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March 16, 2004

Prospectus Today

Standingsology

by Joe Sheehan

As a big college basketball fan, I spent a good chunk of last week watching the conference tournaments and trying to dope out who would be in and who would be out of this year's NCAA championship. Like many people, I had Utah State in the field instead of Richmond, which was my only miss after a perfect record in '03. Even though I didn't see that coming, I think the committee did a good job in sorting through the eligible at-large teams and filling out the field.

However, I stromgly disagree the way in which the panel seeded the teams. I think they screwed up the Big Ten teams beyond belief. They gave a bit too much credit to the way some squads--such as Maryland and Xavier--finished their seasons, while applying criteria haphazardly in other cases. They're the experts, and they have to consider dozens of factors, but my informed-outsider position is that they made some errors.

Yesterday, I got to thinking about how this line of thought also applies to my evaluations of baseball teams. Each year, I have some teams rated well ahead or well behind where most other writers and analysts have them. Some of you are already nodding your heads, remembering my touting the Padres and Reds, or my dismissals of the Angels and Marlins. Hey, I was wrong, and that's going to happen. Sometimes I'm out there and right, as with the Mets in 2002. Either way, as long as I can go back and understand my analysis, and perhaps learn from a mistake or gain confidence in a particular point, it's all good. I'm only right all the time when I disagree with Sophia.

Looking ahead towards the 2004 campaign, I can definitely see some teams whose "Sheehan seeds" are going to be much different than the consensus. Unlike in the NCAA tournament, however, I can't hide behind a one-game-and-out format to defend my decisions. That's the beauty of the baseball season; it brings out a team's strengths and weaknesses in a way that the other sports just can't match.

Anyway, when I get around to doing my brack...er, predictions...for 2004, I expect to have a much lower opinion of the following teams than everyone else does:

Diamondbacks: Maybe I'm just overreacting to the optimism in Peter Gammons' latest column, but I can't call them a contender, even in a mediocre NL West. I see a team relying on three hitters 36 and older, whose outfield defense may consist of one guy who can't throw (Luis Gonzalez) a converted third baseman (Chad Tracy) in right field and a 39-year-old center fielder in Steve Finley. Their ace starter is 40 and coming off a knee injury, and their top free-agent signing is 36 and in free fall.

The team age of course--also known as "veteran leadership" in some circles--is what makes the team so attractive to many people, but it's not an asset. Older players get worse and they get hurt, and the Diamondbacks have no depth with which to counter decline and injury. The back of their rotation looks like a gathering of the He-Man Strikeout Haters Club, especially if the final spot goes to journeyman Steve Sparks rather than John Patterson. The Diamondbacks' pitching staff has covered for the defense by striking out a ton of hitters the past few years; using Sparks, Elmer Dessens and Shane Reynolds as starters is going to expose the aging defense and put the Snakes behind in a lot of games.

The Diamondbacks won't look as bad as they might in another division, but they're a .500 team that doesn't have prospects to trade or money to burn.

Cubs: I'm not only out of step with the mainstream here, but with many of the people inside BP. PECOTA sees them as a 90-win team, and many staffers agree, based on their strong, deep pitching staff and the addition of Derrek Lee at first base.

I see a team that lacks left-handed hitting--only Corey Patterson should get more than 200 at-bats from the left side--and will have problems getting enough guys on base to sustain an offense. They continue to emphasize power at a cost of outs, and may have crossed the line from a short-sequence offense to a dysfunctional one. In addition, the Cubs' bench could be as useful as a pan flute at Ozzfest.

It's worth mentioning that I don't share the mainstream's high opinion of Dusty Baker. While Baker does seem to have an ability to get veteran players to outperform expectations (Michael Wolverton's excellent Giants essay in Baseball Prospectus 2003 discussed this), I have to think that's going to be outweighed by the strain he puts on his young starting pitchers and his questionable grasp of what makes an offense work. As much as I love that rotation, I'm not going be able to put the Cubs atop the NL Central this year.

Mariners: I may not seem far off on the general opinion about the Mariners when presseason predictions come out. I'd imagine I'll have them coming in third, behind the Angels and the A's, and that's where I expect the consensus to leave them. Honestly, though, I see them as a 75-80 win team, one kept out of last only by the Rangers, rather than the 85-90 win team stuck in a tough division.

Where will the runs come from? The Mariners have gotten by the last couple of years by having a handful of great hitters, but how much longer will Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone be among the league's most productive players? Replacing Mike Cameron with Raul Ibanez isn't a upgrade; Ibanez's apparent edge at the plate is entirely a function of park effects. The left side of the infield should be a little better than it was last year, but how productive are a 32-year-old Rich Aurilia and a 31-year-old Scott Spiezio going to be?

The Mariners let Cameron go because they couldn't see past his strikeout totals. They're going to miss his terrific defense; the park cuts down on doubles and triples, but Cameron's great range did as well. Sliding Randy Winn to center field and putting Ibanez in left will chip away at a competitive advantage--cutting off extra-base hits--that kept the Mariners in contention the last two years. Signing Speizio to play third base is also going to take a chunk out of the Ms defensive performance. There's just too many ways in which this team made itself worse--and virtually no players on the team who they can expect to be better--to predict even a wild-card push.

