Monthly archives: February 2006
The Glass is Half-Full, Dammit
An email exchange with legendary South American film star Bruno Puntz-Jones dredged up one of those stray thoughts I have every once in a while. You know the ones... they seem completely brilliant for about two seconds, and then a minute later you can't even remember what they were... insert THC joke here.
Anyway, Bruno asked about the chances of Cristian Guzman having a rebound season. The Washington Post paints a rosy picture of him early in the spring, even going so far as to trot out a Field of Dreams nod for him, and not of the "Guzman hits like a little girl choking on a piece of hot dog" variety. Laser eye surgery? Check. Reporting to camp trim and in great shape? Check. Motivated, with a steely glint in his eye? Check. Obligatory reference to the only decent few weeks he had in 2005, which just happened to come at the end of the year? Check.
Bruno's question reminded me of one of those tiny little epiphanies of mine. Why is it that baseball observers seem more inclined to give players the benefit of the doubt after a breakout season than they do after a breakdown season? If you're willing to look on the bright side of a positive career outlier, and think that maybe it's the start of a new plateau instead of just a spike, shouldn't you also be the kind of person who looks at a negative career outlier and sees just a valley, and not a chasm?
I realize it's not a question, really, of "optimism" vs. "pessimism" -- more of a "what have you done for me lately?" effect, combined with a bit of bandwagonitis -- but maybe it should be. Edgar Renteria went out and had a career year in 2003, and too many people (myself included) fell all over themselves declaring that he'd put it all together and joined the shortstopping elite. We're seeing some of the same thing this preseason, to an extent, with Felipe Lopez. But where's that kind of love and faith for the Guzmans of the world? Who's willing to stand out on that limb and say, "Hey, the kid just had a bad year. He'll be back!"
Of course in Guzman's case, "back" would be to a .270/.300/.380 line, less some park effect erosion, so maybe he isn't the best example to be using. Let's take a look instead at someone else who's been, if not quite written off, is at least being viewed with more-than-healthy skepticism. Just to reinforce my point in the cheapest way possible, I'll play the 'Player A' / 'Player B' game.
First big league season: .825 OPS
First big league season: .676 OPS
OK, so the two players really have nothing in common. It's a stupid game, I'm pulling the plug. Player A is Pat Burrell, and Player B is Corey Patterson. My point though, such as it is, is that both Burrell and (especially) Patterson had/are getting more than would seem to be their fair share of people declaring them to be bums, when "regression to the mean" in its rawest form suggests they'll come back just fine.
Before spring training kicks into full gear, I want to get down my early-early-early predictions for who 2006's out-of-nowhere surprise players will be. The great thing about playing this sort of game, of course, is that it's a no-lose proposition. If you guess wrong, well, these guys were bums anyway and no one really expected them to do much. If you hit on one or two, however... ah, why then your prognosticative genius will ring down like the clearest of bells throughout the ages. Or at least whenever you bring it up at your fantasy auction.
Generally speaking, surprise players fall into three categories: prospects people have all but given up on for one reason or another (John Patterson is a decent example from last season); the guy who's produced in the minors but never really gotten a break in the bigs (Emil Brown, for instance); and, in the immortal words of Sherwood Schwartz, "the rest" -- the players who just schlumped around the majors for a while without doing much of anything, before 'inexplicably' putting it all together (see: Loaiza, Esteban, 2003).
Please note the following: The scientific method was not used in the creation of this list. Numbers were studiously not crunched; rosters given no more than the most cursory of glances to look for obvious job openings. These are pure, unadulterated hunches.
Eddie Gaillard, Flo -- 'Round about this time last year, Gaillard was a super-sneaky closer sleeper among rotisserati. He had a solid arsenal of stuff and had signed with the Rockies, a team in need of a bullpen stopper, after a number of successful seasons closing in Japan. Unfortunately he battled through a few nagging injuries in spring training (nothing too serious, just things that kept him off the mound and unable to make a strong impression) and the door opened for Brian Fuentes to eventually seize the job.
