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April 26, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • Little Guy, Big Bat: With Jimmy Rollins around, 5'9" second baseman Brian Roberts isn't going to become the shortest player to ever lead off a PTP. Then again, we're not looking to set any records here: Roberts' performance so far this year merits the top spot. In case you thought Roberts was slowing down, taking the collar for three straight days following his sixth homer last Tuesday--after that game his line stood at .507/.860/1.367--Roberts was back on Saturday, smacking his seventh dinger off of David Bush to lead off the O's 4-1 victory in Toronto.

    Roberts is currently leading all of baseball in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and is the most shocking reason for the Orioles' solid start. Roberts hit four home runs in a full season last year, and only one player since 1972--Kirby Puckett--has ever had more home runs in April after having hit four or fewer the previous year. After hitting just four homers in 691 at-bats in '85, Puckett hit eight April dingers on his way to a total of 31 in '86. No player since '72 has ever hit ten home runs in any month after having had four or fewer in the full season prior, so with a week to go in April, Roberts is gunning for history.

    In the Roberts-only division, Brian has already established his place. He's tied Dave Roberts (not the active one; follow the link) for most home runs in a month by a Roberts, and will try to knock off Leon (22 in 1978) for most home runs by a Roberts in one season. Nineteen of Dave's 21 homers in 1973 came in July, August and September, so Roberts will really have to get it in gear if he plans to have the best second half by a Roberts.

    It's unlikely that the power surge is completely random--if four home runs in 641 at-bats represents Roberts' true ability, then the chance of him hitting at least seven in 69 at-bats is .00000028, or around one in 2.8 million. Roberts is 27, and may be developing some pop as his career peaks, but there's still a lot of luck in play here--Roberts is not going to finish the year with an 1187 OPS. Enjoy it while it lasts, O's fans.

  • Holy PECOTA, Batman! The Orioles' third-round pick last year (and the jewel of their draft, following the Wade Townsend fiasco) was 22-year-old center fielder Jeff Fiorentino. What catches our eye about Fiorentino is his remarkable PECOTA projection: After 64 rookie-ball at-bats, and 179 at-bats in low-A ball, PECOTA thinks he'd put up an equivalent line of .258/.339/.454 in the major leagues this year.

    For comparison's sake, the Devil Rays' Delmon Young, the minor leagues' second-best prospect, also hasn't played above Low-A, but is forecasted for a 2005 MLB line of .251/.321/.420. Top prospect Andy Marte has excelled through Double-A and still only gets an equivalent projection of .264/.345/.484. What's going on here?

    Fiorentino's isolated power was absolutely outstanding last year, and PECOTA heavily weights isolated power. Essentially, hitters with high ISOs project extremely well. We also suspect that Fiorentino's ridiculous performance in his short stay in rookie ball is muddling the results. His .348/.474/.674 line there was good for a .382 Equivalent Average, while his .296/.374/.570 line in three times as many at-bats in Low A clocks in at .318. The difference between the two leagues should account for 20-25 points of EqA, but not 64. In other words, small-sample warning.

    Through Sunday, Fiorentino was hitting .283/.333/.545 in high A, showing excellent power. He's not going to end up a center fielder because his defense isn't good enough, but any position on the diamond other than middle infield is a possibility--including catcher, where he played in college. We'll keep an eye on Fiorentino this year to see how well he handles himself as he makes his way up the minor-league ladder.

Colorado Rockies

  • Silver Lining: "Hey, this 'play the kids' thing is working out all right!" The Rockies may be in last place, but then, they knew they were going to be, and actually have to be pretty happy about what they've seen so far. Among the positives (through Friday's games):

    • In each of his first two starts, starter-turned-closer-turned-starter Shawn Chacon went six innings and gave up only one run.

    • Rookie right fielder Brad Hawpe has started out .351/.375/.649, good for a .318 EqA even in spacious Coors Field.

    • Remember Cory Sullivan? This is a guy who lost all of 2004 to injury and, never having played higher than Double-A, won himself a roster spot out of spring training. He caught us flat-footed; we didn't even have a PECOTA on him. Well, it appears that he's caught the league flat-footed as well: he's hit .409/.480/.636 in his first 25 plate appearances. That won't last, of course, but it's been huge for the Rockies, since their other two center fielders are Preston Wilson, who is hitting .226, and Jorge Piedra, who was the second player to be suspended under the new drug testing policy. You couldn't ask for much more out of a non-roster invitee than what Sullivan has provided.

    • Superprospect Jeff Francis has yet to crumble. His first two starts last year, both in August, left Francis with a 13.50 ERA, but in five September starts he went 3-0, 2.30, and that included three starts in big-time hitters' parks (two in Coors and one in Arizona; of course, the other two were in big-time pitchers' parks, on the road against the Padres and Dodgers). Francis was shelled in his 2005 opener against the Giants but has since dealt effectively with the Diamondbacks twice.

      He hasn't struck many batters out yet, though: just seven in almost 17 innings, against 12 walks. That's going to have to change if he is going to succeed, especially in Colorado, where hit balls usually find either green grass or green seats.

