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April 16, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • #@#%$!: Go figure. In 1973, the American League makes a position perfectly suited for a guy like Jack Cust, and 31 years later, the Orioles still don't realize that, preferring to focus on what Cust can't do, rather than on what he can.

    Last week, to make room for Erik Bedard, who was coming off the DL, the Orioles designated Cust for assignment, so any team that needs a potent lefty bat could get him for a song. He can't field, and he can't run, but he can hit. When Doug Glanville and Tony Womack have jobs in this game, it's time to stop getting on Cust for being too patient.

    Here's what skipper Lee Mazzilli had to say about the move: "We have three lefties at the same position. That's what it came down to. All we had was lefties and he couldn't get any time...It was not an easy decision."

    Mazzilli's right; the Orioles have a ton of left-handed bats: Larry Bigbie and Jay Gibbons in the outfield, Rafael Palmeiro at first, and B.J. Surhoff as the lefty DH (David Segui switch-hits). But there's something else they have in addition to all of those lefties: little hope of contending in 2004. Letting a frustrating but promising player like Cust get away to keep the Surhoffs and Seguis of the world on the roster is inexcusable.

    Cust's PECOTA comparables are uninspiring, but one name on the list jumps out: Roberto Petagine. Though he destroyed the minors, Petagine was given a grand total of 307 major league at-bats over five years (1994-1998). Eventually he signed to play full-time in Japan, where he's hit .322/.452/.646. Petagine got tabbed as an incomplete player, a 'Quadruple-A' guy. Because of an iron glove and a face-plant in front of home plate, Jack Cust is running the same risk. But the man can hit, and he'll prove that as soon as he gets a regular job.

    The Commissioner's Office tried to give the Orioles a chance to take this back, but they seemed dead set on moving on without Cust. The late-90s Orioles were synonymous with trotting out aging, declining players over guys that might help them escape fourth place. Old habits apparently die hard.

  • Part of the Solution: It's a good thing Melvin Mora can play third base, and kudos to the O's for playing him there. This might have seemed like an obvious move, given the glut of outfielders and the fact that the other third base options are Mark McLemore and the three Joses: Morban, Leon and Rule 5 draftee Bautista. But stolid old organizations might be tempted to say: "Are you kidding? Mora just had the best year of his life in left field," and spout tired maxims like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and "Don't mess with success."

    Fact is, while Mora's an above-average corner outfielder, he's played shortstop at just below league average, so there's little reason to think he can't handle third base, even though he's played just seven major league games there. PECOTA has him down for .264/.355/.425 this year, which is nothing special for a corner outfielder--in fact, he'd almost have to repeat 2003 to be a real asset--but a lot better for a third baseman. His versatility is a skill that not many players have, and the Orioles are to be commended for taking advantage.

  • Nice...Stuff: John Maine has ripped up the low minors, with astounding STUFF scores of 57, 45 and 45 in his first three stops. (For some perspective, 10 portends an average major league starter, 20 a very good one, and 30 a true ace.) Funny thing is, according to the scouts, Maine's, well, stuff is nothing special. We'll be keeping an eye on him this year as he works his way up out of A-ball into the high minors to see if Maine is for real or just a fluke. Stay tuned.

Colorado Rockies

  • Sometimes You Need A Little R&R: In Baseball Prospectus 2004 we called Rockies outfielder Rene Reyes "almost laughably overrated." But necessity is the mother of invention, and injuries to Larry Walker (there's a shocker) and Preston Wilson have forced their hand. As a result, Reyes gets to take over in center.

    PECOTA sees Reyes hitting a park-adjusted .260/.309/.413 this year. For a right fielder, that's pretty ugly. But if Reyes can hold down center, suddenly that line looks a lot better; the OBP still needs work no matter what, but his power bat becomes more valuable. Reyes may have some speed, too: in 2001, he stole 53 bases in 65 chances in the Sally League. (Of course, since then he's been only 24-for-44.) Putting his glove in center is a bit of a stretch: Reyes is below average as a corner outfielder, so it'd be tough to see him doing much in center.

    It may be worth trying for lack of better current options, but Rockies fans could rest easier if they knew the club's motivation. Reyes does hit for average and he doesn't hit for power, so that makes him look like a leadoff-hitting center fielder even though he doesn't draw any walks. If the Rockies are looking at that batting average and those stolen bases, and making this decision based on them, they're doing an interesting thing for the wrong reason. If the Rockies are saying to themselves, "The only way Reyes will have any real value is if he can play center, and besides, Preston just tore up his knee, so let's give this a shot before Larry Walker comes back," then they deserve praise. It's not a stroke of genius, but they have something to gain, and nothing to lose.

