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May 17, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants

by Thomas Gorman

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Under the Knife Basic: Will Carroll hasn't talked about Jose Valentin's knee in his Under the Knife column, so allow me to jump in. On May 3, Valentin badly sprained his right knee following a rough slide into Brian Schneider at home plate. A sprain, for those new to the whole Medhead revolution, is simply an "injury to the ligaments around a joint". Sprains come in three varieties: Grade I, which is simply a stressed stretching of the ligament that causes microscopic damage but no tearing; Grade II, a more significant stretching and partial tearing, but no significant instability; and Grade III, serious tearing with significant instability in the joint.

    Valentin's particular injury involved a Grade II sprain of the medial collateral (MCL) and posterior cruciate ligaments (PCL), and a Grade I sprain of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). MCLs are most often injured when the outside of the knee is struck; PCLs are most often injured when an athlete falls on a bent knee.

    The current plan is to rehab first and see if Valentin's season can be salvaged without surgery. It's a curious decision at first glance--the grade II tears to the MCL and PCL are fairly serious injuries--but a surgery now would almost definitely keep Valentin out for the entire year, and waiting 8-10 weeks and then cutting him open doesn't really make an eventual recovery more difficult; it just pushes it off a bit. If the delay and rehab work, the Dodgers get him back a bit after the All-Star break. If the rehab fails, and they have to open his knee, it's no different to the Dodgers than if they operated right now.

  • Replacements: With Valentin out, the Dodgers quickly realized that their starting third baseman that their primary backup, Norihiro Nakamura, wasn't up for full-time (or even major league) duty. Meanwhile recent call-up Mike Edwards is a perfect example of what happens when you properly stock your 25-man and Triple-A rosters with reasonable talent.

    Edwards is a minor league utility man who logged 3,114 at bats before playing his first four games in the major leagues in 2003. He's been hot so far this year (.345/.385/.480 in nine games); while that isn't a realistic level of expectation for the rest of the year, he's still likely to outperform the type of sub-replacement level talent that many teams come up with when their first and second options fail. Edwards' career minor league line is .293/.385/.440 and his career Triple-A line, including his 2005 stats, is .297/.389/.454. The lack of power is obviously a concern, but the Dodgers have a good core of power hitters in Jeff Kent, Milton Bradley, Hee Seop Choi (we told you he could hit!), and when he finally shakes the cobwebs off, J.D. Drew. If Edwards can maintain a decent average and on-base percentage, he could be a decent bottom-of-the-order hitter in the Dodgers' lineup.

  • Backup Backup Backup: As a backup to Edwards the Dodgers can use Olmedo Saenz--not really convincing as a third baseman but passable in an emergency--and Oscar Robles. Robles is an interesting example of the advantages of scouting international teams in places like the Mexican League. A Tijuana native who prepped in San Diego, Robles was drafted as a shortstop by Houston in 1994 and made it all the way to Triple-A for three games in 1997. He was intractably stuck in the depth chart behind Carlos Guillen and Julio Lugo, and when a badly dislocated ankle caused him to miss all of 1999 he was released by the Astros. Robles hooked up with the Mexican League in 2000, where he posted a cumulative line of .334/.429/.380 in his five years there. He joined the Dodgers in spring training this year and hit a robust .438/.514/.563 in 32 at-bats. Again, as with Edwards, the lack of power is concerning and could be exposed by the tougher pitchers in the major leagues, but for a backup shortstop/third baseman, a reasonable batting average with some plate discipline should be useful.

Minnesota Twins

  • You Could Be the Most Beautiful Knee in the World: The biggest off-season questions for the Twins all seemed to revolve around Prospect of the Year Emeritus Joe Mauer. How often will Mauer be able to play with an excised meniscus in his knee? If he can play, does he have to move to a different position? Where would that be--designated hitter, first base, or possibly third? If he does stick around on the 25-man roster, and he does start at catcher, how often can he play there?

    Through Sunday night Mauer has shrouded himself in the tools of ignorance in 29 of his team's 36 games thus far this year (including 26 starts), and the knee seems to be doing quite well. There's been some measure of discomfort and swelling, and some tentative and prudent management by manager Ron Gardenhire, but Mauer's knee has impressed even the most pessimistic of Medheads. Problems might develop down the road, but for now Mauer is healthy and producing.

  • Roster Issues: In spring training Mauer's knee was so worrisome to Twins brass that they carried four catchers/quasi-catchers, Matt LeCroy included. With Mauer looking good, General Manager Terry Ryan demoted Corky Miller to Rochester. That's Corky Miller of the 1-for-39 line last year and the 0-for-12 line in 2005.

