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December 14, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Dodgers, Twins

by Baseball Prospectus

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Packing heat, notes style…

  • In 2005, Jeff Kent was the 12th best offensive player in the National League, and third only to Todd Helton and Brian Giles within the NL West. Not too shabby for someone in their age 37 season. As if duplicating that production won't be difficult enough, Kent will have a new challenge at some point in 2006. When Cesar Izturis returns from Tommy John surgery Kent will be moving over to first base. Since World War II, only two players have spent more than 100 games at first after having spent 100 at second base the year before: Rod Carew from '75-'76 and Pete Runnels from '60-'61. Carew was 30 when he made the switch, Runnels 33. Kent will be 38. In addition, Kent is not really the spitting image of a defensive stalwart. Looking at his Rate stats, Kent has always been below average, no matter the position, whereas Carew and Runnels were average or better at the time of the switch (though Carew would decline later). While Izturis might not make it back in time for Kent to log 100 games at first base, this transition figures to be an interesting story in 2006.

  • The addition of Rafael Furcal was a good move viewed in a vacuum. Though the Dodgers may have overpaid to get him, he is a good bet to be worth it over the life of the contract. However, when looking at the Dodgers as a whole, was this the right move? It is true, the Dodgers had a dearth of hitting last season, but the Dodgers filled a position where they already have a long-term commitment, and they still have gaping holes elsewhere on the roster. That said, if the brain trust was convinced that they needed another shortstop, then why not go after Julio Lugo? A quick comparison:
    
    Furcal vs. Lugo comparison, 2003-2005
    Player     PA   AVG/OBP/SLG   WARP1    VORP    SB    SB%
    Furcal   2055   285/346/429    18.5   145.0   100   84.7
    Lugo     1901   281/346/402    17.2   111.2    72   78.3
    
    
    Furcal is the better, and also the younger, player. However, the Dodgers have the ammo in their farm system to execute such a trade. And while Furcal will only cost the Dodgers $4 million next season--less than the $4.95 million Lugo will earn--Furcal will cost $26 million in 2007 and 2008, at a time when promising prospects Joel Guzman and Chin-Lung Hu should be ready to contribute, in addition to Izturis. For a team with a mediocre rotation that is faced with the possibility of losing its second best pitcher, perhaps the Dodgers have more pressing needs this off-season.

  • The Dodgers did well to not drink the Kool-Aid on Elmer Dessens, who signed a 2 year, $3.4 million deal with the Royals. In its present state, the Dodgers bullpen should be tough on right-handed batters in 2006. Assuming the return of Eric Gagne goes smoothly, that Yhency Brazoban can find a happy medium between his peak of 2004 and valley of 2005, and that Duaner Sanchez and Jonathan Broxton continue to develop, the bullpen should not need an extreme makeover. However, while the Dodgers should be tough on righties, they could again have problems with lefties. No one exemplifies this like Brazoban. His 19 saves give him the aura of "closer," something that might be tempting for new manager Grady Little in the early going. Unfortunately, Brazoban can't get lefties out:
    
    Brazoban Split Stats
           <--------vs. RHB--------->  <--------vs. LHB--------->
    Year    AB  K/BB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   AB  K/BB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
    2005   136   3.2   .250/.303/.419  135   1.3   .267/.370/.533
    2004    65   8.0   .215/.229/.323   49   0.8   .224/.381/.286
    
    
    The seeds were certainly planted for Brazoban's horrific '05 performance in '04, when he walked 13 lefties and struck out only 11.

    It will be interesting to see how Little manages left-handed situations in '06, especially when all of the Dodgers' divisional opponents feature left-handed batters among their primary threats (Chad Tracy, Todd Helton, Brian Giles, and Barry Bonds). At present, the only internal lefty option on the 40-man roster is Hong-Chih Kuo. Despite an impressive 2005 that earned him a September call-up, he has only thrown 82 2/3 innings since coming stateside in 2000 at the age of 19. Nevertheless, a dearth of lefties will not be a situation that is completely foreign to Little. In his two seasons in Boston, only three lefties threw substantial relief innings for him--Chris Haney (30 IP in '02), Casey Fossum (40 IP in '02), and Alan Embree (33.3 IP in '02, 55 IP in '03).

