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Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Kent Touch This: While J.D. Drew is mired in an early-season slump, fellow free-agent signing Jeff Kent is showing promising early returns, quickly becoming the heart of the Dodger offense. Kent is off to a scorching start, hitting .415/.529/.829, leading the NL in several Equivalent Average-related categories, and showing the baseball world that, at 37, he hasn’t lost his power stroke.

    With more than 300 homers–including a record 282 as a second baseman–and an MVP award under his belt, Kent often gets talked up as a Hall of Fame candidate. The reality is that he still has a ways to go, at least according to the Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS). Through last year, Kent’s production was worth 84.9 wins above replacement (WARP3), and his five best consecutive seasons (1998-2002) registered at 47.2 WARP3, for a JAWS of 66.1. The average Hall of Fame second baseman comes in at 111.2 career/47.2 peak/79.2 JAWS, meaning that if he were to retire today, Kent would make for a well below average candidate. He’s far behind a pair of contemporaries, the recently retired Roberto Alomar (126.8/47.3/87.1) and former teammate Craig Biggio (114.4/49.8/82.1), both of whom are more justifiably ticketed for Cooperstown.

    Even two more strong seasons of 8.0 WARP would put Kent at just 74.1, which is at least above average among Hall of Fame hitters of all stripes. For what it’s worth, PECOTA’s weighted mean projection for 2005 puts him at 6.6 WARP, with a 90th percentile projection of 8.9 and a 75th percent projeciton of 7.5. In other words, Kent’s going to have to continue beating the odds to put himself in position for the Hall.

  • Bullish Pen: At 10-2, the Dodgers are off to their hottest start since 1955, the year of the team’s sole championship in Brooklyn. One player who’s missed out on the current team’s hot start is ace closer Eric Gagne, who suffered a mild sprain of a ligament in his right elbow, likely the fallout of his altered mechanics to compensate for a knee sprain suffered early in spring training. According to latest reports, Gagne hasn’t even resumed playing catch, and his return is at least a month away.

    Gagne’s absence shifts a heavier load onto the team’s makeshift bullpen, which includes sidearmers in stereo, a Rule 5 draft pick, two Japanese League vets, and a converted outfielder as its nominal closer. They’re an inexpensive lot (a combined salary of just over $2.5 million) and inexperienced to boot:

               ------CAREER-----    -------2004------
               IP     ERA   WARP    IP     ERA   WARP
    Carrara   369.0   4.85   8.4    53.2   2.18   3.1
    Wunsch    153.1   3.64   5.6     2.0   0.00   0.1
    Sanchez    92.0   4.60   1.3    80.0   3.38   2.0
    Carlyle    40.2   7.08   0.0    ---    ----   ---
    Brazoban   32.2   2.48   2.5    32.2   2.48   2.5
    Houlton    ---    ----   ----   ---    ----   ---
    Schmoll    ---    ----   ----   ---    ----   ---

    After a shaky start which saw them allow 14 earned runs in their first 19 2/3 innings, the Dodger pen had a hot week, yielding only one earned run in 12 frames.

    On the whole, the Dodger pitching staff has put up a collective ERA of 3.90, which ranks 11th in the league. That number is as low as it is in large part to the team’s defense, which thus far has been excellent, with their .730 Defensive Efficiency Rating good enough for third in the majors. They’ve had more than their share of chances, as the pitching staff as a whole is striking out just 4.8 men per nine innings and the starters just 4.3 per nine. That will have to improve; after all, Brad Penny should return sooner or later, and it’s unlikely that fifth starter Scott Erickson can last long in that role without striking out a single batter.

Minnesota Twins

  • Silva Bullet: The Twins appear to have dodged a scare from their #3 starter Carlos Silva. Initial reports were that Silva had sustained a significant tear of his meniscus in his right knee and was facing a grim choice: have the meniscus repaired and risk missing the rest of the season, or have it removed and return later this season, albeit with the dreaded words “bone-on-bone” in his health record. The latest news is much more cheerful. He threw off a mound last Thursday with no discomfort or altered mechanics, and should come off the DL right on schedule later this month.

    For however long Silva’s on the shelf, Dave Gassner moves into the rotation. Gassner was sharp in his major-league debut on April 16, allowing just three hits and two runs over six innings against the Cleveland Indians. Gassner is a 26-year-old lefty out of Purdue who was originally drafted by the Blue Jays and was acquired as a PTBNL in the Shannon Stewart/Bobby Kielty trade.

    Gassner spent 2004 at Triple-A Rochester, where he put up a 3.41 ERA in 174 1/3 innings. He doesn’t strike many out–just 93 last year, a rate of 4.8 per nine innings–but he has excellent control, walking just 1.5 per nine, and he keeps the ball in the park (0.8 HR/9). For the time being, he’ll provide a nice analogue to Silva (who hardly strikes anybody out either), and will make for solid insurance at the back end of the rotation should Joe Mays or Kyle Lohse falter once Silva returns. That kind of depth is nice to have.

