Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Cruz Control: Remember 1997’s Jose Cruz Jr. mania? It’s now a distant memory–Cruz was labeled a failure faster then you could say “Butch Huskey.” Low batting averages and allegations that he “can’t hit the curve” lowered Cruz’s stock considerably. Quietly, however, Cruz has carved out a niche as one of the most underrated and productive outfielders in the game, and his .275 career EqA is 25 points higher than his lifetime BA.

    Arizona acquired Cruz from Tampa Bay on February 6th for HACKING MASS MVP Casey Fossum. The trade was a good one for the Diamondbacks, especially considering the alternative in center field, Luis Terrero, is probably better suited for the role of fourth outfielder. Cruz is coming off a season in which he hit 21 homers and walked 76 times in Tampa Bay. Last year was a dip from 2003’s performance, when he hit 20 home runs and walked 102 times for San Francisco, and finished second behind Barry Bonds among Giants position players in terms of wins above replacement.

    Cruz has been jerked around in the lineup of late–the last two years he has hit in every spot from 1st to 8th–but with his power and plate discipline, he would be a nice fit in the one or two hole for the Snakes. That would also save them from elevating out-machine Royce Clayton out of his rightful place at the bottom of the order. If the trade has a downside for Arizona, it is Cruz’s defense in center. Cruz has been decent enough at the corners–three runs above average for his career in left, seven in right–but the two seasons he played mostly center, 2000 and 2001, he combined to be 19 runs worse than average. Considering Terrero doesn’t appear to be a much better fielder, performing at replacement level in 57 games last year, the Snakes will have to take Cruz’s defensive mishaps along with his run production until they come up with the long-term answer in center.

  • Team Boras: Last month, we gave an update on the Stephen Drew situation, and said that his failure to sign could be related to the Snakes’ trouble in getting former agent Jeff Moorad approved as team CEO. Drew may yet don the Purple and Teal, as MLB is expected to finally announce its approval of Moorad as CEO soon, more than six months after he was first hired. Now that Moorad is in place, the Snakes need not worry that upsetting other owners by giving Drew more than MLB’s “recommended” bonus for a number 15 pick will harm the structure of their front office.

    With Moorad able to get down to business, it looks as if the team is “very focused on” signing Drew. GM Joe Garagiola Jr. is still in charge of personnel decisions for the time being, but it sounds like Moorad will have at least some input into the negotiations. This sets the stage for one of the more interesting bargaining sessions in recent memory: the former super-agent Moorad, whose clients included Arizona corner outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green, opposite the intractable Scott Boras, whose ability to make a team bid against itself is eerie, if not supernatural.

    Here’s a word of advice–don’t bet against Boras. Doing so would be like siding with Dr. Faustus against the devil, given the magic he has conducted throughout his career (don’t read into that analogy–Boras is just the best at what he does). It wouldn’t be surprising if Drew comes out of the struggle with an eight-figure contract, prompting Moorad and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski to start attending counseling together.

  • Backstop Battle: The Diamondbacks have one major positional contest shaping up in spring training, between catching hopefuls Koyie Hill and Chris Snyder. Keeping both of them on the major league roster is apparently no longer an option, as the invaluable veteran presence of Kelly Stinnett has returned to camp in Tucson. The Diamondbacks could have survived with a platoon of Hill, who is a switch hitter, and the right-handed Snyder, but giving Stinnett a minor league deal to have a cheap safety net for injuries or performance is not indefensible.

    Snyder should be the man who emerges with the starting job. At 24, he’s two years younger than Hill, and has shown a considerably better bat. Last year in Double-A El Paso, Snyder hit .301/.389/.520 with 15 homers in 346 ABs. Hill, meanwhile, hit .286/.339/.471 with 13 homers in 350 ABs in his second year at Triple-A Las Vegas; not enough power for a 25-year-old in the hitter-friendly desert.

    Hill, although a converted third baseman, has an excellent defensive reputation. Statistically, however, Snyder is as good or better, and PECOTA gives Snyder breakout and improvement rates of 42.4 and 69 percent, respectively. Based upon a 2004 debut in Arizona that saw him hit 5 homers and post an OPS of .786 in 96 AB, Snyder could surprise if he nabs most of the playing time behind the dish.

