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April 4, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Washington Nationals

by Paul Swydan

Cleveland Indians

  • Roster Roulette: Last year's ALCS showed us that bench players like Dave Roberts can be just as important as the guys in the starting lineup. With Nate Silver forecasting the Twins and the Indians to finish within one game of each other in the AL Central, each team's back-end roster construction will be of significant importance. Now that the rosters have been set, let's take a look at the teams' benches:
    
    Indians                Twins
    C Josh Bard            C/DH Matt LeCroy
    2B/SS Alex Cora        C Corky Miller
    3B/DH Jose Hernandez   C Mike Redmond
    LF/RF Ryan Ludwick     2B/3B/SS Juan Castro
                           2B/SS/CF Nick Punto
    
    The Indians' efficient bench construction gives them an advantage, even as they go with a dozen pitchers to start the season. They feature a backup at every position without doubling up, and by doing so, have built a better corps of reserves using four players than the Twins have with five. That freed up the 25th spot on the roster to use on a reliever. Of course, it has to be said that a 12th pitcher is overkill, especially in the early part of the season. Eric Wedge may be allowing last year's early-season mound mayhem to influence his roster construction this year. Perhaps when Juan Gonzalez returns, Wedge will elect to keep both Ludwick and Grady Sizemore around.

    It is understandable that the Twins have concerns about Joe Mauer's knee, but carrying four catchers? Either Corky Miller or Mike Redmond will end up being a dust collector. Someone get them a Swiffer and an extra lefty bat instead. In addition, there isn't a lot of differentiation between Juan Castro and Nick Punto.

    In a race that figures to be close, the better bench is a major point in Cleveland's favor, especially if Mauer's knee turns out to be fine, as there will then be even less value in a fourth catcher. The teams play two series in the first four weeks of the season, so it will be interesting to see how the benches come into play head-to-head.

  • Size-able Gain: When the "troublesome" hamstring of Juan Gonzalez acted up, it may have been the best thing to happen to Indians fans this spring. The differences between Gonzalez and his replacement, Grady Sizemore, are quite striking. Sizemore figures to be healthier, as Will Carroll forecasts. The 22-year-old Sizemore is listed as a solid green and Gonzalez as a red light.

    Beyond health, Sizemore may already be a better player than Gonzalez. Let's look at the tale of the tape for all Cleveland outfielders, PECOTA-style:

    
              EqMLVr    WARP      Breakout   Improve  Collapse   Attrition
    Sizemore   .069      4.6       31.4%      57.5%     18.8%      20.6%
    Gerut      .063      5.2       27.9%      56.9%     16.0%       4.9%
    Ludwick    .050      3.4       23.0%      51.5%     27.9%      25.6%
    Blake      .030      4.7       18.6%      50.0%     27.0%       3.7%
    Crisp      .005      4.5        8.5%      30.4%     38.4%      16.1%
    Gonzalez  -.025      1.9        7.9%      38.4%     29.1%      29.5%
    
    Sizemore profiles as a better player than Gonzalez, with a greater likelihood of not only sustaining this forecast, but also improving upon it. Sizemore could be the Indians' best outfielder this year, while Gonzalez is likely to be the worst. The Indians have already spent $700,000 more than they needed to on Gonzalez, and would be wise to cut him loose before he racks up additional money in playing-time incentives.

Seattle Mariners

  • File under "A" for "Awful": The 2004 Mariners rotation finished fourth in cumulative VORP among MLB rotations. That impressive performance was actually down 67.1 runs in VORP from 2003, when it finished second.

    2003 was also the year when the five starters in the Mariners rotation made all 162 starts, just the fifth time since 1901 a team had used so few men. Those Mariners were just the second team in 100 seasons--the 1966 L.A. Dodgers being the other--to use just five starting pitchers.

    This consistency may have led to some false expectations for the Mariners, which is why things seemed worse than they were last year. However, staying the course this offseason was not the smartest choice, as 2005 doesn't look much better than 2004. In fact, it looks worse:

    
    2004 Results     GS   VORP   WARP    2005 PECOTA     GS   VORP   WARP
    Freddy Garcia    15   35.1    4.4    Joel Piniero    23   22.4    3.5
    Bobby Madritsch  11   28.0    3.6    Jamie Moyer     24   15.1    2.9
    Ryan Franklin    32   22.7    3.9    Bobby Madritsch 22   13.6    2.4
    Joel Piniero     21   20.4    3.3    Felix Hernandez 13   11.9    1.9
    Ron Villone      10   17.4    3.3    Gil Meche       21   11.0    2.3
    Gil Meche        23   15.4    2.6    Ryan Franklin   25   10.1    2.4
    Jamie Moyer      33   12.9    3.2    Aaron Sele      15    1.8    1.1
    TOTAL           145  151.9   24.3    TOTAL          143   85.9   16.5
    
    This is far from pretty. The Mariners traded away their best pitcher in Garcia, and PECOTA does not see much improvement throughout the rest of the rotation. The Mariners may be forced to rely on a 19-year-old rookie just to approach half of their 2004 performance. That said rookie happens to already sport the moniker "King" is a nice touch, but hardly reassuring. The Mariners simply dropped the ball this offseason, and their rotation shows signs of a precipitous decline:
    
    Year    VORP   WARP
    2003   219.0   27.2
    2004   151.9   24.3
    2005    85.9   16.5
    
    All seven pitchers would have to hit their 75th percentile projections, which equal 151 GS, 155.7 VORP and 24.1 WARP, just to match the 2004 rotation's performance. Expecting seven pitchers to pitch over their established level of talent is not the best strategy for success.

