs of wanting to leave the game and go back to football. It may be time for the Yankees to take that decision away from him by focusing the organization's time and energy on other prospects. Henson isn't ever going to be a baseball star, and if given another thousand PAs might develop into a Jim Presley-style third baseman. He's more than welcome to pursue that goal, but the Yankees should bite the bullet and release him to do it on someone else's time, even if it means eating all that money. In fact, paying Henson $12 million to not play for them would still make more sense than signing Sterling Hitchcock for that same amount of money did.

  • Outstanding Performer: Derek Jeter is on fire. After bouncing back from an Opening Day shoulder injury as his old self, Jeter had one of the worst months of his career in June: .254/.333/.364. His performance was a big part of the offensive problems that plagued the Yankees in the early part of the summer.

    Since then, however, Jeter has gone nuts. He hit .425 in July, and is at .392/.471/.542 since July 1. His season line of .322/.392/.468 is just a bit above his mean PECOTA projection, and while he's stopped running (six steals in nine attempts, on pace for a career-low in both categories), he's re-established himself as the third-best shortstop in the AL. That is both exactly where he should be and not enough for some people.

    Maybe Jeter will never again post a 900 OPS or be an MVP candidate, and at $19 million a year through 2010, he'll probably be overpaid deep into his 30s. That doesn't make him a bad player, and for the Yankees, he's a critical cog in an offense that needs his .380 OBP at the top of the lineup...

  • Lousy Performer: ...to make up for their red-hot one. As scorching as Jeter has been, Alfonso Soriano has been that cold, just .213/.244/.347 since the All-Star break. Actually, since a monster April (.370/.436/.630), Soriano has been a mediocre player, hurting the Yankee offense with a sub-.300 OBP in the leadoff spot.

    The problem with Soriano is exactly what it was a year ago: plate discipline. An early-season spate of intentional walks--when Nick Johnson was batting behind him in Jeter's absence--clouds the issue, but Soriano has shown little improvement in his selectivity this year:

    
            AB   UIBB    SO
    2003   482     20    92
    2002   696     22   157
    2001   574     29   125
    
    

    Like Jeter, Soriano may suffer because of the expectations caused by an early peak season. He's probably not going to hit .340 on balls in play like he did in 2002, which will make it hard for him to hit .300 given his strikeout rate. Added to that is his lack of walks, which will keep his OBP tethered to his batting average. It is entirely possible that 2002's .300/.332/.547 is as good as we'll see from Soriano, with seasons like this one--.280/.330/.485--more his speed.

    What the Yankees need to do to leverage Soriano's skills is move him down in the lineup; his right-handed power would make him an excellent cleanup hitter between Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui, with Bernie Williams or Nick Johnson joining Jeter in setting the table. Lineup effects aren't that important, but in a division that could be decided by just a few games, why give away runs?

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Early Returns: The Pirates have signed their top five picks of the June draft and 18 of their first 25. Among their 18 signees are three high school pitchers, six college- or juco-trained pitchers, four high school position players and five college or juco position players. Here's a quick glance at how the Pirates' top 10 picks who are both signed and playing are faring in the early going:

    • Paul Maholm, LHP, 1st Rd. (Eighth overall), Mississippi State, Bonus: $2.2 million 11.2 IP, 1.54 ERA, 12 K, 2 BB, 6 H, 1 HR...The Bucs' top pick is off to a strong start at Williamsport of the NY-Penn League. Sample size is too small to make any judgments, but as a highly regarded, college-trained pitcher in short-season ball, he should have little trouble.

    • Tom Gorzelanny, LHP, 2nd Rd. (45th overall), Triton (IL) JC, Bonus: $775,000 8.2 IP, 1.04 ERA, 7 K, 1 BB, 7 H, 0 HR...Like Maholm, he's a seasoned lefty facing a peer group of hitters at Williamsport that's largely younger and using wood bats for the first time. His peripherals will likely remain strong, but it's worth monitoring whether that hit rate remains somewhat high relative to his low balls-in-play rate.

    • Kyle Pearson, RHP, 4th Rd. (105th overall), Mosley HS (FL), Bonus: $345,000 14.1 IP, 2.51 ERA, 19 K, 5 BB, 17 H, 0 HR...Pitching the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and off to a strong start. Excellent K rate thus far, but the hit rate is too high (and that's potentially damning for a minor league pitcher). But, like every other June draftee, it's far too early to make any lasting judgments.

    • Craig Stansberry, 3B, 5th Rd. (135th overall), Rice U., Bonus: $215,000 79 AB, .329/.398/.392, 6 BB, 14 K...At Williamsport. Hits are falling for him, but he's struggling to hit for power with the wooden bat. Then again, he wasn't much of a power hitter in college, either.

    • Russell Johnson, RHP, 7th Rd. (195th overall), Ben Russell HS (AL), Bonus: $130,500 3.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4 K, 0 BB, 0 H, 0 HR...At the Pirates' GCL affiliate. He's pitched only three innings, so what can we say? How about this: If he maintains this performance at all levels, he'll be the greatest pitcher in the history of recorded time.

    • Sergio Silva, RHP, 8th Rd. (225th overall), U. of the Pacific, Bonus: $85,000 31.2 IP, 1.42 ERA, 31 K, 10 BB, 24 H, 1 HR...Another promising arm at Williamsport. Lots to like so far. Keeps the ball in the park, good command and K rate. Again, it's always a growth economy for college-trained arms who dominate in short-season ball, but strong numbers just the same.

    • Kent Wulf, 2B, 9th Rd. (255th overall), Quartz Hill HS (CA), Bonus: $85,000 84 AB, .214/.275/.250, 5 BB, 20 K...Wulf is toiling in the GCL. It's not unusual for hitters drafted out of high school to suffer fits and starts, even at the lowest professional level. Still, nothing in the numbers to recommend him so far.

    • John Santiago, 3B, 11th Rd. (315th overall), Del Carmen HS (PR), Bonus: NA 116 AB, .267/.312/.319, 6 BB, 18 K...Also in the GCL and also struggling. Low Isolated Slugging Percentages (SLG - AVG) are endemic to rookie hitters plucked from high school, and Santiago's (.052) is no exception. It's not an indictment at this stage, though.

    • Adam Boeve, OF, 12th Rd. (345th overall), U. of Northern Iowa, Bonus: NA 79 AB, .266/.381/.418, 12 BB, 23 K...A college-trained hitter playing for Williamsport at the moment. Boeve played in the Northwoods League in the summer of '02, so he'd already had experience using a wood bat. Strong walk rate in the early going.

    • Jacob Cuffman, RHP, 14th Rd. (405th overall), Butler Area HS (PA), Bonus: NA 14.1 IP, 6.28 ERA, 15 K, 9 BB, 23 H, 0 HR...Like most high schoolers, he's starting off in the GCL. He's only got 14 innings in his pro dossier, but he's struggling. Hit rate and control problems are the concerns right now.

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