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April 23, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • Irrational Exuberance: The Angels' Arte Moreno opened up his wallet for Garret Anderson and found 48 brand new million dollar bills to be doled out over four years. To be fair, at times we've been overly critical of Anderson--that was mostly in the early days of his career when his superficial counting stats (BA, RBI) ruled the day. He's become a very useful ballplayer, even if he lacks the gaudy on-base percentage or spectacular defense that might raise him to star status.

    Moving Anderson to CF to solve the Darin Erstad 'problem' is a stretch, and a move that could possibly affect his long-term value and health. He's a player built on traditional numbers as opposed to secondary skills, doesn't have a lot of speed and is on the wrong side of 30. While there are things to like, giving a player a contract like this in the new, more conservative economic realm of baseball reads like irrational exuberance. It's also a play on overpaying for one of the organization's "good guys," in the hopes that keeping Anderson around generates enough marginal revenue to make the deal make sense. It's like going all-in with a gut-shot straight draw in Texas Hold 'Em; sure, you might hit it, but do you want to risk that much on those odds?

  • The Erstad Watch: Darin Erstad is ripping the ball to the tune of a .548 OPS (.228/.267/.281 BA/OBP/SLG) through Wednesday's games, or a little better than Barry Bonds' batting average. Erstad ought to be a cornerstone of any HACKING MASS franchise. He's kind of the converse of a fantasy player who has more value because he qualifies at multiple positions. In this case, he has more (less?) value because he now qualifies at 1B, rather than CF where he may have some (albeit limited) value.

    You would think there would be some way to justify the move to 1B, but it's a stretch at best. Erstad's under contract until 2006, and it's likely to cause the Angels a lot of pain if they keep playing him at 1B to justify what is looking like a sunk cost at this point. The only argument posited here with even a shred of a chance of coming true is the one that holds that Erstad will stay healthy and start playing 155 games a season at first, his newfound health helping him regain his 2000 stroke and his athleticism making him a premier defensive first baseman.

    We're not buying it. Erstad missed just 17 games between 2001 and 2002, yet finished less than 20 runs above replacement level in those two seasons combined. Further, playing Erstad at 1B cancels out a huge portion of his defensive value: In center, Erstad is as good as anyone in the game, capable of saving the Angels some 25 runs a year, the equivalent of about two-and-a-half wins. Meanwhile even the best defensive first baseman in the game just isn't going to do as much to help you prevent runs, while at the same time better, dirt-cheap, freely-available talent can easily outhit Erstad at first.

  • Colon, Colon, and Pray for Colon: It's far too early to panic, yet the Angels' pitching so far has consisted of Bartolo Colon on the front end...and Francisco Rodriguez on the back end. Kevin Gregg has helped in limited time, and there's Troy Percival, not quite the Percival of old. Brendan Donnelly has been sorely missed in the pen, and will hopefully return soon (mid-May or later seems to be the general consensus). The Angels hope some combination of Kelvim Escobar, Jarrod Washburn, John Lackey and Ramon Ortiz can bounce back and eventually provide stability. The concern here is that this is a heavily flyball-oriented pitching staff, and neither Washburn nor Ortiz are likely to strike many people out. Combine that with Erstad's move to first base, and it might be a long year for Angels' run prevention.

  • Nuke LaLoosh, Redux: Flame-throwing poster child Bobby Jenks is having a tough go of it so far with the Triple-A Salt Lake Stingers of the PCL. In 12 1/3 innings, he's allowed 19 hits, 15 runs (11 earned) to go with six walks and 13 strikeouts. That's an 8.03 ERA and a 10.95 RA. If there's a silver lining, he's only allowed one HR with more than a strikeout an inning. His control could use improvement, but it's the hits killing him so far. Unless he's doing his best (worst?) Billy Koch imitation, expect that H/IP ratio to come down.

    If and when Jenks makes it to the show, don't expect Kerry Wood--or Nuke LaLoosh. Once he's harnessed his stuff and gets his head on straight, Jenks might become a dominant reliever. PECOTA comps include Bobby Witt and Rich Gossage, the latter likely being his career aspiration.

    The latest development is that Jenks has complained of elbow pain; the Angels hope he can avoid surgery.

Chicago Cubs

  • Say it is So-sa: Although some guy named Barry Bonds is getting a lot of attention lately, Sammy Sosa hit a little milestone of his own. Sosa overtook Ernie Banks to become the Chicago Cubs' all-time home run leader, all the more impressive when you consider his beginnings. From Bill James, in The Baseball Book 1990:
    He doesn't know the strike zone from the Swahili alphabet, but with that he is some prospect. He's twenty-one years old, fast, strong, and a major league center fielder. There is always the possibility of a relapse (he hit .229 for Charlotte in 1988), but the odds are that he'll hit around .270 with 12-15 home runs and 25 or more stolen bases for the Sox. His throwing arm may be his best asset. He's the best center field prospect that the White Sox have had since Chet Lemon. Except possibly for Darryl Boston. And we all know what happened to Darryl Boston.
    Sosa's come a long way, and serves as somewhat of a poster child for the importance of plate discipline. Although Sammy's still susceptible to the low-and-away slider late in the count, he's become a very valuable player, even in the decline phase of his career. It's very likely that Sosa would have had a very different career path (i.e. not much of one) if he hadn't learned to take the occasional walk. Pitchers would have eaten him alive if he remained the player he was when he came up. The power certainly helped as part of his development, yet it isn't everything. Sosa stands as a good example of why we value players with broad-based skill sets; speed and power are a lethal combination, and adding plate discipline helps even more.

