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March 17, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • Hot Corner: The biggest experiment in the Orioles' camp this spring is the attempt to turn former utility man Melvin Mora into their regular third baseman. Mora, who came up as a shortstop, has played in 571 games in his career, but only seven of them have been at third base--none since 2000. Over the last three years, he has become more and more of an outfielder; last year his offense took a great leap forward, as the career .260 hitter (in EQA) hit .324.

    But he was also hurt last year, and while he was, Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos made solid claims on left and center fields. Jay Gibbons, the established right fielder, could have moved to first base (his minor league position), but the signing of Rafael Palmeiro blocked that option. Third base was open, Mora was versatile--surely he could learn to play third? What happened to other players who switched from outfield to third?

    Looking through the past, we found 17 cases since 1920 where a player went from being a regular (70+ games) at one outfield position in one year to playing 70 games at third in the next season. Six of those 17--Bob Elliott, Ken Boyer, Darrell Evans, and Bobby Bonilla (twice)--involved players for whom the outfield had been the experiment, and they were just returning to their regular third base job. The other 11:

    Lou Chiozza, 1936-37, was the Phillies center fielder before being traded to the Giants. Originally a second baseman, he went from being a marginally useful player (.250ish EQA, 4 WARP3) to a Gotham disaster (.205 EQA).

    Mel Ott, 1937-38, moved to third late in 1937 to cover the Chiozza disaster. It didn't hurt his offense any, as he put up a career-high .353 EQA. But the excellent right fielder was a subpar third baseman, and he moved back to the outfield in subsequent years.

    Bob Elliott, 1941-42. The first time he moved from right to third, he had never played a major league game in the infield. He hit a then-career high .298 in 1942, and always hit much better while playing third (.303 career EQA) than he did while playing in the outfield (.278).

    Chuck Workman, 1944-45. Workman, the Braves' right fielder, shifted around to accommodate the draft-depleted team. The career .253 hitter hit .283 that year, but was awful defensively. He wasn't competitive when the regulars came back from the war.

    Andy Pafko, 1947-48. Pafko had played 4.5 seasons, entirely in the outfield, when the Cubs moved him to third base, and he responded by putting up a then-high .312 EQA. It was his only full season at third.

    Sid Gordon, 1947-48. Gordon had played a fair bit of third base in 1943 and 1946, but 1948 was his first season as the Yankees' regular. It was to be the first of five consecutive seasons with an EQA over .300 and 100+ EQR.

    Frank Thomas, 1955-56. He had never played a game in the infield before the Pirates made him their regular third baseman in 1956. He turned in a perfectly normal season, but spent most of the rest of his career in the outfield.

    Mike Shannon, 1966-67. In 1966, Shannon established himself as the Cardinals' regular right fielder, and hit a surprising .292, a career best. Moving to third, he struggled defensively (.919 fielding average) and his EQA fell to .258.

    Pete Rose, 1974-75. Rose volunteered to move to third base at age 34, a position he hadn't played in nine years, and even then for only 16 games. Rose's hitting that season was indistinguishable from any others in his 15-year run from 1965 to 1979, when, like clockwork, he put up EQAs around .300 with 110 EQR.

    Pedro Guerrero, 1982-83. Guerrero was the prototypical hitter looking for a position that he wouldn't butcher too badly. He made a valiant attempt at third, but he was a bad, bad fielder. But he kept right on hitting, putting up numbers that were very nearly identical across the board to what he had done the year before.

    Keith Moreland, 1986-87. It is saddening to close the list with a name so painful to Oriole fans, but there he is. Moreland was originally a catcher, but by 1986 he had spent four years patrolling Wrigley's right field. The move to third looks, superficially, like it did him good - he hit a career-high 27 home runs--but that was, of course, 1987, and in reality it was no better than his 1986.

    On the one hand, the outlook for Mora is good--the average player on the list raised his EQA some 13 points, a little surprising given the increased defensive responsibilities. On the other hand, only one of them, Mike Shannon, was coming off a career year like Mora's 2003, and he quickly reverted to his career norms.

Colorado Rockies

  • Business Tips That Won't Put Martha Stewart in Jail: The Rockies haven't won 75 games in a season since 2000, or finished as high as 3rd since 1997. Todd Helton and Preston Wilson are around 30, and Larry Walker is 37, so the core of their lineup clearly isn't getting any younger. Meanwhile, Darren Oliver tied for the highest VORP on the pitching staff, and he isn't around anymore. So what happened this offseason? Dan O'Dowd saw that his team featured the youngest group of hitters and the second youngest pitching staff in the league and brought in some "Veteran Leadership" chock full of those yummy intangibles. Oh yeah, and word on the street was that they could hit and pitch as well.

