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March 11, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Net Improvement?: In the last PTP we looked at how the loss of Miguel Batista and Curt Schilling would affect the Diamondbacks pitching staff. The net result: a 40.4 drop in VORP.

    The Richie Sexson and Curt Shilling deals stripped Arizona of Craig Counsell and Junior Spivey, both of whom led the team in games played at second and third base. Are the additions of Sexson and Roberto Alomar enough to overcome the loss of these two players and the projected net regression of the pitching staff?

    
                            2003                            2004
    Pos     Player          VORP    Pos     Player          VORP    Diff
    C       Barajas         -9.5    C       Hammock          4.0    13.5
    1B      Hillenbrand      6.7    1B      Sexson          33.1    26.4
    2B      Spivey           9.4    2B      Alomar          21.8    12.4
    3B      Counsell        -4.9    3B      Hillenbrand     14.5    14.5
    SS      Cintron         33.3    SS      Cintron         19.7   -13.6
    LF      Gonzalez        43.1    LF      Gonzalez        33.3    -9.8
    CF      Finley          33.6    CF      Finley           9.5   -24.1
    RF      Bautista        -1.5    RF      Bautista         0.9     2.4
    Total                  115.1                           136.8    21.7
    
    
    Due to their age, it is no surprise that Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley are expected to regress. If Sexson can continue to improve his K/BB rate as he has the last three seasons, he should be the key contributor to the improvement over last year's lineup.

    The bench will be called upon to pick up some of the slack. Again, building on the last PTP, we looked at 1,200 plate appearances that dragged the Diamondbacks' offense down. The replacements: Greg Colbrunn, Carlos Baerga, Matt Kata, Luis Terrero, and Brent Mayne will need to shine for the bench to be able to fully pick up the slack:

    
                    2003    2003                    2004          Proj 04
    Player          VORP    PAs     Player          VORP    Diff    PAs
    Barajas         -9.5    220     Mayne           -5.7     3.8    256
    Counsell        -4.9    346     Baerga           8.0     8.0    209
    Grace           -8.1    151     Kata             4.9    13.0    405
    McCracken       -12.5   218     Terrero         -1.0    11.5    259
    Womack          -4.4    229     Colbrunn        11.0    15.4    191
    Total           -34.5   1164                    17.2    51.7    1320
    Adjusted Total* -33.4                           50.6
    
    
    Note: 2003 VORP have been adjusted to make PA equivalent in 2003 & 2004.

    Bob Brenly's hands were pretty tied last year and the fact that Barajas was a starter rather than a personal catcher is a shock in and of itself. Mayne (-5.7) and Terrero (-1), who both posses a VORP in negative territory are still an improvement over the 2003 group. Clearly, the Diamondbacks bench provides Bob Brenly with some options that don't involve automatic outs.

    Adding the differences in VORP from the pitchers, starting lineups, and bench help we have an equation that looks like this:

    -40.4 (Pitching Difference) + 21.7 (Starting Lineup Difference) + 50.6 (Bench Difference) = + 31.9

    If everything comes to fruition, it is reasonable to expect the Diamondbacks to improve on their 84 wins from 2003 (although PECOTA would disagree). Brenly badly needs this to happen, or it could cost him his job.

  • Debt Relief: It is no secret that the Diamondbacks are in danger of violating MLB's debt service rule. Thus, the Diamondbacks' days as a top-five payroll team are probably over. However, rather than sit on his hands like many other ownership groups have in the past, managing general partner Jerry Colangelo is actually taking steps to keep the team financially competitive. The club has announce two initiatives that will raise close to $130 million over the next decade, money which Colangelo pledges will be used to keep the club competitive. It is refreshing to see a mid/small market owner actually using his business acumen as a means of keeping his team competitive without raising ticket prices or taking the city hostage for more money. Bravo, Jerry Colangelo, Bravo.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Young King Cole: Watching Cole Hamels strike out Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez with downright perfect mechanics prompted BP's own Will Carroll to call him "a left-handed Mark Prior," at least as far as mechanics are concerned. Hamels's fastball is a few MPH below Prior's, and his curve isn't quite as devastating (although that changeup is about as good as they come), and Hamels has a ways to go to prove that he can hold up to the stress of slinging a ball at home plate a few thousand more times. But the prognosis is certainly good.

