January 23, 2003

Around the Majors

With Ivan Rodriguez signing yesterday, all of the big name free agents are officially off the market.

The biggest remaining names are probably Kenny Lofton, Kenny Rogers, Reggie Sanders and Chuck Finley.

All the big names might be snatched up, but there are still some very interesting signings taking place, as teams try to find a few bargain bin gems to fill out their roster.

Some of my favorites...

Steve Avery signed a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers.

Yes, that Steve Avery.

In the early-90s, Steve Avery was one of the hottest young pitchers around.

As a 21 year old, he went 18-8 with a 3.38 ERA for the National League champion Atlanta Braves.

He followed that up with a 29-17 record over the next 2 seasons (1992 and 1993) with ERAs of 3.20 and 2.94.

Avery pitched 200+ innings in all 3 seasons and then *poof* it was gone.

At 23 years old, he was all washed up and he'd never pitch 200 innings in a season again.

There are many possible reasons why Steve Avery's career went downhill so fast, including injuries and overuse and all that other stuff.

But, the one thing I would like to suggest as a reason for his decline is his strike out rate.

Frequent readers of this blog have heard me talk about how important it is for a pitcher to have the ability to strike batters out.

It is a good indicator of short-term success and it is almost essential for someone to sustain long-term greatness.

Steve Avery's strike out rate was never very good and I believe that is a huge reason why his star faded so quickly at such a young age.

A pitcher that does not strike a lot of batters out can certainly have a lot of success if they do very well at the other two keys for pitching: walks and homers.

Avery had pretty good control, particularly in 1993 when he walked on 43 men in 223 innings.

The area that he excelled the most in was his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark.

After giving up 21 homers in 210 innings in 1991, he gave up only 14 homers in 1992 (233 innings) and 14 homers in 1993 (223 innings).

For whatever reason, after 1993, Avery started to give up a lot more homers.

He served up 15 in only 150 innings in 1994 and then 22 in 173 innings in 1995.

If you add it all up...

In his 3 good seasons (1991, 1992 and 1993) Avery pitched a total of 667 innings and gave up 49 homers.

That's a rate of 1 dinger every 13.6 innings.

In the next 6 seasons (1994-1999) he pitched 773 innings and served up 87 dingers.

That's a rate of 1 homer every 8.8 innings.

When you aren't striking a lot of guys out, you simply can't afford to start giving up homers at such an increased rate.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but I would like to think that if I had been running this blog back in 1993 or so, I would have pointed out the fact that Avery's low strike out totals were a possible bad sign for the future.

Of course, I was only 10 in 1993, so I was probably more worried about GI Joe and He-Man and that sort of stuff.

Avery hasn't pitched since 1999, when he walked 78 batters and only struck out 51.

If he makes the Tigers, it will be a minor miracle.

I'll be rooting for him.

The Red Sox signed Dave Nilsson to a minor league deal.

Yes, that Dave Nilsson.

Back in the early-90s, Dave Nilsson was one of the hottest young pitchers around.

Oh wait, that was Steve Avery.

Nilsson was actually a pretty good catcher/DH for the Brewers from 1992-1999.

His last season with them was his best, when he hit .309/.400/.554 in 115 games.

I am not quite sure of all the details, but I believe Nilsson, who is from Australia, wanted to play for them in the Olympics or something, so he took a leave from the Major Leagues.

After which he went to Japan to play and struggled badly (I couldn't find the exact numbers, but they were bad).

Now he's back and he could have a chance as a DH/1B/C/Pinch-Hitter for the Red Sox, although they seem to have a tremendous amount of DH-types on the roster already.

Nilsson is a career .284/.356/.461 hitter, which works out to an adjusted OPS+ of 110, which is pretty good.

He is a lefty, as is David Ortiz whom they just signed too, so I'm not sure how he'll fit in.

In any event, it was a nice little low cost, low risk pickup by the Red Sox and I wouldn't be surprised if Nilsson had 200 good at bats for them in 2003.

I mentioned Boston signing David Ortiz, which they did (officially) yesterday, for 1 year and $1.25 million dollars.

As a Twins fan I have seen Ortiz play hundreds of times and I had mixed feelings when he left the Twins earlier this off-season.

On one hand he is oft-injured and has never really been a great hitter, even when healthy.

On the other hand, he shows so many flashes of potential and he is still fairly young.

However, the Twins have way too many 1B/DH-types in the organization to lose much sleep over not having David Ortiz anymore.

