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PIT/PA Watch

May 15: 3.55
Season: 3.61
NL Average: 3.73
Cubs' NL Rank: 15th

Cubs Season Record 22-15 (--)

This Series
May 14-May 16

Cubs Sweep 3-0



Final Score: 6-1

Final Score: 7-5

Final Score: 4-2


Next Series
May 18-May 20

AT

May 18: Clement (5-2, 2.78) vs
Schmidt (3-2, 3.79)


May 19: Zambrano (4-1, 1.82) vs
Rueter (1-4, 5.52)


May 20: Maddux (3-3, 4.44) vs
Hermanson (1-2, 4.67)



Last Series
May 11-May 13

Dodgers Win 2-1



Final Score: 7-3

Final Score: 4-0

Final Score: 7-3


Know Your Enemy - The Series
Part 1 - The Reds
Part 2 - The Pirates
Part 3 - The Brewers
Part 4A - The Cardinals - Position Players
Part 4B - The Cardinals - Pitching and Bench
Part 5A - The Astros - Position Players
Part 5B - The Astros - Pitching and Bench

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 Archives
08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003
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05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004
Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Wednesday, March 31, 2004

But I Don't Wanna!

I have no desire to talk about the Mark Prior situation. There's no analysis to be made, no new facts to report, just an opportunity for Sturm und Drang, and if you've read enough of my stuff, you'll know it's not my forte. Yet, someone out there is gonna yank my blogging license if I don't spew forth on the subject, so here goes.

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

-Tom Petty

There's no doubt I'm disturbed, and the thing I find most upsetting is the lack of resolution. I'm with the Sloth when he says that there would be a degree of comfort to be had in some sort of catastrophic injury - at least we'd know what we were dealing with. But nobody knows what's going on, including the various physicians involved, so all we can do is wait, and as Mr. Petty said, that's the hardest part.

You want a ray of sunshine, though? Look at the way the team is handling this. No, I don't mean the press leaks intended to soften the blow of any negative news, I mean the fact that the club finally broke out the kid gloves for somebody, and for Prior in particular.

Sure, it could have been done earlier - say, sometime last year - but this speaks to me of an understanding. Namely, that 2004 is not the only year for this team. Yes, they have a fine chance to compete for the postseason and to do well once they reach it, and there's no doubt that for that possibility to remain a probability, Prior must be a part of the equation.

Yet the Cubs aren't forcing the issue. Don't misunderstand, I think Jim Hendry and crew will do anything they think is right to bolster the club's chances. However, sending The Franchise out to wreck himself in the early going isn't one of those things. Their actions imply that the front office firmly believes they will be in the hunt for years to come. Winning now is important, but it seems the Cubs believe that using Prior to win once now could cost them years of winning down the road. The fact that they understand this and are willing to act accordingly, to get that big prize, to be that dynasty, should put a smile on every Cub fan's face.

So, to all of us Chicken Littles, yes, the sky may fall this time around. Our title hopes for 2004 may come crashing down around our ears. But unlike past seasons, we won't be going away. 2005 will not become 1986, much as it may feel that way now. The Chicago Cubs are a force to be reckoned with, and will remain that way for years. I suggest we get used to it.

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Posted by Derek @ 11:54 AM

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Monday, March 29, 2004

Know Your Enemy - Part V B - The Astros

It's later than I had hoped, but here's the second part of the Astros piece, and the final part of the Know Your Enemy series. I've enjoyed writing and learning about the teams the Cubs will be primarily competing against this season, and I hope it's been fun and useful for you as well. So, without further ado, enjoy!

Starting Pitchers

The Houston front office correctly identified that the team's biggest issue in 2003 was depth in the starting rotation. It wasn't difficult to see. Having to give 31 starts to Jeriome (think "Favre") Robertson and 19 starts to Ron Villone should force any General Manager into action (this means you, Dan O'Brien!).

Luckily, the Astros had someone in mind who could help. Having already expressed an interest in coming home, Andy Pettitte was wooed with thoughts of more family time, sleeping in his own bed, and great, heaping gobs of cash. The Yankees eventually offered more of the latter, but it was too little too late, and Pettitte signed a three-year deal with Houston for $31.5M. It may be a bit too much money, and I'm certainly wary of the structure, but the upgrade was necessary and the PR is great. The question is, what will the club be getting for their money?

IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 GB/FB ERA
2000 204.2 9.63 0.75 3.52 5.50 1.70 4.35
2001 200.2 10.04 0.63 1.84 7.35 1.50 3.99
2002 134.2 9.62 0.40 2.14 6.48 1.34 3.28
2003 208.1 9.81 0.91 2.16 7.76 1.76 4.02

That's a whole bunch 'o numbers, so let me highlight some of my favorite points:

  • I'm floored by how consistent Pettitte's hit rates are.

  • His walk rates have been very solid and consistent since 2001.

  • I don't have an explanation for this, so if anyone can think of why this would be, let me know: The more groundballs Pettitte gives up, the higher his home run rate and the higher his ERA. Wha?!?

One can't look at this chart and not see that Pettitte is a very consistent, solid performer. He should give the Astros 200 innings of above league average work, but I don't know what to make of the relationship to his GB/FB ratio and his HR/9. There is a chapter in the Great Baseball Book of Lore that says left-handed hitters adore pitches down in the zone. If there is any truth to this, pitches that might induce grounders for most hitters could give port-sided batters the opportunity to use Yankee Stadium's short right field porch. It's an interesting theory, and there's an easy way to check it out by looking at some three-year splits from 2001-2003.

AB/HR HR/9
VS R 53.7 Home 0.52
VS L 49.3 Road 0.84

Pardon the mixing of rate stats for the homers, but I couldn't find them in matching sets. In any case, it shows pretty clearly that the theory isn't viable. There is a very slight advantage in AB/HR for lefties in general, but since the theory is that they take advantage of Pettitte in Yankee Stadium, his extra low dinger rates at home put the kibosh on that idea.

In fact, while I still have no explanation for the relationship between Pettitte's GB/FB and HR/9, the above table adds validity to the idea that the benefits derived from having Houston's far better defense behind him will be sufficiently countered by increased home run rates (made potentially more daunting by the Crawford Boxes in left) as to cause them to cancel each other out, thus giving Houston about the same pitcher the Yankees have had since 1995. Considering who he's replacing, that's not bad at all.

There were rumors all along of a possible side effect to the Pettitte signing, and the speculation quickly became reality when Roger Clemens decided to end his multi-week retirement and join his friend for one last season.

This was a coup for the Astros on many levels. As a PR move, it never hurts to bring in a first ballot Hall of Famer whom many regard to be the best pitcher of his generation. Whether he's replacing Robertson or Villone, you can bet he'll perform better than them, even at 41. And while his fellow ex-Yankee might be slightly overcompensated, there's no doubt that the Rocket's $5M, mostly deferred, salary is well below what he would fetch on the open market, even in today's down cycle.

It's fairly easy to overstate the positives of this deal, but it's not stretching things to say Clemens makes this rotation substantially better. He can still pitch, and while he's not the same fearsome fireballer he was in his younger days, you won't find hitters anxiously lining up to get a crack at him. Like the Cubs' later acquisition of Greg Maddux, this move pays dividends all over the place. But the heftiest payout will come in the win column.

Not that it makes a difference over the course of a season, but it's refreshing to see Roy Oswalt get the opening day nod despite the fervor over the acquisition of his rotation mates. It would have been very easy to hand the ball to Pettitte or Clemens, and no one would have argued. Whether conscious or not, it's an acknowledgement of the fact that Oswalt is the only irreplaceable member of the starting staff.

Of course, that status makes his fragility all the more worrisome. He says he's healthy, he says he's strong, but until he gets out there for 30+ starts again, folks will keep asking questions about his groin, and in my book, there's no such thing as a good groin question.

Oswalt has a career ERA of 2.92, and I challenge anyone to find a legitimate reason to believe anyone else on this staff will approach that number in 2004. He's the real deal, but until he's able to stay healthy for an extended period of time, baseball fans on the Gulf Coast will be kept awake at night by more than oppressive humidity.

When you can legitimately say Wade Miller is your fourth starter, you've got a nice rotation put together. He had a rough first half in 2003, but figured things out after the All-Star Break, improving his ERA from the 4.66 he posted through mid-July, to 3.28 in the season's final weeks.

For some reason, over the last three years Miller has been significantly better at the end of the season. Below are his monthly splits from 2001-2003.

IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 ERA
April 83.1 8.42 1.08 3.89 8.00 4.86
May 77.2 8.11 1.27 2.78 7.18 4.29
June 94.2 8.84 1.14 3.04 6.65 4.28
July 109.0 8.33 1.16 3.72 7.18 4.13
August 93.2 7.20 0.77 2.98 8.84 2.40
September 99.2 7.40 0.63 3.97 8.67 2.08

That's just a crazy split. The only aspect of his game that doesn't significantly improve during the final two months is his walk rate, but complaining about that is like whining about the size of the cherry on your hot fudge sundae. If Miller ever figures out how to throw like that over an entire season, he'll be a monster.

