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October 20, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Astros, Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Team DT Cards | Team Articles | Team Statistics

The Killer Bs have an odd way of evoking sentiment and respect from fans who care nothing about the Astros. "I want to write Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio a letter," a former professor of mine recently told me, "and tell them how much I appreciate what they've done, and the character they have shown by sticking around. They play baseball the right way."

Indeed, the Bagwell/Biggio/city of Houston love triangle has grown with each passing year, despite the eroded skills, productivity and the change of guard from the days when Derek Bell and Sean Berry were members of the Killer B fraternity. The past couple years, the phenomenon has become less about Biggio and Bagwell and increasingly about Lance Berkman and the rest of the supporting cast.

chart

The buzzing bee soundtrack--though it's already a bit worn down--might keep getting used for several years at the Juicebox. Berkman's been the "MVB" for several years now and is under contract through 2010, and while Chris Burke's major-league career hasn't gotten off to the quick start many of us hoped it would, he's immensely popular in Houston. Unless GM Tim Purpura doesn't value hometown popularity the way Gerry Hunsicker always did, Burke should also be around a while.

Bagwell's contract now serves as a paramount model of why such deals almost always bite back. At the time, press conferences were surrounded by words like "loyalty," "reward," "mutual," and "appreciation," while the only thing that's still appreciating five years later is the enormity of the team's mistake. It's this precise reason why Jason Giambi and Jim Thome were allowed to leave the only teams they'd ever known as free agents: the A's and Indians knew the risk involved. All three have suffered major injuries, and the Yankees, Phillies and Astros would all rip up their respective contracts given the chance.

Worse still, the Bagwell deal is heavily backloaded. He raked in just $8 million in 2002, the first year of the deal, which was a good value for the team. The Astros owe him $17 million in 2006 and hold an option for $18 million in 2007--or they can opt out for $7 million. It's very possible that his chronic shoulder will never again let him play every day. If Bagwell can't regain his power, he's hurting the Astros by playing every day; if he does regain it, he might hurt himself by playing every day. It's not a pleasant situation, but it should have been avoided.

The market took an ironic twist in Biggio's case: he signed a three-year, $28 million pact that was awful for Houston, covering 2001-2003, during which he averaged just 4.4 WARP3. The Astros still hadn't seen enough, so they re-upped him for an incentive-laden one-year, $3 million deal for 2004 and picked up an identical option for 2005.

Biggio erupted with a massive power spike, posting a career-high .204 isolated power. He tied Doc Cramer as the oldest player to set a career high in that metric:


Oldest Players With Career High Isolated Power, Min. 500 PA

Year  Player       Age   ISO
2005  Craig Biggio 39   .204
1945  Doc Cramer   39   .104
1957  Ted Williams 38   .343
1998  Tony Gwynn   38   .180
1977  Ron Fairly   38   .186
1922  Jake Daubert 38   .156
1997  Chili Davis  37   .231
1971  Hank Aaron   37   .341
1985  Carlton Fisk 37   .250
1925  Zack Wheat   37   .182
1954  Hank Sauer   37   .275
On October 2, the two parties agreed on a one-year, $4-million extension for 2006. It remains to be seen whether the Astros will use Biggio in the outfield and let Burke develop as the second baseman of the future, or vice versa like this season. Biggio may have a couple good years left in the tank, but Burke has many more and Houston should take advantage of the extra value Burke offers as a middle infielder in the long term.

Finally, the argument could be made that the two constant Killer Bs have been a driving force for attracting marquee free agents to Houston over the years. Would Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Jeff Kent, and others have agreed to play there without the reputation Biggio and Bagwell bring to the organization? It's a compelling question, at least. But if the Bagwell money had been spent more wisely and invested in productive players who don't clog up the cash flow for half a decade, well, wins tend to cover all kinds of clubhouse evil. Had that happened, maybe Houston wouldn't have been forced back to St. Louis with offensive sinkholes at multiple positions.

--Dave Haller

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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The Blue Jays had a frustrating season, as the last remaining squad north of the border once again finished south of .500. Injuries to Roy Halladay and Ted Lilly prevented Toronto from reaching their full potential; however, between Halladay, Lilly, Gustavo Chacin, Josh Towers and David Bush the rotation looks solid for 2006.

There has been discussion ad nauseum regarding the Toronto infielder logjam. In that discussion, it has been easy to overlook the Alexis Rios problem. Rios once again failed to live up to expectations in right field this season, posting a VORP of 3.9 in 519 PA. For right fielders with 500+ PA, this was the worst VORP total in the majors, and for right fielders with 400+ PA, only Sammy Sosa had a worse season (-1.4 VORP). The same is true when looking at RF EqA.

To his credit, Rios is a good defender:


2005 AL RF Fielding Stats

Player         FRAR    FRAA
Ichiro Suziki    25      11
Jacque Jones     24      11
Alexis Rios      21       9
Trot Nixon       17       8

The Blue Jays have to be commended for giving Rios the opportunity, and in the first half he was looking like the Devon White we thought he might be, putting up a .279/.318/.420 line. Unfortunately, in the second half he completely collapsed, posting a .237/.290/.364 line. He struggled quite a bit on the road as well. At home he was able to take advantage of the wide spaces in the Rogers Centre gaps, as evidenced by his increased doubles and triples production at home. However, he was unable to improve on his already poor plate discipline:

Alex Rios' Plate Discipline

Year   BB Rate   SO Rate   BB/SO
2004     6.74%    18.26%   36.90%
2005     5.39%    19.46%   27.72%

Rios is still young, but winter-ball totals aside, it is looking more and more like his '03 New Haven season is a big outlier.

So if Rios is relegated to the bench in 2006, who should start? One option would be for the Jays to move one of their many infielders out to right. If someone is qualified for it, this would help solve two problems at once. With the expanded payroll, they could also consider netting a bigger fish in free agency. Johnny Damon certainly doesn't have the arm for right, but perhaps Vernon Wells could be shuffled over to accommodate him. Certainly Brian Giles would be a great fit as long as they were able to get him with a short-term deal. A less expensive option could be a second-tier free agent like Matt Lawton, and have Rios play at home and Lawton play on the road, forming a creative sort of platoon.

It would certainly be justified to shave Rios' plate appearances in 2006, though. His situation is stable, however, compared with the infield situation. Orlando Hudson and Shea Hillenbrand have both been floated as possible trade bait, at least in the media. With more pressing decisions elsewhere on the roster, the combination of Rios' age, minimal salary and excellent defense will likely keep him on the roster for 2006. At this point however, the capacity in which he participates on said roster should be determined by his bat, especially at a position where offense is expected. Unfortunately, Rios' offense to date is too offensive to warrant the starting slot.

--Paul Swydan

Related Content:  Houston Astros,  The Who

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