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August 23, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Joe Sheehan took a good look at the unraveling of the Astros' season--sub-par pitching from the back end of the rotation, Andy Pettitte's elbow trouble, and a huge drop in offensive production has dropped the Astros to the .500 level, with little upside in sight.

    Give them credit, they gave it a shot with the Carlos Beltran trade, but things just didn't gel, and the Astros are going to end up with their worst finish since they stumbled to a 72-90 record in 2000 after three consecutive division titles.

    As Houston looks toward the future, they've got some very tough decisions to make, and they've got some contracts that they would probably rather not be burdened with. Jeff Bagwell, who is down near a career-low in slugging, is under contract to the Astros through the 2006 season, and will make $32 million over the next two seasons, which is obviously a little much for the 37- and 38-year old seasons of a first baseman who's putting up a VORP in the middle of the pack for his position.

    Meanwhile, Craig Biggio, the other pillar of the Astros success over the past ten seasons, is having his best year since 2001. Unfortunately, he's a 38-year old center fielder who'll never reach the heights of his mid- to late-90s greatness again. Jeff Kent has also declined this season. Frankly, this is a team that, all of a sudden, looks old--not experienced, just old.

    Lance Berkman is the exception. He's having another exceptional season at age 28, and PECOTA sees good things in the future. He's a free agent after the season, and with over $30 million owed to Bagwell, Biggio, and Kent next year, Gerry Hunsicker will have to convince Drayton McLane to pony up for Berkman--the only player the Astros have to build a future around as their current crop of stars start the long, painful slide toward the end of their careers.

  • Father Time, revisited: Of course, for some players, age doesn't ever seem to be a factor. Earlier this season, we looked at Roger Clemens, and how he had a chance to have one of the greatest seasons ever for a pitcher in his 40s. As we approach the last month of the season, Clemens is now set to crack the top-ten VORPs ever posted by a 40+ pitcher:
    
    PITCHER            YEAR   AGE   VORP
    ------------------------------------
    Alexander, Pete    1927    40   64.9
    Martinez, Dennis   1995    40   56
    Moyer, Jamie       2003    40   51.3
    Seaver, Tom        1985    40   50.8
    Spahn, Warren      1961    40   50.4
    Ryan, Nolan        1987    40   49.8
    Spahn, Warren      1962    41   49
    Quinn, Jack        1924    40   47.7
    Niekro, Phil       1979    40   46.2
    Quinn, Jack        1928    44   45.9
    CLEMENS, ROGER     2004    41   45.2
    Lyons, Ted         1942    41   44.7
    
    
    Clemens only signed for one year with the Astros before the season (he also reportedly has a 10-year personal services contract with the club which kicks in when he stops playing). We certainly wouldn't advocate most teams committing to a 42-year old pitcher, but it seems, given Clemens' performance this year, that he might emulate Nolan Ryan in longevity as well as in strikeout prowess.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • MVP Follies: Like the rumbling of a passing herd of cattle in the midst of a drive, it's begun. The august members of the Baseball Writer's Association of America will soon face the annual intelligence test--voting for their post-season awards, including the Most Valuable Player awards.

    This topic was brought to mind by Murray Chass's column in Sunday's New York Times. We don't mean to pick on Murray, who's a very nice guy and a helluva softball pitcher, but the sort of thinking in this piece is the sort of thinking that we've come to dread in award voting.

    Chass examines the Cardinals' trio of MVP candidates, Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds. Chass writes:

    The Cardinals are loaded. They are also loaded with M.V.P. contenders. But if a team has so many outstanding players, so many strong contenders, they dilute each other's value in terms of the award.
    This is, of course, an example of the "where would they be without him?" school of MVP voting, which Chass admits he is a member of. Unfortunately, this is the school which denied Alex Rodriguez, who was clearly the best player in the AL for several years, an MVP award until last year. After all, the Rangers could have finished last without him, right?

    We don't believe in punishing players for the ineptitude of their teammates; we don't believe in punishing players for being surrounded by other great players either. This is the problem with this school of thought--if you follow the logic to its extreme, the only player you can give the MVP to is a superior player who manages to drag a mediocre team into the pennant chase. That's a pretty constrained group, and it leads to absurdities like Chass revealing that he'd vote for Adrian Beltre at the moment. Don't get us wrong, Beltre is having a wonderful year (he's 6th in the NL in VORP), and he's a big factor in LA's surprising season. But he's not the MVP.

