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February 17, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

After an off-season hiatus, Prospectus Triple Play returns today. For those new to PTP, the feature will cover three teams a day every weekday from now through the World Series, discussing recent happenings, team strategies and a look ahead to upcoming games and events. We hit the ground running today by covering six teams coming out of the long weekend.

Boston Red Sox

  • Cold Front: Spring came to the Fenway on Valentine's Saturday, as temperatures all the way up into the 40s brought shopkeepers out into the sunshine to greet strolling shoppers, sans parka. But the evening news brought dire forecasts, baseball and otherwise, and Sunday morning Red Sox fans woke up to a bitter return of winter: single-digit lows and Alex Rodriguez, Yankee.

  • Goliath vs. Goliath: The Rodriguez deal is a sobering piece of Evil Empire brinksmanship for Red Sox Nation. After a Cold War winter full of aggressive upgrades for both AL East superpowers, Red Sox faithful were convinced they would have the best of it entering 2004. General manager Theo Epstein, content to return to battle with the bulk of his 962-run, league-leading offense intact, had fortified his defenses with ace starter Curt Schilling and ace reliever Keith Foulke. Veteran thumper Ellis Burks was on his way back to Boston, and new Yankee Gary Sheffield didn't strike fear into Commonwealth hearts.

    But Aaron Boone went down in a game of basketball, and no sooner could Yankee fans lament the lack of ready third-base replacements than King George dropped another Bronx bomb: An "adequate" replacement would never suffice. The Yankees would add the reigning American League MVP.

    Ben Affleck kicked off Sox fans' indignant howling, railing obliviously on ESPN against the Yankees' lack of homegrown prospects and speculating that "eventually, they might be able to just buy everybody." Only in Boston can you have a $120 million payroll stocked with bought-and-paid-for talent and still believe you're the little guy, fighting the good fight.

  • Arms Race: The Yankees offense will need to be good, because PECOTA's 2004 weighted-mean forecasts rank the Boston staff as first in the American League in expected VORP. Not by a little, by a lot:
    
    Team		VORP
    BOS		311.8
    NYA		267.8
    OAK		239.3
    SEA		238.3
    MIN		186.1
    

    (Based on best guess of 11 pitchers most likely to make opening day rosters.)

    The top four pitchers in the American League, per PECOTA, are all Yankees and Sox. PECOTA predicts dominant seasons from Pedro Martinez and Schilling, and also places Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, and Foulke in the top 20. It's the 10 name on the list that will most surprise Sox fans:

    Pitcher                   Team         VORP 
    1. Martinez, Pedro         BOS         70.0 
    2. Vazquez, Javier         NYA         61.7 
    3. Mussina, Mike           NYA         56.3 
    4. Schilling, Curt         BOS         55.8 
    5. Halladay, Roy           TOR         48.5 
    6. Hudson, Tim             OAK         45.6 
    7. Loaiza, Esteban         CHA         40.4 
    8. Brown, Kevin            NYA         38.9 
    9. Colon, Bartolo          ANA         37.8 
    10. Kim, Byung-Hyun        BOS         36.9 
    

    Byung-Hyun Kim, largely viewed as a bust in Boston after his late-May acquisition and postseason meltdown, is a five-year big-league veteran, owner of a 3.24 career ERA (3.18 in Boston), and just 25 years old. PECOTA likes this combination of factors, predicting more 2004 value from Kim than from Mark Mulder, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Greg Maddux, Barry Zito, Randy Johnson, or Roger Clemens.

  • Position Battle: With free agent Todd Walker departing for Wrigley Field, the Red Sox have brought in Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn (and notionally Terry Shumpert and Tony Womack) to compete for the job at second base. Epstein has hinted at a Reese/Bellhorn platoon dictated less by righty-lefty splits than by the ground-ball, fly-ball tendencies of his starting pitchers.

  • Replacement Level?: Bill Mueller, 2003 American League batting champion, is no longer the starting third baseman for the NY-BOS United All-Stars.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Offseason Doldrums: It was a relatively quiet offseason for the Reds, who are keeping the purse strings awfully tight given the recent opening of their "we need this to compete" ballpark. Granted, having to fight Chicago, Houston, and St. Louis for the division crown all at once would be a chore for anyone, but it's fairly certain the locals didn't approve a new park just to watch even more players exit the trading deadline. Still, when you sit back and look at the team, it's obvious that they have what could still be the best outfield in the circuit, a pivot man who'd be promising if he could get his head together, and... some other guys. OK, maybe the lack of movement is understandable.

