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September 6, 2006

Prospectus Today

Bullet Point Wednesday

by Joe Sheehan

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I have this neverending file of notes that haven't quite made themselves into full articles. Most don't deserve a full treatment, anyway, so here's a dump of that file, clearing the decks for what should be a great stretch drive.*

(*Offer not valid on the North Side of Chicago.)

  • The August 31 trade deadline was weird, with very little happening. I thought there'd be more exchange of relievers and bench players, but only the Nationals were notably active, sending away Daryle Ward and Marlon Anderson for C prospects, one of whom just had Tommy John surgery. I liked the pickup of Ward by the Braves. He's a very good bench bat and possibly someone who could spell Jeff Francoeur for six innings against an occasional right-hander. This would preferably happen in a small ballpark with a groundball pitcher tossing for the Braves that day, but it's a thought.

    The Red Sox got a terrific haul for the last six starts of David Wells' career, adding a left-handed-hitting catcher with some OBP skills in George Kottaras. I likened him to Mike LaValliere, and many people think he'll show a lot more power than Spanky did in his career. Regardless, the Sox now have someone to back up Jason Varitek, and eventually, someone to replace the captain.

    An interesting side effect of the Wells deal--and the injury to Curt Schilling--was that the Sox were a bit stuck for a starter last Friday. They fixed this by trading for Kevin Jarvis, which may or may not have been a better idea than just having Murph and Sully flip for the start. Jarvis' last four major league cups of coffee prior to Friday had yielded ERAs of 11.91, 13.50, 27.00 and 8.31, and no one had allowed him to make more than eight appearances for them since 2003.

    I know the Sox were up against it, and I know Jarvis survived (five innings, two earned runs), but it was a real hoot to see the Red Sox, one of the game's royalty, reduced to trading for Kevin Jarvis to get through the day.

  • Can you remember a stretch of games with stranger endings than we had right around the end of August and start of September?

    There was a White Sox/Twins game on which the last out came on a fan-interference call, a Chicagoan body-blocking Justin Morneau out of the way on a pop-up by Jermaine Dye. Correct-- and ballsy--call by Andy Fletcher. A few nights later, the White Sox were on the good side of a strange ending when Ben Zobrist neglected to retouch second base after rounding it on a flyball. Two throws later, the game was over in a manner most confusing.

    Last Thursday, the Cardinals narrowly escaped another Jason Isringhausen meltdown when Albert Pujols nailed Dan Uggla rounding third a bit too far on an infield single for the 27th out. Saturday night, the Indians got the 26th out on a play at the plate on which I'm not sure a tag has yet been made, then #27 on a line drive that reliever Tom Mastny gloved.

    It's not statistically significant or anything, I just thought it was notable to see so many unique endings in a short period of time.

  • Those Nationals did also pick up Nook Logan, who actually had a spot in this article even before that. See, for about a day on ESPN.com's baseball page, the kicker to their Rumor Central was "Logan wants out of Detroit." I found this utterly hilarious, because, frankly, who the hell is Nook Logan to be making demands? He's 26 years old, he put up a .305 OBP when given a chance to make a name for himself last year, then slugged .275 while splitting the '06 season between Double-A and Triple-A. Nook Logan should be happy he's still in organized baseball rather than worrying about what level he's at. He's basically Curtis Goodwin, but without a name that lets people confuse him with a better version of himself.

    Jim Bowden, of course, traded for him and made him the starting center fielder. God bless that man.

  • Credit for the financial information in last Wednesday's column on Roy Oswalt's signing should go to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Web's best resource for contract information.

  • Hey, is Alex Rodriguez still a choking scrub unfit to occupy the same infield as Derek Jeter? It's kind of hard to keep up. I just happened to look today and saw that Rodriguez is 17th in the AL in EqA, 15th in RARP and 17th in VORP among position players. He leads AL third basemen in VORP and will likely hold that ranking until the end of the year. Defense could push Mark Teahen and/or Joe Crede ahead of Rodriguez in overall value, so you can figure he's one of the two of three best third basemen in the league.

