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May 5, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Reds, Indians, Marlins

by Baseball Prospectus


CINCINNATI REDS
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As Borges may have written, "Time forks perpetually into countless futures. In one of them, the Reds win the NL Central." Almost universally viewed as the division's doormat this season, the Reds are in the unlikely position of looking down on the rest of the league. But despite their 20-9 record, Clay Davenport's Playoff Odds have them behind the Brewers and Astros--both with worse actual records--because of their underlying performances. Joe Sheehan has already looked at a few reasons why that is, but today, let's take a closer look at a player who's getting a lot of press as being partly responsible for that hot start.

Todd Helton and Scott Rolen aren't the only baseball figures battling illness as of late. More than a few baseball analysts have come down with a bad case of the Aprils, particularly where Bronson Arroyo is concerned. On ESPN the other night, John Kruk mentioned that the Reds would remain in the hunt for the Division crown all summer because Arroyo was "a proven winner." Even GM Wayne Krivsky has shared his $.02, saying:

"Here we were, trying to fly under the radar. It's true we have had a lot of good things happen so far. Arroyo's been terrific, but we were only able to get him because the Red Sox had an excess of starting pitching and they needed an outfielder. The naysayers said he was a fly-ball pitcher coming to a fly-ball ballpark, but he knows how to pitch."

We can all probably agree that this is more diplomacy than analysis. But that doesn't change the fact that it's obviously not really naysaying when you have a fly-ball pitcher--one who recently lost a few K's from his strikeout rate--moving to a home run park; that's just pointing out some history, however unfortunate. Also unfortunate is that the Reds haven't exactly had great success with that kind of pitcher before.

The drop in strikeout rate from 2004 is what's worrisome, since that means more balls in play. The Reds haven't fielded a good defensive team since 2000 (when they ranked 3rd in the majors), and they didn't figure to be a top-shelf defensive team this year. Bringing a league-average pitcher into a park that inflates home runs to play in front of a suspect-to-competent defense is just asking for it. But lost in all of this is the fact that, when Krivsky made these remarks, Arroyo had exactly one start at Great American Ball Park. He's since made one more. But he's not succeeding despite GABP; he just hasn't had to deal with it yet (the Reds, as a whole, have also faced below-average offense so far-that helps, too).

In addition to this home/road discrepancy--and the uber-low .193 BABIP that Joe Sheehan mentioned the other day--Arroyo has seen a marked improvement in his L/R splits. From 2003-2005, opponents mustered the following performances against him:

        AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
-----------------------------
vs. L  .275  .338  .455  .793
vs. R  .228  .281  .366  .647

To be overly simplistic about it, right-handed batters were Neifi Perez, while lefties were somewhere between Trot Nixon and Andruw Jones. This season is another story:

        AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
-----------------------------
vs. L  .171  .222  .303  .525
vs. R  .193  .239  .386  .624

Arroyo's performance against righties isn't that out of line with what he's done in the past. His performance against lefties, though, is another symptom of the Aprils, and a case where we should probably side with history until given a compelling reason not to.

--John Erhardt

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Sparked by Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, and Ben Broussard, Cleveland's offense is on top of the world. Scoring 6.6 runs per game through May 3, their lineup was lapping the rest of baseball. An 18-hit parade in Oakland Wednesday night bumped the team's batting average to .309.

After five-plus months of Notebook neglect, the Tribe needs some attention. Let's get to it:

  • Vic the Slick: Martinez's tear--.386/.457/.634 so far--has been especially impressive, considering this little hot streak essentially dates back to last year's All-Star break. In 98 games (364 at-bats) since the Midsummer Classic, he's raked at a .382/.451/.594 clip. That's not to suggest he's Tony Gwynn with a chest protector--he'd still have to exceed .350 for the remainder of the season to even toy with the all-time record for a catcher (.362, by Mike Piazza in 1997 and Bill Dickey in 1936)--but Martinez does deserve his due props. It's no surprise that he trumps all catchers in VORP, but he's demolishing the field:

    
    CATCHER       TEAM     VORP
    Martinez       CLE     20.2
    Ausmus         HOU      9.6
    Hernandez      BAL      8.8
    McCann         ATL      7.3
    Miller         MIL      7.0
    
    

  • Zeroes to heroes: First base, an embarrassing blemish against the offense in 2005, has turned an early one-eighty despite minimal personnel changes to the platoon. For whatever reason, ditching Jose Hernandez in favor of Eduardo Perez has magically morphed Broussard into the American League co-Player of the Month for April. Perez, too, has more than pulled his weight in his grab bag of 39 at-bats. Combined, the Indians' first base tag team is hovering around a .400 average, with eight homers and 33 RBI--figures certain to crash, but which do help explain much of the team's offensive explosion.

    The other two feeble positions in 2005, third base and right field, appear to be in much better shape than a year ago, even though they're still occupied by Aaron Boone and Casey Blake. Last year, these two struggled to pull themselves out early-season slumps; Boone's was especially ghastly. In 2006, Blake has saved his own bacon, at least for a little while, with a torrid April. Boone hasn't started so well, and frankly, he's lucky Andy Marte remains homerless at Buffalo. That won't last much longer, and for all the Tribe's loyalty to the Good Soldier, his days manning their hot corner are obviously numbered.

  • Cotton needs a-pickin': Obviously, Marte is the prize pumpkin on the farm, but the Indians have plenty of ripe or nearly-ripe talent in the upper minors. If it weren't for the quick starts of Broussard and Perez, Ryan Garko would be getting serious looks at first base. The team was excited this spring about Franklin Gutierrez's newfound plate discipline, and while he is walking, he's still whiffing too much. (Gutierrez, however, has nothing on the fan-tastic bat of Brad Snyder, who has been rung up 38 times in 100 Akron at-bats.)

    A flurry of injuries to the pitching staff forced Cleveland to promote several young pitchers. Fausto Carmona spotted for C.C. Sabathia, who came up lame for the third April in a row. Matt Miller, Rafael Betancourt, and Fernando Cabrera--three very effective, underrated relievers--have all missed time with injuries of varying severity. Over the past month, Jason Davis, Rafael Perez, Brian Slocum, and Jeremy Guthrie all pitched with the big club--not exactly Plan A. Cleveland's bullpen, perhaps the greatest strength of a very good 2005 squad, has been almost completely plowed under. As we detailed in the last Tribe Notebook, it could be argued that this year's relief corps (when healthy) isn't much worse on paper.

    
    INDIANS BULLPEN, APPROXIMATE DEPTH CHART, 2005-2006
    
    2005                      2006 (if injured->replacements)
    
    Wickman                   Wickman
    Howry                     Mota
    Betancourt                Betancourt (injured->Slocum->Davis)
    Rhodes                    Cabrera (injured->Davis->healthy again)
    Riske                     Graves
    Sauerbeck                 Sauerbeck
    Miller->Cabrera           Miller (injured->Perez->Guthrie)
    
    

    Speaking of young pitchers, Jeremy Sowers is one of the few in Buffalo still awaiting the phone call. Known as a control freak, it's a little strange that he's already walked 14 in 36.2 innings, but Sowers boasts a 1.47 ERA through six Triple-A starts. That performance shrinks his career minor-league ERA to 2.20 over 196 innings. After the parent club caught the injury bug and subsequently promoted lesser pitchers in Carmona, Guthrie, and Slocum, it looks like they'll let Sowers work out any remaining kinks in Buffalo before setting the service time clock.

    Sowers and Marte are in similar positions. While it's possible they could spend the whole season quietly honing their respective trades as Bisons, the cutthroat AL Central probably won't afford that luxury to the Indians. The big leaguers blocking Marte and Sowers--Boone, Paul Byrd, and Jason Johnson--aren't exactly Tribe linchpins. Boone and Johnson are signed to short-term, relatively cheap contracts that might give Mark Shapiro some decent trade bait if they play well in the first half. Gutierrez and Garko could also force Shapiro's hand as they try to unseat Blake and Broussard. The man in charge here is not gun-shy. Just ask Coco Crisp.