    To be fair, a free-agent drought at the lineup's obvious gaps tied the front office's hands to some extent. Shortstop was really the only position not sewn up by a contract or an arbitration-eligible player. Brandon Larson may have lost some luster, but he's at least as good as the hot-corner options. Just ask the Yankees. Since the options at shortstop weren't any better, it's hard to fault Bowden for signing the corpse of Barry Larkin for one last tilt. While the abilities of players to put butts in the seats is generally overrated, it's not like there's any mystery as to whether Rainer Olmedo or Juan Castro will ever be useful, so Larkin was a decent signing at the price.

    Adding John VanderWal to light a fire under the backup outfielders, and perhaps to platoon with Sean Casey, is one of those moves that's rarely that inspired, but never that dangerous, either. Whoops.

  • Spring Training Cometh: As pitchers and catchers report, the Reds present one of the least settled rotations in the majors. Paul Wilson and Lidle are inked into the rotation, but every other spot is up for grabs to some extent. Jose Acevedo is penciled in, but he's young and relatively unproven, so could wash out as we get closer to April. Brandon Claussen has to prove he's all the way back from Tommy John surgery before they'll feel comfortable letting him start in the majors. Jimmy Haynes stuck the team with his player option, which gives him a free ticket for a while, but they'll likely cut bait as soon as he falls off a cliff, which could happen as soon as March. Since the only viable alternative to the front five is Aaron Harang, management may well have to reconsider the wisdom of banishing Chris Reitsma to the pen.

  • Then There's the Outfield... The starting lineup is locked in at this point, perhaps down to the batting order. The only real competition in camp will be for the right to fill in for this year's list of Ken Griffey injuries, or any other trauma the Not-So-Great American Turf chooses to inflict upon the team. With Vander Wal down for the count, the alien inhabiting Wily Mo Pena's PECOTA will compete with Reggie Taylor in a chili eating contest to determine backup honors.

Florida Marlins

  • PECOTA Preview: Trouble in Paradise? Make no mistake: 1998 this isn't. Instead of purging their inventory as they might a deeply discounted case of Waterworld tapes at your local Blockbuster, the Marlins elected instead for a more sophisticated kind of budget consciousness. Two popular veteran free agents--Ivan Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina--were let go, but others like Mike Lowell and Luis Castillo were retained. The team dealt longstanding first baseman Derrek Lee to a Cubs team that seems intent on Winning Now!, but picked up a nifty replacement in Hee Seop Choi. Non-essential personnel like Mark Redman, Juan Encarnacion, Braden Looper and Todd Hollandsworth were purged, a small price to pay, seemingly, for the sort of sustainable development that the Loria administration has promised.

    Nevertheless, there may be trouble in Paradise - or at least in Miami. The Marlins reached the playoffs by the thinnest of margins, procuring a wild card birth in the last week of the season over a mismanaged Phillies club. Moreover, the team outperformed its Pythagorean record of 87-75 by four games, something that, for all the musty brilliance of Jack McKeon, is not likely to repeat itself this time around.

    Let's take a quick glance at how the Marlins line up this year and last. Below, we've provided the VORPs for each Marlin hitter, including actual results from 2003, and projected results for 2004 based on our PECOTA system and our best guess allocation of playing time. Players new to the roster this year are denoted with an asterisk.

    
    2003 Hitters	VORP	2004 Hitters	VORP
    --------------------    --------------------
    Lowell		48.9	Lowell		44.9
    Rodriguez	46.3	*Castro		22.1
    Lee		45.0	*Choi		25.6
    Castillo	39.2	Castillo	27.9
    Pierre		32.6	Pierre		25.8
    Gonzalez	24.9	Gonzalez	23.8
    Encarnacion	12.1	*Cordero	-3.3
    Cabrera		11.9	Cabrera		30.2
    Banks		 3.4	Banks		 3.5
    Hollandsworth	 2.2	*Nunez		 3.2
    Conine		 2.0	Conine		12.0
    Harris		 0.6	Harris		-2.1
    Mordecai	-1.0	Mordecai	 1.5
    Redmond		-1.2	Redmond		 7.9
    Allen		-1.3	*Stokes		-0.6
    Others		-5.7		
    --------------------    --------------------			
    TOTAL	       259.9	TOTAL	       222.4
    