  • Howard's End: The Phillies are very high on first baseman Ryan Howard, so high that, along with Floyd and Hamels, they designated him Untouchable when trading for Billy Wagner. Are the Phillies valuing Howard too highly? Perhaps he is, as they say, their best hitting prospect. But this speaks more to the quality of the hitting prospects in their system than it does to Howard's greatness.

    Last year, Howard hit .304/.378/.514 in High-A, which is certainly very nice, but he was also 23. It seems a little bit of a stretch to call a 23 year old 'Untouchable' who's mashing baseballs in Clearwater. Because he's so old, Howard's Five-Year PECOTA forecast takes us right to where he's likely to peak:

    
    Age     Year     WARP     Mean EqA
    24      2004     -0.2       .246
    25      2005      0.2       .254
    26      2006      0.3       .258
    27      2007      0.6       .267
    28      2008      0.8       .274
    
    
    Folks, Ryan Howard is going to be a useful big leaguer, but when you're a first baseman, that projection isn't something you write home to Mom about. The low WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) could be the result of injury or lack of playing time opportunities, but Equivalent Average is a rate stat like on-base percentage, unaffected by playing time. Last year a .274 EqA would have put Howard 22nd among major league first basemen, in between such luminaries as Tino Martinez and Greg Colbrunn.

    Howard has upside; he's got pretty good Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) and plate discipline. If he can get to his 75th percentile projection, then look out:

    
    Year        75th pct. EqA       Breakout Rate
    2004            .265                35.2%
    2005            .278                41.2%
    2006            .281                38.4%
    2007            .291                35.3%
    2008            .304                45.7%
    
    
    Right now the Phillies have a pretty good first baseman, so Howard's path is blocked if he does develop. Even in 2008, the last year of his contract, Jim Thome projects at a .311 EqA, although he is an injury risk. There seems then to be a finite number of possibilities for Ryan Howard's Phillies career (abject failure is Option #0):

    1. Howard follows his 50% projection, and is not good enough to play first every day for a contender. Either Thome breaks and the Phillies fade and he plays (1a), or he gets traded (1b).
    2. Howard breaks out, but Thome's still better, and the Phillies deal Howard for something they can use.
    3. Howard breaks out, Thome breaks down, and Howard gets his chance to shine.

    No Phillies fan is rooting for Jim Thome to become a $15 million paperweight. So don't get too attached to Ryan Howard, because if you see him starting in Citizens Bank Park, it means that something has gone wrong.

    Of course, the Phillies may be just calling him Untouchable for show, and are perfectly ready to deal him for the right player. They should be. First basemen are not terribly hard to find.

  • R.I.P.: In 10 days, the Vet will be a pile of rubble. You may miss it; Scott Rolen, Mark Mulder, Michael Irvin and the Eagles cheerleaders will be among the long list of people who certainly will not.

Kansas City Royals

  • PECOTA-fy Me: All the other teams are doing it...

    After a season of massive--and partially unsustainable--improvement, and an off-season of significant turnover, it's instructive to see what PECOTA thinks of the Royals' offense this year. Starting with the lineup:

    
    2003 Hitters    VORP     PA     2004 Hitters    VORP     PA
    Desi Relaford   2.6     549     Angel Berroa    21.1    536
    Angel Berroa    34.0    622     Carlos Beltran  36.8    596
    Carlos Beltran  55.8    602     Mike Sweeney    30.9    489
    Mike Sweeney    25.8    463     Juan Gonzalez   12.3    361
    Raul Ibanez     16.3    670     Joe Randa       10.3    426
    Joe Randa       27.7    557     Aaron Guiel      4.3    338
    Michael Tucker   3.2    433     Ken Harvey      11.4    455
    Ken Harvey      -2.2    521     Benito Santiago  5.1    298
    Brent Mayne     -5.1    410     Desi Relaford   12.8    403
    Total          158.1   4827     Total          145.0   3902
    
    (For 2004, PA is calculated as projected AB + BB.)
    
