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April 2, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • But they spent so much money (Part II)... Last time, we looked how Arte Moreno's money isn't going to buy a whole lot of runs. Apparently, Moreno's money won't save a lot of runs either. The Angels spent $66.75 millio to sign Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, who are projected to post EQERAs in the 4.00s and be worth just a few wins above replacement, apiece. The Halos' starting staff needs to beat PECOTA's projection if the club is to be playoff bound.
    
    Player          Year	EqERA	VORP
    J. Washburn 	2002	3.73	40.6
    J. Washburn 	2003	4.45	29.1
    J. Washburn 	2004	4.62	23.0
    
    
    Washburn led the AL in home runs allowed last year, and it figures to be his Achilles heel this year. If the home runs are solo-shots, Washburn can have a nice season.
    
    Player          Year    EqERA   VORP
    J. Lackey	2002	4.73	 9.9
    J. Lackey	2003	5.05	15.7
    J. Lackey	2004	4.43	25.1
    
    
    Lackey is only 25 years old, doesn't have a history of arm problems, and throws strikes (only 66 BB in 204 IP). So what's not to like? PECOTA has him throwing 169.3 innings this year, but after averaging a little over 6.1 innings per start last season, he should beat that projection.
    
    Player          Year    EqERA   VORP  
    R. Ortiz        2002	4.39	27.8
    R. Ortiz	2003	5.69	-4.1
    R. Ortiz	2004	5.55	 9.9
    
    
    In 2003, Ortiz won 16 games with an EQERA of 5.69 which made ranked third of 10 among Michael Wolverton's Luckiest Starters. He has been getting bombed this spring, and Aaron Sele is throwing the ball well and without pain. The Angels may try to get something out of their $8.5 million by bumping Ortiz to the pen.

  • The Hired Help:
    
    B. Colon,	2002	3.32	57.8
    B. Colon,	2003	3.75	54.2
    B. Colon,	2004	4.11	37.8
    
    
    Is he an ace? Colon is entering his ninth season and other than in '02, has yet to refine his 'hard/harder/hardest' approach to pitching. But, if throwing 99 in the seventh inning is your greatest weakness, you're pretty good. But given that Colon ranked 17th among all major-league pitchers in SNWL last season and has topped 200 innings in six of the last seven years, he's a good bet to be productive in the immediate future.
    
    K. Escobar, 	2002	4.32	11.0
    K. Escobar, 	2003	4.14	27.8
    K. Escobar, 	2004	4.18	22.4
    
    
    Escobar is a major risk, he might pitch like an ace, but he might pitch like fifth starter. Escobar's 2004 performance will have a lot to say about how the Angels finish this season.

  • No Bullpen: The Angels didn't spend a dime on their bullpen because they didn't need to. In 2003 the bullpen finished third in Michael Wolverton's Reliever Report and will be paramount to the Angels success. Individual performances of note include:

    • Brendan Donnelley, Scot Shields, and Ben Weber all ranked in the top 30 in Adjusted Runs Prevented. Donnelly also ranked seventh best at preventing inherited runners from scoring.

    • Francisco Rodriguez followed up his outstanding 2002 postseason and avoided a sophomore jinx in 2003 by posting a 2.90 EQERA and a K/BB ratio of 2.7. Oh yeah, he's still only 22.

    • On the downside: Troy Percival is 118th of 127 in inherited runners per relief appearance since 1998. He also had a higher EQERA than any of the aforementioned pitchers.

    The Angel bullpen shouldn't have much trouble holding a lead. The question will be if the starters can get them the ball with the lead. It is going to be critical that another starter besides Colon step up and eat some innings, assuring that the bullpen will be fresh for the stretch drive. The two most likely candidates to provide those innings are Washburn and Lackey. The successes or failures of this year's staff may well be determined by pitching coach Bud Black's ability to squeeze the most out of Escobar, Ortiz, and Sele. The more quality starts this trio provides, the more the Angels can expect to be near the top of the standings.

  • Clean Bill of Health: None of these projections will mean a thing if any of these pitchers spends a significant amount of time on the Disabled List. To that end, BP's Will Carroll likes the Halo's chances of making it through the year with minimal damage.