    
    We've long been among Choi's biggest supporters, and PECOTA forecasts an outstanding season for him in his first year in Miami. Nevertheless, he'll be hard-pressed to match Lee's contribution, potentially taking as many as twenty runs off the Marlins' output. Similarly, though Ramon Castro projects to be better-than-average backstop, the loss of Rodiguez will hurt. Luis Castillo, Juan Pierre and Mike Lowell also project to be marginally less productive, and while the Fish will make up some of that gap by plugging budding ubermensch Miguel Cabrera into the lineup every day, PECOTA anticipates that the team will score roughly 35 fewer runs.

    While the young pitching staff, Josh Beckett's blisters willing, should more than hold its own, wholesale improvement is doubtful:

    
    Willis		36.5	Willis		23.9
    Redman		33.2	*Oliver		 7.8
    Beckett		32.2	Beckett		35.7
    Penny		22.0	Penny		25.1
    Pavano		21.8	Pavano		21.4
    Urbina		17.7	*Benitez	13.6
    Looper		14.8	*Neu		 5.3
    Fox		 9.6	Fox		 8.7
    Phelps		 5.8	Phelps		 6.0
    Tejera		 4.5	Tejera		 5.8
    Spooneybarger	 4.2	Spooneybarger	 0.9
    Burnett		 0.7	Burnett		 7.3
    Bump		 0.7	Bump		 2.8
    Neal		-7.9	Neal		 3.2
    Olsen	       -11.4	Olsen		 4.8
    Others		-6.7		
    --------------------    --------------------		
    TOTAL	       177.7	TOTAL	       172.3
    
    
    Of all of the Marlins' off-season losses, that of pitcher Mark Redman was the least heralded, but could potentially be the most significant. The luxury of having five competent starters provides a team with quite an advantage over the course of a 162-game season, something that the Marlins won't have this time around with the woeful Darren Oliver projected to fill Redman's innings. Though the team should benefit by avoiding the poor performances turned in at the back end of the bullpen last season by the likes of Kevin Olsen and Blaine Neal, it won't have the strength up front that Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper provided it.

    All told, the team projects to lose a total of 43 points of VORP off its figure from a year ago - a figure equivalent to roughly five wins. Combine that with the decline implied by the team's Pythagorean over-performance, and the World Champions look like a .500 club.

    Surely, in a sense, this represents progress. The Marlins have a number of exciting young stars, and should put a competitive team on the field. The team has demonstrated a willingness to extend long-term contracts to players Lowell and Castillo, even without having secured financing for their new stadium. But in a baseball world that often remembers the one step back more vividly than the two steps forward, the season could shape up to be a disappointment.

New York Yankees

  • There is Nothing You Can Possess That I Cannot Take Away: This has been the strangest off-season of the strange ownership of George M. Steinbrenner, sui generis baseball magnate. Whereas the Showalter-Torre renaissance Yankees prided themselves on the exclusivity of their clubhouse, it is now clear that the answer to "Who is a Yankee?" is no longer "an elite few." The Yankees properly understand that there are three categories of players: those the Yankees have, those that they could have but don't want, and everyone else, who are simply future Yankees.

    The Yankees have and they will spend. This in and of itself is not an indictment of competitive balance, because the hand that signs the checks cannot be merely profligate but must correctly apply his limitless resources to a limited pool of talent and pull out the right fish. This winter's frenetic rebuilding (or remodeling, or cosmetic enhancement) bears some resemblance to that of 1982 when GMS III, shocked at having blown a two games to none lead in the World Series (thanks in part to some less than adroit managing by Bob Lemon) decided he would recast the Bronx Bombers as the Whitey Herzog-style Bronx Bunters. Cash prizes and a copy of the home game were bestowed on Griffey the Elder and Dave Collins. The traditional formulation of Yankees = power hitting was, Steinbrenner thought, a sacred cow that needed slaying, but the first slash at the holy bovine turned out to be a self-inflicted wound which helped to sink the franchise for years to come.

