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September 8, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Mr. Marlin: On Aug. 31 the Marlins acquired old friend Jeff Conine from the Orioles for two of the better pitchers in their system: Denny Bautista and Don Levinski. Conine was brought aboard to help compensate for the loss of Mike Lowell, who, the day before, had broken his left hand.

    Conine was known as "Mr. Marlin" during his first stint with the team in 1993-1997. He played every game in the franchise's inaugural season, was their lone All-Star in 1994 and 1995, and played on the 1997 World Champion squad. Conine is supposedly popular in South Florida, although it's not clear how that would translate into extra dollars or any tangible effect for the Fish--his first four home contests officially drew about 11,000 per game, which is even less than the team usually draws. (There's plenty of talk in the local papers that the attendance totals, poor as they are, are inflated too.)

    Conine is 37 years old, although he has actually aged well. His numbers this year (.284/.332/.446, EqA of .279) aren't really out of line with his performance the past several years.

    
    Year   Age   EqA
    1997   31   .265
    1998   32   .256
    1999   33   .271
    2000   34   .270
    2001   35   .300
    2002   36   .275
    2003   37   .279
    
    

    That said, these numbers are barely average for a first baseman or a left fielder, which are the only positions Conine can play. He is an adequate player to plug a hole while you are looking around for a real solution, having had just one good season since 1996.

    With the loss of Lowell and Florida's continued playoff contention, a 30-day rental of Conine makes sense. Oh, except it is not a rental--they actually reworked his deal to keep him in teal through 2005, reportedly paying him $3 million for each of the next two seasons. Conine is playing LF for now (with Miguel Cabrera switching to his natural 3B), but will likely end up replacing Derrek Lee next season when Lee is non-tendered. Conine is older and worse than Lee both offensively and defensively, and also older and worse than Kevin Millar, who the team didn't want last off-season, even for less than they are now paying Conine.

  • The Rookie: Dontrelle Willis' fine performance on Sunday--in which he took a two-hit shutout into the eighth and settled for a 3-1 victory over the fading Expos in a game that saw on-field temperatures hit an unfathomable 153 degrees on the field--was pleasant to see. The media, even more analytical types, tend to jump on and off bandwagons fairly rapidly. Sure, Willis struggled for a while. Yes, Brandon Webb has been the better pitcher and ought to be the Rookie of the Year front-runner. But Willis has maintained solid overall numbers despite his brief rough patch during the dog days, and is still a great story. Despite not making it up until mid-May, he's grabbed a spot in the top 30 among all MLB pitchers for Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement-level (SNWAR), mainly while pitching in the midst of a tight pennant race. If you were impressed in June, there is no reason not to be now.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Well, not many of us thought the Marlins' September schedule would be of any importance, but here we are. They have won eight of 10 and sit one game back of the Wild Card lead, trailing only the Phillies.
    
    @New York (3)
    Atlanta (3)
    @Philadelphia (3)
    @Atlanta (4)
    Philadelphia (3)
    New York (3)
    
    

    This group of teams illustrates the danger of eyeballing a club's upcoming schedule based on the records of their opponents. The Mets have been out of the race for months, but have actually played well the past six weeks. The Braves have long had the division title in the bag but have been playing pedestrian baseball of late. If the Marlins hang tight, the six games against the Phillies could decide the race.

New York Yankees

  • Amazing Game: The Yankees may yet slip behind the Red Sox in the AL East race, but on a gorgeous late-summer Sunday in New York, they got everything they needed from two fan favorites having very difficult summers. David Wells threw 7 1/3 innings and left with a shutout intact, and Bernie Williams hit a two-run home run to provide the winning margin in a 3-1 victory.

    How badly did the Yankees need those heroics? Well, the 5.5-game lead they'd left Boston with a week ago had dwindled to just 1.5 games, and they'd been taken to the woodshed by the Red Sox 9-3 and 12-0 in the first two games of the series. Bad George had returned to threaten the jobs of his entire coaching staff, and the usually unflappable Joe Torre had risen to the bully's bait, with some defensive quotes published in the New York tabloids during the week. All that was missing was Steve Trout.

    Both of Sunday's heroes have been in deep slumps. Wells, whose weight and training issues didn't seem to bother the Yankees when he was 11-3 with a 3.76 ERA in the first half, found himself a target of sniping by Torre and Mel Stottlemyre. The heavy lefty had an ERA of 8.87 in August and had allowed 19 runs in 15 1/3 innings over his last three outings. After starting the season with just six walks in his first 146 2/3 innings, Wells walked 13 men in his next 29 1/3 frames. For a pitcher whose primary weapon is command, the loss of it left him defenseless.