Bringing up the rear of the rotation will be Tim Redding, and while he might not be mentioned in the "best fifth starter in baseball" discussion with the likes of Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, he's certainly no slouch. In his first full season of starting in the Majors, he performed admirably with 176 IP, 179 H, 16 HR, 65 BB, 116 SO, and a 3.68 ERA. The only thing that truly troubles me is the strikeout rate, which is low compared to the rest of his career (his minor league rate was 11 SO/9, and up until last year he had a rate of 8.2 SO/9 in the Majors). I think Redding should do well, but be wary of that K rate. It could be a silent alarm.

Bullpen

The Astros will be taking 12 pitchers to Houston, and while I would normally deride such roster construction, with Jimy Williams' quick hook it's not such a bad idea. The Astros threw more innings out of the bullpen in 2003 than any team but the Rangers, and in 2002 were only outpaced by the Reds. His last three years at the Red Sox helm, his teams came in second, first, and third in bullpen innings respectively. So while his starting staff is better this year, with Jimy's past usage patterns it may be better to be safe than sorry.

Octavio Dotel has been one of the most dominating relievers in the majors since 2001, and with the offseason trade of Billy Wagner, he'll now be the team's closer. This is excellent news for the National League. Not because of Octavio's previous poor showing in the job in 2000, but because he'll no longer be shutting down opposing offenses in the game critical situations he's excelled in for the last three years. Of course, I wouldn't advocate retaining Wagner, he was expensive, and losing his salary allowed for the moves they made to shore up the starting staff. But there will be consequences, and one of those will be using less effective pitchers in the seventh and eighth innings. If it were left to me, someone like Brad Lidge would be throwing in the ninth with a lead, while Dotel would be used for multiple innings late in tight games. But I'm not affiliated with the Astros, so I'm thrilled to see Dotel closing.

Speaking of Brad Lidge, he had a very nice 2003, striking out more than a man an inning with a solid 3.60 ERA in 85 innings. Other than a super rough August - where he gave up four of his six home runs allowed, and sported a 10.03 ERA over 11.2 innings - and a mediocre June, he was on top of things all year. He should continue to be a force for Houston in 2004, and if he's more consistent, he has a chance to be the Astros most valuable reliever.

Although he'll probably be used as a bridge to Lidge and Dotel, there's reason to be concerned about Ricky Stone. His ERA remained nearly identical between 2002 and 2003 (3.61 vs. 3.69), but his strikeout rates plummeted last year from 7.34 per 9 innings to 5.10 per 9 innings. Granted, this could be a sample size blip, but if you see him getting lit this season, don't say I didn't warn you.

Dan Miceli should get an endorsement contract with Bekins. That's the least you can wish for a guy who spent time with four different teams in 2003. Once he settled in Houston, though, he had a nice little third of a season. However, he's been just a smidge below league average over his career, and at 33 in a good hitter's park, I wouldn't expect a repeat of his 2.10 ERA in 30 innings with the Astros. He should probably be in the back half of the bullpen.

While he's yet to turn his minor league promise into Major League success, the chance to work out his kinks in the bullpen may be just what Brandon Duckworth needs. His biggest issue appears to be an extreme propensity for giving up the longball, and in the change in his GB/FB ratios over the years, one can see a significant impact on his success.

GB/FB HR/9 ERA
2001 1.75 0.26 3.52
2002 0.85 1.44 5.41
2003 0.98 1.16 4.94

By golly, if I didn't know any better, I'd say he needs to throw more ground balls. Some pitchers can be flyball types and do well, Barry Zito being an excellent example of the breed, but it's obvious to me that Duckworth is not one of those guys. If he can learn to get the grounders he got early in his career, Houston will have a nice young pitcher on their hands.

There's not a lot to recommend him except for his age and his ERA, but Mike Gallo will be this season's sole left-handed member of the Astro bullpen. Other than a very good 88.1 innings in the Sally League in 2002, he's never been particularly impressive, and even that year can be explained away by the fact that he was a 25 year-old in A-ball. Yet, he managed to keep his ERA at an even 3.00 over 30 innings with the big club last year, so without any other left-handers of interest around, he'll be getting the gig.

The battle for the last bullpen spot will be waged between Jared Fernandez, Jeriome Robertson, Kirk Saarloos, and Brandon Backe. All have spent time in the majors - the first three with Houston and the last with the Devil Rays - but none have done much to distinguish themselves. The favorites look to be Backe and Fernandez, but if the choice of your twelfth pitcher becomes a significant story in your season, your team has plenty of other issues to deal with.

The Bench

Anyone for a "Free Jason Lane" movement? The kid has decent plate discipline, good power, and some speed. He's 27, plays a solid center field, and he's done nothing but hit everywhere he's been. Yet standing in his way is the sad, floating apparition of Craig Biggio, desperately clinging to his baseball existence. Perhaps it's best to think of this as a movement to free both players, allowing one his just deserts on earth, and releasing the other to his eternal hardball reward.

Nothing so maudlin for Orlando Palmeiro, the Astro's fifth outfielder. He's a solid choice for the role, and while he certainly brings no power to the equation - having five of nine seasons with OBP's higher than his SLG - he does get on base and provide good defense throughout the outfield. As long as he doesn't pinch hit in situations that require some pop, he'll be an asset.

This is not that case with Jose Vizcaino, a man the Astros should learn to live without. He's no longer young, and he was never particularly good, so continuing to hang on to him makes little sense, particularly at the ridiculous price of $1.2M. At least the first two years of the love affair with Orlando Merced were reasonably productive, but there's no such history here. I can only hope that Vizcaino bakes a mean cheesecake, because I can't think of a good baseball reason to keep him around.

Not happy with candidates like John Valentin and Eric Bruntlett, the Astros struck a deal with the Yankees to bring Mike Lamb over to fill that last backup infield spot. There are worse choices, but if there's a danger that comes with his signing, it's the fact that he hits from the left side and plays third base. He's a decent choice to come off the bench, but if Jimy William's develops a Blumian fascination with a platoon at the hot corner, this deal could turn into subtraction by addition.

Yet another former denizen of a remote Chilean island, Raul Chavez will perform the backup catcher duties as one of the rare deviations from the original formula. He was part of a small batch of switch hitters the good doctor cooked up after seeing a couple of outings by Damon Berryhill. Since the results didn't vary, and the trouble in concocting was considerable, I understand the recipe was abandoned.

The Gist

This is a good team. There are five hitters capable of having seasons ranging from good to great, the bullpen is solid, and the starting staff will be formidable. There are holes in the lineup, a couple stiffs on the bench, and not all the relievers are world-beaters, but as has been said here repeatedly and in other spaces as well, there is no team in this division without significant flaws.

I've become convinced that whoever does win this division - and to be fair, the conversation only includes the Cardinals, Astros, and Cubs - it will not be the team with the fewest weaknesses, but the team whose strengths remain most intact. On that score, the Astros points of concern reside in the decline processes of some offensive stars, and the fragility of their best pitcher. If Bagwell or Kent fall off a cliff, or Oswalt misses significant time, Houston's chances will be severely damaged.

Assuming no setbacks, this is the most balanced team in the NL Central. The remaining question is whether that balance will win out over the offensive advantage held by the Cardinals and the pitching advantage held by the Cubs. And that, folks, is why they play the games, and why we watch them. Happy Opening Day!

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Posted by Derek @ 7:22 PM

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Thursday, March 25, 2004

Juan, We Hardly Knew Ye

Looks like the long running saga of Juan Cruz is over, at least in a Cub uniform. According to the announcers on the Oakland feed of today's Cub vs. A's tilt, a deal has gone down with the Braves sending Cruz and lefty Steve Smyth to Atlanta, while the Cubs get back minor league lefty Andy Pratt and minor league infielder Richard Lewis.

This trade is simpler than it appears at first. Richard Lewis is a banjo hitting infielder who, in his first taste of AA at age 23 last year, hit a scintillating .239/.305/.341 in 460 at bats. I can't find any note of what position he plays, but with that hitting line, does it matter? The Braves get Steve Smyth, and if you're not already familiar with his worth, last year, at age 25, saw him sport a 5.23 ERA at Iowa in 130.2 innings, with 143 H, 16 HR, 72 BB, and 98 SO.

So, this boils down to an old-fashioned challenge trade of pitching prospects, Cruz vs. Pratt. We already have a pretty good idea of what Cruz brings to the table, so what about our new guy? Well, he looks pretty solid. As a 24 year old in AAA last year, he put up a 3.40 ERA in 156 innings, with 146 H, 10 HR, 77 BB, and 161 SO. The trouble I see is the walk rate, at nearly four and a half per nine.

