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March 30, 2005

Trade

Texas traded 2B/CF RAMON NIVAR to Baltimore for pitcher MATT RILEY.

Texas gives up on Nivar and gets a decent return for him. In 2003, Nivar came out of nowhere almost literally; until then he was named "Ramon Martinez." Nivar tore through AA and AAA and debuted for Texas in July 2003. Speedy but highly undisciplined, Nivar batted .211 with minimal power and only four walks in 95 plate appearances. He made the 2004 squad as a temp when Brian Jordan had to start the season on the DL, but he soon returned to AAA, where he batted a miserly .264/.290/.374 and was caught stealing on fourteen occasions. Barring a sudden increase in his walk rate and/or an Ichiro-like surge in batting average, he's nothing more than a fifth outfielder or backup 2B.

Riley was 17 when Baltimore selected him in the third-round of the 1997 draft, and he signed barely before his rights expired in 1998. He made his Major League debut just fourteen months later and was not up tothe task. Riley missed all of 2001 after Tommy John surgery. Since then, he's pitched well in AAA and poorly in the Majors. His career walk rate for Baltimmore is 6.6 per nine innings. Also, Riley is out of options and must stick with Texas or pass through waivers.

Posted by Lucas at 08:45 PM

March 27, 2005

ESPN Column

Soriano Hits But Doesn’t Run
ALFONSO SORIANO is finally hitting better, and he bopped two doubles in Saturday’s game against the White Sox. He still has yet to run at full speed. His substandard stride might lead Buck Showalter to move Soriano out of the leadoff spot for while until he shows he’s fully recovered. For those drafting in the next few days, consider Soriano’s bat to be at 100% stretch but cut back on his steals. At the beginning of the month I projected a season of .295, 100 runs, 33 homers, 90 RBI, and 25 steals from him. That still seems reasonable overall, though the upside of 30-35 steals has dropped to 20-25. He still towers above his competition at second base, perhaps the weakest position in fantasy ball.

Scouting FRANCISCO CORDERO
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: Closer. Saves: 40. Wins: 4. Strikeouts: 75. ERA: 3.05. WHIP: 1.30. Upside: Low. Saves are fickle. He might match last year’s 49, or he could end up with “only? 30-35. Downside: Low. I’m already predicting a regression from his 2.13 ERA of a year ago. He was a little lucky in 2004. Injury history: Trouble-free until this spring, when a sore shoulder kept him out of Spring Training games until very recently. He is not 100% but is pretty close. Owners might want to downgrade him ever so slightly. Outlook: Cordero is not in the class of Gagne, Lidge, or Rivera. He belongs in the next tier of closers with fine stats and secure jobs. Cordero is not a one-inning closer and can give you a healthy number of strikeouts.

Scouting KENNY ROGERS
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: Starter. Wins: 11. Strikeouts: 115. ERA: 4.85. WHIP: 1.45. Upside: Low to moderate. Wins are flakier than saves. Rogers won 18 games last year and could get 15 or so this year. He is not fazed by the offense-happy Ballpark. Downside: Moderate to high. He’s 40 and tailed off badly in the second half of last year. Injury history: Stricken with the flu this spring and hasn’t pitched many innings. Otherwise in good shape for a 40-year-old. Outlook: Rogers doesn’t give owners much to go with his wins. He is a bend-but-don’t-break pitcher that allows plenty of runners and doesn’t strike many out. I wouldn’t bother with him in most mixed leagues. He’s an adequate back-end starter in AL-only leagues. Better in real life than in fantasy ball.

Scouting RYAN DRESE
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: Starter. Wins: 12. Strikeouts: 105. ERA: 4.65. WHIP: 1.45. Upside: Low to moderate. I think his high side would be a repeat of last year’s 14 wins and 4.20 ERA. Downside: Moderate. Last year’s success was without precedent or forewarning. Career ERA is 5.18. Injury history: Healthy. Outlook: Like Rogers, Drese is more valuable to the Rangers than to your fantasy team. His strikeout rate is extremely low and he lives off inducing groundballs and minimizing damage rather than preventing it. Also like Rogers, he’s potentially useful in AL-only leagues but not worth the trouble in mixed leagues with twelve or fewer teams. Odds are that someone will draft him on the basis of last year’s stats. Don’t be that person.

CF and DH: A Mess
With Opening Day barely over a week away, the Rangers don’t know who will be playing in center or at DH. The original plan was for LAYNCE NIX and DAVID DELLUCCI to bat and righties with GARY MATTHEWS and GREG COLBRUNN against lefties. Nix has not performed well this spring and might actually visit AAA to get back on track. If that happens, Matthews would become the primary CF, possibly backed up by non-roster invite ANDRES TORRES. Meanwhile, young 1B ADRIAN GONZALEZ and 2B/SS IAN KINSLER have played well enough (and Colbrunn poorly enough) to merit consideration as backups and part-time DHs. I’ll keep interested parties posted, but for now, the combination of so-so production and uncertain playing time makes none of these guys worth drafting except in large AL-only leagues.

The Rest
Closer FRANCISCO CORDERO pitched well in his first Cactus League game. He was lit up two days later in a minor-league games, but more importantly, he has suffered no ill effects from pitching in anger. He should start the season with the club and with minimal worries. Setup man FRANK FRANCISCO hit the DL with a sore elbow. He could return by April 9, but mid-month or later seems more likely. Texas will be patient with him. Potential starter PEDRO ASTACIO has missed action with a pulled groin, not that you’d want him. His injury might open the door for RICARDO RODRIGUEZ despite his horrific outing a few days ago. CHRIS YOUNG’s spot in the rotation seems secure. Young and Rodriguez are players to watch, not to draft.

More Rangers / Questions and Answers

Read my Rangers preview for The Batter’s Box here. I also wrote previews for Houston and Colorado that you can find in the archives. The Box holds several fine writers including A’s correspondent John Gizzi, former Toronto correspondent Kent Williams, former Yankee and Ranger correspondent Mick Doherty, and a host of others.

Posted by Lucas at 11:05 AM

March 26, 2005

"Boardie League" Draft, March 24, 2005

The ESPN Boardie League held its draft on Thursday. Seventeen owners took part. As the defending champ, I am the commissioner this year. Bascially, I set up the league and told everyone to show up at the right time. Tough work.

This league has some odd parameters. First, it's a 6x6 league. OBP and slugging replace batting average, and innings are added to the typical categories in a 5x5 league. Second, three of the four outfielders must fit a left/center/right designation. Third, no bench. Every player drafted is active.

I was reasonably pleased with my results. I wanted Jim Edmonds in the second round but settled for Sheffield when the owner before me snagged Edmonds. The same owner drafted CF Aaron Rowand just before me, but I was satisfied to pick Preston Wilson in the following round. My choice of Latroy Hawkins in the 12th round seemed to cause the most frustration among other owners.

My draft:

Position Player
Round
Pick
C J. Posada
5
75
1B T. Helton
1
7
2B J. Uribe (2B/3B/SS)
7
109
3B M. Ensberg
15
245
SS C. Izturis
14
231
IF B. Roberts
17
279
LF H. Matsui
4
61
CF P. Wilson
9
143
RF G. Sheffield
2
27
OF L. Ford (LF/CF/RF)
10
163
UT J. Guillén
11
177
UT J. Cruz
16
265
SP P. Martínez
3
41
SP L. Hernández
8
129
SP J. Thomson
13
211
RP T. Hoffman
6
95
RP L. Hawkins
12
197
RP B. Donnelly
20
333
P N. Lowry
18
299
P D. Bush
19
313
P A. Reyes
21
347
Position Player
Round
Pick
1B T. Helton
1
7
RF G. Sheffield
2
27
SP P. Martínez
3
41
LF H. Matsui
4
61
C J. Posada
5
75
RP T. Hoffman
6
95
2B J. Uribe (2B/3B/SS)
7
109
SP L. Hernández
8
129
CF P. Wilson
9
143
OF L. Ford (LF/CF/RF)
10
163
UT J. Guillén
11
177
RP L. Hawkins
12
197
SP J. Thomson
13
211
SS C. Izturis
14
231
3B M. Ensberg
15
245
UT J. Cruz
16
265
IF B. Roberts
17
279
P N. Lowry
18
299
P D. Bush
19
313
RP B. Donnelly
20
333
P A. Reyes
21
347

Posted by Lucas at 02:23 PM

March 25, 2005

Transaction

Texas placed reliever FRANK FRANCISCO on the 15-day Disabled List.

Inevitable. Francisco hadn't pitched to a live batter all spring, and he felt renewed pain in his elbow after opening up a bit on Tuesday. The move will allow him to proceed with all due caution. He can rejoin the team as early as April 8.

