Chicago White Sox

    No Relief: Maybe because everyone’s more comfortable categorizing things, but whatever the reason, the media won’t seem to leave manager Ozzie Guillen to make use his bullpen as he chooses and instead require him to label someone “closer” and everyone else as “lacking that secret special closer stuff”. The choice for the ultimate fireman is still between Billy Koch and Damaso Marte. Assuming that the White Sox are still stuck in the mode of the classic closer usage–and there’s little reason to think that they’re not–there’s little reason for Guillen to consider Koch the top reliever in the pen.

    Koch’s numbers from the past few seasons:

    Year    ARP  EqBB9  EqSO9  EqHR9
    2003   -8.6   4.6    7.0    1.6
    2002   12.4   4.1    8.6    0.6
    2001   -2.0   4.0    6.6    0.8

    (ARP is Michael Wolverton’s Adjusted Runs Prevented, a key stat for relievers whose ERA and other stats are often clouded by their stuttered usage.)

    Koch has always been wild, but he’s been making a living in baseball because he can sometimes hit triple digits on the gun. As that’s no longer the case, Koch has become hittable. His fastball has virtually no movement and the rest of his pitches are below average, leaving him totally dependent on velocity to get outs. This situation isn’t a case of performance analysts versus traditional baseball men; it’s not an issue of EqBB9 versus “closer makeup”; there’s no reason for Koch to be used in anything resembling a high leverage situation for the Sox and it’s debatable if he’s even above replacement level at this point. Koch looks like Yosemite Sam, used to throw fast, and acts like a closer, but those are his only claims to the role; Guillen needs to recognize that and put the issue to rest.

    Despite the well-publicized implosion–as much Koch’s doing as Marte’s–in the first game of the season, Marte has been perfect when called upon this season. He is clearly the top man in the bullpen and should be used as such. If Guillen recognizes that the highest leverage innings are not necessarily save situations, then all the better for ChiSox faithful, but the least he could do is use Marte to lock up the ninth.

  • Scott Free: On the other hand, the “experiment” of moving Scott Schoeneweis into the starting rotation has turned out well so far. Schoeneweis was in top form in 6.2 scoreless innings against the Rays and he two decent starts against the vaunted Yankees offense. There is some cause for concern at this point with a seven-to-nine strikeout to walk ratio, but Schoeneweis’s K-rate has been increasing steadily for several seasons, a nice compliment to his low walk-rate. The Sox knew that replacing Bartolo Colon would be difficult, but Schoeneweis has done an admirable job thus far and he didn’t cost the Sox the buckets of cash that Colon or a comparable free agent pitcher was demanding on the market. There’s little reason at this point to think that he can’t continue to fill the role adequately.

    One of the main improvements Schoeneweis made last season to compliment his increased K-rate is his drastically decreased HR-rate. Having surrendered 21 and 17 dingers in 205.1 and 118 IP in 2001 and 2002, Schoeneweis kept all but three balls in the yard last year in 64.2 innings. Jorge Posada‘s shot off Schoeneweis in his first start has been his only blemish in that department this season. A slight increase in strikeouts would be encouraging, but for the time being, whatever adjustments Schoeneweis has made are working well.

Oakland Athletics

  • Scooter: With all due respect to Jermaine Dye, Marco Scutaro–whose name seems to be pronounced with as much Italian gusto as can be mustered–has been the A’s most encouraging find of the season thus far. In a few weeks, Scutaro has gone from being the likely last man left off the roster to the starting two-bagger since Opening Day. Scutaro, nicknamed Scooter by the Oakland faithful, edged out Esteban German for the second base job after starter Mark Ellis went down for the season and while backup Frank Menechino nursed a calf injury. Scutaro has played so well that he’s seemingly disproved early comments from Athletics front office that the job was Menechino’s when he returned; though this prediction has been made true by Scutaro’s move to shortstop for a few games when Bobby Crosby went down with a knee contusion, the second time he’s injured an A’s regular in a collision.

    Scooter, who was hitting .333/.357/.424 through Saturday, is a career minor leaguer, originally bouncing around the Indians system before going to the Brewers in 2000 and then the Mets in 2002. Discounting his short stays in the majors with the Mets the last two seasons, his last few years in the minors look something like this:

    Team                    Year   AVG   OBP   SLG
    Buffalo (Cle-AAA)       2000  .275  .366  .381
    Indianapolis (Mil-AAA)  2001  .295  .360  .432
    Norfolk (NY-AAA)        2002  .319  .375  .475
    Norfolk (NY-AAA)        2003  .311  .401  .520

    At 28 years of age this season, we’re more than likely seeing the peak of Scutaro’s career, but his steady improvement over the last few seasons is encouraging. As important, his glovework has ranged from excellent to average, a key component with the A’s pitching staff’s tendencies for ground balls. It’s a little too early to pass full judgment on his defense, but it ‘s clear he’s not a leaky sieve of liability. It’s hard to see Scooter continuing his current level of success, but even a regression towards his expected level of contribution will be more than could be expected when Ellis went down a month ago.

