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June 2, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Thursday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Johnsonville: This past Sunday, Bobby Cox pulled Raul Mondesi into his office to let him know he was no longer the Braves starting right fielder. Taking his place in the lineup? Not Ryan Langerhans, who was already with the big club. And there wasn't a shuffle created by the debut of top prospect Andy Marte. Instead, it was Kelly Johnson, one of the Braves' sandwich picks in the historically thin 2000 first round. Originally drafted as a shortstop, Johnson had to be moved to the outfield last season. This was his first stop in Richmond after he had spent two years in Greenville, and he got off to a fast start, with an AVG/OBP/SLG line of .310/.438/.581. Given this fast start, he was a logical choice for a call-up, but we should not get carried away too quickly. Johnson has been an inconsistent performer at the plate in his career. Let's take a look at Johnson's BB/SO ratio in the minors by season:
    
    Year      PA   BB/SO
    2000     217     .53
    2001     486     .64
    2002     540     .49
    2003     407     .45
    2004     534     .48
    2005     189    1.55
    
    Career  2373     .57
    
    
    His 2005 numbers represent a big spike in walk rate. This kind of discipline, combined with Johnson's first round pedigree, make it easy to be encouraged. Although Johnson is just 23, and this could be a sign of things to come, it is going to take more than 189 plate appearances to be sure that this development is legitimate.

  • Wavy Davies: Though the Braves carry the oldest player in the majors in Julio Franco, they are getting younger by the day. As it stands today, the Braves actually have the youngest 25-man roster in the NL East:
    
    Team            Avg. Age
    Atlanta         28.52
    Philadelphia    29.00
    Washington      30.28
    New York Mets   30.80
    Florida         30.96
    
    
    The Braves have been reinventing their lineup on the fly this season. Ten players who have been with the Braves this year have less than two years' experience, and four of those 10 made their major-league debuts this year: the aforementioned Johnson, Brayan Pena, Pete Orr and Kyle Davies.

    Davies, who ranked 47th on our Top 50 Prospects, was called up when Mike Hampton was put on the DL on May 21. He picked up wins in his first two starts versus the Red Sox and Mets, pitching scoreless baseball in each. On Monday, he was saddled with his first loss, though he would have been let off the hook had the Braves not had a home run turn into a foul ball.

    Davies is a bit of a mystery. His PECOTA similarity index of 30 makes him hard to peg. Let's look at his minor-league numbers:

    
     H/9   HR/9   BB/9    K/9
    7.52    .51   3.08   9.44
    
    
    What jumps out is the impressive strikeout rate and very low home-run rate, although enthusiasm about both is tempered by the fact that he came up in some extreme pitchers' parks. On the other hand, he allows an awful lot of people to reach base; while he doesn't allow a great deal of hits he compensates by handing out a lot of free passes. Added base runners could become a problem for Davies, as the Braves defense has been trending downward in recent years:
    
    Year   Def Eff   NL Rank
    2002   .7138           2
    2003   .6999           6
    2004   .6901          11
    2005   .6923          12
    
    
    In the Braves BP 2005 essay, it was noted the Braves have a penchant for timely acquisitions. Given his first three starts, Davies' call-up certainly fits right into that category. However, in order to sustain his initial success, he will have to improve his control while somehow maintaining his strikeout rate.

--Paul Swydan

Kansas City Royals

  • When Mediocrity = Success: Here's a hypothetical situation: say you're appearing on the new reality TV show "Feed 25 People for Less than $37." You've decided that preparing a fish curry is the most efficient way to succeed, and you decide to frugally cut corners on most of the ingredients: fresh fish is too pricey, so you choose one that's been sitting out for a few days. Though your available spices have been in the cupboard for so long they're effectively flavorless, they did taste as advertised at one time. Despite the cheap, serviceable vinegar on hand, you decide an award-winning, All-Star brand grape juice must therefore be better. And salt? Salt is too salty. You opt for sugar instead.

    After Round One, when you unsurprisingly finish 30th out of 30 contestants, you're stumped. What do you have to do differently in Round Two? Since you subscribe to the "Solve Problems the Allard Baird Way and Save!" newsletter, you know the solution is fairly obvious: replace your cookware. The problem simply can't be that you're a bad chef, right? No, not if you spent two whole minutes learning what constitutes "garam masala" before choosing to use a packet of powdered gravy you found in the parking lot.

