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February 27, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners

by Baseball Prospectus

Cleveland Indians

  • "Back up in your ass with the resurrection..." The Tigers might have gotten all the attention in 2003 for struggling through one of the most pathetic seasons of the past century, but it should be noted that the Cleveland Indians didn't exactly set the world on fire, either. Thanks to a combined 1,900 ABs of below replacement-level production at the plate from the likes of Josh Bard, Coco Crisp, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Phillips, John McDonald, and Brandon Phillips (yes, he was so bad we're naming him twice), the Tribe scored fewer than 700 runs in a full season for the first time since 1992, on their way to 68 wins in the easiest division in the game.

    Luckily for Tribe fans everywhere, Nate Silver's PECOTA projection system forecasts quite an improvement for the Cleveland offense in 2004. Check it out:

    
                            2003                            2004
    NAME             Pos    VORP    NAME             Pos    VORP
    ----------------------------    ----------------------------
    Blake_Casey       3b     8.0    Blake_Casey       3b    12.8
    Gerut_Jody        rf    17.9    Gerut_Jody        rf    17.3
    Bradley_Milton    cf    44.6    Bradley_Milton    cf    21.2
    Crisp_Covelli     cf    -9.0    Lawton_Matt       lf    10.0
    Lawton_Matt       lf     4.5    Ludwick_Ryan      lf     8.5
    Broussard_Ben     1b     3.1    Vizquel_Omar      ss    11.9
    Phillips_Brandon  2b   -21.2    Belliard_Ron      2b    10.9
    Bard_Josh          c    -2.2    Phillips_Brandon  2b    13.4
    Hafner_Travis     dh    11.2    Broussard_Ben     1b    10.0
    Vizquel_Omar      ss     2.1    Hafner_Travis     1b    19.4
    Peralta_Jhonny    ss    -4.6    Martinez_Victor    c    17.2
    Spencer_Shane     rf     3.6    Bard_Josh          c     9.6
    McDonald_John     2b   -12.7    Peralta_Jhonny    3b     5.3
    Burks_Ellis       dh     6.6    McDonald_John     rf    -2.7
    Others           n/a     8.1    Escobar_Alex      cf     6.2
    ----------------------------    ----------------------------
    TOTAL                   60.0    TOTAL                  171.0
    
    
    Granted, it's likely that the Indians won't be truly competitive for another year, but that's a hell of a leap PECOTA is projecting for a number of the Tribe's youngsters, namely Phillips. According to our calculations, the 23-year-old second baseman is set improve his production at the plate by more than three full wins in 2004--among the biggest steps forward in all of baseball. Did someone say "Ugueto Effect"?

    Of course, Phillips isn't the only Indian projected for an improvement in 2004. By all accounts, Jody Gerut's surprising rookie campaign wasn't a fluke. Heralded prospect Victor Martinez will be roughly league-average at the plate. And minor-league masher Travis Hafner should take something of a step forward as well. All in all, PECOTA forsees quite an improvement for the Indians with the bats, despite a significant regression from Milton Bradley.

    The Indians' pitching staff, on the other hand, is completely different story:

    
                            2003                            2004
    NAME                    VORP    NAME                    VORP
    ----------------------------    ----------------------------
    Sabathia_CC             45.9    Sabathia_CC             25.7
    Riske_David             28.4    Davis_Jason              4.9
    Westbrook_Jake          18.2    Lee_Cliff                6.9
    Cressend_Jack           16.4    Westbrook_Jake           6.5
    Baez_Danys              14.2    D'Amico_Jeff            14.2
    Betancourt_Rafael       14.1    Bere_Jason               9.0
    Stanford_Jason          13.1    Wickman_Bob              7.0
    Anderson_Brian          10.3    Riske_David             20.7
    Boyd_Jason               9.7    Stewart_Scott           10.1
    Davis_Jason              8.8    Jiminez_Jose            10.4
    Traber_Billy             7.2    Betancourt_Rafael       14.1
    Lee_Cliff                6.7    Stanford_Jason           8.0
    Mulholland_Terry         5.8    Durbin_Chad              9.2
    Rodriguez_Ricardo       -2.7    Hackman_Luther           7.5
    Others                  -5.9    Tadano_Kaz              13.6
    ----------------------------    ----------------------------
    TOTAL                  190.2    TOTAL                  167.8
    
    
    Where in 2003 the Tribe's hurlers were part of one of the better staffs in the division, PECOTA forecasts a regression across the board. Will C.C. Sabathia's workload catch up to him after a year of going unscathed? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, though, PECOTA thinks he was a bit over his head last season, and predicts a step back of more than two wins.

