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August 11, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • "Q"uiet "Q"uality: With Garret Anderson mired in the worst power slump of his career--just four extra-base hits since May--the Angels have gotten a huge boost from an unlikely source. Robb Quinlan, who began the season at Triple-A, has ripped off a 21-game hitting streak and taken over the third-base job with a .434 batting average since the All-Star break.

    Along with Chone Figgins, Quinlan has helped the Angels patch third base in the absence of Troy Glaus. Neither player is a star in waiting; in fact, both are likely well over their heads this season. However, the ability to produce players who can make a positive contribution to a winning team, even at a low level, is a hallmark of the Angels' player development staff. The bullpen, filled with homegrown right-handed arms, is where this has had the greatest impact, but the lineup and bench have benefitted as well. How many teams will miss the playoffs this season--or spend millions of extra dollars--because their farm system can't produce a Robb Quinlan or a Kevin Gregg?

  • Where Are the Brakes?: Of course, the Angels have more than just spear carriers in their farm system. In addition to the trinity of prospects that started the year at Double-A--Dallas McPherson, Casey Kotchman and Jeff Mathis--there's another reason for hope. Shortstop Erick Aybar continues to develop and impress at the ripe old age of 20.

    Guide: the first line below is Aybar's performance this season at High-A Rancho Cucamonga. The second line is from Clay Davenport's Top 30 Projected RAR for the Minor Leagues, building a Future DT combining performance, level and age.

    
    Yr  Age  AB   H   2B 3B  HR  BB  SO  R  RBI  SB  CS   BA   OBA  SLG  EqA
    04  20  457  160  23  9  12  23  49  88  57  44  32  .350 .394 .519 .220
    DT  20  445  143  23  6  19  28  42  75  55  19  11  .321 .370 .528 .300
    

    That DT looks mighty tempting. If this is real improvement and not just a batting-average-driven fluke--Aybar has hit for average in the past, just not this well--the Angels will have a jewel on their hands. In addition to the hitting prowess he's developed, the speed indicators are there: nine triples, 44 steals (although with 32 times caught stealing!) and he's hit into just two double plays.

    The biggest concern, as is often the case with young players, is discipline. Aybar doesn't strike out or walk much, and you'd like to see a few more free passes in someone who projects as a #1 or #2 hitter. There is also that problem with the Alex Sanchez disease on the basepaths. One would hope that could be corrected with coaching, better judgment and improved technique. With Aybar and 2003 first-round pick Brandon Wood both playing well, David Eckstein may be looking over his shoulder very soon.

  • Better Bartolo: Finally, Bartolo Colon may be putting it together. After a brutal stretch, with ERAs of 6.37 in May and 7.99 in June, he's won his last five starts and brought his ERA down by a full run, to a sprightly 5.41. Colon has improved his VORP by 13 runs since our last installment, bringing it into positive territory, and is locating his fastball as well as he has all season long. The right-hander, who gave up a home run every 19 minutes before the All-Star break, has allowed just two during his winning streak.

    Down the stretch, the Angels need Colon to be the ace they paid for if they're going to get separation from the Rangers and Red Sox in the wild-card race. He's the only starter they have capable of carrying the rotation.

Chicago Cubs

  • Problem Addressed, Now What?: Jim Hendry got his 15 minutes of Einstein.

    At the trade deadline, Hendry's mandate was to fill the gaping hole at shortstop, as previously addressed in this space. To say he got the job done is a bit of an understatement. Thanks to some Springeresque drama, Hendry picked up the best option for which he could have hoped--and it didn't cost Matt Clement! Nomar Garciaparra cost the Cubs two admittedly useful prospects and an low-minors arm, but they were all fungible as far as the Cubs were concerned.

    Prior to Nomahhh's ahhhrrival, Cubs' shortstops compiled the worst production at the position in the majors, a whopping 594 OPS. That's Neifiriffic! What did PECOTA see for Garciaparra?

    
     AB  H  2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP  WINS
    583 177 38  5 21 41 60 10  4 .304 .355 .496  47.5  4.5
    

    That looks better than a 594 OPS. Even the projected 851 OPS is probably conservative for Garciaparra, and it's a huge improvement over what has essentially been replacement-level shortstop play. The Cubs were in a good position to make the playoffs before getting the upgrade. They should be in a better position now.

    So where do they go from here? They have a deep lineup and rotation, and they may pick up a spare arm for the bullpen. Beyond that, they need to stay healthy, play out the season and get in the playoffs. If this lineup and pitching staff is healthy come October, nobody's going to want to face the Cubs. Well, OK, maybe Morganna.

  • Ya Gotta Give to Get: In order to acquire the aforementioned Nomahhh, the Cubs freed a couple players who were likely to toil in obscurity for some time. Brendan Harris, at least in the interim, was destined to be stuck behind the impressively productive Aramis Ramirez. Francis Beltran has a decent arm, and was mired behind a solid five-man rotation, three good right-handed relievers in Chicago and about a zillion other arms advancing through the minors.

    With any semblance of common sense, the Expos will let Tony Batista float out to sea and give Harris, 24 next season, a shot at the job. After slugging .533 in 2002, Harris struggled a bit at Double-A in '03, although he did gain some ground in his strike-zone judgment. This year, he's hit .305/.346/.527 at Triple-A, finding his power while giving back walks. His Minor League Equivalent Average with Iowa was .280, translating to .241 in the majors. Harris doesn't have a huge upside, but he can be a .280 EqA third baseman with average to average-minus defense at a very low cost for the next few years. That will help the Expos, in any language.

