Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Sunday, February 29, 2004

It’s Splitsville for Lee and Florida

The Cubs will have fine pitching for a while. Their rotation is stocked and their farm system is filled to the brim with pitching talent. But for long-term success, they’ll need some decent hitting. Securing Derrek Lee for the next three years is a significant step forward – and they signed him for less than he’s probably worth, according to some here at Talking Baseball, who have been drooling over his 2004 possibilities. The deal leaves the Lankiest Giant with an average annual salary of $7.5 million. I wouldn’t be surprised if you questioned my logic. I wouldn’t even be surprised if you hadn’t heard of Derrek Lee before the 2003 postseason. But is he worth $7.5 million per year? The proof is in the pudding.

To begin, Derrek Lee has a fantastic glove at first. He racked up the most fielding Win Shares among first basemen. He was better in the field than Doug Mientkiewicz, and he was better in the field than Nick Johnson. He was even better than the hard-hatted John Olerud. And not just a little better, but much better with the glove. Comparing Win Shares per 1000 innings in the field, Lee ranked first among all regular Major League first basemen, leaps and bounds better than Johnson and Mientkiewicz (his only real competition comes from Lyle Overbay, who ranks higher in fewer than half as many innings in the field). Needless to say, Lee deserved every ounce of precious metal in his 2003 Gold Glove. In signing Lee, the Cubs have locked up the best fielding first baseman in baseball.

But the Cubs wouldn’t pay all that for his glove, whether it was made of leather, gold, velcro, or diamond. Lee’s combination of wizardry in the field and his presence at the plate make him a unique commodity. His 2003 line of .271/.379/.508 was impressive, ranking him tied for 20th in Win Shares among hitters in both leagues. But it must be remembered that Lee played half of his games at the cavernous Pro Player Stadium, which yielded the third fewest runs of any park last season. Pitchers in Pro Player recorded the fourth best ERA out of any park in 2003. In fact, Marlins pitchers benefited immensely from their time on the mound in Miami, accumulating a stellar ERA of 3.17 at home, but a 4.04 ERA elsewhere. So naturally, one would assume, Lee’s overall 2003 numbers are skewed downward. When you take a look at his home and away splits, the Cubs’ motives for spending $22.5 million shine through:

Those are some distinct splits. Pro Player killed Lee in 2003, particularly his batting average and power. So a logical conclusion would be that Lee, packing his Gold Glove and heading to Chicago, will produce like he did in his away games in 2003. A full season removed from Florida could result in a fantastic season. A batting average close to .300, an OPS of around 1.000, and close to 40 home runs does not seem too far-fetched. But don’t make room for his #25 jersey in Cooperstown yet. Just as Lee’s home/road splits were dramatic last season, his splits were similarly dramatic in 2002 – only, some were in the opposite direction:

Lee should be a strong power hitter in 2004, and around 40 home runs is not a far-fetched prediction. But there is cause for concern. Whereas in 2003, Lee was a better hitter on the road, just two seasons ago he hit better (AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS) at home. The splits end up relatively meaningless. Combining his last three seasons, his splits are not as dramatic: .269/.379/.449 at home compared to .279/.357/.530 on the road. So ultimately, the home/road splits are rendered worthless, aside from his homerun production, which takes a noticeable hit in a large ballpark. But in the end, even his slugging percentage has been better at home than on the road, where he hasn’t been able to hit as many out of the park.

You can still expect almost 40 homers from Lee next season, which should boost his slugging percentage a bit, but don’t expect more than a .275 batting average and a .379 on-base percentage (right around his season totals of last season). Derrek should be a bit better than he has been over the last two years, but don’t expect a monstrous leap from Lee; his improvement probably will not be as dramatic as some have hoped. Nevertheless, combining a .380 OBP with a few more home runs should make for a very nice 2004 season for Lee. Add his glove, the tops among first basemen, and $7.5 million seems well-deserved. Todd Helton, be warned: Lee, entering his prime years, may be the next Gold Glove first baseman to hit 40 homeruns.

Cubs Planning for Future

But the Cubbies didn’t just sign Derrek Lee this weekend. Kerry Wood also received a three-year extension. Dave’s analysis of the new Kerry Wood deal is solid, but now I’d like to add just a few words about him and Derrek Lee, the lankiest first baseman starting in the majors.

I applaud the signing of Kerry Wood to a three-year $34.5 million contract. He is already one of the premier pitchers in baseball – a K-machine – and with a little better control, he would be a transcendent pitcher. I’d just like to add that Wood is one of the most overworked pitchers in the game. Last season he racked up the most Pitcher Abuse Points Per Game (AVGPAP) in baseball, resulting in Baseball Prospectus categorizing him as the most stressed pitcher in the game (tied). That’s treading pretty thin ice, considering that the 2002 leaders in AVGPAP were Randy Johnson and A. J. Burnett, both of whom went down with injuries in the following season. While there’s no real cause for concern, Dusty Baker would be wise to tone down Wood’s workload. Is anybody surprised that Wood recorded the most pitches of any starting performance last season? Please, no more 141 pitch outings, Mr. Wood! Save that arm.

A Dizzying Rotation

Any way you set it up, the Cubs rotation will be electrifying in 2004. The Major League Baseball Strike-Out Kings last season, Cubs pitchers were out of control. Fronted by Prior and Wood, their rotation didn’t give in, throwing Zambrano and Clement out after their two aces. With the addition of Maddux, the Cubs have added a venerable starter to fill out their rotation as loaded, one through five, and possibly the best in baseball. While signing Maddux was a questionable call, due to their inexpensive talent in the minors, he certainly will do a better job than Shawn Estes in 2003. A rotation of Wood, Prior, Maddux, Zambrano, and Clement should scare any team come October.

To reach October, the Cubs, like any team, will have to win as many games as possible. And while the Astros were not swayed to mess with their rotation after acquiring two high-priced free agent starters, the Cubs have dropped the ball. For some reason, Mark Prior, who went 18-6 with an ERA of 2.43, will not be their opening day starter. In fact, he won’t even pitch second in their rotation. Prior is currently slated to start game three of the season, after Maddux, who follows Opening Day starter, the aforementioned Kerry Wood.

I only have a minimal problem with starting Wood over Prior, but Maddux certainly does not deserve a spot in the rotation before the young and talented Prior, Chicago’s real ace. Prior’s 2003 ERA+ was 175, better than Wood’s (a solid 133), and miles away from Maddux (a pedestrian 105 last season).

Manager Dusty Baker made the move to give opposing hitters “a different look.” He added that “Prior can learn a lot from Maddux, I think.” Baker is correct. Prior probably can learn a lot from Maddux. But learning doesn’t occur based on rotation order. Prior could learn from Maddux if he started opening day and Maddux pitched third. Both of these sound like rhetorical excuses offered by Baker. In all likelihood, Baker hopes to avoid another Glavine-esque meltdown against his former team. Placing Maddux second in the rotation ensures that he will not face the Braves early in the season.

But a move like this, which could reduce Prior’s appearances by at least one game throughout the season (and probably more), while allowing Maddux, a slightly above-average pitcher at this point in his career, to fill in could cost the Cubs a game or two down the stretch. And if they don’t make the playoffs but only a game or two, Dusty Baker will have plenty of time to determine the Opening Day starter in 2005.

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