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August 18, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Prospecting: Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, the Astros had one of the best organizations in the game. Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg are just the better of the best of the players to emerge in the last few years.

    Looking forward, though, the cupboard is mostly bare. The number of top-notch prospects has dropped dramatically, and almost all of them are underperforming expectations:

    • Brad Lidge has consistently been a top 15 reliever, but has also been knocked off the starter track for the forseeable future. Call it a push.

    • The rest of the good news is skewed towards Chris Burke or Chris Gomez, who were each in the majors before age 23, and breaking the .250 EqA barrier at age 25.

    • John Buck, long considered one of the Astros' top prospects, is a borderline case. His major league EqAs from the last few years are .211 in 2000, .211 again in 2001, .216 last year and .216 again this year. Flat development curves like this are acceptable for young players advancing every year, especially when they skip a level as Buck did last year, and when they play an offensively-challenged, late-blooming position, namely catcher. Still, he's doing nothing to disprove PECOTA's opinion that his future looks more like Orlando Mercado than Ben Davis.

    • Jason Lane has been similarly disappointing, posting a .254 MlEQA as opposed to being in the .270s as projected. Being 26 and a corner outfielder, neither he nor the Astros could afford a stalled year like this. (Henri Stanley has also been doing well at New Orleans (Triple-A), but is 25 and merely playing in line with his forecast.)

      In fact, Lane appears to have already been passed by Colin Porter, who has almost tilted his PECOTA projection with a .264 MlEQA, and is already effectively the Astros' fourth outfielder, given the fact that Orlando Merced can't throw.

    • Tommy Whiteman has had shoulder problems; Chad Qualls has been good, but is repeating a level, with borderline peripherals at best; and their most valuable starter has been Doug Sessions, who appears to be completely absent from 15-deep prospect lists.

    In short, the Astros' best players in the upper minors are a catcher who still inspires more hope than confidence, a second baseman who might or might not be ready by the time the contract blocking him has expired, and a starter who might or might not be a decent workhorse or middle reliever someday. At best, that'll be par for the division; if the Astros are to pull away from the pack in the next few years, they'll need to upgrade their farm system in a hurry.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Jeriome Robertson vs. Matt Clement, Jared Fernandez vs. Mark Prior, and Ron Villone vs. a probable Kerry Wood or if his back isn't feeling up to it, Shawn Estes. That's not a recipe for building a lead over the Cubbies, but that's what the task facing the Astros in the early series this week at Juiced Ball Field. After that, it's off to Cincy for three, then home-and-away series the Dodgers and Padres.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • "It would be a mistake to think that since these successes have been attained everything is as it should be. Of course, not everything with us is yet as it should be. There are plenty of shortcomings and mistakes in our work. Inefficiency and confusion are still to be met within our practical work. Unfortunately, I cannot now stop to deal with shortcomings and mistakes, as the limits of the report I was instructed to make do not give me sufficient scope for this. But that is not the point just now. The point is that, notwithstanding shortcomings and mistakes, the existence of which none of us denies, we have achieved such important successes as to evoke admiration among the working class all over the world, we have achieved a victory that is truly of world-wide historic significance." - Joseph Stalin, 1933.

    Baseball moves in cycles, not unlike Soviet Five-Year Plans. Faced with inauspicious results, owners respond by firing people, bringing in new management, and invoking a new vision to carry them forward to glorious parades and world domination...I mean, World Series titles. With the Brewers season all but over at 16.5 games back, it's as good a time as ever to start assessing year one of the newest in the series of Five-Year-Or-Less Plans the Brewers have attempted.

    When Doug Melvin was brought in as a replacement for the deposed Dean Taylor and Ulice Payne stepped in for Wendy Selig-Prieb, the makings of a new plan became evident. Melvin hired Ned Yost to rally the troops through the early stages of rebuilding, his youthful exuberance unlikely to be dimmed too quickly by beatings the likes of which haven't been seen since Carson Kressley attended high school gym class.

    A focus on prospects seemed reasonable, given the near-complete lack of talent at the major league level. Richie Sexson ($5 million in '03, $8 million in '04) is a bargain compared to Jim Thome, given that Sexson trumps the Phillies slugger in VORP. Geoff Jenkins isn't an elite left fielder--though he's hardly a Jeffrey Hammonds-type failure either--but like Sexson, he'll get a $3 million raise next season. Hammonds' albatross contracts comes off the books, but instead of freeing up money, it puts the Brewers' bottom line at even.

    Sure, guys like Eric Young leave (to be replaced by Bill Hall or a rushed Rickie Weeks), but it's not until 2005, when Jenkins and Sexson become eligible for free agency, and the prospects that Melvin knows are coming--prospects that were, for the most part, brought in by the Taylor-Riddoch administration--come riding into town. Sexson will be replaced by the slugging Prince Fielder, a kid sportswriters and casual fans will equally enjoy, while Jenkins' replacement isn't as clear. Still, it's easy to see that while the Brewers' mission statement and slogan--"We're Working On It"--may ring true, it won't be 2004 where things turn around. If you're bound and determined to be a Brewers fan, you'll be waiting at least a year longer.

