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April 22, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals

by Caleb Peiffer

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • A Bizarre Beginning: After being jettisoned in the Boss's annual Winter Purges and exiled to Bank One Ballpark, Javier Vazquez was expected to regroup and return to the form he displayed for six years as a low-profile eater of quality innings in Montreal. So far, Vazquez's results have been a wild assortment of madly fluctuating indicators, the kind of strange performance that can only be attributed to small sample sizes:
    
    GS IP H BB K HR ERA BAA BABIP
    4 20 31 6 19 2 7.65 .344 .414
    
    
    That's three terrible starts followed by a solid one on Wednesday night. Vazquez's peripheral numbers are quite strong, with 19 strikeouts cancelled out by an obscene .414 batting average against on balls in play (the highest in the majors) indicating that his stuff is sound and extreme bad luck has marred his start. However, there's another factor in play. K/9 is not as precise as strikeouts per batter faced, or K/PA. This makes intuitive sense--striking out the side in a perfect inning is much different than striking out three while giving up four hits and a walk. In the first instance, the pitcher has struck out 100% of the batters he has faced, in the second instance, only 37.5%. With that concept in mind, here are Vazquez's numbers compared to other pitchers who currently hold a similar K/9 rate:
    
    Player         IP    K  K/9  BF  K/PA
    Randy Johnson  26.3  27 9.23 111 .243
    Brett Myers    20.3  20 8.85 77  .260
    Javier Vazquez 20    19 8.55 95  .200
    Oliver Perez   19    18 8.53 95  .190
    Brandon Backe  18.3  17 8.35 76  .224
    Matt Clement   17.1  16 8.31 80  .200
    Ben Sheets     27.3  25 8.23 117 .214
    
    
    Although it appears that Vazquez is in for a significant bump in results, it should be noted that his K rates aren't quite as impressive as they look at first glance. As Vazquez settles into his new desert digs and his BABIP and ERA fall to expected levels, expect a subsequent drop in his K/9. That doesn't mean his strikeout proficiency will have dropped, however, for by pitching better he will face fewer batters, which should be reflected in the stability of his K/PA figure at a high level.

  • How Soon is Now?: Stanford University has long been a baseball powerhouse in the NCAA, and the Cardinal has churned out 67 major leaguers, more than all but five colleges (USC tops the list with 94). But unlike the Trojans, who can boast Mark McGwire, Dave Kingman, Fred Lynn, Bret Boone and Ron Fairly as alums who all hit over 200 big league homers, Stanford doesn't have any graduates who went on to hit that many in the show. The pride of the Cardinal has been mostly on the mound, with Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell, and Jim Lonborg, among others.

    Carlos Quentin, high up on the BP2005 list of Top 50 prospects, will likely become the 68th Cardinal alum to make the majors later on this season. He also should quickly put Stanford on the map in terms of offensive production. The Snakes decided to move their 22-year-old outfielder directly to Triple-A Tucson to start the year, and at first glance, Quentin has seemed highly amenable to the promotion: A .387/.556/.839 line in 31 ABs is a nifty way to start the season. Three years of mashing in one of Division I's top conferences has eased Quentin's transition to professional ball considerably, and he would be an able contributor in Arizona as soon as, well, tomorrow.

    The question is whether or not the Snakes should start the service time clock for their prize slugger. Any player with three years of major league service time (172 days on the active roster counts as one year) is eligible for arbitration. However, there is another eligible category called the "Super Two," recently outlined by Thomas Gorman: "Players with at least two years of service time, but less than three years, who also accumulated at least 86 days of service in the previous year, and were in the top 17% of all two-year players in service time, would also be eligible for salary arbitration." This means that if the Dbacks bring up Quentin too early this season--so that he accumulates 130-140 days of service time--he would be eligible for arbitration after the 2007 season, assuming he stays active until then. If Quentin keeps ripping up the PCL, Arizona should be able to safely promote him mid-summer without worrying about losing control of his salary a year too soon.

  • Welcome to the (Independent) Leagues, Kidů: The ancient prophecy has finally been fulfilled: Both of the slugging Drew brothers have chosen to take the road less traveled to the majors. The negotiations between Stephen Drew and the Diamondbacks have dragged on from when he was drafted in June until this week, but nothing has been accomplished thus far. Having the former super-agent Jeff Moorad as team CEO hasn't helped the Snakes pin down Scott Boras, the top shortstop's agent. Drew gave up his eligibility to return to Florida State after hiring Boras, and so on Wednesday he signed to play with the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League. J.D. Drew pulled the same move in 1997 after he was drafted by the Phillies with the second overall pick, playing with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League before re-entering the 1998 draft (a third brother, pitcher Tim Drew, was selected in the first round of the 1997 draft along with J.D., but opted to sign with the Indians).

