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March 23, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants

by Jay Jaffe

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Fuzzy Pitcher: At this writing, the Dodger pitching staff hasn't come into focus thanks to a spate of injuries, leaving a number of roster spots up in the air. Most notably, two of the team's front four starters, Brad Penny and Odalis Perez, have yet to throw a pitch this spring. Penny is still rehabilitating from the nerve injury which limited him to 11.2 innings after being acquired from the Florida Marlins in That Deal You've Heard About and is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Perez has been held back by biceps tendonitis, but is expected to throw on Tuesday [late note: he did] and to be ready for the season's opening series. Dodger fans will need to keep their fingers crossed regarding both, as Will Carroll red-lighted them in his recent Team Health Report.

    Penny's absence looks to push lefty swingman Wilson Alvarez into the rotation, at least temporarily. Alvarez enjoyed a solid 2004, making 15 starts and relieving 25 times for a 4.03 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 120.2 innings pitched, good for a VORP of 21.0 runs. He's no stranger to injury himself, having missed all of the 2000 and 2001 seasons due to rotator cuff surgery, and his swingman role reflects the team's willingness to place only so many eggs in his oversized basket.

    Speaking of missing multiple years due to injury--and who doesn't want to discuss that happy topic?--the favorite for the five-spot in the rotation appears to be non-roster invitee Scott Erickson. The former Twins and Orioles hurler who's endured a double whammy of elbow and labrum woes since 2000 threw 27 unimpressive innings last year to the tune of a 6.67 ERA for the Mets and the Rangers. The Dodgers seem impressed enough with his staff-high 20 innings this spring to believe that he's capable of carrying the load, but PECOTA isn't such a big fan, offering a weighted mean projection of a 6.16 ERA in 58 innings.

    One pitcher apparently not in the rotation picture coming out of Vero Beach is Edwin Jackson, whose stock has fallen considerably since he was BP's #6 prospect in 2004. Back spasms and a forearm strain contributed to a miserable season split between Las Vegas (a 5.86 ERA in 90 innings) and LA (7.30 ERA in 24.2 innings). He managed to cling to the #45 spot on this year's Top Prospect List, and at 21, he's still got time to grow, but it looks like that growth will start with a return ticket to Vegas.

    As for the bullpen, closer Eric Gagne made his spring debut on Monday after being sidelined by a sprained left knee sustained February 24. He had a cortisone shot last week and is still less than 100 percent healthy, but the Dodgers remain optimistic that he'll be ready in time for Opening Day. With rookie Yhency Brazoban as the heir apparent closer, the Dodgers are taking a long look at NRI Aquilino Lopez, who saved 14 games for the 2003 Blue Jays while putting up a 3.42 ERA in 73.2 innings. He fell out of favor after 21 innings last year, and spent most of the season in Syracuse piloting his favorite airplane, the 7.17 ERA. Lopez is just one in an assortment of mixed nuts (NRIs Kelly Wunsch, Mike Venafro, Ryan Rupe, and Buddy Carlyle, plus Rule V pick D.J. Houlton) that might end up topping the Dodger bullpen sundae, depending upon whether the team travels north with 11 or 12 pitchers and how many they stash on the DL (Dreifort List).

  • If a Trip to Shea is the Prize, is it Really Winning?: One starter who won't figure into the Dodgers plans for 2004 is Kaz Ishii, who was dealt to the Mets on Monday for catcher Jason Phillips. Following the trade, Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn offered this gem of an assessment:
    "He's won 36 games in three years for us. You know, his style, one needs a lot of patience to allow him to win his games because the way he does it can be nerve-wracking--that's the best word. But there's no question in my mind, and I've been around baseball a long time and been around a lot of competitors, that there is no question that he's a successful person and to me that means a winner. How he does it is a little different than a lot of people, but he is a winner."

    Asked what pitch Ishii had the most trouble with, he said jokingly, "Strikes."

    There's no shortage of truth to that, as Dodger fans well know. Ishii has walked a ghastly 5.8 men per nine innings over the course of his major-league career while striking out only 1.25 for every walk. Watching him pitch is only slightly less nerve-wracking than watching one's grandmother fend off a sabertoothed tiger from an icy driveway with just a broken umbrella.

    Phillips not only brings his cool shades to the Dodgers, he instantly vaults to the forefront as the team's best catching option. Though he fell off considerably from a strong 2003 (shades of Dave Ross, ahem), PECOTA's weighted mean projection of .260/.336/.399/-.066 MLVR/11.7 VORP still outpaces the rest of the team's meager options behind the dish. Ross is currently 0-for-March and may well be ticketed for Vegas.

