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With J.P. Ricciardi of the Blue Jays abandoning the Billy Beane-type frugality which originally got him the job in Toronto, Paul DePodesta deposed in favor of a more traditional GM in Los Angeles, and the Red Sox’s off-season obscured under a cloud of managerial confusion, some are asking “what happened to the sabermetric revolution?” By now, Beane’s disciples were supposed to have fanned out to all the other major league franchises, bringing the gospel of Moneyball to the masses.

Before we declare that Beane was out there on his own this winter, it might be worthwhile to take a look at what Kevin Towers was doing in San Diego. Sure, some of the moves were unusual (Vinny Castilla, anyone?) and others were head-scratchers (Mark Loretta for Doug Mirabelli?) but overall, the image of the Padres’ off-season was of a GM hunting for, and finding, bargains, while frequently sending away established players (Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton) in favor of less-established personnel (Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez).

Is all this enough to build a winner? With apologies to Peter Gammons, I feel a string of conditional phrases coming on:

  • If Mike Piazza can stay healthy while catching over 100 games…

    Probably the biggest bargain Towers has pulled out of the barrel, Piazza was a player we all thought would spend 2006 cooling his heels in the American League, where a team could offer the future Hall of Famer occasional use of the DH slot to keep his legs fresh and his bat in the lineup. However, a tepid market for aging sluggers, along with the apparent reluctance of many teams to put their backup catching duties in the hands of a poor thrower like Piazza, kept the backstop in the National League, where all starters must take the field.

    How far-fetched is the idea that the Pads can squeeze 100 starts behind the plate out of Piazza? The catcher managed the feat last year, in an injury-plagued season with the Mets, and prior to 2003, Iron Mike managed to top 120 games caught for seven straight years. However, PECOTA points out that Piazza’s comparable players usually haven’t fared so well late in their careers-by the age of 37, Terry Steinbach and Alan Ashby were looking at the end of their careers, Gary Carter was really just a backup, and only Canada’s WBC manager, Ernie Whitt was still up to catching 100 games in the majors. Accordingly, PECOTA saves breaking 100 games caught for Piazza’s 90th percentile projection.

  • …and Khalil Greene can return to form at short…

    Here’s a quote from BP 2005, “With an old core that includes a punchless Ryan Klesko, a disappointing Brian Giles and an overpaid and aging Phil Nevin, here’s your franchise player…Jason Bay‘s no Pat Listach or Joe Charboneau; he’s also no Khalil Greene.” A year later, Giles is no longer quite so disappointing (his three year, $30 million contract was one of those bargains we talked about) and Nevin has been exiled to Texas, but Bay had the third-highest VORP in the NL (81.7), while The Franchise fought freak injuries (a fractured finger in April, a broken toe in August) to post only the seventh-best VORP in the NL…for a shortstop (20.4).

    Obviously, we want Greene to do better, but how realistic is it to expect a return to 2004’s .273/.349/.446 rookie performance? While Greene continued to show nice power in 2005 (ISO of .181) a lack of on-base skills dragged his value down. Given that PECOTA doesn’t see Greene breaking a .340 OBP unless he breaks his 90th percentile projection, that doesn’t seem too likely to change. While the Davenport Translations may underrate Greene’s defensive contributions, if you’re going to post a .318 OBP, you’d better be Ozzie Smith with the glove.

  • …and if Bruce Bochy can find a productive starting second baseman in a crowd that includes Joshua Barfield, Mark Bellhorn, and Bobby Hill

    That “ding” you heard is the timer, saying that Jesse Barfield‘s boy is ready to come out of the oven and into The Show. After having good, if batting-average dependent and ballpark-enhanced performances for two out of his past three seasons, Barfield should be able to contribute at least at a league-average level this season. It was this potential that made incumbent second baseman Loretta expendable, even though one can argue about the rate of return the Pads got for him.

