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August 4, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Thursday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Cleveland Indians: There was an old trick in All Star Baseball 2000 for Nintendo 64, where you could take players with a C- rating and trade them to other teams in exchange for certain players with a C rating. Those players could then be flipped for certain players with a C+ rating, who in turn would be moved for someone with a B- rating, then for a B, B+, etc. It took about ten minutes of hunting and pecking, but by the end, you turned Brett Hinchliffe, Bret Hemphill and Justin Baughman into Randy Johnson, Jeff Kent and Mike Piazza. Not bad for ten minutes of work.

It's not an exact science to evaluate trades the following way, but look at the "three degrees of separation" of the left field progression for the Cubs this season, from Opening Day to yesterday:


Player           EqA
Jason DuBois    .256
Jody Gerut      .261
Matt Lawton     .287

While not quite of the "Hemphill-for-Piazza" variety, turning Jason Dubois into Matt Lawton is a pretty nice climb up the player value ladder. There are some obvious caveats here, though. Obviously, we're cherry-picking information, as their potential future values are probably in reverse order of their present values: the 26 year-old Dubois should ideally be worth more going forward, followed by the 28 year-old Jody Gerut, followed by the 33 year-old Lawton. And future value certainly comes into play when evaluating this series of trades, as the Cubs, Indians and Pirates all have different mandates: Win Now, Win Next Year, and Win Individual Games Sometimes.

Jason Dubois has been a favorite around here based largely on his minor league OBP and SLG (.387 and .550, respectively), and he has done everything in his power so far to make that favoritism look pretty foolish:


Team      PA     AVG/OBP/SLG    K/PA   VORP  EqA
------------------------------------------------
Cubs     152   .239/.289/.472   .322   2.7  .251
Indians   38   .242/.342/.424   .447   1.4  .276

There's not much of an apology for his line with Chicago. As a Cub, his opposing pitchers have held their opponents to a .256/.333/.410 line, which would be an improvement over what he mustered. As an Indian, the pitchers he's faced have held opponents to a .256/.346/.404 line, which is more or less his own performance (albeit in far fewer plate appearances). A combined .256 EqA isn't terrible, but it's not advancing his career or making any enthusiasm for him look well-placed, particularly since his PECOTA weighted-mean forecast was a more useful .263/.344/.485 in 224 ABs (VORP of 13.5, EqA of .283).

The support for Dubois is largely due to his minor league record, which has been fairly impressive. He had hit .298/.387/.550 in 1632 ABs prior to this season, with minor league ISOs of .246, .238, .180, and .311 from 2001 to 2004. His 2004 season in Iowa was huge, as he posted a .314/.388/.629 line in just 385 ABs (he had 26 doubles and 31 HR). Iowa's home park favors pitchers, so his line becomes even more impressive.

There's nothing out of the ordinary in his minor league progression: two years of A-ball in succession, a year of Double-A, a year of Triple-A, and then a "we can't ignore this guy in Triple-A any longer" promotion to the big leagues in 2004. Though he missed an entire season due to injury, that season was in 2000, and so any lasting problems from that injury would have likely shown up by now.

PECOTA already did this work, though, in forecasting his 2005 season. As we saw with Ross Gload last week, Dubois is a pretty common player. Dubois' similarity index of 47 means there are all sorts of players with his skill set; that he was tagged with a Collapse Rate and Attrition Rate of 32.0% and 29.2%, respectively, speaks to the historical tendency of this type of player to do two things: 1.) completely flop, and 2.) lose a lot of playing time due to managerial whim, likely because of a low batting average or limited defensive appeal. Dubois has both. That he was given an Improve rate of 39% offers some hope that he'll develop into a useful player; that he now finds himself with the DH option in the American League is definitely a positive. Of course, we thought the same thing about Josh Phelps.

