"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
March 29, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 Preview
Originally posted on Projo.com
The Mets, I've been through already. I'm skeptical of the Braves' starting rotation (heresy!) beyond Maddux, who is ceding ground only slowly and grudgingly to the ravages of time. And the infield corners are shaky at best, disastrous at worst. But this team has baseball's best offensive outfield, its best defensive center fielder, a dynamite young DP combination (if Furcal's healthy) and a catcher who can hit. And a manager who's a whiz at making a good bullpen from scratch. I'm just not ready to write the obit yet; this year's Braves may be different, but they are still a good bet for the 90 wins that are more than enough to win this division.
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The Phils have a good offensive talent core, but they still have the execrable Doug Glanville (998 outs the past two seasons and just 163 runs scored), and will wind up with either Glanville or Jimmy Rollins as their primary leadoff man. Unless Randy Wolf has a breakthrough they don't have anything resembling a #1 starter, and I still don't trust their bullpen. The good news is the return of Mike Lieberthal, who should hit even if not at his old level, the likelihood of mild improvements from Abreu and Rolen, and the high likelihood of a major step forward by Pat Burrell.
The Marlins, with their young pitching, are a tempting choice for this year's surprise team, but other than Cliff Floyd there isn't a guy in this lineup who is likely to be significantly above league average in both slugging and OBP. I don't see them having the bats to keep up with the Cincinnatis and Philadelphias of the league, let alone Houston or St. Louis. And young pitching can make you famous, but it can also kill you; Josh Beckett could easily be the next Dwight Gooden, or he could be only the next Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, or Randy Johnson, which is to say, not that much as a rookie. Paul "Mr. February" Wilson was once a projected superstar rookie, too.
Some of you may have seen the recent article citing the "new fad" of using on base percentage to evaluate players and Montreal Interim GM Omar Minaya's disdain for the stat (Art noted the piece in his Notebook yesterday). What's strange to me about some of the "baseball people" knocking OBP is that it is one of the few statistics developed principally by and for people inside a major league organization -- the modern form of OBP came about through the efforts of Branch Rickey and his team statistician with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This is in contrast to, say, the save rule, which was invented in the 1960s by a Chicago sportswriter and yet has somehow assumed totemic proportions among the game's insiders. While Minaya's thinking may be stuck in the 1930s, however, Interim Manager Frank Robinson was an Earl Weaver disciple who gave Mickey Tettleton, Andre Thornton and Moose Milligan their first everyday jobs, so maybe we can hope that Robinson's thinking will rub off on Interim Right Fielder Vladimir Guerrero and Interim Second Baseman Jose Vidro.
+Bobby Abreu. If you don't think he's one of the game's biggest stars, you aren't paying attention.
+Tom Glavine. His days as an elite pitcher are done.
The Cards still have the upper hand in this division unless the trio of Matt Morris, JD Drew and Jim Edmonds reverts to their injury-prone ways. A lengthy absence by Morris would be critical, especially now that it seems that the Rick Ankiel Era may have to wait another year (the name "Sam Militello" is starting to come to mind). I liked the acquisitions of Tino and Izzy even though I'm not a fan of either; they were better than letting holes fester at those spots.
Here's two related questions: has any organization been as snakebit by injury as the Cards the past 15 years? Maybe Anaheim, but St. Louis stacks up with anyone. And has any organization had a better run of good health than the Cardinals did before that? Starting when they followed their first World Championship in 1926 by trading super-slugger Rogers Hornsby for the hustling Frankie Frisch and running at least through their last championship in 1982, the Cards had a clear and coherent organizational philosophy: young players who ran well and played hard, and pitchers who threw strikes. They were rewarded with many years worth of players, mostly in their twenties, who never got hurt; even the guys who lasted into their thirties with the team were durable. People like Frisch, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Keith Hernandez, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Garry Templeton, Ted Simmons, Tim McCarver, Ken Boyer, Red Schoendienst, and Bob Gibson were astonishingly healthy. There were careers ruined by injury, to be sure: Dizzy Dean, Johnny Beazley, Joe Garagiola, Mike Shannon. But their numbers were generally fewer than you would find anywhere else in the majors. The mid-80s came, and there was Jack Clark, Pedro Guerrero, Bob Horner, and an incredible rash of pitching injuries (I think Greg Mathews and Ken Dayley are still on the DL). The 90s were even worse, from McGwire to Alan Benes to Donovan Osborne to Brian Jordan to Fernando Tatis. Maybe it was just their luck changing, but it seems that the gradual abandonment of the Cardinal philosophy, at least on the offensive side, played a role: fewer jackrabbits, more sluggers, more pulled muscles.
The key for Houston overtaking the Cards is whether they can get .300 and 30+ homers each out of the outfield of Berkman, Hidalgo and Ward; a big year by any one of them is highly likely, but if all three click at once and Morgan Ensberg can step up before Craig Biggio steps down, they will be hard to contain even with weaker hitters at catcher and shortstop. Lance Berkman, center fielder. The mental image alone says all you need to know about how their surroundings have changed the Astros from the days of Terry Puhl, Craig Reynolds and Enos Cabell. A year ago I thought Enron Corp. must have been thrilled to have its name on a stadium where power is cheap and plentiful . . . The Central runner-up will almost certainly take the wild card.
The next three teams are more interchangeable than you think; all three have young pitchers and young power hitters, and then there is Sosa and Griffey. But the pitching staffs aren't a match for St. Louis, nor the lineups a match for Houston. The Pirates will be in the game's desperate underclass again; new stadiums aren't as important as good players. I'll admit that I haven't seen enough of Jason Kendall to know if he'll ever return to the hitter he was just over a year ago.
