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April 6, 2005

Prospectus Today

Deep Breaths, Everyone

by Joe Sheehan

Everybody's played one game--six teams have even played two--and the big challenge for those of us who write about baseball is not overreacting to what we've seen. As we learned last year, even four months of a season might not be enough information to reach conclusions. I wrote the Red Sox off at the trade deadline and buried the Astros three weeks later, only to end up watching both teams go deep into October.

So it's silly to pretend that we know anything more today than we did on Saturday. It's one game, or two games, and as tempting as it is to use what we've seen to reinforce our perceptions, that kind of confirmation isn't meaningful, any more than two games in the middle of May would be meaningful.

So yes, the Mets' bullpen let them down in the season's first game, giving the chattering class an opening to sound the alarms. The thing is, though, it wasn't the soft spots in the pen that led to the 7-6 loss. Middle relievers Manny Aybar and Dae-Sung Koo threw two decent innings, allowing one run. It was closer Braden Looper, coming off a career year, who had the meltdown, allowing a single and two home runs to the three batters he faced.

The Mets have a lot of depth in the bullpen, and in fact spent the latter part of spring training trying to choose from among it, even trading away Matt Ginter to alleviate the crunch. That many of the names in the mix for jobs aren't well known doesn't mean they aren't potential contributors. Aybar and Koo did their jobs on Monday, and guys like Mike DeJean and Mike Matthews are capable of providing 60-80 innings of effective relief. Behind them are names like Bartolome Fortunato, Heath Bell and Orber Moreno, all of whom could be strikeout-an-inning/2.xx ERA guys.

Looper isn't a top-tier closer and, in fact, had had trouble holding closer jobs before last year, when he improved his command and had his best season. That he blew a save on Opening Day, however, doesn't change his outlook. He blew one last September 11, too, giving up four runs to the Phillies. In the context of his entire season, it was one bad game. That's how you have to look at Looper's performance on Monday: one bad game.

This principle also applies when one bad game makes you look smart. I'm perhaps the biggest objector to John Smoltz becoming a starting pitcher again, as I don't think he'll last the season in the rotation. That he got blistered yesterday for seven runs in an inning and two-thirds, however, doesn't mean I know what I'm talking about. That's particularly true since I don't think Smoltz will necessarily be ineffective, but rather, I expect him to not be able to complete the season as a starter. It was a bad day against what's going to be a pretty good offense, not a sign that his elbow is falling apart on him again.

Smoltz has ruined his ERA like this before. Back in '02, his first full season as a closer, he coughed up eight earned runs in 2/3 of an inning in his second appearance of the season. His ERA didn't get back to three digits until after tax day, and while he ended up having a very good year, that one outing kept his season ERA above 4.00 until the All-Star break. He finished at 3.25, but 2.37 with that half-hour removed. Smoltz--and for that matter, Looper--can take heart in that example.

The Dodgers lost yesterday in part because their defense didn't make some plays. The big one was Jose Valentin throwing away a ball with two outs and two on in the seventh inning, a peg that allowed Ray Durham to score the winning run. Any time the Dodgers do anything wrong, of course, fingers get pointed at Paul DePodesta, who brought in Valentin as part of an offseason shakeup that included allowing Adrian Beltre to leave as a free agent.

Valentin is not the third baseman that Beltre is and, in fact, has precious little experience at the position. On the other hand, he makes eight million less than Beltre does, and that money threw seven good innings at the Giants yesterday.

That Valentin made an important misplay on Opening Day doesn't mean that Dodgers will be a .500 team. Their infield defense will not be as strong as it was last season, although the hope is that their offense will make up for a chunk of that. It's a risk--Valentin and Jeff Kent are past their primes, and the number of people in the game who have written off Hee Seop Choi would have trouble squeezing into Nebraska--and the cost/benefit analysis of that risk isn't any different this morning.

This is what April is, if you're serious about doing baseball analysis from a performance standpoint or a skills standpoint. You have to absorb, rather than react. Everything that happens has to be considered in the context of a long season. Events that would be washed away in the heat of the dog days shouldn't be considered damning or glorifying because they happened first, or because they'll leave a guy with an ERA like an AM radio station for three weeks.

If I were Alex Belth, I'd link to EPMD here. I'm not as cool as Alex, so I'll just say this: we all have to relax and let the baseball season happen. That may not be satisfactory or salesworthy, but it is smart.

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

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Premium Article Prospectus Q&A: Juan M... (04/05)
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Prospectus Today: Open... (04/04)
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Premium Article Prospectus Today: Melt... (04/07)
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Premium Article Under The Knife: On th... (04/06)

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