    The 2004 winter carnival has seen better attractions signed up for the midway--maybe, and herein lies the salvation of competitive balance and the manly pride of Boston: Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon are old, as is Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Kenny Lofton, and just about everyone else on the roster except Alex Rodriguez and Javier Vazquez. Entropy is a stronger force than money, this merry-go-round will break down, and the Yankees will be forced to undertake a true rebuilding. You can't guess right on a thirtysomething everytime--at some point there will be a Roy Smalley or Danny Tartabull in the batch, or someone will age a little faster than had been expected. The detritus of old signings will crowd out the new. As Daffy Duck once said, "I can only do this trick once."

  • Just a Few Words on the Trade for Bobby Meacham: ...Because no doubt this subject has been mined out for now. Bronx-Rod is clearly a better hitter than A-Sor, but how much better is open to argument. Here are each player's percentages in neutral parks (meaning, on the road) over the last three years:
    
             AVG  OBP  SLG
    A-Rod   .278 .375 .564
    Soriano .305 .346 .543
    
    
    The difference, while not insignificant, is in no way comparable to, say, the difference between Babe Ruth and Sammy Vick, or Thurman Munson and Jake Gibbs. Temper your expectations.

  • Baseball is 129% Pitching: Among the pressing matters lost in the A-Rod shuffle (Steroids! Steroids! Steroids!) is the perilous state of Yankees starting pitching, which looks three-fifths (Steroids!) solid with Mike Mussina, Vazquez, and Brown--though the reconfiguration of the infield defense will greatly influence the precise dimensions of the volatile Brown's season--but also contains two distinct question marks in the form of Jose Contreras, whose durability and poise are still at issue (if they start calling him the Cuban Weaver they won't be referring to a bird), and Jon Lieber, who may or may not recover his old form after a year on the shelf. Note that his old form in no way resembled that of Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Disastrous Performer: Dave Littlefield.

    The Pirates have finished below .500 for 11 consecutive years, and while they have improved their winning percentage in each of Littlefield's two seasons, things are about to get awful. Ownership has cut a hole in the bottom of Littlefield's purse, and his cost-cutting moves at the major league level have the Pirates leading a three-team race to the bottom of the NL Central. Last year the Pirates were second in the Central in runs scored, but this year they'll be lucky to beat out the Brewers.

    In the last 12 months the Pirates have lost Brian Giles, Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, and Aramis Ramirez. They have taken in Daryle Ward, Chris Singleton, Raul Mondesi, Jason Bay, and Bobby Hill. We're projecting the Pirates to score 657 runs, almost 100 fewer than they scored last year, and to finish with less than 70 wins.

    Littlefield has made no significant changes to the bullpen that had the worst ERA in the league last year. The signings of Juan Acevedo, Jose Mesa, and Mark Guthrie may in fact have made the bullpen worse than it would be if Littlefield would turn it over entirely to in-house options. The three of them combined to give up 234 baserunners in 139 innings last year, with a composite ERA of 5.37, a half run more than what the Pittsburgh bullpen did as the league's worst unit, and if they had been a bullpen unto themselves they'd have had the 29th-ranked ERA in baseball.

    While waiting for his prospects to arrive, Littlefield is buying time with a roster of last men off the bench and final options out of the bullpen. When the Cubs don't know what to do, they offer big contracts to old players coming off fluke resurgences. Littlefield knows better than that, and by cutting expensive obligations he is gaining the flexibility to acquire good veteran players when the team is ready to compete for a playoff spot in a couple of years. That's always the rationale--it might as well be hypothetical--when teams cut payroll as they emphasize scouting and development. Which is to say that Littlefield isn't a pioneer. Several smart GMs are working precisely the same gimmick with their own small-change teams. And they're doing a better job stealing other men's trash than he is.

  • Star Performer: Dave Littlefield.

    Though struggling with the parent club, Littlefield and his staff have taken one of the worst minor league systems and turned into one that is no worse than average. Every Pirates' affiliate made the playoffs last year, and as a group they had the best organizational winning percentage of all 30 major league clubs. In June of 2001 we observed that