Well, here it is 2006, and Gaillard is once again in camp with a team needing a closer, only this one plays in an environment that's a little friendlier to pitchers. And he only has to beat out Joe Borowski, Matt Herges and about eighty-seven unproven kids to win a key role in the Florida bullpen. That's not exactly the Nasty Boyz he's trying to break in with there. He has to stay healthy first, of course, but if he shows anything at all who knows what could happen? This year's Marlins will have nothing to lose by giving him a chance.
Ben Hendrickson, Mil -- Once upon a time, Hendrickson was part of a group of Brewers prospects with Ben Sheets and Nick Neugebauer who were expected to bring a golden age of strikeouts to Miller Park's mound. As Mets and A's fans (among so many others) could have told them, things never work out that well. Neugebauer blew out his arm and is out of baseball entirely, while Sheets has actually turned out pretty well, although he too has had problems staying completely healthy. Hendrickson's case is trickier. He's had no real career-threatening injuries, but regressed badly in his performance last season, nearly dropping off the prospect radar in the process. He still has that wicked curveball though, and if he ever figures out how to use it he could easily re-emerge as a potentially dominant major league pitcher. My gut is telling me he'll be closing for the Brewers in the second half this season, and could evolve into a Tom Gordon/Gregg Olson-style late inning reliever, but Milwaukee isn't exactly loaded in the rotation either so that path is still open to him too. If he can put things together.
J.R. House, Hou -- Whaaaa... ? Yes, House is back after his one-season stint as West Virginia's backup QB, and after Fox stole his name for a hit show. He's surrounded by a blizzard of question marks (can he throw a baseball well enough to stick behind the plate? How rusty is his swing? Etc.) but if he answers most or all of them, the Astros might be the perfect organization for him. Brad Ausmus turns 73 this year and can't hold together much longer, and there isn't an obvious heir apparent in the system behind the plate. If House can't hack it anymore as a catcher, though, first base is equally devoid of upper-minor prospects to replace Jeff Bagwell. House did hit fairly well in his last crack at Triple-A with Pittsburgh, so really all he has to do to win a job is prove he's more useful than someone like Luke Scott. If he can still function as a catcher at all, that shouldn't be a tough bar to clear.
David Kelton, Atl -- My noisy gut is insisting that some ex-Cub outfield semi-prospect will finally break through in the majors this year. Unfortunately it can't decide which one it will be. Kelton, to me, is in the best situation. The Braves don't have a set third starting OF next to Andruw Jones and Jeff Francouer yet, and are an organization that will be more forgiving of Kelton's potential OBP issues than some others might be. He'll have to make a big impression in camp, but if he does he could finally get the chance in the majors he never got in Wrigley.
Brett Tomko, LAD -- Oh heck, why not. Tomko has put more grey hair on pitching coaches heads' than any other hurler of his generation. Dodger Stadium can be a magic place for pitchers though, and every once in a while someone will find what they lost out on that mound, or even something they never had before. Remember Nomo's revival in his second stint in blue, after years in the wilderness? There's no reason (other than the obvious 10,000 reasons that go along with him being Brett Tomko) it can't happen again here.
Honorable Mentions -- Dewon Brazelton, SD (too obvious); Ramon Ortiz, Was (sometimes, no ballpark in the world can help you); Jack Wilson, Pit (this year's Felipe Lopez?)
Esteban German, KC -- The whole "solid vets as place holders while we spin our wheels organizationally" thing just never seems to work out. I have a bad feeling about the Grudzy, Minky and Reggie signings; I don't think the Royals are going to get more than 700-800 plate appearances from the lot of them. If Grudzielanek does indeed go down, German is nicely situated to get his first crack at a full-time gig in the majors. Kansas City has already been down this road with Brown. German's upper minor league track record is really pretty darn good, and there's no discernible reason why he can't get the job done in the bigs. The best part here is that the Royals don't have a great 2B prospect behind him, and German is still young enough to build a nice career for himself if he can just get that first foot in the door.
