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April 8, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • The Song Remains the Same: Brandon Webb had perhaps the most impressive debut of any player in the 2003 season, posting a 2.84 ERA with 172 Ks in 180.2 IP with an exceptional 3.44 G/F ratio. As a result, the Arizona brass was impressed enough to reward Webb with a long-term deal with the confidence that he can eventually replace Curt Schilling.

    Webb's extreme groundball tendencies make him a surer bet than most, but he's still just 24 and needs to be handled carefully. PECOTA, which is pretty bearish on most young pitchers, expects his ERA to hover around 3.80 each of the next five seasons, but also puts his improve rate at around 50/50 for this season, and an improvement on last year would put Webb in the running for the Cy Young.

    Still, a quick look at his comparables yields a number of guys who never panned out, like Mike Harkey (answer to the trivia question, who did the Mariners almost take #1 instead of Ken Griffey Jr.?) along with quite a few who went on to have mediocre careers after starting strong, like Aaron Sele and Scott Erickson. However, one of more successful names atop Webb's list is a dominant power sinkerballer by the name of Kevin Brown. PECOTA's right that Webb isn't exactly a sure thing, but the very sight of Brown on the list means that there's some chance for stardom.

  • What is and What Should Never Be: At first glance, Alex Cintron seems a little out of place hitting in the five-slot, especially considering that prior to 2003, his career high in homers was four with a whopping total of 17 in six minor-league seasons. His minor league totals could not have foretold the power explosion Cintron had last season when he went deep 15 times (13 with the big club) and slugged .489 after a previous career high of .436 in the minors. Now, he's due for a little regression to the mean, and PECOTA projects a .280/.329/.411 equivalent line, which for a 25 year old shortstop ain't bad.

    The system doesn't see a lot of upside down the road, but it may be selling him a bit short. He may not ever replicate last season, and it's not what you want out of your fifth place hitter, but his list of comparables include a lot of guys who had or who have had solid careers (Walt Weiss, Adam Kennedy, Carlos Guillen, Scott Spiezio), with Jose Vidro lurking toward the bottom of the list as another beacon of hope for the optimistic D'backs fan.

    Considering that the other options for his slot in the order are Danny Bautista--he of the career .268/.309/.411 line--and Shea Hillenbrand--he of the career .279/.313/.441 line--Cintron might not be too bad a choice. However, when it happens that the best choice to hit 5th is a shortstop unlikely to break the 15 HR mark, the offense isn't gonna take the team very far.

  • Good Times, Bad Times: With Shane Reynolds nursing a bruised ego--no, that's not fair, apparently it's an inflamed rotator cuff--he can recover from his 14.04 spring training ERA and demotion to the bullpen while on the DL. In his stead, Andrew Good gets to spend some time back in Phoenix, where he pitched respectably for a stretch last year. Don't be surprised if he gets the call to the rotation if and when Casey Daigle or Steve Sparks flame out. He may not have a tremendous upside, but he could emerge as a solid #4 starter as the year progresses.

  • Ten Years Gone: Taking a quick look at the age breakdown of Diamondbacks' opening day roster shows us what we really already knew, that this is a team in transition. Of the 30 players on the Opening Day roster and DL, 11 are 26 or under, including 8 of their 16 pitchers. At the other end of the spectrum, 8 of the 30 are over 35 years old, including five guys in their Opening Day lineup. With a solid, if unspectacular farm system and a weak division, Arizona can continue to contend all the way through their rebuilding period, especially if they can acquire another impact offensive player or two to replace Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez. However, if they flame out quickly, don't be surprised to see those over-35 guys shipped out for prospects and assorted piles of magic beans.

Kansas City Royals

  • Southpaws: As has been widely reported, barring a last-minute change to the rotation, tomorrow evening the Royals will become the first team in major-league history to use a left-handed starter in each of their first four games. This is certainly not a gimmick--Brian Anderson, Darrell May, Jeremy Affeldt, and Jimmy Gobble are clearly the Royals' four best starting pitchers, whatever hand they throw with--but it raises the question of whether, historically speaking, teams have won with such an unbalanced mound approach.

    Let's roll some of that fabulous bean footage...er, the numbers:

    
    % of      % of Avg
    LH Starts	Tms	  W%
    70%+	        5	.519
    60% - 70%	37	.515
    55% - 60%	54	.526
    50% - 55%	75	.507
    45% - 50%	119	.515
    40% - 45%	181	.510
    35% - 40%	218	.510
    30% - 35%	228	.506
    25% - 30%	265	.495
    20% - 25%	278	.490
    15% - 20%	222	.499
    10% - 15%	152	.493
    5% - 10%	146	.479
    < 5%	        164	.490
    
    If you can't see a trend in the chart above, might we recommend a trip to your friendly neighborhood ophthalmologist. Every group of teams that procured at least 30% of their starts from left-handers finished, collectively, above .500. Every group of teams that did not, did not.