      Francis' career is one of the most interesting in progress right now in the major leagues. Sure, he's a brilliant prospect, but he pitches for the Rockies. Perhaps due to their home park, the Rockies have failed to develop a single notable pitching prospect in their history; the closest they've come is Jason Jennings, a mediocre innings-eater at best. Putting one of the best young arms in baseball in that park is the inexorable force against the immovable object writ small, and the Rockies must be encouraged that Francis has weathered the storm so far.

    • Then, of course, there's Clint Barmes. Relative to position, only Roberts, Derrek Lee and Chipper Jones are swinging a hotter bat in the National League right now, and that includes the adjustment for Barmes' home park. PECOTA thought Barmes would hit a non-park-adjusted .272/.315/.424. Even if this is all a fluke, and Barmes does that for his next 437 at-bats, giving him 500 total, he'd still end up at .294/.339/.460 for the season. The difference between those two lines will be the difference, to many observers, between a good rookie season and a mediocre one.

  • And Then There Were Two: Now that Orlando Hudson has taken a few walks, Jose Reyes is the player with the most at-bats yet to walk, something Jim Baker noted last week; Joe Sheehan provides more details in today's DiSars rundown. Grady Sizemore is off the list now, leaving the Rockies' Aaron Miles, who has no free passes and 57 at-bats, in second. If Reyes takes a walk, Miles shoots to the top.

    It's time to put the "Aaron Miles, Good Player" myth to rest. His defense is adequate but nothing special at second base, and unless you're going to be a defensive whiz you can't hit like he does and be a starting second baseman on a good club. Further improvement is not terribly likely: Miles turned 28 in December. If the Rockies see Miles as an acceptable, minimum-salary stopgap, then that's fine; the in-house alternatives aren't too appealing, and there's nothing to be gained by playing Desi Relaford. But the Rox should ready to jettison Miles at the drop of a hat, certainly by the time he's arbitration-eligible, and before then if they find someone better for the money.

New York Mets

  • Early Farm Report: We know it's only April. Still, it's never a bad idea to check in on the minor leagues. The Mets' top hitting prospects are not off to sizzling starts, but the pitchers are faring better.

    The organization's consensus top two prospects are Lastings Milledge and Yusmeiro Petit. Milledge is hitting .216/.298/.314 at High-A and has struck out 15 times in 51 at-bats; Petit's 4.22 ERA doesn't look so good, but he's doing fine, with a dozen strikeouts in under 11 innings against just two walks. Gaby Hernandez and Matt Lindstrom are the other pitchers on Baseball America's Top 10 list, and they have opponents' averages of .130 and .204, respectively, though Lindstrom's control has been subpar.

    The hitters have been disappointing. In addition to Milledge, there's Ambiorix Concepcion (.176/.232/.294 at low A) and Shawn Bowman (.130/.203/.148 at Hi-A, with a wretched 25 strikeouts in 54 at-bats against only three walks). The only exception is Victor Diaz, who has filled in extremely well for Mike Cameron. Most surprising about Diaz's performance is his walks: 12 of them, good for a .492 OBP to go with a .362 average. Plate discipline is the most important skill that Diaz lacks on the offensive side, so this has to encourage the Mets. They will have to figure out what to do with him when Cameron gets healthy, but if they decide to peddle him during the summer for something to help their playoff run, then he has certainly raised some eyebrows with how he's done so far.

    As long as we're talking about the minors, we've got to mention low-A farmhands Dante Brinkley and Mike Carp. They've keyed Hagerstown to an 11-3 record, with Brinkley hitting .459/.583/.811 and Carp .235/.349/.706. Carp's isolated power is of the sort to make PECOTA take a cold shower and some deep breaths. We'll check back during the summer and see if they're even a shadow of their April selves.

  • Genius Watch: Still nothing on the Victor Zambrano front. The man whom Mets coach Rick Peterson claimed he could fix "in ten minutes" is still walking around six batters per nine, though rotation-mate Kazuhisa Ishii is making him look good by comparison. Maybe that's why the Mets traded for Ishii.

  • Ups and Downs: While Braden Looper and Mike DeJean, who were supposed to be the top dogs in the Mets' bullpen, have been horrendous, some of the middle relievers have turned in surprisingly strong performances. By far the most notable among these is Roberto Hernandez. His ERA has been rising every year since 1999, but he has made steps towards stemming that tide, having thrown seven shutout innings so far (through Saturday) and striking out 10 men. Korean signee Dae-sung Koo hasn't given up a run yet either. Neither of these streaks, especially Hernandez's, can be expected to last long, but anything the Mets get from those guys is just gravy.

    One reason for hope in the bullpen is that the Mets finally got smart and called up Heath Bell, although it took an injury to Felix Heredia to make that happen. Bell may end up as their best reliever this year, and we'd have said that even before Looper's struggles. When Bartolome Fortunato, who came with Zambrano in the Scott Kazmir deal, comes off the DL, Mets fans should hope that the Manny Aybar Experiment ends. When you're carrying Manny Aybar on your roster, he should be the last man in your pen, but three of Aybar's first five appearances came in one-run or tie games. (The other two were three-run games, in one of which Aybar coughed up the lead.) Time will tell if his three appearances since signal the beginning of a new usage pattern, or if they were simply dictated by the team's performance at the time.

  • Clever: Kudos to MLB.com's Marty Noble, who wonders if the possibility that Mike Cameron's return portends a demotion for Victor Diaz means that the Mets have "a Cameron-Diaz issue" on their hands...

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