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September 11, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • Running In Place: Back in the 1980s, Bill James came up with something called The Law of Competitive Balance.

    According to the The Law of Competitive Balance, all teams tend to approach an aggregate winning percentage of .500. The reason? Because over time, success creates an irrational love for the status quo. Teams that win the World Series often get complacent, and try to repeat their success by keeping everything the same, despite whatever weaknesses they might have. Weaker teams, on the other hand, are much more likely to innovate and assume high-risk/high-reward opportunities--ultimately driving themselves up the ladder, past the once-successful franchises that were afraid to make a change.

    All of this is relevant to the Angels, of course, when one considers the interview General Manager Bill Stoneman granted Rob Neyer back in March. At the time, Stoneman commented that he wished he had done less at the Winter Meetings, and that he wanted his 2003 club to be as similar to the 2002 squad as possible. Never mind the fact that a large reason for the Angels' success in 2002 was that nearly every player on the roster performed slightly ahead of expectations. Stoneman looked at 2002, and didn't want to ruin a good thing.

    Of course, now the tables have turned. With roughly three weeks left in the regular season, the Angels are fighting to get above .500 and GM Bill Stoneman is looking to make some upgrades in the rotation for 2004. According to Stoneman, "If you really take an objective look, if we'd had the same year out of our starting rotation as we had last year, we'd be right there."

    The only thing is, that's really only half the truth. You see, while the Angels' rotation has been truly horrible in 2003 (currently ranking 23rd in the majors in SNVA, compared to ranking 5th in the majors in 2002) it's the offense that's taken a nice, big dive off a cliff as well. In 2002, the Angels' lineup ranked eighth in the majors in Equivalent Average (EqA). In 2003, the Angels' rank in EqA has fallen to 20th. In fact, according to Keith Woolner's VORP rankings, only Garret Anderson, Brad Fullmer, and Ben Molina have managed to improve on last year's campaign at the plate; everyone else, meanwhile, has taken a step back.

    
    			 2002       2003
    Player		 Pos.  PA  VORP   PA  VORP
    ------------------------------------------
    Eckstein_David    ss  688  29.2  464   2.8
    Anderson_Garret   lf  678  37.5  618  38.6
    Glaus_Troy        3b  671  30.7  367  17.4
    Erstad_Darin      cf  658  11.2  282  -3.5
    Salmon_Tim        rf  568  31.7  560  16.8
    Spiezio_Scott     1b  568  18.6  519  14.2
    Kennedy_Adam      2b  504  31.5  451  15.3
    Fullmer_Brad      dh  479   3.5  235  17.6
    Molina_Bengie      c  453  -9.8  428  12.4
    Gil_Benji         2b  137   4.2  131  -9.8
    Wooten_Shawn      dh  121   5.4  268  -1.1
    
    
    Does any of this bother Stoneman, though? Apparently not. Should it? We happen to think so. After all, none of the players who have fallen off in 2003 appear to be good breakout candidates for 2004. Troy Glaus has been watching his plate discipline erode for four consecutive seasons now; Darin Erstad's replacements have hitter better than he has; and Tim Salmon isn't exactly a spring chicken with upside. The only player out of the Angels' core who doesn't appear to be a huge collapse candidate is Anderson, and he draws about 30 unintentional walks per season.

    The gutsy move for Stoneman, at this point, would be to package perhaps his most productive hitter, Anderson, and one of his least productive hitters, Erstad, and shop them to a team like the Twins, which has a deep farm system but intentions of winning in 2004. The American League West is a scary place where it isn't possible to stumble to a division title, and getting a Johan Santana-type arm and a high-upside bat would go a long way toward complimenting a farm system that appears to have some promise, but is still a couple years away from producing major-league talent.

Chicago Cubs

  • Star Performer: We have thus far avoided talking much about Mark Prior in this space, mostly because there's not much to add to his excellence, but also because there's generally enough to talk about with the Cubs, and the Prior story will always be there if we need it. That said, he is pitching the best baseball of his career right now and its time he got some props.

    Prior has won his last seven starts, only once in that span allowing more than a single run. Despite being shut down for a few weeks in July after his base path collision with Marcus Giles, he has vaulted into Cy Young Award contention. He presently sits at 15-5, 2.41 with 200 Ks. He has four starts remaining, all against non-contenders. If he finishes with 18 or 19 wins, he's got a shot at the trophy, especially if he can grab the ERA title. Prior's biggest competition, of course, is Eric Gagne, who has been outstanding, albeit in a lesser role than that of Prior.

