Arizona Diamondbacks

  • The Long Goodbye: The Diamondbacks finally parted ways with their ace lefty on January 11, when the long-rumored trade shipping Randy Johnson to the Yankees was completed. In exchange for Johnson, the Diamondbacks received Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro and $9 million. Johnson’s departure marks the end of his six-year run of dominance in the desert. If the Big Unit plays out the final three years of his re-structured deal in New York and then retires, will he become the first player to be enshrined in Cooperstown as a rattlesnake?

    Here are Johnson’s numbers with Seattle and Arizona:

    TM   GP   IP     W   ERA   H/9   K/9  BB/9
    SEA 274 1838.3 130  3.42  6.92 10.98  4.33
    ARI 193 1389.7 103  2.65  7.05 11.86  2.33

    It’s pretty clear that based upon performance, Johnson should go in with a teal A on his cap. Arizona is where Johnson completed his evolution into the most dominant pitcher in the game, and cemented his reputation as an all-time great with a heroic performance in the 2001 postseason, one that ended with a World Series title. It will be interesting to see if the Hall of Fame officials side with the numbers, or choose to select Seattle, where Johnson pitched longer and where he made his name.

  • Handle with Care: The implications of the blockbuster for both teams have been discussed extensively by others. Put simply, the package the Yankees offered Arizona was one that Joe Garagiola Jr. could not refuse. Vazquez has the potential to be a frontline workhorse, although Arizona did take a sizeable risk in acquiring him. There are legitimate questions about the soundness of his right arm, as well as his desire to pitch away from the East Coast. After his most recent meeting with the team, Vazquez has claimed that he is willing to pitch for Arizona. Of more immediate concern for the Diamondbacks, however, should be the right-hander’s disturbing split from last season:
    Half    IP   ERA  K/9   K/BB   HR/9   BAA
    1st  118.7  3.56  7.21  2.97   1.44  .233
    2nd   79.3  6.92  6.27  1.96   1.59  .286

    Vazquez was one of the best pitchers in the American League before the break, and was clearly fatigued towards the end of the season. It’s no secret that Vazquez has been worked extremely hard throughout his career–he averaged 220 innings a year from 2000-2004, his ages 24 through 28 seasons. Vazquez’s second-half struggles may be traced to the extreme punishment he took as the ace of Montreal’s staff in ’03, as shown by BP’s Pitcher Abuse Points metric. Vazquez led MLB in PAP and PAP per start, and racked up 11 starts of 121 or more pitches. His stress rating of 95 led the NL. Last season, however, Vazquez only compiled a stress rating of 10, largely due to his second-half ineffectiveness. If it is true that the right-hander’s arm has no structural damage, and that his second-half problems were simply due to a tired arm or mechanical problems, then the Snakes have to be optimistic about his chances for a bounce back season in 2005. They just need new manager Bob Melvin to lay off the pedal.

  • Meet the New Drew…Same as the Old Drew: Acclaimed shortstop Stephen Drew, selected by the D’backs with the 15th pick of the June draft, remains unsigned, as agent Scott Boras is seeking a major-league deal worth at least $5 million. This certainly feels a lot like déjà vu; Drew’s older brother J.D. pulled the same stunt in 1997. Boras stonewalled the Phillies, who had selected the slugger with the second overall pick in that year’s draft, by asking for an $11 million package. Drew then spent a season playing for the St. Paul Saints before re-entering the 1998 draft.

    Stephen Drew may be headed for a similar stint in the independent leagues. He withdrew from classes at Florida State in hopes of coming to an agreement, and the Diamondbacks are preparing to make a new offer, but both sides still appear to be far apart. The team could be treading carefully with Drew’s signing due to the necessity of receiving approval for former agent Jeff Moorad to become a part owner. Considering that they need Bud Selig’s approval of Moorad, is it worth it for the Snakes to acquiesce to Boras’ contract demands?