I've yet to see or hear any information on how the Cubs intend to use Pratt, but my assumption would be that he would be given an opportunity to win a bullpen spot, or even the temporary fifth starter's job.

This deal could work out alright, but my initial impression is disappointment. I had thought it would be possible to package Cruz in a mid-season deal to get some needed reinforcements, but perhaps the frustration of watching Juan constantly implode was more than Jim Hendry could bear, and he dealt him before he lost value. I'll be looking for what the motivation was as more information becomes available, but for now, consider me unimpressed.

UPDATE: Here's the link to the press release from the Cubs. No new information here, except for a rundown of some of the spring stats for the players.

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Posted by Derek @ 3:55 PM

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Know Your Enemy - Part V A - The Astros

Prospects were rosy for the 2003 Astros as they rounded the stretch. After the games of September 20th were played, Houston held a 1.5 game lead on Chicago, with eight games remaining for the Texans, and seven for their rivals. Their destiny was in their hands, and that's all a team can ask for as a season winds down.

Unfortunately for Houston's fans, that destiny was slippery as a greased pig in a thunderstorm. Two days later, the standings were even, and five days later, the Cubs clinched the division. The Astros had been in the driver's seat, but while they were checking the map to the postseason, they drove right into a tree.

Like every team in the NL Central, the Astros had been flawed, and they set about in the offseason to mend what they could. They've made significant changes, and on the cusp of a new year in baseball, there's every reason to believe that Houston will be right in the middle of things when this September 20th rolls around.

Starting Lineup

Like a Superball in a room with cobblestone walls, Richard Hidalgo's career has lacked any predictable direction.

AGE LINE EQA WARP3 VORP
2000 24 .314/.391/.636 .316 9.6 NA
2001 25 .275/.356/.455 .271 5.6 26.7
2002 26 .235/.319/.415 .252 3.7 -3.3
2003 27 .309/.385/.572 .309 9.6 40.4

That season in 2000 is still the yardstick Hidalgo is measured by, fairly or not, and the inconsistency following that monstrous year has contributed to a perception in the league and in the Astro's organization of inflated worth. But let's get some stuff straight.

His 2001 season was solid, if unspectacular, and well worth the $3.5M he was paid, any disappointment being a byproduct of huge expectations after a career year. 2002 was marred by a hip injury that often kept him out of the lineup, and rendered him ineffective when he played. The cost was $5.5M, and while that's a lot of money for sub-replacement level performance, the reasons behind the decline were transitory.

Although the offensive numbers aren't quite as gaudy, because of some very fine defensive work in right, Hidalgo's 2003 season was worth the same number of wins (9.6) as his breakout 2000 season, and at a cost of $8.5M. To compare, Sammy Sosa made $15M in 2002, while supplying 9.3 wins. Obviously, Sosa brings other qualities to the table that justify the expenditure, particularly in team marketing terms, but it's hard to look at that information and not think Hidalgo has, overall, been something of a bargain.

But besides the hefty dose of flakiness, I'm struck by how young Hidalgo is. I've been under the mistaken impression that he's in his early thirties, but seeing that he's in the midst of his peak years changes my thoughts on him somewhat. True, he could be one of those freaks that burn bright, hot, and early, but it seems more likely that he established a performance level last season that he should be able to sustain.

However, his PECOTA projection sees a pretty sizeable dropoff, with a midpoint of .277/.358/.495 and an EQA of .288 to go with it. His injury history likely contributes here, and while this is not good news for the Astros, I'm not so down on Hidalgo. He may not put up last year's numbers, but I think he's more likely to land in between 2003's production and the projection above. Houston needs that performance, too, as they already have much of their offensive hopes wrapped up in players who have entered a decline phase, and to have one of their younger offensive lights start to burn out would be devastating to the team's chances.

The direction of Craig Biggio's career is considerably clearer, and unfortunately, it's all downhill from here. In fact, it's been downhill for a couple of years now, despite Jeff Bagwell's protestations to the contrary.

Although he's always been one of those players I love to hate, with his pine-tar-slathered batting helmet and Scrappy-Doo attitude, I'm genuinely saddened to see him fall so far so fast. One of the great pleasures of having an adversary like Biggio is the overwhelming joy of beating him. I always felt, whether at the game or watching on TV, that when he did something to beat the Cubs he was looking at me, straight at me, and laughing.

He was the personification of the schoolyard bully, and there's no real fulfillment to be had in running into him when you're strong and grown and seeing that he's a lonely ghost of a man who's still trying to be that thing he was so many years ago.

Adding to the sadness is having to watch Biggio play a position for which he has no aptitude. Perhaps when he was younger he could have made the transition to center - after all, he went from catcher to keystone and made himself one of the best - but he's no longer built for it, if he ever was.

Time and the ravages of 937 turned double plays have sapped his legs of their speed and quickness. Besides, there are better things for 37 year old ballplayers to do than learn the most difficult and physically demanding of outfield positions.

Offensively, he still has a little pop, but his batting average has suffered, as has his plate discipline. Biggio hasn't walked in 10% or more of his at bats since 2001, and the only thing keeping his OBP from being completely unacceptable is his ability to get hit by pitches. Take away his elbow shield, and you're looking at a .260/.320/.400 hitter in the leadoff spot. You'd think he was a Cub.

In left field, Lance Berkman is turning into something of an enigma himself.

BA ISO AB/BB K/BB VORP
2001 .331 .289 6.3 1.3 78.5
2002 .292 .286 5.4 1.1 73.1
2003 .288 .227 5.0 1.0 36.4

He's lost batting average while losing power, yet he's increasing his walk rate while also bettering his strikeout to walk ratio. The trends in his strikeout and walk numbers should indicate making positive strides, but despite the indicators, the production left the building last year. Berkman's always had a sizeable platoon split, so maybe there's something to be found there.

VS L VS R
2001 .308/.400/.467 .337/.438/.661
2002 .240/.351/.364 .307/.420/.639
2003 .282/.403/.444 .290/.415/.534

Not exactly what I was looking for, but interesting nonetheless. His work against lefties has been fairly comparable, especially when the size of the sample is taken into account, but the drop in production against right handers is odd. It's still a very respectable line, but compared to the demolition job he's done on his opposites in the previous two years, the drop in power is troublesome.

Houston needs Berkman. Badly. I genuinely believe last season was a blip - he's only 28 and sometimes there's just no explaining an off year - but the fact that I can't find a root cause is strange. Or perhaps that should be a source of comfort. His approach at the plate is still solid, so it would seem more likely that he can bounce back. I don't have an answer, and that's the best part. We'll just have to wait for the season to find out.

There's another youngish player the Astros will be counting on at third base, and it's about time they did. Morgan Ensberg will finally be allowed to take over the hot corner full time after being forced to share innings last year with Geoff Blum.

Short of a serious injury - like, say, decapitation - there was no discernable reason to play Blum over Ensberg, yet it happened 72 times in 2003. That's 72 games where Blum's .262/.295/.379 line was deemed worthy to play over Ensberg's .291/.377/.530 line.

"Gee, Derek," some might say, "what about their platoon splits? After all, Ensberg hits from the right side, and Blum's a switch hitter. Maybe it was a good tradeoff after all!" Hmmmmm. Maybe so.

Ensberg Blum
AB Line AB Line
VS L 98 .316/.429/.592 37 .135/.200/.162
VS R 287 .282/.358/.509 383 .274/.305/.399

Or maybe not. Looking at these numbers, there was no justification for allowing Geoff Blum to do anything other than come off the bench or perform clubhouse foot massages. To put him in the lineup over Ensberg for nearly half of the Astro's games crosses the line from malpractice into madness.

Luckily for fans of the Houstons, the evil temptation has been removed to Tampa Bay, where all bad hitters go to die. A full year and 500+ at bats from Ensberg will help stave off some of the rest of the lineup's inevitable age related declines.

Like the one first baseman, Jeff Bagwell, finds himself in. While certainly not in freefall, Bagwell is slowly losing steam each year.

PA Line VORP EQA
2001 717 .288/.400/.568 60.5 .308
2002 691 .291/.406/.518 49.1 .303
2003 702 .278/.375/.524 34.8 .290

He's not losing production due to decreased playing time, he's just not as effective as he once was. Granted, he's still a fine player, but Bagwell will be 36 this year, and as this decline continues, the question is not whether he will become a millstone, but rather how large a millstone he'll be.

It's possible, if not likely, that he could continue to produce at last year's levels through 2006, and while that may be fine work when viewed in a vacuum, there are other considerations to make. Bagwell's salary for the next three years will be $12M, $13M, and $16M respectively. As I've mentioned before, no matter how it appeared at the time it was signed, this deal looks lousy now, especially when put into context of contracts like the one signed by Derrek Lee in February.

