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May 24, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Lights Dimmed on Broadway

by Steven Goldman

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TEAMS is normally written with tongue firmly in cheek, and the edition that follows is no different. However, as we wrapped another critical guide, word of Doug Pappas' passing arrived, casting a pall over these glib proceedings that has yet to lift.

I had the privilege of meeting Doug on a number of occasions and enjoyed his intelligence, knowledge and wit, and like so many I learned more than MLB would have cared for me for to by reading his many writings on the business of the game. However, the memory of Doug that I will cherish most is an e-mail I received about a run-of-the-mill installment of the Pinstriped Bible. I had made a reference to an obscure old radio show, "Vic and Sade." Doug was the only one who caught it. I knew then that we would be friends.

Baseball, by which I mean baseball, lowercase b, has lost a penetrating mind of great discernment, a gadfly who would not be dissuaded from his job as he saw it even when the Commissioner himself phoned to tell him to cut it out. His muckraking will be missed. He will be missed. Peace be with him.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

BOSTON RED SOX

Given the sheer amount of patching they've had to do, they're doing a fine job of hanging in. An impact outfielder to sub for Nixon, more than ever The One, would have been nice, but if you know of an impact outfielder in the whole minor leagues, please place a call to "America's Most Wanted." Hey, Twins! You throw us Mike Restovich, we'll throw you the whip. GRADE: A

NEW YORK YANKEES

An awful 14 of 26 on stolen base attempts, many of the caught stealings coming on busted hit and runs, because even though Don Zimmer has gone into exile, his idée fixe that the runners must always get a flying start lingers like a bad jingle that you can't quite get out of your head. Zimmer would have had Ernie Lombardi leaping off the bases like some recently deceased hippo stimulated by electric shock. One imagines that after a few pointlessly breathless trips around the infield, Lom would have put an end to the practice by hammering Zimmer into the ground with his huge, meaty fists, but alas we will never know. Any tactic compulsively executed is not a strategy but a fetish, and avoids the real labor of thinking, which in this case means asking: "Does the tactic chosen suit the situation?" Of course, these cavils are but small potatoes for a team with a .600 winning percentage; baserunning peccadilloes might only cost them a game or two in a race that they currently trail by a game and a half...so maybe they're not such small potatoes after all, but contributory yams. GRADE: B+

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Our new orthodoxy (meet the new boss, same as the old boss) says that runs scored are merely contextual--they're a reflection of a batter's place in the lineup. That being said, if an individual player scores a heaping big amount of 'em, you know he's doing a good job of getting on base and putting himself into scoring position. To put it another way, guys who score one run or more per game played, as Melvin Mora had done until just recently, are quite unusual. It's been done over a full season only 17 times. Rickey Henderson, who in 1985 scored 146 runs in 143 games, is the only player to achieve the feat since Jimmie Foxx did it in 1939 (most ever: Babe Ruth, 1.16 runs scored per game in 1921). If Mora carries this level of production through the season, he will officially qualify for the short list of baseball's strangest careers...or maybe he's just been possessed by the spirit of George Sisler. GRADE: B-

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Gregg Zaun batted fifth for the Jays on Wednesday. One man's trash is another man's treasure... Since winning six straight at the beginning of the month, the Jays have gone 3-8 and the likelihood of fixing them seems ever more remote. All of the prospects who might have bailed them out are either injured or underperforming, as are most of the big league regulars. In the case of the latter, they might think about changing managers, a sacrifice to light a fire under the club. Even if they don't, many of their lads will rebound. It's just a question of whether they do it in time to re-ignite the guttering lights of the 2004 pennant race. GRADE: D-

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

Tampa Bay at bay! It's not lack of effort, Lou, unless you consider a roster-wide refusal to take a walk lack of effort. Like the Angels, the Rays want nothing to do with the base on balls. Unlike the Angels, the Rays don't have the raw hitting ability to sustain an offense despite their impatience. The team may suffer from a paucity of professionalism, but real commitment will come with competency (should competency ever come). In any case, if a manager has to speak out about these things, it suggests he's already lost the team. GRADE: F

