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July 8, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Friday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox: Between the time Friday's Prospectus Notebook went live and late last night, all 27 card-carrying members of the Chip Ambres fan club had emailed to tell me I neglected to mention him in the discussion of Red Sox outfield depth. Which is true.

Having taught at two universities, I can recognize lousy excuses when I see them. Here's mine. I cut the paragraph mentioning Ambres for two reasons: one, it was boring, and two, Ambres wasn't a serious option three months ago, and ~250 good ABs doesn't really change that, International League All-Star status or not. Of course, the fact that Ambres is even in the discussion at all supported the earlier point in last Friday's piece, which is that the Sox had no outfield depth this offseason; that the seemingly best major-league-ready option in Triple-A at the moment was picked up as a minor league free agent speaks volumes about the system as it existed this winter.

Prior to this season, Ambres was a .253/.358/.420 hitter (in 2282 career minor league ABs, mostly in A-ball). This season, he's hitting .302/.411/.516 in 252 ABs at Triple-A Pawtucket. Ambres illustrates the difficulty when dealing with young (or relatively young) players, as it's awfully easy to confuse "performance spike" with "development." Based on the Triple-A line alone, he'd be certainly adequate, and probably not any worse than Jay Payton. He's unlikely to get a shot, though, and that's not being prescriptive; recent events in Boston indicate the front-office doesn't see him as anything more than an insurance policy for alien abduction of the entire outfield, or some other unlikely event.

Swapping Ambres in for Payton isn't as easy as replacing one proven league-average offensive player with a potentially-league-average one, though. Payton's job description had two parts:

  1. Platoon with Trot Nixon in right
  2. Be a defensive sub at all three positions

Payton was a good, if declining, defensive player; other than watching a single Pawtucket game on NESN, I have no defensive information on Ambres. It's entirely possible that his recent leg injuries have made him less of an outfielder than we'd like (his SB success suggests otherwise, though speed doesn't always equal range). The Sox have elected to DFA Payton, and called up Adam Stern in his place who, as a Rule Ver, had to be placed on the 25 man roster soon. Stern bats lefty, though, and is only able to do half of what Payton was expected to do. All of Red Sox nation is expecting an additional roster move at this point-Stern is a nice defensive sub and pinch-runner, but in a roster loaded with so many 3B/1B/DH types (including one already in the outfield), the Sox' fourth outfielder needs to technically be both a fourth and fifth outfielder. Stern isn't.

According the Boston Globe, Payton is headed to Oakland in exchange for Chad Bradford. That same story indicates that Stern shouldn't unpack his things, as Boston's trying to get Gabe Kapler back from Japan, where he's been playing all season. Kapler would need to out-Payton Payton in both the above roles, which recent history suggests he might not be able to do (.272/.311/.390 in 2004, a .240 EqA). It's not clear how that's much of an upgrade over Payton; PECOTA agreed, pegging Kapler for a weighted-mean line of .267/.318/.391 with a .249 EqA this year as a part-timer, well below even Payton's modest .261 EqA.

The earlier discussion could be presented as "is Ambres a better option than Payton?" and the answer was apparently "no." The discussion now becomes "why isn't Ambres a better option than Kapler?" Kapler's defensive stats have hovered around competency ever since he left Detroit (with a very bizarre 21 FRAR2 season as Texas' centerfielder thrown in there), and so if the Sox are going to settle for replacement-level defense from their bench (a significant downgrade from Payton), why not get a little more offense than a .240-ish EqA? Ambres is a better candidate for that.

But until the Payton trade is finalized, and until the Kapler rumor gets dismissed or confirmed, we simply don't know what the roster will look like. Both Ambres and Stern are fine options now, but neither work as a straight-replacement for Payton.

--John Erhardt

Seattle Mariners: Earlier this week, the Mariners designated starting second baseman Bret Boone for assignment. Boone had contributed a .231/.300/.385 line in 2005, "good" for a .241 EqA, which itself followed a .255 EqA performance in 2004.

With the M's season making like the Ty-D Bowl Man, management has prudently decided that youth must be served at the keystone, in the form of Jose Lopez. Lopez has shown some decent pop at Tacoma--his PECOTA projection has him hitting .268/.304/.421 in the majors, a bit better than what Seattle's getting from Boone, and only $8.8 MM or so cheaper.

Unless Boone is offered (and accepts) a minor-league assignment--highly unlikely--he's done as a Mariner. Curious about Boone's standing within the organization's history, we asked Clay Davenport where Boone stood among the team's second basemen.


                   Games       AVG/OBP/SLG        WARP3
Bret Boone           803     .277/.336/.478       38.6
Harold Reynolds     1155     .260/.326/.345       37.3
Julio Cruz           742     .243/.327/.307       25.8
Joey Cora            544     .293/.355/.406       16.5

Those are Mariners career totals, and that's about it as far as the list goes. After this top four, you have Mark McLemore (15.7 WARP3), who played only one of his four Mariner seasons as a second baseman, then you have David Bell (12.9), another player who had more playing time at another position for the M's (third base) than he did at second. After that, all the second basemen failed to accumulate in their entire Mariner careers the WARP3 that Boone tallied in 2001 alone: Rich Amaral (11.4), Jack Perconte (9.7), Luis Sojo (4.8), Larry Milbourne (4.4).

