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December 8, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Time for Tim: After leading the Astros to five playoff appearances in nine seasons as the GM in Houston, Gerry Hunsicker resigned as the team's GM, and was replaced by Tim Purpura. Hunsicker will remain with the team in 2005 as an adviser.

    We have a soft spot for Purpura. He was nice enough to take part in a chat with BP readers back in 2003, and in that chat, he offered some interesting insights into what might inform some of his thinking as a GM:

    On balancing statistics and scouting: Statistical analysis is critical to success at procuring players. It gives you a picture of what a player is capable of, and helps you project. However, as our Double-A manager Jackie Moore always says, "Baseball is still a people business." I think you have to balance the two approaches, and have people who are qualified on both sides. I don't know about you, but failing seven out of 10 times in what I do would affect me. And having managers and coaches around to help me deal with that would be important.

    On the Astros' organization touchstones: We have a few: "Play hard or play elsewhere." Coined by [Jeff] Bagwell and [Craig] Biggio. Also, we have what I call "high standards." These include how a player plays the game, how he takes BP and IF, how the pitchers dress when sitting in the stands charting, how they dress for road trips, how they treat the fans, etc. We also stress doing the little things correctly on the field. We are obsessed with detail. We expect a lot from our players but we treat them very well in return.

    On budgetary constraints and adding big-ticket free-agents: Just like my personal budget or yours, unless someone infuses a large amount of income into the system, it is difficult to add that kind of salary and more importantly the long-term commitments that those players may require.

    There were plenty of newspaper stories written about Hunsicker's resignation that pegged a deteriorating relationship between the GM and Astros' owner Drayton McLane as the reason for the departure. That shouldn't reflect on Purpura, a top-notch candidate who was up for several other top jobs before getting his shot in Houston.

    It's rare for a GM to take over a team that's on top, and not at the bottom; that's trying to consolidate, not rebuild. Purpura faces a lot of challenges this winter; it will be interesting to see if he can rise to the occasion.

  • Beltran Update: Everyone wants a piece of Carlos Beltran, especially after his scorching postseason performance. OK, not everyone. Just the Astros, Phillies, Mariners, Yankees, Mets, Angels, Orioles and Cubs--the teams that agent Scott Boras says have contacted him about Beltran so far this winter.

    The Astros have reportedly offered Beltran a five-year, $70-million contract to keep him in Houston. That's not likely to be enough, but Houston's ability to go up from there is hampered by the albatross that Hunsicker left behind: Jeff Bagwell's contract.

    Bagwell is slated to make $15 million in 2005 and $17 million in 2006. He's still a productive player, but that sort of money for his 37- and 38-year old seasons has to feel like paying BMW money for a nice Buick sedan.

    Houston protected itself by offering Beltran arbitration. Our guess? Beltran signs elsewhere, and the Astros pocket their compensatory draft picks, and look to cobble together a team that can stay competitive in 2005 while trying to build for a future that doesn't include Bagwell or Biggio.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Back In Control?: Do you remember the first time you saw Rick Ankiel pitch? It wasn't that long ago that he exploded into the major leagues, with a fastball in the mid-90s and a curve that rivaled Barry Zito's when it came to its stubborn refusal to obey what most of us understand to be the normal laws of physics. Ankiel had been a superstar prospect coming out of Port St. Lucie High in Florida, but slipped to the Cards in the second round of the 1997 draft only because of team's fears about what Ankiel and his agent--Scott Boras again--would be asking for.

    In just under two years, Ankiel was in the majors; by his first full season in 2000, he was a budding star. Ankiel led all rookie pitchers in VORP in 2000 (just ahead of...Barry Zito), striking out 10 batters every nine innings and going 11-7 in 30 starts. There might not be any such thing as a pitching prospect, but Ankiel had shown that he could dominate major league hitters.

    On October 3, 2000, Ankiel started Game One of the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, facing off against Greg Maddux. Ankiel gave up two hits and two walks in the first two innings, but kept the Braves off the board. Meanwhile, St. Louis had scored six times in the first off Maddux.

    Then came the top of the third, anfter which Ankiel's life would never be the same.

