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January 25, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants

by Baseball Prospectus

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • That Spree Ain't Free: Having spent the first part of the offseason making tough calls about whom not to spend money on (Steve Finley, Adrian Beltre, Jose Lima), Paul DePodesta opened his checkbook for an after-Christmas shopping spree. Over the past month he's handed out about $144 million worth of contracts to five players, but few would argue he's gotten post-holiday bargains (all $ in millions):
    
                  '04 VORP  Age   Contract
    J.D. Drew       78.7     29   5 yr/$55
    Derek Lowe     -11.5     32   4 yr/$36
    Eric Gagne      28.4     29   2 yr/$19
    Cesar Izturis   29.7     25   3 yr/$9.9
    Odalis Perez    49.7     28   3 yr/$24
    
    Like the moves of other sabermetrically-inclined GMs (Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, J.P. Ricciardi), DePodesta's decisions have been scrutinized more than most, with traditional media, casual fans and even statheads ridiculing, scratching their heads, or just plain struggling to keep up. A quick look at some of these signings:

    • Derek Lowe: James Click did a superb job of highlighting factors that contributed to Lowe's disastrous 2004 season: a batting average on balls in play of .327, thanks in part to a porous infield defense, and a home park that elevated doubles around 24 percent relative to the league average. Though the vaunted Dodger infield has endured a shakeup this offseason, even a retooled unit figures to be a step up for Lowe, and Dodger Stadium depresses doubles 21 percent relative to the major-league average. The most likely scenario has Lowe as a League-Average Inning-Muncher (LAIM), which at $9 million a year makes him an expensive proposition.

      One reader's theory is that Dodger owner Frank McCourt's background as a Red Sox fan who watched Lowe win the clinchers of all three postseason series is what drove the signing. That's as good an explanation as any for why the team went, quite literally, to those lengths.

    • Eric Gagne: Unlike last year, the Dodgers avoided arbitration this year with the begoggled face of the franchise. While Gagne's 2004 season didn't quite measure up to his Cy Young-winning 2003 campaign, it's still one of the best of any reliever in recent memory. In the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2005, Keith Woolner has revamped our reliever evaluation tools, introducing a measure called WXRL (Win Expectation, adjusted for Replacement level and Lineup) which combines leverage (the game state, including inning, outs, baserunners, and margin) and performance. The top WXRLs since 1972, according to Woolner:
      
      Year Pitcher              IP    WXRL
      1973 John Hiller        125.3   9.640
      2003 Eric Gagne          82.3   9.254
      1984 Willie Hernandez   140.3   9.155
      1996 Troy Percival       74.0   8.385
      1998 Trevor Hoffman      73.0   8.318
      2002 Eric Gagne          82.3   8.247
      2000 Keith Foulke        88.0   8.219
      1980 Dan Quisenberry    128.3   8.182
      2004 Brad Lidge          94.7   8.132
      1977 Rich Gossage       133.0   8.119
      2004 Eric Gagne          82.3   8.001
      
      Contrary to any perception that he's just racking up easy saves, this combined measure of performance and context shows that Gagne has earned his keep. His new pact will bring him $8 million in 2005, $10 million in 2006 and a team option for $12 million with a $1 million buyout in 2007. Gagne has the right to void that option and file for free agency; should he do so, he'll receive a buyout of $250,000 to $1 million depending upon his number of games finished over the previous two seasons. It's a short list of relievers who are worth that kind of money; beyond Mariano Rivera, the line starts at Gagne.

    • J.D. Drew: Having let the centerpiece of last year's offense, Adrian Beltre (89.1 VORP), sign a five-year, $64 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, DePodesta tapped Drew, late of the Atlanta Braves, to replace the bulk of that lost production. The move had Dodger fans up in arms, bemoaning the fact that just as Beltre had finally lived up to his promise, the team was letting him slip away in favor of the second coming of malingerin' Mike Marshall.

      But a quick look at the two players' track records is revealing; Drew has been a far superior hitter to Beltre (to say nothing of Marshall) over the course of his career:

      
               AVG   OBP   SLG   EQA
      Beltre  .274  .332  .463  .274
      Drew    .287  .391  .513  .304
      
      While Beltre has had one BIG season, in the three years prior to 2004 he had struggled to keep his OBP above .300 (the new Mendoza Line) and his SLG was stuck in the low .400s. Drew, on the other hand, has posted OBPs above .400 three times in the past five years. The knock on him is durability; prior to last season, he had never played more than 135 games. But if he's healthy (no small if, admittedly), Drew figures to be more productive for less money. A sneak peak at his 2005 PECOTA shows him at .286/.397/.522 with a Marginal Lineup Value Rate of .216 and a 67.3% chance to breakout or improve on his baseline, while Beltre comes in at .279/.337/.486 with an MLVR of .071 and just a 34.3% chance to break out or improve.