    Stephen Drew had a terrific year at Florida State, hitting .344/.458/.692 with 17 home runs. Those are good numbers, but as college stats, they don’t blow you away. For comparison, brother J.D. put up a .455/.604/.961 line in his last year at FSU. Positional value–the younger Drew is a shortstop, the elder was an outfielder–makes up for some of that gap, but not enough. If anyone was worth the huge signing bonus out of college, it was J.D.

    The Diamondbacks should stay away from giving Stephen a deal comparable to the double figures that J.D. first asked for from the Phillies. A package worth around $5-6 million for Stephen, however, seems like a sound investment for Arizona, considering the general consensus that he could have been taken first overall, as well as the fact that he plays a premium defensive position. With an underwhelming crop of Snakes shortstops in Drew’s path–Alex Cintron, Jerry Gil and Sergio Santos are the notables, with Royce Clayton and Craig Counsell also having been dragged in this winter–Arizona would have been wise to earmark some of the cash received from the Yankees to ink Drew, rather than squandering it on the aging mediocrity that is Shawn Green.

Detroit Tigers

  • Fun With Park Factors: After five years, it’s time to check in on how Comerica Park is shaping up as a run environment.
    Year Hitting/Pitching
    2000      97/97
    2001      99/99
    2002      93/94
    2003      95/95
    2004      96/97
    100=neutral. Higher numbers favor offense, lower defense.

    The Tigers moved the left-center field fence in from 395 to 370 feet after the 2002 season, cutting down on the enormous power alley that Juan Gonzalez complained about during his time with Detroit in 2000. Whether or not Comerica’s spacious outfield would have really driven away free-agent hitters is unknown, though Gonzalez’s public whining probably did plant some doubts in numbers-conscious sluggers. The Tigers appear to have gotten lucky–they moved the fence in, eliminating any talk that their park was too extreme, but that move has not seriously affected Comerica playing as a good pitchers’ park. Detroit needs to recognize this fact and ensure they have the appropriate speed in the outfield to capitalize on Comerica’s tendency to depress home runs (0.871 in 2004) and inflate triples (1.844, the highest factor for three-base hits of any park).

  • Out of the Frying Pan: There were a lot of reasons to believe Jeremy Bonderman was being set up for failure by the Detroit Tigers. He was drafted in the first round out of high school (by the Athletics, of all teams, before being traded to Detroit), a serious risk factor in the development of young pitchers. He spent just one season in A ball before breaking camp with the Tigers in 2003. He endured a brutal first major-league season with Detroit, losing 19 games for a Tigers team that dropped a franchise-record 119. Because of all that, it’s easy to forget that Bonderman is still just 22 years old, and to overlook the real strides he has made in his performance:
    Year  GS  IP   H/9  BB/9  SO/9   ERA
    2003  28 162  10.7   3.2   6.0  5.56
    2004  32 184   8.2   3.6   8.2  4.89

    Like many young pitchers, Bonderman needs to cut down on his walk rate to take the next step. He has improved at the major-league level, though, and he appears ready to assume the mantle of staff ace. Fears that he has been overworked so early in his career seem unfounded. Despite the high total of innings he has racked up, manager Alan Trammell has kept him from having a single start above 121 pitches in his young career, and Bonderman has had a low stress rating in both of his first two years. Bonderman only got stronger down the stretch in 2004, as he had a 3.70 ERA and .211 batting average allowed after the All-Star break.

    That Bonderman has largely overcome the hurdle doesn’t excuse the Tigers’ handling of their young ace. As pointed out in Baseball Prospectus 2004, Detroit’s decision to rush him to The Show will prove costly in the long-term, as Bonderman has now racked up two years of major-league service time and will hit free agency that much sooner. Clearly, having Bonderman as an “indentured servant” during his peak years instead of his developmental phase would have been better for Detroit. The Tigers are a team that can’t afford to shell out huge dollars to keep all of its homegrown talent, and so don’t have the luxury to make such a mistake.

