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March 9, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Mark McClusky

Houston Astros

  • Can You Spot the Setup?: No matter what you think of the "closer myth," you'd have to admit that if you were running a team, it would be nice to have a reliever like Brad Lidge around. All Lidge did in 2004 was to lead all of baseball in Expected Wins Added, which measures reliever's contributions by calculating how many wins they gained (or lost) for their team compared to a replacement level relief pitcher. Lidge will be back to anchor the Astros bullpen in 2005; while it might be foolish to expect his utter dominance of a year ago, it seems a safe bet that he'll remain in the top rank of relievers, and make Phil Garner's job easy, at least when he's nursing a lead in the ninth.

    The real question is, who will get the Astros to Lidge? Here's what some of the contenders for the setup spot did in 2004:

    
    NAME            TM  LG   GR   IP    BB   SO   ERA   R&O_E(W)
    Chad Qualls    HOU  NL   25   33     8   24  3.55    1.391
    Dan Wheeler  NY/HO  NL   46   65    20   55  4.29    0.407
    Chad Harville  HOU  NL   56   53    27   46  4.69   -1.302
    John Franco    NYN  NL   52   46    24   36  5.09    0.284
    
    Franco signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Astros in January. What one hopes the Astros realize is that Franco should, under no circumstances, ever, ever be allowed to pitch to a right-handed batter. Over the past three seasons, right-handers have torched Franco at a .295/.382/.453 clip, while he has held lefties to a .208/.262/.375 line. Harville's problem is control--those 26 walks in 53 innings don't bode well.

    Meanwhile, Wheeler was pretty average in the regular season in New York, but then pitched well in Houston before throwing like a maniac in the postseason, racking up seven shutout innings, with no walks and nine strikeouts. That performance has some in Houston looking for him to move to the next level, but there's little evidence of that in his past performance.

    Qualls should be the pick here. He pitched very well after being called up from New Orleans last year, and he's got one skill that you'd like to see in your relievers--he keeps the ball in the park. PECOTA sees some regression, but Qualls has a shot to be a quality relief weapon that will cost Houston very little in 2005.

  • Kent Live Without You: After two seasons in Houston, during which he finished sixth and second among major league second basemen in VORP, Jeff Kent is off to Los Angeles where, it turns out, he wanted to be all along.

    His departure leaves a big hole in the lineup. Trying to fill his shoes will be Chris Burke, the Astros' top pick in 2001, and the PCL All-Star second baseman and Rookie of the Year last season. Burke's main competition in camp will be from long-time role player Jose Vizcaino.

    If you want an early read on how the Astros view this season, keep your eye on second base. A team that believes that they're making one last valiant run at contention just might fall into the veteran leadership trap and run Vizcaino out there every day. The smarter choice is to realize that this team likely won't keep up with the Cards and the Cubs, and get Burke the experience that he needs.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • What Might Have Been: Larry Walker, over the course of his career, has been a damn fine player. He's won one MVP award and finished in the top ten in voting three other times. He's won seven Gold Gloves. He provided one of the best moments in All Star game history, turning around to bat right-handed against Randy Johnson in 1997.

    But the (pardon us) Achilles's Heel of Walker's career has obviously been his injury history. Walker alone would be enough to keep Will Carroll in business--in 15 full major league seasons, Walker has played in 1868 games, or about 77% of his teams' games in that period.

    Is there a way to try and understand what Walker has lost through injury? We can try using MLVr. MLVr is a rate that that captures the marginal value of a player, in runs, over a replacement level hitter. Since it's a rate stat, MLVr doesn't care about games that a player like Walker has missed. Here's a look at Walker's MLVrs since his first full season, and where he ranked in the majors:

    
    Year    Team     MLVr  MLRank
    1990    MON     .0742   118
    1991    MON     .1876    47
    1992    MON     .2736    15
    1993    MON     .1526    77
    1994    MON     .3860    14
    1995    COL     .2881    28
    1996    COL     .1462    83
    1997    COL     .5974     1
    1998    COL     .4879     2
    1999    COL     .5610     1
    2000    COL     .1516    94
    2001    COL     .5035     5
    2002    COL     .3930    11
    2003    COL     .2036    56
    2004    COL     .4475     6
    2004    SLN     .3175    19
    
    This version of MLVr isn't adjusted for park, so Walker gets a lot of help from those years in Coors Field, but these are still pretty darn impressive. Just look at a season like 1998, when Walker posted the second-best MLVr in the game, but only took the field 130 times. Or the next year, when he was the most productive hitter in the game by this measure, but only played 127 games. It's not a coincidence that Walker's MVP came in 1997, when he played in a career-high 153 games.

