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  • The Angels aren’t a team that can field an offense full of .375-OBP boppers, but one of their virtues is an emphasis on depth and flexibility. Back in January, they announced a lineup shuffle that would return Darin Erstad to center field, opening up first base for Casey Kotchman, sending ripples through the rest of the roster. It wasn’t clear where that left Chone Figgins; a natural second baseman, the superutilityman played no fewer than six positions last year, although primarily at third base (56 games) and center field (50). His placement would in turn determine a) the chances of Dallas McPherson cracking the lineup if healthy; and b) the future of incumbent second baseman and pending free agent Adam Kennedy.

    A year ago McPherson was fourth on our Top 50 Prospect List on the strength of 43 homers between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. He lived up to that power potential last year, but hit just .244/.295/.449 overall before being sidelined by a bone spur in his hip, ending his season after just 61 games. Recovered from surgery, he got off to a slow start in spring training, and he began the year with Triple-A Salt Lake City while Figgins manned the hot corner. Thus far, McPherson’s been hacking away as though he could get back to the majors with one long swing, with predictably awful results: .221/.271/.523 with four homers and a ghastly 45/5 K/BB ratio in 86 at-bats. A lefty swinger, he’s showing an an unsettling platoon split so far: .182 with four homers and 38 Ks in 66 at-bats versus righties, .350 with no homers and seven K’s in 20 at bats against southpaws. That’s a suspect, not a prospect.

    Here’s how rest of the principals in this n-puzzle have fared:

               PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr   VORP   Games by Pos
    Figgins   119  .279  .347  .433   .040    5.5   3B-18, LF-4, CF-3, RF-2, 2B-2
    Kennedy    85  .316  .353  .443   .098    5.0   2B-23
    Erstad     86  .238  .279  .350  -.238   -0.6   CF-22
    Kotchman   77  .159  .227  .188  -.862  -11.4   1B-22

    Figgins has performed at about the level he did last year, which is to say that on a team 12th in the AL in scoring at 4.26 runs per game, he’s not the problem. Kennedy got off to a red-hot start–he was hitting .373/.406/.542 through April 23, but has gone just 4-for-23 since. Erstad has played stellar center field defense by our reckoning (a 183 Rate, which should be taken with a huge grain of salt given the sample size), but he’s hit even worse than the .274/.326/.374 albatross he’s been over the past five years. A cynic might note that sending him to center field was a surefire way to watch his body break down; a cynic might even suggest that’s what the Angels had mind when they planned the move, and put it in a Prospectus Notebook. According to Will Carroll, Erstad is suffering from a bone spur in his ankle, something he’s endured for over a year.

    Kotchman was fifth on that 2005 Top Prospect List, and has been a disaster, a far cry from the guy who hit .278/.352/.484 in 143 PA with the big club in 2005. Due to a spate of wrist injuries, his power has always been suspect; the 17 homers he hit last year between Triple-A and the majors marked the first time in his five-year pro career that he’d topped even 10, and PECOTA foresaw a weighted mean SLG of just .399. Manager Mike Scioscia and the rest of the organization have been supportive of Kotchman through his struggles thus far, committed to his improvement if occasionally critical of his defensive lapses. On Wednesday, Kotchman revealed that he has been suffering from mononucleosis for the past seven months, and was diagnosed in spring training. There’s no medication to treat mono; it can last anywhere from a couple of months to a year.

    The Angels’ patience makes some sense in light of his illness, and might also be a product of having few other options in-house. McPherson took grounders at first base during spring training, but would appear to be a no-go based on his performance at SLC. Kendry Morales had an impressive spring (.333/.354/.619), but is hitting just .250/.310/.391 at SLC thus far, not exactly numbers that scream “promotion.” All in all, it’s safe to say that the shuffle hasn’t reaped the rewards the Angels envisioned so far.

