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September 28, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Orioles, Marlins, Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Misery reigns in the corridors of Camden Yards these days.

In early June, a shoulder strain sidelined Brian Roberts for a week. He was hitting .368/.449/.642 at that point, but since then only .283/.352/.443--much closer to his "old self" than his two-month raking session of April and May. Maybe it was those high-tech contact lenses that led to the surge. Maybe creatine. Maybe it was more balls in play falling for base hits, and maybe it was hard work. Personally, I find it much more likely he simply reawakened to the sage hitting advice I gave him seventeen years ago on the playground of Ephesus Elementary School. Both halves of this season are subject to sample-size questions, so we should look at the whole and remember 2005 as the year Brian Roberts broke loose. With 9.9 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP1), Roberts even tops his double-play partner Miguel Tejada (8.7 WARP1 through Monday). As it stands now, they would rank as the best double-play combo in team history (per WARP3) surpassing some very prominent former O's. WARP3, of course, adjusts for the changing quality of play over time.


Top Orioles Double Play Combinations, Combined WARP3

Year 2B            2B_WARP3  SS            SS_WARP3  TOTAL
2005 Brian Roberts    8.9    Miguel Tejada    9.4    18.3
1976 Bobby Grich      9.7    Mark Belanger    8.2    17.9
1996 Roberto Alomar  10.9    Cal Ripken       6.7    17.6
2004 Brian Roberts    5.3    Miguel Tejada   11.8    17.1

All this makes the situation of Roberts' gutwrenching elbow dislocation that much more frustrating. Now with a major injury that jeopardizes his productivity next year and beyond (there are no good comparables, writes Will Carroll), the Orioles must tack another item to their growing winter to-do list.

What else is going on? Well, there's Rafael Palmeiro's latest sucker punch to Oriole teammates and fans, but that's tired. Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa both checked out prematurely and face free agency--and while not long ago, that statement would have stricken any GM with panic attacks, now it's a huge sigh of relief. At the time of the Sosa trade, a $4.5 million buyout (from the team's $18 million option for 2006) was converted to an "assignment bonus" paid by the Cubs back in the spring; in other words, the Orioles can simply wave goodbye to Sosa free of charge.

Speaking of freed-up money, the best news from Baltimore since the All-Star break might be the dismissal of Sir Sidney Ponson: the team escapes from his 6.21 ERA, and a hearing looms as they try to wriggle themselves off the hook for the $10 million owed him in 2006. That probably won't happen, but it's something to watch.

More importantly, B.J. Ryan is a free agent. One of the true superstar closers, Ryan has quietly and steadily improved his peripherals over the past few years to a personal best 13.2 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 2005. He probably won't get Billy Wagner money (no closer should), but he's almost as good--and he'll likely be a much better value for whomever signs him. Much like Eddie Guardado a few years ago, Ryan is an unforgettable strike against the notions that (a) experience is everything for closers, and (b) closers should be right-handed.

All this transactional hubbub might be carried out by new bosses, too, as co-GMs Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie have reached the end of their contracts. It isn't yet known if they (or interim manager Sam Perlozzo, for that matter) will be offered jobs beyond this season.

On a lighter note, the Orioles are the heaviest team in baseball, the scales undoubtedly tipped by the call-up of six-feet-five, 322-pound Walter Young. Remarkably, the team-average weight of 213 pounds does not include Ponson (listed at 253). Others putting a dent in the team's status include James Baldwin (266), Daniel Cabrera (251), Ryan (249), Sal Fasano (245), and seven others who weigh at least 225 pounds.

Not complete misery.

--Dave Haller

FLORIDA MARLINS
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An 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Nationals made it official, but the Marlins' season had been a dead man walking for about a week. The official declaration of surrender came before the game, when the Marlins declared that A.J. Burnett's season was over, after Burnett declared that there was "too much negativity" in the Marlins clubhouse, that the Marlins "play scaredůmanage scared...[and] coach scared", and proclaimed that he looked forward to making his last start as a Marlin, after which he would leave the organization for greener pastures.

With apologies to Morris Day, the Marlins told Burnett that "you don't have to go home, but you got to get up out of here." This was not a disciplinary suspension, but rather a benching, with a heartfelt request never to come back to the home team's clubhouse.

Sending players home has become the hot new trend in Major League Baseball, which makes one wonder if anyone at last year's GM meetings was dating a grade school principal. The Orioles sent Rafael Palmeiro home just last week, after it became public that Palmeiro fingered a teammate in an arbitration hearing, and sent Sidney Ponson away--albeit, without a contract--after his recent drunk driving arrest. Suddenly, everyone's Kevin Spacey, asking their misfit players "Will you go to lunch?"

Burnett being sent to the golf course early means that he will miss an incentive clause to his contract of $50,000 for reaching the 210-IP milestone. Burnett finishes the season with 209 innings thrown, so a grievance could be forthcoming. Burnett's season was superficially quite good--a 3.44 ERA and 198 strikeouts--but 17 unearned runs and the Marlins' home ballpark tended to overstate his effectiveness. Controlling for home park and compared to the league, Burnett's RA+ of 1.04 was not much better than teammate Brian Moehler's (1.00).

