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July 15, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Alas, Poor Jimy: Seems that leading a team which entered the season as a favorite to go to the World Series to a .500 record and a 10.5 game deficit at the break isn't enough to keep your job these days. The Astros waited until after the All-Star Game to fire Jimy Williams, which lead to plenty of shots of the embattled skipper in the National League dugout (he was a coach on Jack McKeon's staff), looking like he knew he should back a U-Haul up to his office after the game ended.

    We've talked about our distaste for Williams' bizarre strategic decisions, especially his unreasonable love of the sacrifice bunt, earlier in the season. We have to think that Williams' dismissal can't help but improve the Astros, for the simple reason that they will be throwing away fewer outs.

    On the other hand, Houston hired Phil Garner to take Williams' place at the helm. Now, your current correspondent was a big fan of the 1979 Pirates, and can therefore understand the allure of Scrap Iron, but as a manager, he's been no great shakes. He's got a career record of 708-802, and in 10 full seasons as a manager in Milwaukee and Detroit, he's finished above .500 once.

    He certainly has more talent to work with in Houston than he ever had with the Triple-A Brewers and Tigers teams he managed. But Astros fans looking for a huge second half surge will find it relies, as ever, on the players on the field, and not the man in the dugout.

  • Double Dip: Since acquiring Carlos Beltran on June 24th, the Astros stumbled to a 6-10 record before the blessed respite of the All-Star Break. Their poor play cost Williams his job; could it also prompt GM Gerry Hunsicker to trade their newly-acquired star?

    Things would have to go very badly in the next two weeks for that to happen--despite their 10.5-game deficit in the division, the Astros are 4.5 games behind in the Wild Card standings, close enough that a Beltran trade would raise howls of protest from Houston faithful hungry for a deep postseason run. But even at 4.5 games out, the Astros are ninth in the chase for the Wild Card; can they outplay all eight of those other teams in the second half?

    If Beltran is traded again, he'd join an eclectic group. Since 1972, 38 players have been traded two or more times during the same season, a list which includes an ESPN commentator, a Yale grad, the a man who pitched until he was 106, a the A's current bench coach, and a mercurial closer.

    
    YEAR NAME                 TEAMS
    -------------------------------
    1972 Bill Voss                3
    1972 Marty Martinez           3
    1972 Mike Kilkenny            4
    1973 Dave Campbell            3
    1974 Luis Alvarado            3
    1975 Blue Moon Odom           3
    1975 Ray Sadecki              3
    1977 Ed Kirkpatrick           3
    1982 Dick Davis               3
    1982 Larry Milbourne          3
    1984 Chris Speier             3
    1985 Al Holland               3
    1985 Johnnie LeMaster         3
    1991 Carmelo Martinez         3
    1991 Dan Petry                3
    1991 Mitch Webster            3
    1991 Ron Darling              3
    1994 Shawn Boskie             3
    1996 Pat Borders              3
    1998 Jim Bruske               3
    1998 Mike Piazza              3
    1998 Tim Worrell              3
    1998 Todd Zeile               3
    1999 Brian McRae              3
    2000 Dave Martinez            4
    2000 Manuel Aybar             3
    2000 Mark Guthrie             3
    2000 Ricky Ledee              3
    2001 Gary Bennett             3
    2001 Robin Jennings           3
    2001 Sal Fasano               3
    2002 Bruce Chen               3
    2002 Cliff Floyd              3
    2003 Armando Benitez          3
    2003 Dan Miceli               4
    2003 Jesse Orosco             3
    2003 Jose Hernandez           3
    2003 Tony Womack              3
    
    

    The biggest name, by far, on this list is Mike Piazza. On May 14, 1998, the Dodgers sent Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Marlins, picking up Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, and Gary Sheffield as part of the Smilin' Wayne Huizenga's Fire Sale after the Marlins' 1997 World Series win. Piazza barely had time to adjust to his teal pinstripes and the empty seats in Miami before he was shipped to the Mets for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz.

    The big difference is that in the first deal, Piazza clearly wasn't acquired to help push a team to the postseason--the Marlins were dumping with all of their might. If Beltran is traded again, it will be because the Astros tried and failed with a bold move designed to make them winners, and not because they were a way station for a great player. And Beltran would be the first legitimate star traded twice to try and help two teams to the postseason.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Flying High: Lots of big smiles along the banks of the Mississippi these days, as the Cards finished the first half of the season on a 31-11 tear to jump out to a seven game lead in the NL Central.

    St. Louis is doing it with an amazingly well-rounded team. To wit:

    Currently, 21 St. Louis players are outperforming their PECOTA projections, with frequent-BP whipping boy Tony Womack leading the pack of surprises, with his 24.3 VORP wildly exceeding his PECOTA projection of -4.6.

    That many players beating up on PECOTA does raise the red flag of some regression to the mean in the second half. We'll go out on a limb and say that the Cards won't play .621 ball the rest of the way this year, but then again, they probably won't have to be that good to win their division.

  • Is the Central Out of Reach?: Speaking of winning the division, St. Louis has a seven game lead as they resume play after the All-Star break. Since the start of divisional play in 1969, only nine teams have come back from a seven game or more deficit to win their division.
    