The Astros have been very loyal to Bagwell, after all, he's been the face of the franchise, along with Biggio, for years. But the time is coming, if not already here, when this loyalty will start to hamstring the club's future. Like it or not, this isn't a big budget team, and signing deals that pay players tens of millions into their late thirties is not a recipe for success, even in Big George's house.

Second baseman and designated truck washer, Jeff Kent, had a bit of an off year in 2003. Yet, when the player manning the keystone can say his .297/.351/.509 line wasn't up to previous standards, you learn to live with the problem.

That's not to say there aren't reasons for concern. Kent will turn 36 just after opening day, and while that's a source of worry all on its own, take a gander at this.

PA/BB
2000 7.7
2001 10.7
2002 13.1
2003 14.2

During his wonderful MVP season in 2000 he walked once every 7.7 plate appearances, but since then his walk rate has gone down every year, settling at near double the amount of PA's between walks in 2003. I don't want to make any rash predictions, but that doesn't look like a hitter who's likely to get better. In fact, I'd say it looks like someone who's about to hit a wall. Now, I'm no expert, and I don't play one on TV, but if I was an Astro fan I'd start to get worried.

Kent's double play partner is Adam Everett, and while he does well with the leather, he's got some learning to do with the stick. Last year he was barely above replacement level (.256/.320/.380, 4.7 VORP), and there's no reason to expect anything different in 2004. He'll be doing his level best to make sure the bottom of the Houston order is the opposing pitcher's refuge.

Joining him in the quest will be catcher, Brad Ausmus. I've already made my feelings known on Ausmus, so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice to say, when Ausmus signed his two year, $4M deal in the chill of November, it warmed my Cubfan heart all winter.

There's a decent offense here, but don't look for an overall improvement on last year's version. There are only one or two players in the lineup who are good bets for increased production, and the rest can be expected to experience some measure of decline. Much like the Cubs, what will separate Houston from the rest of the division will be their pitching staff. More on them, and the denizens of the pine, in part B.

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Posted by Derek @ 7:24 AM

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Monday, March 22, 2004

Memory Lane

I was laying about on Saturday afternoon, trying to avoid doing anything around the house or falling into the deadly trap laid every year by the fine folks at the NCAA, and I had the good fortune of running across an old baseball game on ESPN Classic. Not just any baseball game, mind you, but one of the all-time great games of Cub lore. June 23, 1984: the Ryne Sandberg two home run game.

I don't have any personal memories of the contest as I was thirteen at the time, living in Portland, OR, and fairly fresh in my Cubfandom. Of course, I've heard all sorts of stories about it second hand since I moved to Chicago, but, to my knowledge, I'd never had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the events.

I'll also add that I'm not much for information retention. In five years, if you ask me who was on the roster in 2003, I'll have a hard time recalling anything beyond major highlights. Thankfully, the likes of Lenny Harris and Troy O'Leary will fade from memory, but I'll also forget fun stuff like Todd Wellemeyer's first impressive outing in Milwaukee, or Doug Glanville's leadoff homer against Al Leiter in a late September game with huge playoff implications.

I hate that I'm that way, but it's a fact of my existence. Six months later, I already had to look up the Glanville homer to make sure it happened in September. Luckily, there are excellent resources at my disposal that keep me from making foolish factual errors in my writing (baseball-reference.com, baseballprospectus.com, retrosheet.org to name a few), and for a more visceral experience of days gone by, there's ESPN Classic.

One of the side effects of reliving such divine moments are the little, or sometimes not so little, things you notice. In all the hubbub surrounding Sandberg's amazing performance that day, other gems got lost. Had Ryno not come through with his second homer in the 11th, this game would still be a classic, but would likely be referred to as the Willie McGee Cycle game.

Quick! Tell me who had the game winning hit for the Cubs. Many of you may be steeped enough in the legend to know, but I hadn't a clue that Spike Owen had an older brother, let alone one who played in the Majors. Yet Dave Owen was the lucky soul who came up with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the 11th, and he responded with the game winning single to right, one of only 27 hits and 16 RBI he had his entire career.

Baseball fans revel in the small things. The forgotten key play - like Leon Durham's walk, steal of second, and advance to third on a throwing error that forced St. Louis to load the bases in the 11th. The unknown player who got the biggest hit of his life to win the game. The star whose brilliance on a particular day was overshadowed by another who shone just a little brighter.

It's these very things that I routinely forget, letting them fall out of my consciousness like a two week old grocery list. But not anymore. This year could be one where every little moment will be precious. So, despite my failings, my natural tendencies to lose the minutia in the fog of memory, I'm going to savor and remember all that I can.

This season could be a once in a lifetime experience, and I don't want to miss a moment of it. Not now, not thirty years from now.

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Posted by Derek @ 4:45 PM

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Friday, March 19, 2004

Know Your Enemy - Part IV B - The Cardinals

Here's part two of the St. Louis preview, breaking down the starting rotation, bullpen and bench. Part one, covering the starting position players, can be found immediately below. Have a nice weekend, everyone!

Starting Pitchers

This group is certainly more talented than the motley crew assembled to buttress the dynamic duo of Morris and Williams in 2003, but the spectre of fragility will be haunting this assemblage all year. There's only one pitcher out of the five who's a good bet to throw 200 innings, and based strictly on talent, he's probably fourth on the depth chart. Hiring a monastery to say Mass for the arms of the starting staff might be a prudent investment in 2004.

There is no pitcher more essential to this team's fortunes than Matt Morris. With that in mind, let's take a look at some numbers from the last three years.

Year K/9 HR/9 ERA ERA+
2001 7.7 0.54 3.16 137
2002 7.3 0.68 3.42 114
2003 6.3 1.04 3.76 111

I don't have to draw a picture to tell you that doesn't look good. Of course, Morris was battling multiple injuries last season, which explains some of the dropoff. However, he was also quoted as saying he's noticed some velocity loss during his time in St. Louis, and that can't make the Cardinals' faithful feel secure. Morris needs to be healthy and throw 200 innings if this club wants to challenge for the division title, but he may need some monkish support to get it done.

Throwing out of the rotation's second spot, Woody Williams was two different pitchers in 2003. Before the All-Star Break he was A+ material, posting a 12-3 record with a 3.01 ERA over 134.2 innings. Then, like a smart kid who won't tell his teacher he can't see the blackboard anymore, his A's turned to D's as he posted a 6-6 record and 5.23 ERA over 86 innings.

One of the strange things about the second half for Williams was the fact that his strikeout rate actually went up. Normally, that's a good sign, but his hit rate, walk rate, and home run rate all went through the roof. Here's what it looked like in handy table form.

ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Pre All-Star 3.01 7.7 0.6 1.9 5.8
Post All-Star 5.23 11 1.2 2.8 6.9

This isn't a trend from the previous two seasons, so either this is a fluke of small sample size, or it's a sign that Williams has aged to the point where 200 innings a year isn't realistic. I tend to buy the latter idea. Williams looked exhausted at the end of last season, and he's 37, so it's not unreasonable to expect a decline in stamina. But if he is succumbing to the ravages of age, it couldn't come at a worse time for the Cardinals. Add in a lingering shoulder injury that has kept him from pitching in a spring training game until yesterday, and you've got a good reason for Redbird fans to sweat.

As if the stalwarts of the rotation didn't provide enough uncertainty, there's another wildcard on the squad in the form of Chris Carpenter. Having missed over a season and a half with shoulder injuries that required two operations, he's come into camp this year looking like he's back to his old self again. If he can throw well for the Cards, it would be a huge boon to their title hopes.

The problem is, the Cardinals greatest need from their starters is innings, innings, and, more innings, and a man coming off dual shoulder surgeries and pitching regularly for the first time in over 18 months isn't likely to fill that need. In fact, the only year in which Carpenter started more than thirty games and threw over 200 innings was the year before he got hurt.

The Cards have done well to take him on as a project, and he could be a solid part of their rotation in the future. But counting on him throwing league average ball every fifth day for an entire season is stretching the boundaries of reality.

Jeff Suppan, on the other hand, has exactly what the doctor ordered. He'll never make anyone forget Bob Gibson, but he's done nothing but throw 200 innings a year of league average ball since 1999, and with the Cardinals ability to score runs, that's all they need to have a chance to win. Give this team five Jeff Suppans, and their bid to win the NL Central gets a bit more interesting.

Coming over from Atlanta as part of this offseason's J.D. Drew trade, Jason Marquis will round out the back of the rotation. He's never had more than 22 Major League starts in a season, and has never passed the 130 inning mark. He's also not had an ERA under five since 2001. However, he's still very young (only 25 this year), so potential remains. He'll need to reduce his walk and home run rates to really be of use, but even if he does, expect fatigue to set in when August rolls around.

