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March 9, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

A's-Angels, Sunday March 6

by Jonah Keri

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Hi, I'm Jonah Keri. You may remember me from such short-lived columns as Rational Exuberance, and such on-again, off-again columns as Prospectus Q&A.

Now, I'm trying something new. This marks the debut of Prospectus Game of the Week. Starting the first week of the regular season and running through to season's end, I'll be highlighting one game a week. Big pitching match-ups, hot-button topics and random asides will come together to reveal the game behind the game, the bigger stakes beyond a single win or loss.

Just like the old NBC Game of the Week before baseball coverage was regionalized, the Prospectus Game of the Week will cover the games that you want to see. I'll be checking your e-mails for direction as to where to point the camera eye each week. Yankees-Red Sox or Cubs-Cardinals? Of course. But we'll also look at Devil Rays-Tigers if there's an interesting subplot. Each week, I'll either go to the game you want to see, or record it with my TiVo (acquired in 1999 as a Christmas present--yes, I'm an early adopter). The following week I'll break down the game in detail, and so on. I'll occasionally run with my own idea--come hell or high water, I'm going to make it to Tacoma to see Felix Hernandez pitch, for instance. Otherwise, this column has your name on it. Write me at jkeri@baseballprospectus.com. Write early. Write often. And enjoy.

--

Given a weekend in sunny Arizona the first weekend of March, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to hit a spring training game and roll out GotW. Only Arizona wasn't so sunny. A huge thunderstorm rolled in Sunday morning, threatening to wipe out the day's A's-Angels match-up at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Luckily the skies cleared shortly before game time. Let's play ball!

The Lineups

Anaheim:

Maicer Izturis SS
Jeff DaVanon CF
Casey Kotchman 1B
Robb Quinlan 3B
Juan Rivera DH
Curtis Pride LF
Josh Paul C
Brian Gordon RF
Alberto Callaspo 2B
(Bartolo Colon P)
That's a Sunday lineup and a spring training lineup neatly rolled into one. No Vladimir Guerrero, no Garret Anderson, no Darin Erst... well, no Vlad or Anderson anyway. Still, there are some players worth watching here. Maicer Izturis and Juan Rivera are the fruits of the Jose Guillen trade, the latest installment of Bowden's Blunderama. Casey Kotchman was recently named BP's #5 prospect. As for Curtis Pride, the fond memories never fade.

Oakland:

Eric Byrnes RF
Nick Swisher CF
Dan Johnson 1B
Eric Chavez 3B
Erubiel Durazo DH
Keith Ginter 2B
Bobby Crosby SS
Charles Thomas LF
Jeremy Brown C
(Seth Etherton P)
Now that's an interesting lineup. Plenty of firepower for a spring training game with Eric Chavez, Erubiel Durazo, Bobby Crosby and other regulars playing. Moneyball favorites Swisher and Brown are also in there, with Swisher likely to crack the Opening Day lineup. The pitching match-up looks lopsided with Bartolo Colon facing Seth Etherton. Otherwise, this has all the makings of a rout for the A's.

Top of the 1st, Seth Etherton pitching. The A's signed Etherton away from the Reds in the fall, giving him a minor league deal. With Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Mark Redman gone and Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer still greener than their uniforms, Etherton was a good low-risk/moderate-reward pickup for Oakland. The A's aren't kidding themselves, though. As noted in Baseball Prospectus 2005 (now shipping), pitchers recovering from torn labrums face long odds. Gil Meche offers some hope, after he put together a strong second half last year, following an awful first half.

As Nate Silver recently noted in an article for the New York Sun newspaper (BP contributes two articles a week to the Sun's excellent sports section from March through to the World Series), spring training stats don't mean much, given the limited sample sizes and uneven competition in play in March. For a pitcher like Etherton who's trying to prove he can withstand a regular workload and succeed, though, each inning takes on added significance. Billy Beane, Ken Macha, Curt Young and company will be watching closely.

Etherton gets Izturis to fly out to left and fans Jeff DaVanon. Kotchman comes advertised as a big guy with a good batting eye. Sure enough, he works a walk his first time up. For the Angels to get full value out of him, they'll need Kotchman to learn to get into hitter's counts, then smoke the ball when he gets his pitch. As big as he is--he's listed at 6'3", 210--the team will be far better served by a Jim Thome Jr. than by any member of the Rexrode clan. Robb Quinlan flies out to Swisher in center to end the inning.

