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May 25, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Hot Starts: Scoring runs has certainly not been a problem for the White Sox this season, due in no small part to the aliens who have apparently abducted Juan Uribe and replaced him with a clone that doesn't remember failing to achieve a .300 OBP in Coors Field the last two seasons. So far this year, Uribe has been knocking the ball around at a .340/.395/.521 pace, greatly justifying his position near the head of the Chicago batting order. Combined with the equally surprising performance of Willie Harris (.308/.370/.367), the top of the Sox lineup has been setting the table with the fine china for the sluggers in the heart of the order.

    With nearly three season of experience under his belt, it's tough to remember that Uribe is still only 24 years old. Having been rushed to the majors by the Rockies--Uribe only played 77 games above A ball before his debut--he's likely still in the early stages of his learning curve. That said, this kind of dramatic jump certainly was not expected and it's likely Uribe will regress as the season goes on, but for the time being, Sox faithful are more than happy to watch him learn his craft.

    Once the reason that GM Kenny Williams felt comfortable dealing Ray Durham, Harris is a mere year older at 25. While he's never flashed power numbers, Harris has the speed and base stealing history that managers look for in a leadoff hitter. Whether that's your cup of tea or not, it's hard to argue with Harris' performance in the top spot thus far this season. While he's been sidelined with an ankle injury since colliding with Magglio Ordonez last Thursday, Harris' speed should be back in the lineup soon.

  • The Hit Parade: The Sox's prolific offense can hardly be attributed solely to the efforts of Harris and Uribe, however. A quick look at BP's VORP report shows that every Chicago regular except for Joe Crede and Timo Perez--if he can be considered a regular--has a positive VORP, a consistency unmatched throughout the league. (If you like schadenfreude, take a look at that Montreal lineup.) Chicago is currently third in the league in Adjusted Runs Scored; the recent poundings of Minnesota and Cleveland being prime examples of the team's offensive prowess. The best part is that, other than Uribe and Harris, no one is putting up numbers that scream for a recount. Assuming Crede comes around and the top two regress back to expected levels, the Sox should still be able to continue to bludgeon their opponents into submission.

  • "Look at me, I could be..." With Jose Valentin back and Harris soon to return from injury, manager Ozzie Guillen will have some decisions to make in order to keep all of his hot hitters in the lineup. The only positions that appear up for debate are second base and center and, with Uribe and Harris in the mix, the solution seems obvious. Harris played 61 games in center for the Sox last season, performing a mere one run below average according to BP's defensive metrics. None of the replacements candidates--Perez, Aaron Rowand, and Ross Gload--have been doing anything with the bat this season except slinging it back to the dugout in disgust, and there's certainly no Gold Gloves in waiting in that group. Hopefully, Guillen will keep Harris and Uribe in the lineup until they prove they're playing above their heads; but if he doesn't, there's nothing quite like watching Perez trying to continue to live off his performance in the 2000 post-season.

  • Two Weeks Notice: Despite taking three of four from the Twins over the weekend to move into a tie for the division lead, keeping up with the Twins over the next two weeks will be difficult, though, as the Minnesota nine gets a soft schedule of Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Detroit while the south siders face up against the AL West. Fortunately, with the Twins suffering several key injuries, the Sox have a good shot to get through a tougher portion of their schedule without loosing too much, if any, ground, a situation that will benefit them later in the season when the roles are reversed.

Oakland Athletics

  • That Whole Platoon Thing: Doing their best Minnesota Twins imitation, the A's came into the season with a logjam of similar players competing for the 1B and DH spots in the lineup. With Scott Hatteberg, Erubiel Durazo, and Eric Karros signed to the major league roster, Oakland looked primed for a season of musical chairs as the three cycled through the two spots in the order in some sort of three-headed platoon monster. Karros was signed for $1 million, a move that was publicly justified by his ability to hit southpaws. The evidence for this conclusion was usually his .316/.389/.515 line against them over the last three years (as opposed to .246/.298/.374 against righties). So far this year, however, Karros seems to have adopted a more egalitarian approach at the plate, posting terrible numbers against both righties and lefties alike. His .143/.203/.286 overall line isn't going to get him his own chapter in any book except the unemployment list, and he's actually been worse against the very pitchers he was hired to punish, hitting just .125/.182/.300 in 43 PAs.

    The flip side of this coin is Hatteberg's hot start of .302/.388/.465, well above his three-year averages and his 90th percentile PECOTA projection. Interestingly, Hatteberg is also displaying an unnatural platoon split thus far, hitting .353/.421/.500 against left-handers in 38 PAs. Durazo, meanwhile, has continued to quietly post a very respectable .284/.358/.493 line highlighted by eight home runs. The two left-handed swingers are pacing the A's in VORP thus far this season, narrowly edging fellow lefty Eric Chavez and righties Jermaine Dye, and Eric Byrnes.

