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March 25, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • We're Using Battle in the Loosest Sense of the Word: You know spring training is coming to a close when starting pitchers are going five or six innings, top prospects are being sent down after their cursory taste of big league camp, and position battles are getting way too much hype, for the wrong reasons. For example, the last spot on the Diamondbacks' bench is coming down to the wire, with Donnie Sadler duking it out with Chad Tracy and Julio Ramirez. Pop quiz: Which team did Julio Ramirez play for last year? No cheating. Yeah, didn't think you knew that.

    But is it really going to affect Arizona all too greatly which one of those guys actually wins the job? Check out Sadler's PECOTA card--there's a lot of red, negative numbers on there. He's projected for a .226/.309/.323 line in a neutral ballpark, but for all his obvious weaknesses (hitting for contact, hitting for power) at least he's fast and relatively versatile. There's no reason to waste a year of Tracy's cheap period as the last man off the bench, and as bad as Sadler hits, Ramirez at a projected .243/.284/.371 isn't exactly raking it either.

    No, it doesn't matter whether Sadler or Ramirez takes the job--but what does matter is the striking lack of outfield depth in the organization and the inaction surrounding it. Luis Terrero, who could have played himself into a job with a strong spring, is a Grade-C prospect with a pretty limited upside, and Josh Kroeger, who hit well in A-ball last year, are the only two outfielders on the 40-man roster besides the starting three.

    Who's going to step in if Steve Finley or Luis Gonzalez or Danny Bautista goes down? David Dellucci's gone. Finley, Gonzalez and Bautista are all injury risks, and Bautista isn't very good. The Diamondbacks might have found a cheap solution with a Jose Cruz Jr., Robert Fick, or a dozen other guys who were NRIs for other teams, moving Bautista to a time-sharing arrangement, or better yet his more suited role as a fourth outfielder. Instead the Snakes signed Donnie Sadler. The inattention towards the outfield situation will hurt Arizona this year even if one of the top three doesn't get hurt, because a line of .277/.332/.416 from your right fielder--which gets adjusted down slightly after park adjustment--isn't gonna cut it.

    Introducing...Mr. Jennie Finch: The other wide-open race in Arizona's camp is for the fifth-starter slot, where favorite Steve Sparks is trying to hold off John Patterson and Casey Daigle, otherwise known as that guy Jennie Finch is engaged to. Daigle has parlayed 12 good spring innings into a shot at breaking camp with the team, but really, he's never pitched above Double-A, where he posted a 4.59 ERA last season. He's young and has some promise, but give him some Triple-A time and see if he's for real first, especially when superior options like Edgar Gonzalez and Andrew Good have already been dispatched to Triple-A.

    Sparks has also had a good camp, and at least he'll give you innings. Patterson has some upside but isn't doing himself any favors this spring, and those five good starts in 2002 really only matter for so long. Either way the Snakes go, they're going to have to expect a 5ish ERA and some rough outings from any candidate.

    Again, this shows a lack of execution, in this case in addressing the back end of the rotation. Signing Shane Reynolds, whose EqERA figures from the last three years are 4.57, 5.12 and 5.50, was like putting out a fire by having a Zoolander-esque gasoline fight. PECOTA optimistically projects Reynolds for an EqERA of 4.69, but his real figure could be at least a run above that, and his spring performance (11 IP, 24 H, 20 ER, 6 HR) hasn't exactly inspired any confidence. Both Sparks and Patterson would be better choices than Reynolds, as would Good or Gonzalez. That a team with such glaring holes can still be a legitimate contender in the NL West speaks not to the quality of the team but the lack of quality in the division.

Kansas City Royals

  • PECOTA-fy Me, Part 2: After examining the offense last time, it's time to look at what PECOTA foresees from the Royals' pitching staff this season.

