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April 3, 1999

AL East Notebook

Divisional defensive outlook for 1999

by Joe Sheehan

BALTIMORE ORIOLES (1998: 785 runs allowed, 7th in AL)

Mike Mussina, R
Scott Erickson, R
Juan Guzman, R
Sidney Ponson, R
Doug Linton, R

Mike Timlin, R
Heathcliff Slocumb, R
Mike Fetters, R
Ricky Bones, R
Arthur Rhodes, L
Jesse Orosco, L

Scott Kamieniecki, R (DL)
Jason Johnson, R
Rocky Coppinger, R

Like the Oriole lineup, the team's pitching staff features very few players with any real upside. Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes will provide 310 or so innings of excellent pitching, but behind that, it's a crapshoot.

Erickson provides league-average innings, but he'll be hurt by the ever-aging Bird defense. Guzman was excellent after his acquisition last year, but his injury history makes it hard to believe he'll keep that up. If handled carefully, say a 110-pitch limit, he'll stay healthy and be above-average. Don't look for Ray Miller to do this, or for Guzman to throw 200 innings. The Johnson acquisition helps the Oriole depth, and while he's not a prospect, he will be up by June.

In the pen, the Orioles have three of the better relievers in the division in Timlin, Rhodes and the ageless Orosco. Fetters isn't terrible--he just can't be counted on for six months. Slocumb and Bones should really be out of baseball, and their signings border on inexplicable. Overall the Oriole pen is a strength; the eventual addition of Rocky Coppinger as a long man will help considerably.

All of the pitchers are going to be hurt by what is a pretty bad defense. The Orioles are hip-high in thirtysomethings with all the range of Keanu Reeves. The seven position players behind the pitcher average just under 34 years of age. While they may challenge the records they set in 1998 for fewest errors and fewest unearned runs allowed, the real story will be told in the number of doubles allowed by Mussina, Erickson and Guzman.

BOSTON RED SOX (1998: 729 runs allowed, 2nd in AL)

Pedro Martinez, R
Tim Wakefield, R
Bret Saberhagen, R
Mark Portugal, R
Pat Rapp, R

Tom Gordon, R
Jim Corsi, R
Derek Lowe, R
Kip Gross, R
Mark Guthrie, L
Rheal Cormier, L

Jin Ho Cho, R
Juan Pena, R
Ramon Martinez, R
John Wasdin, R

On a team that's not going to get to 800 runs, the pitching staff becomes all-important. The Sox are top-heavy, with a good three-man rotation and a strong bullpen, but relying on Mark Portugal and Pat Rapp for anything other than ballast is silly. Juan Pena and Jin Ho Cho should have their jobs by August. Do not expect to see Pedro's big brother pitch significant effective innings in 1999.

A real key to this staff is Bret Saberhagen. Jimy Williams needs to fight the urge--and Saberhagen's stated desire--to stretch him out more this year. The right-hander's success last year was directly related to his usage; not recognizing that will cost them his services in short order.

The lack of rotation depth will just feed Dan Duquette's transaction fetish, so he's not terribly upset. And the presence of good arms at Pawtucket--in addition to Pena and Wasdin, Rich Garces and Brian Barkley will be making the trip from Rhode Island a few times this summer.

The excellent outfield defense the Sox had last year was a huge factor in their season. Darren Lewis and Troy O'Leary return, with Darren Bragg now replaced by Trot Nixon. It should save the team a few runs. The infield is essentially unchanged, maybe a bit better with Frye/Offerman replacing various/Vaughn. The Sox' defense helps prevent runs about as well any in the division.

NEW YORK YANKEES (1998: 656 runs allowed, 1st in the AL)

Roger Clemens, R
David Cone, R
Orlando Hernandez, R
Andy Pettitte, L
Hideki Irabu, R

Mariano Rivera, R
Jeff Nelson, R
Ramiro Mendoza, R
Dan Naulty, R
Mike Stanton, L

Ben Ford, R
Todd Erdos, R
Ryan Bradley, R

The keys to 114 wins were walks and a rotation that just cranked out quality starts. To that, they've added the guy who's quite possibly the best pitcher since World War II. But while most people have simply pencilled the Yankees in for another monster season, there are reasons to be concerned. David Cone struggled in the second half of 1998, and he's 36 years old. Andy Pettitte is battling elbow problems, and has worked a lot of innings in his early 20s. Hideki Irabu's well-publicized problems have opened the door for Ramiro Mendoza, which, if it happens, would be a good thing for the Yankees.

The bullpen returns most of the key players, and is still one of the best in the game. As mentioned in Baseball Prospectus 1999, Mariano Rivera's declining strikeout rate should be a source of some concern. The setup combination of Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton were ineffective last year, and can be expected to bounce back to a level closer to their stellar 1997.

