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December 3, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals, Seattle Mariners

by Baseball Prospectus

Cleveland Indians

  • Their Kingdom for a Pitcher: If there's a free agent pitcher out there, chances are his name has been mentioned in conjunction with the Indians. With the team scoring the fifth-most runs in the American League in 2004 (858, up from 699 the year before), it stands to reason that they think off-season efforts should go elsewhere. The Tribesters allowed 80 more runs in 2004 than they did the previous year; if they can get back to the 2003 number while holding the line offensively, they will most likely find themselves in the fight for the Central Division title.

    For the past four years, theirs has been a division won by teams posting rather unimposing Runs Scored/Runs Against logs, netting some very routine Pythagorean won-loss records for the division winners:

    
    Year Div Champ: RS-RA, Proj. W-L
    2001 Cleveland: 897-821, 88-74
    2002 Minnesota: 768-712, 86-75
    2003 Minnesota: 801-758, 85-77
    2004 Minnesota: 780-715, 87-75
    
    

    Following the scenario described above, the Indians could expect to finish with 91 wins if they can get back to their 2003 pitching/defense while maintaining their 2004 offense. Would that be enough to win the division? There's no guarantee, of course, but it would certainly put them right there in a division that has historically not required a Herculean effort to win it all.

    With that in mind, Cleveland's primary motivation this off-season appears to be in the pitching area. Only three teams surrendered more walks than the Indians in 2004. No wonder they've got their eyes on Brad Radke (fifth-best K:BB ratio in the biz) and David Wells (sixth-best). Indians starters Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook ranked 49th, 52nd and 54th respectively in this category in 2004.

    Glancing at the EqA numbers for Cleveland players who saw anything like a goodly amount of action reveals--at the very least--decent numbers up and down the list. The lowest EqA among Indians with at least 150 plate appearances was .266 by Jody Gerut. While standing pat is not necessarily the answer, understanding that improving pitching's contribution is the way to go reflects well on Cleveland's management. Given the relatively young age of much of the Indians lineup, it's reasonable to expect them to not only repeat their 858-run output next year but perhaps even improve on it somewhat. The Indian most likely to experience a downturn is probably 38-year-old Omar Vizquel--and he's San Francisco's problem now.

Washington Nationals

  • Taking a Stand: Three cheers for the good burghers of our nation's capital for not succumbing to the whims of Major League Baseball. It's silly enough for a city to help some billionaire team owner by building him a stadium at taxpayer expense; it's even sillier to do the same for a team that doesn't have an owner. Anti-publicly-funded stadium building should be a delightfully non-partisan cause. Lefties should loathe it because all that tax money could otherwise go to the public programs they all hold so near and dear. Righties should loathe it because it represents government misguidance at its finest, as money is hoisted from hard-working citizens who should be allowed to keep what they earn.

    If the Expos do end up in Washington, you know what would be cool? Remember how President Bush hosted some Little League games on the White House lawn? Why not have the Expos play a game there? Sure, security would be a stone bitch, but you could probably get a few thousand folks into temporary stands on the grounds. The novelty of it would more than make up for the lost revenue of such a small crowd. Hey, we're just thinking out loud here...

    We say "if" because we are still not convinced this is a deal signed in blood. It sure seems like the perfect moment for Portland, Ore. to swoop in with an 11th-hour stadium/ownership deal, doesn't it?

  • Vinny Vedi Vici: Of course, given the early tenure of new general manager Jim Bowden, we're not convinced Portlanders would want the team. For the record, Vinny Castilla is not terrible. He was terrible from 1999 to 2002, but that seems to have passed. What he is now, though, is fairly unremarkable. Why did new general manager Bowden throw all that money and all those years at him, then? It's got to be the RBI, right? He did, after all, have 131 of them. That's a lot. For instance, it's way more than 100 and 100 is considered good by those who are still beholden to the RBI. So, then, let's assume Bowden dug Castilla's scene because of all those RBI. The trouble is, only 51 of them came on the road. The other 80 were accumulated in Coors Field. When last we checked, RFK Stadium was a fairly serious pitcher's park. That could have changed in 34 years, though, but we do know that it is going to be nothing like Coors unless they put wings on the place and depressurize it for games.

    Essentially, there really wasn't much difference between Castilla on the road and Expos incumbent third baseman Tony Batista. The latter actually had more RBI on the road--if you care about that kind of thing, which Bowden clearly does. In spite of all that nonsense, Castilla was the better player in 2004, out-VORPing Batista 31.7 to 10.3. This is damning with faint praise, though. Castilla is 37 years old. We understand why a GM would come into a team transfer situation and want to make a splash. There were sounder, less-expensive splashes out there to be made, though.

