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May 4, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Canuck Edition, National League

by Jonah Keri

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You won't be reading about Benjamin Disraeli today.

I know that's a disappointment to many of you, what with a lowly Canadian such as myself summoned from the pen to relieve Steve Goldman and his many and wondrous obscure literary references. It's like Randy Choate getting called in to relieve Roger Clemens after 14 Rocket strikeouts, or even Tex Clevenger taking over for Whitey Ford in his prime, vying to protect a no-hitter like some tragic Yeatsian figure:

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post

Wait, wait, this is not your typical TEAMS. References will skew closer to Homer Simpson than Louis Simpson. More Ramen noodles, less Roman Empire. And finally, glowing allusions to Casey Stengel will appear just once every third sentence, rather than once every other.

Anyway, Steve will be back in this space next time, and his weekly trip through the BP vault, You Could Look It Up, will appear soon. Until then, it's time to grade our pupils. We'll start with the NL today, then do the AL later this week. Onward...

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

FLORIDA MARLINS

What exactly led us to believe that Dontrelle Willis would take a big step back this season? Sure, it's still early, and Everyone's Favorite Rookie (except, you know, people who actually look at these things objectively) could still descend into a Joe Charboneau-like freefall. But all the sound and fury over a vastly modified Willis leg kick hasn't translated to significant changes in style--or results. Also, PECOTA Year Two regression forecast be damned, Miguel Cabrera could be an MVP candidate this season in a non-Bonds world. He reached legal drinking age less than three weeks ago. GRADE: A-

ATLANTA BRAVES

Who had Chipper Jones in the First Brave Corner Outfielder To Hit The DL List? Liars. After a slow start, DeWayne Wise has gone from setting HACKING MASSter hearts aflutter to respectability in Chipper's place. Meanwhile Damon Hollins--when I saw a Da. Hollins batting leadoff and playing left for the Braves the other day, I half expected to see Kim Batiste right behind him, flashing the kind of Zen-like patience you'd expect in a 120 K/14 BB career hitter--has also seen a little time in left, making his first big league appearance since a 15-AB cup of coffee with the Braves and Dodgers in '98.

Johnny Estrada continues to catch games while wearing a small inscription sewn onto his chest protector that reads "No Drugs". Perhaps the message--which Estrada claims was meant to inspire kids to practice clean living--was a secret note to Braves pitchers during the recent Braves-Giants series.

Estrada: "OK, guys, now what's the only excuse you could have for pitching to Bonds?"
Jaret Wright: "Uh, the Giants just traded for Pujols and put him behind Barry in the lineup?"
"No, Drugs." GRADE: B

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

For the Chicken Littles who were running around bemoaning the Yankees' poor start--and especially Derek Jeter's recently snapped 0-for-32 slump--we offer the case of one Bob Kelly Abreu. After starting the season with an ugly line of 4-for-37, Abreu has caught fire, ramping all the way up to .241/.359/.483. Jim Thome has also turned things around quickly, hoisting the Phils back up to within striking distance of the Marlins and Braves after a rough start. While you may be used to seeing Goldman trot out some big words in this column, here are four little ones to guide you through, say, Memorial Day: Beware Small Sample Sizes. GRADE: B-

NEW YORK METS

As noted in that hernia-inducing leviathan we call Baseball Prospectus 2004, the Mets feature a shocking number of generic catamarans on their Wheel of Outfielders. Karim Garcia has at least separated himself from DuncanValentHeepOrsulak, providing some rare pop in a moribund lineup that's missing the perpetually injured Cliff Floyd. Floyd's still a ways away from making it back to the lineup despite his 15-day DL stint elapsing, but even when he does return, look for Art Howe to go back to what looks like a very promising Garcia/Shane Spencer platoon.

PL_Y_NG F_R 2_05

I'd like to solve the puzzle. GRADE: D

MONTREAL EXPOS

Given all the off-field nonsense and on-field atrocities that have befallen the Expos, both in the last few years and thus far this season, you could almost forgive the players if they occasionally dogged it. So you had to love Chad Cordero's gutty performance in the seventh inning of Sunday's rare 6-4 win over the Dodgers. After the Expos took a 3-2 lead on L.A., they looked poised to give it right back after Cordero loaded the bases with nobody out. But Cordero battled out of the jam unscathed, inducing Cesar Izturis and the red-hot Adrian Beltre to pop out, then getting Shawn Green to fly out to right. Pumping his first as he ran toward his fired-up teammates in the visitor's dugout, Cordero showed that even at 6-20, having just now passed the two runs scored per game barrier, the game, broken down to brief moments in time, can still matter a hell of a lot if you want it to.

