Draft-Day Dilemmas: Close at first
By Mike Harmon
February 15, 2005
Who's No. 1? | Need for speed
If you're like me, your ranking lists for the 2005 campaign have already gone through five or six iterations. Each evening, I'm tormented by thoughts of past failures. I'm not waking up in cold sweats or anything, but those 20 minutes that it normally takes me to fall asleep are tortuous. I rue the day that I won Nomar Garciaparra and Mike Mussina at auction last season, and I won't waste time rehashing Jason Giambi's situation.
This year, I'm taking the ranking process a step further, reviewing players of similar stature and virtues and giving you a glimpse into my mind's eye as I reach a decision. Last week, I showcased the debates in my head over the No. 1 selection and how to treat the speed merchants at the top of the heap. Today's Draft-Day Dilemma examines a trio of power-hitting first basemen: Jim Thome, David Ortiz and Carlos Delgado.
A quick glance at the available magazines, cheat sheets and my colleague, Brandon Funston's Big Board offered little or no help to my plight. All of them, like me, have these players bunched tightly together. In fact, all three sources have them ranked within seven players of one another.
Delgado leaves Toronto for spacious Pro Player Stadium after nine power-laden campaigns. Thome anchors the always intriguing, but perennially disappointing Phillies lineup, and Ortiz finished the season at a torrid clip.
All three sluggers menace opposing hurlers from the left side of the plate, stand near the top of the RBI mashers and will come off the draft board in rapid succession. Florida, Boston and Philadelphia also have stars hitting in the third position (Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez and Bobby Abreu). A quick glance at the prowess of these first basemen in 2004 (remember, that all three played some or all of the season with an injury), yielded a combined rate of one HR per 14 at-bats and one RBI per every five at-bats.
At 34, Thome stands as the elder statesman. His career totals are certainly impressive, and with two more seasons equal to his last four, he may punch his ticket to Cooperstown.
He mashed ridiculous totals yet again in 2004 (71 extra-base hits, 42 HRs, 105 RBIs), despite being hampered by hand and chest injuries. The average numbers that he's posted over the past four years are downright frightening, with his 141 homers in the past three years topping all major-league hitters.
The Phillies enter 2005 with several questions in their lineup. How effective will 37-year old Kenny Lofton be in the lead-off role? He stole 30 bases in 2003 between the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. Last season, he lost significant time due to leg injuries. Even with the injury-riddled 2004, he's averaged 99 runs per full season. If he's sound, he'll be a great table-setter for Jimmy Rollins.
Rollins is an emerging stud and Abreu is a sure-fire first round pick, but Pat Burrell fails to provide the protection to force pitchers to throw to Thome. Last year, Thome hit .203 with runners in scoring position, forced to chase bad balls in an attempt to plate base runners ahead of the scuffling Burrell. That isn't to say that Burrell can't get hot. In 2002, he hit .282 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs. However, his .209 average in 2003 and .225 clip after June 1 in 2004 leave me wanting.
Delgado posted impressive final numbers in 2004 (58 extra-base hits, 32 HRs, 99 RBIs), but struggled mightily through the first half of the season. In fact, a ribcage injury forced him to miss 34 games, including the entire month of June. He rallied from the depths of a .205 average on July 23 to finish at .269 for the year. Delgado also slammed 17 home runs and knocked in 54 runs in his final 58 games.
However, he'll leave one of the best hitters parks (SkyDome) for the spacious grounds of Pro Player Park. In the past three seasons, Pro Player ranks 26th in the major leagues in home-run production. Yes, the talented, young Marlins staff contributed mightily to suppressing this total, but the fact is that the Marlins managed just 71 home runs at home last year (0.88 home runs per game).
Even Cabrera, a budding superstar, saw his power numbers mitigated somewhat by the cavernous outfield. He slammed five more home runs on the road in just 11 more road at-bats and his batting average was 20 points higher away from home.
Though Delgado's HR total may be quashed by his home field, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo and Cabrera will give Delgado plenty of ducks to drive in. Delgado has driven in 90 or more runs for nine straight seasons. His .949 career OPS and the protection afforded by Mike Lowell (.293, 27 HRs, 85 RBIs) move him slightly ahead of Thome on my list.