--Dave Haller

FLORIDA MARLINS
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As a May 15 deadline approaches for the Marlins to commit to San Antonio, and the Florida legislature mulls a tasty bit of subsidy swag to keep the team from moving, it would be easy for folks to forget that they're still playing ballgames and not just politics in southern Florida. Judging by the attendance, many have forgotten.

For those few who have braved a trip to Pro Player/Dolphin/Wayne-Huizenga-Sucks-Away-All-Your-Profits Stadium, the Marlins have certainly put a forgettable product on the field. The team is 2-9 at home, 8-18 overall, a hair below the Washington Nationals for the bottom spot in the NL East, just above the Pittsburgh Pirates for worst record in the league.

What's gone wrong? It starts with the pitching. Going into last night's game, the Marlins had the worst pitching in the league, by RA+ (0.87) and VORP (9.0), despite ranking 12th in the league in ERA (4.67). The Marlins also ranked last in strikeout to walk ratio (1.35), a far cry from last season, when Marlins pitchers struck out two men for each one given a free pass.

Last year, we marveled at the pitching of Brian Moehler, who at that time had pitched less than 85 major league innings over the previous four years, and still managed to provide the Fish 158 innings of league-average work. Unfortunately, thus far Scuffy's the fourth-worst starter in the NL. Sometimes, we'd write this off under the heading "only May, small sample size," except that Moehler's been awful for a bit longer than that--he posted a 6.67 ERA after the All-Star break last season, compared to 3.27 prior. That shiny thing sticking out between the numbers on his jersey may be a fork.

Top lefty prospects Scott Olsen and Jason Vargas haven't been able to harness their stuff in the Show--allowing a combined 35 walks in 43.2 innings. Even Dontrelle Willis has been underwhelming, although his peripherals this year are not far off his career marks.

On offense, two of the key players from whom we expected big production, Jeremy Hermida and Mike Jacobs, haven't contributed much so far. Hermida's been suffering a sprained hip flexor, which curtailed his production prior to landing him on the DL; Jacobs has simply not shown the form that netted him 11 homers in 100 at-bats last season. It's early yet for Hermida and Jacobs, but the team can't afford for those two to slack off, because the lineup's been loaded with players whose offensive contributions are expected to be minimal. Reggie Abercrombie and Eric Reed are the kind of guys PECOTA expected to perform below replacement level; Chris Aguila and Miguel Olivo were expected to do better, but not by much. Only Olivo is living up to even that modest expectation.

Now that we have you thoroughly depressed, let's get to the good news. So far, the Marlins' middle infielders have been the rookie surprises of the season. Second baseman Dan Uggla--yes, the guy the Marlins picked up in the Rule 5 draft--has a .279 EQA (.286/.340/.469) in the early going, and has shown a nice glove at second base. He's actually the eldest member of the Marlins' core infield group, which includes star third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Jacobs, and shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez is a tools guy who snagged an honorable mention on our top prospects list, and is doing Uggla one better with a .290 EQA (.287/.368/.455) out of the leadoff spot. The most impressive thing about Ramirez's performance so far has been the jump in his walk rate--Ramirez drew one walk every 13.2 plate appearances last year in Double-A, but he's walking once every 9.9 PA at the major league level this season.

In the outfield, Josh Willingham is living up to the touts we've given him going back to the 2005 prospect list, with a .342 EQA (.326/.415/.607) in 106 PA. Willingham's ten doubles and 22 RBI lead all NL rookies, and his five home runs have him tied with Prince Fielder. While Willingham is raking as predicted, the Marlins seem to have abandoned any idea of keeping him as a full-time catching option, which is a shame, since Willingham is an awful outfielder. With Hermida on his way back from his injury, and new acquisition Joe Borchard in the fold, Florida's outfield could quickly become a crowded place. At the very least, Willingham has shown that they have to find some place for him in the lineup.

--Derek Jacques


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