- The Grand Canyon State: November is a cruel month for baseball fans as one team rejoices, 29 others plan for next year, and the winter meetings are still weeks away. The one thing keeping us going is the Arizona Fall League, so in that spirit, let’s check in on the White Sox prospects who are working on their games and their tans.
Jeff Bajenaru, RHP. At 26, Bajenaru is one the oldest players in the AFL, a reliever who spent the year moving up from Double- to Triple-A and then had a brief cup of coffee with the Sox. Bajenaru lost 2002 to an elbow injury, but has put up impressive peripheral numbers since returning. In 2004, he totaled 75 strikeouts and 20 walks in 62 innings at the three levels, but he’s struggled in his short stint in Arizona so far, allowing two homers and nine runs in 12 1/3 innings. He has managed to strike out 15 while walking five.
Matt Smith, RHP. Also 26 and also one of the oldest AFL players, Smith started the year with Bajenaru at Double-A Birmingham, but remained behind while Bajenaru moved up the ladder. Originally called up to Birmingham in 2002, Smith has stalled there, posting a solid ERA, but less than adequate peripheral numbers, a performance he has continued in the state that’s too cool for Daylight Savings Time. The presence of players like Smith–who’s unlikely to make it to make it to the majors given that he was basically a LOOGY in Double-A–is the reason that hitters look so good in the AFL.
Dennis Ulacia, LHP. Ulacia was drafted in 1999 and, like the previous two pitchers, spent almost all of ’04 at Birmingham. Unlike the other two, Ulacia is a starting pitcher, one who has posted middling numbers, wallowing around Birmingham since his solid 2001 season. He’s been unable to recapture that excellent performance and has struggled in five starts in Arizona. Starting to notice a pattern yet?
Pedro Lopez, 2B. Twenty years old, Lopez is the youngest player the Sox sent to the AFL, a second baseman who spent most of the year at Winston-Salem before a late call-up to Birmingham. Lopez has a good defensive reputation, but that’s about it unless you count the fact that he’s a good bunter. Lopez has had a terrible time in Arizona this year, hitting .216/.218/.235, drawing one walk in 52 plate appearances and committing three errors in the field. Lopez took a big step back this year in his development and his performance against the mediocre pitching in Arizona is just another sign that he’s a long, long way from Chicago.
Brian Anderson, OF. Drafted in 2003 out of the University of Arizona, Anderson is back among the burnt orange hills after an impressive season split between Winston-Salem (.319/.394/.531) and Birmingham (.270/.346/.416). As “first full seasons in professional ball” go, that one isn’t bad; at this point, he seems to be on the fourth outfielder track, but another good season in 2005 will get him into some discussions. He’s been unlucky with the singles in Arizona so far (.219/.354/.391), but his patience and power have been impressive. He may be wearing down after his first full season. Next year will tell.
Casey Rogowski, 1B. Rogowski has been in Winston-Salem for three straight years now and must be getting well acquainted with the Wake Forest bars and the wonders of Old Salem. Fortunately for him, his numbers have improved there every year, reaching .286/.401/.471 in ’04, a line he’s followed up by smoking the AFL to the tune of .348/.455/.543. Most of his power still comes from doubles, hits which will have to become homers if he wants to make it to Chicago as a first baseman. Of course, a 23-year old first baseman repeating Single-A for the second time is far from being a legitimate prospect, but at least Rogowski has gotten to change his scenery for a bit.
- Easy Street: One of the main ways in which the A’s stay competitive on a small budget is by taking advantage of draft-pick compensation for other teams signing their now over-priced free agents. Last winter, Boston and Baltimore–two high-payroll teams–signed two Type A free agents in Keith Foulke and Miguel Tejada and, by rule, granted the A’s their first-round picks in the 2004 draft (except Baltimore, whose pick was too good and thus gave the A’s a second-round pick) as well as a pick each in the sandwich round between the first two rounds. Much like the overly publicized Moneyball draft in which the A’s had seven first-round picks, this past June they had four, plus the extra second round pick. With those picks, Oakland selected several quality players who are performing well, but the star so far is former University of Texas reliever Huston Street.
Street’s 2004 at a glance:
Team IP H R ER BB SO ERA Univ Texas 57.0 36 14 10 13 59 1.58 Low-A Kane County 10.2 9 2 2 5 14 1.69 AA Midland 13.1 10 2 2 3 14 1.35 AAA Sacramento 2.0 2 0 0 0 2 0.00 AFL Phoenix 12.0 9 1 1 1 11 0.75 Total 95.0 66 19 15 22 100 1.42
The right-handed Street and hype machine Jairo Garcia are likely candidates for the A’s pen next season, giving the A’s two flamethrowers with the high strikeout and low walk rates Billy Beane and company favor. While neither Street nor Garcia is yet the quality of reliever as the departed Foulke, the millions saved by playing either one or both of these young arms frees up the A’s payroll to be spent on key veterans such as Eric Chavez or the hopefully-to-be-resigned Tim Hudson.
There are plenty of questions for the rest of the bullpen for 2005. Lefthander Ricardo Rincon is slowly moving from set-up man to LOOGY territory, but he is under contract for 2005 at a manageable $1.95 million. Newly added and suddenly homer-happy closer Octavio Dotel is arbitration eligible and likely in line for a substantial raise from his $1.55MM salary in 2004. While he has shown a propensity for allowing the dramatic home run, Dotel did strike out 122 while pitching 85 1/3 innings while walking just 33. He’s a hard-throwing, versatile reliever who will absolutely be back next year despite the salary increase and he’ll be a top asset in the A’s pen.