What do those three teams have in common? Well, they've all been successful in the recent past, their rosters, especially their hitters, are largely comprised of past-prime players, and they all will start a number of players with below-average OBPs. On the other hand, two of the teams have managers who are media favorites, all added veteran players in the offseason, and all have payrolls in the upper half of the game.

So we know who the Michigan States of MLB are. Who are the Wisconsins?

Expos: This is actually a pretty good offensive team. Nate Silver made the point recently that the Expos got so little production from left field, center field and third base in 2003 that they'll get a big boost at those spots in '04, even if it's only a rejuvenated Peter Bergeron and Tony Batista picking up the playing time.

Will it be enough to make up for the loss of Vladimir Guerrero? Quite possibly; Carl Everett inherits Guerrero's playing time, and will likely be within 40-50 runs of Vlad at the plate. That gap can be made up not only by Schneider and Batista, but by having OBP monster Nick Johnson at first base. PECOTA says they'll lead the NL in runs, although some of that is the run environments in Montreal and San Juan. They will, however, have an above-average offense.

The key for the Expos is going to be run prevention. It would help if either Bergeron or Endy Chavez claims the center-field job, because having Brad Wilkerson there is a huge defensive hit for a team whose starters will have a below average strikeout rate, collectively. They can probably rely on a good bullpen, although guessing who will be the main contributors to it is a difficult task; one of Frank Robinson's signature skills is getting good relief pitching from guys who were in the Witness Protection Program the previous year. I can't see the Expos catching the Phillies, but I can certainly see them in the wild-card hunt.

Reds: Yeah, again. Here's the thing about the Reds: the talent on hand, the team that takes the field in three weeks, isn't nearly as bad as its 31-63 finish to 2003 would have you believe. That teams was just eviscerated by injuries and trades, as well as the brutal seasons Adam Dunn and Danny Graves endured. Heck, Jason LaRue was batting fifth at times late last year. I can't make that funnier than it already is.

The Reds have to give up fewer runs than they did last year. The question is, how many fewer. I see major upgrades throughout the rotation, especially if merit trumps contract and Jimmy Haynes is buried behind Jose Acevedo and Brandon Claussen. The bullpen could be among the league's best, as Ryan Wagner and John Reidling combine for 150 innings and 200 strikeouts. The Reds aren't going to have a good defense under any circumstances, so identifying and using pitchers who can miss bats is going to be critical.

I'm not picking the Reds to win the division this season, but I can see them breaking the so-called segregation in the NL Central. The three teams at the top all have considerable questions, most regarding age. The Reds, for all their flaws, have a potential for improvement that those teams do not have.

Tigers: Last year's national joke isn't going to be this year's Cinderella story, but what would it really take for this season to be a success in Detroit? 70 wins? 75 wins? Hanging around .500 through the All-Star break in a division where "hanging around .500"'s alternate definition could be "division leader"?

Like the Expos, the Tigers will be much better just for upgrading to average or slightly below average players at three positions, and as much as eight or nine games better at catcher. Mix in some bounceback for Bobby Higginson and improvement by Carlos Pena that balances decline from Dmitri Young, and it's likely that the offense will be able to hold its own in a way that last year's squad never could have imagined.

The pitching is a major problem, as only Jeremy Bonderman inspires much hope. Credit the Tigers for keeping three Rule 5 draft picks on their staff in '03, but of those, only Wil Ledezma has much chance of contributing in '04. Too many Tigers pitchers struggle to throw strikes past hitters, and unless there's some unexpected improvement in the outfield defense--Alex Sanchez is the poster child for how speed doesn't make you a flycatcher--they're going to be among the league's worst teams at run prevention.

But they won't finish last. Of that I'm certain.

What do these teams have in common? Low payrolls, for one; mediocre or worse 2003 seasons are another comon thread, although the Expos were actually in contention for a wild-card spot until September. A lack of star power runs through the rosters, and so much of preseason evaluation revolves around familiar names. Edwin Encarnacion could be the best infielder on the Reds come September; how many times have you seen his name this spring? Chad Cordero, Chris Shelton and Terrmel Sledge could all make contributions to these teams, and they're basically anonymous right now.

Hey, maybe Michigan State runs the table. Maybe the Tigers lose 120 games this time. When I sit down to do Standingsology, though, these are the teams who are going to look a lot different to me than they do to others.

For a opinionated seamhead, that's a whole lot of fun.

--

I'm going to be on the road starting Tuesday, for both business and pleasure. A mix of both comes next week, when I visit Philadelphia and New York for bookstore Pizza Feeds on the 23rd, 24th and 25th. I'm flying solo in Philly, while the New York events will feature Doug Pappas, Steven Goldman, and, I'm hoping, a couple of other out-of-state BP authors.

These events are part of an 15-city tour that has BP staffers getting out to meet readers all over the country. (And we will get to you, Atlanta, I promise.) I hope you'll come out to talk some baseball at a gathering near you. It's our chance to meet the people who make Baseball Prospectus possible, and say, "thanks" for your support of everything we've done over the years.

I look forward to seeing many of you next week.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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