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July 15, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Friday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago Cubs: At the All-Star Break, the gap between Derrek Lee's VORP (73.2) and the VORP of the 2nd-best offensive player on the Cubs, Aramis Ramirez (28.7), was 44.5. It's not surprising that this is the largest gap in the majors; after all, Lee is having the best offensive season of anyone in the majors, so it stands to reason that there'd be a big gap between his performance and the next-best offensive player on the team. What's surprising is the size of the gap, considering that Ramirez is having a pretty good year himself. That 44.5 gap is the same as the gap between, for example, Bobby Abreu and Endy Chavez, and it's significantly larger than the second-highest gap in the majors of 25.8, which belongs to the Cardinals' Albert Pujols (54.6) and Jim Edmonds (28.8).

This gap between best and second best is nothing new to Cubs fans. Back in the days before the scales fell from my eyes and I ranked players based on things like batting average and home runs, it seemed like Sammy Sosa was routinely hitting two or three times as many home runs as whoever was #2 on the team that year. It could be Mark Grace, or Henry Rodriguez, or Matt Stairs, and it didn't matter, Sammy was leaving them in the dust. As much as I enjoyed Sosa's power exploits, it always seemed that having your offense concentrated in one player like that couldn't be good for the team.

Now, with the help of BP's sortable statistics, anyone can go back and find the biggest gap between the highest and second-highest VORP on a team in every season:

2004: San Francisco Giants 96.9 (Bonds 142.0, Snow 45.1)
2003: San Francisco Giants 77.4 (Bonds 112.6, Grissom 35.2)
2002: San Francisco Giants 62.0 (Bonds 147.4, Kent 85.4)

Hmm. The Bonds Effect. What if Bonds' superhuman efforts are taken off:

2004: Colorado Rockies 54.6 (Helton 94.8, Burnitz 40.2)
2003: Colorado Rockies 53.1 (Helton 99.9, Wilson 46.8)
2002: Pittsburgh Pirates 62.0 (Giles 85.4, Kendall 23.4)
2001: Chicago Cubs 91.1 (Sosa 122.0, Gutierrez 30.9)
2000: Toronto Blue Jays 67.0 (Delgado 114.3, Stewart 47.3)
1999: Atlanta Braves 66.7 (C. Jones 114.6, A. Jones 47.9)
1998: St. Louis Cardinals 47.2 (McGwire 114.3, Lankford 67.1)
1997: Chicago White Sox 56.4 (Thomas 99.5, Belle 43.1)
1996: Florida Marlins 57.6 (Sheffield 94.6, Conine 37.0)
1995: Seattle Mariners 53.8 (E. Martinez 102.4, T. Martinez 48.6)

What jumps out from this list is that most of these teams weren't very good. There is a grand total of two playoff teams among them (both of them led by players with the same last name, but I doubt that's significant), and these ten teams finished an average of 11.9 games out of first place.

Obviously this doesn't prove anything, but it would appear that having one player out-pace all his teammates by such a wide margin isn't a recipe for playing into October. Would Cubs fans trade just a bit of Lee's numbers in exchange for a better shot at the post-season?

--Christian Ruzich

Colorado Rockies: Taking advantage of the post-All-Star Break off-day, Dan O'Dowd consummated a pair of related deals, which may be just the beginning of a free-dealing July around baseball.

In trade number one, O'Dowd sent reliever Jay Witasick (1.9 WARP2) and starter Joe Kennedy (-0.2) to the Oakland A's, receiving outfielder/amateur radiologist Eric Byrnes (2.1), minor league infielder Omar Quintanilla, and cash in return. Trade number two sent disappointing outfielder Preston Wilson (1.1) and lots and lots of cash to the Washington Nationals in return for righthanded starter Zach Day (-0.4) and outfielder J.J. Davis (0.1).

The headliners in this deal are Wilson and Byrnes, two players rumored to be on the move all season long. Altitude made Wilson look like a star player when he came to Colorado in 2003; in fact, his EqA that season (.276) was squarely in the middle of the performance range he established as a Marlin over the previous four seasons (.268-.284). After that performance, however, the Rockies have taken it on the chin for the past year and a half, suffering through an injury-prone 2004 and an ineffective 2005, and paying premium prices thanks to the five year contract the Marlins gave Wilson after the 2000 season, before he was even arbitration-eligible. Byrnes, aside from bolstering the Rockies' medical staff, gives Colorado a player with less service time and much more trade value, should they decide to flip him quickly. Left to his own devices in Denver, Byrnes could become a seriously overcompensated individual in the tradition of Jeffrey Hammonds.

On the pitching side, Witasick was a valuable trade chit: an experienced middle reliever having a good season at altitude. He is the 35th best reliever in the NL by WXRL (1.28)--which is better than it sounds--and the 15th ranked reliever in terms of adjusted runs prevented (11.5). Aside from surrendering Witasick, the Rockies give up a disappointing 26 year old starting pitcher in one deal, and receive a disappointing 27 year old starter in the other--a wash, relatively speaking. For the first time in three years, Rockies pitchers are not dead last in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings (their 6.19 K/9 ranks tenth in the league). However, there is still time left in this season, and Day could be just the pitcher to return Colorado's strikeout rate to the cellar. Day has had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors over the last few years, and Coors Field suppresses strikeouts.

Since Byrnes could be on the move, these deals may ultimately be judged by the two young players the Rockies acquired from the A's and Nats. Quintanilla was not exciting the world as a 23 year old in AA with decent but not great on base skills and isolated power of .102, and at this point, he is still a poor-fielding shortstop rather than the second baseman he is projected to be in the majors. Davis wore out his welcome in Washington much like he did in Pittsburgh: by making too little contact. Davis, who was traded by the Pirates when he ran out of options, was just six for 26 with the Nats, with no extrabase hits and seven strikeouts. The seven strikeouts were consistent with Davis' minor league numbers, which have had him striking out in roughly 29% of his at bats.

