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April 14, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Thomas Gorman

Boston Red Sox

  • Boomer versus the Green Monster: The David Wells contract seemed, on its face, to be a good deal for the Red Sox: two years at a guaranteed $4 million a year and an additional $5 million in incentives for each year of the deal. The clauses are similar to those in Wells's deal with San Diego last year--if he makes a lot of starts Wells will get paid the big bucks, but if he goes down with an injury (not inconceivable considering his, ahem, festive plumpness and history of back problems), the BoSox aren't on the hook for a crippling Albert Belle-type sum. Shorter contracts are always preferable to longer ones when dealing with older players like Wells, even if the shorter duration sometimes requires a higher average annual value, a point Joe Sheehan made this offseason.

    In the last five years Wells has thrown 945.1 innings of 4.00 ERA/4.34 RA ball, and only once in the past nine years has he made fewer than 30 starts. Add it all up and you've got a guy who shows up for just about every start and throws something between league average and slightly-above league average ball. For a short-term deal between $4 million and $9 million, in this market, that sounds fantastic.

    There are concerns, though, one of which is whether a left-handed pitcher who gives up a good number of homeruns can succeed in Fenway Park, a field with notoriously short dimensions in leftfield. To answer this question we looked at what other lefthanded starters with similar homerun tendencies had done in Fenway.

    Since 1945 there have been 22 pitcher-seasons in which a lefthanded pitcher started 15 games for Boston and gave up at least 0.901 home runs per 9 innings pitched, the lowest homerun rate Wells has had in a season of more than 100 innings since his flukey 0.667 in 1990. After much examination it appears that at that level of homerun vulnerability, the actual magnitude of the homerun problem is far less significant than the ability of the pitcher to keep runners off the bases. This is intuitive but bears emphasis: in a park that favors offense, the only way to succeed is to make sure that the home runs you give up are solo shots.

    The correlation between BR per 9+ and ERA+ in this group of 22 is a significant 0.76 (where + indicates that the statistic has been normalized to reflect how much better or worse the player was than league average). A multivariable regression that attempts to combine both HR per 9+ and BR per 9+ improves the correlation with ERA+ to just 0.80, indicating that BR per 9+ is the far more significant factor.

    So while flyball or flyball-neutral lefties aren't a great bet in Fenway, ones who keep guys off the bases are a great deal more likely to succeed, and that's Wells' forte. For his career Wells is 16% better than league average in baserunners per nine. The best pitcher-season on that list of 22 was Bruce Hurst's 1986 season, in which he had a baserunners per nine rate only 10% better than league average. Now, we're not saying that Wells is going to put up anything like Hurst's 2.99 ERA, but we think that even with Wells' tendencies, he's still a good bet for performance that is near league-average. The two caveats are that he has to continue staving off the collapse that usually hits players of Wells' age, and he has to keep guys off base like he's done his entire career. The 20 baserunners he's allowed in 10.2 innings so far this season is not encouraging.

  • Assessing the Booty...the Trade Booty: Doug Mientkiewicz was traded to the Mets late in the offseason after New York was unable to sign Carlos Delgado. The player received in return was Ian Bladergroen, a 22-year-old first baseman who spent most of the 2004 season crushing the ball (.342/.397/.595) in the Sally League.

    Assessing Bladergroen's potential requires a few questions be answered. First, how well will he recover from his midseason wrist ligament tear, or maybe more importantly, how long will it take him to recover? There have been a rash of wrist injuries to minor league hitting prospects in recent years (our theory is that whip-handled bats are partially responsible) and many of those prospects have taken an incredibly long time to redevelop their power (see Adrian Gonzalez). Second, can he consolidate against more skilled pitching at the Double-A level? Also, Bladergroen wasn't a spring chicken at 21 in the Sally League; his performance was noteworthy but not incredible when you consider his age. So question three is, can Bladergroen continue to excel against competition that is older and more developed? Once those questions are answered we'll know more whether Bladergroen is more like his #1 PECOTA comp, Tony Horton or his #2 comp, Justin Morneau.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Knowing When to Say Goodbye: Barry Larkin broke into the majors in 1986, a year so remote that random trivia is required to put things in perspective. 1986 was the year of the Challenger disaster, the Iran-Contra Affair, and Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time." 2004 marked the end of an era, and while it's always a sad thing to see a legend (and likely Hall-of-Famer...) hang up the spikes, this was most definitely the year to bid adieu to Larkin. At 41, and with his defensive skills in serious decline, Larkin's bat wasn't enough to make him an everyday player. He refused to be relegated to part-time duty and that was that.