--Paul Swydan

MINNESOTA TWINS
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While Twins rumors continue to swirl around Hank Blalock and Mike Lowell, the team has already made some interesting changes. Most notably, they nabbed Luis Castillo from the Marlins at a reasonable price, one which received praise from Christina Kahrl and others. Half of Castillo's value lies in who he's replacing at second base. Minnesota's clump of Luis Rodriguez, Luis Rivas, Nick Punto, Brent Abernathy and Bret Boone was collectively sub-replacement level with the bat and below average defensively. Castillo's speed is nearly gone, but even accounting for his fading skills, he should still be three or four wins better than that group if he stays reasonably healthy. That's a major upgrade.

J.C. Romero is not a big loss. His season wasn't nearly as good as the 3.47 ERA suggests, belied by a 48/39 K/BB ratio in 57 innings and a .360 opponents' OBP. He was due $2.2 million this year, a figure the Twins probably (and wisely) didn't want to pay given their depth. In return, Minnesota acquired Alexi Casilla, a speedy little second baseman who spent most of 2005 in low-A ball. Another Twin whose price tag has surpassed his function is Jacque Jones, surmised to cash in for three or four years at roughly $6 million per. Mike Cuddyer could replace Jones in the outfield if the Twins acquire another third baseman.

But neither of these modest trades by the Twins can possibly turn out as lopsided as one Tom Gorman analyzed last May. While the Twins/Giants swap is still young, it's well on its way to joining the ranks of some other legendary fleecings. In no particular order, we present the following deals for your bemusement.

Two years ago, Pierzynski was deemed a spare part with the emergence of Joe Mauer. At the time, this surprised many, since Mauer hadn't yet tasted Triple-A and he was only 20. While these concerns proved legitimate when Mauer trashed his meniscus in his second MLB game, he overcame the injury to excel with both mitt and bat. The Twins haven't missed Pierzynski, who's made $5.75 million the past two years for a .256 Equivalent Average and a 102 Rate2 (Mauer in that time: $625,000, .281 EqA, 111 Rate2). Meanwhile, the Giants cut bait on their mouthy catcher after one season--a pretty good one, at that--citing his many clubhouse conflicts as primary cause for a non-tender. (Little did the Giants realize, all he ever needed was to blow off some steam in the wrestling ring.) Of course, having Mauer ready to roll doesn't single-handedly validate the deal.

It's easy to forget that Nathan had already flaunted his bullpen flair in 2003--before the trade that branded him the Twins' closer--but he's become nearly unhittable. Since then, he's saved 77 games, and in 142 innings has struck out 183 batters, yielded just 94 hits, eight home runs, and 45 walks. Over the past two years, only Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera have topped his WXRL total of 12.113, and only Trevor Hoffman has pitched in higher-leverage situations.

Control and longball issues have kept Bonser out of the Majors so far, but his slow, subtle, steady progression from 2004 to 2005 is encouraging. In a Rochester ballpark slightly more hitter-friendly than Double-A New Britain's, all his peripherals inched forward. Bonser is 24 now, and probably deserves a shot at the rotation. Unfortunately for him, he appears to be third in line among Twins rookies vying for a rotation spot. It's a huge testament to the farm system and its knack for developing pitchers.

Liriano is, of course, one of those two blocking Bonser. Remarkably, Liriano has improved at every level (September call-up notwithstanding), and he's the main reason this trade has become so obscenely one-sided. He missed all of 2003 with shoulder trouble, recovered nicely in 2004, and last winter's BP annual dubbed him "the most promising arm in the system, bar none." This year at age 21, he held Double-A and Triple-A hitters to .208/.270/.313 with a 204/50 K/BB ratio in 168 innings. Liriano was not mentioned in BP's Top 50 Prospects of 2005, but he'll be one of the very top pitchers on the 2006 list. It was that impressive of a breakout.

In 2005, the Twins pitching staff ranked fifth in the league in ERA and scribbled all over history books for their pinpoint control. According to James Click, the last staff to post a lower walks-per-nine ratio was the 1968 Giants. Factor in the ripe crop of pitching phenoms, and the Twins might be the only team that can ignore the arms race this winter. Nathan is a huge part of the staff's accomplishments, but as good as he's been, the fruits of the A.J. Pierzynski trade are just beginning to fall.

--Dave Haller

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