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June 30, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Thursday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins: A few young Marlins have been in the news recently:
  • Catcher/first baseman Josh Willingham, BP's 48th-best prospect heading into 2005, was recalled on June 23rd. That ranking wasn't without some mild controversy, though, as his prospect status was called into question by a few BP authors.

    The short history of Willingham goes like this: can hit, can't catch.

    The long history is, as always, a bit more complicated. He compiled a minor league batting line of .272/.412/.493 in just over 1500 ABs, but that was tempered by his relative old age in each of his leagues; he turned 26 in February and had only logged 25 ABs above Double-A (they were in the majors). We can tell from his walk total that he's got a good batting eye, and his improvement in ISO from the low minors (.191 in 1101 ABs) to the high minors (.309 in 604 ABs) tells us that he's not just a spectator at the plate. His power is real--perhaps not .366 ISO real, which is his total in 2005 so far, but the kid can mash. Even without the Triple-A line, PECOTA was on board prior to the season, envisioning a .264/.399/.486 season from him in 214 major league ABs.

    Sooner or later teams will look at Craig Wilson/Matt LeCroy-types as assets rather than defensive failures at three positions. Guys like that won't win Gold Gloves, but they'll be more valuable at the plate than the Lenny Harrises of the world, and offer "limited versatility" in the field-whether it be behind the plate, playing first, or clomping around a corner outfield spot (Willingham logged 21 innings in LF last season with the Marlins).

    We're truthfully still in the "yeah, but" stage when assessing Willingham's major league chances. Blocked at a few positions? Yeah, but he can be a valuable utility-type player even if he doesn't start. He's been old for his leagues, and hadn't seen much time above Double-A coming into 2005? Yeah, but he's hit .337/.469/.714 in AAA this year. He deserves a big-league roster spot? Yeah, but the Marlins have this bizarre infatuation with Jeff Conine.

    Willingham's not going to beat out Paul Lo Duca at catcher, and he's not going to displace Carlos Delgado (or his contract) at first base. If the Marlins were serious about showcasing him, they probably would have done so during interleague play; as it is, he got a late call-up, logged only 4 PAs so far, and the team doesn't need a DH again this season. He's already a better option than Conine, and the decision to side with sentimentality over performance could have real consequences in a winnable NL East.

  • It's been a while since major league baseball has heard a peep from Tim Spooneybarger. He had Tommy John surgery in 2003, and celebrated the Marlins' World Series victory that fall by jumping around on the field with his arm in a splint. He now claims to not know where his World Series ring is.

    He's currently on a rehab assignment with the Class-A Jupiter Hammerheads, and he's not happy about it:

    "I'm so tired of telling people the same thing, week after week, 'I'm still throwing bullpen [sessions]. I'm getting back. I'll be back soon.' I've been saying that forever," he said. (Miami Herald)

    To be fair, it's now taken him 21 months to recover from TJ surgery, and he hasn't thown a big-league pitch since June 11, 2003, when he threw 1.1 innings against the Brewers. His frustration is directed more at the situation itself than at Florida management for not letting him hang around the Miami bullpen.

    We can expect his control to return last, as it does with most Tommy John survivors. He's already had one setback (during which he was reportedly throwing 79 mph fastballs), and had complained of elbow pain.

    Spooneybarger had a good rookie season with Atlanta in 2002, if a bit wild, throwing 51.3 innings with a 26/33 BB/K ratio, or 4.6 BB/9 and 5.8 K/9. He logged 42 pretty good innings with the Marlins in 2003 (5.2 VORP) before getting hurt, improving his BB/K ratio to 11/32, or a more respectable 2.36 BB/9 and 6.8 K/9. Florida looked pretty smart for targeting him in that complicated three-team Mike Hampton/Charles Johnson trade.

    The Florida bullpen is currently running on fumes. Todd Jones leads the team in WXRL with 1.498, placing him 23rd in the league, and you have to go down to Brian Moehler's four relief appearances (.285 WXRL) at 108th in the league to find the next Florida reliever. Spooneybarger would offer some stability if he could come close to his pre-surgery form. Without him as an option, though, just look at what the Marlins are doing to poor Travis Smith:

    • 4/22--Recalled Smith from Albuquerque
    • 4/30--Optioned Smith to Albuquerque
    • 5/01--Recalled Smith from Albuquerque
    • 5/18--Optioned Smith to Albuquerque
    • 5/29--Recalled Smith from Albuquerque
    • 6/22--Optioned Smith to Albuquerque

--John Erhardt

New York Mets: When we last checked in on the NL East, the Mets were 31-29 and just three games out of first place. Since then the team has fallen on hard times. They were swept by Seattle and lost series to Houston, Los Angeles of Anaheim, and Oakland. At the end of business on June 29th the Mets sat in last place in the division, a solid eight games behind the division leading Nationals.

