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February 18, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • New Faces: An air of change is will blow through Camden Yards this year, although events have displaced the enormous optimism they had in December. Back then, reports had it that Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Miguel Tejada were all going to join the Orioles, and the town was positively giddy at the thought that they could challenge the Yankees or Red Sox.

    It didn't work out nearly so well. Sure, they got Tejada. And while they did not get I-Rod, they could be plenty happy with Javy Lopez--depending on which of Javy Lopez shows up. Guerrero turned them down cold, though, despite being the only publicized bidder for a month, in a manner that made it clear that he just didn't like the city of Baltimore and didn't want to play there--it's a shame that Tony Batista wasn't a friend of Guerrero's. Guerrero's dissing of the city coincided with massive buildups by Boston and New York, and leaves the Orioles in roughly the position faced by the Polish Army in September 1939--stuck between two idealistic Goliaths who can't stand each other.

    Meanwhile, Sidney Ponson, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mark McLemore are returning to Baltimore from exile. The Orioles rotation is a huge question mark right now, with the apparent plan being to go with a lot of young, talented, cheap, unproven PLAYERs like Matt Riley, Eric Dubose, and Kurt Ainsworth. Bringing Ponson back gives them at least one pitcher who can be counted on to throw 200-odd innings. The difference between the Orioles and the Devil Rays projected rotation--equally young, cheap, and untested--is that the Oriole pitchers have had recent (mostly minor league) success than their counterparts in Tampa Bay. While PECOTA doesn't think any of the pitchers will match their recent levels, it still gives the Orioles a substantial edge

    2002-2003 EQERA and 2004 PECOTA Projected EQERA for projected starters (using RotoWire's Top5 starters):

    
    		EQERA	PECOTA			EQERA	PECOTA
    Dubose		3.95	4.64	Gonzalez	3.97	4.63
    Ainsworth	4.24	4.71	Moss		4.26	5.92
    Ponson		4.25	4.49	Zambrano	4.58	4.98
    Riley		4.43*	5.12	Hendrickson	4.76	5.02
    Lopez		4.69	4.83	Waechter	5.48	5.86
    
    Balt Avg	4.31	4.76	TB Avg		4.61	5.28
    
    
    *Riley's EQERA is only figured from the second half of 2002 through the 2003 season, as he was still recovering from elbow surgery in early 2002.

    While McLemore has only been signed to a minor league deal, he gives the Orioles an option in case the experiment of Melvin Mora at third base doesn't work out. Even at his age, he figures to be a better offensive and defensive option than Jose Leon, although you wonder if the team wouldn't try Brian Roberts over there.

    Speaking of Roberts, a second baseman, he figures to be involved in one of the few contested position battles this spring, going up against established regular Jerry Hairston. Creeping up on both of them is Mike Fontenot, who ripped through Eastern League pitching in 2004 once he got his contact lens prescription in order. It's the only position where they have anything resembling a surplus...and coincidentally, it is the weakest position for their Brobdingnagian rivals. The Oriole brain trust doesn't really want to trade within the division, but won't ignore a good offer--nor should they.

    The rest of the team is reasonably well set, providing Mora works out at third. The outfielders who finished last year, Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, and Jay Gibbons are all back and are all under 28. There is some dispute about the DH, with Jack Cust and David Segui being the best choices. Will new manager Lee Mazzilli be able to overlook Cust's problems in all of the non-hitting aspects of the game--something that none of Cust's previous managers have been able to do? Will the team bite the bullet on Segui? No one can really know that until March.

Colorado Rockies

  • "Man, that John Denver was really full of sh*t..." Three years ago, the Colorado Rockies were the dark-horse pick to win the National League West. After seven seasons of floundering, it appeared that GM Dan O'Dowd had finally decided on a plan--to soft-toss his opponents to death with the likes of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle--and the rest of the league was destined to suffer.

    Or not.

