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August 9, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • David Becomes Goliath: This year's Orioles have provided the backdrop for perhaps one of the most unlikely performances ever. This is David Newhan's entire career:

    
    YEAR  AGE  TM    AB   AVG   OBP   SLG  WARP
    1999  25   SDP   43  .140  .159  .302   0.0
    2000  26   SDP   20  .150  .346  .350   0.1
    2000  26   PHI   17  .176  .263  .176   0.1
    2001  27   PHI    6  .333  .375  .500   0.1
    2004  30   BAL  172  .360  .418  .535   2.0
    

    In less than 50 games, Newhan has topped his previous career production by a factor of six. He isn't some young hotshot who has a breakout year; Newhan has done this at the age of 30, after two full years with nary a day of major-league service time and after being released by the Rangers less than two months ago.

    Newhan is fourth on the Orioles in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), ahead of full-time players such as Rafael Palmeiro and Brian Roberts His performance has helped make up for the disappointing work of Luis Matos, who had been a sub-replacement-level player before suffering a season-ending broken left shin.

    To put Newhan's performance in better context, look at the players who surround him on the VORP list, and keep in mind that most of their numbers were accumulated in twice the at-bats.

    
    Jose Vidro     23.6
    David Newhan   23.6
    Steve Finley   23.5
    

    Yes, that's right, folks; you can work the phones for hours to land a Steve Finley, or throw millions of dollars at Jose Vidro, or you could just grab the red-hot Newhan.

    Before we call this an emergence, let's remember the sample size. This is likely a fringe player enjoying the best stretch of his career. Feel good for Newhan, who, in sticking with his dream, has struck gold, and guaranteed himself a major-league job for at least a couple more years. Just don't expect this kind of performance to continue.

  • Chasing Crosby: Bobby Crosby has gotten a lot of press for playing a glamour position for a playoff team and filling some large shoes, and is the presumptive Rookie of the Year pick. Meanwhile, O's starter Daniel Cabrera gets no recognition; he was a midseason call-up, and his team is going nowhere. But look at the VORP leaders among AL rookies:
    
    Bobby Crosby       27.5
    Daniel Cabrera     26.1
    Jason Frasor       21.8
    Justin Duchscherer 20.5
    Shingo Takatsu     20.0
    

    Six players (five, if you don't count Lew Ford, who just barely isn't a rookie) finished ahead of Cabrera in BP's midseason awards ballot, including all of the above players (except Jason Frasor, who was tenth). The other two were Zack Greinke and Joe Mauer, who are big names. Cabrera isn't, but he has outperformed them. While he had a head start on Greinke, and has been healthier than Mauer, this award isn't about what-ifs; it's about what is. And Cabrera is the best rookie pitcher in the American League.

    Crosby is a fine player and Cabrera is unlikely to overtake him. If he does, though, we hope that the voters will recognize him, and not just give the award to the guy with the better teammates.

  • Next Up: The O's, winners of six straight, look to make it a four-game sweep of the Rangers today, then will continue trying to spoil the AL West entirely with three games in Anaheim. For the rest of this month, the O's play 11 of 17 games against West opponents (three more at Texas, and seven against Oakland), and so they do figure prominently in a playoff race, even though they themselves are not contenders.

Colorado Rockies

  • Buy High, Sell Low...Right?: GM Dan O'Dowd has stated his intentions, having moved Larry Walker and much of his salary and having tried to move Charles Johnson and much of his, to retain what he calls the core of the Rockies. For the time being this consists of veterans Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla and Shawn Estes, as well as younger players Shawn Chacon, Joe Kennedy and Jason Jennings. The latter three are arbitration-eligible, Chacon for the second time.

    The Rockies hold a $3,000,000 mutual option on Burnitz for next year. Burnitz has benefited substantially from Coors Field (.345/.408/.720 at home; .249/.325/.480 on the road), but for three million bucks keeping him would not be the worst of ideas next year. For his part, Burnitz has said that he wants to stay...but has also hinted that he might look elsewhere.

    So does O'Dowd mean that the Rockies are trying to lock up the 35-year-old Burnitz to a long-term contract? We can't imagine that he would, but his comments give us pause. Is it that he merely means the mutual option, and, as the Rangers did when they traded Alex Rodriguez, the Rockies are softening the blow of losing a star player by making it seem as if the move gives them the newfound flexibility to do something that they were going to do anyway?

    (In fairness, Walker's contract was an albatross, and the Rockies did well to move him, while the same cannot be said of A-Rod.)

    Meanwhile, Castilla, who away from Coors is his usual subpar self (.350/.405/.650 at home; .201/.264/.436 on the road), has indicated that he wants more than what he signed for this season, and so may turn down his side of the mutual option that he has for 2005.

