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June 15, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Wednesday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Milwaukee Brewers: According to a certain popular General Manager, a front office spends the first two months of the season figuring out what team they have, the next two months putting together the team they want, and the last two months just playing. In April and May the only move the Brewers made that didn't involve shifting Ben Sheets up and down from the DL was the shipment of Pat Borders to Seattle for cash. Now, in a flurry, come three quick moves that significantly change the team's construction.

First came the trade of 2B Junior Spivey to Washington for RHP Tomokazu Ohka. Okha became expendable to the Nationals when he turned his back on Washington Manager Frank Robinson and Spivey became desirable when the thought of playing Jamey Carroll everyday became too horrible to accept (.236/.301/.271 in 156 plate appearances). Assuming that Carroll and Spivey play at their same levels the rest of the season, the difference between the two, by rough calculation, is approximately half a win every 30 games. With Vidro out until the All-Star break, Spivey fills a desperate need for the Nationals. That he's not perfect in most circumstances, or even all that useful in most roles, is besides the point. Right now, with the Nationals in the thick of the most competitive division in baseball, the move gives them maybe a full win in the standings on the offensive side of the ledger.

Of course, to get that win they had to give Milwaukee their fourth starter. With Tony Armas Jr. and John Patterson back on the roster and Ryan Drese claimed on waivers, it became more and more possible to spare Ohka. Of course, as fishy as Ohka is (.212 BABIP--way below average and likely to move upward soon, 17 SO to 27 BB in 54 innings pitched), he's still a guy you can depend on to pitch at least as well as a fifth starter, which is all the Brewers needed. For the Nationals, the move only makes sense if Ohka's conflicts with Frank Robinson were too distracting to put up with. On a baseball level, the Nationals are clear losers in this deal.

The thing that makes this deal happen, of course, is Rickie Weeks. The Nationals had to scrounge up some pretty mediocre arms to fill the hole they created by trading Ohka, while the Brewers were able to call up their best prospect to fill the position left by the departing Spivey.

In 2004, Rickie Weeks ranked ninth on Baseball Prospectus' Top 50 Prospects list, but he fell to #36 in 2005 due to his spotty defense at the keystone and concerns about how well his power was translating to the pro game. Remember that in his last year at Southern University Weeks put together a .500/.679/.987 season with an astronomical extra-base hit rate of 46.8%; in his first two years of pro ball, his slugging rate averaged just .421.

Weeks seems to have finally adjusted to pro pitching. This year at Triple-A Nashville he was crushing the ball at a .320/.435/.655 rate. Weeks had 14 doubles, nine triples, and 12 home runs in 65 hits and 203 at bats, leading to an extra-base hit percentage of 54%. Weeks had little left to prove in the minors, and although his defense is still a question mark, the bat should carry him as a starter in Milwaukee.

After the Spivey/Ohka flip and the Weeks call-up, the other big news in Milwaukee was the arrival of 1B Prince Fielder. Fielder, son of Cecil, will serve as DH for the Brewers' upcoming inter-league series against Tampa Bay and Toronto.

Fielder dominated Midwest League pitching in 2003 to the tune of a .313/.409/.526 line with 27 homers in 502 at bats (which netted him a well-earned league MVP award). Last year he held his own as a 20 year old in Double-A (.272/.366/.473). Hopes were high for Fielder this year and the Brewers aggressively promoted the 21-year old to Triple-A Nashville.

Through May 16th the aggressiveness looked to be a mistake. At that point in the season Fielder was hitting a paltry .226/.350/.316 with only three home runs in 133 at bats (for comparison, he averaged a HR every 18.6 ABs in 2003 and every 21.6 ABs in 2004). Things were looking sorry and the only consolation was that Fielder was still young and might just need time to adjust to the advanced level.

