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March 22, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Looking Back... We've put off discussing the Astros' bench options this spring since the outlook is, in a word, depressing. They basically have Jason Lane and a bunch of guys who are, um, alive. Technically, anyway. But it's time we got on with it.

    • Long-Time Farmhand, First-Time Backup: Speaking of the undead, someone has to be on hand in case Brad Ausmus is ever out of the lineup. With John Buck failing to develop at all, Raul Chavez has been tabbed for the duties this year. Unsurprisingly, PECOTA figures Chavez would likely out-hit Ausmus, but the latter's glove and organizational track record results in zero chance that he'll be pulled from the lineup until (and even if) Buck is ready.

    • Scrubs in the Infield: With Jose Vizcaino is entrenched as the fifth infielder for another year, and no obvious plan for the sixth spot, the competition would seem wide open, but most of the apparent candidates were eliminated from the get-go. Chris Burke and Tom Whiteman need to play every day at New Orleans to see if they'll finally amount to something, so have no business rotting on the big club's bench. David Matranga, who spent time in Houston last year, has long since been outrighted off the 40-man roster. That pretty much boils the situation down to Eric Bruntlett, who would most likely ride pine at either level, and the carcass of John Valentin, who was brought in to light a fire under a youngster to be named later, but has managed just a single in 21 at-bats this spring. Expect Bruntlett to emerge as a victor, as there's no reason for Valentin to force someone through waivers, even in an organization this veteran-focused.

    • Outfield Depth: As mentioned above, Lane will server as the fourth outfielder, inspiring fantasy players everywhere to hope for an injury to Craig Biggio. Since the internal options for fifth outfielder are even worse than for the sixth infielder, Orlando Palmeiro was hauled in despite an uninspiring glove and a projected .240 EqA. Was it really that important to give him $750K instead of keeping Colin Porter or Henri Stanley around to play for the minimum? It seems impossible to believe, but given the insistence on re-upping guys like Ausmus and Vizcaino, it seems pretty clear that the front office is using an evaluation system even more peculiar than the A's defensive system.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Heading into 2004, there is a shine of promise for the Milwaukee Brewers despite some of the Seligian hijinks off the field. After enduring 11 straight losing seasons, some top-notch positional prospects are on the horizon for the 2005-2006 teams, including J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Tony Gwynn Jr.

    Unfortunately, much as seeing Jeri Ryan next to Rosie O'Donnell brings up mixed reactions, in comparison to the top flight positional prospects the pitching side of things isn't nearly as pretty. There's the enigmatic Ben Sheets in the majors, continual source of promise who could become a rotation anchor or another Jim Acker. After that there's um, err, Nick Neugebauer. Then again, Noogie's been through two shoulder surgeries in less than an 18 month span. He requires cautious optimism, at best. Manny Parra holds promise, and as Tony Pena would say, "He's a LLLEFFTEEE." Unfortunately, he's only pitched at low-A ball, is years away and could be the TINSTAAPP poster child. Mike Jones looked promising at double-A, but many fear he was rushed, nursing a bum elbow at the end of the season. Ben Hendrickson is a similar story--showed some promise at Double-A Huntsville yet had to shut down a sore elbow. There's no obvious help on the horizon.

    All of this means the Brew Crew is going to have to get it done with what they have today, perhaps making astute pickups off the waiver wire and trading for undervalued players. Doug Melvin HAS done an appreciable job with limited resources in that sense. Scott Podsednik cost only a waiver claim; Wes Helms and Matt Kinney were acquired on the cheap as well. Given the Brewer's all-too-public financial constraints, Doug's going to have to be "Melvin the Magician" in every sense of the word this year.

    Let's look at another team in their division, very nearby geographically. Although it's common knowledge the Chicago Cubs have a much better rotation, looking at them can give us a basis for comparison in understanding HOW MUCH of a difference there is between starting staffs. See the below information and more in our team depth charts:

    
    Pitcher (MIL) IP  ERA WHIP   K VORP  Pitcher (CHC) IP  ERA WHIP   K  VORP
    Sheets       210 4.08 1.31 144 33.0  Prior        200 2.79 1.31 204  58.0
    Kinney       160 5.15 1.49 120  7.8  Wood         210 3.38 1.49 241  45.9
    Davis        140 5.12 1.55  83  8.6  Maddux       180 3.56 1.23 100  32.4
    Franklin     140 5.51 1.58  88  2.8  Clement      190 3.85 1.33 160  29.9
    Obermueller  120 6.29 1.75  68 -3.8  Zambrano     170 6.29 1.35 145  28.6
    Totals       770           503 48.4  Totals       950           850 194.8
    
    
    That's a combined projected total of 770 innings, 503 strikeouts, and a whopping VORP of 48.4. Or, put another way, Mark Prior projects to be more valuable than the entire Brewers rotation in his 200 IP alone. Adding insult to injury, keep in mind that Prior's a good bet to significantly outperform that projection with the added 3 mph on his fastball and another year of experience. Of course, it might be tempting to throw Prior enough so that he reaches those 770 innings and 503 strikeouts on his own, but I'm sure discretion will be the better part of valor. Besides, how would we deal with a pitcher with a 200 VORP? It would skew the meaning of everything.

