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November 8, 2000

Still Here?

Revisiting The Baseball Book 1992, Pt. 1

by James Kushner

Revisiting baseball predictions is a tricky prospect. If the predictions are based on a specific methodology, then revisiting them is necessary: doing so helps to modify and improve the methodology. Otherwise, the pundit is just whistling in the dark.

Most baseball predictions, of course, aren't that systematic in their origin. A writer looks at rosters at the end of spring training, does a seat-of-the-pants guess as to who will improve, who will collapse and which clubhouses will explode, and comes to the conclusion that the Toronto Blue Jays (or whoever) will win the division. Usually, the writer has forgotten this by June, unless he turns out to be right, in which case an "I told you so" article in September is his reward and the readership's punishment.

In the age of the Internet, most writers do not have the luxury of forgetting about their predictions. Witness Rob Neyer's season-long battle with Mets fans on ESPN.com. Usually, if wrong, they provide a defense of "it made sense at the time".

Even in this age of sports-fan saturation and information overload, though, some predictions can go unnoticed. In this case, one of the leading writers in the field made a series of predictions, affecting almost every team in the majors, and no one has checked on them.

Until now.

In the spring of 1992, Villard published The Baseball Book 1992, written by Bill James. This was the last of the three annuals by that name written by James; he then spent a couple of years writing the "Player Rating Book" before teaming with Stats, Inc. every year.

In The Baseball Book 1992, James condensed each team into a box. Each box comprised a summary of the team's 1991 season, a general prognosis for 1992, a look at the teams' best prospects and a bunch of other nuggets, most of them for fun. I'm especially fond of the "Ugliest Player", "Designated Malcontent" and "Never Going to Be as Good as the Organization Thinks He Is" categories.

For each team, though, he designated one player as "Most Likely to Still Be Here in 2000". That time has come. So for each team, we'll have a look at the player designated by James as most likely, ruminate on whether it was a good choice at the time, and then see what happened afterwards.

The purpose of this article is not to take James to task for the rightness or wrongness of his predictions. In most cases, the player he picked was the most logical choice, or at least a justifiable one. He probably spent a total of ten minutes considering them for all 26 teams, and didn't mean them to be taken too seriously.

Rather, this article exists more to satisfy my curiosity about how well a prediction with a nine-year time frame might work out.

This first piece looks at the American League. Next week, we'll examine James's National League predictions.

Baltimore Orioles

BB92 SAID: Cal Ripken

A GOOD CHOICE? An obvious choice, though not for the usual reasons. Granted, Ripken had just won the MVP award; on the other hand, it is the rare 30-year-old shortstop whom you could expect to last nine more years with the same organization. Still, he was an institution by then, the most firmly entrenched one in baseball.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? Did the sun rise in the east this morning?

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Two others: Brady Anderson and Mike Mussina. Anderson was a real surprise: he had just hit .230 with two home runs in half-time play at age 27. Who knew?

Boston Red Sox

BB92 SAID: Phil Plantier

A GOOD CHOICE? Strange as it may seem now, yes, it was. At one point, Bill James thought that Plantier had a good chance of hitting the most home runs in the 1990s, and after 1991 it looked like he might be right. Plantier, after a sad cuppa Joe in 1990, slammed the espresso in '91 with 11 home runs and 23 walks in 148 at bats. He was only 22, and looked like he would outclass the Sox's other top-flight hitting prospect, Mo Vaughn. A year older, Vaughn hit only four home runs in half a season in 1991.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? Alas, no.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? No. Vaughn stuck around through '98: everyone else was long gone.

California Angels

BB92 SAID: Jim Abbott

A GOOD CHOICE? Oddly enough, yes. I say "oddly enough" because pitchers aren't usually good picks. There were some good-looking young hitters on that team (Bobby Rose, Lee Stevens) and some young hitters who didn't look that good (Junior Felix, Luis Sojo), but Abbott was a clear choice. He had just completed a terrific season at age 23, and it seemed impossible, from a PR standpoint, that the team would ever trade him.