  • Irrational Exuberance: It's either a good PR job or the thin air is getting to the boys in purple and black, but a couple of good starts by Shawn Estes have sent everyone into a tizzy. "When he's on," said Shawn Green, "he's as tough as any left-hander in the league." Uh-huh. Memo to Dan O'Dowd: find team with injured pitcher. Plant seeds of desperation. ("Hey, Dusty, shame about ol' Prior there. Hey, remember that great start Shawn gave you at the end of last season?") Reap rewards.

  • No Comment: Last week, MLB.com ran an article on Royce Clayton with the headline, "Clayton a Natural Bunter." We were sure it was part of some kind of fan-interactive contest to see who could write the funniest punch line, but we just couldn't find entry info anywhere.

  • A Sportswriter's Dream: Switch-hit a couple of homers over the course of a few days and nobody notices. Do it in the same game as a rookie and you're front-page news. And if your name is Aaron Miles and you play for the Rockies, that means you get all sorts of headlines that say things like "Miles High."

    PECOTA has him for an adjusted .266/.318/.397 this year, and the extent to which he's above replacement level is almost completely negated by his shaky defense at second base. Miles is darned similar to the man he was traded for, Chisox shortstop Juan Uribe; he walks more than Uribe does, but he's a lousy defender, and Uribe has a great glove. Miles will either have to walk a lot more or hit for more power to become really useful, and the odds are against that happening at his age.

    The Rockies come home next week to start a key 12-game homestand against some pretty decent teams, so the Coors faithful will get a lot of chances to see him play. At 5'8", he's a fun one for the little guy to root for.

New York Mets

  • Fresh Start: On Sunday, Eric Valent hit his first major league home run, about three and a half years later than he was supposed to. Valent was once one of the Phillies' hotter prospects, but a quick look at his player comments in successive editions of Baseball Prospectus shows how far his stock fell:

    • 1999: "A great start...projects to hit the majors by late 2000."
    • 2000:: "The dip in his walk rate is a little alarming...he may turn that around when he hits Reading."
    • 2001:: "He tried to do too much against right-handers, attempting to pull everything...If he learns to apply that selectiveness to all his at-bats, he'll move from an intriguing but raw prospect to a player with star potential."
    • 2002:: "Valent's prospect status took a hit this year as he saw his plate discipline take a dive in Triple-A...Valent could be a good fourth outfielder."
    • 2003:: "Both his pitch selection and power declined precipitously last year. His only hope to resurrect his career may be to get a fresh start elsewhere."

    Here at BP we like to talk about plate discipline as the font of offense, but even adjusting for our predilection towards anti-hacker jeremiads, it's pretty easy to see why Valent couldn't make it big: not enough discipline. When he's gotten a chance in the majors he hasn't taken pitches and so he hasn't gotten anything good to hit. Late last year Valent, once rife with potential, was dealt to the Reds for Kelly Stinnett.

    But Valent's decline in walk rate wasn't a drop from OK to poor: he used to have a flat-out excellent batting eye, and it's dropped to simply average. While PECOTA doesn't think he's going to be such great shakes, his 75th-percentile forecast has him at .257/.343/.434, with a positive VORP. He's got that fresh start with the Mets, and with Cliff Floyd out (again), the opportunity is there for playing time. John Vander Wal is #3 on Valent's comparables list, and another player who got started late. Coors Field helped jump-start Vander Wal, but he didn't become really productive until he was in his 30s. Maybe Valent can do the same.

  • Ya Gotta Believe: John Franco just won the inaugural "Ya Gotta Believe" Award, named after the late Tug McGraw's famous slogan for the 1973 Mets. The award was given for Franco's return from Tommy John surgery.

    Another TJ alumnus, Tyler Yates, pulled one of the biggest upsets of the spring, and found his way into the Mets' rotation when they decided not only to retain Scott Erickson, but also send Jae Weong Seo down to Norfolk to get his groove back. Erickson promptly got hurt, and Seo is back: he pitched twice in relief, and is due to start on Sunday against the Pirates.

    If Seo does well, will Yates be the odd man out when Erickson comes back? It seems unfair to hand Erickson a rotation spot, only to boot him before he's had a chance to lose it on his own merit.

    Whatever happens, neither of the two should get too comfortable. Yates should keep his job if he pitches well, but with Seo's eventual return a near-certainty, Yates will probably get dropped to the #5, and the Mets are likely to want to audition a number of people in that role during this rebuilding year.

  • Speaking of Auditions: Ty Wigginton's struggles have the Shea faithful already whispering about David Wright. It's a little early for that, to say the least: Wright's played two weeks above Single-A. We'd say something like, "For every Albert Pujols, there are a hundred guys who can't make the leap," but even that would be an understatement, since 'every Albert Pujols' basically means Joe DiMaggio and not much else. The Mets won't rush Wright, and Mets fans will probably be watching him with a smile for 10 or 15 years.

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