Whew, made it through the entire Expos section without dropping one F-bomb. Well, except this one... GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

HOUSTON ASTROS

Score one for the Roger Clemens experiment so far. A recent first-time trip to Minute Maid Park (bringing my total home park tally to 29, with only the Metrodome to go to complete the circuit--e-mail me with helpful Metrodome/Minneapolis travel hints if you've got 'em) revealed a slew of Clemens 22 jerseys on fans' backs and on neatly placed souvenir shop hangers. A 5-0, 1.95 line and the NL Pitcher of the Month award through the Rocket's first five starts have the Astros calling Pittsburgh offices to inquire about bulk discounts on old Bill Clemensen unis they could doctor up.

The fate of the division could rest on how the Astros handle Clemens' workload, and perhaps more importantly, his rest demands as the season goes on, given the buzz when he signed was 20-22 starts max, with long road trips a no-no. One wonders whether player, team or both will push a different way when September rolls around, the Astros need a big road win, and the team's alternate choices consist of an injured Wade Miller, a flammable Brandon Duckworth, and Jim Deshaies, back to pad his Hall of Fame resume. GRADE: A-

CHICAGO CUBS

Lost in the glitz of Sosa, Wood and Prior among Cub stars is the club's All Star-caliber third baseman, Aramis Ramirez. Jim Hendry pulled off a steal of a deal last July, snagging Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and enough cash to cover a big chunk of Ramirez's leftover '03 salary for the forgettable Jose Hernandez, B-level pitching prospect Matt Bruback and player to be named later Bobby Hill, who while possessing the most upside of the trio, also had ample holes in his game and is now a 26-year-old semi-prospect, still waiting to click.

The beauty of the deal wasn't just the Cubs' ability to land two key contributors for last year's playoff run. It was securing Ramirez for the affordable rate of $6 million in 2004. While he'd struggled badly in 2002 and early '03, much of those struggles stemmed from injuries, including a bad ankle injury that took him far longer to overcome than most expected. Still, this was the same Ramirez who hit .300./350/.536 in his first full big league season at age 23, the same Ramirez who showed huge power as he climbed the minor league ladder. He could stand to ratchet up his plate discipline a bit, but you're still talking about an elite player at a key defensive position who turns 26 this season, won't break the bank this season and could be the rare free agent worth paying to retain long-term. Railing against Pittsburgh owner Kevin McClatchy and his money-hoarding reign of error won't win any pennants. Having the presence of mind to fleece the Pirates in their stupor just might. GRADE: B+

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Mesa Shmesa. The story of the Pirates' bullpen is the rejuvenated--make that the juvenated, he'd never done much in the bigs to begin with--Brian Meadows. A journeyman soft-tosser who'd never found a comfort zone in the majors, Meadows had found some success in the upper levels of the minors, relying on control to get by. His 2003 performance in Triple-A Nashville, though, ranked among the most eye-popping performances ever turned in by a pitcher at any level: 51 innings pitched, 32 hits allowed, two home runs, 40 strikeouts, ZERO walks. The Pirates, wanting to bring their green pitching prospects along slowly, said what the heck and tossed Meadows onto the major league roster to see if he could duplicate some of that success, only to see him post a 6.43 ERA before the All-Star break. Meadows bounced back, shaving that down to a 3.72 in the second half, including stellar showings in July and September. It wasn't Nashville good, but it was more than serviceable.

