Chicago White Sox

  • C-Ya, Wouldn’t Wanna B-Ya: Some people might think that, being critics and all, we take some sort of schadenfreudean pleasure whenever a manager gets fired, but that isn’t really the case. Evaluating managers is, in fact, among the most difficult elements of our job; we’re forced to either overemphasize the importance of factors like lineup order and bunting strategy that are easy to evaluate objectively, or to close our eyes and walk through the forest of intangibles, hoping not to bump into any conifers along the way.

    Jerry Manuel was fired on Monday after six years captaining the White Sox. By today’s standards, that’s a long tenure; Manuel’s teams achieved a 500-471 record over the period, with one division title, one third place effort–and four second place finishes. There is perhaps no better way for a manager to seal his fate than to consistently finish in second place. With a very poor team, there are more fundamental problems to address, and the manager is usually given a pardon; winning pennants, on the other hand, speaks for itself, even when it shouldn’t. But when his team finishes second, a manager’s leadership is invariably called into question.

    The principal reason that the Sox have consistently finished in second is because they’ve consistently been the second best team. Management’s strategy has been to make one or two significant off-season moves that improve the team’s chances, but do not place the Sox in a position to dominate a division that, at least since the demise of the Ramirez-Thome Indians, could easily be dominated. Some of those moves (Jose Valentin and Bartolo Colon) have worked out fine on their own merits, others (David Wells and Royce Clayton) haven’t, but with each 80something win season, it hardly seems to matter.

    This winter, finally, management may be forced to pick a direction. Bartolo Colon’s contract is up; though he didn’t have a spectacular season, it’s hard to think of the Sox competing without him or a pitcher of similar quality. Magglio Ordonez has one more year on his contract. So does Esteban Loaiza. Carlos Lee is arbitration-eligible and is likely to command more than he should because of his good counting numbers. Frank Thomas had a nice, rebound season, but he’ll be 36 next year.

    The point is that this hand of cards is too expensive, both in terms of salary and opportunity cost, to play passively. The White Sox need either to throw caution to the wind and take a stab at someone like Ivan Rodriguez with a short-team deal (in addition to resigning Colon), or to liquidate Lee and Loaiza for value while they can. Either approach is defensible, and either is superior to continuing to hold the middle ground.

    Jerry Manuel, in part because of his personality, and in part because of factors entirely unrelated to it, was a symbol of the White Sox’ passivity. If his firing indicates that the Pale Hoes are ready to take a more definitive course of action–and the selection of the new manager should be dictated by just what course that is–then we’re all for it.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • PECOTA mini-evaluation: While some analysts pegged the Cardinals as the team to beat, PECOTA hedged its bets, projecting the Cardinals for 86 wins, a figure very close to their actual total. But while the results were similar in the aggregate, they were very different in their composition: let’s dive in and take a closer look, comparing each regular’s actual performance against his projection.

    Offense: 789 projected runs scored , 876 actual runs scored

    The Cardinals were expected to have one of the better offenses in the league, but still managed to beat PECOTA by a substantial margin, just trailing Atlanta in run scoring, and far ahead of any other NL club. Among the eight regulars listed above, three (Matheny, Renteria and Pujols) finished at or above their 90th percentile projection, while only one (Drew) failed to meet his weighted mean, and then only by the slimmest of margins. The Cardinals, in fact, might have beaten out the Braves if not for (rather predictable) injuries to Drew and Edmonds.

    Pujols’ case receives special attention. Even though he was only 23, PECOTA didn’t provide him much room for improvement, figuring that he had already reached an elite level of performance, and didn’t have the sort of secondary skills (speed, for example) that correlated with further growth. Instead, Pujols had one of the best seasons ever at his age, cutting his strikeout rate further while hitting for more power (94 extra base hits). The most comparable player to Pujols to also have improved significantly at age 23 was Hank Aaron, and it may not be too early to start thinking about him along those lines, or along the lines of Joe DiMaggio.

    Pitching: 725 projected runs allowed , 791 actual runs allowed

    What they gained in offensive firepower, however, the Cardinals gave back in terms of run prevention. While Woody Williams and Matt Morris weren’t that far off their projections (PECOTA built in an injury risk to Morris’ forecast), the back end of the rotation was terrible, getting 48 disastrous starts from Brett Tomko and Jason Simontachhi, and salvaged only temporarily by Dan Haren.