Bullpen

As large an issue as the rotation was last year, the bullpen was that much worse. According to Baseball Prospectus' Support Neutral team rankings, the Cardinal starters were 21st in the Majors, which is bad, but not as bad as the relief corps who were ranked next to last. Reality check? Detroit was better. Luckily for St. Louis fans, the club has made some moves to address those issues. They won't be among the best pens in the league, but they'll no longer be one of the worst.

There's no doubt that Jason Isringhausen was missed during the first two months of the 2003 season, and when he returned, it was almost like he was never gone. Striking out a man an inning and putting up a paltry 2.36 ERA, Izzy dominated almost immediately and gave the Cardinals the elite reliever they needed so badly. Unfortunately, the team still employed the likes of Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero, so some leads never got to him.

Steve Kline will be one of the men looking to get those games to Isringhausen, and while his strikeout rate has declined every year since his first good season with Montreal in 1998, he continues to post above average ERA's. This appears to be due to improving control and an ability to keep the ball in the park, but I imagine playing in front of the St. Louis defense the last few years hasn't hurt either. He will probably post another ERA within a quarter run of four, as well as once again being the owner of the Single Nastiest Hat Worn By Man.

Despite the disturbing qualities of The Hat, the St. Louis front office must have sensed they were in danger of assembling a pen low on nutbars. So to compensate, the Cardinals signed Julian Tavarez as their psycho du jour. He was actually pretty solid in relief for Pittsburgh last year, so while he might not win any congeniality awards, he should be a reasonably effective set up man.

One of the few effective relievers for the Cardinals in 2003 was Cal Eldred, who in his first year in St. Louis, seemed to find his niche. A starter all of his career, the Cardinals used him exclusively out of the bullpen, and he responded by striking out a batter an inning and posting a 3.74 ERA in 67.3 IP. He's been plagued by various injury problems throughout his career, but the move to a relief role may have helped. Anyone with his history is always a risk, but if last year is any indication, he should be able to keep it together and have another fine year.

As far as LOOGY's go, you could do a lot worse than Ray King. After a short, bad trial with the Cubs in 1999, King has managed to keep his ERA in the mid-3's or better, and over the last three years has murdered lefties, allowing only a .209/.269/.284 line. LaRussa loves his LOOGY's, so King should thrive in St Louis.

Continuing their recent trend of acting as the farm club for the rest of the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates nontendered Mike Lincoln in December, allowing St. Louis to sign him as a free agent two weeks later. Lincoln is a cheap, serviceable relief option with a bit of upside, and while he's got some other folks ahead of him on the depth chart, he provides good insurance in case someone like Eldred remembers that his shoulder is made of paper and staples.

That makes eleven pitchers, but it wouldn't be strange to see the Cardinals carry twelve this year, if only because the options available for bats are so sad. Likely candidates are Jason Simontacchi, Kiki Calero, Alan Benes, Jay Ryan, and Josh Pearce. The two best bets are Simontacchi and Calero, and which one comes along will probably be decided by one part spring performance and one part perceived need. If the club feels like they need a long option, Simontacchi's their man, and since that makes the most sense given the possibilities for injury among the starters, I'd slap the favorite label on him.

The Bench

Guh.

Ideally, I'd just leave it at that, but I'd feel like I hadn't done my job. Then guilt would set in, I'd have to call my therapist, and there'd be this whole thing with a teddy bear....trust me, it'd be ugly. Luckily, we've already covered some of this territory with the left field and second base situations, so I'll stick to the previously unmentioned "candidates."

There are few roster options who should be trusted to back up shortstop consistently, so Rule 5 pick Hector Luna is a decent bet to make the team. He's only 22 and looks like he has some potential, so he's not a bad guy to spend a roster spot on if you've got a rock solid regular at his position and a good rest of the bench. Well, at least they got the first part right. The other option is Wilson Delgado, and while I wouldn't say he's a good idea, he does have that salty veteran flavor Tony LaRussa loves.

There's a battle for the backup first base/corner outfield job between the two John's, Mabry and Gall. Mabry was never very good, and he seems to have outlived what little usefulness he had, fluky stint in Oakland be damned. Even without his competition's failings, Gall looks like he has the potential to be the only worthwhile option in an otherwise moribund reserve corps, showing an ability to make contact and hit for a bit of power in the minors. Plus, he's only 26, so rather than waste time with a player you know will be lousy, might as well give Gall his chance.

I'm beginning to form a theory. It's not completely fleshed out yet, but it goes something like this: All backup catchers are the same guy. Literally. Somewhere along the way, without the rest of the world finding out, a scientist on a remote island off the coast of Chile has discovered the secret to cloning humans. Turns out he lived in Milwaukee in 1957, but rather than becoming caught up in the exploits of future Hall Of Famers Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, or Hank Aaron as they went on to win the World Series, he was fascinated by their backup catcher, Carl Sawatski.

No one knows why our scientist friend was so enamored of this spare backstop, but he took it upon himself to clone Sawatski hundreds of times and send the spawn to America, where they could use their inherited talents to ride the pine for baseball teams across the land. And that, boys and girls, is where Chris Widger came from.

The Gist

This team has the core of talent to win the NL Central, even with the sucking chest wounds they'll carry at multiple positions. There isn't a team in the division without significant flaws, the Cardinals included, but in the areas where St. Louis is strong, they have huge advantages over their divisional rivals.

But the Cardinals' strength is also their weakness. So much of the team's production is concentrated in so few bodies, if one of them falters, the entire season falls with them. If those great players were all good injury risks that would be one thing, but there are several members of the group who have a decent chance to break.

The pockets of talent on this team are good enough that anyone who declares St. Louis to be a non-contender in the NL Central race is a fool. But those pockets have enough holes that anyone willing to wager cash on the Cardinals' chances is the fool's moron brother.

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Posted by Derek @ 7:03 AM

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Thursday, March 18, 2004

Know Your Enemy - Part IV A - The Cardinals

These have been getting awfully long, so in the interest of eye strain prevention, I've broken this week's installment into two parts. Today, we have the Cardinal position players, and tomorrow, the pitching staff and bench. Enjoy!

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made the same splashy offseason moves that their main competitors in Houston and Chicago have, and many are using that fact as an excuse to write the team off in the NL Central race. This would be a mistake.

In 2003, the Cardinals allowed 796 runs, more than what 12 NL teams scored last year. They were the only team in the National League to allow more than 750 runs and still end up with a record of .500 or better.

It was the powerful offense that allowed this team to stay in contention as long as it did, and while some components were switched out for others this offseason, the core remains. The Cardinals will have four players who are almost certain to be the best in their league at their positions, a claim that not even the Yankees can make, and that alone makes them contenders.

However, despite their offensive capabilities, improving the club's capacity to prevent opposition run scoring was a priority, and while no big names came to town, moves were made to address issues in both the rotation and the bullpen. They've done enough to compete, but will it be enough to win?

Starting Lineup

Reggie Sanders is a funny bird (no pun intended). He's a solid hitter, fine defensive corner outfielder with a good arm, and from all reports, a nice guy. Yet he has this incredible trouble finding work every year. Up until this offseason, he had signed 3 consecutive one year deals for $1.5M, $1.75M, and $1M respectively, and at each of these stops his production has been right in the middle of his fellow right fielders in the league.

This makes him an excellent fit for a team like the Cardinals looking to fill multiple spots with minimal funds, and they took advantage of the situation, signing Sanders to a two year deal. However, there's still the question of why he has been unable to stick, and the answer is a troubling one for the Redbirds.

Never in his twelve full seasons in the Major Leagues has Reggie Sanders played more than 140 games. Over the last six years, he's averaged playing a little less than 128 games. For a team trying to work in some younger players, or with solid depth at the outfield corners, this wouldn't be an issue. St. Louis is not that team. Sanders' production will be welcome when he's in the lineup, but how often he'll be out there is an open question.

As for center field, I don't know what happened when Jim Edmonds came over to St. Louis, but if they bottle it, I'm buying. He was a fine player for Anaheim, but over the last four years, he has unquestionably been one of the biggest bargains in baseball, and something tells me the Angels would be willing to ship Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield back across the Mississippi if Walt Jocketty was interested. [UPDATE: It's been pointed out that my geography here is sooooper bad! Let's just all adopt the stance that I originally wrote "across the Rockies (the mountains, not the team)" and agree never to speak of it again.] Here are his batting lines and salary from 2000-2003:

Year Line PAs Salary
2000 .295/.411/.583 643 $4.5M
2001 .304/.410/.564 608 $6.3M
2002 .311/.420/.561 576 $7.3M
2003 .275/.385/.617 531 $8.3M

If you're a Cardinal fan looking for something disturbing, or a Cub or Astro fan looking for a ray of hope, note the gradual but steady drop in PA's from year to year. On an annual basis it's not alarming, but as a long term trend it's disquieting. Edmonds is well known for playing center field more like Dick Butkus than Willie Mays, and the myriad injuries big and small that come with that style appear to be taking their toll as time marches on.