    Using another (lesser) team as a comparison, even the pitching equivalent of putting your hand in a blender--the 2003 Cincinnati Reds--project to get 805 innings, 538 strikeouts and a combined VORP of 66.5 from their rotation. If Sheets' heavy workload results in a breakdown, the Brewers might as well write off 2004 AND 2005, moving into a complete rebuilding mode.

    Obviously, the Brewers don't have the Cubs' financial resources. That said, the trickle-down effects of a solid rotation can not be overstated. Based on the above projections, the Cubs rotation will allow 350 fewer balls in play due to their increased strikeouts (admittedly, there's an IP difference). The bottom line is, they'll put less pressure on their defense and can better afford someone like Jim Presley in the lineup. We're not saying you'd want that, mind you...

    In addition, the Cubs' rotation will chew up 180 more innings. Where the balance lies between that being Dusty Baker's decision or the fact that they're just THAT good--we'll leave that as a decision for the reader. The importance is that that's roughly two or three full-time relievers the Cubs don't need that the Brewers do. Even if we take issue with Dusty at times, that rotation gives him a lot of flexibility and leverage over the course of a season. Cubs fans will have to hope he makes the most of the opportunity.

    Doug Melvin has his work cut out for him, with many challenges ahead. In the business world, an optimist would opine that those 'challenges' are opportunities. Melvin's done a reasonable job with his opportunities thus far, and will need to dig deeper into his bag of tricks this season.

Oakland Athletics

  • Insert Clever Title Here: In what little action he has seen thus far this spring, Mark Mulder has looked very good. Mulder assuaged some of the fears about his injured hip from last year with a strong three innings against the Brewers. Forced to make a couple plays in the field and cover first on a grounder to Scott Hatteberg, Mulder was agile and showed no outward ill effects of the injury that kept him out of the post-season. His motion was very consistent and he seemed to have good control, staying ahead in the count and walking none.

    All of that optimism now has to be checked as the A's lefty has once again been sidelined with back problems after missing early action this spring with a similar ailment albeit in another part of his back. Oakland is an organization that keeps injury information very close the to vest, so comments from trainer Larry Davis that Mulder could have pitched if it were the regular season have to be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering Mulder's comments about not being able to lift his left leg. Even if Mulder is healthy by opening day, he's only pitched three innings so far this spring and it's unclear that he'll be ready to pitch without some more work.

    With the strength of the rest of the rotation, the loss of one of the A's pitchers for a week or two isn't a big deal. This confidence rests on the health and performance of the rest of the rotation, something that Rich Harden is putting into doubt. As Will Carroll reported, Harden has been dealing with inflammation in his non-throwing shoulder, but that's the not the main concern. Harden, who has always had a conspicuously high walk-rate, has been especially wild this spring.

    The A's phenom is at his best when he generates ground balls to compliment his plethora of strikeouts, but in limited action this spring, he has been routinely losing the ball high, resulting in 8 walks in 8 innings. Whether or not the inflammation in his opposite shoulder is affecting his performance is a question for the A's training staff, but the pressure to correct Harden's problems are only increased by Mulder's injury.

  • The Root of All Evil: The A's, to much applause, signed Eric Chavez to a six year extension for a team record $66 million last Thursday, locking up the team's best position player through 2010 with an extension for 2011. As soon as Jason Giambi left after the 2001 season, it has been clear that Oakland would have to choose between Miguel Tejada and Chavez and, from the beginning, it has always been clear that Chavez was Oakland's target for one simple reason: Jermaine Dye's contract. Dye was signed to a three-year $32 million contract on January 17, 2002, keeping him with the A's through 2004, when Chavez would be eligible for free agency. With the A's payroll, there is no way they could afford to pay Tejada his market value at the same time as Dye. With Dye off the books after this year, Oakland is free to transfer his dollars to Chavez.

    Despite Tejada's MVP, the decision to choose Chavez over Tejada was probably based on the combination of Chavez's youth and the presence of shortstop prospect Bobby Crosby. Even discounting the rumors that Tejada may be older than his listed age of 27, PECOTA projects Chavez to age significantly better than his former infield mate:

    
           Tejada        Chavez
         WARP   EqA    WARP   EqA
    2004  4.4  .288     4.8  .300
    2005  4.1  .284     4.8  .300
    2006  3.9  .283     4.1  .294
    2007  3.4  .282     3.9  .296
    2008  2.9  .278     3.9  .297
    
    

    The A's next big financial hurdle will come after the 2005 season, at which point Tim Hudson's contract will expire and Mulder and Barry Zito will enter option years. In 2006, Chavez will earn $9 million, Mulder and Zito have team options worth $7.25 million and $7 million, respectively, and new centerfielder Mark Kotsay is on the books for $5.5 million. That's $28.75 million already committed without considering Hudson who will command the value of a small country on the free agent market.

    Committing to Chavez is a good decision--he's one of best defenders in the game, he routinely hits the snot out of the ball, and he's young--but without substantial changes in payroll philosophy from ownership, keeping Chavez will force the A's to break up the Big Three in a few years. Once again, the key to this decision lies in Sacramento, Midland, and Modesto: the Athletics have had much more success developing pitching talent than hitters, with Joe Blanton--the next young phenom--on the way.

    Oakland won't have to jump off this bridge for two more seasons, but when the media starts screaming about the Athletics not being able to keep their talent in town, remember that Billy Beane, Inc. knew this choice was coming and prepared for it. And they chose correctly.

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