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June 14, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • Greatness In Their Midst: Rafael Palmeiro passed Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list Saturday (which game was also only the third in baseball history to feature home runs by two members of the 500 Club). That news may make you blink: you knew that Raffy had 500 homers, and you knew that he's been a very good player for a very long time. But passing Mickey Mantle? Palmeiro is almost certainly the least prominent player to surpass the Mick:
    
    Player              HR   MVPs (times in top 5)
    Hank Aaron          755  1 (8)
    Babe Ruth           714  n/a
    Barry Bonds         675  6 (11)
    Willie Mays         660  2 (9)
    Frank Robinson      586  2 (6)
    Mark McGwire        583  0 (3)
    Harmon Killebrew    573  1 (6)
    Reggie Jackson      563  1 (5)
    Sammy Sosa          549  1 (2)
    Mike Schmidt        548  3 (5)
    RAFAEL PALMEIRO     537  0 (1)
    Mickey Mantle       536  3 (9)
    
    
    And Palmeiro's one appearance on an MVP Top Five list was at #5. We know MVPs aren't the ultimate judge of greatness, imperfect as the voting system is, but they're a fair indication of it, and certainly give us some hint as to the player's prominence. Of the players above, only Mark McGwire, whose prominence is unquestioned, never won an MVP.

    Though Palmeiro's power is dwindling (between 1998 and 2002 his SLG didn't drop below .558, but in 2003 it was .508 and this year Palmeiro is slugging .420), his batting eye remains intact. He has never been, to the same degree as the others on that list, a guy you buy a ticket to see. But over his career he has been immensely valuable: his career WARP-2 (Wins Above Replacement Player) ranks 52nd among all players, and third among first basemen, trailing only Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. We may soon see a 500 Club member whose homers do not guarantee him admission to the Hall of Fame. But Palmeiro, a Hall of Famer through and through, is not that player. Enjoy him, O's fans.

  • Guess Who: Leading the majors in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is, of course, Barry Bonds. Who else? His .372/.628/.829 line is good for a 51.7 VORP through Sunday. But coming in second is, of all people, O's third sacker Melvin Mora (.359/.444/.576, 40.4 VORP).

    Mora may have the same problem as he did during last year's breakout year, a second-half swoon. But even if he does, he's already exceeded expectations. Mora's PECOTA card will show you his projected VORP at left field, but we ran him through the PECOTA-tron as a third baseman and came up with a weighted mean projection of 27.0 VORP and a 90th percentile forecast of 42.4. For the whole season. Folks, VORP is cumulative, and after one more good game Mora will have produced more by mid-June than even the most optimistic forecast thought he would the whole year. That is flat-out amazing.

    Unfortunately, he's giving some of it back on defense. Mora's already nine runs below average, far and away the worst among major league third basemen.

Colorado Rockies

  • Another Move: First the Rockies made Shawn Chacon their closer. Now there are rumors that they're trying to trade him. Letting him out of Colorado may not make Chacon a better pitcher, but it will certainly increase his perceived value. If he leaves, it will be the second time the Rockies do something for Chacon that looks better than it actually is: moving one of their promising starters to the closer's role, as the Rockies did with Chacon, is a sure way to diminish his value (unless it was motivated by concerns over his fragility, in which case it might have been prudent).

    But either way, it hasn't worked. Still, Chacon seems to love it; he's bought into it completely. MLB.com quoted him saying, "Closing the games and getting the saves, there's no feeling like it...Even starting, unless you go a complete game and win, you don't get that feeling." Fair enough--but at least as a starter, Chacon's mediocre mound work had more value. If he can't find his way again, the Rockies wouldn't be losing much if they shipped him out of town.

    For what it's worth, if Chacon is to be believed, he could use a firmer guiding hand. That same MLB.com article said that Chacon sometimes has too much confidence in all of his four pitches when he enters a game and doesn't know which one to use. Isn't that what pitching coaches and catchers are for?

  • Extended Holliday: Matt Holliday is starting to make us look bad. "He's no prospect," we told you when he was called up, and we haven't changed our tune. Problem is, neither has Holliday, who is right now hitting .271/.338/.503 with nine homers in 177 at-bats.

    Not so fast. Two things to put Holliday in perspective: one, he's an outfielder, and outfielders damn well better hit like that to be worth a starting job. Even Holliday's 75th percentile PECOTA line of .263/.333/.441 (a .259 EqA) is under replacement level. His current numbers are good for a .258 EqA. In other words, for an outfielder, he's nothing special. Two, he's a classic Coors field product. His home line (87 AB): .322/.398/.621. His road line (86 AB): .221/.280/.360. He may not be quite that bad, but he's certainly benefiting from friendly surroundings. We know Holliday's been fun so far, but the vacation will end sooner or later.