D'Angelo Jimenez, Tex -- Right now, wunderkind prospect Ian Kinsler is the projected favorite to win the second base job for the Rangers, but how perfect would the irony be if Jimenez ended up being the one who took over for Alfonso Soriano instead? Jimenez is probably on his last chance to earn a big league paycheck here, so he's got all the motivation in the world to not just produce but be a model citizen for Buck Showalter. And if he does get the job, his ability to take a walk and get on base will be very useful among all the big bats in the Rangers lineup.
Joe Kennedy, Oak -- Tampa Bay, to Colorado, to Oakland. I hope Kennedy appreciates what he's got right now. The A's rotation seems pretty set, aside from Rich Harden's injury concerns, and Kennedy is just one of many candidates to step in if a hole does open up, so he'll have some work to do in camp to establish himself as the clear "sixth starter". I think he's up to it though; his numbers last year were the best he's put up since his first season in the bigs, before he got dragged down by the psychic toll of being a Devil Ray and Rockie. It's almost like he hit the reset button on his career in 2005; now he has a chance going forward of achieving at least some fraction of the success people envisioned for him in the first place.
Orber Moreno, Bal -- For a while, I weaned myself off irrational attachments to "closers of the future". They almost never pan out, after all, and are just immensely frustrating to follow. Then, the worst thing possible happened; Rafael Betancourt got to the majors and started doing well. You see, Betancourt was the very first prospect I "discovered" for myself. Back when I first started paying attention to the minors, I noticed this kid in the Red Sox system who posted the single most insane K/BB ratio I'd ever seen in my life (52/2 in 32 innings for Low-A Michigan back in '97). I was hooked; surely, no matter how poor the competion was, anyone who could do something like that had a bright future in the bigs. Thus started my addiction to closers of the future; Betancourt, Henriquez, Matt Anderson, it didn't matter, I took a shine to them all, and got my heart broken every single time. Moreno was one of my favorites though. He had everything going for him as the future Kansas City closer (heavy, hard fastball, nasty breaking stuff)... everything, that is, except health. I'd managed to put him out of my mind when he resurfaced in the Mets system in '04, but with the example of Betancourt (doing well in the Indians 'pen) sitting there in front of me, all the old feelings came rushing back and I started rooting for him to keep it up and push aside the clearly inadequate Braden Looper.
Inevitably, Moreno got hurt. Again. Now here he is once more, off the operating table and on a mound, and have I learned my lesson? Of course not. Chris Ray hasn't established anything yet, dammit. There's still time, Orber! You can do it!
Tim Redding, ChW -- After working miracles with Jon Garland last season, White Sox pitching coach Don Copper will have a similar project on his hands in Redding, a pitcher whose numbers have always fallen far short of what scouts expected from his stuff. Like Garland pre-2005, Redding has been too hittable and not dominant enough throughout his career. Cooper's approach isn't going to change the latter, but if Redding buys into the program in the spring and carves out a role for himself on the big league roster, the Sox's infield defense should take care of the former just as they did for Garland. It all depends on getting onto the Sox staff in the first place though, which might require a Jose Contreras trade, a move that would push Brandon McCarthy into the rotation and open up the long man spot in the 'pen.
Honorable Mentions -- Jason DuBois, Cle (see Kelton); Scott Dunn, LAA (the Angels pull a useful reliever out of thin air every year, so if it's not Dunn it'll be Dustin Moseley or Chris Bootcheck or...); Jesse Foppert, Sea and/or Clint Nageotte, Sea (the attention and pressure will all be on Felix)
How's My Drafting? Dial 1-800...
Tuesday officially kicked off fantasy baseball season for me, as I too participated in Sportsline's NL-only 5x5 expert (or "expert", if you prefer) league, carrying the banner for Rotowire.com. This isn't just a mock draft -- with people I actually know involved, including Will and Elias' Rob Tracy, there are some hard-core bragging rights on the line.
