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March 4, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • Maels To Go: For those O's fans who haven't been following the Maels Rodriguez saga, some background: Maels (age 25*) and his brother Jose (20*), Cuban defectors, have tried out three times for the Orioles front office. In Cuba, Maels allegedly threw 100 mph, but, after an injury (reportedly a strained ribcage and a herniated disc), was clocked at 87 during a winter tryout. Barry Praver, his agent, claims that he is healthy now, and would like to put both of the brothers in orange and black.
    
    *as with all Cuban players, ages subject to change
    
    
    Praver may be telling the truth about Maels, but healthy and at full strength don't necessarily have to mean the same thing. Backup catcher Sal Fasano, who caught Maels during his workout, left no doubt that Maels is not ready, estimating his fastball at 86-88: "I don't think he's capable of throwing 90 until he gets his [delivery] square and his hands above his shoulder."

    Whether that is because he has a mental block, as Fasano suggested, or he is still hiding an injury remains to be seen. The Orioles will have to do their homework. Either way, don't expect either Rodriguez to be a factor in Camden Yards anytime soon...if ever.

  • In The Words of Groucho Marx, "Now There's Room!": The Baltimore outfield situation just got a little less crowded, but not the way they would have liked. Prospect Val Majewski may miss the entire season after team doctors decided to scrap a failed non-surgical rehabilitation program for his torn labrum and send him to the operating table.

    Sammy Sosa will start in right for the O's whenever he is able, bumping Jay Gibbons to first. The other two outfield positions are where things get interesting. The Orioles would like Luis Matos, who crashed in 2004 after breaking out in 2003, to reclaim the job, and have stated that it is his to lose entering Spring Training.

    If Matos plays center, then Larry Bigbie stays in left. The team would prefer to keep him in a corner, although our defensive metrics suggest that he is average as a centerfielder, and not a noticeable downgrade from Matos. He's also not trying to rebound from a down year, so his offense is a far surer thing.

    B.J. Surhoff is also in the mix, as is David Newhan. Let's line up their PECOTA projections for '05 next to some remarks on their defense, and throw in Majewski's, for argument's sake:

    
                                                  Defense
                 AVG    OBP    SLG      in LF              in CF
    Matos       .264   .321   .417       --         average, maybe above
    Bigbie      .271   .337   .431   above-average        average
    Surhoff     .272   .338   .378   below average       forget it
    Newhan      .280   .328   .421   average or above     no idea
    Majewski    .273   .321   .447   average or below   below average
    
    Obviously, with Majewski out of the picture, Matos's job is much safer. Surhoff is no more than a pinch-hitter now, if that; the only question is where to find playing time for Newhan. He can play second and Brian Roberts will need a rest against lefties, whom he hits poorly; unfortunately, Newhan is himself a lefty and can't help there.

    At-bats have a way of materializing, though, especially considering that Matos has a tenuous hold on his job. Why not this: let the Orioles sit the right-handed Matos, if he struggles, against some right-handed pitchers, shift the left-handed Bigbie to center, and play Newhan in left. Should the opposing right-hander leave the game, Matos can return, and conveniently give the Orioles their best defensive outfielder for the late innings.

Colorado Rockies

  • Helton to the Hall?: Todd Helton's excellence will stand out even more in 2005, as he'll be surrounded by developing young players. With the Veterans' Committee Hall of Fame vote fresh in our minds, let's take a look at whether or not Helton has a good chance to merit baseball's highest honor.

    Even when you adjust for Coors Field's impact, Helton has been outstanding at the plate, and an excellent fielder to boot. Jay Jaffe has supplied his JAWS score to date. Helton has accumulated 61.8 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), and the last five years (52.9) represent his peak, for a JAWS score of 57.4. The average Hall of Fame first baseman has a JAWS of 70.7, with a peak of 43.1 and a career WARP of 98.2.

    Helton's peak score, already well above positional average, could still increase if he posts a WARP of 10.4 or higher this year; given that the last two years he's exceeded 11, it's not out of the question. But let's use a more reasoned approach, and turn to PECOTA, which frustrates optimists with its cold, actuarial tendencies. It gives him only a one-in-four chance of reaching double-digit WARP again this year; the long-term forecast calls for 32 WARP over the next five years. That'd give Helton 93.8 through age 35 for a JAWS of 73.35.

    Already that would make Helton no disgrace to the Hall; moreover, he might still have a few seasons left in him. Given Helton's recent history, that estimate seems very conservative, but we note chillingly that of Helton's top twenty comparables, only two (Carl Yastrzemski and Eddie Murray) are Hall of Famers; the rest are the likes of Norm Cash and Brian Giles: good, but not great.

    If he can prove PECOTA wrong, Helton should coast into the Hall. It's an open question whether or not the writers will want to look past his Coors-inflated totals, but let's hope we have cause to revisit that question in ten or fifteen years.

