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February 22, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants

by Baseball Prospectus

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Turning (to the) Japanese: The Dodgers signed 31-year old Norihiro Nakamura, a right-handed-hitting third baseman who's played 13 years (really 11 and change) in the Japanese Pacific League for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. The eight-time All-Star has a career line of .267/.366/.506 with 307 homers. Once upon a time, he was a force to be reckoned with. From 1998-2002, he hit a combined 190 home runs, with a high of 46 in 2001, when he hit a whopping .320/.434/.630.

    Nakamura has taken a strange route to the majors. After the 2002 season, when he was still near the peak of his powers, he agreed to a two-year, $7 million deal with the New York Mets, only to back out at the last minute. The seasons since then have not been kind. Suffering through knee problems--torn cartilage in the right one, according to the Los Angeles Times--he hit just .239/.357/.459 in '03 and .274/.390/.468 in '04, with 42 homers total. Nakamura was let out of his deal with two years remaining so he could pursue his shot at the majors, a stark contrast to the way that most Japanese players arrive on U.S. shores, only after they reach free agency.

    As we've learned with Hideki Matsui and a few other Japanese hitters, home-run power doesn't translate well from Japan to these shores. Nonetheless, Nakamura should still have some value at the plate because of his good batting eye. Here are his recent translated stats courtesy of Clay Davenport (whose essay in Baseball Prospectus 2004 is essential reading on the topic):

    
    Year   AB  H   2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG  OBP  SLG   EQA EQR
    2000  476 132  25   1  22  49 110  .277 .349 .473  .279  71
    2001  528 171  27   2  21  62  99  .324 .395 .502  .305  92
    2002  520 154  26   2  22  73 121  .296 .387 .481  .297  88
    2003  373  84  13   1  10  51  88  .225 .320 .346  .237  39
    2004  375  98  15   1   9  68  81  .261 .376 .379  .269  52
    
    Total 574 161  27   2  21  76 126  .281 .368 .445  .281  86
    
    The Dodgers gave Nakamura a minor-league deal, and the player indicated a willingness to go to Triple-A Las Vegas if he doesn't make the team out of spring training. Should he make the big club, Nakamura will likely platoon with lefty-hitting Jose Valentin, who's shown a massive platoon split over the course of his career (.205/.280/.303 against lefties, .252/.332/.493 against righties). He might also see time at first spelling Hee Seop Choi, who's hit a mere .123/.296/.211 against southpaws, albeit in just 71 plate appearances. For a mere $500,000--a 90 percent pay cut from the $5 million he made last year--Nakamura could be a handy pickup.

  • Beaucoup Bako: How bad was the Dodger platoon of catchers after Paul Lo Duca was traded in the Infamous Trade? Aside from a well-timed home run in the season's final week, they were a gaping abyss of black-hole-itude. Dave Ross and Brent Mayne combined for just a .176/.271/.221 line in August, September, and October hitting two homers between them, one the aforementioned game-winning homer by Ross on September 30.

    Mayne has, mercifully, retired and the Dodgers acquired former Yankee prospect Dioner Navarro (an honorable mention in our Top 50 Prospects list) in the Shawn Green deal. But the 21-year-old Navarro is likely to need seasoning in Triple-A, meaning that the Dodgers need a stopgap backstop to go with Ross. From an offensive standpoint, they couldn't do worse than what they did last year, right?

    Think again, as Paul Bako brings his portable vortex of suck to the party. Bako hit a microscopic .203/.288/.283 (a .203 EQA) for the Cubs last year, with only one homer in 157 plate appearances. At least he was three runs above average defensively. Still, it's tough to get excited about a catcher who will be 33 in June and carrying a lifetime .239/.312/.331 line.

    Here's how PECOTA sees the three catchers on the Dodger roster:

    
            Age   AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVR   VORP   Break   Imp
    Bako     33  .220  .299  .321  -0.261  -1.0   31.4   52.2
    Navarro  21  .244  .306  .366  -0.173   3.9   12.7   28.2
    Ross     28  .227  .317  .420  -0.095  10.4   53.1   64.5
    
    What this says is that the Dodgers will likely be hemorrhaging runs from the catcher spot yet again. Thankfully, the system shows Ross to have a very good chance of breaking out (improving his baseline performance by at 20% or more) or at least improving. Recall that he hit a nifty .258/.336/.556 with 10 homers in 140 PA in 2003. The real Dave Ross probably lies somewhere in between that Shane Spencer-esque performance and last year's trainwreck.

    Given this mediocre lot, it might not be a bad idea for the Dodgers to pursue the Rockies' soon-to-be-free Charles Johnson, whom GM Paul DePodesta tried to acquire to replace Lo Duca at last year's trade deadline. The Rox, who were ticked that he wouldn't waive his no-trade clause to go to L.A. last year, sat Johnson in favor of rookie J.D. Closser. They reportedly plan to release Johnson at the end of spring training, despite his $9 million contract, unless they can find a trading partner in the interim. In that event, whoever picks him up will be paying only the league minimum, while the Rox eat the rest.