One of the reasons it works out this way is because the top four players on this list fairly monopolize the Mariners' history at the position. Julio Cruz played in their inaugural season, and continued with the team until 1983, roughly coinciding with the arrival of Harold Reynolds. Reynolds, who is probably better known outside of Seattle as one of the talking heads on Baseball Tonight than he is for his playing career, kept the job through 1992, when a minor league second baseman named Bret Boone looked like he could handle the position. After Boone was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 1993 (for Dan Wilson and Lou Piniella whipping boy Bobby Ayala) the Mariners wandered in the wilderness for a year or so before Joey Cora came on the scene in 1995, and lasted through 1998. After that, more wilderness, and then Boone.

When all is said and done, Boone beats Reynolds out handily, leaving little room for us to argue career versus peak value. Reynolds was a defense-first small-ball player from another era, while Boone returned to the Mariners in 2001 to experience one of the late, great peaks that any second baseman has ever had, accumulating 31.8 WARP3 and 96 HR in his age 32-34 seasons. During that same span, Boone was almost as good with the glove as Reynolds was in the best three years of his Mariners career. Boone was 29 fielding runs above average (RAA2), while Reynolds accumulated 31 between 1987-1989.

Regardless of career achievements, when your 36-year-old second baseman looks shot, it's time to say good-bye. What remains to be seen is if the Mariners can get anything of value for what was, briefly, one of the best second basemen in the game.

--Derek Jacques

Washington Nationals: Which team is last in the majors in runs scored? If you read Dayn Perry's article on Tuesday, you'll have correctly guessed Washington, which currently sits in first place in the NL East despite having scored only 343 runs through Wednesday. It's hard enough to win while scoring 4.08 runs a game, but it's even tougher to do so with your two most productive hitters on the shelf. Nick Johnson leads the team with a marginal lineup value rate of 0.358 (runs created per game in a lineup of average performers), and Ryan Church is second with a rate of 0.308. Both of them went on the DL at approximately the same time--Church last played June 22nd and Johnson June 26th--yet the team has kept rolling. In the nine games both players have missed, beginning June 28, the Nationals have gone 7-2 despite scoring just 3.67 runs per game, down from 4.13 before Johnson went down. As the latest Can of Corn points out, Washington's scoring has been suppressed because the team so frequently doesn't bat in the bottom of the ninth at home, and the Nationals have kept winning thanks mainly to an untouchable bullpen-a major league leading 8.4 expected wins added above replacement level through Tuesday.

A spectacular bullpen and a flubber-armed Livan Hernandez anchoring the rotation may not be enough to hold off the field in a muscled NL East, however--no team in baseball history has ever made the postseason while finishing last in its respective league in runs scored, let alone last in the majors. Adding together the marginal lineup value rates of Johnson and Church, we find that by replacing those positions with average offensive performers, the Nationals lose two thirds of a run (0.666 MLVr) per game from what they had been getting, or about a win every 15 games (10 runs is roughly estimated as one win). The drop off is steeper when you consider that the players that have been plugged in as replacements--Marlon Byrd in left field (-4.3 VORP) and Wil Cordero (-6.4) and Carlos Baerga (-0.8) at first base--have all performed below replacement level so far. By taking the MLVr 50th percentile PECOTA projection for Byrd and the weighted average (based on 2005 plate appearances) of the same for Cordero/Baerga, it's possible to estimate what the Nats will lose going forward. In left, a drop off of (0.308-(-0.057))=0.365 runs per game can be expected from what they'd been getting out of Church to the production of Byrd, and at first base, the gap is (0.358-(-0.118))=0.476 runs per game, a combined loss of over eight tenths of a run. Even using the 90th percentile PECOTA MLVr of both Church (0.205) and Johnson (0.221) instead of their astronomic current rates of production, the deficit still adds to more than six tenths of a run per game.

Such a loss will catch up to the Nationals if Church and Johnson miss more time. Both players are expected back after the All Star Break, and the gap between Church (likely playing over his head) and Byrd should narrow considerably as the season wears on. However, Washington would still be wise to acquire at least an average offensive first baseman to sub in for Johnson, who has never gotten more than 378 at bats in his five year career (he has compiled 256 this year). Staying healthy is a skill Johnson hasn't shown he possesses, and the Nationals can't afford to be unprepared in the event Johnson makes another trip to the DL or misses considerable time down the stretch with the nagging injuries that have always hampered him.

With Jose Vidro back at second base, the Nationals now have an infield with two shortstops who can't hit in Cristian Guzman and Jamey Carroll, two veterans past their peak in Cordero and Baerga manning the besieged fort at first base, and an average offensive player in Junior Spivey forced out of a starting job. The square peg looking at round holes to his left and right is Spivey; the temporary void at first base appears easier for him to squeeze into than the one at short, where he has only one career assist. For a crack at keeping his .791 lifetime OPS in the lineup--and .981 mark over the past three years against lefties--it'd be worth seeing if he can don a first baseman's mitt whenever Johnson is nicked up. If that fails, the Nats could also try shifting Spivey to the outfield and Brad Wilkerson to first whenever Johnson can't go. A little creativity might buy Washington some runs, and the Nationals are certainly in the market.

--Caleb Peiffer

Related Content:  Bret Boone,  A's,  Washington Nationals,  The Who

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