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I’m writing from Scottsdale, Ariz., eagerly anticipating live baseball in just
15 hours. While here, I’ll catch the Rangers and Giants just down the road at
Scottsdale Stadium, the Padres and Angels in Peoria, and the A’s and Rockies
at Phoenix Muni. That’s three games in 26 hours, followed by a quick flight
back to the L.A. area Tuesday evening.

With 0% chance of rain, Cactus League > Grapefruit League.

While I’m excited to be here, I can’t help but reflect on last year’s trip to
spring training. I definitely learned some lessons about allowing what I see
to have too much impact on what I think, and about my limitations as a
baseball analyst. For example, after seeing the A’s Carlos Pena come to
the plate four times against the Diamondbacks, I wrote:


I’d mentioned wanting to see Carlos Pena in action. Well, I did, and it wasn’t
pretty. He looked very bad against Brian Anderson, terribly indecisive
and hesitant. Pena struck out twice, walked twice, and grounded to second
base… The A’s would probably be best served by having Pena start the year at
Triple-A Sacramento.

Pena eventually ended up at Sacramento, but only after starting the season like
a house on fire, with three home runs in the first week. Maybe he wasn’t
ready, but making that call based on four PAs was rash.

I also watched Eric Chavez have a couple of good at-bats against Brian Anderson and wrote:


The one A’s left-handed hitter who looked good against Anderson was Eric
Chavez. After upgrading his defense last year, Chavez was left with basically
one weak spot: his performance against left-handers. He was .257/.299/.415
against them last year. In three at-bats against Anderson and Mark
Holzemer
–no, really–Chavez looked great, powering one double to center
field, another to the right-center field gap, and pulling a solid single to
right. If Chavez has learned to hit southpaws, then the question “who’s
the best third baseman in baseball?” gets that much tougher.

Chavez’s success against lefties that day didn’t carry over: He hit
.209/.261/.362 against them last year, and that remains a huge hole in his
game.

Then, there was this, just a few days later in my American League preview,
where I picked the A’s for third in the AL West:


I’m the only BP staffer who doesn’t have the A’s in one of the top two slots,
and I freely admit I may be allowing what I saw in Arizona last week to weigh
too heavily on my mind. I saw a sloppy team with some major issues
defensively, and while some of that will be rectified if Jermaine Dye
comes back healthy, I have to be skeptical about how much his range will be
affected by the broken leg.

That I was wrong just brings the real issue into sharper focus: I’m not
supposed to be making these judgments. Don’t get me wrong, I know baseball. I
played the game, and just about every variant of it, for many years, and I
watch as much of the game as anybody you’ll find. (Just ask Sophia.) But my
talent isn’t in observing, and when I let my eyes make decisions for me, I end
up doing silly things like projecting the A’s to finish behind the Rangers and
Mariners.

My niche is performance analysis, using the statistical record to analyze
players and teams. I’m not trained as a scout, to look at a snapshot of a
player on a particular day and break down what he’s doing right and wrong, and
I’ve certainly lobbed my share of grenades at those who would make grand
statements based on watching one game or one series.

I fell into that trap last year, enamored with my access, and I ended up writing
some silly things, reaching some indefensible conclusions. I abandoned the
position I’d staked out long ago–informed outsider–and overreached my
abilities. Even though I made some observations that held up–that Junior
Spivey
looked good, that Jay Bell looked done, that Pena could play
some serious first base–the point stands. I need to take what I see with a
grain of salt.

As I often do, I come back to the central theme of my work: It’s not about
performance analysis being better than skills analysis, stats being superior
to observation. It’s about how the two, together, make for better baseball
teams and better baseball, period. If you can get that in one person, great,
but as often as not, you need a team of talent evaluators, because there are damn
few people qualified to do both types of analysis.

I know I’m not one of them. So over the next few days I’ll enjoy the sunshine, I’ll
watch some baseball, I’ll talk to some people, and I’ll write about all of it.
I’ll also remember that it’s just two days, and it doesn’t mean much when
compared to what we know based on the years of information we have on all of
these people.

Notes

  • Phil Nevin may be out for the year, following a dislocated shoulder
    suffered last Friday. He could have reconstructive surgery as early as
    Tuesday.

    Nevin had already had a strange career path, and missing the lion’s share of
    the 2002 and 2003 seasons with injuries makes it even stranger. The four-year,
    $34-million contract the Padres have with him through 2006 has to be making
    them a bit nervous. They’re looking at having three years and $27 million
    committed to a 33-year-old coming off a missed season. Nevin will have no
    trade value, and you’d expect a perfectly healthy 33-year-old to experience
    some decline, so who knows what the Padres will be getting out of a player
    coming off major surgery. With Trevor Hoffman also out, for perhaps the whole season, the Padres may
    end up tossing $16 million, or 30% of their payroll, out the window.

    Even at that, the outlook isn’t so bad. Without Nevin, Brian Buchanan is the
    default left fielder. He’d be best served as a platoon player (843 career OPS
    against lefties, 727 against righties), so the Padres might want to look at
    one of the remaining free agents, Ray Lankford or Kenny Lofton,
    to share time with him. Rule 5 pick Shane Victorino almost certainly
    will get a roster spot now, although he looks more like the new Eric Owens
    than a real solution in left field.

    The real result may be to accelerate the arrival of prospect Xavier
    Nady
    , who could conceivably break camp as the left fielder, and at worst,
    will come up at the first intersection of a hot streak at Portland and a
    Buchanan slump. Nady can hit, and if the Nevin injury gets him 400 at-bats
    against MLB pitching, it probably makes the Padres better in 2004 and beyond.

  • Eric Milton will be out for a while, too, going back under the
    knife. Like the Padres, the Twins are well positioned to replace him, but
    again, they’ll have spent just shy of $10 million over two seasons for less
    than 200 innings.

    If you’re looking to make the case that this winter’s limited bidding for free
    agents was just teams growing smarter about their investments, rather than
    collusion, you’d be hard-pressed to find better examples of the perils of
    long-term contracts than Nevin and Milton. Both good players, both signed by
    their teams to keep them from free agency, and both now millstones on
    relatively small payrolls.

    I don’t want to make this comparison, because the two players don’t really
    look alike, but I wonder if Milton is going to suffer the same fate as
    Sid Fernandez. The two are similar in repertoire and performance; extreme
    flyball pitchers with good strikeout rates and big breaking balls. Both
    pitchers were expected to be dominant, and neither lived up to expectations.
    Fernandez’s inability to keep his weight down led to knee problems that
    derailed his career. Milton, while not as rotund as Fernandez, is also a big
    guy with a healthy arm but a bum knee, and the parallels are getting eerie.

  • I can’t remember getting this deep into spring training with this many
    free agents left. Maybe 1995, the Homestead year, or one of the collusion
    seasons. In addition to Lankford and Lofton, Rickey Henderson, Chuck
    Knoblauch
    , Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley are all looking for
    employers. Knoblauch is probably done, but it’s not hard to see the other guys
    all helping a team, at least in a limited role. Heck, Rogers is sixth months
    removed from being a staff ace, and Finley was about as good as Rogers while
    pitching for two teams.

    Before the year is over, Rogers and Finley will be pitching big innings in a
    pennant race. Perhaps they’ll become even more desirable as the season goes
    on. Rather than trade for a pitcher who will cost talent and who may have a
    couple months of wear on his arm, teams may have the option of signing a
    player who will only cost money, and with his 2003 odometer set to zero.

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