    The bullpen was even worse, compiling a 4.71 ERA in relief, and finishing next-to-last in Michael Wolverton’s reliever evaluation report. Some of the carnage has been airbrushed here to protect the children: experiments with Dustin Hermanson, Esteban Yan, Russ Springer and Lance Painter were all disasters, Yan and Fassero finishing in the bottom ten in Adjusted Runs Prevented. Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria and Jim Edmonds are all solid (and deserving) bets to win Gold Gloves, and it’s remarkable that a team with such stellar defense could allow so many runs. Dave Duncan’s magic no longer seems to be working.

    In fact, there’s a pretty good case that the poor performance of the bullpen ruined the Cardinals’ season. According to ARP, the St. Louis ‘pen allowed 55 more runs than an average team would; had the bullpen been merely average, it might have been the Cardinals celebrating a Game One victory in Atlanta, and not the Cubs.

Texas Rangers

  • Rough Draft: The Rangers and Orioles have more in common than the despotic reputations of their owners and the legacies of Don Stanhouse, Craig Worthington, and Jack Voigt. Next June, for the third season in four, Texas and Baltimore will draft two spots apart. Both lost on Sunday, Texas to the fallen Angels and Baltimore to a team managed by Roger Clemens. With identical 71-91 records, the O’s benefit by having had the worse 2002 mark and will draft 8th in June, while the Rangers will pick 10th.

    It brings to mind the events of the final weeks of the 2000 season, which you should care about if you’re a fan of either organization. With nine games remaining, Baltimore was 67-86, with Boston, Toronto, and the Yankees remaining on its schedule. Texas was 70-83, with Anaheim, Seattle, and Oakland left. But Baltimore reeled off seven wins out of the final nine, and Texas won just once in nine, and the Rangers ended up with a worse record.

    The Orioles, picking 7th in June 2001, took Cumberland University lefthander Chris Smith, who has pitched 13 innings in three years. The Rangers, granted the 5th pick by virtue of their late-September slide and concomitant Oriole streak, found themselves in position to draft Baltimore-area native Mark Teixeira.

    The significance to Texas (and to Baltimore) of that final nine-game stretch in 2000, arguably, cannot be overstated. Neither can the obviousness of that last sentence.

  • Name-Dropping: No list of the top prospects in the game contained the names Ramon Martinez and Jose Dominguez six months ago. Now called Ramon Nivar and Juan Ramon Dominguez, they’re probably the top two prospects the Rangers have, and Texas probably considers itself fortunate that they didn’t make their big league debuts in 2003 for other organizations.

    Nivar, after three years at High-A, played his way to the bigs by late July, and he is a legitimate candidate to start in center field for Texas in April. Though considerably raw, the electricity he demonstrated in all phases wasn’t lost on Ranger decision-makers, whose club hasn’t featured his sort of offensive mischief-making since before Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s name change. Some have suggested that the confusion over Nivar’s modified surname helped Texas slide him through the Rule 5 Draft in December. For whatever reason, he went undrafted (for the second year, actually), and the Rangers are thankful.

    As for Dominguez, the August shift in his vital data was as baffling as his plus-plus change. His first name is not Jose, but Juan. His birthdate was rolled back more than two years. The age change means he should have been eligible for last December’s draft, and he was not on the Rangers’ 40-man roster.

    Both Nivar and Dominguez were probably longshots to be drafted in December since neither had played above Class A at the time. But then again, neither had Johan Santana when Florida plucked him from Houston in 1999 and traded him instantly to Minnesota, all for the same $50,000 fee that any club could have paid Texas to steal Nivar or Dominguez this past winter.

  • On Further Inspection: One of the top prospects netted by John Hart during his summer veteran sale was righthander Josh Rupe, grabbed from the White Sox in the Carl Everett deal, and he’s probably worth some amped-up attention. Yes, his 9-6, 3.28 mark between Low A Kannapolis (Chicago) and Low-A Clinton (Texas) was impressive. But toss out his first start of the season and his last (which came just before he was shut down with a tired arm), and his season ERA would have been 1.79.

    Remarkably, of the 34 earned runs Rupe surrendered this year, nearly half (16) came in the space of three total innings of work in those two incongruous starts.

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