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January 26, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Orioles, Twins, Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Typical of the Orioles in the Camden Yards era, they made one good and one bad decision last week.

To the good, they added right-hander Kris Benson from the Mets in exchange for reliever Jorge Julio and C+ prospect John Maine. Benson, who gets more attention for his narcissistic better half than for his pitching, immediately becomes the most accomplished member of the O's rotation. This is in spite of being used in the same sentence with "underachieving" and "disappointment" more often than the fifth season of "Alias."

Just 16 months ago, Benson kicked off the sellers' market in pitching by signing a three-year, $22-million deal with the Mets. That contract, signed by a career 4.28 ERA pitcher with just two 200-inning seasons, set in motion a whole winter of expensive free-agent busts.

A year later, with the Season of Ortiz followed by the Era of Burnett, getting Benson at a bit more than $7 million a year for two years looks like a bargain. Paul Byrd, your basic league-average starter with some durability issues, signed with the Indians for just that. Benson posted a 4.13 ERA for the Mets in 28 starts last year, missing time to a pectoral strain in April and shoulder soreness in July, neither of which projects as a problem in '06. For a rotation that has upside players in Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard--but the variance that goes with those young arms--a safe bet for 190 league-average innings is more than worth two pitchers who won't likely combine for an ERA below 5.00 next year.

A step backward, however, was the excessive commitment to right fielder Jay Gibbons. The Orioles avoided arbitration with Gibbons not just this year, but for the next four years by signing the 29-year-old left-handed hitter to a $21 million contract that keeps him in black and orange through 2009.

Gibbons is the kind of player who is supposed to be endangered by the new era of performance analysis. While he hits for decent batting averages and has enough power for 25 homer, 100-RBI seasons, he doesn't do enough of anything to be an impact hitter from a corner position. His career line of .261/.315/.466, almost all peak, is an accurate reflection of his abilities. At his best, he's been consistent around a four-win level (WARPs of 3.7, 3.9 and 4.0 in his three full seasons), with some growth in power as he's aged, but little improvement in a wholly inadequate walk rate. He's nothing special defensively, and won't gain points with the glove as he goes into his thirties.

The Orioles have made an eight-figure commitment to a player who they'll be trying to replace halfway through the contract. Going through arbitration this season would have been a much better idea, even though losing would have cost the team a million dollars. This deal costs them $16 million, and commits them to a player who doesn't push them any closer to the true contenders in an increasingly competitive American League.

--Joe Sheehan

MINNESOTA TWINS
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2005 was a good news, bad news season for the Twins offense. The bad news was that any semblance of offense abandoned them, as they were last in the AL with 4.25 runs per game. There were injuries to some, notably Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer. There were ineffective performances, notably from Jason Bartlett (August excepted), Shannon Stewart, and Lew Ford. The good news was that Joe Mauer avoided the DL and was the third best catcher in the Majors. Stewart had the largest left fielder decline in VORP from '04 to '05, while Ford's '05 SLG did not measure up to his '04 OBP. Position-wise, they ranked 25th or lower in first base, second base, third base, short stop, left field, and right field VORP. Heading into the off season, it was clear the Twins needed to get better on offense.

Similar to the regular season, this offseason has been kind of good news, bad news. The good news is that the additions of Rondell White, Luis Castillo, and Tony Batista will help. Castillo, in particular, is a major upgrade over what the Twins had at the keystone last season:


2005 Twins Second-Basemen vs. Luis Castillo
Player            AdjG-2B   Rate-2B    EqA
Nick Punto           62.5        98   .223
Luis Rivas           39.9        95   .226
Luis Rodriguez       23.9       104   .250
Brent Abernathy      13.7        93   .229
Bret Boone           13.4       100   .118
Mike Cuddyer          6.1       100   .255
Juan Castro           2.5       100   .225

Luis Castillo       113.7       108   .280

In addition to the offensive and defensive upgrade, Castillo should help from a roster space perspective as well. For the past four seasons, the Twins have used at least three players for more than 10 AdjG at second. Castillo, who had a seven year low AdjG in 2005, should lessen the need to carry extra infielders and snap that streak.

Also, if not a valuable addition, Tony Batista should at least be an entertaining one, as he tries to pile a third consecutive MLB season (and fourth overall) with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. And while Batista showed in Japan last year that he can still swat the ball out of the yard, it is likely his biggest contribution will be on defense. In 2004 (his last year in the majors), Batista was among the best defensive third basemen in the game:


2004 Third Basemen (min. 400 PA)
Rnk   Player           FRAR   FRAA
1   Scott Rolen        33     19
2   Adrian Beltre      27     12
3   Tony Batista       26     12
4   Vinny Castilla     24     10
5   Mike Lowell        24      9

23  Joe Crede           5     -8
24  Casey Blake         2    -12
25  Morgan Ensberg     -2    -12
26  Melvin Mora        -1    -14
27  Aramis Ramirez     -1    -14

The Twins certainly get high marks for looking beyond the regular free agent list to get Batista on the cheap. However, while this could be a nice upgrade over Cuddyer's below average defense, the Twins could have used more of an offensive upgrade at the position.