    Many of us were critical when the Cubs gave Sammy his first big contract, and he went out and justified it. And then some. Congratulations, Sammy.

  • Early Scuffles: In what seems to be a common occurrence, Matt Clement has been fighting his control again early in the season. This isn't a big surprise, as Clement's pitches have a lot of natural movement and he's tough to hit. It's likely he's just finding his release point and getting a feel for his spots early in the year. His first three starts have been predicated on some common themes: strikeouts, ground balls and a poor strike-to-ball ratio. He's had a strikeout per inning or better in each of his starts, GB to FB ratio of two-to-one or better in each start, and hasn't thrown a lot of strikes. (Just over 60% in his first start, then 54% and 52% the last two starts--ideally, you'd like him to be in the 65-70% range for strikes thrown.)

    Don't be surprised if Clement has his occasional early struggle as he finds his comfort zone (he had an 11-run debacle erased by a rainout early last season, which would have hurt his numbers a bit). Just the same, don't be surprised if he's one of the Cubs' better pitchers as the season moves along--he caught fire and posted a 2.28 ERA last July. He may not be Prior or Wood, but he doesn't need to be. If the Cubs starters stay healthy and Dusty manages them so they've got gas in the tank in September (and hopefully October)...well, that's all one can ask.

  • Walking Walker: At the time the Cubs signed Todd Walker, some people opined that it was a bit redundant with Mark Grudzielanek already under contract. However, with Grudzielanek's early-season injury (what is it with Achilles tendons this spring?), Walker has stepped in nicely to the tune of .333/.456/.511, tied with Sammy Sosa for the club lead in walks. Although in-season position changes can be sketchy propositions, it would be interesting to see what might happen if the Cubs threw Grudzielanek (once healthy) in the mix at his old position (SS) to spell Alex Gonzalez. This would give Dusty some additional flexibility and allow him to get both Walker and Grudzielanek in the lineup at the same time. Mind you, Grudzielanek isn't a good bet to repeat last year's offensive performance. But if Grudz is one of Dusty's guys, it's a way to get Walker's bat in the lineup. Walker may not be a defensive whiz, but if he can give the Cubs a dose of desperately needed OBP at the top of the order.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Spivey-Man Watch: Junior Spivey is off to the hot start the Brewers wanted, posting a BA/OBP/SLG of .309/.381/.509. The question is, will they be able to capitalize and receive solid value in a trade? Spivey's not going to be around to see any championship banners fly in Milwaukee, so the Brewers would do well to leverage his value when it peaks. Moving Spivey would allow Keith Ginter regular playing time and clear the way for the eventual arrival of Rickie Weeks.

    Tony Womack is off to a hot start for St. Louis, so at least one suitor is lost for now. However, the near-certain-to-acquire-a-2B New York Yankees are getting a whopping .367 OPS so far from Enrique Wilson; don't expect that to continue indefinitely. The problem with the Yankees, in part, is that the prospect cupboard is mostly bare. One player with trade value for the Yanks, Jorge DePaula, is going under the knife for elbow ligament replacement surgery. Outside of catcher Dioner Navarro, there's not a lot to impress in the farm system. However, being blocked by Jorge Posada would seem to make a player available and good trade bait. The Brewers aren't exactly teeming with catching prospects; it'd be interesting to see if they made a run at Navarro, with Spivey-plus as bait.

  • A Glint of Ginter: OK, so it's only 27 AB, which doesn't mean a hill of beans. Just the same, it's nice to see Keith Ginter pushing his way into more playing time with a .407/.500/.815 BA/OBP. Ginter's quick start is significant not because we should expect this level of performance to continue, but rather because it will help him garner more playing time. He's been highlighted in this space before, and gives the Brewers flexibility depending on whether Wes Helms moves to first or Junior Spivey gets traded or Geoff Jenkins gets hurt again. He's a good a superutility player as any in the game.

  • Schilling-esque Sheets?: Ben Sheets is off to a solid start, especially significant to the rest of the rotation. Sheets has become the Brewers' anchor, and it's preferable for that to translate to "Ace", rather than the guy dragging everyone else down with him. What's really encouraging is that his peripherals have been strong. In 20 1/3 IP, Sheets has allowed 18 hits and only one homer to go with three walks and 20 strikeouts. If that's a continuation of last year's trend, it's a great sign for the Brewers--it's not like Doug Davisor Wes Obermueller are going to be the saviors of the franchise. Chris Capuano, potentially a big boost to the rotation, has been dealing with a minor left leg injury. Right now, Sheets is pretty much the go-to guy, and he's handling it well so far.

    There's not a lot of difference between Sheets and other big-name pitchers in major media markets. Provided he can stay healthy and keep his HR totals down, he'll deserve to be mentioned in the upper echelon of starting pitchers. Last year, he took a step forward; hopefully he'll continue his growth this year and give the Brewers something they can build around.

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