Posted by Lucas at 08:47 AM

March 22, 2005

Draft Board Upgraded

I've expanded the Status of Draft Picks page significantly. The original page included only the status of the picks from the top ten rounds from 1999-2004. I've added every other draft pick still in the organization and every pick who reached the Majors (whether with Texas or elsewhere).

This is a perpetual work in progress. Email me if you have any corrections.

Posted by Lucas at 12:43 AM

March 20, 2005

ESPN Column

Soriano Still Ailing
ALFONSO SORIANO’s silent spring continues. After missing several early games while recovering from his hamstring injury, he missed several more with the flu. Through Saturday, he is batting 2-for-22 with one homer and ten strikeouts. He’s also played atrocious defense (even for him). Normally, I preach that spring stats don’t mean anything, but in this case his are an indication of his overall health. If you’re drafting this week, knock him down a few slots and let someone else take that risk. As I mentioned last week, the first round is not where owners should take risks. If you’re drafting next week, keep a hawk’s eye on his progress. I’ll update his situation as it develops and will answer emails about him and others at tex05@scottlucas.com.

Scouting RICHARD HIDALGO
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: RF. Spot in Batting Order: Probably #5. Plate Appearances: 600. Batting Average: .265. Runs: 85. Homers: 27. RBI: 85. Steals: 5. On-base Percentage: .340. Slugging Percentage: .500. Upside: Moderate. Hidalgo batted .310 with good patience just two years ago. Downside: High. He batted .239 with no patience just last year, and .235 three years ago. Injury history: Murky. Hidalgo hasn’t reached 600 plate appearances in five years because of a variety of minor injuries.

Meet the most difficult player to project in Major League Baseball. In addition to his seemingly randomly generated stats, he has surpassed 600 plate appearances only once in his career and averaged 568 over the last five years, so my prediction of 600 might be slightly generous. I think potential owners should pretend his unparalleled 200 season (.314-118-44-122-13) never happened, as he’s never come close to repeating it. Take out that season and what does he offer? An erratic batting average, 70-90 runs and RBI, never more than 28 homers, a small handful of steals. In a ten-team mixed league, he a generic outfielder. Hidalgo has considerable upside moving to Arlington, but remember that he spent much of career in hitter-friendly Enron/Minute Maid Park.

Scouting KEVIN MENCH
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: LF. Spot in Batting Order: Probably #6. Plate Appearances: 575. Batting Average: .280. Runs: 75. Homers: 25. RBI: 80. Steals: 1. On-base Percentage: .340. Slugging Percentage: .500. Upside: Moderate. Mench hit 26 homers in 438 at-bats last year and slugged .540. Downside: Moderate. Troublesome injury history, had minimal power in 2003. Injury history: Annoying. Every year, Mench suffers from some malady that cuts into his playing time.

Mench was second on the team in slugging percentage last year to Mark Teixeira. An everyday player early and late last season, Mench missed a few weeks with an oblique pull in May and was demoted to platoon status for two months afterward. This year, he’s the everyday left fielder, though I think he’ll miss another 20-30 games with another injury and/or some dubiously conceived semi-platooning by management. Mench and Hidalgo project fairly similarly, both having hit for average (but only sporadically) and considerable power (same) in the past. As Hidalgo is the “name,? he’ll be drafted well before Mench. I think an intrepid owner could pass on Hidalgo, draft Mench several round later, and get essentially the same production.

Cordero Healing and Other News
Closer FRANCISCO CORDERO finally will face real competition on Sunday, albeit in a minor-league game. Cordero had suffered from a sore shoulder and is combing back slowly to be on the safe side. I own him in a keeper league and am not too worried about him. Setup man FRANK FRANCISCO, a potentially useful reliever in AL-only leagues, probably will begin the season on the DL. He has not progressed beyond throwing in the bullpen. The Rangers are passing around a severe case of the flu to each other, so don’t be shocked if some familiar names miss a few consecutive spring games.

More Rangers
Read my Rangers preview for The Batter’s Box here. I also wrote previews for Houston and Colorado that you can find in the archives. The Box holds several fine writers including A’s correspondent John Gizzi, former Toronto correspondent Kent Williams, former Yankee and Ranger correspondent Mick Doherty, and a host of others.

Posted by Lucas at 01:32 AM

March 18, 2005

2005 Texas Rangers Preview

Originally published at The Batter's Box, 18 March 2005


Three things you might not know about the 2004 Texas Rangers:

  • The offense was not great.
  • The rotation was not terrible.
  • The bullpen was phenomenal.

Unlike their division rivals, the Rangers hit the pause button after the season ended and will return with virtually the same group that posted the franchise's first winning record in five years. Other than right field, designated hitter, and one rotation spot, the names haven't changed. Texas will seek internal improvement, perhaps augmented with an in-season trade or two.

OFFSEASON / MANAGEMENT

Last summer, assistant General Manager Grady Fuson was two years and nine months into a three-year intership for the GM position. He and owner Tom Hicks agreed to a contract for 2005. Only weeks later, he was gone. So the story goes, Hicks and alleged lame-duck GM John Hart got to talking. Hart decided he wanted to hang around after all. Manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser lent their support. Just that quickly, Fuson had no promotion waiting for him and no role in the organization.

After last winter's trade of Alex Rodriguez, I expressed skepticism about the heralded "payroll flexibility" in the wake of the Alex Rodriguez trade. To this point, the team has "rewarded" my skepticism by signing exactly one free agent of significance since then: Richard Hidalgo for one year at $5 million. Otherwise, except for a run at Carlos Delgado, Texas has looked askance on the spendthrift ways of its competition. The only other meaningful signings were the aging and oft-injured trio of Pedro Astacio, catcher Sandy Alomar and DH Greg Colbrunn.

Payroll has plummeted from over $100 million to under $60 million in three years. Indeed, the third-highest salary on the club belongs to the starting third baseman for the New York Yankees. Only Chan Ho Park and Alfonso Soriano make more. Regarding Park, remember the fuss about how a team couldn't compete when one player earned too high a percentage of the team's payroll?

Year	Team Payroll	Highest-Paid Player	Player Salary	Payroll Pct.
2003 $94,000,000 Alex Rodriguez $23,000,000 23%
2005 $59,000,000 Chan Ho Park $14,000,000 24%

Manager Buck Showalter has yet to wear out his welcome. He deservedly won the Manager of the Year award by leading his troops to an entirely unexpected eighteen-game improvement and meaningful baseball in late September. Arguably, the team's biggest free-agent signing was hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who considered leaving for the Mets. Jaramillo preaches an aggressive style that tends to produce better batting averages but fewer walks. (I hope to publish a study on him soon.) The players swear by him. Pitching coach Orel Hershiser has a bright future, bright enough that he turned down a contract extension. He'll ascend to GM someday, perhaps in Texas. The staff has bought into his mental approach and insistence on pitches that induce ground balls.

OFFENSE

You've heard it a million times (I've heard it a billion): "The Rangers have a great offense, but they'll never win with that pitching."

This is demonstrably untrue, and the next time someone says it to you, hit the offender on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper (unless the offending party is your mother). The offense was nothing special in 2004, and it was the deciding factor in the Rangers' slide out of the division lead. On the morning of July 21, Texas held a 2.5-division lead going into a twelve-game stretch against Anaheim and Oakland. Texas scored only 39 runs in those twelve games, lost eight, and set the tone for the rest of the season. Allow me to illustrate:

Period			Scored/Game	Allowed/Game	Record
Through July 20: 5.72 4.97 53-38
After July 20: 4.78 4.82 36-35

The pitching held up while the offense declined by almost a full run per game. After the All-Star Break, Texas batted .248/.316/.432, dead last in the AL in batting average and thirteenth in OBP.

The Ballpark in Arlington (renamed, not acknowledged) isn't Coors Field, but it does give a big boost to the offense. The Rangers led the division in runs scored for the season and simultaneously finished last in OPS+:

Team 		AVG+ 	OBP+ 	SLG+ 	OPS+		Runs
Anaheim 105 101 99 100 -- 836
Oakland 99 101 99 100 -- 793
Seattle 103 101 95 96 -- 698
Texas 94 93 100 94 -- 860

Now, OPS is not the holy grail of statistics, but the Rangers clearly struggled to get runners on base despite finishing fifth in the league in runs scored. Their .329 OBP was just below the AL average and a gruesome 24 points below average after adjusting for their offense-friendly home park. In fact, the Rangers' OBP+ of 94 was the fourth-worst in franchise history. They outscored the 2003 squad by 34 runs, but the average AL team increased its output by 23.

Carlos Delgado would not have been a frivolous addition to an already dynamic offense. On the contrary, he would have filled a gaping hole. The dubious DH situation is one reason why Texas is just not good enough to make the postseason in 2005.

The Sure Things

25 next month, first baseman Mark Teixeira looks ready for entry into the realm of elite sluggers. Teixeira improved on his average, patience and power in his sophomore season. Unlike many Rangers, he did not slump after the All-Star break and hit well on the road. He has quickly established himself as a fine defender.

