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December 29, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • Saying Goodbye: An organization that had been characterized by its roster stability and its loyalty--some would argue excessive--to the pillars of its success has undergone significant change in the past three months. The Angels have watched three players who have never played a game for any other team, and who were all key parts of the 2002 championship team, leave via free agency. In all three cases, the Halos made virtually no attempt to keep the players.

    First to go was nominal closer Troy Percival. Percival hadn't been the Angels' best reliever since '02, and the emeregence of not only Francisco Rodriguez as a shutdown pitcher, but also Scot Shields behind him, made it easy to let Percival walk away. Percival signed a surprising two-year deal with the Tigers for $12 million.

    The Angels declined to offer arbitration to third baseman/DH Troy Glaus, whose Festivus-worthy feats of strength in October of 2002 were a huge part in the Angels' title that year. As with Percival, the organization can let Glaus leave because it has been able to develop an adequate replacement, in this case, slugger Dallas McPherson. McPherson destroyed Double- and Triple-A this year, and should provide Glaus-like power in short order, although his defense won't be up to the same standard. At $10-11 million less per year over the next three seasons--Glaus signed a four-year, $45-million deal with the Diamondbacks--they'll learn to do without.

    Finally, the Angels chose to make a change at shortstop, signing free agent Orlando Cabrera to a four-year contract worth $32 million. This meant the end of fan favorite David Eckstein's tenure in Anaheim after four years as the starter. Cabrera, who received a disproportionate amount of credit for the Red Sox late-season run and eventual championship, is the same age as Eckstein and, at least according to our metrics, outplayed him just once over the past three seasons. Per Wins Above Replacement Player:

    
             Eckstein    Cabrera
    2001       2.7         8.2
    2002       5.6         4.9
    2003       3.3         6.1
    2004       2.8         2.1
    
    Of course, the statement above is misleading. Cabrera was much more productive in '03, and within one win of Eckstein in '02 and '04. Given that some of the statistical proximity is defense, with Eckstein showing as better than Cabrera in our metrics, it's fair to say that Cabrera is likely the better player. Is he $5 million a year--the difference between his salary and Eckstein's after Eckstein signed a contract with the Cardinals--better over the next three seasons? Quite possibly, given the trend in Eckstein's performance and the possibility that Cabrera, who likes to swing the bat, will thrive with the Angels.

    How much these changes will help the Angels remains to be seen. Much depends on whether McPherson can sustain his offense in the majors. If he can, the overall output from the left side of the infield should remain stable at lower price than what last year's combination will make.

    Some of the savings has been invested in the outfield, from which Jose Guillen was dispatched to make room for free agent Steve Finley on a two-year contract. Projecting continued production from a 40-year-old is risky, but Finley should at least be an average hitter, and even though he's lost a big step defensively, having him in center field pushed Garret Anderson back to left, which should keep him in the lineup and hopefully allow him to return to his 2000-03 production level.

Chicago Cubs

  • Work To Do: The Cubs might be used to failing, but Jim Hendry isn't. Hendry has met every possible expectation during his tenure as Cubs GM, yet this off-season looms as a major failure. The front office had three goals, perhaps unstated, but goals nonetheless. They needed to offload the disgruntled Sammy Sosa, strengthen a bullpen that threatened to nullify their pitching advantages, and sign an impact bat.

    As 2005 approaches, Sosa is still a Cub, no matter how many pennies Dusty Baker drops in the fountain. The bullpen is still so flammable it has to be tracked by Homeland Security. Nomar Garciaparra aside, the Cubs have missed out on every free agent they thought they could sign.

    There's time left, of course, and Carlos Beltran still beckons.

    For those who continue to insist that dealing Sosa and signing Beltran (or any major free agent) is connected, remember that there's no realistic deal that doesn't involve the Tribune Corporation contributing a major percentage of Sosa's 2005 salary. It seems that it's not the dollars that's holding Hendry's hand; it's the cost certainty that so many GMs crave. Assuming that the Cubs are able to deal Sosa, they'll have to pick up 75% of the contract. Add in the $15 million or more a year that Beltran will demand and the Trib's tight pursestrings might pull tighter faced with a $100-million payroll.

