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March 9, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Rub Some Dirt On It: At the beginning of Spring Training, Ozzie Guillen said that he expected his starting pitchers to be ready to throw complete games, as soon as Opening Day. No big deal, really. And if his pitchers aren't ready in one month's time to meet his challenge, "they better get another job."

    It's an idle threat. The real concern is that he won't comprehend the difference between efficiency and machismo, and since the Sox don't have enough starters as it is, score for machismo. Four slots in the rotation are set. Mark Buehrle, Esteban Loaiza, Jon Garland, and Scott Schoeneweis are in place. The Sox should have at least four pitchers splitting time in the fifth slot, with Jon Rauch, Danny Wright, and Felix Diaz getting most of the calls. PECOTA doesn't like their chances, forecasting a 4.63 ERA for the group:

    
    2004 PECOTA Mean Projection
                    IP      ERA
    Buehrle         202     4.42
    Loaiza          201     3.93
    Garland         149     4.76
    Schoeneweis     72      4.55
    Rauch           83      5.15
    Wright          102     5.45
    Diaz            62      4.84
    

    That's 552 innings for their top three, with the other four accounting for only 319. The light load projected for them leaves Guillen about 130 innings short of the 1000 he'll need to get from his rotation. He's going to get those thousand innings come hell or high water, but to do it he's going to have to push both ends of his rotation, the front end so it doesn't burn his bullpen when the crummier pitchers take their turns, the back end past the point of diminishing returns.

    Last year, White Sox starters had an ERA of 4.17 and a Support Neutral winning percentage of .543, 5th best in the American League. Together, Bartolo Colon and Loaiza were nearly 15 games over .500 in their Support-Neutral record, and because of them last year's rotation was by far the best Jerry Manuel had in his six years as Sox manager.

    
    Year    SNW     SNL     SNPct.   AdjRA   SNVA Ranking in AL
    2003    62.4    52.5    .543      4.49   5th 
    2002    53.1    59.7    .471      5.24   10th 
    2001    53.5    58      .480      5.13   8th 
    2000    55.1    54.3    .504      5.33   6th     
    1999    51.3    61.7    .454      5.86   worst 
    1998    47.0    66.5    .414      5.89   worst
    

    Even if we assume Loaiza repeats and Buehrle holds steady, Guillen will have to substitute Colon's 242 innings with 242 innings of Wright, Rauch, Diaz, and TBA.

    If Guillen plans to work his bullpen less than Manuel did and, as he promises, still protect his starting pitchers, it'll be a feat. Manuel asked only 418 innings out of his bullpen last year, the third year in a row he used them for less than 500.

    
    Year    Staff Innings   Thrown by Bullpen
    2003    1431                    29%
    2002    1423                    33%
    2001    1433.3                  35%
    

    Only two teams had fewer bullpen innings in 2003, and only one used relievers for less than 400 (the Yankees got 396). In terms of Adjusted Runs Prevented, Manuel's bullpens ranked last, 5th, 6th, 7th, 6th, and, last year, 6th again. Guillen is looking at more of the same. As a group, Damaso Marte, Kelly Wunsch, Billy Koch, Jon Adkins, and Cliff Politte have a projected ERA of 4.21, which would make them a lot like Sox bullpens of recent vintage. But here, too, the innings are short. PECOTA projects these five relievers to account for 297 innings.

    Where will Guillen get the rest of his innings? If those projections prove out, he'll have to get more than 100 innings - maybe a lot more - in the pen from Wright (5.45), Rauch (5.15), Diaz (4.84), and Gary Majewski(4.92). They'll all have to perform at the top quartile of their PECOTA to keep the bullpen at 4.21. And let's not forget Shingo Takatsu, the import from Japan whose PECOTA projection is so bad we almost have to disregard it:

    
    IP      H       BB      K       HR      ERA
    25      40      11      19      12      10.44
    

    Clay Davenport did a different projection, using Takatsu's weighted performance from 2000 to 2003, and this one came out more charitably:

    
    IP      H       BB      K       HR      ERA
    38.7    42      19      20      5       5.06
    

    It's an improvement, but for a best case scenario it's fugging scary, especially when you consider that Takatsu's strikeout rate has declined in each of the last four years, from 5.8 to 4.3.

