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March 16, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • OBP Up Front: New manager Terry Francona has indicated that he'll open the season with Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra flip-flopped in the lineup. NESN broadcasters salivated Sunday, recalling incredible numbers from Ramirez during his brief experience batting third in Cleveland. A look at Manny's splits really don't bear this out--he's mashed up and down the lineup more or less equally throughout his career. But we love the idea of bumping the patient Ramirez in front of the ever more Tourettic, first-pitch chasing Garciaparra--Manny took nearly triple Nomar's walks in 2003. Of course, Dusty Baker would probably say that Manny will just clog up the basepaths.

  • Keystone Conundrum: With two weeks to go until opening day, Boston media are referring to Pokey Reese as the everyday Red Sox second baseman. Reese, Mark Bellhorn, and Garciaparra are the only three middle infielders currently listed on the 40-man roster, but Cesar Crespo--one of Theo Epstein's first acquisitions in Boston--is also gunning hard for a spot with the big club. Here's how these three have fared through Sunday:
    
    		AB   AVG   OBP   SLG
    Reese:		15  .200  .235  .400   
    Bellhorn:	20  .100  .280  .100   
    Crespo:		21  .381  .417  .524
    
    None of these numbers, of course, mean a damn thing. To wit...
    
    		  AB   AVG   OBP   SLG
    Ramirez, Manny:   19  .158  .304  .211   
    
    It's too early to draw conclusions. But watching Reese in the field this spring has been a joy. This is the guy whose glove the Red Sox believe will save enough runs to make up for the loss of Todd Walker's bat--and that comes directly from Bill James himself.

    Fielding's all about fundamentals, and Pokey's got 'em. Watch him pick up a ground ball, and see how quickly he gets into position with his glove all the way down to the ground. What Reese knows is that it's a lot easier to come up on a bad high hop than it is to stab down for an unexpected low one. Not to mention it's a lot better to take a ball off the chest than let one through the wickets. Note to Little League infielders: If that's a $300 Pro Preferred Rawlings you're wearing and the entire backside's not dirty, you're only getting about 20 bucks worth. Start on the bottom, kids.

  • Raise the Roof: According to Sox press releases, the new right-field premium rooftop seating is composed of 50 four-person, home-plate-shaped tables (each ticket $75 or $100, depending on opponent) and an additional 150 standing-room spots at $25-$30 per. Ignoring pumped-up concession revenues--"The Roof" will feature grilled barbeque ribs as a signature item--the new seating promises to add somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million in annual ticket revenues. With the ballpark largely sold out for 2004, Sox fans are entering an online "lottery" for the privilege of paying these prices.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Where the Outfielders Roam: Any discussion of Cincinnati's fortunes, whether for the short or the long term, starts with their outfield. The trio of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Austin Kearns could are typically touted as being potentially the best in baseball. Sounds great to Reds fans, whose hope and faith otherwise has to rely on an infield full of question marks and a pitching staff full of more colorful punctuation, but how true is it? By leveraging the power of PECOTA, we can compare them against other starting corps from around the league. Let's start with their division:
    
    Team   PA   VORP  Breakout Improve Collapse Attrition Upside
    HOU   1518   81      19%     49%      19%       6%       0%
    CIN   1103   78      33%     63%      16%      16%      17%
    CHC   1307   58      13%     41%      25%      12%     -13%
    STL    929   49      19%     37%      29%      27%     -10%
    MIL   1280   44      18%     43%      23%      11%     - 5%
    PIT   1199   35      22%     51%      22%      19%       0%
    
    AVG   1223   57      21%     48%      22%      15%     - 2%
    
    PA is the total number of plate appearances PECOTA expects of the projected starters for each team. While its playing time projections have as much to do with job insecurity as with health risks, that's not a major factor in this division, as most starting jobs have been locked up by now. The exception is St. Louis, where the plan of playing Albert Pujols' elbow ligament at first means that any one of a number of clowns could win the left-field job. Their total assumes that Kerry Robinson opens with the job, but spares them the indignity of multiplying his negative VORP into a full-time job.

    • VORP = the frontliners' total VORP
    • Breakout, Improve, Collapse, Attrition = average PECOTA scores for said players
    • Upside = average Breakout minus average Collapse

    It appears that Houston and Cincinnati are running neck and neck for the division lead, until you notice that the O.J.-powered crew projects for about 400 more appearances. A healthy year from Griffey, however unlikely, would shove his crew squarely into the lead, as he should rack up about 15 VORP for every 250 PA the trainers can tape together for him.

    The best news comes from the other columns on the table, starting with that upside risk. While any other randomly sampled outfielder in the division is slightly more likely to collapse than to break out, the Reds are just this side of guaranteed that someone will improve significantly, on a per-at-bat basis. Some of this upside is already built into their weighted mean, but it puts them in an even better position to dominate the field. The story is the same across the other columns, as they're the only team significantly above average in the positive categories, and have the lowest collapse rate... not hard when Griffey is down for only 250 PA.

    The central division's profile isn't that different from the overall circuit, but being the overall dominant squad in the near-term will be a much harder feat. Even ignoring Barry and the Bondsmen, the Atlanta and Philadelphia squads score out at 93 VORP apiece, with the latter having an excellent risk profile (10% upside, 2% attrition) as well.

    Looking forward, while the Reds outfield is in the right part of the growth curve to move up the standings, they're unlikely to overtake Philadelphia in the long haul, as they're the same average age, if distributed a bit differently.

