Colorado Rockies: Well, Rockies fans, 2005 just isn’t your year. Your team is 55-81, last in the NL West, which is the worst division in baseball. You’re once again on pace to allow the most runs in the majors. You don’t even have bad luck to blame, since your third-order win total is just a single game off your actual win total. The ordinarily reliable Todd Helton has needed a .400/.494/.667 July and .355/.468/.645 August to salvage a season that saw him once sit as low as 15th in EqA among first basemen. Your highest ranking on our weekly Prospectus Hit List was 26th…which came in the Preseason Edition. Once the Rox started actually playing the games, they spent one week at 27, then the rest in the bottom three spots.

All is not lost, though, as here at Prospectus Notebook we unofficially begin the “Reasons to Be Optimistic in Sub-.500 Cities” series. We begin our Denver optimism, oddly enough, with a young Rockie who probably has no future with the Rockies organization.

Like Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins before him, Ryan Shealy is a first-base prospect in the wrong organization for first-base prospects. Unlike those two, Shealy hasn’t learned a new position, and isn’t likely to (he was once listed as “3B” on the Rox’ MLB page, though he’s no more a third baseman than Austin Kearns was). Hindered by rickety knees since college, Shealy is probably destined for another team, unless the Rox pull a Ryan Howard and bury him in the high minors well past his “use by” date; Shealy turned 26 recently, and has nothing left to prove in the high minors. His major-league time ended when Helton was activated from the DL August 10th–he should get recalled sometime during roster expansion–but the guy can mash:

Year   Lvl   AB    Avg/OBP/SLG     ISO
2002    R   231  .368/.497/.714   .341
2003    A   341  .299/.391/.519   .217
2004   AA   469  .318/.411/.584   .260
2005  AAA   407  .324/.388/.597   .268

In the majors so far, he’s hit .333/.412/.507 in 85 PAs, good for a .303 EqA and an ISO of .173. Shealy ranks eighth on the team in VORP (7.4) after just 85 PAs, which speaks simultaneously to the strength of his performance so far and to the relative paucity of major-league hitters in the Rockies lineup (of the 16 players who have more than Shealy’s 85 PAs, nine have OBPs below the league average, and four have OBPs below .300–with Coors Field as a home park, remember). Shealy probably isn’t that good–his PMLVr is one of the highest in the majors, and while he’s shown that he can hit, he’d give some BA and OBP back over the course of a full season in MLB. Even with that in mind, he still projects as an above-average big league first baseman in all three offensive rate stat categories.

Barring an injury or a Helton-to-the-Mets trade (as was the rumor earlier this year), Shealy’s first full season isn’t going to be in Colorado. He won’t displace Helton, but he’s hit at every level he’s played, he’s done pretty well for himself in the majors (both his home runs were hit on the road, so he has yet to have his stats padded by Coors), and so he makes for a nice trade chit. Denver/Colorado Springs-inflated numbers didn’t scare Jim Bowden off, but it’ll nevertheless be interesting to see if Shealy alone could net the Rox something useful in exchange, or if he’ll have to be packaged with another young player or two to persuade a GM to send some goodies to the Mountain time zone.

John Erhardt

New York Mets: On August 26, the Mets beat the Giants for their fifth straight victory, improving to 68-60 and becoming the odds-on favorite among NL second-place contenders with a 39 percent shot at the postseason. Nine games and seven losses later, the Mets have fallen to become a 12% underdog. The holes in New York’s lineup have been exposed during the recent 2-9 swoon, as the team has scored fewer than three runs per game, with the top of the order continuing to have trouble reaching base:

Player         Spot AB* OBP SB CS EqBR^ SOB^^
Jose Reyes       1 566 .304 49 11  2.0 .323
Miguel Cairo     2 192 .292 13  3 -0.5 .294
Kazuo Matsui     2 134 .293  4  0  0.1 .300
Carlos Beltran   3 465 .330 16  4  1.7 .341

*Number of at bats at that spot in the order, through Monday
^Equivalent Base Runs=metric developed by James Click in BP 2005, measuring runs added through baserunning (outside of stolen bases)
^^Speed-adjusted OBP=metric developed by Nate Silver and outlined here

Jose Reyes is a young, talented player still struggling to control the strike zone, making the decision to bat him leadoff questionable. However, SOB indicates Reyes is a somewhat better choice than standard stats indicate–his speed, which manifests itself in stretching hits (a major league-leading 15 triples), taking the extra base and stealing, has been worth an additional .019 points of OBP so far. He has also been a much better player in the second half (10 walks in 203 AB, 780 OPS) than the first half (12 walks in 379 AB, 651 OPS), an indication that the 22-year-old is developing in his first full big-league season.

