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August 25, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

FLA, KC, MIN

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins: Looking at the VORP for Rookie Pitchers report, we can see that Zach Duke, Gustavo Chacin, Scott Kazmir, and Joe Blanton are making their mark in 2005. Among this good crop of rookies is one who came along just recently: Jason Vargas of the Florida Marlins.

Vargas was called up on July 14. This date was convenient for two reasons; one, it was the Southern League's All-Star break, and two, it afforded the Marlins the freedom of discarding Al Leiter. The big club is Vargas' fourth stop this season, a trek that has seen him streak from low A to the Majors, skipping only Triple-A Albuquerque on the way. Vargas, the 68th pick in the 2004 draft, became just the 6th member of his draft class to reach the majors, ascending after only Justin Verlander (pick #2), J.P. Howell (#31), Huston Street (#40), Jeff Fiorentino (#79), and Cla Meredith (#185). This is itself a major achievement. It was mentioned in the 2005 player comments for Taylor Tankersley that the Marlins have had success pushing players quickly through the minors. When Tankersley, whom the Fish drafted ahead of Vargas in '04, had to sit out the first two months of the season with shoulder tendonitis, the Marlins instead pushed Vargas, which was a bit surprising. Though he was rated highly by Baseball America, clocking in as Florida's 8th best prospect, BA's write up forecasted his ceiling for 2005 to be high Class A. And though BP ran a PECOTA forecast for him, he did not warrant a mention in the 2005 annual, joining Rob Tejeda as the only top 15 rookie pitchers who did not make the book.

Vargas made it to the majors on the strength of his strikeout rate, as he whiffed 118 batters in 107 1/3 minor-league IP for a K/9 of 9.90. This is a trend he has continued in Miami, fanning 33 in 37 IP. He has already surpassed his 75th percentile projection, became the first NL rookie to record a complete game in 2005, and both his manager and owner have taken a shine to him. However, there are two reasons to question whether Vargas can be an effective producer down the stretch. Vargas' BABIP stands at a very low .238, which is 42 points lower than Josh Beckett who has the next lowest BABIP among Marlins starters. Vargas is also carrying a very high walk rate around in his duffel bag. This was an issue for Vargas in the minors, but has been even worse since his promotion. Though his time in the majors has been brief and he could certainly develop better control, he has done nothing to disprove the theory that he is a bit wild. This has not cost him to date because of his aforementioned low BABIP, but as that evens out over time Vargas will have to make adjustments in order to remain a productive pitcher.

The Marlins are still right in the thick of the playoff race, but are looking more like a wild-card team at this point. They are in second place; at press time the Postseason Odds Report still listed the Braves as an overwhelming favorite to take the NL East title. In order to stave off the Phillies, Mets and Astros, the Marlins will have to hope they have some more of that Jason Vargas lightning left in their bottle.

--Paul Swydan

Kansas City Royals: The Royals have had a bad month. Joe Sheehan wrote about how they were losing in his Prospectus Today column last week. James Click wrote about the statistical likelihood of a team putting together a losing streak of that magnitude. Here at Prospectus Notebook we like to look at the glass as half-full, or at least a little-full, or in the case of this squad perhaps we should just say that there is some water in the glass; there's a smidge, a dampness, a miniscule presence of H2O molecules. In that light let's focus on the few bright spots in the team's prospects.

  • Andy Sisco looks like the real deal. In his third shot at A ball in 2004, Sisco put up what can best be described as a mediocre line: 4.21 ERA/4.57 RA in 126 innings, 8.4 H/9, 9.6 SO/9 and 4.6 BB/9. The strikeout rate was strong but the walk rate was too high and he was giving up too many hits and walks at that low level. The Royals picked him up as the second overall pick of the Rule 5 draft and he surely hasn't disappointed.
    
    Andrew Sisco - RP
    LG      IP     H/9   BB/9   SO/9   HR/9   ERA     RA    VORP   BABIP
    --------------------------------------------------------------------
    MLB   58.7    7.67   5.68   9.51   0.61   2.61   2.76   19.9    .305
    

    His walk rate is far too high still but with strong home-run and strikeout rates, he's able to get away with it. The lesson again is straightforward: you can get away with walking batters as long as you don't give up a lot of hits and as long as the hits you do give up don't go out of the park.

    PECOTA didn't think Sisco would keep the strikeout rate up after the jump from A ball to MLB, and it also didn't expect him to control the long ball as well as he has. Credit the strikeout rate to his tremendous stuff. As for the home-run rate, Kaufmann Stadium has played both as a hitters' park and pitchers' park in recent season, so it's hard to get an exact read on whether the park is affecting his HR rate.

  • Billy Butler is a stud. Look at the stats or peep the video at Cal Leaguers.

    
    Year  Level   Age    PA    H   2B  3B   HR   SB  CS   BB   SO   Avg    OBP   Slg
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------ --------
    2004     R     18    324   97  22   3   10    5   0   57   63  .373  . 488  .596
    2005   HiA     19    412  132  30   2   25    0   0   42   80  .348  . 419  .636
    2005    AA     19     65   18   5   0    1    0   0    3    9  .290  . 323  .419
    

    He's taking a moment to adjust to Double-A, but give the kid a break. He's 19 years old and just a year and a half out of high school. His defense at third base is fishy at best--he'll almost definitely move to left field or first base--but with that kind of raw power, who cares?