His 2004 PECOTA card doesn't do anything to shake off that impression, either, predicting he'll come in with about 100 fewer PA's than last season. That's not good news for a team with little depth, who rely on their offense, and possess a payroll already at its upper limits. If any of the Cards' great stars go down for a substantial period of time, they don't have the personnel to adequately patch, and won't have the cash to bring in an appropriate replacement. In short, Edmonds et. al. need to stay healthy, or the Cardinals are screwed.

One area where St. Louis won't have to worry about a catastrophic injury is left field. While they have multiple A-list superstars in their lineup, the Cardinals will have several gaping holes as well, and no hole gapes larger than Albert Pujols' former stomping grounds. With Pujols' elbow-induced move to first base, the candidates for left are essentially competing for the opportunity to replace the .275 EQA of last year's first baseman, Tino Martinez. Here are the PECOTA projected EQA's of the current crop of candidates.

Player Projected 2004 EQA
Kerry Robinson 230
So Taguchi 224
Mark Quinn 243
Ray Lankford 261
Emil Brown 257

I'd say that's not good, but I don't want any trouble from the understatement police. This is going to be an issue all year long, as none of these gentlemen is a viable candidate to start on a regular basis, and some of them (I'm looking at you, Taguchi) don't even belong on a Major League roster. They are also all completely incapable of hitting a pitcher of like-handedness, so the Cardinals have to fill two roster spots with the likes of these guys just to fill an outfield corner every day.

The choice got a little easier recently, as Mark Quinn suffered another of the leg injuries that have haunted his career, but this "competition" still reminds me of the round of Fear Factor where everyone has to eat something appalling. Just because one of the nasty bits is gone from the plate doesn't mean you won't have to down something just as horrid when your turn comes.

Normally, I would say Robinson and Taguchi were shoo-ins simply because of their history with the club, but Brown has had a fine camp and may be playing himself into a platoon with Robinson. As Joe Sheehan said earlier this week, there's no good solution, and as far as I'm concerned, standing everyone in a circle and drawing straws will get you just as fine a fix as anything else.

Of course, there's no such issue over at first base. Once Barry Bonds retires or, God forbid, starts to show himself to be human, I can think of no wager more likely to net coin than a bet on the MVP future of Albert Pujols. This may sound hyperbolic, but I would be shocked to see him win any fewer than three of the awards over the life of his new seven year contract with the Cardinals, and wouldn't be surprised if he picked up a couple more. He is, quite simply, the most dangerous hitter in the National League not playing left field for the Giants, and is quickly approaching the time when there will be no need for even that small hedge. Franchises are built around players like Pujols, and the Cardinals have done well to make him their foundation for the future.

On the other infield corner we have yet another player who promises to be the best in the National League at his position, Scott Rolen. While there have been many reasons to advocate the canning of Larry Bowa in Philadelphia, the one I would use to justify the move would be Bowa's alienation of his - now former - third baseman.

What should you do if you have a 27 year-old at the hot corner who has done nothing but hit and play spectacular defense for the last six years? If you're Bowa, you piss him off to the point where he rejects a huge contract offer from his current team because he can't wait to escape your evil clutches. Sure, the Phillies have done fine for themselves in the meantime, and perhaps Rolen's departure meant having the cash to give to Jim Thome, but which would you rather have: the early decline years of an excellent first baseman, or the league's best third baseman through his peak? Me, I'll take Rolen every time.

Discussions of the best shortstops in the Majors have in recent years been confined to the American League and their vaunted Trinity or Quadrinity or whatever you want to call it. If 2003 didn't change that, it should have. Edgar Renteria was already the best shortstop in the National League, but last year he became the best shortstop in the Major Leagues not making $25M. Need some convincing? Here are some numbers from 2003. Roll your mouse over the stat title for a quickie definition, and click on the link for a more extensive version.

Player Age Line EQA VORP WARP3 RATE2
Alex Rodriquez 28 .298/.396/.600 .326 77.2 12 103
Edgar Renteria 28 .330/.394/.480 .309 71.0 8.9 98
Nomar Garciaparra 30 .301/.345/.524 .296 58.3 8.1 95
Derek Jeter 30 .324/.393/.450 .299 49.9 4.2 81
Miguel Tejada 28 .278/.336/.472 .280 43.3 6.6 94
Rafael Furcal 26 .292/.352/.443 .281 49.4 5.9 90

I threw Furcal in because he's reaching a point where, if he keeps up what he did last season, he deserves a seat at the table too. It's interesting to note that of the six most productive shortstops last year, only one appears to field his position at a rate above the league average, and he'll be at third base in 2004.

There's nothing in that table that doesn't scream out for Renteria to get some respect, and with A-Rod's position change, he is poised to take over the mantle of Best Shortstop in Baseball. Looking over the other contestants, that's no small feat.

The job of Renteria's double play partner is up for grabs, but it's more a battle for playing time than a roster spot, as both parties will wind up making the team. Bo Hart and Marlon Anderson are the competitors, and in case you haven't guessed, this qualifies as another of those gaping holes I spoke of earlier.

Neither player brings any special skill to the table, as both are incapable of getting on base, hitting for power, or playing above average defense. Their only defining characteristics are handedness (Hart = right, Anderson = left), and levels of grit and scrappiness. Hart is the clear winner on the second count, with the first being a tie as neither player seems to sport an appreciable platoon split. If TLR makes the smart play, most of the time will go to Anderson. However, don't underestimate the hypnotic power of a grimace and a dirty uniform in Tony LaRussa's decision making process.

Finally, we have Mike Matheny, he of the "good game calling" and "veteran leadership." I know it's not terribly fair to beat up on a team's catcher, after all, baseball isn't filthy with good offensive options behind the dish. But when your starting backstop is outhit over the course of the season, any season, by the likes of Bengie Molina, it's time to start considering other options. The Cardinals won't, though, and that's good news for the rest of the NL Central.

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Posted by Derek @ 11:25 AM

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Monday, March 15, 2004

It's The Little Things

A little gossip and rumor-mongering to get your Monday morning started.

I Know Something You Don't Know

Buried in Matt Clement process pieces in both the Sun-Times and Tribune is this little gem from the articles' subject. He's speaking of Mark Prior, and I've used the Sun-Times' version below:

"The most important thing is that he's healthy," Clement said. "If he misses two starts [in April], he misses two starts. That's not the end of the world, as if he tried to rush and make that first start and then he misses the first month-and-a-half."

Looks like Mr. Clement slipped up a bit. I don't know about you, but that's the first time I've heard the implication that Prior could miss more than one start. It's certainly not cause for panic, but it does make me think that the team is trying to control this story very carefully to keep the natives from running around yelling something about the sky and how we should all seek shelter.

I could also be reading something into it, but for now, I'm going to stay inside with a pillow over my head.

That's Not What I Meant!

I've occasionally advocated trading Juan Cruz for something that would fill a need, but this freaked me out:

The Cubs denied a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel claiming they were discussing a trade with Florida in which pitcher Juan Cruz might be dealt for shortstop prospect Josh Wilson, a Marlins minor-leaguer.

If the team is looking to fill their need for a AA, no-hit, mediocre defensive shortstop, they certainly found their man in Josh Wilson. His 2003 line of .253/.294/.371 in 434 at bats for Your Carolina Mudcats! doesn't inspire me, and certainly doesn't make me think he's worth the team's most tradable commodity.

In his Baseball Prospect Book 2004, John Sickels basically calls Wilson a future utility man, as he's not a whiz with the glove, and he's yet to show any plate discipline, or even a consistently high batting average. The fact that this trade even makes the rumor mill gives me a sinking feeling about Cruz' perceived value. I don't know if that's a Cubs issue or a market issue, but neither sits well with me.

And They Say I'm a Geek

From the ever-so-useful AP Wire via Yahoo.

A man who's spent years applying layers of paint to a baseball that's grown to enormous proportions is hoping to have it declared the world's largest ball of paint.

For the past 27 years, Mike Carmichael has been painting a baseball that hangs in a shed behind his home. It now weighs 1,300 pounds, is more than 35 inches in diameter and has a 111-inch circumference due to more than 18,000 layers of paint.

In honor of Carmichael's work, Saturday was declared Ball of Paint Day in Alexandria, about 25 miles northeast of Indianapolis. It starting with a proclamation honoring Carmichael on the steps of City Hall, followed by a photo exhibit and ending with the core sample taken at Carmichael's home.

Who says there's nothing to do in Indiana?

