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Florida Marlins

  • Duels to the Death: the Marlins are set at every position in the lineup, except for the corner outfield spot not occupied by Miguel Cabrera. Battling for that other outfield slot will be gimpy vets Jeff Conine and Juan Encarnacion, with Conine the favorite for the starting job. In the rotation, Brian “Scuffy” Moehler is making a bid to take fifth starter spot away from incumbent Ismael Valdez. Scuffy may be done-he hasn’t pitched effectively since his injury-marred 2002 season, and he spent 2004 compiling a losing record in AA-but he’s answered the bell to start the spring, while Valdez has been hampered by a viral infection. If Valdez doesn’t get moving, someone may notice that he’s been no great shakes the past couple of years, himself.
  • Five to Watch: Five players to watch down in Jupiter, Florida:
    1. Luke Hagerty
      Who is he? A tall lefty with good velocity and big control issues.
      What’s he fighting for? As a Rule V draftee, he needs to make the club, or get a convenient injury, or else return to the Cubs.
      What’s the verdict? If he makes the 25 man roster, it’s as the last guy in the bullpen, with the upside of moving all the way up to being the second lefty in the bullpen. More likely he comes down with the deadly Mutaba virus at the end of Spring Training, and requires a long convalescence, with a very long minor league rehab.

    2. Joe Dillon
      Who is he? An inspirational story, an infield prospect who retired after a back injury, then took up the game again and hit his way onto the 40 man roster, at age 29.
      What’s he fighting for? The chance to beat out Lenny Harris and/or Damion Easley for a utility infield spot, and to be portrayed by Matthew Modine as the protagonist of the new Disney movie, “The Rookie 2.”
      What’s the verdict? Since Dillon’s skills are pretty similar to Easley’s and since the Marlins infield is set, Dillon’s chances to go South with the big club probably depend on a spring injury. Whether said injury is of the Wally Pip variety or the Bump Bailey variety might impact the MPAA rating for the Rookie 2.

    3. Josh Willingham
      Who is he? A hittin’ machine without a position, and BP’s Mr. Irrelevant runner-up (#48 on our annual Top 50 Prospects List) for 2005.
      What is he fighting for? A chance to make the ballclub as backup to Mr. Heart ‘n’ Soul (Paul Lo Duca), Mr. Marlin (Jeff Conine) and Mr. Needs-a-Good-Nickname (Mike Lowell).
      What’s the verdict? The organization faces a tough decision. Condemn a young kid to bench duty, picking up maybe half a dozen plate appearances a week, or send him down to the minors, to sharpen up at catcher-where he’s blocked by LoDuca for the next three years. We’d like to see what Willingham could do if given a chance to beat out Conine and Encarnacion for the starting left field job. But then again, we’d also like to see the ascot come back into style.
    4. Jason Stokes
      Who is he? An honorable mention on BP’s prospect list, a man buried alive on the depth chart, stuck behind Carlos Delgado.
      What’s he fighting for? A trade to a team that might need a first baseman in the next couple of years.
      What’s the verdict? Suitors would probably like to see Stokes get through a whole season at AAA, without any wrist injuries, before making a commitment. Still, Stokes tops the list of minor league swag the Fish have to offer if they go hunting for help at the trade deadline.
    5. Jeremy Hermida
      Who is he? The future of the franchise–BP’s #35 prospect–is an outfielder with a velvety-smooth lefthanded stroke.
      What’s he fighting for? A good first impression. Hermida was an A-baller in 2004, so it’d take a Ruthian performance-or disastrous injuries-for him to break camp with the big club.
      What’s the verdict? Hermida can keep hope alive, knowing that in 2003 the Marlins turned to Miguel Cabrera in the heat of a pennant race. It just isn’t going to happen out of Spring Training in 2005.

New York Yankees

  • Not Quite All Quiet on the Eastern Front: Not much excitement out of Yankees camp in Tampa, Florida. No big positional battles or impact rookies on the horizon. Instead, the Yankees are quietly preparing for their upcoming season, trying to get into shape, and attempting to ignore distractions, such as Congressional subpoenas issued to Jason Giambi.

    Joe Sheehan has already noted that the congressional hearings into steroid use in baseball have more than a whiff of P.T. Barnum to them. Although Congress has legitimate authority to investigate just about anything related to American life, you have to wonder what they’re doing when they subpoena cooperating witnesses in a pending Federal case. It is one thing to waste the nation’s time and money in order to satisfy the public’s curiosity and get your name in the paper, quite another to potentially compromise a multimillion dollar investigation and prosecution of the BALCO matter.

  • Back to the Nostalgia File: Another look at some of BP’s player comments of the past ten years:

    Alex Rodriguez (1998) Can play a little. I don’t think he’ll see the age of 28 at shortstop, but if that’s your only negative and you’ve got positives like this, you’re going to the Hall of Fame.

    Man, are we good! April of last season, if you looked it up, A-Rod was 28 and playing third base, and here we called it, six years in advance. The Psychic Friends Hotline has got nothing on us.

