08 April 2008

Phillies Chances to Score 1,000 Runs? None and None.

Baseball fans do love their history, though some of them don't really know it all that well.

Heck, some people who work in baseball don't know their history. And I don't just mean the 20-something security guard I met at Yankee Stadium on Saturday who did not know that the Yankees used to play in Baltimore. (No offense to him, by the way. Most New Yorkers think the universe starts and ends at the George Washington Bridge.)

I'm talking about important people. (Again, no offense to that security guard, who was created in the image of God, just like the rest of us, and is therefore of preeminent importance...just like the rest of us.)

I mean people like Charlie Manuel, the field manager for the Philadelphia Phillies. Manuel was quoted before the season began as saying that he thought the 2008 Phillies could score 1,000 runs or more. His argument, essentially, was that they scored a lot of runs last year (892, leading the NL) and that they had some missed time by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. He thinks that Howard and Utley and Jimmy Rollins and others on the team have the potential to be even better than they were last year. He thinks that they could become the first team since the 1999 Cleveland Indians, for whom Manuel was the hitting coach, to score 1,000 or more runs.

Or at least he thought that in Spring Training. I didn't, so I didn't bother to mention it in my Phillies Preview, though I did think they'd be one of the better offensive teams in the NL. To date, in the regular season, the Phillies have scored only 32 runs in 7 games, a pace of only 740 runs. Better pick it up a little, guys.

But seriously, could they score that many runs? The sort answer is:


Doesn't get much shorter than that.

Want to know why? That's easy. Nobody ever has.

Well, that's not technically true. The 1930 St. Louis Cardinals scored 1004 runs, but no other National League team since the 1890's has scored 1,000 in a season. Those Cardinals managed that feat in a league that averaged 5.68 runs per game. At that rate, in today's 162 ganme schedule, an average team would score 920 runs. The 1930 Cards had 12 guys (including all eight regulars) who got at least 100 at bats and hit .303 or better. As a team, they hit .314. That was only 3rd in the NL that year. They had three Hall of Famers in their prime in the daily lineup (Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley and Frankie Frisch). They had three guys who hit at least .366 on the bench(!)

The best mark in a 162-game season goes to the 2000 Colorado Rockies, who scored 968 runs. This, too, was largely a product of the run environment in which the team played. The national League that year averaged exactly 5.00 runs per game, which means that the average team scored 810 runs. However, Coors Field in Y2K was an insane hitter's park, the most severe in history, I think, increasing run scoring by about 25%. That means that a average hitting team would have scored 911 runs playing half its games in Coors Field. Their 968 runs were only about 6% better than average.

The best hitting team in history, taking league and ballpark context into account, is probably the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers. They scored "only" 955 runs, but they did it in a roughly neutral hitter's park (Ebbets Field), and in a league that averaged 4.75 runs per contest, about what the 2007 National League averaged. They scored about 28% more runs than an average team that year. Put the 1953 Dodgers in a neutral park in the 2007 National League, and they'd have scored about 977 runs. Still 23 shy of Charlie Manuel's prediction. With a little help from Citizens Bank Park (which increases runs by about 5%), they'd easily break the record, scoring about 1025 runs. In Colorado, even though it has been significantly tamed in recent years, tack on another 35-40 runs.

So what would have to happen for the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies to score 1,000 or more runs?

Assuming that Citizens Bank Park doesn't suddenly morph into a severe hitter's park, and that the trend toward normal offensive levels in the post-steroids era doesn't reverse itself abruptly, the Phillies will have to score about 25% more runs than an average NL team would, which is a huge number. Not only do they need to get virtually every game out of their stars Howard, Utley and reigning NL MVP Jimmy Rollins, they need just about everybody on the team to vastly out-perform their projected offensive levels.

The simple fact that they play ing the National League, with a pitcher hitting about twice a game or more, makes it all but impossible. The last team to score 1,000 runs, the 1999 Indians, did not have to watch their pitchers hit twice a game. In 1930, the Cardinals' pitchers collectively hit .213 and scored 51 runs. Last year, Phillies' pitchers hit just .155 as a group and scored 28 runs, and that was the best in the majors for a pitching staff.

But what might we expect, or need, from the rest of the lineup?

Baseball Prospectus uses percentiles in their projections, showing not only what a player is likely to do (his 50% projection) but also what he might do if he "kicks it up a notch" or, conversely, gets kicked. His 50% projection essentially means that about 50% of the players similar to him did better than that and 50% did worse. The 75% projection would mean a performance that's better than 3/4 of the players they deemed to be similar in that year.

As far as I can tell, you'd need just about everyone in the starting lineup to meet or exceed his 90th percentile projection, and for everyone on the bench to hit at least their 75% percentile, in order for the Phillies to score 1,000+ runs. That team would look like this at the end of the season:

Starters     PA    R    2B   HR  RBI   BB    SO   SB   AVG   OBP   SLG
Victorino 570 105 29 18 66 46 67 28 .315 .377 .501
Rollins 730 131 43 26 88 59 75 34 .318 .377 .532
Utley 646 122 39 34 103 68 100 10 .328 .408 .596
Howard 711 139 33 59 147 113 184 2 .302 .417 .665
Ruiz 454 72 27 13 57 42 56 7 .303 .374 .480
Feliz 487 67 26 21 74 28 67 2 .289 .332 .492
Burrell 536 97 26 33 86 101 121 2 .283 .420 .583
Jenkins 392 64 20 22 70 35 88 3 .300 .369 .559

Werth 289 49 14 10 33 41 69 7 .275 .385 .469
Taguchi 233 37 12 3 22 18 25 5 .297 .358 .405
Coste 252 33 12 7 32 15 39 1 .276 .325 .431
Dobbs 313 50 17 11 41 27 49 5 .288 .352 .484
Helms 241 36 15 9 35 19 43 1 .296 .357 .501
Bruntlett 95 13 5 1 7 10 16 4 .281 .371 .414
Snelling 143 21 8 4 16 17 29 2 .288 .383 .494
Total 6092 1036 326 275 860 635 1010 152 .301 .359 .501
There would need to be another 350 or so plate appearances for the pitchers as well, which might mean aonther 25-30 runs. Those are just guesses on the percentages at the bottom.

Anyway, I don't have to tell you that this would be an absolutely incredible team, and that it can only exist in Phantasy-delphia, where the Phans don't boo, the cheese steaks are free and don't contain any cholesterol, and every batter gets to have a career year simultaneously.

Not only would H.U.R. reach their full potential. Those three are in their prime, so any one or even two of them having their best years simultaneously (as Rollins and Utley did last year) is not totally out of the question, but all three of them? Again?!!??

Pat Burrell would need to out-do his career batting average by 25 points at age 31. Thirty-three year old mediocrity Pedro Feliz would need to hit almost 40 points above his career mark, without losing any power. Geoff Jenkins, 33 himself, will need to hit .300 for the first time in this milennium. Carlos Ruiz, who just made it to the show at 29, will have to buck every convention of baseball scouting history and hit over .300 in a full season. Shane Victorino will need to double his usual power level while increasing both his patience and his average, and can't let his speed be sacrificed.

And everyone on the bench needs to play well enough that they would force the issue of whether or not they deserve more playing time. That is, if everyone on the Phatasy-delphia Phillies wasn't having a career year. Which, as you'll recall, they are.

In the AL, with another All-Star playing as a DH, they might be able to do it.

But they aren't, and they don't, so they can't.

In short: It ain't gonna happen.

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07 April 2008

Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto: Quite-O Debut!

*Attention Orioles' Fans: Read my analysis of Chris Waters' debut HERE.

Not that Rob Neyer's ego needs any more massaging, but his blog entry today about the Reds' young phenom, Johnny Cueto is spot-on.

When I did my preview of the 2008 Reds this spring I intended to give Cueto more ink, but I figured that unless they were desperate, the Reds would start him in AAA, so I didn't bother. Good thing they were so desperate.

With regards to Cueto's MLB debut game last week (7 innings, one-hit, no walks, 10 strikeouts), Neyer refers to Bill James and some research the guys at Baseball Prospectus may did last year, indicating that the fact that a pitcher had a really good start like that does not necessarily mean that he is, or will be, a great pitcher. It just means that everything went right for him on that day, pretty much. Don Larson is a perfect example of this, of course, a guy who had a pretty lackluster career record who just happened to pitch a perfect game in the World Series one time.

But then Neyer appropriately points out that this was not just any start, it was the kid's major league debut, and at just 22 years old, it's hardly fair to compare him with 29-year olds or 34-year olds who have some major league experience.

So I didn't.

Instead, I looked up everyone who pitched at least seven innings and struck out at least ten batters in his major league debut. This brought the list down to just 14 pitchers, including Cueto.