So far this year, Meadows has emerged as a bullpen star. He's allowed just 12 baserunners and no homers in 18.1 IP, to go with a 13:1 K:BB ratio and a 0.98 ERA, making him the seventh-best reliever in baseball as ranked by Adjusted Runs Prevented in Michael Wolverton's Reliever Evaluation Tools Report. This for a guy who even after his hot '04 start still sports a career ERA of 5.14. Fresh-faced starters like Kip Wells and Ryan Vogelsong have garnered some press for their performances. But Lloyd McClendon's confidence in his improved pen has enabled the manager to avoid pushing his young arms beyond their danger zones, keeping them fresh and effective from start to start. Has Meadows reached a new, Brendan Donnelly-an performance level? That remains to be seen, but he's at least another data point in the baffling progression of scrap heap arms to bullpen usefulness that happens time after time in baseball. GRADE: B-

CINCINNATI REDS

The fun backstories are slowly fading away. What looked like Wily Mo time now appears to be some bastard stepchild known as CruzenFreel Time. With Austin Kearns continuing the J.D. Drew-ish start to his career, the hulking Pena's swing-for-the-moon approach and frequent strikeouts have irked the Reds, bringing about a revolving door of mediocrities to tread water while the Reds slowly fade away, again. It would have been nice to give W.M.P. a chance to play every day, and maybe even discover the plate discipline that transformed Sammy Sosa into Sammy Sosa. Pena showed impressive power at a young age in the minor leagues, especially his .221 Isolated Power number (SLG-AVG) in the Midwest League in '01. If that door closes, with the team's pitching starting to struggle and Ken Griffey suffering yet another hammy injury last night, the warm-and-fuzzies could dry up quickly. GRADE: C

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Forget rigorous workout regimens, strict nutritional programs, laser eye surgery and Pilates. When it comes to Tony Womack's start to the season, there can be only one explanation. GRADE: C

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Watching the Astros-Reds game Monday night, one of the announcers noted that this April marked the first time since the switch to the current six-division, Wild Card setup in 1994 that the entire NL Central had finished at .500 or better. I don't think that trend will last. The Brewers' rotation currently looks like this:

Ben Sheets
Doug Davis
Wes Obermueller
Victor Santos
Chris Capuano (DL)

Matt Kinney and his 8.61 ERA have already been punted from the starting five, and Ned Yost has warned that Obermueller's next start could be his last for the Crew if it goes as his first four--17 earned runs in 20.1 IP--have. Given the dearth of major league or minor league pitching options available to them, along with the abundance of hitting prospects coming through the system, the Brewers could become the flip side to the Giants coin: a team unable to draft or develop pitchers--Sheets excluded--who'll deal bats for veteran arms at key junctures once they become contenders. Brewers fans, who've suffered through the second-longest playoff drought in baseball--no post-season appearances since 1982--would gladly take contention, period. GRADE: D+

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Through 89 plate appearances, Paul Lo Duca has hit one homer, drawn seven walks and struck out just twice. That works out to a Three True Outcomes percentage of just 11.2%. We at Baseball Prospectus have long been fascinated by the lords of TTO, those batters who can't be bothered with trifling line-drive singles or grounders to short, who insist on controlling their own destiny, whether by hook (homer or walk) or crook (strikeout). If Lo Duca keeps up his current pace, he'd rank near the other end of the spectrum, though not quite at the level of the most anti-Rob Deer talent the game has produced in the last three-plus decades (pause for Dave Pease to shed a tear):


(min 400 PAs, since 1972)
#   NAME           TEAM LG YEAR PS PA HR BB SO TTO TTO%
1.  Tim Foli        PIT NL 1979 ss 587 1 28 14 43 7.3
2.  Tim Foli        CAL AL 1982 ss 528 3 14 22 39 7.4
3.  Ozzie Guillen   CHA AL 1996 ss 528 4 10 27 41 7.8
4.  Rennie Stennett PIT NL 1976 2b 682 2 19 32 53 7.8
5.  Felix Fermin    CLE AL 1993 ss 514 2 24 14 40 7.8
6.  Felix Millan    NYN NL 1974 2b 585 1 31 14 46 7.9
7.  Felix Fermin    SEA AL 1994 ss 411 1 11 22 34 8.3
8.  Tim Foli        PIT NL 1980 ss 540 3 19 23 45 8.3
9.  Glenn Beckert   CHN NL 1972 2b 510 3 23 17 43 8.4
10. Bill Buckner    CHN NL 1978 1b 470 5 18 17 40 8.5

If Lo Duca finishes the year with his projected 13 strikeouts, he'd shoot to the top of the list, at least in relation to the strikeout-heightened modern game:


#   NAME          TEAM LG YEAR PS PA  AB SO%
1.  Paul Lo Duca   LAN NL 2004 c  601 13 2.2
2.  Dave Cash      PHI NL 1976 2b 727 13 1.8
3.  Bill Buckner   LAN NL 1972 rf 405 13 3.2
4.  Tim Foli       PIT NL 1979 ss 587 14 2.4
5.  Felix Millan   NYN NL 1974 2b 585 14 2.4
6.  Felix Fermin   CLE AL 1993 ss 514 14 2.7
7.  Tony Gwynn     SDN NL 1999 rf 446 14 3.1
8.  Tony Gwynn     SDN NL 1995 rf 577 15 2.6
9.  Manny Mota     LAN NL 1972 lf 410 15 3.7
10. Glenn Beckert  CHN NL 1973 2b 410 15 3.7

Oh yeah, at this pace, he'd also become the first to hit .400 since Teddy Ballgame in '41, yada, yada, yada. GRADE: B+

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Bad news: They've built their tied-for-first-place record on the back of 16 home games--the last seven against the Mets and Expos--vs. just 10 road games. Ismael Valdez, who's being bandied about as the next Esteban Loaiza in some circles, has struck out five batters in 27.2 innings in compiling his 3-1 start.

Good news: Jake Peavy's on the cusp of greatness. Akinori Otsuka's blistering start and quirky windup have caused fans to stare in wonder and PECOTA to sprain its creepy mechanical arm patting its own creepy mechanical back. Though high fly balls to right-center will still struggle to go out, Pads hitters should collect some gaudy doubles totals, with outfielders forced to cover an area roughly the size of John Kruk's Great Big Book of Baseball Goofery (Ref BS101, Pierre, More Valuable Than Bonds, at your local library). GRADE: B+

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

.463/.704/1.111 GRADE: C+

COLORADO ROCKIES

Rany Jazayerli does a great job of covering the Rockies' switch to a four-man rotation. It's worth noting, though, that he left out another reason why the '04 Rox aren't the best test case for the four-man to catch on with other teams. In Shawn Estes, Joe Kennedy, Jason Jennings and Scott Elarton, Colorado's trotting out four pitchers who are, well...not all that good. The one pitcher from the group to post an ERA under 5.73 last year was Jennings, who also happens to be the only one to have pitched all last year in the Rockies rotation.

Hot starts, and name-your-favorite-Coors-Theory-to-explain-Pitcher-X's-stats aside (Coors pitchers need good change-ups! No, good fastballs! No, good GB/FB rates! No, a deep appreciation for Colorado public schools!), this isn't a group you'd project to do well even in the best of circumstances. Major league teams are perfectly happy to copy an early adopter, but they won't do so until they see crystal-clear, sledgehammer-to-the-noggin results. For those results to become that obvious, all four pitchers would have to top their 90th-percentile PECOTA projections, to the point where not just their Coors-adjusted stats, but even their raw stats, look nice and shiny under bright lights. The four-man will provide major benefits to some team soon, and it may yet catch on. But this iteration has zero chance of yielding a quartet of 3.50 ERAs, assuming the experiment actually lasts. It will be viewed as a non-factor at best, with an excellent chance of being tabbed a failure, even while the pitchers' general crappiness and Coors effects will have played a much bigger role. GRADE: C-

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

The Capital C Closer can do more than take a bite out of a budget by forcing teams to overpay for a readily available commodity. It can flat out cost you ballgames, when the manager decides to stick with his guy in the name of...well, something or other. In 8.1 IP, Matt Mantei has now given up 12 hits, five walks and five homers, good for am 11.88 ERA and a handful of blown games. Though Mantei was among the best relievers in the game last year, he also has a history of serious arm problems. Whether he's hurt again, lost his stuff or is simply going through an expected rough patch that sometimes hits relief pitchers, if this were a non-Closer in question, he'd have been tossed onto a Triple-A shuttle, cut or shunted to the DL. It now appears that Bob Brenly may finally make a switch, going to fireballer Jose Valverde instead, with Valverde now getting the microscope treatment simply because he'll pitch 15 minutes later into the game than he used to. Oh Jerome Holtzman, what hath you wrought? GRADE: D

Coming Soon: The AL...

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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