    Now, of course, technically the BP ’98 prediction was a little off: since Rodriguez turned 28 in July of 2003 he did “see” the age of 28 at shortstop in Texas. But the larger issue is the reasoning behind the comment. Rodriguez had a bad year with the glove in 1997, raising questions about his future at shortstop. Let’s look at the defensive translations (which, to be fair, didn’t exist at the time of the 1998 edition):

    Year    Rate    FRAA
    1996    108      12
    1997     93     -10
    1998     99      -2
    1999    103       3
    2000    110      14
    2001    107      10
    2002    107      11
    2003    107      11

    In case you need a refresher on Davenport Translations: Rate is defense on a scale of 100, with sums added or subtracted based on how many runs above or below average the fielder was per 100 games. FRAA is a counting stat, which stands for Fielding Runs Above Average. As you can see, 1997 was a blip, a defensive slump from which Rodriguez recovered the very next year, getting back to league average defense. By 2000, Rodriguez was once again an elite defender, and continued to be right up until he earned the 2003 Gold Glove at shortstop.

    And then he got traded to the Yankees.

    Back in 1998, no one could have anticipated that Rodriguez would have both turned into an elite defender at short, and be traded to a team where he’d be shifted to third, in favor of a far inferior defensive shortstop. Still, it’s fun to look backward and see we got one right, even if for the wrong reasons.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Duels to the Death, Part II: The biggest battle in Brandenton is for a roster spot that might best be simply described as “OF/1B”. The way this works out reads like a question out of the BMAT (Baseball Management Aptitude Test):

    Team A must fill four lineup spots each receiving approximately 700 plate appearances for the 2005 season, while using no more than seven roster spaces. Craig Wilson, Matt Lawton, and Jason Bay must start, because Lawton and Wilson are earning a lot of money, and Bay is the reigning Rookie of the Year. All three players can play either outfield corner, Lawton and Bay have each had limited experience in center field in the past, and Wilson can play first base.

    Graham Koonce, Brad Eldred, and Daryle Ward can play first base, but not particularly well. Ward and Ben Grieve can both play the outfield corners-badly. Grieve and Koonce were “take and rake” players who now take more than rake. Eldred is a prospect who hasn’t learned to take, but sure can rake. Ward neither takes nor rakes terribly well.

    Tike Redman, Rob Mackowiak, and Chris Duffy can all play center field, and none of them are expected to post much more than a .320 OBP in the majors. Redman and Duffy have reputations as good fielders, while Mackowiak is not a good centerfielder. Mackowiak can play many positions, and must be placed on the major league roster because of his salary.

    Lawton, Koonce, Ward, Grieve, Redman, Mackowiak, and Duffy are all lefthanded hitters. Wilson, Bay, and Eldred are all righthanded hitters. Question: which of these players make the major league roster, and how do you distribute 2,800 plate appearances among those players?

  • Oliver! The Baseball Musical: Early in Spring Training, Oliver Perez caused people throughout the 412 area code to adjust their pacemakers, by “sleeping wrong” on his left shoulder. Perez’s bout with shoulder stiffness has subsided, but to understand what all the fuss is about, we present a few facts about a man called Oliver.

    For example, Perez’s 2004 ranks among the top ten seasons by a 22 year old lefty since 1900, as measured by WARP:

                   TEAM YEAR    WARP    W-L     ERA   IP    SO
    Frank Tanana   CAL  1976    9.9    19-10   2.43 288.3  261
    Babe Ruth      BOS  1917    9.8    24-3    2.02 326    128
    Noodles Hahn   CIN  1901    9.8    22-9    2.71 375.3  239
    Dutch Leonard  BOS  1914    9.5    19-5    1.00 225    176
    Sam McDowell   CLE  1965    8.7    17-11   2.18 273    325
    Mark Buehrle   CHA  2001    8.3    16-8    3.29 221.3  126
    Mike McCormick SFN  1961    7.7    13-16   3.20 250    163
    Jon Matlack    NYM  1972    7.6    15-10   2.32 244    169
    Oliver Perez   PIT  2004    7.5    12-10   2.98 196    239
    Lefty Gomez    NYA  1931    7.2    21-9    2.63 243    150

    For those of you who’ve just tuned in, WARP is Wins Above Replacement Player, a counting stat that measures a player’s overall offensive and defensive contribution in terms of wins. There’s a couple of Hall of Famers on that list. Babe Ruth‘s 1917 might be somewhat over-ranked here, because some of that value came from his bat (.311 EqA in 152 PA). Lefty Gomez isn’t considered one of the brighter lights in the Hall of Fame, but his 1931 season was an all-around breakout for a young pitcher who wound up having a pretty good career. Some of the greatest lefties of all time-Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Whitey Ford, Randy Johnson-weren’t even in the Majors at the age of 22.

    Perez’s big strikeout numbers in 2004 also place him in some exalted company. Here’s the ranking of players under 22, by strikeouts per nine innings:

                    YEAR    SO/9     W-L     ERA     IP      SO
    Kerry Wood      1998    12.58    13-6    3.40    166.7   233
    Dwight Gooden   1984    11.39    17-9    2.60    218     276
    Oliver Perez    2004    10.97    12-10   2.98    196     239
    Sam McDowell    1965    10.71    17-11   2.18    273     325
    Mark Prior      2003    10.43    18-6    2.43    211.3   245

    If that list seems somewhat skewed-three of the top five seasons have come in the past seven years-it’s because we’re not taking context into consideration. Perez’s context-adjusted strikeouts per nine figure, 9.1, is still plenty respectable-he’s tied for 22nd among players in this age bracket since World War II. Truly, it was a special season.

    Thank you for reading

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