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March 2, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • Steinbrennerfreude?: In the wake of the A-Rod deal two weeks ago, this space offered hope, in the form of some gaudy Sox pitching forecasts from PECOTA's 2004 weighted-mean projections. For today's burst of spring optimism, Sox fans need look no further than Will Carroll's Team Health Reports, where green means go and red means exploding labrums.

    Compare the Red Sox THR--green everywhere--with the catastrophic Yankees THR. In case one wonders, Beantown fans are the type to revel in the pain and hopefully season-ending sufferings of others. Two weeks after the big deal Vegas lines have, indeed, resolved to show the Sox as underdogs--but only slight ones. And would it feel right any other way?

  • Not That You Can Actually Go, Though: The big board above the ticket windows in the Fenway Park box office lists every game of the season, with open white spaces where tickets are available and big black Xs where they're sold out. Sadly for Joe Sixpack, as of March 1 the board shows more Xs than the tag on John Daly's TrimSpa polo shirt. (I'm not sure how long Daly's been on the plan, but as of his heroic win at Torrey Pines, it looks like he's still beefing up for the "before" pictures. God bless him, and it worked for Anna Nicole.) According to the big board and ticket window staff, the Sox 2004 home season is sold out, with the exception of Sept. 14-16 vs. Tampa Bay and Sept. 20-23 vs. Baltimore.

  • The Pedro Option, Redux: Eleven months ago, Joe Sheehan questioned Boston's decision to exercise its $17.5 million 2004 option on Pedro Martinez. The move only cost the Sox $15 million in dollar terms--because they saved themselves a $2.5 million buyout -- but erased the option's (significant) time value. Sheehan wrote:
    "I really liked the idea that the Sox could now get two years of treating Pedro Martinez like a short-timer after five years of coddling him. As important as he is to their hopes, and as important as the next two seasons are to the franchise, I thought that they could, given the short-term nature of their investment, run him out there for 35 starts and 240 innings this year. If he got through that, then they could pick up his option and do the same thing next year, and then, with Martinez becoming a free agent at 33, consider whether signing him made sense."

    Instead, with Martinez threatening to leave Boston after the 2004 season if his option wasn't exercised at the beginning of 2003, management chose to placate its ace. The kid gloves stayed on, and Martinez threw 186 innings of dominant ball.

    Now, Boston management is faced with a similar dilemma. Negotiate a new deal, and continue handling Martinez carefully? Or turn him loose? PECOTA projects another jaw-dropping year out of Martinez in 2004, within similar playing time constraints. PECOTA has him pegged for 188 strikeouts in 183 innings...would it translate into 248 Ks in 240 innings? A 91.9 VORP instead of PECOTA's already imposing 70.0?

    Skeptics will point out what Grady Little forgot--that Pedro has been mortal past the 100-pitch mark these last few years. But glowing reports from Pedro's first bullpen session Sunday (he said his health is no longer an issue, and pitching coach Dave Wallace called his stuff "ridiculous") cause one to wonder. Pitching for what may be the final contract of his career, might Pedro want a longer leash? And might Sox management benefit from finding out how much is left in the tank?

  • The baseball Jesus?: Will Carroll has called this "horrible," but how can Johnny Damon's out-of-control hirsuteness be anything but good for baseball? Please, Will...take another look.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Hot Corner: Two seasons ago, Brandon Larson, cut from the 40-man roster that winter, generated considerable buzz by tearing up the International League, posting a .340/.395/.667 line at Louisville, good for a .307 Equivalent Average (EqA). After an excellent September, he looked poised to make a run at Rookie of the Year honors in 2003. Instead, he hit worse than a pitcher for a month, tore more things up in Triple-A (.298 EqA), flailed some more in Cincy, then tore his labrum diving for a grounder. Despite those troubles, the front office cut Russ Branyan loose this winter, all but handing the hot corner to Larson heading into spring training, not unlike last year.

    So, how bad is this situation for Reds fans? Well, Larson ought to be able to outhit Jimmy Haynes this year; the question is whether 2002 was a complete fluke or a flash of brilliance. Coming up through the minors, Larson had always been a hacker, including 26 BB against 133 K in 2001. That kind of awful plate discipline leads to essentially random performance from year to year, but he's been in an upward trend since then, effectively doubling that BB:K ratio is 2003. That's better, but having something like one notable year in four still wouldn't be that great.

    The good news for Larson is that his newfound patience may have as much to do with laser eye surgery as with "getting it," which probably means the skill won't fully erode once he starts fighting for his pension. But we're looking at expected 2004 performance here, and PECOTA isn't very optimistic, putting him down for 1.6 Wins above replacement in about a half-season of play.