+Roy Oswalt. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Juan Guzman, Whitey Ford, Bill Gullickson, Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Walter Johnson . . . there are plenty of examples of guys putting in a partial good season as a rookie and then handling the transition to a full-time starter as a second-year pitcher seamlessly.
+Adam Dunn. Not saying he won't be a great player someday with Mark McGwire power, and if he's healthy he should hit 35-40 homers this year. Just this: the guy strikes out A LOT, and he's 22 years old. Don't be surprised if he struggles to hit .250. You know, like the young Mark McGwire.
Any team in this division could finish anywhere, although the Dodgers look pretty unlikely to contend given the loss of Sheffield and Chan Ho Park as well as key 2001 contributors Terry Adams and Matt Herges. In a close pennant race, I still like the ability of the D-Backs to throw the Johnson-Schilling buzzsaw at whoever challenges them. They do have an awful lot of guys on the decline from what was already a weak offense, though, and if Schilling's 300-inning season catches up with him, they could finish last. Easily. The Giants still have Bonds, Kent and Aurilla, but the penny-pinching they went through to keep Bonds will catch up with them (Tsuyoshi Shinjo as a leadoff hitter?). Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus projects David Bell to recover his home run swing at Pac Bell. Highly-touted Kurt Ainsworth could be important, assuming he's healthy. The Pads may surprise, but I don't see their pitching as particularly reliable. Colorado should expect a better year from Mike Hampton, who flamed out after a good first half last season; like Pedro Astacio after 1998, he may be back with a better appreciation of how to pace himself at Coors. I like this team up the middle, and they are the most likely candidate to win if the
+Mark Kotsay. Think 'Trot Nixon 2001'. Not as good as Nixon but the same type of player.
+Miguel Batista. The numbers don't add up.
Another boring, same-as-last-year's-predictions division. I've been through the Yanks and Sox already; the return (or not) of Pedro remains the biggest question mark in the game. One interesting subplot will be whether the Yankees have the patience to break in Nick Johnson if he doesn't come roaring out of the gate the way Soriano did last season; the answer, like the treatment of Ted Lilly, will say a lot about the sustainabilty of the current dynasty. Toronto could hang around the race a while but I sense that, with their commitment to rebuilding under J.P. Ricciardi, they won't hesitate to deal veterans even if they are in the thick of it. The main man likely to be dealt is Darrin Fletcher, who's 35 and being pushed by Josh Phelps and Jayson Werth, but Raul Mondesi and Shannon Stewart could also be on the market. The Rays seem to finally be going somewhere, and if they can locate Ben Grieve, they could get mediocre in a hurry. The Orioles don't have a single player who's better than a 50/50 shot to be above average at his position this season, or at any time in the future, and few prospects in the minors. That's pathetic, and there is absolutely nobody La Famiglia Angelos can blame but themselves. Let 'em rot in the cellar.
+Esteban Yan. Throws hard, mastered the strike zone last season. I like Yan's chances to hold down the closer job.
1. White Sox
I'm not excited about the White Sox, given the disarray of their pitching staff. But the offense is so far and away the best in the division that they can't help but win if they are healthy. Besides, only the Twins even have enough of a settled pitching rotation to take advantage of the matchup on the defensive side, and the Twins don't have Chicago's bullpen. 76 games against this division will make the White Sox look scary entering October, but don't be fooled.
Look at some of the people the Indians had in camp, like Brady Anderson and Mike Lansing, and tell me these guys haven't crossed over into Angelos Land. The Nineties are over. Pretty soon they will be a "small market" team again and begging the taxpayers for a new stadium and the league for revenue sharing.
The Royals . . . it's astonishing how many AL pitchers are holding down rotation slots despite no prior record of major league success. One pre-season depth chart listed a guy named Darrell May as the Royals' number two starter, and I'd never heard of him (May was in Japan). They need an offensive juggernaut to give their young arms (including guys who have been unproven young arms for 4-5 years now) breathing room, and instead we get Neifi Perez, Raul Ibanez, Brent Mayne, Michael Tucker, Carlos Febles, Joe Randa, and Chuck Knoblauch . . . and the Tigers, despite some good pitchers, should be even worse, having let go three talented everyday players in their twenties in the offseason and replaced them mostly with scrubs other than Dmitri Young. The Tigers have a bunch of catchers who can hit, so of course they intend to play two or three of them in the lineup at once and are still considering giving the catching job to a guy who can't. Both of these teams should by all rights lose 100 games.
+Matt Anderson. Heh heh, heh heh, fire!
+Bobby Howry. I hadn't noticed when I drafted him for my roto team that he has misplaced his fastball. It you've seen it, please contact the White Sox front office ASAP.
Lou Piniella has what sounds like the easiest assignment in baseball: if your team wins within 25 games of last season's win total, with everyone of significance returning except one good starter and one mediocre third baseman, you probably make the postseason. But too many of us ran into trouble last season by rating the Mariners against the prior year's results rather than looking at the talent on hand from scratch. The Mariners have a lot of reasons to decline: Bret Boone won't match last season, the bullpen can't be as flawless again, Edgar's second half fade may signal the overdue onset of decline. But this team still has a solid lineup; Ichiro may drop down to .330 but a recent Baseball Prospectus analysis of his Japanese batting stats suggests that he may flash more power this season; Joel Piniero will improve the rotation; Carlos Guillen isn't sick anymore; and Jeff Cirillo should hit. I don't see a real weakness to this team, and that should keep them in the race all year.
The departure of Giambi leaves the A's without any survivors of the slow-pitch softball talent core of the 1999 team, Giambi, Grieve, Stairs and Jaha. Either the Mariners or A's are Boston's primary rival for the wild card. Oakland is now a pitching team, not a mashing team and not really an exceptionally patient team at the plate, not with Tejada, Chavez, Dye, Long and Hernandez in the lineup. If Carlos Pena develops into an everyday player by midseason, Dye comes back good as new and Billy Koch bounces back, they may not feel as severely the impact of their many losses, but I don't see this as a 100-win team again.