    Williams' slump was partly excusable; he's been a shell of himself since returning from knee surgery in May, and his .270/.369/.406 performance (.256/.343/.358 in the second half) is a big reason why the Yankees haven't been able to put away the Sox. Williams batted sixth over the weekend, the lowest he'd been slotted in a Yankee lineup in a decade.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Securing a margin over the Red Sox was important, because both teams have painfully easy schedules over the last three weeks (or so it would seem, but the Orioles and Devil Rays are playing well lately, and as noted in the Florida PTP above, a team's circumstances can change a lot come September). The Yankees play just four games out of 21 against teams above .500, one of those today against the Blue Jays. The Red Sox have essentially the same path (they have a series with the Indians instead of the Tigers), so while the Yankees don't have a particular advantage on the schedule, their 2.5-game lead looks bigger, especially since the teams are done playing each other, at least in the regular season.

    Both AL East teams face an easier slate than the A's and Mariners, who play seven games with each other and the rest with the Angels and Rangers.

  • Godzilla: When the Yankees signed Hideki Matsui this winter, a popular comparison was to Brian Giles, a left-handed power hitter who drew lots of walks and could play center field if needed. Matsui's numbers haven't looked much like Giles' on the surface, but it's interesting to compare the two players' age-27 seasons.
    
            Year    AB    H   2B  3B  HR  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG   EqA
    
    Matsui  2003   551  157   39   0  15  54  76 .285 .349 .437  .276
    Giles   1998   350   94   19   0  16  56  66 .269 .396 .460  .304
    
    

    Giles was a better player than Matsui in less playing time, but he also wasn't making the transition to another continent and dealing with Matsui's press contingent. As Matsui has, Giles had a down year for power in '98, slugging .460 for the Indians and .413 at Triple-A Buffalo, after posting Triple-A slugging averages of .501 at age 24 and .594 at 25. He even slugged .612 in 121 at-bats for the Indians in 1995.

    Giles would get traded into a full-time job over the winter of '98-'99, and go on to become the walks-and-power beast that he remains today. While Matsui's first season in North America has been a mild disappointment, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he, too, could see his power return, making the comparisons to Giles even more apt.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • The Missing Piece: After weeks of rumors (including the last Pirates section of Prospectus Triple Play) about the least secretive trade in recent memory, the Pirates finally sent Brian Giles to San Diego in a four-player deal. What was surprising was the man missing from the trade. Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, and a player to be named later--said to be left-handed pitcher Cory Stewart--went to Pittsburgh in exchange for Giles. But whither Jason Kendall?

    According to reports, the Pirates and Padres couldn't agree on how much of the rest of Kendall's contract--a six-year, $60 million contract signed after the 2000 season--would be paid by Pittsburgh. Kevin Jarvis' name had surfaced in talks as a possible way to help defray some of Kendall's long-term deal, with the Pirates taking on the last season plus one month of the righty starter's three-year, $9 million deal (a puzzling contract when it was signed given Jarvis had shown little until his 2001 season, when the Pads were apparently impressed with his 4.79 ERA and 37 bombs allowed in 193 innings at a pitcher's park...or something).

    Since moving to San Diego, Giles has actively lobbied to get his fellow southern California native onto the club in time for the opening of Petco Park next season. The Pads can have Kendall if they want him; if the Pirates weren't happy paying about $9 million a year for three more years to a player with a gaudy lifetime line of .302/.418/.563, there's no way they'll keep Kendall, who's apparently lost whatever modest power stroke he once had, with just 99 extra-base hits in 1,655 at-bats over the last three seasons, including just 19 homers. (His 2001 post-season left thumb surgery can't be used as an excuse anymore.)

    Still, General Manager Dave Littlefield would do well to try and use some leverage in shopping Kendall. Sure, Littlefield's under the gun to save ownership some bucks, and you can hardly blame them given the limited revenue streams filtering out of old, decrepit PNC Park. While Pirates fans pray for PNC to save the franchise--a new park's the cure-all for any team, right Bud?--they can at least appreciate Kendall for as long as he stays in town. An athletic catcher who's retained his strong on-base skills, Kendall's put up a line of .323/.405/.417 this year, good for a .289 Equivalent Average (EqA).

    After missing half the 1999 season following a gruesome ankle injury, Kendall's become the most durable, inning-eating catcher in the majors, playing in 584 of the Pirates' 626 games from Opening Day 2000 through Sunday (93.3%). His get-on-base-any-way-possible approach--23 HBPs this season, ahead of his career average of 23.3 per 162 games played--and everyday presence has translated into a line of 37.2 Runs Above Replacement Player (RARP) this year, fourth among all major league catchers behind only Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada, and Ivan Rodriguez. That kind of production has plenty of value, huge contract or not, and Littlefield should hold tight until he finds a package that can bring back at least one quality prospect, and no Jarvises.

    Is Kendall worth the risk for potential suitors, given the three years he'll have left on his deal? PECOTA's not optimistic, with his weighted-mean EqA estimates coming in at .252, .244, and .237 from '04 to '06, leaving him a below-average offensive catcher by the end of the deal. Still, for a Padres team with a giant black hole at catcher looming as the only glaring weakness in its starting eight next season, you'd think a solution could be found that'd satisfy both teams.

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