    The Cards have three of the top seven hitters in the league, as measured by VORP. Edmonds is just behind Beltre, and is playing some of the best baseball of his life. You can give him a little boost for his defense, if you like, but he's the third-best player on his team, which is a scary thought for whoever draws St. Louis in the playoffs.

    Scott Rolen has already been mentioned as a possible MVP, and he's having a marvelous year. He's fourth in the NL in VORP, and he's a Gold Glove-quality third baseman. He's the the best in the game at his position by a long shot...and he's the second-best player on his team.

    That brings us to Pujols, who's just sick, with a VORP up over 70. He just mashes. This is what an MVP looks like...in a world without Barry Bonds.

    We don't buy Chass's argument that the Cards Big Three should cancel each other out. It's just that Bonds is in a different league. His VORP of 105.8 is 30 points higher than Pujols--he's got the votes of the "best player in the game" school of MVP voter. And for the "where would they be?" school, Bonds is the only thing separating the contending Giants from joining the Diamondbacks in the depths of the NL West. Sorry, Cards fans, but the MVP is still in San Francisco. But the postseason run that your team is primed for should more than make up for it.

Texas Rangers

  • For Real: The Rangers' magic number in the AL West is 40. All right, that might be a little premature, but Texas has made it through most of August (an unusually mild one in Arlington), and sit just half a game back of the A's in the AL West, with Anaheim half a game back as well. Most of the division races in the game aren't going to amount to much this year, but out West, it's going to be a barn-burner.

    The Rangers remained in touch with a nice eight-game winning streak until getting thumped Sunday by the Royals. Over those eight games, the Rangers allowed only 24 runs. One thing you can take to the bank--if the Rangers can hold teams to three runs a game, they're going to be damn hard to beat.

    We've known for years that Texas' would be competitive if they could get people out. And, lo and behold, here they are:

    
    Rangers AL Pitching Ranks
    
                   2003   2004
                   ------------
    ERA            14th    5th
    Runs Allowed   14th   10th
    HR Allowed     14th    6th
    
    Amazing how keeping the ball in the yard helps you keep runs from scoring, isn't it?

    Now, we can discuss whether you think that someone like Ryan Drese can keep getting people out, or whether or not Kenny Rodgers is for real. But thus far in 2004, the Rangers have been much stronger on the mound than anyone could have expected (PECOTA pegged the Rangers staff as the fourth-worst in the AL before the season), and for that, they deserve a lot of credit, and, yes, even some respect.

  • Keeping Cordero: We're not usually fooled by big save numbers, but Francisco Cordero has been excellent for the Rangers this season: 1.68 ERA, 39 saves in 41 chances, and 57 K in 53.2 innings. That's not only been enough to keep him amongst the leaders in our Adjusted Runs Prevented reports, it was also enough to get him a new contract, a two-year, $8 million extension with a team option for a third year.

    This begs the question: is he worth $4 million a year? Is any reliever worth $4 million a year? Billy Beane, who has watched his A's stay within reach of the rest of their division due to a bullpen with a penchant for torching games in the late innings, would probably say that a consistent reliever like Cordero is worth his weight in gold.

  • Olympic Cycle: We'd be lying if we told you that the Olympics hadn't taken some of our focus off the dog days of August in the baseball season. But there was one feat last week that, in a Goldman-esque fit of free association, let us tie the two together nicely.

    Mark Teixeira punctuated what has been a very good season by hitting for the cycle on Aug. 17 in the Rangers' 16-4 win against Cleveland. Teixeira became the second Ranger to hit for the cycle: Oddibe McDowell also did it against the Indians on July 23, 1985.

    You might best remember McDowell as a starter on the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team which also featured Will Clark, Mark McGwire, and Barry Larkin. Baseball was a demonstration sport in Los Angeles, but the team was hyped as the greatest amateur team ever put together.

    The U.S. team, headed by legendary USC coach Ron Dedeaux, breezed through the round-robin portion of the competition, and then beat South Korea, 5-2, in the semis, as McDowell hit his third homer of the tournament, a two-run shot. The US went into the Gold Medal game against Japan as a heavy favorite, but the Japanese upset the Americans, 6-3.

    As for McDowell, he was up with the Rangers, hitting for the cycle a year later. But unlike some of his Olympic teammates, McDowell never really became much of a factor on the major league level, and only ended up playing in 840 games in his career.

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