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March 15, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Great Expectations: What are the most inevitable happenings of the upcoming baseball season?

    • The word 'asterisk' will appear in at least 16 distinct Jay Mariotti columns.

    • An opportunistic Mets fan will take advantage of Alex Rodriguez's new status as a corner infielder to throw batteries at him.

    • Miguel Cabrera will disappoint some people.

    Don't get us wrong: we think the world of the kid. But Cabrera has generated more buzz than a St. Patrick's Day pre-party. To put it another way, if BP 2004 had a player on the cover this year, that player would be Cabrera.

    The problem is not that Cabrera isn't going to be a star. On the contrary, his PECOTA comparables are a rather remarkable group: It's a list that includes five current Hall of Famers, four more guys that stand a good chance to get there some day, as well as people like Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez who might approach that level once it's all said and done.

    But let's look at those similar players in a bit more detail. The question is: At what age did each HOF-caliber comparable first post an Equivalent Average that was equal to or better than his career figure?

    
    Player                  Career EqA      FS>CE (Age)
    
    Hank Aaron              .323            1956 (22)
    Johnny Bench            .291            1970 (22)
    Roberto Alomar          .295            1991 (23)
    Willie Mays             .326            1954 (23)
    Brooks Robinson         .269            1960 (23)
    Ron Santo               .294            1963 (23)
    Gary Sheffield          .318            1992 (23)
    Robin Yount             .283            1980 (24)               
    Sammy Sosa              .297            1998 (29)
    
    

    FS>CE (Age) = First Season > Career EqA (Age during that season in parenthesis)

    Mays requires a--what's that word?--asterisk of sorts, since his opportunity was limited by wartime; Say Hey was a phenomenal player from the very get-go, but served in Korea for most of the 1952 season, and all of the 1953 season. Otherwise, the point should be clear: While all of these players were contributors from the beginning, it took a couple of years before they really hit full stride. Cabrera will be just 21 this year; none of his nine "elite" comparables managed an EqA in line with his career average during his age-21 season.

    That's all perfectly "normal", of course. With rare exception, offensive players continue to develop throughout their early 20s, and that holds for major league superstars and scrubs alike. People who expect Cabrera to challenge for MVP honors this season are likely to be disappointed. Those who expect him to be giving his acceptance speech in Cooperstown, New York on a sunny day in August 2026 may not be.

  • Breakout Performance?: Generally speaking, spring training records are about as useful an indicator as presidential tracking polls (ZOGBY predicts that Paul Tsongas will defeat Pat Robertson to win the 1988 presidential nomination!). That's especially true early in the spring, when hitters get to feast on a succession of batting practice pitchers and other juicy replacement-level arms.

    Individual performances may have some meaning, though, especially when they come from players from whom we only have a limited set of information to work with. And so it is a fine sign for the Fish that Ramon Castro is off to the fast start that he is, having already mashed four homers this spring to lead the team.

    What's so exciting about Ramon Castro? Check out these lines (BA/OBP/SLG):

    
    2000            .335/.380/.628
    2001            .336/.393/.628
    
    
    That's how Castro performed in his last two seasons at Triple-A-Calgary, a sequence covering approximately 650 plate appearances. You can lop a pretty big chunk off those numbers to account for league and park effects, and Castro still comes out as a player who has the potential to provide tremendous upside to the Marlins at catcher.

    Since those two big years in the Canadian Rockies, Castro has managed just a handful of plate appearances in the past two seasons as he battled Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Redmond, and a rape allegation (Castro will stand trial in May). PECOTA has a tough time pegging players when it has such a limited sample of data to work with. Few players have such a diversity of names on their comparables list. Castro's best comp is Hector Villanueva, a player far better known for the late Harry Caray's assorted stumbling mispronunciations than for anything he contributed on the field.

    Scan a bit further down, though, and you see the name Carlton Fisk. Any catcher with Castro's kind of power credentials has the potential to be special, and he makes for a good high-risk, high-reward target for anybody looking to snag a sleeper in a fantasy league.