Texas is going to score a ton of runs even if Carl Everett falls off the face of the earth, and the pitching could hardly be worse, although it won't be good. I consider them a legitimate contender in this division.
Anaheim may improve this year if Tim Salmon and Darrin Erstad bounce back - Salmon's had a good spring - but they won't keep up in this division.
+Jeff Cirillo. May have psyched himself out at Coors; won't see his numbers drop off as much as expected and his real level of performance should improve.
I'm not going to try predicting the postseason in March again, except to say that it's been nearly 40 years since the fifth and most recent October meeting of baseball's two most successful postseason franchises. The Cards lead the Yankees 3-2, if you're keeping score. My pick, assuming there's a postseason instead of a strike: the Yankees beat the Cards. Hey, I said they were the preseason favorite. I'll be happy to be proven wrong.
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March 15, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 Red Sox Preview
Originally posted on Projo.com
I'd give you a thorough appraisal of the current soap opera in Boston, except that (1) there are so many bizarre internal dynamics here that I can't hope to do justice to the situation from my perch in Queens and (2) this column takes some lead time to write, and at this writing, Lord only knows who else will be hired or fired by Friday. Let's do some basics:
1. Was it time for Duquette to go?
Of course it was. First of all, the new guys will usually want to bring in their own people. Second, the "golden parachute" contract given to the Duke is a sign that the outgoing management knew he'd be toast when the sale cleared. Third, I've stressed before that getting along with people isn't a major part of the GM's job -- was any management team more "cold" and "calculating" than George Weiss and the rest of the team that ran the Yankees in the Fifties? -- but in any organization, when the boss is generating open contempt by the employees and the media all at once, he's in trouble. In the age of free agency, that has an impact on the team's ability to attract and retain free agents (although it didn't get in the way of signing Manny and Damon). I don't know the true story of whether Pedro and Nomar really hated Duquette and wished they weren't playing for his organization, but if the new owners had a basis for thinking that the stars of the team might leave some day because of Duquette and the circus that grew up around him, or if they just wanted a fresh start, they were certainly justified.
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2. Did Duquette do a good job?
I'd say yes, mostly; he took over a franchise that was nowhere near serious contention, quickly assembled a team that pulled out a surprise division title in 1995 largely out of spare parts, while the organization broke in the talent base for a more sustained run starting in 1998. That's really the definition of what you want in a GM. The fact that the Sox fell short and that Duquette contributed with a few misfires . . . well, not everyone can win the World Series, and it's not Duquette's fault that the Yankees had such a strong team from 1996 to 1999.
The criticism of Duquette basically focuses on the past two seasons, when the Sox had an incredible talent core, the Yanks were vulnerable, and they just couldn't get the job done. Part of the problem was Duquette's preference for risky players: Bill James once said that Gene Mauch took on too many projects and not enough good teams, and you could say the same here. Even if a lot of the Saberhagens and Nomos and Castillos were good ideas, collectively they left the Sox without the rotation stability they needed. Duquette generally made the right strategic decisions in Boston -- when to build, when to go for it. Where he failed was in bringing in a lot of useless or overpriced veterans to gear up for the 2000 run (I was harshly critical of the Bichette and Arrojo deals at the time, and they really did nothing to move the Sox closer to a title), and overpaying to keep expendable talents like O'Leary.
Duquette has some important skills that overwhelmingly argue in favor of another organization giving him a second chance. This is the man who pulled off the heist of the decade in Montreal (Delino Deshields for Pedro) and then went and got Pedro again in Boston. He fobbed off Heathcliff Slocumb for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. He traded Andres Galarraga for Ken Hill, a steal of a deal at the time, although Galarraga later revived his career in Colorado and Hill wore down after a few seasons. He is a fine judge of free talent, bringing in people like Wakefield, O'Leary and Daubach who'd been trapped at AAA. One of his better such pickups in Boston was Matt Stairs, but he let Stairs go before he hit it big as a major leaguer. His genuinely big-ticket acquisitions -- Manny, Pedro, Damon -- have been wise ones. Jose Offerman is a bargain compared to Darren Dreifort, after all. The Duke got ripped for letting Mo and Clemens go, but in retrospect he deserves more criticism for offering Mo a gigantic contract than for letting him leave, and you can understand why Sox management felt that Clemens was a bad risk given how he had fallen off after getting his last big contract after the 1992 season.
3. Did Joe Kerrigan deserve the axe?
Kerrigan was even more the victim of the change in ownership than Duquette, in the sense that it's doubtful that he'd really had time to wear out his welcome of its own accord. Obviously you can't hold him responsible for the bad end to last season, but if the new team thought he wasn't up to the job, they were better off getting their own guy now. It's unfortunate, because Kerrigan seemed like a smart guy and talked like an innovative manager, even if he didn't manage like one last fall. When was the last time the Sox had a manager who thought a step ahead and who did things other managers would emulate - Dick Williams? Strong and decisive leadership is more important in a manager than pure brainpower, but after three decades of managers who came across as decidedly lowbrow (with the exception of Kevin Kennedy, who was more of a harebrained-scheme kind of manager), it would have been nice to see the Sox for once try a manager in the mold of a LaRussa or Bobby Cox, just for a change of pace. It's too soon to judge Grady Little, but from what I've heard he sounds more like a conventional Olde Towne Managere.