Minnesota Twins

  • Signed, Sealed Santana: The Twins averted arbitration with Johan Santana, signing their ace southpaw to a four-year, $39.75 million deal, the richest in team history. Of course, that designation isn't saying much, as this is a franchise that under Clark and Calvin Griffith threw nickels around as if they were manhole covers. They're currently in the hands of the miserly Montgomery Burns Carl Pohlad, who's 89 years old and worth $2.2 billion, according to Forbes, making him the 247th richest man in the world. Pohlad didn't get rich paying exorbitant salaries to those old Federal League bandits and he's not about to start now, so that rapscallion Santana could forget about his nice, round $40 million dollar deal. Smithers, unleash the hounds...

    Santana, who turns 26 in March, will reportedly earn $5.5 million this season, $9 million in 2006, $12 million in 2007 and $13.25 million in 2008. All told, it's not a bad deal compared to the other four-year pacts inked with various pitchers this winter:

    
                       Career    ---2004---    ---2005---
             Age  $Mil    ERA    ERA   VORP   ERA    VORP
    Lowe      32   36    3.88   5.42  -11.5   4.01   17.6
    Martinez  33   53    2.71   3.90   51.2   2.93   53.3
    Ortiz     30   33    4.00   4.13   33.1   5.02   12.1
    Pavano    29  ~40    4.21   3.00   62.4   4.64   21.3
    Santana   26  ~40    3.47   2.57   88.8   3.11   63.6
    
    Those last two columns are via our 2005 PECOTA projections. Santana is the third most-expensive of the bunch over the life of his four-year deal (Carl Pavano edges him by a mere by $200,000; the new Yankee hurler's contract is actually for $39,950,000, apparently just to annoy people who make neat little fixed-width charts for the Web), but he's also the youngest by a good three years, and projects to have the highest VORP of the bunch in 2005 (Pedro Martinez can thank pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium for the rosiest ERA projection).

    The reason the Santana deal looks so good for the Twins is that unlike the other four pitchers, he was still two years away from free agency. But given that the pitcher was seeking $6.8 million in arbitration this year (with the Twins offering $5 million), this is quite a bargain for the Twins on the front end. More importantly, the franchise's most valuable commodity is a happy camper, safely tucked away until the next presidential election.

  • Will Whoever Stole Terry Ryan's Pants Please Return Them? As with the Santana case, the Twins avoided going to arbitration with Carlos Silva by settling beforehand. This solid mid-rotation workhorse, who put up a 4.21 ERA in 203 innings, good for a 40.5 VORP, was seeking $2.225 million, while the Twins were offering $1.65 million. The two sides agreed to a two-year, $5.05 million deal which includes a club option in the third year that can escalate from $4 million up to $5.75 million based on the number of innings Silva pitches. The deal also has some minor incentive clauses triggered by those innings. In other words, the more of a workhorse he is over the next two years, the bigger his payday. Fair enough.

    But the Twins were unable to avoid arbitration with a third starter, Kyle Lohse, and the results of the case illustrate why teams are so wary of the process. Lohse went 9-13 with a whopping 5.34 ERA in 194 innings pitched, which translated into a measly VORP of 6.3. Among pitchers who threw 162 innings or more (qualifying for the ERA title, as if...), only six were worse. In other words, Lohse stunk on ice like few pitchers in the game last year.

    Lohse made $395,000 last year and was seeking a $2.4 million salary for 2005, while the Twins were offering $2.15 million. So with a quarter million dollars standing between them and Lohse's lousy campaign on the books for last year, you'd figure the Twins would be able to make an easy case and save themselves a bit of money to buy Joe Mauer that pony that he's been pining for ever since the subject was broached last month.

    They lost the case.

    It's tempting to wonder whether they showed up with the Silva dossier and lost on a technicality, or whether some insurance salesman wandered into the wrong hotel conference room while GM Terry Ryan was stuck in traffic and simply decided to wing it. "Hell, I like baseball, I can do this," thinks the insurance salesman, straightening his bowtie as he imagines those poor saps still stuck in that boring seminar on proper cold-calling techniques that he ditched "to go get some [cough, cough] cough drops." After Lohse's agent spends five minutes arguing that his client and Johan Santana have the same number of chromosomes and thus share similar pitching abilities, the Twins are $250,000 lighter and Carl Pohlad is unleashing the hounds on a school full of unsuspecting kindergartners waving Homer Hankies. Not pretty.

    And also not bloody likely, since the arbitration process is rather circumscribed. If you've ever wanted to know what goes on in that room when team and player square off, what criteria are admissible and what aren't Tom Gorman's piece on arbitration is a must-read.