Looks like he adjusted. Since then Fielder has hit approximately .291/.388/.771, with 12 home runs in 96 at bats. Yowza! Of the 28 hits Fielder has had since May 16th, fully 12 of them have been homers; looks like the power Fielder showed in Single and Double A is back. The Brewers promise that Fielder will head back the minors at the end of the six AL games, but if he keeps knocking the cover off the ball, Fielder could easily push Lyle Overbay off first for the 2006 season.

With Fielder and Weeks looking like solid bets for next year's Opening Day roster, and Bill Hall or J.J. Hardy taking significant time at shortstop, the Brewers rebuilding plan might be largely in place by the beginning of 2006.

--Tom Gorman

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The Devil Rays unveiled a new front-office compensation plan this week. Employees now get paid on a per-transaction basis, but only if said transaction involves an outfielder who has no earthly business being on a major-league roster.

Inspired at the thought of more Devil Rays Team Store scrip, the organization promptly set to work and tweaked the roster. Now that all of the Durham/Tampa taxis have cool-to-the-touch engines, let's see what the new policy brought to the Tampa fans:

  • After Alex Sanchez was designated for assignment on Monday, the headline on ESPN.com read ".346 average not enough?" Unlike some headlines, this headline has a point. His batting average-driven .346/.379/.466 line put him among the offensive leaders on his team (11.5 VORP, .304 EqA). The Tampa Bay offense this season averages .279/.333/.415, putting Sanchez on the plus side in all three rate stat categories…

    …which means it was only a matter of time before he turned back into a pumpkin. He was demolishing his 90th Percentile PECOTA forecast, and while we're seeing a few players outperform their 90th percentile forecasts this year (Brian Roberts, Derrek Lee), Sanchez was only graced with a 4% breakout rate. Translation: he's just not going to keep that up.

    Will Carroll noted yesterday that Sanchez was designated for assignment exactly 60 days after returning from his drug-related suspension. Consequently, he cannot file a grievance over his release.

    If true, this has to qualify as the most creative thing this front office has ever done.

  • It takes a special player to make a stathead pine for Joey Gathright, he who has hit a single professional home run, and he who looks an awful lot like Jason Tyner. Reggie Taylor was promoted after DH Josh Phelps was DFAd last week (Phelps was hitting .266/.328/.424 in 158 ABs, and had an 8.5 VORP). Taylor is a career .236/.278/.389 hitter, and that includes the .364/.417/.545 he's hit so far in 2005. Taylor won't come close to Phelps' production, but it won't be Phelps' role that he'll be filling.

    It was a bit shocking that Jonny Gomes wasn't initially called up to replace Phelps on the roster. It shocked Gomes, too. Gomes, who was hitting .321/.446/.660 (in 162 ABs) at AAA Durham, finally got called up on June 13th (to replace Sanchez) and went 1-4 with a HR and 2 Ks against Milwaukee. Despite high K rates, Gomes brings power and moderate OBP to the lineup; Taylor brings nothing but his own cleats.

    It's possible that the Devil Rays will unveil an additional bit of roster trickery in a few days that will somehow explain Taylor's presence in the lineup, a la Alex Sanchez. But if all you're trying to do is get Reggie Taylor onto your active roster, why resort to three-card Monty?

  • Many were a bit quick to jump on the "Damon Hollins Rookie of the Year" bandwagon a few weeks ago, as he's at .308/.344/.486 (VORP of 11.8 in 122 PA). It should be noted that he's not quite out of the small sample-size doldrums yet: 0-7 thus far in the Brewers series, his batting average has fallen 20 points, his OBP has fallen 16 points, and his slugging percentage has fallen by 34 points. Should he experience a slump longer than 10 or so at bats, suddenly he looks an awful lot like…Damon Hollins the 31-year old career minor leaguer, and not Damon Hollins the late-blooming rookie sensation. This is still the guy who compiled a pedestrian .269/.334/.446 line in over 3600 career minor league ABs.