    As far as his playing time goes, PECOTA doesn't understand just how bleak the competition is; it's not like Ryan Freel or Juan Castro are real threats to unseat him, after all. Looking through the system, the only player with a real shot at stealing his job this year is Edwin Encarnacion. You have to like a prospect who's twice as likely to turn into Brooks Robinson as into the next player in line, but in today's cost-conscious world the Reds will probably let Encarnacion get in a full year of high-minors experience unless Larson craters again, and even then they're more likely to give Tim Hummel a spin.

    We're projecting Larson here for two wins over four months. As a point of reference, the only in-division third sacker likely to turn in a worse performance is a Pirate to be named. Still, a quick scan of the top comps turns up some encouraging news, none moreso than Brian Jordan, who took off at this age to become as good as injuries allowed him to be. If Larson can hit that upside, he'll be second only to Scott Rolen in the division, but Jordan's surge was all about overcoming the time he spent playing football--not that there's anything wrong with that--which obviously doesn't apply here.

    Long story short, Larson's more likely to keep his spot warm than to make any real impact this year, which could lead to his being shuffled off to some other team soon. But then, we already knew he wasn't going to be part of the next good Reds team.

San Diego Padres

  • A Shocking Declaration: Kevin Towers caused quite a sensation back in January when he predicted that the Padres would score 800 runs this coming season. It was an unusually sunny forecast for a team which lost 98 games last year, finishing more than 36 games behind the NL West Champion Giants. If you are one of the lucky individuals to have already sampled the brand spankin' new Baseball Prospectus Fantasy pages, you can try to add it up for yourself. Perhaps a more reasonable estimate would be, oh, exactly 739 projected runs scored by the Friars. As a point of reference, the World Champion Marlins scored only 751 runs in 2003, enough to propel them into second place in the NL East and edge out the Phillies (791 runs) for a Wild Card spot. Will 739 runs be enough to win the NL West this year? Maybe. There has been widespread denigration of the devolved level of competition in the NL West. The fact that Curt Schilling and Kevin Brown were deployed to the Atlantic may cheapen the perceived value of the NL West title, but the Padres insist they aren't taking anything for granted.

  • Fiscal Responsibility: One advantage the Padres have over their NL West foes is that Kevin Towers has kept his payroll low--just over $60 million is the current estimate. Towers facilitated this enviable position through some smart negotiating that freed up funds to obtain the rights to and sign Akinori Otsuka, re-sign Rod Beck, and sign free agent Jay Payton, all at bargain prices. Towers was also helped by the disposition of Trevor Hoffman's contract at the end of last season. The Padres passed on Hoffman's $10 million option for 2004. Instead, they bought him out for $2 million and negotiated a new one-year contract at the greatly reduced figure of $2.5 million with an option for the 2005 season. If the Pads fulfill their promise to contend in the division, there is definitely room to expand the payroll before the trade deadline. The numbers indicate that the Padres will be buyers instead of sellers come July.

  • Schwarzenegger's Influence: The team has beefed-up its training and conditioning program by hiring new personnel (a new strength and conditioning coach, a full-time masseuse and yoga instructor) and opening a state-of-the-art training room at Petco Park. Injuries plagued the Padres last season. As an indicator of the impact those injuries had on the team, note that only Mark Loretta and Sean Burroughs exceeded 500 at-bats for the season, while Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko, and Mark Kotsay each had long-term injuries which severely impacted their playing time. The investment in conditioning is calculated to help the Padres avoid the negative impact of frequent injuries.

  • Baseball Biz: The front office finally announced the number of equivalent season-ticket packages sold thus far to be more than 17,000. This obliterates the previous franchise-best mark of just under 13,000 for the 1985 season, following the Padres' first appearance in the World Series. Club executives had established a goal of selling 18,000 season ticket packages for the upcoming season and they just may make it. After this figure had been announced, packages continued to be sold at a rapid clip. On Saturday, when individual tickets officially went on sale, more than 70 new equivalent season packages were sold in just one day. By the end of that same day, the Padres had sold nearly 2 million tickets for the 2004 season.

    In a related issue, the Padres will take advantage of a new revenue stream this season. Season-ticket holders will be allowed to participate in an online system to sell their unused tickets. The program will be similar to the resale programs utilized by the Mariners and the Giants. In general, the program allows the season-ticket holder to list his tickets for sale through the Padres web site and sell his unwanted seats at any price he chooses. The buyer pays a "convenience fee" (also known as a commission) to the selling agent...that would be the Padres. As the buzz of the new ballpark is fast approaching critical mass, this little side business--uh...value-added service for season-ticket holders--has the potential to favorably contribute to the bottom line.

  • Injury Brief: The Padres' diamond-in-the-not-so-rough, Jake Peavy, was temporarily shut down Sunday after reporting tightness in his left oblique. Team staffers noted that the move was precautionary in nature and was taken primarily to avoid a more serious injury of the same muscle which caused Peavy problems last June and July.

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