  • Beau-Tiffee-Cation: Another Twin who hit the DL in short order was first baseman Justin Morneau, who sustained a concussion when he was hit in the head by a Ron Villone pitch on April 6. In his absence, Matt LeCroy has drawn the bulk of the at-bats, but Terry Tiffee, normally a third baseman, has seen time there as well, even swatting a double and a homer in his first game up from Rochester.

    Tiffee, who turns 26 this week, hit .307/.357/.522 in Triple-A last year, and acquitted himself well in a September cup of coffee (.273/.333/.500 in 48 plate appearances). He could turn out to be a useful player for the Twins if they don’t return him to Rochester once Morneau is activated on Friday. With the Twins’ cockeyed roster–four catchers including LeCroy, yet no lefty bat on the bench–keeping him around makes a certain sense. As a switch-hitter who can play both corner positions, he’d give manager Ron Gardenhire the option of playing Michael Cuddyer at second base and benching Luis Rivas. That probably won’t happen, since Rivas apparently owns enough incriminating photos of Twins executives to keep himself busy for the foreseeable future. But don’t be surprised if the Twins maneuver to find a spot for him in the not-too-distant future. Another example where the Twins have some depth.

San Francisco Giants

  • Cool on The Fonz: Count Edgardo Alfonzo among the rolls of the hot starters. Alfonzo is hitting .488/.560/.756, good for a league-leading .438 EqA, a streak that’s been attributed–because, of course, every streak needs an explanation–to his losing several pounds while playing winter ball in Venezuela for the first time since 2000.

    That millenial year was a pivotal one for Alfonzo, who hit an otherworldly .324/.425/.542 with 25 homers for the Mets as they won the National League pennant. Just 26 years old at the time, he appeared to have a future full of All-Star appearances. But that future never came to pass, thanks in part to chronic back woes that sapped his power. Here are the Fonz’s numbers in that spectacular 2000 season, and the three that preceded it, as well as the past four seasons (thanks to Baseball Musings’ Day By Day Database for making such calculations a snap):

    Years       Age    AVG   OBP   SLG
    1995-2000  23-26  .305  .389  .477
    2001-2004  27-30  .280  .355  .422

    Is it just me, or would those numbers make more sense if the two lines were swapped? That 23-26 period looks like a peak most any ballplayer would be happy to call his own, while the four years after look like the lesser trimmings that might come on either side of that peak. And while some have wondered whether Alfonzo really is the age on his birth certificate, the reality is that if something were amiss, it would have been corrected by now.

    Hot start notwithstanding, PECOTA doesn’t much like Alfonzo’s chances, pegging him for a .272/.342/.396 weighted mean line, not exactly a boost to an offense needing some thunder in the absence of Barry Bonds. And with a $15.5 million price tag for 2005 and 2006, he’s no bargain for a team that needs smoke and mirrors to stretch their payroll. In fact, Alfonzo’s $7.5 million is the third-highest Giants salary behind Bonds ($15 million) and Jason Schmidt ($8.75 million), two players worth every penny when healthy. For the moment, the Giants may be pleased with Alfonzo’s production, but they’ll hardly come out ahead on his 4-year, $26 million deal when it’s all said and done.

  • Armand’ and Dangerous: The Giants’ bullpen has turned in an ugly performance thus far, racking up a 6.19 ERA in 36 1/3 innings and allowing 14.6 baserunners per nine. It’s tempting to chalk some of that ugliness up to Coors Field, but in fact the team’s bullpen yielded just four runs in 12 1/3 innings there this past weekend, a very respectable tally in that house of horrors.

    Thus far the nadir of the bullpen’s performance came on April 12, when they squandered an 8-3 lead against the Dodgers in L.A.’s home opener. Giant starter Kirk Rueter left the game with the bases loaded and none out in the sixth, and Scott Eyre allowed two of the runners to score. In the ninth, Armando Benitez delivered the coup de grâce by yielding four runs and blowing the save, thanks in part to some shoddy outfield defense by Jason Ellison.

    Benitez has often been maligned for being something less than clutch in the late innings, but over the course of his career he’s been one of the game’s best relievers according to our Win Expectation, adjusted for Replacement Level and Lineup statistic (WXRL), which takes into account leverage (game state, including inning, outs, baserunners, and margin) and performance. (For more on WXRL, see Keith Woolner’s essay in BP 2005.)

    Here are the top ten relievers since 1997, a period that covers the effective portion of Benitez’s career:

    Pitcher           WXRL
    Mariano Rivera    41.7
    Armando Benitez   37.1
    Trevor Hoffman    35.5
    Keith Foulke      34.8
    Billy Wagner      29.6
    Eric Gagne        25.2
    Troy Percival     24.9
    John Smoltz       22.0
    Robb Nen          21.8
    Jeff Shaw         21.6

    Anytime you’re second only to Mariano Rivera, it’s no shame. Benitez signed a three-year, $21.5 million deal this past winter, and despite the early hiccups that have inflated his ERA to a puffy 9.64 and the fact that he’s yet to strike out a batter, he ought to be a vast improvement over the Matt Herges/Dustin Hermanson tandem that combined to blow 11 saves last year.

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