The others are:

Pitcher      Yrs  Wins     IP     ERA+   Notes
Tiant 19 229 3486 114 Won 20+ 4X, 3X All-Star
Marichal 16 243 3507 123 HoF, 9X All-Star
Wakefield 16 168 2627 108 Still going at 41...
Astacio 15 129 2197 97 Won 17 in COL in 1999
May 16 152 2622 102 Won 10 or more 8 times
Aase 13 66 1109 103 Good RP for 10+ years
Richard 10 107 1606 108 Stroke at 30 ended career
Shirley 11 67 1432 96 1st round pick, only spot starter after rookie season
McDevitt 6 21 456 94 Beat Bucs in last game in Brooklyn MLB history
Morehead 8 40 819 89 Pitched in '67 WS
Woodard 7 32 667 91 Hurt a lot; Mitchell Report alleges he bought HGH
Harang 7 63 1006 108 Current Reds' ace
Matsuzaka 2 16 216 110 Won Game 3 of 2007 WS
Average 11 101 1689 107
Non-Dice Avg 12 108 1802 107
That's an interesting list. Among the 14 pitchers, we've got one Hall of Famer, a borderline guy in Luis Tiant, and a bonafide star in J.R. Richard whose career ended early because of a stroke. We've also got Tim Wakefield, who's no all-star, but has been eating innings and winning a dozen or more games per year for more than a decade (whenever he's predominantly a starter, that is). Pedro Astacio was probably better than you think, but didn't look like anything special because he spent half his career toiling in the worst run environment (Colorado in the late 90's) in history. Don Aase was a relief ace for a few years, and Rudy May was useful if not spectacular.

On average, I think most pitchers would love to hear that they'll probably stick around the majors for 11 or 12 years, win 100 or more games with a better than average ERA, don't you think? I took Dice-K out of the second set of averages because this is only his second year, which consists of exactly one start at this point. Harang has at least been around long enough to establish himself, pitching every fifth day of the Cincinnati Reds schedule for the last several years. Those accomplishments alone would put him in pretty rarefied air, though it will take us a decade to know whether it happens or not.

One thing that bodes well for him is the fact that he struck out so many batters in his MLB debut. Cueto's Game Score of 81 is very good, of course, but it's hardly anything all that exciting, even for a debut performance. Looking at others who have debuted since 1956, which is as far back as the searchable archives at Baseball-reference.com can go, there have been 29 pitchers with a game score of at least 80, including Marichal, Woodard, Tiant, Morehead, May and Astacio.

Also, we see...

* Jeff Russell, eventual relief ace and two-time All-Star,
* Dave McNally, 4-time 20 game winner and three-time All-Star,
* 2002 NL Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings,
* Mike Norris, who should have won the 1980 AL Cy Young Award (though he was never anywhere near that good either before or after that season),
* 14-year veteran Mike Remlinger,
* 13-year veteran Kirk Reuter,
* 12-year veteran Lew Krausse, and
* 11-year veteran Danny Cox

Hard to complain about any of those guys' careers, though only Russell and McNally were very good for any length of time.

However, with those guys, we also get nobodies like Jim Cosman, Mark Brownson, Jeff Pico, Billy Rohr, Dick Rusteck, Kevin Morton, and Charlie Beamon, none of whom lasted more than three seasons in the majors, and many of those were not full seasons. A few others on the list burned out in 4-8 years and never did much while they were still around.

But because game scores depend on runs and hits allowed, not just strikeouts, there could have been more luck or coincidence involved in those guys' MLB debuts. Cueto, on the other hand, retired almost half of the batters he faced on strikes, meaning that he wasn't relying on his defense, or the weather, or the ballpark configuration to get his outs for him.

So what does all this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that Johnny Cueto's expectations are that much greater now. Sure, he was awesome in Spring Training, but some of those guys are back bagging groceries for a living now, so we shouldn't take those spring numbers too seriously. But the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West last season, and though their offense is nothing special in and of itself, it is still a major-league offense, and given its youth, it should only be getting better.

Cueto's dominance of them in his first major league game last year bodes very, very well for his career.

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Saturday at Yankee Stadium

Got to go to the Yankees-Rays game on Saturday.

I try to attend at least one Yankee game or two a year with my mom and my wife. Used to be I could afford to go to a few games a year but to get half-decent seats these days, I can usually only spring for one or two a year, especially if I have to buy through a ticket broker, as I did for today's game.
On the plus side, because I bought through a broker, when they didn't have the seats I was supposed to get (Field Box 83, Row D) they were required by policy to give me seats at least as good as the ones I was supposed to get. So I actually got seats in Row A, not Row D, right on the field. In this case, the box happened to be along the first base line, right where the foul line meets up with the stadium wall.
Right here:
On the minus side, the stadium security guard who sat near us said that someone bought those same seats for last night's game for about 1/3 of what I paid. Oh well.

As for the game itself, it was a great day to go, no matter where you were sitting. After raining all week, the weather let up and gave us a very nice day Saturday. It was about 60 degrees and sunny at game time, and we didn't really start to even notice the cold until about the 6th inning, when the sun ducked behind the right field tier. Hard to complain about that too much, especially given how cold it was when we came to this same game last season.

The seats were pretty good, or pretty close, anyway. We were behind the protective netting during batting practice, so we couldn't get a ball, but I was close enough that I could have gotten an autograph from Joba Chamberlain if I'd wanted one.

I didn't want one, and he wasn't really signing for very long anyway, but he did take a few minutes to make some kids happy before the game, which was more than any of his teammates were doing, so I'll give him credit for that.

Of course, the trouble with the seats was that we had a security guard sitting right next to us for the whole game, and kind of blocking the view, not to mention the fact that any time a runner was on first base, there were several people between us and the batter, effectively blocking our view: the runner, the first base coach, the first baseman, holding the runner on, the umpire, and the aforementioned security guard. Good thing I'm so tall.

Still though, I was able to get a decent shot once in a while, like this one of Shelly Duncan's single in the second inning, which loaded the bases for the Yanks with only one out. Sadly, as would turn out to be the case for much of the afternoon, the Yankees could not capitalize on this opportunity, and failed to score.

Much of the game followed this theme. The Yankees had nine hits, two walks and a reached-on-error (Matsui, when his fly ball to the RF warning track was lost in the shadows and dropped by Rays' right fielder Johnny Gomes) - twelve baserunners - but only three runs. I all, the team left nine men on base, but missed 21 opportunities to score.

One of these, perhaps the most disappointing, occurred in the home half of the eighth. The Yankees had a surprising amount of trouble with Edwin Jackson, just 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA last year, and managed only one run off him in his six innings. His replacement, journeyman Dan Wheeler, pitched a perfect seventh, but when they brought in Trever Miller, the Yankee bats came alive. Bobby Abreu, Alex Rodriguez and Wilson Betemit (playing for Jason Giambi, who had been removed in the fifth for a sore left groin) rapped consecutive singles, loading the bases with nobody out.

After Robby Cano struck out, Jorge Posada hit a 2-run single to make it 6-3. Unfortunately, Matsui then worked the count to 0-3. Not exactly what the Yankee Stadium faithful had in mind. The last pitch of the at-bat was a borderline call that had everyone in the House That Ruth Built to Last Exactly 85 Years and No Longer booing the umpire, but as you can see from the picture on the left, it was definitely a strike. Matsui sets up in the back of the batter's box, as most power hitters do, but that ball is above the plate at the moment this photo was taken. It's dropping down because it's a curveball, but it's a strike as it crosses the plate.

Shelly Duncan then grounded out to kill the rally, once and for all. The top of he Yankee lineup gave new closer Troy Percival little trouble in the 9th.

The real story of the day, though, at least for the Yankees, was the return of Andy Pettitte, who had been on the DL with back problems for two weeks, this after reporting to Spring Training late due to the Clemens/ steroids/ McNamee/ HGH scandal stuff. Pettitte has not been an overwhelming pitcher for a long time, but he was particularly rusty on Saturday, allowing eight hits and two walks in only five innings of work. He struck out three batters, but also hit Carlos Pena twice, and allowed a homer to Johnny Gomes, a three-run jack in the 5th that all but ended Pettitte's day. He threw only 86 pitches, but most important, perhaps, he was not immediately placed back on the DL after the game, so hopefully he's healthy and just needs a few starts to get some of his finesse back.

As a team, the Yankees' biggest problem is not the pitching though, Ian Kennedy's disastrous start on Friday night notwithstanding. The elephant in the room is the offense, except the only thing offensive about their hitters this year might be their smell. The team has scored 4 runs or fewer in every game this year, and are averaging just under three runs per game. Through Sunday, they had batted .239 as a team with a 658 OPS and five of the nine regulars were hitting .217 or lower.
Ironically, after six games of the 2007 season, the Yankees had not scored fewer than 4 runs in a game, and were averaging almost seven runs per game. With that said, however, they had the exact same 3-3 record that they have right now, and they did manage to make the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season, so maybe we shouldn't be too worried about the offense just yet.