    It is unlikely at this point that the Dbacks will sign Stephen Drew by June 1, the deadline before he reenters this year's draft. Considering he only fell to the Diamondbacks at number 15 due to signability issues, he should be snatched up by the first deep-pocketed team with problems in the middle infield. Plenty of clubs could use a polished talent such as Drew--he would be a nice fit with either Chicago team--but it will be interesting to see which one willingly steps into the ring with Boras.

Detroit Tigers

  • Motown Misery: Bad luck tends to be exaggerated when compiled upon the tabula rasa of a fresh baseball season, but it's hard to rationally look at the big picture if you currently follow the Detroit Nine. Magglio Ordonez is on the D.L. again, unsurprising until you consider that it is a viral infection leading to hernia surgery that has shelved him. For all the deserved bashing of Dombrowski and Co. for inking Maggs and his balky knee to a five-year, $75 million deal, it's hard to blame the right fielder's current disability on anything but freak happenstance. That doesn't cushion the blow any for Tigers fans. Not only is their big-ticket slugger going to be sidelined for the next four to six weeks, but since it's not the knee that forced him out, there's no chance that Detroit can capitalize on their right to void the deal after one season (although it can be voided if he ends the season on the D.L.).

    Ordonez's injury hasn't affected the Tigers' run production thus far, as Detroit's 88 runs scored through the first 15 games leads the American League and puts them behind only the rampaging Dodgers for tops in the majors. But while that figure, coupled with 75 runs allowed, should place the Tigers above .500, they have started just 6-9 and fallen five games back of the flukish ChiSox, whose 11-4 record through Wednesday has been compiled with the same +13 run differential.

    To top things off, the Motown offense has been based upon the hot starts of some marginal players. Nook Logan has benefited the most from Magglio's absence, getting the nod in center and posting a 9-for-22 start. His .409 average, however, mirrors his OBP--a dubious distinction that puts him in the same club as the swing-or-die Jose Reyes. Logan has played some spectacular defense thus far, robbing a couple Orioles of homers on Monday, but he is badly stretched in a regular role. To his credit, Alan Trammell has recognized that Logan is not a table setter and has hit him at the bottom of the order. Trammell has not yet appeared to recognize that Logan's stolen base skills and his defense aren't enough to warrant a complete shelving of the overlooked Marcus Thames, who may not have Exavier Prente Logan's flair for the dramatic, but will do a better job of creating the runs necessary to stay afloat sans Ordonez.

    On the opposite end of the offensive spectrum from Logan is Brandon Inge, freed to play third regularly after the termination of Detroit's sentimental flirtation with the ghost of Dean Palmer. With eight walks in the early going, Inge has already amassed 1/4 of his total from last season. It's way too early to say whether Inge's bump in plate discipline is for real, but it's a sign that his breakout 2004 season may have marked a new performance level and not a deviation from the mean. Continued progress from Inge will help the Detroit offense maintain some conventional weaponry as insurance against the failure of its Nooklear arsenal.

  • Three Aces?: The buzz from Detroit these days surrounds Jeremy Bonderman, who has struck out 16 against five walks in 21 innings on the young season. Bonderman may be the best young pitcher in the American League, and many in the Tigers' organization feel he can be the anchor of a great young trinity of starting pitchers, with left-handers Wilfredo Ledezma and Mike Maroth rounding out the trio. How do these three rank with the other young troikas in the AL central? (career stats through April 20):
    
    Team Player           Age IP    K/9  BB/9 HR/9 ERA
    DET Jeremy Bonderman   22 367   7.16 3.33 1.16 5.13
    DET Wilfredo Ledezma   24 154.3 5.07 3.32 1.05 5.31
    DET Mike Maroth        27 555.3 4.23 2.38 1.12 4.85
    CLE C.C. Sabathia      24 781.7 6.99 3.71 0.86 4.10
    CLE Cliff Lee          26 258.7 7.72 3.90 1.32 4.87
    CLE Jake Westbrook     27 487.7 4.69 3.01 0.81 4.34
    KCA Zack Greinke       21 158.3 6.03 1.54 1.59 3.92
    KCA Denny Bautista     24 46.3  6.41 3.50 0.58 7.77
    KCA Runelvys Hernandez 26 185.3 5.00 3.25 0.87 4.47
    
    
    Ledezma is still an unknown quantity, but he has the minor league proof--a career 2.85 K:BB ratio and 0.47 HR/9--that he can improve upon his big league numbers significantly. For Maroth, such improvement is highly unlikely. He's already thrown the second-highest number of innings among the pitchers listed, and posted the lowest strikeout rate. Maroth's PECOTA-projected collapse percentage is twice that of his breakout for 2005, and at 27, you don't generally jump to a new performance curve after establishing a body of mediocre work. If Maroth's spot on the list is claimed by Justin Verlander or Joel Zumaya in a year or two, Detroit will make more of an argument. The Tigers have one golden arm and one project, but they can't yet boast of having the best young trio of starters in the AL Central. Cleveland's threesome has a proven track record, while K.C.'s three have higher upside.