    Hollins wasn't technically a product of a transaction this week, but he's most certainly impacted by one. Hollins was originally a placeholder until Rocco Baldelli got back from the DL; as Will Carroll reports, Baldelli needs Tommy John surgery and is out until 2006. Both Hollins and Taylor have no future with this organization. Gathright might, and so it'll be interesting to see how the front office responds to Baldelli's long-term absence. But trying to predict how Tampa is going to rummage through its bin of outfield trinkets is pretty foolish, though, especially if the shiniest trinket turns out to be Gathright.

It would be tempting to try and discover a plan underneath these moves (keep in mind, though, that the absence of a pattern is technically a pattern). With the best hitter in franchise history starting off dismally (.254/.335/.366, 6.0 VORP), this could be an attempt (however ill-guided) to play the hot hand whenever possible until Huff gets on track. Or it could be that the organization is merely demonstrating Bill James' assertion that there's never a shortage of talent on the left side of the defensive spectrum (cutting Matt Diaz was a curious way to demonstrate this, though). It's commendable when an organization recognizes free talent, plugs those players into the lineup, and swaps them out when they outlive their usefulness. In the Devil Rays' case, though, those replaceable players are providing the bulk of the 9th-most runs scored in the AL. Having Sanchez and Hollins carry your offense isn't good planning; it's dumb luck.

--John Erhardt

Toronto Blue Jays: Roy Halladay has been a manimal. He has gone from AL Cy Young winner, to a data point in shoulder injury research for Will Carroll, to potential two-time Cy Young winner in the span of under three years. Entering Tuesday, Halladay was not only the best Blue Jay and the best pitcher in all of baseball, but along with Roger Clemens and Mark Buehrle, Halladay is one of three pitchers whose VORP has been twice that of his team's best position player. Halladay is also at the top of the Support-Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added (SNLVA) report. Even the Pitcher Abuse Points report that Halladay is near the top of is a bit misleading. While Halladay entered Tuesday ranked eleventh in total PAP, he has not been overused in the true spirit of the report. Halladay has piled up a lot of pitches to be sure, but they have been more spread out. To wit:


                  PAP/GS   Pitches/IP
Top 10 in PAP      4,587        16.11
Halladay           1,856        13.42

This is a stark difference. Halladay may be in the same echelon in terms of Raw PAP, but that is not telling the whole story. Halladay has been as efficient as he has been masterful, and has been one of the best stories of 2005.

While Halladay has dominated, and Gustavo Chacin has emerged, the good vibrations have been tempered by the utter disappointment of Ted Lilly. Entering this week, Lilly had the fourth worst VORP among those who have thrown more than 50 innings. This has come as one of the more stunning developments for the Blue Jays this season, as Lilly had been steadily improving:


Year   TEAM      GS   VORP
2001   NYA       21    0.2
2002   NYA/OAK   16   23.4
2003   OAK       31   28.5
2004   TOR       32   44.6
2005   TOR       12   -9.0

After a slow start to his career, things were finally looking up for Lilly heading into '05. So what happened? How about what hasn't happened. First, Lilly started the year on the DL with shoulder trouble. Then, in May, his pitching coach Brad Arnserg called him "lethargic" and accused Lilly of "going through the motions." As if this was not enough, Lilly has also had command issues. He did string together two straight starts of 6 innings pitched with one run allowed in mid-May. Since then, he has allowed 12 runs in 16 2/3 innings pitched. And though the Pitcher Expected Win-Loss and Team Records Report shows that Lilly deserves 1.1 more wins than he has earned, this would only raise his record from 3-7 to 4-6. Either way, it has not been the season the Blue Jays, or PECOTA, envisioned. While PECOTA certainly thought that 2004 was Lilly's best year, it didn't have him pegged for a VORP of -9, either. Hopefully Lilly can turn his season around to complement Halladay and Chacin and form the solid nucleus that was a twinkle in the eye just two months ago.

--Paul Swydan

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