That leads to the true offensive sinkhole, the number-two spot. After Mike Cameron (and his .367 SOB) was knocked out in the gruesome collision of August 11, Randolph slotted his second basemen into the vacancy behind Reyes and ahead of Carlos Beltran. New York’s keystone situation is a complete disaster, between Miguel Cairo, who has no business being a regular, and Kazuo Matsui, who has the skill set of countryman Tsuyoshi Shinjo sans stylish orange wristbands. After showing flashes of effectiveness last season, Matsui has regressed horribly this year instead of taking the step forward his power-hitting namesake did in his second campaign stateside. Matsui and Cairo have combined for a -5.5 VORP, and their out-magnetization has robbed the big guns–Cliff Floyd and David Wright–of precious RBI opportunities.

Moving Cairo/Matsui to the eighth spot in the order and Beltran to the second would eliminate a gaping chasm and give the Mets two of the fastest players in the majors hitting back-to-back. Beltran has had a miserable season, putting up an OPS below that predicted by his 10th percentile PECOTA projection, but he is still the brilliant baserunner that racked up 17.2 Equivalent Base Runs from 2002-04, most in the majors, and still the player who can score from first on a single. Wright, who has developed into the best hitter on the team by a wide margin, is second in the National League with a 0.182 RBI/runner rate, having knocked in 65 of his teammates despite batting with just 358 runners on, the 17th highest total in the circuit. A shift to the three hole would give Wright more plate appearances and allow him to hit after two players extremely adept at moving into scoring position. In addition, Wright’s .401 SOB would be a boon for Cliff Floyd, who sports a healthy .506 SLG and team-leading 29 home runs.

Randolph is opposed to this change, as evidenced by the following excerpt from an August 25 article in The New York Times:

“…Randolph will not consider moving Beltran, an on-base fiend who has not had much success driving in runs, to second in the order from third and then bumping David Wright to third because that would leave no one to bat fifth and protect the cleanup hitter, Cliff Floyd. Piazza’s presence would at least afford Randolph that option.”

The theory of lineup protection has been debated and dismissed by the sabermetric community, in all but its weak form (affecting walks/intentional walks). Wright has had hardly any “protection” all year, moving from the seventh to sixth to fifth spot, and during his tear in late August–he posted an 1103 OPS for the month–Wright had a motley cast backing him up, mostly Victor Diaz, Mike Jacobs, Marlon Anderson and Chris Woodward. Even if protection were a factor, the Mets should rightly be using Floyd to protect their top hitter, rather than vice versa.

With both Cameron and Mike Piazza likely done, it appears the Mets will battle through September with their current sub-optimal setup. Lineup construction isn’t worth all that much, but in this year’s enthralling pennant race, every last run that’s wrung from a batting order could mean the difference.

James Click and Nate Silver contributed statistics for this article

Caleb Peiffer

New York Yankees: The calendar says October, but it’s looking more and more like April in the Bronx. The standings? They trail the Red Sox for the division lead, but with 27 games remaining–and six face-to-face matchups between the two squads–the feeling isn’t much more desperate than it would be after losing an April series in Tampa Bay. Looking at the wild-card standings, it may as well be opening day for the Yanks; they lead the chase, but have three teams within two games of them.

The Yankees, who had no positional battles coming out of the Grapefruit League, face a large degree of uncertainty heading toward October. Let’s take a look at some positional battlegrounds:

Outfield/1B/DH–The Fixtures: Gary Sheffield, RF (49.1 VORP); Hideki Matsui LF-CF (39.9); Jason Giambi DH-1B (51.4). The Regulars: Matt Lawton LF-RF (21.2); Bernie Williams DH-CF (13.7). The Usual Suspects: Tino Martinez, 1B (10.8); Ruben Sierra, DH-PH (4.2); Bubba Crosby, OF-PR (-4.1); Tony Womack OF-IF-PR (-9.0). The Ultra-Longshots: Andy Phillips 1B-3B-2B (-2.4).

Right now, the supposedly-preferred alignment is Sheffield in right, Matsui in center, Giambi at first, Lawton in left and Williams at DH. This unit has started in those slots only once in the last nine games, largely because miscellaneous injuries and a suspension have gotten in the way. Given the ages and injury histories of some of the folks involved–I’m lookin’ at you two, Sheffield and Giambi–having to break from this pattern shouldn’t be too unexpected. Another wild card is Joe Torre, who has elusive rules as to when a player is “proven” enough to play through a slump. If the Chicago Cubs version of Lawton comes to visit and sticks around in September, you could see Lawton start to bleed at bats to recently-declared-healthy-again Ruben Sierra. Among the remaining players, Martinez and Crosby slot in because of their gloves, and Womack because of his legs.