    [W]hat the Pirates' batters can't do is draw walks, control the strike zone, or hit for power. The Pirates' Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, is last in the Pacific Coast League in runs scored, last in home runs, second from last in walks, among the league leaders in strikeouts, and near the bottom in OBP and SLG...At Altoona (Eastern League), the hitters are third from the bottom in runs scored, tied for second from last in walks, and they lead the league in strikeouts...What the Pirates' pitchers can't do is get enough strikeouts, or post good enough strikeout-to-walk ratios, to suggest they have any future in the big leagues. Nashville is last in the PCL in strikeouts and 14th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Altoona staff is third from the bottom in walks allowed, last in strikeouts, and last in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    Within a week, Cam Bonifay was fired as Pirates' general manager. That's when Littlefield took over. In his brief time in charge, he has developed one of the game's strongest collection of pitching prospects. The institutional effect of Littlefield's leadership shows in the performance of the affiliates. In particular, the pitching staffs at Triple-A and Double-A have made a 180-degree turn from where they were just a couple seasons ago. In 2003, the Nashville staff led the PCL in strikeouts, gave up the second-fewest walks, allowed the fewest hits and the second-fewest earned runs, and led the league with 16 shutouts. In the Eastern League, Altoona's pitchers finished third in strikeouts and best in walks allowed. Only one team gave up fewer hits and earned runs. Like Nashville, Altoona led its league in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    The Pirates might not do much better than the 62 wins they managed in 2001, but their farm system isn't a joke like it was then. It might be one of the best. This may sound like small comfort right now but it'll matter a lot when, again, all they have to hang on to in Pittsburgh is next year.

San Diego Padres

  • Offseason Review: Since last year's trade with Pittsburgh for All-Star outfielder Brian Giles, the Padres have generally been behaving like a team that's about to move into a new stadium. They were active players (if not Steinbrennerian spenders) this offseason, signing David Wells to front the rotation and a pair of retreads in Sterling Hitchcock and Ismael Valdes to bring up the rear. Considering his age and physique, Wells is a bit of a gamble in the #1 spot, but absolute worst-case, his incentive-laden contract gives the Padres some flexibility to shop for reinforcements should he implode. Holdovers Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton, and Jake Peavy haven't hit their peaks yet, and should continue to improve in the #2-#4 slots. Both 1998 playoff hero Hitchcock and Valdes were worthwhile gambles, and the Padres should get a perfectly adequate fifth starter from one of them and a reasonable insurance policy on the rotation's health from the other.

    Offensively, the team shifted a gaping black hole from catcher to center field by trading Mark Kotsay to the Athletics for Ramon Hernandez and the desiccated remnants of Terrence Long's career. After losing the race for centerfielder Mike Cameron, who would have been a great fit for this team, the Padres signed a legit centerfielder to replace Kotsay in Jay Payton. The Padres probably overpaid in both deals, but Payton will cover plenty of ground in center and allow the team to play Ryan Klesko and Giles in the corners without feeling too bad about itself. With Klesko and Phil Nevin healthy and led by a full season of Giles' bat, the offense appears to be in good hands.

  • Sweet Relief: The one area where the team has really improved it's outlook in 2004 from one year ago is the bullpen. It all starts with closer Trevor Hoffman, whose rehab from shoulder surgeries went well in 2003. The Padres were also able to resign Hoffman's replacement Rod Beck to a one-year contract, and he'll probably be setting Hoffman up this year. As we noted last year, Hoffman and Beck are similar in many ways. Most importantly, they've always had more in their arsenal than just a blazing fastball, and they'll bring the effective offspeed stuff and prototypical relief ace mentality with their high-80s fastballs this season.

    They'll be ably supported by Japanese League import Akinori Otsuka, who PECOTA really likes (see his projected EqERA below). The Padres also signed fragile-but-effective Antonio Osuna away from the New York Yankees to join holdovers Jay Witasick, Kevin Walker and Scott Linebrink.

    Here's a quick comparison of the 2004 bullpen with the April 2003 version:

     
    2004 Pitcher  EqERA*      2003 Pitcher  EqERA 
    Otsuka         2.51       Orosco         4.29 
    Hoffman        3.63       Herges         4.34 
    Beck           3.64       Villafurte     4.77 
    Witasick       4.07       Bynum          5.52 
    Osuna          4.54       Condrey        5.58 
    Linebrink      4.86       Hackman        5.59 
    Walker         5.04       Wright         5.87 
    
    *EqERA: PECOTA weighted mean Equivalent ERA projection before season started.

    The relief corps should stay out of the bottom of the Reliever Evaluation Tools report in 2004, and in the midst of a weakened National League West, that could turn out to be a large factor in the 2004 division race.

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