Montreal Expos

  • Call to Arm(a)s: One of the major questions at camp is whether the Expos’ pitching staff can recapture the form and productivity it displayed in 2003. Right-hander Tony Armas Jr. was recently thought to be on the mend, and the Expos were optimistic that he’ll begin the 2004 campaign in the rotation. But that was before word came in just before press time that Armas was suffering from tightness in his right deltoid, and is now back on le shelf. This after missing most of 2003 with a shoulder injury and sustaining a biceps injury early in camp.

    Armas’ best effort came in 2001, when he logged 196-plus innings, with an EqERA of 4.09. Here’s how the staff measured up under the Support-Neutral Valued Added comparison in 2003, with Armas out most of the year:

      Team    SNVA
    1 ARI     10.5
    2 MON     10.5
    3 OAK      9.7
    4 NYY      7.3
    5 LAD      6.7

    Now, the caveat here is that a major piece of last year’s 2003 staff is now a Yankee. But the hope is that a healthy Armas can pick up for the departed Javier Vazquez. That’s the hope; the reality is he probably won’t even come close.

    PECOTA projects Armas to log fewer than 126 innings and start no more than 21 games. By comparison, Vazquez notched 230 innings, with 34 starts in 2003–rock-solid when it came to taking the ball every fifth day. Armas has yet to total 200 innings in a season in the big leagues; his second-best total came in 2002, when he put up 164.1 IP. The smart money says he won’t sniff even that relatively modest total.

    So the job falls to the rest of the staff. Absorbing innings is one thing, absorbing quality innings quite another. Livan Hernandez has proven himself to be durable, averaging 229 IP the last four seasons. But while he ranked among the top 10 pitchers in the majors in Value Over Replacement Player in ’03, it remains to be seen if he can duplicate that performance, given his spotty track record prior to last season. And Hernandez is the safe bet–relatively speaking–on this staff:

    Name                  2003 EqERA          IP
    Zach Day                4.46            131.1
    Claudio Vargas          4.66            114.0
    Tomokazu Okha           4.99            199.0

    Day and Vargas could gain more innings simply by being assured of starting jobs this season. But they’re both significant injury risks, and both have posted spotty peripherals, both in the minors and the majors. Seung Song (PECOTA-projected 4.82 EqERA) and Sun-Woo Kim (5.08) aren’t the answer either. The Expos need to give former first-round pick T.J. Tucker an extended tryout at SP5, to see if he can soak up the league-average innings the club needs. Tucker did a decent job in a seven-start stint last year, and could surprise if given more time. Otherwise, Omar Minaya needs to find an alternative somewhere else.

  • Lucky 13: Question, is the number 13 unlucky? Teams in the National League East are banking on it. With 12 NL East division tittles under their belts–* on 1994–the Atlanta Braves’ seat atop the division may be in jeopardy. While Philadelphia is considered the odds-on favorite to dethrone Atlanta, Montreal could be a darkhorse contender. Before you fall off your chair, consider for a moment PECOTA’s projections for starting position players in 2004.
    Pos. Expos        EqA       Braves       EqA     Phillies       EqA
    1B   N. Johnson   .314     A. LaRoche   .259     J. Thome      .331
    2B   J. Vidro     .286     M. Giles     .286     P. Polanco    .271
    3B   T. Batista   .257     M. DeRosa    .247     D. Bell       .256
    SS   O. Cabrera   .261     R. Furcal    .272     J. Rollins    .263
    C    B. Schneider .256     J. Estrada   .249     M. Lieberthal .269
    LF   T. Sledge    .269     C. Jones     .313     P. Burrell    .294
    RF   C. Everett   .280     J.D. Drew    .297     B. Abreu      .316
    CF   B. Wilkerson .286     A. Jones     .288     M. Byrd       .281

    The Phillies’ offense will almost certainly be a force to contend in the East. Their starting-eight EqA projection is an impressive .286. But the Expos are not that far behind at .276, equal to Atlanta’s projection. A breakthrough year for Sledge here, a power spike for Wilkerson there–maybe with continued nagging injuries to Thome and a failure to rebound by Burrell thrown in–and the Expos may be able to hang with the big boys, Vlad or no Vlad.