Chicago Cubs

  • Good Wood: Kerry Wood is having his best Spring since 1998. Over six starts, in 25.2 innings, he has held opposing batters to a .172 batting average, walked fewer than three batters for every nine innings, given up only 0.36 HR/9, and averaged one K for each inning of work. His image graces the cover of the April 5th issue of Sports Illustrated as well. Wood says he is not worried about the SI jinx, though he has already experienced the jinx once (when he appeared on the cover in 1998 after striking out 20, and later in the year required elbow surgery). He evidently believes that he can't "catch it" again, saying, "It didn't jinx Michael Jordan, he was on it quite a bit. I'm not comparing myself to Jordan, but my jinx was with my elbow after I was on it the first time." Wood is scheduled to start on Opening Day in Cincinnati.

  • Rotating: The rest of the rotation is, ahem, not the done-deal that was assumed at the beginning of Spring Training. Matt Clement's Arizona vacation has yielded 11 walks in 15.1 innings, two wild pitches, and an ERA of 8.22--not what he had in mind when he booked the trip. The Mark Prior situation has turned into one giant question mark. No one knows when he might be ready to pitch. The current estimate is mid-May or the beginning of June. Pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, continues to assert that Prior won't be rushed. Even the normally loquacious Dusty Baker has run out of things to say to the questioning reporters and Cub fans, "The whole thing is crazy. Everybody wants a date (and) I'm not capable of giving you one. No one on earth is." Prior's initially reported problem was with the Achilles tendon. Now there are also reports of discomfort and stiffness in the right elbow (although Dr. Lewis Yocum recently examined him and gave Prior's elbow a clean bill of health), and back spasms.

    Sergio Mitre is now the odds-on favorite to play the role of "back-up 5th starter." Mitre was the 199th overall pick in the 2001 amateur draft, out of San Diego City College (do they have a baseball team?). He is currently scheduled to start against Atlanta on April 10th. Mitre, who started 2 games in 2003 (0-1, ERA 8.31) has a 6.62 ERA over 17.2 innings in 4 starts this spring. His forecasted performance is not an improvement over Juan Cruz, the previously presumed "back-up 5th starter," who was traded to Atlanta last week.

    
    2004 PECOTA Forecast
    Name	EqERA	EqH9	EqBB9	EqSO9	EqHR9	PERA	VORP	STF
    Cruz	 4.50	 8.5	  3.4	  6.9	 0.90	4.42	11.2	 9
    Mitre	 5.01	10.1	  2.7	  4.5	 0.9	4.96	 6.1	-5
    
    
    Mitre is, however, well-regarded in the Cubs' camp. He was recently named as winner of the Ron Santo and Billy Williams award for the Cubs' top rookie of the spring, awarded to the individual who most exemplifies courage, determination, hard work, dedication and respect for the game of baseball (what fabulous intangibles!).

    Luckily, Greg Maddux and Carlos Zambrano have each had respectable springs. Maddux, amazingly, has 17 K's and 3 walks in 20 innings over 5 starts. Zambrano, who pitched 26 innings (more innings than any other pitcher on the roster), has been very consistent. He has cobbled together an ERA of 3.46 in 5 starts, with under 3 walks per 9 innings and just over 5 K/9.

  • Twelve Angry Men: The Cubs may carry 12 pitchers on their Opening Day roster as an insurance policy. They are concerned that they will need more relief innings than usual given that they will have a very inexperienced 5th man. The bullpen is a continuing problem, but a few new candidates have been making names for themselves.

    Andy Pratt, acquired in the Atlanta trade for Cruz, is a lefthander who will likely get a shot at a bullpen spot to cover for the still ailing Mike Remlinger and the "almost back" Kent Mercker. Other young (and not-so-young) guns looking to make their mark are 25 year-old righthander Michael Wuertz and 28 year-old lefthander Jimmy Anderson. Todd Wellemeyer, the well-regarded Cubs prospect, may also start the year in the bullpen.

  • It's Always Something: The question of whether to carry 12 pitchers or not was complicated by Jose Macias' recent injury. He is expected to be out four weeks with a torn meniscus in his left knee. The switch-hitter's bat was critical to the composition of the Cubs' bench, which is short on left-handed batters. He will also be missed as a player who could sub in both the infield and outfield. Cubbie farmhands Nic Jackson, David Kelton and Jason Dubois are being considered for short-term roster spots during Macias' time on the DL.

Detroit Tigers

  • Enter Ugey: The Tigers made yet another, albeit belated, free-agent splash by inking closer/corrected-market pariah Ugueth Urbina to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. There's also a $4-million club option for 2004 with a $500,000 buyout. The signing didn't come down the pike until late March, and Urbina will spend at least the first ten days of the season getting into playing shape in the low minors.

