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November 10, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Fixing a Hole, Part One: As the hot stove league picks up and rumors start to flow like beer at the Red Sox victory parade, we thought we'd examine each of the teams in this group to see exactly who their free agents are, and how concerned they should be. We'll begin in Houston, where there's a top-heavy batch to replace or resign:
    
    Houston Free Agents
    
                     2004 VORP
    Roger Clemens       61.3
    Jeff Kent           52.1
    Carlos Beltran      41.9
    Dan Miceli          15.2
    Jose Vizcaino        6.5
    Russ Springer        4.7
    Darren Oliver        2.9
    Orlando Palmeiro     1.3
    Jason Alfaro        -1.3
                     --------
                       184.6
    
    Those are three pretty big horses at the top of the list--a Hall of Fame pitcher, a second baseman who still can rake when he gets it going, and the player who is the prize pig this offseason thanks to his scorching postseason run. Losing even one of these players would be tough, especially in a division that figures to be highly competitive next year.

    The bad news for Houston is that they'll likely lose all three. The team declined a $9 million option for Kent, and he seems unlikely to sign with the Astros for less that that. Clemens has been musing about retiring, but then again, we all know what happened the last time he hung up his spikes. And while Beltran has spoken about how much he enjoyed playing in Houston, George Steinbrenner is likely to make him a "Godfather"-type offer.

    Move beyond those stars, and you see Miceli. Houston's bullpen was a disaster for much of 2004, and Miceli was one of the only vaguely effective guys there who weren't named Brad Lidge. New Houston GM Tim Purpura has a long offseason ahead of him, not only trying to replace Clemens, Kent and Beltran, but also trying to bolster his team's biggest weakness in 2004.

  • Roger That: With his seventh Cy Young award in hand, Clemens stands near the top of any list of the greatest pitchers of all-time. If he does go ahead and retire, he'll be near the top of another list. By our reckoning, only Sandy Koufax has ever left the game while pitching at a higher level. Here's a list of the best final seasons by a pitcher since 1900:
    
    YEAR AGE NAME                   VORP
    
    1966  30 Sandy Koufax           88.7
    2004  41 Roger Clemens          61.3
    2000  29 Mike Sirotka           44.7
    1920  36 Eddie Cicotte          41.9
    1922  32 Phil Douglas           40.2
    1902  28 Win Mercer             38.2
    1985  26 Britt Burns            37.3
    1990  36 John Tudor             35.3
    1974  29 Don Wilson             34.0
    1927  27 Dutch Ulrich           33.9
    1991  26 Brian Holman           33.2
    1915  22 George Kaiserling      32.8
    1942  34 Larry French           30.8
    1927  33 Dutch Ruether          30.7
    1980  30 J.R. Richard           30.4
    
    Of course, this does assume that Clemens will finally stay at home with the kids--we could be adding to this chart in 2007 after Clemens goes 22-6 for the Washington Taxcuts, leading them to their first pennant. At this point, given his level of performance and difficulty in finally shutting it down, we'd be hesitant to bet against it....

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Good Something Beats Good Something: We know that Cardinal fans have been loath, along with Yankee fans, to join in with the general good-feeling which has seemed to accompany the Red Sox' thrashing of the Cards in the World Series, so we'll try and keep this short. Heading into the Series, and indeed, into the season, the concerns about the 2004 edition of the Cards centered on their rotation: would Walt Jockety's collection of castoffs and rehab projects be enough to compete with the Cubs and the Astros? Well, it was, to the tune of 105 wins and an NL pennant.

    Still, doubts persisted heading into the Series. And while the St. Louis starters didn't make anyone forget Cy Young, they kept St. Louis in within striking distance. No, the problem is that the National Leagues most prolific offense simply didn't show up after Game One. After losing an 11-9 slugfest that first night in Boston, the Cardinals scored three runs the rest of the way.

    As a team, St. Louis hit .190 as a team against the Sox, and they were 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position. Scott Rolen went 0-for-the-Series, and Jim Edmonds had one hit. The St. Louis rotation might have been below average, but the same stars who carried this team to the World Series--Rolen, Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Larry Walker--just couldn't finish the job.