The argument isn't being made that he's a bust, not after just 198 major league at bats. Dubois' career has gotten off to a slow start, to be sure, and his minor league line is likely heavily skewed by an over-his-head season in '04, but he could still make that 39% Improve rate look conservative. At the major league level thus far, he sees 3.77 pitches per plate appearance; not terribly choosy, but optimistic enough (hacktastic ex-teammate Corey Patterson was at 3.42/PA). His major league ISO of .222 is promising, though quite a step down from the .311 ISO player we once saw for a few months. The Indians are gambling here, but as Dubois enters his magic age-27 season, it's not a bad gamble. Of course, with Aaron Boone now resigned for next year, the Indians are once again left with a logjam of corner players to sort through.

--John Erhardt

Florida Marlins: Moving towards the trade deadline this past weekend there were a number of tantalizing rumors involving the Florida Marlins. A.J. Burnett was sailing out of town in exchange for a raft of prospects, or perhaps he was being shackled to the two years and $18,000,000 remaining on Mike Lowell's contract. Jose Contreras and Mark Redman were possibly coming in on deals; super-prospects Jeremy Hermida and Jason Vargas were possibly going out. At the end of the day the only player picked up was lefty reliever Ron Villone for minor league hurlers Yorman Bazardo and Mike Flannery.

Some have raised concerns that a prospect of Bazardo's pedigree was shipped out so unceremoniously for what looks a lot like a LOOGY. Luckily for those of us paid to write about these things, the trade is a little more complicated than that.

First, while Bazardo is worth some excitement, he's not exactly a can't miss prospect. For as much heat as he brings, his strikeout rate in Double-A of 6.06 per nine is unimpressive, and his walk rate of 3.0 per nine is positively pedestrian. In his defense, he brings a great fastball, scouts love his stuff, and as Chris Kahrl expertly pointed out, "he did make a clean jump to Double-A by his 21st birthday."

Mike Flannery is even less interesting. In 2005 he has been having a great year in Double-A, but he's 26 and he's looked ugly the two times he was tested at higher levels. So the Marlins sent out, at best, an arm and a half, and in exchange they got Ron Villone. Did they need a Villone? Absolutely.

At press time last night the combined Run Average for right-handed Marlins relievers was 4.46 (while their Fair RA was 4.25). The eight lefties the Marlins have used as relievers combined for a 5.89 RA and a 6.72 Fair RA. If you remove Villone's contributions already this August the lefties combined for an atrocious 6.21 RA and 7.15 Fair RA. Bottom line: the Marlins' pen was struggling mightily from the left side.

Villone may not be the first name that jumps into your head when you think "shutdown reliever," but he's had a fantastic year in 2005 (2.30 ERA, 42 K and 24 BB in 43.0 IP) and his split vs. lefties is fantastic (2005: .545 OPS vs. LHB, 2002-2004: .671). It's no rental, either: Villone is under contract for 2006 at $2,000,000 (with an additional $1,000,000 in incentives if he notches 30 games started), and considering the fact that's he's accumulated 93 starts in the previous six years, he could serve multiply as a swing-man 6th starter, the long man in the pen, or a lefty specialist.

There are three final compliments to pay the Marlins on this move. First, though sending Bazardo out wasn't easy, it was a heck of a lot cheaper than the deals many felt they were going to make at the deadline. They hung onto Hermida, Vargas, Scott Olsen, Jason Stokes, Jeff Allison, and Josh Willingham, all players that surely attracted a lot of attention in negotiations. Second, the team dealt minor league arms, something they have in spades, especially after taking five pitchers in the first 44 overall selections of the 2005 draft. Third, the Marlins got something done. Lots of teams in far more desperate situations couldn't complete the deals they needed. At press time the Marlins had a solid 15.06% chance of making the playoffs, and that can't have been hurt by securing a strong arm for the bullpen.

