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March 25, 1998

Breakouts and Flameouts in 1998

Our picks to bust out--or crash and burn

by Steven Rubio, Dave Pease, Rany Jazayerli and Christina Kahrl

Here are some picks from various BP authors about who they think will crash and burn, and who will break out this year...

Steven Rubio

The idea is a simple one: name the three players most likely to crash in 1998, and the three most likely to have a breakthrough season.

The only guy I'm thinking about is Andres Galarraga.

What is the purpose of a Top Three list like this? To present an easy-to-digest list for fans to argue over (and, of course, to help fantasy owners; there's no use denying that). But what's the old saying, "give someone a fish and they'll eat, but teach them how to fish and they'll waste thousands of hours wading in cold water hoping for The Big One?" I think it's time we all learned how to fish.

Fishing isn't that difficult, either. Have you ever wondered how a project like the Prospectus, peopled with the proverbial motley crew of baseball fans, could offer a relatively cohesive product to our readers? It's because, even though we have geographical differences (I fish in Berkeley, for instance), and even though we prefer different kinds of fish (I like Giant ones), we tend to agree on certain fundamentals of fishing. Most of the fundamentals related to the topic of crash/breakthrough seasons come under the heading of Context. The better you're able to analyze context, the better you'll be at fishing. And then you'll be able to create your own Top Three list.

Which brings us to Andres Galarraga. In this year's book, we wrote of El Gato Grande, "if he gets a long-term contract at this point, the GM in charge should be shot." (After Andres signed his three-year deal with Atlanta, we added "Here's hoping John Schuerholz has a bullet-proof vest.") Why would we make such a statement? Context. In particular, the park in which Galarraga has been playing his home games the last few years, the park where he will play those home games during 1998, and his birthdate.

In his five years with the Rockies, Galarraga has a home BA 69 points higher than his road BA, an OBP 70 points higher at home, and an SLG 132 points higher in Colorado. He has been a good slugger on the road (.281/.331/.510); I am not suggesting otherwise. But a large portion of his reputation as a hitter comes from his playing in Colorado, where offense is around 50% higher than the rest of the league.

Turner Field, where Andres now resides, last year cut into home runs by right-handed hitters by 12%. Its early yet to come to any conclusions about Turner being a great pitcher's park, but it won't be Coors Field any way you slice it.

Perhaps we're being too rough on the Cat, because we're not really predicting a crash here as much as a change of environment, and the superficial differences that will mean to how people perceive him. But it should be evident that if Andres Galarraga has the exact same season at the plate in 1998 as he had in 1997, his raw numbers are going to take an alarming drop.

He's 37 years old. Older than Wally Joyner. Older than Dave Magadan. Older than Mark McGwire. Older than Will Clark. He's four years older than Rafael Palmeiro and Hal Morris. What the heck, this Big Cat is three years older than the Dog that got away, Fred McGriff. Andres Galarraga is about a decade past the normal hitter's peak age. That, folks, is context.

Andres Galarraga is not a bad hitter. His production last season gives one hope he still has some good hitting left in him. Nevertheless, he is at an age where his production is very likely to decline, moving into a situation where those Triple-Crown numbers we read in the papers everyday are going to be MUCH lower than they have been for years. Everytime Atlanta fans see Andres wearing his first baseman's glove, they'll be able to switch their gaze to leftfield, where Ryan Klesko will be stumbling around like a bigger, clumsier Lonnie Smith. Galarraga will lose 30 or 40 points off his average, lose a handful of homers, and won't lead the league in RBI. The Braves will be a worse team for El Gato's presence than they would have been if he hadn't been signed. And when the season is over, the Braves will still have him under contract for two more years. At the end of the contract, he'll be 40.