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01 April 2008

Yankees Need to Address Melky Problem

The New York Yankees start their season today.


Or at least they’ll try.

After getting rained out in what should have been their last first game of the season in the old Yankee Stadium, they’ll take another stab at it tonight. Fortunately for me, however, the unanticipated delay gives me a chance to discuss an issue that I have come to see as being of paramount importance to the 2008 Yankees’ chances, if not to the very future of the franchise.

Melky Cabrera.

The New York Yankees’ young center fielder is going to kill the Yankees.

OK, not exactly kill them, not yet anyway, but it’s just a matter of time before he does. For all the hype he brings, the “Got Melky?” T-shirts, John Sterling yelling “the Melk-Man delivers!!!” and etc., Cabrera really just isn’t all that good. Worse yet, he’s not likely to become good.

Cabrera, you have been told, “won” the starting center field job from Johnny Damon in 2007, but really, it was Johnny who lost it. He hit only .229 with four extra base hits in April, and though he bounced back a bit in May, his injuries thrust him into an even worse slump in June (.226 with no walks or power in 91 plate appearances that month). By the time he started hitting again, it was too late.

Melky, for his part, was nothing special either. He hit only .200 in sporadic duty in April, and then .254 in May, with a few walks but not much else. But he improved significantly in June, just as Damon was going back in the tank, and then got hot in July and August, just as the Yankees began gaining ground on the Red Sox. He averaged an RBI or a run scored per day that month. Though he tanked in September (hitting .180 with a .220 slugging percentage, thanks to only four doubles and no homers or triples in 100 at-bats), Damon hit well that month, and anyway by then the Yankees’ postseason berth was pretty secure, so nobody noticed.

For the season, Melky hit a respectable .273 with a .327 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage. That gave him a .719 OPS that ranked 53rd among the 57 outfielders who qualified for the batting title in 2007. His Secondary Average and Runs Created per 27 outs both also ranked 53rd, while his Isolated Power was 50th. Near or below him on most of those lists were Corey Patterson, Vernon Wells, Juan Pierre, Coco Crisp, Andruw Jones, Delmon Young and/or David DeJesus. Those guys are all center fielders as well, except for Young, who could be a center fielder if it weren’t for the presence of B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli on the Devil Rays’ roster.

Jones and Wells are both very good hitters who had awful years in 2007, but who should bounce back. Crisp has been plagued by injuries since he was traded to Boston two years ago, but he still manages to be a prolific and effective base stealer (60 steals, but caught only 10 times in 2006-07) and an excellent defensive player. Pierre isn’t much for defense, but he has speed to burn, and is an excellent base stealer. (The value of that skill, however, can hardly make up for his poor hitting, and he may be losing his job in LA because of it.) Patterson, too, steals bases often and well, and has shown a little power in the past, though he didn’t much in 2007, and had an off year on defense as well. Young is still, well, very young (21) and hit for some power in the minors (51 homers at three levels in 2004-05) so I suspect that the power will come for him, especially if he learns to lay off a bad pitch once in a while.

But Melky’s different. He’s decent at a lot of things, but not great at anything. He hits for a respectable average. He walks a little. He doesn’t strike out too much. He steals a few bases (13 for 18 in 2007). The jury’s still out on his defense. (Baseball Prospectus rated him as +14 Fielding Runs Above Average last year, but Bill James’ +/- metric says he was 22 plays below average last year, so who knows?) Regardless, it’s clear that he doesn’t stand out in anything, and that may be a problem.

A quick look at the ten most comparable players to Cabrera, (according to Bill James’ Similarity Scores) through their age 22 seasons, reveals some interesting names:

Sixto Lezcano
Max Carey
Chet Lemon
Rick Manning
Harry Heilmann
Roberto Clemente
Cliff Heathcote
Carlos May
Les Mann
Jimmy Sebring

That’s an interesting list. Three of the ten (Carey, Heilmann and Clemente) are Hall of Famers and Chet Lemon and Carlos May were All Stars two or three times each. Not a bad list of comps, all things considered. But remember, these similarity scores are through age 22 only. Part of the reason that Melky’s in such good company is the very fact that he was a regular player at ages 21 and 22, when most players are still in AA or AAA. The fact that he didn’t totally fall flat on his face in the majors at such a young age automatically bodes well for his long term success.
But what about in the short term? Lezcano, Lemon, Heilmann, Heathcote and May all got hurt and missed significant time during their age 23 seasons. That’s probably just a weird coincidence, but you can’t ignore the fact that the more you Play, the more likely you are to get hurt.

Carey, Heilmann, Heathcote and Mann all played in the Dead Ball Era, at least through their age 22 seasons, so any apparent increase in power for them (like Heilmann starting to hit 15-20 home runs every year) likely had more to do with the change in the nature of the game itself than to any real improvement in skills.

Carey was basically a slap hitter and an extremely prolific base stealer (738 of them, 9th place all time) who didn’t hit .300 in a full season between age 22 and age 31, when the Dead Ball Era was ending. Heathcote was decent but unspectacular for about 15 seasons, amassing 500 at-bats in a season only once, at age 28.

Les Mann had his best season at age 22, in the Federal League in 1915, so that hardly counts. He promptly returned to mediocrity in the National League when the Federal League folded. He held on long enough to parlay some success as a part-time player at the end of the Dead Ball Era into a few more years of work, but was never anything to write home about.

As for the others on the list…

Sixto Lezcano: Got a jump in his power at age 23 and hit 15-20 homers a year when he was healthy. At age 25 he hit .329 with 28 homers and 101 RBIs and finished 15th in the NL MVP voting, but never came close to those numbers again and was out of baseball by age 31.
Chet Lemon: Started to hit for some power at age 22, and hit .300 or better three times in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, though only once in a full season. He was a productive regular or semi-regular through age 33 and retired at age 35, after a couple of down seasons. The Yankees could do a lot worse than to have Melky turn out like this.

Rick Manning: Played for 13 seasons (1975-87) but never hit more than 8 homers in any of them. After hitting .285 and .292 at ages 20 and 21, he never did better than .270 in any other year of his career. He stole some bases, but not always well, and walked once in a while, but not enough to make up for hitting .250 with no power. The Tribe finally got tired of waiting for him to turn into Tris Speaker and traded him to the Brewers in 1983, when he was 28. By the middle of 1984 he was relegated to spot starter/pinch hitter status, and by 1987 he was retired.

Roberto Clemente: A terrific talent, and a deserving Cooperstown enshrine, but he didn’t start hitting for power until he was 25, and then he got some MVP votes every year for a decade. Still he had that great arm and a swing that produced doubles and triples even when he wasn’t hitting homers, so there was a little more reason to believe that Clemente would turn out like that than there is for Cabrera, I think.

Carlos May: May had hit .280+ with power at ages 21 and 22, and though he lost some of the power, he gained in batting average every year from age 21 to age 24, when he hit .308 and made the All-Star team, all the time with lots of walks. At age 25 he hit 20 homers, drove in 96 runs and got a few MVP votes, but after that his career spiraled downward quickly. His power and batting average both disappeared simultaneously, and with them, his playing time. He lost about 100 at bats at ages 27 and 28, then about 150 at age 29, when he hit .236 with a sub-Neifi .623 OPS, and then retired.

Jimmy Sebring: Played in the early 1900’s for the Pirates and Reds, as a regular at ages 21 and 22, but played less than half of a season, badly I might add, at age 23, and then disappeared except for a cup of coffee at age 27. An anomalous data point, at best, given the abbreviated career and the time in which he played.

Bill James’ Similarity Scores, however, are not the only tool for comparing players. Baseball prospectus, for example, has its own methods of comparing players, and they’re a bit more comprehensive than James’ approach, which is based entirely on stats. BP has a list of 20 “comps” to Malky Cabrera for 2007, and these are, in order:

Carlos Beltran
Coco Crisp
Pete Rose
Brian McRae
Rick Manning
Nick Markakis
Reggie Smith
Rondell White
Jim Wohlford
Hosken Powell
Mark Kotsay
Tito Francona
Bernie Williams
Marquis Grissom
Carl Yastrzemski
Shannon Stewart
Ellis Burks
Peter Bergeron
Tom Umphlett
Lee Mazzilli

Most of those guys had long careers, 10 years or more, though some of them were only marginally useful during much of their long careers. Others are in the midst of their career now, so we don’t know how they’ll turn out, though some of the players have been around long enough (Beltran, Stewart, Kotsay) that we have a pretty good idea of what they are.

