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March 25, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals

by Caleb Peiffer

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Webb of Intrigue: Can the Diamondbacks expect to contend this year? The answer to that question depends in large part on the re-emergence of enigmatic starter Brandon Webb, perhaps the most intriguing player on the Arizona roster. A breakout season from Webb, coupled with a strong season from co-ace Javier Vazquez, could set up a scenario in which the Snakes are able to wriggle into contention in the potentially Bonds-less NL West. In order to hang around, Arizona needs Webb to rise to the top of his PECOTA projection and become the ace pitcher that many predicted he would be after his startling 2003 debut (180.7 IP, 8.57 K/9, 2.53 K/BB).

    Webb's command vanished last year, as he led the National League in walks with 119, up from 68 in 2003. Part of the wildness was probably due to batters learning to lay off of his hard, heavy sinker, which by all accounts is one of the nastiest pitches in the game. The sinker was working as well as ever for Webb last year, as he induced a 3.55 G/F ratio, by far the highest mark among Major League starters, and gave up only 17 home runs in 208 IP. But what are the chances that Webb can make the adjustments to get batters back to swinging through his signature pitch or pounding it into the dirt, rather than spitting on it as it goes by?

    A look at Webb's comparable players, used to help calculate his PECOTA projection, can help estimate those odds. His similarity index of 26 indicates his profile is somewhat unique historically, but several names on his list can give us a clue as to what to expect in the future. The second most similar season to Webb's projected 2005 is Mark Gubicza's 1988, when the Kansas City starter threw 269.7 innings of 2.70 ERA ball, striking out 183 against 83 walks. Gubicza's baseline performance entering that 1988 season was also similar to Webb's:

    
    Player    Age  Year  IP   BB/9  H/9  K/9  ERA
    Gubicza   24   1987 241.7  4.5  8.6  6.2  3.98
    Webb      25   2004 208.0  5.1  8.4  7.1  3.59
    
    

    Gubicza's walk rate spiked in 1987, just as Webb's rate jumped in 2004. Gubicza put things together over the next two seasons, and was good for a combined 18 wins above replacement from 1988-89. Injuries limited his effectiveness over the remainder of his career, not surprising considering he had already topped 240 IP three times by the age of 26. Webb has also been worked fairly hard, and the multitude of pitchers on his list of comparables with a history of arm troubles--including Jose Rijo and Kris Benson--isn't encouraging. But the fact that seven of his top twenty comparables display an upward trend in their similar seasons, with Jack Morris among them, while only two pitchers show a downshift, suggest that he could be primed for a bright but brief peak.

  • Infield Shift: Webb's chances of a breakout are heavily dependent on the strength of the infield defense behind him. Here's how the Arizona infield stacked up last year in terms of defensive runs above average:
    
    Player            Pos.  Games  RAA
    Shea Hillenbrand   1B    131    8
    Scott Hairston     2B     85   -8
    Alex Cintron       SS    133   -6
    Chad Tracy         3B    135   -1
    
    

    The Diamondbacks' four primary starters combined to be seven runs below average, certainly not up to the standards of the 2000 Mets. Let's also examine the projected defense of the overhauled Diamondbacks infield, with its three new starters:

    
    Player         Pos.  2005 RAA
    Chad Tracy      1B     -1
    Craig Counsell  2B      2
    Royce Clayton   SS     -3
    Troy Glaus      3B     -6
    
    

    The Diamondbacks should be stronger up the middle with Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton, but weaker at the corners due to the departure of Shea Hillenbrand and the addition of Troy Glaus, who seems to hurt himself every time he bends down to field a grounder. As an extreme ground ball pitcher, Webb is more reliant on his infield defense than his fly ball cousins, as grounders are more likely to become hits. Last year, Webb's defense adjusted ERA was slightly lower than his normalized run average, indicating that he pitched in front of a below-average defense. Although Webb was lucky to allow just 27.8 percent of balls in play to become hits, less than the NL average of 29.9, that figure would have been even lower with a stronger middle infield.

    Webb's success in 2005 depends a great deal on the gloves of Arizona's aging double-play combination. How effectively Counsell and Clayton can gobble up sinker-induced grounders will correlate directly with wins.

