Anaheim Angels

  • Latin Beat: Given his first full off-season to put his stamp on the Angels, owner Arte Moreno left no doubt this was no longer your father’s risk-averse, media giant-owned MLB franchise. Moreno and GM Bill Stoneman formed one of the most aggressive tandems of the off-season, with four high-profile free agent signings.

    In inking Kelvim Escobar, Bartolo Colon and Jose Guillen, Moreno made it clear he planned to market the Angels to the burgeoning Latin population in Orange County–alive and well, no matter what The OC‘s lily-white images might suggest.

    • Escobar has shown flashes of impressive performance both as a reliever and as a starter. But like a Raul Mondesi on the mound, he’s never been able to put it all together for an extended stretch, struggling with his control and only posting one sub-4.00 ERA in the last five seasons. Three years, $18.75 million was a major reach, especially given the smaller deals given to superior pitchers such as Miguel Batista during the off-season.
    • After a monster first half in which he mashed to the tune of .337/.389/.616, injuries and a regression toward historical norms took a big bite out of Guillen’s second-half performance. With OF/DH candidates already starting to stack up and Guillen’s future performance a major question mark, it’s worth wondering why the Angels gave him a two-year deal.
    • Coming off nearly 700 innings of 3.60 ERA-pitching over the last three seasons, Colon was a sought-after commodity in the free agent shopping aisle. But four years, $48 million in a sharply correcting market? He’ll need to be close to perfect to earn that kind of payday.

    With question marks surrounding all three of Moreno’s initial Latin player signings, the Angels found themselves staring at an interesting if not quite inspiring winter of shopping. The five-year, $70 million contract the team handed Vladimir Guerrero changed all that in a hurry. Having zealously pursued the same rigorous rehab regimen that turned Ivan Rodriguez from major re-injury risk to the on-field leader and playoff hero of the World Champion Marlins, Guerrero should quickly dispel the doubts over his 2003 back injury that dogged him during free agent negotiations.

    Expect Vlad to be the catalyst for an Angels offense that should score a healthy number of runs, with Anderson, Salmon, Kennedy, Guillen and Guerrero around. If Troy Glaus can overcome the rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder and return to the form that saw him whack 88 homers in 2000-2001, the Halos should prove a worthy challenger to Oakland for the AL West crown.

  • Wither Erstad?: Not a typo–the Darin Erstad that racked up 366 total bases in 2000 is long gone. In its place, the Angels have an all-world defensive center fielder who needs every bit of that D to offset his offensive and injury-related struggles of the last three seasons. With Guillen and Guerrero now on board, there’s talk of moving Erstad to first base.

    That move would be a colossal mistake–maybe the only position change in all of baseball that would make less sense than Jeter at short/A-Rod to third. According to Clay Davenport’s defensive metrics, Erstad saved 39 runs in 2001 and 2002, his two most recent full seasons in center in which he stayed healthy. That’s the equivalent of winning four games over those two seasons with his glove alone, ranking him ahead of any other CF in baseball, including Torii Hunter, Jim Edmonds, Andruw Jones, Mike Cameron and Carlos Beltran. At first base, Erstad loses that huge defensive edge, and becomes an overmatched singles hitter at a position full of Delgados.

    With rumors previously swirling that the Angels would cut payroll and clear an outfield spot via trade, it remains to be seen if Erstad will be a center field asset or a first base headache come Opening Day. With Escobar a question mark, Ramon Ortiz the fifth-worst starter in the majors last year according to Michael Wolverton’s Support-Neutral measures and Jarrod Washburn taking a big step backwards with 34 homers allowed and his first ERA above 4.00 since the 90s last season, trading one of the corner OF/DH crew for another starter could solve multiple problems at once for the Angels.

Chicago Cubs

  • Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: Jim Hendry attempted to address his off-season roster issues and took advantage of two unforeseen opportunities that came his way. In the process, he forged a stark departure from the contented, non-spending, profit-pocketing ways of past years. The team may still struggle to score runs, but at the very least, the Cubs shelled out some dough.

