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April 5, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by James Click

Chicago White Sox

  • McCarthyism: Among the last few players cut from the White Sox's 25-man roster last week was top prospect Brandon McCarthy, #23 on Baseball Prospectus' Top 50 prospects list, the seventh-ranked pitcher and top White Sock. McCarthy pitched well in spring training--while we all know that spring training stats mean very little, a 14/3 K/BB ratio in 18.0 innings was a good showing for the young right-hander. After pitching well at three levels last year, there were worries that McCarthy's sudden rise may be accompanied by a period of adjustment or an equally precipitous fall. Exposed to major league hitters after topping out in Double-A last year, McCarthy assuaged a few of those fears with his spring performance.

    There was some talk that McCarthy could be called upon to start the season in the rotation in Chicago after Mark Buehrle's injured foot looked likely to keep him out for the season's first month. With Buehrle's return, McCarthy's demotion to the minors was assured. With only 12 starts above low-A ball to his credit, the rumored move to Triple-A may seem like another impossible jump for the young northpaw, but McCarthy has shown little reason to make anyone doubt his impressive array of skills so far.

    In 172 innings last year, the then-20-year old McCarthy struck out 202 batters while walking a mere 30, for a K:BB ratio of 6.7:1 and a K/9 IP rate of 10.6. The 6'7" pitcher dominates with a low-90s fastball, solid curve, and a progressing change-up, but the jump from Double-A to Triple-A can be difficult on younger players. Going from leagues filled with players of similar ages and development to a league filled more often with borderline major leaguers struggling to get back to the show requires players to get by on more than raw talent. Pitchers throw more advanced pitches, batters are more patient and powerful, and the transition between the two levels can be more difficult than other moves up the ladder. There's little reason to expect that McCarthy will struggle after his dominating performance in 2004, but even a slight regression by a 21-year old pitcher in Triple-A would be great news for White Sox fans.

    With questions surrounding the back of the Chicago rotation, McCarthy could earn himself a call-up before the season is out. Jon Garland has strung together three seasons of remarkably consistent yet uninspiring pitching. There are worse things than 200+ innings of just under league-average pitching. The bigger questions surround Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez, who have proven to be worse than mediocre in both the talent and health departments. It's likely that at least one of the two will falter as the season progresses; with a weak division as winnable as the AL Central to call home, the temptation to bring up McCarthy to try to push the Sox over the top may be too great.

    The issues of starting McCarthy's service clock and further exposing him to the rigors of major league pitching at such a young age will not be easily answered by a mediocre team in a mediocre division. Even struggling along at near .500--right around where PECOTA sees them--the White Sox still could be within a couple games of first place in mid-July.

    In short, at some point during the summer, the White Sox are going to be able to convince themselves that the division is winnable; a cynic would say that with Carl Everett already on the team and Roberto Alomar retired, their standard trade deadline moves won't be available. That leaves McCarthy--a great, young talent who has a chance to be a great pitcher--to spend the early part of his career on a below-average team before getting expensive just when his team has a chance to rebuild into contention down the road. Sound familiar?

Oakland Athletics

  • Lease to Own: The big news in Oakland is the new ownership group headed by Los Angeles real estate investor Lewis Wolff. Wolff has done an impressive job of telling the Oakland fan base exactly what it wants to hear--that the team will not be moving to San Jose, Portland, or Las Vegas and that a new ballpark is in the works. How well he follows through on these promises will only be determined by the ongoing process involving those two issues.

    The majority of major baseball parks have opened in the past 16 years, leaving teams like Oakland and parks like the coliseum--recently described by the Associated Press as "dilapidated"--in the minority. Removing the 18 new parks since 1991 and those yards that double as historical landmarks:

    • Angel Stadium - Heavily renovated in 1996-97, it might as well be a new ballpark.
    • Busch Stadium - New stadium currently under construction.
    • Kauffman Stadium - With the turf removed in 1995 before massive renovations in 1998, it remains one of the more pleasant places to catch a ballgame.
    • McAfee Coliseum
    • The Metrodome - Monstrosity or symbol of winning small-revenue team?
    • RFK Stadium - New stadium plans in the works...or at least they are by Washington standards.
    • Shea Stadium - Can't build a new stadium unless the Yanks get one, too. Thanks for playing, see you in a decade.

    Of these seven, two will be replaced before the decade is out, two are fine places to catch a ballgame, and one is hopelessly tied to both another team and big city politics, leaving only Minnesota and Oakland as targets for new parks. Bug Selig's New Park Extravaganza has thus been focusing its efforts solely on those two sites as a result. Several previous park proposals to keep the A's in Oakland have fizzled out in the past for various reasons, but Wolff has mentioned those magical words: "private funding". While he's not about to pull a Peter McGowan--pay for the entire park on his own and draw the ire of his former fraternity brother Selig--it appears for the time being that the Oakland public might not be in the same situation as the populace in the nation's capital.