    All of this in the worst year of his career.

    The level of attention paid to Rodriguez's slump went beyond all bounds of sanity. Yes, he was probably pressing, but there hasn't been a player in history who had as much made of an 0-for-22 slump. I can guarantee you that the guy who bats two spots ahead of him in the lineup has never been subjected to the kind of small-minded, gleeful, jealous treatment that Alex Rodriguez endured in August.

    Would that he never is, because it was shameful. I can hold this gig for a million years and I will never embarrass myself the way the press did over this issue. It's the difference between writing about performance and writing about people, and it's why I can stand behind every critical thing about a baseball player that I've ever put down on paper or onto your monitor, because I was never attacking their character or their person, but rather their work product. I have been wrong, but I have always stuck to the performance.

    There's probably a 1500-word sidebar there, but I'll save it for the offseason.

  • The Marlins got permission to put playoff tickets on sale, and if things continue the way they have, half the teams in the NL will be sending out order forms this month.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this just end up being a big scam for some teams? I believe the standard deal is that if the team doesn't make the playoffs, they apply the deposit--which can be considerable, since you have to buy some minimum of tickets for all theoretical postseason games--to next year's season ticket payment. The Marlins aren't the best example here, because, through all fault of their own, they have about 38 season-ticket holders. Let's take a team that has sold well, like the Giants. Giants fans end up having to shell out something like $80 a ticket for, say, four tickets a game for nine potential postseason home games. Tack on the usual non-refundable fees, and you're talking about a $3,000 payment in September for a product you may not consume until April (if the team misses the playoffs and your cash just goes to the 2007 Giants--"Linden and the Liver Spots!").

    Multiply the above by some four-digit number, and you find teams that miss the playoffs are getting millions in cash that's essentially a short-term, zero-interest loan. Even if they don't apply the deposits to next season and return them as refunds, just holding it for a couple of months could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in interest, and remember that those "processing fees"-free money, basically-aren't going back to you. You've basically paid a fee for nothing and lost the use of those thousands of dollars for the months between when you sent in your check and when you would have otherwise done so.

    Getting that green light to sell playoff tickets is a real boon for teams. Even if they don't make it to October, the permission allows them a head start on the 2007 season and access to money that most of their opponents won't see.

  • What would you say about a player who hit .333/.459/.638 in August, helping his team to a 15-13 month that, while it doesn't look impressive, vaulted them into the wild-card race? What would you say if I told you the player struck out just five times all month, and not at all after August 18? What if that player was far and away his team's most productive player in August, during their run, and at his hottest during their best stretch?

    What if I told you the player was 42 years old, and doing all of this on two bad knees and a bum elbow, the latter of which has dramatically affected his approach at the plate? Would you be impressed now? Or would I have to tell you that despite those knees, his defensive numbers as a left fielder are basically average, and that he's four-for-four stealing bases this season?

    All of that actually happened, and no one is reporting the story, because the hero is Barry Bonds. Bonds has been carrying the Giants for most of the second half--he's off to a great start in September, too--and despite the fact that the man has more press following him than a dessert cart does, he's doing it in virtual anonymity. His trainer, his "biographers" and his ex-flunkies find their way into America's newspapers and magazines, but his performance as a baseball player isn't a story.

    Here's what's aggravating: right now, there's this idea catching fire that if Ryan Howard should hit 62 home runs, he should be granted some kind of populist home-run crown, because he's "clean." (Setting Bonds, who at least had a book written about him, aside for the moment, when was it that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were convicted of steroid use? One didn't dance for Congress and the other…hell, I honestly don't know what Sammy Sosa did that rises to any level of actual proof, even by the obnoxiously low standards of this particular cesspool.)

