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September 14, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Wait Till Next Year: For the third straight year, it looks like the White Sox will finish second behind the Twins, once again out of the race well before the season wraps up Is 2005 the year that the Sox finally get over the Twin Cities hump? Looking ahead to the likely starting roster is a good way to find out.

    • C: Having swapped out young and developing Miguel Olivo in the Freddy Garcia deal, the White Sox are left to choose between the not-as-young and inadequate Ben Davis and picking up the old and inadequate Sandy Alomar's option for 2005. Neither choice is terribly appealing and, aside from passable options Jason Varitek and Damian Miller, nor is the free-agent market. With no players in the farm system who could reasonably be considered, the Sox should consider making a small trade for a high-risk, high-reward player or letting capable backup Jamie Burke take the full-time job.

    • 1B: Paul Konerko has been the best first baseman in the AL this year and, despite concerns over his slump last year, there's no reason to think he won't be very good next year as well. Given the size of the checks he'll be cashing, that's a good thing.

    • 2B: Some might call Juan Uribe a revelation. Some might call him a fluke. The truth lies, as it does so often, in between. Uribe's .274/.319/.491 season has been highlighted by 19 home runs and 34 doubles and triples, but his walk rate is still very low and he's cooled significantly after his hot start to the season. With four years' experience, he'll head to arbitration where his power output will massively inflate his bargain basement $350,000 salary. With very few better options available to the White Sox (Roberto Alomar notwithstanding), bringing Uribe back for another year to see if he can prove he's not a fluke is a risk worth taking. He's still just 25 years old.

    • SS: Here at Baseball Prospectus, we often point out players whose value is largely tied to their batting average; we also like to point to the high volatility of batting average from year to year. In Jose Valentin's case, however, these lessons do not apply. While Valentin may look somewhat unlucky, posting a .214/.284/.464 line with a solid .250 isolated power, his batting average has declined every year he's been with the White Sox, and it didn't start out all that high. A career .244 hitter with a .321 OBP, Valentin's value is entirely tied up in his power numbers, and at a month shy of 35, he is likely at the tail end of his career. A free agent, the White Sox would be wise to let him sign elsewhere, perhaps picking up one of the many younger options on the market. We would have recommended a one-year stopgap solution while prospect Michael Morse develops, but he was dealt to Seattle in the Garcia deal. Stop us when you sense a pattern.

    • 3B: Third base has become one of the most talent-rich positions in the AL over the past few years. With players like Alex Rodriguez, Eric Chavez, Melvin Mora, Hank Blalock, Bill Mueller and what's left of Troy Glaus manning hot corners around the league, the standard for third basemen has risen. Joe Crede has not. The owner of a .303 career OBP and lacking much power, Crede will be heading to arbitration. His service time and lack of performance will likely keep his salary low, but that still doesn't solve the problem of his being a player who can't hit.

    • LF: Carlos Lee is currently third in VORP for AL left fielders after being fourth and fifth the previous two years. He's locked up for next year at $8 million; while that's not a bargain, it's certainly a good investment in a younger player who's proved himself for several years.

    • CF: Aaron Rowand has been a pleasant surprise for the Sox this season, hitting a robust .320/.373/.559 in his age-27 season. Headed to arbitration, he'll likely command a passable salary that will accommodate both him and Sox. Though a slight downturn from his batting average-induced stardom is likely, Rowand will be a good player in center field next year.

    • RF: With Carl Everett signed for next year at $4 million, the Sox already have a solid option in right as well as capable backups in Joe Borchard and Ross Gload. However, this is another position in which the Sox had a solid in-house option in BP's #2 prospect Jeremy Reed. While much of Reed's value in 2003 was in his ridiculous batting average, he was still a cheap, legitimate option in right that would have given the Sox $4 million to use elsewhere.

    • DH: Frank Thomas is still one of the best pure hitters in the game and still virtually the definition of designated hitter.