    BRAVES 3RD: Maddux walked; Furcal popped to first in foul territory; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Maddux to second]; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Maddux to third]; A. Jones walked; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [A. Jones to second]; C. Jones was called out on strikes; Galarraga walked [Maddux scored (on wild pitch by Ankiel), A. Jones to third]; Jordan singled to left [A. Jones scored, Galarraga to second]; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Galarraga to third, Jordan to second]; Sanders walked; Weiss singled to left [Galarraga scored, Jordan scored, Sanders to second]; JAMES REPLACED ANKIEL (PITCHING); Lopez popped to second; 4 R, 2 H, 0 E, 2 LOB. Braves 4, Cardinals 6
    There was something eerie, almost macabre, about that inning. Even the Braves players, who were the beneficiaries of Ankiel's strange malady, didn't look too happy about it. It was almost as if they were reminded that if Rick Ankiel could suddenly and completely lose the ability to throw a ball over the plate after years of doing it very well indeed, it could happen to anyone just as quickly, and without explanation or apparent cause.

    Nine days later, Ankiel started again, in Game Two of the NLCS. This time he got only two outs, throwing two more pitches to the backstop, before being yanked.

    Ankiel made six starts in 2001, posting a 7.12 ERA and walking 25 men in 24 innings. He wouldn't throw his next pitch in the National League until September 7 of this year, the first of his five late-season relief appearances with the Cards.

    Currently, Ankiel is pitching for the Carolina Giants in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He's 0-1 with a 4.05 ERA, which isn't going to make anyone sit up and take notice, except that he's struck out 18 batters in 13 1/3 innings and only walked three, with one wild pitch. Ankiel has a real shot at making this team, provided he can get the ball in the vicinity of the plate.

    Having watched him on that painful October day in 2000, and having seen all that Ankiel has been through since, he would be our favorite fifth starter in baseball.

  • The Johnson Sweepstakes: No pitcher will be as hotly pursued this off-season as Randy Johnson, even though he is still under contract with Arizona. But where do you set the market for a 41-year-old power pitcher? Johnson had the third-highest VORP among all major league pitchers last year, but we're entering some seriously uncharted territory here (only some guy named Ryan has gone here before).

    St. Louis has been mentioned as a destination for the Big Unit, but we think that would be a mistake. Arizona's asking price is going to be far too high (The D'backs reportedly asked the Yankees for Javier Vazquez, Tom Gordon, Brad Halsey, prospects and cash), while St. Louis is hoping to keep its payroll in the $90 million range. Walt Jocketty would do better to focus on the kind of smart shopping that yielded Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan last year, and leave the mega-deal for Johnson to someone else.

Texas Rangers

  • Farewell to Rusty: He hasn't played since 2002, so the fact that the Rangers declined to offer arbitration to Rusty Greer, letting him leave as a free agent, wasn't that surprising; the fact that Greer hopes to play elsewhere in 2005 is what caught our eye. His absence over the past few seasons makes it easy to forget that Greer was a damn fine player before injuries took their toll:
    
    AGE YEAR   EQA  EQR  VORP
    -------------------------
     25 1994  .314   73  28.0
     26 1995  .274   66  18.7
     27 1996  .310   96  63.4
     28 1997  .317  112  73.2
     29 1998  .293   96  45.4
     30 1999  .303   98  51.9
     31 2000  .284   59  22.1
     32 2001  .272   35   9.6
     33 2002  .260   24   4.9
    
    Greer was relatively healthy most of his career until 2000, and then the bottom fell out: plantar fasciitis, shoulder trouble, a pinched nerve in his hip, a severe rotator cuff tear...he went through it all. Meanwhile, Texas went through a rogue's gallery of left fielders, searching in vain for the production they had counted on from Greer:
    