San Diego Padres

  • Ripe for the Picking: Word on the street is that the NL West is up for grabs this year. With a series of helpful moves since the 2003 All-Star break, the Padres are ready to start off their first year in Petco with a bang. At first glance, it looks like this team is ready to give the fans packing Petco just what they came for--wins. First, lets setup a little perspective by looking at the average 2003 lineup for the Padres:
    
    Pos 	2003 Regular	   PA	  AVG	  OBP	  SLG	VORP
    C 	Bennett & Ojeda	  498	0.237	0.307	0.324	-0.2
    1B 	Ryan Klesko	  474	0.252	0.354	0.456	19.8
    2B 	Mark Loretta	  650	0.316	0.374	0.445	53.0
    3B 	Sean Bourroughs	  576	0.287	0.352	0.403	31.3
    SS 	Ramon Vazquez	  479	0.263	0.344	0.344	15.8
    LF 	Rondell White	  449	0.276	0.327	0.462	14.3
    CF 	Mark Kotsay	  540	0.266	0.343	0.384	16.3
    RF 	Xavier Nady	  402	0.267	0.321	0.391	 3.4
    
    
    This table uses the combined efforts of last year's primary catchers, Gary Bennett and Miguel Ojeda. Other than that, it is filled with the most common player at each position, listed with his season totals.

    To get an idea of how much they've improved, lets take a gander at the offense we're most likely to see in 2004. Fresh off the PECOTA presses, here are your 2004 San Diego Padres (at least according to the brand spankin' new Prospectus Depth Charts):

    
    Pos 	Name 		   PA 	  AVG 	  OBP 	  SLG 	VORP 
    C 	Ramon Hernandez	  540	0.250	0.323	0.395	16.9
    1B 	Phil Nevin	  541	0.268	0.339	0.447	27.5
    2B 	Mark Loretta	  493	0.281	0.349	0.390	23.9
    3B 	Sean Bourroughs	  642	0.280	0.347	0.408	33.7
    SS 	Khalil Green	  328	0.252	0.308	0.400	12.7
    LF 	Ryan Klesko	  567	0.271	0.368	0.480	33.7
    CF 	Jay Payton	  566	0.278	0.330	0.431	13.8
    RF 	Brian Giles	  705	0.294	0.408	0.524	60.7
    
    
    Let us commence with the bullet points:

    • Since Ramon Hernandez is projected to have 540 PAs, it's relatively easy to compare him to Bennett and Ojeda. Last year, Bennett played more often, but his VORP was -3.6, so Ojeda's 3.4 on the season almost balances the two out to an even 0. This year, Hernandez should exceed what the tenacious two-some managed last year, and could possibly be 20 runs better overall.

    • This year, Phil Nevin should play most of the time at first, with Ryan Klesko moving to left, and PECOTA projects a nice increase as a result.

    • At second, Mark Loretta hopes to follow up what was by any account an amazing season (second in the NL second basemen in VORP to Marcus Giles, and fourth overall). This year, his 90th percentile VORP projection is only 43.4, so he's a long shot to come close to repeating. That said, a 20+ VORP from second is solid, and would place him in the top-10 in the league.

    • Going to third, Sean Burroughs looks like he will continue to rebound nicely from his disappointing 2002 season, with a slight increase in VORP and solid rate stats across-the-board.

    • At short, the Padres hope that Khalil Greene can match what Vazquez did last year. As detailed in Baseball Prospectus 2004, Greene was rushed to get to San Diego, and would do well to split time with Vazquez this year. As it is, he should get most of the playing time, and should turn in a decent performance.

    • In the outfield, Klesko, Jay Payton, and Brian Giles represent the biggest improvement for 2004. Klesko should have no problem improving over Rondell White, possibly by a significant margin. Payton projects to be about as good as Mark Kotsay was last year, possibly a tad worse. Where the dollar signs...er, wins...really register for the Padres is in right field. Giles projects to be the most valuable everyday player for the Padres, and he is replacing one of the weakest regulars from 2003, Xavier Nady.

    Taking a summary look at the differences between this year's projections and last year, we have:

    
    Pos       PA      AVG     OBP     SLG   VORP 
    C         42    0.013   0.016   0.071   17.1
    1B        67    0.016  -0.015  -0.009    7.7
    2B      -157   -0.035  -0.025  -0.055  -29.1
    3B        66   -0.007  -0.005   0.005    2.4
    SS      -151   -0.011  -0.036   0.056   -3.1
    LF       118   -0.005   0.041   0.018   19.4
    CF        26    0.012  -0.013   0.047   -2.5
    RF       303    0.027   0.087   0.133   57.3
    TOTAL    314    0.010   0.050   0.266   69.2
    
    
    By simply subtracting the 2003 data from the 2004 projections, we get a rough picture of the changes from last year to this year. We can see that the middle infield will need more bench support (approx 300 fewer PA's), and the regression to the mean is blatant for Loretta. As described above, many of the positions are close to a push from last year (1B, 3B, SS, CF), but other the rest (other than Loretta's experience with Newton) are increases--some of them huge. The big ticket item last year was the trade for Giles, and a full season of him in 2004 will show every Padre fan why: the team as a whole projects to be about 70 runs better than last year's bunch--about seven wins worth.

    Next time, lets take a trip to the mound and see how the rotation plays out.

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