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August 9, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Team Houdini Strikes Back

by Jim Baker

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CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Oakland Athletics of First Place (3rd) @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (7th)

Why stop here? Why not win 20 in a row again like they did in 2002?

This would be a good opportunity to review my preseason picks in the American League West, or, in the cases of the ones I blew, a bad opportunity.

Like most everybody else--including a number of my friends who put a lot of money on the A's to go over their projected over/under for the season (which was around 81 games)--I was becoming convinced that Team Houdini had wrapped the chains, the straightjacket and the locked box a little too tightly before getting thrown in the freezing river this time. Before the season started, I predicted them to win 89 games, which they are now likely to do with some room to spare. I had them winning the division and these Angels finishing second with 87 wins. Now it's looking like a good pick--even a conservative one. If you'll recall the preseason, though, there was a lot of talk about the demise of the Big Three and the lack of punch in the lineup. That line of 81 was made to look ambitious in many corners and, when the bell rang, the anti-Beane crowd had its day in the sun.

In a business with very little accountability, though, the A's haters live on in their professional sinecures, even as the team cuts a swath through their schedule. My middle name happens to be Accountability, however, so I will admit to writing a tongue-in-cheek bit about how the playing-dead gag had gone a bit too far this time. This was back in the A's Dark Ages of late May when they were paired with the Devil Rays in the Worst Matchup category.

(Rounding out the rest of the division, I had the Rangers at 80 wins and the Mariners at 78. In the dicey business of predicting seasonal outcomes, that's probably as good as I'm ever going to get at picking a divisional finish.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Pittsburgh Pirates (27th) @ Colorado Rockies (29th)

Around this time of year, I like to take the two teams in the Worst Matchups and pose this question: Which team would you rather be, going forward from this juncture? So...Pirates or Rockies?

In this case, it has to be the Pirates, doesn't it? Here's something to ponder: Pirates '05 = Braves '90.

I don't necessarily believe that, but I sometimes like to do good works to make me feel better about myself. I thought that a little bucking up for the Bucs fans might be just the thing to allow me to say to myself, "Wow, aren't I wonderful. I just filled Pittsburgh's fans with a sense of hope and the will to keep living."

You do have to like some of the young talent on the Pirates, though it is scary to ponder how far they might have fallen if Zach Duke hadn't have shown up. While there is no guarantee that the flatlining in the National League East and West will continue next year, it is interesting to speculate if, in fact, there is a vacuum in the Wild Card situation, there could well be a vacuum into which an upstart club could insert itself in 2006.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cleveland Indians (6th) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

Buddy Bell has now inherited three sub-.500 teams in his managerial career. That's not a record: Gene Mauch, may he rest in peace, inherited three and an expansion team, while Jack McKeon inherited four. But it does make you wonder if it can possibly be worth it after a while. Is managing such a great job that it's preferable to undertake a mission impossible rather than remain as a coach until something better comes along? You can kind of understand a new guy looking to break in jumping on a gig like the Royals, but not someone who has been through the mill twice before like Bell has. If the Royals were a progressive organization with fresh ideas and lots of talent in the pipeline, then that too would seem like a draw. They're not, though. Of course, if they were, they wouldn't have gone after Buddy Bell.

Who has been the biggest surprise of 2005? One of the candidates for the title has to be Jhonny Peralta of the Indians. Looking at the current top 30 in VORP among position players, the five with the lowest projected numbers at the start of the season according to PECOTA are:

17.5: Jhonny Peralta, Cleveland
18.6: Morgan Ensberg, Houston
19.4: Brian Roberts, Baltimore
21.6: Ken Griffey Jr., Cincinnati
21.9: Chase Utley, Philadelphia

Peralta's currently a little ahead of David Wright's VORP of 38.0 and Richie Sexson's 38.8, sliding him just inside the top 30. Of this group, Peralta seems to be the one who has arrived at this place pretty much unannounced. Roberts has made the greatest leap forward, but he's been at it since April, really, so it seems like he's been on top for a long time. Peralta, meanwhile, has the highest VORP of any Indian who owns a fielder's mitt. It's premature to get silly about the guy, but he is only 23, and a 23-year old shortstop with an Isolated Power number over .225 is something to write home about, provided you still write home...no, e-mails don't count.

Combining his offensive contributions with his glove, Peralta currently has a WARP3 of 8.2. The man he replaced, Omar Vizquel, never had a figure that high in his entire career--his personal best, sparkling defense and all, was 7.4 in 1998. With Vizquel signed to an unwieldy three-year contract and Peralta breaking through, the Indians appear to have clearly made the right call.

BEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Chicago White Sox (2nd) @ New York Yankees (8th)

It's not avoiding mistakes that necessarily gets you where you want to be, it's what you do after realizing you've made one. The Yankees made a pretty decent-sized mistake in signing Tony Womack to a two-year deal. That he tanked on a grand scale (only fellow free agent Cristian Guzman and ex-Seattle catcher Miguel Olivo have worse VORP numbers among MLB starters), should not be a cause for celebration. What it should be is an opportunity to watch how much playing time the Yankees squander on him now that their move is a certifiable failure.

The good news for Yankees fans is that he is no longer what you'd call a regular. The bad news is that he's not quite a bench player either--he's still getting a fair number of starts in center field. He's simply not going to get any better, either, as he had his getting better phase already. It was called 2004.

It would seem that if the Yankees were going to make a move that would allow them to cut Womack loose in '05, they would have done it already. For 2006, though, New York would do well to eat the second year on Womack's contract.

I was at the library the other day and saw a book about Yogi Berra quotes which I found irresistible. It's the one entitled The Yogi Book: I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said. It's a lot of fun and it reminded me that Berra has made the world a better place by having been in it. I know, that's a pretty sappy thing to say, but can you deny it? Yogi has brought more joy than most in his 80 years on the planet. Would that we could all say the same about ourselves.

By contrast, on the same library trip, I also checked out Jose Canseco's book Juiced. I have to confess to feeling a little dirty when I left the place, sort of like the church alderman at the adult bookshop who is afraid he's going to run into the bishop. I mean, what if somebody saw me with that under my arm? How would I explain it? What do I say--that I was headed for a book burning?

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