    The leading proposal at the moment is one in which the new ballpark is built in the Coliseum parking lot, and thus adjacent to the Oakland Arena, home of the Golden State Warriors and the occasional Paul McCartney concert inconveniently timed with Opening Day. Further development is planned around the coliseum area, but building another park in the parking lot not only raises questions about construction hassles, but also still leaves a ballpark far from any of the fashionable "downtown revival" areas in the East Bay that have been part of most of the new parks built.

    Plans for a new park aside, the other major result of the new ownership affects General Manager Billy Beane. Not only did Beane sign a contract extension through 2012 (his previous extension would have expired in 2008), he also purchased an ownership stake of just under 5% in the club, a move nearly without precedent. Beane's new ownership stake in the club will only further enhance his ties to Oakland, an organization he declined to leave for riches in Boston two years ago. Beane's ownership stake signifies an investment in the club he's built into one of baseball's great success stories and the move increases the chances of keeping him in Oakland through his new 2012 extension. Beane's success over the last decade has proven his ability to maintain success on a low budget; keeping him involved in the construction of the Oakland team is certainly good news for an A's team that receives its fair share of bad press from MLB. While the payroll might not increase immediately as a result of the changes, Beane fans in Athletics Nation have reason to rejoice.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Trade Winds: The Phillies welcomed the former Expos back to the states with an 8-4 victory over the Washington Nationals yesterday afternoon in Philadelphia. Led by none other than new center fielder Kenny Lofton and his three-run homer, the Phils' offense managed to overcome Jon Lieber surrendering 10 hits over 5.2 innings. While it's all about the W, yesterday's game encapsulated the major questions about the 2005 Phillies: Can the rotation keep things respectable long enough to hand things off to the bullpen?

    With Vicente Padilla on the DL to start the season, the Phils rotation now stands as Lieber, Brett Myers, Randy Wolf, Cory Lidle, and Gavin Floyd. Spring training stats mean little, but Lidle, Myers, and Floyd struggled badly in March. Myers and Floyd combined to walk 22 men in 42.1 innings while Lidle allowed 32 hits and 21 earned runs in 23.1 innings. While some of Lidle's performance can be blamed on the porous defenses often found in spring games, Myers' and Floyd's wildness certainly inspire little confidence.

    Padilla is due back April 17, but with six starting pitchers ready to chip in lots of league-average innings, the rotation isn't likely to be settled until mid-season. Floyd has proven himself in the minors and while a little seasoning at Triple-A may be in order, if Myers continues his struggles from 2004, the Phillies might not be willing to wait. Throw in Lidle and his 5.56 ERA in Toronto and Cincinnati in 2003-04 and Padilla's continued injury questions, and what is now a position of depth may soon become a hole that needs filling.

    The good news from the spring is that many of the key offensive players looked excellent and put up impressive numbers to boot. Most impressively, Pat Burrell calmed injury fears from his sprained wrist on which he elected not to have surgery. Clubbing a team-high six home runs, Burrell complemented his power with a .344 average and three doubles. Tying him for the team lead in spring home runs was Chase Utley, the proclaimed starter at second base for 2005. Instead, the Phillies chose to start righty-swinging Placido Polanco against right-hander Livan Hernandez in the season opener yesterday. Despite the long winter of starting proclamations, comments from Phillies officials have started to include the word platoon when discussing the situation.

    Both Utley and Polanco are highly capable second basemen, a position sorely in need of solid offensive contributors elsewhere in the league. Polanco's presence seemed fortuitous when David Bell was injured early in spring training, but Bell's healthy return and Utley's emergence makes Polanco's talent redundant. Great bench players are nice to have, but quality starting pitchers can contribute much more.

    The Phillies need some insurance in the rotation; they have an extra infielder who can hit. Forgive us if the solution seems obvious. Toss in Ryan Howard and his albeit laughable demands for a trade and the Phillies could easily put together a nice package of talent in exchange for a starter elsewhere, potentially a front-line one.

    Trade speculation isn't something that we like to engage in here at Baseball Prospectus, but the Phillies foresaw this situation, having tried to deal Polanco in the off-season. With a roster constructed to win now, there's no reason for the team not to pursue deals along these lines. They're going to dissatisfied with portions of their rotation this season and the sooner the Phillies make a move to minimize that weakness, the better their chances of breaking the Braves' stranglehold on the division will be.

    Now if they can just find a team with enough pitching depth to part with a top-of-the-rotation arm, near the start of the season to boot. This may take a while.

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