That sounds to me like the Top Candidate to Crash and Burn in 1998. And if you think the above is elementary, if you think I'm picking an easy topic, if you think everyone already understands about context and park effects and decline due to age, then remember this: the Atlanta Braves, in the 1990s one of the most successful franchises in major-league history, a team whose performance on the field would appear to place their front office amongst the elite of the game, those Atlanta Braves gave Andres Galarraga a three-year deal for $25 million. If the Atlanta Braves don't get the context, who does?

Breakouts:

  1. Shawn Green, RF, Toronto Blue Jays
  2. Manny Ramirez, RF, Cleveland Indians
  3. Scott Sanders, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Flameouts:
  1. Andres Galarraga, 1B, Atlanta Braves
  2. J.T. Snow, 1B, SF Giants
  3. Darryl Kile, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Dave Pease

Breakouts:

  1. Shawn Green, RF, Toronto Blue Jays. This year's Edgardo Alfonzo. He'll build on last season, improving in all aspects as a hitter, and will make his first All-Star Game appearance. His development helps make up just a wee bit for Toronto's "devastating" offseason loss of Joe Carter.

  2. Bill Mueller, 3B, SF Giants. Shakes off a bad case of Charlie Hayes early on and hits .300 with gap power and patience to go with his good defense and baserunning. It won't be his fault the Giants get lit up like a Christmas tree this year.

  3. Javier Lopez, C, Atlanta Braves. With Todd Hundley's health problems, Lopez cements his place as the second-best catcher in the NL. He'll continue to improve both defensively and offensively, and slugs over .550 to build on last season's breakout.
Flameouts:
  1. Fernando Tatis, 3B, Texas Rangers. Doesn't get the job done. Hits slightly better than Benji Gil; Texas wisely isn't satisfied with that and will be looking for a replacement by June. A little power, but he just won't get on base.

  2. J.T. Snow, 1B, SF Giants. He'll still be better than could have been expected following his Angels days, but he'll fall back to earth after a really good 1997. Finally loses his full-time job, as he sits against lefties for the immortal Charlie Hayes.

  3. Omar Vizquel, SS, Cleveland Indians. After some surprisingly strong offensive campaigns, last year was an indicator that the spaghetti-bat gloveman might be on his way back to the old pasta.
Rany Jazayerli

There are dozens of players out there who can be reasonably expected to make huge jumps forward. Most of them, of course, are under the age of 27. But telling you that Andruw Jones is likely to get better this year really won't illuminate most of you. So my best bets take into account the prevailing winds of public opinion swirling above them.

Breakouts:

  1. Jason Kendall, C, Pittsburgh. Kendall is already the poster boy for minor league translations; he has hit in the major leagues exactly as his minor league numbers suggested he would. Last year, though, he took a subtle but undeniable step forward across the board. While his average held steady, he hit for more power, drew more walks, and stole more bases. The more you examine his improvement, the better it looks - his doubles total jumped from 23 to 36, and players who hit 35 doubles in their early 20s frequently start hitting 15 or 20 homers before too long. His walk total, when you take out intentional passes, leaped from 24 to 47, and his HBP total went from 15 to an incredible 31. His defense and throwing arm also improved significantly. His combination of doubles power and improving plate discipline, along with the fact that he doesn't turn 24 until June, makes me think a power explosion is imminent. Everyone knows he's a fine catcher; not everybody realizes he could hit 15-20 homers this year, and that he, not Charles Johnson, may be the best catcher in the NL whenever Piazza decides to give up his crown.

  2. Steve Reed, RHP, SF Giants. His signing by the Giants will finally amend their mistake in letting him go in the 1992 Expansion Draft, and has not drawn the publicity it deserves. In the Rockies' 5-year history, Reed has been their most consistent pitcher, by an obscenely wide margin. How difficult do you think it is for a reliever to put an ERA below 4.50 for 5 straight years in Colorado? This despite being a flyball pitcher who has given up 51 homers in just 370 innings - 35 of them at home. In the fairly spacious surroundings out at Candlestick Point, he could mow down hitters like a one-man McCormick reaper.