Detroit Tigers

  • Pen is Mightier: The Tigers acquisition of Kyle Farnsworth significantly upgrades the Detroit bullpen. The temperamental and fiery Farnsworth, who has been known to hit triple digits on the gun, gives Detroit two options (along with former closer Ugueth Urbina) to move to the front of the depth chart once closer Troy Percival breaks down. Percival has not pitched 70 innings since he played for a team named the California Angels, and he has clocked in at below 50 the last two seasons, so it’s a pretty safe bet to assume either Urbina or Farnsworth will have some counting stats to cash in at the end of the year.

    The trade also frees up the Tigers to pursue a deal involving Urbina. Recent reports have linked Urbina to the Mets in a possible deal that would ship Mike Cameron to Detroit. The Tigers seem unwilling to take on a portion of the $12.5 million Cameron is due for the next two years, however. We’re not sure why–Urbina is making $4 million in 2005, meaning Cameron’s total cost would be $8.5 million over two years, a bargain for the services of the center fielder. Cameron would push current flycatcher Alex Sanchez to the reserve role where he belongs, and would take pressure off of Magglio Ordonez in the field and in the lineup. While the Tigers should be champing at the bit to make a trade like this and while the Mets do need bullpen help, the deal has little chance of developing. Cameron can block a trade to Detroit, and the Mets appear to have at least some sense of how undervalued he is.

  • Higg-Insanity: Joe Sheehan has already dissected the craziness of the Magglio Ordonez signing for a club in Detroit’s position. Adding to the financial burden on the Tigers is the fact that bringing in Ordonez pushes the incumbent right fielder Bobby Higginson out of a job, and probably off of the team. Unless the Tigers can flip left fielder Rondell White for some prospects, the team will most likely release Higginson rather than have him molder on the bench as a fifth outfielder. With 41 home runs the past two years to Higginson’s 26, Craig Monroe has played himself past Higgy, leaving Detroit with little option other than to eat the $8.85 million left on Higginson’s contract.

    Of course, having a high-priced albatross at a position is not an excuse for not trying to upgrade, as Higginson’s four-year, $35 million deal became a sunk cost as soon as it was signed after the 2001 season. But bringing in Ordonez in right field means that Detroit will get zero production out of the untradeable Higginson in 2005, instead of the admittedly small contribution above replacement level that he could make. The Tigers would have been better off signing a player at a position that wasn’t so financially constricted, or better yet, waiting until their last horrendous signing cleared the books and hitting the free agent market with a more savvy eye next winter.

  • Infante Grown Up?: With the news that shortstop Carlos Guillen will probably be ready for opening day, the Tigers middle infield will return intact from last season, with Omar Infante manning the keystone. At second, an injury has saved the Tigers from themselves–35-year-old Fernando Vina, signed to a bizarre two-year, $6 million deal before the ’04 season, likely will miss all of this season with a torn patella tendon in his knee. The injury forced Vina to miss all but 29 games in 2004, allowing Infante to play regularly. Vina’s contract was bound to get in the way on a rebuilding club, and with the aging second baseman on the shelf–Vina is not even expected to report to spring camp–the Tigers will get another look at Infante to see whether he can continue to improve.

    Omar was the poster boy for the 119-loss Tigers of two seasons ago, when he hit .222/.278/.258 in 221 ABs. Last year, however, he put up a surprising .264/.317/.449 line, and slugged an amazing 16 homers after showing virtually no power throughout his minor league career. That was good for a tidy 5.1 wins above replacement. Infante badly needs to bump his plate discipline to be a major contributor to the Detroit offense. PECOTA is skeptical that he can do so–it projects just 38 walks in 464 ABs for 2005–but it also sees the chance of a breakout (24.5%).

Kansas City Royals

  • Greinke and…pray for rain: Three-fifths of the Kansas City rotation appears to be set–Zack Greinke, the organization’s crown jewel, Jose Lima, the reborn innings-muncher, and token lefty Brian Anderson, who caused hearts to beat faster throughout the Midwest when he announced he has a new windup for ’05. Beyond that, there are a number of options for the back-end slots. The Royals re-signed Kevin Appier to a minor league deal, presumably for sentimental reasons. Bringing back a 37-year-old pitcher who missed 2004 with an elbow injury doesn’t make much sense for KC, especially if it blocks the development of some of their younger starters. Appier was washed up two years ago, but he’ll be fighting for a spot with an assortment of young pitchers-Jimmy Gobble, Mike Wood, Denny Bautista, and recently-acquired dark horse Dennis Tankersley. The organization has soured on former top prospect Chris George after four years of bloated ERAs, but Kyle Snyder, who missed last year with a torn labrum, should get a look as well.

