May 20, 2005

AL West Report

(originally appeared at The Batters Box.)

For most of the last decade, the AL Central has featured one good-but-unspectacular squad and four teams ranging from average to poor. So far in 2005, the AL West is trying hard to usurp that hollow crown.

STANDINGS

LAA 23-17 .575 
TEX 21-20 .512
OAK 16-24 .400
SEA 16-24 .400


LOS ANGELES

Runs scored per game: 4.15
Runs allowed per game: 4.05

Batting Line: .245/.297/.378
Team OPS+: 85

Opponent Batting Line: .263/.326/.414
Rotation ERA: 4.11
Bullpen ERA: 2.96
Team ERA+: 112

The TV wags correctly say that the division is LA's to take, but the Angels don't seem very eager to do so. They've outscored their opponents by only four runs, and their peripherals are worse: LA has a woeful OPS of .675 and has allowed an OPS of .740. Furthermore, they've played only six games against Chicago, Minnesota, Boston, Baltimore and New York. Oakland and Seattle have played eighteen each against them, Texas twelve. Per ESPN, Los Angeles has faced the weakest opposition in baseball. If the standings were based on peripherals (and they aren't, thank God), only Texas would be playing .500 ball.

As in 2004, the offense prefers to swing early and often, an acceptable strategy if the team bats .280 but a poor one when it hits in the .240s. Los Angeles has thirteen fewer walks than any team in baseball and is on pace to draw fewer than 400 on the season. Vlad the Impaler has done his part, and Garret Anderson has kept his average despite losing much of his power. Everyone else has struggled. Seven weeks in a four-year, $32 million deal, Orlando Cabrera is batting .236/.308/.361, and the well-paid Steve Finley has offered a line of .202/.273/.403.

The pitching has kept the team competitive. Bartolo Colon has pitched like a #1 starter, and none of the other rotation regulars has pitched poorly. The team's saviors have been the bullpen quartet of Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly and Jake Woods, who have combined for 71 innings and a tiny ERA of 2.14.

Los Angeles ought to win the division handily, if only by default. Their offense is impatient by design, but they have more than enough talent to pull their on-base percentage above .300. Even in The Year Of The Pitcher, the pennant winner had an OBP of .302.


TEXAS

Runs scored per game: 5.05
Runs allowed per game: 4.98

Batting Line: .260/.322/.437
Team OPS+: 104

Opponent Batting Line: .275/.344/.409
Rotation ERA: 4.43
Bullpen ERA: 5.43
Team ERA+: 87

Meet the Perfectly Average Ballclub. Texas has a winning percentage of .512, a Pythagorean winning percentage of .507, and I calculate a percentage of .502 based on their peripherals. Texas has yet to lose more than two consecutive games or win more than three in a row. They've hovered within three games of .500 the entire season.

The Rangers are the only team in the division not embarrassing themselves at the plate. Texas easily leads the West in all the major offensive categories despite lackluster performances from Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and Michael Young. The unlikely hero so far is David Dellucci, who has drawn an astonishing 36 walks in 34 games and sports an OBP of .477. On the downside, Texas has wasted several hundred at-bats on Richard Hidalgo, Gary Matthews and Rod Barajas, all of whom have an OPS below .650. The feeling is that despite scoring over five runs per game, the offense should be better.

David Copperfield seduced Claudia Schiffer, and Kenny Rogers has a 30-inning scoreless streak. Ladies and gentleman, gaze in awe at the power of magic. Overall, Texas has the 7th-best rotation ERA in the AL, but it's mostly a function of Rogers' unfathomable 1.49 ERA. 25-year-old Chris Young is showing he could pitch for any team, not just Texas, but the rest is the usual assortment of queasiness. Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio have pitched about as well as you'd expect, but the real worry is putative ace Ryan Drese, who is on pace to allow 277 hits and only 55 strikeouts.

Ultimately, what may keep the team from catching the Angels is the bullpen. Last year, Texas featured the best relief corps in the AL. This year, so far, it's the worst. The loss of Frank Francisco and Carlos Almanzar has forced high-leverage innings onto the arms of Doug Brocail, Nick Regilio and Ron Mahay. All are worthy of roster spots, but none is the kind of guy you want to see on the mound in the 8th inning protecting a 3-2 lead. Yet there they are.

I doubt that Texas can catch Los Angels with their current roster. They need another bat and another arm.


OAKLAND

Runs scored per game: 3.95
Runs allowed per game: 5.28

Batting Line: .244/.318/.350
Team OPS+: 77

Opponent Batting Line: .253/.337/.400
Rotation ERA: 4.73
Bullpen ERA: 4.31
Team ERA+: 108 (The Coliseum has been improbably hitter-friendly to date.)

My AL West cohort John Gizzi probably can explain the Athletics better than me, but he probably wouldn't want to. Oakland is not being cheated; they really have been this bad. Indeed, their run differential and peripherals indicated they're lucky to have even a .400 winning percentage.

Goodness, what a bone-ugly offense. Oakland is the anti-Angels, a team that draws plenty of walks but can't do much else. The team's best hitter has been Bobby Kielty, a virtual afterthought when the season began. Eric Chavez formerly had trouble hitting lefties and now has trouble hitting anyone, and he's shown no signs of improvement. Jason Kendall has flopped, batting .234 with no power and suddenly incapable of throwing out baserunners. On the whole, this is a case of everyone slumping simultaneously, but still, scoring runs could be a season-long problem.

Oakland has one starter with an ERA below 4.75, and he's disabled. While Rich Harden heals, the Athletics hope for success from the likes of Seth Etherton and Kirk Saarloos. Barry Zito's ERA has jumped a run compared to last year though he's pitched about as well. For the moment, Danny Haren has lost his ability to keep the ball in the strike zone and in the park.

The bullpen rivaled the Angels on paper when the season began. Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero have provided a bleaker reality, each handing out base hits and walks like so much Halloween candy. Justin Duchscherer and rookie Huston Street have pitched brilliantly, but they need help. Closer Octavio Dotel has allowed only two homers: two gut-wrenching, soul-destroying homers.

Oakland almost has to play better than they have to date, but I can't see this group of players imitating the second-half surges of years past. Billy Beane may again be active at the trading deadline, but he'll be planning for 2006, not a postseason run.


SEATTLE

Runs scored per game: 4.33
Runs allowed per game: 4.88

Batting Line: .250/.312/.376
Team OPS+: 89

Opponent Batting Line: .265/.333/.418
Rotation ERA: 5.63
Bullpen ERA: 3.02
Team ERA+: 95

Last year, Seattle collapsed to a 99-loss season thanks to the only AL offense scoring fewer than 700 runs and a terrible rotation. In 2005, the Mariners have partially cured one problem and are still hoping the other solves itself.

Seattle doled out a wheelbarrow of cash to Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre over the winter. Sexson, seemingly the riskier acquisition, has provided needed offensive support despite his .223 batting average (his line is .223/.333/.508). Beltre, on the other hand, has flailed away like the destitute man's Alfonso Soriano, batting .237 with four homers and five walks. With the rest of the regulars essentially playing to expectations, the offense is improved but far from what's necessary to win a division.

Seattle's rotation had a 5.63 ERA last season, dreadful anywhere but especially so in a pitcher's park. This year, with a similar cast, the rotation's ERA is… 5.63. Management did banish an aghast Joel Pineiro to Tacoma but has no obvious replacement. Jamie Moyer appears near the end of his fine career, and Aaron Sele has been toast for several years. "King" Felix Hernandez awaits his coronation, but unless he brings all his knights from Camelot, he'll lord over a pretty motley collection of subjects.

The bullpen has been solid outside of Matt Thornton. Jeff Nelson and Shigetoshi Hasegawa have rebounded nicely from last year's misery, and Eddie Guardado is ten-for-eleven in save situations. This group can protect the lead if given the opportunity.

The Mariners will go nowhere with this rotation. They strike me as less likely than Oakland to reverse their fortunes.

