Boston Red Sox

  • Position Battle: The only major job fight this spring looks to be at first base between Doug Mientkiewicz and Kevin Millar. However, reports out of Boston say that Theo Epstein would like to settle this situation as soon as possible, so expect one of the two to be dealt after Carlos Delgado finally finds a new home.

    Which one should be disappeared? Both will cost the Red Sox about the same: Millar will make $3.3 million in 2005 and Mientkiewicz will make $3.75 million, so money won’t be the determining factor. Based solely on 2004 performance, Millar is way ahead. Millar batted .297/.383/.474 with an EqA of .295 while Mientkiewicz batted .246/.340/.363 with an EqA of .251. What’s more, Millar posted a VORP of 37.6 in 2004, ranking him fourth in the AL among first basemen. Meanwhile, Mientkiewicz was in Randall Simon territory with a VORP of -4.5. Defensively, one is inclined to think, at least on reputation, that Mientkiewicz is superior defensively. According to FRAA, though, both were slightly below average, Millar at -1 runs and Mientkiewicz at -5.

    The longer track record paints a different picture, however. From 2001 to 2003, when both played full-time (as opposed to the job-sharing arrangement in 2004, which skews the numbers somewhat), Mientkiewicz compiled a total of 36 Fielding Runs Above Average. That’s a solid edge over Millar, though with a caveat: Millar was +8 in 2003 at first base, but only played the position sporadically in ’01 and ’02, thus making the comparison tougher. Offensively, Millar soundly beat Mientkiewicz in the power department during that three-year stretch when both were regulars. But Mientkiewicz showed superior on-base skills.

    That’s a lot to digest. To compare the two players’ total contributions over the 2001-2003 period, we need an all-encompassing stat that measures both offensive and defensive performance. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP-3 stat, which measures total contributions and adjusts for league difficulty, shows the following results:

    Mientkiewicz: 18.5
    Millar: 16.2

    Throw in Mientkiewicz making a natural platoon partner for righty-swinging on-base fiend Kevin Youkilis–who’d otherwise be blocked from playing time–and you have a compelling case to consider keeping Mientkiewicz. Either way, both players offer value, whether to the Red Sox or in trade.

  • Filling out the Roster: The Red Sox made a couple of moves in the past month:

    First, the Sox re-signed their remaining arbitration-eligible players, Mark Bellhorn and Bronson Arroyo. Bellhorn will make $2.7 million, a huge raise from the $490,000 he earned last season. Last season Bellhorn was one of the game’s best bargains, hitting .264/.373/.444 and drawing 88 walks, ranking him second in the American League in VORP for second basemen (37.6). Arroyo, who will make $1.85 million this season, will enter the season as the Sox fifth starter, but he could get bumped to the bullpen if Wade Miller is healthy. Last season was Arroyo’s best, as he made 29 starts and posted a VORP of 24.7.

    The Red Sox signed Josias Manzanillo to a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI. Manzanillo was signed by the Sox all the way back in 1983 and spent nine years their system before going on to a peripatetic career. He will be a long shot to make the team.

    Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners to assume their vacancy at shortstop, but the Sox were covered, havig acquired Ramon Vazquez in the Dave Roberts trade. As their utility infielder, Vasquez will be a slight downgrade defensively over Reese, while saving the team almost $500,000. At the plate, the Sox won’t lose anything. Vazquez has a career line of .262/.334/.344 versus .248/.307/.352 for Reese.

    Lastly, the Sox resigned Dave McCarty to a minor-league contract with a spring NRI. The 35-year-old McCarty hit .258/.327/.404 for the Red Sox last season. He is likely to be the 25th man, battling with Adam Hyzdu and Adam Stern for the fifth outfielder’s spot or backing up at first base.

Cincinnati Reds

    Why? Why? Why? In late December, the Reds signed LHP Eric Milton to a three-year, $25.5 million dollar contract. If you haven’t, read Jim Baker’s article on why this signing makes little sense. Simply put, Baker lists these five reasons:

    1. In 2004 he allowed the most fly balls in the major leagues
    2. He had the worst groundball to fly ball ratio in the major leagues
    3. The Reds gave up more home runs than the Colorado Rockies
    4. He was one of the luckiest starters in 2004
    5. His ERA was only slightly above the league average

    We could add that he has a serious injury in his past but you get the point. The only positive is that he has pitched more than 200 innings in four of his seven big-league seasons, but why would you pay $8.5 million a year for a glorified innings eater. Simply put: wrong player, wrong park, horribly wrong contract.