Third baseman Hank Blalock roared out of the gate in 2004 and carried a line of .303/.369/.572 into his second All-Star appearance in two years as a regular. A sore wrist and general exhaustion resulted in a gloomier second half (.240/.338/.406). Not sitting against lefties as he did much of 2003, Blalock simply wore out. To his credit, he showed extraordinary patience to compensate for his weakened bat. In fact, he had more walks in September (17) than extra bases on hits (16). He is a solid if unspectacular fielder. Blalock is seven months younger than Teixeira.

Michael Young is exactly the kind of player fans can love and a suitable replacement for retired fan favorite Rusty Greer. He's far too talented to deserve the backhanded compliment of "scrappy," but he is also someone who gets the very most out of his talent and has improved beyond expectations. Young reached the Majors as an impatient .260 hitter with decent power and has evolved into a .300+ hitter with good power. He's still impatient. Young's .313 average in 2004 tied a career best at any level, and his 22 homers surpassed his best season to date (16 in the low-A Sally League) by six. He played shortstop for a while in the minors and handled the move from second with ease.

The Wild Cards

Texas's chances of contention rest largely with the four gentlemen below.

Alfonso Soriano finished his first season in Ranger blue with a .280 average, 28 homers, a 91 RBI. What a letdown. Yes, Soriano is an elite performer in fantasy leagues. In the real world, he declined dramatically from 2003, especially in light of his move from a pitcher's park to the best hitter's park in the AL. Walking once per twenty plate appearances makes for an uninspiring OBP when combined with that .280 average. Soriano is also well below average defensively. For someone who demands to play second base and only second base, he seems awfully indifferent to his performance at the position. He'll make a fine play and ten minutes later will let a lazy grounder bounce through his legs. Soriano is not a bad player, just a disappointing one. Despite all my negativity, I do expect the 29-year-old to return partially to Yankee form. That assumes he is healthy. A torn hamstring tendon ended his 2004 three weeks early, and he has run and fielded tentatively so far in Spring Training.

Left fielder Kevin Mench trailed only Mark Teixeira in slugging percentage in 2004. He is a mirror image of the team's offense as a whole: plenty of power but just short in batting average and walks. After over two years of frustrating injuries and a couple of dubious on-field decisions, Mench forced himself back into the everyday lineup in mid-August and provided one of the few post-All Star offensive bright spots. He is more the .279 hitter of 2004 than the .320 hitter of 2003, so the improved patience he showed in the second half is a welcome addition if permanent. Mench gives the appearance of a Greg Luzinski in the field but has surprisingly good range. He has played center field without embarrassing himself.

A very quick glance at the statistics would suggest that center fielder Laynce Nix was reaching his potential until a mid-June shoulder sprain wrecked his swing. Unfortunately , he'd already tailed off severely after a mesmerizing opening month (.365/.397/.714). Nix batted a wretched .224/.269/.380 after April 30 and enters 2005 on a short leash. He has yet to produce against lefties and probably will sit against them in favor of Gary Matthews (who actually hits better against righties). A lack of production will result in his sitting against almost everyone or even a demotion to AAA. Nix is very athletic and toolsy, which is why folks persist in hoping that he'll be a better player than Mench despite negligible evidence to date. His batting eye was keen in the minors but has been blind in the Majors. Even Soriano doesn't strikeout five times for each walk.

In my ESPN "job" as Rangers fantasy correspondent, I receive more questions about right fielder Richard Hidalgo than anybody else. I dread them. Review his OPS+ over the last six years -- 93, 147, 104, 89, 142, 90 - and tell me what to expect for 2005. Review his 2004 splits - a .341 batting average in April following by a .329 slugging percentage in May and June - and predict his future. Fortunately for Texas, even a mediocre season from Hidalgo will provide substantial improvement over last year's would-be right fielder Brian Jordan. Hidalgo is an extreme fly-ball hitter who could do some damage in Arlington if he doesn't become too pull-happy, as the left field line and power alley are the only places in the park not totally in favor of hitters. Hidalgo has adequate range and a strong arm.

The Problems

From Opening Day through June 24 of last season, catcher Rod Barajas fused the powers of Johnny Bench and The Hulk, batting an unprecedented .284/.293/.627 including twelve homers in 134 at-bats. Yes, that's an .009 difference in his OBP and batting average, courtesy of two HBPs and exactly one walk. That span represents about 15% of his Major League career. In the other 85% he has batted .217/.259/.338. Which version of Barajas is more likely to appear in 2005? Barajas does play adequate defense, but he would need to mimic Ivan Rodriguez circa 1995 to offset his hitting.

Last year's Opening Day starter, 25-year-old Gerald Laird, will open in AAA. Laird won the job in Spring Training and played well until tearing a thumb ligament. He retuned hastily and batted .078 until losing his backup role to Ken Huckaby. He is healthy now. Is Laird really worse than Barajas, or is Ranger management mistaken? Either answer is disappointing.

At designated hitter, Texas offers the two-headed monster of David Dellucci (vs. righties) and Greg Colbrunn (vs. lefties). Dellucci adds value to a team if used the right way; he's a fine fourth outfielder, adequate defensively, able to draw a walk and put the ball in the seats on occasion. As a fourth outfielder and DH, he's overmatched. Dellucci might surpass last year's 387 plate appearances, an event not likely to coincide with a division-clinching victory.

Colbrunn was once a premier lefty-masher and pinch hitter. A wrist injury has limited him to just ninety plate appearances in the last two years. Age and rust don't normally add up to much, but Texas will hope for 200 quality plate appearances from him. The rest of the bench hits better against righthanders, so Texas is putting a lot of faith in Colbrunn. Designated hitter is a prime spot for improvement via trade.

Bench and Reinforcements

For much of last season, Showalter used platoons or frequent rotations at DH, catcher, and two outfield spots, practically guaranteeing every position player at least two starts per week. This year's bench will also see plenty of action.

Texas signed outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. when Atlanta released him last April, and in barely a month Matthews had become a valuable addition to the lineup. Last year's surprising line of .275/.350/.461 was not entirely without precedent, but on the whole Matthews is a bit below average in all respects but walking. Like Dellucci, he is a good bench player who would be stretched too thin in a starting role. Matthews does play capable center field defense.

Backup catcher Sandy Alomar hasn't displayed health and effectiveness in the same year since 1997. Why does Texas believe he will now? Ideally, the Ranger backup would be an offense-oriented type that partially compensates for the deficiency of Barajas. Alomar is decidedly not that type. Assuming Barajas and Alomar do receive the majority of starts behind the plate, Texas will sport one of the three or four worst-hitting corps of catchers in baseball.

This year's backup infielder will be Mark DeRosa, who represents a step up from Manny Alexander but a lesser bat than Eric Young, who departed for San Diego. Unlike his benchmates, DeRosa won't leave the dugout much unless someone gets hurt.

Adrian Gonzalez is a fine defensive first baseman who is incapable of playing elsewhere and who certainly won't supplant Mark Teixeira. Gonzalez might force his way into a DH-sharing arrangement if he continues his hot spring. His humdrum AAA season and ML debut were mild disappointments, but he's not yet 23. Gonzalez probably will begin the season in AAA with placement on a short list for a call-up.

The ascent of 2B/SS Ian Kinsler may push Soriano out the door before long. The 22-year-old batted .345/.429/.568 between AA and low-A followed by a similarly dandy line in the Arizona Fall League. Back spasms early in Spring Training ruined whatever slim chance 1B/OF Jason Botts had to make the club. Previously a .290 hitter with tremendous patience but little power, he nearly doubled his career best in homers with 24 and, like Kinsler, excelled in the AFL. He'll join Kinsler in AAA for now.

ROTATION

So, the offense was nothing special and certainly was not responsible for the 18-game improvement in the standings. What was? Would you believe the rotation?

Year 	IP 	W-L 	ER 	ERA 	LgERA 	ERA+
2003 832 47-65 577 6.24 4.94 79
2004 901 55-58 517 5.16 5.05 98

Admittedly, improvement comes cheap when the comparative rotation is so epically awful. Still, the Ranger rotation pitched 69 more innings and allowed 60 fewer earned runs than the 2003 version. If you're nerdy enough to make bar bets over ERA+, bet some poor sucker that the Ranger rotation was the equal of Anaheim in that regard. It's true!

Team 		 IP 	ERA 	ERA+ 	Starters
Oakland 1,031 4.24 110 6
Anaheim 964 4.69 98 6
Texas 901 5.17 98 17
Seattle 988 4.88 88 11

That last column is the mangy 800-pound gorilla. Seventeen players started at least one game for Texas last year. Only Kenny Rogers and Ryan Drese started more than sixteen. Management deserves credit for constructing last year's semi-functional rotation out of binder's twine and rubber cement. This year, their goal is to add to last year's improvement and use several fewer starters in the process.