I also wound up with my most loathed of drafting spots, the second overall pick. Why most loathed? Well, aside from the makeup of the NL talent pool for 2006 (there's Pujols, and then a bunch of guys in a clump behind him) making most of the first round a wash in terms of the caliber of player you get, I also hate going so long without being able to draft anyone. Getting stuck down at one end of the snake or the other invariably means you are forced to take guys you want a little earlier than they're probably worth, because otherwise you get to watch someone else take them in the 20 or so picks that come off the board (it's a 12 team league) before your turn comes around again.
Here's who I ended up nabbing, with comments as necessary:
#2 Rotowire.com David Wright (3B NYM)
My first dilemma was sorting through that mass behind Pujols. Abreu was the first guy I thought of, but I quickly moved away from him. I just have a feeling he's going to start sliding this year -- not in batting average, which will probably rebound back to his usual .300 or so, but in steals. Bobby's in his 30s now, and at the age where the 'speed' part of the power/speed combo starts to go. I could have played it safe with a Derrek Lee or Andruw Jones, but I wasn't comfortable with either -- in both cases, last year's stat line has regression to the mean written all over it. That left me looking at two young studs whose best days should still be ahead of them, starting in 2006: Miguel Cabrera, and David Wright.
Cabrera offered a better track record, and position flexibility (OF and 3B). On the down side, the offense around him has been gutted, and he's got no proven major league hitters to either drive him in, or get on base for him to drive in. Hermida, Jacobs, Willingham etc. could end up being very good, but Cabrera could just as easily hit 40 home runs, and only get 90 RBI. That's a lot of risk for the #2 pick.
Wright hasn't established himself yet the way Cabrera has, but did have two things going for him: steals, and a much better lineup around him. True five-category third basemen are a rarity, and it was hard to pass one up... and so, in the end, I didn't.
#23 Rotowire.com Ben Sheets (P MIL)
All these picks came when I was at a doctor's appointment that couldn't be re-scheduled, and were auto-picked from the players I had queued up in the draft room. I blame no one but myself for forgetting that Sheets still has some concerns about the torn muscle in his back... in retrospect I should have had Oswalt, the safer choice, ahead of him in my queue.
Howard I'm comfortable with that early -- if he's an overdraft, he's only a slight one, and if he puts up the numbers everyone keeps expecting from Adam Dunn he'll be an outright steal at that spot. Griffey was the best of what was left in the OF, and considering how things went when I got back I'm glad I got him. Webb I took ahead of John Patterson, and deliberately. I think the improvements made in the Arizona defense behind him (specifically the addition of Orlando Hudson) will have a bigger impact than people expect. Look at the numbers Josh Towers and Gustavo Chacin put up for the Blue Jays last year despite their peripherals, then tell me a guy like Webb can't do them one or two better.
#71 Rotowire.com Ryan P. Freel (2B CIN)
Freel I grabbed because when I looked around at who came off the board while I was gone both steals, and middle infielders, were getting thin. After that comes four picks of exactly the kind I described above -- players I wanted, who were somewhere in the next couple dozen names on my list, and who I didn't think would be there when it got back to me. Hawpe was the biggest reach, but outfielders had gotten shockingly thin at that point in the draft as well.
I am inordinately happy with my catchers though. I'm usually the guy who punts catcher in these things, so getting two guys who can actually, y'know, hit back there is kinda novel.
#122 Rotowire.com Brad Penny (P LA)
One thing taking McCann and Willingham cost me, though, is a shortstop. I had my eye on Bill Hall, but figured taking two catchers back to back might set off a positional run. Instead I got to watch Hall go at #120, before the snake turned the corner and got back to me. D'oh! No problem, I thought to myself, I'll just take J.J. Hardy instead. But first I'll shore up my pitching staff, since surely Hardy won't go any earlier than... #130, apparently. Double d'oh.
Enter Adam "at least I'll get a few steals" Everett as my starting SS. Oh boy.
#146 Rotowire.com Ryan Madson (P PHI)
Betemit, given my needs at that point, is a pick I really like. He can cover both my CI and MI spots, which gave me the flexibility to take some chances later on Hart, Hairston, Izturis, Baker and Miles -- if Betermit is at least decent I don't need more than one or two of those guys to pan out. Positional flexibility is far more valuable in deep drafts than most people realize.