Posted by Lucas at 05:53 PM

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 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 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

July 14, 2004

Oh, How I Hate the All-Star Break

(Published at the Batters Box, 14 Jul 2004)

The All-Star Game is a fine event, vastly superior to the offerings of the other major professional sports. Conversely, baseball fans have plenty of sound reasons to disdain the All-Star break: no real games, soul-crushingly dull non-events like the Home Run Derby (part of the encroaching Super Bowlification of baseball), more air time for the lucid observations of John Kruk.

Unfortunately, my problem with the All-Star break is deeper and purer. My team of choice, the Texas Rangers, currently sit atop the American League West with a two-game lead over Oakland. My team of choice also has a long and squalid history of post-ASB collapses. For whatever reason, many of those collapses were partially at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays, as you’ll read below.

Texas really does play worse after the All-Star break than during the rest of the season. Here is a chart of team performance that ignores strike years and the first two years of team history when they lost to everyone, all the time:

Texas Rangers, 1974-2003
Wins
Losses
Percentage
Before the All-Star Break
1,193
1,202
.498
First 30 games After the Break
385
455
.458
Remainder of Season
630
647
.493

If not for some relatively solid post-ASB play in recent years, the numbers would tell an even grimmer tale. From 1978 through 1997, the Rangers played .506 ball before the All-Star Break and .417 ball in the thirty games afterward, often coughing up division leads and playoffs chances in the most disheartening fashion. Only once during that span, in 1990, did Texas have a winning record in their first thirty games after the break.

Is the post-ASB weakness statistically significant? Doubtful. Four percent fewer wins over a random thirty-game stretch sounds like background noise; however, playing the “statistics? card won’t win any brownie points with Ranger fans who have endured these infamous seasons:

1976

On July 6, 1976, five days after acquiring Bert Blyleven, Texas stood a season-best and franchise-best twelve games over .500, three games behind the Kansas City Royals. The Rangers proceeded to drop six straight going into the break and four more afterward. From early July through late August, Texas went 14-38 including a staggering 8-24 in games decided by one or two runs. On August 28, Texas fell to twenty games out of first with a record of 58-70.

Low Point: Scoring four runs over a five-game stretch including a ten-inning, 1-0 loss to Milwaukee.

1979

Texas had 52 wins at the All-Star break, still a team record, and aimed to overtake the 55-38 California Angels. Instead, Texas won only ten of forty after the break despite being outscored by just 27 runs. The Rangers had a Pythagorean record of 17-23 during that stretch; had they accomplished that modest task, they still would have remained only two games behind the similarly struggling Angels. Instead, Texas was 62-69, nine games out of first, and out of the division race.

Low Point: Losing a two-game series to the 29-70 Toronto Blue Jays.

1983

July 8, 1983: After three days of rest, the first-place Rangers visited the first-place Blue Jays. Toronto swept the series by scores of 8-5, 5-1, and 6-4. After that debacle, Texas dropped another 18 of 23 against tough AL East competition and fell to 49-55, six games behind the surging Chicago White Sox. Incredibly, Texas led the American League in ERA and fielding percentage but ended the season with a losing record of 77-85.

Low Point: The whole streak. An all-pitch no-hit team that season, Texas allowed 5.2 runs per game during their 5-21 collapse. Two weeks later, Texas traded their best starter, Rick Honeycutt (enjoying his career season at age 29), for Dave Stewart and $200,000.

1991

Eight years later, history repeats. After the All-Star break, the first-place Rangers again visited the first-place Blue Jays. Toronto swept the series by scores of 2-0, 6-2, and 3-2. Texas proceeded to lose 19 of 32 afterwards and found themselves nine games behind Minnesota.

Low Point: A four-game sweep at the hands of the 44-67 Baltimore Orioles.

1992

Texas entered the break at 48-42, six games behind defending World Series champion Minnesota and also behind Oakland. Admittedly, Texas probably didn’t have the guns to challenge both teams, but they removed all doubt by dropping 24 of the next 36 including eight losses by five or more runs.

Low point: Getting swept in a four-game series and outscored 19-4 by eventual division-winner Oakland.

1995

Texas bookended the All-Star break by taking three of four from both New York and Boston. With a record of 42-31, the Rangers trailed California by just one game. While California won eleven of thirteen, Texas lost twelve of thirteen and was outscored 83-41. In a two-week stretch, Texas fell from one game out of first to ten games out.

Low Point: On the last day of the tailspin, Steve Buechele, whose flashy glovework and decent power made him a fan favorite during the late 1980s, played in his last Major League game at the tender age of 33.

1997

The defending AL West champs struggled through late June after starting 36-30. At the break, Texas was 43-42, five games behind division leader Seattle and wild card leader New York. Facing a tough climb for another playoff appearance, Texas opted for Plan B, losing 18 of 26 to fall twelve games out of the division lead and 14.5 behind New York. The Rangers traded Dean Palmer and Ken Hill during the downfall.

Low Point: Falling to 51-60 after losing to Boston by scores of 11-5 and 17-1.

2000

After losing to the Yankees in the Divisional Series for the third time in four years, GM Doug Melvin reshaped the team under a mandate from owner Tom Hicks. Five everyday players and starter Aaron Sele disappeared. Texas traded 29-and-reasonably-healthy slugger Juan Gonzalez to Detroit in an eight-player deal (in which the most useful players for each team have been Francisco Cordero and Danny Patterson).

Texas muddled through the first half the season and found themselves at 44-44, disappointing but only four games out of the division lead and the wild card the Sunday after the All-Star break. Instigating a stretch of awfulness lasting almost four years, Texas lost 30 of the next 44 games and fell to 58-74. On August 30, Texas stared longingly up at division leader Seattle and wild-card leader Cleveland, both 13.5 games in the distance. The collapse was no fluke; the Rangers lost seven games by at least eight runs. Texas also lost five of six to Toronto during that span, the one victory an eleven-inning, 1-0 contest.

High Point: On July 19, Texas traded Esteban Lozaiza to Toronto for Michael Young and Darwin Cubillan.

2004

The Rangers lead the AL West by two over Oakland, a team famous for its second-half surges.

They open the second half of the season with a three-games series against (gulp!) the Toronto Blue Jays.

Posted by Lucas at 11:58 AM

March 10, 2004

2004 TEXAS RANGERS PREVIEW

(published at the Batters Box, 10 March 2004)

Plenty of good seats are available at The Ballpark In Arlington. Every so often, I attend a game by myself and pick the best seat available on game day. Four years ago, I sat in the 3rd row behind the first base dugout. Last year, I sat in the 10th row behind home plate. This year, I expect to sit in the dugout and play a couple of innings in left field.

2003 BY THE NUMBERS

71 wins, 91 Losses Runs Scored: 826 (5th in AL)
4th and Last Place in the AL West Runs Allowed: 969 (worst in baseball, 4th worst since 1939)
25 games out of 1st, 24 games behind the Wild Card Pythagorean Won-Loss Record: 68-94

WHAT WENT RIGHT IN 2003

Alex Rodriguez got the MVP he deserved. Hank Blalock fulfilled his potential and then some. Mark Teixeira proved ready for Major League pitching. Francisco Cordero had another fine season. Texas acquired several good prospects in trading away Ugueth Urbina and Carl Everett.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Everything. After toying with the .500 mark for six weeks, Texas lost 20 of 22 games. Chan Ho Park pitched even worse than in 2002. Ismael Valdes imploded. Sixteen starting pitchers combined for a 6.24 ERA, and only John Thomson ended the season with a sub-5.00 ERA. Someone named Tony Mounce started eleven games. By and large, the young pitchers flopped. Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez refused to accept trades, depriving Texas of legitimate prospects. Gonzalez missed half the season with injury and departed to Puerto Rico in early September. Texas centerfielders had an on-base percentage of .277 and the team OBP on the road was only .312. And then…

THE TRADE

"We always said he would not be traded unless it made our team better, faster" -- Tom Hicks

"It's all about flexibility. If this happens, we're trading the best player in the game and we're getting flexibility… It would provide us with a window to do some things with our younger players" -- John Hart

Texas signed the best player in baseball to a ten-year contract, then failed so miserably at constructing a team around him that they felt compelled to cut bait after only three years. The Rangers traded Rodriguez the player, but in a sense they retained his contract. Texas will still pay the rest of Rodriguez's prorated signing bonus ($2 million this year and next), part of his annual salary, and all of his deferred salary (pushed out another five years).