The Red Sox have led the majors in runs scored for two straight years. Last year, the juggernaut rolled on (949 runs) despite the loss of Nomar Garciaparra to injury.
Ortiz posted a tremendous regular season (.301 average, 91 extra-base hits, 41 HRs, 139 RBIs), but leaped onto the national scene with an absurd postseason. He hit for a robust .400 average with five home runs and 19 RBIs in 14 playoff games.
Last season, Ortiz tied for second in the American League in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage (.603). The Yankees have brought in three of the top 15 hurlers in the ERA category (Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright) to keep Ortiz and this Boston team from repeating its 2004 run. Even if they limit Ortiz to zero production, he's still got 143 games with which to do his damage.
For his career, Ortiz boasts a .311 average with 89 extra-base hits and 139 RBIs in 161 games at the friendly confines of Fenway Park. Though his power numbers were lower at home (seven home runs and 11 RBIs fewer than on the road), Ortiz's batting average soared to .325 at Fenway, 49 points higher than his road performance.
Kevin Millar will bat fifth in the Red Sox lineup behind Ortiz. He's a .292 career hitter who has averaged 22 HRs and 85 RBIs in two years in the Boston lineup. Millar hit .313 with 57 RBIs with runners in scoring position in 2004. Opposing pitchers do not have the luxury of pitching around Ortiz.
Additionally, since Ortiz's arrival in Boston, Manny Ramirez has averaged 180 hits and 90 walks. Taking out Ramirez's own propensity to homer, and that's 230 RBI opportunities for Ortiz off the top, without factoring in the leftovers from the one and two positions (Johnny Damon and Edgar Renteria) in the lineup. Ortiz has ramped up his HR production for six straight seasons and will challenge last year's mark.
Therefore, he's my guy if the opportunity presents itself.
With the logic you've laid out, I have a suggestion regarding the three-category dilemma … Alex Sanchez. Please excuse my "ardent" support of the Tigers here, but hitting in front of Carlos Guillen, Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Dmitri Young, and Carlos Pena should provide Sanchez with a bonafide shot at 100-plus runs with 40-60 SBs and a .300 BA. Food for thought, although we've considered Sanchez a sleeper before. – Matthew in Ann Arbor
While the addition of Ordonez shores up the middle of the lineup, right now it appears as if 2B Omar Infante will start the season in the leadoff role for the Tigers. Sanchez is currently slated to hit eighth or ninth in the order. He's walked only 63 times in 1,300 career plate appearances, so it appears that he'll cede that role to Infante to start the season.
More frightening is the fact that 37 of Sanchez's 107 hits in 2004 were infield hits (29 were bunts). How long can he keep that up? Look back to the career of former NL Rookie of the Year Jerome Walton for that answer.
While I enjoyed your recent article of Crawford vs. Ichiro vs. Pierre, I am slightly puzzled. Please explain your selection of Crawford over Ichiro to me. Ichiro clearly has the better overall numbers, leading in batting average, hits, HRs, RBIs and runs – only trailing in SBs, albeit by 20. With Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre coming in, you kind of have to figure that those runs and SBs are going to go up somewhat. Now I like Crawford plenty as he has served me well, but to me the choice is obvious. With Ichiro leading in BA and runs by a ton, and probably not a whole lot of difference in SBs, Crawford will be up there on the draft board, but Ichiro will be that much higher. – Aaron in St. Louis
I believe that Crawford will continue to mature as a hitter in 2005 and will surpass Ichiro in both the HR and RBI columns. His seven home runs in the second half of '04 leave me encouraged that with another solid offseason of workouts, he'll push his power numbers further north this season.
As for the runs column, Crawford actually scored more runs in 2004 than Ichiro, albeit by a tiny margin (three, 104-101), but I believe that the gap in stolen bases may be larger in 2005. In Tampa Bay, Lou Pinella will remain aggressive with Crawford on the base paths to force opposing pitchers to think about him and make mistakes to the young hitters. I see exactly the opposite happening in Seattle, as they didn't spend big bucks on Sexson and Beltre to hit with the bases empty. He'll still steal in the upper 20s to low 30s, but Crawford is just getting started.
Thanks for all your emails and thoughts on the speed column. I suspect that I'll be inundated with anti-Red Sox responses to this one.
Updated on Tuesday, Feb 15, 2005 5:55 pm, EST