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Houston Astros

  • Offseason Moves: News for those hiding under a rock for the last few months: the Houston Astros added Andy Pettite and subsequently Roger Clemens to their rotation. (Surprisingly, Astros Manager Jimy Williams resisted the urge to name either of the homecoming heros his opening day starter, instead going with the PECOTA-approved Roy Oswalt.)

    Clemens was a cheap addition at $5 million. Pettite’s contract is only slightly higher at $5.5 million in 2004, and $8.5 million in 2005…and a surreal $17.5 million in 2006. Given Pettite’s elbow, the last year of that contract may be a real albatross.

    However, putting away unpleasant thoughts of the future, the 2004 rotation projects to be a substantive improvement over last year’s:

          2003 VORP           2004 VORP (projected)
    Oswalt     35.4      Oswalt    34.8
    Redding    31.6      Pettitte  34.6
    Miller     28.5      Clemens   32.8
    Villone    19.6      Miller    30.5
    Robertson  10.0      Redding   16.2
    TOTAL     105.5      TOTAL    132.7

    In other news, the Astros traded their closer (and 2003 most valuable pitcher), Billy Wagner to the Phillies for Brandon Duckworth. Sure, they had the also-darn-good Octavio Dotel ready to replace Wagner’s high-leverage innings, and, sure, they have Brad Lidge ready to move into the setup role, and so on down the bullpen … but eventually, you end up with Wagner innings replaced by Duckworth and Dave Veres innings, and that can’t be good.

  • One Hand Clapping: That’s the sound baseball fans everywhere are making for Gerry Hunsicker’s decision to dump Geoff Blum–or, ahem, should that be trade the flexible, versatile Geoff Blum–and cement Morgan Ensberg at third base. Hmm, Ensberg’s contract is for $.5 million, Blum’s, $2.5 million and with a negative VORP… yes, the team could afford to sacrifice some positional flexibility. This is the only significant change to a lineup that produced the fourth-most runs in the NL last year and is a clear case of addition by subtraction. This decision almost – almost! – redeems the seven-figure, one-year up for Jose Vizcaino and two-year re-up for Brad Ausmus, who had a career low in slugging last year and (at .303) was .001 above his career low OBP.
    Pos         2003 VORP              2004 VORP (projected)
    C   Ausmus      -17.9      Ausmus       -4.1
    1B  Bagwell      34.4      Bagwell      31.1
    2B  Kent         34.0      Kent         38.9
    SS  Everett       4.5      Everett       7.9
    3B  Ensberg      34.1      Ensberg      29.2
    LF  Berkman      36.0      Berkman      51.5
    CF  Biggio       13.4      Biggio        7.2
    RF  Hidalgo      40.0      Hidalgo      22.1
    UT  Blum         -2.9    
    TOTAL           175.6      TOTAL       183.8      

    In addition, PECOTA projects regression to the mean for Richard Hidalgo, although this is somewhat offset by the same for Brad Ausmus. Also note the monster rebound year projected for Lance Berkman.

    The main question mark around the lineup headed into 2004 is whether Hidalgo will stay with the Astros. Given Houston’s payroll and Jason Lane‘s talent, Hidalgo may find himself wearing Dodger blue, particularly with a new GM at the helm in Chavez Ravine.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Ding Dong, The Witch Is… Despite a nine-player trade with the Diamondbacks that has remade the roster, the most significant move of the season has been the offer to sell from the current Selig-led ownership group. With an “ironclad” lease with the taxpayer-funded Miller Park in place, and assurances that Allen & Co. will look for local ownership, Milwaukee fans might not face a Montreal-esque fate. The ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks recently attempted to sell their franchise but found no takers, so don’t sound the bell on Bud and Wendy just yet.

    The sale shouldn’t reach the farcical levels of the Expos travails, but this won’t be a short process either. The initial effect would be expected to be uncertainty, but that’s hardly a new condition for the franchise. They won’t chase free agents for a while and the contracts they will sign (with the exception of the ongoing Geoff Jenkins talks) will be of the John Hart type.

  • Hello, My Name Is… If uniforms didn’t already have numbers on them, the Brewers might need to wear nametags, or at least play some of those abysmal icebreaker games on the first day in Maryvale. The projected Opening Day roster has only two holdovers (Geoff Jenkins and Wes Helms) and the rotation also brings back two (Ben Sheets and Wayne Franklin.) Paring payroll to create placeholders is a sound strategy if some of the big name prospects that the Brewers are collecting make it to Milwaukee on schedule.

    Junior Spivey and Craig Counsell can certainly be an adequate middle infield, but are more valuable to the franchise as trade bait. The Yankees and Twins have already inquired about the services of both, so with the right offer or the right hot streak from a prospect, expect Doug Melvin to start working the phones. It will surprise no one if Geoff Jenkins is moved mid-season, assuming he won’t sign cheaply and can remain intact for the first time in three seasons.

    The Thing We Do Right Is… Doug Melvin can’t take all the credit for the developing strength in the minor league, but he did have the good sense to keep Jack Zduriencik on as his Director of Scouting when he took over the moribund Brewers. The first wave of prospects hit Milwaukee last season, but a full scale invasion could begin by the All-Star Break. Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and Corey Hart will have a chance to break camp with the big boys, but will likely head to Huntsville for regular playing time. Beyond the initial wave, the All-Star progeny of Prince Fielder and Tony Gwynn will likely be next.