Bottom of the 1st, and Colon is dealing. Never one to mess around, Colon favors the Rick Vaughn approach to pitching, serving up a steady diet of fastballs. After an Eric Byrnes popout, Swisher looks bad on an ugly check-swing, then bangs a sharp single to right. With Byrnes on the trading block and Charles Thomas a functional platoon player at best, Swisher figures to get a trial by fire in Oakland this year--they'll take any good signs they can get. Dan Johnson then dazzles the Oakland brass with a scintillating walk. After a huge .299/.403/.534 season in Triple-A Sacramento last year, Johnson is the new Graham Koonce, only younger and better. The A's depth--in the form of Johnson and other useful bench players--makes them a serious threat for the division crown, even in the post-Mulder/Hudson era (Nate Silver--he's everywhere!--will be previewing the division races PECOTA-style in the next couple weeks).

With two on and two out, Durazo works the count to 3-2, then draws a walk on a very close pitch. Even in spring training, Colon's wincing. Keith Ginter follows with a first-pitch chopper to Robb Quinlan, only to have the third baseman slip and fall on the wet dirt, allowing Johnson to beat the play and the A's to cash in a run. He's Graham Koonce with the speed of John Wathan! Meanwhile Colon shakes his head. It's the first inning of a meaningless early-March game and the mind games have already begun.

Top of the 2nd, after the Angels escaped the 1st down just 1-0. Juan Rivera comes up and promptly crushes a double to right-center. Watching Rivera lay into a pitch, the mind boggles at why he's a Los Angeles Angel of I-5 between I-22 and I-91. After a solid season with the bat, Jose Guillen so cheesed off the Angels late last season that they took the drastic step of suspending one of their best hitters for the duration of the post-season. In the off-season, it was clear that Guillen, his prickly attitude and the second year of his two-year, $6 million contract (plus a $4 million 2006 club option) would be shopped hard, even if it meant taking 60 cents on the dollar.

So why did Nationals GM Jim Bowden give the Angels Juan Rivera, a 26-year-old bopping corner outfielder slated to make peanuts in '05, in exchange for Guillen, a 28-year-old bopping corner outfielder who's alienated every team he's ever played for and costs millions more? And why did Bowden throw in Maicer Izturis as a sweetener? It's always painful to give up on your favorite team after it's packed up and moved away. But management's incompetence and the continued erosion of the erstwhile Expos' talent base has made the transition a hell of a lot easier.

The inning only gets worse for Etherton, who just doesn't have it today. Pride singles. Paul singles. Keith Ginter misplays an Izturis grounder, causing the guy a few rows ahead of us in the Marcus Camby Knicks jersey to cackle hysterically. This begs the question: How can a guy wearing a Marcus Camby jersey laugh at anyone, ever?

Five runs later, it's 5-0 Angels, and the rout is on, as predicted...What? It was an A's rout predicted, not an Angels one? All right, all right. This is my first live game in five months. Gotta work out the kinks.

Bottom of the 2nd and it's my first chance to see Jeremy Brown bat, getting a full view of his non-jeans-selling frame outside the squatting position. He's round, no doubt about it. Brown's got a huge lower body, with hammies like tree trunks. The bigger issue for Brown is one of playing time. Between Kurt Suzuki, newly acquired Daric Barton and John Baker ("The Hitmaker" as he's called by my friend and A's fan Phil), Brown will have an uphill climb to land a long-term regular gig with the big club. If the A's are in the race come July, look for Beane to try and trade one of his young receivers for help elsewhere. With a man on first, Brown taps weakly to Callaspo, eliciting a cry of "Beat it out!" by a guy a couple rows up. Giggling all around. It's not easy being Jeremy Brown.

Top of the 3rd, and the A's trail 5-1. The A's bring in no-name reliever Chris Mabeus to replace Etherton. Tabbed by some as a candidate for the last spot in the pen, Mabeus will need to impress to go north at the end of camp. Juan Rivera leads off the inning by smashing another hit, this time a single. Hey, Diamond Jim! Ruben Mateo's agent's on the phone. He says he'll come back from Korea if you relinquish the rights to Brad Wilkerson and Chad Cordero. Wait, I was kidding! Don't do it, Jim!

Swisher drops a lazy fly to center for a two-base error. Not good. Paul walks, Gordon singles, Callaspo singles, Izturis singles. Six batters up, zero retired. The chances of Oakland's pitcher making the big club have dropped from Mabeus to Not Bloody Likelius.

It's 11-1. "What inning are we in," the guy in the Bob Gibson Cardinals jersey asks his buddy.
"Top of the 3rd."
"Wait, we're still in that inning?!"