  • You're Invited!: The Rockies have a couple of non-roster invitees who could crack the bigs as a bench bat: Greg Norton and Andy Tracy. A PECOTA comparison:
    
                EqAVG   EqOBP   EqSLG   VORP
    Norton      .219    .299    .365    -3.2
    Tracy       .244    .324    .458     5.3
    
    That Tracy's VORP is calculated against a replacement level player at first base, while Norton's is against a third baseman, accentuates the difference between the two. Since a 2000 audition where he posted an OPS over .800, Tracy's major league career has consisted of two short, unsuccessful stints. But over the last two years, he's ripped up AA and AAA:
    
                         AVG     OBP     SLG   2004 Park Factor
    Tulsa '03           .299    .371    .563        976
    Col. Springs '04    .315    .390    .631       1084
    
    Colorado Springs is a hitter's park, but not so much that it discredits what Tracy did there. With a nod to Roberto Petagine, it's always nice to see a minor league masher get another chance at the majors, and if bad luck doesn't strike him this month, Tracy could be drawing a big league paycheck come Opening Day.

New York Mets

  • Predicting Pedro: To win the Pedro Martinez derby this winter, the Mets had to tack a fourth year onto their offer. For a pitcher of Pedro's age, and with his tender body, that seemed excessive. But with the release of the full 2005 PECOTA cards to Fantasy and Premium subscribers, we can see that the system thinks that if you're going to go three, you might as well go four:
    
    Year   Age   Proj. VORP    50%ile ERA   25%ile ERA
    2005    33      53.3          3.31         3.63
    2006    34      42.9          3.22         3.63
    2007    35      38.6          3.28         4.02
    2008    36      36.0          2.73         3.48
    2009    37      19.1          3.90         5.01
    
    Pitchers similar to Martinez have started to fade at age 37, by which time Pedro's Mets contract will have just ended. (Of course, if he puts up those numbers during the first four years, it's likely that he will be back in blue and orange on a new contract for that miserable fifth one, but that's another matter.)

    From this point of view, the deal looks pretty good. But take "pitchers similar to Martinez" with a grain of salt, because Martinez's Similarity Index-that is, the reliability of the comparison-is only 11, not too meaningful. That's just because there aren't many pitchers similar to him. Of his top 20 comparables, seven are in the Hall of Fame (including the top three of Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson, one more (Roger Clemens) is a lock, and Bert Blyleven ought to be.

    We already know that Pedro Martinez is a Hall of Famer as well. Based on his peak years, he's in the discussion for the greatest pitcher ever. In thirteen seasons, he's never put up an ERA higher than last year's 3.90, and if PECOTA is right, that streak will last into his next contract.

  • A Modern-Day Merlin?: We've heard a lot this winter about the Mets' new GM and manager, but not enough attention has been paid to their pitching coach, Rick Peterson. One of the most interesting things to watch in Flushing this season will be his place in the organization; last year, it was clear that he held an enormous amount of sway. Peterson's dislike for Scott Kazmir's mechanics and fervent belief that he could "fix" Victor Zambrano were rumored to have been a major factor behind the much-ridiculed trade involving those two players. Peterson's infamous claim that he could fix Zambrano's control problems "in ten minutes" was leaked to the media and hangs over his head now daily.

    Peterson's reputation in the industry is golden, and his "pre-hab" innovation in Oakland seems like a wonderful way to keep pitchers healthy. But a quick-and-dirty look at how pitchers fared in Oakland during their first year under Peterson's tutelage doesn't show any overwhelming evidence that he has a special ability to "fix" players.

    From 1998-2003, with Peterson as pitching coach, nine pitchers came to the A's and improved their career RA+ (runs allowed expressed as a ratio against league average, adjusted for park and league) by double digits in their first season. Seven pitchers arrived in Oakland and regressed by double digits. The success stories of Barry Zito, Jeff Tam, Cory Lidle and others are somewhat offset by the failures of Blake Stein and Mark Mulder, who, you may recall, was walloped in his first big league season after pitching well in the minors.

    Those sixteen pitchers (minimum 50 innings pitched):

    
    NAME                YEAR     IP   RA+GAIN
    Keith Foulke        2003    86.7    66
    Barry Zito          2000    92.7    53
    Jeff Tam            2000    85.7    53
    Kenny Rogers        1998   238.7    35
    Brad Rigby          1999    62.3    32
    Erik Hiljus         2001    66.0    31
    Cory Lidle          2001   188.0    24
    Doug Jones          1999   104.0    16
    Billy Koch          2002    93.7    14
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    John Halama         2003   108.7   -11
    Mike Oquist         1998   175.0   -12
    Tom Candiotti       1998   201.0   -15
    Blake Stein         1998   117.3   -18
    T.J. Mathews        1998    72.7   -21
    Mark Mulder         2000   154.0   -32
    Kevin Appier        1999    68.7   -40
    
    In fairness to Peterson, the gains are larger than the losses. But that, of course, is to be expected: an enormous decline might not make our dataset, because the pitcher could lose his job!

    This is not gospel; sample size issues and lots of noise prevent us from drawing any conclusions. Which is exactly the point. Peterson has demonstrated intelligence, good planning, and attentiveness to pitchers' health. He hasn't shown that he is Mr. Fix-It. Vic Zambrano will give him a chance to.

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