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March 23, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • That's Really Stupid, Even for You: Are we still wondering whether Ozzie Guillen's in over his head?
    "Loaiza said he felt fine and actually asked to pitch another inning. Guillen almost lifted him in the fourth, but only Billy Koch was throwing and Guillen didn't want to bring him into a non-save situation," (Chicago Tribune).
    The fixation with using closers in save situations is easy to justify, and so it appeals to the simple: By the ninth inning, the remaining outs are precious and the margin for error is at its slimmest, and so it seems to many managers that it's wisest to keep the team's best reliever in reserve in case of an emergency. But there's nothing mystical about a save situation, and nothing inherently special about a pitcher who racks up a high total of saves.

    We all know this by now. What matters is not the save situation, a journalist's descriptive metric that accidentally became an end unto itself, but the high-leverage moment of peril when you need to preserve a lead or a tie, or keep a deficit from getting beyond reach. That's the time to use your best reliever, and it doesn't matter whether you call him the closer or ace or stopper, or whether you use the same guy every time or go with the hot hand. What matters is that you use your best guy when you need him most, not that you have him in reserve in case something goes really wrong in the last wraps. Often, that moment comes before the last inning. For the Sox and their sorry staff, it'll come before the ninth a lot more often than Guillen realizes.

    It's bad enough when a manager saves his best guy for the end of the game, but then there's Ozzie. When your guy needs training, why are you saving him for low-leverage, short-BFP work? Wouldn't it be better to let him get his throws in and then cut him loose so he can hit the gym and work with the trainers? Is the psychological team value of a win in Spring Training really that high? In the wake of Guillen's folly, Joe Sheehan had this reaction:

    That's really stupid. Lots of closers throw in non-save situations in spring training. It's a veteran thing, where you don't make those guys sit around all day to get their work in. Yesterday alone: Foulke pitched the fifth; Nathan pitched the fifth; Rhodes pitched the fifth and sixth; Hoffman pitched the seventh; and all the non-MacDougal closer types for the Royals were gone by the eighth.
    The Red Sox, Twins, A's, Padres, and Royals--the smart teams have their way of doing things, and Guillen has his. Obviously, Guillen was trying to simulate regular-season conditions, but as Joe observed:
    And even if you buy that a save situation requires magical powers, for Ozzie to actually think that a save situation in front of 1200 people, pitching against whatever remains of a roster in the ninth inning of an early spring game, somehow replicates in-season pressure... the mind boggles. You're actually better off getting the guy in earlier, when the major leaguers are still playing.
    Ozzie's having fun badassing around camp, but he has only a few more days until all the evidence against his aptitude is admissible.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Rotation Set: The Cardinals worked hard in the off season to bring in starting pitching. They spun the oft-injured J.D. Drew to Atlanta for Jason Marquis, Adam Wainwright as well as Ray King. They also signed Jeff Suppan as a free agent. Both Suppan and Marquis are penciled into the starting rotation, and Wainwright should see some time in the majors this season. Chris Carpenter is back from shoulder surgery and will join the rotation as well.

    Will these moves help? Let's take a look back and see what the Cardinals got from their opening day starting rotation last season.

    
    Name			IP     HR  BB   K  VORP
    Matt Morris		172.3  20  39 120  32.8
    Woody Williams		220.7  20  55 153  38.3
    Garrett Stephenson	174.3  30  60  91  16.2
    Brett Tomko		202.7  35  57 114   2.3
    Jason Simontacchi	126.3  21  41  74  -2.0
    
    
    That's a grand total of 87.6 VORP for those of you who like the adding (and in Simontacchi's case, subtracting) done for you. Morris was effective when healthy but missed time with a fractured hand and a sprained ankle. Williams was both consistent and good for the Cardinals, while Tomko was consistent and bad. Stephenson was average and able to make 27 starts, while Simontacchi fell out of the rotation--moving over to the bullpen where he caused some of his damage.

    Now let's use one of our favorite tools here at BP, PECOTA, to get its opinion on how the Cardinal's opening day rotation will fare this season.

    
    Name			IP     HR  BB   K  VORP
    Matt Morris		165.0  15  46 118  28.9
    Woody Williams		189.0  22  48 129  28.7
    Jason Marquis		101.0  10  43  69   8.3
    Jeff Suppan		170.0  19  50  93  16.7
    Chris Carpenter		110.0  13  36  72  10.7
    
    
    PECOTA thinks the rotation will be better overall than last year, even with its predicted drop-offs from Morris and Williams. The real difference comes from replacing Tomko and Simontacchi with pitchers not straddling the replacement level line. If Morris or Williams avoids the injuries PECOTA predicts for them, the Cardinals rotation could be a lot better than the 2003 version.