  • Bullpen Woes: Joey Eischen is expected to undergo elbow surgery and will likely miss two months or more. Over the past two seasons Eischen has become an important late-inning lefty specialist, including a 3.06 ERA in 70 appearances last year. His absence opens the door for newcomer Randy Choate to make an impression and log some innings, but the Expos will also need contributions from Jeremy Fikac and other relative no-names to bolster the quality arms of Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala. As for nominal closer Rocky Biddle, if you can’t say anything nice…

San Francisco Giants

  • The Devil Is in the Details: It’s common knowledge that Barry Bonds has a clean shot at being worth more than the rest of the lineup put together. But what about the rotation? The PECOTA projection system foresees little reason for hope, projecting most of its members to post surface ERAs in the 4s, not good for an NL pitcher’s park. Let’s look at the more prominent starters (2004 stats are PECOTA’s weighted means):

    • Jason Schmidt, 3.41 ERA in 190 IP:

      The good news: Schmidt’s best comp is Jack Morris, heading into his 1986 season, in the midst of his Motown career. His translated stats of 3.84 ERA in 253 IP were right in line with his previous few seasons; not quite as good as 1985, but better than the Tigers’ 1984 World Series campaign. Morris’ big problem in ’86 was his HR rate, which spiked to 1.4 per 9, tied for the highest of his career. Only a ridiculously low (~20%) hit rate saved his season.

      The bad news: The other best comp is Jim Bunning, who coincidentally was also in the midst of a significant stretch in Detroit during the relevant year, in this case 1963. Perhaps significantly, like Morris in his comp year, Bunning’s gopheritis festered to the tune of 1.6 per 9, the highest full-season rate of his career. That, plus a ridiculously high hit rate, drove his ERA up to 4.88.

      But so what?: These two seasons’ similarity scores leave Schmidt’s other comps in the dust. Both seasons feature K rates over 7/9 and walk rates in the 2s, right in line with Schmidt’s PECOTA projection. Their hit rates were wildly different, but of course he can’t worry about that. The big, flashing red light is the implied HR spike, but that’s largely built into his PECOTA, which predicts the highest level since coming to the city by the bay. That projection looks safe.

    • Kirk Rueter, 4.96 ERA in 118 IP:

      The worst news: Rueter has confounded statheads for years, posting acceptable seasons despite horrendous supporting skills. As we warned in 2003, he could fall off the cliff at any time, and in fact he flashed the first significant DL time in his SF career last season. Which is all the more ominous when you consider that his top comp, Dave
      in his 1978 year, had just come off a shortened, combustible campaign. Roberts’ ’78 season featured an ERA over 5–real or translated–and would be the last time he’d break 85 IP in a season. By 1981, he was done.

      More bad news: Next on the list is Fritz Peterson, who reversed two years of ballooning ERAs to just squeak in under the translated-5 ERA mark. But he didn’t even last as long as Roberts, exiting after two more years. Then we get Walt Terrell, translated 4.73 in 1991, done after 1992; and Clyde Wright, translated 5.69 in 1974, done after 1975.

      Nice knowing you: After this quartet, the alternate realities implied by Rueter’s comps start to diverge. Supporters can point to the fact that Kenny Rogers has done all right by himself, but Giants fans should be very concerned about Rueter’s most probable fates, not to mention the rate at which Sabean has been dealing arms over the last year.