    For Castilla to turn down his option, and for the Rockies to attempt to sign him long-term, would seem to be an unwise move by both sides. Castilla's seven-figure salary for next year includes a lot of deferred money, but it's not a sure thing that he would get a better offer in the marketplace. The Rockies must realize that Castilla is one of the most Coors-aided (ballpark, not brew) players ever. Both sides would likely benefit from continuing the current contract.

    While Estes may have a gaudy won-loss record, his ERA on the road is over 5.00, and he has actually given up more homers away from Coors Field than in it. Estes turned in one brilliant season in San Francisco and a couple of decent ones, and when you watch him you see a low-90s fastball and a hammer curve and wonder how he isn't better than he is. The Rockies, if they want to resign Estes, should see his value not in terms of his production, but in terms of the interest he might draw at the deadline from a contender, which, despite his bad numbers, was notable this year.

    The Rockies may have shot themselves in the foot by making Chacon their closer: while his 7.28 ERA is awful, he may have 40 saves by the end of the season, which would likely lead to a handsome payout in arbitration. Chacon has not proven himself to be a particularly good pitcher, so if the Rockies plan to keep him at closer and consider him worth keeping at all, they may want to offer him security in exchange for the crippling closer-level salaries that the arbitration system may grant him every year.

    As for Kennedy and Jennings, they are the best of the lot. Jennings in particular is worth keeping; Kennedy may be too, but is a riskier choice. His current season is probably something of a fluke, and his workload history makes him more likely to have persistent injury problems. It will be interesting to see how the Rockies handle these two.

New York Mets

  • Ups: The Mets' season has been a curious mix of ups and downs. Coming into 2004, they hedged their bets with some signings that would make things interesting this year, but were designed to pay dividends in 2005 and 2006, when the team was really ready to contend. Because the Phillies proved weak and the Braves took too long to show that they were the class of the division, though, the barely-above-.500 Mets found themselves in contention in mid-July of this year.

    So they made bold moves (we'll leave it up to Chris Kahrl to tell us whether good or bad; they were certainly bold), seemingly to go for broke. While making those moves, though, the Mets went 5-12 out of the All-Star break, all in division games, and now they're eight games out of the wild card with the top of the NL East even further out of reach. Let's break down some of the ups and downs of this roller-coaster ride. We'll start this time around with position players. First, the high points...

    • Mike Cameron. After a slow start, he's provided exactly what the Mets expected. Even when he wasn't hitting he was covering a ton of ground in center field, helping Al Leiter have the kind of impressive season he's having. Cameron's .241 batting average hides how good he's been.
    • Ty Wigginton. A mediocre player has a reasonably impressive first half that allows the Mets trade him for one of the best starters on the market.

    • Eric Valent. Finally, Valent is becoming what he was supposed to be when he was young. He's provided the Mets with an excellent fourth outfielder at a bargain price, and is perfect insurance if (ssssh... don't jinx it!) Cliff Floyd goes down again.

    • Richard Hidalgo. The Mets get an 864 OPS in exchange for David Weathers.

    • David Wright. His progress, in turn, allowed the Mets to deal their most overvalued commodity (Wigginton) for something they wanted.

    But this 52-58 season has had plenty of problems, too:

    • Kazuo Matsui. The Mets--and PECOTA--expected more than .275/.337/.405 from Matsui. What's worse, his defense, which was supposed to be extraordinary, has proved suspect. The marketing department at Shea has got to love having this guy, but if he can't produce, those revenue streams will dry up.

    • Jason Phillips. We didn't expect him to repeat his 2003 season, which saw him blow his 90th percentile PECOTA projection out of the water. But we did expect an OPS over .650. Vance Wilson, the Mets' other catcher, has been an unheralded Up this year, and deserves more playing time.

    • Jose Reyes. We'll forgive him the injury; we can't hold that against him. But Reyes' .251/.267/.361 line is one heck of a sophomore slump, and the extreme lack of plate discipline--four walks and 27 strikeouts in 185 plate appearances--now looms as a major concern.

    • Mike Piazza. Yes, that's right, Mike Piazza. He's hitting, of course; there was no doubt that he'd do that, even though he's past his peak. It's just that his play at first base was so miserable that the Mets abandoned their experiment to convert him. If he's going to prolong his career now, he will have to have some luck and good conditioning, because work behind the plate is a dicey proposition for a man of his age. Not everybody can be Carlton Fisk.

    Once the pitching settles itself down and the Mets' new additions show what they can do under Rick Peterson's tutelage, we'll look at the ups and downs there.

    On the surface, it looks like the Mets' recent moves were an all-out grab at the brass ring. Really, though, the two pitchers the Mets acquired may both be in New York after this year. They're almost certain to sign Kris Benson to an extension, and they will have Victor Zambrano under control for three more years. The Mets traded prospects not necessarily to make an all-out run for this season, but to move up the time frame in which those prospects could help them. They might not have been ready next April, and the Mets... well, the Mets hope they will be.

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Prospectus Triple Play... (08/05)
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