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

MINNESOTA TWINS After a couple of games, Justin Morneau is hitting .500. He'll probably have to maintain that average to keep his job when several Twins elder statesmen come shuffling off of the disabled list. Despite a five-game winning streak at mid-month, there's been a whole lot of scuffling for the Twins of late. Perhaps Morneau's promotion and the decision to give Matt LeCroy some time behind the plate speak of a new understanding in Twinsland that they can't just coast while fooling around with Jose Offerman and Henry Blanco. It would be nice to think that just once in a while, someone learns something. GRADE: C+

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

With Juan Uribe carrying a .905 OPS for nearly a quarter of the season, it might be time to build a statue for Greg Walker. Credit should also be awarded to the Chisox for the recreation of Scott Schoeneweis as a credible starting pitcher. Often when a pitcher with decent stuff and good health underperforms, the problem is mechanical, one that for some reason the coaches in his starting organization cannot resolve. In order to save his career, that pitcher needs to land with the team whose staff can see what the others could not. See also: Jason Marquis. GRADE: B+

DETROIT TIGERS

TEAMS might have been too hasty in condemning the Tigers to a death spiral after they lost eight of 10 games on the border of April and May. Since then, the Felids have gone 8-6, a major accomplishment for a team climbing out of the abyss. That's not to say that it wouldn't be premature for Alan Trammell to consider his work as mission accomplished. There is still a lot of dross here. In fact, you could argue that not a single player in the current lineup will be part of the next great Tigers team. Still, it's inspiring to see what can happen when you just put a little Pudge in your life... Managerial fetish for your future Trammell bio: playing catchers in center field. See: Brandon Inge and the ill-fated Ben Petrick. GRADE: A

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Is it too late to get Ernie Camacho? Doug Jones? Firpo Marberry? GRADE: C

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Ongoing arguments about who they should trade and when they should trade and if they should trade are a bit like crew members on the Titanic debating whether or not it's time to deploy the lifeboats. GRADE: F

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

ANAHEIM ANGELS

The Halos can survive the loss of Troy Glaus, provided the bad defense they endure belongs to Chone Figgins or even a rushed-forward Dallas McPherson, and not to Shane Halter, who is subject to arrest for indecent exposure any time he steps onto the field. For all of Anaheim's human losses, they've endured nicely because Figgins has been great, Jeff DaVanon quite serviceable, and the Kotchman/Quinlan platoon at first has at least outperformed Erstad--though it has yet to hit a home run. The chief impact of Glaus' departure is that Erstad can never, never return. With Glaus gone, the Seraphim can no longer carry Erstad's bat, if ever they could. GRADE: B

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Winners of four straight at this writing. Now taking bets as to when Nick Swisher will get a chance to displace Mark Kotsay in the outfield. GRADE: B

TEXAS RANGERS

The Rangers possess the number-one team OPS in the AL by a large margin, and surprise, it's thanks largely to a big honkin' park split. The road OPS is .722; the road ERA is 3.88. When the Rangers go to the trade markets to upgrade this team, they're going to look for pitching. Pitching couldn't hurt, but an honest-to-gosh, all-parks hitter is going to be just as important. GRADE: C+

SEATTLE MARINERS

Edgar Martinez coming back for this team is like Babe Ruth coming back for the 1935 Braves. GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

FLORIDA MARLINS

Losers of 10 of 17 May contests as both the offense and the pitching went to sleep. On Thursday, the Venerable McKeon tried to wake up the former by starting Lenny Harris in left field and batting him fifth; the Venerable McKeon is either very religious or very funny. The pitching staff may be bolstered by the return of A.J. Burnett. As for the batting attack, there's nothing wrong here that a middle infield transplant wouldn't cure. Somehow, though, a consensus has evolved that Alex Gonzalez is a useful player. In truth, he's about as utilitarian as a sports utility vehicle, but it's late in the game to start arguing either point. Barring a massive run by the Phillies, the Marlins will be in the thick of things regardless. GRADE: C

