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March 2, 2007

Prospectus Today

Bullets from Mesa

by Joe Sheehan

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Bullets from Mesa... which just sounds like it should be showing in limited release at theatres in New York and L.A.

  • The Cubs and Giants opened Cactus League play against each other at HoHoKam Park Thursday. I'm here on Phoenix for a very brief trip, checking out a couple of games before leaving tonight. It is, admittedly, as much an opportunity to sate my baseball jones as it is a chance to get real work done. Like swallows to Capistrano or NFL players to court dockets, baseball fans feel a need to return to their special place when the calendar dictates it. I want to watch live baseball, even if the baseball will be a bit sloppy, played with the intensity of a sewing circle, and feature major league players and real prospects perhaps two-thirds of the time.

  • The weird thing is that, because this is the Cubs in Mesa, the crowd brings it. No sleepy polite applause for anything short of Little League home run; these people, many of whom have either retired here from the Midwest and/or have been coming to these games for years, want to see the Cubs win. I catch a worried snippet from the charming lady seated behind me down the right-field line, where I've set up shop: "I sure don't want us to lose the first game." The crowd boos an umpire's call in the fourth, when a close play at first base goes against Aramis Ramirez, and murmurs noticeably when the Cubbies' backup infield channels the Bad News Bears in the sixth.

  • Perhaps in honor of the first game, Lou Piniella started what could well be his Opening Day lineup, with Matt Murton playing left field and batting second. It's a better choice than the speedy non-hitting shortstop, Cesar Izturis, would be. Murton was the Cubs' most patient hitter last season, and should be good for at least a .350 OBP. Even when Cliff Floyd plays-and the Cubs actually need his lefty bat for balance, as their first five hitters swing from the right side, a potential problem in the late innings-batting the left fielder second is a move that should pay dividends on the scoreboard.

  • After the Giants get a run in the top of the first off of Jason Marquis, the bottom of the frame opens with Alfonso Soriano facing Barry Zito. Jason "Deuce" Grey of MLB.com points out that that's $258 million of baseball players, probably the priciest matchup in baseball history that didn't involve Alex Rodriguez.

    Thought exercise: how much additional money did Soriano and Zito sign for compared to what they would have gotten a year ago, coming off of lesser seasons, in a less-inflated market? $70 million? $100 million?

  • Zito struck out Soriano on eight pitches, his only strikeout in two quick innings of work. For all the talk about his rebuilt mechanics (note: I Am Not A Scout), Zito didn't look that much different, maybe a little faster through his motion, if anything. He didn't give up anything hard-hit and got most of his outs on the ground. I'd never bet on any pitcher for seven seasons, so I won't defend the contract. With that said, Zito signing with the Giants-pitchers' park, pitchers' division-gives him as much chance for success as he's going to have.

  • Zito's quick work pushed the game along, as the first four frames were played in a bit over an hour. After David Cortes' tossed a scoreless third for the Giants, about 75% of Russ Ortiz came trotting in from the bullpen. "Unrecognizable" would be putting it mildly, and the results he got in three innings against, mostly, the Cubs' second team were just as hard to fathom: no hits, no walks, three strikeouts. He also cleared the bases with a double to the left-center gap in the sixth. If Ryan Braun and his ridiculous day in Maryvale was the story of the day in Arizona, Ortiz's Giants return was a close second.

  • As mentioned, the Cubs' second-team infield slowed the game a bit in the sixth, making a pair of errors that set up the bases for Ortiz's big hit. One of the issues with catching early-season exhibition games is that the level of competitiion varies so widely within a game. You'll get representative lineups for a few innings, a dropoff to prospects and bench players in the middle innings, and then last year's draftees and the winners of "Be a Cub for a Day" contests by the ninth inning. (It could be worse; the Nationals may be filling out their first-week rotation in this manner.) So the baseball gets uglier, and it becomes difficult to evaluate players who aren't actually playing in a major-league game after about the sixth inning. That's one reason to not take Ortiz's outing too seriously, and a more general point, to always consider when a player played in a game in putting his performance in context.

  • A couple of players worth noting, if not so much for their play today. Frederick Lewis started in left field for the Giants. I've been a fan for a while, which is why it's a bit disappointing to realize that he's 26 this year, past the point of prospect status. For my money, he's a slightly better version of Randy Winn, and with a chance of peaking up around a .300 EqA for a season or two in the next four. The Giants don't have a place for Lewis at the moment, but I'm hopeful that when Barry Bonds or Dave Roberts pulls up lame-Roberts playing center field every day makes an injury inevitable-they'll turn to Lewis rather than Todd Linden.

    I also liked what I saw from Cubs' southpaw Carmen Pigniatello. He's a command junkballer who might have enough to be an effective specialist right now in the majors, coming off of a good first full season of reief work. If the Cubs weren't already stacked from the left side, with Scott Eyre and Will Ohman, Pigniatello would be in better shape. As it stands, he's just a name to remember, someone we may well be cracking wise about in Baseball Prospectus 2017.

More Cubs today-I like HoHoKam Park, what can I say?-as the Angels trek out to Mesa. I'll have something for you this weekend, as BP.com introduces its latest new feature: regular weekend content. Blow off that home repair project and stick with us this weekend.

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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