I'm hardly the first person to say this, but the issue of savings and "payroll flexibility" is a sham. The departures of Palmeiro, Gonzalez, Everett and Urbina (in June) erased $34 million from the books, and the conclusion of six other contracts this year will free another $22 million. Is that not sufficient savings and flexibility?

In any case, the Rodriguez-produced savings for 2004 will go straight into Tom Hicks's pocket. The Trade occurred too late to make a meaningful free-agent acquisition. Texas trumpeted the subsequent extension of Hank Blalock as an example of how the savings would be spent, but what was Texas going to do otherwise, non-tender him? Trade him for some A-ball prospects? Of course not. Texas isn't Montreal. If Kansas City can afford to keep Carlos Beltran through his arbitration years, Texas certainly can afford to keep Hank Blalock, regardless of A-Rod's contract.

What about 2005? Texas currently has only four players under contract for 2005 at a cost of $20 million. They also will pay Rodriguez $8 million ($6 million in salary plus the last $2 million of his signing bonus), and Soriano should receive an arbitration-eligible salary in the range of $7.5 million if he stays. The total for these players is $35.5 million. Had Rodriguez stayed, he would have earned $21 million in salary plus the last $2 million of his signing bonus. (Before and after the trade, Texas also owes $4 million in deferred money.) With the other four players already signed, the Rangers would have $43.8 million committed. So assuming Texas retains Soriano, The Trade will save about $7.5 million in 2005.

2005 With Rodriguez
$ mill
2005 Without Rodriguez
$ mill
Park
14.0
  Park
14.0
Rogers
3.5
  Rogers
3.5
Teixeira
2.5
  Teixeira
2.5
Blalock
0.8
  Blalock
0.8
Rodriguez
23.0
  Rodriguez
8.0
 
  Soriano
7.5
TOTAL
43.8
  TOTAL
36.3

Is Soriano plus $7.5 million of free agents better than Rodriguez alone? Maybe, depending on who Texas signs. The Rangers might spend the money foolishly, or not at all.

Rodriguez's contract was never the problem. The problem is the other Hart-era free agents -- Chan Ho Park, Jay Powell, and the departed and unlamented Todd Van Poppel - who collectively will earn $19 million this season.

OWNERSHIP AND MANAGEMENT

Quixotic owner Tom Hicks looms large over the organization. After yet another three-and-out playoff exit in 1999, Hicks cut payroll by about $10 million the following season, then signed Alex Rodriguez to his infamously huge contract after the team plummeted from 95 wins to 71. After another last-place finish, Hicks replaced Melvin with John Hart and resumed the free-spending ways with a vengeance, acquiring Juan Gonzalez, Chan Ho Park, Jay Powell, Todd Van Poppel, John Rocker, Dave Burba, and Carl Everett in one fell offseason. Since then, Hicks has thrown in the towel, monetarily speaking, letting the expensive contracts lapse while conspicuously avoiding the top end of the free agent market. Payroll will drop from over $100 million in 2003 to the mid-$60s this year. For better or worse, Hicks will soon retire from his investment firm to concentrate more on the Rangers.

General Manager John Hart will step down after this season, possibly sooner. You can discern my opinion of him from the preceding paragraphs. While he deserves no blame for the weak farm system he inherited, he squandered his owner's millions on expensive baubles. He threw $65 million at Chan Ho Park apparently without bothering to look at his road stats (see below), rewarded Todd Van Poppel with three years and $7.5 million for his career season in Chicago, gave Jay Powell three years and $9 million for his lucky half-season in Colorado, and gave Herbert Perry two years despite the organization being neck-deep in third base prospects. Oh, and Juan Gonzalez. And a litany of less expensive flops like Esteban Yan, Doug Glanville, John Rocker and Hideki Irabu.

On the other hand, Hart has helped to rebuild a farm system that held a small handful of top prospects but almost no depth. He engineered several fine trades last season that netted prospects Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Rupe and Ryan Snare. His record in this regard would be even better had Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro not invoked their no-trade clauses.

The future lies with assistant GM Grady Fuson, former scouting director for Oakland. Despite the harsh light cast upon him in Moneyball, he is well grounded in both traditional scouting skills and more statistical-driven theories. Fuson earned favorable reviews for his handling of the 2003 draft. How he will handle Major League free agents acquisitions and player contract negotiations remains to be seen.

Dissatisfied with the low key Jerry Narron, Hart and Hicks hired Captain Bligh away from the HMS Bounty to instill discipline in the troops. Okay, Buck Showalter doesn't keelhaul players for missing signs, but he does manage his club with a strictness and meticulousness far beyond most skippers. While his methods have produced solid results, his personality also wears thin after a few short years, especially with veterans accustomed to a measure of deference. Arizona dismissed him in 2000 after his injury-ravaged club won 85 games and just one year after a 100-win season. Reportedly, he and Alex Rodriguez did not see eye to eye by season's end, and Rafael Palmeiro spoke ill of him after signing with Baltimore.

Personality aside, Showalter properly adjusted his on-field management to fit the team's personnel in 2003. Possessing a squad rife with slow-footed mashers, Showalter let the game evolve on its own and didn't bother with many steals or sac bunts. Regarding the pitching staff… Well, God would have forced Job to manage the Rangers had they existed at the time. Showalter didn't shy away from using unheralded names in high-leverage situations, getting effective innings from the likes of Ron Mahay, Brian Shouse and Erasmo Ramirez when Aaron Fultz and Jay Powell faltered. This year, with a less homer-prone lineup, Showalter claims he will play more small ball.

Perhaps like Tony LaRussa, he takes too kindly to scrappy and determined players of modest talent and writes their names on the lineup card with dismaying frequency. Serious fans quickly wearied of seeing Donnie Sadler at third base. This Year's Model should be former D-back David Dellucci.

Showalter's Pythagorean record exactly matches his real lifetime record of 634-595.

ADIOS HOLA
Alan Benes (P), Ryan Christenson (OF), Jermaine Clark (UT), Doug Davis (P), Robert Ellis (P), Carl Everett (OF), Aaron Fultz (P), Reynaldo Garcia (P), Juan Gonzalez (OF), Todd Greene (C), Doug Glanville (OF), Chad Krueter (C), Mike Lamb (3B), Ryan Ludwick (OF), Tony Mounce (P), C.J. Nitkowski (P), Rafael Palmeiro (1B), Mario Ramos (P), Alex Rodriguez (SS), Donnie Sadler (UT), Victor Santos (P), Ruben Sierra (OF), Shane Spencer (OF), Marcus Thames (OF), John Thomson (P), Ugueth Urbina (P), Ismael Valdes (P), Todd Van Poppel (P), Esteban Yan (P) Chad Allen (OF), Carlos Almanzar (RP-R), Mike Bacsik (SP-L), Rod Barajas (C), Doug Brocail (RP-R), Brad Clontz (RP-R), Jason Conti (OF), David Dellucci (OF), Brad Fullmer (1B) Ken Huckaby (C), Brian Jordan (OF), Chris Mabeus (RP-R), Jeff Nelson (RP-R), David Newhan (2B/1B), Kenny Rogers (SP-L), Glendon Rusch (SP-L), Alphonso Soriano (2B), Jason Tyner (OF), Eric Young (2B, OF), John Wasdin (SP-R), Todd Williams (RP-R), Jordan Zimmerman (RP-R)

STARTING LINEUP

Player
Pos
Bat
Age
Line
OPS+
EQA
Michael Young
SS
R
27
.306/.339/.446
98
.270
Hank Blalock
3B
L
23
.300/.350/.522
118
.288
Alfonso Soriano
2B
R
28
.290/.338/.525
128
.296
Brad Fullmer
DH
L
29
.306/.387/.500
140
.304
Mark Teixeira
1B
S
24
.259/.331/.480
103
.270
Brian Jordan
RF
R
37
.299/.372/.420
113
.286
Kevin Mench *
LF
R
26
.275/.341/.452
99
.288
Laynce Nix
CF
L
23
.255/.289/.440
82
.246
Einar Diaz
C
R
31
.257/.294/.341
61
.219

* 2002-2003

C - EINAR DIAZ
That Texas traded Travis Hafner didn't bother me at all. He was a talented, but not the most talented, 1B/DH in an organization littered with them. Trading Hafner for the expensive and profoundly mediocre Einar Diaz bothered me a great deal. Diaz has negligible power but pulls every pitch and would rather take a bullet than a walk. He does offer solid defense. The local papers have mentioned Diaz as a trade possibility, but I have yet to see a burgeoning market for weak-hitting, $2.5 million-earning catchers.