    Terry Tiffee has filled that roster spot. With Mauer, Miller, Mike Redmond and LeCroy all eating up roster spots as catchers, the bench in Minnesota was extremely short. After all those catchers, it was down to Juan Castro, plus either Luis Rivas or Nick Punto, depending on who was starting. Tiffee isn't going to set the world on fire, but he has enough left-handed pop to be a good weapon off the bench, especially compared to the rest of the subs. In a division where the Twins look like they just might have to claw their way back into the playoffs, he could play a key role.

    Down on the Farm: The Twins' bounty for A.J. Pierzynski--Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano--looks better by the day. Nathan we all know about from his breakout 2004: 36.5 runs of VORP accumulated with a 1.62 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 72.3 innings. Bonser and Liriano are less well-known.

    Bonser had an electric K rate in the Giants minor league system. His minor league career there was crowned by a 11.98 K per 9 innings rate in 2001 and 9.55 K/9 IP in 2002. Bonser's problem that year and throughout his career, though, has been an inability to limit walks. While in the Giants' system he averaged 4.7 free passes per 9 IP, tarnishing what otherwise would have been an outstanding resume. Last year at Minnesota's Double-A affiliate Bonser was able to knock the walk rate down to 3.3/9 IP; in 39 innings this year in Triple-A he's got it down to 2.3/9 IP. The improved control looks good on him, as he currently leads Rochester starters in innings pitched, wins, strikeouts, and batting average against. Though J.D. Durbin and Scott Baker have historically been the top Minnesota starters-in-waiting, Bonser may soon edge his way into that conversation.

    Liriano missed all of 2003 with a shoulder injury, as discussed in BP2005. His 2004 numbers in Fort Myers (Single-A Florida State League) and New Britain (Double-A Eastern League) looked good, but his 2005 has improved on those performances thus far: He's carrying a 3.78 ERA in 50 innings of work, with a 59:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Score the Pierzynski as another case of astute talent identification by Minnesota GM Terry Ryan and the Twins front office.

San Francisco Giants

  • Tough Times: It's been a rough year for Giants fans. First, Barry Bonds announced that he would miss perhaps half the season or more because of complications from multiple knee surgeries. Then his putative replacement Moises Alou went down with a calf sprain. Newly installed closer Armando Benitez tore his hamstring while moving to cover first on a ground ball. One of the key pieces of the rotation, Jerome Williams, developed persistent mechanical problems (he currently sports a 11.21 ERA in four starts at Fresno). To top it all off the bona-fide ace of the staff, Jason Schmidt hit the disabled list with a shoulder strain after weeks of inconsistent starts.

    There is some measure of good news, though: Through Sunday night's game the Giants were only four games back of the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Don't forget that this is a team the Baseball Prospectus staff cumulatively picked to finish third in the division. To stay in the hunt while Williams, Schmidt, Benitez, and Bonds are all unavailable is no minor moral victory. How have they stayed so competitive? The key has been surprising performances from unlikely characters.

    Not everyone loved the Omar Vizquel deal, but he's been a crucial part of the team's success thus far this year. While he's only hitting .276/.352/.379 (10.0 runs of VORP on the year), he's supplemented that with outstanding defensive play (Rate2 of 112, or 11 Runs Above Replacement thus far in only 36 games) and shockingly good base running skills (nine stolen bases in 11 attempts, good for third in in the NL). While Ray Durham has scuffled, Vizquel has performed admirably as a spark plug at the top of the lineup.

    Pedro Feliz has done an admirable job holding down left field for Bonds, with a line of .294/.342/.471 line (VORP of 6.9). Even with his 2005 numbers included, Feliz has a career .294 on-base percentage; his previous high-water mark was a .305 figure in 2004. The 10 unintentional walks he's received thus far this year puts his unintentional walk rate at 6.85%. That's not great, but it's a 66% increase from last year's walk rate of 4.14%. For all the complaining we've done about his walk rate in the past, he's been greatly improved in this regard so far in 2005.

    Since coming up at the beginning of the season, Jason Ellison has been a big surprise--batting average .372, on-base percentage .417, slugging average .577. Five stolen bases in five attempts and an extra-base hit percentage of 34.5% also look great so far. Ellison will regress as he gets more at bats; the question is how far he drops. For now, catching lightning in a bottle for 100 plate appearances from a little-known rookie is something worth appreciating, given the team's troubles.

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Premium Article Prospectus Q&A: John S... (05/16)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (05/12)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (05/19)
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Pennants on the Traini... (05/17)

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