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August 15, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • Hackin' Endy: For a few years now, Baseball Prospectus has put together a game called HACKING MASS. As the game's rules page explains:
    HACKING MASS is a contest to try and predict the worst/most offensive players in the upcoming season. HACKING MASS stands for Huckabay's Annual Call to Keep Immobility Next to Godliness: Maximus Aggregatus Stiffisimus Sensire...Simply pick the players who you think will be the stiffest at each position. A team's aggregate stiffness is measured by summing the ESPN (Exuded Stiff Points, Net) of all of the players on your team. For hitters, ESPN is 0.800, minus his OBP, minus his SLG, and multiplied by plate appearances - i.e., (.8-OPS)*PA...In each case, it isn't enough for a player to simply suck; somehow the Stiffest of the Stiff must find a way to remain in the lineup or rotation.

    Simple enough. To win the game, contestants must select a roster full of hitters who'd give Mario Mendoza a run for his money (as well as two pitching arsonists). The best HACKING MASS hitters not only stink, they also--through good defense, lack of better internal options, and management's inability to evaluate talent--must ring up as much punchless playing time as possible.

    In his first full season, Endy Chavez has already ascended to the heights of stiffness. With a quarter of the season to go, he ranks as the starting center fielder for the HACKING MASS All-Star team, with a putrid line of .253/.288/.362, good for an impressive 61 ESPN. He's turned the trick by borrowing from all three criteria for HACKING MASS greatness:

    • Good defense: There's no need to debate your favorite defensive measure here. Chavez rates among the league's better center fielders in virtually every defensive category: fielding percentage, range factor, and zone rating, as well as Clay Davenport's defensive measures, both last year and so far this season. Which brings us to...

    • Lack of better internal options: Other than Peter Bergeron, an even more pathetic hitter than Chavez since banished to and buried in the minors, no other player in the organization has shown comparable glovework at this key defensive position. Brad Wilkerson proved somewhat functional with the glove last season in center field, but may lose some of his already limited range as he fills out. Pacific Coast League terror Terrmel Sledge has been typecast as a corner outfielder, despite showing a decent glove in past years playing center in the minors. It's highly possible that Wilkerson and Sledge could combine in left and center field to give the Expos a better combination of offense and defense than the current Wilkerson-Chavez configuration. The words and actions of General Manager Omar Minaya and Manager Frank Robinson however suggest that making that move isn't an option for the Expos. Which brings us to...

    • Management's inability to evaluate talent: Minaya claimed Chavez off waivers last year, after being exposed to Endy in the Mets organization previously. That waiver claim marked the 728th time Chavez had been grabbed off the scrap heap, after stints in such organizations as the Mets, Royals, Tigers, Bad News Bears and Local 191 Piano Movers' Beer League Barracudas.

      After being sent to Triple-A Ottawa, Chavez tossed up a gaudy line of .343/.392/.467 in 405 at-bats. Chavez hadn't proven himself to be anything close to a consistent .340 hitter in the past. Combine that lack of precedent with the general flakiness of batting average in most players' year-to-year records, and the performance screamed "fluke." Particularly notable were the results from more stable categories of offensive performance--walks and power. Chavez drew 33 walks all season, a measly one for every 13 times up to bat. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) remained an unimpressive .124, in line with prior years' performance.

      Expos management saw what they wanted to see from that line. A line of .296/.321.464 in 124 ABs in a late-season audition with the big club was the nail in the coffin; instead of pegging the batting average as a fluke and shying away from Chavez's lousy secondary skills, the brass gave Chavez the starting center field job out of Spring Training without a fight. While you could perhaps defend the decision at the start of the year, Chavez's continued misery at the plate would have tipped off many other GMs that Chavez's upside looked more like Alex Sanchez's than Lenny Dykstra's. Of course, this is Omar Minaya, the man who's somehow duped scads of mainstream media sources into proclaiming him a hot GM prospect for other teams, yet also regaled Expos fans with this all-time gem:

      "I'm not in the on-base percentage camp," Minaya explained earlier this year. "I'm in the athleticism-with-baseball intelligence camp."

    With the Expos barely on the fringes of the Wild Card race after a scorching 32-18 start and early Wild Card lead, you could blame plenty of factors for the collapse: a nasty spate of injuries to a big chunk of the pitching staff as well as the team's star, Vladimir Guerrero; a 25-day, 22-game road trip from hell earlier this year and generally taxing travel schedule; or a lack of funds available to add big-ticket players for a playoff run.

    Solid reasons, all. But as Expos fans look back on another season of disappointment a few weeks from now, they might ask themselves: What would have happened if the Expos employed a league-average center fielder, instead of the sinkhole Endy Chavez? The answer might hit them like a Sledgehammer.

San Francisco Giants

  • The One That Got Away: It's not surprising to read and hear a fair amount of carping lately about the off-season Damian Moss/Russ Ortiz deal, what with Ortiz's attention-grabbing stat line and the Giants' recent jettisoning of Moss as part of the Sidney Ponson package. But Giants fans ought to lay off the Sabean-bashing--at least with that deal--for a number of reasons.