It should be noted, however, that none of these guys is substantially comparable to Melky. BP indicates that for their scores, which are graded on a 0-100 scale, a score of 50 or higher means a player is substantially comparable to another player. A score of 40, I suppose, is only moderately comparable. Melky’s closest comp, Carlos Beltran, scores a 40, and everyone below that is between 30 and 36. By comparison, Bobby Abreu’s closest comp, Carl Yasztremski, also scores a 40, as does Beltran’s #1 comp, Tom Tresh. It’s like taking the SAT all over again!



When in doubt, you always answer “b”, right?

So I don’t really know what to make of those comparisons, except that we should probably take them with a grain of salt. Still, if you look at the players on that list, and particularly how well they did at age 23, Cabrera’s current age, you can get an idea of how they turned out. The average, age-23 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) among those players was about 3.6. Twelve of the 20 players on the list came close to or exceeded that mark at age 23, or at least demonstrated such ability before that, even if they had a down year at age 23. These were:

Hitter      Yrs. OPS+   Age-23 WARP
Beltran 11 116 1.5
Williams 16 125 3.3
Kotsay 12 100 2.6
Manning 14 84 2.8
Rose 24 118 4.4
Markakis 2 114 6.8
Smith 17 137 7.4
White 17 108 4.6
Yastrzemski 23 129 8.4
Burks 18 126 6.3
Umphlett 3 65 3.9
Mazzilli 14 109 6.6
Average* 15 116 4.7

*I threw Markakis out of the average calculations because this was only his second year, though it was a very good one. In case you’re curious, if you throw Umphlett out, too, the numbers go up to 16.6 years, 117 OPS+ and 4.8 WARP.

The following eight players did not demonstrate the ability to produce at least a 3-3.5 WARP season by age 23:

Hitter      Yrs. OPS+   Age-23 WARP
Crisp 6 94 1.4
McRae 10 92 1.9
Wohlford 15 84 2.9
Powell 6 79 2.5
Francona 15 107 1.3
Grissom 17 92 2.4
Stewart 13 107 1.2
Bergeron      5    56    -1.1
Average 11 93 1.6
Crisp’s career is hardly over, as he’s only 28 this year, but there’s little reason to believe he’ll ever be a star. McRae was a useful player for a while, supplementing his modest hitting skills with his speed, but was washed up at 31.

Francona took a while to get going, thanks to the Korean War, injuries, and managers with the Browns/Orioles and Tigers who never gave him a shot, but when he finally got to play in Cleveland, he did not disappoint. He parlayed the success of hitting .363 at age 25 into four more years of regular work, but by 30, he was basically a spot starter and pinch hitter.

Though he didn’t do much before age 24, Grissom was very good for about 6 years, a 5-tool player, and was useful for another 5 years or so after that. Stewart’s no star, but he’s had four of the 5 tools (no power, really) at one point or another in his career, so teams keep giving him a chance. He’s probably got a year or two left as a fourth outfielder before he can’t hit for enough batting average to keep his job anymore.

For Yankee fans, the really scary names on that list are Jim Wohlford, Hosken Powell and Peter Bergeron, not to mention Umphlett. Wohlford was never really a good hitter, and made a career for himself as a defensive replacement. In other words, these days, he’d never make it. Powell, like Bergeron, never hit, and didn’t last long. Umphlett looked solid as a rookie, getting the only RoY vote that didn’t go to Harvey Kuenn in 1953, but fizzled out quickly after that. Melky has, it seems, already demonstrated superior talents to any of those three, but not vastly superior, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the guys on the list of Cabrera’s comparables who turned out to be any good had done something to establish themselves by this age. Rose and Beltran each won a Rookie of the Year Award at age 22. Francona and Reggie Smith each finished 2nd in the RoY voting at the same age. Yaz was getting MVP votes at age 22, and was an All-Star and serious MVP candidate at 23. Ellis Burks hit 20 homers and stole 27 bases at age 22. And Melky?

Well, he’s got those T-shirts!

In my mind, that’s just not enough. Granted, he’s still young, so he’s cheap, and the Yankees should have plenty of offense, it would seem. But the Yankees do not have the luxury of overlooking a spot in the lineup. Not this year, in which they expect two aging veterans and three sophomore starting pitchers to help carry them into the postseason. Not in a year when Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez are bound to suffer significant declines from their 2007 production levels. Not in a year in which the Red Sox look like they’re well equipped to defend their World Championship.

So here’s the plan: The Yankees still have four outfielders, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Abreu and Cabrera, plus Shelley Duncan on the bench. They don’t have much in AAA, but they could probably get by with Jason Lane or Greg Porter as the 5th outfielder. Damon’s under contract for this and next year and is blocking Cabrera, but his contract and his health (or lack thereof) make him essentially untradeable. Abreu and Matsui are both still productive, so that makes Cabrera the odd man out.

He’s young enough and cheap enough that other teams will want him on his “potential” alone, not to mention the fact that he’s not eligible to be a free agent for three more years. That, and maybe some other mid-level minor league swag, might be just enough to fetch a decent starting pitcher in mid-summer, before the trading deadline.

Some other team, conceding that they need to go into re-building mode, might give up a superfluous pitcher making a little too much money, especially a lefty like Jarrod Washburn or Mark Buehrle, who might do well in Yankee Stadium. Guys like Derek Lowe, Jon Garland or Ben Sheets, in the last years of their contracts and unlikely to be re-signed, could become available if their teams are out of contention in July.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that the Yankees should mortgage their future for a fleeting shot at the 2008 postseason. I am saying that Melky Cabrera is NOT the future, not if he doesn’t start getting really good at something. His pitiful spring (.222 with one extra-base hit – a double - in 63 at-bats) does not bode well for him.

A centerfielder with a good arm but questionable range is destined to be a right fielder, and there are no right fielders who can’t hit 10 homers in a season, or hit .320, or steal 30 bases, or something. If Cabrera wants to be in the future plans for the Yankees – and really, who wouldn’t? – then he’s got to start hitting like a future star.

It’s high time for the Melk-Man to deliver.

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25 March 2008

Canseco's Juice is Running Out...

Rob Neyer's got a blog entry today about Jose Canseco's new book. Apparently someone named Joe Lavin got a copy from a bookstore a little sooner than anticipated, though it would surprise me if some of the usual book-reviewing types had not already been given a copy.

Of course, River Avenue Blues thinks that the original is a satire anyway, a fake. Looking at the original column, I don't see how it can be anything but a fake. Lavin says that Canseco includes a profane, personal attack/insult to Alex Rodriguez at the end of one chapter, which is something I can't imagine a publisher allowing, or even a ghost writer, as Jose had last time with Steve Kettmann. I doubt he's so refined his writing skills in the last three years that he no longer needs a ghost writer, and I can't imagine that even the most ineperienced one would let something like that through.

Lavin says that Canseco was upset that he didn't get mentioned more in the Mitchell Report, quoting him as saying "I was Mitch-slapped!" There is no way on God's green Earth that Jose Canseco is clever enough to have thought of that on his own. And if his ghost writer suggested it, he would have just looked at him quizically, like your dog looks at you when he can't figure out what you've done with the rest of the coookie you were eating, the one that's now "hidden" in your other hand.

Lavin says that Canseco attests to having taken two lie detector tests, and that the results are in the book. This is ridiculous. I've seen the movies. I know how these things work. The results of a polygraph test would take pages and pages of space in a book. You get readings of heart rate, pulse, body temperature, stuff like that, and it all comes out on a running chart on which there are lots of jagged lines, none of which are meaningful unless you know

A) What questions were being asked when those particular readings were taken

2) What the readings looked like when he was asked innocuous questions with either true or false answers, and

iii) How much of a difference in those readings is significant.

He could have published the results of a seismograph machine from somewhere under the San Francisco Bay and 99% of us would never know the difference. In other words, you have to be a trained polygraph reader, and even then, the experts can disagree. Which is one of the reasons these things are not admissible in court. (The other being that all judges are psychic and can tell when you're lying, anyway!)

Toward the end, Lavin says that Canseco describes a lengthy conversation with CBS's octogenarian news anchor Mike Wallace about he potential benefits of HGH, and Levin ends his column as follows:

Yes, apparently, Mike Wallace could be juiced. It makes sense. How else to explain how Wallace has stayed on top of his game well into his eighties? No word yet on whether Andy Rooney is juiced too.

This is tongue-in-cheek, here, folks. Wallace took a lot of flak last year for his interview with Roger Clemens, in which he clearly was NOT at the top of his game. He's a big name, certainly, but he's a soft touch these days, and a personal friend of Clemens, which was exactly why Roger chose him for the interview. He violated two of the three classic journalism blunders, the most famous of which is 'never get involved in a land war in Asia', but only slightly less well known are 'ask tough questions' and 'make sure you can remain objective'.