One thing that interested me about the coverage of Kerrigan was the sense that, as an ex-pitcher, he couldn't command the respect of the everyday players. This was a widespread theme in the demise of Larry Dierker in Houston as well, and to a lesser extent Ray Miller in Baltimore. What puzzled me about the new conventional wisdom is that it was something I had never heard until a few years ago. It was always thought around the game that pitchers could have trouble adjusting to the everyday responsibilities of the manager's chair. But maybe it's just me, but I don't recall anyone suggesting that Tommy Lasorda or Roger Craig or Bob Lemon or Dallas Green or Fred Hutchinson couldn't get the respect of the players because they had pitched, and nobody micromanaged his offense more than Roger Craig or rode his players harder than Green. If it's true now that an ex-pitcher can't command the players' respect, when did it change?
4. What about the new owners?
Maybe it's too soon to prejudge, but remember that the Henry-Werner team is a rogues' gallery of bad baseball owners cobbled together based mostly on their willingness to ask for taxpayer money. Tom Werner should have been banned from baseball for letting Roseanne Barr sing the national anthem, if you ask me. And Rob Neyer hit it on the head in the column last week suggesting that the Sox' decisionmaking process is already showing the hallmarks of an excessively bureaucratic management structure. On the positive side, Henry never did carry out his threat to hold a second fire sale in Florida, and Larry Lucchino had his moments in San Diego. I'd be worried about these guys if I were a Sox fan, but things could still work out OK.
I haven't had the time for a full Sox preview either, but here are some thoughts:
*Perhaps the Sox' biggest need, besides health, is to improve their defense over last season. The acquisition of Johnny Damon to replace the increasingly immobile Carl Everett and shift Trot Nixon back where he belongs should help that greatly, despite Damon's weak throwing arm. With Nomo gone and the likelihood that both Lowe and Burkett will be in the rotation, the Sox will badly need to convert balls in play into outs, and I would like to see Rey Sanchez in the field when those two are on the mound, even with his weak stick, whereas a more offensive-minded second baseman may be in order when Pedro pitches, especially since he usually faces the other team's ace.
*The second base mess. It goes without saying that Sanchez is only a viable option if the Sox don't have a decent two-way player to plug in. Veras would be the best option if he was 100%, but the early returns aren't encouraging. Carlos Baerga . . . don't get me started. We've seen that movie here in NY, and it does not have a happy ending. Offerman, to my mind, needs to either get the everyday job or a pink slip. The Sox have rid themselves of a whole raft of grumpy, overpaid veterans, the exceptions being Offerman, Arrojo and Wakefield. Arrojo and Wakefield are useful enough, but my sense is that Offerman is not, and if Grady Little doesn't have faith in him he should let him walk. He can let the new owners blame Harrington and Duquette and get the contract behind them. Media reports about "chemistry" can be overblown, but there's little doubt that the Red Sox need to fix the atmosphere around the team, and a younger, hungrier bench is a good first step. That's one good reason not to bring in Rickey, even if he is still useful as a platoon DH. Besides, there's nothing that helps a new manager set the tone better than just up and cutting a big-name veteran with a big contract in spring training.
*John Burkett and Dustin Hermanson. Burkett for several years was living proof that a guy with a good K/BB ratio could still get his clock cleaned. Was the new strike zone the difference last season -- or did he have a better defense behind him, or just better luck? The good news is that Burkett is a horse, and should chew up plenty of innings. I like him to go 14-9 with an ERA in the high threes this season. Hermanson I'm deeply suspicious of, a guy who's been losing ground to the league for years. He gave up 34 homers in 33 starts last season pitching in Busch Stadium. I know Busch ain't what it used to be, but if that's how he does in a big ballpark, how will he fare in Fenway? Stranger pitchers have found themselves in their thirties, but Hermanson could well have further to fall before he does.
*Is Trot Nixon already a star? Don't forget that run scoring was down 8.3% in the AL last year. Nixon's steps forward last season look that much more impressive when you account for that decline. He's still on the Paul O'Neill/Andy Van Slyke career path.
*Tony Clark was just a great pickup; he's better than Dante Bichette ever was, even in his prime. Yes, he brings a great big question mark to a team with too many of them. Yes, he's been known to have slumps that last half a season. But trust me: if this guy gets even 400 at bats this season, he will have a huge impact. He's just shy of his 30th birthday and hit .283, slugged .497 with a .366 OBP the past two seasons, even with back problems and even in spacious Comerica Park. The big question marks are guys where you say "if he's healthy maybe he can get back to where he was." But Clark never left: he's kept producing at a 30-homer 100-RBI pace, just missing time. Any time you can get a guy like that in his prime for nothing but a short-term salary commitment, you do it.
*Another acquisition I liked, even if he seems to be on the outside looking in at the moment, is Jeff Abbott, a guy who fits the mold of a Troy O'Leary a few years back, a 29-year-old guy stuck in AAA for years who could hit for a good average with line drive power and contribute off the bench.
It's just not spring training without Darryl Strawberry getting in trouble, promising he's finally grown up, or both. Man gets kicked out of rehab on his 40th birthday, it's time to admit he's never going to get it. When the Mets' current owners bought the team in 1980, they agonized over their first draft pick, and were ecstatic when they got both of their top two choices: Straw and Billy Beane. What different career paths for the two men took. Darryl came from a fatherless home in a bad neighborhood, but then his brother became an LA cop and by all accounts a level-headed guy, and Eric Davis came from the same part of town and has never been a serious troublemaker. God can give a player talent, and He gave Strawberry the same basic package that went to Reggie, and to Bobby and Barry Bonds, and Dave Winfield. Darryl's just got no sense, and never did.