With four spots likely wrapped up, the A’s have decisions to make regarding Justin Duchscherer, Arthur Rhodes, Chad Bradford and Justin Lehr. Bradford is arbitration eligible and should receive a small raise above his $965,000 salary in 2004. Duchscherer proved to be a top quality long reliever and hasn’t yet accumulated the service time for arbitration, making him both good and inexpensive. Rhodes and his $9MM+ contract is neither of those things and will thus be one of the main pieces the A’s attempt to move in the offseason. Lehr pitched well this year, but looks like he’ll once again be the odd man out and will likely spend 2005 memorizing the exits between Sacramento and Oakland (hint: there are In-N-Outs in both Fairfield and Vacaville).
But keeping Dotel, Rincon, Duchscherer, Bradford, Street and Garcia leaves the A’s with just one lefty, one who rarely pitches to more than one or two batters. While the 2004 Angels showed that handedness pales in comparison to effectiveness, it will be interesting to see if the A’s–who have usually sported very balanced pens in the past–will be comfortable starting the season with five righties or if they’ll put up with Rhodes’ contract and hope that he’ll turn things around, giving them a second southpaw.
Either way, free agents Jim Mecir and Chris Hammond will not return. For the curious, Hammond is one of the A’s two Type A free agents (the other being Damian Miller, while Mecir and Jermaine Dye are both Type C) who may net Oakland a few more of those productive draft picks. The A’s will have to decide whether the risk of each player accepting arbitration, which must be offered in order to receive compensation, is worth the potential gain of adding the picks. Only Miller seems a safe bet to sign elsewhere regardless of a tender offer, so this year’s free-agent crop may not be as fruitful in leaving as previous ones have been.
- Fall Guy: In an event easier to predict than the arrival of Haley’s Comet, Larry Bowa was relieved of his managerial duties in the Philadelphia clubhouse just before the conclusion of the season. While no reliable method for evaluating managers’ performance has yet been developed, there’s little question the Phillies underperformed the past two seasons. The industry-standard response in such a situation is to fire the manager.
In 2003, PECOTA pegged the Phils for a 94-68 record and a victory in the NL East by nine games; they finished 86-76, eight games behind projection and 15 games out of first. Obviously the general inaccuracy of projection systems means the Phillies’ shortcomings in 2003 could be nothing more than bad luck. But in 2004, PECOTA set Philadelphia’s fan up for a 95.5-66.5 record and a 14-game romp in the division. They fell ten games short of that mark and just as far behind the Braves. Two years in a row of failing to live up to realistic division-winning expectations is hard to ignore, and Bowa’s obstreperous personality made him the easy target.
There’s quite a bit of blame to be spread around for the last two seasons. In 2003, Pat Burrell and David Bell combined for -6.1 VORP while the rest of the offense performed near expectations. Then there was the Jose Mesa experiment (-7.8 VORP) and the struggles of young pitchers Brandon Duckworth and Brett Myers. While Marlon Byrd was the only blemish on a strong offense this year, the pitching staff was riddled with injuries. Those who did pitch didn’t perform that well; only Eric Milton and Myers managed more than 137 innings and they sported ERAs of 4.75 and 5.52, respectively, combining for a VORP of 18.4, less than two wins above replacement. While the injuries can’t be blamed on Bowa, it had become clear that the organization was ready for a new personality, one they found in former Indians manager Charlie Manuel.
- Winter Plans: Whether or not the Phillies go into 2005 favorites to win the division again will depend more on the decisions GM Ed Wade makes than on Manuel’s demeanor. All of the Phillies’ big bats are under contract for 2005 and, despite six pitchers eligible for free agency, most of the pitching staff looks to be set for as well. (Don’t get too excited: that group combined for a VORP of 151.9. Barry Bonds alone had 144.6.) Cory Lidle, Kevin Millwood, Rheal Cormier, Roberto Hernandez, Todd Jones and Milton have all filed for free agency. Wade has only mentioned talking to Milton, Lidle and Cormier about contracts for 2005.
In place in the rotation are Myers, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla as well as Gavin Floyd, one of the top young pitchers in the game who looked excellent in a September call-up. The pen will retain closer Billy Wagner whose $9MM option has been picked up, as well as set-up men Tim Worrell, Ryan Madson, Felix Rodriguez and Amaury Telemaco, leaving just one or two spots available.
Even if they retain Cormier and one of Lidle or Milton, the Phillies still stand to save a significant amount by getting Millwood’s $11MM off the books. The question is: where do they spend it? As mentioned, the offense is mostly set for next year. Mike Lieberthal, Jim Thome, Jimmy Rollins, David Bell, Burrell and Bobby Abreu will all be back, leaving second base and center field as questions. The two easy answers to those questions are Chase Utley and some combination of Byrd and Jason Michaels.
The Phillies have the money to spend, they retain most of a team that’s had more than enough talent to win the division for most of this century, they have just one or two major needs, and they have their new manager in place. They’re definitely in the catbird seat this offseason; the only question is how bold Wade will be.