  • Bug Bites: The injury bug is affecting the team's outfield situation as well, with starting leftfielder Jayson Werth still recovering from the broken left wrist he sustained when hit by the Marlins' A.J. Burnett in his second at-bat of the spring. Werth is at the tee-ball stage of rehab, which means that despite the gung-ho optimism, he might not be ready to start the season. In that case, Ricky Ledee will likely start in left, and Jason Repko (15-for-36 this spring) will make the club.

    Repko is a 24-year-old former supplemental first-round pick who split last year between Double-A Jacksonville (.291/.341/.466) and Triple-A Las Vegas (.311/.355/.493). PECOTA projects him to a .261/.309/.422 line, which isn't spectacular, but he's got speed (23 steals last year) and a reputation as a good defender, making him a thoroughly adequate 25th man. If he wins the Jim and Dearie Mulvey award as the Dodgers top rookie in spring training, thus positioning himself to follow in the footsteps of Jerry Royster, Onan Masaoka and, um, James Loney, the sky's the limit.

    Werth's injury has given manager Jim Tracy an opening to try first baseman Hee Seop Choi and his career .356 OBP in the #2 spot, where his patience will come in handy. Of course, Choi will still be batting behind Cesar Izturis, and there are those who have bemoaned that particular choice before. Izturis had 728 plate appearances last year, roughly 60 percent of which came in the leadoff spot, with the balance, save for three PA, in the #2 hole. With the shortstop's career OBP of .293, and even with his .288/.330/.381 line in 2004, the move would appear to be anathema to a team with a sabermetric bent such as the Dodgers.

    But the numbers tell a different story, one that would at least somewhat vindicate the team's decision. Here's how all Dodger hitters fared by batting slot in 2004:

    
    #  AVG   OBP   SLG
    1 .276  .333  .394
    2 .291  .349  .466
    3 .255  .335  .421
    4 .306  .384  .563
    5 .296  .355  .492
    6 .245  .304  .409
    7 .248  .311  .427
    8 .191  .284  .297
    9 .178  .219  .258
    
    Besides the pitcher, the Dodgers had three regular spots--where, respectively Juan Encarnacion, Alex Cora and Dave Ross got the bulk of PAs--from which they got a significantly lower OBP than at either of the top two spots.

    For all of the handwringing associated with batting orders, it's not particularly clear that they matter all that much. James Click has peered into the issue and found via his models that stacking by On-Base Percentage, with the better numbers higher up, does yield some dividends; perhaps about two wins' worth. If that's true, then so is the fact that Tracy's use of Izturis, while not optimal, was a reasonable response to the team's personnel situation last year.

Minnesota Twins

  • Meet Joe Mays: Perhaps the happiest news coming out of Fort Myers is the strong spring of Joe Mays, who's allowed only two earned runs in 14 innings. Healthy once again, he looks to have reclaimed a spot in the starting rotation behind PECOTA-projected Cy Young winner Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, and Kyle Lohse. Manager Ron Gardenhire has indicated that the team will go with four starters to start the season, with the battle for #4 coming down to Mays and Lohse.

    To recap the rocky road Mays has traveled: Prior to the 2002 season, Mays signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Twins. Coming off of an All-Star 17-win, 3.16 ERA, 10.0 WARP season from the 25-year-old, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But elbow inflammation limited Mays to 95 innings in 2002, and not 95 good ones, either--we're talking a 5.38 ERA and only 38 strikeouts. He had surgery to remove bone spurs following the season, but struggled even worse in 2003--a 6.30 ERA in 130 innings with only 50 Ks--before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. He spent all of 2004 in the Columbia House Setback of the Month Club ("I knew I shouldn't have signed up for this..."), and has now put up a 2.7 WARP over the course of the contract while earning nearly $13 million. While it can't wash away that bad deal, a strong season from Mays would be a big boost for the Twins.

  • Mauer Power?: Thus far Joe Mauer, returning from knee problems that curtailed his much-awaited rookie season, has yet to catch in back-to-back spring training games. Even his three- and four-inning stints behind the plate have required a day or two of rest to mitigate the swelling and soreness, and the bulk of his at-bats--all 10 of 'em--this spring have come as a DH. Not helping matters was an infected wisdom tooth which required surgery, costing him a week of action.

