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February 8, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • The Import/Export Business: Claiming to fulfill his vow to reinvest the salary saved when Carlos Lee was traded to Milwaukee, GM Kenny Williams signed Tadahito Iguchi from the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of Japan. Iguchi is a 30-year old right-handed hitting second baseman with impressive power numbers. Here are his stats for the last four seasons:
    
    Year  AVG  OBP  SLG  HR  BB   SO
    --------------------------------
    2001 .261 .346 .475  30  61  117
    2002 .259 .317 .423  18  27   84
    2003 .340 .438 .573  27  81   81
    2004 .333 .394 .549  24  47   90
    
    In Baseball Prospectus 2004, Clay Davenport refined his translations for the Japanese leagues, finding that while batting average translates pretty well, players coming back from Japan show a dramatic loss in power playing in the major leagues. Using Iguchi's statistics through 2003, Davenport translated Iguchi to a .269/.337/.446 hitter stateside--essentially Orlando Hudson (who hit .270/.339/.438 in 2004). Like Hudson, Iguchi also has a golden defensive reputation, and in addition he also steals 30-40 bases a season.

    Iguchi and his two-year, $5-million contract will replace Willie Harris (.262/.337/.323), relegating the latter to bench duty where he can play both infield and outfield when needed. If Iguchi plays like Hudson did in 2004, the Sox can expect a nice boost from the new second baseman, a jump from Harris's VORP of 5.2 to around Hudson's 27.4, or about two wins.

    The Sox have claimed that they are using the roughly $8 million saved by sending Lee to Milwaukee on several of their recent free-agent signings, including Iguchi, A.J. Pierzynski ($3.5 million), and Orlando Hernandez ($3.5 million in 2005).

    Leaving out Hernandez for a minute, we can see quickly if the new hitters acquired have improved the Sox. Because Scott Podsednik's defense has been lauded as one of his strong suits, WARP3--a stat that combines both batting and defense into one stat--is a better measure of what the Sox have gained. Here's everyone's 2004 numbers with Hudson's WARP3 substituted for Iguchi's.

    
    Player WARP3  Player    WARP3  Net
    ---------------------------------
    Lee     8.4   Podsednik  3.6  -4.8
    Harris  2.9   Iguchi     6.7   3.8
    Davis   0.9   Pierzynski 4.1   3.2
    ---------------------------------
    TOTAL                          2.2
    

    Add in Luis Vizcaino (acquired in the Lee deal) and Hernandez and the Sox do look to have come out on top so far this offseason. But there are quite a few variables in play as well. Hernandez pitched well in 2004, but he missed all of the previous season and will likely grab a red light in the upcoming Team Health Reports. Likewise, Iguchi may not prove to be the gloveman that Hudson is and will fall short of that 6.7 WARP3. Toss in Pierzynski's well-rumored clubhouse troubles and there are a few more question marks than normal.

    But give Williams credit: he appears to have taken the Lee money and put it back in the team rather than just passing it along to ownership. Whether or not the team could have afforded to keep Lee while bringing in Hernandez, Iguchi and Pierzynski is anyone's guess, but it makes for a nice rationale for shipping out one of the team's best hitters.

Oakland Athletics

  • And The Last Shall Be First...: With all due respect to T.S. Eliot, February is by far the cruelest month. Pitchers and catchers don't report for a few more weeks, spring training games don't get going until March, football's over, the NBA is still the NBA, and it's not quite March Madness. Plus, all the major free agent signings have been completed with only the adrenaline-pumping excitement of a handful of arbitration hearings left to keep us all going.

    With nothing to write about and most team rosters set for the spring, it's time for the annual predictions to start hitting the wires. MLB.com got things started by predicting the A's to finish last in a tight division, going so far as to label Oakland "the long shot." Yes, and I watch Britney Spears videos for the music.

    Let's take this piece-by-piece. The offense retains most of last year's contributors, but will see new personnel at catcher, second base and right field. At catcher, Jason Kendall (career .306/.387/.418, 8.8 WARP3 in 2004) replaces Damian Miller (5.7 WARP3). Kendall will turn 31 in June, meaning that he's less likely to decline than Miller (36 in October) and should be expected to maintain a level of performance very close to his established numbers. Marco Scutaro (.273/.297/.393) will be back in a utility role this year while Keith Ginter (.262/.333/.479) and Mark Ellis battle for the starting job. Even if neither lives up to expectations, they'll still be better than Scutaro last year. Finally, rookie Nick Swisher takes over for the biggest misappropriation of funds since Enron's corporate parties (.265/.329/.464), numbers that Swisher should be expected to match if not exceed.

    The rest of the offense has the benefit of being, for the most part, young. Eric Chavez just turned 27, Bobby Crosby is 25, Eric Byrnes is 29 next week, Mark Kotsay is 29, Erubiel Durazo is 31, and Scott Hatteberg is the senior citizen at 35. The A's have added three wins at catcher, probably one or two at second base, call it a wash in right, and the rest of the offense is young enough that a slight improvement is far more likely than a decline. That's five extra wins right there.