1B - MARK TEIXEIRA
Despite playing only 86 professional games prior to 2003, Teixeira earned a roster spot in Spring Training and enjoyed a fine rookie season after a slow start. He deservedly pushed Rafael Palmeiro to DH and can play a relatively pain-free corner outfield. On the down side, the switch-hitter labored against righties and slugged only .343 on the road compared to .607 at home. Expected improvement in both areas will make Teixeira a genuine middle-of-the-order threat against all comers.

2B - ALFONSO SORIANO
Soriano is erratic, occasionally undisciplined, and a spectacular talent. His lack of plate discipline may lead to a swift and ugly decline, but for the next few years he's a .290 hitting, .500+ slugging second baseman. Does his defense merit a move to the outfield? Win Shares, Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs, and TangoTiger's Ultimate Zone Rating all considered Soriano a better second baseman in 2003 than Gold Glove runner-up Michael Young. I don't know whether that's an indictment of Young or the rating systems, but I don't think Soriano is the terrible defender some make him out to be. Texas may not want to pay his full $5.4 million salary this season or his arbitration-induced raise in 2005 and will entertain trade offers. Beyond Weird: Soriano's closest comparison via Similarity Score is Adam Kennedy.

3B - HANK BLALOCK
Let the George Brett comparison begin again! Blalock capped a glorious first full season in the Majors with a dramatic late-inning home run in the All-Star game. His hitting for average and power seems fully matured at the tender age of 23; a few more walks will make him the complete package. Blalock still struggles against lefties (.209/.245/.295 last year) but upped his road OPS from .482 to .736. Though Win Shares doesn't think much of Blalock defensively, he isn't seen as a liability and won't be crossing the diamond any time soon.

SS - MICHAEL YOUNG
Toronto's fifth-round pick in the 1997 draft won't have any problem moving to short; he played there in college and again in the minors after Texas acquired him (and Darwin Cubillan) for Esteban Loaiza in July 2000. Young's power spiked in 2003 but he walks infrequently and wouldn't lead off if anyone better were around. Last season's .306/.339/.446 probably represents his offensive peak, and slight decline is likely. As noted, several statistical rating systems frown on his defense, though I've watched Young countless times and don't see any serious flaws, for what that's worth. Seemingly every newspaper writer in the D/FW area has a doe-eyed crush on him, and if his offense regresses as I expect, they'll blame it on his move to shortstop.

LF - KEVIN MENCH
The man with the size-eight head gets one last chance to prove he can be an everyday outfielder in Texas. Wrist and back injuries have stunted his progress, and his happy-go-lucky nature didn't endear himself to Jerry Narron, much less Buck Showalter. Mench hit .260 with good power in 2002, then became a .320-hitting doubles machine in 2003. A healthy Mench should tend toward the 2002 variety if given enough playing time.

CF - LAYNCE NIX
Nix finished 2002 in high-A Charlotte and 2003 in Arlington. Nix was having a good but not fantastic season in AA, batting .284/.344/.487 when Texas placed the call after the Everett trade. He forgot how to take a pitch as a Ranger but has shown strong plate discipline in lower levels and ought to improve in time. Texas will find out if Nix has the range for center. The Ballpark favors hitters, to be sure, but it also features a deep center field with tricky angles and an upper-level jet stream that warps the trajectory of fly balls. Like third base for the Cubs, centerfield in Texas has been a black hole for most of the past thirty years. At least Chicago had Ron Santo.

RF - BRIAN JORDAN
As a 36-year-old, Jordan produced a career-best OBP of .372 in 66 games before succumbing to season-ending knee surgery. Walking has never been a major part of his repertoire, and he won't match that .372 even in hitter-friendly Arlington. Texas just hopes to get 100 reasonably productive games out of him, and if they can trade him for a C-level prospect in July, so much the better. With Brad Fullmer around, he doesn't have the luxury of DH'ing.

DH -BRAD FULLMER
Texas should get an excellent return on its $1 million investment in the 29-year-old with a 137+ OPS over the last two years. Fullmer doesn't hit lefties well and probably will sit against most of them, but he sports a career line of .296/.354/.515 against righties.

BENCH

Player
POs
Bat
Age
Line
OPS+
EQA
Gerald Laird
C
R
24
.273/.360/.432
100
.272
David Dellucci
OF
L
30
.227/.313/.352
69
.242
Eric Young
2B/OF
R
37
.251/.336/.392
88
.259
Herbert Perry *
3B/1B
R
34
.276/.333/.480
104
.279

* 2002 Stats

Only Gerald Laird remains on the 40-man roster from the trade that sent Carlos Pena to Oakland. Less heralded than fellow acquisitions Mario Ramos and Jason Hart, Laird appears to have the best chance of establishing a Major League career. His offensive performance last year was an unexpected delight. In truth, Laird's upside is as a Jim Sundberg, a fine defender who can pop the ball on occasion. In a just world, he will supplant Diaz no later than midseason.

There's nothing overtly offensive about having David Dellucci on the roster. He excels at nothing but isn't outright terrible at anything either. Certainly, there are worse backup outfielders. The cause for concern is his former association with Buck Showalter in Arizona, where Dellucci hit like Tony Gwynn for two magical months in 1999. I fear that Showalter will play him far more than he deserves. If Dellucci subs for an injured Brian Jordan, no great harm. But if this 30-year-old spare part takes plate appearances from Kevin Mench -a youngster who ostensibly has a future in the organization - I want Showalter's head on a platter.

Eric Young is nothing special, but he's a definite upgrade over offensive ciphers Donnie Sadler and Ryan Christenson. Young will sub all over the outfield and DH against lefties occasionally. He also could become the everyday second baseman if Texas trades Soriaino. Herbert Perry returns from knee and shoulder surgeries that ruined in 2003. He isn't 100% and probably never will be. He could DH against lefties and spot Blalock or Teixeira on occasion. Jason Tyner, Chad Allen, and (gulp) Manny Alexander have outside shots at making the roster. Rod Barajas or Kent Huckaby could back up Diaz instead of Laird. The less written about them, the better.

ROTATION

Much like Bob Saget, Ranger pitching in 2003 was nauseating and painfully unfunny. Texas didn't really have the worst staff in baseball last year (Texas had a team ERA+ of 87 compared to 80 for San Diego, 81 for Detroit, and 84 for Cincinnati), but the results were dreadfully disappointing in light of the already woeful 882 runs allowed in 2002. Unfortunately, Texas's one effective starter, John Thomson, bolted for Atlanta over the winter. In eschewing first-tier free agents, Texas essentially pins its hopes on internal improvement. More accurately, Texas assumes things can't get any worse.

Player
Age
Throws
Innings
ERA
ERA+
BB/9
SO/9
Kenny Rogers
39
L
195
4.57
101
2.3
5.4
Chan Ho Park *
31
R
175
6.06
82
5.3
7.0
Colby Lewis
24
R
127
7.30
68
5.0
6.2
Ricardo Rodriguez
26
R
82
5.73
74
3.1
4.5
Joaquin Benoit
26
R
105
5.49
90
4.4
7.5
R.A. Dickey
29
R
117
5.09
97
2.9
7.2
Ryan Drese
28
R
46
6.85
72
4.7
5.1
Glendon Rusch
29
L
123
6.42
68
3.3
6.8

* 2002-2003 Stats

KENNY ROGERS
Rogers (via agent Scott Boras) spurned a two-year, $10 million contract offer from Texas after the 2002 season. After a long and agonizing winter, he signed for one year and $2 million with Minnesota. Texas magnanimously offered two and $6 this time around, and Rogers wisely signed on the line that is dotted. The 39-year-old is aging quite gracefully; in fact, he posted a career-best K/BB ratio of 2.32 as a starter in 2003. 190-200 innings and an ERA of about 5.00 are what he offers, and Texas will take it. Amusingly and rather pathetically, those stats make him the staff ace.