The odd man out–Andy Phillips–could also be the solution to this unit’s biggest problem: almost all of these players lose something against left-handed pitching. The Fixtures do well enough against any pitching–Matsui actually has a much higher OPS against lefties this year (995) than against right-handed pitchers (773). Williams, once a threat against southpaws, this year loses about 100 points of slugging against them. Sierra carries the tag of “switch hitter,” but since 2002, his performance against southpaws is nearly 100 OPS points worse than his exploits against right-handers. Looking at Tino Martinez and Matt Lawton over the same period, you see similar results (732/810 for Martinez, 681/801 for Lawton). Sadly, Phillips missed out on his chance to become one of “Joe’s boys” by failing to hit in a 38-PA tryout earlier this season.

Starting Pitcher–The Healthy: Randy Johnson (31.1), Aaron Small (17.0), Shawn Chacon (27.7), Al Leiter (-10.0). The Soon-To-Be-Healthy: Jaret Wright (-1.8), Chien-Ming Wang (14.2). The “Out Indefinitely”s: Mike Mussina (24.9), Carl Pavano (-1.0). The Stick-A-Fork-In-‘Em: Kevin Brown (-9.3).

You know you’re grading health on a curve when two pitchers who are heavily dependent on high pain thresholds–Johnson (no cartilage in knee, recurring back troubles all season long) and Leiter (chronic painful pitching shoulder)–are in the “healthy” column. But that’s healthy enough when three-fifths of the original starting rotation can’t be counted on to throw another pitch this year. It’s a testament to the Yankee front office’s damage control skills that all these pitching injuries have not sunk the team in the standings.

The rotation fill-ins have provided valuable service–particularly Shawn Chacon, making a convincing case that there is life after Coors–and if Wright (bruised chest) and Wang (strained shoulder) are able to return, the Yanks could once again have a crowded starting rotation. After his shutout of the A’s last Saturday, it’s unlikely that Aaron Small would find himself the odd man out in this scenario.

Small, a minor-league vet who’s come out of nowhere to post a 6-0 record for the Yankees, may be one of the most inspirational stories in baseball. But how does the Aaron Small story end? If you love baseball, you probably wish that he would just go on, befuddling batters with his 87-mph cheese. But the fact is, Small isn’t some great, unnoticed pitcher, who has never gotten a chance to shine. Small’s minor-league numbers just aren’t all that good–raw ERA of 4.38, with 2.92 BB/9, 5.64 K/9 fin a minor-league career stretching over 1,600 innings pitched. Add to that 217 innings of major-league work between 1994 and 2004, with a 5.52 ERA, 4.09 BB/9 and 5.02 K/9. If any of this screams to you, “starting pitcher on a major-league contender,” stop us right now. Maybe he changed something recently that made him more effective than his career record would indicate, but Small’s 4.96 ERA in 49 Triple-A innings this season would seem to belie that theory. It sounds heartless, but we have to consider Small’s performance thus far a fluke.

Second Base/Backup IF–The Establishment: Robinson Cano (12.8). The Plucky Opposition Candidate: Mark Bellhorn (4.2). The Potential Pips: Felix Escalona (0.0), Russ Johnson (-0.2), Tony Womack.

The Bellhorn acquisition has been well-covered on this site, so we’ll keep this brief: right now, this is a platoon, with Cano playing against right-handed hitters, and Bellhorn playing against lefties. Some are tempted by Bellhorn’s higher OBP against pitchers of all stripes to declare him the starter–and if Cano suffers a bad enough month of September, this change could actually be in the cards. However, it’s far more likely that a slump could marginalize Bellhorn to utility status.

El Izquierdo (LHP, for those of you who don’t speak the second language of baseball)–Alan Embree (-10.0), Wayne Franklin (-1.5), Al Leiter.

The struggle to find an effective lefty for the Yankee bullpen is now in its third year, a struggle which this year alone has claimed Mike Stanton and Buddy Groom as casualties. Embree’s performance in pinstripes is better than it was as a Red Sock (-1.3 VORP, 5.23 ERA vs. -8.7, 7.65), but that is faint praise. Wayne Franklin is like Embree, just without the track record of effectiveness.

A more interesting possibility is that–should the Yankees find sufficient depth in the rotation–Alois Leiter could find his way to the bullpen. Leiter has been effective against lefties over the past several years (664 OPS against), which indicates that he could be effective as a LOOGY in relief.

Like many of the other solutions the Yankees have stumbled across this season, putting Leiter in the bullpen would be more creative than their roster usage has been over the past several years. It’s a cliché to state that necessity is the mother of invention, but it’s only fair to point out that the Yankees haven’t had this much necessity in nearly a decade.

Derek Jacques

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