    The bullpen was publicly declared a mess last year, but wasn't as bad as advertised. Oakland relievers combined for a 4.00 ERA in over 440 innings last year, mostly due to Justin Duchscherer's 3.27 ERA in 96 1/3 IP. Oakland's firemen ranked tenth in the majors in win expectation added and bring back their top four hurlers in that department: Octavio Dotel (2.486), Duchscherer (2.355), Ricardo Rincon (1.229), and Chad Bradford (0.790). With strong arms Juan Cruz (1.083) and Kiko Calero (2.273) added in the Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder deals, and the presence of strong prospects Huston Street and Jairo Garcia, the A's bullpen will both perform and adapt to the inevitable injury better than the 2004 crew.

    The starting rotation is the most public change to the team, but it's not nearly as bad as many would portray it to be. Yes, Hudson, Mulder and Mark Redman are gone, but in their places are Joe Blanton, Dan Meyer, Dan Haren, and possibly Keiichi Yabu. With the exception of Yabu, all are young pitchers who can be expected to continue to improve.

    For a more solid forecast, let's use PECOTA, a system proven more accurate than any at predicting ERA. Hudson, Mulder, and Redman combined for a 4.23 ERA in 605.1 IP in 2004; PECOTA has Blanton (4.60), Meyer (4.49), and Haren (4.45) about a quarter of a run higher than that. The bigger question is the ability of the young arms to tally the more than 600 innings of the departed pitchers, but with an improved bullpen, pulling the younger arms an inning early each game isn't the problem it could be. Besides, relievers on the whole have been outperforming starters lately anyway. Toss in expected improvement from Rich Harden and continued inning-munching by Barry Zito and the rotation hasn't lost nearly as much as it appears on the surface.

    So what does it all add up to? The A's have added about 4-5 wins on offense, probably 1-2 wins in the bullpen, and given back a couple in the rotation. Conservatively, let's call it an extra three to four wins on the season. Considering the A's were right on target in 2004 when it comes to third-order winning percentage, it's a safe bet they should add those three wins to their 91 from last year.

    Here's what it all adds up to: Zero. That's the number of teams who've won at least 94 games and finished last in their division in baseball history.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Rockin' and Rollins: With the Eagles' season finally over, it's time to start focusing more on the diamond and less on the gridiron. Unfortunately, there's very little to talk about; after a few quick moves earlier in the offseason, the Phillies have largely stood pat. Philadephia wrapped up their last few outstanding contracts, signing Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Vicente Padilla to one-year deals. The Phils, however, have publicly stated that they'd still like to ink Rollins to a mutli-year deal, a situation they've attempted to resolve the last two off-seasons.

    The 26-year old Rollins burst onto the scene as a 22-year-old rookie in 2001, notching a .274/.323/.419 line replete with 12 triples and 14 home runs. After a sophomore slump, he's improved the last two seasons and put together an impressive campaign in 2004. Rollins managed to maintain his walk rate--a little low but certainly nothing to be concerned about--while cutting his strikeout total by 40 in nearly 30 more at-bats. Cutting out the whiffs resulted in a nice improvement in all three batting rate stats to .289/.348/.455, eking out the NL SS VORP title over Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson 50.9 to 50.6.

    Rollins is still two years from full free agency, but the Phillies' attempts to lock him up beyond those years are encouraging. Each year that Rollins gets to go to arbitration will only increase his price tag when the Phillies do finally sign him for more than a single season. Rollins signed a $2.425 million contract in his first arbitration year and a $3.85 million one last month. If he's allowed to reach arbitration again next year, his salary will likely top $5 million. Although that may seem inexpensive for a quality shortstop, the Phillies could likely keep him around for less in exchange for the job security of a multi-year contract. Effort is good, results are better.

  • Think, Meat: The other big news of the month was prospect Cole Hamels and his newly broken hand. Hamels broke his humerus bone before being drafted by the Phillies in 2002 and though the injury was of some concern, a broken bone isn't nearly the issue that stress injuries in the elbow or shoulder can be. After a video-game style line in 2003 (115 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings with a 0.85 ERA in Clearwater), Hamels struggled through 2004 with a series of elbow troubles that limited him to 16 innings. Having just received an NRI to spring training, Hamels broke his pinky finger on his throwing hand in what's being described as "an altercation." That's kind of like describing The Rumble in the Jungle as a "scuffle."

    Initial reports are that Hamels will be out until six weeks before he can start throwing and at least three months before pitching in a game again. The incident doesn't really raise questions about Hamels' character, but it does raise questions about his development. After a lost 2004, missing significant time in 2005 could seriously derail his path to the majors. Unsurprisingly, the Phillies have revoked his NRI. Perhaps instead they'd be best to rent him a copy of Bull Durham and fast-forward to the pool hall scene at the end. As Crash says, "When you get in a fight with a drunk, you don't hit 'em with your pitching hand."

--James Click

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Prospectus Triple Play... (02/04)
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