    Howard is becoming some kind of hero for all the people who want to whitewash the recent hitters' era, which as we all know was solely the result of steroid use and nothing else. Howard has been tested for his entire career, so they "know" he's clean, making it safe to jump on this particular bandwagon. No chance of being forced to distance yourself from the things you write about Howard a few years down the road, no sir, and if you think that's not a factor here, you're kidding yourself.

    Well, Barry Bonds has played the duration of Howard's career under the exact same rules, and he's tested positive exactly the same number of times as Howard has. I might argue that what he's doing, having one of the greatest seasons ever by a 42-year-old and doing it with half a body, is perhaps as impressive than what Howard is doing in his prime. (Or do we only like our superannuated, record-setting superstars hopped up on greenies and The Racing Form?)

    If steroid testing is the solution, if it's so important to the game that 1200 men have to sacrifice some of their rights to privacy and reasonable search and seizure to implement it, then those tests have to be evidence for everyone. You can't pick and choose whose tests are meaningful and whose aren't. If Ryan Howard's clean urine means that he's a safe hero, than Barry Bonds' clean urine means he's just as innocent.

    If, on the other hand, we're deciding that a lack of positive tests doesn't mean anything, then stop the program now. If people need to believe in this particular boogeyman so badly that a lack of positive tests means, to them, HGH or better masking agents or more advanced steroids--and then only for some people--then there's no discussion to be had. It's a belief system, and you're not going to get true believers to change their minds. But we can at least take away the illusion that for the players, succumbing to a testing program will mean something for their reputations.

    ESPN's Dan Le Batard put it best, and I'm going to paraphrase him here: we believe Ryan Howard is clean because we want to believe it, and we believe Barry Bonds is dirty because we want to believe it.

  • The NFL isn't as important to me as baseball, and falls in behind college football and college basketball as well. With that said, I've gotten a bit more interested this season after reading the latest Pro Football Prospectus annual. This is the fourth edition, and the second by Aaron Schatz and his crew, and I think it's the best one yet. You can do some different things with a football book because of the way the teams are structured, and I think the differences between this and a BP annual make PFP the right book for its sport. It's far more readable than most NFL coverage, and it'll be a big part of my fantasy-auction planning as I try and defend my first-ever title this year.

    Buy the book. You'll enjoy the upcoming season a lot more with it.

  • It's one thing to trade for Neifi Perez. It's another to give him the lion's share of playing time at second base. But when you're unable to bat Perez ninth on the days that he plays, you're just a sad, sad team.

    The Tigers seem to win enough games to stay a safe distance ahead of the Twins and White Sox, but they rarely look like a championship team to me. Their team OBP is now down to .326, 12th in the AL. The White Sox won it all last year with an even lower mark, but that team did everything else better than this Tigers team does: hit for power, field and pitch. It's still not set in stone that this team will win the division, or even make the playoffs. They could score three runs a game the rest of the way and get caught from behind by two teams. While that's not a likely scenario--after this weekend's trip to Minnesota, they have just three tough games the rest of the way--I seriously doubt that this team is better than even money to get out of the first round, and unless they play the A's, I think I'll be picking against them.

    If the Twins take three out of four this weekend, it could get very interesting. Keep in mind that the Red Sox started their first team last night for the first time since the end of July. The AL is not over yet.

  • Remember back in 2003, when it was so important that the Royals finish above .500 so that Mike Sweeney couldn't use his "get out of hell free" card to leave the franchise behind?

    Well, the Royals have paid Sweeney just shy of $33 million since then, and are on the hook for $11 million more next year. Sweeney has missed 191 games in three seasons, and is now a fragile, underproductive designated hitter who's about to be blocking some very talented hitters in Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.

    Seems a bit silly now, doesn't it?

  • Speaking of silly, I have distinct memories of hyping the Angels' future, if they could only just get out of their own way and get their talented young hitters into the lineup. Well, Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson and Jeff Mathis have combined for 228 at-bats this year, almost all of them useless, and all three have basically been lapped by the next wave of Angels prospects.