Detroit Tigers

  • Can't Stay Away: For all those who were wondering, the answer is no--the same alien life form that sucked the baseball ability from the body of Bobby Higginson did not attack Dean Palmer as well. It was injuries, and plenty of them, that forced Palmer to retire in 2004 at the age of 35, after neck and shoulder problems held him to just 314 ABs from 2001-2003. Now, he's back in camp to dispel his doubts about whether he can still handle the majors, headlining the list of baseball's Non-Roster Invitees. It's a bad sign for the comeback that Palmer is already experiencing biceps and calf strains in camp. The Tigers could desperately use a good old-fashioned thumper to play third and bat in the middle of the order. That was once the calling card of Palmer, whose name and demeanor belong more to the 1950's than the 00's. Brandon Inge, currently penciled in as the Tigers starter at the hot corner, is stretched as a regular, but would battle Ryan Freel for the title of utility MVP if allowed to move back into that role.

    Unfortunately for Tigers fans, Palmer isn't the answer, as his days of 30 home run glory are lost in the mist of the halcyon pre-steroid past. Palmer making the roster would be a good public relations counter to the cutting of centerfielder Alex Sanchez several days after he reunited with his family for the first time in 11 years. However, if GM Dave Dombrowski does make the mistake of carrying Palmer, it would be as bad a move from a performance-analysis standpoint as the release of Sanchez was good. Tigers' fans should break out into a cold sweat when they read this quote from Alan Trammell, the Detroit skipper: "I think [Palmer] needs a couple of days rest. But I've seen enough. He can definitely play. There's no question about that..." The good news is, this potential mistake won't cost the organization up to $105 million, the sum that a certain balky-kneed rightfielder is poised to reap.

  • Outfield Issues: With Sanchez out of the picture (the Devil Rays picked him up, the two deserve each other), it appeared that Higginson might have a shot at getting some playing time this season. Higginson hasn't shown any sign of a pulse that would allow Trammell or Dombrowski the excuse to re-insert him into the lineup, however. B-Higg has continued his slow, painful fade this spring in both deeds and words, and although Mike Ilitch has appeared reluctant to swallow the $8.85 million owed to Higginson in '05, with just about every outfielder in camp ahead of him on the depth chart, the team may have no choice but to cut bait on the former face of the franchise.

    Craig Monroe has gained the most from the reorganization of the outfield, and it appears that he will act as the Tigers starting centerfielder. Also in the picture is speedy flycatcher Nook Logan, who would already be enshrined in Cooperstown if quality of nickname were the chief criterion. Trammell made the outfield picture a little more cloudy when he implied that he may have Logan, the superior defender, start in Comerica's spacious center, with Monroe getting the nod on the road.

    While Trammell's observation is an interesting one--Comerica's deep dimensions run to 385 feet in left center and 420 in straightaway--the idea is fundamentally unsound. Having Logan starting every other day is something that a winning club can't afford. Nook is a speed 'n defense demon, stealing 38 bags in AAA Toledo last year (against 11 caught stealing). However, the .303 OBP that went along with those thefts doesn't bode well for a leadoff man. The only thing that Monroe (allegedly) stole last year was a $29.99 belt, but while he's no Al Kaline, he's got enough pop in his bat (41 homers from 2003-04) to justify his spot in the lineup. The right-handed Monroe has also not shown enough of a platoon split to warrant granting the switch-hitting Logan the timeshare; Monroe actually hit for a higher OPS last season against righties than southpaws.

    Secondly, there simply is not enough evidence of Logan's superior defense to justify such a defensive platoon: between AAA and the majors last year, Logan was seven runs below average in center, while Monroe, with the worse reputation, played four runs below average between left and right field. Monroe will likely be somewhat stretched in center, a position he has played only sparingly, so having Logan around as a defensive replacement and occasional caddy will be useful. Instead of splitting up time based on park factors, the Tigers should examine their starting rotation to determine fly ball probabilities:

    
    Player              G/F Ratio (Career)
    Jeremy Bonderman       1.43
    Mike Maroth            1.46
    Jason Johnson          1.15
    Nate Robertson         1.70
    Wilfredo Ledezma       0.88
    
    

    Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman all induce a good deal more groundouts than fly outs, while Jason Johnson is closer to league average. Wilfredo Ledezma is much more of a fly ball pitcher than the rest, so if the Tigers are bent on putting Nook's glove on display, they would be wise to do so only when their young lefthander takes the hill.

Kansas City Royals

  • Rookie Invasion: The Revolution is coming sooner than expected.