    The rebuilding process is in full swing in Cleveland, and mad props go out to Mark Shapiro and his staff for taking things one step at a time. A lesser GM might have got impatient last season, but Shapiro kept his head on straight, and now the organization is beginning to bear the fruits of his labor. And hell, who knows? With a little luck, would it really be that implausible for the Indians to go all Kansas City on the AL Central and challenge for the crown? It's a weak division the Tribe is playing in, and stranger things have happened.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • League-Best Pitching: Last year's pitching was among the best in the league, so naturally one might expect a decline from such a lofty perch. But how steep? Using Nate Silver's 2004 PECOTA Weighted Mean Projections we can get an idea:
    
                    2003                    2004
                    VORP                    VORP 
    Hideo Nomo      48.7    Hideo Nomo      20.2 
    Odalis Perez    10.8    Odalis Perez    29.3 
    Kevin Brown     60.2    Jeff Weaver     17.9 
    Kazuhisa Ishii  14.7    Kazuhisa Ishii   4.9 
    Andy Ashby       0.6    Edwin Jackson   18.9
    Darren Dreifort  6.6    Darren Dreifort 15.5
    Wilson Alvarez  30.5    Wilson Alvarez  26.4
                   172.1                   133.1 
    
    

    The starters alone are going to give back 4 wins not considering the unlikelihood Dreifort will actually pitch his projected 136 innings. As for the bullpen:

    
                    2003                    2004
                    VORP                    VORP 
    Tom Martin       9.4    Tom Martin       3.1 
    Paul Quantrill  29.1    Steve Colyer     9.8 
    Paul Shuey      17.4    Paul Shuey      11.9 
    Guillermo Mota  41.1    Guillermo Mota  17.1 
    Eric Gagne      38.7    Eric Gagne      32.5 
                   135.7                    74.4 
    

    Suc le blu! With largely the same personnel, the pitching can be expected to give back 10 games. Tinsel Towners better hope the offense can compensate. Speaking of which...

  • League-Worst Offense: Just as the pitching is expected to regress to the mean, so should the offense. Fortunately, in this case that means an expected improvement. However, the Dodgers haven't addressed three of their more obvious, glaring holes: 2B, SS and CF.
    
                            2003                     2004
    Position                VORP                     VORP
    C  Paul LoDuca          17.4    Dave Ross        19.1
    1B Fred McGriff          6.5    Green            43.2
    1B Robin Ventura         2.5
    2B Alex Cora             8.5    Jolbert Cabrera   3.3
                                    Delwin Young     -3.4
    SS Cesar Izturis        -5.2    Izturis          -3.2
    3B Adrian Beltre        14.5    Beltre           22.7
    LF Jeremy Burnitz       -7.8    Lo Duca          15.9
       Brian Jordan         11.3
    CF Dave Roberts          1.0    Roberts           0.1
    RF Shawn Green          32.0    Juan Encarnacion 12.0
                            80.7                    109.9
    
    
    Three wins are an improvement, but even that's optimistic. Green's projection is actually as a right fielder and LoDuca's is as a catcher, meaning the shifts down the spectrum will reduce both players' values. Further downgrading this projection is the -20 defensive VORP at 2B. On the other hand, if Ross earns the everyday backstop duties and doubles his projected 300 ABs, that would be a boost. Still, on the whole this offense struggles to keep pace with last year's juggernaut, which is hard to believe.

    There are reasons for optimism, though.

  • Best Off-Season Move: The Dodgers most high-profile and significant off-season moves came not on the field, but in the front office as Frank McCourt finally took over ownership. Say what you will about how the transfer reduced the Dodgers to free-agent voyeurs, they just may have snagged the most valuable "talent" available this winter, replacing GM Dan Evans with Oakland A's Assistant GM Paul DePodesta. While Evans' performance has been debated here by Joe Sheehan as well as in Baseball Prospectus 2004, Dodger fans alike should welcome the change.

    Regardless of who has been steering the ship over the years, the Dodgers have historically been one of the most rigid in terms of organizational philosophy: emphasizing pitching, defense and tools while neglecting offense and performance. DePodesta's sure to incorporate the lacking elements into the Dodgers' already well-developed strengths. The question is, how quickly? More importantly, how swiftly will he try to make an impact with the big club in what is obviously a weak NL West division? Considering he has three easily identifiable sink-holes up the middle and double his customary payroll, optimism seems justified in La La Land.

    Will DePodesta use the $20 million freed up by the Brown/Weaver swap and the departing Andy Ashby and Brian Jordan to take on someone else's albatross throw-ins to secure the upgrades he desperately needs? Don't expect it. DePodesta isn't about to immediately max the budget. He has the capacity to fill holes frugally and considering how vast the holes are, the price for even considerable improvement should be low. Perhaps he'll use means to lockup LA's most marketable Canadien since Gretzky? Perhaps. He understands that as dominating as Gagne is, he can find something close performance-wise for much cheaper if need be, so he's not likely to vastly overpay for those services.

    Also, don't expect immediate blockbuster trades as obviously helpful they might seem. For example, while Carlos Beltran looks like a prime target, Allard Baird hasn't shown a willingness to be robbed by a Moneyballer in quite sometime. In addition, Baird seems to clearly understand Beltran's value, so acquiring him for a song and dance doesn't seem as likely as it once might have. Fear not, though, southlanders, help is on the way.

  • Fool's gold?: Realistically though, all help is welcome at this point, which explains the spring training invitations extended to Joses Lima and Canseco. Of course, if any environment can minimize Jose Lima's taterific tendencies, its Dodger Stadium. And, if Canseco still has pop, well that's always useful.