    First, the Ortiz-Moss performance competition isn't quite as lopsided as it seems. Ortiz is certainly having a fine year, obviously a better one than Moss had with the Giants. But most of the attention Ortiz is getting has come from his gaudy 17-5 W/L record, and that record is due as much to the Braves' powerhouse offense as it is to anything Ortiz is doing on the mound. Ortiz is 14th in the NL in ERA, and the 24th-best starter in the majors according to our own Support-Neutral report--an upper-echelon guy, but far from a legit Cy Young candidate. That report, which calculates what a pitcher's W/L record would be expected to be if that pitcher had an average offense and bullpen behind him, ranks Ortiz and his W/L record as by far the luckiest in the league (the full list of lucky starters is here). Meanwhile, while few Giants fans are mourning the departure of Moss and his perpetual 2-0 counts, he did hold his own for the half-season he spent in San Francisco, keeping the Giants in most of the games he pitched.

    Second, it's not a given that Ortiz would have put together the same performance if he'd stayed in San Francisco. Joining the Cox/Mazzone pitching factory has given a boost to the careers of lots of pitchers, from superstars to journeymen. Maddux, Glavine, Neagle, Avery, Burkett, Millwood, Mercker, Hampton, Moss himself--scads of pitchers who go through Atlanta experience a career peak or a rejuvenation. (OK, so they weren't able to do much with the decaying carcass of Shane Reynolds. Nobody's perfect.)

    Third, the deal was more about unloading Ortiz's $4.4 mil. salary than it was about the quality of the two pitchers. Sabean had to make some room in the budget for the big off-season signings somehow, and Ortiz represented the least painful cut. It's easy to complain about the loss of a solid workhorse starter, but when it becomes a choice between that workhorse and, say, Ray Durham or Jose Cruz, it's much less black and white.

    Finally, the deal was not just Ortiz-for-Moss. This tends to get overlooked in the papers because the media generally ignore minor leaguers. But the minor leaguer who came over to the Giants with Moss is very much worth paying attention to. He's "Magic" Merkin Valdez, and he's established himself as possibly the top pitching prospect in the Sally League. He's leading that league in strikeouts (141 in 133 innings) with pretty good control (47 walks), and he's impressing observers wherever he pitches. The level of competition in the Sally League is pretty low, and Valdez has many more hurdles to get over before he makes the majors, but who knows? Maybe someday both Moss and Ortiz will be a footnote to "the Merkin Valdez deal."

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Welcome to the Show: It is a rare occurrence when a team, regardless of its place in the standings, will bench its third-best hitter. In the midst of a miraculous career year at the age of 37, however, Greg Myers and his .312 EqA (near the major league lead among major league catchers) is going to lose at-bats to 25-year-old Kevin Cash.

    The Jays understandably want to evaluate Cash at the major league level before deciding how large a part he plays in their future, while Myers almost certainly won't be on the field the next time Toronto celebrates a division championship. Cash may not be either, however. He was hitting a pedestrian .270/.329/.442 in Syracuse, as a 25-year-old and struggling to adjust to consistent breaking balls. Cash has above-average power and can turn on a fastball, but left his strike zone judgment in Double-A Tennessee. In 562 at-bats since his promotion to Triple-A last summer, he has drawn 54 walks and struck out 153 times. After being labeled the fourth "catcher of the future" in the past four years, he has followed in the footsteps of Joe Lawrence, Jayson Werth, and Josh Phelps in surrendering the title to someone else. Guillermo Quiroz currently holds that distinction, and it wouldn't surprise many people if he was the one getting the audition next fall.

  • Surprise Performer: There were 11 players selected before Aquilino Lopez in the 2002 Rule 5 draft. If they redid the draft today, Lopez would almost certainly go first. Despite posting a 2.39 ERA and a 27/103 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 109 minor league innings last year, the Mariners left him off their 40-man roster. The Blue Jays gladly picked him up for the $50,000 fee, and now have themselves one of the American League's best relief pitchers. Consider the following chart, where ARP is pitchers' adjusted runs prevented according to Michael Wolverton:
    
    Name                 IP   ERA   ARP    Salary
    Scott Williamson     49  3.49   6.8  $1.6 mil.
    Ugueth Urbina        54  3.33   4.9  $4.5 mil.
    Jeff Nelson        40.1  3.57  -6.6  $4.0 mil.
    Mike Williams      49.2  5.62  -6.7  $3.5 mil.
    Aquilino Lopez     55.1  3.88   7.2  $0.3 mil.
    
    

    As you've certainly deduced by now, Scott Williamson, Ugueth Urbina, Jeff Nelson and Mike Williams are all right-handed relievers who were deemed good enough to have contenders pick them up at the deadline to improve their bullpens at varying costs. The Marlins in particular paid a small fortune to get Urbina, who has been an inferior pitcher to Lopez in just about every sense of the word. The lesson, as always; potential quality relief pitchers are everywhere.

  • On the Farm: Apparently understanding the last philosophy, the Blue Jays went about converting college closer David Bush into a starting pitcher this season. The results have been overwhelming. In 14 starts in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Bush posted an amazing 9/75 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 77 innings. Since his promotion to Double-A, he has been nearly unhittable, though his BB/K ratio has come back into human territory again:
    
    Level          Innings   ERA     H     HR    BB    K
    High-A          77       2.81    64    6     9     75
    Double-A        64 2/3   1.95    55    4     17    56
    
    

    As a reliever, Bush consistently hit 94 mph, but has dropped to 88-91 as a starter. It hasn't affected his performance, as his changeup has made solid improvement and his slider is an effective out pitch. His command has made the biggest improvement and has been the key to his success. Bush has consistently improved as the season has worn on and is part of a solid crop of young pitchers making its way to Toronto.

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