And besides, even if Mike Wallace did want to learn about HGH, do you think he would actually risk talking to Jose Canseco about it? He may be old and crotchety and not much of an interviewer anymore, but the man is not stupid. Jose Canseco wrote a book three years ago, and is publishing another one in which he supposedly divulges confidential information form personal conversations with people who trusted him at the time...why would Wallace confide in this guy?

Getting back to Canseco, I read and reviewed his book Juiced as well, and found it mostly pretty interesting, but that was because it was chocked full of what were (at the time) mostly new revelations.

This new one, whether Lavin actually read it or not, appears to be just an effort by Canseco to make a few bucks by jumping on the bandwagon. Though it should be noted that he started this whole thing by pushing that bandwagon down the hill three years ago. At the time, many of his accusations were based on first hand experience of injecting or supplying other players, though now it just sounds like he's accusing anyone who's a big name and might make a splash for his book to get some press.

I've already got a couple of other books to review, both of which seem like they'll be more interesting and better written than Canseco's new offering, and I won't even get to them until I've gotten through Baseball Prospectus 2008 and drafted my fantasy team. I expect that Canseco's sequel to Juiced will be a lot like The Matrix: Revolutions and everything Erik Hinske's done since he won the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year - a lot less interesting, and only still there because there's a lot of money involved.

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19 March 2008

2008 Cincinnati Reds Preview

It's been a long time since the Cincinnati Reds were any good. The team has not finished a season with a winning record since Y2K, but even that team was not exactly "competitive", finishing 10 games back in the NL Central, and nine back in the Wild Card race. They did win 96 games for a Wild-Card tie with the Mets the year before that, which they lost, but the team has not been in the playoffs since 1995, when they won their division handily.

The Cincinnatis were once the proudest franchise in baseball. Of course, that was 1868, and there were no other professional baseball teams. Once the rest of the country caught on, the Cincinnati club, well, them, not so much...but lets not be picky.

They had some pretty good moments in the 20th century, too, but in this one? They've won more games than only six of the 30 MLB teams (and only 2 of 16 NL teams): the Brewers, Orioles, Tigers, Pirates, Royals and Rays, in that order. And the Tigers have actually turned themselves around recently. But the Reds, despite a great fan base, a new ballpark, and as rich a history as any team in baseball this side of the Bronx, haven't done diddly-squat in this milennium.

But that could all change in 2008.

Not so much because the Reds are any smarter or better than they have been. Just because the NL Central division is, by all accounts, up for grabs. With apologies to the 2006 World Champion Cardinals, no team in the division has won more than 85 games in either of the last two seasons, and the teams that have competed did not do much to upgrade themselves over the winter.
Not that the Reds did. But their young talent may be at a point where it can help them in the ways that free agency and trades, due to their exhorbitant prices, cannot.

Starting Rotation:

The pitching staff is headed up by Aaron Harang, who has been, believe it or not, one of the best starters in the major leagues for the last three seasons. I know, it's hard to fathom that a guy who has averaged fewer than 15 wins and a 3.77 ERA in that span should be allowed to lay claim to such a title.

However, when you consider that he's been on lousy teams and has had to pitch half his games in the Great American Phonebooth, it starts to make sense. Only eight pitchers in MLB have totaled at least 650 innings and an adjusted ERA of 120 or better, and among them, Harang is 3rd in Innings, 2nd in complete games and strikeouts.

With that said, his 120 ERA+ is the worst of that small bunch, and it's not likely he'll ever be any better than this, but he's a solid workhorse, and nobody should be surprised if he racks up another 225 innings with an ERA around 3.75 or so. And if the Reds hit like their projections suggest they will? He could win 20 games.

The #2 man in the rotation is Bronson Arroyo, who is also an unspectacular workhorse, though one who's much better than his 9-15 record in 2007 would suggest. If he can give the Reds another 200+ innings with a slightly better than average ERA, they'll have no reason to complain.

Free agent signee Josh Fogg, despite a lackluster resume, has pitched well this spring and should easily make the rotation in the #3 hole. After that, it's anybody's guess. The incumbent rotation members, Matt Belisle, and Homer Bailey, have done nothing this spring to secure themselves jobs. Bailey had racked up an 8.44 spring ERA that got him sent back to the minors, and Belisle has been even worse.

In their place, most likely, will be young hot-shots Edinson Volquez (5 runs and 3 walks in 13 innings, with 19 strikeouts so far this spring) and Johnny Cueto (3 runs in 13 innings, with 12 K's and 4 walks). Young pitchers are a volatile commodity, and it would be foolish to expect these two to go Fernando on the league, but it would be even more foolish to send them back to the minors to start the season. If they can meet projections for this year, i.e. a roughly league average ERA and pitch 25-30 games, the Reds' potent offense could get them some wins.
It's dangerous to read too much into spring stats, but 19 strikeouts and three walks is impressive no matter the context. And really, these guys have got to produce this year if the Reds are to contend. If they don't, Cincinnati cannot reasonably expect Jeremy Affeldt or (if he ever comes off the DL) Eric Milton to carry them to the playoffs.

And the minor league well is pretty shallow. The pitchers who got the bulk of last years starts for the AAA Louisville team are mostly either gone (Mike Gosling, Elizardo Ramirez, Phil Dumatrait, Victor Santos), injured (Bobby Livingston) or ineffective this spring (Bailey, Tom Shearn, Richie Gardner). There's not much left.

One (small) ray of hope, however, comes in the form of Matt Maloney. (Predicted Bermanism: The Maloney Ranger, which would be much better if he actually pitched for Texas, but what can you do?) Maloney came to the Reds from the Phillies in the Kyle Lohse trade last year. Maloney nearly won the pitching "triple Crown" in the Sally League in 2006, finishing 16-9 for Lakewood with a 2.03 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 168 innings. He was doing well in Reading in 2007 when he was traded, and then got a couple of starts for the Reds' AA team before he was promoted to Louisville and did well there too. He finished 2007 with a combined record of 13-10 with a 3.64 ERA and 177 strikeouts in 170 innings.

Most important, perhaps, he dropped his walk rate from 3.90/9IP to just 2.85/9IP, a huge improvement in control. Unfortunately, he's been awful this spring, so he'll likely have to re-prove himself in AAA before they give him a shot in the majors. Bullpen: Newly-signed Closer Francisco Cordero brings the sexiest name Cincinnati has had in that role since Rob Dibble, not to mention a much sexier face than David Weathers.

Of course, even Amy Winehouse could meet that requirement, even with that weird fungus consuming her face. I mean, I know my momma told me if I can't say anything nice I shouldn't say anything at all (or was that Thumper?) but seriously, this guy is not attractive.

Anyway, Cordero has had success, averaging more than a strikeout per inning since 2003, when he took over closer duties in Texas. He's not exactly automatic, as his ERA has been well over 3.00 two of the last three years, and close to three in two more years since 2003, but then you don't need perfection to be a closer. Just ask Joe Borowski.

Cordero strengthens the Reds' bullpen if only because he adds another quality arm to it, and therefore decreases the number of important innings that have to be assigned to pitchers like Jeremy Affelt. That's not worth $46 million dollars, of course, but it's worth something.
Weathers becomes the main righty setup man, and though Mike Stanton is penciled in as the main lefty right now, he's going to be 41 on June 2nd, and he had a 5.93 ERA last year. It would be nice to see him pass Jesse Orosco to be first all time in relief appearances, but he'll need about two more seasons for that, and I don't see him lasting out this season, much less two.

More likely, the main lefty out of the pen will eventually be Affeldt (if he can keep his 2007 successes going), or some combination of youngsters Bill Bray and the vaguely-dirty sounding Jon Coutlangus. Righties vying for time in the pen should include 25-year old Jared Burton, who went 4-1 with a 1.84 ERA after the All-Star break last year, Todd Coffey, who's been excellent this spring despite a 5.82 ERA in 2007, and anyone who doesn't make the rotation.

Additionally, it seems that Gary Majewski is working his way back after a year in which he was either injured, or filming a movie about The Three Musketeers, I'm not sure which.

The Reds' bullpen should be greatly improved over 2007, in which the team's 5.10 ERA in relief was no relief at all, worst in the NL by over a quarter of a run and 4th worst in the majors.

Simple regression to the mean by the likes of Majewski and Coffey should help, as will the departures of Kirk Saarloos, Eddie Guardado, Rheal Cormier, Victor Santos and Mike Gosling, who all posted very high ERAs. Mike Stanton will be gone if he's not any better than last year, as this is the last of his contract, which should also help. The pitchers taking their places should help to keep the likes of Bill Bray and Marcus MacBeth in the minors if they're not ready for the Show, as it seemed last year.