  • Enough carping about those 2005 prospects; they’re so last year. On April 25, when futilityman Maicer Izturis went on the DL with a strained hamstring, the Angels recalled Howie Kendrick, number five on this year’s Top 50 Prospect list. A 22-year-old second baseman, Kendrick is best known for hitting a combined .359/.404/.555 in his first four minor-league seasons. In his first taste of Triple-A (after just 204 plate appearances in Double-A in the second half last year), he opened this season with an eleven-game hitting streak and had a .386/.403/.586 line before The Call came.

    Those expecting Kendrick to slot into the lineup immediately were sadly mistaken. In his first week, Kendrick saw action in only three games, one as a pinch-runner, and went 1-for-7 with the stick (a single off Barry Zito was his first hit). That raised the question as to why the team would take its hottest prospect and cool him off on the bench for two weeks. The prevailing theory is that the Angels are rewarding Kendrick for his progress with a taste of the good life–a prorated major-league minimum paycheck and sweet $83.50 per diem, not to mention the right to see Bartolo Colon naked on a daily basis–with an eye towards making him more comfortable when he returns for good. That could be at the trading deadline if the Angels fall out of contention and choose to trade Kennedy, but the signs point towards his awaiting the 2007 season to become the big-club’s second-sacker.

    Given the Angels’ other woes, it’s also possible that Kendrick could stick around for awhile. He took grounders at third base in the spring, and after having been spotted taking them at first base, he drew the start there on Wednesday night (and wore the Size Four Collar yet again). He’s even willing to play the outfield, though manager Mike Scioscia maintains that he’s got no intention of making Kendrick a Figgins clone. At the very least his presence makes reading the Angels’ box scores a worthwhile pursuit these days.

  • Meanwhile, with Colon’s inflamed shoulder progressing more slowly than expected and Kelvim Escobar scheduled to miss a start due to a blister, the Angels appear poised to tap Jered Weaver to join older brother Jeff in the rotation. The younger Weaver has been hailed as the greatest three-year college pitcher ever in his time at Long Beach State, but got a belated jump on his pro career due to a holdout at the behest of Scott Boras. After finally signing, he made seven starts for the Angels’ High-A affiliate in Rancho Cucamonga and then eight for their Double-A Arkansas franchise, going a combined 7-4 with a 3.91 ERA and 11.2 K/9 in 76 innings. Nonetheless, his stock fell a bit; from 16th on our 2005 list to 35th this year due to control woes (19 walks in 46 innings at Arkansas) and pronounced flyball tendencies (a groundball percentage of just 31%). Pitching for Salt Lake City this season, he’s put up a 3.41 ERA in 29 frames, with an impressive 38/5 K/BB ratio. That’s not too shabby, even in a Pacific Coast League whose offensive levels are somewhat depressed.

    Kevin Gregg is currently pencilled in to take Escobar’s slot on Thursday. Hector Carrasco has started three times for Colon (two clunkers and the short end of a 1-0 loss), and may be moved back to the bullpen for Weaver. His turn comes up on Saturday, May 6, so as with Kendrick, keep an eye on the small type.

Jay Jaffe

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The Colorado Rockies and Todd Helton suffered a serious scare over the past few weeks, as the top player in franchise history began to experience extreme pain in his gastrointestinal tract. Helton’s condition was obviously the priority in people’s minds, especially since it went undiagnosed for a few days while various tests were performed. There were also some performance questions to take into consideration, in regards to both the Rox’ performance without Helton–which has surprisingly gone fine thus far–as well as the padding of his Cooperstown résumé. Now that we know that Helton’s condition is not as terrible as it was initially feared to be, we can analyze his Hall of Fame chances with a clear conscience.

Helton has amassed more Wins Above Replacement Player (76.1) than any player in franchise history, with Larry Walker trailing behind him at 63.3 WARP3. He also has a more realistic chance at entering Cooperstown than his former teammate, who beyond the issues with park factors had a penchant for injury to contend with. Of course, Helton has had some injury trouble of his own the past two years, going on the Disabled List for the first time in his career in 2005, and returning there again this year.