    What magnifies this problem is the fact that there was a lot of quality pitching available on the free-agent market this season. Granted the market was inflated, but let's take a theoretical look at what the Mariners could have done if they had spent their money on pitching rather than positions more easily filled, like first base:

    
    What They Have                    What Could Have Been
    Pos  Player         2005 VORP     POS   Player         2005 VORP
    1B   Richie Sexson     23.6       1B    Scott Spiezio      7.0
    SP   Aaron Sele         1.8       SP    Matt Clement      38.6
    SP   Ryan Franklin     10.1       SP    Odalis Perez      24.9
         TOTAL             35.5             TOTAL             70.5
    
    Richie Sexson will be paid $50 million over four years, while Matt Clement and Odalis Perez will be paid a combined $49 million over the next three years. Obviously, the extra year in Sexson's contract prohibits a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, but the point is obvious. The Mariners could have spent their money in other ways and come up with a better team heading into 2005. Hopefully for Mariners fans, Felix Hernandez will soon come to the rescue, carrying the Mariners on his back like so many kings before him.

  • Safeco Field…Sponsored by Dodge? How often do you see a car company supporting an insurance company? That is pretty strange.

    Almost as strange is making waiver claims three days before Opening Day. Such waiver claims are even less impressive when the player claimed is shortstop Wilson Valdez, cut by the White Sox. Such moves are even more confounding because they reflect an apparent lack of willingness to give players like Jose Lopez a chance to play. Lopez is younger, projects as better than Valdez, and is better known to Mariners coaches at this late date. There is a difference between adding "free" talent and adding "free" useful talent. Valdez may be "free," but he is unlikely to be more useful than Lopez will be.

Washington Nationals

  • End-y of the Road? Just when it seemed that we were looking forward to another season of frustration, having to watch Endy Chavez and his .233 EqA patrol center field, the Nationals sent him down to the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. Given that the definition pf "zephyr" is "any soft, gentle breeze", Chavez' swing should make him the prototypical Zephyr.

    The Nats' new center fielder will be Ryan Church, who made his debut late last year. Although PECOTA pegs him for a VORP of 11.3, only slightly better than Chavez's 10.5 projection, it is instructive to note that Church is pegged for 202 ABs and Chavez 455. Looking at a more direct comparison we see the following:

    
    Player         EqMLVr
    Ryan Church      .009
    Endy Chavez     -.095
    
    Basically, this tells us that offensively, Church is adding .009 runs per game while Chavez is taking away .095 runs a game. Multiplying this out over a 162-game schedule we see:
    
    Player         EqMLV
    Ryan Church      1.5
    Endy Chavez    -15.4
    
    Church isn't going to be a spectacular player, but compared to Chavez he looks heaven sent.

  • Starting the Party: Of course, the reason that Chavez's demotion is so surprising is the fact that manager Frank Robinson was vocal about his hopes to play Chavez in center and have him hit leadoff. Robinson is now put in the difficult situation of finding another leadoff hitter, and as of the time of this submission Robinson had not made his selection. Whoever the choice may be, chances are it will change frequently. Nevertheless, PTP offers its fearless recommendations. We know the pitcher won't lead off, and Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman and Brian Schneider do not have the requisite skills. As the team's "big bopper", Jose Guillen will not be thrust into the one slot, and it would be asking a lot for a rookie to both hit leadoff and patrol center field. This leaves us with three candidates: LF Brad Wilkerson, 2B Jose Vidro and 1B Nick Johnson. A quick look at their career numbers:
    
    Player          OBP*   SB%*   UIBB/PA   P/PA   G%
    Nick Johnson   .380    .57     .126     4.20  .61
    Jose Vidro     .360    .56     .078     3.68  .79
    Brad Wilkerson .365    .55     .137     4.30  .90
    
    *translated
    
    Stolen-base percentage is largely irrelevant in this discussion, as none of the players distinguish themselves in that area, and none steals bases at a high enough rate to be considered a legitimate threat. While Johnson holds an advantage in OBP, it looks like Wilkerson may be a better choice overall. His OBP certainly is respectable enough, and his better unintentional walk rate and pitches per plate appearance are keys for a leadoff hitter.

    Lastly, health is a factor. Since their debuts, Wilkerson has a clear edge in staying in the lineup. Some of Johnson's missed time can be attributed to managerial decisions, but that doesn't explain away the fact that he has been injured quite a bit. While there is no statistical evidence that having continuity in a lineup affects team performance, the ability to trot out the same order each day could certainly be a tiebreaker, and that tiebreaker clearly goes to Wilkerson.

  • Talent Scattered: As noted in the National's essay in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual (what do you mean you don't have your copy?), the initial moves made by Jim Bowden were not all that wise. A look at the victims:
    
    HAVE               AB   VORP   EqA
    Jose Guillen      503   25.0  .285
    Cristian Guzman   509    9.7  .239
    Vinny Castilla    424    0.1  .247
    TOTAL            1436   34.8  .257
    
    HAD                AB   VORP   EqA
    Juan Rivera       379   13.5  .270
    Maicer Izturis    324   12.3  .251
    Brendan Harris    268   15.4  .268
    TOTAL             971   41.2  .263
    
    Of course, the real victims will be the Nationals fans, forced to watch sub-par, inefficient players and wondering what could have been had the Nationals been able to replace John Patterson with a better free-agent acquisition.

Paul Swydan is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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