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April 28, 2008

Prospectus Today

Reality Check

by Joe Sheehan

Four weeks into the season, we have to start making calls. It's still a little early in most cases, but we have enough information to reach tentative conclusions about some players, teams, and issues. For the next three days, that's what we'll do-evaluate what's real, what's not, and what we're on the fence about. Today, five things that are real.

1. The Diamondbacks. This isn't last year's team, the one that couldn't score yet won the division with a negative run differential on the strength of an unhittable bullpen. That bullpen is still together, with Chad Qualls replacing Jose Valverde, and still effective-fifth in the NL in WXRL. They back up the best starter in the NL, Brandon Webb, and an above-average rotation. Put those two thing together, an you know why no NL team has allowed fewer runs than the Diamondbacks' 93.

This year's version of the D'backs, however, can score: a .278 EqA and nearly six runs per game, a run and a half more than the 2007 team tallied. The young hitters who failed to produce last year and contributed to the offensive stall have all improved, including Conor Jackson (.344 EqA, up from .277), Chris Young (.280, .253), and Stephen Drew (.277, .236). Justin Upton, overmatched in a late-season call-up, has hit .333/.376/.578 early on this year. The Diamondbacks also lead the NL in runs, with 148. They have the best run differential and best third-order record in the game. This is no fluke-the Diamondbacks are real, on their way back to 90 or more wins and the postseason. Last year's team arrived early on the strength of a surprising bullpen. This team is the the one that will be among the best in the league for years to come.

2. The Mariners. The AL version of the Diamondbacks a year ago, the Mariners didn't come into 2008 with the kind of offensive upside the Snakes have, which is the biggest difference between the two teams. The M's have a .254 EqA and 117 runs scored, about a run a game less than what the D'backs are doing (note: the teams' home parks make for disparate run environments). The age of the team's position players makes it hard to project a big bounce-players such as Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima will move towards their career averages, but there's no upside in the lineup at all. This is a below-average offense.

The bullpen isn't reprising its 2007 work, which was to be expected. Set aside J.J. Putz's injury; Mariners relievers' run prevention last year was disproportionate to their underlying performances. They could pitch exactly as well as they did last year-and they haven't-and still allow more runs. Adding Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva made the rotation better, but all that did was cover the ground the pen would be giving back. This was a .500 team last year, looked like a .500 team over the winter and into the spring, and is a .500 team now. Their 12-14 record is real, and they're not going to be the division contender so many people expected them to be.

3. Casey Kotchman. Kotchman lost so much development time to injuries and illness that he fell below and then off the radar while advancing ever so slowly through the Angels' system. He's 25 now, but with the reps of a 23-year-old. Last year, finally healthy and finally permitted to play, Kotchman showed a glimpse of what he could do, with 37 doubles in 443 AB and more walks (53) than strikeouts (43). This year, he's turned up the contact rate and power, striking out just five times in 89 at-bats, and posting an isolated power of .247. He's in the top five in the AL in EqA and RARP, and he pairs that offense with an above-average glove. The power he's shown so far is a little out of his range, the product of a fluky split in his homers and doubles totals, but the batting average and OBP aren't. Look for Kotchman to hit .320/.410/.500 this season and continue being the Angels' best player.

4. Matt Morris. Sometimes, a slump is just a slump, but sometimes it's the end. Morris' peripherals had been deteriorating for years, with single-digit Stuff scores stretching back to 2004. The slippage in his skill set went unnoticed largely because Morris pitched in front of such good defenses in St. Louis. His ERAs stayed below the league average for the most part, and he provided innings because the many balls he allowed into play were gobbled up for outs, and the Cards turned double plays behind him. When he moved to San Francisco, he survived for a year by nibbling a bit more, as his walk rate nearly doubled over 2005. In '07, he allowed 162 hits in 136 2/3 innings for the Giants, who played terrible defense, before they traded him to Pittsburgh, where his decline continued.

This year, Morris struck out nine men and walked seven in five starts, allowing at least four runs and six hits each time he took the mound. Morris gave up six homers in just 22 1/3 innings, and was released over the weekend with a 9.67 ERA. The decline of a pitcher who works on the margins-as Morris did for a number of years-can be steep and ugly. That's what happened here. Morris isn't just allowing contact and being let down by his defense; he's being hit so hard that no defense can save him. There's always a chance he could help a team just by taking the ball every fifth day so that a young pitcher doesn't have to, but the chance that Morris will even be average again is slim.

The Pirates, by the way, paid about $13.5 million and some fraction of Rajai Davis' career for 16 starts in which they went 5-11, 84 1/3 innings in which Morris allowed 75 runs. Neal Huntington really doesn't have a high bar to clear to achieve relative improvement.

5. Parity. The last few years have seen the spread between the best and worst teams in the game narrow considerably, as natural cycles of aging and unnatural wealth-redistribution mechanisms serve to bring the extremes towards the middle. Throw in a National League in which three-quarters of the teams can see themselves as one trade-deadline deal away from playing in October, and you have 1980s-style parity. The Diamondbacks and Cubs have so far separated themselves at the top, while the Nationals and Rangers have yet to reach 10 wins. Everyone else, from #3 to #28, is separated by just 6 games. That's not a fluke: MLB has spent most of the 2000s working towards NFL-style competitive balance, and that's what it has. Whether that's best for baseball remains to be seen-the game is at its best when great teams fight out great races in the regular season-but it does provide a heaping helping of hope and faith.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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