CHAN HO PARK
Chan Ho Park pitches well in only one park, and he doesn't play for the team occupying that park. Quite a problem, yes?

Location
ERA
H/9
HR/9
BB/9
K/9
Dodger Stadium
2.98
7.0
0.94
4.0
8.1
Elsewhere
4.87
8.4
0.99
4.9
8.4
Ballpark in Arlington
6.26
10.0
1.25
4.2
7.5

Park's problem is Texas's problem, as the Rangers are committed to paying him $42 million over the next three years. In 2003, he ventured dangerously into softball territory, allowing an eye-popping 65 baserunners in just under 30 innings before back troubles ended his season. Nevertheless, he has the #2 spot in the rotation and will have to pitch himself out of it. Park's hit rate on balls in play has jumped from .283 as a Dodger to .310 in Texas. Those numbers correspond closely to Dodger and Ranger pitchers as a group, so he can't blame bad luck.

R.A. DICKEY
Texas's 1st-round pick in 1996 signed for a pittance when he was discovered to be missing a ligament in his pitching arm. The work of South American body-parts thieves? No, he was just born without it. To his immense credit, Dickey doggedly worked his way up the organizational ladder and pitched at a league-average level as a 29-year-old rookie. Dickey offers a mean K/BB ratio but otherwise is very hittable. He spends much of his time getting into and out of jams. Dickey should win a rotation spot but will stick as a long reliever otherwise.

JOAQUIN BENOIT
Arguably the most frustrating of Ranger pitching prospects, Benoit ought to dominate with his hard sinker and fantastic changeup but veers wildly between brilliance and putrescence, often within the same outing. In 2002, Benoit kept the ball in the park but walked 58 in just 84 innings. In 2003, he improved his K/BB ratio but allowed 23 homers in 105 innings. Benoit has no options remaining, and someone (hello, Milwaukee) will nab him if he's placed on waivers.

COLBY LEWIS
Lewis unquestionably has the stuff to pitch at the highest level. Lewis features a 95 MPH fastball, a drop-off-the-table curve, and, far too often, an inability to get either pitch over the plate. Lewis posted a 7.30 ERA, allowed opposing hitters a .950 OPS, and averaged fewer than five innings per start. Doing so over two or three starts wouldn't have been too terrible, but doing so over 26 starts is catastrophic. Lewis excelled during a mid-season demotion to AAA and offered a 4.55 ERA in five September starts. A rotation spot awaits with a decent spring showing.

RICARDO RODRIGUEZ
Texas acquired Rodriguez for Ryan Ludwick last summer. Once a prized prospect in the Dodger system, Rodriguez has more innings in the Majors than in AA and AAA combined. His ERA and peripheral stats have been uniformly terrible on the big stage. A hip injury derailed his 2003 campaign, and Texas hopes an older and healthier Rodriguez will finally fulfill his huge potential. That squeal you heard was the goat John Hart sacrificed in his backyard to increase the chances of said fulfillment.

RYAN DRESE
Is a 28-year-old with 38 career big-league starts still a prospect? Acquired as part of the dire trade involving Hafner and Diaz, Drese flopped in Arlington and managed a dubious 4.65 ERA in AAA Oklahoma. Anything short of brilliance this spring will land the optionless Drese on the waiver wire.

GLENDON RUSCH
Rusch has the best resume of the several NRIs in camp. Rusch certainly didn't pitch well last year but was hampered by a lofty .381 average-against on balls in play. His career mark is .330, so perhaps "bad luck" is part of his repertoire. Texas must offer him a big-league job or cut him loose by the end of March.

BULLPEN

Texas starters averaged less than 5.1 innings per start. Consequently, the Rangers set the Major League record for bullpen innings last year with 601. Texas relievers posted a 4.88 ERA but were "only" 17th in Adjusted Runs Prevented according to Baseball Prospectus. The next time Jay Powell gets bombed he can say, "I'm a good pitcher, Buck. It's these damn park factors…"

Player
Age
Throws
Innings
ERA
ERA+
BB/9
SO/9
Francisco Cordero
29
R
83
2.94
168
4.1
9.8
Jeff Zimmerman *
31
R
71
2.87
187
2.0
9.1
Brain Shouse
35
L
61
3.10
159
2.1
5.9
Ron Mahay
33
L
45
3.18
155
4.0
7.6
Erasmo Ramirez
28
L
49
3.86
128
1.7
5.1
Jeff Nelson
37
R
55
3.74
118
3.9
11.1
Jay Powell
32
R
59
7.82
63
5.2
6.1
Carlos Almanzar **
30
R
46
3.50
n/a
0.6
10.6

* 2001 Stats, ** AAA Stats

FRANCISCO CORDERO
A classic closer with a 98 MPH fastball and hard slider, Cordero lost his role when Texas signed Ugueth Urbina then regained it and saved 13 of 17 chances. Cordero will earn $2 million in 2004, his second year of arbitration, and a full year of closing could push him over the $4 million mark in 2005. In other words, he's available.

JEFF ZIMMERMAN
After a fine 2001 campaign, Zimmerman signed a three-year, $10 million contract. He has yet to throw a pitch in anger during that contract. Two elbow surgeries (including a ligament transplant) and setbacks in rehab left him little more than a well-paid cheerleader during 2002-2003. Zimmerman's money pitch is a murderous slider. He hasn't used it much in camp so far; if it's lost some of its cut, Zimmerman will be much more hittable. Texas will handle him carefully, letting him ease into higher leverage innings as merited. If Cordero is traded, he could find himself closing again.

BRIAN SHOUSE
The 35-year-old lefty meandered through seven organizations before striking gold in Texas. Shouse developed a sidearm delivery that resulted in improved control and an astounding 2.92 ground/fly ratio, a sorely needed ability in The Ballpark. His season was a textbook example of finding bullpen talent for minimal cost as opposed to paying $1.5 million for the mortal horror that is Esteban Yan. On the other hand, asking Shouse to match last year's 3.10 ERA is asking for too much.

RON MAHAY
Like Shouse, Mahay enjoyed a career year in Texas after pitching for four other clubs in six seasons. Mahay kept the ball in the park despite a high flyball ratio and held batters to a .195 average. Neither is likely to reoccur, but Mahay has the ability to pitch multiple innings and could be a useful long reliever even if his effectiveness diminishes somewhat.

ERASMO RAMIREZ
"Erasmo The Eraser" features a well below-average fastball and a changeup that dips into the upper 60s. His key to success is a funky and unreadable sidearm delivery. Also, unlike the typical Texas reliever from 2003, he throws strikes. What a concept.

JEFF NELSON
"The Bane of Groundskeepers" still strikes out batters at a ridiculous rate despite his advanced age. Nelson walks a few more batters than you'd like and has particular trouble throwing strikes against lefties. He has an ERA of 4.76 in 28 career innings in Arlington.

JAY POWELL
Powell missed the first two weeks of last season with vertigo, then pitched as if he still had it. He allowed 10 earned runs and 19 baserunners in just six April innings and found himself relegated to Team Mop. A similar showing this spring could result in his dismissal as Texas swallows the last year of his distasteful three-year, $9 million contract.

CARLOS ALMANZAR
The walk and strikeout figures are not misprints. Almanzar walked three and struck out 54 in 46 innings for AAA Louisville. Almanzar hasn't done much at the Major League level but has a real chance to stick with Texas.

