Arizona Diamondbacks

  • State of the Franchise: After winning the ultimate prize in 2001, the Diamondbacks cruised to 98 wins and the postseason in 2002. In addition to the Big Two, the D’backs fielded one of the best lineups in baseball and a solid bullpen. Still, the 2003 season was supposed to be pivotal. Thanks to Arizona’s apparent disregard for the long-term, their farm system seemed bleak, and many felt that the 2003 season would be the year the Snakes emptied all their bullets for one last shot at glory before they reloaded for the future. Luckily for the Diamondbacks, baseball is rarely that predictable. Even though the D’backs weren’t able to do reach the playoffs again in 2003, they still look fairly solid for the future, thanks to the emergence of a few young players.

    The out-of-nowhere emergence of Brandon Webb is a big reason for the change in the D’backs’ outlook. He brings their staff ace total to three, which makes the Diamondbacks pretty fearsome for 2004. The back of their rotation is also set, thanks to the $4 million option they have on Miguel Batista, and a slew of candidates for the fifth slot. If the Diamondbacks can muster even an average offense, they will again contend for the playoffs next year.

    However, the team may have a hard time even scoring that many runs. While it will help to have a full year of Not Matt Williams at third base and Not Tony Womack at shortstop, there are no exceptional hitters in the lineup, and Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley aren’t getting any younger. The D’backs can’t afford to punt a lineup spot, so they should be careful with how they replace Raul Mondesi this off-season. The lineup would really benefit from obtaining a cheap right-handed slugger out of the Adam Piatt mold to patrol right field and avoid overpaying for a scrappy vet (B.J. Surhoff is available this winter). Randy and Curt won’t be around forever, so it’s important for their front office to make the right decisions this winter.

  • Infield of the Future: Here’s a quick look at four of the D’backs’ best prospects:
    Player                  Pos     Age     Level           PA      MjEqA
    Jesus Cota              1B      21      AA              392     .178
    Scott Hairston          2B      23      AA              373     .215
    Sergio Santos           SS      20      A/AA            145     .184
    Chad Tracy              3B      23      AAA             567     .238    
    • First Base: Jesus Cota hit only one home run in 2003 after mashing 32 bombs in his first two professional seasons. Making the tough jump to Double-A can hurt anybody’s power numbers, but it is a bit alarming to see such a big drop in Cota’s power stats. Still, he did well for a 21 year old at Double-A, and his outfield defense is improving, suggesting a long-term position switch.
    • Second Base: Scott Hairston didn’t light up the Texas League as predicted. Back problems could be a part of the reason for this, but he still hit .276/.345/.469, though in a hitter’s park at El Paso. At least his defense wasn’t as bad as expected. If he can continue to make progress, Hairston could be hitting his way into the Diamondback lineup as soon as last year.
    • Shortstop: Sergio Santos is a big high school infielder with power. He struggled at Double-A this year, but thanks to his youth, he will be on a lot of prospect lists this winter. He is still a few years away from the big leagues.
    • Third Base: Chad Tracy may be one of the first singles hitters to be screwed by the sabermetric revolution. He will likely hit .300 in the big leagues as soon as he is promoted, but without any walks or much power. Once he becomes a free agent, he will probably be able to coax a long-term deal out of a GM somewhere, but it’s getting harder for players like him to find such big-money deals. He could start at third next year, with Hillenbrand switching to first.

Kansas City Royals

  • Death of a Dream: With last night’s loss to the Indians, coupled with the Twins’ win against Chicago, the Royals have fallen 4.5 games off the lead with 11 games to play. Given that The Worst Team in Modern History comprises 70% of the Twins’ remaining schedule, the Royals’ playoff hopes have about as much chance of being revived as Ted Williams.

    If it’s any consolation to Royals fans, their team wasn’t deprived of a playoff spot because of bad luck, or shoddy umpiring, or Seligian interference a la their small-market brethren in Quebec. The Royals have dropped out of contention for one deceptively simple reason: they just aren’t that good a team.

    Even before Wednesday night’s coffin-closing 9-1 loss to Cleveland, the Royals were, according to third-order winning percentage, the third-worst team in the American League. Using this estimate of actual team quality, the Royals rank behind the Rangers, Orioles, and yes, even the Devil Rays. That they have parlayed such a poor hand into a winning record is primarily due to two factors:

    1) Their fluky performance with runners in scoring position. The Royals have hit .303/.374/.460 with RISP, compared to .275/.337/.427 overall.
    2) They play in the same division as The Worst Team in Modern History. The Royals are 13-3 against Detroit, which means they’re under .500 against major league competition.

    Allard Baird did his best to try to counteract the natural pull working against his team, feverishly trading for average-plus players to fill the team’s most gaping holes, but there’s only so much one month of Brian Anderson and Rondell White can do.

    The Royals–players and management alike–have no reason to hang their heads in shame. The team is still likely to finish over .500 for the first time since Bob Hamelin was Rookie of the Year and David Cone won a Cy Young Award. But the Royals’ end-of-season collapse–they’ve gone 8-11 since August 29th, despite playing just one of those 19 games against a team with a winning record–emphasizes the point that there’s still much work to be done.

  • The Silver Lining: While the Royals may be out of the running for team honors, their shortstop is still in the thick of the race for Rookie of the Year. Here’s a final look at the ROY contenders with a little more than a week to go:
    Angel Berroa: 146 G, .294/.344/.464, 39.4 VORP
    Rocco Baldelli: 145 G, .294/.330/.424, 20.2 VORP
    Hideki Matsui: 151 G, .287/.348/.438, 20.0 VORP
    Jody Gerut: 117 G, .280/.337/.504, 18.1 VORP

    While VORP factors in defensive position, accounting for Berroa’s sizeable lead, it doesn’t factor in defensive quality. Given Berroa’s reputation (borne out by what numbers we do have at hand) as an above-average defensive shortstop, that omission doesn’t affect his candidacy.