      Beltre is two years younger and plays a tougher defensive position. While he has a reputation as an excellent third baseman, last year was the first in whch he was in double-digits for Fielding Runs Above Average; he's at -17 for his career, or two runs below average for every 100 games. Drew, who will play either center field or right field, was 10 runs above average out in right last year, is four runs above average per 100 games there over the course of his career, and rates as average in center field, though he hasn't played more than 26 games in a season there since 1999.

      Drew's contract contains an out after two years, yet another flashpoint in the firestorm of criticism that surrounded this signing. It's a minimal risk for him if he can't elevate his value above $11 million a year; Dodger fans should be quite happy if he actually does. On the other hand, if he gets hurt, the team is likely stuck with him for the duration, and that five-year/$55-million tag carries an ominous ring of familiarity to it; it's the same deal the Dodgers handed to Under the Knife's Red-Light District All-Star, Darren Dreifort, in December 2000.

    • Cesar Izturis: At first glance, that's quite a raise for a 25-year-old shortstop with a career OBP of .293 and an EQA of .230, one who made just $358,000 last year. Izturis went from an average of 10 runs under replacement as a hitter over the previous two years to 18 runs above last year. His defensive reputation may be overstated; he won a Gold Glove despite being only one Fielding Run Above Average (he was +11 in 2003, -8 in 2002). But his contract covers his age 25-27 seasons, which may well include his peak, and from a market standpoint, it can be argued that he's a bargain in the context of the following deals (all $ in millions):
      
                       WARP  Age   Contract
      Orlando Cabrera   3.2   30   4 yr/$32 ANA
      Cristian Guzman   5.7   27   4 yr/$16 WAS
      David Eckstein    4.2   30   3 yr/$10.25 STL
      Edgar Renteria    3.7   29   4 yr/$40 BOS
      Jose Valentin     5.0   35   1 yr/$3.5 LOS
      Omar Vizquel      6.3   38   3 yr/$12.25 SFO
      Cesar Izturis     5.5   25   3 yr/$9.9 LOS
      
      Izturis is the youngest of these players, and one of just two (Cristian Guzman) who's not past his statistical peak age, and also the cheapest on this list. The two most expensive players here, Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, had off years but were still rewarded with contracts just slightly more reasonable than the Lowe pact. In that market, Izturis doesn't look like the worst idea in the world.

Minnesota Twins

  • A Trio of Twins Does Not Make Triplets: The Twins swapped arbitration figures with three-fifths of their starting rotation last week (all $ in millions):
    
                    '04 SAL   VORP   TEAM   PLAYER
    Johan Santana    $1.6     88.8   $5.0   $6.8
    Carlos Silva     $0.34    40.5   $2.15  $2.4
    Kyle Lohse       $0.395    6.3   $1.65  $2.225
    
    Before we get to the staff ace, here's a quick look at the other two contestants, neither of whom had stellar seasons:
    
             IP   BABIP   K/9  BB/9   HR/9   RA
    Silva  203.0  .316   3.37  1.55   1.02  4.43
    Lohse  194.0  .321   5.15  3.53   1.30  5.94
    
    Carlos Silva got hit pretty hard (.310/.342/.462 across the board) but nonetheless had a solid season, finishing with a 115 RA+ to go with that VORP, which was 27th-best among major-league pitchers. He's a serious groundballer (a 1.58 G/F ratio) who doesn't strike out anybody except bluehaired little old ladies, but he gets by because he walks only bluehaired little old ladies with good eyesight, of which there are very few in the American League. If he could bring his homers in line with a rate befitting a groundballer, he'd be fine; then again, if pigs had wings, our per-capita consumption of bacon would fall dramatically.

    The story isn't quite so happy for Kyle Lohse. He got hit hard as well (.305/.369/.473), but an even bigger problem for him is faltering control. After striking out 5.82 per nine innings in 2003 with a 2.89 K/BB ratio, his strikeout rate slipped a bit, and his walks rose enough to cut his K/BB in half (1.46). That's never good news. The $1.65 million the Twins are locked into paying him could have been better spent towards a more effective back-of-the-rotation option...or pony rides for a sellout crowd at Joe Mauer's birthday party. The moral of the story with these two pitchers is that it's a fine line between being a mid-rotation inning-eater and a waste of resources. While both have stats that are less than special, the K/BB and HR/9 advantages for Silva are enough of a difference--34.2 runs, according to VORP, about three and a half wins--to keep the good one and cut bait on the not-so-good one.

