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March 5, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • Quiet Camp: So you want to be a major league ball player. Normally there would be plenty of opportunity at any given Montreal Expos training camp. With all the fire sales and high turnover in recent years, there was always plenty of competition in spring training for the last few jobs. In 2003 alone, there were at least three starting positions (3B, 1B, CF) to be had, and if you could pitch, a few openings in the starting rotation.

    Though team anchors Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez are gone, GM Omar Minaya has brought stability to camp this year, finding major league quality talent at several positions to augment last year's core. Aside from a couple of bench jobs, the only starting gig up for grabs is in left field, where Ron Calloway, Endy Chavez, Val Pascucci, Juan Rivera and Terrmel Sledge will battle for the starting assignment. The smart money's on Rivera, though the best solution could be a Sledge/Rivera platoon, if Frank Robinson wants to be creative.

  • Ace in the Hole: While pundits claimed the Expos would be ace-less this season with Vazquez gone, a look at last year's numbers suggests otherwise. Livan Hernandez put up a monster 2003 season, as seen by this Support-Neutral comparison.
    
                       Team     SNWAR
    1. Martinez,P       BOS       7.5
    2. Hudson,T         OAK       6.6
    7. Prior,M          CHC       5.4
    9. Hernandez,L      MON       5.3
    9. Schilling,C      ARI       5.3
    
    

    PECOTA's weighted-mean projection expects a big drop-off in 2004, with a park-adjusted 4.29 ERA for Hernandez, and just 193 innings pitched. This makes some sense, given PECOTA relies more on a player's complete body of work than just one season of performance. Of course the system may have a hard time reconciling something like Hernandez's adjustment to his pitching motion last June, after which point he started throwing every pitch from the same 3/4 angle, baffling hitters down the stretch.

    It remains to be seen if hitters can catch up to his new motion. Either way, though, that innings projections looks low: Hernandez has averaged 229 IP the last four seasons, including 233.1 in '03. His low during that span was 216 innings tossed. Even if he suffers some regression to the mean, Hernandez's ability to carry a big load should be a huge help to the team's young staff...

  • Armas Jr. Injury: ...especially after Tony Armas Jr.'s drive to recovery stalled recently. After missing most of 2003 with a shoulder injury, Armas is now recovering from a biceps injury. There is some concern he may not be healthy come April. This could open the door for Seung Song to step in on a short-term basis.

    Turning again to PECOTA's '04 forecast, we get a projected 4.82 park-adjusted ERA for Song over 76 IP. The Spos will need Armas to regain his health, or for one of Song, Josh Karp, T.J. Tucker or Sun-Woo Kim to take a step forward this year--not to mention healthy, productive seasons from Zach Day and Claudio Vargas. Otherwise, the team that's struggled for years to field an elite offense may finally find one in '04...only to see the pitching staff go up in flames.

  • Vidro's Time to Shine: With Vlad gone, the Expos will need Jose Vidro to keep producing. The second baseman suffered through a series of nagging injuries last season, curtailing his production slightly. After a rigorous off-season training regimen, the Expos hope to get 150+ games out of Vidro this year, a feat he's managed in just two of his last five seasons as a regular. PECOTA sees a solid three-year stretch ahead for Vidro, as rated by Equivalent Average:
    
                Jose Vidro      Jeff Kent     Alfonso Soriano
    2004            .286         .294            .292
    2005            .283         .287            .294
    2006            .284         .270            .285
    
    

  • Nuts & Bolts: For the record, the Expos report sales for the home opener at Montreal's Olympic Stadium are going well. More than 8,500 tickets were sold the day sales opened, March 1. That's the most the organization has sold on its first day of ticket sales in 12 years.

San Francisco Giants

  • Slotting Bonds: With essentially no position battles to worry about, or any young players whose performance is difficult to project, Felipe Alou has apparently settled on a lineup before spring training even begins. The early Cactus League batting order will be Ray Durham followed by J.T. Snow, Barry Bonds, Edgardo Alfonzo, Michael Tucker, A.J. Pierzynski, Marquis Grissom, and Neifi Perez.

    The only likely change to this order would be to push Bonds down into the cleanup spot. In the past Alou has indicated that Tucker will actually bat third, pushing down both Bonds and Alfonzo, which would be a nice boost for the Giants' division rivals' playoff chances, if not quite on the order of starting the Neifiriffic one.

    The stated reason for batting Bonds third now, when he'll probably wind up in the cleanup spot no matter what, is to give him more at-bats so he can get into game shape more quickly. But that doesn't make a lot of sense at this stage of spring training, when the regulars leave the game after a couple of plate appearances, allowing the herd to put their talents on display so coaches can cull them appropriately. It's entirely possible Alou wants the other candidates for the three-hole to get used to the idea that they won't be filling it when the season opens.

    What impact would these lineup possibilities have on the Giants' offense? The usual concern voiced about moving a big slugger around is that he might be intentionally walked more often in some orders than in others, but here, we all know that Bonds is pretty much guaranteed to be walked in game-critical situations no matter who's hitting behind him.