OK, need to break up this interminable inning. Time to go play with the greyhounds at the "Make A Fast Friend" kiosk. I miss my dog back home in Montreal. I want a dog. Unfortunately I have no yard and am out all day, every day. Firestone the greyhound has started following me, even after I've finished petting him. Do greyhounds need exercise? No, right? Can we keep him then?

We move ahead to the top of the 5th. Rivera clubs another single, making it 3-for-4 for the game for him and a 13-1 lead for the Angels. Bill Stoneman's already contemplating his next fleecing.

Bottom of the 5th. The game has degenerated to discussions befitting Cliff Clavin.

"Is it acceptable to fashion a rally cap in a spring training game?"
"Sure. The players and the umpires need to get ready for the regular season, so do the fans. It's good practice."
"At what point does it become acceptable to turn the cap inside out then? They're down 12 right now--maybe down five runs?"
"No way man. Spring training means higher standards. Down two at the most."
"What if the cap's molded into a shark fin shape instead?"
"Hmmm..."

Bottom of the 6th. The A's get Matt Watson and Jermaine Clark up to bat. Both players bring a modicum of upside, with a track record of getting on base and helping clubs in the minors. Clark singles this inning, and Watson later smacks an opposite-field double to left. Ironically the type of team most likely to value players like these--think Oakland, Boston or Los Angeles--are also usually the ones offering the lowest chance of making the big club. The A's already own one of the deepest benches in the game, the front office being adept at plumbing the secondary talent market to fill the back of the roster. Here's hoping Watson and Clark finally get a clean shot to stick somewhere this season. Both can help a club whose name doesn't have River Cats in it.

Bottom of the 7th. Dustin Moseley's pitching for the Angels. Another smooth pickup by Stoneman, the Angels grabbed the former #1 draft choice for the Reds in exchange for Ramon Ortiz, who the team was a lock to non-tender just a few days later. Moseley's failed to live up to high expectations since coming out of Texarcana as a highly-touted prep pitcher. But he's still just 23, and cost the Angels nothing; Ortiz's likely high salary and mediocre performance meant he was about to become wire fodder. The odds of Moseley succeeding are slim. But smart teams work the edges for those small possibilities. When nothing's ventured, there's a lot to gain.

Top of the 8th, Jairo Garcia's pitching. In his young career, Garcia's shown mastery over two of the three true outcomes, fanning hitters at a gaudy rate but struggling to limit bases on balls. Sure enough, Garcia throws 912 pitches in the 8th, with these results: walk, walk, strikeout, sharp lineout to left, strikeout. He may have thrown a non-fastball that inning, but I didn't see any. Garcia's got great raw stuff but will need to harness it to help the A's promising, young pen this year. With Hudson and Mulder gone and a new generation of A's pitchers coming up, Curt Young's going to get his chance--quicker than he may have expected--to prove he can succeed where Rick Peterson left off.

The inning features an appearance by Angels catching prospect Jeff Mathis. After a big 2003 season that included a big .323/.384/.500 season at Rancho Cucamonga and a .284/.364/.463 line at Arkansas, Mathis plunged to .223/.308/.392 in 2004. The down year knocked Mathis off BP's Top 50 and other lists. Mathis' dismissal brought up debate among a few BP authors, with some asking if one bad year should diminish a prospect's outlook so severely. BP's projection system, PECOTA, uses three-year weighted averages to smooth out noise in a player's data set and forecast the future. If you're wondering why BP is often more conservative in projecting prospects in the low minors than some other organizations, this is why: Without enough data to form a reasonable set of trends, you're edging closer to guesswork. My hunch is that Mathis bounces back--he's only 22 at month's end after all, and still possesses exciting power for a young catcher. But who can say for certain after two such disparate seasons?

A three-run homer by Michael Napoli in the ninth caps the scoring, and the Angels go on to win 17-4. Here's the box score.

Just one game into the GotW slate, and we've already got a leading candidate for biggest margin of victory of the year. We're sure to see a lot more weirdness between now and October. See you back here first week of April, when our slogan will be "This Time, It Counts!" Yes, we're stealing it.

--

Thanks to Jason and the courteous staff of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe for their great hospitality during last weekend's book signing. Thanks also to all those who made it out to talk baseball for a couple hours on a Sunday. I hope to see many of you at the Borders in the Northridge Fashion Center (Northridge, Calif.), Wednesday, March 18 at 7:30 pm. For a full list of BP book signings near you, click here.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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