    Butler's PECOTA most comparable players list is a veritable who's who of minor-league studs: Ian Stewart, David Wright, Adam Dunn, Prince Fielder and Daric Barton are all in his top-10. On the other hand, his similarity index is a miniscule 12, meaning that PECOTA struggled mightily to find anyone who put up numbers like Butler at age 18.

    Unless Butler falls flat on his face in Double-A, expect to see him on our 2006 Top 50 Prospects list.

  • Of all the pitchers with at least 35 innings under their belts, Ambiorix Burgos has the seventh highest strikeout rate in baseball. The kid put up 172 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings in low-A Burlington last year, and 19 more in 12 2/3 innings in Double-A Wichita this year before getting the call to come up to The Show.

    Burgos slips all the way to 13th in the league if you measure strikeout rate as K/Batter Faced (because of a much higher WHIP than his comparables), but he's still in esteemed company. Don't be too hard on him. Remember: Burgos is just 21.

--Tom Gorman

Minnesota Twins: Johan Santana might as well have scribbled "we're not dead yet" on a yellow Post-It note and stuck it to Ozzie Guillen's forehead. It would have been faster, and the message couldn't have been any clearer.

Hoisted by Santana's golden left arm and Jacque Jones, the Twins pulled off a circus act against the White Sox Tuesday night and won their eighth game out of nine. Jones sacked a 1-2 curveball high and deep into the rightfield fašade, foiling Freddy Garcia's no-hitter with a brash flip-o'-the-bat. Jones' solo shot was the Twins' only hit and run--as BP Extra mentioned yesterday, this was just the sixth time since 1972 such a team has beaten its opponent.

Oddly, it was the team's third 1-0 game over their last 13 and it serves as a microcosm for their season. It's no secret the Twins draw their strength from a deep well of stellar pitching, but their frugality in run prevention has largely been wasted by an impotent lineup. Should the Twins nudge their way into the playoffs--through Tuesday, an 8.49 percent likelihood according to the Playoffs Odds Report--they're on pace to easily be the lowest-scoring American League team to reach October in the wild-card era, "beating" several of their own teams and a couple of Oakland's:


Lowest scoring American League playoff teams, 1995-present

YEAR TEAM  RUNS
---- ----  ----
2005  MIN  714*
2003  OAK  768
2002  MIN  768
2004  MIN  780
2002  OAK  800
2003  MIN  801

* current pace

The 2002 Atlanta Braves, a 101-win team, reached the playoffs with 708 runs scored, but they still ranked 10th in the National League in scoring and their pitching was out of this world. Yes, it's assuming a lot to stack the Twins against playoff teams of yesteryear, but the point stands: an A.L. team like the 2005 Twins has not reached the playoffs since the wild-card's inception. It's an uphill battle, especially while the outfield is temporarily thinned out. Torii Hunter is done, Shannon Stewart is likely DL-bound, and Jones will miss Wednesday and Thursday due to a death in the family.

The Twins are a versatile team afield, but they don't have many viable options. Few teams do when their entire outfield is missing. While Jones is away, the Twins are forced to mix-n-match four starters out of Mike Ryan, Jason Bartlett, Terry Tiffee, Luis Rodriguez, Nick Punto, and Brent Abernathy--that's just unhealthy--and when Stewart returns, three will remain. But hey, anything can happen when you're only 2 1/3 games back in the wild-card standings.

The recently thwarted run at Alfonso Soriano might well have stemmed from a refusal to trade Francisco Liriano. The Newberg Report offered a rational perspective on what might have been a missed opportunity. Liriano, 21, has been throttling Triple-A hitters lately. He could certainly fetch the Twins a nice bounty, Soriano or otherwise, but he's the kind of player to build around. Liriano's already a big step ahead of Joe Mays (who cleared waivers, according to ESPN's Jayson Stark) so he's very valuable to the Twins this year, too, if they can use Mays or Kyle Lohse to acquire a decent bat.

The state of the Twins' pitching can't really be overstated. In June, Dayn Perry and Jim Baker detailed the historic scale of the staff's impeccable control. James Click reports the team's current mark of 2.10 walks per nine innings is the best since the Pirates 70 years ago. Not surprisingly, Santana and Brad Radke have been major players in this, but the X-factor is clearly Carlos Silva. If the season ended today, Silva's 0.43 BB/9 would be the finest walk ratio in the history of modern baseball:


Lowest walks per nine innings since 1900, minimum 162 innings

NAME              YEAR TEAM   IP   BB   BB/9
----------------- ---- ---- -----  --  -----
Carlos Silva      2005  MIN 167.2   8  .4294
Babe Adams        1920  PIT 263    18  .6160
Christy Mathewson 1913  NY1 306    21  .6176
Brett Saberhagen  1994  NYN 177.1  13  .6598

Thanks to Tom Gorman for the number-crunching.

--Dave Haller

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