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March 8, 2005

Prospectus Today

Not My Guys

by Joe Sheehan

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About a year ago, I wrote a column on "my guys," the players who, for one reason or another, I expected to have successful seasons.

As you'd expect, the list turned out to be a mixed bag: Bronson Arroyo, Mark Bellhorn and Jeff Weaver had pretty good years, while Marlon Byrd and Jose Acevedo had the other kind. Edwin Encarnacion never sniffed Triple-A, much less the majors, despite playing well at Double-A Chattanooga. The other four--Michael Cuddyer, Adam Eaton, Keith Ginter and Kevin Mench--all played fairly well without being stars.

I'll have a similar list coming out shortly. Today, though, I want to write the companion column that I never did last year: five players who I would avoid like the plague, because I don't think they're going to measure up to expectations. These are the guys who are going to disappoint their real teams and their fantasy owners. Some are perceived stars, while others are just bad investments at any price. A couple, like Encarnacion last year, aren't even in the majors yet. Most of them had 2004 seasons that were over their heads, establishing a level that will not be repeated.

At the top of this list is the Yankees' Carl Pavano. Pavano benefited not only from a great run environment at Pro Player Stadium, but as Erik Siegrist pointed out yesterday, from nearly an entire division's worth of run-suppressing parks. In addition, he pitched in front of an above-average Marlins' defense. The combination helped him to allow less than a hit per inning and just 35 home runs in 423 frames over the past two seasons, despite strikeout rates below the league average.

This year, Pavano will pitch in a better hitters' park, especially a better one for left-handed batters. He won't be supported by a strong defense, but rather by the Yankees' often-shaky squad. The combination will lift his ERA by at least a run, and while he may pick up wins due to the Yankees' strong offense, the perception of his performance will be negative, and he'll be a league-average innings muncher at best.

Pavano isn't the only big-name pitcher who's a big risk this year. I disagree strongly with the Braves' decision to move John Smoltz back into their rotation. While Smoltz was a very good starting pitcher in his time, he was moved to the bullpen because his elbow couldn't hold up under the workload. Incomplete seasons in 1998 and 1999 preceded a move to the bullpen, and even there, Smoltz pitched through pain. Watching him in the 2003 Division Series was agonizing.

Smoltz hasn't made even 30 starts in a season since 1997. His desire to help the Braves win and his belief that he can do a better job of that in the rotation are sincere, but misguided. He's unlikely to get through the season without at least one DL trip. I figure him for 140 innings, max, with the most likely scenario being a strong start followed by regression and then injury. It will end up as a $10 million hole blown in a roster than just can't afford that kind of thing any longer.

One other pitcher who scares me is Mark Mulder. Mulder has been brought in by the Cardinals from the A's to be their ace, the #1 starter they didn't have in 2004's big season. He's not that guy; at his best Mulder is effective, rather than dominant. He doesn't strike out a lot of guys, relying heavily on his defense to suck up ground balls. The Cards' new double-play combination of David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek is sure-handed, but lacks range, which could hurt Mulder. Add in his deteriorating command, especially down the stretch last year, and open questions about his health--he insists he's healthy--and you can see where there's a lot of cause for concern. Like Pavano, Mulder is much more likely to be an innings guy than an ace

Mulder's old team is running a risk of its own. In grabbing Keith Ginter from the Brewers, the A's picked up a second baseman with good power. The rest of Ginter's game, though, has gone south. He's not a good defensive second baseman (-13 runs the past two years in just 109 games), his plate discipline indicators have gone backwards, and he's a flyball hitter whose tendencies won't port well to the cavernous Coliseum. At 29 in May, it's reasonable to think that he's peaked, and will be a bench player from here on out. Mark Ellis, if healthy, would be the best choice at second base.

So much of a column like this is perception. Last year, Ginter wasn't expected to be much, and made "my guys." This year, between the trade and the underlying performance issues, I lump him in with the other undesirables.

The minor leaguer I see as a disappointment is Dioner Navarro. Once the Yankees' top prospect, now with the Dodgers, Navarro is a small catcher who doesn't pack much power. His run production is going to be tied tightly to his batting average, which was .341 in Double-A in 2003, but just .263 across two levels last season. Comparisons to Ivan Rodriguez are just shy of "laughable." Navarro more closely resembles a younger Mike Lavalliere, a player who had more value than he appeared to thanks to his great walk rate. He may end up as a contributor, kind of a Gregg Zaun with better defense and more opportunities. He won't be a star, and his time as even a top prospect is running short, no pun intended.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Prospectus Triple Play... (03/08)
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