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September 21, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

HOU, TB

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros: Quick! Who has the highest VORP among Astros rookies?

If you answered HACKING MASS runaway All-Star Willy Taveras, you're wrong. And if you happen to possess an official ballot for postseason awards, please don't forget the timeless folly of Pat Listach.

Try Chad Qualls.

Last October, a force of Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler and Qualls munched 69 percent of the team's bullpen innings. That crew stuck in 2005, creating so much distance between them and the next tier of Houston relievers that only the rotation is more disparate. How good have the men atop the bullpen and rotation been? Even including the mediocrity that infects in the back ends of the pitching staff, the team trails only St. Louis in ERA and owns the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte have each endured little nicks and knocks recently, and Roy Oswalt's history of groin pangs shouldn't be neglected. If any one of them suddenly becomes unable to pitch, not only do Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez become potential playoff starters, but Ezequiel Astacio (21 HR allowed in 74 IP) is most likely to replace whomever is hurt. This trade-off is insanely costly:

Average Runs Allowed and Innings Pitched Per Start, 2005


Pitcher   RA/GS  IP/GS
Clemens    1.61   6.6
Pettitte   2.07   6.8
Oswalt     2.38   7.0
Astacio    3.69   5.0

Let's assume the bullpen maintains their average of 4.02 RA/9 in the remaining innings (and that may be generous, since Astacio would be stretching the pen a bit thinner by forcing them to pitch about two additional innings).

Expected Runs Allowed by Astros with Each Starting Pitcher

Clemens   2.68
Pettitte  3.05
Oswalt    3.27
Astacio   5.48

For any start missed by one of the Big Three, the Astros can expect to allow between 2.2 and 2.8 runs more.

That's very costly, especially for a team with such a low-watt lineup. Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman have saved this lineup from total depravity and laughingstock status. Ensberg recently missed 12 consecutive starts, and his hand troubles continue to affect his power, reports Will Carroll. No thanks to age and a chronic back, Jeff Bagwell is a shell of the player we once knew, but he could still be a nice lift if he can do more than pinch-hit. Especially when his ceded at-bats are being donated to Mike Lamb.

In some ways, as uninspiring as the lineup is, it could have been much worse. Among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, consider the following players' Equivalent Averages (EqA), compared to what PECOTA's Weighted Mean forecast and the closest PECOTA percentile for their performance:


Player     PA   EqA  Mean_EqA  Percentile
Ensberg   562  .311    .284        90
Ausmus    399  .249    .218        90
Palmeiro  217  .267    .237        90
Biggio    594  .268    .263        75
Taveras   579  .241    .241        60
Lane      501  .264    .270        50
Berkman   507  .314    .321        40
Everett   540  .235    .247        40
Burke     331  .236    .262        25
Lamb      305  .228    .272        25

As you can see, only Lamb and Chris Burke have been major disappointments, and neither plays full-time.

This "stars and scrubs" roster construction is a double-edged sword. No contender would likely want a piece of a healthy Houston team in a five- or seven-game series. In the playoffs, when the lower dregs of the pitching staff can be stowed away from the public eye, the Astros could again be a major threat. But they are extremely vulnerable if the nagging injuries worsen, as the loss of any one of their big guns would have rapid corrosive effects.

--Dave Haller

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Tampa Bay Devil Rays: First the silver lining, then the stormclouds over St. Petersburg.

  • Cannot, Cantu!: With a home run and a sacrifice fly in Tuesday's game against the Red Sox, Jorge Cantu became the Devil Rays' single-season leader in RBIs, breaking Aubrey Huff's mark of 107, set in 2003. The record's hardly an exalted mark, or an ancient one, but it does point out Cantu as one of the most efficient RBI producers in the game. Here's where Cantu stood as of Monday night, among the major league leaders in RBI per runner:
    
    Player            Team  PA  Runners  RBI    RBI/Runner
    Jorge Cantu       TBA   591    394    81    0.2056
    Mark Teixeira     TEX   678    444    91    0.2050
    Vladimir Guerrero ANA   555    358    72    0.2011
    Manny Ramirez     BOS   597    446    89    0.1996
    David Ortiz       BOS   657    463    92    0.1987
    Carl Everett      CHA   498    306    60    0.1961
    Garret Anderson   ANA   570    373    73    0.1957
    Carlos Delgado    FLO   572    394    77    0.1954
    Travis Hafner     CLE   524    340    66    0.1941
    Reed Johnson      TOR   413    249    48    0.1928
    
    
    Now--before any of you start complaining that those RBI totals are wrong--one quick note about the RBI Opportunities Report: the RBI discussed in this report are a player's baserunners batted in, and does not include the player driving himself in on a home run. Cantu has been as adept at plating his baserunners as any player in the league. A look at this chart also shows us that not all batters are created equal in the face of the RBI stat: in approximately the same number of plate appearances as Cantu, Manny Ramirez has seen over 50 more baserunners.

