- Off-Season Outlook: Now that the endless string of insufferable FOX promos, quips, graphics, and space station sound effects have finally ceased, the off-season can get under way in earnest. Of course, if you’re an Angels fan, that’s about as much cause for excitement as Norm MacDonald’s “It’s your head made out of cheese!” Last winter, GM Bill Stoneman left his championship team intact and watched it painfully regress to the mean. At least this time, Stoneman may be forced to admit that moves must be made.
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many major moves the Angels can make. They’ve already cut Kevin Appier, but since they released him, they’re still paying his salary. Nearly all the main players are signed through 2004, most notably Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, Troy Percival, and what’s left of Bengie Molina. Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad are signed through 2005 and 2006, respectively, and David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy have yet to meet their six-year free agency service limits. Everyone’s due for some decent raises, so the payroll is already tight.
Only Eric Owens and Scott Spiezio are eligible for free agency and as of now, only Owens has filed. (Brad Fullmer’s one-year, $1 million contract is also up.) Anaheim management seems intent on moving Erstad to first base in an attempt to protect him from himself and keep his bat in the lineup more often. No one really wants to see Spiezio try to play center, a fact that leaves his future with the club up in the air. At 31, Spiezio might find the free agent market unreceptive, meaning he could, like Fullmer, return to the team at well below market value to DH or spell Erstad. But is Spiezio’s light bat really the answer to the Angels’ missing DH slot? Expecting anything more than the 16 HR and .326 OBP Spiezio provided last year would be folly, but based on the last time the Angels didn’t play for four months, Stoneman might consider it.
The other Halo hitters lying around–Chone Figgins and Shawn Wooten–should also be back, as neither is eligible for free agency. While Figgins had a respectable second half (.306/.359/.387), his skill set is more suited to his customary pinch-running and spot start duties. Juan Pierre and the World Champion Marlins aside, having a center fielder whose slugging percentage begins with “3” isn’t going to launch the Angels or any other team back to contention any time soon. Wooten brings even less to the table; there’s no way a slow player in his 30s with an OBP dangerously close to the 200s should get significant playing time on a major league team.
The Angels will get some help when Glaus returns next season, but Glaus’ declining offensive lines are cause for concern. If Disney’s team is going to return to contention in the tightly packed AL West, they need a center fielder and a DH who can hit. It’s going to be tough to compete in a free agent market thin in center fielders, though the Angels may be able to steal one once Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield empty the big wallets. Still, the Halos’ best bet may come in the form of a trade. Ideally, Stoneman will find some spare cash and Allard Baird’s phone number (1-800-BEL-TRAN?). If not, it’s time to look for a real DH. Well, Albert Belle‘s contract is finally up.
- What Went Right?: A lot went right. Mark Prior became a true ace, even earning the coveted Internet NL Cy Young Award. Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano were each among the best 10 starters in the National League and Matt Clement had an excellent season, giving the Cubs one of the best front fours in baseball. Joe Borowski temporarily took over the closer role after an injury to Antonio Alfonseca, and kept the job all season.
Mark Grudzielanek was likely the Cubs second-best full-season position player (30.6 VORP to Sammy Sosa‘s 38.8), which, come to think of it, is not really good news. Corey Patterson had an excellent first half (.285 EqA) until a season-ending ACL injury. In-season acquisitions Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez provided exactly what the Cubs needed.
The Cubs improved from 67 to 88 wins, won the NL Central, and advanced to the seventh game of the NLCS. By any reasonable measure, it was a successful season. The improvement was almost completely due to their pitching (third in the league in fewest runs allowed) as opposed to their offense (ninth in runs scored).
- What Went Wrong?: The one thing that you might have expected to go wrong–an injury to one of their four starting pitchers–did not, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. If any of them, especially Wood or Prior (who finished first and third in 2003 Pitcher Abuse Points), gets hurt in 2004, many people will be looking back toward this past summer when all four starters were given very high workloads by Dusty Baker.
The offensive mediocrity should not have been a surprise. The only chance the Cubs had of being an average hitting team would have been via breakout contributions from at least two of the trio of Patterson, Hee Seop Choi and Mark Bellhorn. Only Patterson, a beloved free swinger, was given a real shot, and the rest of the veterans played about as one should have expected.
Many analysts, including here, worried that Baker would not be able to handle the Cubs’ young position players, and these concerns were validated. Choi, their best young hitter, lost playing time to Eric Karros, a lesser player, and then to Randall Simon. Bellhorn, who, like Choi, was too selective at the plate, and Bobby Hill were discarded quickly.
