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March 5, 2007

Prospectus Today

Spring Training

by Joe Sheehan

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A scheduling snafu forced me to miss Friday's Cubs/Angels tilt in Mesa, which was disappointing given the sheer number of interesting players on the Angels. On the other hand, it also kept me away from the circus that is the Gary Matthews Jr. situation. I think Will Carroll summed up the controversy, and I'm left with little to add. As with most PED stories, what we don't know dwarfs what we do, with the rush to conclusions increasing the chance that those conclusions will be ill-informed.

Missing the game, unfortunately, meant that I missed the start of Carlos Zambrano's quest to be baseball's second $200 million man. The big righty threw two shutout innings and struck out four. The Angels' started a bunch of right-handed hitters who swing at everything, right up Big Z's alley, so this may not have been the most severe test for him. I still think he's a bit risky, as he throws a ton of pitches, scuffles against left-handed batters, and has a very high walk rate for a good pitcher. The Cubs would be well-served to let him play out 2007 and hit the market. I'm not sure what Zambrano's numbers will look like if he departs the NL Central.

One odd bit of information to come out of Cubs' camp was that the team may demote Rich Hill, who is probably their second-best starter, should both Mark Prior and Wade Miller be available to start later in the year. Set aside for the moment that Prior and Miller have been simultaneously healthy for about 20 minutes since 2004, making this something of a theoretical exercise. Who in their right minds would look at Wade Miller and Rich Hill and decide that they actually prefer Miller?

Hill abused Triple-A last year to the tune of a 6-to-1 K/BB and more than 12 strikeouts every nine innings. With the Cubs, he struck out 90 and walked 39 in 99 frames, with a high home run rate (one every six innings) in the bad news department. Miller hasn't thrown more than 91 innings since '04, and has 84 strikeouts and 65 walks in 112 2/3 innings the past two years. I don't think he's a terrible pitcher-if healthy, he deserves a chance to start for someone-he's just not the pitcher that Hill is, and any starts given to him instead of Hill push the Cubs further away from October.

As for the Angels, they look to be more of the same. The top seven guys in their lineup Friday-a batting order that could well be reprised, adding in Casey Kotchman, on Opening Day-combined to draw 228 unintentional walks in 3460 at-bats last year. This is going be a league-average offense at best, and it has the potential to be much worse than that Matthews and Orlando Cabrera fail to match last year's well-above-their-heads batting averages and OBPs in the #1 and #2 slots. The defense isn't nearly up to the standards the Angels set during their 2002-05 run, and while a healthy pitching staff would be an above-average one, questions about the health of Jered Weaver and Bartolo Colon make even that a sketchy proposition. Even in a weakish AL West, I don't think the Angels are a good bet to get back to October.

Some other leftovers from last week's tripů

  • It looks like Ryan Braun isn't going to be wearing a a defensive end's number for much longer. He followed up his ticker-worthy game against the A's Thursday with another homer Friday. With Corey Koskie's career threatened by post-concussion syndrome, the Brewers may look for more power at third than what they would get from a Tony Graffanino/Craig Counsell platoon. Braun brings that.

    I remain skeptical that Braun can stay at third base in the long term. He's below-average defensively, and looked like a right fielder in the making at the Arizona Fall League. Corey Hart has already trod this path for the Brewers, although the fact that he has makes it harder for Braun to do the same, given the crowd that exists in the outfield corners in Milwaukee. Braun, however, could be Albert Pujols or Jim Thome, playing third for a season or two or three before sliding to a less-challenging defensive position for his offensive peak. At any rate, he's pushing up the timetable on a decision with every big game.

    The Brewers are in an interesting spot in that they have it in their power to improve by making hard choices. If Geoff Jenkins and Brady Clark get lots of playing time because they're well-paid and have been good at times in the past, then the offense may struggle. If Gabe Gross and Corey Hart are allowed to steal at-bats from the veterans, though, the Brewers should score more runs and come closer to meeting the expectations that they'll contend.

  • When I last saw Landon Powell, in the AFL, he was huge, well over 270 pounds, and at a size where the extra weight was affecting his game. Powell apparently didn't eat between then and spring training, and his weight loss was one of the big stories out of A's camp. Kevin Goldstein reported that Powell has done this before, so it's best to not get too excited. However, Powell's skill set is strong, and he could be the rare catcher to combine a strong defensive reputation with a productive bat. Jason Kendall's contract is up at the end of the year, so there is an opportunity for Powell to come quickly and be another low-cost solution for the A's.

  • With the Indians and Dodgers slated to relocate to Arizona in the next few years, the Cactus League will almost match the Grapefruit League in size, with 14 teams to Florida's 16. It's funny to think that Arizona was something of an afterthought as recently as a decade ago. Now, with the outlying communities around Phoenix eager for prestige and revenue, new complexes are being built and incentives created to lure teams to the desert for seven weeks each spring. It is the economics of spring training-tourist money for desperate cities, easy profits for teams-rather than any real need for a month and change of preparation, that keeps the anacrhonistic institution going.

  • Loving the 21st Century, Chapter 14: a few years ago, it was a big deal that WGN showed occasional Cubs exhibition games on the weekends. Now, ESPN has about three preseason games a week, various regional networks show games nearly every day, and MLB.com has broadcasts of every March contest.

    It just beats 1986, you know?

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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