Starting Lineup:

The expected lineup on Opening Day is:

1) Corey Patterson, CF
2) Brandon Phillips, 2B
3) Ken Griffey Jr., RF
4) Adam Dunn, 1B
5) Edwin Encarnacion, 3B
6) Scott Hatteberg, 1B
7) David Ross, C
8) Jeff Keppinger, SS
9) Aaron Harang, Pitcher

The Reds do not have a bonafide leadoff hitter, but Patterson is the closest thing, at least in the mind of new field manager Dusty Baker. He frequently employed Patterson in this manner when they were both Cubs, and he's planning on doing it again. Unfortunately, if Patterson falters, Ryan Freel is seen as the next best option. Both players posted an adjusted OPS just slightly above 100 in 2003, and neither has done it since. This is, as they say in France, not good.
Of course, batting order does not matter nearly as much as batting quality, and the Reds are flush in quality hitting prospects, with both OF Jay Bruce (Baseball America's #1 overall prospect in 2008) and 1B Joey Votto. If Baker can be convinced to give these guys a chance, and thereby displace their veteran competition (Patterson and Scott Hatteberg, respectively), he might find that his team is the better for it.

If Baker understood OBP as he ought to, he'd probably try Edwin Encarnacion (.359 and .356 each of the last two seasons) in the leadoff spot instead. Griffey and Dunn are both much better at getting on base, but both hit for consistent power as well, and are therefore more valuable hitting 3rd and 4th. Brandon Phillips won't hit 30 homers again, but 15 or even 20 probably are not out of reach. PECOTA's got him hitting .274/.325/.444 with 20 homers, which sounds about right.

Ken Griffey's not the superstar he used to be. Heck, "Junior" is 38 now, and has not played a full, healthy season since 1999. When he plays, however, he can still hit, patiently and with power, even if he's not likely to ever crest .290 again. PECOTA suggests that he'll hit about .268 with 20 homers in 417 plate appearances, but also warns that he's got a better than 1-in-4 chance of losing a bunch of playing time due to injury.

When that happens, Jay Bruce should get to play, and may impress. He's hit for average and power in the minors (over .300 with 26 homers at three levels in 2007) and will take a walk, but is young and raw and will strike out a lot in the majors, as most young players do. Only 21, he's got some time to develop, but again, if the Reds are to compete this year, they need him to come into his own pretty quickly, and to supplant the at-bats that Patterson or Freel would have gotten, not to take Griffey's playing time when he sustains his annual injury.

Behind Griffey in the lineup is seamhead favorite Adam Dunn, who walks a ton, homers a ton and strikes out a ton and a half. He's hit exactly 40 homers each of the last 3 seasons, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say he hits...oh, let's say 39 this year.

I suggested that Encarnacion could be a good leadoff option, which is based moistly on the fact that the Reds don't really have a good leadoff option, but he's the closest thing, this side of Keppinger. PECOTA has him projected to hit 23 homers this year, though, and I doubt that Baker would want power like that leading off. However, Encarnacion never hit more than 17 homers in the minors, and that was in the Midwest league, where power is cheap, so I'll believe that when I see it. In any case, he's developed into a solid major league thirdbaseman, and at only 24 year sold, should only get better.

Hopefully, Baker has enough sense to let Joey Votto play every day instead of Scott Hatteberg, whose time as a useful starter, if indeed there ever was such a time, has clearly come and gone. Granted, he hit .310 last year with his typical patience (and his typical lack of power), which could fool Baker into thinking he'd be a good option to start, but he's 38, and that was the first time he'd really been "good" since, well, ever.

He posted a 116 OPS+ in 2002, but had not been over 109 since, until he posted a 120 mark last year. He set single season career highs in batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS and OPS+, all at the age of 37, though he did not get enough plate appearances for the season to qualify. Is it really likely that he's going to be anywhere near that good again? I don't think so, and neither do the guys at Baseball Prospectus, who have him slated to hit .278 with 7 homers.

Votto, meanwhile, should hit about .280 with 25 homers if he gets to play daily. Unfortunately, Votto's hitting only .158 this spring while Hatteberg is clipping away at .382, so it very unlikely that Baker has seen enough from his young prospect (ranked #4 in the Reds' system and #44 in all of MLB) to give him the first base job at this point.

Catcher Dave Ross barely cracked the Mendoza Line last year, hitting just .203 after he surprised the hell out of everyone by hitting .255 with 21 homers in 2006. He'll share catching duties with seasoned (read: OLD) veteran catcher Javier Valentin, making something of a Hitting/Catching platoon instead of the classic Righty/Lefty thing. Except that Valentin isn't much of a hitter anymore either. He's just better than Ross.

If one of them gets injured, minor league veteran Ryan Hannigan can step in, but he's no long-term solution, as he doesn't have enough power to light one of those new-fangled LEDs, much less to keep an opposing pitcher honest. This will be a trouble spot for the Reds all year.

Phillips' double play partner is currently slated to be Alex "No 'S'" Gonzalez, who hit .272 with 16 homers for them last year, but is more likely to hit something like .255 with 10 homers this year, assuming he's healthy enough to play. The Reds might be well served to let Jeff Keppinger get a shot this year at short, as PECOTA thinks he'll hit .305/.364/.418, which would also make him their best option for a leadoff man.

Keppinger's done nothing but hit everywhere he's played: .325 in Lynchburg, .337 in Altoona, .362 in Binghamton, .337 in Norwich, .300 in another stint in Norwich, .354 in Omaha, .368 in Louisville, and then .332 with the Reds last year, and always walking more than he strikes out. So why is he listed second to a proven mediocrity like "No 'S'" on the ESPN.com's Reds Depth Chart? Perhaps because he doesn't do much else. He's not a great defensive player, doesn't steal, doesn't hit for power...but if you can hit .300 in the majors, even without much in the way of secondary skills, there's a job for you somewhere. Between second, third and short in Cincinnati this year, he should get every opportunity to prove himself.


Almost everyone on the bench has already been mentioned, given that there are so many position battles in the Reds' camp this spring. The ones who lose out (hopefully Hatteberg, Patterson, Freel, Valentin, and Gonzalez, if he's healthy) could be joined by the likes of Norris Hopper, Andy Phillips, or Paul Bako, but none of those is likely to get much, if any, playing time. The Reds' bench should be pretty strong, but that's only because they have a lot of question marks in the starting lineup and seem to have stocked up on guys who could be good fall-back options.


There are too many question marks on this team right now for me to have much confidence about it going into 2008. They've got a lot of talent, but there are so many things that obviously have to break just the right way for them. Mostly they need their old players to not get hurt and their young prospects to all pan out at once, neither of which is likely to actually happen.
My best guess: we get a chance to see flashes of brilliance from each of the youngsters, but only Votto and probably one of the young pitchers, let's say Volquez, really does anything significant. Griffey gets hurt, Bruce isn't ready yet, Patterson and Freel combine for 550 at-bats (and 400 outs), and the Reds finish 82-80. A big jump from their 4th place finish in 2007, but not ready for the bigtime yet.

Look for them to take the NL Central by storm in 2009.

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13 March 2008

2008 Los Angeles Dodgers Preview

I don't intend to do a preview of every team in MLB -because, really, who has the time? - but it seems to me that it is worthwhile to look at some of the teams on the edge, teams that could go either way. Anyone can predict that the Giants or Royals will lose 100 games or that the Red Sox will win 95 or more. It takes real talent to predict that the Phillies will win 84 games. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.

So, in this vein, I'm now going to analyze the chances of the 2008 Dodgers, a team about which I know almost nothing, and in which I have absolutely no rooting interest.


The 2007 Dodgers finished 10th in the 16-team Senior Circuit with 735 Runs scored, despite the fact that they were 2nd in batting average and 4th in OBP. This is because they showed so little power, ranking 13th in slugging and 15th in home runs. They were basically a singles hitting, slash-and-dash team, 3rd in the NL with 137 steals. Nobody hit more than Jeff Kent's 20 home runs. Dodger Stadium is a pitchers' park, so that's not a total surprise, but they actually hit a little worse on the road than they did at home, so the park factor doesn't explain it. They just weren't that good. That explains it.

The Dodgers had a lot of old veterans last year, but many of those are gone: Mike Lieberthal, Luis Gonzalez, Mike Sweeney, Marlon Anderson, Brady Clark, Shea Hillenbrand - all overpaid, underproductive and on the wrong side of 30, some on the wrong side of 35. Of those that are left, basically Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, at least they can still hit, if not field. Well, Kent can hit. Nomar can pinch-hit, but that's about all he's good for these days.

Kent just turned 40, and is unlikely to play more than the 136 games he played last season, but they need all they can get out of him, because the remaining 30 or so games will mostly go to 22-year old Tony Abreu. Baseball Prospectus thinks Abreu will hit .276/.323/.401, well below the production levels of even Jeff Kent's quatragenarian bat. Abreu hit for average in the minors, but with little patience and no power, so it's unlikely that the team can withstand any sustained absence by Kent. (Delwyn Young is strictly outfield material, not a secondbaseman, despite what ESPN.com's depth chart says.)

