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March 5, 2004

Prospectus Today

Raising Arizona

by Joe Sheehan

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I got an interesting response to Monday's Hope and Faith piece:

As one who wrote to complain about your writing off the Marlins last year, I have to say that I mostly agree with your list this year.

My only slight quibble would be with the Diamondbacks' listing. If Barry Bonds gets hurt, the Giants aren't too much better than the D'Backs. I think that if a team starts with Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb, maybe if Casey Fossum steps up a little (look at his by-team breakdown and it seems that getting shelled by Toronto twice in SkyDome inflated his stats), if Steve Sparks keeps close to .500, they are not so far off. I hate to see them giving 30 starts to Shane Reynolds, but if they can get someone to take his place and also finish .500, they have a chance to win more than 81 games. (Instead of putting a demonstrably bad pitcher like Reynolds in there every fifth day, I'd much rather see them convert one of their many good middle relievers to the starting staff.)

Sure, they have holes but if you have a couple of top pitchers to build around, and good middle relief, you can't be written off. A team with Johnson and Webb at the top of the rotation can hope to patch something together and exceed expectations. That's the same reason I wrote to you last year to suggest you were short-shrifting the Marlins. They had enough good young pitchers that the pieces had a chance to fall in place.

--B.C.

I don't really disagree, which is why I had the Diamondbacks in the gray area in Monday's column.

The whole point of this exercise is to point out that the majority of MLB fans can look at their team and see a scenario in which their team can be in the playoff hunt come midsummer. I think what B.C. writes above is more along the lines of the coverage which used to come out of Florida and Arizona in March, before projecting a team's potential became all about payroll figures.

That's what hope and faith is all about, and it's clear that Diamondback fans should have them.

How much? Well, I'm still not convinced that this team, which averaged less than four runs a game after the All-Star Break last year, can score enough to win 85 games. Let's take a look:


                         2004 PECOTA
                   AB   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
Roberto Alomar    423  .285 .360 .418  21.8
Steve Finley      342  .274 .354 .446   9.5
Luis Gonzalez     488  .297 .398 .529  33.3
Richie Sexson     538  .282 .376 .537  33.1
Alex Cintron      475  .289 .339 .423  19.7
Shea Hillenbrand  466  .285 .329 .452  14.5
Danny Bautista    252  .277 .332 .416   0.9
Robby Hammock     222  .251 .322 .410   4.0

Brent Mayne       234  .242 .307 .318  -5.7
Greg Colbrunn     176  .284 .343 .502  11.0
Matt Kata         378  .262 .314 .400   4.9
Carlos Baerga     193  .294 .351 .417   8.0
Luis Terrero      244  .256 .310 .407  -1.0

That's just not going to be a good offense. Bank One Ballpark inflates hitting stats, which accounts for what seem to be big raw numbers and so-so VORP totals.

PECOTA doesn't expect the Diamondbacks to get a full season out of anyone but Richie Sexson, and there's no depth here. The Snakes are relying heavily on three players--the top three guys in their lineup--who are 36, 36 and 39, respectively. Roberto Alomar has been in free fall for two years, Steve Finley is trying to be one of the oldest regular center fielders in modern history, and Luis Gonzalez's right elbow is ticking like the Fab Five's 15-minute clock. Gonzalez equates the injury to the one Albert Pujols played through in '03, but unlike the Cardinals, the Diamondbacks can't hide Gonzalez at first base; their best player is there.

So what you see above is a best case for the Diamondbacks. If Gonzalez goes down, they have no way of replacing him. Luis Terrero isn't much of a prospect, something of a blend of the lesser features of Juan Encarnacion, and the next best outfielders in camp are Julio Ramirez and Felix Jose. Chad Tracy, a third baseman, played some corner outfield in winter ball and may be asked to man right field when Danny Bautista (438 at-bats in the first two years of a three-year deal) isn't available. I expect Tracy to out-hit his PECOTA projection (.269/.331/.401) while giving back a lot of that value on defense.

As B.C. points out, optimism over the Diamondbacks begins and ends with the front of the rotation. I'm skeptical that a 41-year-old man and a guy who came out of nowhere in his rookie season warrant that kind of enthusiasm, but let's concede the point. Let's say that the Diamondbacks get 450 innings of 3.00 ERA ball from those two guys.

Here are the PECOTA projections for all the other starter candidates:


                     IP     ERA     VORP
Elmer Dessens     143.7    4.69     18.2
Shane Reynolds    133.7    4.90     13.5
John Patterson     86.3    5.30      6.2
Steve Sparks       91.0    5.10      8.5
Casey Fossum       81.3    4.98      8.8
Edgar Gonzalez    106.7    3.95     21.3
Andrew Good        93.3    4.95     10.6

I think the world of John Patterson, but if he can't beat out this crowd and keep a job, with no options left, it's time to look into graduate programs.

For that matter, why are the Diamondbacks messing around with Shane Reynolds and Steve Sparks? With the exceptions of studs Johnson and Curt Schilling, the Diamondbacks have done a lousy job of importing pitching, while getting very good results with guys already in the system. Last year, with Webb, Jose Valverde, Steven Randolph and Oscar Villareal contrasting with Dessens' lousy year, was just the most stark example. Why not leave the Class of '96 alone and give Edgar Gonzalez and Andrew Good the jobs? Gonzalez, just 21, can be protected with low pitch counts because of the deep bullpen and the innings that Johnson usually provides, and Good certainly should be no worse than the five-inning/three-run starter Reynolds and Sparks project as.

The Snakes do feature a deep bullpen, with two strikeout machines at the back and workhorses in front. Matt Mantei and Jose Valverde bring heat and miss bats. Both have control issues, which is why the Snakes can't shorten games to seven innings the way, say, the Dodgers can. Bob Brenly worked Oscar Villareal hard last year, so the right-hander's early elbow troubles this year are a concern. A healthy Mike Koplove (career ERA: 2.96) and the emergence of an effective lefty from among Stephen Randolph, Casey Fossum and personal favorite Shane Nance would really make this a championship-caliber pen.

This really can be a good pitching staff, but it's working in support of an offense that will struggle to get out of the bottom third of the league, and a defense that could be the NL's worst. The D'backs' window has closed. While this team can hang around .500, it's going to be a few seasons before they can make the transition from the team that won it all in '01 with imports to a homegrown contender. Given that the next few years will be spent paying off that championship team--Jerry Colangelo owes tens of millions a year in deferred salary payments--things do not look good in Arizona.

So use that hope and faith now, Snakes fans.

--

I'll send you into the weekend with two links to check out. The first is "The Scouting Report by the Fans for the Fans." This is an attempt to gather observational evaluations of players' defense on a large scale, and is one of the more interesting projects in sabremetrics in 2004. It's worth a look, and I'd be interested in hearing your opinions on the idea and its execution.

The second also asks for fan input on a baseball matter, this time, the Carnival of Denial (OK, last time I'll use it unless it catches on) currently occuping Legends Field in Tampa. Sign this petition and make your voice heard on the Yankee shortstop situation.

Enjoy the weekend, folks.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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