The team had below-average offense at first base, shortstop (Alex Gonzalez) and catcher (Damian Miller), and ended up relying too much on Sosa (who finished below his 10thpercentile PECOTA projection) and a declining Moises Alou.
- Going Forward: Failing a big free agent splash, the Cubs’ hopes will rest almost entirely on the arms of the starting pitchers, and Dusty’s handling of them. Starting pitching being what it is, one almost has to assume a regression in 2004. To counteract that, the team needs to find some more offense.
Unfortunately, the area of the team that most needs addressing is its ability to get on base, something that Baker does not seem to value. If the team is not going to use Choi, a lot of other teams could, so they should consider getting something for him. Assuming Sosa stays (he has an option) and Patterson returns, Lofton doesn’t have a place to play. They would love to find someone to take the last year of Moises Alou off their hands, but that is unlikely to happen. The team will most likely look for more offense at first base, catcher and the middle infield. Luis Castillo will likely be coveted.
- The Year In Review (Part 1): Let’s start with the good news. The Tigers avoided the record for losses in a season. Mike Maroth handled his 21-loss season gracefully. The Tigers outscored the Dodgers, and were unlucky to the tune of between five and 10 wins–oddly similar to the Devil Rays, although with more dignity and fewer tantrums along the way.
Unlucky? The Tigers certainly had some lousy hitting. But was this any worse than they should have expected, given the talent at hand? Let’s look at the projected value for their hitters and see how they measured up.
Name MLVr Forecast %ile Dmitri Young .288 -.014 >90 Bobby Higginson -.090 .053 <10 Carlos Peña .030 .037 48 Ramon Santiago -.267 -.207 35 Craig Monroe -.036 -.040 52 Alex Sanchez -.071 -.114 62 Shane Halter -.237 -.104 21 Warren Morris -.065 -.169 78 Brandon Inge -.256 -.237 46 Eric Munson -.003 -.032 63 Kevin Witt -.050 -.104 62
Dmitri Young‘s projection was thrown off by his hernia problems in 2002. However, looking at his five-year forecast, even extending the slope of the 2000-2001 segment for two years wouldn’t give you a .288 MLVr. This was a career year.
To the other extreme, PECOTA didn’t foresee Bobby Higginson‘s injury problems. If he doesn’t have a substantial rebound next year–and we are talking about a 33-year-old who is three years removed from his last really good season–then his contract has to be considered a serious problem for this team. Similarly, Shane Halter sucked a lot worse than projected and is another overpaid 30-something the Tigers could really stand to unload.
- The Year In Review (part 2): Quick–what common bond links the Texas and Detroit pitching staffs? (Beyond just being bad.) On each team, a reliever edged out a starter for top VORP. This was also true for Atlanta, while not true for the Devil Rays…so this may not be all that significant. But for most teams the top two (or three, or four) starters appear at the top of the ranking. For the Tigers this is decidedly not the case.
All of the Tigers’ April 2003 starting pitchers not named Cornejo finished with a VORP significantly below projection.
Name ERA Proj. VORP Proj. Adam Bernero 6.08 4.89 - 5.7 5.2 Jeremy Bonderman 5.56 6.15 -18.2 -7.0 Gary Knotts 6.04 5.67 -11.3 -2.2 Mike Maroth 5.73 5.30 -11.4 0.1
Each had significantly more innings pitched than projected, allowing negative VORP to blossom. But it’s not like the Tigers had much success replacing them either. Trammell and Cluck tried out several other arms–Matt Roney, Wil Ledezma, Shane Loux–but none of those three would appear to be strong candidates for the rotation next year. Arguably Nate Robertson might be a possibility if you look more at these starts…
Date Opp IP H R ER HR BB K Sep 25 MIN 7.0 5 1 1 0 3 5 Sep 9 @NYY 6.0 5 2 2 0 3 5 Aug 23 ANA 6.0 6 3 3 0 3 5 Aug 18 TEX 8.1 8 2 2 1 0 8
…than at these ones:
Date Opp IP H R ER HR BB K Sep 20 @MIN 5.0 6 6 6 2 4 4 Sep 14 KAN 2.1 7 6 6 1 4 1 Sep 3 CLE 5.0 9 4 4 1 3 4 Aug 29 CHA 5.0 9 3 3 1 3 1
The overall performance of the starting pitchers–and in a pitcher’s park no less–must be a major concern for the front office.