    The job was supposed to pass to whoever of the dangerous duo of Anderson Machado and Felipe Lopez won it in spring training. Thankfully for Reds fans, an MCL tear in Machado's knee ended that competition before it started. Though he has on-base skills, speed, and is a noted gloveman, Machado's inability to hit for average is, shall we say, problematic (in 482 ABs in 2004 his EqBA was .204 and that wasn't exactly an off-year).

    Instead of merely handing the job to Lopez, the Reds invited Rich Aurilia to spring training. Fine, scare the kid, maybe give Richie Rich a backup job, but we're not talking about starting him, right? In Sarasota Aurilia hit .259/.288/.370 in 68 ABs. Although Lopez had stronger numbers (.294/.360/.368) the die was cast when he struck out in 18 of his 68 ABs. This isn't a newly developed problem for Lopez, either--in four partial years in the majors, he has racked up a staggering 269 Ks in 920 ABs.

    Lopez has a strikeout problem and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can come to terms with it. Thanks to the recent research of BP's James Click, we can now quantify the significance of this problem in terms of baseball's most important currency: runs. Using strikeout/plate appearance numbers for each player's major league career, and assuming that the starting shortstop for the Reds this year gets 625 plate appearances, the cumulative difference between the two would be approximately 2.27 runs. That's a pretty generous assessment, too. PECOTA tags Aurilia for a big decline this year, and sees improvement in Lopez's future. Using PECOTA weighted-mean predictions for 2005 yields only 1.45 runs of difference.

    If strikeouts aren't enough to pass Lopez over, it must be offense, right? Take a look at the PECOTA's predictions at various levels of likelihood. At each percentile, Lopez represents a significant improvement over Aurilia, largely because Lopez, at 25 years of age, is on the sunny side of a standard development curve while Aurilia, at 33, is not.

    
    PECOTA                  Aurilia                         Lopez
    Percentile       BA       OBP       SLG         BA       OBP       SLG
    90th           0.293     0.354     0.455      0.298     0.380     0.481
    75th           0.271     0.330     0.421      0.268     0.345     0.432
    50th           0.254     0.310     0.393      0.249     0.323     0.402
    25th           0.225     0.277     0.350      0.227     0.297     0.367
    10th           0.184     0.228     0.286      0.194     0.257     0.314
    

    Surely it must be defense, then? That's hard to believe. Lopez isn't a superstar with the glove, but Aurilia was merely adequate before the decline he's seen in recent years (average Rate2 of 95.4 in the last four seasons). Bottom line: The sooner the Reds realize that Aurilia has jumped the shark, the better off the team will be in 2005.

  • How to Make Fans and Influence Perceptions: Joining a new team can be hard. Home run heroics help. Let's hope for the Reds' sake that GM Dan O'Brien keeps things in perspective. After six mediocre years in Kansas City, 35-year-old Joe Randa was tossed aside for youngster Mark Teahen and signed a one-year deal in Cincinnati to man third base until the arrival of prospect Edwin Encarnacion. Until this past week Randa was nothing to write home about (a career .286/.341/.424 hitter) but the 22-year-old Encarnacion, having only mastered Double-A last year, was never seriously considered for the major league roster because of concerns about his defense. He'll probably never be a superstar, but his bat will eventually be good for something like .280/.350/.480--in fact, PECOTA thinks that he could outhit Randa this year.