    Fast-forward to 2004, and the Rockies have continued to flounder in the wake of The Great Changeup Experiment. Not only that, but O'Dowd & Co. has managed to burn through as many plans as losing seasons. First, it was using pitchers whose bread and butter was a change-of-pace. Then it was a focus on defense--outfield fly-catchers, mainly, who could run down balls in Coors Field's giant-sized gaps. Then it was the "Pound Your Enemy Into Submission" philosophy which netted the lineup TTO demigods Mark Bellhorn, Jose Hernandez, and Preston Wilson. The result: three seasons, a win percentage of just .452, and an increasingly disillusioned fan-base that's getting fed up with the organization's constant waffling.

    Not that any of this has changed O'Dowd's philosophy on hastily switching philosophies. From the look of things, it appears that the team has reverted to a Veteran Presence™ model of sorts for 2004. What else could explain the offseason acquisitions of former Blake Street Bomber Vinny Castilla, meteorite Jeromy Burnitz, and HACKING MASS All-Star Royce Clayton? Their insatiable thirst for making outs? Their collective aversion to getting on base?

    All that being said, BP's own crystal ball, PECOTA (that's short for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, to the uninitiated) projects the Rox' offense for a marked improvement in 2004. Go chart, go!

    
    						Projected
    Hitters		2003 VORP	Hitters		2004 VORP
    -------------------------	-------------------------
    T. Helton	     62.5	D. Jackson	      1.8
    J. Payton	      5.1	R. Clayton	      1.8
    P. Wilson	     18.4	P. Wilson	     25.1
    L. Walker	     11.6	T. Helton	     58.5
    C. Stynes	     -3.4	L. Walker	     25.5
    R. Belliard    	      0.7	V. Castilla	      9.0
    C. Johnson	     -3.2	J. Burnitz	      9.0
    J. Uribe	     -3.6	C. Johnson	     10.2
    J. Hernandez	     -8.1	G. Atkins	     11.2
    G. Norton	      1.5	C. Richard	      8.9
    B. Estalella	     -5.0	A. Miles	      7.5
    M. Bellhorn          -4.9	J. Piedra	      6.0
    R. Reyes       	     -5.9	C. Barmes	      4.8
    M. Sweeney	     -2.1	A. Tracy	      3.1
    B. Butler  	     -6.0	R. Reyes	      2.3
    T. Womack            -9.1	R. Shealy	      1.5
    				M. Sweeney	      0.4
    -------------------------	-------------------------
    TOTAL		     48.5	TOTAL		    186.6
    
    
    Notice that said improvement has little to do with the actual "quality" of the 2004 lineup, and more to do with how truly horrible last year's offense was. That's one, two, three, four, five...10 hitters with notable playing time who were below replacement-level at their position last season. In 2004, however, PECOTA thinks that that number will shrink significantly, with noticable improvements from the likes of Charles Johnson, Larry Walker, Preston Wilson, and just about everyone at shortstop. Granted, 186 runs of VORP isn't exactly an earth-shattering figure, but it's certainly an improvement over what the cat dragged in last season.

    In contrast to the lineup, however, PECOTA is convinced that the Boys in Purple will have a much rougher time on the mound, regressing by more than 40 runs of VORP from last year's performance.

    
    						Projected
    Pitchers	2003 VORP	Pitchers	2004 VORP
    -------------------------	-------------------------
    Oliver		     29.3	Bernero		      3.6
    Chacon		     29.3	Chacon		     12.4
    Fuentes		     28.6	Cook		      7.1
    Jennings	     24.5	Crockett	     -4.1
    Reed		     21.1	Cruz		      8.6
    Speier		     17.3	Elarton		     -0.3
    Lopez		     17.2	Estes		      1.8
    Jimenez		     15.7	Fassero		      7.1
    Cook		      8.7	Francis		      9.3
    Stark		      5.1	Fuentes		     17.9
    Tsao		      3.9	Jennings	     14.9
    Bernero		      3.4	Kennedy		      8.8
    Cruz		      0.3	Lopez		      9.8
    Neagle		     -1.9	Neagle		     12.2
    Elarton		     -3.3	Reed		      9.2
    Jones		     -5.6	Sanchez		      1.5
    Others		      4.9	Speier		      5.4
    				Stark		      6.3
    				Tollberg	     -3.4
    				Tsao		     11.7
    				Young		     12.1
    -------------------------	-------------------------
    TOTAL		    198.5	TOTAL		    150.1
    