Seattle Mariners

  • What Could Have Been: The Mariners this week revealed that if only they'd known the Rangers were willing to pick up so much of Alex Rodriguez's salary, they would have been involved in negotiations. Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said it was a "no-brainer". Setting aside for a second that Alex seemed to want to move to a much larger national stage (Boston or New York), it seems at first odd that the Mariners weren't even involved. But it turns out that their cell phones' evening rates don't start until 7 p.m., and that's 9 p.m. in Texas, and the team didn't want to be rude by calling Rangers GM John Hart or owner Tom Hicks during "Everyone Loves Raymond" or "Frasier" or the rapidly decaying quality of "The West Wing" (though Hicks is rumored to be a big fan of "The O.C.").

    Well, suffice it to say that the team's utter failure to have any idea if they and their cornocopia of pitching talent could have made a deal with the Rangers has little to do with their own problems, but instead lies with the team's perhaps overly respectful attitudes towards politeness, the unintended consequences of choosing the wrong rate plan, and the outstanding quality of prime-time television lately.

  • #2, the pitchers are ahead of the hitters... Second year manager Bob Melvin is going through the sophomore manager checklist:

    • More comfortable with the team: check
    • Use spring training for tougher drills to improve fundamentals: check
    • Will be much more vocal: check
    • Going to improve baserunning and situational hitting: check

    Where Mevlin has shone, though, is putting his mind for statistics to use backing up these time-honored messages. Check this out: "Our situational hitting the first half of the season was outstanding. But there was a month-long period, from about Aug. 15-Sept. 15, that we struggled as a unit advancing runners and getting runners home from third with less than two outs. That was the period that defined our season, when we played our worst baseball and lost our lead."

  • Hooray! Ministudy!: From August 15th through September 15th, the Mariners played 29 games, 15 of them at home. They faced a mixed bag of opponents: seven games against Boston, but 19 against such great teams as Tampa Bay, Texas, Baltimore, and Anahiem. During that period of time, they went 13-16, where you'd expect a .550 team to go, oh, 16-13, maybe 17-12. Their hitting was indeed a little off: they only scored 4.3 runs a game, down from their season average of 4.9, a loss of, uh... about 10%. Edgar Martinez, coincidentally, sat out three of those 29 games. And Keith Woolner reports that they indeed were a little off:

    • With runners on base from Aug15-Sep15, they hit.257/.350/.388 in 488 plate appearances.
    • With runners on base the rest of the season, they hit.280/.356/.425 in 2935 PA.

    • With a runner on 3rd and less than 2outs, they hit 325/.360/.488 in 64 PA
    • With a runner on 3rd and less than 2outs the rest of the season, they hit .341/.379/.545 in 383 PA.

    No wonder Melvin was so scarred by this traumatic period: that's the kind of offensive dropoff you'd see replacing Hideki Matsui with Sean Casey.

    No, the real culprit in this swoon was their pitching staff, which gave up 3.9 runs a game, a full run higher than their season average. Or travel, as the team went 10-3 at home and 5-11 on the road. Or geography, as they went 6-1 against West Coast teams allied with Tupac and only 7-15 against Biggie's peeps, assuming Toronto is into the Notorious B.I.G. And why wouldn't they be?

    Which is to say that if you're looking for random causes to hang your hat on, I hope you have more than one hat.

  • If you're not smart, watch the smart people and act like them... Manager Bob Melvin may have been smart enough last season to see that Rafael Soriano and Julio Mateo were good enough to pitch the important innings over an inconsistent Jeff Nelson and injured Arthur Rhodes, but he still believes that the closer is a special breed: "There is a huge difference between the eighth inning and the ninth. The ninth is the toughest inning. I don't believe Bill James and the stat guys who say you don't need a closer. It's a special guy who pitches in the ninth. Eddie is a special guy."

    Just to pick one problem here, Bill James and the stat guys don't argue that a team doesn't need a closer. There are a wide variety of opinions on the subject even within statheads. Take last year: the A's, frequently held up as the banner for stat-inclined teams in the same way James is set up to represent me (over my protests) employed ace closer Keith Foulke, who racked up more saves than anyone else in the AL. The Red Sox, who employ James, tried to run with no "closer" early in the season and retreated later, to the point where they just acquired Keith Foulke, last year's...oh, I mentioned that already, sorry, for the 2004 season. The Blue Jays quietly ran a multi-headed bullpen out there and stuck with it.

    We just ran an article here in our Baseball Prospectus Basics series entitled "How to Run a Bullpen." You should really check it out, but here's the short version in case you're strapped for time: closers are dumb.

    Also, for almost all of recorded baseball history, it wasn't a special guy who pitched the ninth. Earl Weaver wasn't stuck on having some special guy around to pitch the ninth. If someone has a copy of "Weaver on Strategy" they're not using, please find it in your heart to donate it to:

    Bob Melvin
    C/o Seattle Mariners
    P.O. Box 4100
    Seattle, WA 98194

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