    Beltran is a highly regarded arm who we mentioned in the same breath as K-Rod in 2003. He's not quite there. Beltran is striking out over a man per inning, with little else to sell. His command isn't major league caliber (22 walks in 35 innings pitched), and he's looking Miceliesque with eight home runs allowed in those 35 innings. It made sense for the Cubs to move him along to a better situation, and certainly seems like it was worth the compensation.

    The third prospect, sent to the Twins, was A-ball left-hander Justin Jones. Jones was the Cubs' #2 pick in the '02 draft, but has struggled with elbow and shoulder problems--nothing surgical, just nagging hurts--that have prevented him from staying in the rotation. He has the highest upside of the three players the Cubs dealt, and the lowest chance of achieving it.

    Any way you look at it, the Cubs did a fantastic job to get Garciaparra for parts they could spare.

  • Not Just Nomar: In giving up Harris and Beltran, the Cubs got more than just a big upgrade at shortstop, they got a useful outfielder who could turn into something. Matt Murton is a big 22-year-old outfielder who hit well at Georgia Tech and seems to be making a successful transition to pro ball. He's hit .303/.374/.449 this year in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. At 22, he's got a ways to go from High-A to the majors. It's certainly worth allotting some patience, as he helps to add depth to a system that's getting depleted in this area.

    Murton will have to hit, because his future is likely in left field. His on-base skills are already getting there, as Dayn Perry recently mentioned. Depending on how much more power he develops, he may make a useful fourth outfielder or perhaps have a nice little career. Moises Alou can't keep up this anti-aging thing indefinitely, after all.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Bunyonesque or Branyanesque?: Ah, Russell Branyan. A three true outcomes favorite. Homerun, walk or strikeout--he sure likes to let it fly when he swings away. The Brewers picked him up for a song, and he may provide a workout for Bernie Brewer down the stretch. With any luck, Keith Ginter's injury will push Ned Yost to give Branyan a shot at third base rather than trotting Wes Helms out there. It would be fun to see a modern day version of Rob Deer.

    PECOTA's 50th percentile projection has Branyan at .221/.327/.455. While that may not look pretty in the boxscore every day, that could help a lot of teams. His 90th percentile projection is .277/.384/.620, which is a pretty nice upside. Considering a couple other Brewers are exceeding their 90th percentile line, why not take a flyer on Branyan and see what he does for two months? It's not like Helms or Brady Clark ought to be holding you back too much.

    With Ben Sheets, Brooks Kieschnick, Keith Ginter, Lyle Overbay, Geoff Jenkins and Branyan, these Brewers could be fun to watch!

  • Doug Davis? THE Doug Davis?: The Brewers inked Doug Davis to a two-year, $4.75 million contract for 2005 and 2006.

    The upside: it gives them an (apparently) useful pitcher without a lot of financial risk. It's probably a good deal for both Davis (picked off the scrap heap) and the Brewers.

    The potential downside: Davis is a junk lefty and has never been that good. He's parlayed a useful season into a two-year guaranteed deal. Given the state of major-league pitching, it's certainly defensible. We've been complimentary with regards to Doug Melvin, who is doing a good job on a shoestring budget--but this is buying high.

    Put another way, Davis has given the Brewers 148 innings pitched with a 3.82 ERA this season. That's good for a VORP of 25.5. His peripherals have been good but not great. However, PECOTA had him pegged for 102.7 innings pitched and a 5.03 ERA. He's besting his 90th percentile PECOTA projection, and that's why the Brewers are buying high.

    Although there are reasons to be concerned, provided Davis doesn't fall apart this does provide the Brewers some stability and cost certainty while the young guys make their way to Milwaukee. After Sheets, it's not like the rotation is setting the world on fire. You can envision a scenario in which Davis remains productive, Chris Capuano posts an effective campaign and Sheets retains much of this year's progress. That's certainly an improvement on recent seasons, and could put the Brewers in a position to surprise if the young guys develop quickly.

  • Wait 'til Next Year: It doesn't look like Bernie Brewer is going to be doing much sliding in October. Let's look at what the Brewers may have in store for next year:

    • J.J. Hardy was off to a good start this season, hitting .277/.330/.495 before tearing his labrum. Let's hope he heals fully, because he's only 21, his defense is well regarded at shortstop, and it looks like he's going to hit. His injury was similar to what Richie Sexson experienced; watch Will Carroll's updates to see how he's healing.

    • Corey Hart can hit a bit, tallying a .283/.350/.499 line at Triple-A Indianapolis this season. He probably needs to hit a little more to make a difference, having been moved off of third base to the outfield. He's 22, so has got time. His development in the next couple years will decide if it's the Jesse Barfield or Dale Berra career path.

    • We all know about Rickie Weeks. In some respects, his .253/.365/.389 line this season has been a disappointment. Let's focus on the positives; he's drawing walks, getting on base and hitting his share of doubles. Don Baylor alert--he's been hit by pitch 24 times this season! He's 21 and playing his first full season of pro ball at Double-A Huntsville. Next season it would be nice to see him improve his batting average and pick up some power, which would put him well on the way to Milwaukee. He still has plenty of upside and time to reach it.

    • Prince Fielder should do his daddy proud. Let's hope it's in the batter's box and not at the buffet table. Fielder has about as much power upside as you're going to see, compiling a .268/.361/.473 line with 19 home runs at Double-A. Ideally, he avoids injury and weight problems and keeps his head on straight. The Brewers may take it slow now that Lyle Overbay has blossomed, and give Fielder every chance to develop before having him step on to a major-league field.

    • Ben Hendrickson has compiled a nice Triple-A campaign this season, even if he's been bloodied a bit in four major-league starts. In 105 innings pitched for Indy, he's allowed 99 hits, 24 walks, 77 strikeouts and six home runs. He's kept the ball down reasonably well and shown excellent command. Once he settles in, he ought to be a nice addition to the Brewers rotation.

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