    
    To be fair, the threshold we used for the 2004 pitching staff was approximately 50 innings (lower for sure-fire relievers), so a number of slightly-above-replacement-level pitchers are being left off the 2004 list. Nevertheless, PECOTA's point about the overall quality of the Rockies' pitching still stands: it's mediocre. Only six pitchers from the Colorado staff are projected to be worth more than a win above replacement in 2004, and one of those individuals is Shawn Chacon--the team's best starter (when healthy) in 2003--who will likely underperform PECOTA's innings projection by 50%, due to his newly appointed role as closer.

    In the end, PECOTA thinks that the Rockies can improve on their 2003 win total (74), and that's just fine and dandy. Despite that improvement, however, the chances of this team actually competing for something meaningful in the near future are about as good the chance that Dan O'Dowd will decide on one plan of attack and stick with it for more than a season at a time.

New York Mets

  • Move Over: What's with New York teams and kicking shortstops out of position? The Kazuo Matsui signing is one of the most two-sided that you'll find. On one hand, the Mets picked up a guy who, if he performs like he ought, will be an absolute bargain; check out that VORP projection. Moreover, having a high-profile Japanese player on board will bring the Mets a lot of additional revenue and media attention, the value of which we can only guess at (although you can be sure the Mets have made more than a guess). But on the other hand, they had to move maybe their best prospect since Darryl Strawberry out of position, lowering his value and increasing his risk of injury. Jose Reyes should be a stud, and it seems like a misallocation of resources to boot him over to second.

    But value's value, and Reyes will be good no matter where he plays; as long as Matsui can live up to his projection, or even come close, this one will be a win for the Mets, especially given that extra revenue. Just like the other New York club, the new guy will be welcome, even if it means someone has to play out of position. (And if Matsui's defense is as good as advertised, the Mets, at least, picked the right guy to move over.)

  • We Told You So: Jim Duquette did go and get Mike Cameron, as we feared, but they didn't have to throw Tom Glavine money at him to do it. No; instead, it's three years at $6.5 million per, which isn't unreasonable for a player who combines Cameron's hitting and fielding abilities.

    This one isn't a slam dunk for New York, though; Cameron's the type of player who is not going to put up great Triple Crown numbers, and the media is going to be all over him when the Mets aren't winning as much as they should. And the first year of this deal is something of a waste, since they're not going to contend anyway and they could have saved up for, say, Carlos Beltran next winter. But there's no doubt that Cameron is a plus, and the Mets' offense should be much improved.

  • Half The Battle: But where's the starting pitching? The Mets essentially return last year's starting rotation, which was hardly stellar. PECOTA sees the cellar again for this fivesome in 2004:
    
    		 Projected
    Team		 2004 VORP
    Phillies	     120.2
    Marlins		     113.9
    Expos		      84.0
    Braves		      75.0
    Mets		      58.9
    
    
    So much depends on whether Glavine can halt his late-career decline, or whether he'll just become a $12 million albatross. Glavine's 4.52 ERA last year was his worst since...well, since he became Tom Glavine. PECOTA sees him doing a little worse this coming year, and in sharply reduced playing time--but that prediction may not be fair. What PECOTA sees when it looks at Glavine is a pitcher who's hit the end of the road and is going to decline into oblivion. Glavine is certainly getting up there in years, but let's cut a Hall of Famer some slack; he's got as good a chance as any pitcher his age does to bounce back from what he did last year, especially with Rick Peterson behind him.

    But of course, there's a solid chance that he won't, and the Mets need guys like Scott Kazmir to come along quickly so that the team can get good while Cameron and Matsui are still under contract. Barring some real breakout performances, they're not a playoff team yet; there are just too many holes. But it'll be exciting in Flushing this year, and New York fans may be able to claim that they will have four of the 10 best shortstops in baseball playing for their two teams.

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