    Beltran may be just a pipe dream for Cubs fans with all the Yankee lucre piling up. That the bullpen hasn't improved is more of a surprise. Kent Mercker left to rejoin the Reds and Kyle Farnsworth has been included in at least three trade offers so far this offseason, leaving LaTroy Hawkins and Joe Borowski the only probable returnees at the back end of the bullpen. Armando Benitez and Troy Percival were expected to be pursued strongly, yet both went quickly to the Giants and Tigers, respectively. Instead, the Cubs look to go younger, relying on Will Ohman and Todd Wellemeyer, two hard throwers, and taking a chance on another found closer candidate, Ryan Dempster. Dempster came back from Tommy John surgery quickly, putting up decent numbers, but little to inspire confidence in his closing prospects. His K/BB rate is especially worrisome, though command is the last to come back to a repaired arm.

  • Let's Lose Two: The Cubs took a lot of heat for their 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft, leaving a lot of pitching prospects exposed. Andy Sisco, a 6'9" lefty, went number two overall to Kansas City, as expected. Cubs officials didn't seem as concerned as many writers were, so do they know something the rest of us don't? Certainly, though there's much about Sisco we do know. Sisco's velocity was off last season, and his continued maturity issues, including time on the DL after breaking his hand Kevin Brown-style, also concerned the Cubs brass. "Someone will draft him," said a Cubs scout, "but he'll come back. We'll take that chance."

    The Cubs also lost Luke Hagerty, drafted by the Orioles then traded to the Marlins. Hagerty was a top pick in 2002 and college teammate of overall #1 pick Bryan Bullington. Many preferred Hagerty in some ways, though Tommy John surgery and the Cubs' deep system put Hagerty a couple years behind his Ball State teammate. Hagerty may stick with the Marlins, who are expected to use his past surgery to stash him on the DL for at least part of the season.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • The New Man: There's very little to learn from minor-league press releases. The latest from the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, the new affiliate of the Brewers, isn't any different. Naming Gary Pettis the hitting coach is interesting. Known more for his defense and speed than his bat--a lifetime .236/.332/.310 batting line doesn't recall Ted Williams--Pettis was brought in to work with Brewers prospects Dave Krynzel and Rickie Weeks. Krynzel and Weeks are both similar players to Pettis, relying on their physical skills and, in Krynzel's case, plus defense to move towards Milwaukee.

    Hoping that Pettis' past rubs off on the two prospects directly is a reasonably common thread in the minor leagues. Teams have a tendency to hire certain types of players, usually with some link to the team's past, in hopes that like the common cold the skills get transferred. There's certainly no real training for coaches and no teams have anything resembling a training program. As with most business innovations, the latest training and education techniques haven't penetrated front offices quite yet.

    Sabermetrics has left coaching to the side for much of its history since it's exceptionally difficult to get objective data on what a coach actually does. A hitting coach isn't necessarily the cause when a Double-A prospect suddenly makes a leap forward and he's often not to blame when someone can't hold their skills when changing levels. One of Keith Woolner's "Hilbert Questions" from Baseball Prospectus 2000, objective analysis of the effects of coaching is still a major shortcoming with performance analysis. It's easy to say that Wendell Kim, the Cubs third-base coach nicknamed "Wave 'Em In Wendell," costs the team runs. It's entirely another thing to prove it. Credit given to Leo Mazzone might need to be shared with Guy Hansen, the longtime pitching coach at Triple-A Richmond who is now the new Royals pitching coach.

    The Brewers certainly aren't breaking ground or doing something other teams aren't doing by hiring Pettis at Nashville. It will be years before we know if it was a good move, and we might only do so then if Dave Krynzel remembers to thank Pettis for helping him win the Gold Glove.

  • Flipper: Danny Kolb is now a Brave. His success in 2004 makes it harder to remember that Kolb was a waiver-wire pickup, cut loose by the Rangers after a slow rehab from Tommy John surgery. The return that Doug Melvin got for polishing the proverbial penny has been analyzed elsewhere. It's more interesting to note that Melvin's trade now allows him to search for the next shiny trinket.

    Kolb is not the only waiver-wire pitcher Melvin has found. Doug Davis was another 2003 pickup that has paid off and another ex-Ranger Melvin knew from his time there. It's impossible to say who the next candidate might be, though the bullpen will be filled with possibilities. The titular closer, for now, is Mike Adams. Adams was good in Milwaukee, but his Triple-A K/BB rate of 37/4 surpasses even Kolb. Jose Capellan's power arm should go with another minor-league closer acquired this offseason, Justin Lehr, and former Angel Derrick Turnbow as the setup crew. Melvin clearly is moving towards a power bullpen, an emerging trend in front offices around baseball. Melvin is just doing it on the cheap.

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