    Should Barfield go 0-for-his-first-15 in spring training, things get a little more dicey, because most of the second basemen the Padres have shadowing Barfield look to be at the end of their shelf life. Bellhorn (who perhaps should wonder if Padres non-roster invitee Alan Embree is stalking him) is the best of the bunch, combining a bit of power, plate discipline and versatility in a package that should fit in pretty well on the bench if he can’t win a starting job. Hill never developed as well as we’d hoped, and by now any thought that he’ll make a real impact in the majors is just wishful thinking. He’ll experience déjà vu this spring, once again blocked for playing time by Bellhorn. Eric Young, who’s also in camp, is another guy who might be useful backing up a couple of positions, pinch running and hitting against the odd lefty. If he’s your starter, you’re in trouble.

…the Padres might repeat as division champions.

Derek Jacques

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In 2000 and 2001, Gabe Kapler was at his peak, manning center field for the Texas Rangers, and causing the ladies to swoon from much more than the heat. Those were the days, weren’t they? In the time before and since, the Rangers have had an extremely tough time finding capable centerfielders:

Texas Rangers #1 Center-Fielders by PA, 1996-2005
Year   Player               PA   VORP   CF Rank   Rate
2005   Gary Matthews Jr.   526   18.2        20     98
2004   Laynce Nix          400    4.8        38     99
2003   Doug Glanville      203    0.6        45     98
2002   Ruben Rivera        186   -4.4        66    112
2001   Gabe Kapler         556   30.7        10    100
2000   Gabe Kapler         491   28.3        16     92
1999   Tom Goodwin         455    3.2        34     97
1998   Tom Goodwin         608   17.1        25     96
1997   Damon Buford        404   -5.5        65    105
1996   Darryl Hamilton     696   23.8        15     98

(The one notable omission here would be Roberto Kelly in 1998, when he was the 14th best center fielder in baseball by VORP. Unfortunately, Goodwin accrued 400 more PAs than did Kelly.)

With the exceptions of Kapler and Hamilton, none of these players were in the top half of the league offensively, and only Rivera had the glove to adequately compensate for his lack of offensive punch. This is not to say that patrolling the Bermuda Tifway 419 at Ameriquest Field is a pleasure cruise, because it certainly is not. Nevertheless, the Captain and his esteemed crew think they have found the solution this winter, and we tend to agree. Salvation, thy name is Brad Wilkerson.

The last Expo has been making BP look smart for years. A former World Junior Championship MVP, two-time College World Series participant, Eastern League champion and gold medal winner, Wilkerson has experienced winning everywhere he has been. With his trying experience with MLB’s motherless child behind him, Wilkerson will try to get back to his winning ways in 2006.

PECOTA projects Wilkerson, 29 this year, as one of the elite center fielders in the game over the next five seasons:

Center-Fielder UPSIDE, 2006-2010
Player              UPSIDE
Jim Edmonds          248.3
Grady Sizemore       231.9
Chris Young          212.9
Andruw Jones         200.9
Carlos Beltran       182.7
Vernon Wells         179.9
Curtis Granderson    150.9
Ken Griffey          125.6
Brad Wilkerson       110.9

While Wilkerson actually ranks behind Griffey here, the argument could be made that Wilkerson is a better bet, as his UPSIDE scores are more evenly spread out than are Griffey’s:

UPSIDE Scores, 2006-2010
Player        06     07     08     09     10
Wilkerson   31.0   25.7   26.5   14.7   13.1
Griffey     46.4   36.9   21.1   13.8    7.4

The one question of course is whether or not Wilkerson can stay healthy. Wilkerson is no stranger to injury, having dealt with knee, hamstring, arm, and shoulder injuries in the past. Those issues may not yet be resolved, and as such, Wilkerson drew a yellow light from our injury gurus this year. Should Wilkerson be able to play pain-free, he should be the four-win (or better) player the Rangers have not had in five years, and the first Ranger center fielder in a long time who could repeat such production in successive seasons.

Paul Swydan

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