The larger concern to the Marlins is what this incident means for their future management. Grumblings of clubhouse dissatisfaction with manager Jack McKeon were nearly as prominent as middle-infield injuries as the Marlins came down the stretch. Still, it would hardly be fair to put the blame for Florida's failures solely on the manager.

The pallbearers for the Marlins' season were many. Outside of Todd Jones, the bullpen had no depth (Jones' WXRL: 4.995, everyone else: 0.671). Mike Lowell was the victim of a voodoo curse that turned him into a 2000-vintage Scott Brosius (it's as good an explanation as any). Juan Pierre took batting advice from Lenny Harris, with Lenny Harris-type results (Pierre's .271/.324/.348 is pretty close to Harris's .268/.318/.348 career line). The coup de grace wound up being the various injuries that hampered Alex Gonzalez, Luis Castillo, Paul Lo Duca, Damion Easley, Kurt Abbott and Quilvio Veras down the stretch. Robert Andino, who received much of the playing time in place of Gonzalez, performed up to his 75 percentile PECOTA projection, but that was still only good for a .207 EqA.

Maybe that was all just "negativity," but despite these handicaps, the Marlins stuck in the wild-card race, and have remained over .500. Some may be disappointed by that performance, but this was a flawed team from the beginning, which was definitely not the consensus pick to win the division.

Despite all this, and the "need" to rid the clubhouse of a disruptive force in Burnett, it is probably time for McKeon to step down. With the exception of his stint managing the Reds, McKeon's typically been a short-term managing answer, producing early results, which break down over time. When someone goes to the riding crop as often as Trader Jack, it's at first regarded as encouragement, pushing the players to be their best. But eventually, it just turns into sadism-someone whipping the player's behinds just for fun, or for no reason at all.

--Derek Jacques

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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At one time, analysts expected young outfielders Alexis Rios, Gabe Gross, and John-Ford Griffin would join Vernon Wells to help carry the offensive load of an up-and-coming team in the AL East. Now, not so much.

Rios hit just .259/.303/.395 (.241 EqA) and was recently benched for a lack of hustle. Griffin did hit 30 home runs in Syracuse before his September call-up, but his overall line of .254/.335/.475 there still shows the contact problems that plagued him through his repeated stints at Double-A; that line doesn't translate to the majors kindly. Gross has, in admittedly limited duty, hit just .267/.329/.373, but his minor-league line of .297/.380/.438 is slightly more inspiring, and his major-league 4.26 pitches seen per plate appearance indicates he's not just giving it the old college try. Even more recent up-and-comer Miguel Negron, who has a place on the 40-man roster, hit just .258/.304/.387 in Double-A this year. As for Wells: his 2005 line doesn't differ from his career line too much, but he's still declining from his 2003 peak. Plus, he's only going to get more expensive.

With the young outfielders not looking so good, attention has turned to the crop of infielders, notably Aaron Hill and Russ Adams.

You would have been forgiven if, prior to this year, you thought that the Blue Jays had a pair of middle infield prospects named Russ Hill and Aaron Adams. Or one guy named Adam Hill. Russ Adams and Aaron Hill have appeared in the same sentence ever since 2003, when Hill was drafted and joined Adams in the system (Adams had been an '02 draftee). So inseparable are they that they even stick together in the team EqA pages, as Hill has a .257 EqA to Adams' .253. From a PECOTA weighted-mean standpoint, these two are both hitting their projections pretty squarely.

While their offensive performances have been roughly equal, they deviate defensively. Adams has spent all of his time at shortstop, while Hill has played both middle-infield spots, plus third base (the majority of his time on the field has been spent at third). Adams rates as a terrible defender by FRAR and FRAA standards, while Hill's numbers rate as average or, in the case of second base, as quite a bit above average. The usual defensive-metric caveats apply, and add small-sample-size caveats as well; Hill has played the equivalent of 11 games each at shortstop and second, while Adams has played the equivalent of 114 games at his position.

Neither has much power. Hill has actually spent a surprising amount of time at DH, where his .271/.332/.382 line looks a little out of place (league average is .261/.340/.442). Adams is slugging just .385 himself, and while both players' power numbers are low, neither is unexpected. Adams' career minor-league slugging is .393, although it increased somewhat linearly as he advanced. Hill slugged .414 over his three stops from 2003-04, and opened this season by slugging .468 in Triple-A Syracuse. Hill and Adams don't have much power in their past, but that doesn't mean they're guaranteed to be sub-.400 sluggers.

Still, there are some positives to be taken from the two rather punchless seasons. There's enough evidence to suggest they control the strike zone well enough (Adams sees 3.75 P/PA, and Hill is a little worse at 3.45 P/PA). They're also among the team leaders in percentage of batted balls that are line drives. Hill and his .332 OBP can be viewed positively by Jays fans, as there aren't many under-24 infielders who have posted an OBP that high in Toronto. Should that OBP hold up (and it's been creeping downward for a while), Hill would join Tony Fernandez, Roberto Alomar and Eric Hinske in Toronto trivia-land. Sure, that's a pretty restrictive filter, but we're looking for optimism here. The chances that both outperform the declining Corey Koskie next year are pretty good.

--John Erhardt

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