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September 24, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • 29,093: That was the alleged attendance for the Orioles' game last Thursday, when they played to a 1-1 tie with the Yankees in a steady rain from the approaching Hurricane Isabel. They reported 25.857 the following night against Toronto.

    In reality, the O's had no more than 3,000 very brave souls at Thursday's game, and perhaps 10,000 defied the mayor or Baltimore by traveling into the flooded downtown area to see Friday night's game. The whole thing was a comedy of errors that apparently goes back to August. The Orioles had a Monday night game against the Yankees, even though they had to travel to Oakland for a game the following day. They asked the Yankees to move the game up to 12:30; they were dismissed (they got to Oakland at 6 a.m., and lost six straight games there and in Seattle).

    So, the Orioles weren't in a very compromising mood they saw Isabel approaching and tried to figure out how to handle it. Canceling the game was not an option; the Commissioner's office was concerned that the game could make a difference in the playoff scheduling. Postponing was not an option for the Orioles; that would result in the game being played when the Orioles went back to New York to end the season, and that would mean losing a home date. The O's first attempt was to schedule a doubleheader for Wednesday, the day before the storm was to hit. The Yankees, however--or at least, their union rep, former O Mike Mussina--turned that down, for the cited reason of not wanting to mess up their rotation for the playoffs (still 12 days away). The Orioles then did what the Yankees would not do last month, and moved the game time up from 7:00 to 12:30 with barely 24 hours notice, hoping that they would get it in before the rain came. It didn't work. The rains came ahead of the Orioles' forecast, the owners started calling each other names in the press, and the game will be played in New York anyway, as part of a doubleheader just three days before the playoffs start, and so nobody gets what they wanted from the whole stinking mess.

  • Awards: The Orioles named Mike Fontenot as their Minor League Player of the Year. Fontenot is a small (5'8") second baseman, a first round pick out of LSU in 2001. We noted in last year's book that his debut season was highly disappointing, and after 30 games in 2003 he was again hitting just .198 and striking out three times for every walk.

    Then he went to the optometrist and got a pair of contact lenses. It is amazing to us that any player in the system, much less a number one draft pick, would have to decide for himself to get his vision checked, but apparently an eye test is not part of the standard physicals given to Oriole players. Anyway, Mike found out that the ball is a lot easier to hit when it's not all fuzzy. His before and after stats:

    
                        AB    H  DB  TP   HR   BB  SO    BA   OBA   SLG
    Before contacts:   101   20   3   1    2    9  28  .198  .264  .307
    After contacts:    348  126  21   4   10   41  61  .362  .429  .532
    
    
    For the season as a whole, he had a fine .316 EQA, which works out to .245 in the majors. If we ignore what went on before his doctor's visit, though, then he's got a .343 EQA and a .266 major league translation. Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts have EQAs of .267 and .266 this season, which is why at least one of them is going to be traded this off-season.

Colorado Rockies

  • Long-Term Thinking: With the Rockies headed to their fifth losing season in six years (the exception being their 82-80 record in 2000), fans may be starting to wonder when things will turn around in the mile high air. Colorado could end up with yet another 73-89 record, matching their totals from the last two seasons. That kind of consistency may actually be worse than some of the teams finishing below them this season: A .451 winning percentage gives the illusion that things really aren't all that bad and only a few key roster moves need to be made to right the ship and push the team over the hump to contender status.

    Last off-season, the Rockies deftly moved Mike Hampton's albatross contract and managed to add Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson at the same time. They also brought in strikeout king Jose Hernandez, who was coming off some good years in Milwaukee and looked to be the solution for that nasty case of Juan Uribe syndrome. Chris Stynes was going to replace Todd Zeile at the hot corner.

    All this change looked good. All this change has added up to no tangible improvement in the standings.

    Heading into the 2002 season, the Rockies had made smaller changes to the lineup. Brent Butler was babysitting Jose Ortiz instead of Todd Walker, Zeile replaced Jeff Cirillo, Uribe became the lesser of two evils by replacing Neifi Perez, and there was hope that perhaps the Rockies would figure out that "platooning" doesn't mean you have to start an entire army platoon in right field over the course of the season. The pitching staff remained largely the same, with Hampton and Neagle headlining a superior supporting cast. Again, it all added up to zero more wins.

    The situation for the coming off-season is again a quandary for the Rockies, as they haven't been quite bad enough to justify tearing down and rebuilding to the fans, but they're not quite good enough that small or salary-motivated moves like the ones they've been making are going to push the team over the top and into contention next year. Stuck in directional no-man's-land, Colorado's front office has been trying to work through the payroll issues while fielding a competitive team, but the dividends have yet to pay off and positive results are not likely for at least another couple seasons.