  • Betting on a Low Pair: Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has whittled the left field job opening down to two under whelming candidates--Ray Lankford and Kerry Robinson. While Joe Sheenan suggested last week that they give the job to Stan Musial, it looks like the Cardinal brass paid him no heed. The Cardinals also gave up on giving the job to John Gall pretty quickly. As was discussed in the last Red Birds PTP, Gall was probably the most qualified for the job. By tossing Gall back to the minors, they are giving up one of his prime seasons at age 26 for the privilege of putting in two players who will have trouble breaking the .400 slugging barrier as corner outfielders.

  • Exploring the Options: Desperation is starting to kick in for the Cardinals at second base. Bo Hart and Marlon Anderson haven't impressed anyone so far, leading the club to trade for Tony Womack. I'll leave Chris Kahrl to analyze this in Transaction Analysis, but the trade means the Cards are looking for anyone to prove themselves deserving of the second base spot.

Texas Rangers

  • Seventeen down, 17 to Go: The Rangers opened camp in Surprise, AZ more than month ago with 59 players. Showalter and Co. have cut the number of players down to 42 and have less than two weeks to whittle the active roster down to 25. The Rangers have few positional battles in the field, but opportunities abound on the mound.

    • Infield: The infield is nearly solidified, with franchise cornerstones Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira flanking the up-the-middle duo of Michael Young and Alfonso Soriano. However, uncertainly looms from behind the plate, where incumbent backstop Einar Diaz faces competition from prospect Gerald Laird.

      Rangers' expert Jamey Newberg reports that the Rangers are considering trading Diaz and may be willing to pay a portion of his salary to move him. What benefit can the Rangers expect from anointing Laird the starting catcher? PECOTA forecasts a small but notable performance difference between the two players for 2004:

      
                  EqBA      EqOBP     EqSLG     EqMLVR
      Diaz        .255       .312      .351      -0.18
      Laird       .244       .315      .392      -0.13
      
      
      EqMLVr, which measures the number of additional runs per game above average a line-up would score with a given player and eight average hitters, suggests that substituting Laird for Diaz would net the Rangers almost 7 runs over 130 games, worth more than half a win. Although the potential performance gains alone might be reason enough to send Diaz packing, the Rangers should also consider giving Laird the job so that he can gain experience handling a Major League staff.

    • Outfield: The outfield battle for playing time is a war of attrition. The starting trio will almost certainly be Brian Jordan, Laynce Nix, and Kevin Mench, but Joe Sheehan astutely points out that none of these players is a lock for 500 at bats. Brian Jordan and Kevin Mench are both injury risks, with Jordan trying to keep his career alive and Mench trying to start his. Will Carroll notes that Brad Fullmer's injuries and defensive ineptitude commit him to DH, compounding the problem of finding time to rest Jordan's legs.

      David Dellucci (.264/.347/.443 in 91 at bats v. righties) can play for Jordan against some right-handed pitching. Jordan could also occasionally DH against southpaws (.318/.381/.582 v. lefties) and spell Brad Fullmer, who "hits" a paltry .217./.246/.325 against left-handed pitching (that's Jason Tynerrific!). However, the Rangers do not have another outfield bat capable of hitting lefties to play for Jordan in the field. The situation is bleak when NRI Chad Allen is the best available solution (.250/.316./458 in limited action against lefties). Texas seems to have a reincarnation of the 2003 Oakland outfield--a mishmash of suspect glove work, injury risks, platoon issues, and no legitimate centerfielder.

    • Pitching: Spring Training battles on the mound closely mirror that of the outfield, where the threshold issues are (1) who's healthy and (2) who's the least unimpressive. Showalter's staff still has a number of openings, with Kenny Rogers, Chan Ho Park, Jay Powell, Jeff Nelson, and Francisco Cordero the only locks on the final roster. That leaves about seven spots open for the hopefuls.

      Jeff Zimmerman is eliminated from the competition, predictably suffering his first injury (elbow) of the season in a game last week. Joaquin Benoit has been on the bubble and pitching himself off the staff. His latest start, where the White Sox pounded him for 5 runs and 7 hits in 4 innings, may have been his last chance. R.A. Dickey, Ryan Drese, Colby Lewis, Mickey Callaway, and NRI Glendon Rusch have turned in fine Cactus League performances and seem like good bets to make the final cut, with the latter three making strong pushes for the rotation. Showalter will almost certainly take a lefty, with veteran Ron Mahay the best candidate. That leaves one or two spots on the staff up for grabs over the next two weeks.

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