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January 13, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Activity v. Progress: What had been a rather quiet offseason for the White Sox suddenly turned busy in the last month as GM Kenny Williams signed several players and made one big trade. The new cast, in order of appearance:

    • Dustin Hermanson, late the closer of the San Francisco Giants, was signed to a two-year, $5.5MM deal, ostensibly to be the eighth-inning man. Hermanson enjoyed moderate success bouncing between the Giants' pen and rotation for the last year and a half, posting translated ERAs much closer to his more respectable seasons in Montreal than his more recent efforts in Boston and St. Louis. While his ability to step into the rotation in case of injury is a nice bonus, that kind of versatility would have to come with some major perks to justify his contract. Plucking quality pitchers on the cheap to pitch in set-up roles is a skill not yet mastered in a lot of front offices. Considering the short length of Hermanson's contract and its relative size, signing him is not a bad move.

    • Oakland's own Lemony Snicket, Jermaine Dye, was signed to a two-year, $10.15M contract to replace the departed (and not offered arbitration) Magglio Ordonez. Dye will be cheaper than Ordonez, but he won't provide nearly the same offensive punch that Ordonez did until his lost 2004. He hasn't approached his impressive performances of 1999-2001 since shattering his shin in the 2001 postseason, and has battled through several injuries in the years since then. If the Sox can keep him healthy, he has a chance to post respectable numbers; at an offensive position like right field, however, that would make him league-average at best.

    • Four days after signing Dye, the Sox shipped one of their best remaining hitters, Carlos Lee, to Milwaukee for Scott Podsednik, Luis Vizcaino and, eventually, prospect Travis Hinton. Perhaps Williams has switched allegiances from Oakland to the Brewers. After calling the White Sox's third-leading runs scored total in 2004 "deceiving," the Sox declared themselves to be on the speed'n'defense track with this move, hoping to duplicate the success of the Rockies teams that implemented the same plan a few years ago.

      There's just one problem: unless Vizcaino is the best fielding pitcher in history, this trade only solves half that equation. Podsednik's 2003 success at the plate was out of line with his previous performance record and he regressed badly from it in 2004. How he managed to steal 70 bases with a .313 OBP is beyond us, but that impressive total no doubt masked his below-average offense and defense. If the Sox were strapped for cash or got some decent prospects in return, moving Lee could be defensible. That's not the case here.

    • After shipping Lee out of town, the Sox re-signed Juan Uribe to a three-year, $9.75MM deal, rewarding him for an impressive 2004 in which he became one of the first hitters to benefit from leaving Colorado. With the shortstop not eligible for free agency for a few more seasons, the White Sox would have been better off giving Uribe one more year to prove that 2004 wasn't a fluke, but the faults in a deal of this size are minimal.

    • Having been unable to lure Randy Johnson to the South Side, just before Christmas the Sox settled for Orlando Hernandez on a two-year, $8MM contract. A suspect 35 years old, Hernandez has been effective when he's been available, and the length and cost of his contract fits in with the lower tier of starting pitchers this off-season. If El Duque can manage 150-175 innings of reasonable pitching in 2005, the deal will be a bargain. If he breaks down, the Sox haven't lost much.

    • To complete the puzzle, and still seeking to emulate the Twins, the Sox picked up discarded catcher A.J. Pierzynski for one year and $2.25MM. Pierzynski struggled last year in San Francisco, both with the bat and with his teammates, but Ben Davis is not the answer at catcher for the Sox. Taking a shot on Pierzynski isn't a bad idea, especially on a small contract like this one.

Oakland Athletics

  • Deal With It: The A's did their Christmas shopping early this year, swapping out Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in a pair of mid-December trades, moves that have been analyzed more intensely than most bills in Congress. The deal that may have fallen through the cracks, coming just a day before the Hudson deal, was the swap of Justin Lehr and Nelson Cruz for Milwaukee second baseman Keith Ginter. In retrospect, the deal cleared the way for the Hudson trade that brought in Dan Meyer, Juan Cruz and Charles Thomas: Cruz neatly replaces Lehr in the pen while Thomas becomes the default option for a fourth outfielder.

    The shakeup leaves as many questions as answers, the first of which is who will be playing second base when the season starts. While Mark Ellis looked to be in line for a return to the job he forfeited last year because of a bum shoulder, Ginter's arrival signals a lack of faith on the A's part that Ellis can perform well enough to hold down the regular job. Ellis' 2003 was distinctly different than 2002 and previous seasons. His batting line (.248/.313/.371) regressed from his established levels from his minor-league career and rookie season, while his defense showed distinct improvement in his second year since moving over from shortstop. He looked in line for an offensive rebound in 2004, but with the year lost to injury, questions about his ability to hit are compounded by questions about health and how the injury will affect his play both in the box and on the field.