The acquisitions of Day and Davis resemble a strategy laid out for the Rockies by Rany Jazayerli three years ago, which suggested that high-strikeout power hitters and high-contact sinkerballers were the players best able to take advantage of playing at altitude. While the home field advantage has not, historically, been the Rockies' problem, you can't fault O'Dowd for trying to accumulate every marginal advantage possible, on a marginally-talented ballclub.

--Derek Jacques

Philadelphia Phillies: In one night, Bobby Abreu outslugged all previous Phillies contestants in the 20-year history of the Home Run Derby tenfold. Okay, so maybe Jim Thome was the contest's first Phillie ever last year, but it still sounds impressive.

Compensating for Thome's essential absence from the lineup--and the .378 slugging percentage when he has played proves he's not the same Thome we once knew--has proven difficult. Ryan Howard, though he may pillage Triple-A pitching, has had some difficulty adjusting during his first 64 at-bats. Tomas Perez is no excuse for a first baseman. Getting Thome back at close to full strength would be an enormous jolt to the offense.

The rest of the lineup is split. Outfielders and Chase Utley are all hitting well, at least meeting expectations. Mike Lieberthal and David Bell have been major disappointments, and Jimmy Rollins has slumped modestly thus far.

C - MIKE LIEBERTHAL
PECOTA weighted mean .281/.346/.441
Actual .231/.315/.367

2B - CHASE UTLEY
PECOTA weighted mean .270/.348/.456
Actual .303/.390/.504

3B - DAVID BELL
PECOTA weighted mean .250/.331/.403
Actual .251/.301/.357

SS - JIMMY ROLLINS
PECOTA weighted mean .283/.344/.433
Actual .273/.315/.397

LF - PAT BURRELL
PECOTA weighted mean .258/.357/.498
Actual .283/.373/.498

CF - KENNY LOFTON
PECOTA weighted mean .271/.343/.398
Actual .341/.405/.420

CF - JASON MICHAELS
PECOTA weighted mean .265/.355/.443
Actual .295/.403/.403

RF - BOBBY ABREU
PECOTA weighted mean .301/.414/.527
Actual .307/.428/.526

Early results on the Placido Polanco-Ugueth Urbina trade aren't looking good. Polanco's having his best season to date and could have played third base to leave room for Utley. With Bell flailing, Polanco would have offered more marginal value starting at third over Bell and his negative VORP (or, for that matter, throw-in Ramon Martinez) than what Urbina's worth beyond Amaury Telemaco or Geoff Geary. It's important to remember that sheer dominance by a relief pitcher is usually short-lived, packed into a couple or few years' time. Urbina's span of supremacy ended long ago, and while he's still a power pitcher and above average relief reliever, we shouldn't expect more than that. Martinez, with only 14 bleak at-bats in over a month since the deal, is hardly consolation.

Center field, shared by Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels, has surprisingly been one of Philadelphia's strongest points. In center, the two have combined for a 29.6 VORP, which so far is more contribution than Jim Edmonds. Marlon Byrd and Endy Chavez, traded for each other, have gotten the scraps in center and combine for a -3.4 VORP.

It's a welcome change, because Phillies centerfielders have fallen on hard times since Lenny Dykstra's body wore out. This combined 26.2 VORP projects to 47.7 on the season, which would rank quite highly among the Phillies' recent centerfield combinations:


Year CF_1      CF_2     CF_3      CF_4     CF_5    CF_6     Total_VORP
1995 Dykstra   VanSlyke Flora     -        -       -          9.6
1996 Dykstra   Otero    Tinsley   -        -       -          0.9
1997 Cummings  Amaro    Otero     Hudler   Magee   Butler     6.5
1998 Glanville -        -         -        -       -         18.4
1999 Glanville -        -         -        -       -         56.7
2000 Glanville Sefcik   Taylor    -        -       -          0.2
2001 Glanville Hunter   Taylor    -        -       -         11.6
2002 Glanville Ledee    Byrd      -        -       -         13.1
2003 Byrd      Ledee    -         -        -       -         50.3
2004 Byrd      Michaels Glanville Ledee    -       -          9.3
2005 Lofton    Michaels Chavez    Byrd     -       -         26.2*
* Through 89 games

While the rotation's posted a decent ERA of 4.28, it's mostly a fašade. Jon Lieber (5.09 ERA) was signed to be the staff ace last winter, but he's walking batters and allowing home runs roughly twice as often (0.92 BB/9 and 1.02 HR/9 in 2004; 2.10 BB/9 and 1.02 HR/9 in 2005). After Tommy John surgery, Randy Wolf's out of commission for a year or so. Vicente Padilla is pitching about as effectively as an ostrich. Gavin Floyd is unraveling even at Triple-A. Robinson Tejeda (2.93 ERA) has allowed just two home runs in 40 innings, but a 0.87 groundball-flyball ratio, virtual 1:1 K:BB ratio and tiny 0.217 average on balls in play (BABIP) point to big trouble. Ryan Madson's continued success in the bullpen makes many wonder what he could do as a starter, like he was in the minors.

If not for Cory Lidle and Brett Myers performing close to their 90th percentile PECOTA, the rotation would be in total shambles. Both pitchers have improved their control and induce plenty of groundballs; in fact, Lidle has allowed just seven home runs in 116 innings.

So with the trade deadline close, the Phillies' two most strident needs seem to be starting pitching and third base. They don't merely need Thome back from the DL; they need their Paul Bunyan to return to form. If that happens in the next two weeks, Howard might become a huge gamepiece for Ed Wade.

--Dave Haller

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