NEW YORK METS

Esix Snead was called up when Al Leiter hit the DL. For abundance of resources and lack of assets there is no team like the Mets. Their paucity of ready talent underscores the Tyler Yates situation. "He's a good pitcher," the Mets complain, "but he tends to tank out after about 40 pitches." Normally, we call a pitcher who answers to that description a reliever, and maybe a very good one. The Mets, who might have to activate Jerry Koosman to round out the rotation, are too strapped to do the obvious thing, or as another Yeats wrote: "I, being poor, have only my dreams." GRADE: C

MONTREAL EXPOS

April was an unmitigated nightmare, but May has been moderately successful at 9-8, a turnaround sparked by the bold trade that packaged Jose Vidro, Matt Cepicky and Endy Chavez to the Yankees for the Lou Gehrig monument. The monument has been the offensive force at first that the Expos have lacked since Andres Galarraga first bloomed into view in 1988, and has also been a steadying force in the clubhouse. In truth, much like a monument that offense has remained mostly inert, with the notable exception of Terrmel Sledge, who has saved himself from Triple-A lifer status by rebounding from his 5-for-41 April with a .358/.404/.660 May. Kudos to Frank Robinson for sticking with the 27-year-old "kid," not that he had any choice; the cupboard is bare, the Goldfinger mini-plane to Edmonton has been grounded. In truth, the pitching staff has carried the team of late; its aggregate 3.66 ERA ranks fourth in the NL and hints at a quick turnaround once new ownership pumps a few bucks into the batting order, or Robinson applies to the consistency of approach he took with Sledge to the rest of the lineup, apparently picked out of a hat. GRADE: B-

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Either they've finally turned it around or they've simply benefited from playing the tough-as-brie NL West. In truth, the Phillies are in the soft part of their schedule now and won't see a really difficult opponent until the Twins and White Sox in mid-June. As such, the next three weeks represent an opportunity to blow the doors off the race--especially since the Marlins are willing to be helpful and lose a few right now. Nothing can stop the Phillies now, nothing but injuries and Rheal Cormier, an untalented 37-year-old lefty who had a fluke great year in 2003. GRADE: A

ATLANTA BRAVES

Baseball is in the entertainment business, same as movies, television, and cockfighting. Imagine seeing this ad for a new movie:

MONUMENTALLY MALADROIT STUDIOS PRESENTS
STAR GLADIATOR
Starring BERT SHPILIKIS (Russell Crowe would have cut into our profit margin)
With DOTTIE FISTULA (Julia Roberts wouldn't give us a hometown discount)
And SANDOVAL BLOKEY as "Monte the Bear."
(Support this film and maybe we'll be able to get real actors for the sequel.)

This year's BP annual makes a good argument for the demographic shifts that have forced the Braves to redefine themselves as a mid-cap team. Fine. But there's no excuse for playing less than a major league lineup, which, apologies to Ben Sheets and Randy Johnson, contributed mightily to the amazing performances pitched against them recently.

Yes, the Braves have had injuries. It doesn't matter. They knew this phase was coming. With access to their own financial projections, they saw the writing on the wall long before any of us on the outside did, and failed to prepare adequately for it. The Braves' system, drafting high school pitcher after high school pitcher, was self-indulgent.

All teams, big-market, small-market, non-market, the Qgzyxtpl Bonkers of the Fifth Dimension, are obligated to either give the public something that seems like a nightly compulsory event, or shut the heck up. There have to be attractions in the ballpark. Otherwise, it's cheaper and more satisfying to stay home.

The root of this is that baseball teams are making inadequate investments in player development. They are making inadequate investments in promoting baseball in the inner cities. I know I'm going to get mail saying they're spending millions, and I'm sure they are. It's not enough. If a team can't afford the big-time salaries that New York pays, there are other ways to compensate. Ballplayers are a commodity product. You find more, the price of ballplayers goes down. That should help recoup the price of the investment.