What went wrong? As many have pointed out, the bullpen has been a sore spot this year. Assisted by their home park (2005 Park Factor of 0.874) the bullpen has amassed an ERA of 4.48 in 192.2 innings this year. Since June 8, when the current skid began, the Amazin's bullpen arms have an ERA of 6.94 in 48 IP.

According to Keith Woolner's WXRL report (which measures the expected wins added over a replacement level pitcher), the Mets have had less help from their bullpen than any other team in the division:

Team        Reliever WXRL
-------------------------
Washington      7.586
Philadelphia    1.714
Atlanta         1.096
Florida         1.017
New York        0.909
-------------------------

One reason the Nationals have been able to put together such a strong lead in the standings is their exceptional relief pitching. Chad Cordero, who was drafted by Omar Minaya in the first round in 2003 (when Minaya was the Expos' GM), has given his team more than four times as many wins as the entire Mets' bullpen. Put another way, the Nationals' third best reliever, Gary Majewski, has given his team more wins than the entire Mets bullpen (check out the new Sortable Stat reports for more details).

In an attempt to stop some of the bleeding the Mets designated Manny Aybar for assignment on June 11, and replaced him with the freshly signed Danny Graves. Aybar (6.04 ERA in 2005) was a disaster, which probably could have been predicted (career 5.11 ERA in 391 MLB innings). Aybar throws hard and accumulates strong K/BB numbers, which makes him a compelling NRI and 10th man on the staff, but his tendency to get rocked hard is too persistent to be ignored (.866 OPS Against since the beginning of 2001).

Graves hasn't exactly been much of an improvement. The recent Red has given up six runs in 6.2 innings with the Mets for an ERA of 8.10. His strikeout to walk ratio of four to zero is nice so far, but the three homers is not. Since the beginning of 2003 Graves has allowed 50 bombs in 262.1 innings. It's not exactly Eric Milton territory, but it's close.

Dae-Sung Koo and Mike Dejean (recently released) have also pitched atrociously (Koo's 2005 Park Adjusted ERA: 6.67, Dejean: 6.73). Koo and Dejean both struggled mightily with the free pass; Koo's given up 10 walks in 15 innings pitched while Dejean has allowed 18 in 25.2. Their combined on-base percentage against is a Brian Giles-ian .413. Their .472 slugging rate against isn't much prettier. It would seem that the flashy 1.69 ERA Dejean put up in 21.1 innings for the Mets down the stretch last year was not to be believed.

The shining star of the staff has clearly been Roberto Hernandez:


Roberto Hernandez
-------------------------
Year    G   IP    R    SO/9    BB/9    BAA   WHIP    ERA
2005   34  31.2   7    9.09    4.26   .215   1.23   1.99

It's early in the year--Hernandez hasn't gone a full season with an ERA under 4.00 since 2000 in Tampa Bay--but so far he has been brilliant. Among relievers with at least 20 IP he leads the team in every major statistical category, and according to WXRL he's added three times as much value as any other reliever on staff.

In fairness, the relievers aren't the only ones struggling the past three weeks. In the last 18 games key pieces of the offense have been sputtering badly: Jose Reyes is hitting . 225/.235/.250, Carlos Beltran is hitting .187/.237/.373, and Mike Cameron is at .182/.302/.295. The combined .559 OPS from three core lineup spots is rough, and as a result the team has only scored 4.17 runs per game during the recent skid. For comparison, teams in the NL are averaging 4.49 runs per game, and before the recent rough patch, the Mets were averaging a solid 4.63 R/G.

The offensive troubles seem like little more than a couple of poorly timed slumps (though Reyes' walk rate is a persistent concern). The bullpen problem however, probably won't right itself. If the Mets want to make a run for the division title they'll almost definitely need to find relief help, either in their own system or on the trade market.

--Tom Gorman

Related Content:  Florida Marlins,  Tim Spooneybarger

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