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June 1, 2006
Astros, Blue Jays
There are 13 outfielders in baseball with at least 150 plate appearances and a negative VORP. Many of those names aren't surprising: Juan Pierre is in the "top" five, along with defense-first fourth-outfielder types like Jay Payton and Joey Gathright. Most notable on that list is the presence of the entire outfield of the Houston Astros.
Usually, below replacement-level production--even if the manager can't define those terms--earns an outfielder a place on the bench. For instance, only nine Major League players managed to amass negative VORPs over 500 or more plate appearances in 2005, and Jeremy Reed was the only outfielder among them. In Houston, however, the trio of Willy Taveras, Jason Lane, and Preston Wilson may well be in it for the long haul. Phil Garner isn't entirely without options--in yesterday's game against the Cardinals, he started Orlando Palmeiro in left and Lance Berkman in right, slotting Mike Lamb in at first--but those options aren't a whole lot better than the status quo. If it weren't for Lamb's hot start, they would be much worse: Berkman is a better defender at first, and Palmeiro also has a negative VORP, averaging an eye-poppingly bad -0.45 runs per game.
It's easy to rationalize keeping Taveras in the lineup. Offensively, he's hanging in there at replacement level while providing gold-glove caliber defense in center. But in the cases of Wilson and Lane, Garner must be depending on regression to the mean--any mean that doesn't belong to Darin Erstad or David Bell. Thanks to strong starts by Lamb, Craig Biggio, and Brad Ausmus, Houston has managed to score some runs, staying closer to the NL-leading Dodgers than in that department than to the cellar-dwelling Cubbies.
Of course, Houston proved last year that you don't need to lead the league in offensive production to win the pennant, so long as you set the pace in pitching and defense. Accordingly--in case you haven't heard--Roger Clemens is scheduled to join the Astros rotation on June 22nd. Joe Sheehan's rough calculations suggest that Roger could be worth anywhere from three to six extra wins over Fernando Nieve or Taylor Buchholz.
Clemens's return may end up doing more for Houston than simply providing a massive upgrade over the current fifth starter. As teams such as the Brewers and A's have discovered already this year, it takes only a spurt of bad luck to force you into finding out how bad your eighth starter is. Despite having lost Brandon Backe for most of the season, the Astros have been able to send one of their top six starters out to the mound every game this year. Instead of Clemens vs. Buchholz, it only takes one more injury (to the fragile Andy Pettitte, perhaps?) for the comparison to be Clemens vs. Ezequiel Astacio, Jason Hirsh, or Philip Barzilla. So, if Clemens could be worth as much as seven or eight additional wins, is it enough to send the Astros back to the postseason?
Probably not. A year removed from allowing fewer runs per game than any other National League club, the Astros team ERA sits at 4.64, thirteenth in the senior circuit. Had Clemens been pitching every fifth day since April, that number would surely be more respectable but, replacing Buchholz's 5.50 with, say, 2.50 for Clemens, it would still only be good for about seventh. When four of your starters are hitting below replacement level (and Brad Ausmus might just join that group by September), no single starting pitcher is going to win you the wild card.
Sitting only 2.5 games back of first place in the American League East standings, the Blue Jays made a few early season moves that they hope will pay dividends later on. Russ Adams and Josh Towers were both sent to Triple-A Syracuse after Wednesday night's game against the Devil Rays. Adams was demoted for his defensive problems at shortstop, and Towers essentially because he hasn't pitched well for more than a few innings at a time all season, including Wednesday night's 43 pitch, not-quite-two-full-innings disaster.
Towers had the finest season of his five year career in 2005, with an ERA of 3.71 and a K/BB ratio of 3.86. He gave up over a home run and ten hits per nine innings, but thanks to his miniscule walk rate of 1.24--as well as the 19 double plays he induced--he was able to avoid any real problems on the mound. The Jays rewarded him with a two-year, $5.2 million contract, which certainly helped Toronto outright him straight to Syracuse rather than dealing with waiver claims.
PECOTA projected Towers to put up a season close to his 2005 numbers this year, except with an ERA resembling that of his PERA of 4.22 from the previous season. With a healthy Roy Halladay in the rotation, that would not have been an issue for Toronto, but Towers has imploded, free agent signing A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin remain injured, and no one knows which Ted Lilly is going to show up on a given night. Towers is certainly a risk on the mound, as he is a player--much like Carlos Silva, also recently demoted from the rotation--who walks a fine line between above average and awful due to his peripherals. If he can figure out some of his issues in the minors, he would certainly be valuable in a Blue Jay rotation that currently includes the aforementioned Halladay and Lilly, as well as Casey Janssen and Ty Taubenheim.
Janssen has been successful so far in his seven starts, but he has a Batting Average on Balls in Play of only .221--well below the league average--and his strikeout rate per nine innings is only 3.86. Janssen may eventually develop into a solid pitcher with more reliable peripherals, but for now Toronto seems to be playing with fire. The Jays will eventually require some assistance in the rotation, whether it comes from help off of the disabled list, Dustin McGowan, or Towers finding his groove.
As for Adams, he was one of the worst defensive shortstops in the majors in his rookie season, and is continuing the trend in 2006. It is well-documented that Adams does not have the arm to play shortstop in the major leagues, but the Jays stuck with him there, even after Aaron Hill--a natural shortstop--was promoted. Considering the relative lack of talent at the shortstop position in the major leagues, Russ Adams' bat was acceptable for the position, but not when it was combined with his extremely damaging glove. Take a look at his Rate2 and Fielding Runs Above Average figures for his three seasons in the majors:
Year AdjG Rate2 FRAA ---------------------------- 2004 18.0 82 -3 2005 123.2 83 -21 2006 31.0 83 -5John Dewan's +/- rating from The Fielding Bible put Adams at -17 for 2005, placing him 29 out of 32 shortstops, ahead of only Angel Berroa, Derek Jeter and Mike Young. Manager John Gibbons has been quoted as saying that Adams will have a spot at second base when he comes back to the majors, most likely meaning that current shortstop Aaron Hill will make the switch to short. This should improve Toronto's defense--Adams has 10 errors so far this year, 9 of which are throwing errors--and should make Toronto's pitching staff stronger, especially with Chacin, Halladay and Towers relying on the defense to such a great extent.
This is a problem that could have been figured out earlier, but at least the Jays had the sense to shuffle some players around prior to a fall in the standings. Considering the injuries the Jays have put up with thus far, the team may actually have a legitimate chance at the end of the year, as long as strong seasons by those like Vernon Wells keep up over the long run. Getting more useful versions of Adams and Towers back on the major league roster would certainly make that goal somewhat easier to reach.