  • Fixing a Hole, Part Two: Speaking of the St. Louis pitching staff, its ranks are about to thin considerably. Here's the Cardinals' crop of free agents this offseason:
    
    St. Louis Free Agents
    
                     2004 VORP
    Tony Womack         33.3
    Woody Williams      28.5
    Edgar Renteria      26.5
    Steve Kline         19.9
    John Mabry          18.1
    Matt Morris         13.4
    Cal Eldred          11.4
    Ray Lankford         6.2
    Mike Matheny        -0.8
                     --------
                       156.5
    
    Two of the Cards' top four starters are on this list after St. Louis declined Williams' $8 million option for 2005, but picked up Chris Carpenter's for $2.4 million. Morris has been on a decline since his 6.8 WARP season in 2001--we don't see any sign that he's ever going to become the frontline superstar that many thought he might blossom into. So while it's hard to argue with the choices made by the St. Louis front office, they're going to be in the market for pitching help this winter.

    What's remarkable about this list is that just about everyone on it was, at the very least, a solid contributor to the Cards' success in 2004. With the possible exception of their World Series foes, no one in baseball is going to have to do more work just to maintain than St. Louis.

  • Lopsided: OK, maybe this won't be quite short enough for most St. Louis fans. Mike Carminati has been doing research trying to quantify just how badly the Sox blasted the Cards, and where the sweep ranks amongst all postseason series in terms of lack of competitiveness.

    According to his formula, 2004 was the third-most lopsided World Series in the modern era, trailing two other sweeps--the A's of the Giants in 1989, and the Yankees of the Cardinals in 1928.

    In 1928, the Yankees went into the Series missing Herb Pennock and Earle Combs, while Tony Lazzeri and Babe Ruth were both injured. But Ruth went 10 for 16 with three home runs and nine runs scored on a sore ankle, and Lou Gehrig drove in nine runs in the four-game series.

    The 1989 Series is obviously best remembered for the earthquake before Game Three, but it also featured a true shellacking of the Giants. The A's hit .301/.382/.582 while the Giants struggled at .209/.252/.343, and Oakland outscored San Francisco 32-14 in the four games.

Texas Rangers

  • Fixing a Hole, Part Three: Now if you're a GM, here's what you like to see when you take a look at your crop of free agents. Texas might have a bunch of players heading onto the market, but they're ones who just didn't do that much to help the club in 2004:
    
    Texas Free Agents
    
                     2004 VORP
    Eric Young          12.8
    David Dellucci       8.6
    Doug Brocail         7.5
    Jay Powell           5.7
    Brad Fullmer         4.8
    Jeff Nelson          0.5
    Scott Erickson       0.2
    Rusty Greer            0
    Jeff Zimmerman         0
    Manny Alexander     -0.5
    Herbert Perry       -1.2
    Andy Fox            -2.1
    Brian Jordan        -6.6
    John Wasdin         -6.9
                     --------
                        22.8
    
    Let's put this in perspective. The Rangers have 14 free agents going onto the market who combined to do as much for their team as Pedro Feliz (22.6 VORP) did for the San Francisco Giants in 2004. I mean, there are some useful role players on this list, but there's no one who you'd feel like you have to keep.

    So, what's a GM with no pressing needs created through free agency to do? If you keep up with the newspaper columnists in the world, the Rangers' first priority in the offseason is going to be trying to trade Alfonso Soriano to free up some money to get some pitching help. If this is the plan of the Rangers front office, it's bad news for Texas fans, because it's exactly the wrong thing to do.

    We're not here to write some big mash note about the Rangers staff, but in 2004, they finally performed at the American League level instead of the American Legion level. They posted the fifth-best team ERA in the AL. They were decent, which is a big step up from previous years. Sure, Kenny Rogers is about 400 years old, but he's still getting people out.

    No, it wasn't the pitching that kept the Rangers from closing the deal in the AL West in 2004. It was the offense.

    Texas is starting to suffer from the Devil's Theory of Ballpark Effects, a principle first mentioned by Bill James. Their home park is the most generous offensive park in the game after Coors Field, and it leads to the same inflated sense of offensive competence. As a team, the Rangers hit .285/.350/.486 and scored 491 runs at home this year, but managed just .246/.309/.428 and 369 runs on the road--they hit like the Red Sox in Arlington, and the Marlins on the road.

    So while we're sure that Rangers' fans would welcome a quality arm in their rotation, we think that Hart could get more bang for his buck on the offensive side. Texas got very little production from their outfielders last year, so there's plenty of room for an upgrade. Let's see how Hart plays it, and if he can recognize that what appears to be a strength of his team might be what's holding them back.

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