    Also in the mix is Runelvys Hernandez, who currently has the inside track for the fourth spot entering camp. Some may remember Hernandez as the pitcher who unbelievably spent a good portion of the 2003 season pitching with a torn ligament in his elbow. Hernandez was highly effective before his arm began to hurt, posting a 3.05 ERA and .203 BAA in 62 IP in the first half of 2003. After Tommy John surgery forced him to miss all of last year, he now appears to be ready for spring training. Early reports maintain that Hernandez is in shape and progressing well in his comeback, and should be ready by Opening Day. It remains to be seen whether his stubborn decision to pitch through pain in 2003 will cost him some of his velocity and movement, but he was throwing in the low 90s this winter. If his arm is sound, Hernandez should be a nice surprise for Kansas City, and could emerge as the reliable option behind Greinke.

  • Salvation: GM Allard Baird appears to have heard the cries of the throngs of Calvin Pickering supporters around the globe. Heading into spring training, Baird has been saying things in connection with Calvin Pickering–things like “500 at bats”–that have never before been uttered in reference to the burly slugger. The Royals’ GM seems to have bought into the Three True Outcomes while evaluating Pickering this off season, setting up a competition between Pickering and Ken Harvey for the starting job at first base and DH. That Calvin is not predestined for another minor league campaign is encouraging news, but it looks like the battle will be slanted towards the incumbent. Manager Tony Pena has publicly stated that he likes Harvey because “he has hit everywhere he has played.”

    Sorry, Tony, but you should have traded that Ken Harvey rookie card before he hit .256/.311/.366 with 3 homers in 164 post-break at bats. Harvey hasn’t been a productive first sacker in the majors, posting a .721 OPS in 2003 and a .759 OPS last season. His 20.8 VORP was only 13th best among AL first baseman in 2004. Pickering has spent far too much time mashing in the minor leagues-he has compiled an OPS of over .960 in 2162 at bats in the bushes over the past 10 years, while only getting 237 big league at bats. The battle between the two could unfold as an interesting struggle between the preferences of the front office and the field management as the Spring unfolds.

  • Angel in the Infield?: After a promising rookie campaign that won him some hardware, shortstop Angel Berroa went all Bob Hamelin on the league, suffering through a tough sophomore campaign. After signing a four-year, $11 million deal last spring training, Berroa’s performance fell to .262/.308/.385 from .287/.338/.451 in 2003. The Royals had better hope that Berroa takes after Carlos Beltran, the last rookie to win honors in KC, and not Hamelin, who was out of the league by 1999. Based upon the performance records of other ROYs in the past 25 years who suffered drops of at least 20 points of EqA in their second season, how likely is Berroa to resurrect his promise?
    Player            1st Year   EqA     2nd     3rd     4th
    Angel Berroa        2003    .270    .241     ???     ???
    Eric Hinske         2002    .295    .268    .241     ???
    Rafael Furcal       2000    .274    .251    .251    .281
    Carlos Beltran      1999    .269    .235    .297    .286
    Todd Hollandsworth  1996    .282    .233    .249    .271
    Bob Hamelin         1994    .322    .210    .289    .297
    Eric Karros         1992    .271    .248    .263    .309
    Pat Listach         1992    .283    .245    .242    .194
    Sandy Alomar Jr.    1990    .279    .200    .240    .265
    Benito Santiago     1987    .276    .252    .253    .270
    Mark McGwire        1987    .335    .306    .301    .320
    Ozzie Guillen       1985    .236    .211    .241    .237
    Joe Charboneau      1980    .294    .233    .247     xxx
    Alfredo Griffin     1979    .282    .246    .213    .242

    There’s room for optimism here; of the players that dipped as badly or worse than Berroa in their second year, only four declined again in the third year, and only one, Pat Listach, fell off in both his third and fourth years. The other shortstops on the list give us mixed signals. Listach had no power at all and quickly vanished from the scene. Alfredo Griffin and Ozzie Guillen also had no power, but managed to hang around as good field, no hit players. Rafael Furcal is more encouraging; he had little power in his rookie year, but in the past two seasons has seen a gradual return of his plate discipline that has caused a spike in slugging. Berroa already has shown good power potential with 17 homers in 2003, but has never displayed the plate discipline that equates with sustained productivity, and he’s already entering his age 27 season. Berroa should bounce back somewhat, but unless he is able to take a stride forward in his walk rate–which nothing in his performance record indicates he can do–his power numbers and productivity won’t return to their 2003 peak. Expect Berroa to level out as Griffin v. 2.0, with worse defense.

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