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October 7, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Pirates, Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Watching the movie "Rounders", you can't help but think that the writers are big baseball fans, as it's littered with baseball references: Bill Buckner, Shea Stadium, George Steinbrenner, Wiffle ball. In that vein, here are a few choice quotes from the cult classic to help us summarize the Pirates' 2005 season.

"We can't run from ourselves, our destiny chooses us."

This Professor Petrovsky nugget embodies Jason Bay, who could be on his way to developing the reputation as the lone marquee player on a losing team. Bay had a banner year, but it did little to help the fortunes of his team. Pick your accolade, Bay earned it: 5th in VORP, 8th in VORPr 11th in EqA, sixth in WARP1, etc. You can name the players who were better than Bay on one hand, but among the Lees, A-Rods, and Pujolseseses, you never hear Bay's name mentioned. But what's not to love? Bay doubled his walk total while marginally increasing his already stellar slugging percentage. He had a 95% success rate stealing bases and, by Clay Davenport's fielding numbers, he even was an above average fielder. The best news of all is that this was his age-26 season, one year before the all-important age-27 season. The bad news unfortunately is that Bay's story is beginning to sound like that of Dale Murphy, one of Bay's rising PECOTA comps. Murphy was generally stuck on Braves teams that were a national joke until Murphy had been cast away, sent to finish his career with the Phillies and Rockies.

"Want a cookie?"

So many great quotes by John Malkovich here, playing the Russian gangster, card shark, and Oreo lover Teddy KGB. This one seems appropriate, given how many rookies the Pirates called up this year. While they didn't use as many as the Braves or Rockies, the Pirates did have eight rookies up for an extended time.

There were some surprises and some disappointments from an offensive standpoint. Chris Duffy did better than anticipated, while Brad Eldred did not make a huge splash. The jury is still out on Duffy, as most of his value was tied to his batting average, but Eldred could be in danger of losing his prospect status. In his BP 2005 player comment, it was noted that he needed to develop a better batting eye or his slugging would be empty. Unfortunately, Eldred has not yet learned patience, striking out 77 times coupled with only 13 walks. While he did smash 12 homers, he needs to either strike out less, walk more, or preferably both. Ryan Doumit and Nathan McLouth basically played to their PECOTA forecasts, with McLouth slugging a bit more than expected. Going forward, there is little signal that this group of hitters will be yielding future all-stars, but at the very least they will be inexpensive, complementary players.

"I see a mark, I take him down."

This pronouncement from Worm, played by Ed Norton, goes out to Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, who were superb in their MLB debuts. Both players had similar performances. They had great home run rates, decent hit and strikeout rates, and unfortunately, poor walk rates. While both players did well overall, they will need to improve their control going forward if they are to succeed. Nevertheless, it is not hard to envision a deep, lefty-heavy Pirates rotation in 2006. Combined with Dave Williams and a healthy Oliver Perez, the Pirates are looking at a very young and inexpensive rotation. Assuming he's back, Mark Redman should fill out the rotation, but if not, the Bucs could easily fill the the fifth slot internally--choosing from among Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and perhaps even Bryan Bullington.

"Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker."

The opening line of the movie, delivered by our hero Mike McDermott, is awarded to the two unluckiest pitchers in baseball, Mark Redman and Kip Wells. As amazing as it seems, the two pitchers deserved 15 wins more than they received. Unfortunately, they did not get them, and stood around helplessly waiting for the support that their teammates never gave them.

"The move was folding!"

More strategy, delivered again by Mike McDermott, that closely parallels the direction for the 2005 Pirates. With their young players not ripe enough to excel, combined with some injuries and uninspiring performances, you wound up with a lost season overall. Still, the Pirates made some good moves in calling up their prospects and getting a look at what they had. They also were wise to deal veterans when able, as exemplified by their acquisition of Jody Gerut. They can be chastised for not dealing chips like Redman and Jose Mesa, but this was not a typical trading deadline. Now that they have a better idea of what their young players are capable of, 2006 will really be a make or break year. They will have a new manager (paging Ken Macha), and their youngsters should move into more prominent roles. The Pirates are unlikely to solve their offensive woes in one off-season, but with a bullpen arm or two to complement Mike Gonzalez and John Grabow (both of whom were among the top 30 in INR), the Pirates could compete with an Angels-like team: a deep pitching staff and a lineup built around one marquee masher.

