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February 19, 2004

Prospectus Today

Diggin' in the Mailbag

by Joe Sheehan

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So, here's the thing. I'm going to spend more time answering reader mail this year, because I get great feedback and I haven't done a good job of responding to it.

But I'm also going to turn the spotlight on that feedback a bit more often, because there are a lot of good ideas that come in that deserve a wider audience. (There's also the too-frequent reminder that I make mistakes, but I digress.)

In your chat session, you wrote, "...Bronson Arroyo (who I think is a huge sleeper for '04) ..."

What flavor of Kool-Aid are you drinking? Or do you have insider information that he's going to stay healthy, add 3 MPH to his fastball, and develop a killer split-finger?

-- N.B.

I'm just going off Arroyo's tremendous '03 at Pawtucket and a couple of his appearances that I saw towards the end of the year. He showed some great movement and the ability to throw strikes down in the zone. I really think he's going to be throwing high-leverage innings in front of Keith Foulke by midsummer.

One-hundred fifty-five strikeouts and 23 walks (his Pawtucket line) is tremendous. Fourteen whiffs and four walks in 17 MLB innings is also good, and he allowed just nine homers all season.

I'd rather have Arroyo than every Yankee reliever who isn't headed for the Hall of Fame. He's one of a handful of guys I know I'm going to end up with on every fantasy team I have this year.

I should probably do a column on those guys next week, actually.

I realize Dan Quisenberry missed your 1980 cutoff by one year (perhaps intentionally), but it would be interesting to compare his career arc with the players you evaluated. Age 26-30, he has the second-highest cumulative WARP1 -- second to Mariano Rivera. Then, ages 31-34, he averaged just under 6 WARP1 per season. THEN he fell off a cliff. Quiz sustained his excellence for a longer period of time than just about any of the others. Usage? Freaky submarinerism? Or maybe an exception that proves the rule, as they say?

-- J.B.

It wasn't intentional, but because Quisenberry falls into the "ace reliever" usage pattern, with Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter, I'm comfotable with his absence. I don't think they're good data points for drawing conclusions about what Keith Foulke might do.

As to why he was so good for so long, I think you can look at his command and his GB/FB ratios. On the other hand, you could also argue that his motion makes him a lousy comp for anyone.

Regardless, Quisenberry is definitely a forgotten great.

I agree with your age issue with the closers.

How does John Smoltz fit into this?

He was a starter for 11 years (not counting his rookie year), throwing up to 256 innings in one year. He turns 37 in May. Knowing he wants to return to the starting rotation, how many good years does he have left as the Braves' closer? Looking at your thought process, (and remembering his sore arm of last year) I would guess no more than two.

-- T.H.

It has a lot to do with how he's used. Given the Braves' investment in him, they probably have to baby him in the same way the Cards baby Jason Isringhausen, and be happy to get 45-50 high-leverage innings from him.

That becomes a problem in the postseason; the Braves can't funnel extra innings to their best pitcher the way, say, the Yankees can.

I don't think he'll ever last as a starter. Maybe 15-20 starts--maybe--before the elbow goes.

Very interesting article on the Tigers. It's important to point out that when the Tigers overspend on free agents, it's different than if, say, the Pirates do it, or if the Brewers would have. As I understand it, the dearth of talent in the Detroit organization runs a few levels deep, and unlike in Cleveland, who started 2002 had some low-minors talent and significant veterans to trade for high-minors talent, a sound rebuilding project in Detroit will take at least four or five years and maybe more. So in Detroit, window-dressing with veterans at least should not much impede a real rebuilding. That said, all factors considered, it will be a miracle if Pudge is ever on a winning team there, don't you think?

Speaking of Cleveland, your PECOTA-projected starters'-VORP-based analysis of the AL Central suggests that the Indians could seriously stink up the division this season. I realize that you were explicitly stacking the deck in favor of the Tigers, since your column's theme was, "you COULD make the argument ..." but is the situation for Cleveland this season really as bad as this column makes it look? Or is there an even more rosy, stacked-deck-but-not-total-nonsense argument to be made for Cleveland?

-- Jay Levin

That's a crucial point about the Tigers' signings that makes it easier to justify them. There's just not much in the upper levels, as opposed to the players being blocked, or potentially being blocked, in the organizations you mention. It's a small thing, but it does make seemingly random moves not so random.

As far as the Indians go, I just don't see where the runs will come from, and I say that as someone who likes Travis Hafner. Given that, even a best-case pitching scenario has them losing a lot of 4-3 games, and I'm skeptical that there's anyone here, save Cliff Lee, who warrants best-case thinking.

You don't think there's a chance Francisco Cruceta will amount to anything? He's probably 11 to 15 in a pretty deep Tribe system.

-- C.H.

It's not an unreasonable bet, but at the time of the Paul Shuey deal he was just an arm. Really, he still is now, although his year at Akron wasn't bad. He certainly wasn't a huge loss for the Dodgers.

Here's what Baseball Prospectus 2004--which should be arriving in bookstores and mailboxes early next week--has to say about him:

Cruceta was part of the goody bag from the Dodgers brought over in exchange for the occasionally healthy Paul Shuey. He came into Double-A with 90+ heat and very little pro experience. While holding tremendous promise, his season yielded mixed results. He continued to overpower hitters, rarely letting hits get into the outfield. However, his walk rate jumped significantly. He was working on ironing out inconsistent deliveries that tipped his breaking stuff; until he regains that margin of control, he won't make it.