San Francisco Giants

  • Brian's Song: Earler this month, the Giants extended the contract of GM Brian Sabean through 2006. Since Sabean took the helm in 1997, the team has won three NL West division titles, a wild card and a pennant. They trail only the Yankees and the Braves in victories over that time:
    
    Tm   Tot W    AVG
    NYY   795    99.4
    ATL   791    98.9
    SFG   738    92.3
    BOS   717    89.6
    HOU   711    88.9
    OAK   709    88.6
    STL   706    88.3
    SEA   701    87.6
    LAN   690    86.3
    CLE   675    84.4
    
    Recall that before Sabean joined the Giants as their assistant GM back in December 1992, he was the Yankees' Vice President of Scouting and Player Development. As Andrew Baharlias wrote nearly a year ago, Sabean stands as one of the few Yankee Baseball Operations executives of any significance to elude the Defensive Employee Retention Program, George Steinbrenner's attempt to corner the market on baseball brains.

    Sabean has taken a rather unorthodox tack during his tenure with the Giants, particularly recently. The past two winters have seen him jump the gun to sign free agents before the December 7 arbritration offer date, thereby causing the team to surrender its first-round pick in the June amateur draft for the likes of Michael Tucker and Omar Vizquel. Furthermore, the Giants appear to have quite a thing for such bluehaired free-agents as Vizquel (38 this coming season), Moises Alou (38) and Mike Matheny (34, which in catcher-years is like great-grandma old), and he was quick to pick up the team's options on Marquis Grissom (38) and J.T. Snow (37).

    Meanwhile, the team appears to have more or less given up producing major league-ready hitters from within. Last year the Giants gave Pedro Feliz more than 500 plate appearances, scary enough given his .305 OBP. Remarkably, that's the first time since 1997 (Bill Mueller) that they made a regular out of an entirely homegrown player, one they had either drafted or signed as an amateur free agent. Even if we lower the bar to 300 plate appearances and work backwards chronologically, it takes nearly two full decades to field a theoretical "starting eight" of homegrown players:

    
    Pos  Player           Year
    C    Kirt Manwaring   1992
    1B   Pedro Feliz      2004
    2B   Robby Thompson   1986
    SS   Royce Clayton    1992
    3B   Bill Mueller     1997
    LF   Mike Aldrete     1988
    CF   Marvin Benard    1996
    RF   Armando Rios     2001
    
    A few caveats: left field has been occupied for the past decade by a guy who's only one of the best hitters ever, and the likelihood of anybody coming up with a rookie to beat him out is somewhere between zero and Neifi's VORP. Mike Aldrete got more than 300 PA while spending time at all three outfield positions in '87 and became the regular left fielder in '88. Feliz was a rare multiposition regular last season, playing only 70 games at first, another 37 at third, and 20 at shortstop. All told, only three of these players became regulars during Sabean's first eight years as GM, and one, Armando Rios, was shipped out to Pittsburgh mere weeks after he'd crossed that threshold.

    The story with regards to pitchers is a bit happier. Starters Jerome Williams, Noah Lowry, Jesse Foppert, Kurt Ainsworth, Ryan Jensen, Russ Ortiz and Joe Nathan are all homegrown products who broke in on Sabean's watch. While none of them is Jason Schmidt (shhhh, don't tell the Diamondbacks) and the last four on that list have moved on, Lowry (3.82 ERA and 17.9 VORP in 92 innings last year) and Williams (4.24 ERA and 13.8 VORP in 129.1 IP) figure to slot in this year's rotation directly behind Schmidt. Foppert (5.03 ERA and 1.2 VORP in 111 innings in 2003), who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, will bid for a spot as well, with a bullpen role more likely. Meanwhile, other Giants draftees who got cups of coffee last year may see time in the bullpen as well: David Aardsma (the team's first pick in 2003 and the man who supplanted Hank Aaron as the all-time alphabetical frontrunner), Brad Hennessey (their 2001 first pick) and Kevin Correia.

  • Robbbbed: Former Giants closer Robb Nen announced his retirement last week. Nen had missed the past two seasons with a smorgasbord of shoulder woes that included tears to both his labrum and his rotator cuff, three surgeries, several false starts and plenty of Under the Knife mentions. According to the San Jose Mercury News, in 2002 Nen decided to pitch through a partial rotator cuff tear that the Giant training staff informed him was career-threatening, and he's not looking back in anger: "I wouldn't have changed it. If we were 20 games out, that would have changed it, but not when you're trying to get to the playoffs and get to the World Series."

    Nen ranks 13th on the all-time saves list and put up some triple-digit radar readings and sub-2.00 ERAs over the course of his career. Nen's final major league appearance was a blown save that cost the Giants their first World Championship since 1954, but he got a raw deal on that one. Summoned to protect a one-run lead in the eighth inning of Game Six, he inherited a mess from Tim Worrell: nobody out, with pinch-runner Chone Figgins on third base and Garret Anderson on second thanks to a Barry Bonds bobble. That's an expectation of 1.9722 runs. He promptly surrendered a two-run double to Troy Glaus, the first hitter he faced, allowing the (Wherever They Were Claiming to Be From in 2002) Angels to take the lead and subsequently tie the series, forcing Game Seven. They trailed that one from the third inning onward, so Nen never got a shot at redemption. Tough break.

--Jay Jaffe

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