Most of Nomar's at-bats last year should get taken by Andy LaRoche, who's projected to hit .278/.362/.481 by BP, but could easily out-pace that. (He averaged about .310/.400/.570 the last two seasons in AAA, which, even accounting for how much the PCL inflates offense, is still pretty impressive. Unfortunately, LaRoche has a thumb injury that will likely keep him out of commission until mid-May at the earliest. Now, whether new manager Joe Torre will actually let the young, unknown LaRoche play in lieu of a "proven commodity" like Nomar will depend on how well Garciaparra does for the first 6 weeks of the season. If he's hitting .260 with no power and demonstrating his usual lack of defensive prowess at third base, LaRoche will get a shot. Torre may not trust youngsters, but even should be able to tell the difference between Andy LaRoche and Andy Phillips.

The rest of the infield consists of shortstop Rafael Furcaland first baseman James Loney. Furcal, now 30 and not the superstar some expected him to be, is still a decent lead-off man and an excellent fielder. Loney hit like crazy in a truncated 2007 season, mostly because he hit .400 whenever he put the ball in play, which he won't do again. Still, a .290/.350/.450 line or better, as Baseball Prospectus predicts, would be fine if they can get a whole season out of him. The trouble is that Loney's got a history of wrist injuries, and may get hurt again. Worse yet, he may not get hurt enough to be placed on the DL, but just enough to rob him of the power he seemed to regain last year.

Catcher Russel Martin became a fan favorite last year with his quick bat (.293, 19 homers) and hustling style of play (21 steals and a Gold Glove). Given the fact that Dodger Stadium is still a pitchers' park, Martin's performance was even better than it looked on paper, a near-MVP caliber season from a 24-year old catcher, a truly rare commodity.

His career minor league slugging percentage was only .419, and that was bolstered by spending the whole 2004 season at Vero Beach, a power hitter's paradise, so those 19 homers he hit last year may prove to be a career high. In any case, he's got a solid bat, hitting both for average and a little power, with decent patience as well. He might want to be a little more selective with base-stealing, however, both because of the injury risk associated with it and because his 9 times getting caught essentially negated any benefit from the 21 times he was successful.

The Dodger outfield, with the recent addition of Andruw Jones, now has impressive depth, if not a bonafide superstar. Jones is probably expected to become a great Dodger centerfielder, in the mould of Duke Snider, but of course he hit only .222 last year, so if he can just make the fans forget about Milton Bradley, he'll be a success. Expect him to bounce back to his more typical .260/.350/.500 type of production, maybe just a tick below that because of the pitchers' park thing.

Jones is flanked by Matt Kemp and (hopefully) Andre Ethier. Kemp is still quite young, having just turned 23 in September, has hit for average everywhere he's played, and has power to burn, though he's never really walked much. Like Loney, Kemp hit over .400 when he put the ball in play last year, so don't expect him to hit .342 again, but if he hits the .293/.346/.497 that BP predicts, nobody will much care that he only walks about once a week. Especially if he goes back to stealing 15-20 bases per year, as he did in the minors.

Ethier, by contrast, does not steal bases, but he can hit a little, and since he's entering his prime (he'll be 26 in about a month) he could easily outpace the .281/.349/.444 that PECOTA suggests. Ethier, however, is not so obviously talented that he can rest on his laurels. Incumbent centerfielder Juan Pierre, pressed out of a job by the acquisition of Jones, will be vying for playing time in Left.

Pierre, nowhere near as productive a talent as Ethier, is nevertheless a Proven Veteran, except that Joe Torre doesn't realize that what he's proven is that he shouldn't be playing every day on a championship team. His defense, which was terrible in CF, won't be so bad in Left, but his bat will be that much worse. He's got plenty of speed, but little pateince and no power, so the apparently decent batting averages he puts up tend to be hollow. He's been in the top 3 in the NL in Outs made each of the last 5 years, leading it twice, with his only real competition coming form Jimmy Rollins, who at least hits for some power and plays better defense.


Still, having Pierre on the bench to spot start, pinch-run, or try to slap a key single in the late innings can be helpful. Just not worth the $55 million contract he signed. Pierre and Delwyn Young give the Dodger bench a range of useful skills and the ability to suffer some injuries to the starters, if they should happen.

The rest of the bench consists of run-of-the-mill backup catcher Gary Bennett, standard-issue 5th outfielder Jason Repko and back-up shortstop Chin-lung Hu. Hu has a career minor league stat line of .299/.346/.425, and has hit for average, taken walks and stolen bases during his minor league career. Unfortunately, he's really never done more than two of those at once, and usually only one. His real asset is his defense, for which he's gotten raves everywhere he's played. Someone who hits Hu's 50th percentile BP projection (.274/.318/.403) and plays Gold Glove defense would be a starter on most teams, but this one's committed to Furcal for two more seasons at about $13 million each, so that won't happen any time soon.

With all the injuries ot Dodger infielders, he might get a little playing time at third base, but his bat won't carry that position for any length of time. For now, Hu's greatest contribution to the team may be as the start of a "Hu's on First" type of gag, like this one:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation consists of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Esteban Loaiza, all righties.

Penny, who was 10-1 with a 2.39 ERA at the All-Star Break, looked poised to win the NL Cy Young Award for most of last year, but went only 6-3 with a 4.25 ERA after June, so Jake Peavy won it instead. Still, Penny was one of the 5 best pitchers in the NL last year, and there's no reason he should be much different this year.

Lowe, whose performance was wildly erratic his last few years in Boston, has been the very picture of consistency in the three years he's spent in LA. He's pitched between 199 and 222 innings, with 12 to 16 wins and an ERA between 3.61 and 3.88 each of those three years. The big differences have come in the Loss column, due to bad luck and/or poor run support. He's 34 now, and therefore probably due for a slight drop-off, but not anything severe.

Chad Billingsley has got the size (6'1", 245) and the stuff (95 mph fastball, slider and curve) ot be a stud in the majors. His MLB record right now is 19-9, 3.47 in 237 innings over two seasons. He walks a lot of batters, but can get a strikeout or a groundball when he needs one, so that's less of a concern than it would be if he were a pure fly-ball guy.

The key for him will be staying healthy. He's a big, stocky guy, with a high, almost El Duque-style leg kick, and his list of comparables on Baseball Prospectus includes Jaret Wright, Kelvim Escobar, Wilson Alvarez, Tony Armas Jr., and several other big, stocky guys who got injured at a young age and never met their potential. On the other hand, he could do worse than to turn out like Tom Seaver or John Smoltz, or even Dan Petry and Mark Gubicza, who are also on his list of comps.

PECOTA's projections for him are modest, probably because of his youth/inexperience and all those walks, but don't be surprised if he wins 18 games next year either. He could turn out to be the best pitcher on the staff.

The nominal 4th starter is a 33-year old Japanese veteran named Hiroki Kuroda, who went 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA last year for the Hiroshima Carp. Baseball Prospectus has what seems to me an overly optimistic 10-8, 3.94 projection for him. For comparison, last year they predicted 12-9, 3.99 for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who actually went 15-12, 4.40. Still solid, but hardly dominant, with higher walk- and homer-rates than they expected, hence the higher ERA. And you don't even want to know what they projected for Kei Igawa. If those two are any indication, Kuroda may be in for a rough season.

Rounding out the top five is Esteban Loaiza, who's trying to get healthy and pitch a full season for the first time since 2005. He made two starts for Oakland last year and pitched well enough to sucker the Dodgers into picking him up off waivers and assuming his $8 million in remaining contract dollars. While in LA, he pitched only 22 innings and racked up an 8.34 ERA, which, on a scale of one to ten, is 8.34.

Loaiza's doing well enough this spring (3 ER in 7 innings, 7 strikeouts and 2 walks) to make it seem that he may be healthy, but at 36 years old and following two years of injury trouble, he may be near the end. If Jason Schmidt can get healthy later in the year, perhaps in June, they could get a nice boost, but that's unlikely at best. Another option is Hong-Chih Kuo, who was a strikeout machine in the minors but is yet to have much success in the majors. If not him, then Joe Torre has Yankee cast-off (and inexplicable favorite) Tanyon Sturtze on whom to fall back. In any case, the front four should be good enough that the #5 man doesn't matter too much.


Closer Takashi Saito has been nothing short of brilliant since he crossed the Pacific two winters ago: 63 saves in 69 chances, 185 strikeouts in 142 innings, and a Mariano-esque 1.77 ERA. He also has a Mariano-esque age of 38 years, so he may miss a few games due to the sorts of nagging injuries that older pitchers sustain, but it appears that he is as good as any reliever in baseball when he's on the mound.

