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January 27, 2006

Prospectus Today

Firing Bullets

by Joe Sheehan

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Friday notes…

  • The A's signed Frank Thomas to a low-risk, moderate-reward deal this week. Given how highly I think of Thomas, who is an inner-circle Hall of Famer if he never plays another game, you'd think I'd be more enthused about the deal. Thomas, even in his decline phase, has maintained his ability to hit for power and draw walks. His last two seasons--.245/.400/.571 with 30 homers--would be considered excellent production from any DH in the game.

    What Thomas hasn't maintained is his ability to stay in the lineup, picking up just 435 plate appearances over those two seasons, due largely to a serious of left foot and ankle problems. That he remained unsigned so deep into this winter, and comes so cheaply--$500,000 guaranteed on a deal that maxes out at $3.1 million--is testament to the uncertainty surrounding his health.

    I don't think this is a bad signing by the A's, even though it does exacerbate a crowded situation on the corners. Thomas isn't going to hurt them: he'll either be contributing or injured, and the downside of the latter is that they have the same team that already looked like the favorite in the AL West. I just don't think he's going to be healthy enough to come to the plate more than 300 times, and a figure closer to 200 is likely, and even .250/.400/.550 in 200 PAs is only going to do so much coming from a DH with negative baserunning value.

    It's a good move by the A's, all upside, but it's not as exciting as it would be if Thomas was a canddiate for a full season of play. The A's should get what they can from him during the season, but be more focused on having Thomas available for the postseason. As Christina Kahrl often points out, the Yankees in the dynasty era liked to do this with fragile players like Darryl Strawberry and Jeff Nelson, ensuring their availability for the high-leverage games at a cost of having them in-season. That kind of approach with Thomas is the one most likely to bear fruit for the A's.

  • This is old business, but a number of readers have specifically asked me to comment on the Javier Vazquez trade, which slipped under my radar last month. My initial reaction was that it was a terrific deal for the White Sox, who didn't give up anything they were going to need in '06, and got a pitcher who I still think of as a top-tier starter.

    There are two things wrong with that. One, it's probably time to rethink Vazquez, who despite strong strikeout-to-walk ratios has an ERA of 4.64 over the past two years, largely thanks to allowing 68 homers in 414 2/3 innings. He's durable, and he's not likely to be much worse than he was the past two seasons, but expecting the 2002-03 version to make an appearance is wishcasting.

    The second problem is that the prospect the Sox surrendered in the deal, Chris Young, may be better than I thought. In putting together our Top 50 Prospects list, Young was the player who generated some of highest praise, and Nate Silver's PECOTA projection for him-now available-is .263/.343/.495, excellent for a 22-year-old. He's a player who both scouts and statheads are enthusiastic about, and when you have both of those groups behind you, you're a real prospect.

    I think Young's strikeout rate (129 in 466 at-bats at Double-A Birmingham) is high enough that it presents a problem for him. He was just 21 last year, so there's development time ahead, but that kind of problem with contact could make hitting for a viable batting average hard at the higher levels. I know Nate considers this and a million other factors in his projections, so you should take PECOTA more seriously than my objections.

    Put all that together, and I think the deal makes sense for both teams. The Sox, an older team than you might think, have a short enough window that dealing a prospect for a good starting pitcher is a good bet. The Diamondbacks get out from under Vazquez's contract, which was excessive for the pitcher he's become, while adding the one thing they didn't have in their system, a true center field prospect. With all the hitters the D'backs have at the upper levels, they actually don't need Young to be Eric Davis (a name some optimists have invoked when talking about Young). If they get Mike Cameron, a good defensive center fielder who puts some runs on the board, they'll be in excellent shape. Young is one of the most fascinating prospects in the game, someone to pay close attention to this spring.

  • They announced some of the playing rules for the World Baseball Classic. The pitch limits are pretty interesting: 65 from March 3-10, 80 for March 12-16, and 95 for the semifinals and final March 18 and 20.

    These numbers look reasonable and conservative, the prudent thing to do. They're not. Those numbers are each about two weeks ahead of where pitchers typically are in March, and even considering that those intending to compete in this thing have been planning on getting that kind of work, the numbers make me uncomfortable. You can't find any examples of pitchers going 65 pitches before March 10, or 80 before March 20, in the last ten years. Pitchers just aren't brought along that quickly.

    What I don't understand is why this isn't more of an issue. The entire reason we have a six-week spring training is so that pitchers can ramp up from playing catch to throwing major-league innings. If not for the delicate nature of pitchers, you'd need about a week of workouts and maybe another week of games to get ready for the season. Yet now, because it's convenient for MLB and its coffers, pitchers are going to be asked to do things they haven't done in years, shift their schedule and be ready to throw competitive innings in early March. I think it's a terrible idea, I have all along, and I will not be surprised to see more and more pitchers either beg off or have their teams do it for them as the season approaches.

    From a game standpoint, talking about this with some people at the winter meetings in December, I was thinking that the limits would encourage opponents to be very disciplined at the plate against star pitchers. Taking lots of pitches to force, say, Pedro Martinez out of the game in the third inning seems like a good way to beat the Dominican Republic.

    What was pointed out to me was just how big an advantage these rules are for the United States, which has deeper pitching than any two countries combined. The dropoff from the starter to the next reliever to the next will be less for the U.S. than for anyone else, giving them a distinct advantage in a format that would otherwise not reward depth. The chances of an upset behind the right arm of some pitcher having the day of his life are minimized in this format, which works well for the marketing of the event--making it likely that the WBC will get its intended final four--but takes away from the notion of fair competition.

    The need for these restrictions and the effect they have on play are just two reasons why the Classic is likely to be anything but. It may be a good idea, may grow baseball globally, but the timing of it creates all kinds of conflicts, from physical to developmental to strategic, as well as hindering MLB teams who will be playing much of March without significant parts of their roster. The priority of baseball players in March should be preparation for the upcoming season, not an artificial competition that is going to look more like an exhibition than it will soccer's World Cup.

    The WBC should be held in November or December, when it can have the lowest chance of affecting a player's heath and an MLB team's chance of contention. Until and unless that happens, it's going to create more problems than it's worth.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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