They're more likely to achieve the second goal than the first. Just in terms of probability, at least one pitcher among Kenny Rogers and Ryan Drese should decline. Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio both have several recent years of ill health and ill results. None of the youngsters is an ace-to-be; they have varying levels of potential and brief, sporadic success in the Majors. Again, the rotation's role will not be to win games but rather to avoid losing them.

What a difference a year makes for Kenny Rogers. In spring of 2004, he publicly vented his frustration over the Rodriguez trade, saying he didn't want to be part of a rebuilding effort in the twilight of his career. This spring he allegedly threatened retirement unless he received a contract extension. Whether management plant or true story, Rogers isn't talking to the media any more. Rogers earned an All-Star selection by winning eleven games with a 3.65 ERA over the season's first three months. After that, his ERA ballooned to 6.42, and batters hit .355 against him on balls in play. Bad luck, or the beginning of the end? Rogers doesn't have much in the way of stuff but succeeds with placement, smarts, and agile defense.

Orel Hershiser's resume should consist solely of a picture of Ryan Drese. Recoiling from a career track as the next John Wasdin, Drese junked his eminently hittable four-seamer in favor of a sinker that hitters pounded into the dirt. Like Rogers, he allows plenty of baserunners but minimizes the damage by spreading out those runners and keeping the ball out of the bleachers. Still, that style makes his 4.20 ERA seem like an anomaly. Drese should still be reasonably effective in 2005, but if 4.20 is the benchmark, place your money on the "over." Drese's ascension has allowed management to proffer the lie that Drese was an integral part of the abhorrent Travis Hafner for Einar Diaz trade at the end of 2002.

Every moment spent thinking about Chan Ho Park is a moment lost. Texas will give Park one final chance to justify a portion of his malignant contract. If he fails, they will set him free.

I snickered upon the news that Pedro Astacio was seeking a guaranteed deal. I laughed out loud upon the news that he received it. Upon the news that he signed with Texas, the humor of the situation somehow eluded me. The money itself matters little. However, his automatic placement on the 40-man roster implicitly grants him a rotation spot without him having to prove he can retire Major-League hitters. Shoulder injuries have limited him to 45 woeful innings over the last two years, and in the prior two years he was only a marginally effective inning-eater. A "Marginally effective inning-eater" is what Texas will hope for in 2005.

The back of the rotation offers more interest and promise. Thanks to some added pep to his fastball, Chris Young mutated from an underachiveving B-level prospect in the Pittsburgh and Montreal systems to a vital part of the Rangers' future in nine quick months. His seven-start Major-League trial was only modestly successful but featured memorable and dominating road starts against Boston and Anaheim. The oft-injured Ricardo Rodriguez received a literally crushing blow last July when a Rob Quinlan liner connected squarely with his pitching elbow. Like many Rangers, Rodriguez relies heavily on a sinker. He has occasional control problems, primarily in the form of a curve that doesn't curve. Rodriguez probably will start in AAA, but unless all of the top four starters remain healthy and effective (ha), he'll receive ample opportunity to stake his claim as a big-league starter. Juan Dominguez has better stuff than either of them but persists in aggravating management with his lackadaisical attitude and work habits. Pointedly cut early in Spring Training, he'll head back to Oklahoma City to work on becoming a pitcher instead of a thrower.

BULLPEN

In 2003, the Texas pen begrudgingly set the Major League record for innings pitched with 601. In 2004, the collective threw 62 fewer innings and allowed an astonishing 119 fewer earned runs. They led the AL in ERA, wins, fewest losses, and Expected Wins Added (per Baseball Prospectus). In a sense, the bullpen's amazing 2004 is a problem. Five of the seven probable Opening Day relievers had career years, and Texas can't reasonably expect a repeat performance. The bullpen will simply be good, not otherworldly.

Regardless of the results, John Hart appears to have learned his lesson regarding bullpen construction. After signing a series of expensive and/or high-profile flops such as John Rocker, Hideki Irabu, Esteban Yan, Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell, and Dan Miceli, Hart has become the poster boy for cheap and effective bullpen construction:

Player 			How Acquired
Carlos Almanzar Minor-league free agent
Frank Francisco Trade for Carl Everett
Brian Shouse Minor-league free agent
Ron Mahay Minor-league free agent
Doug Brocail Minor-league free agent

Francisco Cordero runs the show. Finally given the closer's job in Spring Training after proving he deserved it for two years, he promptly produced his best season including a franchise-record 49 saves. While not as dominating as Gagne, Lidge or Rivera, Cordero features a killer fastball-slider combo that produced more than a strikeout per inning and allowed just one homer all season. Occasionally his control abandons him. A rise in last year's 2.13 ERA is probable, but he should still rank among the best ten closers in baseball.

Texas inked Carlos Almanzar to a minor-league deal after he struck out 54 and walked only three in 46 innings as a Louisville Bat. A sore arm and general fatigue led to late-season ineffectiveness, but on the whole Almanzar easily justified his signing. He'll return to his setup role.

Frank Francisco debuted in the Majors last May after embarrassing Texas League hitters for six weeks. Big-league hitters fared little better. Francisco walked far too many batters but otherwise left themm dumbfounded with his 95+ fastball and splitter. For the season (AA and AL), he allowed 43 hits and struck out 90. Francisco has yet to pitch the spring because of a sore elbow and may open the season on the Disabled List. The Smoking Gun did not deem him important enough to post his mug shot.

Brian Shouse is the LOOGY, pitching 44 innings in 53 appearances last year. Good luck hitting the ball skyward against him; as a Ranger he has a 2.82 ground/fly ratio and has allowed four homers in 105 innings. Fellow lefty Ron Mahay is the longman. Yet another sinker-thrower, he allowed only fourteen extra-base hits in a career-high 67 innings.

Doug Brocail didn't pitch for three years because of arm troubles, and his first few appearances were dreadful. With his career in the balance, he suddenly rediscovered his fastball and curve and took on a more important role as other relievers flagged. Texas re-signed him on the basis of that half-season of excellence and will hope for more. R.A. Dickey, a man born without an elbow ligament in his throwing arm, will be the team mop. Dickey can chew through several innings and start if needed, but he simply doesn't have the stuff to retire hitters consistently.

On the outside are lefty Erasmo Ramirez and Joaquin Benoit. Ramirez's money pitch is a 65-MPH changeup that lulls hitters to sleep on its way to the plate. Ramirez has options and probably will start the year in AAA. Texas kept the ineffective Benoit on the roster last year because he was out of options. This year they may cut bait. A sore arm and a possible DL stint could buy Texas some time to think things over.

OUTLOOK

I'll be honest. As I wrote this preview, I often felt brimmed with optimism, something with which I do not ordinarily brim. "If Soriano reverts to form and Nix breaks out and Rogers holds up and Drese isn't a fluke and Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Young are for real and…" you get the idea. This isn't the AL East. Consolidation of last year's gains and a few well-placed career years could take the division.

Alas, at the end of the day I am enslaved to Realism, cruel yet honest. In 2004, Texas won a few more games than their run differential would suggest, and they also scored more runs and allowed fewer than their peripherals would suggest. They could very well improve on last year's performance but still win fewer games. Texas did not adequately address last year's shortcomings in the offseason. They could win the division but will not, instead retreating to about 84 wins and a third-place finish.

Posted by Lucas at 01:35 AM

March 16, 2005

Transaction

Texas added DH GREG COLBRUNN to the 40-man roster. Texas also designated 2B JASON BOURGEOIS for assignement.

The Rangers had to add Colbrunn to the roster or he could declare free agency. He hasn't shown much so far in Spring Training other than health. The rest of the probable bench looks weak against righthanded pitchers, so they have no in-house alternative to Colbrunn right now.

As for Bourgeois, his tenure on the 40-man roster lasted all of sixteen months. Bourgeois has developed slowly, taking a full year or more at each level before breaking through. In a year-and-a-half at AA with 799 plate appearances, he has a line of .255/.313/.343. I'd guess the Rangers are hoping teams will look at that line and leave him alone. Bourgeois just turned 23 and has time to step up. If unclaimed, he'll probably return to AA.

Posted by Lucas at 10:46 AM

March 13, 2005

ESPN Column

Soriano Struggles, Cordero Improves
Last week, I wrote the following about ALFONSO SORIANO and his troubled hamstring tendon: “Once he shows he’s ready, erase your worries about him.? He is decidedly, unequivocally not ready. Soriano returned to action last week but was zero-for-seventeen so far until hitting a homer as I typed this report. Spring stats are fundamentally meaningless, but in this case, Soriano’s line is cause for concern. He is also playing very tentatively in the field. Ranger doctors say he’s physically healthy; a workout-free offseason and fear of reinjury are the source of his troubles. Perhaps one solid hit or quality defensive play will snap him out of his funk. Perhaps not. For fantasy owners, his situation has introduced substantial risk into what should be an easy decision.