    Finally, Johan Santana. The unanimous winner of the AL Cy Young Award led all pitchers in a veritable alphabet soup of categories, including Value Over Replacement Player, relative Run Average (RA+, with his 188 representing a rate 88 percent better than the league), Runs Prevented (RP, with his 59.8 representing the number of runs an average pitcher would have allowed in the same number of innings), and the Support-Neutral Value Added constellation of numbers. This just in: he's good.

    Now that Roger Clemens has settled with the Astros, that $1.8 million spread between the pitcher and the club is tied with Roy Oswalt for the second-largest gap of any of the 33 remaining potential arbitration cases, behind only Aramis Ramirez ($2.25 mil). But that $1.8 million is a drop in the bucket compared to how far apart the two sides apparently are on a longer-term deal.

    Santana will be eligible for free agency after the 2006 season, and it's believed that if the Twins can't come to a multiyear pact, he'll depart for the green of greener pastures. At last report, the Twins had offered $19.5 million for three years, but Santana is looking for either a two-year deal, which would buy out his arbitration years and reopen negotiations with the leverage of impending free agency as a backdrop, or else a four-year deal which could be worth as much as $48 million, requiring the Twins to acknowledge a market that has granted exorbitant four-year deals to the likes of Derek Lowe and Carl Pavano, pitchers with sketchier track records and fewer Cy Youngs than Santana.

    There's a sense that Santana may be playing hardball with the Twins because of how slowly they've brought him along, perhaps to avoid paying out so much money at a time like this. After spending all of 2000 with the Twins as a Rule 5 pick, then missing considerable time in '01 with a torn flexor tendon, Santana was farmed out to Triple-A Edmonton to begin 2002. When he returned to the bigs, he spent the better part of two very good seasons battling tooth and nail for a spot in the rotation while inferior pitchers (Joe Mays, take a bow) sopped up innings like sponges in buckets of gasoline. That decision annoyed fans, but it did serve to escort the fragile young pitcher through the injury nexus. And the Twins won the division both years while Santana was battling for his spot in the rotation.

    Minnesota has one of the most fruitful farm systems in the game, but the Twins aren't shy about sending their promising players back down, whether it's to slow their service-time clocks, prevent award qualification, or simply show who's boss. Consider:

    • David Ortiz: spent nearly all of '99 in the minors after a good 1998 rookie season (.277/.371/.446 at age 22)
    • Doug Mientkiewicz: spent all of 2000 in the minors and on the U.S. Olympic Team after a lousy 1999 season (.229/.324/.330 at age 25)
    • Todd Walker: after two full years as the starting second baseman, clashed with manager Tom Kelly so often that he was sent to join Mientkiewicz in Salt Lake City early in 2000; subsequently traded to Colorado
    • Justin Morneau: while drawing just 106 major-league at-bats in 2003, he spent over 45 days on the roster prior to September 1, thus blowing his rookie qualification. He spent half of 2004 tearing up Triple-A Rochester, hitting .306/.377/.615 with 22 HR in 72 games before finally supplanting Mientkiewicz as the Twins' regular first baseman
    • Lew Ford: while spending all of 2004 in the majors, his rookie qualification was blown in 2003 on 73 at-bats, thanks to the service-time clause. With a .299/.381/.446 line, he'd have made a solid choice for Rookie of the Year over Bobby Crosby.

    As has been noted in this space before, such roster flimflammery does provide some insurance against paying out award bonuses and in holding down arbitration figures. As frustrating as it is to watch these players get jerked around like yo-yos, fans have to be even more frustrated to watch them leave after acrimonious contract negotiations down the road.

  • Don't Call Him Thurman: the Twins extended a non-roster invitation to former Detroit Tiger Eric Munson, a 27-year-old lefty hitter who may well work his way into a murky third-base mix. Here are the PECOTA projections for three players the Twins might use at the hot corner:
    
                      AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVR
    Michael Cuddyer  .270  .348  .467   .057
    Eric Munson      .245  .330  .458  -.006
    Terry Tiffee     .273  .313  .423  -.057
    
    Munson, the #3 pick of the 1999 draft, has been a big-league bust thus far, hitting just .215/.287/.414 (a .241 EQA) in the big leagues thus far. He's got good isolated power and isn't completely averse to taking a walk (64 in 706 plate appearances over the past two years), so he's not hopeless, and for $700,000 if he makes the roster, his age-27 season is worth the flyer.

    As a converted catcher, Munson's no great shakes as a fielder, though he was much better at third base last year (a Rate2 of 99) than the year before (86). On a team that lacks lefties to come off the bench, he's probably good for a roster spot or even a platoon job share; his .224/.301/.439 against righties over the past three years casts a slightly more favorable light on him. The Twins may be better served by playing him at third and Michael Cuddyer at second while benching Mr. Yeah-He's-Back, Luis Rivas (slated for a .266/.308/.403 showing according to the new PECOTAs). They'd have been even better served by saving the $1.625 million they squandered by tendering Rivas a contract at the eleventh hour last month, but that's a story for another day.