ON THE FARM

Could help this year:

Ramon Nivar (CF) - A work in progress. The 24-year-old Nivar is toolsy and electric but has yet to parlay his skills into Major League success, batting a meager .211/.253/.267 for Texas in a late-season call-up. Raised as a second baseman, Nivar showed terrific range in center field but fielded just .961 and took some creative routes to reach fly balls. Nivar has just 98 walks in over 2,000 professional plate appearances, and a trip to the AFL last fall offered no improvement: two walks in 65 plate appearances. Unless he suddenly develops a batting eye, Nivar will have to bat .300 to be useful offensively.

Adrian Gonzalez (1B) - The #1 overall pick in the 2000 draft moved to Texas in exchange for Ugueth Urbina. Wrist surgery in December 2002 led to a disappointing 2003 (.269/.327/.365 in AA and AAA), but an improved showing in the Arizona Fall League has Texas believing he's on the right track. Gonzalez doesn't project to be a traditional masher but he could end up with a good combination of OBP and 20 homers. At worst, Gonzalez should get a late-season call-up. Solid play in AAA Oklahoma will have him in Arlington by the summer.

Juan Dominguez (SP-R) - The previously unheralded Dominguez roared through three levels in 2003, compiling a 10-0 record, 2.84 ERA and a 140/40 K/BB ratio in 136 innings of work. The 24-year-old Dominguez features a low-90s fastball and devastating changeup. Unfortunately, that's all he features right now, and Major League hitters chewed him up last August. Dominguez will work on his slider in AAA, and given the level of competition ahead of him, he should return to the Texas rotation at some point this season.

Could help in the future:

Drew Meyer (SS) - The 22-year-old South Carolina grad and 10th-overall pick of 2002 moves back to his natural position of shortstop with the trade of Alex Rodriguez. Meyer struggled badly in his inaugural season in low-A, then suddenly offered more power and patience in high-A and AA. Still, he's never posted an OPS above .735 at any level and should need at least one full year before reaching the bigs.

Vince Sinisi (OF/1B) -Rice sophomore Sinisi had Scott Boras representing his interests and could have returned to school for two more years. Thus, the sure-fire first rounder dropped all the way to 46th. Sinisi batted .338/.429/.502 for the College World Series champion Owls and will attempt to convert from first basemen to corner outfielder. John Sickels is lower on him than most scouts. Think 2006.

Jason Bourgeois (2B) - In 2003, the 22-year-old 2B struggled in AA after demolishing the California League for three months. Bourgeois displays a pretty good batting eye and some speed but hasn't shown more than doubles power. Bourgeois should start in AA with a jump to AAA and a late-season call-up possible.

Jeremy Cleveland (OF) - As noted in Craig Burley's recent fine study of college hitters, Cleveland posted the highest Offensive Winning Percentage in college baseball in 2003. Texas selected him in the 8th round with the 226th-overall pick. Cleveland hit a lofty .322/.432/.514 in low-A with 40 walks and 30 extra-base hits in 303 plate appearances. Cleveland is a DH in waiting and will go only as far as his bat takes him.

Wes Littleton (SP-R) - The Cal State Fullerton product fell to the 4th round because of a less-than-stellar senior season that included a one-month suspension for breaking team rules. Nevertheless, he devoured low-A hitters, tallying a 1.56 ERA and 47/8 K/BB ratio in 52 innings. Littleton may start in high-A but has a legitimate chance to sprint up the organizational ladder and is already being discussed for a late-season tryout in Arlington.

John Danks (SP-L) - Former Oakland scouting director Grady Fuson ignored the new orthodoxy of Moneyball and selected this high-school pitcher with the 9th-overall pick in 2003. (Texas selected college players with their next fourteen picks.) A lefty with a plus fastball and hard curve, the carefully handled Danks tossed only 25 professional innings following his senior season in Round Rock and will be held to 120 this year. Baseball America considers him Texas's #2 prospect.

Erik Thompson (SP-R) - A 12th-round JuCo pick in the 2002 draft, the 22-year-old Thompson has handled rookie ball and both A levels with aplomb. Thompson doesn't possess a killer fastball but has fantastic control; he has struck out 164 and walked only 22 in 193 innings of work. In 2004, he makes the big jump to AA. Thompson is only 5'11", diminishing his potential in the eyes of many scouts.

OUTLOOK

Oy. Texas could have a terrific club in 2006 if the pitching prospects develop as hoped. As for this year, the Rangers should allow fewer runs but also score fewer. Memories of the late 1990s will seem like decades ago to Ranger fans as the club lurches to its fifth consecutive season of 71-73 wins.

Posted by Lucas at 12:08 PM

February 28, 2004

2004 Colorado Rockies Preview

(Published at the Batters Box, 28 Feb 2004)

The bloom is off the rose.

Fans once packed Mile High Stadium and Coors Field regardless of how well the Rockies played, but too many years of mediocrity have driven them away. Attendance has fallen for an astonishing seven consecutive seasons, and season tickets sales have fallen from 34,000 to 16,000 in five short years. With the Broncos, Avalanche and even the usually awful Nuggets offering competitive products, the Rockies find themselves at the bottom of the local sports heap in terms of quality and buzz.

GM Dan O’Dowd and company certainly didn’t create any buzz this winter. Still burdened by the catastrophic signings of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle as well as other contracts granted before the “market correction? 2002-2003, Colorado will pay $51 million to just five players (Helton, Wilson, Johnson, Neagle, Walker) this season and roughly the same amount next season. Colorado didn’t sign any marquee free agents this winter and probably won’t until after 2005 when the contracts of all but Todd Helton disappear. Jeromy Burnitz and familiar face Vinny Castilla top the list of free agents signed to help the team tread water while prospects develop.

Where are these prospects, anyway? The everyday lineup belies an organization supposedly building for the future. In the everyday lineup, only Aaron Miles (27) and Preston Wilson (29) are on the right side of 30, and neither is a product of the system. Even the bench is old. The starting rotation consists of Jason Jennings and four huge question marks. Yet none among Aaron Cook, Chin-Hui Tsao, Garrett Atkins and Clint Barmes is expected to break camp with the big-league club without a tremendous spring. Fellow prospect Rene Reyes just turned 26 and is fighting for a backup role in the outfield.

Is there hope? ESPN and Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers definitely thinks so. He picks Colorado as the team most likely to imitate the Marlins’ chumps-to-champs 2003. Rogers correctly observes that a weaker NL West is ripe for the taking, and Colorado did finish win four fewer games than their Pythagorean record would indicate. But he also championed the virtues of Royce Clayton, Vinny Castilla, Jeff Fassero, and Scott Elarton, among others. Rogers claimed pitchers would have to “challenge? Clayton batting in front of Todd Helton, and he approvingly noted Fassero’s ground ball-inducing capabilities. To quote Dave Barry: I swear I am not making this up.

Others have discussed how Coors Field will revitalize the careers of Castilla, Burnitz, Clayton, et al. While true from a personal standpoint, such park-driven statistical improvement means nothing in terms of helping the team. When Colorado hosts Los Angeles, Dodger batters also get to hit in Coors Field. Colorado’s game-day opponents also will play 81 games at Coors Field. It’s a wash.

Winning is a function of talent, not park, and throughout most of their history, the Rockies just haven’t been very good. Even during the heyday of the Blake Street Bombers, dreadful batters like Neifi Perez, Kirk Manwaring, and Mike Lansing larded the Rockie lineup.

Sadly, for Rockies fans, this year is no different. Colorado just isn’t very good. Not only should they miss the ninety wins Phil Rogers thinks is within reach, they would do very well just to reach .500. In my gloomy opinion, yet another season of 72-75 wins awaits the dwindling Rockie faithful.

DEPARTURES

SS Mark Bellhorn, 2B Ronnie Belliard, 2B/3B Brett Butler, C Bobby Estalella, RP Jose Jimenez, 3B Greg Norton, SP Darren Oliver, OF Jay Payton, RP Justin Speier, 3B Chris Stynes, SS Juan Uribe

ARRIVALS

OF Jeromy Burnitz, 3B Vinny Castilla, SP Travis Driskill, SS Royce Clayton, SP Shawn Estes, P Jeff Fassero, IF Benji Gil, C Todd Greene, IF Denny Hocking, UT Damian Jackson, SP Joe Kennedy, 2B Aaron Miles, RP Vladimir Nunez, SP Brian Tollberg, RP Turk Wendell, RP Matt White

MANAGEMENT

“I don't see ages; I see awareness… You can deliberate their skill level, but you can't deliberate their characters.? -- Dan O’Dowd

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, is praise of character the last refuge of a desperate general manager? Character is fine, as far as it goes. No doubt it gives some players an edge, but isn’t that edge already reflected in past performance? Veteran players with good character aren’t suddenly going to improve just because they have character. It’s circular logic.

