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May 16, 2006

Prospectus Today

Road Game

by Joe Sheehan

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I caught the Las Vegas 51s/Nashville Sounds game last night, the outcome a 4-3 win for the 51s. Much to talk about, so let's dispense with narrative and go to the bullets.

  • The matchup of D.J. Houlton and Dennis Sarfate didn't look sexy--I missed Chad Billingsley by a day--but I was pretty happy with it. Houlton is a guy I've liked for a couple of years, ever since the Dodgers took him in the 2004 Rule 5 draft out of the Astros' system. He wasn't very effective for the team last year, although he did last the season on the roster while spending four months in the rotation. His home-run rate is his biggest problem, but he also needs to walk fewer hitters if he's going to be a Jon Lieber-type pitcher.

    Last night, he was on more than off, allowing three runs in six innings and picking up the win in a 4-3 game. He didn't allow any homers and just one extra-base hit, and was helped by some terrible baserunning by the Sounds. I think Houlton might be someone who is ill-suited for the PCL. He pitches to contact and gets fly balls, neither trait a helpful one in a league with a number of high-altitude, thin-air bandboxes. I suspect that Houlton might actually put up better raw numbers and have more real value in Dodger Stadium than Cashman Field. However, with the Dodgers' rotation running smoothly and Billingsley next in line, Houlton is probably an organization away from his next MLB job. I remain convinced he can be an innings guy.

  • I saw Sarfate in the Arizona Fall League, where he put up decent numbers. He's having major control issues, with 26 walks and 22 strikeouts going into last night. The saving grace is that he'd allowed just one homer coming in. Last night was more of the same; he walked three and struck out six, but also hit two batters and seemed to spend the entire night down 2-0. At times he'd look very impressive--he worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the fourth--and at times he'd just look like he had no idea where the ball was going.

    What I really didn't like was his hittability. By my count, Sarfate got just 13 swing-and-miss strikes on the night on 104 pitches, and some of those were by Houlton. A guy with his stuff should be able to make people miss more. There were a couple of situations where he needed a strikeout, and instead allowed two-strike singles through drawn-in infields.

    Sarfate has more raw skill than Houlton, but the latter is much closer to being a major-league pitcher.

  • I'm not sure Corey Hart belongs in Triple-A, but I do know that games like last night won't get him back to the majors. His stats look good: 1-for-3 with a ringing two-run double to left-center and a walk, .309/.382/.557 on the season. At the same time, he was nowhere near a ball he should have played in the first, a slicing fly ball by Jeff Duncan that Anthony Gwynn nearly caught in straightaway left field. (Duncan would score the 51s' first run.) Hart was picked off second in the fourth inning, and made a an egregious baserunning error in the sixth that helped to kill the Sounds' only rally of the night. On second after his double, he hesitated going to third on a grounder up the middle--a ball that was behind him and on which he should have run--and was tagged out trying to get back to the bag.

    On the night, the Sounds lost three runners to bad baserunning, which is as much why they lost as anything else that happened.

  • Even with Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, Willy Aybar and Jonathan Broxton all recently promoted to L.A., the 51s still feature some very good prospects. Foremost among these is Joel Guzman, a rangy 21-year-old in his first season in left field. Guzman did not have a good night, showing considerable impatience at the plate while going 0-for-3 with a hit by pitch. He had a terrible at-bat in the fifth, striking out on a 54-foot breaking ball with the bases loaded and no one out. He's a project, still working on becoming a baseball player, but the raw tools were apparent even to an untrained eye like mine. I think Jermaine Dye is a realistic expectation, and he has a higher upside than that.

    Quite simply, we don't talk enough about Logan White, the Dodgers' head of player development. He's put together a terrific system that I think is going to yield a number of division champions in the second half of this decade.

  • Hong-Chih Kuo threw two innings and didn't allow a ball out of the infield. He struck out the side in the eighth. I think he looked like a major-league reliever, although it's worth noting that he had a number of deep counts, reflecting the command problems that got him sent back to Las Vegas. A Kuo/Broxton tandem in the seventh and eighth innings is going to be incredibly hard to beat, if not in 2006, certainly in 2007 and beyond.

  • About 18 months ago, I wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2005 that the Marlins should throw caution to the wind and move to Las Vegas.

    I take it back.

    I'm a big fan of Las Vegas, a city that approaches the energy of my favorite places in the world--New York, San Francisco and Boston--while having enough good restaurants to keep a foodie happy until his early, cholesterol-victim death. However, last night's game did not speak well for Vegas' ability to support a baseball team. A small beverage company--"Starbucks," I think was the name--bought up the available tickets for the game and distributed them, free, to anyone who cared to attend. They were even throwing in free samples and gift cards for use at their stores.

    Three thousand people showed up. Free baseball, arguably one of the most attractive teams in the franchise history, a night with perfectly reasonable weather…and they filled maybe a third of the seats.

    Any Las Vegas MLB franchise is going to have to make its living by getting local residents to show up. The idea that a team would be a tourist attraction is wrong; people go to Vegas to do things they can't do at home, and a baseball team wouldn't rank next to shows and meals and casinos. There's no secondary market to speak of--the problem that renders the big-city San Diego Padres a smallish-market team--and no regional sports network to broadcast the games.

    The only major thing Vegas has going for it is the support of local government. That's certainly important, but it's not enough to overcome the limitations of the city. If there are just three thousand people who will come out to see a good minor-league team for free, I seriously doubt that a major-league team can draw the 32,000 or so a night that it would need just to survive. The lack of local-media money would make the team more reliant on its gate, and beyond that, its city's population, than any team in modern baseball history.

    Note that I haven't even used the word "gambling" yet.

    Las Vegas isn't a realistic relocation option for any team in the game. It would be the worst market in baseball, worse even than Kansas City, worse than places like Portland or Charlotte or San Antonio (although not much worse). If baseball wants to continue playing stadium extortion games, it may have to look at expanding into areas like San Jose and northern New Jersey that are nominally "owned" by existing teams. There just aren't enough places left with enough people and TV sets to make an MLB team work.

Thanks to Jim Gemma of the 51s for his help last night, as well as Russ Langer for allowing me to sit in on his radio broadcast for an inning, and friend of BP Dave Cokin for stepping out of the booth for that inning, risking the chance that I would turn him into Wally Pipp.

I didn't come close.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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