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June 16, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • The Next Troy Glaus...or John Wayne?: With a name that evokes memories of someone in a Western, Dallas McPherson is absolutely crushing the ball at Double-A Arkansas. At last count, he had a .333/.415/.703 line, including 17 doubles, 7 triples and 20 home runs in 246 at-bats.

    He's hit 16 home runs in his last 25 games. He hit 4 home runs in a recent doubleheader. He's driven in 30 runs in his last 15 games; while that's situational and lineup-dependent, it does tell us he's consistently driving the ball. He's on pace for 96 extra-base hits. (That's at 23--not a late 20s power spike or some such thing.) He's slugging .700. At his age and level of performance, it's difficult to understand why he's not at Triple-A or in the majors; much like Justin Morneau, he's ascended beyond the players at his current level and deserves a challenge. But as good as McPherson has been, there's still another third baseman who's ahead of him.

    The Mets' David Wright is still the better prospect, but that's no slight towards McPherson. Wright's simply that good, posting a 363/.465/.619 line with 19 stolen bases and 6 times caught stealing. Wright's two years younger. McPherson's been working on his defense, which is seen as a potential weakness in his game. Wright's .371 EQA translates to a Major League .287 EQA; McPherson's at .355 and a translated .277 MjEQA. Any way you break it down, we're seeing a special set of third pase prospects in Wright, McPherson and Andy Marte of the Braves.

    It's unfortunate that a player as great as Troy Glaus went down for the season. That said, if there's a silver lining perhaps it's that McPherson will get his chance and stick.

  • Bullpen Blues: While the rotation continues to be mediocre at best, Anaheim's bullpen is facing challenges of its own. Troy Percival went on the DL, having been largely ineffective compared to what we've come to expect. The bullpen has largely been the trifecta of Francisco Rodriguez (17.5 VORP), Kevin Gregg (17.8 VORP) and Scot Shields (14.0 VORP). That's still a good bullpen, but not the depth we've seen recently in Anaheim.

    That should improve when Brendan Donnelly returns, likely later this week. The rest of the bullpen is about flat in terms of VORP, so they need him. Ben Weber has been brutal enough that he's been sent to the minors; a return to form would help re-establish the depth of Anaheim's bullpen.

  • Hacking MASS Hallelujah!: Darin Erstad is back, and with him the hopes and dreams of many a Hacking MASS roster, yours truly included. Because "sunk cost" is a foreign term to many owners, the Angels will play Erstad. This means they'll have to wait that much longer to see how well Casey Kotchman can play. Kotchman didn't exactly light up the league, but a little over 100 plate appearances won't tell you a whole lot.

    Erstad's a good bet to continue his offensive mediocrity, and we'll continue to contend the Halos would be better with him in center field instead of at first base. Yes, there's a potential injury risk, but playing first base didn't necessarily keep him healthy, did it? If he does get hurt, well, you live with that and explore other options, just as they've been doing.

  • Value investing?: Many of us at Baseball Prospectus would not effuse too loudly about the merits of Jose Guillen. You know what? So far, Guillen's been useful and a good value signing. He's running a .300/.369/.517 line, good for 20.1 VORP. Offensively, that's second on the club only to Vladimir Guerrero and his 40.2 VORP from a .349/.397/.598 line.

    Guillen is one of those players who was brought up early in his career who had trouble finding a full-time gig. Last year looked like a fluke, a career year that was going to net him a big contract. The big contract didn't come, but so far it's not looking like a total fluke, either. Despite all their problems to date, the Angels stayed in first for a while and they're not far behind now. Provided Garret Anderson can stay healthy and Bartolo Colon comes around, the Angels may have a shot in the AL West. The division isn't as strong as in recent years, and Arte Moreno may be willing to finance a deal before the trading deadline if it helps put the Angels over the top.

Chicago Cubs

  • Zambrano and Clement, then Pray and Repent?: The Cubs have done an admirable job surviving late starts from Mark Prior and missed time from several others including Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa. Presently, they're tied with Cincinnati for second place in the NL Central. Yes, that Cincinnati--the team that's been outscored by almost 30 runs with a projected record of 29-34 while the Cubs are projected at 38-25. Only current standings count, but that's a 9-game swing that we can expect to even out over the course of the season.

    With Prior having missed significant time and more recently, Wood, the importance of the rest of the staff can't be ignored. Sergio Mitre will never be confused with Sydd Finch, and Glendon Rusch is past the "prospect" stage. Mitre's run a -3.9 VORP; at least Rusch is in positive territory at 7.7 VORP. Most significant are the contributions of Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. Clement rings in at 24.8 VORP and Zambrano at 31.3 VORP for the season, placing both of them on the NL leaderboard for pitchers. Zambrano currently ranks second behind Tom Glavine, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Glavine fall from that perch. Zambrano and Clement have been excellent and, barring injury (more a concern with Zambrano at his age), both should remain effective through the season.

  • Bullpen Blues part deux: As previously reported in this space, Joe Borowski hasn't seemed like the same player this year. Borowski walks a fine line to start with, and it showed up quickly when he was a little "off." Sure enough, the Cubs have placed Borowski on the DL with shoulder problems.

    That leaves Latroy Hawkins and a few other live arms, including Kyle Farnsworth and Todd Wellemeyer. Hawkins has put up a 16.8 VORP, far and away the best on the relief staff, followed by a grouping of Farnsworth, Wellemeyer, Kent Mercker and Francis Beltran between 3.8 and 5.5 VORP. Trouble is, all of them are walking more than 4 men per 9 IP. You've gotta be pretty tough to hit to be effective in that environment; some of them have been, but overall that's a recipe for trouble.

    Hawkins has been very useful, with only a low strikeout rate (6.5/9IP) as any kind of red flag. It helps that he's only walking 1.5 men per 9IP. Expect him to grab the closer role and be unlikely to relinquish it when Borowski returns.