  • Wretched Performer: We have mentioned this before, but it is still absolutely astonishing that Shawn Estes is still pitching in the major leagues, let alone taking a turn in a starting rotation, in the middle of a pennant race no less. Four weeks ago we made the case that Estes was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. Since then, he has turned it down a notch, posting a 12.97 ERA in his past three starts. Dusty Baker has finally taken to skipping his spot in the rotation when the Cubs have an off-day, but he is currently penciled in for three more starts, beginning with this Saturday's contest against the Reds. Baker is said to be contemplating giving the start to Juan Cruz, who is bit young for Dusty (24), but who has two nice clutch starts against the Brewers in the past two weeks. There are a lot of nuances in this game, but this is not one of them. Giving 27 starts to a man with a 6.06 ERA on this team is bizarre. Handing him the ball during this crucial month would be unforgivable.

    The Cubs have three of the top 10 pitchers in the National League in SNWAR, and a very good fourth starter in Matt Clement. If they can get to October no one is going to want to face them.

  • Remaining Schedule: The Cubs have finished their brutal stretch of playing contenders, and they played wonderfully. After beating the Cardinals four out of five in Wrigley, they have four out of five on their current road trip. Here is the Cubs remaining schedule, beginning with the finale against the Expos today.
    
    @ Montreal (San Juan) (1)
    vs. Cincinnati (3)
    vs. New York (3)
    @ Pittsburgh (4)
    @ Cincinnati (3)
    vs. Pittsburgh (3)
    
    
    Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Astros face each other six more times, beginning this weekend's series at Minute Maid Park. I know Baker does not want to hear this, but this division is theirs for the taking now.

Detroit Tigers

  • Quest for .300: Luck evens out. Unlike the other major sports, there's enough luck in baseball that the vast majority of teams will finish any given year with winning percentages between .400 and .600. Even the Devil Rays and Padres are keeping their heads above the low-water mark after disastrous season openings. Then there are the Tigers, hopeless to the point of having been mathematically eliminated from that bracket in August, shortly our last installment, in yet another Jeremy Bomberman outing.

    A week ago, the Tigers were looking at having to go 12-11 over the rest of the year to even reach .300... during home-and-away series against Toronto, Kansas City, and Minnesota, with a bonus series against the Yankees. A five-game losing streak has made the quest for a 300 attendance more realistic, but given Detroit's other attractions it seems unlikely they'll pull it out. In fact, if Mike Maroth hadn't completed Operation Would Brian Kingman Please Give It a Rest, September might have been a total loss.

  • September Callups: In an annual event, the Tigers joined the other teams in stretching the game's credibility by expanding their roster for the month of September. How the Twins and Royals are supposed to run a clean playoff race when the Tigers can suddenly spot Matt Walbeck against them is beyond us, but everyone plays with the same rules...well, except the Expos.

    Top (relatively speaking) prospect Cody Ross immediately tore his ACL and is done for the year. He should be fine for 2004, when the Tigers will have a chance to see how that Paul Blair comp works out, if they're not too busy giving his playing time to David Segui or something. Until then, Andres Torres will put his sixth-outfielder skills on display for all to see.

    On the bright side, they do get to take advantage of the expanded rosters and Operation Shutdown Jeremy to see whether Gary Knotts is for real. PECOTA had pegged him for a 5.50 ERA if he was lucky, but he'd managed to bounce around in the 4.00s for most of the year. After giving up 10 runs (eight earned) in 3 1/3 against the Yankees, he'll looking to finish comfortably in range of that projection, but any end result under 5.00 should be treated as an engraved invitation to be in next year's rotation. We'd be more optimistic if he were actually striking out more batters than he's walking.

    Speaking of the rotation, it should give the Tigers plenty of opportunity to evaluate the relievers they called up, to see whether and how they fit into next year's pen. Matt Anderson looks done as a premier reliever; even during his stint in Triple-A, he posted a 3.79 ERA over 38 innings, cutting his walk rate way down but giving up 50 hits. This is a guy who some how thinks he's going to be a closer in the majors next year; he just doesn't know where. Well, Tampa will probably have an opening.

    Eric Eckenstahler is getting another look as a lefty specialist, but while he's been doing OK, preventing about one inherited run per nine, he's (surprise!) given up too many walks. Hmm...do you suppose people would flock to a Tigers theme park full of amusement walks?

    Chris Mears has had a so-so year as a reliever, posting a 2.78 ERA with too many walks at Toledo, and a 4.24 ERA with not enough whiffs in the majors. So naturally they decided to flush his confidence down Detoilet by sticking him in the rotation, where he's given up eight runs in six innings over two starts.

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