San Francisco Giants

  • Oh, What A Friend We Have In Jesus' Nephew: No, that's not a rest home opening up on the pasture of SBC Park just beyond the infield, that's just a geriatric outfield whose 2005 ages total 116 years. To accompany Barry Bonds (40) and Marquis Grissom (38), GM Brian Sabean signed Moises Alou (38) to a two-year deal worth $13.25, including a player option and some minor incentives for things like eating all of his applesauce at the 4:00 PM team dinners.

    Alou, who spent the last three seasons with the Cubs, enjoyed a nice resurgence last year, hitting .293/.361/.557 (a .299 EQA) with 39 homers, two more than he'd managed in the previous two seasons combined. He was a picture of health (at least until the season's final week, when he went un poco loco) playing in 155 games, his best total since 1998. Giants fans should hope that's not an omen; so exhausted was he from that season's 159 games that just before camp opened he slipped on a treadmill and tore his left ACL, missing the entire 1999 season.

    Aside from the desire to help Sabean complete his collection of ancient outfielders, Alou's main incentive for joining the Giants is that his father, Felipe, is the team's manager. This isn't the first time the two have teamed up before, of course. Moises spent 1992-1996 playing for dad in Montreal, his first stint as a big-league regular. His best year, by far, was the bittersweet 1994 campaign, when he hit .339/.397/.592 with 22 homers for the Team With the Best Record in Baseball When the Strike Hit. That 1994 team, of course, boasted some good players who went on to even greater fame elsewhere (Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Larry Walker) and a lot more pretty good ones who just went on (Jeff Fassero, Cliff Floyd, the aforementioned Marquis of Grissom, Ken Hill, Mel Rojas, Kirk Rueter, Jeff Shaw, Rondell White). And no, Jonah Keri, I'm not trying to break your heart.

    Alou will certainly provide support for Bonds in the lineup, the variety that Bonds hasn't had since Jeff Kent departed, that of a bonafide everyday power threat. No Giant besides Bonds has hit more than 22 homers since 2002, Kent's final year with the club. One would suspect that the real problem of a Bonds/Grissom/Alou trio would be defense, but those fears might be overblown, even given that SBC ranked as the hardest park to defend according to James Click's study of Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Alou was just four runs below average as the Cubs' left fielder; he hasn't seen much rightfield since Houston in 2001. Bonds was just one run below average, and Grissom four below. While adding a year to each of their ages won't help, they're still within hailing distance of average, and two of the three are already familiar with that hostile terrain.

  • Feliz Navidad: As the Giants' crazy offseason goes, at least the Alou contract was steeped in logic. The two-year, $6.1-million deal handed to Pedro Feliz? Not so much. On the surface, that might seem like a bargain for a 28-year-old multipositional player who posted a .485 SLG last year while socking 22 homers. Said assistant GM Ned Colletti of the deal, "It shows you what we think of Pedro by signing him to a two-year deal. We have a great deal of confidence in him and wanted to reward him for his success and his patience."

    That last line should have Giants fans reaching for the beer mop; Feliz's undoing is his lack of patience. His .305 OBP last year included only 23 walks in 531 PA; Barry Bonds gets that many walks every two weeks. Feliz's career OBP is a meager .288, though his power (a .495 SLG over the past two years, .448 overall) does mitigate that somewhat.

    Feliz isn't a total loss with the glove. He was +2 in 51 games at third base, -1 in 70 games at first base, and average in 20 games at shortstop. That's a useful combo, just not $6.1 million worth of useful, or the kind of player you want beat writers referring to as "a key element for their return to the playoffs" (as MLB.com's Rich Draper said of him, conveniently placing words in the Giants' mouths). It is worth pointing out that PECOTA isn't too crazy about him (.260/.300/.450), either. The bottom line is that the Giants are overpaying a bit here for a player who might have already shown them the best he's got.

  • Tool of Ignorance: Last month, the term "clubhouse cancer" was tossed around in this space in conjunction with departed Giants catcher A.J. Pierzynski. A recent San Francisco Chronicle report shed new light on some of the hard work Pierzynski did to earn that ignominious distinction. According to several teammates, the catcher kneed highly-regarded Giants trainer Stan Conte in the groin intentionally while being treated for an injury to his own nether-regions. Just one more reason the team said "nuts to you" and released him prior to the nontender deadline. White Sox GM Kenny Williams might want to consider ordering his new catcher a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People, and warning the team's training staff of their new acquisition's below-the-belt tactics.

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