    With another last place finish looking likely in '05, the Royals should be plugging in as many of the farmhands in their newly invigorated system to see which players can become part of the next winning core in Kansas City. While a strong commitment to home grown talent like David DeJesus and Zack Greinke has started that trend, spring training injuries have helped ease the Royals into a full-fledged youth movement. At third base, Chris Truby resurfaced and appeared to have a tenuous hold on the starting job (with Truby, could it ever be anything less than tenuous?). Truby broke his wrist, however, handing things over to Mark Teahen. Teahen was The Guy in the Carlos Beltran deal, a third baseman and walk-machine out of the Oakland system. One should always look a little closer at a highly acclaimed prospect that Billy Beane gives up--see also Carlos Pena and Eric Hinske--and sure enough, there is cause for concern in Teahen's performance. He is a classic example of a player pushing up against the Jackie Rexrode threshold, having excellent plate discipline, but questionable power for a third sacker. PECOTA has identified these characteristics as negatives in the development of a player, which is why the system is down on a good deal of the talent that Beane has assembled in Oakland. Teahen only slugged .380 in 453 Texas league ABs in 2003, but last year he picked things up somewhat in his age 22 season, and slugged .447 with 8 homers in AAA Omaha after the trade. There is a good chance that Teahen will develop more power, despite the pessimism of historical trends. Any chance at all is worth teasing out on this year's version of the Royals.

    KC also has an interesting scenario at the keystone. Veteran Tony Graffanino was expected to win the job, but a sprained ankle and a 19-for-53 start by Ruben Gotay has turned the competition around. The 22 year old Gotay also has 5 homers and 5 doubles, and has effectively won his spot as the starter for the Royals, as well as on Joe Sheehan's fantasy team. Gotay isn't yet an adept base-stealer (22 steals versus 16 CS from 02-04) and his defense from all accounts is shoddy. But he's young and he can hit: the .270/.315/.375 line in 152 at bats with the Royals isn't bad for a guy who jumped from AA to the bigs. Gotay could turn into the next Carlos Febles, but he's also got a shot at being more like Jeff Blauser, or even Willie Randolph, and finding out is worth a reduced veteran presence in the lineup.

  • Bucking the Trend: Over the last eight years, catcher has been a complete sinkhole for the Kansas City offense. Ever since Mike Macfarlane wound down his solid career in 1997, the Royals have gotten lackluster production from behind the dish. John Buck has the chance to reverse this trend and be a top-flight offensive catcher for the remainder of the decade. Royals' GM Allard Baird obtained Buck along with Mike Wood and Teahen in the Beltran deal, and the former Astros farmhand has the chance to be the prize of the three. With Houston last year, Buck hit .300/.368/.507 in AAA as a 23 year old, with 12 homers in 227 ABs. Those numbers are particularly impressive considering the extreme pitcher's environment of New Orleans (the park exhibited a factor of 882 last year). After the trade, Buck struggled badly in his first exposure to big league pitching, but improved his OPS every month from his debut in June until September, and finished the season with 12 homers and a .424 slugging percentage. Despite only playing half the year, Buck's 12 homers were the most by a Royals catcher since Macfarlane's 19 in 1996. If Buck is able to keep his walk rate respectable, he should have several 25-home run seasons in his future, a feat that no Royals catcher has ever accomplished. When all is said and done, Buck may overcome Darrell Porter to become the best catcher in franchise history.

  • Pick Erring Again?: Calvin Pickering has had to deal with just about everything in his vagabond career in professional baseball. Now, he's got to contend with one more roadblock-the curse of the small sample size. Given a legitimate opportunity to battle with incumbent first baseman Ken Harvey for the starting job this spring, Pickering has picked the worst possible time to struggle. Calvin is only 8-for-37 so far in Cactus League action, with two extra base hits. Pickering did hit a grand slam in a game on March 5th, except he passed Justin Huber, who was tagging at first, and was only credited with a single. For anybody else, such a play would be laughed off and forgotten. But such a seemingly harmless gaffe is just the sort of mistake players like Pick can't afford to make, as it promotes the negative perceptions that have kept him from getting his shot for so long. It will be up to management to look past that mental error--and the 280 pounds (down from 295) that Pickering carries on his 6'5 frame--when deciding who is going to play.

    Luckily for Pickering, his competition hasn't capitalized on the circumstances, as Harvey is only 7-for-33 with one homer. Pickering had better heat up if he hopes to get the chance to show the hitting prowess that sabermetricians have been prognosticating in games that count. The perils of small sample sizes and variable competition have been laid out in detail, but those considerations are not going to stop the Royals brass from evaluating the two players based on their spring performances. A couple of late blasts should shore up a roster spot for Big Pick. If they don't, it's back to the vagabond lifestyle. He'll get his shot, eventually.

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Five Players to Watch ... (03/24)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (03/24)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (03/29)
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