In modern baseball, there's no excuse for the kind of lineups the Braves have been playing. These are not the Braves of the 1930s, with no money, access to every kind of player but whites denied, and no farm system to put them in anyway. Teams, you're an entertainment. Give the public something worth seeing. GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

HOUSTON ASTROS

Adam Everett leads the majors with 10 sacrifice bunts. That's from the #2 hole, which means that Mr. Williams is shortening the innings in which his best bats come up. With slugging and on-base percentages in the threes (OBP low threes), there's no reason to keep Everett up there, except for the stubborn belief that he's "changed." This concludes this week's Jimy Williams bash.

Moving from the mundane to the sublime, Roger Clemens is doing something that has very little in the way of precedent. Perhaps it's an obvious point, but most 41-year-old pitchers don't perform at this level. Heck, most 41-year-old pitchers aren't pitchers. The closest parallels are Cy Young, who posted a 1.26 ERA (LERA of 2.39) in 299 innings for the 1908 Red Sox, Ted Lyons' wonderful "Sunday Pitcher" performance of 1942, Warren Spahn's last hurrah in 1963, and, most appropriately, Nolan Ryan, who struck out 301 batters in 1989 at the age of 42. None of them had quite the year the Rocket has had to this point... There's a moment in "Bonnie and Clyde" where Clyde says: "Hi! We're Bunny and Claude. We steal carrots." Houston version: "Hi! We're the Houston Astros. We blow saves." GRADE: B-

CINCINNATI REDS

Ryan Wagner's half-decent May may revive talk from earlier this season about the new idea of drafting college closers, which is actually the old idea of drafting college closers, guys like Matt Anderson. In the rare cases where it works, which is to say you draft an above-average reliever, you've gained 60 great innings. Hoop dee doo. The three teams after you draft three top college starters and they each get 200 strong innings while reaping two bonuses: First, they don't have to deal with the disappointments caused when the draft pick, used as a late-inning reliever because his college coach called him a late-inning reliever, fails to pitch like Eric Gagne. Second, they get to use someone like Danny Kolb as closer for a fraction of the money. Currently tied for first in the Division Nobody Loved. It won't last, but what the hey. GRADE: A

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Can you have a successful closer with no strikeouts? You can if his groundball-fly ratio is 6.60. Danny Kolb has struck out just three batters in 14.2 innings this season, or an anorexic 1.84 per nine innings, but batters are killing worms seven times as often as they shoot for the seagulls. That's like having a sinker two-and-a-half times better than Tommy John's. It's not his arm angle, it's his gravity, heavier than ours. It's not going to last, of course, but if it does, someone should check for iron filings on the baseball and a super-magnet under home plate. Yet another argument for closers being made, not born, the Kolbster is making a cool $1.5 million this season. The reactionaries say not everyone can close, and they're right, but only to a degree. Some cannot close. Many can. GRADE; C+

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

The most fascinating thing about the Raul Mondesi story, last chapter theoretically now written, is how many teams were willing to buy in despite limitations of talent and character that were clearly demonstrated way back in his Dodgers days. The Pirates had no business signing him on any level, except perhaps in the hopes of flipping him for a suspect or two come June, and even that was marginal given that they would have spent half the season throwing away plate appearances that would have been better used on suspects of their own. Randall Simon now inherits Mondesi's role as Designated Sacrificial Offering, or will once healthy. GRADE: B-

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The last Cardinals entry generated a relative flood of mail. How could TEAMS say that the Cards' failure to address second base and left field was pure negligence when they're doing OK at those positions right now? Even Joe Sheehan says that Ray Lankford's comeback is a great story. TEAMS, the readers said, put the jerk in knee jerk. Of course it's a great story. So was Ruben Sierra's three-week comeback. So was the kid from MIT who was with the Padres for about two seconds. Now, anyone who expects the Cardinals to continue to be "OK" at those positions from here on in, please raise your hands. You can be a pessimist or a Pollyanna about this. The former is the smart bet. Lankford's numbers for May have been weak, as have those of Tony Womack and Marlon Anderson. That being said, TEAMS was negligent in not pointing out Woody Williams as the real killer. The others are just accessories after the fact. GRADE: C