The pitching depth the Yankees have is what is really impressive. Ben Ford and Todd Erdos would be contributors to most bullpens, while Ryan Bradley is a top-notch prospect who might be able to provide good middle-relief innings as soon as this year. These three should all make cameos in the Bronx, and could play even more important roles if the situations of Pettitte, Irabu and/or Rivera get worse.

Like the Orioles, the Yankees have a "veteran" defense that looks good to many thanks to their relatively low error totals. Only Derek Jeter is under 30, and his struggles afield are well-documented. Scott Brosius and Bernie Williams are very good defensive players. Overall, it's an average defense, below-average if Williams is off the field.

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS (1998: 751 runs allowed, 3rd in the AL)

Rolando Arrojo, R
Wilson Alvarez, L
Tony Saunders, L
Bobby Witt, R
Julio Santana, R

Roberto Hernandez, R
Jim Mecir, R
Esteban Yan, R
Albie Lopez, R
Scott Aldred, L

Bryan Rekar, R
Rick White, R
Ben McDonald, R (DL)
Terrell Wade, L

Devil Ray pitching was one of the big surprises of 1998, as the team finished fourth in the league in ERA despite a good hitters' park. Some decline is to be expected, and given the state of the team's offense, it's possible one of the pitchers on this team will lose 20 games.

Tony Saunders is a fairly good candidate. By the end of the year he should be the staff ace, surpassing Arrojo. The Cuban emigre was a great story, but was worked hard and has had on-and-off back problems all spring. Bobby Witt pitched well enough to earn the #4 starter spot, which is an object lesson about weighting spring training performance over mounds of other evidence. Look for Bryan Rekar to claim this spot by midseason and be very effective.

The Devil Ray rotation got at least some acclaim, thanks to Arrojo's success. Their bullpen, however, was more effective and even more anonymous, garnering only brief updates on the status of Roberto Hernandez. Despite the lack of notice, the trio of Jim Mecir, Esteban Yan and Albie Lopez--all Expansion Draft picks--were rocks all season, and all are young and talented enough to be the core of this pen again. The Devil Ray bullpen lacks a good lefthander, and the team would be well-served to use Terrell Wade out of the pen as he continues to get healthy.

Defensively, the Devil Rays aren't anything special. The infield corners, Boggs and McGriff, are immobile. But the outfield, especially if Randy Winn plays and Jose Canseco doesn't, is very good.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS (1998: 768 runs allowed, 4th in the AL)

David Wells, L
Joey Hamilton, R
Pat Hentgen, R
Kelvim Escobar, R
Chris Carpenter, R

Robert Person, R
Roy Halladay, R
Peter Munro, R
Steve Sinclair, L
Dan Plesac, L
Graeme Lloyd, L

Paul Quantrill, R (DL)
Bill Risley, R (DL)

Great rotation, bad bullpen. Bad, bad bullpen. Munro is a good pitcher, and he's the only legitimate reliever this team has. Putting Halladay in the pen is suboptimal, but given that this team plans to close with Robert Person, "optimal" isn't exactly "buying Microsoft in 1985."

The rotation is very good. David Wells should return to the 4.00 ERA pitcher he's been most of his career, but the differnce between Wells '99 and Clemens '98 could be made up in the improvement of Chris Carpenter, the rebound of Joey Hamilton and, before he gets hurt, the continued effectiveness of Kelvim Escobar. This rotation isn't as good as the Yankees', but it does have more upside.

The bullpen dilemma will cut two ways: in addition to actual ineffectiveness, it may push Fregosi into going deeper into games with his starters. Pat Hentgen has already suffered under Cito Gaston and Tim Johnson, and Kelvim Escobar was abused mercilessly down the stretch last year by Johnson. Fregosi was the manager of the 1993 Phillies, you'll remember, and his use of Tommy Greene and Curt Schilling may have contributed to the injuries they each subsequently suffered. Watch the Jays' pitch counts and PAP scores in the first two months.

The Jays' defense may actually be very good. Shannon Stewart is a center fielder playing left, and both Jose Cruz and Shawn Green showed improvement in 1998. The players are young and athletic, as opposed to the Oriole outfield of two left fielders and a DH, all old enough to have fond memories of The Partridge Family. The infield should be good at three spots, with an above-average DP combination of Alex Gonzalez--an excellent shortstop--and Homer Bush, who has fair range. Carlos Delgado improved last year at first base, and is no worse than average. Third base is a mess for the Jays right now, but if Tony Fernandez logs even half the innings, it makes this a good defensive infield, probably the best in the division.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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