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March 8, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by James Click

Chicago White Sox

  • Like the Rock: The White Sox's new baserunning coach, Tim Raines, has already declared his intentions to make a significant contribution to the south side's effort this season:

    "We won't beat a team with three-run homers, especially with Big Frank not in the lineup. We have to be that type of team that pitches well, plays good defense and manufactures runs." (MLB.com)

    Last year, the White Sox stole 78 bases, good for ninth in the American League. Unfortunately, they were caught 51 times, a total surpassed only by the Cleveland Indians. Their 60% success rate was second worst in the league, trailing only the Royals, who somehow managed to come in at 58% despite half a season from the most efficient basestealer in the history of the game. Needless to say, there's room for improvement.

    Just how bad was that performance last year? Looking at the expected runs matrix for 2004, with a runner on first and one out, teams scored an average of .5496 runs in the inning; with a runner on second, the number jumps to .7104; and with no one on base and two outs, it drops to .1135. We can quickly estimate the breakeven point for stolen bases by dividing the benefit of staying put by the benefit of running: (.5496 - .1135) / (.7104 - .1135) = 73.1%. Other typical situations:

    Outs  Stolen Base  Breakeven
    0       Second       73.2%
    1       Second       73.1%
    2       Second       73.2%
    0       Third        74.8%
    1       Third        69.5%
    2       Third        92.7%

    Depending on the situation involved when the White Sox were stealing last year, they cost themselves somewhere on the order of 14 runs with their errant theft attempts. Even just bringing that back to zero would save the Sox around 1.4 wins.

    The real question is: do they have the tools to do it? Here are the stolen base numbers from 2004 for the Sox's top base stealers:

    Player          SB  CS  Perc
    Scott Podsednik 70  13  84.3%
    Aaron Rowand    17   5  77.3%
    Willie Harris   19   7  73.1%
    Juan Uribe       9  11  45.0%

    Steals can be overrated--particularly when they come with more CS than SB as in Juan Uribe's case--but Scott Podsednik's 70 steals last year were the real deal. With Podsednik on board and Aaron Rowand back, the White Sox look to be much better on the bases than they were last year without any real improvement elsewhere. Willie Harris doesn't look to be seeing as much time on the basepaths as last year with a reduced role overall, but his stolen base rate is right around the breakeven point, so he could steal 100 or 0 and add virtually nothing.

    The real key is getting Uribe to stop running; his basestealing cost the Sox over five runs alone. Removing Uribe and keeping last year's numbers, the Sox now look to be on pace to steal 111 with 29 failures, a 79.3% success rate. Those numbers would net the Sox about 7.5 runs over the course of the season, a turnaround of 22.5 runs or just over two wins. If Raines can properly coach the Sox in their basestealing adventures, there's quite a bit of potential for some serious contributions to the offense.

Oakland Athletics

  • Playing in the Pen: Though the A's may not have gotten quite as much as they could have for pitchers of the caliber of Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson in their trades this winter, they did acquire a pair of highly capable arms for the bullpen in Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz. While Dan Haren and Dan Meyer may take a little time to develop into front-line starting pitchers, the acquired relievers should immediately shore up a beleaguered pen.

    The situation just got a little more interesting. With Chad Bradford--a pitcher who strands more people than CBS--out until at least late June with back surgery, the A's suddenly have one fewer competitor for their revamped bullpen. Let's see how the contenders shake out:

    • Octavio Dotel: Despite some rumblings about Dotel possibly moving to the Cubs, he's still the closer and that's unlikely to change until Dotel can amass enough saves to blow his perceived value way out of line. He still strikes out more than 11 men per nine innings and there's little reason to expect him to be anything less than stellar.
    • Ricardo Rincon: Rincon has slowly evolved from a lefty setup man to LOOGY. In 2003, Rincon notched 14 appearances in which he faced one or two batters and 50 in which he faced three or more. In 2004, 30 of his appearances saw two or fewer and 37 were three or more. Used correctly, he's still an effective situational man, a fact that secures his job.
    • Justin Duchscherer: The requisite long man, Duchscherer logged nearly 100 innings of 3.27 ERA pitching last year in 53 appearances. Though Cruz has been a starter in the past, he hasn't put up the inning totals that Duchscherer has since 2002, so Duchscherer will be back in the pen again.
    • Juan Cruz: Acquired in the Hudson deal, Cruz is the kind of fireballer the A's have lacked in recent seasons. He's not quite as adept with the whiff as Dotel, but he's still averaged just over a strikeout an inning over the last two years. If you're into nitpicking, Cruz does walk just a few too many batters, but that won't cost him a job.
    • Kiko Calero: After seven years in the minors, it appeared that the best Calero had to offer were recommendations on places to eat in Wichita. Converted to a reliever by the Cardinals, Calero enjoyed two solid seasons with an increased strikeout rate and an improved walk rate, particularly in 2004.
    • Huston Street: The most likely replacement for Bradford, Street has been well chronicled, both here and elsewhere. Counting college and the Arizona Fall League, Street was impressive in five levels in 2004, allowing 16 earned runs in just over 100 innings. One of the better examples of a recent trend of college relievers drafted very high, Street should take advantage of the opportunity and stick with the A's most of the season.
    • Chris Mabeus: A bit of an organizational soldier, Mabeus was selected by the Rangers in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, but returned to the A's after he didn't make the team. He's posted impressive K/BB ratios of 70/15 and 88/14 in 62.0 and 73.2 innings the last two seasons. As pointed out in Baseball Prospectus 2005, the main thing Mabeus and his agent should point to is the fact that his performances have come against the high-level competition of the Texas and Pacific Coast leagues while Street and Jairo Garcia have been plying their trade against significantly weaker competition.
    • Tyler Johnson: The A's Rule 5 selection from the Cardinals, Johnson has assumed the role of guitar-playing, surfing left-hander, a role already ably filled by Barry Zito. He's also cut from the same slow fastball, comic-book curve mold. Johnson walks a few too many guys, but--quelle surprise!-- he strikes out a lot, too.
    • Jimmy Serrano: Like Mabeus, Serrano has spent some time in the minors--Oakland is his fourth organization--but Serrano switched from relieving to starting, registering a few starts in the debacle of Kansas City's rotation last year. He's on the shorter side, but he strikes people out, like pretty much everyone else the A's have stockpiled. It will be tough for him to impress his way into the pen.
    • Jairo Garcia: The "stuff" answer to Street's polished college resume, Garcia struggled as he reached the upper levels of the Oakland system last year. His fastball and slider are a combination to behold, but the A's may see last year's difficulties as reason enough to keep him in Sacramento until he learns to control them a little better.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Phinding Some Depth: The Phillies got their first bad news of the spring last week when third baseman David Bell went down with a back injury. Originally estimated to keep Bell out throughout spring training and for the first two weeks of the regular season, tests have shown no herniated disk and no stress fracture. Bell proclaims he'll be back by Opening Day, but considering his limited time to get back into playing shape, it's anyone's guess if he'll actually be manning the hot corner against the Nationals on April 4th. In the meantime, the Phillies look to have one more spot on the roster.

    The name that's come up as the possible new addition so far is Shane Victorino, a Rule 5 pick from the Dodgers this past winter. This being his second Rule 5 selection--he was a Rule 5 pick by the Padres in 2002 before being quickly returned to Los Angeles--Victorino should be used as a 26th man. In his third go'round in Double-A Jacksonville last year, Victorino appeared to have finally figured things out, hitting .238/.375/.584 before being called up to Triple-A Las Vegas. After a miserable .235/.278/.335 stint, Victorino likely joined the Vegas tourist bureau and coined their current marketing phrase. Victorino is young, fast and a switch-hitter, a nifty combination for a player who's shown virtually no power and just enough plate discipline to not get fired.

    Victorino's presence raises questions about the Phillies' plans for erstwhile centerfielder Marlon Byrd. The Phils have seemed content to use a Kenny Lofton/Jason Michaels platoon in center, leaving Byrd the odd man out in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Byrd, however, is trying to convince new manager Charlie Manuel and GM Ed Wade that he's rediscovered his power stroke. With Bell's spot possibly open, the Phillies may be considering throwing Byrd into the mix in center field.

    Byrd had a terrible 2004--there's just no other way to put it--but he also has a long record of strong performances in the minors as well as his impressive rookie season in 2003. Most of his collapse in 2004 can be blamed on a surprising lack of singles. Byrd's walk rate actually improved last year and his isolated power dropped just slightly. Looking at only the most recent season is the kind of myopia that befalls a many major-league teams and the Phillies would be well advised to take more into account when selecting their fifth outfielder.

    The other main consequence of Bell's possible injury is that Placido Polanco will take over the regular third-base job in the meantime. Though the Phillies were hoping to gracefully allow Polanco to exit after last season, he found no offers in a surprisingly robust market for shortstops. Instead, he accepted arbitration, leaving the Phillies with one of the more expensive backup infielders in the game. Having him play regularly at third for a couple weeks could give the Phillies the kind of exposure they need to trade him at some point during the season. Polanco's a solid player and the more plate appearances that happen to come his way, the higher his counting stats like runs, RBI and home runs will get. And the higher those go, the easier it will be for the Phillies to turn his unexpected cost into positive gain.

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Premium Article Prospectus Q&A: Joel G... (03/07)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (03/09)
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Premium Article Prospectus Today: Not ... (03/08)

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