Indeed, the second-most-likely pick from that team was probably Bryan Harvey, who had an outstanding season at age 28, and Dennis Eckersley was putting the idea in everyone's head that relief aces could last forever.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? No. Injuries and ineffectiveness did him in.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL HERE? Appallingly enough, yes. Gary DiSarcina is still around. Does anyone really know why?

Chicago White Sox

BB92 SAID: Frank Thomas

A GOOD CHOICE? Absolutely. Thomas was the most effective hitter in the league in 1991, and he was only 23.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? Yes.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL HERE? Ron Schueler, who just stepped down.

Schueler is among the most unlikely names on the list of those who are/were still around. I remember, when I lived in Chicago, Schueler saying that he only wanted to be GM for a few seasons, to help settle the organization down in the post-Himes turmoil, before returning to his true calling, scouting director. I haven't lived in Chicago since 1991, and I remember being surprised several times during the 1990s to realize that Schueler was, in fact, still the GM. Not Gary DiSarcina surprised, of course (that's more like incredulity), but still surprised.

TEE HEE: Under the heading "Never Going to Be as Good as the Organization Thinks He Is", James named Sammy Sosa. Since the Sox traded Sosa the following spring, clearly the organization changed its mind over the winter.

Cleveland Indians

BB92 SAID: Sandy Alomar Jr.

A GOOD CHOICE? A tricky one. The 1991 Cleveland Indians were awash in a whole bunch of players who might be good one day. Alomar had, in fact, just come off a terrible season (.217 and no home runs, reduced by injury to 51 games), and I could see no reason to pick him over Albert Belle or Mark Whiten or Carlos Baerga or Alex Cole, all of whom were younger, better hitters and hadn't suffered major injuries yet. (Belle had already earned "Designated Malcontent" honors, so it was pretty clear that he wouldn't last the decade.) Jim Thome, regarded as the Indians' best prospect, had made his debut that year, too, and the team was wondering how to juggle four players (Baerga, Thome, Mark Lewis and Felix Fermin) among three infield slots. I probably would have picked Baerga.

However, James's pick of Alomar may have reflected his pessimism that Alomar would ever become a particularly good player. He wrote an essay about the Indians that year entitled "Clear the Mine ", which is necessary reading in understanding the financial mindset that was about to take hold in baseball. (The piece is on page 162 of BB92; hie thee to thine library.)

The gist of the article, as James wrote in boldface, was that "The Cleveland Indians have become the first team to abandon the hope of paying a competitive salary to a quality player." He assumed that any good player the Indians developed would either leave as a free agent or be traded away before that time in order to land younger players (who, in turn, if they became good, would leave before the Indians would have to pay them a competitive salary).

By naming Alomar as the player most likely to still be around, he was, perhaps, expressing the opinion that Alomar would always be a useful player, but never so good that the Indians woud be unable to afford him. James's outlook on the Indians was extremely bleak: he thought that the Indians (and the Mariners) were set to become the 1990s' equivalent of the Philadelphia A's of the 1940s and early 1950s, a team that never had a chance to do anything worth anything.

He allowed for hope late in the essay, but quickly dashed it. "We underestimated baseball's earnings potential before, and perhaps we're underestimating it now. I see no reason to believe that major league teams, at this time, have a significant untapped economic potential." What James failed to see (as did most of us, but not John Hart) is that there was at least one untapped source of revenue--a taxpayer-supported new stadium that was actually an attraction in and of itself. In 1992, the opening of Camden Yards would provide a blueprint, and a shot in the arm, for baseball revenues. John Hart saw this coming, staked the entire future of the franchise on the confluence of maturing players and stadium revenues in 1994, and it paid off in spades.

Two aspects of that strategy may not be remembered now:

  • How unlikely it was that it would pay off. The Indians, heading into 1992, were betting on the success of Alomar and Baerga and Belle and Whiten and Thome and Manny Ramirez (whom they had just drafted) and Kenny Lofton (just acquired by trade). The fact that they went, at worst assessment, five-for-seven on these gambles represents a stunning success--a more typical ratio might have been two-for-seven.

