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October 6, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • The More Things Change...: The last time the Orioles scored more runs than they allowed, Albert Belle and Mike Mussina were standout performers, and Cal Ripken Jr. was the face of the franchise. The team was then just two years removed from its consecutive playoff appearances under Davey Johnson, not anymore Old, Expensive and Good, just Old and Expensive. Ray Miller was fired after that year, and the Mike Hargrove era promised new life.

    Turns out Hargrove couldn't hang around for that. The Orioles remained Expensive, but have not since been Good. In each of his four years, the Human Rain Delay's roster could only do what Miller's had done: finish fourth, and without once topping either of Miller's mediocre win totals.

    There has finally been a ripple in the stasis that was the AL East standings, as the Orioles have climbed one rung higher and finished third, also scoring over 800 runs for the first time since the Miller years. In many areas, this represents some of the renaissance that Peter Angelos, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan were hoping for when they overhauled the team in the off-season, bringing in Lee Mazzilli to manage and throwing bags of money at several free agents.

    But then...when push comes to shove, third place is no place. While we at BP have long maintained that the Baltimore-D.C. metro area can easily support two clubs, at the very least, the locals will have another option if the Orioles continue to frustrate. That option will also have:

    a. a new GM
    b. new owners, likely to throw down oodles of cash
    c. a lucrative stadium deal
    d. near-unanimous public support and goodwill

    So over the winter, we'll examine this question: Have the Orioles made progress? Or can we expect the Monuments to overtake them in a couple of years?

    The Orioles right now are in a place of some opportunity. In the off-season the signings of Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Sidney Ponson (not to mention Rafael Palmeiro) were thought of as more of the same--throwing tons of money away in a futile attempt to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees. Lost in the shuffle was that Baltimore really didn't spend that much money--their Opening Day payroll, at $51,623,333, was 20th in baseball. So many old contracts had expired that the Orioles really had whittled themselves down to a much leaner operation.

    This winter, David Segui comes off the books as well. The Orioles' plan, as well as it can be divined, was to rebuild the organization from the ground up, bringing as many young players in as possible, and filling holes with free agents. It makes sense to save money while doing this, but you also need to keep the fans interested. Hence the winter's free agent signings. Tejada now looms as the center around which the team can be built.

    But so many of the young players have proven themselves to be, like the Orioles, mediocre. Luis Matos flopped this year, after what looked like a breakout in 2003. In the rest of the outfield, Larry Bigbie and Jay Gibbons are really nothing special, and while Jerry Hairston can get on base, with his lack of power, he needs to play second to be useful, and the team seems committed to Brian Roberts there.

    As Baltimore moves toward contention, Angelos is likely to loosen his purse-strings for more marquee free agent pursuits. But first they'll need to figure out what to do with their crew of not-so-young, not-so-great players in the field. We'll look at that, and what looms for the pitching staff, next time.

  • Top 50: On a lighter note, Palmeiro was the only current Oriole to be voted one of the 50 Favorite Orioles in the franchise's 50 years in Baltimore. The list runs the gamut from Jerry Adair to Hoyt Wilhelm and includes multiple Martinezes, Ripkens and Robinsons. Check it out, and if you think the good people of Baltimore missed someone, drop us a line.

Colorado Rockies

  • Over The Hill: The Rockies have cracked .500 just once (82-80, at that) since 1997. Their attempts to find 'what works' in Coors are a matter for a different time. Like the Orioles, the Rockies will need to take advantage of the bright spots they find in their own system. Let's look at some notable Rockies with at least 200 at-bats or 50 innings pitched, and see how they performed compared to their weighted mean PECOTA projections.

    
                                            PECOTA    actual
    Player          Pos     Age     EqA/ERA   EqA/ERA
    Jeromy Burnitz  OF      35       .272        .285
    Vinny Castilla  3B      36       .245        .272
    Royce Clayton   SS      34       .233        .241
    Todd Greene     C       33       .252        .262
    Todd Helton     1B      30       .327        .348
    Matt Holliday   OF      24       .249        .266
    Charles Johnson C       32       .260        .256
    Aaron Miles     2B      27       .250        .230
    Mark Sweeney    OF      34       .247        .290
    Preston Wilson  OF      29       .287        .230
    Shawn Chacon    RP      26       5.08        7.11
    Aaron Cook      SP      25       4.92        4.28
    Shawn Estes     SP      31       5.55        5.73
    Jason Jennings  SP      25       4.99        5.51
    Steve Reed      RP      38       3.78        3.76
    Jamey Wright    SP      29       4.96        3.98
    
    

    The Rockies have a lot of overachievers, which would be good...but most of them are on the wrong side of 30. In fact, Burnitz and Castilla are unlikely to be back, as we've covered before in this space, unless they lower their contract demands. Aaron Miles started hot, but then showed he had neither plate discipline nor power, while Juan Uribe, for whom he was traded, slugged .508 in Chicago. Meanwhile, aging overachievers like Shawn Estes, whose gaudy record (our Expected Won-Loss report shows that he's the luckiest pitcher in the major leagues) had teams actually interested in him at the deadline, and Mark Sweeney, are still Rockies, instead of having been flipped for prospects.

