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March 1, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Computers like Cabrera: Surfing PECOTA cards is one of the most fun things a baseball fan can do in the off-season. Marlins fans will note that Miguel Cabrera has one of the brightest projected futures of any player. The system seems to think he's going to do well in the next two years, and then become one of baseball's best players from 2006 on. The high end of his forecast would make him one of the elite players in baseball, while the worst case... well, as with any player, it's awful. But many players only get the not-so-bad forecast, the expected bad forecast, and the really awful forecast.

    PECOTA also found a crazy bunch of guys for Cabrera's most comparable players: leading off with Ron Santo and Gary Sheffield, then The Hammer, Hank Aaron, Sammy Sosa, Curt Flood, Willie Mays...and then Adrian Beltre. Johnny Bench is on there, as is Eric Chavez, along with Jim Fregosi and Ken Hubbs. Not a bad list; though it should be noted that there are a number of flame-outs included, and thus Cabrera isn't a mortal lock for stardom just yet.

  • Moving In: Hee Seop Choi will take over at first for Derrek Lee this season. How's that going to work out?

    Choi's had a tough time establishing himself. Once a well-regarded prospect--seen as clearly deserving of a chance (he hit .287/.411/.513 in Triple-A in 2002)--Choi had trouble finding playing time with the Cubs, as their three managers that year started baseball superstar Fred McGriff at first 136 times in 2002, and then in 2003 Dusty Baker squeezed his time by playing veteran leader Eric Karros behind him. Meanwhile, Lee played full-time for the Marlins every year. The 2003 season was particularly stellar for the previously unnoticed first baseman, as he hit .271/.383/.508 in a tough park for hitters. That's a lot of production to replace.

    The PECOTA projection for Choi thinks the Marlins are going to drop two wins over the season swapping these two out. Choi's 90% percentile forecast--meaning the system thinks there's a 90% chance he won't hit that well--isn't as good as what the system sees Lee hitting on average.

    The advantages to the Marlins of having Choi shouldn't be overlooked, though. He is still cheap.

  • Winning Makes Money, Sometimes: The Marlins are said to have sold over 40,000 tickets to the season opener this season, while the game is still a month away. In the past two years, the team has managed to draw 36,000 and 37,000 to their openers, so it appears that their success has greatly increased fan interest. However, unlike every other team, the Marlins' crippling lease and contractual agreements mean much of that money will go straight to former owner Wayne Huizenga.

    While former Expos and current Marlins owner Jeff Loria is being bled as MLB stands by and whistles is probably sweet for Expos fans who watched him destroy their team while MLB stood by and whistled, it's bad for baseball and Marlins fans. Until something's done, it won't matter how fast the turnstiles spin--the Marlins operate at a severe economic disadvantage to other teams.

New York Yankees

  • Bernie Goes "Piff": It won't go down with Babe Ruth's abscessed tummy (or was it syphilis?) of 1925, but Bernie Williams' busted appendix puts the Yankees in a position where they must depend on Kenny Lofton on an everyday basis until the Return of the King (sorry; just came back from watching the Oscars™). This something of a drag because Lofton is no longer capable of playing everyday because his relationship with left-handed pitchers resembles something you might see in a prison film. That .299 OBP/.342 SLG against portsiders over the last three seasons should mean that the management reaches for a righty pinch-hitter every time a situational lefty is brought in.

    The problem is, the Yankees aren't working towards that kind of tactical flexibility. Typical scenario: a righty starts against the Yankees at the Stadium. Lofton is in center field. Williams is the DH. We go to the bottom of the seventh inning tied 1-1. There are two outs and a runner on second. Lofton is at bat. Damaso Marte comes into the game. Joe Torre calls for...well, there's really no one on the roster he can call. Ruben Sierra isn't much against lefties either. Tony Clark is decent against lefties, but who knows if he's going to make the roster? Here we have problem number one: in case of lefty, Joe Torre can call for his momma, he can call for his pipe, call for his bowl, and call for his fiddlers three, but he can't call for a good lefty-killer.

    Let's say he calls on Travis Lee, who is a lefty but hangs in pretty well against his own kind. Lee pops out to Ozzie Guillen, who has activated himself so he can show Frank Thomas was a real percentage ballplayer looks like. Inning over. During the commercial break, Torre confers with new consigliere Willie Randolph. A defensive replacement is needed in center field. First choice is Bernie Williams, but he's the DH and the game is tied, so if we put Bernie in the field and go to extra innings, the pitcher's spot could come up five times and kill us. Besides, he's really involved in a National Geographic special on the clubhouse HDTV. He stays put. Clearly, Hideki Matsui must slide over to center. Okay, that's easy. Now who plays left? We could keep Lee in the game and stick him in left field. That's pretty scary. Sierra? Still scary. It's a 1-1 game, man. Left field in this park is the size of Kenya. You want a gapper to a misplaced first baseman to lose us the game?

    Then who? Whaddya mean we're already out of outfielders? Didn't we remember to put a defensive outfielder on this cockeyed ball club?

    ...Nope. They didn't. They haven't for years. This year it's going to lead to lots of Lofton vs. LOOGYs, IE freebie outs for the opposition.

  • Mood Indigo: Former Yankees outfielder Bubba Trammell, now with the Dodgers, revealed that he left the Yankees due to depression. He also swore that Joe Torre was not the cause. Yet, Torre had completely buried the lefty-smooshing Trammell on last-season's bench, even with several regulars struggling to do much with left-handers. Said burial speaks volumes about how attentive Mr. Torre will be to Lofton's platoon stats.