  • How low the stakes were. The Indians in 1991 were a bad team going nowhere. If Hart's gambit hadn't paid off, they would have remained a bad team going nowhere. What's to lose?

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? Oh, gosh, who were we talking about? Right, Sandy Alomar Jr. Yes, he's still around, for precisely the opposite reason that James predicted: he's not that great and always gets injured, but makes too much money to be unloaded in a trade. Who would have guessed?

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Jim Thome and Charles Nagy. I didn't mention Nagy above, because he didn't look like he'd amount to much at the time.

Detroit Tigers

BB92 SAID: Travis Fryman

A GOOD CHOICE? Heck, yeah. He pretty much represented the Tigers' future all by himself--a 22-year-old shortstop/third baseman who hit 21 home runs. When you consider that the other leading Tigers prospect at the time was Milt Cuyler, it's a no-brainer. Rico Brogna, their top minor league prospect at the time, hadn't made the majors yet and was thus ineligible for consideration.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? No.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL HERE? Not even close.

Kansas City Royals

BB92 SAID: Brian McRae

A GOOD CHOICE? About as good as any, but it was a weird circumstance. As detailed by James in an essay in BB92 entitled "The Lost Generation", the Royals had just gone through a rebuilding cycle that produced no results whatsoever. Many of the young players from that failed cycle--Kurt Stillwell, Danny Tartabull, Kevin Seitzer--were still around, but it was pretty clear that they wouldn't last the decade. This pessimism also seeped into the next generation of Royals youngsters--McRae, Terry Shumpert, David Howard and Brent Mayne.

McRae, 23 years old in 1991, had just had a season with an on-base percentage under .300 in the leadoff slot. His dad was managing the team by then, and I suppose a cynic would say that that alone bumped McRae to the top slot.

I probably would have bucked the usual logic and actually picked a pitcher for the honor, despite the fact that pitchers are, historically, bad bets for long-term success. However, it wouldn't have been 23-year-old Kevin Appier. Despite his demotion to the bullpen, it seemed to me that the Royals were most willing to invest a lot of time and effort into 23-year-old Tom Gordon, and that he was probably the best bet to make it through the decade in a Royals uniform.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? No.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL HERE? No. Appier came closest. George Brett is in the front office. Frank White is a coach. Do you realize that Warren Cromartie got 131 at bats with the 1991 Royals?

Milwaukee Brewers

BB92 SAID: "I doubt that anyone on the 1991 team will still be here in 1995, let alone 2000. Well, Molitor will last until 1995."

A GOOD ASSESSMENT? I think it was unduly pessimistic. There was some decent semi-young semi-talent on the '91 team (Greg Vaughn, Bill Spiers, B.J. Surhoff, Darryl Hamilton, Jaime Navarro) and I think there was reason to expect that at least one of them would turn it up and make it to '95. About their chances for 2000, he was probably right--no one looked like they had the moxie to last nine more years in Milwaukee. Their best young talent, by far, was Gary Sheffield, who had already ticked off just about everyone in the organization and would almost certianly leave soon (as, indeed, he did).

DID ANYONE LAST UNTIL 2000 IN MILWAUKEE? Not even the American League affiliation lasted until 2000 in Milwaukee. (Even Molitor left before '95.) Cal Eldred, their best pitching prospect at the time (who started three games late in the '91 season) almost made it.

WHO REMEMBERS THIS INCIDENT? Although he declined to actually name the player, James did include a category under the Brewers called "Most Likely to Shoot You After a Traffic Accident." Who remembers the player he was referring to? Answer a few screens down.

Minnesota Twins

BB92 SAID: Kirby Puckett.

A GOOD CHOICE? It was an excellent choice; an obvious one, really. Puckett was an institution in the Twin Cities, and would presumably be in the twilight of a brilliant career by 2000, as a 39-year-old DH/pinch-hitter. Chuck Knoblauch would have been a better choice from a strictly talent standpoint, but he wasn't Kirby, and might have been traded away (as, indeed, he was).