    On the other hand, while Ginter has never been a superstar with the glove, totaling -13 FRAA over 2003-2004, his impressive power last year--19 home runs, .479 SLG--makes him a significant upgrade over Ellis with the bat. With extreme groundballers Mulder and Hudson now absent from the rotation, Ellis' defense suddenly becomes less of an argument for playing him. If the A's keep both players on the roster, they could conceivably be used in a bit of an offense/defense platoon with Ellis playing behind the more groundball-inclined pitchers (Rich Harden) while Ginter sees time when Barry Zito and other flyballers are on the mound. Realistically, the difference between the two is slight, leaving the job to go to the player who looks better in spring training.

    The other big lineup question created by the trades is in the outfield. Until Thomas was acquired, the A's appeared set with an Eric Byrnes/Mark Kotsay/Nick Swisher outfield. With Thomas aboard, rumors have begun that Byrnes--likely due a healthy raise in arbitration--is headed out of town to either Arizona or the New York Mets. Having shipped out two of their highest paid players, the A's still have a good deal of room between their committed capital and their publicly stated payroll of $61.5MM. An extra $700,000 or so to Byrnes isn't going to break the A's bank and the difference between Byrnes and Thomas as an everyday player is significant.

    Thomas has shown the A's favorite skill, drawing walks, in spades in the low minors, but until he hit Double-A Greenville with Atlanta in late 2003, he had shown a complete absence of the ability to hit. Before his late season surge in 2003, Thomas had amassed a career .254 batting average in over 1000 ABs in the low minors. That's a healthy sample size against a low quality of competition, justifying many of the concerns about a then 24-year-old in Single-A. Suddenly, however, Thomas started raking, hitting .343 in Double- and Triple-A before performing well (.288/.368/.445) in just over 200 ABs in Atlanta. With that improved BA, though, came a loss in his plate discipline; Thomas drew just 12 unintentional walks in more than 250 plate appearances with the Braves last season.

    Like Thomas, Byrnes had one of his best years in 2004, hitting .283/.347/.467 in full-time action in left field. Despite his speed, his defense is still just average, but Thomas' isn't significantly better. With only the shell of Bobby Kielty left on the A's outfield bench, shipping Byrnes out of town would leave the A's significantly short-handed if injury strikes or rookie Swisher struggles. The small expense to keep Byrnes is both within the A's budget and worth it for the risk it deters as well as the likely performance difference between Byrnes and Thomas.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Sitting Tight: As opposed to the busy White Sox, the Phillies have had a very quiet offseason, making a few small adjustments to a roster that looked to be the favorite to win the NL East the last two seasons. The major move of the winter so far has been the signing of Jon Lieber, the new poster boy for Tommy John surgery success, to a three-year, $21MM contract. Lieber will replace the departed Kevin Millwood in the rotation. If his 2004 is any indication, he'll likely be better than Millwood to boot.

    Lieber has been one of the game's more impressive control pitchers as long as he's been in the league, and his walk rate reached new lows in 2002 and 2004 as he walked just 30 batters in more than 300 innings. His strikeout rate has long been mediocre and his home-run rate league average, but that walk rate keeps his translated ERA under 4.00 most seasons. He appeared fully recovered from the surgery last year and considering the increasing success rate of pitchers who have had the same surgery, there's little reason to expect any complications down the road. Keeping Lieber around for three years should give the Phillies most of his remaining good seasons before the expected decline in performance as he nears 40 years of age.

    While reliever Terry Adams is the other newcomer on the squad in the last month, the other major moves have been the retention of most of the roster from 2004. Among the more surprising returns is second baseman Placido Polanco. Rumored in July to be on his way to Oakland in a trade, Polanco tested the free-agent market after the season was over. With Oakland picking up Keith Ginter in a trade with the Brewers and awaiting the return of Mark Ellis, that option was no longer available. With the Yankees picking up Tony Womack and the Dodgers bringing in Jeff Kent, Polanco found few suitors in the market and instead accepted arbitration from the Phillies, paving the way for his return.

    Polanco's return means that the Chase Utley era--welcomed here recently--is likely on hold for at least one more year. With the Phillies looking to be in the middle of and NL East dogfight given the Mets' and Braves' recent additions, having an established player like Polanco around to minimize the risk at second is certainly preferable to the ups and downs inherent with breaking in a younger player like Utley. The possible cost is stunting Utley's development at a time when he needs regular playing time to continue to develop.

    As a taste of the goodies available in Baseball Prospectus 2005, we will tell you that PECOTA actually likes Utley better than Polanco in 2005, pegging the youngster for an improvement in his walk rate and retention of the power he flashed last year. Considering both have shown the typical left-right platoon splits, the ideal solution for new manager Charlie Manuel may be a straight platoon of the two players at second. If Polanco can maintain his pace against southpaws in 2004 (.327/.354/.503) and Utley hits well against righties again (.279/.322/.505), the two-headed monster may combine for one of the league's most impressive positional lines in 2005. Given the relative size of their contracts in 2005, it's likely Polanco will get most of the playing time again, but two solid options are definitely better than one.

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Premium Article The Lowe-Down (01/12)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (01/12)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (01/17)
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Premium Article Prospectus Today: Stil... (01/13)

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