New York Yankees

  • Everyone's Available: One of the joys of covering the Yankees is that any trade rumor becomes plausible. It's possible that at any time, the Yankees are "pursuing", "talking about", or "near a deal" for every player with a positive VORP. The Yanks' glaring hole at second base is going to lead to near endless speculation that Jose Vidro, Junior Spivey, or a recovered Aaron Boone is heading to the Bronx. Gary Sheffield's thumb injury led to speculation that the White Sox would give away Magglio Ordonez, while Bernie Williams' appendectomy put Carlos Beltran in play for pinstripes.

  • Enter Quietly Into the Realm of Genius: There's seldom a downside to having Alex Rodriguez on your team, but losing Alfonso Soriano leaves the Yankees a bit short at second base. In the weeks prior to the big trade, Brian Cashman was cobbling together several players looking to turn them into Franken-Steinfeldt.

    The Yanks will now try to play the same game at second. Enrique Wilson has the early lead, but when PECOTA squints and sees .245/.296/.371 as the 75th-percentile upside, there's problems. When Homer Bush is mentioned as anything but a punch line, things are getting desperate. Few are considering Brian Myrow to be much of an option, but his near-Youkilisian abilities in Double-A should be considered.

    Always ignore spring training numbers as much as you can--small sample size and uneven competition make the results extremely unreliable--but Enrique Wilson is definitely making the decision easier for Joe Torre. A torrid 13-for-26 start certainly can't hurt. With only 10 days left before the Yankees leave Tampa for Tokyo, this situation should shake itself out soon.

  • Consider Duct Tape: The pitching staff, expected to be one of the problem spots, is already becoming unglued. Jon Lieber hasn't had any problems with his rebuilt elbow yet, but a recurring groin strain is going to keep him from being ready for Opening Day. Unlike last year, the Yankees' rotation doesn't go eight deep. In fact, the Yanks will likely have to pull Jorge DePaula up from his expected Triple-A assignment to begin the season. Once Lieber and newly-signed Orlando Hernandez get healthy, the depth should be enough to not be a weakness.

    Mike Mussina and Javier Vazquez are shoo-ins for 200 or more innings, assuming they stay healthy, but getting 600 from some combination of Lieber, Hernandez, Jose Contreras, and the always creaky Kevin Brown may take some more doing. Beyond DePaula, there's nothing ready to help in the case of a real emergency, but unlike most teams, this isn't a weakness. The Yankees would, of course, merely go find a pitcher like Kris Benson or Livan Hernandez if need be.

  • Stoking the Fire: There's nothing that gets George Steinbrenner going like a Red Sox rumor or a good calzone. Rumors of a three-team trade involving Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra, and Edwin Jackson are sure to get eggplant off George's mind.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Flogging the Right Dead Horse: If the goal of every organization is to win the World Series, then it's important for each to appreciate where it is in the development cycle. The Pirates are so far away from the World Series that there's no doubt Littlefield knows exactly where the team is. In spite of some curious moves--like bringing in Raul Mondesi, Chris Stynes, and Randall Simon to take playing time away from their younger and better players--Littlefield's public remarks indicate he is well aware of how far the Pirates need to go before they're competitive. He was made GM so he could dig the Pirates out from a giant mess and rebuild the minor league system. He has done a solid job on the minors, and many of the former regime's contractual albatrosses have come off the books. But as noted in BP 2004, the Pirates got pillaged in the Rule 5 draft last December because Littlefield did such a poor job assembling his 40-man roster. In other words, the jury's still out on his work with the major league club.

    The 40-man roster is the twilight between the minors and majors, and with a team like Pittsburgh, whose only hope is the five-year plan, it's where you can expect to see evidence of the general manager's vision. Having screwed up the Rule 5, and having landed mediocre veterans to steal time from his most promising hitters, how did Littlefield address the project of repairing the worst bullpen in the National League?