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Posted by Derek @ 9:29 AM

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Sunday, March 14, 2004

Game Notes - March 13 vs. White Sox

I hope as many of you as possible got to watch yesterday's ballgame. It was spring, but it was still baseball, it was still a win, and it was still against the White Sox. A couple of observations:

  • Carlos Zambrano wasn't terribly sharp, but he managed to get through 5 innings on about 73 pitches (that's my count, I haven't been able to find an official number). That puts him right around 100 over 7, and I'll take that most days. He pretty obviously didn't have his best stuff, as he struck out no one, walked two and gave up eight hits, getting the ball up a lot more than I'm comfortable with. Luckily, it was usually out of the zone, so it wasn't as damaging as it could have been. It was your basic gusty, mediocre outing, but if all the Sox good hitters were in the game (Ordonez, Thomas, Lee and Crede were sitting out), it could have been an ugly day.

  • If Willie Harris continues to have games like yesterday, he won't get many starts at second for the Sox this year. In three at bats against Zambrano, on a day where anyone could see he was struggling a bit and having trouble throwing strikes, Harris saw all of four pitches, resulting in two grounders to second, and one foul pop out. You'd think he played for the Cubs.

  • It was nice to see Sosa hit a long ball, but it was a total mistake pitch, about mid-thigh on the inner half of the zone. He should crush those every time, so I don't look at that as an indication of anything. If you want to see how Sammy's really doing, watch what he does with pitches on the outside. If he tries to pull them, he's in trouble. But if he sends them the other way, he could be a lot more fun to watch this year.

  • Patterson continues to look solid. His first at bat was only one pitch long, but the next two were signs of progress, one ending in a strikeout, and the other an RBI single. The strikeout was probably the best of the day, seeing Corey get down 1-2, but hold off on two breaking balls I fully expected him to swing at, making the count full. Of course, he swung at the same pitch he had just spit on earlier for strike three, but not swinging at a tasty looking breaking ball on a 1-2 count was huge progress for him.

  • Finally, the most encouraging part of the day was seeing LaTroy Hawkins go two innings late in a tie ballgame. I know it's Spring Training, but if this is any indication of how Dusty intends to use him, Cub opponents had better score early and often in 2004.

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Posted by Derek @ 1:28 PM

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Friday, March 12, 2004

Know Your Enemy - Part III - The Brewers

Since moving to the National League in 1998, the Milwaukee Brewers have never won more than 74 times in a season. The last two years have seen them finish last in a relatively weak NL Central, winning 56 and 68 games respectively. Sure, last season was an improvement from the previous year's pathetic output - the worst winning percentage in franchise history; worse even than the singular and inaugural season in Seattle when the team went 64-98, 8 games better than their sad 2002 counterparts - but can anyone legitimately say that this team is on its way back to respectability, let alone the glory days of Harvey's Wallbangers?

Gone is the team's one legitimate superstar, Richie Sexson. The $8M he is owed this year was viewed as a luxury on a club that intended to cut its already tiny payroll by 25%, and since the prospects for resigning him after 2004 were dim at best, he was sent to the Diamondbacks in exchange for six players, four of whom will be starters in this season's Brewers infield.

The natives are restless and crying for blood, but while things may look dark at first glance, there are reasons to believe the dawn is coming to Milwaukee. Let's see if we can find the signs.

Starting Lineup

"I know not what fell spirit o'ertook Melvin,
Yet, he didst sign Geoff Jenkins to a deal
Long in years for considerable coin."

-William Shakespeare

"Geez, that's a buncha moolah fer a guy what hurts himself all the time."

-Bernie Brewer

Jenkins is an excellent source of left-handed power who does well getting on base, plays fine defense in left field, and has a blistering cannon for an arm. He will be 29 this year, and appears to be solidly at his peak. Under normal circumstances, his three-year, $23M contract would be a steal, but these are not normal circumstances.

Jenkins gets hurt. A lot. It seems to be less an issue of fragility, and more a symptom of his full-throttle style of play. This is a wonderful quality to have; it's fun to watch for the fans and inspirational to fellow teammates, but minus an exoskeleton and magical powers of recuperation, it has its dangers, which Jenkins succumbs to regularly.

I see two potential lines of reasoning for this deal:

1) The Brewers had a lousy public relations winter. From the slashing of payroll, to the trading of Sexson, to the firing of Ulice Payne, the good people of Milwaukee have become fed up with the financial antics of their team. If the Brewers had let questions about Jenkins status linger, they may have lost even more gate revenue than they already have, as the baseball fans of Wisconsin lost any remaining faith that their club was trying to win. Signing Jenkins is a Declaration Of Intent To Compete.

2) Signed beyond 2004 or not, Jenkins will be trade bait in July, and having him inked to a contract through his peak years could increase his value in trade, assuming the acquiring team is interested in a long-term outfield solution. No one negotiating with Doug Melvin will be able to low-ball him for fear of losing Jenkins to free-agency. He comes with cost-certainty through 2007, and that will allow the Brewers to get the swag they need to help build the younger, better ballclub they're working toward.

I don't know that this was what the Brewers were thinking, but they are they only reasons, on their own or in tandem, that make sense to me. The other option is the hope and prayer that Jenkins stays healthy, and that just smells too much like a Jeffrey Hammonds redux to stomach.

Despite what I may think of the Jenkins contract, the Brewers started to show a keen eye for freely available talent last year, and no player personifies that trend more than Scott Podsednik.

A minor league journeyman, Podsednik won a job as a backup outfielder, and after the team finally got shut of Alex Sanchez, was given a shot at starting in center field. He made the most of his opportunity, hitting .314/.379/.443 while stealing 43 bases at a success rate of 81%. His center field defense is good enough, and since he's 28, isn't blocking anybody, and makes the league minimum, anything close to this level of production will make him a huge bargain in 2004.

Continuing the scrap heap picking, Ben Grieve moves to Milwaukee this year and should be manning right field for the Crew. His first few years in Oakland were very productive, and he was the model of Variation I of what has come to be labeled as the "Moneyball" philosophy, but is more aptly described as the art of exploiting inefficient markets. He didn't hit for a high average, struck out a lot, and played defense like Frankenstein's Monster with shinsplints, but he got on base, and when he put bat to ball he hit it very, very hard.

Then in the prelude to the 2001 season, Grieve got traded to the Devil Rays, and with each successive year he has become more passive, more expensive, and much less valuable. He's now gone from being paid $5.5M in 2003, to a non-guaranteed deal for $700K that allows the Brewers to cut him before the opener and owe him only one-sixth of his promised salary. It's a nice gamble for Milwaukee. Even if he comes north and repeats his performance in Tropicanaland, the low cost makes the risk worth the possible rewards. Grieve will only be 28 this year, and with the potential he's shown early, a return to form could be a boon for Brewtown for several years.

Acquired in a trade last offseason with the Braves in exchange for Ray King, Wes Helms came in and filled the gap at third base admirably and cheaply in 2003. His .261/.330/.450 line from last year was easily a career best, and since he turns 28 in May, it's probably as good as he gets. There's no reason to expect a huge dropoff, though. He's always had power, so if he can continue to walk once every ten at bats or so and hit around .260, he'll continue to be an asset. He's not blocking anyone, either, so the Brewers buyout of his last two arbitration years this winter made sense.

The Diamondbacks got their first extended look at Lyle Overbay last season, and they thought so much of him that they traded for Richie Sexson. He's a solid player, though, just not the type of offensive package one normally likes from a first baseman. Think of Mark Grace, except without all that pesky power. He should hit for a decent average, solid OBP, and a slugging percentage in the low .400's. He'll do for this year, and maybe one more as he keeps the position warm for Prince Fielder.

The imported placeholder parade continues as Junior Spivey comes over from the desert to hold down the keystone for Rickie Weeks. Spivey broke out for Arizona in 2002 with a very impressive .301/.389/.476 line, showing nice power and strike zone judgment. However, a slow start in 2003 and a torn ligament in his left ankle in June paved the way for the "emergence" of Matt Kata and made Spivey expendable. Junior won't duplicate his 2002, but he plays a good defensive second base, and even if he doesn't return to his previous heights, he should still outplay the likes of Eric Young, and at nearly the same cost.

As the Stopgap Express pulls into the final station we find the Human Corkscrew, Craig Counsel, waiting for us on the platform. Part of the fun in being a rabid baseball fan is that you can identify a lot of players just by looking at their batting stance. They could have their back turned to you, or they could be silhouetted against the sun, but you can still tell who it is from the placement of their hands, the bend in their knees, the shape of their back. Counsel's stance could be identified by blindfolded sherpas who had recently ingested a metric ton of peyote.

He's been a solid shortstop in his relatively short exposure at the position, and there are worse hitters in the world. Getting on base is pretty much his only offensive skill, as evidenced by his career .266/.349/.351 batting line. While a versatile bench player, he's never really been starter quality. Luckily, that may not be required of him for long. J.J. Hardy will be the worst hitter of the Brewers' young infield trinity, but he's the oldest of the three and has spent the most time above A-ball, so there's a reasonable chance that he'll be the first to reach Wisconsin. If he plays well in AAA, he could join the club before September.

