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March 24, 2004

Can Of Corn

Spring Flings

by Dayn Perry

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If you're anyone other than a key decision maker for most teams in baseball, you're probably aware that you shouldn't place too much emphasis on spring training stats. Besides the obvious (to most) sample-size caveats, there's also a litany of other reasons not to take Cactus or Grapefruit League numbers terribly awfully really very seriously. For one, an inordinate amount of the playing time goes to reclamation projects, prospects not quite ready for competition at the highest level, minor league vagabond types or veteran performers tinkering around with a new pitch or reconstructed swing. It's simply not the sort of premium level of competition you'll find in regular season contests. While spring training numbers should be taken more seriously than, say, laundry instructions or warning labels on beer, they're still not to be imbued with head-slapping importance.

All that said, this time out I'm going to take a look at a handful of spring performances that do have a reasonable degree of import for one reason or another. One problem, particularly with regard to offensive stats, is the puzzling lack of availability of walk and OBP figures for hitters. So excuse the forthcoming quick-and-dirty analysis, but I'm only firing the gun Daddy gave me. In no particular order...

Jermaine Dye, OF, A's
Spring Numbers: 40 AB, .325 AVG, .500 SLG, 1 HR

I'm going to say this once again, but that'll be it for the rest of this column (although it applies to every player examined herein): The data sample is too small to draw any firm conclusions.

Any stretch of productivity from Dye, no matter how brief, has to be emboldening for Oakland partisans. Dye hasn't been the same player since cracking his shin in the 2001 ALDS, and last season was his professional nadir. In 2003, Dye was good for 253 plate appearances of this: .172/.261/.253. What's more is that, sayeth VORP, Dye was the second-worst position player in all of baseball last season. As I pointed out in an earlier piece on the Oakland offense, even a return to replacement level for Dye will be a serious boon to the A's runs tally in '04. If his spring numbers are any augury, he may be better than that.

Ramon Santiago, IF, Mariners
Spring Numbers: 27 AB, .481 AVG, .667 SLG

No, I'm not about to submit that Santiago has established a new-and-improved, low-carb level of performance. I am about to submit that Seattle brass, by dint of Santiago's 27 spins of the Cactus League roulette wheel, is on the verge of seeing him as something he's plainly not: remotely useful. The Mariner bench, as presently composed, is about as threatening as a promised ass-kicking from Verne Troyer. Dave Hansen will perhaps be adequate as a left-handed bat off the bench, but they lack what they desperately need--someone to platoon with John Olerud at first and otherwise smack around lefties in the later innings. How's that Greg Colbrunn for Quinton McCracken trade working out by the way?

On the heels of Santiago's fluke-a-riffic spring, Seattle is reportedly leaning toward adding him to the roster. If, as expected, the Mariners go with 12 pitchers to open the season, their bench corps could include the likes of Santiago, Q-Mac, Eric Owens and a banjo-hitting backup catcher to be named. The longer they believe Santiago merits a place on this team, the worse they'll be for it. What this team badly needs is an Eduardo Perez-type on the roster; they tried and failed to get Ellis Burks and according to General Manager Bill Bavasi will continue to shop for help.

Carlos Beltran, CF, Royals
Spring Numbers: 35 AB, .486 AVG, .857 SLG, 3 3B

Impressive, no? It's not much to go on, but it's another data point that leads me to believe Beltran is going to have a terrifying season in 2004. PECOTA's weighted mean tabs him for a fine year of .302/.377/.522/.300 EqA. That's certainly strong production for a player flashing good leather at a key position, but I also think it's an underestimation of what Beltran will do this season.

Beltran turns 27 in late April, which means, statistically speaking, he should be in one of his prime seasons. Furthermore, he's coming off the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his career and steals bases--a lot of them--with mind-blowing efficiency. And, well, I'll indulge in the verboten and just say I have a gnawing feeling that he's poised to darken the door of greatness. If pressed, I'd say I expect Beltran to wind up somewhere between his PECOTA 75th- and 90th-percentile forecasts. Say, something like .320/.400/.560. If the Royals win the middling AL Central, he might just be your MVP.

Brandon Phillips, 2B, Indians
Spring Numbers: 16 AB, .125 AVG, .250 SLG

Drawing conclusions from 16 at-bats is as meaningless as a Robbe-Grillet tone poem, but, well, here I am. The Indians were hoping for something--anything--to bolster hopes that Phillips' star might be rising once again. Once regarded as the key haul in the Bartolo Colon trade of 2002, his stock has fallen faster than...um, something the stock of which falls very, very fast.

The 2003 season was such a disaster for Phillips that Jerry Bruckheimer should really see a screen treatment of it. In Cleveland, he "hit" .208/.242/.311 (and wound up, much to the delight of Jermaine Dye's handlers, the worst player in baseball according to VORP), and after a demotion to Triple-A-Buffalo, he "hit" .175/.247/.279. Even before Phillips' woeful showing in spring training, the Indians had already decided to have him spend the vast majority of the season back in the International League. If they needed further motivation to do just that, they now have it. In fairness, Phillips is still only 22, so he has plenty of time to right himself.

Billy Koch, RHP, White Sox
Spring Numbers: 6 IP, 0.00 ERA, 5 K, 0 BB, 0 HR

The idea that Koch is better suited to high-leverage duties than Damaso Marte is an outrageous canard. Koch was solid in 2002, but 2000 is his lone outstanding season in five years of major league service. He's simply not a top-shelf reliever.

Marte, meanwhile, has far better career peripherals than Koch and, according to Michael Wolverton's Adjusted Runs Prevented, was the 13th best reliever in the majors last season. It wouldn't surprise me if the preponderance of evidence became such that Guillen eventually makes the nose-on-your-face switch from Koch to Marte (and then deploys Marte in a non-optimum yet de rigeur fashion), but Koch's spring--and the emphasis likely placed on it by Guillen--will probably delay such a decision by, heck, a month or so. And the rest of the AL Central will be better for it.

And with that, I'm off like a prom dress. Yes, I picked Kentucky to win the NCAA Tourney.

Related Content:  Jermaine Dye,  Ramon Santiago,  Billy Koch

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