First-round decisions should be no-brainers. It is not the round to choose the infirm, the reaches, the question marks. I do think Soriano will be fine and put forth a fine fantasy season. However, I’m not nearly as certain of this as I am about Pujols, Beltran, Guerrero, etc.. Were I drafting today, I’d drop him several places on my cheat sheet. Doing so effectively means giving him up to another owner who will take that risk. If you’re drafting this week, keep an eye on his status every day for signs of improvement. The overarching lesson is not to participate in a draft that occurs this early. Meanwhile, closer FRANCISCO CORDERO will throw in a simulated game Monday. Unless bad news comes from this event, don’t downgrade him.

Scouting HANK BLALOCK
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: 3B. Spot in Batting Order: Probably #3. Plate Appearances: 675. Batting Average: .295. Runs: 100. Homers: 32. RBI: 100. Steals: 2. On-base Percentage: .355. Slugging Percentage: .525. Upside: Moderate. Blalock just turned 24 and has plenty of time to grow. Downside: Low. As steady a player as they come. Injury history: After platooning in 2003, he wore down as a full-time player in ’04. Texas may try to rest him a few more games.

In 2004, Blalock cured his biggest flaw from the previous year, inability to hit lefties. Blalock, like many Rangers, has a spotty road record with plenty of power (16 of his 32 homers) but only a .239 average. As mentioned above, I think he has more upside than downside. Third base has amazing depth this year, and Blalock is mixed in with a bunch of guys who should hit in the .280-.300 range with 30+ homers and 100 runs scored and driven in: Rolen, Huff, Chavez, Ramirez, and Beltre (who I expect to cool off from last year), for example. Any of them will suit you fine. Rolen I rank higher than the others, but otherwise don’t agonize over slight differences between these guys. Just grab one and focus your attention elsewhere.

Scouting MICHAEL YOUNG
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: SS. Spot in Batting Order: Probably #2. Plate Appearances: 700. Batting Average: .310. Runs: 105. Homers: 18. RBI: 85. Steals: 12. On-base Percentage: .345. Slugging Percentage: .465. Upside: Low. Hard to see him improving on last year’s line of .313-114-22-99-12. Will have some streaky months but end up in good shape. Downside: Low. Steady like Blalock. Injury history: None. Ridiculously healthy.

For two years running, I’ve predicted Young to fall back slightly from his previous year’s statistics. Each time, he’s improved. I still expect him to decline just slightly, but at this point he could decline a fair amount and still rank among the best fantasy shortstops. If you’re looking for steals from a shortstop, you need to look elsewhere. Otherwise, except for Miguel Tejada, Young should rank among the top three in every other category. I place him fourth behind Tejada, Jeter and Renteria. Garciaparra obviously could surpass Young but has a difficult injury history.

Other Notes
GARY MATTHEWS continues to play very well, putting ever more pressure on Buck Showalter to give him regular time in place of LAYNCE NIX. Potential starter JUAN DOMINGUEZ has already been sent to AAA. With CHAN HO PARK pitching to “expectations? and PEDRO ASTACIO’s lack of velocity, both CHRIS YOUNG and RICARDO RODRIGUEZ might make the rotation. Watch, but don’t pick, in AL-only leagues.

Posted by Lucas at 01:30 AM

March 11, 2005

2005 Houston Astros Preview

Published at the Batter's Box, 11 March 2005

Last year's Astros didn't play the winningest baseball in franchise history but did offer the most exciting. Dead as a doornail in mid-August -- 56-60 and in seventh place in the wild card standings - Houston roared to 36-10 finish, won its first ever playoff series, and came within four innings of the World Series.

Do the 2005 Astros have what it takes to expand on last year's accomplishments?

Nope.

The rotation remains strong despite the loss of Wade Miller, but the bullpen thins out quickly after Brad Lidge, and the offense has some holes. Houston is good enough to contend, but not good enough to play deep into October.

OFFSEASON

New GM Tim Purpura had a tough winter. Taking over after Gerry Hunsicker's abrupt resignation, Purpura made a reasonable offer to second baseman Jeff Kent: $7 million with a $7 million vesting option for 2006 to a player who turns 37 in April. A more lucrative free-agent market and Kent's insistence on a no-trade clause killed the deal. Next came the agonizing decision to non-tender Wade Miller. Miller made $3.4 million in 2004 and almost certainly would have received a raise in arbitration despite missing three months with a frayed rotator cuff. Faced with the possibility of paying Miller to sit on the bench and heal his wounds, Houston cut him lose. Then, the situation got worse. Purpura and company reportedly offered premier free agent Carlos Beltran seven years and $108 million, only to lose out to the $119 million tendered by the New York Mets.

Taken individually, the offers and decisions surrounding each player are defensible and don't reflect poorly on the organization. They did retain Roger Clemens and inked Roy Oswalt to a two-year deal. On the whole, however, Houston let some tremendous talent escape and did nothing to replace it. The Astros signed exactly one player from another team to a Major-League contract: 44-year-old John Franco.

OFFENSE

Houston hitters finished 2004 with an even 100 OPS+. Thanks to a league-best .274 average with runners in scoring position, they finished fifth of sixteen NL teams in runs scored. Unfortunately, two of their three best hitters play elsewhere and the replacements don't have nearly the resumes or upside. Beltran and Kent ranked behind only Lance Berkman in OPS+ last year. Jason Lane and presumably Chris Burke will take their places. Berkman himself, now the only truly fearsome hitter on the team, will miss the first month or so while recovering from knee surgery.

In short, the offense has clearly changed for the worse. In the worst-case scenario, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio decline further, Jose Vizcaino plays second regularly when Burke proves unworthy, Morgan Ensberg doesn't recover his power stroke, and Berkman returns late (forcing Orlando Palmeiro into regular action) and/or in ill form. As such, Houston could effectively punt the offense in five positions (P, C, 2B, SS, RF). All of those what-ifs won't occur, but some will. Houston desperately needs major contributions from Ensberg and Jason Lane to mitigate the loss of Beltran and Kent.

The Astros will struggle to approach last year's 803 runs, but it's possible. The aforementioned Ensberg and Lane have excelled in brief stints, Burke's 2004 AAA campaign was promising, and Biggio and Bagwell aren't dead yet.

A look at Houston's righty-heavy lineup:

Player 		        Pos     Age      PA 	 BA 	 OBP 	 SLG 	OPS+
Brad Ausmus C 36 441 .248 .306 .325 64
Jeff Bagwell 1B 37 679 .266 .377 .465 117
Chris Burke * 2B 25 556 .315 .396 .507 N/A
Morgan Ensberg 3B 29 451 .275 .330 .411 91
Adam Everett SS 28 413 .273 .317 .385 81
Craig Biggio LF 39 691 .281 .337 .469 106
Jason Lane CF 28 155 .272 .348 .463 108
Lance Berkman - S RF 29 687 .316 .450 .566 161

* in AAA.

CATCHER - BRAD AUSMUS
Five years ago, Brad Ausmus was a fine defensive catcher who could provide some assistance with his bat. Now, he is actively harming his team. In 2004, Ausmus ranked thirteenth in OPS among the fourteen NL catchers with at least 300 at-bats. Various metrics indicate he has fallen from excellent to just average behind the plate, and his percentage of baserunners caught stealing fell to a career low of 26%. Ausmus becomes a free agent at season's end and Houston needs a legitimate replacement. They'll probably have to look outside the organization, since prospect John Buck departed for Kansas City as part of the Beltran trade.

FIRST BASE - JEFF BAGWELL
Sad to say, the future Hall-of-Famer is a shadow of his former self. Once the batting equivalent of General Sherman, Bagwell finished in the top ten in the NL in OPS+ every year from 1993-2000. In 2004, his .465 slugging percentage ranked eleventh among the twelve qualifying NL first basemen (twelfth place: Shea Hillenbrand). Likewise, his once-superior defense has declined to sub-replacement level because of a bum shoulder and general aging. Houston will pay him $32 million over the next two years and buy out his 2007 option at a cost of $12 million if he doesn't retire.

SECOND BASE? LEFT FIELD? - CRAIG BIGGIO
Houston signed Biggio for another season but has yet to decide where he'll play. As of this writing, Biggio was playing mostly at second base. He may split time between outfield and second depending on Berkman's knee and Burke's progress. The 38-year-old had a bizarre 2004, setting a career high in homers but a career low in walks. He also hit more fly balls than grounders for the first time ever. I'm not quite foolish enough to suggest that walks are better than homers, but Houston badly needs more of his high-OBP magic from the top of the order.