    I was never that high on Mathis, and I think I wishcasted a bit with McPherson, but I spoke words of devotion about Kotchman last winter that I've never even said to my wife. He hit .152 in 79 at-bats before hitting the disabled list with a busted talent. OK, it was mono, but health is a skill and he doesn't seem to have it.

    The really interesting thing is that the Angels have just watched a highly-regarded crop of prospects go all Ishtar on the league, and they haven't really lost ground. Certainly, healthy and productive seasons from McPherson and Kotchman would have helped a team desperate for offense, but they're going to win 85-87 games or so without them, and with Howie Kendrick leading the charge, they'll be a favorite to get back to October next year.

  • Interesting. I just poured a glass of milk, and there was a picture of Alex Rios' bat on the carton.

    It's easy to point to the staph infection that cleaved his season as the reason for his second-half struggles, but Rios was undergoing a correction before the injury. He his .264 with seven extra-base hits in June, well off his early-season .360 pace. His strikeout-to-walk ratio since the injury is 32/8 in 125 at-bats, more in line with his career numbers. Rios will be 26 next year, so he's about as good as he's going to get. I still think he can be pre-injury Jermaine Dye--.290 with 25 homers, 50 walks and Gold Glove defense-but the line between that player and Juan Encarnacion or Preston Wilson is very thin. If the Blue Jays are thinking about making him their Vernon Wells replacement, they need to be very careful about the breadth of their commitment.

    Lightning round…

  • Since the All-Star break, the Orioles' real starting rotation has a 4.15 ERA in 260 1/3 innings, and everyone has pitched better than they did before the break. Erik Bedard has been one of the best pitchers in the league, while Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen have shown improved command. This could be a very interesting team in 2007. Remember, the 1990 Braves had their ups and downs, too.

  • Prior to roster expansion, I believe the White Sox had used just 15 position players all year long, with the swap of Chris Widger and Sandy Alomar as backup catchers the only position-player move they made this season. I don't know the last time a team used just 15 position players in five months, but I do know it's rare these days.

  • For all the attention paid to the Twins' great left-handed starters and great left-handed hitters, they're in contention as much because of their bullpen as those factors. Three pitchers have ERAs below 2.00, including a submariner named Pat Neshek who arrived six weeks ago and has struck out 38 men in 26 2/3 innings. Jesse Crain started the year allowing two hits an inning, and even his ERA is down under 4.00. Juan Rincon, Matt Guerrier…the Twins have survived their rotation problems because of this deep pool of relief pitching.

  • Esteban Loaiza was clearly not ready to start the season, and it showed when he opened the year by allowing 30 hits and nine walks in his first four starts. Since taking five weeks off, though, he's basically been Esteban Loaiza: 3.94 ERA in 107 innings, 69/27 K/BB. He's been the A's best starter since the All-Star break, and he deserves to be in the postseason rotation.

  • When Ichiro Suzuki is the patient guy in the group, you have issues. With Suzuki now playing center field for the Mariners, he looks in at three guys who make him look like Lance Blankenship at the plate. Kenji Johjima, Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt have a combined 47 unintentional walks this year in more than 1400 plate appearances. Up the middle, the Mariners get virtually no OBP, and with their corner infielders not providing any, it makes for an impossible offense. One of those three players, probably two, is going to have to get his OBP up to make this a functional lineup.

    By the way, Betancourt batted third yesterday, while Adrian Beltre batted eighth. I'm going to take that as a concession that Beltre's contract was a mistake.

  • New milk carton…this one had Hank Blalock's mug on it. There is not an aspect of playing baseball that he hasn't gotten worse at since 2004. It's the strangest career path I can remember. The guy is 25 years old and very nearly a replacement-level player.

OK, I'm stopping here…I won't pick on Angel Berroa, or drop an "I told you so" about Mike Piazza, or gaze in awe at Roger Clemens, or try and divine the gap between Jake Peavy's ERA and his peripherals, or start a pool as to when Joe Torre voids Scott Proctor's warranty…

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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