    PECOTA's weighted-mean projection for Urbina calls for 68 innings, a 3.21 ERA, 75 strikeouts, 26 walks and six homers. While these days $3.5 million for 68 innings is a highly dubious use of resources, Urbina does constitute a significant upgrade for the bullpen. Urbina's presence will allow Alan Trammell to allot the middle innings to the reasonably capable Danny Patterson, the promising Fernando Rodney and the underrated Jamie Walker from the left side.

    That's a highly capable top four in the pen, who combined for a 2.54 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season. With what figures to be one of the worst rotations in baseball, an effective and deep bullpen will be a boon to the 2004 Tigers. Urbina will help the Tigers, now if they'd deploy him properly...

  • Back-Page Deal: It wasn't exactly a headline-grabber, but the Tigers earlier this week sent utility infielder Rob Watson to the Padres for minor league outfielder Rich Gomez.

    Watson, 24, was a 17th-round selection in 2002 out of Oklahoma State. He had a reasonably strong debut showing in the NY-Penn League, but it was nothing special for a college-trained hitter playing short-season ball. The Tigers skipped him ahead to the High-A Florida State League this past season, but Watson was eaten alive. After a demotion to the Midwest League, he still showed no semblance of power but did post a strong walk rate and a .383 OBP. Still, that's not an impressive performance for a 24-year-old in Low-A. 

    As for Gomez, who's headed Detroit's way, he was originally signed by the Tigers back in 1996 as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican. Prior to last season he'd shown some gap power and modest on-base skills. In 2003, he took what at first blush might look like a notable step forward. In 227 ABs at Triple-A Portland, Gomez hit .304/.363/.453. But once you consider he was 27 for most of the season, playing in a hitter's environment and repeating the circuit, his performance becomes something less than impressive.

    In any event, this swap isn't likely to have sweeping implications for either organization.

  • The Five Spot: Nate Robertson has bested Esteban Yan in the battle (sissy fight?) for the fifth-starter's job. The decision comes despite the fact that Yan had seemingly out-pitched Robertson in Grapefruit League play (5.21 ERA to 7.71 ERA), but Robertson did have the better K/BB ratio. What's more likely behind the move is that the Tigers would like another lefty in the rotation and that realize Robertson, who's more than two years younger than Yan, has a better chance of being valuable in future seasons.

    PECOTA's weighted-mean for Robertson this season sees 86 innings and a 5.21 ERA for him.

Montreal Expos

  • Hello From Club Med!: Tony Batista missed two weeks with the chicken pox, but is back in the lineup as spring training winds down. Nick Johnson has missed more than a week with a stiff back, currently diagnosed as a lumbar strain, and early reports are that he may miss at least a few games at the start of the season. Two injuries on the pitching staff that really have Expos fans concerned are those to Joey Eischen (elbow surgery, out until mid-May) and Tony Armas (pulled muscle in his surgically-repaired shoulder; he'll "hopefully" be back the first week of May). Armas' injury has led to...

  • The Quest for a Fifth Starter: Armas' injury means that the Expos need to figure out who is going to fill the rotation behind Livan Hernandez, Tomo Ohka, Zach Day and Claudio Vargas. And an unusually difficult April schedule for the Expos (they play six straight to start the season, have one day off, then play 20 more in a row) means that they NEED a fifth starter--they don't have the luxury of shuffling the rotation using off days to skip the fifth starter's spot. With recent moves made to bolster the rotation, the fifth starter options are:
    
    Pitcher         PECOTA projected EqERA
    Sun-Woo Kim                5.08
    Shawn Hill                 5.14
    John Patterson             5.07
    Seung Song                 4.82
    TJ Tucker                  4.43
    
    
    That's pretty craptastic. And if the Big O and Hiram Bithorn play as hitter-friendly in 2004 as they did in 2003, the actual ERAs posted will be even higher. Tucker is arguably the best option, and did well in a late-season turn in the rotation in 2003, but he's not being seriously considered as a starter this spring. Song has already been sent to Triple-A, but is first in line for a promotion if needed. Patterson and Kim are both out of options, so odds are good that they'll both make the team, one in the rotation and one in the bullpen. Kim has reeled off a couple of good starts to close spring training, so he's probably the current favorite to start the season in the rotation (despite Frank Robinson's anti-Kim tirade last summer). Expect Minaya to try to snag another arm or two as teams trim down to 25, and expect a lot of different arms to get a shot at fifth starter.