The good news is that the Twins have a plethora of arms that figure to be among the game's elite, they have improved their infield defense, and have hopefully saved themselves from another 394 at-bats of Punto power. More good news is that they will score more runs than last year. The bad news is that this increased offensive output will likely only place them ahead of the Angels, Royals, and Devil Rays. More bad news is that the moves the Twins have made won't be enough to move them ahead of Chicago and Cleveland in the top-heavy AL Central. Barring some serious breakouts from joltin' Joe and Justin Morneau, the Twins are showing yet again that they will do enough to be competitive and tread that smoky-white water, but it won't be enough to taste real post-season glory.

--Paul Swydan

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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It has been ages since we last covered the Padres, so excuse us for jumping right into bullet points.

  • November 3: Acquired INF Vinny Castilla from the Nationals for RHP Brian Lawrence and cash.

    Back of the rotation dreck for back of the lineup dreck? At age 38 and in Petco Park there is no way that Castilla offers much in the way of useful offense. Nate Silver's PECOTA projection system predicts a .258/.318/.405 line from the aging third-baseman. But it's not like Sean Burroughs was setting the world on fire (.713 OPS in 2004 and .617 in 2005). Though Castilla swings a limp noodle, he's still more potent than Burroughs, and that's ignoring the fact that Castilla still seems to be an outstanding glovesman.

    With Clay Hensley and Tim Stauffer looking almost ready to step into the rotation, Lawrence was expendable. San Diego had a surfeit of 4th/5th starter types and Washington had to unblock super-stud prospect Ryan Zimmerman. Our only criticism might be that the Padres may have gotten more for Lawrence had they waited, considering all of the nonsense that flew about in the pitching market for free agents this off-season.

  • November 18: Acquired OF Mike Cameron from the New York Mets in exchange for INF/OF Xavier Nady.

    Quite the coup for San Diego. Cameron is due $6,000,000 in 2006 and has a $7,000,000 option in 2007 with a $500,000 buyout. He offers the Padres an above-average on-base percentage in the top half of the lineup, some potent pop (average of 24.5 home runs/year from 2001-2004), and plus defense in a park that desperately needs good outfield defense.

    In various major league stints the last three years Nady was mostly unable to put up the production that was expected of him. He has consistently shown an inability to hit for a decent batting average, and without an exceptional walk rate this leaves him with a below average OBP. He flashed a .511 slugging rate in the first half of 2005 (for an isolated slugging rate of .247) but in the second half he stumbled mightily (.257/.313/.351) to finish the season with an unimpressive line of .261/.321/.439. That just doesn't cut it for someone who is such a spotty defender at every position but first.

    Maybe the Mets think Nady will go back to hitting like he did the first half of 2005, but this is more likely a salary dump for them. It seems unrealistic to expect Nady to take a big leap forward as a 27 year old with over 800 major league plate appearances.

    There are two ways this deal doesn't work out for San Diego. First, if Cameron suffers from lingering injuries related to his collision last season with Carlos Beltran, he's unlikely to be the the sort of player who is worth $6,000,000. Second, it's not at all clear how Cameron's primary offensive weapon--the home run--will translate to Petco Park. The Associated Press' report on the trade implied that the Cameron will have an easier time hitting dingers in Petco than others because he's a right handed batter. But for the last two years the park factor for HRs in Petco is substantially lower for righties than it is for lefties (59 vs 78). Cameron has played in some extreme pitcher's parks, but nothing like this. Right handed hitters hit almost twice as many homers away from Petco as they did in the park.

    Question: With Cameron in CF, Brian Giles in RF, and Dave Roberts in LF, is this now the best outfield defense in baseball?

  • November 21: Signed INF/OF Eric Young to one-year contract; Acquired IF Bobby Hill from the Pirates for a player to be named later.

    Small moves but meaningful ones, as they give the team some room to trade Mark Loretta for catcher Doug Mirabelli. Young's defense up the middle is suspect right now, but he's certainly a decent enough role player and his walk rate is solid enough that he's passable as a starter for reasonable-sized stints at a number of positions.

    Hill probably doesn't have much of a role on this team but he offers the Padres insurance at third and maybe if he shines in spring training he competes with Josh Barfield and Mark Bellhorn for playing time at second. If not he's a Quad-A backup infielder.

  • December 8: Selected RHP Seth Etherton with the sixth pick in the Major League portion of the 2005 Rule 5 Draft and acquired RHP Steven Andrade from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for cash considerations.

    The Padres were active during the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings and probably had the best day of any organization. Etherton is unlikely to make the team out of spring training, but if he does he's certainly worth the $50,000 Rule 5 fee the team owed for picking him. If he has to be returned to Kansas City the $25,000 the team dropped on him isn't so much worse than signing a similar player to an NRI and letting him walk if he falls on his face. Obviously a team is better off with as many 5th starter candidates as it can scrounge up, especially when the other options are guys like Chan Ho Park or Shawn Estes.

    Andrade is a real-deal relief prospect. As his minor league numbers show, he's had good success based on good peripherals for his entire minor league career. He has middling stuff but the results are indisputable and he's cheap enough for a legitimate spring training tryout, certainly.

--Tom Gorman

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