    Not all of the team's problems break down this easily. Witness Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook. Not their stat lines, but the pitchers themselves. Jennings is no pinup, but on the mound you see his fast and heavy sinker and wonder how he ever gives up a home run, even in Coors. Cook, meanwhile, has mid-90s heat with good breaking stuff and an effective change, his deployment of which leaves scouts drooling. And while Cook made strides this year, and faster than PECOTA expected, Jennings still hasn't been able to advance beyond what he did to win Rookie of the Year two years ago. Cook's road ERA was 3.07; Coors Field inflated his numbers to look adequate instead of good. In contrast, Jennings' road ERA was 4.86.

    All of Cook's progress, though, is tenuous because of the surgery he had to undergo in early September to attend to blood clots in both lungs. This is scary stuff, but he should be fine for spring training. The Rockies hope so; Cook and Joe Kennedy (3.59 at home, 3.73 on the road) are the most promising duo they've had in some time...

  • Young'uns: ...of course you might disagree, and say that Chin-hui Tsao and Jeff Francis are the most promising pitching duo here of late. They have certainly come through the system amidst a great deal of hype. But they may not be rotation buddies: Tsao, it now seems, will get a shot to close for the Rockies in '05. We'll keep you posted with more details...but then, doesn't it sound awfully familiar?

New York Mets

  • Does He Really Know How To Win?: Al Leiter's 10-8 record this year marks his 10th season in a row at .500 or better, which ties Andy Pettitte for the third-longest active streak. Only Greg Maddux (17) and Pedro Martinez (12) have done it longer.

    But wins and losses are fickle, dependent as much on run support as on a pitcher's own performance. So we'll use our support-neutral statistics to find each pitcher's expected winning percentage over the length of his streak.

    
               Leiter      Pettitte      Martinez       Maddux
    Year     W%   EW%      W%   EW%      W%   EW%      W%    EW%
    1988                                             .692  .582
    1989                                             .613  .623
    1990                                             .500  .493
    1991                                             .577  .542
    1992                                             .645  .717
    1993                               [in relief]   .667  .660
    1994                               .688  .607    .727  .790
    1995   .500  .550    .571  .513    .583  .573    .905  .832
    1996   .571  .644    .714  .535    .565  .507    .577  .617
    1997   .550  .509    .720  .623    .680  .734    .826  .733
    1998   .739  .688    .593  .492    .731  .616    .667  .688
    1999   .520  .482    .560  .455    .846  .714    .679  .526
    2000   .667  .570    .679  .487    .750  .765    .679  .623
    2001   .500  .548    .600  .473    .700  .662    .607  .584
    2002   .500  .519    .722  .575    .833  .659    .727  .688
    2003   .625  .581    .724  .495    .778  .736    .593  .521
    2004   .556  .634    .600  .567    .667  .558    .600  .551
    
    

    Three of the four hold up very well; Maddux loses a few years off his streak due to 1990, and Pedro remains perfect. Leiter's streak is broken in 1999, which gives him nine out of 10 years--though it means he's only on consecutive year number five right now. Could be worse, though; he could be Andy Pettitte, to whom the Yankee dynasty has been very kind. On the other hand, Leiter might rather have had Pettitte's run support, paychecks and World Series rings than the comforting knowledge that he's been a legitimate winning pitcher more often.

  • PECOTA Can't Believe It, Either: Pitching with a labrum charitably described as well-worn, Leiter outperformed all reasonable expectations this season.

    PECOTA's most optimistic forecast: 30 starts, 3.21 ERA, 45.3 VORP
    Leiter's actual statistics in '04: 30 starts, 3.21 ERA, 46.2 VORP

    How did the Mets' other starters fare against what PECOTA expected? Let's take a look:

    • Tom Glavine
      Actual: 32 starts, 3.66 ERA, 39.1 VORP
      90th Pct: 25 starts, 3.21 ERA, 38.1 VORP

    • Steve Trachsel
      Actual: 33 starts, 4.00 ERA, 25.7 VORP
      60th Pct: 25 starts, 4.04 ERA, 22.1 VORP

    • Kris Benson
      Actual: 31 starts, 4.31 ERA, 22.2 VORP
      75th Pct: 20 starts, 4.09 ERA, 17.3 VORP

    • Jae Weong Seo
      Actual: 21 starts, 4.90 ERA, 8.3 VORP
      40th Pct: 22 starts, 4.74 ERA, 7.2 VORP

    At one point, Leiter was pitching through so much pain that it seemed this year would be his last. Now, he insists that he will pitch somewhere next year, and there's no guarantee that New York will be that place. Along with John Franco, Leiter hasn't been begging to stay. The Mets plan to resign Benson, and hope that Glavine, Trachsel and Victor Zambrano will join him in the rotation. Given Leiter's age, health and the fact that he overachieved markedly in 2004, they might be better off giving Aaron Heilman a shot next year, or looking at other, younger free agents.

  • New Sheriff: Which brings us to new general manager Omar Minaya, whose decision that will be. Minaya's arrival is sure to bring change to the Mets, and because he gets "full autonomy" in selecting the next manager, he'll be able to put his stamp on it from the beginning.

    Rumors abound that Minaya will pursue Bobby Valentine, who last managed the Mets before Art Howe, and is now skippering the Chiba Lotte Marines halfway across the world. Minaya, of course, is familiar with Valentine from his years with the Mets before he accepted the GM post in Montreal.

    Lest we forget, wasn't the placid Art Howe brought on precisely as a change of pace from the fiery and unpredictable Bobby V? Different teams need different leadership, yes, but if the Valentine rumors are true, they paint the Mets as a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another.

    Of course, if the Mets want fiery, Larry Bowa's available...

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