    Cantu's overall numbers--.289/.319/.499, 26 homers and 38 doubles to go with 18 walks in 591 plate appearances--suggest that he's a latter-day Tony Batista rather than a budding Ramirez. Still, this has been a fine season for Cantu, better than just about anyone could have expected.

  • Movin' Out: At the beginning of the month, a number of Tampa Bay's AAA players left the team to play in the World Cup--no, not the MLB-approved "Baseball Classic" that is supposed to be held next Spring, but the existing IBAF World Cup tournament nobody in the U.S. seems to care about. Josh Phelps, Jeff Deardorff, Brooks Badeaux, and Jason Phillips skipped the slim chance of a September call-up to go play in the Netherlands for Davey Johnson. Team USA--populated primarily with Triple-A castoffs, rather than prospects--finished seventh in the tournament, forfeiting a match for fifth place after rain ruined the tournament's playing fields.

    Despite the poor conditions at the World Cup, and lack of popular and manpower support for the team, the Tampa Bay farmhands had the comfort of taking a vacation from the Devil Rays organization. It seems like everyone is leaving the organization right now, and all rushing for the door at the same time. Lou Piniella is supposed to be ditching his green cap in disgust with the team's performance, and the lack of payroll support from ownership. Chuck LaMar is supposed to be enjoying his last days in the GM's office, running up long distance phone bills and taking office supplies with him every time he goes home. Vince Naimoli is supposed to turn over the helm to Stuart Sternberg, and ride off into the sunset, any day now. Seriously, it could happen any day now. Any day now…

    The exodus was disrupted last week by perhaps the only two people who want very badly to be at Tropicana Field right now--top prospects B.J. Upton and Delmon Young. Both did a little complaining last week about their lack of September call-ups when the rosters expanded. Their agents even got into the action. Intrepid "The Week In Quotes" editor John Erhardt had a field day.

    With the dust not-quite settled, we can see that while the Devil Rays can't be faulted for not calling up Young and Upton, they can certainly be faulted with the communications breakdown that led to this public spat.

    Last year, Upton was rushed to the majors, for no good reason other than the fact that he was punishing Triple-A pitchers, and that the Devil Rays didn't have anything better to do. Upton did not look lost in the big leagues in a 177 PA trial. This season, despite continuing his attack on the hurlers of the International League on offense (.303/.392/.490, 60 extra base hits to go with 44 SB), the powers-that-be decided that this year Upton doesn't merit a September call-up. Why? Because his glove is still suspect at short (53 errors in 139 games). This is a reasonable decision by Tampa's front office, but one which should be explained to the prospect before it's explained to the press.

    Young's case for a call-up is a little weaker than Upton's. Young did, indeed, devastate pitching at the Double-A level, to the tune of .336/.386/.532 with 20 homers and 25 steals in 84 games. Still, while he held his own, Young did not completely vaporize the International League. In 54 games, Young hit .285/.303/.447 in Durham, which is very good for a 20 year old. But it's not like Young has proven he has nothing to work on at the minor league level--his walk rate was sub-par at both stops. It wouldn't be unreasonable for someone to tell Young that he needs to get over a .350 OBP at Triple-A before he can think of making it to the Show.

    However, the Devil Rays should have seen trouble coming here, because of the nature of Young's contract. According to reports, Young's contract featured $225,000 bonuses if Young made it to the majors in each of his first two professional seasons. With those incentives, and with the substantial investment the Rays have in Young, it's incumbent on them to make it clear why they are or are not calling him up.

    Sometimes, readers write in to chide us that the players are human beings, not Strat-O-Matic cards or stat lines. The Devil Rays forgot to take care of their prospects on a human level. They forgot that those players saw, and knew what was going on, when Jonny Gomes couldn't get called up from Durham earlier this season despite tearing the cover off the ball. They notice that if Gomes had made the team out of Spring Training, he might be able to mount a better challenge to Huston Street for the Rookie of the Year award. And they likely wonder why they should be expected to show any loyalty or respect for an organization, when that loyalty and respect is not mutual. Why shouldn't they want to just put in their six years and get the heck out of Dodge?

--Derek Jacques

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