    
    At first glance, it appears that the Royals' 2004 lineup is over a win shy of its prowess last year, as the expected bouncebacks from Mike Sweeney and Desi Relaford aren't nearly enough to make up for the regression to the mean from Angel Berroa and Carlos Beltran. And for all the hype that accompanied his signing with the Royals, it doesn't appear that Juan Gonzalez will even contribute as much offensively as the man he replaces, Raul Ibanez.

    But look more carefully, and the real problem becomes apparent: the new lineup isn't projected to bat nearly as often. Every member of the 2003 lineup reached 400 PA, and six Royals reached 500 PA; by comparison, only six players project to reach 400 PA this year, and only Berroa and Beltran are expected to reach 500.

    Part of the reason for the projected shortfall in playing time relates to injury concerns, certainly; Gonzalez is about as brittle as stunt glass, and Benito Santiago is a 39-year-old catcher. But PECOTA's estimates of playing time are based both on an average expectation, and so an everyday player with, say, a 20% chance of catastrophic injury is going to project to bat just 400 times, even if there's an 80% chance that he'll be just fine.

    More bluntly, someone has to pick up the 900 missing plate appearances, and even if the Royals' starting nine isn't up to the task, well, that's what benches are for.

    
    Aaron Guiel     11.6     399    Tony Graffanino  8.3     238
    Carlos Febles   -8.1     214    Matt Stairs     10.2     234
    Mike DiFelice    1.0     204    Kelly Stinnett   3.9     167
    Dee Brown       -7.3     143    David DeJesus   11.3     288
    All others       0.4     370    Mendy Lopez      1.6     159
                                    Rich Thompson   -1.4     250
    Total           -2.4    1330    Total           33.9    1336
    
    
    Here's where we see the fruit of all the Royals' machinations this winter. Aside from Aaron Guiel, the Royals' bench last season was far below replacement-level, a handicap which has plagued the Royals for most of the last decade. For this season, though, the import of handy-dandy platoon hitter Matt Stairs, and utility infielder extraordinaire Tony Graffanino, has given the team the makings of one of the strongest benches in the league. And this, even though the system projects Rule 5 pick Rich Thompson to bat 250 times, an eventuality which will require an outbreak of Ebola virus and a nuclear strike in the clubhouse to achieve.

    The Royals are not only well-covered if one or two of their starters goes down, in some cases it may actually help the team; plate appearance for plate appearance, Graffanino, Stairs, and Kelly Stinnett are more productive then the men they back up, and if an injury to Gonzalez leads to regular playing time for David DeJesus, the Royals will hardly lose anything on offense and gain considerably on defense.

    Adding the lineup and bench together, we get:

    2003: 155.6 VORP in 6157 PA
    2004: 178.9 VORP in 5238 PA

    If we extrapolate the Royals' 2004 projected PA to their 2003 total, we get a figure of 210.3 VORP. Roughly speaking, then, we can expect the Royals to score about 55 more runs than they did last year, when their total of 836 ranked fourth in the league.

    Not so fast. Setting aside the fact that the Royals moved their fences out this winter, the problem is that the Royals scored far more runs than could be expected last year (48 more, according to Clay Davenport, the biggest discrepancy in baseball). The secret to their efficiency in converting scoring opportunities into runs was the team's major-league leading .304 batting average with runners in scoring position, and as you know if you just read this article, there is no evidence that "clutch" hitting exists as a skill, meaning the Royals are likely to regress back to the mean this year.

    That means the Royals ought to pick up about 55 runs on paper, but only 7 runs on the field. They may be running to stand still, but that sure beats standing to fall behind.

    Next PTP: the pitching staff gets PECOTAfied.

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