    The Sox's biggest questions, at least in the hitting department, are shortstop, second base and catcher. While the pickings are slim at catcher for free agents, the Sox should be able to scrape up a decent shortstop and wouldn't be terribly ill-advised to stick with Uribe at second base for one more well-priced year. Could picking up a free-agent catcher like Varitek finally put the Sox over the top? Given how little production they've gotten from the position the past three years, that seems like one good way to improve the offense.

Oakland Athletics

  • How the West Was Won: Joe Sheehan did an excellent job breaking down the AL West round-robin that began last night, but looking at the race specifically from the Athletics' perspective reveals a few more insights. Looking quickly at the schedule, the A's get a slight boost from getting to play 11 of the remaining 20 games at home while the Angels have the opposite. However, the A's only off-day comes before a three-game set with Texas followed by the first weekend series with the Angels; the Halos get their rest day immediately before playing the A's.

    Depending on how the first week of games against Texas and Seattle go for both teams, the pitching matchups could be juggled, but for now it looks as though the A's will see Kelvim Escobar twice over the two series while sending Barry Zito to the mound twice. No matter whom the A's send to the mound, their pitching will be a strength in the series, at least until the seventh inning.

    Despite the negative press this year, since the All-Star Break the A's firemen look more like the guys from "Backdraft" and less like the guys from "Gangs of New York":

    
    Player                IP    H   HR   BB    K
    Chad Bradford       15.2   10    0    5    5
    Octavio Dotel       30.2   17    5    9   42
    Justin Duchscherer  34.0   30    8   10   19
    Chris Hammond       19.0   15    0    2   14
    Jim Mecir           15.0    9    0    3   14
    Ricardo Rincon      16.1   11    1    8   11
    
    TOTALS             130.2   92   14   37  105
    
    Octavio Dotel has had some of the year's most well-publicized meltdowns, usually due to unfortunately timed home runs, but it's hard to argue with a 42/9 striekout-to-walk ratio in 30 2/3 innings. As a staff, the Oakland pen has been averaging just under a baserunner per inning as well as posting nearly a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    Compare this to what the Angels relievers have done since the break:

    
    Player                IP    H   HR   BB    K
    Brendan Donnelly    22.0   20    3    9   31
    Kevin Gregg         25.0   25    2   13   28
    Ramon Ortiz         14.2   22    4    4    7
    Troy Percival       20.0   14    3    6   16
    Francisco Rodriguez 27.2   18    1    9   39
    Scot Shields        36.0   42    3    9   32
    
    TOTALS             145.1  141   16   50  153
    
    While the strikeout totals are very impressive, the Angels have allowed significantly more baserunners per inning than the Athletics, mostly due to giving up a great many more hits. Dotel has been more effective than counterpart Troy Percival, and if the A's soft-tossing smorgasborg of arms can get him the ball, Oakland will be in better shape than Anaheim will be in similar situations. While there have been rumors that Oakland would consider promoting recently drafted Huston Street, public comments from the front office indicate that Street will remain off the postseason roster.

    Getting their starters deep into the game remains a key for the Athletics. Anaheim's free-swinging ways should allow them to do just that. The Angels average 3.6 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) and no Angel averages as many as four. With Vladimir Guerrero (3.2 P/PA), Jose Guillen (3.5) and Bengie Molina (3.1) likely to grab significant playing time, the A's starters should be able to avoid any potential pitch-count problems.

    More than likely the division title will, in one way or another, come down to the final three-game series in Oakland. Thanks to fortunate scheduling and performance (or lack thereof) by expected contenders, the race for the AL West crown promises to be the best baseball has to offer in September.

  • New Kid on the Block: The A's other main concern as they continue the stretch run is team health. In the last two seasons, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder have been hurt in October, a crucial blow in the short-series format of baseball's playoffs. This year, the injuries are more prevalent among the hitters. Jermaine Dye has an avulsion fracture in his thumb while Erubiel Durazo is battling an oblique injury.