    In what shouldn't come as a surprise, Walker has been struggling with a sore lower back this spring--look for the Cards to take it very, very slowly with him. A healthy Walker (and in Walker's case, healthy means he plays 130 games in 2005) will be a crucial component if the Cards are going to repeat as NL Central champs--as you can see from those MLVr numbers last year, he can still tear the cover off the ball.

  • Who is John Gall?: St. Louis spent their 11th round draft pick in 2000 on a guy who had been now-Oakland outfielder Eric Byrnes' teammate in Little League and high school before he want on to Stanford and set a Pac 10 career record for hits: John Gall. Five seasons later, Gall has yet to take a big-league swing.

    Gall's a career .301 hitter in the minors with decent, if not great, power. His past two seasons, he's hit well in Triple-A Memphis, especially since he played much of the year with a sore shoulder. There's little question that Gall could probably hit in the majors.

    No, the question is with his defense. He came up as a corner infielder, but the Cards have moved him to the outfield to try and find a position he can play. He's rapidly running the risk of getting that dreaded "Quad-A" tag, but to be fair, in many organizations around the game, or with an American League team, he'd be in fine shape. The problem is, he finds himself in St. Louis, where Walker, Reggie Sanders and Jim Edmonds have the starting slots wrapped up, and Roger Cedeno, John Mabry and So Taguchi figure to be the backups.

    Gall will be 27 this season, so the clock is ticking. It would be a major surprise to see him end up breaking camp with the team, but if the age of the Cards' outfield options becomes a durability issue, Gall could get his chance after all.

Texas Rangers

  • Nix Fix: Last year, the Rangers carried high hopes for centerfielder Laynce Nix, who was about to begin his first full season with the big club. And at first, Nix made things look easy--he broke from the gate with eight home runs and 21 RBIs in his first 32 games, hitting a cool .330. Then, things fell apart.
    
    Month             OPS
    April 2004      1.111
    May 2004         .806
    June 2004        .706
    July 2004        .567
    August 2004      .763
    September 2004   .537
    
    Admittedly, some of those are pretty small samples, but that September line, for instance, is in 103 AB. And you wonder why we've continually harped on the Rangers' lack of outfield offensive production? Nix went 13-74 against left-handed pitching last year; we'll spare you the math and tell you that's a .176 average.

    Obviously, Nix has a long way to go. PECOTA is slightly hopeful of a turnaround, but the bigger issue for Nix might be playing time, as Texas has amassed a coterie of outfielders including David Dellucci, Richard Hidalgo, Kevin Mench, and Gary Matthews Jr. That's the bad news for Nix--there are a lot of bodies around, and if he goes into an extended slump like last season, there are options.

    The bright side for Nix is that all of those other options are probably not viable center fielders, with the possible exception of Matthews. Defense might keep Buck Showalter writing down Nix's name, but if he doesn't show a surprising gain in offensive production, that could cost the Rangers dearly.

  • Fair Price: Texas recently signed starting pitcher Ryan Drese to a two-year, $2.5 million contract, with an option for a third year at $3 million. Last year, Drese, who actually failed to make the team in the spring, was a very pleasant surprise for the Rangers, going 14-10 with a 4.20 ERA. Drese and Kenny Rogers were the only two Texas pitchers to start more than 17 games last year.

    Are the Rangers repeating past mistakes, rewarding a player for a year that's clearly out of line with the rest of his career? There are definitely some concerns that Drese was pitching over his head last year--his adjusted walk and home run rates were much lower than they have generally been over the course of his career.

    Drese is a sinkerball pitcher who doesn't strike out many batters, and that's a pitching profile that can lead to wild fluctuation in a pitcher's fortunes. One year, the batting average in balls put in play against you might be .265 and you look like a dominant starter. The next year, your BABIP is .320, and you look like a bum. Just ask Derek Lowe about either scenario.

    The good news for Drese is that his success last year wasn't just the product of luck. His BABIP was .309--only 15 pitchers with 30 starts last season allowed a higher average on balls put in play (topped by Lowe's .333 BABIP). If anything, one might expect that Drese's BABIP could drop this season, even with the Rangers' less-than-exceptional infield defense. If that's the case--and especially given the relatively low price--this starts to look like a pretty savvy deal.

    Oh, by the way, the pitcher with the lowest BABIP last year? Johan Santana, with a .252 average.

Mark McClusky is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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