    According to PECOTA, however, it looks O'Dowd couldn't remember if it was buy low and sell high, or the other way around, so he hedged his bets. Let's look at a chart of the new hitters brought in this year:

    
                            2003	2004    2003	2004
    AGE	PLAYER		VORP	VORP	 EQA	 EQA
    35	Jeromy Burnitz	22.9	 9.0	.292	.272
    36	Vinny Castilla	25.0	 9.0	.258	.242
    34	Royce Clayton	-3.1	 1.8	.222	.233
    34	Denny Hocking	-2.6	 0.7	.235	.229
    TOTAL			42.2	20.5	.252	.244
    
    
    Vinny Castilla had pretty decent years for himself last year, while Burnitz was fine until he was shipped to Los Angeles. But PECOTA sees a combined loss of 29.9 VORP and .036 EQA between the two. And at their ages, it doesn't seem likely that they will bounce back in the years to come. With Royce Clayton and Denny Hocking, the Rockies have two guys who played a little worse than replacement level last year, and who might just get over the replacement level hump this year. Not exactly a fearsome foursome, to say the least, as PECOTA has them combined to be worth about two wins. Which isn't great, considering the top three guys are going to constitute a third of the Rockies lineup.

    The story is a little different with the pitchers:

    
                            2003	2004    2003	2004
    AGE	PLAYER		VORP	VORP	 EQA	 EQA
    31	Shawn Estes	-20.3	 1.8	6.14	5.91
    41	Jeff Fassero	 -3.7	 7.1	6.45	4.44
    25	Joe Kennedy	-13.3	 8.8	6.17	5.12
    TOTAL			-37.3	17.7	6.25	5.16
    
    
    Shawn Estes bombed on the level of level on Gigli last year, only Dusty Baker kept Estes around a little bit longer than the movie managed to stay in theaters. It was a pretty safe bet Estes wouldn't go any lower, and his projected VORP this year is just over replacement level. Joe Kennedy figures to be fourth man in the rotation and have a much better performance than last year. That's what leaving the Devil Rays will do to you. Still, it doesn't seem like adding a mid-level starter and a couple of middling reliever was the kind of jolt this team needed, especially when factoring in the new additions to the lineup.

    It should be considered that the Colorado is bearing a heavy load of humongous, long term contracts. With the contracts of Mike Hampton, Todd Helton, Charles Johnson, Denny Neagle, Larry Walker and Preston Wilson weighing them down, along with demands to shave payroll, it was extremely unlikely that any big ticket free agents were headed to the Rockies this offseason.

    Then again, working on a strict budget certainly isn't a mandate to scour the free agent list for relatively expensive veteran replacement level players. On that note, O'Dowd should probably be commended for not offering Jay Payton arbitration; with their payroll woes, and Payton's career-high 28 homers probably looking pretty good to an arbitrator, the Rockies did well to steer away from a player who has only had 500 AB in a season once.

  • "Not by the hair of my Chin-Hui Chin-Hui chin": Thankfully, (to Rockies fans, at least) it appears some help can be found in the farm system. Chin-Hui Tsao--our #27 prospect in Baseball Prospectus 2004--will likely enter the rotation this year. Tsao put up a gaudy 125/26 K/BB ratio in 113.3 innings in Tulsa last year before he got called up to the bigs. PECOTA projects him to have an 11.7 VORP with an 80/39 K/BB ratio in just under 100 innings. If he can stay healthy and effective for 150 innings he could top 100 strikeouts and get some Colorado beat writers to pencil him in for some Rookie of the Year votes.

    Tsao often gets mentioned in the same breath as Jeff Francis when talking about rising pitchers in the Rockies' organization. Francis is older, by about five months. Perhaps most striking about him are the numbers surrounding his ERA. Last year his PERA was 4.40. That's lower than last years' PERAs of Jason Jennings (5.05) and Denny Stark (5.58), the Rockies' top two starters heading into this year. And his projected PERA for this years beats both of them, and is percentage points better than Tsao's (4.66 to 4.67). With Francis and Tsao rapidly marking their rotation in Colorado's starting rotation, there certainly cause for at least some guarded optimism about the years to come.

    The Rockies also have some hitting coming up the pipeline, most notably Garrett Atkins and Jayson Nix.