  • The Guz that Laid the Rotten Egg: The same goes for the Cristian Guzman signing. We understand the sentiment, but not the execution. BP's Dayn Perry discusses free agent shortstops and finds that jumping into the Guzman deal before the paint had even dried on the new stylized 'W' hats was most impertinent.

  • The Media Assassins...Jimmy Bowden, I Wanna Ask Him: In our last PTP installment, we talked up the nice job Juan Rivera would do if allowed a full season in right for the team. So, what does Bowden do? Trades him for a player of approximate value and under-developed anger management skills.

    Having just seen The Producers on Broadway recently, we can't help but wonder if Bowden is pulling some sort of Bialystock and Bloom scam in which he builds a woeful collection of talent and then reaps the profits--no, that doesn't make sense when you study on it--but it might be something somebody in baseball is bound to try. Wait, don't the Cubs do a version of The Producers almost every season?

    Why hasn't the Washington, D.C. media taken to whipping Bowden yet? Isn't it obvious? It's because they all spent the last two years shilling to get the team to town and now that it's there (or almost there), they are not about to start getting hyper-critical of the opening moves provided by their league-appointed GM. Hell, even the once-great Tom Boswell has turned in his long-ago tattered SABR membership card for a Bowden Bobblehead.

Seattle Mariners

  • They Del-Got It?: Which is more depressing: a) watching your runs scored drop by nearly 100 from one year to the next or b) watching your pitchers give up almost 200 more runs from one year to the next?

    The answer is, alas: c) watching your runs scored drop by nearly 100 runs and watching your pitchers give up almost 200 more runs. So, the Mariners and their fans are depressed--that much we've established. Is it possible to reverse not one but two such massive negative trends in the same off-season? Would it be more realistic to focus on either offense or defense, improving one by 100 and holding the line on the other so that the team improves to about .500? That might sound like a fatalistic approach, but reversing a 283-run swing is a tall order.

    So far, the noises the Mariners are making appear to be mostly on the offensive side of things. They've been pretty loud about getting Carlos Delgado into the fold. Delgado was most recently present for even greater offensive decline than the one experienced by the Mariners in 2004. Delgado's Blue Jays went from 894 runs all the way down to 719. While he experienced a bit of a downturn himself (.303 EqA, down from .338), he was still Toronto's biggest offensive force. Delgado has played better at home, but is still fairly formidable on the road.

  • The Joy of Sexson: They've also been getting serious about adding Richie Sexson. Why would Sexson wish to go there? Reports are that they want to get him time in left field and at designated hitter while giving Delgado the first baseman's job. Sexson would be splitting left-end-of-the-defensive-spectrum time with last year's free agent over-reaction, Raul Ibanez. Doesn't sound like the royal treatment, does it? Sexson played a small percentage of his minor league games in the outfield and has spent all or part of just 112 big league games there, the last coming way back in 2000. It doesn't seem like much of an opportunity--moving to a more demanding defensive position the year after coming off a shoulder injury. Add the minor consideration that Safeco is a pitcher's park and it sure sounds like a situation it would take a lot of money to overcome.

    Not that Sexson has a ton of options. Had he not been injured in 2004, his list of suitors would be much longer and probably a lot better positioned in the standings. The teams that have been rumored to show the most interest in him are all coming off sub-.500 seasons. In addition to Seattle, the Mets, Orioles and Diamondbacks have all been linked to his name. None of these teams are poised to succeed, so in the end, it probably will come down to money, rather than his intended usage by his new employer.

  • The Wright Stuff?: Sexson is looking to land a deal without having to prove he's capable of regaining his pre-injury stature. Another of the Mariners' keen interests is looking to land a pitcher with just one good season in the last six. In fact, a case could be made that Jaret Wright never pitched like someone deserving the three-year/$15 million contract Seattle is waving in front of his nose before getting under Leo Mazzone's tutelage in Atlanta. The two questions are, then:

    1. Can Wright continue to flourish without Mazzone?

    2. Is it worth that kind of money to find out if he has arrived or simply had a career year?

    But which is the bigger risk: giving years and money to Wright or letting Bobby Madritsch have the same spot in the rotation? One could very well picture the Mariners overpaying for somebody like Russ Ortiz, as well.

    Given General Manager Bill Bavasi's deal-making record in the first year of his tenure, one would almost have to assume that if he's contemplating it, it's a bad idea.

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