  • Last Again? If the Reds are going to have any hope improving on their 76 wins for 2004, the starting staff is going to have to do much of the work. This means a repeat performance from Paul Wilson, major improvement by Ramon Ortiz, and for the team to move the fences back 50 feet for Milton. The staff also needs Aaron Harang to show progress again and for someone to step up and take the number five spot. Here is what PECOTA thinks we can expect from the rotation in 2005:

    Pitcher              Projected 2005 VORP
    Paul Wilson                 5.4
    Eric Milton                10.9
    Ramon Ortiz                 7.0
    Aaron Harang                6.1
    Luke Hudson                11.0
    Brandon Claussen            4.7
    Josh Hancock                3.8

    Not surprisingly, PECOTA sees a major regression for Wilson, a pretty big regression for Milton, a 50% drop for Harang, and not much improvement for Ramon Ortiz. If PECOTA is right, then the Reds have little hope of improving on their next-to-last team ERA performance of 2004. With the minor-league system bereft of major-league-ready pitching help, it could be a long year in Cincinnati.

  • Position Battle: Looking around the diamond, shortstop is the only position that will be open going into spring training. After parting ways with Barry Larkin the Reds are deciding between Anderson Machado and Felipe Lopez. This plan has hit an early snag because Machado has suffered a knee injury while playing winter ball in Venezuela. Visa and passport problems have prevented him from making it to Cincinnati for further examination.

    Assuming Machado is ready to go in spring, here is what PECOTA sees for the two in 2005:

    Player              AVG  OBP  SLG   VORP  FRAA
    Felipe Lopez       .255 .333 .410   13.0    -5
    Anderson Machado   .237 .343 .355    8.6    -6

    If these two don’t fit your fancy there is slim pickings on the free-agent market. The only two “notables” still available are Cody Ransom and Rich Aurilia. Here is what PECOTA sees for this duo in ’05:

    Player              AVG  OBP  SLG   VORP  FRAA
    Cody Ransom        .269 .331 .402    4.0    -4
    Rich Aurilia       .247 .307 .369   10.0    -4

    Given what’s available, the Reds should resist the temptation to invite either to spring training and should first see if Ryan Freel can become serviceable at shortstop. While moving Freel into the starting lineup may limit Dave Miley’s options off the bench, the lineup would benefit from Freel’s .362 OBP and 79% success rate on steals. Freel was a shortstop prospect in the Jays’ system years ago, so it’s not completely unreasonable.

San Diego Padres

  • Finished Product: As mentioned in this space last month, Kevin Towers has done a good job of scraping the bottom of the barrel for bargains. Last week, Towers did it again by inking southpaw Chris Hammond to a one-year, $750,000 contract. The contract represents a major pay cut for Hammond, who made $2.5 million last season. Hammond is coming off a solid 3.52 RA, 16.5 VORP season in 2004. Hammond is also one of the best in the game at holding runners; only two players have even attempted a steal against him in the last two years.

    The Padres also resigned right-hander Scott Linebrink to a two-year, $2.75 million contact with a team option for 2007, one which becomes guaranteed if he makes 100 appearances in 2005 and 2006. Linebrink will earn $910,000 this season and $1,365,000 in ’06. Linebrink is coming off a career year in which he pitched 84 innings, had a 2.14 ERA and a 31.2 VORP, and struck out almost a batter per inning. He has had shoulder problems in the past, so one has to wonder how he will follow his 2004 campaign. PECOTA sees a major regression in VORP, to 12.6, and a still-respectable 3.72 ERA. On the good side, Linebrink is projected to nearly match his 2004 levels in innings pitched (78 2/3) and strikeouts (71).

    On the same day that the Padres extended Linebrink’s contract they also signed right-hander Miguel Asencio to a one-year deal. The once promising Asencio had Tommy John surgery in March of last year and is expected to start the season on the disabled list or in the minor leagues. He is just 24 years old and elicited this comment in Baseball Prospectus 2004:

    He reminds me of Johan Santana in 2000, who like Asencio was a 21-year-old pitcher who struggled after he was plucked out of A-ball in the Rule 5 draft. Two years later, Santana might become one of the best young starters in the league. Asencio is probably a year away from that kind of success himself, so the Royals would be well-advised to send him to Triple-A for at least a half-season to complete his minor-league apprenticeship.

    The signing of Asencio on the cheap is a good risk for the Padres. If he can fully recover from surgery he can be a nice addition to the rotation or bullpen by the middle of the season, providing the Padres with some additional depth to their pitching staff. To make room on the 40-man roster for Asencio, the Padres outrighted lefty Darrell May to Portland. Apparently May, who was awful last season, giving up 38 home runs and having a 6.29 RA, agreed with the front office’s decision.

    Lastly, the Padres signed their lone arbitration-eligible player, Sean Burroughs, to a one-year, $1.675 million contract. Burroughs ranked 14th among NL third baseman last season in VORP (14.6) and slugged a paltry .365. The 24-year-old has hit just 10 home runs in more than 1,200 major-league at-bats and was the Padres leadoff man last season. The addition of Dave Roberts will bump Burroughs down in the order, but he still needs to pick up his production if he is going to be a long-term solution for the Padres. He’s not good enough defensively, -3 FRAA last season, to justify his lack of power. Unfortunately for the Padres, PECOTA doesn’t see progress, predicting a line of .272/.336/.380 and a VORP of 12.4.

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