    Atkins is a third baseman who spent most of last year in the Pacific Coast League, save for 72 plate appearances for the Rockies. PECOTA projects a VORP of 11.2 for Atkins in 274 at bats. If you scroll up, you'll note that is higher than Vinny "the Veteran" Castilla or any of the other newly hired bats, for that matter. It seems that if and when the Rockies can move Castilla, they have an in-house replacement who could be on a comparable level performance-wise and provide considerable savings. Nix is only 21 years old and has shown some speed and power, hitting 21 homers and pilfering 24 bases (on 32 attempts) in the minors last year. Both the power and speed could be a tremendous asset to the Rockies as Nix plays the traditionally weak position of second base. If Nix can maintain his solid defense and work on his plate discipline (last year saw his K/PA increase and his BB/PA decrease), the Rockies have the makings of a pretty decent infield a few years down the road.

New York Mets

  • Frying Pan and Fire: The new faces at Shea are making us forget about the big-money disasters of recent years. Any Mets fan will tell you that one of the biggest was trading Kevin Appier for Mo Vaughn. As Vaughn waddles off into the sunset, it's worth asking if that trade didn't help the Mets in the end.

    Appier's contract was itself ludicrous, and the Mets got the best they could have hoped for in its first year: his best ERA since 1997, before he got hurt. They swapped him for Vaughn, and both players went downhill (Anaheim released Appier last year). Big Mo was a bust, but because of his injury, the Mets get a Mo-sized insurance payout. When you factor in the insurance, did the Mets actually get the better of the deal? Let's see.

    First, Appier:

    
    Year	  	Salary	VORP
    2002	  	 $9.0MM	39.2
    2003	 	$11.0MM	 2.2 (released mid-season)
    2004	 	$12.0MM	 0.0 (released)
    Total   	$32.0MM 41.4 = $772,946 per VORP
    
    
    The math for Vaughn is a little more complicated. The Mets' 75% insurance policy on Vaughn kicked in on July 31, 2003, according to Gannett News Services. So we need to take Vaughn's full salary for 2002 and for the first two-thirds of 2003, but only 25% of it thereafter. Vaughn's 2004 salary includes his buyout for 2005.
    
    Year            Salary  VORP
    2002	       $10.0MM	19.9
    2003, Apr-Jul  $10.0MM
    2003, Aug-Sep  $1.25MM  -2.4 (total for 2003)
    2004	       $4.25MM	 0.0 (collapsing under own weight)
    Total          $25.5MM  17.5 = $1,457,143 per VORP
    
    
    The Angels paid about half as much per run. But that is almost all due to the 2002 season; if you take that out, the totals look like this:
    
    Player	Salary	   VORP	  
    Appier	$23.0MM	    2.2     
    Vaughn	$15.5MM    -2.4	
    
    
    Which means that the Angels paid $7,500,000 over two years for a grand total of 4.6 more runs. The Mets didn't even contend in 2002, so Appier's extra VORP would have been meaningless. When they looked at signing Kazuo Matsui and Mike Cameron this winter, they were probably elated that they were only on the hook for around $4.25 million instead of the $12 million owed Appier.

    There are other factors here that sway things even more in the Mets' favor: Anaheim still has to pay the remaining $8,000,000 on Vaughn's signing bonus (although deferred at 5.436% interest and payable from 2005 through 2011), and the Mets were able to defer a total of $13,750,000 in salary (under the same terms). Mo Vaughn is perhaps the symbol of everything that was wrong with the Steve Phillips regime after the 2000 World Series, but he actually helped the Mets.

    Meanwhile, flags fly forever, and though they had to eat the last two seasons of his deal, the Angels will always have what Kevin Appier gave them in 2002.

  • Deep Footprints: Heavily insured contracts are a thing of the past, and second base prospect Victor Diaz would do well not to follow Vaughn's example, and to slim down. Diaz's plays a poor second base, but the Mets need to keep him there and hope he can improve, because his potential rests with him staying there. After struggling in the Southern League in 2002, Diaz tore it up last year, and is already above replacement level; PECOTA projects that he'll be above average and worth over two wins a year by 2006.

    Barring an improvement in his hitting, he'd be nothing special at first. But right now, with Matsui manning short, Jose Reyes at second and David Wright coming hard at third, first may be Diaz's only hope. The Mets, who plan to contend by then, will probably want to do better. If Mike Piazza doesn't want to retire a Met, they could do worse for a stopgap. Diaz might end up trade bait to a team that cares more about his bat than his appetite.

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