Among his contemporaries at first base, Helton stacks up very well. Since taking over in 1998, through the 2005 season he is first in extra-base hits among first basemen with 660, fourth in Isolated Power (.272), fourth in walks with 765, first in Total Bases with 2724, and sixth in Secondary Average (.451). He also holds a career .317 EQA, which is well above the average at first base. Taking into consideration that he is one of the better fielding first basemen in the game according to Fielding Runs Above Average–+88 for his career thus far, with a career Rate2 of 107–and you have yourselves a defendable choice for one of the top first basemen of his era. Of course, this can be done in a much more organized fashion by using JAffe WARP Score, or JAWS for short.

Essentially, JAWS strikes a balance between career and peak value by averaging together those two items, according to WARP3. Peak is found by adding together the top seven seasons of a player’s career according to WARP3, and career value is exactly what it claims to be. A few more statistics are used as well; BRAR is Batting Runs Above Replacement, and BRAA is Batting Runs Above Average. BRAR helps show career value, and BRAA works best for understanding peak value. Here are the averages for the first basemen currently residing in Cooperstown, as well as Helton’s figures through 2005:

                      Career    Peak     JAWS     BRAR     BRAA     FRAA
Avg Hall of Fame 1B    106.6    63.0     84.8      742      449      -18
Todd Helton             70.6    66.2     68.4      491      348       88

As far as peak value goes, Helton comes in above the average. He has not reached the career value threshold, but that’s expected, given that he is still only 32 years old. Also, Helton’s 1998 season is currently part of his peak, and comes in at only 5.5 WARP3. If he is to best that this season–or in any other of his career, which is entirely plausible, especially given his 9.2 WARP3 performance in 2005–his peak will improve even further, additionally increasing his JAWS score. It is difficult to project a player’s performance more than a year or two into the future, but PECOTA deals out five year projections that can be used for this type of analysis.

PECOTA expects Helton to regress quickly, and to lose a great deal of his value. Here are his projected EqA, FRAA and WARP totals for the next five seasons:

Year         EQA     FRAA     WARP
2006        .313      13      6.5
2007        .305      10      5.7
2008        .303       9      4.6
2009        .303      11      3.9
2010        .302       4      2.7

Those numbers are a far cry from the Helton we’ve come to know. It should be noted that PECOTA uses WARP1, while JAWS uses WARP3; adjusting these PECOTA projections for WARP3 would most likely bring us higher totals.

If we assume PECOTA’s projections are accurate, Helton can be expected to have 94.0 career WARP3, a peak value of 67.2 WARP3, and a JAWS of 80.6, which is below the current average of 84.8. Keeping in mind the above note in the differences between WARP1 and WARP3 numerically, the gap most likely will be somewhat less than that, although potentially still below the average. At that point, Helton will still be a 36-year-old first baseman with a good glove and a useful bat–albeit one with an extremely bloated contract–so reaching the averages may not be that difficult, unless regression continues to slow down his game. Even another ten points of WARP3 spread out over four or five seasons may be enough to push him over the edge.

One other thing to consider when discussing the JAWS averages is the impact players like Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, and–just to throw it out there–Rafael Palmeiro will have on the numbers. Ranked by JAWS, Bagwell is the third-greatest first baseman ever, with Palmeiro coming in at #7, Thomas at #9, and McGwire at #11. All four players are above the current average, with Bagwell coming in well above at 106.5 JAWS, so the numbers will be affected, making the case for inclusion for some of the players up for debate pointless. Of course, the scary part to consider is that none of these four may make it to Cooperstown for various reasons, including injury, park-deflated numbers, or certain controversies that you may have heard about.

When taking the possible election of additional first basemen to the Hall into consideration, one will have to root for Todd Helton to remain at a high level for a few more seasons, rather than slipping into the future that PECOTA envisions for him. What was once such a simple choice for a future Hall of Famer may prove to be somewhat more difficult. No worries, though: it is perfectly acceptable to root against PECOTA to help the Rox attain a spot in those hallowed and historic halls. Just don’t let PECOTA hear you disagree, or revenge will be swift and painful when your own favorite player’s five-year projections are released.

Marc Normandin

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