    Charles Dickens in the South Bronx: When George Steinbrenner blacked out a few months back, no one could know of the inner journey that was taking place just behind his eyelids. Well-informed sources located within the old shipbuilder's cerebellum have it that the turtlenecked-one had a vision, a visitation by the Ghosts of Baseball Managers Past, Present, and Future. Yes, Billy Martin was there, and poor Dick Howser. The most shocking moment for The Boss, sources say, was when Managers Future pulled back his hood to reveal not Willie Randolph, but Jeff Torborg.

    "What day is it?" Steinbrenner was said to have asked when he was revived.

    "December 27," he was told.

    "The season hasn't started yet! Then it's not too late! I can avert Torborg!" he shouted. Stopping only to order everyone turkey sandwiches from Boston Market, he ran off to inform Tiny Joe Torre that his services were still desired, that he was, in fact, loved.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Front Office Folderol: In an interview with MLB.com, Dave Littlefield identified a baker's dozen concerns the Pirates have entering the season. Six of his 13 questions pertained to the bullpen.

    Of course he's worried about the bullpen. Pittsburgh had the National League's worst bullpen ERA last year. True, PNC Park played as a moderate hitter's park, but even if we account for the park factor the Pirates still scuttled at the bottom of the league, ranking 14th in Adjusted Runs Allowed (ARA) and Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP). The bullpen had been much better in 2002 but we only have to go back to 2001 to see what McClendon has had to work with in his three years as Pittsburgh's manager:

     
    
    Pirates Bullpen		ARA	ARP
    Year	 		Rank	Rank
    2001			15th	14th 
    2002			5th     3rd 
    2003			14th    14th 
    
    
    In each of his three years at the helm, McClendon has entrusted more than 500 innings to his relievers. Only five teams got more work out their bullpen in 2003. This year he'll have to get his 500 innings from this cluster:
     
    			
    			PECOTA Mean Projection for 2004
    			IP		ERA
    Brian Boehringer	54.7		4.37
    Joe Beimel		44.7		5.11
    Juan Acevedo		44.0		5.40
    Jose Mesa		41.7		4.40
    Ryan Vogelsong		77.0		4.77
    Mark Guthrie		32.0		4.41
    Salomon Torres		97.0		4.37
    Mark Corey		50.7		3.90
    John Grabow		36.0		4.75
    Mike Gonzalez		39.3		5.42
    Willis Roberts          59.0		4.51
    Brian Meadows		85.0		4.13
    Total			661		4.57
    
    
    It's a shade better than the 4.81 they posted last year but a bullpen ERA of 4.57 would have kept the Pirates among the bottom four in the league. The total accounts for some innings that are projected to come from games started--Vogelsong, Meadows--and there will be more relievers contributing relief innings through the season, but the list is representative of what McClendon will use and indicative of why Littlefield's so worried about his bullpen.

    But it doesn't really matter who fills out the bullpen so long as McClendon's choosing among cuts of low-grade beef. Mesa may or may not be the Pirates' closer. It doesn't really matter, does it? Even if (though) he sucks, he shouldn't be Littlefield's biggest concern, or yours if you're a Pirates' fan. As the closer, Mesa wouldn't throw more than 60 innings--he'd account for about 10% of the Pirates' relief total. The other 440 innings or so would be distributed among the other Charlie Browns in the bullpen. To be effective a bullpen needs depth of quality more than it needs a relief ace. The Pirates enter the season without an ace, and without any depth to see them past the fifth inning.

    With an offense projected to score 100 fewer runs than it did last year, and a bullpen likely to be among the league's worst, a collateral effect of the Pirates' incompetence is how it will stunt the development of their young starters, the strength of the organization. As soon as now, the Pirates will ask for a lot of starts from young pitchers. Kip Wells and Josh Fogg will be 27, Vogelsong will be 26, John Vanbenschoten 24, and Byran Bullington 23. Oliver Perez will be 22 and Sean Burnett is only 21. For a lost season, phasing in these pitchers is a good plan But a bullpen ERA of 4.65 would put the Pirates' bullpen near the bottom of the league again, and cause a lot of distress in the dugout as these young starters watch their good work come undone.

    The rotation had a Support Neutral record of 55-55 last year, 9th in the NL. Its actual record was 51-59; only four rotations in the league had worse luck. From 2001 to 2003 the rotation's "luck" has tracked with the bullpen's performance. In 2002, when he bullpen was strong, the rotation was the league's third-luckiest. In 2001, when the bullpen was as bad as it was in 2003, the Pirates suffered the worst luck of any team in NL.

    If the Pirates are going to make it back to .500 on the strength of their pitching, they can't afford to go chasing after proven mediocrities to fill out their bullpen. Fretting over Mesa, Boehringer, Beimel, and Guthrie is the wrong way to widen the needle's eye. Somewhere behind the PR façade, Littlefield has to know this. So for the macro analysis we can forget about Littlefield's litany. What matters most to this team's future is not whether Boehringer can come back or Acevedo can close, but Littlefield's own state of mind:

    1. Littlefield is filling his team with players who, if he gets lucky on a couple of them, he can flip to contenders at midseason.
    2. He knows these relievers are stiffs but feels as though his hands are tied by expectations of ownership and fanbase.
    3. He knows these relievers are stiffs but just does not have the aptitude yet to scrounge up some of that freely available relief talent BP believes is out there.
    4. He really believes that his team will build on it 34-37 record after the All-Star Break.
    5. A combination of (a), (b), and (c).

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