  • Fifth with a Bullet: One wouldn’t expect the fifth slot in the Tigers rotation to generate much intrigue. However, this year’s back-end starter, Wilfredo Ledezma, has perhaps as much promise as any member of the pitching staff. Ledezma was a Rule 5 pick by the Tigers two years ago, nabbed from the Red Sox organization. He understandably struggled in 2003 after jumping from the South Atlantic League (A) to the majors, posting a 5.79 ERA in 84 innings for the Tigers, mostly out of the bullpen. Last season, Ledezma was able to head back to Double-A for much-needed seasoning, and he had a fine half-year in his age-23 season at hitter-friendly Erie, striking out 98 and walking just 24 in 111 2/3 innings.

    Ledezma was recalled to Detroit on July 11, and pitched well enough for the Tigers (4.39 ERA, 29 K, 18 BB in 53 1/3 IP) to generate excitement about his future with the team. If Ledezma can build on the improvement he made last season, he could quickly team with Bonderman to provide a young, electric one-two punch at the top of the Detroit rotation.

Kansas City Royals

  • More Fun With Park Factors: In 1995, Kauffman Stadium underwent a renovation that saw the fences in the alleys moved in from 385 to 375 feet, the fence in center moved from 410 to 400 feet, and the fence height reduced from 12 to nine feet. Ever since then, Kauffman has played as an extremely healthy hitters’ park. From 1995-2003, Kauffman averaged a park factor of 106 for batters and pitchers, a trend that grew from 2001-2003, when the park factor jumped to 113 for batters and 112 for pitchers. Kauffman’s numbers over that three year span were frighteningly offensive–by contrast, Coors Field only played as a 112/111 during 2003.

    Sensing that the rate of offense was getting out of hand, the Royals decided to move the fences back to their original positions of 385 feet in the alleys and 410 in center before the 2004 season. In doing so, they bucked the recent trend of moving fences in to exaggerate offense in the hopes of drawing more fans, a tactic taken most recently by the Tigers and White Sox. The results of the Royals’ move were drastic–the park factor fell to 95 for batters and 96 for pitchers last season. Kauffman depressed runs at a rate of 0.910, rating it as the seventh best pitcher’s park in baseball. It also had a park factor of 0.706 for home runs, ranking it as the second hardest stadium on homers behind Petco Park.

    In the modern age of offense, the Royals decision to return to traditional stadium dimensions is an encouraging sign of sanity and foresight. In general, only two things increase attendance: winning and hosting quality opponents. Moving Kauffman’s fences back won’t hurt the Royals at the gate, and if it helps to move the organization more towards a commitment to developing quality young arms to benefit from the new dimensions, it could prove to be a major plus.

  • Calvinist Theology: One of the most interesting developments of last season was the play of Calvin Pickering, the much traveled, and monstrous (6’5, 278 lbs.), first baseman/DH. Pickering is something of an enigma; after having collected just 81 professional ABs from 2002-2003, Pickering caught on with Kansas City in ’04 and absolutely destroyed the Pacific Coast League while at Omaha. In 299 at-bats, Pickering put up a Bondsian .712 slugging percentage by hitting 35 home runs, and then continued his barrage in Kansas City, hitting .246/.338/.500 with seven homers in 122 ABs. PECOTA thinks Pickering, who will still be just 28 in 2005, is for real. Here’s his 2005 projection:
    337  24 .272 .400 .543  36.6

    PECOTA tabs Pickering as the 2005 Royals’ offensive MVP. It’s doubtful that he will get enough at bats to claim that honor, however. Chronically injured Mike Sweeney, signed to a huge deal, is lodged in the DH slot, and the team is way too high on Ken Harvey at first base. Sweeney, an inferior defender, has been making things difficult for Royals’ management recently, demanding that he play first base regularly or be dealt. The situation could be a blessing in disguise for Kansas City, however, for the team would be better off trading Sweeney for a few prospects and playing Pickering every day at DH.

    That would also solve the problem of finding an expendable member of Kansas City management to break the news to Pickering that he is still without a starting job. Our suggestion? Humor Calvin by offering him exclusive first dibs to all 2005 post-game spreads.

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