    Let's take a quick look at one possible version of the 2005 roster and compare it to 2003. Keep in mind this is a speculative exercise given the unpredictable nature of prospects and organizations in general:

    
    C    Osik             stopgap, then Louis Palmisano in 2006
    1B   Sexson           Prince Fielder
    2B   Young            Rickie Weeks
    SS   Clayton          J.J. Hardy
    3B   Helms            Corey Hart
    LF   Jenkins          free agent acquisition
    CF   Podsednik        Dave Krynzel
    RF   Hammonds         Anthony Gwynn
    
    SP   Sheets           Ben Sheets
    SP   Rusch            Luis Martinez
    SP   Kinney           Ben Hendrickson
    SP   Franklin         Manny Parra
    RP   Vizcaino         Matt Childers
    RP   DeJean           Jason Childers
    
    

    While the lineup surely won't look exactly like this, it's certainly a decent base to build from. In a conversation recently with a baseball executive, he said "five year plans don't work. You need consistency in an organization." The only consistency the Brewers have had is bad baseball. There's hope on the horizon, if distant and hidden by a retractable roof that doesn't work.

Oakland Athletics

  • Huh?: This has already been touched on, but the move the A's made last Wednesday, activating Jim Mecir and designating Adam Piatt for assignment, could use a little more discussion. Mecir has long been one of the A's feel-good stories, battling club feet and a missing ACL in one knee to become a decent reliever with one of Oakland's longest tenures. However, his health has been in decline for the last 18 months and, at 33, his prospects for contributing to the team's success this year or the next are questionable at best. In 3.1 IP of rehab, he allowed seven baserunners and four runs. So far, back in Oakland, he's allowed four runs in just one inning, already losing one game to Boston and almost pulling the same trick against the Blue Jays.

    Ken Macha has a hard enough time trying to find work for Mike Neu and long man John Halama that there's an argument that the A's should move to a five-man bullpen. Oakland relievers are second only to the Yankees in terms of fewest innings pitched, Chad Bradford and Keith Foulke economize their pitches well enough to pitch a heavy innings load, and Mecir becomes the fifth righthander against only two lefties. Rather than increasing their offensive options on the end of the bench, the A's now have seven arms soaking up the sun in left field, leaving Piatt open to be claimed off waivers.

    Piatt was well on his way to being a regular in the A's outfield before he contracted viral meningitis two years ago and dropped 25-30 pounds in a week in the hospital. Since then, he's slowly worked himself back to health but hasn't had nearly enough steady playing time to determine whether he's going to be the same player he was projected to be. Oakland should have given him another full season at Sacramento after that lost year, but instead they've kept bumping him up and down I-80, plugging outfield holes as they see fit. Until he gets some steady playing time, no one will know if Piatt can live up to the potential that he flashed when he hit .345/.451/.704 with 39 homers in Midland in 1999.

  • Getting Ahead in the Count: BP's new Post-Season Odds Report takes a little bit of the fun out of looking at the remaining schedule and trying to gauge the A's' chances to catch the Red Sox and Mariners. It's worth noting, however, that the once the A's get through the next week against Boston and Toronto, they get their cushiest stretch of the year, with 12 games against Baltimore and Tampa Bay. During this period, Seattle again gets to alternate opponents with Oakland, but Boston takes on the Yankees, Blue Jays, and White Sox. It's a great opportunity for Oakland to take the Wild Card lead heading into the final weeks of AL West round robin.

    If the A's manage to nose ahead by Sept. 8th, it will be a tough advantage to hold as things reverse and the Red Sox get the smooth road to finish the season with 17 of 20 games against the Devil Rays, Orioles, and Indians. Despite their historic propensity to fade, this year's Bostonians will be tough to hold off in late September, so to give themselves the best shot at a fourth consecutive postseason appearance, the A's need to open a substantial lead in the Wild Card before trying to chase down Seattle in the last weeks of the season.

  • It's Just a Flesh Wound: There haven't been many foggy days in the Bay Area lately, but when Dave Berg's cursed liner nailed Tim Hudson's right hand at 2:55 p.m. local time Saturday, the gasp in the coliseum nearly pulled it right in. In his last two starts, Hudson has thrown 15.1 innings against the two best offenses in the league, allowing just one run on nine baserunners (and if Terrence Long could hit the broad side of a barn door from short left field, he'd probably still have a shutout going).

    Currently, Hudson's condition is listed as a "contusion"--his hand is wrapped in a bandage and there was minimal swelling on his hand on Sunday, but the seams of the baseball were imprinted on his skin. He's still scheduled to rematch against Pedro Martinez in the final game of the Boston series this week, a crucial game in Oakland's playoff run. Rich Harden, whose innings total is getting a little high for a 21-year old rookie, was scheduled to have this start skipped, but if Hudson can't pitch, Harden will be called upon. Hudson did feel well enough to joke that "all five fingers are broken." Not funny, Tim.

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