    Mr. Randa is supposed to be a place-holder but nothing distorts perceptions like a flashy April. Kudos for the opening day walk-off and the grand slam the very next day, but as the bible teaches us in the Gospel of Small Sample Sizes, "This too shall pass." The Reds would be wise to remember that Randa has never been more than a mediocre hitter and that as soon as Encarnacion's defense is ready he will be the better choice. There's no need to rush--St. Louis, Chicago, and maybe Houston all represent more potent threats to take the division--but the job should be Encarnacion's next year. Prudent advice from someone who owns a 2002 SF Giants Andres Galarraga jersey: hold off on the customized Randa uni.

San Diego Padres

  • You've Got to Kiss a Lot of Frogs: Over the past few years the Padres have had a number of prospects that were widely heralded but never put it all together. They populated many top prospect lists and were spoken of in confident tones at Qualcomm Stadium. In the grand history of baseball no pitcher has ever had as bad a HR/IP ratio as Mike Bynum did in 2003. Fourteen taters in 36 innings pitched. Ouch! Six years after being a first-round pick, he signed with Detroit and is playing in Double-A Erie (Yaaaarrr, maties! Go SeaWolves!).

    Jake Gautreau (aka Jake the Rake) was all over prospect hot lists in 2002 and 2003, but an inability to consolidate at higher levels and horrendous defense convinced the Pads to switch him out for another failed first rounder, Cleveland's 2000 pick: Corey Smith.

    Perhaps the quintessential can't-miss prospect who totally and disastrously missed is Dennis Tankersley. Oustanding strikeout rates and an obsurdly low H/IP ratio convinced San Diego to move him all the way up to Triple-A at 22. Three years later, after two disastrous stints in the majors, he was shipped off to Kansas City with Terrence Long for Darrell May and Ryan Bukvich. Anytime you're in the same sentence as T-Long and Darrell May, whether it's describing a police linup or a trade, it's not flattering. How bad did the Tank tank? How about a 7.61 ERA in 16 career major league starts? That #3 ranking in BP's 2002 edition doesn't look so hot.

    You can make a list of washouts like this for any team, but there aren't many teams that also sport a list like this: Khalil Greene, Xavier Nady, and Jake Peavy. With players like Phil Nevin, Mark Loretta, and Ryan Klesko manning critical positions it isn't exactly a youth movement in San Diego, but at the same time, the products of their farm system have been impressive of late.

    Greene came in second in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2004 after a tremendous .290/.363/.472 season where he was also able to flash some amazing glovework at shortstop. He takes walks, hits for some power (15 jacks at a horrible homepark for homeruns), has truckloads of range and super quick hands. The kid can play.

    Nady mashed in Portland last year and an injury to Dave Roberts convinced San Diego to slip him into centerfield this year. He responded with two jacks on opening day and a tremendous .412/.459/.824 line in 9 games this season. Eric Young's separated shoulder probably leaves a roster spot open for Nady when Roberts comes back shortly, but keeping his bat in the lineup is going to be tricky. Nady's spring training play at his old college position of third base may force another recent farm product, Sean Burroughs, out of the lineup.

    The real superstar, though, is Peavy. His 17 strikeouts with only 3 walks in 13.2 innings this season are hardly surprising for anyone who watched him put up a filthy 2.27 ERA in 166.3 innings last year. Armed with a mid-90s fastball that he can locate anywhere he wants, a plus changeup, a nasty late-breaking slider and decent curve, it's not surprising that he was able to strike out 173 batters in 166.1 innings. Cumulatively that was good for a VORP of 57.5, 11th in all of baseball against guys with far more playing time. No Johan-ian Batting Average in Balls in Play tricks here, either. Peavy's BABIP was a slightly-above average .307. PECOTA is always conservative with young studs, but Peavy seems to be shaping into a bonafide ace. If he comes to town: run, don't walk, to get some tickets.

    The rule with prospects, as in many other things in life, is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. Can't miss prospects do miss. Farm systems employ hundreds of players to produce maybe one or two major league players a year. Even those guys are rarely stars. If you add Jason Bay and Oliver Perez to the discussion, it's clear that the Padres' farm system has clearly had an oustanding run the last few years. The concern now is the future: after promoting so many talented players to the Show, is there anyone left to be excited about?

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