    Where the Brewers lack is on the mound. Only Manny Parra projects as anything more than an average major league pitcher and the top upper level prospect, Luis Martinez, is dealing with control issues of a far different type than most.

  • The Guy You Might Not Know Is… With a weak corps of catchers, C/3B Chris Coste could sneak onto the big club with a good spring. His 2003 was lost to a lingering high ankle sprain, but this former Northern Leaguer might be a sleeper, much in the spirit of Scott Podsednik or Danny Kolb from last season. With only Chad Moeller and Mark Johnson “blocking” his path, Coste could find himself in Miller Park quickly if things break right for him.
  • The Projection You’ll Want to Ignore Is… Every once in a while, PECOTA spits out a projection that makes Nate Silver wonder if his laptop snuck out and scored something that BALCO doesn’t make. Expecting Nick Neugebauer to be a useful pitcher, let alone one with a 10 VORP, is one of those projections. Brooks Kieschnick playing both ways barely rated a 10 VORP. PECOTA is deadly accurate on most players, but the funny ones are worth pointing out as a reminder that we’re still occasionally little more than Miss Cleo with a calculator.

Oakland Athletics

  • Second Verse, Same as the First: The departure of players like Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi are the defections that garner the most attention in the media; the constant crowing about talent departure and market size makes watching American Idol seem enjoyable by comparison. Enough already. The A’s have shown their ability to recover from the loss of someone like Giambi and it’s likely that Tejada’ s move to crab country will affect the offense even less. Tejada’s absence will be felt, certainly, but shouldn’t be a major concern.

    This offseason, like 2001, the A’s made several small moves to attempt to compensate for the loss of a superstar. More than anything else, Mark Kotsay and Bobby Kielty provide stability to an outfield that showed less consistency than network prime time lineups. Replacing Jermaine Dye with, well, anything almost covers the difference between Tejada and replacement Bobby Crosby. Crosby certainly won’t put up the power numbers Tejada did right away, but he’ll quickly make A’s fans forget Miggy’s free-swinging tendencies.

    Looking at the offense as a whole, Oakland looks likely to put up the same middling hitting numbers as last year:

    Pos   2004            VORP    2003             VORP
    1B    Scott Hatteberg  8.8    Scott Hatteberg   6.9
    2B    Mark Ellis      15.4    Mark Ellis        8.6
    3B    Eric Chavez     50.7    Eric Chavez      55.8
    SS    Bobby Crosby    18.1    Miguel Tejada    50.4
    LF    Eric Byrnes     15.0    Terrence Long    -8.5
    CF    Mark Kotsay     19.6    Eric Byrnes      19.7
    RF    Bobby Kielty    16.7    Jermaine Dye    -20.6
    C     Adam Melhuse     5.3    Ramon Hernandez  30.3
    C     Damian Miller    5.0    Adam Melhuse     10.5
    DH    Erubiel Durazo  22.6    Erubiel Durazo   32.2
    Bench Billy McMillon   4.2    Billy McMillon    8.5
    Bench Jermaine Dye     3.8    Jose Guillen      4.1
    Bench Marco Scutaro   13.9    Chris Singleton  -2.3
    -----                -----                    -----
    TOTAL                199.1                    195.6

    The onus will once again be on the A’s superior pitching to carry the load. The only major changes on the pitching staff are Arthur Rhodes replacing Keith Foulke at closer and Mark Redman replacing Ted Lilly in the rotation, neither of which should be of major concern. (PECOTA sees the combination of moves as a wash.) Overall, the A’s look likely to put up very similar numbers to last year’s division winning squad. With the Mariners aging rapidly and Texas shipping all their talent out of town, Oakland looks to be in good shape to edge Anaheim for another AL West crown.

  • Leadership Void: What is cause for concern, however, is the departure of pitching coach Rick Peterson and, more recently, Assistant GM Paul DePodesta. The A’s success of late is built on pitching, the complete lack of any major arm injuries to that pitching, and the front office’s ability to gather effective hitters undervalued by the market. As Will Carroll pointed out in the Oakl and Team Health Report, the A’s complete lack of arm injuries is near miraculous. The miracle man has been Peterson whose ideas and philosophies on pitch counts, off-day routines, and “pre-hab” have been disseminated throughout the organization.

    New pitching coach Curt Young has been brought up from Sacramento to replace Peterson. While Young has been schooled in the Peterson process, being a disciple is one thing, being the messiah is something else. It will be interesting to see if Young makes any changes his first year and especially how he works with the A’s top trio of pitchers. Changes probably won’t be drastic, but with Peterson’s departure combined with Hernandez’s trade to San Diego, the Big Three might call a few more pitches or change their style. There’s little reason to think that the A’s success in pitching won’t continue in 2004, but the loss of a guru like Peterson opens the door to more disaster than losing a shortstop.

    DePodesta gained much more public notoriety after Moneyball, but it was no secret that he was an integral part of the A’s success at talent evaluation since his arrival in 1999. Without his sidekick, GM Billy Beane’s personality may start to hold a greater sway over organizational decisions; most worrisome is his tendency to stick with certain players more than he should. Having lost J.P. Riccardi to Toronto and now DePodesta, Beane will need to find a new foil in recently appointed Assistant GM David Forst. There’s little reason to doubt Beane’s talent as GM, but the loss of a talent like DePodesta is never a good thing. On the bright side, at least he left for the National League.

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