    With a rickety relief corps and a short rotation, Guillen faces a Hobson's choice: surrender the title in favor of the future, or push his pitchers to the breaking point on the hope that 85 wins will get them to playoffs. He wasn't brought in to restart the development cycle, so, to bring us back to the initial question, the smart money's on machismo. And someone else to win the Central.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Position Battles: Spring training games are now in full swing, and the Cardinals have a couple vacancies left in their opening day roster. Today's PTP will focus on the position battles in left field and at second base.

    Left Field: The battle for the left field starting spot is one of the most interesting position battles this March--if not for quality but quantity. No fewer than 10 players have been mentioned as possibilities for winning the job. Here is a quick look at the names being tossed around to patrol left for the Cardinals this season: So Taguchi, Ray Lankford, Greg Vaughn, Kerry Robinson, Kevin Witt, Mark Quinn, Colin Porter, John Mabry and John Gall.

    The fact that Greg Vaughn is even on that list should give you an idea of how desperate the situation is.

    For a little perspective, here are the worst five left fielders last season with at least 200 AB, according to Clay Davenport's Equivalent Average:

    
    Name              EQA 
    Craig Monroe    0.255 
    Shane Spencer   0.254
    Pat Burrell     0.253  
    Carl Crawford   0.249 
    Terrence Long   0.236  
    
    
    Now here are the best five of the previously mentioned candidates for the left field job, according to PECOTA's predictions:
    
    Name              EQA
    Kerry Robinson   .267 
    John Gall        .261
    Colin Porter     .255
    So Taguchi       .247
    Kevin Witt       .246
    
    
    Whoever the Cardinals go with eventually, it's going to be tough for them to not have one of the worst left fielders in the game. The question now becomes which of these players is the least harmful.

    Before we jump to any crazy conclusions like Kerry Robinson based on the EQAs presented above, lets take a step back. Robinson posted a line of .250/.281/.322 last year, and PECOTA doesn't seem to think he's due for much improvement this year at age 30. Robinson can't hit for average or draw a walk (8 last year in 208 AB) or hit for power, which is unacceptable at any position - starting corner outfielder or utility infielder.

    Gall appears to be the best option the Cardinals have right now. He's the youngest of the bunch at 26, and last year he put up a .312/.368/.473 line at Memphis last year. As is pointed out in Baseball Prospectus 2004, he's probably the best positional prospect in the Cardinals organization - which doesn't mean much. But he will be in his prime for the next few years and at least shows the promise of power, which Robinson has not.

    Cardinals manager Tony La Russa seems intent on putting a lefty into the left field spot though, saying that a righty would have to tear up spring training to win the job. La Russa also said that Robinson currently has a step up on everyone else because "he's been here". If Cardinals fans are looking for a ray of hope, it can be found in the fact that Robinson seems to be trying to be more patient at the plate this spring.

    Second Base: The second base battle is a lot less muddled than left, with Marlon Anderson, Brent Butler and the lovable Bo Hart double play partner.

    To show just how similar these three players are, lets look at their AVG/OBP/SLG lines as predicted by our good friend PECOTA:

    
    Name              AVG  OBP  SLG
    Bo Hart          .253 .310 .379
    Marlon Anderson  .267 .320 .377
    Brent Butler     .253 .315 .376
    
    
    That is about as close as three players are going to get to each other offensively. None of the three separates himself from the pack with his glove either.

    So what is a manager to do? At first glance a platoon may seem like the best option, with Hart and Anderson sharing time. But the problem here is that Anderson has shown over his career that he actually hits lefties better. Weird.

    With no clear favorite here, La Russa again appears to be favoring the left-handed option in Anderson.

Texas Rangers

  • The Texas Rangers recently inked Hank Blalock to a five-year, $15.25 million deal. Did GM John Hart make a mistake signing such an inexperienced player to a long-term contract?

    A team should sign a player that has a greater expected level of production than other available players with the same level of risk and cost. A rational team expects a reward commensurate with the risk it takes, generally requiring a greater discount for each additional year of a contract. Multiyear deals are chancy propositions. The team guarantees payment and must assume several risks, most notably catastrophic injury or rapid deterioration in performance. How can the Rangers evaluate these risks?

