May 24, 2006
In semi-recent years, the Cardinal farm system has produced a handful of top-shelf talents like Albert Pujols, J.D. Drew, Matt Morris and, well, that's about it. As a result, the Redbird farm has gained the reputation of being a notoriously weak system. That's a justified rendering, and it doesn't figure to change anytime soon. Cards exec Jeff Luhnow runs the Cardinal drafts, and he's of a quantitative mindset. However, it may be a couple of years before his approach bears any fruit.
In the here and now there's not much in the system to get excited about, but, hey, there's enough out there to at least give us a smattering of farm-related bullet points …
The Nationals have regressed in a year's time from the toast of baseball to a broken-down team left to struggle with the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East. Washington's offensive woes have been prolific--even the inept Fish have scored seven more runs than Washington's 190--yet the most immediate worries center on the starting rotation. Zach Day has gone on the 15-day DL with shoulder tendinitis, leaving the team with just 3.5 starting pitchers: Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas, Mike O'Connor, and the flammable Ramon Ortiz. The Nationals clearly need an immediate plug, as newfound ace John Patterson isn't expected back from his bout with forearm tendinitis until early June, with Pedro Astacio on track to make his season debut shortly afterwards.
In the spirit of the 2006 baseball preview edition of Sports Illustrated--which now features a weekly statistical contribution from Baseball Prospectus--Notebook offers a modest solution: move reliever Jon Rauch to the rotation, and reap the benefits as fans pack cavernous RFK Stadium to see one of the tallest pitcher in major-league history work every fifth day. Rauch is no Randy Johnson--he's actually an inch taller, at 6'11", and he lacks the fearsome scowl and frightening mullet that identified the RJ of yore. What he is, however, is a solid major league pitcher, one who is in the midst of his best season following a series of false starts with the White Sox, Expos, and Nationals. Rauch has thrived in the bullpen, with a 1.67 ERA and 25/9 K/BB in 27 innings, leading to the question of why Frank Robinson hasn't used him in more important situations--despite lapping the rest of the Washington relief corps with 9.3 ARP (Gary Majewski is next with 6.2), Rauch has a leverage of 0.81, meaning that he has pitched, on average, in situations where a run scored would have had a lesser impact on the game's outcome than a run at the start of the game. Rauch has essentially been given the same opportunity to affect the Nationals' chances thus far as Felix Rodriguez, who sports an identical 0.81 leverage to go with an ugly 6.85 ERA. Rauch has been the first man to come out of the pen to relieve Nationals starters in 12 of his 24 appearances this season, including the last five, a role likely stemming from the fact that as a former starter, he is capable of working for longer stretches than more specialized relievers. While having the best pitchers on the staff throw more is always a good idea, giving Rauch such a low-leverage role means the Nationals are not getting the most they can from him, a fact evidenced by Rauch's .483 WXRL, which ranks second to closer Chad Cordero's .536 mark despite Rauch's superior pitching. Win expectation accounts how performance actually affects the outcome of a game based upon its context, and Cordero's team-leading 1.80 leverage means he has had much better opportunities to contribute to Washington wins than Rauch.
Letting Rauch work as Cordero's chief setup man in later, more critical game situations would be an improvement, but the Nationals should also consider giving him a crack at commandeering the empty rotation slot. During spring training Rauch felt that he lacked the stamina to go five or more innings following last May's surgery to repair his torn labrum and extremely aggressive recovery (he was back in the big leagues by September), so the decision to start minor leaguers like Shawn Hill--who is in line to take Day's spot on Saturday--instead of Rauch is likely due to health concerns. Rauch never had the blazing high-90's heat of Johnson, and the multiple shoulder injuries reduced him to speeds much lower than that, although he has reportedly gained enough strength to get his fastball back up into the low 90s this season. Additionally, Rauch has thrown two innings on five different occasions, and ranks fourth in the NL for relief innings pitched, so it seems plausible that he has built up his arm strength sufficiently to make the move back into a starting role.
If Rauch has indeed acquired the stamina necessary to start, Washington would have the luxury of deciding whether it wants to free itself from the onus of pitching Ortiz, who has departed from most of his starts this year in the same manner that a fighter pilot departs the cockpit of his doomed plane. Notebook surmised that RFK's 385 foot alleys would cut down on Ortiz's gopheritis, and while he has only yielded four homers thus far, the faint residue of his once-respectable strikeout rate has completely evaporated, leaving behind an ability to surrender hits in bunches. Ortiz's solid 2002 season is well in the past, and recent returns--a 5.53 ERA and 112/68 K/BB in 216.2 innings between 2005-06--suggest that he might not even be a viable fifth starter.
While a lower BABIP could help Ortiz save his rotation spot, the jury is still deliberating on the major league fate of O'Connor, who was so unknown heading into the season that he was not among the 1,600+ professional players processed by the PECOTA forecasting system. O'Connor hadn't seen a day above A-ball before he jumped to Triple-A New Orleans to begin the year and was just as quickly promoted to fill Patterson's slot. The 25-year-old's 20/15 K/BB suggests a forthcoming drop for his surprising 2.89 ERA, making it all the more important that Rauch be readied to step into the dangerous breach in Washington's rotation.