Catcher wasn't the weakest position for the 2003 Brewers, but it was awfully close. Chad Moeller will be a welcome change at backstop, even if he isn't the second coming of a circa 1999 Dave Nilsson. Moeller is patient enough and has decent power, but he leaves something to be desired behind the plate. Then again, so did Eddie Perez, and he couldn't hit either, so at least the Brewers have fixed part of the problem. One thing at a time, boys, one thing at a time.

Starting Pitchers

This is where the Brewers are in trouble for both the present and future, and it is precisely this situation that makes a potential Jenkins-for-prospects trade a near necessity. As you will see below, something has to be done about getting some young, talented arms into the system, or all the great infield prospects in the world can't help them win. Just ask the Rangers.

Guaranteed
Ben Sheets

Fighting For It
Doug Davis
Wayne Franklin
Matt Kinney
Wes Obermueller
Chris Capuano
Adrian Hernandez
Travis Phelps
Ben Ford

Ben Sheets is a decent pitcher, but that's the best you can say about him. His strikeouts are decent, his walks are decent, his hit rates are decent, and he throws a lot of innings. On a good club, he would be a nice pitcher to have in the fourth spot. On the Brewers, he's the ace, and the only starter with a guaranteed rotation slot.

Despite the lack of pre-season assurances, it's fairly safe to pencil in Davis, Franklin, and Kinney into three of the remaining four slots. Their order of deployment is irrelevant, as they are all likely to sport ERA's north of five, with Kinney being the only one of the group with a chance to post a strikeout rate much over five per nine.

Wes Obermueller is the most likely candidate for the final rotation spot, but that has more to do with familiarity than with any special talent he brings. Chris Capuano, one of the flock to come north in the Diamondback deal, is a legitimate contender for the job. He certainly has more upside than Obermueller, being two years younger and sporting snazzier peripherals in the minors and majors. If he looks ready to go, they'd be foolish not to give him the gig.

Adrian Hernandez is 28, and has only had "success" recently as a swingman in the Yankee's system at Columbus. His time as a regular starter has never been positive. Travis Phelps hasn't started regularly since 2000, and Ben Ford is a journeyman reliever/swingman who hasn't seen the majors in three years. None of these gentlemen has much chance of earning a slot, and if they do, something has gone badly, indeed.

Bullpen

This isn't a bad looking group. Everyone appears to be near league average, with a couple of guys who should do better. In fact, they should be considerably better as a group than the starters. That may be more of an indictment of the rotation's quality than an endorsement of the bullpen's talent, but there are some gentlemen here who could be the beginning of a solid relief corps for the next couple years.

Danny Kolb saw a sliver of light peeking through the entryway and he kicked the door down with both feet. When Mike DeJean was struggling as the closer, Kolb was given an opportunity to do the job, and do it he did. His numbers for the year were excellent, posting a 1.96 ERA over 41.1 IP, giving up 34 H, 2 HR, and 19 BB to go with 39 SO. It's a great story, as Kolb came into 2003 with only 77.2 Major League innings under his belt as a 28 year-old journeyman, and like Joe Borowski sans the side trip to Mexico, he was given a chance to shine and took full advantage. I, for one, will be rooting for him 145 times this year.

The primary set up man should be Mike Crudale, but that's assuming he's made a full recovery from the control yips he had throughout last season. Strangely, he managed to keep his ERA down to 2.61 between St. Louis and Milwaukee in 2003, and that's primarily because he only gave up one homer with a .167 batting average against. He needs to cut the walks down severely (18 in 20.2 IP last year), because he just can't keep being that lucky.

If Crudale can't get it done, the next best option is Luis Vizcaino, who after having an excellent 2002, suddenly started getting smacked around last season. The question is which year was the outlier, 2002 or 2003? The answer is probably "both." Vizcaino should be able to settle in as a league average pitcher whose nice K-rate and lousy HR-rate cancel each other out. He'll bounce back from his 2003, but he'll never again see the heights of 2002.

In the role of long man/spot starter we have the venerable Dave Burba. Morphing into a pen pal seems to have given his career new life. He's 37 now, so knowing he only has to throw an inning or two at a time may be allowing him to get a little velocity back. No need to pace yourself when you won't be in the game 40 pitches later. The numbers bear it out, too, as he had an ERA at 5.59 in his two spot starts, and 2.94 in relief.

Ah, now my favorite, Brooks Kieschnick. Is there anyone who doesn't think this two-way player thing is cool? It's the perfect deal for a guy like Brooks. He's not a great pitcher, and when given regular exposure, he's not a great hitter, either. But let him do both, and suddenly he's worth something. It's a great example of the whole being worth more than the sum of its parts, and I hope his success inspires other teams to find players to use in similar roles. There's no reason to waste a decent pitcher on the last bullpen spot, so why not find someone with a strong arm and no position who can knock the cover off the ball and teach him to throw a curve?

The only lefty worth taking north, Matt Ford doesn't get lefties out. Or at least he didn't in the 46 at bats he had against them last year. I don't have minor league splits for him, so I don't know if this is a career trend or just a small sample size blip. The one thing that is apparent is that he was much more comfortable coming out of the pen than he was starting. Again, it's small sample sizes, but in 14.1 IP as a starter he posted an 8.79 ERA, while his 29.1 IP in relief saw him put up a 2.15 ERA.

Ford came to the Brewers as a Rule 5 pick last year, and his exposure to the Majors in 2003 was his first work above A-ball. With an overall ERA of 4.33, I'd say he fared well. There's a lot more to learn about him, but if he can build on last year's experience, he has a chance to be an asset out of the pen.

Barring a decision to take twelve pitchers to Wisconsin, Leo Estrella will probably be the man pushed out of a job by the ongoing Kieschnick experiment. It's no great loss. His ERA was about league average, but his peripherals (66 IP, 75 H, 10 HR, 21 BB, 25 S0) don't inspire much confidence. He'll probably be the first right hander called up from AAA when a replacement is needed.

Unless they're desperate for a second lefty, Chris Michalak won't make the team. He spent all of last season in AAA for two different teams, and was unimpressive at both stops. The Brewers might try to stash him in Indianapolis in case someone breaks.

Jeff Bennett gets mention as a possible back of the bullpen man, but it looks like there are already too many right-handers around, and Bennett's lack of success in his 23.1 innings in AAA last year make him a longshot.

The Bench

I like Keith Ginter. He's got patience and a bit of pop, and he can hold his own at multiple infield positions. As a reward, he received a three year deal for $1.925M just over a week ago. I don't know how necessary it is to lock up your super-sub for multiple years, but if he winds up starting a lot of games at second for some reason over the next season or two, he's good enough to get more money in arbitration. Normally, I'd say he's fungible, but there just aren't that many middle infield bench types who can post a .350 OBP. I say good for him, and good for Milwaukee.

Still young and still cheap, that's what I have to say about Bill Hall. You want more? Okay, it looks like he fields at about Ginter's level. More still? Fine. He's got some power, too. What, again? Alright, you asked for it. Bill Hall has yet to show any indication that he is capable of posting an acceptable on base percentage. He is completely and totally hacktastic, and any positives that his power might bring to the table are totally destroyed by the spectacular number of outs he creates. But he's still young and still cheap.

A solid sub on the outfield corners, Brady Clark could wind up starting if Ben Grieve can't shake his Tropicanafunk. That wouldn't be good, because Clark doesn't have much in the way of power. Hopefully, it won't come to that, and he can spot start and pinch hit like he's meant to do.

He's not Keith Osik, and that's good, but he's still Gary Bennett. On the either/or query posed of all backup catchers - "catch and throw" or "grip and rip" - the answer Bennett provides is "could you please rephrase the question?" I honestly have trouble finding a discernable skillset for him, so if anyone out there has insider info, please enlighten me.

The last two spots on the roster will be filled by some combination of Matt Erickson, Trent Durrington, Chris Magruder, and Jon Nunnally. None are likely to inspire rapture or suddenly become franchise cornerstones, but all have shown at least occasional discipline, and most have decent contact skills. I suppose, of all of them, I'd love to see Nunnally make the team. He's the oldest, having turned 32 in November, and he's the only one of the four who represents a power threat. He won't hit for much of an average, but when he does make contact, it'll be fun to watch it fly.

The Gist

For the first time in recent memory, the Brewers are moving in the right direction. It's a little early to start making room in the rafters for those division title flags, but they are finally in a position to inspire some of that "hope and faith" the Used Car Salesman was hocking. This season is more about waiting for the future than playing for the present, and while that may seem like a continuation of a long running theme, this time there's an end to the wait in sight.

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Posted by Derek @ 6:55 AM

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