#194 Rotowire.com Kip Wells (P PIT)
He could rebound -- hey, why not? At this point in a draft, any starting pitcher with reasonable upside looks pretty darn good.
#215 Rotowire.com Corey C. Hart (OF MIL)
He's either be a steal, if he gets 300-400 at bats, or a waste of a pick. I thought I needed to take some chances on offense though.
#218 Rotowire.com Damaso Marte (P PIT)
The lack of closers on my roster should be glaring by now, but they always go far too early in 5x5 drafts for me to waste my time with. I'll take my chances on caddies and longshots like Marte, Sanchez, Bruney, and Resop, plus whoever I can grab off the waiver wire, to keep me out of the basement in the saves category.
#239 Rotowire.com Scott Hairston (2B? ARI)
Probably too early, given how long Izturis will still be out for, but the gaping hole in my middle infield was making me nervous.
#266 Rotowire.com Brian Bruney (P ARI)
I'm shocked I got Baker, quite frankly. Every Rockie who should have reminded folks in the draft that he was still out there (Ian Stewart, Quintanilla, even Jorge Piedra) went between picks #266 and #287. I even commented via sitemail to Rob Tracy that Bruney had been a mistake pick, and would cost me a guy I really wanted. I'm glad I was wrong.
#290 Rotowire.com Aaron Miles (2B STL)
Another guy I like late. Someone has to play in the outfield for the Marlins, after all.
#314 Rotowire.com Jon Rauch (P WAS)
Hopefully Mabry will be Dusty's designated "veteran who robs deserving kids like Matt Murton of playing time." I mean, you know he'll have one...
#338 Rotowire.com Jason J. Ellison (OF SF)
And someone has to close for the Marlins too.
All in all, comparing it to the other 11 rosters, I think I'm in decent shape -- unlike last year, when I stubbornly refused to take part in an early starting pitching run and wound up with Greg Maddux as my 'ace', this year's roster didn't immediately make me think "Ninth place, here I come!" (I actually finished in seventh, three spots ahead of Will, but who's counting?)
Wonder if Bud's Concerned?
Don't get me wrong -- I think the World Baseball Classic is a fine idea. But, as with most things BaalzeBud touches, the execution doesn't do the idea justice. Pretty much every decision made with regard to the WBC was made with profit, not competition, in mind, and it shows.
Take the decision to hold the tournament in March, before the pitchers are even in game shape. Ludicrous. I've heard arguments that the tourney should have been held after the World Series, too, but that just puts a different kind of pressure on pitchers' arms. No, the logical thing -- if you wanted to make it a true World Cup-style affair -- would have been to skip the All-Star Game this year, expand the break by a couple of weeks and hold the thing mid-season. But I doubt that option was even considered.
(And in typical Selig fashion, they even screwed up the 'safe' schedule they decided upon -- the final games of the WBC will overlap with the first rounds of the NCAA basketball tourney, cutting into the TV audience and revenue streams. Brilliant.)
Anyway, the decision to make it a preseason tourney led of course to the enforced pitch counts, which just highlighted to everyone how much this was simply going to be a product showcase rather than a purely competitive event. And so star players, given a choice between a contrived show of patriotism or getting themselves ready for a World Series chase, are choosing the latter.
I'm actually hoping the pitch count rule embarrasses Selig to the point that they do this thing right the next time they hold it (if they do). Imagine this scenario: it's the final game showdown between the US and Japan, tied 0-0. Roger Clemens is on the hill, having thrown 4 2/3 perfect innings to start the game. The crew chief signals to Buck Martinez. "Sorry, Buck, Roger's reached his pitch limit. You'll have to replace him." Martinez calls for the 'pen while Clemens fumes on the mound. The crowd at a packed Astrodome rises in unison to protest. "LET! HIM! PITCH! LET! HIM! PITCH!"
OK, maybe not. But right now, the only real reason I have to watch is to see some Cuban players before they get to the majors, so I'll hang onto my little fantasy for the moment.
Firing Wide of the Mainstream Since 2005.
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