  • Spicoli: Once again off to a hot start is fan favorite Eric Byrnes, posting a .356/.408/.556 line through Saturday while splitting time in leftfield with newcomer Bobby Kielty. Byrnes got off to an equally hot start last year while taking over for an injured Dye, but he struggled mightily over the second half of the season, likely a result of the league catching up to him.

    Byrnes story is rather well known among A’s fans; he was kept behind organizational favorite Adam Piatt all the way up the Oakland farm system ladder, due mostly to Piatt’s better numbers in the plate discipline categories the A’s prioritize. Piatt’s derailment after viral meningitis a few years ago shortened his leash and eventually, Byrnes overtook him with solid play in the tatters of the Oakland outfield last year. The main quality that Byrnes possessed that Piatt did not–besides the exaggerated SoCal accent–is speed. Whereas Piatt’s defense could usually be best described as lumbering, Byrnes makes up for occasional misreads with blazing speed, a quality that also does a much better job of yielding him a few more infield singles and fewer double plays.

    While the Athletics certainly remain the poster child for applying objective performance analysis and emphasizing plate discipline at the expense of other skills considered overrated, players like Byrnes, Piatt, and GIDP machine Ben Grieve are signals that speed may be reaching the point where the market is undervaluing it. The case of the A’s handling of Byrnes and Piatt through the minors could be a case study in how speed affects a player’s development. Of course, it could just as easily be a lesson that viral meningitis is really, really nasty.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • One Man Show: When the Phillies signed Jim Thome a year ago, he was to the crown jewel in an already potent offense. With Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal already in place, Thome looked to be escaping an almost Bondsian situation in Cleveland to a more egalitarian, almost Cardinal, state of being in Philadelphia. While only Burrell really failed to live up expectations last season, thus far in 2004 Thome has been an island unto himself.

    With the offense–which many expected to be among the leaders in the National League–sputtering along at under 4 runs per game, only Thome is carrying his weight. His .344/.429/.689 line through Saturday is by far the team’s best, easily outpacing Abreu at .258/.361/.484. In fact, Clay Davenport’s Equivalent Average standings have Thome supplying 8.4 Runs Above Replacement Position (RARP) while the rest of the position players all post numbers under 3.0. (As if pitching shutouts wasn’t enough, pitcher Randy Wolf places second with 3.2 RARP). For all of the talk recently around baseball about bloated, albatross contracts, Thome is earning his keep so far this season. If Burrell–or whoever Larry Bowa decides to bat behind Thome–doesn’t start to turn things around soon, though, teams will begin to figure that out and Thome will see fewer pitches to hit and the Philadephia offense will continue to struggle.

  • Two Arms, One Elbow: He may be a bit of a forgotten man in some circles, but prospect Gavin Floyd is off to a hot start in Double-A Reading. Floyd has tossed 11.2 scoreless innings in three starts while posting a 13:5 K/BB ratio and only three hits allowed. After strong performances in the Low-A Lakewood and Advanced-A Clearwater the last two years, Floyd is making a case to be put on the fast track. With Kev in Millwood and Eric Milton‘s contracts up after this season, there could be quite a bit of talk heading into next year about the arrival of Floyd to fill one of those two slots in the rotation.

    Floyd has had the luxury–or curse, depending on your opinion of spotlights–of living under the shadow of Cole Hamels since last season. Hamels, drafted a year after Floyd in 2002, spent most of last year dominating Lakewood before joining Floyd in Clearwater late in the season. Hamels’ success in the spring against the heart of the Yankees lineup only enhanced the image of him as the ace of the future. As if to remind everyone that, like rules, pitching prospects are made to be broken, Hamels is out for the first month of the season with elbow soreness.

    How this affects the Phils’ plans for Hamels’ development isn’t clear, but they have been admirably restrictive with Floyd and his pitch counts, so overuse shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

    As far as the extent of the “soreness,” little is available about that, either, so Phillies fans will have to wait and see how well Hamels recovers from the setback. Either way, he’s scheduled to start the season at Clearwater, continuing his progression

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