    Mauer's situation carries serious implications for the Twins' lineup. If he can't carry the bulk of the catching load, Mike Redmond, best known for offering teammates live nude batting practice, becomes the starter barring a trade. Redmond, who hit .256/.315/.341 last year, is an upgrade over Henry Blanco, which might inspire jealousy from Mike Matheny but amounts to small beer in Minnesota. Slotting in Mauer at DH means lost at-bats for Lew Ford and more likely Matt LeCroy, whose own knee problems mean that he's stretched as the #2 catcher. More Ford and less Jacque Jones might not be the worst possible outcome, though it will cost the Twins in the field. Here's a quick look at the concerned players' 2004 and projected 2005 Marginal Lineup Value rates as well as which side of the plate they swing from:

    
            Bats  2004   2005
    Mauer    L    .274   .101
    Redmond  R   -.128  -.161
    LeCroy   R   -.052   .025
    Ford     R    .114   .105
    Jones    L   -.064   .007
    
    Keeping in mind that that playing time for Jones and LeCroy works best along platoon lines and using PECOTA projections, here's a run through some lineup permutations:
    
    P   Option                          MLVr
    RH  Mauer C, Jones RF, Ford DH      .213
    LH  Mauer C, Ford RF, LeCroy DH     .231
    RH  Redmond C, Jones RF, Mauer DH  -.053
    LH  Redmond C, Ford RF, Mauer DH    .045
    RH  Redmond C, Jones RF, Ford DH   -.049
    LH  Redmond C, Ford RF, LeCroy DH  -.031
    
    Ultimately Mauer's limited ability to catch could prevent the Twins from putting their best hitting lineup on the field. If he can't go on a regular basis, the team needs another catcher, making LeCroy's hold on a roster spot more tenuous. Corky Miller, who flatlined his way to a 1-for-39 for the Reds last year, is in camp (and out of options), but he bears more resemblance to the second coming of Shootin' Blanco than to an everyday backstop. Stay tuned.

  • Short Version: With Mike Cuddyer at third base and Luis Rivas (sigh) entrenched at second, the major positional battle remaining for the Twins is at shortstop, where Jason Bartlett, Juan Castro, Nick Punto and Augie Ojeda have competed to replace Cristian Guzman. Ultimately, the battle has come down to the rookie Bartlett and the journeyman Castro (inexplicably signed to a two-year, $2.05 million deal with a club option this winter), both of whom have had hot springs. With every passing day it looks as though the Twins might go for the 25-year-old greenhorn. Gardenhire more than tipped his hand when he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I was a rookie shortstop. You have to be a rookie sometime or another. So I don't have any qualms....if they let me open at shortstop, anybody can open at shortstop."

San Francisco Giants

  • Bondshell: Barry Bonds spent St. Patrick's Day:

    A) Guzzling green beer at a Scottsdale bar called Seamus O'Murphy's, impressing drunken patrons with his ability to riverdance atop the bar.

    B) Watching Congressmen bloviate on the matter of steroids in baseball, chuckling to himself at having the foresight to miss the proceedings due to his involvement in the BALCO investigation.

    C) Telling anyone who would listen that, Bucknell, Vermont, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were this year's bracket-busting "picks" in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

    D) Undergoing his third round of arthroscopic knee surgery since the 2004 season ended, indefinitely staving off his appearance in the Giants lineup.

    As easy as it may be to envision scenarios A through C, the correct answer is D (though it should be noted that none of Bonds' mates in the NCAA pool had surgery advancing beyond the second round). While most reports of the surgery offered little detail beyond the standard "repair of torn cartilage," Tom Gorman gave BP readers a more inside scope, reporting that Bonds suffers from chronic osteoarthritis, which is causing his knee cartilage to degenerate. He's had parts of the medial meniscus in his right knee removed on multiple occasions, and shortly after January's round of surgery bumped his knee against a table, tearing some of the sutures (that's gotta hurt). A recent exam showed new tears to both the medial and lateral menisci, necessitating more surgery. Writes Gorman, "[E]ven after multiple menisectomies Bonds still has an intact peripheral rim to his right medial meniscus. This is the important structure that prevents bone-on-bone contact, which would of course be incredibly serious for a major-league ballplayer."

    After the San Francisco Chronicle reported steroid-related allegations made by a former girlfriend of Bonds testifying before the BALCO grand jury, thing couldn't appear to get much worse for Bonds. But the situation went to Orange Alert on Tuesday afternoon, when a despondent Bonds told reporters he might miss part or even all of the season, and appeared to shift a good deal of the blame to them for his physical and psychological ailments:

    "My family's tired. You guys [the media] wanted to hurt me bad enough, you finally got there.

    You wanted me to jump off the bridge, I finally have jumped. You wanted to bring me down, you've finally brought me and my family down. Finally done it. From everybody, all of you. So now go pick a different person. I'm done. Do the best I can, that's about it."