    This week, Head Chef Allard has provided the Royals with lots of new cookware: within just a few days, he fired hitting coach Jeff Pentland, and hired Buddy Bell to be the team's new manager (Joe Sheehan wrote about Bell on Tuesday, and does not foresee great things). President Dan Glass spoke out about what's expected of Bell:

    "Realistically, what we really expect out of Buddy this year is to get this team playing to its truest talent level and I think our record is not an indicator of how much talent we have on this club". (MLB.com)

    According to BP's Adjusted Standings, the Royals have a sizeable discrepancy between their actual W-L record and their expected record:

    
                      Wins      W3     Diff
    Royals             15      20.5    -6.5
    
    
    "W3" stands for "third-order wins," which adjusts for strength of schedule as well as runs scored and allowed and the underlying performance that generated those totals. Glass is technically correct: the Royals' record isn't indicative of their "truest" ability, as they've experienced a sort of double whammy in their competition: the pitching they've faced has been better than average, and the hitters they've faced have also been better than average. But even with this most charitable Pythagenport adjustment to their 15-37 record (it's the largest jump in wins in the majors), they'd still be last in the AL Central.

    This isn't intended as an excuse. But you can't help but feel bad for Pentland, who was handed a collection of veterans with a demonstrated track record of not hitting, and a bunch of rookies with fairly fresh performance warts. That he wasn't able to do his share to turn them from a 15-win team into a 20-win team is hardly his problem. Being the hitting coach of this team is akin to being a sign language interpreter at a Bob Dylan concert: you cannot possibly expect success.

    Here are the Royals' 2005 baseline PECOTA projections, plus their actual 2005 rate stats:

    
    
    Player             2005 PECOTA     2005 Actual
    -------------------------------------------------
    Angel Berroa     .265/.310/.409    .246/.285/.360
    Emil Brown            N/A          .250/.333/.436
    John Buck        .259/.308/.429    .205/.255/.346
    Alberto Castillo .226/.301/.333    .178/.224/.333
    David DeJesus    .283/.367/.434    .268/.333/.385
    Ruben Gotay      .266/.337/.414    .239/.295/.358
    Tony Graffanino  .267/.338/.393    .291/.361/.355
    Ken Harvey       .268/.323/.428    .222/.271/.356
    Terrence Long    .258/.308/.400    .221/.264/.298
    Matt Stairs      .267/.359/.472    .265/.394/.479
    Mike Sweeney     .290/.364/.478    .306/.348/.530
    Mark Teahen      .251/.322/.375    .242/.287/.379
    
    
    Only two players are beating their projection, and most aren't even close to even meeting it. The Royals, projected to score 765 runs this year, instead have to make do with nine David Bells in the lineup (their offense averages .248/.306/.388), which has cost them 32 runs (about three wins) from their projection so far. Even returns to mediocrity by Terrence Long, Ken Harvey and Angel Berroa will pay off in the win column (though not in the standings).

    The Royals are currently on pace to score just 663 runs and win just 47 games; with this offense, it's easy to see why. Matt Stairs (11.1 VORP) and Mike Sweeney (18.4 VORP) are really the only two hitters in the lineup; everyone else is hovering right around replacement level, with most significantly worse.

    Andre David, Pentland's successor, was previously the Royals minor-league hitting instructor. The argument will no doubt be made that since David has worked with "the kids" in the minor leagues, they're more familiar with his methods and they'll stand to learn the most from him at the big-league level. Evidence to support this hypothesis will no doubt arrive, though it may have arrived simply by being patient.

    All things being equal, the Royals probably would have improved without adding Bell and David; if you're Glass, and you have a goal which isn't really a goal, then interim manager Bob Shaeffer and Pentland (who were the answers last week) are still the answers. By setting the bar so low, Bell will not fail, based on the two factors mentioned above: one, as horribly as they've played, their record should actually be higher, though their place in the standings won't change; two, too many hitters have been far below their expected levels. Both factors should start to even out, though with one very obvious caveat: Mike Sweeney could be wearing a different uniform by the trading deadline; this "all things being equal" look at the offense ignores the fact that all things will not remain equal.

    Once Sweeney is gone, the Royals will plug yet another replacement-level bat into the lineup. In the short-term, the Royals will improve on their .288 winning percentage, albeit slightly, and credit will have to go somewhere: Bell and David are arriving at exactly the right time, as there's nowhere to go but up. Glass' comments above are part baseball cliché and part executive chatter, sure, but if all he wants is for the Royals to be merely adequate, he won't be disappointed.

--John Erhardt

San Francisco Giants

  • Creative Accounting: After admitting that he should have done more to solidify the pitching staff this past offseason, Giants General Manager Brian Sabean pulled the trigger on a swap of pitchers with the Chicago Cubs. In exchange for starter Jerome Williams and reliever David Aardsma the Giants received setup-man-turned-closer-turned-mop-up middle reliever LaTroy Hawkins.