Either Ruben Rivera is a complete idiot, or there is something else seriously wrong with him that causes the guy to make bad judgments and need cash in a bad way. Either one would go far to explaining why Rivera has made so little of his tremendous talents. The Irabu-Rivera deal, like the trade that sent Fernando Tatis to Montreal for Dustin Hermanson, looks increasingly like one of those trades where both sides came away with a lot less than they expected. Good to see Eldon Auker back in the news, though . . .
Since I was on the subject of economics lately, and since it ties in to the game on the field, I thought it would be useful to look once again at how recently each major league team has contended for a postseason berth. I'm using an arbitrary cutoff of finishing within 6 games of the postseason, and obviously a lot of teams finish within 6 games of a wild card without being serious challengers to win it all, but the Twins and Mets both finished 6 out last season and it's safe to say that both teams gave their fans some real excitement and meaningful games in September. It's a useful reminder of how few of baseball's franchises have truly been hopeless for an extended period of time; 17 teams have finished in or close to the postseason in the past two years, 24 teams in the past five years, and the six franchises that haven't been to the postseason since 1991 include a team that had the best record in baseball in 1994, a team that lost a 1-game playoff in 1995, and a team that was just started in 1998. Only the fans of the Royals, Brewers and Tigers can really say that their team has not been in the hunt in fairly recent memory; if you are talking economics (the subtext of almost any discussion of competition these days), the Tigers are in a big market with a new stadium and a deep-pockets owner, and the Brewers also have a new stadium. Not to dismiss the plight of the Expos or some of the recent travails in Pittsburgh and Florida, but by historical standards, the size of baseball's true have-nots is fairly small.
Team In Within 6 Games
Expos*** 1981 1996
Devil Rays***** Never Never
*Lost one game playoff for Wild Card in 1999
QUOTES: "Just look at my Rotisserie value. I'm a pretty cheap pick this
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March 8, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 METS PREVIEW
Originally posted on Projo.com
Mike Piazza's Mets have found themselves in the same trap that ensnared Patrick Ewing's Knicks and Dan Marino's Dolphins (to say nothing of Pedro's Red Sox, but that's another week's column) for years: the star is so good, and a type of player who's so hard to come by, that you always feel like a championship is a possibility; he's also getting old and banged up, so you can never be sure if he'll last long enough at this level to risk a 2-3 year rebuilding process. So, every year, you give away a few more shots to develop young players, drag in wheezing veterans, and take another shot. Yet, every year it seems to get further away.
It's an unenviable position for a GM, but as a fan there are worse things (ask any Knick fan in the post-Ewing era); the Mets will contend for a postseason berth again this year, and that beats being the Orioles. Whether it also risks becoming the Orioles later will depend on the decisions the Mets make once Piazza starts to lose his edge as a hitter.
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In an ideal world, we'd all love to see our favorite team build a multi-year champion from the ground up, with young players who grow and develop into stars, the way the Mets did in the 1980s. (Recall that under the present divisional alignment, that team would have won 7 consecutive NL East titles). With this ideal in mind, some in the "sabermetric" community have tended to be harshly critical of any non-Yankee team that adds expensive veteran players in an effort to get over the top or sustain a run at the top. It's true that it merits criticism when teams overpay for help they could have had on the cheap, as the Mets and others have done in recent years. But, to my mind, you only get so many chances to make your run, and once you've got the talent to commit to it, it's sometimes more short-sighted to start rebuilding or even retooling while the window is open and the chance is there. After all, anything really can happen in a short series; while there is generally at least one team in the postseason these days that has no realistic prayer, a team with an outstanding offense OR great starting pitchers always has the potential to run off a hot streak if it gets to October, at least a streak that (like the 1999 Mets) gives the fans a ride to talk about for years. You can criticize the Mets' decision to stage an offseason makeover aimed solely at 2002, but they may not come this way again for many a year. With Piazza still near the top of his game and more popular than ever in NY, the fans aren't crazy to expect another shot at October drama.
Once you accept the premise of the Mets' approach to the offseason and the reality of who was available on the market, most of Steve Phillips' moves made great sense. After dumping the veterans in the bullpen just before they lost their trade value, the Mets in 2001 had a team with strong but not overpowering starting pitching, but the worst offense in the major leagues: a combination of old, slow power hitters with little or no power left (Ventura and Zeile), impatient, slap-hitting outfielders who hit for unimpressive batting averages (Payton, Shinjo, Timo), an injured Edgardo Alfonzo and the dismal Rey Ordonez, who as I noted in this space last fall needed a late season hot streak to avoid setting a new record for fewest runs scored by an everyday player. This would have been a horrifying record to set in a league where the average team scored 4.7 runs per game, close to the highest levels of offense seen in the National League since the foul-strike rule was implemented at the dawn of the 20th century. To top it off, Benny Agbayani proved unequal to the task of playing everyday, and Matt Lawton failed to hit the way he had in Minnesota. Two of the team's three best hitters were utility infielders having career years: Joe McEwing and Desi Relaford. Even the pitching staff was one of the worst-hitting staffs in baseball.
Defying conventional wisdom about the scarcity of pitching, Phillips surveyed the market and apparently decided that, in this offseason, it would be easier to find cheap help for the rotation than for the lineup. With Rick Reed already gone in a midseason trade, Phillips proceeded to get rid of Kevin Appier, who had rebounded strongly in 2001, and Glendon Rusch, who was coming off a poor season but remained a good bet to be significantly better than a league-average starter in 2002. On top of that, promising reliever Jerrod Riggan was shipped to Cleveland in the Robbie Alomar deal. This left just Al Leiter, who pitched brilliantly in 2001 but missed time with injuries; Bruce Chen, a talented lefty who remains maddeningly inconsistent; and Steve Trachsel, who was one of the league's best pitchers in the second half (9-3, 2.74 ERA after the All-Star break) after struggling to get his ERA below 10.00 before a late-May demotion. To fill the two primary holes, Phillips signed free agent Pedro Astacio on the rebound from surgery, and added a second irritating lefthander in Shawn Estes (8-5, 3.33 ERA at the end of July, but started just 7 more times and was bombed in 4 of them), who the Giants - in a fit of frustration and Bonds-induced
Astacio may be a real find, although he may never regain his health; the strain of pitching all those long innings in Colorado for several years will wear down nearly any pitcher. Estes is also talented, and we were treated a few weeks ago to that annual rite of spring, the newspaper story about which Mets pitcher was getting tutored by club president Fred Wilpon's close friend and high school teammate, Sandy Koufax. Personally, I'd rather see Sandy teach Estes how to throw 335 innings in a season than how to get his curveball over better, but that's just me.