    Texas batters as LF, 2002-2004
    
    BATTER              YEAR    PA       AVG     OBP     SLG    MLVR   VORP
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------
    David Dellucci      2004    306    0.234   0.327   0.408   -0.125   8.6
    Kevin Mench         2002    196    0.251   0.316   0.486   -0.011   9.6
    Shane Spencer       2003    175    0.242   0.326   0.353   -0.17    2.9
    Kevin Mench         2004    163    0.237   0.282   0.395   -0.217   1.9
    Eric Young          2004    159    0.331   0.384   0.414    0.046   9.6
    Carl Everett        2003    132    0.318   0.417   0.573    0.310  15.1
    Kevin Mench         2003    126    0.298   0.357   0.430    0.018   6.4
    Frank Catalanotto   2002    92     0.333   0.435   0.573    0.344  10.1
    Gabe Kapler         2002    91     0.293   0.308   0.329   -0.200   1.2
    Todd Hollandsworth  2002    80     0.290   0.350   0.391   -0.050   3.3
    Carl Everett        2002    78     0.279   0.359   0.441    0.021   3.7
    Ruben Sierra        2003    70     0.250   0.314   0.328   -0.217   0.6
    Jason Jones         2003    49     0.233   0.306   0.419   -0.127   1.3
    Jermaine Clark      2003    42     0.216   0.286   0.270   -0.358  -0.9
    Mark Teixeira       2003    41     0.294   0.415   0.706    0.447   6.3
    Chad Allen          2004    39     0.243   0.231   0.324   -0.398  -1.0
    Jason Romano        2002    28     0.200   0.250   0.320   -0.360  -0.4
    Mike Lamb           2002    27     0.261   0.370   0.391   -0.034   1.3
    Jason Hart          2002    15     0.286   0.333   0.500    0.060   1.4
    Ryan Ludwick        2003    13     0.231   0.231   0.308   -0.403  -0.4
    Donnie Sadler       2003    12     0.111   0.333   0.111   -0.475  -1.3
    Laynce Nix          2003    12     0.333   0.333   0.583    0.222   1.4
    Marcus Thames       2003    9      0.125   0.222   0.500   -0.238   0.1
    Todd Greene         2002    4      0.250   0.250   1.000    0.564   0.6
    Gary Matthews Jr.   2004    3      0.667   0.667   0.667    1.249   1.1
    Mike Lamb           2003    3      0.500   0.667   0.500    0.737   1.4
    Brian Jordan        2004    1      0.000   0.000   0.000   -1.312  -0.7
    Ryan Ludwick        2002    1      1.000   1.000   2.000    4.712   3.7
    Herb Perry          2002    1      0.000   0.000   0.000   -1.253  -0.7
    
    That's an ugly list, just as you'd expect when Kevin Mench is near the top of it. It's been so hard for Texas to find left-field production, in fact, that the Rangers offered David Dellucci arbitration in hopes of keeping his quasi-productive bat in-house.

    In fact, the outfield is a big offensive problem for the Rangers. in 2004, the team's outfielders combined to hit .264/.325/.450 while playing half their games in the offensive wonderland that is Ameriquest Field in Arlington. This is the sort of thing that should be keeping John Hart up nights. We've talked before about the Rangers inability to recognize that offense is the team's weakness; here's another example.

    The Rangers have been rumored to be talking to Jermaine Dye, late of the Oakland A's, to try and provide some offense. A lot was made of Dye's comeback in 2004, but by the end of the year, he was hitting .265/.329/.464 and had a VORP of 23.3. That's an upgrade, but not nearly as much as they need.

  • Wherefore Art Thou, Alfonso?: Alfonso Soriano was the Rangers' fourth most valuable player by VORP in '04, posting a 39.9 mark; that was enough to lead all AL second basemen in VORP as well. He was the MVP of the All-Star Game. As a reward, he's been the subject of trade rumors all winter.

    Soriano is arbitration-eligible, and stands to grab a deal in the $8-10 million a year range, according to most estimates. That's more than Texas wants to spend on him, but they seem to be out of options. The offers the team has received for Soriano have all been lowballing Texas, and the Rangers' pursuit of Todd Walker as a replacement ended when Walker re-signed with the Cubs for one year and $2.5 million.

    The Rangers would love to move Soriano to the outfield, where he would likely be less of a defensive liability and help boost the outfield's production. But Soriano is adamant about staying at second, and as things stand now, he's going to stay put, both at his position, and in Texas.

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