    Surprisingly, the American League rookie who comes closest to challenging Berroa for the award received more attention for his exploits as a pre-rookie last season:

    Francisco Rodriguez: 82 IP, 3.07 ERA, 25.7 VORP

    Whether Berroa wins the award or not, his emergence this year–following a season plagued by injury and a .215 average in Triple-A–is easily the most positive development for the future of the Royals’ franchise. Anytime a player exceeds his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection, it’s a Good Thing for his team. It’s a Very Good Thing when it happens to a rookie shortstop.

  • The Silver Lining, Part 2: Barring a complete collapse, the Royals will manage to accomplish one of their secondary objectives this season: keeping Mike Sweeney under contract for the next four years. The Royals need only to finish 3-8 in their last 11 games to reach .500 for the season and de-activate Sweeney’s out clause at the end of 2004.

    Given Sweeney’s performance this season and the dramatic market correction for free agents the last two years, it’s an open question whether the out clause is even relevant. Sweeney’s contract calls for him to be paid $11 million a year from now through 2007. If Sweeney were to hit the open market this winter, as a 30-year-old first baseman who posted neither a .400 OBP nor a .500 slugging average, it’s exceedingly unlikely anyone would offer him an eight-figure contract.

    Mind you, Sweeney’s uncharacteristically poor numbers this year are almost certainly an off-shoot of his neck problems that sprung up mid-season. Sweeney was hitting his customary .321/.440/.540–he was on his way to setting a career high in OBP–before going on the DL. Since returning, he’s hit just two homers in 150 at-bats and has hit .267/.330/.360.

    Nevertheless, Sweeney’s out clause is merely an option that he can choose to exercise or not. If maintaining that option is good for a player, then eliminating that option is good for the team. They’re three wins away from doing just that.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Not In His Right Mind: Almost three weeks ago, Joe Sheehan observed that batting Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu back-to-back is unwise. The two of them are nothing great against lefties, so any mediocre left-handed reliever can neutralize the Phillies’ two best hitters. If Larry Bowa stuck a righty in between them, Joe wrote, he’d either force the other team to burn both of its lefties, or get at least one favorable matchup.

    For a little while, we had hope: In the Phillies’ first four games after Joe’s column, Bowa separated Thome and Abreu twice against righties, after doing that only once in the Phillies’ previous 20 games. (He normally separates them against left-handed starters anyway.) But there have been 15 games since those four, and Bowa hasn’t split them up against righties even once. (If you’re hankering for a game-by-game breakdown, e-mail us.)

    What makes this even less defensible is that the guy Bowa uses to split the two, Mike Lieberthal, is solidly hitting right-handed pitching this season, despite past trends:

           Lieberthal vs. LHP     Lieberthal vs. RHP
           AVG    OBP     SLG     AVG    OBP    SLG
    2000  .350   .447    .575    .259   .326   .443
    2001  .417   .500    .542    .186   .269   .299
    2002  .346   .426    .617    .260   .326   .393
    2003  .321   .379    .396    .322   .385   .471

    This trend is confusing, and it’s probably a fluke. But Bowa should be squeezing all he can out of the new Lieberthal, and there’s no reason the Phillies’ catcher shouldn’t be batting cleanup every night.

  • Was It Something They Said?: Bowa’s actually been mishandling all of his catchers. When the Phillies picked up Kelly Stinnett at the beginning of this month, we worried that Bowa wouldn’t understand how to use him. Stinnett’s best function is as an insurance policy that allows Todd Pratt, who can hit a little, to get some pinch-hit at-bats. But Pratt has only one pinch-hit experience since Stinnett joined the Phillies, while Stinnett has four, including one in last night’s crucial game against Florida. Way to go, Bo.
  • Nothing To Lose: Terry Adams just went down for the season, depriving the Phillies of one of their most effective relievers. Besides Rheal Cormier (26.9) and Turk Wendell (6.8), only Adams (10.7) had a positive ARP in any significant playing time. Although it’s headlined by one of the best relievers in baseball this year in Cormier, this bullpen has no depth, and the Phillies don’t have much to lose by giving high-leverage innings to someone like Geoff Geary instead of proven stiffs like Jose Mesa and Carlos Silva. The wild card here (pardon the pun) is Mike Williams, who, if used against lineups that are susceptible to his sinker/slider arsenal, may find himself again an effective pitcher.
  • Who’s Number One?: Right now the Phillies are in the midst of their most crucial series to date, and they have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. If they do, it’ll be by a hair, and they won’t have any time to set their playoff rotation. But if they could, they’d have a tough decision to make, because Vicente Padilla is coming on strong.

    Kevin Millwood would certainly be their choice for #1, and even though Padilla has a lower ERA, Millwood is the Phillies’ best starter. But as well as Randy Wolf pitched before the All-Star Break, he hasn’t been much lately, and Padilla has been excellent. We might try looking at how the two of them have fared against San Francisco, the Phillies’ first-round opponent:

    The Giants against Wolf:    .278/.370/.472
    The Giants against Padilla: .323/.375/.542

    Wolf has the edge on Padilla here, though as noted in BP’s recent Q&A with Giants Assistant GM Ned Colletti San Francisco as a team has been much better against lefties than righties this year. Either way, tough call, but one the Phillies would be happy to make, since it’d mean they’ve overcome the Marlins’ 1.5-game lead in the Wild Card race and made the playoffs.

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