    The correlation between left-handed starters and winning records is more than just a binary one. If we clump the groups together a bit, an even clearer relationship can be seen:

    
    % of      % of Avg
    LH Starts	Tms	  W%
    55%+	         96	.522
    45%-55%	         194	.512
    30%-45%	         627	.509
    10%-30%	         917	.494
    0%-10%	         310	.485
    
    
    The old adage is true: you may not need left-handed starters to win, but it definitely helps. And there's no such thing as having too many left-handers.

    If the Royals can keep all four left-handers in the rotation all season, they'll become the first team in major league history to get 80% of its starts from the left side. The most left-handed team in history to this point, the 1981 Yankees, got 85 of their 107 starts (79.4%) from southpaws.

    And, incidentally, they won the AL pennant.

  • Déjà Vu All Over Again: If you had to pick one factor that doomed the 2003 Royals season, it was the inability of their players to stay healthy--or the inability of the training and medical staff to keep the players healthy.

    So it is a very bad omen that the Royals couldn't make it three innings into the new season before suffering their first casualty. Desi Relaford felt a pull in his hamstring rounding first base, and was immediately pulled from the game. After the game, Relaford claimed that he only expected to be out a few days, but after an MRI was taken the following day, he was immediately placed on the DL.

    Thanks to the astute signing of Tony Graffanino over the winter, the Royals are well-covered for just this eventuality. But it only takes a few more injuries like this one to fritter away the Royals' biggest upgrade this off-season - their depth.

  • No Fences: After just two games in Kauffman Stadium's reconfigured dimensions, the Royals should already be reconsidering their decision to move the fences out. Instead, they should have just eliminated them.

    After years of being outhomered by their opponents on their home turf, the Royals wisely decided to move the fences from left-center to right-center field back 10 feet over the winter. The move made even more sense when you consider that three of the Royals' starters (Anderson, May, and Gobble) are all strongly fly-ball oriented.

    But if two starts are any indication, homers are going to be an issue no matter where the fences are. Through 10 innings, Anderson and May have combined for the nifty defense-independent combination of two walks and 11 strikeouts--and five homers.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Sample Size: The season is finally here. It's been a long wait for everyone, but especially for Phillies fans, who have seen their team become--at least on paper--the best in the National League.

    The toughest part about these early games, then, is not getting carried away. We just don't have enough data yet to answer the big questions: can Jimmy Rollins regain his promise, can Kevin Millwood do his #1 starter impression for a whole year instead of just half, and of course, the Real Big One: can Pat Burrell come back?

    We were following last night's Phils vs. Pirates game on the Net, and got a little worried after the fifth pitch of his at-bat in the fifth inning. Burrell came up with runners on second and third and one out, and worked a 3-1 count. Then we saw this:

    Oof. If there's anything that typifies Pat Burrell's horrendous 2003, it's pissing away hitter's counts by chasing pitches low and away. The Phillies need Burrell to rebound, not just because that allows them to split up lefties Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu, but because Burrell's old self is just plain excellent. If he can't lay off those pitches low and away, it's going to be a long year…

    ...and then on the 3-2 pitch, Burrell lined a single to left, scoring the tying run. It is going to be a long year, and, tempting as it is, we can't jump to conclusions based on anything that's happening right now. Just try to sit back and enjoy baseball's return.

  • Absolutely Loaded: That's what Will Carroll calls the Phillies' pitching in Tuesday's UTK, where he suspects that Brett Myers may be nursing an injury. That wouldn't be good, Will says, but the Phillies are equipped to weather the storm.

    Amaury Telemaco, Ryan Madson or David Coggin would likely take over for Myers. The way PECOTA sees it, this wouldn't be so bad at all. PECOTA pegs Myers for a higher WARP, but what happens when we prorate everyone else's innings to Myers's predicted 159.7?

    
             Prorated VORP
    Myers         2.1
    Telemaco      1.9
    Madson        2.1
    Coggin        1.5
    
    
    Madson and Telemaco look like perfect replacements. But PECOTA can't tell us everything, and losing a player with Myers's potential would surely be a bitter pill for the Phillies to swallow.

    And Cole Hamels? Hold your horses; let's see if he can survive the minors first. There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

  • Well, Just This Once: Oscar Wilde said that the best way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it...so let's allow ourselves to speculate wildly, just this once.

    In last night's game, Larry Bowa did something that caught our eye: he brought Rheal Cormier in to relieve Randy Wolf in the sixth. Now, the Phillies like to run their bullpen by the book: closers in save situations, setup men in the seventh and eighth, and the rest for the middle innings. Cormier, who had a 1.70 ERA last year, is certainly not one of 'the rest.' But here he was, in the sixth. Could that mean something?

    Actually, of Cormier's 65 appearances last year, 10 of them began during the sixth inning or earlier. But some of those were before he had established himself as a reliable pitcher, or during mop-up work after another miserable Brandon Duckworth start. As the season wore on, Bowa used Cormier in the early innings less and less often, stopping entirely in mid-July (which is around when Jose Mesa blew up). Does last night's game show that Bowa has more confidence in the back end of his bullpen, and is willing to deploy Cormier earlier?

    Time will tell, and we wouldn't bet on it. But if you're into wild speculation, it's an encouraging sign.

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