The Mets also brought in Jeff D'Amico, who makes Estes look like Don Sutton in the durability department and is roughly the size of Estes and Sutton put together. I regarded D'Amico as basically free dummy - the deal was essentially Burnitz for Rusch, with the other players the Mets gave up being either expendable (the justly popular but limited Agbayani) or simply not worth their salaries (Zeile, manager-in-training Lenny Harris). For that price, a guy with D'Amico's talent is worth the gamble, but I wouldn't go trading Chen to make room for him in the rotation, because he'll just be visiting.
The bullpen is headed by veterans with various question marks. When Armando
I still strongly suspect that, in addition to Chen and D'Amico, a big part of the story of the Mets' pitching staff this season will be told by pitchers with limited major league exposure, specifically Satoru Komiyama, Grant Roberts, Dicky Gonzalez, Eric Cammack, and possibly Adam and Tyler Walker. Komiyama was called the "Japanese Greg Maddux," which is a nice description of his style, but he appears to be essentially an over-the-hill starter who might be useful out of the bullpen. The Mets have a fairly good record with Japanese players owing in part to the fact that Bobby Valentine managed over there, and if the Mets are lucky, Komiyama will give them something reminiscent of a good Mike Maddux year. Gonzalez is a guy I inexplicably like - he's just got nasty-looking stuff, but couldn't seem to get out of the fifth inning last year as a starter. Roberts, once a highly over-touted starting prospect, seemed to find his true calling as a
A staff like that can win you some games, but only if you succeed in turning the game's worst offense, overnight, into a truly outstanding unit. There are a lot of high-risk bids here, but Phillips may yet have done just that.
Let's look at the lineup:
Cedeno is the first of the gambles. We know he can play everyday, we know he can hit around .300, we know he can draw walks, we know he can steal bases by the carload. Cedeno is, in fact, probably the finest base thief in Major League Baseball today. But can he do it all at once? Cedeno last season managed the improbable accomplishment of raising his batting average 11 points, while dropping 46 points from his OBP. To analysts accustomed to the notion that batting averages vary from year to year but "secondary skills" like a good batting eye are stable, Cedeno is an enigma. Hopefully, the Mets can get him to be patient and focused on getting on base to help win games; one got the distinct impression last season that Cedeno, finding himself on a dead-end team last season, was just playing for numbers and thought it was a waste of time drawing walks if he saw a pitch he might be able to hit. He also needs more than a few days off, since he's a high-energy player who can lose focus and some of the spring in his legs if he plays too many days in a row.
Warning: Baseball-Reference.com lists the most similar player to Alomar at the same age as Robin Yount, with Ryne Sandberg third and Joe Morgan (probably the player, along with Jackie Robinson, most genuinely similar to Alomar's talents) seventh. Yount, the AL MVP at 33, lost 71 points off his batting average at 34 and was never again an above-average player. Morgan went from .288, 22 homers, 113 runs and 49 steals to .236, 13 HR, 68 R and 19 SB, and never again scored more than 72 runs in a season, only hitting above .250 one more time. Sandberg dropped from 26 homers to 9, lost 100 points off his slugging average, and was never a star again. Joe Torre is also on the statistical list and fell off sharply at 34, but the fact that the Similarity Scores system thinks Joe Torre, the second-slowest man in baseball in his prime (ahem, Rusty) was similar to Robbie Alomar shows why you can't take it too literally. The news isn't all bad: Frankie Frisch tailed off slowly, Robinson started missing games but stayed productive, and Charlie Gehringer at 34 batted .371 and won the MVP Award. Similarity Scores aren't destiny; all they do is give us the cautions of history. History says that even players as good as Alomar - including several players with similar talents - can just lose it overnight at his age.
That said, the Alomar deal was the key to the whole offseason. All the other players the Mets got are, at this stage, fundamentally supporting players. Alomar gives the team a second superstar; if you want to win championships, you need players like this. He was expensive in terms of depth, but easily worth the cost. Escobar, when he's played, has looked similar to a young Sammy Sosa, moreso to a young Mike Cameron, but even before he blew his knee out this spring, his injury record suggested that he'd be very fortunate to match Cameron's career path. The days of comparing him to a guy like Vladimir Guerrero are gone. Matt Lawton's a fine player, but he's no superstar, and while I like Jerrod Riggan, I liked Robert Person, Jeff Tam and Corey Lidle too, and life went on at Shea without them.
Piazza's probably reaching the end of his days as a .320-.330 hitter, but he's still the man, and the best hitter the Mets have ever had. Piazza clearly prefers burning out to fading away; he will probably just retire when he can't catch anymore.
Mo is the one offseason acquisition I was not too enthused about. He's a dreadful fielder, his contract is huge, he's been in decline since leaving Fenway and was always helped by the place, he's hardly a conditioning fanatic, he missed last year with injuries, and he's even slower than Olerud or Zeile. It was particularly depressing to see the Mets pass on bidding on the far superior Jason Giambi to sink tens of millions into Mo. The Mets also apparently backed off rumors in the fall that they were considering bringing back Roberto Petagine, who would not have been that expensive and continues to hit well in Japan.
