January 27, 2006
Angels, Astros, Nationals
This off-season, the Angels' lawyers have made more news than the team's personnel moves. Other than the my-mistake-for-your-mistake swap of Steve Finley for Edgardo Alfonzo, there haven't been many significant player acquisitions for the Halos, unless you count overpaying Hector Carrasco and acquiring J.C. Romero to replace Jason Christiansen as impact moves.
Alfonzo's trying to come back from a season in which his isolated power dropped to .068, without much in the way of on-base ability (.327 OBP), speed, or defense (93 Rate at third base) to mitigate the power outage. Given that Alfonzo has been worth less than seven WARP over the last three years, and only just turned 32 years old, he's aged about as well as McCoy after visiting Gamma Hydra IV. Nonetheless, Alfonzo's addition, along with the departures of Ben Molina, Paul Byrd, and Jarrod Washburn, leave the Angels with a team that's stacked at third base (Alfonzo joining Chone Figgins, apparently-lapsed prospect Dallas McPherson, and Robb Quinlan) but thin in the outfield, at catcher, and in the rotation.
Given the current roster composition, PECOTA projects that the Angels would be the second-worst offensive team in the league, after the Royals, in 2006. That's even with highly-touted Casey Kotchman taking over at first base, and incumbent first baseman Darin Erstad returning to center field. The next wave of Los Angeles of Anaheimian offensive talent--shortstop Brandon Wood, second baseman Howie Kendrick, Cuban refugee Kendry Morales--have played a grand total of four games at the Triple-A level (all by Wood), and are each presently blocked at the major league level. While one has to admire the Angels' player development system, and their discipline in thinking of the long-term, this season could prove a rude awakening for Angels fans who have grown used to contending over the past few years.
Meanwhile, in an Orange County courtroom, the Angels are defending themselves against a $100 million lawsuit over the team's 2005 name change, from being the "Anaheim Angels" to the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim." In a nutshell, the city of Anaheim is arguing at trial that the Angels violated their 1996 stadium lease, in which the city agreed to pay for certain renovations to the stadium, in return for certain concessions--one of which was that the Angels' team name would include the word "Anaheim." The team's rejoinder to this is, "what part of the word 'include' did you not understand?" The Angels rely upon the fact that the lease does not state that the name Anaheim has to appear first, nor that the Angels had to forsake all other city names.
From outside the trial looking in, that argument seems persuasive--particularly in light of the fact that Disney, the then-owner of the Angels, had specifically rejected more restrictive naming language proposed by the city. From a legal perspective, the city is left to argue that it could not have anticipated the present situation--where the team chose to include another city name alongside the name Anaheim--because the "custom and usage" of major league baseball teams has never included having multiple "geographic identifiers" in a team's name.
While the ultimate success of a case like this will doubtless rest on details more technical than can be captured in a simple summary, it is difficult not to empathize with the city's plight. In 1997--after having hosted the Angels ballclub since 1966, under the name of the "California Angels"--the city of Anaheim finally took top billing in the new team name of the "Anaheim Angels." But after eight years and one World Championship under that name, the Angels have once again sought the prestige of an association with a better-known city, and Anaheim has suddenly found itself demoted--in their home team's name, at least--to being just a suburb of Los Angeles.
If Anaheim's intent, in renovating Anaheim Stadium all those many years ago, was to be recognized in the world as a "big league city," then obviously the Angels' current name frustrates that purpose. Regardless of the legal maneuverings or jury verdicts, the object lesson for municipalities courting Major League Baseball remains the same--be very careful with the wording of your contracts, and expect no loyalty in return for the taxpayer dollars you invest in stadium projects.
The Astros have had a rather uneventful offseason, coming off a franchise-first World Series appearance. No big signings, no big losses (unless Roger Clemens heads off into the sunset or up the road to Arlington), and not much to talk about. Until now. The past and future of the franchise end up right down the UTK alley in the span of 48 hours and neither story is being explained well. Here's why neither should worry Astros fans:
Things have gotten worse in Washington since Neil DeMause checked the progress of the proposed stadium on the Anacostia River. The District of Columbia council has still yet to approve a lease for the new park, predictably contesting the cost. $535 million, the original estimate, is only good enough for "a diamond and a bunch of bleachers," according to D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, but the expanded price tag of two thirds of a billion may be too much for the city to swallow. A contentious court battle is also brewing over compensation for the owners of 14 acres of waterfront land earmarked for the new stadium which were seized through eminent domain last fall.