  3. Glendon Rusch, LHP, KC Royals. There's not much to like about the Royals organization, but Rusch is an exception. He's likely to be underestimated because his rookie season was superficially unimpressive: 6-9 with a 5.50 ERA. But he had great control, his minor league credentials are excellent, and he has never been overworked. He's been consistently healthy and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a harbinger of better things to come. I'm not saying he's going to win 18 games, but if you're looking for a good $1 gamble, you've found it. Of course, the Royals are making noises about putting Rusch in the bullpen, which would be their dumbest move since...gee...last month?
Honorable Mention goes to Karim Garcia, OF, Arizona, who is moving from the worst hitter's park in the major leagues (Chavez Ravine) to possibly the second-best. The high elevation and hot temperatures in Phoenix may make Garcia think he's in Albuquerque all over again. His defense may not be so hot, and he may not even be 22, but he could hit .280/.340/.550 this year without even improving as a hitter.

Flameouts:

  1. Livan Hernandez, RHP, Florida Marlins. Those of you who've bought the book know what we think of Leyland's treatment of Livan's arm last October. All I can say is, I hope Dr. Jobe has room on his schedule for sometime in May...

  2. Andres Galarraga, 1B, Atlanta Braves. What, you were expecting Mike Lansing? As much flak as John Schuerholz has received for this deal, he hasn't been flogged enough. Galarraga is reason alone that the Braves may not be the prohibitive favorites in the NL East that everyone thinks they are. It's certainly possible that Galarraga could hit .300 with 40 homers. It's also possible that Elvis is still alive and resides in Nome, Alaska, but I wouldn't pay $24.75 million to find out.

  3. Pat Hentgen, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays. He's a fine pitcher and has a durable pitching motion, but let's face it: he's been overworked. Last year he faced more batters (1085) than any other pitcher... and he faced even more hitters (1100) in 1996. He's not young and he could well survive the abuse, but then, that's what they were saying about Orel Hershiser eight years ago.
Chris Kahrl

Breakouts:

  1. Todd Walker, 2B, Minnesota Twins. There won't be much to be happy about in the Land of Lakes, but at least Walker will finally break through as a good major league regular.

  2. Pick a Blue Jay: SS Alex Gonzalez or RF Shawn Green. Happily removed from the alternately snoozy and surly days of Cito, both should blossom. I'd pick Gonzalez as the one more likely to dramatically improve. I'm not talking Alex Rodriguez-like stratospheric heights here, just dramatic improvement relative to what he's done before.

  3. Jason Giambi, 1B, Oakland Athletics. We won't be seeing any more derisive "Hits so sexy" stories, as Giambi benefits from a much stronger lineup than last year's edition. Most of the difference will be a non-talent stat (RBI), but I'd also expect a spike in his power numbers.
Flameouts:
  1. One big category: ex-Rockies CF Quinton McCracken of Tampa Bay, 2B Eric Young of the Dodgers, and 1B Andres Galarraga and SS Walt Weiss. McCracken could flop with extreme prejudice, while Young should have the Dodgers scratching their heads and wondering how they gave up two starting pitchers for a decades' worth of mediocrity at second base.

  2. Bip Roberts, DH, Detroit Tigers. Less than a collapse as much as a "the emperor has no clothes" situation. Bip has been living off the impression that he's an effective practitioner of the little man's offensive game: getting on base and running well. That hasn't been true in some time, and at this rate he's the Dave Collins of the `90s. That the Tigers are counting on him to play everyday is an ugly portent of disappointments to come.

  3. Sandy Alomar Jr., C, Cleveland Indians. His career year was astounding, impressive, remarkable, and not going to happen again. Now that this is the morning after, don't be surprised by the usual struggles, GIDPs, and playing through nagging injuries that have been his stock in trade during his career.

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Dave's other articles. You can contact Dave by clicking here
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here
Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  Breakouts,  The Who,  The Waste Land

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