That being said, Mo should at least remain a reliable power source for a year or two if he stays healthy, and he has to be a big improvement over Zeile, who was a few years older and had never been near the player Vaughn was in his prime. Plus, while Kevin Appier revived far more than I had thought possible last season, the fact is that Appier's contract was also a millstone, and dealing Appier was a critical part of the Mets' strategy to pull off this entire offseason renovation without substantially increasing their payroll. One thing working against him, however: Mo's big strikeout rate is likely to go over the edge this season in the poor visibility of Shea, plus he's got to adjust to a rearranged strike zone that everyone else has lived with for a year now.
The popular perception among analysts is to project a gradual decline from a point below where he left off, which would rapidly make Vaughn a below-average first baseman if he wasn't already. But we have seen plenty of examples in recent years of the old power hitter having the One Last Big Year in his thirties - Robin Ventura and Matt Williams in 1999, Gary Gaetti in 1996, Galarraga in 1998, David Justice in 2000, Tino Martinez in 2001 - so it would be foolish to write of Vaughn entirely. If Vaughn gets 500 at bats and slugs .500, he'll be worth it, and I'd give him at least a 40% chance at each of those goals.
No player is more critical to the Mets this season than Alfonzo, one of the best in the game in 1999-2000 and a dud with a bad back for the balance of last summer. If Fonzie rebounds, this team will be in the race all year; if he doesn't, it's time to start rebuilding no matter what else happens. It's that simple.
It's always better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, and the Brewers will eventually congratulate themselves for choosing the former. Burnitz, a guy I never thought the Mets should have let go in the first place, is probably better suited to Shea Stadium than Mo because he has proven the ability to put runs on the scoreboard without hitting for average. The Burnitz deal was a steal, as I mentioned before; Rusch still looks like a guy who could break through big time, but his chances of doing so look rather slimmer with the Brewers' track record with young pitchers.
I contended for several years that the much-maligned Garret Anderson would eventually have a season when he hit .330 and was a legitimate All-Star. It might still happen, but don't hold your breath. Payton, who was seen by many as a better prospect than Nomar when they were college teammates, had the talent to be a rich man's Garret Anderson, but he spent too many years mending from injuries when he should have been learning to lay off bad pitches, drive the ball and steal bases. He may yet hit .300 himself, but even at that he would not be a star. Gary Mathews jr. may take his job, but Mathews is just a different flavor of mediocrity. Since Cedeno is defensively overmatched as a center fielder, the Mets may be stuck with one of them.
Then there's Timo. The sole grounds for my limited optimism about Timo Perez entering last season was his youth: a guy who could hit the ball with some authority at 23-24 years old has some growth potential, and has time to learn something about the strike zone. Turns out, though, that Perez, like so many other Latin American players, is older than advertised, which combined with a reportedly poor work ethic, clashes with teammates and bad on-field decisions, makes Perez a highly unlikely candidate to ever contribute anything useful at all to the Mets. Perez has seen some of the blame for the 2000 World Series drift away, as Game One is now more remembered as part of a long series of blown big games by Benitez, but there's really no reason to keep around a guy with minimal talents -- the upside on Timo is Randy Winn -- if he's not busting his hump.
Rey Sanchez was picked by the Red Sox off the scrap heap, and the Royals couldn't get takers for Neifi Perez; clearly, players like Ordonez are not in high demand. Now we don't even know how old this guy is. But the departure of Relaford leaves the Mets without even a halfway plausible alternative. Ordonez' steady defense will be needed this season, but is he really the game's only dependable shortstop? Ordonez' .299 on base percentage last season (against a league average of .338) sounds awful, but then it gets worse: that was the second-HIGHEST figure of his career; it was actually .274 if you take out his 17 intentional walks; and Ordonez hit into 17 double plays last season, so his true cost to the offense was much higher. The past three seasons, Ordonez has hit into 37 double plays while scoring just 90 runs, a ghastly ratio. Probably half the players in AA right now could do better than that.
The NL East was very ripe for the pickings before the Sheffield trade, and even fortified by Sheffield, the Braves can still be had. After all, he can't possibly hit the Mets any harder than Brian Jordan did last season. The rest of the division is getting stronger, but nobody else added any real help over the offseason; the Marlins and Expos still have questions about the health of their pitching staffs, and the Phillies still have Doug Glanville playing everyday (at least the Mets aren't playing Ordonez in the outfield) and still call Robert Person the ace of their rotation. With the growing powerhouses in St. Louis and Houston, the Wild Card is likely to come from the Central this season. In other words: the Mets can take this division, but if they don't they go home.
In spite of Ordonez and Payton, I see the offense being in the top third of the league and probably the best in the division, but not matching up to some of the Central division monsters. This won't be a top-to-bottom machine, but the Mets have two good tablesetters, plus Piazza and Alfonzo can get on base, and Mo and Burnitz should hang just above the league average in OBP. With the tremendous power the Mets have in the 2-6 slots, that should make this an efficient offense, one that's very hard to shut out.
That leaves the pitching. With some defensive question marks and a shaky bullpen, the Mets could give up a lot of runs, but there are high-upside pitchers here as well. The best outcome would be a replay of 1999: the Mets rotation muddles through the summer and gets hot down the stretch, particularly if Rick Reed comes back in July. This isn't a juggernaut - but this team has hope, and for now, I'll take that over the alternative.
QUOTE: The Red Sox "talked briefly [to the Mets] about Carl Everett, but after the Wilfredo Cordero affair, they are not going to bring in Everett"
-- Peter Gammons, November 2, 1997.