Cruceta probably projects as a reliever, and god knows there are opportunities in Cleveland for anyone who can get it up there in a hurry and throw strikes.

I would quibble mightily with your assertion that Dan Evans has the best trading track record of any GM during his tenure. I think Walt Jocketty wins that prize hands down (Mark McGwire for dreck and dross; Scott Rolen for a lefty with a bad wing and the second coming of Jose Oquendo; Jim Edmonds for a journeyman pitcher and a decent prospect second baseman; Woody Williams for the pre-recycled Ray Lankford; Edgar Renteria for an older prospect and two relievers), even over the overrated Mr. Beane! It's hard to think of a bad trade that Jocketty has made.

Jocketty's contract negotiations and free agent signings, on the other hand, are a disaster. In fact, if Dan Evans is out of work this spring, I'd like to see him and Jocketty in a platoon role, with Evans handling the free agent market, and Jocketty making the trades. It would be the GM equivalent of Mullinorg (to go back to Blue Jays' days of yore).

-- J.M.

You don't have to sell me on Jocketty, but I was specifically referring to during Evans' tenure.

I'm the guy who spent all summer '03 saying that the Cardinals would win the Central because Jocketty was the best in the game at the trade deadline, coming off the acquisitions of McGwire, Williams and Rolen. I must have used that riff on two dozen radio stations last year.

Thanks, Walt. Ya big choker.

You wrote today:
Two-sport athletes should always choose baseball first, because the skills required to play the game--to hit, specifically--atrophy quickly if they go unused. You can fail at baseball and go on to a career in football or basketball much more easily than you can take a few years away from baseball and come back to it.
This doesn't seem like the kind of thing you'd say without any proof to back it up, but I also can't think of any real evidence that does back this up. Any help here? Thanks.

-- M.P.

There's just not enough data to run evidence at you, Matt. I come by the opinion by considering that, in broad strokes, football and basketball players can rely on exceptional athleticism rather than finely-honed skills moreso than someone trying to hit. (I don't mean to dismiss the finely-honed skills involved in those sports.)

It's the same reason I think two-way players should always be developed as hitters. If you have the talent, you can go back to the mound at some point and you should be able to develop. If you don't hit for three years, though, I just don't think the skill can be revived.

I suppose the way in which pitchers hit is at least mild evidence for this. Granted, pitchers aren't selected for this ability, but if you look, good hitting pitchers in MLB tend to be guys who aren't that far removed from hitting in amateur ball. And I would speculate that pitchers who leave the NL, then return to it, would lose that ability in the interim.

Hmmm...I wonder if there's a correlation between pitchers' batting and age. I'll have to check on that.

Your piece on the Phillies is exceedingly odd. Not only do you fail to mention Eric Milton, and you state that the fifth spot in the rotation is "up for grabs" when it clearly isn't, but you look at the stats to see if there is anything to the "Bowa factor" (in one area, the effect of blown saves), you conclude that there is no effect, then you go on to say that there is a Bowa factor anyway, citing not a shred of evidence. Bizarre.

-- D.S.

I completely blocked out Milton, and you were one of many people to remind me. I guess I could argue that the guy who threw 17 innings last year might not be the safest bet, but the truth is, I whiffed.

The Bowa thing is two separate points. Yes, I found that my idea that the Phillies suffered after Jose Mesa's blown saves was wrong. There was no carryover effect, and Bowa's temperament did not seem to work agains them in this fashion.

However, that's just one area, and I remain unconvinced that Bowa is the right person to manage a team through a pennant race.

I know that this is insanely nitpicky, but I can't help myself. You wrote, "If the Phillies start out 24-6 or something--and I'd say there's maybe a 25% chance they'll do that--then he might be fine." For that statement to be true, the Phillies would need to be a .727 (118-44 over a full season) team. Surely you don't think that they are THAT good, right?

If you assume that they are a .617 WP team (100-62), then there is only a 2.7% chance that they start out 24-6 (or better). I share your optimism about the Phillies, but it's hard to project them (or anyone for that matter) to win more than 100 games.

Of course, if they were a true 100-win team, then there is a 23% chance that they win at least 21 games of their first 30, which should give them a bit of a cushion.

-- A.B.

Math noted. I could have said 22-8 or 21-9 and made essentially the same point.

However... here's the Phillies' first 30 games: three with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, six each against the Marlins, Expos, Cards and Diamondbacks. Maybe 24-6 is more within reach than I thought. They have a fairly easy schedule, a good team, and could have the better starting pitcher on the mound in every one of their first 21 games.

This team could run away and hide.

This question has been bugging me: how come asking Derek Jeter to change positions in favor of Alex Rodriguez is sacrilege, yet nobody has a problem with Bernie Williams--who has been a Yankee longer and who is better than Jeter--being forced--let alone asked--to become a DH in favor of Kenny Lofton?

-- A.P.

Williams' struggles with center field have become clear enough to everyone involved that a move made sense. It's a physical thing, too; his shoulders and knees have really become issues for him.

Now, I wouldn't have moved him for Kenny Lofton, but that's a separate issue.

Moving Jeter to center field makes so much sense that there's just no way it'll happen.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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