    One possible motivation behind Alou's plans for Bonds stem from his platoon splits. Yes, managers can obsess over setting lineups up to alternate handedness, partly because they also get too caught up in finding LOOGYs and ROOGYs to use for three pitches and then discard. But it's interesting to note that Bonds has been slugging better against lefties (.836) than righties (.795) over the last three years, with an equally wide Isolated Power gap.

    It's interesting that both versions of Alou's lineup have Bonds hitting behind one southpaw or another, with Alfonzo coming up after him. If Alou and Sabean are deliberately exploiting this split to make Bonds an even better cleanup hitter, that would be an interesting example of thinking outside the box, though if so, it'd be a shame that Snow and Tucker were all they could come up with to bat ahead of him. Chalk that up to a weak overall offense created by an awful recent history of developing hitters on the farm, and of Sabean's failure to help the offense in the off-season.

  • Speaking of Platoons: If you tally up the starting eight's splits over the last two years, there's essentially no net split, largely thanks to Grissom's extreme lefty-mashing ability. Every divisional rival has at least one lefty in the mix for the fifth-starter spot, even when it sounds crazy. Regardless, Giants fans can ignore that fact when scoping their competitors.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Position Battle: Corner Outfield: It goes without saying that the Blue Jays cannot afford the wanton luxuries of the Yankees or the Red Sox: A Star at Every Position! The primary spot in which the Jays are scrimping in order to be able to pay people like Roy Halladay and Eric Hinske the money that they are worth is in the corner outfield spots. The backgrounds of the respective candidates for the left and right field positions, indeed, read like something straight out of Sabermetrics for Dummies:

    Catalanotto and Johnson are the nominal incumbents, penciled into the left and right sides of Vernon Wells, respectively. But all five candidates should get a long look-see in spring training, and any could wind up in a starting role. The Jays, of course, will be able to read and react to the performances of the respective players as the season progresses, and divvy up whatever mix of playing time they deem fit.

    Let's imagine, though, that instead, the team had to determine today the mix of playing time that it would be bound to for the balance of the season. Never mind how silly that might sound (though, of course, we do something similar with elected officials)--this is intended as a sort of Thought Experiment.

    The simplest way to do that might be to take some reasonable forecast for the candidates' respective performances--we're partial to PECOTA, of course--adjust them upward or downward based on the organization's internal beliefs about each player's learning curve, and plan accordingly. Following are the weighted mean Equivalent Average projections for the five outfielders:

    
                            Weighted Mean
    Frank Catalanotto       .275
    Gabe Gross              .264
    Reed Johnson            .261
    Alexis Rios             .249
    Jayson  Werth           .277
    
    

    Looks like F-Cat and Jay-Werth come out on top. Pretty simple, huh? If the organization is concerned that the projection for Werth is a touch on the optimistic side--PECOTA has something of a fetish for young guys who have exhibited both power and speed--it could hedge its bets by assigning significant playing time to Gross or Johnson. Rios, meanwhile, seems ticketed for Syracuse.

    As we've pointed out before, however--and will surely point out many times again--the Jays are in something of an unusual situation. Their competition is very, very tough: Even a pessimistic projection for the Red Sox or Yankees would still have them winning on the order of 95 games. Suppose that Toronto were offered the opportunity to pick from one of the following two choices:

    Door #1: Guaranteed 87-win season.
    Door #2: 25% chance of a 97-win season, 75% chance of a 77-win season.

    It doesn't take a genius to figure out which of these options the organization would prefer. Though the average outcome is higher in the first case, the potential to achieve a win total in the mid-90s, and potentially reach the post-season as a result, makes the second alternative considerably more desirable. It is not enough to say that the Blue Jays can afford to take risks; it is incumbent upon them to take risks.

    With that in mind, we'll look at the problem a little bit differently. Instead of using the weighted-mean PECOTA projections, let's take full advantage of the system's ability to predict upside and downside performances and look at the EqA projections at the 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles:

    
                        50th Pct  75th Pct 90th Pct  Gap (90th-50th) 
    Frank Catalanotto    .270     .288      .307        .037
    Gabe Gross           .256     .279      .309        .053
    Reed Johnso          .254     .280      .293        .039
    Alexis Rios          .240     .263      .290        .050
    Jayson Werth         .272     .291      .315        .043
    
    

    As one might expect, there is an inverse correlation between a player's age, and the amount of variance that PECOTA has built into his projection. Rios and Gross, the youngest players in the group, have the highest variance, whereas the veterans Catalanotto and Johnson have the least. (There's also a good argument that Rios' forecasts are too low across the board, but we'll save that one for another day--everyone is certainly agreed that the kid has upside).

    The recommendation here is to leave left field to Catalanotto until he does something to prove that he doesn't deserve it, but to open right field up for one of the young'ins, restoring Johnson to the fourth outfielder role for which he is naturally suited. The Blue Jays' best hope to reach the playoffs this year involves hitting big on a parlay of breakout and career seasons, and that means giving every opportunity to those players who are most capable of them.

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