Kansas City Royals

  • Anticipating the Axe: As the latest Prospectus Hit List attests, the 2005 Royals look to be an abysmal team. The pleasant memories of an 83-79 finish in 2003 have evaporated, as this year's team has stumbled to a 5-11 start, and looks ticketed for a second consecutive 100-loss season. If the team keeps losing at its current pace, owner David Glass will likely feel the need to make an immediate change. The two apparent choices would be GM Allard Baird or manager Tony Pena.

    Measuring a manager's contribution to a baseball team has yet to be fully quantified. Some imperfect metrics--the team's record in one run games and its over or under performance of Pythagorean record--can give an estimation of the effectiveness of in-game manager strategy, and thus the impact a manager has on winning baseball games. Pena's effect on the chemistry of the Royals' clubhouse we'll leave up to Mr. Glass to determine. Here are the records for 2002 (Pena took over shortly after the '02 season started) until 2004:

    
    Year Pythagorean Actual Percentage One Run Percentage
    2002  67-95      62-100  .383       14-27 .341
    2003  78-84      83-79   .512       18-22 .450
    2004  64-98      58-104  .358       14-19 .424
    Total 209-277    203-283 .418       46-68 .404
    
    
    These numbers show that K.C. teams have slightly underperformed expectations based on run totals and have been worse than expected in tight games. This could be due to bad managing, or it could be due to a host of other factors (a bad bullpen among them), but the records certainly don't count in Pena's favor.

    The alternative could be firing Baird. Baird has made his share of mistakes since taking over in June of 2000 (try Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez on for size). On the other hand, he is also one of the handful of GMs who has appeared to learn on the job and implement a plan. Granted, that plan isn't original per se--rebuild the farm system to create a championship core of affordable homegrown talent--but he has coupled that tack with an openness towards principles of sabermetrics (see Pickering, Calvin) and the ability to acquire free talent in all the various and sundry trash heaps that litter the professional baseball landscape (the trades for Denny Bautista and Justin Huber are two highlights). Baird's tenure can't be called an unfettered success, but the work he's done has been good enough to continue waiting for the fruits of his player development. Given that Pena has a shiny Manager of the Year trophy in his corner, though, and that Baird has had a longer tenure in K.C. than the skipper, it's more likely that the GM will be the one who may start feeling the heat.

  • Trade Him While He's Hot?: One of the only positives for the Royals thus far has been the hot start of 1B/DH Mike Sweeney. As of Thursday's games, Sweeney was hitting .343/.371/.507 with two home runs and a tidy 14 RBI, numbers that could raise his stock on the trade market. Sweeney signed a five-year, $55 million contract after the 2002 season. The contract seemed fairly reasonable at the time, but in light of Sweeney's continued back problems and the small market club's struggles to field a competitive team, as well as Sweeney's continued grumbling over wanting to play for a winner, the only sensible thing for the Royals to do is move the last big contract on the payroll for some cheap, useful parts.

    There are significant obstacles to trading Sweeney to a contender. If his contract's remaining years and money as well as the back problems (Sweeney has missed more than 50 games each of the past two seasons) weren't enough, Sweeney holds a limited no-trade clause. He can only be dealt to eight teams without his consent, limiting Baird's options. Also, if he is traded, his annual salary bumps from $11 to $12.5 million through 2007. Furthermore, the demand for Sweeney from National League teams is likely to be muted. At this point in his career, both his awful defense and the injury risk that playing the field entails make it unwise to slot him anywhere other than at DH.

    Having said all that, there are definitely teams that will be in the hunt for Sweeney. Here are several clubs that are struggling in the early going at the DH/1B slot:

    
    Team       POS AB HR AVG  OBP  SLG Primary Culprit
    Baltimore   1B 53 1 .245 .339 .340 Jay Gibbons
    L.A. Angels DH 58 0 .241 .297 .259 Jeff DaVanon
    Texas       DH 56 2 .214 .333 .357 Adrian Gonzalez
    
    
    Baltimore might look at nabbing Sweeney as a way to compensate for their collective whiff while chasing a big ticket free agent in the off season, and if they'd pay a significant portion of his contract, they'd surely get Sweeney for less than the two polished prospects that Baird wants in return. (Side note: who wouldn't love to see 298 lb. O's farmhand Walter Young playing first for the Royals with 280 lb. Calvin Pickering at DH? Well, maybe Royals fans--16 KC errors to date make the team even tougher to watch.) The Angels have more than enough depth to compensate for a slow start from Jeff DaVanon, but if their assortment of patches at DH don't hold, they could import Sweeney to create a murderer's row. Texas might be the best fit, given their current DH (David Dellucci) and GM John Hart's propensity for veterans. Snagging John Danks or Juan Dominguez from Texas in exchange should buy Baird at least another year in power.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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