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February 24, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Turning Japanese: When it comes to spinning his wheels, Kenny Williams gives Onan a run for his money.

    Williams took the conn from Ron Schueler after the 2000 season. That year, the Sox won 95 games. Going into 2001, the Sox had the #1 farm system in baseball according to Baseball America, and all was right with the world. In his three years as General Manager, the White Sox have won 83, 81, and 86 games. The farm system has lost ground every year, dropping from #1 to #20 since Williams took over:

    
    Year 	Ranking
    2000    1st
    2001    9th
    2002    15th
    2003    20th
    

    Williams had a substantial role in building the system he inherited as GM. He once oversaw a farm system that was ranked the best in baseball by Baseball America, USA Today, and Howe SportsData. No one can white that out from his resume. But he has done enough in his short tenure to destroy his own legacy so that his time with the Sox will be remembered as a missed opportunity.

    He fired the pitching coach and things didn't get better, and then he fired the hitting coach and things didn't get better, and then, with a fresh start his only sensible option, he fired the manager. The axe fell on Manuel's neck but Williams shares responsibility for Manuel's failure.

    His deal for Todd Ritchie burps up every time Kip Wells has a quality start. Williams was Pollyannaish about the resiliency of Antonio Osuna, and the Billy Koch trade was self-evidently foolish. He made an astute if insufficient acquisition of Bartolo Colon, and then lost his services after a single season. One of Williams's first acts was to trade Chad Bradford to the A's for Miguel Olivo--that's Williams: he typically doesn't get torched, just singed enough to leave a scar.

    For every good move Williams has made, he has discombobulated himself with a bad one. Last year he made a shrewd move landing Carl Everett, but he's elsewhere now, as is Tom Gordon, who had plenty left to give. Getting Scott Sullivan for 15 pennant-race innings was good, but he'll be pitching for the Royals this year, and he cost the Sox Tim Hummel, an on-base guy in an organization sore for quality middle infielders, especially since Hummel was moved soon after Williams dumped D'Angelo Jimenez, another middle infielder who knows how to get himself on base.

    Esteban Loaiza's superficially garish stats had some indications of value, and Williams had the stones to give him another shot. Maybe it was more luck than courage, putting a pitcher with gopheritis into a hitter's park, but he caught lightning in a bottle, and again, no one should forget this one when they're checking Williams' scorecard. Even so, it won't do him any good when Loaiza regresses to his mean and there's no one to pick up Colon's load.

    Williams has signed Sandy Alomar Jr. three times, blocking the development of Mark Johnson, Josh Paul and Miguel Olivo. He developed Joe Crede and Jon Rauch but hasn't had the stomach to let them learn OJT. He stole Jimenez but dumped him. Late to the pagoda, Williams signed Shingo Takatsu, a middling sidearmer who would appear to be a replacement for Sullivan, at a cost greater than the Padres laid out for Akinori Otsuka, who PECOTA projects to have the second-best ERA in baseball this year.

  • Paddling With One Oar in the Water: Manuel was Williams's manager for three years, and he ran the clubhouse for the past six seasons. His teams won 500 games and lost 471, a mark of +29 wins for his stay. His Pythagorean record was 494-477, a mark of +17. Apparently, his teams were more lucky than unlucky, stealing an average of two wins per year, and even accounting for luck his record sounds pretty good, but let's hold our applause for a moment.

    The important measure isn't how many games a manager wins. It's how his teams performed relative to how they should have done. In The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, James presented a way to gauge a manager's effectiveness. To predict how many games a team should win in a season, we can look at four factors: the three most recent seasons and one hypothetical season of mean performance, or 81 wins. The most recent season accounts for 50% of the weight, the hypothetical season of .500 ball is weighed at 25%, and the two seasons previous to the most recent account for 12.5% each. It's a crude tool but it's generally accurate. Using this formula, we see that Manuel's teams were ordinary, and that for all of Williams's plate-spinning the Sox have gotten nowhere since he took over. Manuel's record:

    
    Year	Predicted Wins 	Actual Wins	Net
    1998	80		80		  0
    1999    81		75		 -6
    2000	78		95		+17
    2001	87		83		 -4
    2002  	84		81		 -3
    2003	83		86		 +3
    