--Tom Gorman

Los Angeles Dodgers: Anyone who has been to Chavez Ravine in the past two seasons has heard the rhythmic drumbeat that pulses through the crowd when a certain South Korean slugger strides to the plate in the late innings of a tight game: Hee-Seop-Choi...Hee-Seop-Choi... The old stadium instantly comes alive, radiating the type of anticipatory excitement that reminds you of why watching live major league baseball is such an incredible experience. Hee Seop Choi generates that kind of energy from fans on the left coast not only because of his monosyllabic name and Asian heritage, but because he has the ability to carefully select a pitch and drive it 458 feet.

Baseball Prospectus has been banging the drum for Choi for quite some time, and now more than ever is when his playing-time plight needs to be publicized. Lest you think this Ode to Choi is an irrational case for a stathead favorite, let's examine some of the numbers:

Choi is hitting .248/.332/.476 in 246 at bats through Tuesday. His .808 OPS ranks fourth among active Dodgers, and his 14 home runs rank second. Despite that, manager Jim Tracy has played Choi less and less as the season has worn on. Choi has gotten only 30 at bats since the All-Star break, a stretch which spans 18 games, as he has been shuttled from a platoon partner playing regularly against righties into a pinch hitting role over the past week. (Choi's platoon issues are also overrated. He hit over .300 against lefties in the minors but has gotten less than 80 at bats against them in the show.) After GM Paul DePodesta called up catching prospect Dioner Navarro from Triple-A Las Vegas on July 29, regular backstop Jason Phillips, whose .668 OPS is better than only shortstop Cesar Izturis's .642 among LA regulars, has started four of the last five games at first base. Playing Phillips over Choi and Olmedo Saenz, who is hitting a robust .289/.350/.515 in 204 at bats, is a serious misallocation of resources that is costing the already punchless Dodgers dearly:


Player          PA  EqA VORP  MLVr PECOTA MLVr *
Olmedo Saenz   224 .293 16.3  .198  -.044
Hee Seop Choi  278 .279 12.8  .082   .118
Jason Phillips 341 .235  5.2 -.125  -.066

*2005 PECOTA projection weighted mean

Dioner Navarro has only 17 plate appearances thus far, but his PECOTA weighted mean projection pegs him for a Miguel Olivo-esque -.173 Marginal Lineup Value Rate. By inserting two catchers into the lineup, the Dodgers are maximizing the plate appearances eaten by players far below average offensively, and are effectively substituting the offense of Choi/Saenz for that of Navarro. The drop off in expected production rate (PECOTA-projected MLVr) from Navarro to Choi is 0.3 runs per game, a significant figure which grows even larger when you calculate the gap from Saenz's current MLVr to what can be expected of Navarro.

Much of Navarro's value is tied up in his defense, and given the poor season of Phillips, both offensively and defensively (he has caught just 19% of base stealers), it makes some sense to work the switch-hitting Navarro into a platoon of sorts behind the plate. What cannot be defended is having both players in the lineup at once for any reason. The Dodgers are 25th in the majors with 458 runs, and have been scrambling to keep the lineup afloat ever since Milton Bradley was felled by a finger injury in late May.

Keeping Choi's bat in the lineup would provide the kind of power punch that the club is so lacking. Given that Saenz can also be slotted in at third base (where he has proven to be a replacement level glove) Mexican import Oscar Robles can be shifted from third to short in a pinch to spell the struggling Izturis, Antonio Perez can play both second and third and Jeff Kent can also play first base, there appears to be no excuse to have Phillips shed the tools of ignorance and lumber out from behind the plate. By refusing to acknowledge the superior offensive alternatives in the infield and by not keeping Choi and Saenz in the lineup regularly, Los Angeles is overlooking the easiest and most necessary fix to their sickly scoring.

Los Angeles was just four games out of first place in the weakest division in baseball after Tuesday's action, so Dodgers fans still have the chance to chant Hee Seop Choi's name in the postseason--if Jim Tracy and Co. would only give Choi the chance to help his team get there.

--Caleb Peiffer

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