    When asked if there was something specific he was talking about, Bonds said, "Inner hurt, physical, mentally. Done. I'm mentally drained. I'm tired of my kids crying. Tired."

    Left with egg on their faces are the Giants, who last fall axed a contractual provision that would have allowed them to void Bonds' $18 million salary for 2006 if he didn't reach 500 plate appearances this year or 1,500 between 2003 and 2005, including at least 400 this year. Worse, Bonds' absence could cost the team millions of dollars at the gate, especially without his runs at the homer records of Babe Ruth (whom he trails by 11) and Hank Aaron (52 to tie).

  • Aged in the Outfield: If there's a silver lining to Bonds' injury, it's that his absence might pump some young blood into their ancient lineup. Alan Schwarz reported in last Sunday's New York Times that the team's starting lineup would be, at an average age of 36.1 years old, the oldest starting eight ever and just the sixth lineup in which every starter was over 30.

    Maybe the blood isn't so young. Starting in Bonds' place will either be 34-year-old Michael Tucker, who hit .256/.353/.412 last year, or Pedro Feliz (who doesn't turn 30 until, gosh, late April), he of the .276/.305/.485 line. GM Brian Sabean's fetish for the slugging utilityman with the poor strike-zone judgment is well-known, as evidenced by the two-year, $6.1 million deal he handed out over the winter. "Thank God for Pedro Feliz and the fact he's played so much left field," rejoiced Sabean recently. "I can't trade for a player like Pedro Feliz, so he's obviously going to be in the lineup Opening Day." Meanwhile, indications are that if Tucker's the man, he and Moises Alou might swap duties in left and right field.

    Using the difference between Bonds' and Feliz's 2004 MLVrs, the lost time for the slugger adds up to 10 runs--one win, roughly speaking--for every 11.3 games missed. Using their PECOTA weighted mean MLVrs, it's 10 runs every 16.8 games. More Tucker, who's got a lower MLVr in '04 and projected '05, means the runs bleed away that much faster.

    Bonds' absence opens up an extra spot on the roster, most likely meaning that barring a trade, two players from among the group of Jason Ellison, Todd Linden and Tony Torcato will make the club. The 25-year-old lefty-hitting Torcato is having the best spring training among that group, hitting .400, while the going-on-25-year-old switch-hitter Linden's frigid .176 has already earned him a trip to the minor league camp. But beware the stats accumulated near the Ides of March, as PECOTA tells a completely opposite story. Torcato, the team's first-round choice back in 1998, projects to a miserable .240/.262/.323 line, with an MLVr of -0.313, while Linden offers a much more useful .256/.344/.413/-0.037 and the 27-year-old Ellison, who offers the virtues of speed and the the ability to play centerfield, right in the middle at .255/.313/.363/-.158. Given that Torcato's out of options and that Ellison can play center, expect Linden to start the season in Fresno. Feliz's dalliance in left could mean that only one of the aforementioned trio of flychasers makes the club, with an infielder such as Lance Niekro (Joe's son) or Brian Dallimore going north.

  • Bullpen Battle: With the team's starting rotation solidly in place (Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Jerome Williams, Brett Tomko, Noah Lowry), any opening on the pitching staff will have to come through the bullpen gate. Closer Armando Benitez, setup man Jim Brower, LOOGYs Scott Eyre and Jason Christiansen, and arsonist Matt Herges all have guaranteed contracts, meaning that a maximum of two roster spots remain open. Among the competitors are Jesse Foppert, Wayne Franklin, Tyler Walker, and NRIs Jeff Fassero and Al Levine. David Aardsma and Merkin Valdez are ticketed for Triple-A Fresno, where Foppert, who's coming back from Tommy John surgery, may join them; he's had a rocky spring thus far. Levine's strong spring showing--no runs in six innings--may give him an edge, especially because the Giants love those veteran herbs and spices. Common sense would seem to put Franklin and His Incredible Gopheritis at the bottom of the pile, but the team did give him 50 innings to run up a 6.39 ERA last year, so go figure. Here's how PECOTA sees it:
    
               ERA   VORP
    Walker    3.89   11.6
    Foppert   4.29   10.5
    Franklin  4.42    6.4
    Correia   4.55    6.4
    Levine    4.81    4.7
    Fassero   6.40    0.1
    
    Keep in mind that while Fassero's projection was based on the high-altitude hell of the Colorado Rockies, his EqERA of 5.59 still portends scary things, even in a pitcher-friendly park like SBC.

--

The creator of the Futility Infielder web site, Jay Jaffe is a graphic designer and freelance writer living in New York City. He hasn't been above replacement level since Little League, but he can be reached here.

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

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