    Here's the rotation:

    
    2003                             2004
    Player          VORP    IP       Player          VORP    IP
    Darrell May     44.0    210      Brian Anderson  21.7    190
    Jeremy Affeldt  27.2    126      Darrell May     29.1    180
    Chris George   -10.5     94      Jeremy Affeldt  27.8    145
    Run. Hernandez  11.3     92      Kevin Appier    18.9    125
    Kyle Snyder      6.2     85      Jimmy Gobble    10.6    115
    Jose Lima        9.8     73      Miguel Asencio  11.3    115
    Jimmy Gobble     3.9     53      Chris George     4.2    80
    Brian Anderson  11.5     50      Zack Greinke    13.2    60
    Miguel Asencio   3.9     48
    Others          10.6     92
    
    Total          117.9    923     Total           136.8   1010
    
    

    The innings-pitched projections for 2004 are taken from the handy-dandy BP Depth Charts.

    As you can see, bolstered by a full season of Brian Anderson and a surprisingly good projection for Kevin Appier, the Royals' rotation projects to be about 20 runs better than last season. However, the usual optimism of spring is reflected in the fact that, despite trying to account for the possibility of injuries in our playing time projections, the rotation is expected to rack up 87 more innings this season.

    That projection is already starting to unravel; the early word on Monday's MRI of Miguel Asencio's elbow is that the right-hander could be out until 2005. If we eliminate his 115 innings, we're down to 895 projected innings for the rotation. Let's get them back to 923 innings by assigning another 28 frames to Chris George--even though the Royals really, really hope he doesn't have to pitch for them this season. Factoring all that in, the Royals still come in at 127 VORP, which works out to a nine-run improvement on last season.

    Next, the bullpen:

    
    2003                            2004
    Player          VORP    IP      Player          VORP    IP
    D.J. Carrasco   10.6    80      Scott Sullivan  13.6    80
    Mike MacDougal  7.5     64      Jason Grimsley  17.6    70
    Kris Wilson     0.7     73      D.J. Carrasco   11.7    70
    Jason Grimsley  4.2     75      Mike MacDougal  8.2     70
    Sean Lowe      -1.4     45      Curtis Leskanic 15.7    60
    Brad Voyles    -7.3     31      Jamie Cerda     5.4     50
    Curtis Leskanic 10.4    26      Joey Dawley     4.1     30
    Albie Lopez    -15.9    23
    Others          10.2    59
    
    Total           19.0    476     Total          76.3    430
    
    

    All must bow to the power of addition-by-subtraction. Eliminating Albie Lopez's 23 innings from last season does more to help the Royals this season than adding Scott Sullivan's 80 innings.

    Those two alterations, and a full season from Curtis Leskanic, combine for the lion's share of the 57-run improvement that PECOTA says we can expect from the Royals' bullpen this season. If our projections are correct, the Royals' run of having arguably the worst bullpen in baseball history over a five-year stretch may finally come to an end.

    We're still missing 46 innings from last season's bullpen, which will probably be divvied up among a mishmash of prospects and Triple-A lifers. Let's use Kris Wilson as a proxy for those additional innings; using PECOTA's projection for him, Wilson would expect to add another 6.3 VORP. That puts the 2004 bullpen at 82.6 VORP, a huge 63-run improvement from last season.

    Adding in our projections for the Royals' offense from the last PTP:

    
              2003    2004
    Rotation 117.9   127.0
    Bullpen   19.0    82.6
    Offense  155.6   210.3
    Total    292.5   419.9
    
    

    A 127-run improvement on a team that won 83 games last season sounds awfully impressive, until you remember that the Royals were actually outscored by 31 runs last season, 867 to 836. Or that the Royals, based on the number of Equivalent Runs (EqR) scored and allowed--which is an even truer measure of a team's true quality than actual runs--should have been outscored by 86 runs, 874 to 788.

    Even using this much more sobering evaluation of last year's squad, if we factor in a 55-run improvement on offense and a 72-run improvement on defense, the Royals should outscore their opponents by the margin of 843 to 802 this season. Plugging those numbers into the Pythagenport-o-tron, we can expect the Royals to win 85 games this season.