    • Jerome Williams, 4.15 ERA in 133 IP:

      Heading into his age-22 season, it’s too soon to confidently speculate about his career.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Is He Werth it?: Now that he’s made the transition from catcher to outfield, it may be time to give Jayson Werth another look. Vernon Wells is locked into the CF spot, and Frank Catalanotto will patrol another OF spot most of the time. Either Werth or Reed Johnson could platoon with and occasionally spell F-Cat; the bigger question is who should see more playing time? PECOTA projections for this year:
    Player    Age    AB      AVG     OBP     SLG    VORP 
    Werth      25    269    .261    .331    .466    6.2
    Johnson    27    397    .268    .330    .402   -1.2 

    PECOTA projects fewer ABs for Werth; equalize those, and the difference in VORP becomes more obvious. The Jays were fortunate to get a good year out of Johnson last year; perhaps it’s time to see what Werth can do before Rios, Gross and Griffin beat down the doors to SkyDome. It would be understandable if the Jays want to play Johnson the first part of the year to showcase him as trade bait. Once that nexus has passed, it’s time to give the others a chance. Given the Jays’ depth in the OF, Johnson will quickly become a spare part, even if he has evolved into a useful organizational soldier. At this point, a platoon tandem of Catalanotto and Johnson would seem to make sense, leaving room at another OF spot to see what Werth is worth.

  • Just-in time?: Off-season acquisition Justin Speier has passed the most significant barrier beyond TINSTAAPP; he’s survived the Coors launching pad. The solid performance and improvement he’s shown in the last three years brings to mind Steve Reed, as very few pitchers have been able to survive–let alone thrive–at Coors.

    Year    IP       H    BB    SO     ERA    VORP
    2001    56.0    47    12    47    3.70    14.6
    2002    62.3    51    19    47    4.33    12.3 
    2003    73.3    73    23    66    4.05    13.1

    Although the Jays have more expensive options in the pen, don’t be surprised if Speier makes a splash. Taking him away from high altitude should help quite a bit–unless he starts pitching like he’s at the top (rather than the base) of the CN Tower. As the season progresses, this could develop into a fine acquisition.

  • The BETTER Batista: Tony Batista was a useful pickup for the Jays a few years ago; now they’ve brought an improved Batista over from the Diamondbacks. Miguel Batista has been treated like leftover scraps in Arizona the last few years. That’s all right as far as J.P. Ricciardi and company are concerned. The Jays may not have afforded him otherwise; his perceived ‘warts’ made him a good value play.

    Year     IP    EQBB9   EQSO9  EQHR9   VORP    STF    G/F 
    2001    139.3    3.6    4.9    0.7    28.8    1     1.35 
    2002    184.7    3.0    4.8    0.6    38.7    11    1.74
    2003    193.3    2.5    5.9    0.6    41.0    21    2.04 

    What’s not to like? He’s throwing more innings, his walks are going down, his strikeouts are going up, he’s giving up fewer bombs, and he’s throwing more ground balls. He’s coming from a park where his home/road ERA splits were 3.87/3.26 in 2003 and 4.12/3.46 from 2001-2003–gaining about 0.6 on his ERA at home. He may face some similar home/road issues in SkyDome, but with potential better defense to go with his own improvements, he’ll be a valuable signing.

  • Can a Phelps Be a member of the Ken Phelps All-Stars?: Josh Phelps has shown promise and even brilliance at times–yet he hasn’t quite put it together for a full season at the major league level. After getting his knee scoped in the off-season, he’s healthy and ready to go. Phelps has been nagged by his knees before–as long as he’s healthy, expect him to start going ape on the league, perhaps sending Elvis out of the building 30-40 times (or more). After putting up a combined VORP (between Syracuse and Toronto) of over 60 in 2002, Phelps regressed a bit to 19.9 last season. While that was a mild disappointment, barring health issues don’t expect that to continue. PECOTA pegs him at .272/.355/.520, and he’s a good bet to surpass his projected 395 ABs.

  • Hinske’s Heroes: After an off-season of conditioning, Eric Hinske hopes to put up a rebound season. Despite a broken hamate bone and some issues from added weight, Hinske still managed to bang out 45 doubles last season. Similar to Phelps, his VORP dropped from 59.0 in 2002 to 16.0 in 2003; the Jays will need him to recover if they’re going to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. He will.

    With any luck, the Jays’ offense will be as ‘anemic’ as the 2003 Braves–ask Harold Reynolds.

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