  • Representin': Normally, teams wouldn't want their tender-armed young starters to pitch any extra innings in the Olympics. But when it comes to Chin-hui Tsao, the Rockies may think a little differently. Tsao has a deal with his home country of Taiwan that allows him to reduce a long military commitment to just 10 days if he represents his country in a major international competition. So if Tsao, who is on the Triple-A disabled list with shoulder tightness, can go to Athens, everyone will benefit. Tsao's shoulder shouldn't be a long-term concern, but you can't blame the Rockies for wanting to baby their prize jewel (take a look at our Top 50 Roundtable to see how high we are on Tsao). Last time the U.S. Olympic team was managed by Tommy Lasorda, and the Rockies are understandably tentative about throwing this one to the arm-shredding wolves.

New York Mets

  • Guts and Glory: Labrum tears are misery for pitchers, and Al Leiter's looks like the cuff of your oldest pair of khakis. It's all but certain that this is his last year, and every outing leaves him in extreme pain. His arm is almost spent, and as the Mets themselves acknowledge, he's throwing everything but the kitchen sink up there trying to get hitters out.

    It's working, though: Leiter's 2.05 ERA in 57 innings (only nine starts) is impressive, and, as his 20.6 VORP and 2.0 SNWAR (Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement) will tell you, not a distortion of his value. In fact, he's one of the main reasons that the Mets are still in the race. A 2.05 ERA is a lot to ask, but the Mets will be happy if Leiter can keep toughing it out on the road to another productive season.

    He's caught some lucky breaks, though. Our Pitchers' Quality of Batters Faced report tells us that of the 374 pitchers with at least 50 batters faced, Leiter's opposition OPS (.693) has been the third-lowest; only Matt Wise and Victor Santos, both with the Brewers, have had it easier. More bad news for the Mets: Tom Glavine, who is also enjoying a surprisingly productive year, ranks 33rd from the bottom with a .722 batters faced OPS.

    The list, incidentally, is dominated by National League teams. Only 13 of the bottom 100 pitchers play in the AL. In that bottom 100, moreover, 52 of the Mets' 60 starts are represented (all but those of James Baldwin and Matt Ginter).

    This would seem to indicate that the Mets have benefited unduly from the vagaries of luck and scheduling, and are headed for some serious bumps in the road. Perhaps--but luck does not compensate for itself, and whether or not these benefits are temporary, they are very real.

  • A Solid Hit: Here's what Art Howe had to say about his team's whiff-tastic ways:
    "You have to recognize the fact that a couple of guys we've added to the club, historically, have struck out. That's not going to change….You have to take that with a grain of salt. We know that. It's part of the equation….Strikeouts, if you look at them overall, have gone up dramatically through the years. There are fewer hit-and-run guys who are good at it than there used to be. On most every club, the number two hitter could hit-and-run in his sleep. But they hit more home runs than they did back then. So, the upside is worth striking out some."
    Well said, Mr. Howe, and certainly a more reasonable approach to a strikeout-heavy lineup than that of one of your NL East counterparts.

  • Rolen Along: Oops, did we just say that? The comparison is premature, but we're just telling you what we hear. David Wright leads the Eastern League with a .370 EqA (Equivalent Average), which translates to a very strong .287 major league EqA. (Ty Wigginton's is .275.) Depending on how Wright and the Mets are doing in September, there's a chance we'll see him at Shea before the year is out.

    You'd have to think that even the Carlos Beltran Sweepstakes couldn't pry Wright away from the Mets. If the Mets go after Beltran--and GM Jim Duquette has spoken to Royals GM Allard Baird more than once--they may look to include Scott Kazmir or even Jose Reyes. Giving away either of those blue-chippers for a few months of Beltran seemed unthinkable on Opening Day, but the NL East has turned out to be wide open, and the Mets may feel they have a chance.

    Could the Mets get Beltran without giving up any of their top-shelf talent? If they are still within striking distance next month, and Beltran is still up for grabs, we'll take a closer look at what they might have to offer. For now, rumors are just rumors.

  • Two Outta Three Ain't Bad: The Mets and the Orioles were responsible for two of the three Rice pitchers taken in the top 10 in last week's draft, with the Mets taking Philip Humber at #3 and the Orioles grabbing Wade Townsend at #9. The Devil Rays grabbed Jeff Niemann at #4; Niemann has the highest upside, but because of a high workload and a history of injury, is also the biggest risk. Time will tell if the three can all succeed in the majors. If the Rays, and a few more teams, had passed on Niemann, today's Triple Play teams might all be the proud owner of a Rice pitcher, but the Rockies had to 'settle' for high school shortstop Chris Nelson. That's just fine with them--even if Buzzie Bavasi claims that Matt Bush is the best high school shortstop since Alex Rodriguez, some think Nelson's even better. But it's a long way to stardom.

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