    PECOTA can generate a Five Year Forecast that analyzes Blalock's expected value and performance over the forthcoming five seasons. The system produces a player's value estimate measured in Wins Above Replacement Player ("WARP"), factoring in risks like the probability of some lost playing time (attrition rate) or a completely lost season (drop rate) and the likelihood of performance erosion (collapse rate). PECOTA also creates a performance forecast, measured in Equivalent Average ("EQA"), without weighing risks like attrition rate. The system estimates these statistics and constructs a player projection using a set of comparable players with similar attributes, considering factors such as physical characteristics, production, usage, and defensive position.

    Who compares most favorably to Hank Blalock? Who else is a young stud, a bright star that swings a big stick, mans the hot corner, had some initial performance issues in the Big Show but otherwise possesses an ability that arouses the envy of men everywhere? Dirk Diggler? No. Well, maybe. But not in the baseball context.

    Eric Chavez tops the list of Blalock comparables with a similarity score of 70. A score this high is unusual--a figure above 50 would indicate that a player is substantially comparable. Are these players really that similar?

    Blalock is 6'1" and 192 lbs. Chavez is 6' 0" and 204 lbs. They both play third base. They both bat from the left side but throw right-handed. They both struggle against southpaws. Both are former Baseball Prospectus #1 Prospects, Blalock in 2002 and Chavez in 1999. They both were born in Southern California. Heck, if Blalock's mama coulda held him in one day longer, he and Chavez would both be Sagittarii. The similarities are downright eerie. Mulholland Dr. eerie. The only significant distinctions are the three-year age gap and Chavez's MLB debut at an earlier age.

    Each player also signed a multi-year deal through his arbitration eligible years. Blalock signed a five-year deal before his second year of Major League service and Chavez signed a four-year deal during his second. The tables below compare the performance and compensation of the third basemen for each full season of service.

    
    Hank Blalock
     
    Year    Age   WARP*   EQA *    Salary **
    2003    22    5.3    .286    $304,470
    2004    23    3.7    .284    $750,000 ***
    2005    24    3.3    .288    $761,905
    2006    25    3.7    .292  $2,721,088
    2007    26    3.0    .287  $4,103,229
    2008    27    3.3    .293  $4,895,080
    
    
    * PECOTA projection for 2004-2008.
    ** 2003 salary is inflation adjusted for 2004 dollars. The present value of future salaries uses a 5% discount rate.
    *** Includes $250,000 signing bonus
    
    Eric Chavez
    
    Year    Age   WARP*   EQA *    Salary **
    1999    21    1.5    .258    $223,440
    2000    22    3.7    .285    $258,120
    2001    23    8.6    .298    $653,590
    2002    24    6.7    .296  $2,187,600
    2003    25    8.9    .295  $3,698,970
    2004    26    5.9    .298  $5,200,000
    
    
    * PECOTA projection for 2004.
    ** Inflation adjusted for 2004 dollars.

    Blalock's performance projection (EQA) closely matches the actual performance of Chavez. However, the value projection (WARP) is somewhat lower because of the risk adjustment--while Blalock may play all of his games in the future, Chavez actually played his games.

    Is the Blalock contract a good deal for the Rangers if the PECOTA value forecast proves accurate? Another way to frame the question is to ask whether the contract moves the team toward a win goal within the confines of the budget. Doug Pappas's marginal dollars per marginal win framework and some valuable input from Keith Woolner provide an answer to the problem.

    A replacement level team would win 49 games and cost $15.5 million. Assuming the Rangers have an $80 million budget, want to make the playoffs, and must win 93 wins to do, the team needs about 44 marginal wins and has 64.5 million marginal dollars. Therefore, the Rangers are willing to spend $1.49 million for each marginal win. PECOTA projects Blalock to produce about 17 marginal wins (WARP) for $15.25 million (the value of the contract) over the next five years, a cost of $1.11 million per marginal win before accounting for the present value of the deal. The long-term contract appears to be a good gamble for the Rangers, even if the team needs to shave payroll by a few million.

    Above all else, Blalock can look himself in the mirror assuredly and chant, "I am a star. I'm a star, I'm a star, I'm a star. I am a big, bright, shining star."

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