That said, he can definitely be a very productive player.

A lot of Twins fans talk about how horrible Ortiz is defensively, but I have to say that I always thought that he was very underrated with the glove and very far from the disaster most thought of him as.

I think he is very capable of playing first base, although he's even more at risk of getting injured if he plays the field.

David Ortiz could slug .475-.500 against right handed pitchers in his sleep, which is exactly what the BoSox are counting on him to do (although they will likely allow him to be awake for most at bats).

His success against lefties has been far less consistent:

Year      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG

2000 78 .423 .483 .654
2001 86 .221 .284 .453
2002 118 .203 .256 .381

That is some serious decline against lefties.

I am inclined to believe that 2000 was pretty much a fluke.

I remember that year, Ortiz absolutely murdered lefties and it seemed like he was hitting a double in almost every at bat.

He didn't hit for much home run power against them (only 1 homer) but he hit a ton of singles and doubles.

It seemed like he could pull just about any inside pitch thrown by a lefty in 2000.

But the last 2 seasons, he has been very bad against southpaws.

I think at this point the best option for a team with David Ortiz would be to platoon him, playing him almost entirely against right handed pitching.

The Red Sox are in a good position to do that in 2003, because they have Julio Zuleta, a right handed 1B/DH (I told you they had a lot of those) that does very well against left handed pitching.

There has also been some talk of using Doug Mirabelli, their backup catcher, as a DH or first baseman against lefties in some games.

Mirabelli has been crushing lefties for years and really deserves to be a full-time platoon player against them, whether it is at catcher, DH, 1B or wherever.

Mirabelli versus lefties from 1999-2002: .290/.401/.600 with 13 homers and 6 doubles in 145 at bats.

It gets even better if you only look at his last 2 years against lefties:

2001 = .283/.367/.717

2002 = .364/.440/.750


Now, he has had very limited at bats in both of those years, so all the small sample size warnings definitely apply.

Still, Mirabelli deserves a shot to start every time the Red Sox face a lefty and I think he'll get that shot in 2003.

No column about minor transactions would be complete if I didn't mention the Twins newest acquisition, Jose Cabrera.

Cabrera spent 2002 pitching horribly for the Milwaukee Brewers.

He started the year as a reliever and was pushed into the starting rotation for 11 starts because the Brewers were awful and their rotation was even worse.

The Twins had been talking about signing Rick White or Mike Fetters, both of whom I would have liked a lot more than Jose Cabrera.

White signed with the White Sox yesterday, which makes it even worse.

Cabrera pitched 103 innings for Milwaukee with a 6.79 ERA.

He was equally bad as a reliever (6.56) and a starter (6.99).

And after the All-Star break he was absolutely horrendous (9.52 (!) ERA in 40 innings).

I usually try to look for positives in players, things that they can do well if limited to certain roles.

I'm having a hard time finding something like that to say about Cabrera.

He gave up a .945 OPS against righties and a .944 OPS against lefties.

He didn't strike many batters out (5.3/9 innings).

He gave up a ton of homers (1 every 4.4 innings!).

And he even walked a lot of guys (3.1/9 innings).

To find a positive for Cabrera, I had to go all the way back to...2001.

He pitched for the Atlanta Braves and pitched very well.

Of course, there are thousands of otherwise mediocre pitchers that have come through Atlanta and had success, in large part because of the magic of Leo Mazzone.

Cabrera pitched 59 innings for Atlanta in 2001 and had a 2.88 ERA.

I think that if the Twins use Cabrera in a Mike Jackson-role in 2003, he could be reasonably successful.

For those of you wondering, a Mike Jackson-role would be defined as the 2nd righty out of the bullpen, responsible for getting a couple of batters out in the 6th or 7th inning every few games.

If he could pitch 50-60 innings with an ERA under 4.50 in 2003, I think the Twins would be pretty happy.

What they really should do is forget all about Cabrera and give a bullpen job to Grant Balfour, a minor leaguer that I think could be a very good reliever.

From 1999-2002, Balfour pitched 302 minor league innings and struck out 345 batters, which is a wonderful K rate.

And you already know how important I think that is.

I'm hoping Balfour won't lose out on a job in 2003 just because he isn't a "veteran" like Jose Cabrera.

After all, how does one become a veteran if he can't get himself a spot in the big leagues?

I wanted Rick White, I got Jose Cabrera and I'd rather have Grant Balfour.

It's fun to be a Twins fan.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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