In truth, Dan O’Dowd has little choice but to extol character. A few oppressive contracts combined with falling revenues resulted in a drastically curtailed free-agent budget, leaving O’Dowd unable to acquire any top-notch talent. O’Dowd seems to have created a new paradigm for franchise success every year in the hope that something will work. This year, at the Major League level, the plan involves a partial return of the homers-or-bust approach. The plan also involves bringing in a huge number of NRIs and praying that some perform at the far-right end of the bell curve. The organization also has rededicated itself to player development, something it must do in acknowledging that Colorado is a mid-market club.

I don’t know if Clint Hurdle is a good manager, but he doesn’t appear to be a bad one. Players reacted approvingly to him when he replaced Buddy Bell in 2002, and he has received generally favorable reviews despite the team’s sub-.500 record during his tenure. Hurdle doesn’t insert himself into the game very often compared to most NL managers, calling a relatively low number of bunts, intentional walks and pitchouts. Since Colorado scores in bunches at home and frequently trails on the road, his laissez faire attitude helps the team. He also has handled his pitchers with great cautiousness, never allowing anyone to throw more than 116 pitches last year and accumulating the fewest Pitcher Abuse Points of any team in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus. How he might handle a better staff in a neutral environment is anybody’s guess.

This winter, the team’s owners extended the contracts of O’Dowd and Hurdle through the 2006 season.

THE STARTERS

"It's not going to do any good if I am coming up with two outs and nobody on."
-- Todd Helton

You'll get used to it, Todd. Here’s the batting order:

Player
POS
BAT
AGE
AVG/OBP//SLUG
OPS+
EQA
Aaron Miles *
2B
S
27
.304/.351/.445
n/a
.240
Royce Clayton
SS
R
34
.228/.301/.333
64
.225
Todd Helton
1B
L
30
.358/.458/.630
168
.345
Larry Walker
RF
L
37
.284/.422/.476
124
.300
Preston Wilson
CF
R
29
.282/.343/.537
115
.279
Jeromy Burnitz
LF
L
35
.239/.299/.487
104
.267
Vinny Castilla
3B
R
36
.277/.310/.461
101
.262
Charles Johnson
C
R
32
.230/.320/.455
90
.252
Pitcher / #9 hitter
P
n/a
n/a
.210/.282/.332
53
n/a

* Statistics for Miles are from AAA Charlotte.

C - CHARLES JOHNSON
Johnson produced about as severe a home-road split as can be imagined, channeling Jorge Posada at home (.980 OPS) and Brandon Inge on the road (.560 OPS). Johnson has never hit much for average, but Colorado will happily take his 20 homers out of the #8 spot. He remains a solid defensive catcher, throwing out 42% of baserunners and ranking 12th in Defensive Win Shares among the 30 with the most innings. Colorado will less-than-happily pay him $9 million in each of the next two seasons.

1B - TODD HELTON
Forget about the home park: Todd Helton really is all that and a bag of chips. He sports a career line of .294/.385/.523 on the road, all the more impressive if, as some analysts have opined, playing in Coors creates a "hangover effect" leading to unusually poor performance away from home. With proper support he could win the Triple Crown. He won’t receive that support this year, but he will continue to carry the offense on his back. Also a fine defensive first baseman.

2B - AARON MILES
Colorado badly needs newly acquired Aaron Miles to succeed, both as a second baseman and as a leadoff hitter. In 2002, he won the AA Southern League MVP. The following year, Miles batted a solid .304/.351/.445 in his first season in AAA. Unfortunately, he accomplished these feats during the ages of 25 and 26, respectively. Now 27, he has all of 12 Major League plate appearances to his credit. Miles hits for average and raps doubles but has little home-run power, doesn’t walk that much and uses his speed rather injudiciously. Nevertheless, with Colorado’s leadoff hitters emerging straight out of the Ninth Circle of Hell in 2003 (NL-worst .298 OBP), Miles needs only to be mediocre to offer improvement in this area. If he fails, 2B duties fall (precipitously) to Damian Jackson.

3B - VINNY CASTILLA
Vinny Castilla should kiss the grass of Coors Field every day and thank it for his financial security. The ultimate thin-air player, Castilla has batted .340/.380/.623 in Denver, .258/.298/.427 everywhere else. For $2.1 million (all but $500,000 deferred), Colorado is betting that Castilla can repeat the OPS+ of 101 he posted in 2003 instead of the wretched 70 he averaged from 1999-2002, all the while conjuring misty water-colored memories of the Blake Street Bombers of yore. That’s a heck of a longshot, but regardless, Castilla almost can’t help but to offer substantial improvement over last year’s 3B Chris Stynes. His arrival banishes prospect Garrett Atkins to another season in Colorado Springs.

SS - ROYCE CLAYTON
Ostensible shortstop-of-the-future Clint Barmes batted only .276/.316/.394 in hitter-friendly Colorado Springs, so O’Dowd had to sign a warm body for the position. Barely meeting that modest criterion is new shortstop and out machine Royce Clayton. Clayton has batted terribly for four years running and in 2003 produced an OPS of .634, his worst in ten years. Yet because the team lacks traditional top-of-the-order hitters, Clayton will bat second and may occasionally lead off for the Rockies. Mr. Helton, I feel your pain. Clayton does offer a good glove. He also should be well rested: he lost his starting job to Bill Hall in Milwaukee last September and was waived with extreme prejudice by Chicago the year before.

LF - JEROMY BURNITZ
Justifiably uninterested in paying off 31-year-old Jay Payton for his career year, O’Dowd signed Jeromy Burnitz to a one-year deal. Once a feared hitter, Burnitz completely lost his mojo in 2002 and recovered about half of it last year. Strangely, he has lost patience as he’s aged, declining in walks over the last four years from 99 to 80 to 58 to just 35. Unless he regains form, he (like Castilla) will depend mostly on home runs to generate offense. Burnitz is nothing special defensively.

CF - PRESTON WILSON
Wilson converted a season of good health and thin air into 36 homers and an NL-best 141 RBI. Batting behind Helton and Walker will afford him the opportunity to repeat those numbers. As a mid-lineup run producer, Wilson doesn’t run so much anymore. Wilson faltered badly in the second half of last season and tore a ligament in his finger at season's end. Hurdle intends to rest him more often in 2004. Win Shares rated him a below-average centerfielder in 2003.

RF - LARRY WALKER
In 2003, the fragile Walker posted his lowest slugging percentage in ten years and lowest batting average since 1990. Has the 37-year-old jumped the shark? Perhaps not. Reportedly, Walker worked out with a strength coach and lost 25 pounds over the winter. Also, his on-base percentage remained in the .420 range and his “disappointing? OPS+ of 124 still bested Wilson and Payton. Walker will miss another 20-30 games but ought to have another solid season in him.

THE BENCH

Backup catcher Todd Greene’s contribution to an offense depends entirely on his knack for swatting the ball over the fence. He doesn’t hit for average and his walk rate would mortify Neifi Perez: Greene has ten walks in his last 512 plate appearances. Greene mans the backstop adequately and can sub at first and even in the outfield in a pinch.

Damian Jackson is a respectable bench player. He can play anywhere on the field but catcher and has some speed. But if Miles or Clayton suffer from injury or ineffectiveness, Jackson makes a poor replacement. Non-roster invitees Denny Hocking and Benji Gil will fight for the other backup infield spot. Both have had exactly one fluky season in which they hit capably. Hocking has the advantage with his positional versatility.