--Paul Swydan

TEXAS RANGERS
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  • Moving On: Just a day after the season ended the Texas Rangers brain trust elected not to offer free-agent pitcher Kenny Rogers a contract for the 2006 season, marking the end of Rogers' tumultous two-year term in Arlington. During 2004 he was Texas' third most valuable pitcher: though he had only a 4.76 ERA, his 211 2/3 IP were a huge help to a staff that mustered only two 30 game starters, had only three pitchers with at least 103 IP, and used 17 different starting pitchers due to injuries and ineffectiveness.

    In 2005 Rogers was undoubtedly the ace of the staff (his 40.4 VORP was almost double that of the team's second best starter, Chris Young [VORP of 22.6]). Rogers' 40.4 runs of VORP was good for 30th best in major league baseball this year.

    Obviously one can imagine that the decision not to offer a contract was partially based on Rogers' recent behavior. During the last year the veteran lefty has had repeated confrontations with the front office--from his demand for an extension mid-season, to his declaration that he would not offer the club a "hometown discount," to the finger he fractured pummeling a water cooler, to the suspension he earned for shoving a cameraman. In any number of ways the southpaw has alienated his paymasters.

    There are also significant warning signs in his 2005 pitching statistics. In terms of both K/9 IP and SO/Batter Faced, Rogers notched one of the lowest strikeout rates of his career. He kept his ERA in check with a HR rate that he is entirely unlikely to maintain (his 0.69 HR/9 IP is the lowest he's allowed since his age-25 season as a reliever). In 2005 Rogers allowed more batters to put the ball in play than he has at any other point in his career. Heading into his age-41 season, poised to reap a substantial salary in arbitration, and playing for a team with the fifth worst Defensive Efficiency in the majors, it makes baseball sense as well as good PR sense to pass on the veteran hurler.

  • Moving On, Part II: Most of the reporting on the Rogers' decision made clear mention of the fact that the decision was made based on a "unanimous" recommendation from senior management. The decision was made during the first day of the team's off-season organizational meetings, and in attendance was GM John Hart, director of player personnel Dom Chiti, manager Buck Showalter, pitching coach Orel Hershiser, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, and, of course, Assistant General Manager Jon Daniels.

    The unanimity is good, because just days later it was officially announced that John Hart would vacate the General Manager's office for a consultant position and that Jon Daniels would succeed him. At 28 years and 41 days old, Daniels becomes the youngest GM in major-league history.

    After graduating from Cornell University in 1999 with a degree in applied economics and management, Daniels spent two years working in business development and consulting. In 2001 he headed to Colorado to work as an intern in the Baseball Operations department of the Rockies' front office. The next season John Hart hired him as a Baseball Operations Assistant in Texas. He moved from that position to Director of Baseball Operations, and from there to Assistant General Manager. Now after five years in baseball he'll take over for one of the best mentors in the business (Hart has had as his assistants Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, Cincinatti GM Dan O'Brien, and Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd).

    The transition begs numerous questions. What role will John Hart have in baseball operations decisions in the coming off-season? Having spent almost his entire career in Texas, it seems unlikely that Daniels will want to put new people into the key front office positions, but who knows if he's totally comfortable with Hart's staff? How much will Daniels' philosophy differ from that of his predecessor?

  • Scary Case: One of Daniels' first big decisions will be what to do with Alfonso Soriano. With 5+ years of major league service time, Soriano would almost definitely earn a titanic award in salary arbitration. With 162 home runs and 169 stolen bases to go along with a lifetime .280/.320/.500 batting line, Soriano represents an arbitration case that almost completely lacks comparables. Part of the problem is that outstanding young players almost always hook multi-year deals before they get to their five-plus arbitration.

    Derek Jeter earned $10,000,000 after his four-plus year. As a five-plus he signed a 10-year, $192,000,000 deal. Scott Rolen took a one-year, $8,600,000 deal as a five-plus player, and a month later rejected a 10-year, $140,000,000 offer from Philadelphia. Jorge Posada signed a five-year, $51,000,000 deal as a five-plus player and Carlos Beltran (who didn't have quite as prolific a hitting record, but was a far better defender) agreed to a one-year $9,000,000 deal during his five-plus negotiation.

    Soriano avoided arbitration last year and earned $7,500,000. He can look forward to a significant raise whether or not he plays in Texas in 2006. Daniels and his front office will have to decide if Soriano is worth the money considering his poor OBP (.309 in 2005, .320 lifetime) and awful defense (-24 FRAA in 2005, -65 lifetime). They'll especially be weighing the value of Soriano's bat versus the arms they can sign on the free agent market with that $8,500,000+. Ian Kinsler, the Rangers' second-base prospect and a potential replacement for Soriano, hit . 274/.348/.464 at Triple-A Oklahoma in the Pacific Coast League.

--Tom Gorman

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