    
    James considers any season of +3 or better to be a good season, and -3 or worse to be a bad season. Manuel had three bad seasons, two good ones, and a wash year. In his six-year run he was +7, a big step down from the +29 he scores if we just look at raw wins and losses. Comparing his predicted wins to his teams' Pythagorean wins, we see that he comes down nearly to the break-even:
    
    Year	Predicted Wins 	Pyth Wins	Net
    1998	80		75		 -5
    1999    81		72		 -9
    2000	78		92		+14
    2001	87		81		 -6
    2002  	84		86		 +2
    2003	83		88		 +5
    
    
    Looking at how he did in light of how many wins his teams' performance earned, Manuel nets out at +1. He had an outlier season in 2000 but he looks like another wheel-spinner. It was time for him to go. But as you'd expect, the James formula predicts that the Sox will win 84 games this year, another static summer for Williams.

    In the next White Sox PTP we'll look at how Manuel's pitching staffs fared, and whether Williams's fiddling was fruitful or just three years of brownian motion.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • 100 Million Dollar Man: What difference does age make? The second-best player in baseball is still the second best player in baseball, right? Well, when it comes to an eight-year, $111 million contracts, the difference between 24 and, say, 27 can be the difference between Anna Nicole Smith of six months ago and Trimspa Anna Nicole Smith.

    So when Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty handed Albert Pujols the ninth $100 million contract in the major leagues, we'll assume he was smart enough to do his homework. Here is how the contract breaks down over the years.

    
    Year		Salary 		       Age
    2004		$7,000,000 		24		
    2005		$11,000,000		25
    2006		$14,000,000  		26
    2007		$15,000,000  		27
    2008		$16,000,000		28
    2009		$16,000,000		29
    2010		$16,000,000		30
    2011*		$16,000,000		31
    
    Average: 1,367,012.38
    
    *Cardinals have a $5 million dollar buyout option for the 2011 season

    This contract assures the Cardinals that Pujols stays in the middle of the lineup through his prime years and into his early 30s. Pujols has averaged 10.1 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) over the past three seasons. If he was in fact born in 1980, it's safe to assume he can maintain that pace and remain in the upper echelon of players in the game over the span of the deal. Even in the recently-reduced market for talent, this looks like a smart move for the Cardinals.

  • Not Just Bad...Linkin Park Bad: What do you get when you combine a match-up loving manager with a bullpen who's lefty options are about as appetizing as a sober meal at the Waffle House. Well in a wacky experiment of idiocy, the Cardinals found out you get the second- and ninth-worst relievers in the game according to Michael Wolverton's Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP). Manager Tony La Russa's affinity towards Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero respectively cost the Cardinals last year. The out-hating duo is a big reason why the Cards' pen was second-to-last in the majors in ARP, just edging out Detroit for the worst bullpen in the league.

    Bullpen help was a glaring off-season need for Jocketty's team going into the winter--and one that could be addressed fairly cheaply. Jocketty made some changes, trading for Ray King and signing ex-Pirate Mike Lincoln. Consulting PECOTA, let's compare the VORP of last year and this year's bullpens.

    
    2003			VORP
    ----------------------------
    Kiko Calero*		12.1
    Cal Eldred		10.5
    Jason Isringhausen	12.5
    Dustin Hermanson	 0.8
    Steve Kline		11.2
    Jason Simontacchi*      -2.0
    Esteban Yan             -1.6
    Jeff Fassero*           -1.8
    ----------------------------
    TOTAL		        41.7
    
    
    2004			VORP
    ----------------------------
    Kiko Calero		 7.6
    Cal Eldred		10.8
    Jason Isringhausen	10.5
    Ray King		 9.9
    Steve Kline		 6.0
    Mike Lincoln		10.0
    Jason Simontacchi	 7.1
    ----------------------------
    TOTAL			61.9
    
    * Includes starts
    
    
    An improvement? Yes. But the majority of the gain PECOTA sees coming for the Cardinals is gained by getting rid of the dead weight. Dumping bullpen killers Yan and Fassero and replacing them with King and Lincoln accounts for more than the total VORP gained here. Isringhausen's low prediction comes mostly from PECOTA's belief that Iggy won't be able to stay off the DL.

    Overall the Redbird pen should be worth about two more wins than last year's version. That is assuming manager Tony La Russa doesn't fall in love with another Fassero/Yan look-a-like, someone like NRI Doug Creek.