SHORTSTOP - ADAM EVERETT
Everett carries a slick glove that merits a spot in the lineup, just not the #2 spot he cluttered for much of last season. Everett finished with more sacrifice bunts than walks, dual testament to his impatience and former manager Jimy Williams's love of small ball. Everett tends to hit skyward despite not generating much power. This at least leads to few double plays.

THIRD BASE - MORGAN ENSBERG
Speaking of bizarre: After smacking 25 homers in 2003, Ensberg failed to hit a single one in the first three months of 2004 and had to share third base with Mike Lamb. Then, he homered in three consecutive games in early July and finished with ten on the season despite missing several weeks with back spasms. Ensberg isn't much of a defender but is a far cry better than Lamb. A return to 2003 form will salve some of the pain of Beltran's departure.

RIGHT FIELD, EVENTUALLY - LANCE BERKMAN
Someday, the standard MLB contract will stipulate that players be encased in Lucite during the offseason. Houston's best hitter tore an ACL playing flag football and won't play baseball until late April at best. With Beltran and Kent already gone, a Berkman-free lineup doesn't scare anyone. Berkman is playing for his next contract and has already waived off a four-year, $48 million offer from Houston.

CENTER FIELD - JASON LANE
Lane turns 28 in May and spent two years trapped behind Berkman, Biggio, Hidalgo and Beltran. Now, he'll play every day regardless of where Biggio ends up. Lane has a shiny .526 slugging percentage in limited action. His slugging percentage in AAA is a more modest .465 and probably a better indicator of his true ability. He won't remind anyone of Beltran in the field but won't embarrass himself.

SECOND BASE? OUTFIELD? DUGOUT? - CHRIS BURKE
The 25-year-old Burke seemed certain to take over for Jeff Kent after batting .315/.396/.507 in AAA and winning the Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year award, something I did not know existed until now. Or will he? Early reports indicate he may move to the outfield in favor of Biggio, a move I will politely describe as "perplexing." In a perfect world, he'll assert himself and claim the #2 spot from Adam Everett.

BENCH / REINFORCEMENTS

Always good for single and doubles, Mike Lamb popped a career-high fourteen homers and forced his way into a timesharing arrangement with Ensberg for much of the season. Lamb is an egregious defender yet versatile, able to play any corner infield or outfield spot. Jose Vizcaino has value as a backup middle infielder but doesn't help the team as an everyday player. Unfortunately, he'll do just that Burke falters or if Houston decides to go with veteran presence. Backup catcher Raul Chavez has a career OPS+ of 48, actually making Ausmus look good by comparison. Aging outfielder Orlando Palmeiro no longer hits well and needs to sit in a glass case, to be used only in an emergency. Young and blazingly fast outfielder Willy Taveras earned some big-league meal money as a pinch runner and defensive replacement last year but otherwise has never played above AA. Taveras is essentially powerless but hits for average and is willing to draw a walk. He should be the everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter in 2006 and has a chance to break in this season.

ROTATION

Player 			Age      ERA 	ERA+ 	IP 	H/9 	HR/9 	BB/9 	SO/9
Roger Clemens 42 2.98 145 214 7.1 0.6 3.3 9.2
Roy Oswalt 27 3.49 123 237 8.8 0.6 2.4 7.8
Andy Pettitte - L 33 3.90 111 83 7.7 0.9 3.4 8.6
Brandon Backe 27 4.30 100 67 10.1 1.3 3.6 7.3
Tim Redding 27 5.72 75 101 11.2 1.3 3.8 5.0
Peter Munro 30 5.15 84 100 10.8 1.1 2.3 5.7
Carlos Hernandez - L 25 6.43 67 42 10.7 2.4 4.9 5.6

The rotation is the team strength and what will keep Houston from falling too far from last year's 92 wins. Clemens and Oswalt are as fine a 1-2 combination as exists in the Majors. During their 46-game sprint to the wild card, the Astros went 17-2 when Clemens or Oswalt started. A healthy Andy Pettitte should replace the respectable half-seasons provided by him and Miller last year. Brandon Backe jumped from zero to sixty in a few heady weeks last fall. The fifth starter… well, let's not kill the buzz just yet.

ROGER CLEMENS
Though he couldn't hold the lead in Game Seven against St. Louis, the Rocket did everything else and sprinkled parmesan cheese on top. Clemens put forth his best season since 1998 with Toronto and earned his seventh Cy Young award. The 42-year-old will break down some day, maybe, but his peripherals show absolutely no sign of it. Nolan Ryan threw over 800 innings after turning 42; Clemens could do the same if he's interested.

ROY OSWALT
Despite a nagging ribcage injury, Oswalt set career highs in innings and starts and led the league in both categories. He did not have an exceptional year overall by his standards, but his late-season heroics and twenty wins placed him third in the Cy Young voting. Oswalt dominates with a dynamite fastball and knee-bucking curve and throws in some sliders for good measure.

ANDY PETTITTE
Pettitte's disappointing season ended August 12 after gamely pitching with a sore arm. At the time, his departure felt like the last nail in the coffin holding Houston's moribund playoff hopes. He visited the DL three times with various arm troubles and rarely pitched pain-free. After offseason surgery, he's pitching at nearly full speed and appears on course to start the season in full health. Billy Wagner returned from the same procedure will no ill effects. Houston hopes for the same from Pettitte because the alternatives don't inspire confidence.

BRANDON BACKE
Backe's season ended with an epic eight-inning, no-run performance against St. Louis in Game Five of the NLCS. Not bad for a guy who had been optioned to AAA in June. A converted position player, Backe suddenly put it all together during his exile to New Orleans and returned to Houston to make nine stretch-run starts, of which the team won seven. His last two months stand in very stark contrast to the mediocrity of his previous two-plus years in the Majors and high minors, so a repeat performance is by no means guaranteed. Still, he does have good stuff and obviously doesn't wilt under pressure, so he has a future. Backe also had an .889 OPS in 21 plate appearances. If Phil Garner wants to manage really creatively, he can use Backe as a pinch-hitter instead of Palmeiro.

5TH STARTER / REINFORCEMENTS
As with most teams, Houston has several unpalatable choices for the last spot in the rotation. Tim Redding fell back to earth hard after his breakout 2003. Never especially adept with his control or keeping the ball in the park, Redding's K/9 rate has plummeted from nine to five in three years. Former Blue Jay Pete Munro started nineteen games for Houston last year but is better suited to long relief. Opposing batters have a line of .304/.370/.458 against him. Former top prospect Carlos Hernandez is two years off rotator cuff surgery and probably will start in AAA. The surgery at least temporarily cost him some of the velocity he needs to compensate for his suspect control.

The real deal may be 24-year-old Ezequiel Astacio, who ratcheted up his strikeout rate considerably in AA. Astacio will have to announce his presence with aurhoity in order to make the trip to Houston immediately, but a midseason callup awaits. Demi-prospects Brandon Duckworth and Taylor Buchholz will try to revitalize their careers in AAA.

BULLPEN

Merely dominant as a setup man, as a closer Lidge chopped down the mountain with the edge of his hand. His statistics appear stolen from women's fast-pitch softball: 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings, only 5.1 hits per nine innings allowed. Lidge features a fastball that can exceed 95 MPH and an ungodly slider. Lidge threw 106 innings including the playoffs. During a five-day stretch in the NLCS, he appeared in four games and threw eight innings and 108 pitches. Garner will have to resist the urge to ride him too hard.

Alas, Lidge's supporting cast is large and rampant with mediocrity. Getting leads intact from starter to Lidge could be a problem. Dan Wheeler pitched well, including eight scoreless playoff innings, after coming from the Mets in a late-season trade. Still, his overall record is spotty, and lefties chew him up (.884 OPS against). Chad Harville has some pretty minor-league numbers that have not translated into big-league success. He's ordinary. John Franco returns for his 73rd season after posting a career-worst 5.28 ERA and making all of eight appearances in the season's last nine weeks. Franco did handle lefties as usual but got killed against righties. Lefty Mike Gallo surrendered a homer every four innings and somehow managed a sub-5.00 ERA. The 27-year-old did pitch reasonably well in 2003 and has a promising minor-league track record as a reliever. Russ Springer didn't pitch as well as his 2.63 ERA would suggest and is highly unlikely to repeat that accomplishment. A sore shoulder derailed Turk Wendell's 2004 and continues to bother him in Spring Training.

OUTLOOK

Despite never having achieved ultimate glory, Houston has established itself as a model franchise. Over the last thirteen years, the Astros have four division titles, a wild card, and only one season below .500.

This year might be the second losing season in fourteen. I don't think Houston will fall quite that far, but the probability isn't small. I'll go with 83 wins and a third-place finish. My grumpy computer suggests 80.