    To counter this, the A's have brought up prospect Nick Swisher. Swisher has seen plenty of playing time in place of Dye and the struggling Bobby Kielty and has looked good doing so, posting a .214/.389/.500 line in 34 plate appearances. Oakland has indicated that they'll invoke the Francisco Rodriguez clause and replace injured second baseman Mark Ellis on the postseason roster with Swisher. No pressure on the kid, though.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Down on the Farm: With the minor-league seasons wrapping up, it's time to take a quick tour of the Phillies affiliates to see who had the breakout seasons, who disappointed, and who's still under the radar.
    • Scranton-Wilkes Barre (69-73, fourth in the Triple-A International League North Division): The Phillies, like many other teams, have stacked their Triple-A farm club with backup players and injury replacements. Fewer and fewer younger players are found in the International and Pacific Coast Leagues. As a result, very few Triple-A players can be considered serious prospects.

      Gavin Floyd, one of Philadelphia's top pitching prospects, spent most of the year in Reading, but the Phillies are lacking for any real prospects in Triple-A, so we'll discuss him here. While Floyd's strikeout rate slipped at the higher level (92 strikeouts in 110 2/3 innings at Reading, 18 in 30 2/3 in Scranton-WB), Philadelphia saw fit to call him up to the majors earlier this month. In three starts he's fared well, allowing five runs in 17 innings while striking out 12 and walking eight. He should be in the starting rotation in 2005 and hopefully for years afterwards.

    • Reading (64-77, fourth in the Double-A Eastern League Southern Division): Other than the aforementioned Floyd, there was also the story of Ryan Howard, discussed a couple of times in this space. Howard is a high-power, high-strikeout machine who puts up all the numbers that everyone wants in a prospect. He destroyed Eastern League pitching to the tune of 37 home runs in 374 at-bats, a performance that was compromised by his 129 strikeouts and 46 walks. It was more of the same at Scranton-WB (111 at-bats, nine home runs, 37 strikeouts, 14 walks). Called up for September, Howard has--what else?--a home run and five strikeouts in 10 at-bats. While a team that strikes out more often isn't likely to score significantly fewer runs than a comparable team that makes its outs in the field, strikeouts are a potential problem for prospects. Howard's ceiling is limited by his propensity for making either prodigious contact or none at all. (And by the fact that Jim Thome is already manning his position.) He's still the Phillies' best hitting prospect, but they could get good value for him and fill other holes in the trade market.

    • Clearwater (30-36, fourth in the Florida State League's West Division): It was a lost year for Cole Hamels. Totaling only 16 innings while batting a variety of arm injuries, Hamels' impressive debut in spring training against the Yankees yielded to the scourge of the young pitcher (Hamels is still only 20 years old). Hamels has been placed on the disabled list with elbow soreness, elbow inflammation and a tricep injury. While those reports certainly sound like the beginnings a more serious elbow injury, there are no confirmed reports of anything other than soreness, so Phillies fans should expect Hamels to be back for 2005. This year will certainly put a ding in his shiny prospect status, but if Hamels can recover, he will remain one of the game's best young pitchers.

      Clearwater's best hitter was Ryan Barthelemy, a 2002 10th-round pick out of Florida State who, after a disappointing 2003 in Lakewood, put together a respectable .295/.368/.457 line at age 24. Barthelemy is a little old and he doesn't draw as many walks or hit for quite as much power as real prospects do. And he's the best the Phillies have at this level.

    • Lakewood (39-30, third in the South Atlantic League Northern Division): Lakewood was the Phillies only full-season team to finish above .500, largely due to the hitting of Michael Bourn, the Phillies 2003 fourth-round pick out of the University of Houston. Bourn posted a .317/.433/.470 line; while his ISO of .153 isn't that impressive, he did his 20 doubles and 14 triples and he's still only 21. Catcher Randy Ruiz also had an impressive season at Lakewood, but turning 24 years old this winter, Ruiz is far too old for his level to be considered a serious prospect.

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