The bullpen workhorses are young Jonathan Broxton (32 Holds and a 2.85 ERA in 83 innings last year) and Scott Proctor (3.65 ERA in 86 innings), both of whom were equally solid in 2006. Proctor earned Joe Torre's trust in new York, and should see a significant share of the middle relief work as long as he continues to perform.

The main lefty is 30-year old Joe Beimel, who held lefties to a .188 BA against last year. Righties hit .294 off him, albeit with no power. He's totaled 137 innings the last two years, with ERAs of 2.96 and 3.88, and should continue to do well in that role in 2008. Rudy Seanez, now 39 years old, is also in the mix.

The mop-up duty will likely be handled by youngster Jonathan Meloan and minor league veteran Eric Hull. The former has been great everywhere he's pitched, but has only 27 innings of experience above AA ball, and therefore probably will get osme more seasoning before the Dodgers call him up for good. Hull was quite good in Las Vegas last year, after a couple of seasons of growing pains. His minor league numbers do not suggest future stardom, but he should be an effective mop-up man. Re-tread Yhency Brazoban may get some work, if he can get his weight under control, and Mike Myers is trying to eek out one more year as a resident wacky, laredo LOOGy. He's probably better off trying to make more Austin Powers movies.


In total, the Dodgers look really, really good on paper. They've got a starting rotation that is the equal of almost any in the national League, and a bullpen that is both very good and quite deep. The offense is not likely to be anything special, but is probably good enough, and with a full season from Ethier and Kemp, and Juan Pierre's out-making at-bats mostly replaced by Andruw Jones, who has a good shot at bouncing back from an off year, they could improve significantly from their 2006 numbers. Whatever they can get from Andt laRoche, once he's healthy, should be an improvement on the terrible numbers they got from the Hot Corner last year as well. Those improvements, if Torre can bring himself to make them, should more than offset any age-related decline from Jeff Kent and/or a return to earth by Russel Martin.

The Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with, and have as good a shot as anyone in the NL West to win 95 games and take the division. In a division full of contenders, Los Angeles has the best chance to come out the champion.

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03 March 2008

2008 Philadelphia Phillies Preview

But first, a recap of 2007...

What went right?


They won the NL East and therefore got into the playoffs for the first time since 1993!

Jimmy Rollins won the NL MVP Award that should have gone to Hanley Ramirez or David Wright. Ryan Howard followed up his 2006 MVP award nicely, and might have netted another one if he'd been healthy all year. Chase Utley finished 8th in the voting, and was better than either of them, though he missed 30 games with an injury.

Pat Burrell heald (almost perfectly) steady from his solid 2006 campaign. Aaron Rowand set career personal highs in Games, At-Bats, Runs, Hits, Doubles, Homers, Walks RBIs, OBP, Total Bases (and strikeouts). The bench was mostly solid, with Greg Dobbs, Jayson Werth and Tadahito Iguchi, who were all picked up for nothing or something very close to that, being particularly good.

Youngsters Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick combined to go 25-9.

What went wrong?

Pretty much everything to do with the pitching, and anyone who had anything to do with third base.

Brett Myers adapted well to closing after struggling through a few rough starts in April, but his work in that role was forced when Tom Gordon got injured and everyone else in the bullpen forgot how to get guys out. Taking the guy who should have been your best starter and turning him into a reliever cannot be considered a victory in any sense.

Jamie Moyer won 14 games, but he also lost 12 and had an ERA of 5.01. Adam Eaton "won" 10 games, but his 6.29 ERA and 30 homers allowed in 161 innings are much more telling of his season. By the end of June, both Freddy Garcia and Jon Leiber were gone for good, and by the end of July, so was Ryan Madson.

Third base was a revolving door, through which Charlie Manuel deperately sent various players to their doom. Abraham Nunez was almost comically bad (.234/.318/.282 with zero homers in 252 at-bats) and Wes Helms was not much better (.246/.297/.368 in 280 at-bats). Dobbs was decent, but didn't get enough playing time.

Ryan Howard, though he adapted well to Jan's old job, set a new MLB record by striking out 199 times.

The team, as a whole, spent it's whole stash trying to get into the playoffs and then had nothing left, and got swept out by the red-hot Rockies.

Looking ahead...

There have been some significant turnovers for the Phillies in the 2007-08 offseason.

The Offense:
...will be hampered both by its losses and its acquisitions, but the Phils probably will still be one of the top 5 hitting teams in all of MLB.

Rowand's big year netted him a 5-year, $60 million contract from the Giants, which was WAY more than Philly (or anyone else) was willing to pay. Rowand's departure, however, doesn't hurt nearly as much as the arrival of thirdbaseman Pedro Feliz. Feliz got a 2-year, $8.5M contract and, it is hoped he will provide "stability" to the third base situation. "Stability" being a euphemism for "mediocrity" in this case. He offers no more quality than incumbent Greg Dobbs did, but he comes with ten times the pricetag.

Another new acquisition, Geoff Jenkins, has a little power but not much else to offer. He can be decent as the lefty-hitting half of a platoon with Werth in RF, but probably isn't worth the $13 million they've promised him for 2008-09.

Carlos Ruiz, after a solid 2/3 of a season in 2007, should have a stranglehold on the starting catcher's job, and while he's not likely to be confused with Mike Piazza or even Joe Mauer, he should do well enough. Baseball prospectus has him projected to hit .270/.341/.413 in 389 at-bats, and that sounds about right, though I would give him a little more playing time, now that Rod barajas is out of the picture.

The rest of the offese, assuming everyone's healthy, should be great. Howard and Utley and Rollins are all MVP-type players, and more than make up for OM/3B Feliz. Burrell is as solid a left fielder as any in baseball, and Shane Victorino's proved that he can play every day. His modest offensive skills and exceptional speed will play better in CF than they did in right anyway.

The bench, while not spectacular on offense, has some worth (and one Werth!). Chris Coste can hit a little as he backs up Ruiz. Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs can play either corner once in a while, though hopefully neither will start in Howard's place unless they need a DH. Werth showed that he's healthy for once, and So Taguchi can be a useful pinch hitter or defensive replacement for any of the corner outfielders.


The Phillies will do well to let Brett Myers start and only start this year. The rotation is thin enough without turning a 200-inning pitcher into a 59-inning pitcher. Hopefully he bounces back and wins 15 games with a 3.85-ish ERA. Cole Hamels did exactly that last year but still needs to prove he's able to stay healthy if he wants the team to give him the kind of respect (read: money) he thinks he deserves.

Kyle Kendrick impressed a lot of people last year, but he'll need to prove his performance wasn't a fluke. Last year was the first of his 5-year pro career higher than A-Ball. he was doing well enough in AA that the desperate Phils gave him a shot in the majors, and he managed to stick, but the smart guys over at Baseball Prosectus have him projected for a 9-11 record and a 5.35 ERA this year.

The rest of the rotation should be just that: rotating. The nominal 4th and 5th starters are 45-year old Jamie Moyer and (God help them) Adam Eaton. Moyer was at least durable, if not "good" last year, and the Phillies could do worse than to have a guy like him as their #5 starter, someone who can keep the team in games and let the mashers win it against the soft underbelly of the opposition's rotation.

But Eaton? He was dreadful last season, and the Phillies are stuck with him for two more. I can't see him pitching like he did last year and staying employed for the whole year. They'd be better served giving someone from their AAA team a long look, someone like John Ennis or J.A. Happ. Even the Dust-Bin Durbins (J.D. and Chad, no relation) might be better than Eaton, who keeps trying to prove he can't pitch, but nobody wants to believe him. In any case, the Phillies have no shot at repeating as the Wild Card if they don't do something to shore up the pitching rotation.

The Bullpen should be better than the rotation, but until they get Brad Lidge back healthy, the whole group is weakened. Lidge's knee surgery makes Tom Gordon the closer again, temporarily, which makes Ryan Madson the primary right-handed setup man instead of the long-man. That, in turn, forces them to use the likes of Clay Condrey, Scott Matthieson, and the Dust-Bin Durbins more often. At least they've got J.C. Romero, one of the more consistent lefty relievers in the majors.


I have a hard time imagining that the Phillies offense can compensate for their lack of pitching. If the chances of Cole Hamels staying healthy enough to pitch 200+ innings and win 15+ games are slim, then the chances of Brett Myers rebounding to again be one of the 10 or 15 best starters in the NL are all but nonexistent. A dozen wins and an ERA around 4.25 might be more realistic, and that just won't be enough. Kendrick's future is anybody's guess, and the rest of the rotation is likely to be a revolving door of guys with ERAs on the wrong side of 5.00, as they were last year. The bullpen can't make up for that, and they don't have the minor league talent to either plug in or trade for another solid starter.

My best guess is something like 84-78, no playoffs.

The Wild Card will come out of the NL West.

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