Posted by Lucas at 12:20 PM

March 05, 2005

ESPN Column

Scouting MARK TEIXEIRA
2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: 1B (and OF in ESPN Leagues). Spot in Batting Order: #4. Plate Appearances: 650. Batting Average: .285. Runs: 105. Homers: 42. RBI: 120. Steals: 4. On-base Percentage: .375. Slugging Percentage: .580. Upside: Low-to-moderate. I normally make pretty conservative predictions, but with this guy, the sky's the limit. Downside: Low. Only an injury can stop him. Injury history: Spent two weeks on DL last year with oblique pull. Might miss a small handful of games, but it’s nothing to worry about.

Teixeira turns 25 next month and is poised to join the elite among fantasy players. Unlike many Rangers last year, he batted well on the road and didn’t tail off after the All-Star break. He did hit unusually well with runners on base. Statistically, he should regress toward the mean in this regard, but I think he'll bat well enough overall that a slight decline in this facet of his game won’t matter much. Similarly to ESPN's Scott Engel, I rank him as the 4th-best 1B behind Pujols, Teixeira and Ortiz. Teixeira’s OF eligibility puts him ahead of Thome, Delgado and Hafner.

Scouting ALFONSO SORIANO

2005 PROJECTIONS: Position: 2B. Spot in Batting Order: Probably #1, maybe #2 or #3. Plate Appearances: 700. Batting Average: .295. Runs: 100. Homers: 33. RBI: 90. Steals: 25. On-base Percentage: .335. Slugging Percentage: .530. Upside: Moderate. Will run more out of the leadoff spot. Downside: Low-to-moderate. Watch how he recovers from torn hamstring tendon. If he doesn't seem bothered by it, downside is minimal. Injury history: Other than that tendon, has been a healthy player.

Soriano moved from a pitcher's park to THE hitter's park in the AL, but he put up some disappointing numbers. Even so, he looms well above any other 2B in fantasy ball as the only five-category stud, and he should improve upon last year's statistics. Manager Buck Showalter wants to run more this year, and if Soriano claims the leadoff spot he will improve of last year’s 18 steals. I don't think he’ll steal the 40 or so he managed not that long ago, but 30 is a possibility. Soriano is recovering from a torn hamstring tendon that ended last season prematurely and is easing back into workouts. He hasn't played in a Spring Training game yet but should very soon. Once he shows he's ready, erase your worries about him.

Injury Report
FRANCISCO CORDERO, yet to pitch for real because of a sore shoulder, has been throwing off flat ground and will throw off a slightly graded mound on Saturday. I don't think it's anything to worry about yet, but if you're drafting in the very near future you might want to downgrade him slightly as a precaution. Potentially useful setup man for AL-only leagues FRANK FRANCISCO has been bothered with a sore elbow and, like Cordero, is throwing at a more relaxed pace. Soriano, as mentioned above, should make his spring debut any day now, possibly as a DH. All other draft-worth Rangers are healthy.

Nix on the Bubble
As the more toolsy player, outfielder LAYNCE NIX is considered to have a higher ceiling than fellow outfielder KEVIN MENCH. The results have yet to fulfill the potential. In fact, his 2004 and 2003 seasons were nearly identical on an at-bat basis. Nix is already in a platoon (the more profitable side) with GARY MATTHEWS. If Nix starts out slow and the Rangers find themselves in the division hunt, Showalter may have to bench him. Owners have no reason to draft Nix in mixed leagues anyway. Owners in AL-only leagues should downgrade him a little and watch for signs of promise or further disappontment.

Posted by Lucas at 12:26 PM

March 03, 2005

Contracts

Texas signed pitcher RYAN DRESE to a two-year contract with an option for 2007. Texas renewed the contract of OF LAYNCE NIX for the league minimum.

Drese's contract:
Signing bonus: $300,000
2005: $700,000
2006: $1,750,000
2007: Team option at $3,000,000 or $50,000 buyout.
Plus $500,000 in incentives

I'm a bit skeptical that Drese can repeat last year's success, but this is a reasonable contract. In a worst-case scenario with Drese flopping or getting hurt, Texas is on the hook for only $2,800,000.

As with last year, Nix refused the Rangers' token raise and was renewed at the league minimum. He'll get a $16,000 raise thanks to the CBA.

Posted by Lucas at 12:16 PM

March 02, 2005

Contract

Texas renewed OF KEVIN MENCH to a one-year contract for $345,000.

Per the Star Telegram, Mench has a four-year contract on the table for about $10 million. The sides couldn't work out a deal by last night's deadline, so he was renewed for an amount set by the team. Ryan Drese and Laynce Nix are in the same boat, though Texas hasn't offered Nix a long-term deal.

Posted by Lucas at 07:55 AM

March 01, 2005

2005 Colorado Rockies Preview

Published at the Batter's Box, 1 March 2005.

How in the world did the Rockies avert an eighth consecutive season of falling attendance? They spent only one game on the high side of .500 and fell to 29-49 by early July. Since 1998, when the NL West, expanded to five teams, the Rockies have never finished higher than fourth.

Maybe the weather was responsible. According to the National Weather Service, Denver "finished slightly above normal in temperature and... below normal [in] precipitation."

Pray for more good weather, Colorado fans.

Last year, Colorado signed veterans Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, and Royce Clayton to buy some time while the prospects developed. General Manager Jim O'Dowd and skipper Clint Hurdle dutifully played up the veteran presence and character of their squad. "We're not very good, and signing Clayton isn't a solution" makes for a poor marketing campaign.

This offseason, the Rockies adopted a policy of masterly inactivity, stirring occasionally to see if anyone would (please!) take the contracts of Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson off their ledger. Denny Neagle's corporeal presence is gone but his corpulent salary lingers on. Their contracts have seemingly imbued a state of organizational paralysis.

As a result, the prospects will play, consequences be damned. To their credit, O'Dowd and Hurdle aren't throwing out the "we could surprise people" clichés. The Rockies will struggle this season, period, and no one suggests anything different.

2005 will be a referendum on the farm system. If all goes well, you could be witnessing the primordial soup that will evolve into the next great Rockies club. If not, you'll be watching a random bunch of guys who were fortunate enough to play Major-League ball during 2005. The weather should be nice.

OFFENSE

"If you throw five or six rookies out there, you run the risk of disaster." - Toronto G.M. J.P. Ricciardi

Did Ricciardi have Colorado in mind when he made this statement in his Batter's Box interview? Colorado will probably lurch their way to another superficially impressive offensive performance, but with so many untested players, any prediction carries a high level of variance Last year, guys like Castilla, Burnitz, and even Clayton offered at least some measure of certainty. Going into this season, six of the eight ostensible everyday players have less than 145 games of Major League experience. Check out that last column:

		                                                                Career
# Player Pos Age PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Games

1 Aaron Miles -S 2B 28 559 .293 .329 .368 67 142
2 Clint Barmes SS 26 75 .282 .320 .437 80 32
3 Todd Helton - L 1B 31 683 .347 .469 .620 159 1135
4 Preston Wilson CF 30 222 .248 .315 .391 68 809
5 Matt Holliday LF 25 438 .290 .349 .487 98 121
6 Garrett Atkins 3B 25 33 .357 .424 .536 129 40
7 Brad Hawpe - L OF 25 118 .248 .322 .400 72 42
8 J.D. Closser - S CF 25 121 .319 .364 .398 83 36

Last year, Colorado finished second in the NL in average and on-base percentage, third in slugging, and fourth in runs scored. And guess what? Their offense was terrible. Thanks to Coors Field, a Rockie player had to bat .292/.367/.473 just to be average. Colorado batted .275/.345/.455 last year, good for an OPS+ of just 90. Only two NL teams scored fewer runs on the road.

CATCHER - J.D. CLOSSER
In 2002, Closser was a seemingly harmless throw-in to the 2002 deal which sent LOOGY Mike Myers to Arizona for Jack Cust. Closser has exhibited strong but not awe-inspiring performances in three high-minor seasons. He ought to provide an effective replacement to Charles Johnson with more hits but fewer homers.

FIRST BASE - TODD HELTON
The veteran Helton lords over the grim offensive landscape. He is a near-perfect combination of contact, power, and patience, and he gets very little help. As he said before the 2004 season, "It's not going to do any good if I am coming up with two outs and nobody on." Colorado's #1 and #2 hitters combined for a .327 OBP, and Helton plated only 96 runners despite batting .347 and slugging .620.

SECOND BASE - AARON MILES
Aaron Miles, a 27-year-old rookie, enthusiastically donned the mantle of former Rox legend Neifi Perez. Miles defended capably and batted .293 but offered minimal power or patience, resulting in well over 500 at-bats that barely exceed replacement-level. Colorado acquired Miles straight-up for the much younger Juan Uribe, who enjoyed his breakout season with the White Sox.

THIRD BASE - GARRETT ATKINS
After failing his late-season trial run in 2003, Atkins returned to Colorado Springs and produced a line of .366/.434/.578, followed by a nearly identical performance in a brief call-up to Denver. He won't replace Vinny Castilla's 35 homers but has a reasonable chance to surpass him in terms of total production. Atkins is a third baseman in name only and would play first if not for the presence of Helton.