CHICAGO CUBS

One of the clubs least concerned with stealing bases, one of the most interested in bunting. Go figure... Bad luck--or bad design, to turn a Branch Rickeyism on its head--in Wood, Prior, Sosa, Grudz, Gonzalez all hitting the DL, but good luck in that most everyone they've played in their places has been magical. When Todd Hollandsworth gives you a plus-1.000 OPS and Glendon Rusch is dominant, you might think that nature has finally selected your ursine subspecies for survival. GRADE: B-

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Losers of nine of their last 10, undoing the six-game winning streak that preceded it. This is merely the opening of a long second act in which the team slowly sinks like a saber-toothed tiger vanishing into the La Brea tar pits. The weakness of the division may keep them treading tar for awhile, but ultimately, there is little here that points to sustained success. GRADE: D-

COLORADO ROCKIES

On a tree by a river, a little tom tit sang: "Kit Pellow, Kit Pellow, Kit Pellow..." We're pretty clear on this altitude thing. It's harder to breathe, the ball flies farther, and your perceptions are altered so much that Dante Bichette looks like a real ballplayer. The strike zone, however, remains the same as it does everywhere from Mexico City to the shores of the Dead Sea. It's important to clarify that, so we're sure that the Rockies pitchers, who are walking 4.35 batters per nine, can't claim park effect. They can't even claim Scott Elarton. While it is understandable that some of the shrinking violets on the 'Rado staff might fear the outcome of just throwing the old pill over the plate, the solo home run is preferable to the three-run home run at any time. For the Rockies to win, it would help if their offense could lead the NL in OBP by a wide margin, enough that it represents legitimate achievement rather than a gift conferred by the park. They're never going to achieve that goal if the pitchers are giving out 20% more BBs than the batters receive. Treading water lately, good for this team. GRADE: C

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Let's say you sign Jason Giambi. Your hope is that he hits .310 with 40 home runs and 100 walks. Say Giambi has an off-year and hits only .250. He's not the MVP anymore, but what's left over, the power and the patience, are still tremendously valuable. Now let's say that you sign A.J. Pierzynski, and you put him in a park that kills batting averages, or perhaps he just has an off year. What's left over is an albatross .600 OPS, with, apparently, the personality to match.

Pedro Feliz is clearly a very special player. No player has ever had more than 500 plate appearances and drawn fewer than six walks, something he might very well do this year. It says something about the intelligence of current major league pitchers that Feliz is able to function at a relatively high level in spite of this handicap. One day, when we're looking for managerial fetishes by which to define Felipe Alou, we will point to Feliz as the ultimate realization of his complete disregard of plate judgment as a qualifier for playing time.

Michael Tucker, Neifi Perez, the Jason Schmidt 144-pitch thing, Barry Bonds not playing much lately... You'd like to find something good to say about the Giants, but this season defies good intentions. GRADE: D

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Given that Dennis Tankersley generally lives up to his surname (he's a Tankersley like the Exxon Valdez was a Tankersley), the Pads took the sadder-but-wiser route and tried him in the middle sandwiches rather than rotating him to the Philadelphia wolves. (Actually, Philadelphia is currently Wolf-free, but that's a story for another entry.) Propelled by Brian Giles, hitting enough to carry both him and his wounded brother, the Pads are currently tied for first place with the fading Los Angelenos. Sure, they could win it. One more bat might help. They can trade for it or Ryan Klesko can start hitting. GRADE: B

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Chad Tracy: love those slow leadoff men. It took this long for whatever spell Womack cast on the ballpark to wear off, although the continuing presence of Donnie Sadler suggests that some other foul magic is being worked. The Bench of Fromage is one of the team's principle weaknesses. Of course, it pales next to the non-existence of the non-Randy/Webb portions of the starting rotation, so we can forgive the Serpents if they have other things on their minds right now. Bumped a grade for the perfect game. GRADE: B

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

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