    Expected Changes

    • Catcher: Hendry’s trade for Michael Barrett could mean a slight upgrade over Damian Miller. The biggest upside is that Barrett’s younger than Miller; the downside is that he’s been inconsistent and remains an unproven commodity, even at age 27. There’s a big question mark hanging over this position in 2004, and not going harder after Ivan Rodriguez may come back to haunt the Cubs. Don’t be surprised if a trade happens before mid-season (Yo, what number is Littlefield on speed dial?).
    • Left-handed Utility Outfielder: The best they could come up with, apparently, was Todd Hollandsworth (2003 EqOBP .327, EqSLG .440, EqMLVr -.029, VORP 2.0) and Tom Goodwin (2003 EqOBP .332, EqSLG .374, EqMLVr -.090, VORP 3.8). Both have their uses, but the Cubs are boned if injury-prone LF Moises Alou or coming-off-injury CF Corey Patterson miss a significant amount of time.
    • Leadoff hitter: It’s no secret that the Cubs lack a traditional leadoff hitter. Mark Grudzielanek is expected to lead off by default. Patterson is currently getting some buzz as a potential leadoff man. This looks like it will unfold as a typical Dusty manner. The lineup will basically be in chaos for the entire season, with the Cubs lacking a strong on-base threat who’d make sense in the #1 slot. This is gonna be more fun than a season of Celebrity Poker Showdown.
    • Bullpen help: The pen looks much improved. Comparing the current members against the departing members, using their 2004 PECOTA forecasts:
      Cubs       EqERA  EqH9  EqBB9  EqSO9  EqHR9   PERA    VORP    STF
      Farnsworth 4.63   8.1   4.2    8.3    0.9     4.48    9.6     6
      Borowski   3.62   8.2   2.6    7.2    0.9     3.84    15.1    8
      Hawkins    3.56   8.5   2.7    7.2    0.8     3.81    17.7    7
      Remlinger  3.62   7.5   3.7    8.3    0.8     3.90    11.8    10
      Mercker    4.15   8.3   3.8    6.8    1.0     4.65    10.1    1
      Former Cubs
      Alfonseca  4.20   9.3   2.9    5.8    0.6     4.31    8.7     -2
      Guthrie    4.48   8.9   3.9    5.8    0.9     4.77    4.2     -10
      Veres      3.93   9.0   2.4    5.7    1.0     4.29    7.6     -5

    Unexpected Changes

    • First Base: Eric Karros, Randall Simon, Baker’s mistreatment of Hee Seop Choi…nothing was quite right at first base last season, so Hendry declined an option, traded and non-tendered his way to Derrek Lee. Lee should provide a solid offensive and defensive improvement to the team, though Choi could eventually surpass Lee in Miami, freed from Baker’s prospect-squashing ways.
    • Future Hall of Famer: Oh yeah, and they signed this guy too. We’ll refrain from analyzing the big-ticket free-agent signing the Cubs completed Wednesday, as Joe Sheehan will cover the topic in-depth. Suffice it to say Maddux should help the rotation, but the Cubs’ offense could have really used an impact hitter, via free agency or trade, that this signing used up.

Detroit Tigers

  • A Noisy Winter: The 2003 Tigers were, to be charitable, worse than a Keanu Reeves British accent. Even so, few teams have made as much noise this off-season as Detroit. Joe Sheehan has already done a bang-up job of evaluating the Tigers’ various and sundry winter moves, but let’s take another look at this year’s model in Detroit.

    Most notably, the Tigers added C Pudge Rodriguez, OF Rondell White, 2B Fernando Vina, SS Carlos Guillen and RHP Jason Johnson. Sheehan’s analysis demonstrates that these additions alone could add 11 wins to the Tigers’ total in 2004. Add in a healthy dose of regression to the mean, and it’s not out of the question that Detroit could improve by 25-30 games in the win column in 2004. That probably won’t be enough for serious contention, even in the laughably weak AL Central, but it’s enough to at least temporarily reinvigorate the snoozing Tiger fan base.

  • An Unimpressive Johnson: Using the way-cool PECOTA weighted-mean forecasts, we can surmise that the Tigers’ offense might actually be passable in 2004. The rotation, however, is another story. It stands to be one of the worst in the game, and the addition of Jason Johnson is no panacea. PECOTA projects for Johnson 158 innings pitched and a 4.83 ERA.

    But is there reason to think he might not even be that “good”? Last season, Johnson averaged a sub-par 5.6 strikeouts-per-nine and posted a paltry 1.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Throw in his penchant for the homer and too many walks, and you’ve got a pitcher who fails at the elements over which he exerts the most control. True, he’ll benefit from a slightly better park for pitchers, and a modestly better defense, but his numbers trended downward last season from their 2002 levels, and at age 30 Johnson’s prospects for notable improvement aren’t good.

  • The Pen Is Mightier Than Nothing: According to Michael Wolverton’s Adjusted Runs Prevented, the Tigers were encumbered by the worst bullpen in the American League in 2003. And for all their off-season moves, the relief corps is largely unchanged.

    The only additions to the bullpen are Al Levine, formerly of the Royals and Devil Rays, and Esteban Yan, formerly of the Cardinals. Levine finished the 2003 season with a comely 2.79 ERA, but there are reasons to suspect he won’t duplicate that feat this season. To wit, he struck out less than four batters per nine and logged a 1.03 K/BB ratio, which is grisly for a reliever. If he posts a sub-3.00 ERA again in ’04, the anonymous author of this PTP will shave his eyebrows.

    As for Yan, well, he’s hasn’t had a strong season since 2001. He has better command than Levine, so he’s likely to see some improvement (it would be tough not to improve upon his 6.35 ERA of last season). Yan’s primary weakness last year was his chronic gopheritis (13 homers in 66.2 innings). That should improve in Comerica, but he’s still not much of an upgrade. Don’t be shocked if the Tigers once again have the worst pen in the junior circuit.

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