Texas Rangers

  • News: So, that happened.

  • 2004 Outlook: The 2003 Rangers had an average offense (seventh in the AL with a .259 EQA), a sub-par bullpen (ninth in the AL with 2.1 ARP), and the third worst rotation (12th in the AL with -8.0 SNVA).

    The 2004 Rangers offense loses Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Shane Spencer but adds Brad Fullmer, Brian Jordan, David Dellucci, Eric Young, and Alfonso Soriano. Rangers' guru Jamey Newberg reports that the Rangers plan to keep Soriano at second, with Michael Young moving over to short. Brian Jordan and Kevin Mench will likely flank Laynce Nix in the outfield.

    So how does the new line-up sans the reigning MVP compare to the 2003 vintage? Using Nate Silver's prescient 2004 weighted-mean PECOTA forecasts and Keith Woolner's MLVr, which measures the number of additional runs per game above average a line-up would score with a given player and eight average hitters, the 2004 group does not appear as potent as the 2003 version.

    
    Position      2003 Hitters       MLVr      2004 Hitters       MLVr
    C             Diaz             -0.217      Diaz             -0.127
    1B            Teixeira          0.029      Teixeira          0.167
    2B            M. Young	        0.044      Soriano           0.138
    3B            Blalock           0.161      Blalock           0.139
    SS            Rodriguez         0.328      M. Young         -0.057
    LF            Everett           0.176      Jordan            0.039
    CF            Glanville        -0.185      Nix               0.016
    RF            Gonzalez          0.196      Mench             0.054
    DH            Palmeiro          0.121      Fullmer           0.191
    
    Sub Total, Starters             0.671                        0.559
    Sub Total, Bench*              -1.665                       -1.665
    Total MLVr**                    0.008                       -0.072
    
    Runs above average (season)      1.3                         -11.7
    
    * Display of calculation omitted for simplicity.
    ** Weighted average  (71.3% of plate appearances for starters)
    
    
    The analysis assumes that the 2004 Ranger starters will miss an equal amount of playing time and employ a bench of similar quality as 2003. The upshot is that PECOTA's MLVr forecasts predict a 13-run loss for the offense, worth about one loss--a third of the the three wins difference between A-Rod and Soriano. The 2004 attack could be even better if the starters log more plate appearances or if bench productivity improves over last season. The situation is dire, though, if Jordan has his seasonal DL stint and one of Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, or Soriano misses significant playing time.

    Rangers fans disappointed with the offensive outlook can surprisingly find some solace on the pitching side of the ledger. The 2003 Rangers staff had a collective VORP of 7.2, barely above replacement level. Much of the damage came from a number of truly horrendous innings from pitchers who are either gone or likely to perform much better. The 2004 Rangers' staff loses Ismael Valdes, John Thomson, and Aaron Fultz but adds Kenny Rogers and Jeff Nelson. A glimpse at the PECOTA projection of the 2004 staff reveals reason for much optimism. PECOTA forecasts an aggregate 156.3 VORP over 1040 innings from the likely members of the staff in 2004--an astonishing 150 VORP improvement, worth an incredible 15 wins. This figure could be better or worse, depending on the quality Showalter can coax out of his pitchers for the additional 400 or so innings he needs over the course of the season.

    The Rangers have a number of openings, and Showalter will hold numerous auditions this spring to assemble his staff. Joaquin Benoit and R.A. Dickey will battle NRI Glendon Rusch for the final slot in the rotation after Rogers, Chan Ho Park, Colby Lewis, and Ricardo Rodriguez. The losing pair will likely move to the bullpen behind Francisco Cordero and Jeff Nelson. Should former relief ace Jeff Zimmerman prove healthy and effective, the Rangers have the makings of a serviceable, if not respectable, relief corps.

    Can the Rangers compete in the 2004 AL West? If the pitching improves as much as PECOTA suggests, Texas has a legitimate shot at breaking 81 wins, maybe more if the team finds good fortune. The AL West may no longer be the strongest division in baseball--the A's have a questionable offense, Bavasi isn't spending wisely, and the Angels may play Darin Erstad at first base--but it's still not the AL Central. However, the more sanguine of Rangers fans may no longer need mescaline to envisage a division crown.

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