                         Games Behind
    Year    Team         at ASB
    ---------------------------------
    1978    Yankees      11.5
    1990    Braves       9.5
    1993    Braves       9
    1988    Red Sox      9
    2001    Cardinals    8
    2003    Twins        7.5
    1985    Royals       7.5
    1973    Mets         7.5
    1989    Blue Jays    7
    
    
    The Cardinals in 2001 tied Houston at the top of the NL Central; the Astros were awarded the division title based on their head-to-head record against the Cardinals, and St. Louis went to the postseason as the Wild Card.

    One small cause for concern in St. Louis is that while the Cardinals are right about where they should be, in terms of our Adjusted Standings, the Cubs are almost five games under their expected record, and the Astros are more than three games worse. If everyone were winning at exactly their projected rate, St. Louis would find themselves with a two game lead instead of the current seven.

    Of course, that and a five spot will get you a venti latte if you're a Cubs fan. Chicago's underperforming ways in the first half might have put the Cardinals out of reach, especially since the two teams only play twice more this season.

  • Nursing Arms: Tony LaRussa's sooper-genius status is well known; just ask him. But there's one area where he's earned his keep this season. Just one St. Louis starter, Woody Williams, has been put under enough stress to crack the top ten in Pit cher Abuse Points. Only six pitchers have made a start for the Cardinals this year, and a healthy rotation will bode very well for the Redbirds as they try to hold the Cubs and the rest of the Central at bay, and LaRussa is making sure to protect some of the injury-prone arms at his disposal, such as Chris Carpenter and Matt Morris.

Texas Rangers

  • Home Cookin': Maybe there's something in the BBQ up at Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse, but the Texas Rangers have been hotter than a jalapeno popper at home this year. They've racked up a .676 winning percentage at the Ballpark in Arlington (we're going to decline to call it Ameriquest Field), as compared to a .423 mark on the road. Take a look at these numbers for the Rangers' offense:
    
          HOME    AWAY
    ------------------
    G       37      49
    R      249     238
    R/G   6.73    4.86
    AVG  0.310   0.257
    OBP  0.371   0.317
    SLG  0.514   0.449
    
    

    There should be no surprise that they're scoring more runs in Arlington--it's consistently been among the best hitter's parks in the game, and is the second-most run-happy park in baseball this season, trailing only Coors Field. So the fact that the Rangers score runs like a slow-pitch softball team there isn't a shock. What might come as a shock, though, is a look at the Rangers' home/road splits on the mound.

    
          HOME    AWAY
    ------------------
    G       37      49
    ERA   4.74    4.46
    AVG  0.266   0.273
    OBP  0.330   0.343
    SLG  0.428   0.428
    
    

    All in all, Texas pitchers have possibly been more effective at home than on the road--that 0.28 of a point in ERA is far less than you would expect, given the park factors involved. After years of colossal futility, Texas seems to have finally assembled a staff that can keep their offense in ballgames.

    Kenny Rogers has the gaudy record which earned him a trip to Houston for the All-Star Game, but Ryan Drese has been the best pitcher on the staff so far, with a 26.7 VORP as opposed to Rogers' 23.0. Drese is in the top ten in the AL in ERA at 3.78; he certainly has pitched much better than his 4-5 record shows, especially in Arlington, where his ERA is a sterling 1.99.

    One more home/road note: The Rangers will play 44 games at home over the course of the rest of the year, as opposed to only 32 on the road. We'll see if they can keep from wilting during the inevitable August heat, but if they can, it's bad news for Oakland and Anaheim.

  • Prospect Watch: Coming into this season, no Texas farmhands made it onto our list of the Top 50 Prospects in baseball, although Adrian Gonzalez did get an honorable mention, as we said he "could easily be back on our list as a Top 25 prospect next season."

    That hasn't quite been the case for Gonzalez, although he did get a brief call-up in April while Mark Teixeira was hurt. Checking our redesigned Minor League Equivalent Averages page, Gonzalez currently has a .246 major league EqA as a result of his .318/.385/.492 line at Triple-A Oklahoma. Those sorts of numbers aren't going to displace Teixeria any time soon; Gonzalez is starting to look like trade fodder.

    The guy who's lighting it up in Oklahoma is Chad Allen, who has gone .398(!)/.456/.548 in 221 AB on his way to a .289 MjEqA. That means the veteran of 235 major league games with Minnesota, Cleveland, Florida and Texas has outperformed Kevin Mench, Eric Young, David Dellucci, or Gary Matthews Jr. in their time patrolling the outfield.

    Allen got a chance in Texas when Mench was hurt earlier this year, and hit .307/.307/.385 in 26 ABs before being send back to Triple-A. Clearly, Allen has outpaced his competition in Triple-A, but given his .272/.325/.396 career numbers in the Show, you have to wonder if he's the epitome of a Quad-A player.

  • Star-Studded: Channelling the spirit of Jayson Stark, we can tell you that three different teams placed three infielders on the All Star game roster:

    The average age of those infielders:

    • New York: 30.33 years old
    • St. Louis: 27 years old
    • Texas: 25.33 years old

    That's a nice core for Texas to build on going forward, especially when you add Teixeira, who is just 24, to the mix. Get your season tickets now, because this infield is likely to get even better over the next couple of years.

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