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January 12, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Adios, Carlos: In the end, it just wasn't quite enough. The Astros offered Carlos Beltran a seven-year contract worth $100 million, with an option for an eighth year at $14 million. Instead, Beltran signed with the Mets for $119 million over seven years, including an $11 million signing bonus.

    There have been some reports that the Astros refused to include a no-trade clause in the contract, and that their refusal was the dealbreaker. That clause would have protected him in the time until he became a 10-and-five player in 2009, at which point he could have vetoed any trade.

    So, the Astros have lost the player who helped power them to the postseason last year. But even as the Astros suffer from the disappointment of Beltran's departure, and begin the search to replace his production, could it be that they'll be better off in the long term having him walk?

    Here's what Beltran has done to this point in the major leagues:

    
    AGE YEAR    TEAM    EQA    WARP3
    --------------------------------
    21  1998    KC_-A   0.279   0.6
    22  1999    KC_-A   0.269   5.3
    23  2000    KC_-A   0.235   2.6
    24  2001    KC_-A   0.297   9.9
    25  2002    KC_-A   0.286   7.9
    26  2003    KC_-A   0.310   8.4
    27  2004    HOU-N   0.308   5.4
    27  2004    KC_-A   0.304   4.2
    27  2004    TOTAL           9.6
    
    This is a very, very nice career. But is it worth $17 million a year for seven years? We're not convinced. For example, take a look at Vladimir Gurrerero's career through the end of 2003, just before he signed a $70 million, five-year deal with Anaheim.
    
    AGE YEAR    TEAM    EQA     WARP3
    ---------------------------------
    20  1996    MON-N   0.144   -0.2
    21  1997    MON-N   0.280    2.3
    22  1998    MON-N   0.311    6.5
    23  1999    MON-N   0.309    6.4
    24  2000    MON-N   0.330    7.7
    25  2001    MON-N   0.303    6.6
    26  2002    MON-N   0.325    9.0
    27  2003    MON-N   0.327    6.0
    
    Guerrero has posted better EqA's every step of his career; Beltran's WARP3 gets a boost from playing center field as opposed to right. But Anaheim got their man for $3 million a year less than the Mets will be paying Beltran.

    Now it's possible that Beltran's career is poised to rocket to the next level; after all, players like Moises Alou used a monster postseason as a springboard to a new level of productivity. So, uh, well, it could happen. The more likely scenario is that New York will be paying a ton of money for Beltran in 2010 while not getting nearly the offensive production they had hoped for.

    Joe Sheehan has been writing a lot this offseason about the opportunity costs associated with long contracts, and the fact that sometimes years are more costly than money. A two-year, $34 million contract is a very different beast than a seven-year, $119 million deal, and in this case, Houston was probably fortunate that they didn't get the Beltran deal done.

    The Astros are clearly a team at the end of their run. If they had been able to sign Beltran for two or three years at $17 million per, it would have made perfect sense. They have an aging core consisting of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who don't have that many more years left in them, and Beltran would have come off the books at about the same time, leaving Houston with a lot of cash to start what looks like an inevitable rebuilding process.

    If he had signed, Houston could have found themselves financially hamstrung into the 2010s. While this season might find the Astros falling short offensively without Beltran, it will likely accelerate their retooling, and leave them healthier in the long term. Sometimes the best deal you make is the one that falls through.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Making His Mark: On August 24, 2004, Mark Mulder pitched six innings of two-run, four-hit ball as the Oakland A's beat the Baltimore Orioles, 6-2. The win ran Mulder's record to 17-4, leaving him the winningest pitcher in baseball, and he was regarded, with Johan Santana and Curt Schilling, as a front-runner for the American League Cy Young award.

    Mulder wouldn't win again for the rest of the season. He was 0-4 in his last seven starts, and was torched for a 7.27 ERA over that span. No one knew what was to blame. Mulder was coming off a hip injury, and there was a lot of speculation that he was either hurt or tired, speculation that Mulder denied.

    in 2005, Mulder will suit up as the #1 starter for the defending National League Champion Cardinals, after a December trade sent him to St. Louis for Daric Barton, Kiko Calero, and Dan Haren. If he's good, Mulder could be the frontline starter that the Cards so clearly lacked as they got waxed by the Red Sox in the World Series. But will he be that pitcher? Here's Mulder's career line:

    
    AGE YEAR  TEAM    W   L   ERA   G   TBF  IP      H/9   K/9   BB/9
    -----------------------------------------------------------------
    22  2000  OAK-A   9   10  5.44  27  705  154    11.16  5.14  4.03
    23  2001  OAK-A   21  8   3.45  34  927  229.3   8.40  6.01  2.00
    24  2002  OAK-A   19  7   3.47  30  862  207.3   7.90  6.90  2.39
    25  2003  OAK-A   15  9   3.13  26  747  186.7   8.68  6.17  1.93
    26  2004  OAK-A   17  8   4.43  33  952  225.7   8.89  5.58  3.31
    
    Mulder's success is predicated on control--he simply has to be able to locate his fastball, as his stuff is good, but not overpowering. So when you see his walks per nine innings balloon like it did in 2004, that should be setting off some alarm bells.