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March 1, 2002
BASEBALL: Derek Lowe as a Starter
Originally posted on Projo.com
One of the big questions in Red Sox camp this spring is, will Derek Lowe make it as a starter? I've been arguing for over a year that Lowe's high-hit, low-walk, high-ground-ball profile is better suited to a starting pitcher who gets to start his own innings rather than a reliever who comes in with men on base. The history of bullpen-to-rotation switches is a mixed one and hard to generalize, since the least successful transitions usually don't last a full season (Goose Gossage, Steve Bedrosian and Paul Quantrill being egregious exceptions). The most successful mid-career switches have tended to be knuckleballers like Charlie Hough and Wilbur Wood, who are difficult to generalize from.
For a lot of Sox fans, putting Lowe in the rotation after last season may seem like participating in clinical trials to see exactly how much cyanide the body can handle. (As Bill Simmons put it, "Can you imagine going into a playoff series at Yankee Stadium next October with Derek Lowe as your No. 2 starter? I think I just threw up in my mouth.") But it's never wise to panic just because a guy had one bad year at the wrong moment. Lowe wasn't so much a horrible pitcher last season as a mediocre one with dreadfully bad timing, a bad characteristic for a closer. While he was certainly hit frightfully hard at times, there are important signs that he can bounce back. And even if he stayed within spitting distance of last year's form -- a 3.53 ERA in a league where the average is 4.47 -- he can still be useful.
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First, let's look at a critical statistical indicator: strikeouts and walks per inning pitched. Here are Lowe's numbers from 1999-2001:
As you can see, Lowe was off across the board last season, but except for hits allowed, not by much, and he was striking people out at the best rate of his career, which is rarely a sign of a guy losing his touch. The difference in homers allowed amounts to one home run over the course of the season, and while most of you reading this could easily identify the one homer too many, that's a pretty narrow basis for concluding that a guy is washed up at age 28.
The real problem was that balls in play were far more likely to fall in as hits, and recent studies have validated our experience and common sense that say that the defense can have a lot to do with this. Remember: Derek Lowe was, last season, the most extreme ground ball pitcher in the major leagues, averaging 3.57 ground ball outs per fly out; only Jason Grimsley (3.30) and Danny Patterson (3.28) were even close. Isn't it just possible that such a pitcher would find his effectiveness hampered by his team conducting open auditions for middle infielders (to say nothing of Brian Daubach at first base)? 1000 innings comes to just over 110 games played -- and Shea Hillenbrand was the only Red Sox player to play 1000 innings at the same position in 2001. There's no guar-an-tee that the Sox will be more stable this season, but if Nomar is healthy he can't help but improve on the performance of Mike Lansing and Lou Merloni at short, Daubach looks poised to spend more time at DH, and the arrival of Rey Sanchez gives the Sox a reserve infielder who's one of the best defenders in the game. Sanchez likely won't hit much, but any time he can make it to second or short (on Nomar's day off) when Lowe's pitching, that could be good news (I'm less enthused about the defensive prowess of the Veras/Offerman mix at second).
The banishment of Scott Hatteberg, the worst-throwing catcher in the majors, should also help a guy like Lowe who desperately needs to keep runners on first base in double play position, although Jason Varitek isn't exactly Johnny Bench. Opposing baserunners stole 17 bases in 19 attempts against Lowe last year, compared to 15 (but in just 16 attempts) over the previous two years. The base thieves are on to him, and they need to be stopped.
Moreover, in Lowe's case, the strikeout/walk data is also misleading in one important respect. Being a short reliever, especially a setup man as Lowe was for a chunk of last season, has one statistical drawback that can make pitchers look less effective than they really are: they get asked to issue a lot of intentional walks. Derek Lowe handed out 9 free passes last season at the insistence of his managers, averaging 0.88 intentional walks per 9 innings, compared to just 6 over the prior two seasons. Take those away and his walks/IP for the three seasons look more consistent: 1.98, 1.68, 1.96 (granted that walks were down around the AL last season from 3.7 per 9 IP to 3.2). In his three-start trial at the end of last season, Lowe walked just 2 batters in 16 innings while striking out 15, another hopeful sign.
If you're keeping score at home, Derek Lowe wasn't even the reliever who got saddled with the most intentional walks, or close to it. Here are the highest rates of intentional walks per nine innings of pitchers who threw a significant number of games or innings in 2001:
(As usual, I did these calculations manually, so I may have missed someone. For what it's worth, Greg Maddux was among the league leaders in total intentional passes, meaning that he issued just 17 unintentional walks in 233 innings). If you are drafting these guys in a roto league, remember that most of them will be doing more of the same this year, so you can't take those walks out of the equation. But if you're looking at whose record suggests a pitcher in command of the strike zone, remember that a guy like a Ben Weber or a Mike Myers has a bad K/BB ratio because of his manager, not because he's got bad control.
It's also worth noting one caution, however. Lowe has another flaw that may be harder to hide: lefthanders killed him last season, and they were about half the batters he faced; as a starter he can't be slotted against a portion of the lineup and may be more vulnerable to the kind of lineup-stacking that plagues people like Orlando Hernandez.
The stats can only point the way of trend lines and suggest that the ability is still there; Lowe still needs to put more work into finding new weapons to use against left-handed hitters and - more likely to yield immediate progress - on holding runners on first base. He needs to prove that his arm is up to 220-240 innings, although that may seem like a vacation compared to 100 innings a year out of the bullpen. He will also need help from the defense, and if Boston gives up and ships him to a team with a solid infield defense and a good catcher, the results could be dramatic. But my money is still on a solid recovery for Lowe and a lot less anxiety for Sox fans who can watch him leave games, rather than enter them, in the late innings.
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