    While it's unlikely that either Karros or Hatteberg will continue their current paces, the expenditure on Karros--questionable at the time--looks even worse heading into June. Many A's fans pointed quickly and loudly at Sacramento superstar Graham Koonce as a cheap and deserving alternative to Karros as the designated bat off the bench. Koonce, last year's PCL MVP, is once again performing well (.287/.374/.539) a short drive down I-80. While his numbers aren't as gaudy as 2003 and, at 29, he hasn't been a prospect for a long time, he's exactly the type of player that the A's usually insert into fungible roster spots instead of spending extra money on the free agent market. This kind of organizational depth is one of Oakland's biggest assets (see: Blanton, Joe), but it's one that they ignored in this case, choosing to spend an extra $700,000 for a player on pace for 250 PAs.

  • Thinking Ahead: Speaking of first basemen, Dan Johnson is continuing his march towards the majors. Currently seventh in the PCL in EqA, Johnson solidified his status as the A's top first base prospect with a .290/.365/.504 season in Midland last year at age 23. The A's seventh round pick in 2001 out of Nebraska, Johnson is belting the ball to the tune of .310/.423/.511 in Sacramento this year. Highlighted by 19 XBH (39% of his total hits) and excellent plate discipline (31/16 BB/K), Johnson looks as if he'll be ready for major league action by next March at the latest.

    While it's still early in the season, Johnson's continued progress gives the A's options for the offseason. With Hatteberg signed through 2005 and Karros likely gone after his one-year contract expires after this year, the main choice will come down to Durazo versus Johnson. Durazo was awarded a healthy $2.1 million salary in arbitration before this season and he may have finally gained enough name recognition that he'll be overvalued on the market next season. Again, it's still too early to tell what the A's plans will likely be, but at least they have too many options instead of too few.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • There's No "K" in "Prospect": While Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd give the Phillies two of the top young pitchers in the game, the Philadelphia system is curiously bereft of any players resembling a top hitting prospect. The fastest turtle in this race is Ryan Howard, currently pacing the Eastern League with 13 home runs, coupled with a respectable .278/.360/.583 line through Saturday. This kind of power surge is not out of line with his previous two seasons (.280/.367/.460, .304/.374/.514) and while he's not likely to come through on his pace to hit over 40 round trippers, it's this kind of sudden increase in extra base hits that reminds us that power is frequently the last skill to develop in prospects.

    Naturally, things are not perfect in Reading. Howard is a first baseman and, despite his noble toils and significant improvement, he remains a poor defenseman there. He's also 24 and has been just slightly too old for his level at each stop along the Phillies' organizational ladder to be considered a real prospect. But most importantly, he strikes out. A lot. The last two years, 27.3% and 25.7% of his plate appearances ended, like Eliot's world, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Looking through the past seven years of minor league numbers, almost no one who strikes out as often as Howard has made the major leagues. Russell Branyan, Joe Borchard, Jack Cust, and a few others are the only exceptions, and if that's the upside, then that's not a prospect.

    So far this season, Howard is up to his usual tricks. He's whiffed in 51 of his 151 ABs, but, as mentioned above, he's still powering his way through the league. As much as teams like to believe their players are the exception to the rule, the chances of Howard developing into a major league regular are slim at best. With Jim Thome blocking Howard's path to the majors, the Phillies' plans for him remain clouded. His value, while modest, will never be higher than it is now and Philadelphia's best course of action is to sell high before those strikeouts catch up to him in the higher minors and majors.

  • Turnaround: Remember when the Phils were 1-6, Larry Bowa's job was on the line, and the crowds were threatening to tear down Citizen's Bank Park in a fit of rage? Didn't think so. Having righted the ship, the Phillies are 14-7 in May and finally moved into the division lead Sunday afternoon before the Marlins tied things up with a win yesterday. After averaging a measly 4.2 runs per game in April, the offense has finally picked up and mustered 6.4 RPG thus far in May.

    While we lamented the lack of offense surrounding Thome in this space last time, the rest of the offense has responded with Bobby Abreu (.352/.473/.704) and Pat Burrell (.362/.453/.710) leading the charge this month. Not far behind those two is the apparently rejuvenated David Bell. After a season that begged for a treatment from Lacuna, Inc., Bell has rebounded so far with a .280/.360/.462 season that's easily outpacing every season in his career and his 90th percentile PECOTA projection.

    Also pitching in where they can are Chase Utley and Ricky Ledee. While Utley's still having trouble drawing walks (just one in 47 PA), he's flashed some of that rumored power with four roundtrippers to compliment his four doubles and a triple and kept his strikeouts total to three. Ledee has also shown a preference to power with three homers, but he's complimented it with seven free passes in 43 PA. Ledee isn't likely to inherit a starting position unless someone goes down with an injury, but he's an excellent bat to have sitting on the bench. Combined with Bell and Burrrell's resurgence, the Philly offense is finally starting to look like the juggernaut that everyone expected last year. Oakland:

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