    The Rockies have been trying to crawl out from under the Hampton and Denny Neagle contracts pretty much since they attached their John Hancocks. Despite Atlanta and Florida paying all of Hampton's salary until 2006, most of the slashed payroll is already wrapped up in a small number of players. Dan O'Dowd and crew seemed to be ready to look further forward when the Rockies tried to trade Larry Walker to Arizona for Matt Williams and some payroll flexibility (Williams' contract expires after this season). But with Walker rejecting the move and looking likely to hang around, Colorado is going to have a tough time getting any payroll flexibility until after 2005, when Johnson, Wilson, and Walker's contracts expire (Neagle's could be bought out, but it would cost the Rockies $9 million).

    Colorado is stuck. If they want to tear down and rebuild, they need to move some of those huge contracts for prospects, but based on the current economic climate in baseball, trading large contracts hasn't yielded prospects, it's only brought obligation to pay a smaller part of the contract. If the Rockies want to compete with the team they have, they need to find some more money to bring in any free agents that would put the team over the top and into contention. O'Dowd isn't bad at keeping his hand in a myriad of deals and trying to work all the angles he can (moving Hampton last season is exhibit A), but with the reduced payroll for next season, his task is daunting to say the least.

    It could be an exciting off-season in Colorado if O'Dowd can make a few more deals. But fans must understand that the Rockies' best chance to return to the playoffs--when players like Garrett Atkins, Chin-hui Tsao, and Aaron Cook hopefully blossom and the litany of cumbersome contracts goes away--won't come immediately.

New York Mets

  • Enough Gloom: As the Mets close their 2003 season, it's easy to dwell on the disaster that it has been. Steve Phillips did the same thing he had been doing for years: plug one or two more veteran players in to get the Mets over the hump. The only problem was that the Mets were always a lot further away than Phillips thought, and eventually, with the farm system almost bankrupt and the veterans showing their age, the house of cards collapsed and Phillips was fired. Jim Duquette, his interim replacement, was tasked with cleaning house and starting over.

    This is not unlike what other bloated franchises have had to do over the past few years: the problem is that Phillips, unlike Mark Shapiro in Cleveland or J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto, didn't realize that until it was too late.

    But so that we don't end the season with sad thoughts, let's try to find the bright spots in the Mets' mess of 2003. There are a few, and if the Mets are wise, they'll identify them and try to build around them.

    • Jose Reyes: The Mets' best prospect started slow, but improved so rapidly that his aggregate line of .307/.334/.434 doesn't tell the whole story. Take a look:
      
      Month		 AVG	 OBP	 SLG	 BB/PA
      June		.205	.211	.342	 .014
      July		.330    .340	.418	 .022
      August	        .355	.408	.509	 .083
      
      
      Not only did Reyes figure out how to hit major league pitching, but he got more and more patient as his season progressed. His June and July BB/PA ratios are off-the-charts terrible, but his August BB/PA puts him in the company of players like Magglio Ordonez (.085), Rafael Furcal (.083) and Shannon Stewart (.082). That's nothing spectacular, but it's good, and Reyes is only 20. His 90th percentile PECOTA projected EqA was .262 in 251 at-bats; in 274, Reyes' was .275.

    • Jason Phillips: As we've shown, Phillips (.290 EqA) has also exceed his 90th percentile projection (.282), and since he can catch, he's the perfect player to have for a team that has to decide where to put Mike Piazza. And all for $300,000.

    • Victor Diaz: The Mets picked up this second-base prospect in the Jeromy Burnitz deal. Burnitz can hit, but he's gone down the tubes (.206/.256/.402) since being traded to L.A., and he's making $12,166,667 this year. Diaz has some pop, and his best PECOTA comps are the 1958 Brooks Robinson and the 1990 Sammy Sosa. He's easily the most promising player the Mets got in their flurry of deals this summer.
    • Rotation Surprises: Jae Weong Seo and Steve Trachsel have thrown a ton of quality innings, and with a recent surge capped by a complete-game shutout last night against Pittsburgh, Al Leiter's ERA is back under 4.00. Even Tom Glavine, whose Support-Neutral stats are comparable to Seo's, hasn't been a complete disaster. For this many millions the Mets were expecting more, but it's not as if they have nothing, and Seo was a great find.

    If they do the right things, the Mets will be right back in contention in 2005. They may have to settle for a down year in 2004: they're in a tough division, and would be wiser to save their money for when they're a little more ready to contend. An obstacle is their huge revenue stream: with that kind of money flowing in, it's tempting always to spend it. This is the sort of nonsense that got the Mets into this trouble in the first place, and if they're going to throw some of their cash around this winter, they should target younger players entering their prime. The greatest advantage of their woeful present state is that even the most deluded GM can't possibly suggest, for the umpteenth year in a row, that the Mets are just a veteran or two away.

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