  • Offensive Overachievers: We realize "offense" and "overachievers" aren't often uttered in the same sentence when it comes to the Cubs. We're especially concerned when multiple players run on-base percentages close to .400. Simply put: The Cubs are a hitting machine right now.

    Here's everyone who's averaged more than 2 PA per game for the Cubs (pAVG is PECOTA mean AVG & p9AVG is PECOTA 90th percentile AVG--you can figure out the rest).

    
    Player           VORP   AVG  OBP  SLG  pAVG pOBP pSLG p9AVG  p9OBP p9SLG
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Barrett          16.6  .307 .351 .520  .240 .307 .380  .283  .355  .470
    Lee              19.3  .285 .364 .496  .275 .371 .512  .314  .417  .607
    Walker           20.9  .286 .372 .510  .268 .329 .398  .304  .365  .470
    Martinez          0.9  .254 .298 .321  .244 .309 .345  .297  .366  .434
    Ramirez          29.5  .324 .375 .568  .276 .334 .482  .302  .364  .549
    Alou             19.9  .301 .342 .558  .271 .340 .420  .299  .370  .471
    Patterson        10.0  .264 .324 .417  .265 .315 .427  .303  .355  .500
    Sosa             16.3  .291 .385 .590  .274 .373 .545  .313  .410  .626
    Hollandsworth    15.4  .317 .403 .567  .267 .331 .435  .355  .406  .517
    
    
    So, basically, over half the Cubs' offense (those getting the bulk of ABs, shown above) is outperforming their 90th percentile PECOTA projection. Whether it's good coaching, luck or Dusty's magic, it's working. Only Ramon Martinez is obviously underperforming his PECOTA mean (and not by much)--the rest are within a reasonable range or slightly above their mean projection. The projection for Corey Patterson looks eerily accurate.

    It should be noted that the other middle-infield types--Jose Macias, Alex Gonzalez and Mark Grudzielanek--all slugged .400 or over in limited time.

    This is great news for the Cubs, but also a reality check. Unless Dusty's got them believing they're all Ted Williams, regression to the mean is likely for at least some of the player. If and when that happens, the pitching becomes that much more important--meaning having Prior and Wood down the stretch will be a huge factor.

    The only obvious hole the Cubs have right now is shortstop--add in relief pitcher if you're looking beyond position players. If Jim Hendry can address those needs, the Cubs become very formidable in the second half.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Over-Heavy Offense: Lyle Overbay continues to impress for the Brewers. While his home run pace has slowed, he continues on pace for 75 doubles and has a .342/.405/.563 line and a 29.6 VORP. The only other position player with even half that total for Milwaukee is Scott Podsednik at 17.3 VORP.

    Overbay's been a wonderful addition and surprise for the Brew Crew, but they're going to need more from the rest of the offense. Junior Spivey has been useful when playing, producing a VORP of 10.6. Everyone else is below that, including normally useful Geoff Jenkins and Keith Ginter. Ben Grieve has some upside potential if he can reverse his career trend, but beyond that it looks like help's going to have to come from the minors. Hopefully they can find a place for the recently demoted Corey Hart so he doesn't become the next Moonlight Graham.

    The good news is the Brewers have remained competitive thus far with an Overbay-heavy lineup. They'll need help as the season progresses if they want to stay there, but they've certainly become more interesting to watch than in years past.

  • Antithesis of K-Rod?: Danny Kolb has been very effective as a closer thus far, but he's not doing it the way that Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Gagne or Billy Wagner would. While K-Rod is averaging 13.86 K/9IP and Wagner 13.00 and Gagne 12.79, Kolb is managing a robust 2.66 K/9IP. And that's up from where it was earlier in the season.

    Kolb's doing it so far by throwing pewter pellets--a groundball to flyball ratio of 4.00 to 1 as of now. That's how you compensate for a lack of strikeouts; he'll need a solid defense behind him to remain effective, which will be difficult any way you slice it with a K/9IP of 2.66.

  • Luck of the Draw: Whether it's been scheduling, the luck of the draw or some other unexplained phenomenon, much of the Brewers' pitching staff has faced below-average competition as identified in the 2004 Pitcher's quality of opposing batters report. Matt Wise, Michael Adams, Ben Ford, Victor Santos, Adrian Hernandez and Ben Sheets fall into the bottom 40, along with Al Leiter and Tom Glavine, as identified in the Mets' PTP. If you expand your search to the bottom 60, you can add Doug Davis and Wes Obermuller to the list.

    We say this not to denigrate the Brewers' staff--we've spent plenty of time lauding the accomplishments of Sheets in this space--but rather to throw up a warning flag. It's probably unrealistic to expect this trend to continue. If and when it does wear off, there's a chance those pitchers' numbers may adjust accordingly.

    Translation: If your Brewers pitcher has been a useful fantasy pickup so far and they're on the list above, there may be worse things you can do than trade them. Of course, with someone who's been as effective as Sheets, you can accept a possible drop-off and still have a great pitcher on your hands.

  • Weak Weeks: Rickie Weeks is facing his first test of professional adversity, struggling to a .252/.358/.381 start at Double-A Huntsville. Prince Fielder faced a slump of his own, yet has rebounded to .278/.352/.494.

    While there's still plenty of time to adjust, Weeks' calling card has been his offense. Keep in mind that his OBP represents 10 HBP (is Don Baylor his hitting coach? Ron Hunt?). Perhaps some of the adjustment could be chalked up to adjusting to wood bats, spending more time on defense and/or a minor injury that's not widely reported. If it keeps up, however, it probably pushes back the Brewers' timeline a bit for some of their prospects, having already lost J.J. Hardy for the season.

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