SHORTSTOP - CLINT BARMES
The time is now for Barmes, a 26-year-old whose slow development necessitated last year's signing of Royce Clayton. Barmes batted a career-best .328 and displayed newfound power repeating in Colorado Springs, then acquiited himself in a September call-up. Nevertheless, he's far from a sure thing, and Relaford may end up with the majority of at-bats.

LEFT FIELD - MATT HOLLIDAY
Younger than Barmes, Atkins and Closser, Holliday provided one of the few bright spots in 2004. After repeating AA in 2003, he skipped AAA and provided a competent bat that was desperately needed with the losses of Wilson and Walker. Holliday's uneven minor-league career and dire road numbers (.240/.287/.367) beg the question of whether he can stick as a regular.

CENTER FIELD - PRESTON WILSON
Fresh off an NL-best 141 RBI in 2003, Wilson limped through Spring Training with a knee injury, struggled badly at the plate and missed two-thirds of the season outright. The Rockies would love for another team to assist in paying the $12 million he'll earn, but he'll have to reestablish his fitness and competence first. Wilson is the center fielder by default and would be better suited to a corner.

RIGHT FIELD - BRAD HAWPE
Hawpe announced his big-league debut with authority last May, batting .563/.588/1.000 in his first six games. He batted .191 the rest of the way, but his eye-opening line of .322/.384/.622 at Colorado Springs makes him the putative favorite for right field. Like Atkins, Hawpe moved from first because of Helton and is a defensive maladroit. He'll share the position with Dustan Mohr.

BENCH
Colorado's bench is a grab-bag of decent youngish talent and veteran presence. They will receive plenty of at-bats. Luis Gonzalez probably would make a better everyday second baseman than Miles, but he'll resume his duties as supersub. He can do anything but pitch and catch. Like Gonzalez, Desi Relaford can play almost anywhere and has the veteran status that ostensibly compensates for his weaker bat. Dustan Mohr and Jorge Piedra make a solid duo of backup outfielders. The righthanded Mohr will start often against lefties despite his significant reverse split, and Piedra could steal at-bats from a slumping Hawpe or Holliday. Catcher Todd Greene will continue to swing for the fences and condescend to draw a walk every month or so. Greg Norton and minor-league stalwart Andy Tracy will fight for a pinch-hitter spot. Colorado is expected to trade or release Charles Johnson before Opening Day.

ROTATION

Fans won't have Shawn Estes and Jeff Fassero to kick around any more. Unless Darren Oliver claws his way onto the roster, 30-year-old Jamey Wright will be the rotation's elder statesman. The 2004 Stats:

Player	                Age 	GS	ERA	ERA+	 IP	H/9	HR/9	BB/9	SO/9 
Jason Jennings 26 33 5.51 92 201 10.8 1.2 4.5 6.0
Joe Kennedy - L 26 27 3.66 138 162 9.0 0.9 3.7 6.5
Shawn Chacon 27 0 7.11 71 63 10.1 1.7 7.4 7.4
Jamey Wright 30 14 4.12 123 79 9.4 0.9 5.1 4.7
Jeff Francis - L 24 7 5.15 98 37 10.3 2.0 3.2 7.8

JASON JENNINGS
Jennings has backslid for two years running since a fine 2002 that rightfully earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He did provide a respectable 4.60 ERA after a catastrophic opening month in which he surrendered 36 runs in six starts. Unlike several high-priced free agents, Jennings has maintained his health and sanity pitching in a low-g environment, and for that Colorado inked him to a two-year deal. If he stops walking a batter every other inning he'll help his team immensely.

JOE KENNEDY
Washed out in Tampa at the tender age of 24, Kennedy rebounded to become the first Rockie starter ever to qualify for the ERA title with a sub-4.00 ERA. His peripheral stats indicate he wasn't quite that effective, but by and large he kept the ball in the park and on the ground. Colorado pitchers have a long and storied history of fleeting success, so even one more quality season from Kennedy is by no means a certainty. Send some luck his way.

SHAWN CHACON
Back into the rotation goes Chacon, fresh off his soul-destroying tenure as a closer. He allowed two baserunners per inning, walked one of every six batters faced, and generally pitched about twelve levels below replacement. In the process, he somehow saved 35 games. Chacon has pitched reasonably well in two of three seasons as a starter but has yet to stay healthy enough to qualify for an ERA title.

JAMEY WRIGHT
Wright has pitched at roughly a league-average level during five seasons in Colorado despite walking more than he's struck out. How does he do it? By keeping the ball in the park? A low hit rate? Voodoo? Well, no, he really doesn't do anything well except keep the ball on the ground most of the time, and that seems enough to maintain a career. Colorado would gladly take 180 innings and a 5.25 ERA.

JEFF FRANCIS
In 346 minor-league innings, Francis allowed only 22 homers. He has surrendered eight in his first 36 Major-League innings. Actually, Coors Field can't take the blame for this, as Francis surrendered five of those eight homers in a pair of jittery starts at Atlanta and San Francisco. Still, the unsettling question for O'Dowd and company is whether to add "Colorado pitching prospect" to the land of make-believe along with unicorns, mermaids, and civil political discourse. The 24-year-old Francis may be the Rockies' best pitching prospect ever. He has allowed fewer than seven hits per nine runners and sports a 5/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors. If he doesn't pan out, who will?

OTHERS
Darren Oliver hasn't posted a league-average ERA since 1999, but a solid camp could land him in the rotation. 1997 2nd-round pick Aaron Cook pitched successfully, albeit with terrifying peripherals, before being sidelined with blood clots in his lungs. He could return by June.

BULLPEN

With the word "closer" reduced to an epithet after Chacon's 2004, Colorado enters the season without one. Colorado set Major-League records with 34 blown saves and 39 losses. So, let's say there's room for improvement.

Brian Fuentes has the best track record of success in Colorado though with minimal closing experience. He doesn't throw hard or induce grounders, seemingly a bad idea in Denver, yet his weird delivery results in a high strikeout rate. He pitched better last year than his 5.64 ERA would indicate. Chin-Hui Tsao may have the inside track on the closer's job. The club moved the former top rotation prospect to the bullpen out of concern for his shoulder. Tsao features a repertoire of blazing fastball and hard slider that makes him a more conventional closer candidate. Scott Dohmann is another converted starter who debuted successfully last year and will pitch in high-leverage situations this season. Dohmann let the ball take flight and allowed eight homers in just 46 innings but otherwise pitched well enough to minimize the damage.

Those three could pitch in any bullpen in the Majors. Beyond them, the cast becomes motley. Eddie Gaillard returns from Japan after three years as a top closer. Unforturnately, he pitched there for five years, and the last two weren't pretty. Aaron Taylor comes over from Seattle and will get another shot as a Major-League pitcher. For the last three years, Taylor has mowed down batters in AA and AAA only to fail utterly in brief big-league trials. He is fully recoevered from shoulder surgery. Relief prospect Ryan Speier laid waste to Texas League hitters last year (33 hits allowed in 62 innings) and might make the squad despite no AAA experience. Javier Lopez, who pitched well for Colorado in 2003 but collapsed last season, Allan Simpson, Vlad Nunez, and journeyman David Cortes will fight for the remaining spots.

OUTLOOK

Last year, my computer told me that St. Louis would be the class of the NL Central, and I chose not to believe. This year, it tells me the Rockies will win 71 games. I think that's the upside, and my computer is taunting me for last year's impudence.

Not one aspect of this team inspires confidence. They features an offense filled with prospects and guys who just happen to be young, dubious defense at third and throughout the outfield, a mediocre rotation and a shaky bullpen. The upside to Colorado's plan for 2005 is monetary savings and quickly learning who can play. The downside is discovering they can't, and there's no safety net. This team could be scary-bad, and in a worst-case scenario they could become fifth division-era club to lose 110 games.

Acknowledging my computer's superior intellect, I'll go with a win total in the upper sixties and a last-place finish.

Posted by Lucas at 12:24 PM

Contracts

Texas signed pitchers BRIAN SHOUSE, JOAQUIN BENOIT, and RYAN BUKVICH and 1B ADRIAN GONZALEZ to one-year contracts.

Shouse gets $395,000, the others weren't disclosed. Amazingly, Shouse missed "Super 2" arbitration status because of a lost coin flip. Arbitration would have virtually assured a salary in the upper six digits. Texas is discussing a two-year deal. Shouse is a nice story but turns 37 in September (a month after me. Sigh...) and might not be the kind of guy at whom you throw two years of guaranteed money, even if the amount isn't huge.

Benoit probably received a token raise for his experience, Bukvich and Gonzalez probably the minimum.

Posted by Lucas at 12:45 AM