  • Can you spell "Relief" without an "L"? Eischen's surgery and the trade of Randy Choate have the Expos seriously considering opening the year without a lefty in the pen. It wouldn't be a first for the Expos--the best team in baseball in 1994 didn't have a southpaw in the bullpen either. Frank Robinson is a pretty traditional manager, though, which means he'll probably want a lefty, which means that Chad Bentz probably makes the team. The rest of the bullpen figures to be Rocky Biddle, Luis Ayala, Chad Cordero, Tucker, and whoever loses out the fifth starter battle. Biddle starts the year as the nominal closer, but his hold on that title is less than secure. If Biddle falters, expect to see Ayala and Cordero getting shots at closing out games.

  • Outfield Options: Meanwhile, the position-battle-that-shouldn't-be continues to rage on. Brad Wilkerson and Carl Everett are definitely starting in the outfield. The Expos have two young outfielders who can hit and play some defense (Terrmel Sledge and Juan Rivera), and a couple of guys who can't hit much, but who play excellent defense (Endy Chavez and Peter Bergeron). Here's how PECOTA sees the contestants:
    
    Player         PECOTA projected EqBA/EqOBP/EqSLG
    Rivera                .272/.320/.455
    Sledge                .256/.332/.427
    Ron Calloway          .247/.306/.419
    Endy Chavez           .261/.307/.372
    Peter Bergeron        .241/.305/.344
    
    
    Pretty obvious solution, no? Use a Sledge/Rivera platoon in the third OF spot, and use Bergeron or Chavez off the bench as a late-inning defensive replacement. Instead, the Expos are thinking of making Bergeron the leadoff hitter and starting CF. Why? Because Bergeron is hitting near .400 in spring training (as empty a .400 as you'll ever see, by the way--few walks, and an isolated slugging of less than .075, and a late slump to end spring training bringing his numbers down). Never mind the fact that he's got ~2,000 PA over the last four years saying he can't hit--these 70 spring PAs have got to mean something! It could come down to a question of who has options left and who doesn't--Chavez and Rivera have options left, Bergeron and Ron Calloway don't. Don't expect Bergeron as starting CF to last, though. If he is made the starting CF, Bergeron will probably play his way to the bench (or Triple-A) pretty quickly, and Rivera will get a brief chance to see lovely Edmonton, Alberta, in the springtime.

San Francisco Giants

  • Last Minute Fine Tuning: Like every team in the majors, the Giants are making last minute adjustments to the roster and depth charts as they prepare for their season-opening series in Minute "Not Fortified by BALCO" Maid Park. The lineup continues to yield few if any surprises, as Sabean and Alou settled on their veteran starters months ago. Talks that Pedro Feliz might challenge for the shortstop job predictably proved to be just noise, and it's clear that the fans will have to put up with yet another J.T. Snow job.

  • Lone Position Battle: The one job featuring anything resembling a position battle was right field. Here's one more look at how the candidates compare against each other, plus against the outfielders that rival GM Paul DePodesta has been able to haul in over the last week:
    
    Player      PA   EqOBP  EqSLG   VORP   Defense
    Tucker      221  .338    .390    0.3      -2
    Mohr        333  .336    .447    7.4      +1
    Hammonds    222  .334    .407    1.3 (CF) -8
    Werth       296  .331    .478   12.3      +1
    Grabowski   207  .336    .445    7.0      -1
    Ross        341  .332    .466   11.1      -1
    
    

    The job has always been promised to the one player on this list who clearly doesn't deserve it, Mike Tucker. Even the ever-crystalline Jeffrey Hammonds rates out better according to weighted-mean VORP, and that with a whopping -8 runs on defense. Granted, he's helped by being compared to replacement center fielders, but presumably his glove would improve in right. The player being left to languish on the bench, Dustan Mohr, is so far ahead that it makes one wonder why there was even a battle to begin with... and even he isn't any better than the worth of the crew DePodesta was able to scrounge up. Sure, the Giants don't have a lot of farm help to work with, but Jason Grabowski cost the Dodgers nothing but spare change. Jayson Werth came over for the mere price of a minor-league reliever, as did Cody Ross, though that one also cost a PTNBL due to the age difference. Think Sabean couldn't have scrounged up someone like that? Well, maybe he couldn't, given the other area undergoing signficant churn as teams head north:

  • Bullpen woes: Sabean has spent as much time on the phone as DePodesta, only his focus has been on shoring up the back of the pen. Dave Veres and Mike Crudale were brought in as minor-league fliers after being released by their clubs, and Kevin Walker was plucked off the San Diego waiver wire. These seem like nice pickups given that Robb Nen and Scott Eyre have been shipped off to the DL... but Sabean also traded a pair of minor league arms for the likes of Wayne Franklin and Leo Estrella. When you're trading for a guy who pitched his way out of the Milwaukee rotation before the season even started, something is wrong. The fact that arms were spent on these rejects, and not on someone who might actually challenge Tucker or Mohr for an outfield spot, indicates just how entrenched management philosophy is regarding the lineup. Not many teams can trade for pitching help they can't use at the expense of shoring any of four craters in the lineup and win the division, but the Giants appear determined to try.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Werth-less? The Jays neatly resolved their outfield dilemma by optioning Alexis Rios and Gabe Gross to Syracuse--check in on Rios again come the 15th of May or so--and shipping Jayson Werth to the Dodgers in exchange for pitching prospect Jason Frasor.

    Werth has a very healthy PECOTA projetion, and mostly by virtue of that, is a guy whom we've touted in this spot in the past. Frasor, on the other hand, is a guy who is 26 and has yet to make it out of Double-A. PECOTA envisaged a 4.32 ERA for him in Chavez Ravine, and it's safe to add at least three-quarters of a run to that as he moves to the Skydome and a DH league.

    So it seems safe to say that at least some of the motivation behind the trade had to do with Jayson's perceived lack of worth, rather than Jason's presence of it. We think that PECOTA does a tremendous job with about 98 percent of the players that it projects, but Werth is one case in which its projection seems potentially out of touch.

    Let's take a look at Werth's walk rate at his primary minor league stopping points over the past three seasons:

    
    Year		Club (Lg)	      PA     BB    BB%
    2001		W. Tennessee (Sou)    432    63	  14.6%
    2002		Syracuse (Int)	      510    67	  13.1%
    2003		Syracuse (Int)	      251    15	   6.0%
    
    
    That's an alarming trend, especially for a hitter who is at an age where his pitch recognition skills should still be improving very rapidly. Werth has been touted as a prospect for a long time, and it's possible that the guy is getting frustrated. But PECOTA also underscores the point that there's no such thing as regular course of development when it comes to a prospect; a hitter that posts a .245 EqA at age 22 (as Werth did) can easily be a .280 EqA hitter by the time that he's 24, making him a solid, major league regular; he could also very easily post a .235 EqA at age 24 (as Werth), making him a Triple-A-repeater who is going to need to scratch and claw for his shot to make a big league roster.

    Werth, in fact, might not have to resort to scratching and clawing, or even heavy petting: the Dodgers' paltry mix of offensive 'talent' will ensure that he'll get a good and long look. And PECOTA, surely, does see some things that it likes: Werth is a big, strong guy who can hit the ball a long way. He runs well, and his defensive metrics have improved.

    But you can say the same thing about any number of other Dodger tools goofs, starting with Reggie Abercrombie and moving down the alphabet. It was his plate discipline that once separated Werth from the rest of those guys, and it is his plate discipline that gives PECOTA its high hopes for him. It will be his plate discipline that determines Jayson Werth's future.

    One other point that the Werth trade underscores is the importance that an organization can place, rightly or wrongly, on a player's most recent season. Werth was progressing just fine up until last year's poor campaign. Frasor, conversely, wasn't even on the radar at the start of the season, but dramatically cut his walk and home run rates, while moving up a level, and striking out 12.7 batters per 9 IP.

    We have a pretty good idea, statistically speaking, of how to handle performance blips like these for established major league regulars, but with prospects the problem is much stickier. Minor leaguers are not immune to the vagaries of randomness and sample size: there have been hundreds of minor league Brady Andersons. At the same time, it is probably true that a dramatic shift in output is more likely to represent intrinsic change in the skill level of developing player than it is in the skill level of an established one.

    Resolving these sorts of dilemmas is something that requires input from both scouting and analytical camps, and something that we hope to revisit through PECOTA down the road somewhere. That two bright minds like J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta can differ in their reads of players like Werth and Frasor gives you some idea of the trickiness of the problem.

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