    The trade was essentially a swap of headaches. On the one hand, the Giants were frustrated by the mechanical problems that forced Williams to Triple-A, where he has pitched even worse than he did in San Francisco (9.39 ERA in 30.2 innings pitched with 15 strikeouts and 17 walks allowed to go with his 47 hits given up). In Chicago, as a result of frustrating blown saves both last year and this year, Hawkins had come to, as Bob Brenly put it, "lead the league in boos per inning pitched."

    Aardsma was the prospect thrown in to make the deal happen, but his future is questionable. After being drafted 22nd overall in the 2003 draft, the former Rice closer took a quick route to the majors that ended in poor results (eight runs allowed in 10 2/3 innings in 2004). A sore elbow and concern for his mechanics convinced the Giants to scrap Aardsma's famous spike curve and move him to a less impressive slider, and even that pitch was temporarily shelved during spring training because of injury concerns. This year the Giants moved him to the rotation at Double-A to give him more of an opportunity to work on his secondary pitches. The move gave Aardsma a chance to show improvements in controlling both walks and runs allowed, but at the same time, his strikeout rate declined significantly.

    
    Year  Team      Level  IP      ERA    H/9   BB/9  SO/9
    ------------------------------------------------------
    2002  Rice      NCAA   59.0   3.51    9.9   2.1   8.1
    2003  Rice      NCAA   57.2   2.97    7.3   3.4   7.2
    2003  San Jose  A      18.1   1.97    6.9   3.4  13.8
    2004  Fresno    AAA    55.1   3.09    7.5   4.7   8.6
    2004  SF        MLB    10.2   6.17   16.9   8.4   4.2
    2005  Norwich   AA     46.0   2.93    8.6   2.5   5.9
    
    
    Only time, and a promotion to a higher level of competition, will tell whether Aardsma can put control and strikeouts together in a setting above Single-A San Jose. For what it's worth, various sources have raised serious concerns about the fact that Aardsma's 93-97 mph college fastball now sits much more sluggishly at 90-91 mph.

    Hawkins was the prize for a Giants bullpen that ranks 10th in the NL in ERA (4.54), 16th in strikeout rate (5.27 K/9), 16th in K/BB (1.23) and 14th in BP's WXRL report, which measures the number of wins a pitcher adds above replacement level after adjusting for the strength of opposing hitters. As James Click noted in a recent column, Hawkins performed poorly in high-leverage situations in 2004 and it seems he's off to a similar start in 2005. On the other hand, he has a long record of well above-average performance in similar situations and continues even in his supposedly bad years to have strong overall statistics. (SBC Park should be especially helpful with respect to Hawkins' recent homer problems.)

    The Giants have pledged to keep Tyler Walker in the closer role and return Hawkins to the set-up position that he handled so ably for the Twins in 2002-2003. Two important points need to be made on this decision. First, a great deal has been made of the way Walker reeled off six straight saves in 12 days while the team was listing terribly. On the other hand, five of those six saves came against Houston, Colorado and Oakland, teams that have had horrible lineup difficulties this year. In the three appearances since that run, Walker has given up six runs in an inning and two-thirds and he's still a career journeyman with a 4.73 ERA. We're all for catching lightning a bottle, but just because Walker can throw hard doesn't mean he's suited for high-leverage situations.

    Second, the $2 million being sent from Chicago to San Francisco to help cover Hawkins' salary will be a help, but it won't go nearly as far as many have suggested. Hawkins' contract contains provisions that call for Games Finished incentive clauses to be awarded in the year that he attains them, but also to be folded into his future base salary.

    
    Original Contract Salary Figures
    --------------------------------
    2004:  $2,500,000 (plus $2,000,000 bonus)
    2005:  $3,500,500
    2006:  $3,500,000 (player option)
    
    Incentives Earned in 2004: $1,000,000 ($850,000 from GF incentives)
    
    Adjusted Base Salary Figures Based on 2004 Incentives
    -----------------------------------------------------
    2005:  $4,350,000
    2006:  $4,350,000 (player option)
    
    The whole process starts all over again with his 2005 incentives. Hawkins is currently on pace to finish 40 games, which would net him a $500,000 bonus for 2005, plus a bump up to a $4,835,000 base in 2006, where, again, he could get on the incentive train all over again. If Hawkins takes over quickly as the Giants closer it is not impossible to imagine him earning more than $6,000,000 in 2006, something that would be quite difficult for the Giants to afford if current payroll restrictions continue next year. Hawkins may be the best man for the job, but his cleverly written contract may make him too expensive to use long-term as a closer and may make him incredibly difficult to trade when Armando Benitez returns.

--Tom Gorman

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Premium Article Lies, Damned Lies: Str... (06/01)
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