    One other thing to keep in mind is that Mulder is an extreme groundball pitcher, with a GB/FB ratio of 2.02 in 2004. So infield defense behind Mulder is an extremely important part of his success or failure. Here's how the Oakland infield in 2004 stacks up against the Cards slated infield in 2005, using Clay Davenport's defensive system:

    
           Oakland 2004                St. Louis 2005
       Player            RAR2    Player              RAR2
       --------------------------------------------------
    1B Scott Hatteberg   -11     Albert Pujols        20
    2B Marco Scutaro      23     Mark Grudzielanek    14
    SS Bobby Crosby       36     David Eckstein       25
    3B Eric Chavez        26     Scott Rolen          36
    
    Mulder swaps one Gold Glove third baseman, Eric Chavez, for another in Scott Rolen, and Albert Pujols is a big upgrade from Scott Hatteberg. But David Eckstein can't compare with Bobby Crosby, and Mark Grudzielanek has been a below-average second baseman throughout his career. Mulder might find that some of the groundballs he induces sneak past his middle infielders this year instead of getting turned into outs.

  • Ankiel Update: We talked about Rick Ankiel's Winter League performance last time, so we thought that an update was apropos. Ankiel ended up making six starts for Carolina in the Puerto Rican league, going 1-1 with a 3.25 ERA. Ankiel struck out 31 in 27 2/3 innings, and walked only seven batters. He did have five wild pitches.

    Ankiel was shut down just before Christmas after feeling was was described as "a twinge in his elbow." It turned out to be nerve irritation, and Ankiel is working out in Florida in anticipation of Spring Training. The Cards rotation looks to be full if Matt Morris is ready to go, and they have two leftys in the bullpen, Ray King and Mike Myers. Ankiel might find himself as the odd man out, but that won't take away from his comeback.

Texas Rangers

  • Take It Easy: As we creep up on five weeks to go until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the question has to be asked: What the hell is going on with the Texas Rangers? In an offseason marked mostly by inaction and continuing rumors about Alfonso Soriano, the Rangers have been very quiet on the free-agent market.
    
    Player            POS  Former Team  Date Signed  Contract
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Brocail, Doug      RP      TEX       11/11/04    One-year contract, $1 million
    Alexander, Manny   2B      TEX       11/19/04    Minor league contract
    German, Esteban    2B      OAK       11/19/04    Minor league contract
    Standridge, Jason  RP      TB        11/19/04    Minor league contract
    Wasdin, John       RP      TEX       11/19/04    Minor league contract
    Machado, Robert    C       BAL       11/30/04    Minor league contract
    Alomar, Sandy      C       CWS       12/08/04    One-year contract, $550,000
    Hidalgo, Richard   OF      NYM       12/10/04    One-year contract, $5 million
    Colbrunn, Greg     1B      ARI       12/17/04    Minor league contract
    Dellucci, David    OF      TEX       12/20/04    Two-year contract, $1.8 million
    Zimmerman, Jeff    RP      TEX       12/21/04    Minor league contract
    
    As far as they've gone, the Rangers have done well. Signing Richard Hidalgo for $5 million could be the steal of the offseason. In fact, in terms of the production expected by PECOTA for the money, Hidalgo's contract is the best value of the offseason (look for much, much more about this from Nate Silver in the near future). We've talked about the lack of production from the Rangers' outfield nearly every time we've looked at them, so you're probably sick of hearing about it; Hildago is a step in the right direction.

    And as we noted in our discussion of the Beltran deal, keeping contracts short and cheap is a good strategy, as it gives a team flexibility. The Rangers have only signed up for five player-years and $8.3 million this offseason, which means that they've done a good job giving themselves options for the future.

    But all the payroll flexibility in the world is meaningless if you don't use it to your advantage. It's the flip side of sitting out the bidding on huge free agent--you might find yourself with money in the bank and with no players worth spending it on.

    The main rumor swirling around the Texas landscape is the Rangers making a run at Carlos Delgado, and perhaps trading Soriano to keep their budget in line. But Texas already has a slugging first baseman, one who just happened to lead the AL in VORP at the position last year. Here's the top three:

    
    PLAYER          TEAM  POS PA    AVG    OBP     SLG    VORP
    ----------------------------------------------------------
    Mark Teixeira   TEX   1b  625  0.281  0.370   0.560   52.6
    Paul Konerko    CHA   1b  643  0.277  0.359   0.535   48.1
    Carlos Delgado  TOR   1b  551  0.269  0.372   0.535   41.4
    
    Admittedly, this was a down year for Delgado, who had posted 60+ VORPs each of the previous three seasons. But he'll also turn 33 during the 2005 season, and it's hard to imagine that we haven't seen the best baseball of his career already.

    Delgado is reportedly looking for $15 million or more a year, which should inspire every GM in the game to snicker. Given those demands, and Teixeira's emergence, it's hard to understand why the Rangers are even mentioned in connection with Delgado, except that they're like a shopper on the day after Christmas who got a big fat check from Grandma and can't wait to spend it.

    We know it's hard to pass up signing a big free agent if you've got the cash. But if the Rangers pull the trigger on Delgado, it will blow away all of the good work that gave them the flexibility to make the move in the first place.

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