In light of all of that bad news, the Nationals could desperately use a strong season to dispel the bitterness that the immigration of the Expos has brought to the capitol. The National League has grown weak in comparison with the dominant junior circuit, and the Nationals could conceivably ride a strong rotation and dominant bullpen to the second postseason appearance in franchise history this year. However, Washington likely doesn't have enough firepower on offense to contend in the toughest National League division. Nate Silver's PECOTA projections have the Nationals pegged for 660 runs scored next year, just three ahead of the gutted Marlins for last place in the major leagues. The offense kept the team from capitalizing on several breakout pitching performances last season, and not enough has been added to that lineup to forge a contender.
But what about the big trade for Alfonso Soriano? Simply put, that deal looks like a disaster for Washington. Soriano's home/road splits the last two years in Texas have been gruesome, and PECOTA reflects the effect of moving from the hotbox in Arlington to expansive RFK Stadium, projecting a line of .259/.312/.466 with 26 home runs, a drop of 43 points in OPS and 10 home runs from last year. Brad Wilkerson is projected to hit .263/.362/.473 with 24 home runs in Texas, and will make $3.9 million this year, whereas Soriano asked for $12 million in arbitration, with the Nationals offering $10 million. A year younger than Soriano, Wilkerson is the better player, capable of hitting 30 home runs, drawing 100 walks, and playing plus defense in the corners and in center.
The last part of that equation is of course the biggest problem with Soriano. Last year with Texas he was a stunning 24 runs below average at second base, the worst mark in the major leagues. (Sidenote: Texas's middle infield was about four wins worse than average, with shortstop Michael Young clocking in at -20, third worst in the majors.) All that wouldn't be so bad if Soriano moved to left field, even though that transition would turn him from an offensive asset into a much more ordinary commodity in terms of VORP. It looks as if the Nationals will have to force the intransigence out of their new star if they want him to change positions, with Frank Robinson exactly the manager to make Soriano see things from a team perspective. At this point, second base is not an option, unless Bowden can do something with Jose Vidro, whose knee is expected to be ready for action by Opening Day.
With Wilkerson gone, Ryan Church will slide over to play center field. BP stumped for Church to get more playing time during his breakout 2005, but relying on him to fill a fulltime job in center field could be problematic. Not only is Church a candidate for regression in 2006 (a high 40% projected collapse rate), but he also has had problems staying on the field. Last year he spent two stints on the D.L. with a separated shoulder and broken toe, and he has a 34% attrition rate for 2006. Church is one of several hitters the Nationals are relying on to carry the offense that might well clock in with red lights this spring, including Vidro, Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen, who is recovering from labrum surgery.
The Nationals cannot afford those inevitable injuries due to a lack of quality alternatives, a product of the thinness of their minor league system. Partially a consequence of the baseball netherworld the franchise has occupied since Jeffrey Loria sold the Expos to the 29 other teams in 2002, the Nationals' farm system has fallen into a state of critical disrepair. Besides Ryan Zimmerman, who will be starting at third base in 2006 a year after being drafted #4 out of the University of Virginia, the Nationals have nobody on the BP 2006 65-player prospect list. A glance at Washington's high level affiliates is like peering through a looking glass to the late 90's--Kevin Orie led Triple-A New Orleans in slugging, with Rick Short (33 years old), J.J. Davis (27, now with Colorado) and Juan Melo (29) following him up. Melvin Nieves (34) also resurfaced, attempting to get back to the majors for the first time since 1998, and minor league veteran Dee Haynes (27) led the system in home runs, with 23. Even heading down to the Single-A level, the Nationals have virtually no talent that currently projects to have an impact at the highest level.
The outlook for the future of baseball in Washington is not entirely pessimistic, however. Jim Bowden and Co. will have a chance to start a rebirth on the farm this June, with three of the top 26 picks thanks to compensation received for losing free agents Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco. Bowden has also made several crafty moves this offseason, picking up league-average innings muncher Brian Lawrence and signing Ramon Ortiz for one year and $2.5 million. The commitment to Ortiz is relatively low risk, and considering Ortiz's biggest weakness is the home run ball, it may turn out to be a wise pickup. Ortiz gave up 34 homers last year in 171.3 innings, and has surrendered 1.44/9 IP in his career, but RFK Stadium's deep alleys stifle homers--according to Silver's PECOTA park factors, an 88.3 factor for right-handers and 94.1 for lefties, which compares favorably with the 107.1/107.9 R/L factors for The Great American Ballpark, where Ortiz pitched last year (100 being average).
Although both Lawrence and Ortiz should shore up a strong rotation, neither of the duo can hit, and an impotent attack--coupled with the fragility of the team's offensive core--will be what prevents the Nationals from clearing away the acrid stench created by the stadium fiasco.