    He brought in Jose Mesa and Juan Acevedo to compete for the closer's job, and Mark Guthrie for short-inning lefty work (Guthrie has worked far less than an inning an appearance in each of the last two seasons). As noted in a previous Triple Play: "The three of them combined to give up 234 baserunners in 139 innings last year, with a composite ERA of 5.37, a half run more than what the Pittsburgh bullpen did as the league's worst unit, and if they had been a bullpen unto themselves they'd have had the 29th-ranked ERA in baseball."

    The Pirates don't need a LOOGY and they don't need a "closer". They don't need a proven closer; they don't need a proven veteran closer; they don't need a veteran closer who has proven to be washed-up. If the goal is to play in October, then functionally there is no difference between a team that wins zero games and a team that wins one game less than necessary make the playoffs. Since the Pirates are not going to make the playoffs this year--or next, let's be real--should they be using one 38-year-old to nail down every one of their 70 wins and another as a LOOGY, or should they be developing their homegrown talent?

    Of course it's not as simple as that. Paying customers expect their team to try and win its games, and the team can't afford the perception that it thinks there's no difference between zero wins and 70. The five-year plan is a hard sell in any market, so it has to be murder to sell it to a city that hasn't seen the playoffs or a .500 season since 1992. Over the past three years the Pirates' win total has gone up, but attendance at PNC Park has gone down. Last year, the Pirates ranked 14th in the league in attendance. Littlefield is caught where so many teams are: early in the development cycle but unable to inflict the tough love that the situation calls for.

    We have also noted that Littlefield "may in fact have made the bullpen worse than it would be if [he] would turn it over entirely to in-house options." What options?

  • Weaver's Way Out: One choice would be the Weaver method. One of Earl Weaver's most well-known maxims is that the best place for a rookie pitcher is in long relief. By using the rookie in low-leverage situations, you expose him to major league hitters without making him endure extraordinary stress. And by leaving him the game for more than one inning at a time, he'll have to make adjustments as the scouting report works its way along the bench and down the lineup or, the lineup turns over for a second crack at him. The Pirates have a decent, young rotation, and the depth of its minor league talent is in starting pitching, so this plan seems to be perfectly suited to Littlefield's circumstances and aptitude. When you think of the Pirates' future, you think of these guys:
    
                              2003 EqERA*            Projected 2004 EqERA 
    Ryan Vogelsong                  5.10                        5.10     
    Bobby Bradley                   4.96                        8.08    
    Ian Snell (nee Oquendo)         4.46                        5.03
    John Van Benschoten             5.90                        5.47
    Sean Burnett                    4.49                        4.30
    Brian Bullington                5.03                        5.56
    Cory Stewart                    4.89                        5.13
    
    

    * EqERA for the level where they spent the most time in 2003.

    Their translated performances from last year are promising, but this is mostly an academic exercise. Bryan Bullington and Bobby Bradley haven't even established themselves above Class-A, while Cory Stewart, Ian Snell, Sean Burnett, and John Van Benschoten haven't made it past Double-A. Only Ryan Vogelsong has logged quality time in Triple-A, and he's the only one from this group to make it to Pittsburgh.

    A look at their projected equivalent ERAs shows that the next crop isn't ready for full-time major league rotation work yet, and we wouldn't suggest that the Pirates stick all of these guys in the bullpen right now. But over the next few months, and into next season, Littlefield and McClendon should make room for them whatever the cost to the pride of Established Veterans. And it looks like they will, with Burnett and Vogelsong the first to be phased in.

    Another choice would have been to go with minor league relievers within the Pittsburgh system, rather than sign Mesa, Acevedo, and Guthrie, or give more time to Salomon Torres, Brian Boehringer, or Joe Beimel. We often say that the minor leagues are full of pitchers who could pitch as well as many relievers currently drawing major league paychecks, and in the next PTP we'll finish our four-part look at the Pirates' bullpen by scouting Pirate pitchers who didn't make it into BP04 whose projections for this year nonetheless compare well to the pitchers who will head north with the big club.

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