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April 15, 2004

Can Of Corn

The Week That Was

by Dayn Perry

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How about a quick look back at the week that was in baseball?

Constricting Bowa

The Phillies, the team 83.3 percent of us picked to win the NL East, are off to a grim 1-6 start. That's especially infelicitous considering that it's a season of high expectations playing out in shiny new digs, which is why Larry Bowa's employment status grows more tenuous by the moment. It's been known for a while that Bowa's tenure with the Phillies would reach a crisis point this season; the team has a strong core surrounded by a handful of recent quality acquisitions, and the division is no longer an imposing one.

I forgot who it was, but someone within the BP family said not long ago that the best thing that could happen to this year's Phillies would be for a poor start to lead to the prompt defenestration of Bowa. The idea was that the team would then have time to slough off Bowa's nefarious influence and rally to a division title under a less despotic interim--so long as said interim isn't Dallas Green. (If there's one reason for a Phillies partisan to hope that Bowa remains in clover, it's the threat that team brass will thaw out Green to replace him.)

With all those factors in place, why in the world would GM Ed Wade extend Bowa 's contract? My sense is that it's more industry-wide organizational decorum than anything else, but it simply doesn't follow that a manager facing a mettle-testing season would have his option picked up for 2005 and club options added for 2006 and 2007. In an era when teams get a fiscal tsk-tsking from Bud Selig for their behavior on the free-agent market, you'd think this sort of unwarranted "here ya go, pal" stuff would be subject to more ridicule.

Jimy Fun

I got a little excited when I read a headline hinting that Astros manager Jimy Williams might use closer Octavio Dotel in non-save situations. Was Williams, old-schooler nonpareil, reading Derek Zumsteg when no one was looking?

Then I read the article under the headline. It turns out Williams indeed plans on using Dotel in non-save situations, but those situations won't be high-leverage spots in the middle innings; rather, it'll be when the 'Stros have a four-run lead in the ninth. Yeah, a four-run lead. The war to maximize bullpen efficiency just endured its Tet Offensive.

According to this whopping-good piece by Keith Woolner, from 1980-1998, there was a 2.3 percent chance of a team surrendering four or more runs in any given inning. In other words, Williams is burning his best reliever--one of the game's best relievers, in fact--in a situation where he has, on average, a 97.7 percent chance of success. At this juncture, Williams doesn't have much confidence in his corps of supporting relievers, but this is precisely what he shouldn't be doing. Let Dotel work some of the critical-mass innings that would otherwise be going to people like Ricky Stone; don't exhaust him in gimme frames like the ninth inning of a four-run game.

Need more reasons to fear for Houston's chances with Jimy at the switch? Well, Morgan Ensberg, who in a just meritocracy would be the Astros' starting third baseman every day, was on the bench Tuesday night for the third time in eight games. This time, Jimy ramped up his Sacco-and-Vanzetti treatment by benching Ensberg in favor of Jose Vizcaino. Why? Yeah, I'm aware that Vizcaino was 9-for-10 in his career against Cards starter Jeff Suppan, but if Ensberg's manager can find justification to bench him based on a 10-AB sample, then the bar for handy rationalization isn't set too high. Ensberg deserves better.

Designation Station

Three interesting names were designated for assignment. The Twins put up minor-league reliever Mike Nakamura for auction, while the Orioles attempted to cut bait on right-hander John Stephens and DH Jack Cust (Baltimore's attempt to designate Cust for assignment was squelched by the commissioner's office due to an apparently unintentional violation of transaction rules. It'll just happen again in a few days.)

The Blue Jays, who aren't entirely at ease with their current crop of relievers, quickly snapped up Nakamura. That could turn out to be a sage move. As Chris Kahrl pointed out in the most recent Transaction Analysis, Nakamura is in the midst of transition to a sidearm delivery, a change which may have the Jays dreaming fond dreams of a Chad Bradford proxy.

Nakamura has a strong record of performance in the minors as well. In 421 2/3 minor-league innings, he struck out 439, walked 129 (for an excellent a 3.4 K/BB ratio) and given up 26 homers and 383 hits. He's had success at all stops, including 95 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings at Triple-A Rochester last season. Given the uncertainty surrounding the Twins' bullpen, you'd think they 'd make a place for an arm like Nakamura's. Then again, if they were handling these things sensibly, Jesse Crain would be on the 25-man roster.

Baltimore made a couple of curious decisions on Stephens and Cust. Stephens was subsequently signed by the Red Sox, who have tandem worries in the bullpen and the back of the rotation. A command-and-control guy, Stephens has excelled at all stops and boasts a sparkling 4.8 K/BB in his minor-league career. He's also fanned more than a batter per inning in that time and does a reasonable job of keeping the ball in the park. On the downside, he's an undersized right-hander who doesn't wow scouts with his low-velocity repertoire. That performance record is undeniable, though, and the O's, who aren't brimming with quality arms in the high minors or the majors, were unwise to part with him. As for Boston, they might have another Bronson Arroyo on their hands.

Cust has been the avatar of neglected minor-league hitters for a while now. He 's a deeply patient hitter (79 unintentional walks in 333 at-bats last season at Triple-A Ottawa), which is why he's regularly been met with encomium in stathead circles. However, Cust's power numbers, impressive on the surface, may be illusory. He's slugged above .500 at both Double- and Triple-A, but while playing in El Paso of the Texas League and in Tucson of the Pacific Coast League, two of the most hitter-friendly yards in the minors. At Ottawa last season, Cust slugged just .426, and in 140 at-bats at the highest level he's slugged just .393. His on-base skills are quite strong, but you need more power from someone with Cust's negligible defensive value. Now 25, he's more suspect than prospect.

Some may be puzzled by the O's decision to get rid of Cust, but his upside--contrary to what you might have heard--looks to be quite limited. Designating him for assignment makes sense at this point in his career.

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