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August 19, 2003

Prospectus Today

Handicapping

by Joe Sheehan

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Friday's column never happened.

Had I written a Friday column, I definitely wouldn't have talked about how MLB hadn't rescheduled a Diamondbacks/Royals rainout yet, because they have (September 4), travel nightmares be damned. I certainly wouldn't have alluded to a Marlins/Braves matchup in the Division Series, which can't occur. There's no way I would have insinuated that the Mets and Rockies wouldn't play Friday night, because that would have been silly.

But I didn't write a Friday column, so none of that happened.

--

One of the things I hate most as a writer, both in myself and in others, is inconsistency. If you make a prediction, you should stand by it. Otherwise, you can look smart by the end of the season because you've basically predicted every possible outcome. That's poor analysis, and something I try to avoid.

Sometimes, however, you have to change your mind based on events. I started the year saying that the Reds would win the NL Central. I loved their offense and bullpen, and figured they would get enough starting pitching to survive in a division full of flawed teams. That was predicated on Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. staying in the lineup and providing 900-1000 good plate appearances. With Larkin possibly out for the year and Griffey long gone, it looks like they'll fall just a hair shy:


           AB   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqR   RARP   VORP
Larkin    232  .284  .349  .384  28.2    7.0    9.1
Griffey   166  .247  .370  .566  32.8   14.8   15.5

In a shining example of veteran influence, Austin Kearns will end up playing in just 82 games this year, the victim of a variety of ailments. Between the injuries and a brutal performance by the starting rotation, the Reds were effectively done by the middle of June.

With that, I focused on the Cards and Astros. Yes, that meant skipping over the Cubs, who I had predicted to win the wild card, but I had my reasons. As expected, Dusty Baker had given over the right side of his infield to veterans rather than the talented young players he inherited. Both Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros hit for high averages in their first 100 at-bats, providing Baker all the encouragement needed to bury Bobby Hill (who didn't even make it through spring training) and Hee Seop Choi. Grudzielanek was having a good year by his standards before suffering a broken hand in early August. His .305/.361/.404 line has produced a .269 Equivalent Average (EqA), good for ninth among NL second basemen. Karros opened the season in a platoon with Choi, but hit well when the rookie was forced to miss a few weeks with a concussion and kept the job when Choi returned. Apparently, rookies are the exception to the idea that you can't lose your job to an injury.

At times, Baker expressed frustration with the approaches of both Choi and Mark Bellhorn, both of whom take a fair number of pitches, which leads to both strikeouts and walks. Bellhorn was sent to the Rockies for Jose Hernandez, more of a free swinger, who was then dealt for Aramis Ramirez, also a hacker. I think it's interesting that the one young player who did flourish under Baker, Corey Patterson, is by far the least patient of the group.

It's not that the Cardinals and Astros appeared to be so much better than the Cubs, but they seemed likely to add the necessary pieces--pitchers, to be exact--at the trade deadline. If I said it once in July I said it a thousand times: Walt Jocketty's record of acquiring talent at the trade deadline is as good as any of his better-known peers. Gerry Hunsicker had the Randy Johnson trade on his resumé, as well as a couple of other deals for supporting players. I figured that even if the two teams were on par, perhaps even behind the Cubs in June, they would pass them by August.

It didn't happen, though. The Cardinals, with their depleted farm system, made no deadline deals, while the Astros, thin on pitching prospects in the upper levels and perhaps too eager to play hardball, acquired only Dan Miceli. The Cardinals have a patchwork staff from top to bottom, while the Astros have a solid bullpen and a rotation held together by prayer. They needed help, and they didn't get it.

With the anticipated deadline improvements not materializing, the Cubs started to look a whole lot better. They had survived the loss of Mark Prior for a couple of weeks, and with Carlos Zambrano on fire, were getting four good starts each time through the rotation. While they hadn't improved much in July--getting Kenny Lofton to fill the center-field hole opened by Patterson's knee injury and Aramis Ramirez to be average at third base did little to improve the team--their pitching staff was hard to ignore.

So, having spent the two weeks since the deadline talking about how the Cubs would probably hang on in the Battle to Play .530 Baseball, I watched as they went out and did something stupid. Over the weekend, they acquired Randall Simon from the Pirates, who does exactly one thing better than Hee Seop Choi


           AB   AVG   OBP   SLG   BB   SO   RARP   VORP
Simon     311  .273  .305  .415   12   31   -2.2    1.2
Choi      197  .223  .354  .431   36   67    5.7    4.9

I'm not sure how you look at Randall Simon and Hee Seop Choi and decide that you'd rather play Simon. He makes more contact than Choi does, and that's it. Choi puts more runs on the board, and takes more off with his glove (Simon is an awful first baseman). That Baker would want to have Simon on his bench isn't hard to understand, as Simon would be a huge improvement over the released Lenny Harris as a left-handed pinch-hitter. But Simon hasn't been acquired to pinch-hit; he's here to play first base at least half the time, in some type of job-sharing arrangement with Karros that Baker has taken pains to not call a platoon. This trade actively makes the Cubs a worse baseball team, and appears to be a complete failure on the part of the Cubs' braintrust.

Choi? He's been demoted to Triple-A, completing the purge of every young Cub player:

  • Bobby Hill had a lousy spring, got no playing time in Chicago, lost his job to Grudzielanek and is now in the Pirates' system.

  • Choi saw his playing time go to Karros, and his performance suffered as he played less and less. When Karros slumped, Baker forced a trade for an inferior player rather than play Choi.

  • Baker never liked Mark Bellhorn, and when Bellhorn opened the season hitting .209 (albeit with 29 walks and a .341 OBP), he benched him and encouraged a trade.

  • Corey Patterson flourished under Baker before his injury, hitting .298/.329/.511, although he showed no progress in his plate discipline (15 walks, 77 strikeouts in 329 at-bats). I'll leave it to the reader to find secondary characteristics that distinguish Patterson from the other players on this list.

  • Baker continues to run Shawn Estes out to the mound every fifth day. Estes is one of the five worst starting pitchers in baseball. Juan Cruz has virtually the same ERA as Estes (5.68, to 5.48 for the left-hander), but much better peripherals and was dominant in his time at Triple-A. There's little chance Cruz would be worse than Estes, and a good chance he would be much, much better. Estes, however, was really good for Baker in 1997.

I haven't even mentioned Baker's handling of the rotation outside of Estes. Kerry Wood is the third-hardest worked starter in baseball, despite his tendency to follow up long outings with poor ones. Of even greater concern is that Mark Prior, 22, and Zambrano, 21, are among the top 15 hardest-working pitchers in the game. They've been asked to shoulder a huge burden for their age, a huge risk given their talent and their importance to the franchise. With six weeks to go in a tight race, how Baker handles these two pitchers the rest of the year is going to have a huge impact on the Cubs' future.

So who will win the Central? Even considering the marks against them, I'm picking the Cubs. They have the fewest holes and the best pitching of the three teams, which should be enough in spite of their self-destructive tendencies. Those may hurt them terribly in the long run, but as bad as things have been, their front office is actually having a better year than their competitors'.

The Astros have been able to survive with the likes of Ron Villone in the rotation, but they've worked Brad Lidge and Octavio Dotel in the No. 6 slot. The Cardinals have four of the 10 best players in the league, but a poor supporting cast; they're a candidate to be blown out in any game not started by Woody Williams, and to cough up a lead when anyone other than Jason Isringhausen comes out of the bullpen.

One thing is for sure. Any team having to face Wood, Prior and Zambrano in a short series is going to be in for a tough week. If the Cubs can just get to October, they have a great chance to catch lightning in a bottle and play deep into the month.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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