    So there you go. The 2004 Royals: Much Better on Paper. Slightly better in the standings. And, most likely, in the thick of a pennant race all season in a weak AL Central.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Entrenched: In many camps, there are heated position battles, even when we might tell you that there shouldn't be. In Clearwater, it's the opposite. Let's take a look at two position battles that don't exist but should.

    First, the infield. The Phillies are committed to the foursome of Jim Thome, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins and David Bell. Chase Utley is squeezed out of the picture. But should he be? Look at what PECOTA sees for them on offense:

    
    Player  AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA   VORP   
    Polanco 510  .293  .348  .419  .271   27.7   
    Bell    361  .256  .329  .398  .256   11.4    
    Utley   325  .262  .340  .429  .270   20.2  
    
    

    Polanco beats everyone, largely on account of forecasted playing time, but that doesn't matter here: If Bell goes down--and his bad back has been acting up in Florida--Larry Bowa's hand is forced, and Polanco goes to third and Utley plays second anyway. Even if we assume that Bell has a full season in him, his projected EqA shows that he's likely the worst offensive player of the three.

    Of course, the only way Utley gets into the lineup is at second base, which knocks Polanco over to third. Because of Utley's poorer defense, that might change things. Polanco has shown himself to be well above average defensively at both second and third, with extensive experience at both positions. The difference, then, is between Bell and Utley. Bell has a great defensive reputation, but his performance, as measured by Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs, has fluctuated the last few years on both sides of average. PECOTA, taking this into account, thinks he'll be exactly average defensively in 2004.

    The Phillies would lose a few runs defensively if they had to have Utley in the lineup instead of Bell, but given the difference between the two offensively, they might well gain in the end. Or they could try some more creative solutions--say, have Utley and Bell split time. But they aren't thinking of doing any of this. Why? Here's another chart:

    
    Player  Guaranteed Money Owed
    Polanco      $3,950,000
    Bell        $12,750,000
    Utley         <$400,000
    
    

    If Bell's and Utley's numbers were reversed, then we might be talking about a position battle. Or maybe not--maybe then Bell would be on the outside, looking in, no matter how strong his case for playing time might be.

    There's a similar situation afoot in the outfield. The deserving starters are Pat Burrell, Marlon Byrd, and Bobby Abreu. Ricky Ledee seems sure to make the team as a left-handed backup. Who will be the right-handed fifth outfielder? Here are the two contestants:

    
    Player One
    Year   AB    AVG   OBP   SLG  FRAA  
    2002   105  .267  .347  .476   -2     
    2003   109  .330  .416  .569   -1
    
    Player Two
    Year     AB    AVG   OBP   SLG  FRAA  
    2002     422  .249  .292  .344   -3   
    2003     246  .264  .286  .346    0
    
    

    Player One is Jason Michaels; Player Two is Doug Glanville. Despite an established level of horrific performance, the Phillies have brought in Glanville to possibly take the place that Michaels so ably filled last year. Even if Glanville were still a great defensive center fielder (and he isn't), this move would be highly dubious, since neither Byrd nor Ledee is so terrible as to force the Phillies to carry a defensive replacement. So why are the Phillies doing this? The important chart:

    
                             Glanville    Michaels
    Career Phillies ABs          2,999         220          
    
    

    Nobody doubts that Glanville is a great clubhouse presence, and perhaps something of an antidote to Bowa's venom. But that won't do you any good on the field. The Phillies are paying Glanville because they know him and find him agreeable, not because he's a good ballplayer.

    But this team is trying to win the World Series in 2004, and has no room for sentimentality. They are in an enviable situation: Whereas many teams are forced to choose between playing older, better players and letting their younger players develop, the Phillies' kids are not only younger, but also better. Bell and Glanville have guaranteed contracts, so the money is sunk. That shouldn't stop the Phillies from fielding the best team that they can.

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