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? Sort of. What's his front-office title again? I can never remember. The eye injury, of course, ended his playing career after the 1995 season.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Tom Kelly. No one would have predicted that.

New York Yankees

BB92 SAID: Hensley Meulens. Remember Hensley Meulens?

A GOOD CHOICE? A cry for help is more like it. Meulens, much-touted by the organization, had just hit .222 with six home runs in his first half-season, and was already 24. I would have picked--easily--Roberto Kelly, who, although two years older than Meulens, was at least three years better. No one else stuck out. The Yankees of 1991 were in big trouble.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? You know, I had completely forgotten that Meulens resurfaced for 23 games in '97 and '98. Not in the Bronx, of course.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Bernie Williams, straight off an unimpressive rookie half-season, was allowed to struggle through a few more seasons before justifying the Yankees' patience with him. At this point, I'm wondering if he'll go into the Hall of Fame.

Oakland Athletics

BB92 SAID: No one. I don't know if it was an oversight, or a commentary on an old team, but James didn't include the category in the A's box.

WHO WOULD HAVE BEEN A GOOD CHOICE, THEN? It's a tricky one. The only non-pitchers under 26 on the team that year were Mike Bordick (.238 BA), Scott Brosius (.235), Scott Hemond (.217) and Ron Witmeyer (.053); only Bordick was a regular or close to it. Jose Canseco was 26 that season, so he was probably the best bet...unless you want to consider the Four Aces, who were just beginning to a) make the majors and b) get injured. Todd Van Poppel was the best prospect of the bunch at the time; given the inherent flakiness of pitchers, Canseco was probably the best choice.

IS ANYONE STILL AROUND? No. Not even Tony LaRussa or Sandy Alderson. Come to think of it, Alderson was probably a better bet than Canseco.

(THE ANSWER: Relief pitcher Julio Machado, who shot a woman (in the passenger seat of another car) in his native Venezuela in December of '91. His major league career came to an abrupt halt.)

Seattle Mariners

BB92 SAID: Ken Griffey Jr.

A GOOD CHOICE? Damn right it was. He was 21 years old and already the best player on the team.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? Nope. Came close, though--only one year from making it.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Yes--Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner.

Texas Rangers

BB92 SAID: Juan Gonzalez

A GOOD CHOICE? Yes. Gonzalez was 22 and had hit 27 homers and driven in 102 runs in his first full season. Cases could have been made for Ruben Sierra (better than Gonzalez at the time, but three years older) and Ivan Rodriguez (who, being a catcher, might suffer a major injury at any time). Rafael Palmeiro was there too, having just turned 26. The 1991 Texas Rangers, in fact, were a great collection of young talent; you could have made a case for any of those guys, or Dean Palmer, or even Kevin Reimer if you were so inclined.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? Nope. Missed by only one season, as well.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Ivan Rodriguez. Believe it or not, three other players from the '91 Rangers also played for the team in 2000, though they had sojourned elsewhere in the interim: Rafael Palmeiro, Ruben Sierra and Kenny Rogers.

Toronto Blue Jays

BB92 SAID: John Olerud

A GOOD CHOICE? A gutsy one, and quite prescient. Olerud, to that point, had hit .265 and .256 in two full seasons with a total of 31 home runs. James probably based his prediction on three facts:

  • He was still only 22.
  • His walk rates were very good.
  • The Jays had traded Fred McGriff in 1990 to open up the first-base slot for Olerud, and so were making a very public organizational commitment to him.
Still, if I were picking at the time, I probably would have gone the straight talent route and picked Roberto Alomar, already an MVP candidate at age 23. Those were the only two defensible choices. Juan Guzman looked great, but was older than both of them and a pitcher besides.

IS HE, IN FACT, STILL HERE? No. Neither is Alomar, of course.

IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? No. Three people have left and returned in that time: Cito Gaston, David Wells and--brace yourselves--Rob Ducey.

We'll take a look at the National League next Wednesday.

James Kushner is an occasional contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached at kushner@wt.net.

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