Mark Sweeney will be one of Colorado’s extra outfielders and deserves to be the primary pinch hitter. Unlike the rest of the bench, Sweeney has some on-base skills, sporting a career OBP of .343 and a line of .270/.354/.365 as a pinch hitter. 26-year-old Rene Reyes is a veritable child among his Rox brethren but is also getting long in the tooth for a prospect. Reyes has a career .343 batting average in the minors but walks about one-half as often as you’d want. He appears to be one of those guys who must bat .300 to be useful, something he failed to achieve in limited big-league duty last season. He won’t surpass fourth outfielder status this season unless someone gets hurt. Based on his career arc, he’ll need to step it up to ever be anything more than that. 30-year-old catcher, corner infielder and desperation outfielder Kit Pellow also has a chance to make the squad.

THE STARTING ROTATION

"I am excited about our chances and, well, you know, the rotation… Um, what is our rotation?"
-- Charles Johnson

Player
Age
Throws
Innings
ERA
ERA+
BB/9
K/9
Jason Jennings
25
R
181
5.11
93
4.4
5.9
Joe Kennedy
25
L
134
6.13
74
3.2
5.2
Denny Stark
29
R
79
5.84
82
3.8
3.4
Scott Elarton
28
R
52
6.27
76
3.5
3.5
Jeff Fassero
41
L
78
5.68
73
3.9
6.4

JASON JENNINGS
Jennings would be a #3 or #4 starter in an average rotation. In Colorado, he’s the man. In 2003, Jennings backslid from his solid rookie season, allowing more hits and walking nearly one more batter per nine innings. He features a mean sinker and does a pretty good job of keeping the ball out of the air and the right-field bleachers considering where he pitches. Jennings stands a good chance to throw 200 innings with a 4.50 ERA, both desperately needed in Colorado.

JOE KENNEDY
Is Joe Kennedy really the #2 starter? He’s as good a candidate as any. After two league-average seasons, Kennedy collapsed in 2003, posting a 6.13 ERA and having to pitch in relief for the first time in his professional career. He won’t turn 25 until May and has shown great potential, but Kennedy may not be suited to a career in Denver. Kennedy allows a high proportion of fly balls, hasn’t struck out many batters at the Major League level, and usually relies on a curve ball for those strikeouts. Coors Field is where breaking pitches go to die, often along with the careers of those throwing them.

DENNY STARK
Stark injured his back in Spring Training last year and never fully recovered, his ERA jumping to 4.00 to 5.84 in just 78 innings. Colorado might be counting on a return to form, but in truth, Stark didn’t really pitch any better in 2002. That year, he offered a grisly 1-1 walk/strikeout ratio and a home run every five innings. He also held batters to a miniscule .216 average on balls in play, and even nonbelievers in DIPS would have to agree that he’s not likely to ever repeat that. An ERA in the mid-fives seems more likely.

SCOTT ELARTON
A first-round pick ten years ago, Elarton will attempt to complete his return from rotator cuff surgery. He threw 172 pain-free innings in 2003, struggling slightly in Colorado Springs and mightily in Colorado. In 51 big-league innings, he actually pitched much worse than his 6.27 ERA would suggest. It’s unfair to judge him based on that limited sample, but really, there’s not much else to go on. He goes into the spring needing to pitch well to win a job.

JEFF FASSERO
Yes, friends, Colorado signed Fassero for his ground ball-inducing capabilities. That these ground balls skitter into the outfield with alarming regularity seems not to have occurred to Rockie management. And what of the balls that do tend skyward? Fassero has allowed an unsightly 26 homers in 145 innings over the last two years. I wish him no ill, but the 41-year-old has pitched dreadfully in recent years and has very little chance of improving his fortune or the team’s.

THE REST
As noted in the Rocky Mountain News, prospects Chin-Hui Tsao, Aaron Cook and Jason Young will head down the road to Colorado Springs unless they dominate in camp. Adam Bernero, acquired from Detroit last summer, and non-roster invitees Shawn Estes and Brian Tollberg will fight for rotation spots. Bernero, at least, should make the team as a reliever.

THE BULLPEN

Having perused the generally dubious collection of arms in the rotation, would you have expected Colorado to take one of its only reliable starters and reduce his workload by two-thirds? Meet new closer Shawn Chacon. Chacon doesn’t have an exceptional strikeout rate, isn’t a groundball pitcher, and isn’t especially adept at keeping the ball in the park (even adjusting for park). He is reasonably but blandly effective, a latter-day Craig Lefferts.

As for the rest of the bullpen, Colorado hopes to improve on what was already a respectable relief crew in 2003. The team traded Justin Speier to Toronto during the winter, but righty Steve Reed and lefties Brian Fuentes and Javier Lopez remain. Each posted a sub-3.75 ERA last year. Though expecting all three to do so again is too much to ask, overall they should comprise a solid troika of middle relief. Vladimir Nunez, terrible last year but adequate in 2001-2002, ought to win another bullpen spot. Adam Bernero, Turk Wendell, Jeff Tam and others will fight for mop-up roles.

THE FARM

The only homegrown products certain to make the club are Helton, Jennings, and Chacon. Colorado has pitching talent at higher levels, but most of the hitting prospects are at least two years from contributing to the big-league club.

Could help this season:

22-year-old #1 prospect Chin-Hui Tsao has pulverized the minors, posting a 2.57 ERA and striking out 391 batters with just 85 walks in 333 professional innings. Tsao missed most of 2001 with Tommy John surgery, returned with a vengeance in 2002, and skipped AAA to make his big-league debut last July. The first Major League player from Taiwan made two solid starts before faltering, and a hamstring pull limited his fall performance. Barring a knockout spring, Tsao will join Colorado Springs to start the season. Tsao is the #27 prospect in the Majors according to Baseball Prospectus and the only Rockie in the top 50.

Former Stanford standout Jason Young dominated AAA but flopped in a brief tryout in Colorado last September, allowing 8 homers and 43 baserunners in just 21 innings. The 24-year-old will begin the season with the Sky Sox and could return to Denver very soon given the level of talent standing in his way.

Aaron Cook struggled in his first full ML season and may begin the year in AAA. Cook excelled at keeping the ball in the park but allowed a hailstorm of hits and walked more than he struck out. Although Cook just turned 25 and still has time to improve, his minor-league track record indicates a lower upside than Tsao or Young.

24-year-old Lefty Cory Vance’s strikeout rate has dropped precipitously as he’s climbed the ladder: 8.3 per nine innings in high-A, 6.8 in AA, 5.5 in AAA, and 3.8 in the Majors. He doesn’t appear ready yet.

Todd Helton’s presence forced Garrett Atkins to move from first base to third, where he has struggled to achieve defensive competency. Atkins hits for average and shows a fine batting eye but hasn’t developed a home run stroke even in Colorado’s thin air. As of now, his batting skills make for a below-average ML first baseman, so his defensive development is key.

Shortstop Clint Barmes turns 25 in May and hasn’t displayed much hitting prowess at any level. Barmes did lead the PCL in doubles with 35 but otherwise did not impress with a line of .276/.316/.394. That O’Dowd felt Royce Clayton would better serve the Rockies this year speaks ill of Barmes’s future.

Names to watch:

J.D. Closser, C – Colorado acquired Closser for Jack Cust in 2002. Closser is talented but erratic behind the plate and batted a solid .283/.369/.471 for AA Tulsa. In a perfect world, he’ll be ready to replace Charles Johnson in 2005.

Jayson Nix, 2B –A 21-year-old supplemental 1st round pick in 2001 and the younger brother of Ranger Laynce Nix, Jayson popped 21 homers and reached based at a .351 clip in high-A last year.

Ian Stewart 3B – Last year’s 10th pick overall, the 18-year-old 3B torched the rookie Pioneer League to the tune of .317/.401/.558. Several years away.

Jeff Baker, 3B – 22-year old owns the career homer record at Clemson but a wrist injury limited him to 11 dingers in the Sally League.

Jeff Francis, P – Colorado’s 1st round pick in 2002 handled high-A capably last year. The British Columbian tallied a 3.47 ERA with a three-to-one SO/BB ratio as a 22-year-old.

Posted by Lucas at 12:23 PM