Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Interview with USA Today's Paul White

Paul White, USA Today Sports Weekly Senior Editor, was kind enough to agree to an interview. Despite the fact that I let my biases show through in the questioning (which I will avoid in the future), I think you will enjoy it-- Paul's answers are deeply insightful.

NP: Cristian Guzman has been rumored to have a poor work ethic, and a resulting weight problem that is affecting his speed. Is this true?

PW: It's no secret the Twins were unhappy with his development. He made little progress at the plate (backslid, actually) and never has been able to overcome the inconsistency that's not so unusual for young shortstops because the guys who get to play shortstop are the best athletes with the best tools and haven't really honed the rest of their skills. Guzman is a quiet guy and often, especially with Latin players, that leads to speculation that is as much stereotyping as it is analysis. Guys who haven't become completely comfortable with the language and the culture often withdraw when they're going through tough periods and too many Americans have a tendency to decide that the players are somehow bad guys. Regardless of the reasons, he often appears pretty emotionless on the field.

All that said, Guzman hasn't been able to apply all the things to make a guy with his tools better. He hasn't learned how to become a basestealer to the point he seems to have little confidence trying to steal. He has had knee problems, which is a factor. He hasn't been able to do much with a poor on-base percentage, which could be a factor of another problem that could become worse in Washington - his general approach at the plate. He seems to have gotten mixed messages along the way, including the idea that becoming a slap hitter reminiscent of the old Cardinals teams of Willie McGee and Vince Coleman would help him on the turf in the Metrodome. It probably created some infield hits, but he seldom drives the ball and slaps at everything, including balls out of the strike zone.

NP: Guzman has a reputation for being good on defense, but not all advanced defensive metrics agree, several ranking him below average. What can we expect on defense, really?

PW: More of the inconsistency. He's an incredibly exciting player ... sometimes. Any reputation for being good on defense probably comes from the spectacular plays he makes sometimes. He still has better-than-average range. I don't know what the stats say about that but, as much as I like numbers for assessing offensive and pitching ability, I still maintain any number that claims to measure defense remains a case of someone trying to justify their own attempt to measure something that drives us nuts because of it's resistance to measurement. Scouts who track the distance he covers with their naked eyes say his range remains exceptional. But Guzman just as often botches routine plays.

NP: What will Vinny Castilla bring to the team?

PW: Castilla will bring better-than-average defense, which will help a pitching staff that won't strike out a lot of people. I'm sitting here looking at another team's (very sabermetrically oriented) analysis of every lineup in the majors and they rate Castilla the second-best hitter on the team after Wilkerson. Castilla also will be a major presence in the clubhouse. One thing this team has missed the past couple of seasons is some quality veterans - I mean quality people - because the core of the team is relatively young and it has been difficult to attract any veterans other than castoffs and the disgruntled. So, Castilla is a big step and makes sense as a guy who can bridge a gap. Remember, there's not a lot in the farm system and this franchise will need to find relatively inexpensive veterans to bridge the gap until new ownership provide a better idea of a payroll budget and until talent starts bubbling up from the farm system. He's certainly an upgrade from Tony Batista.

NP: Do you anticipate Bowden making any significant roster moves anytime soon? If so, what would he be after?

PW: I think they'll do what Bowden has done best in his career - bottom-feed. Given the limited payroll situation, they'll need to watch the waiver wire, look for maybe a veteran utility guy and some more bullpen help. There's a bit of a logjam in the first base/outfield mix but given the questions surrounding a lot of those guys, it would make more sense to let them sort themselves out a bit this spring before deciding who to deal, if anyone.

NP: What's the likely fate of Nick Johnson? Will he play first, be traded, or warm the bench?

PW: The ideal situation would be for him to live up to his offensive promise from the days when he was in the Yankees system. Second choice would be for him to look good enough - at the plate and healthwise - that he's tradable. He has some value now but the smart move would seem to be to gamble that he can increase his value.

NP: Speaking of first base, how far is Larry Broadway from being major-league ready, and how do you predict he'll enter the majors?

PW: We might see Broadway by the end of this season, just to give him a taste. I think he could start in 2006. Last year was huge for him from a standpoint of improving his approach at the plate. He's a big guy who still has some holes in his swing but he's much more disciplined than he was a year or two ago. He'll probably struggle a bit every time he moves up a level but if he can continue to improve his handling of the strike zone, he has a chance to become a somewhat watered-down version of Jim Thome: go ahead and strike out a bunch, as long as you walk often and crank out a bunch of homers.

NP: Jose Guillen and Juan Rivera had very similar years last year, with Guillen hitting for more power, but Rivera was better at getting on base. Considering the salary differential and the fact that Guillen is soon a free agent, was this a good trade?

PW: It's a gamble for sure. Guillen says he would like to stay and there have been some discussions about a new contract. We'll see. You're right that their production is similar but the one advantage Guillen brings is a little more experience. How he performs off the field probably will be more important in the long run. The key for me in that deal was Maicer Izturis. It won't be long before they wish they had him in the middle infield.

NP: What would have to happen for Endy Chavez to not make the starting lineup?

PW: If he reverts back to some of the stuff he was doing last spring and before that, all of which landed him in Frank Robinson's doghouse. He got a quick trip to the minors because Robinson didn't feel Chavez was applying himself to do the things a leadoff hitter must do. Unlike Guzman, Chavez seemed to get the message in a hurry. Speed remains his best top-of-the-order credential but the other stuff is improving. As it stands now, I still think Chavez, Johnson and Sledge and going to eat into each other's playing time when everybody is healthy.

NP: Do you think Ryan Church will make the 25-man roster, and if he does, will he see any playing time?

PW: He is going to have to bash his way in. With all the other bodies, it will be tough on Church. Actually, this is a guy who would be better served playing every day at Triple-A than sitting on the bench in the majors.

NP: Why does the press seem to think that the team has good offense and poor pitching, while stat-heads think the opposite?

PW: I'm not sure who you're referring to - statheads or press - but I know what the stat analysts for several teams think and here's sort of a consensus of their views: Only Guzman and Schneider are below-average offensive players among the starters and there is some disagreement about where Chavez fits. The bench, however, is very thin. As for pitching, they perceive Hernandez, Day and Ohka as solid and Rauch as a sleeper. I think the pitching perception comes from the fact the bullpen doesn't have a lot of names recognizable to the general public and media members who are, shall we say, casual observers of baseball. But most of them are pretty effective. I don't think they realize Ayala and Eischen will be solid setup guys.

NP: Is Chad Cordero ready to be the full-time closer? If not, what should the team be doing?

PW: I'm usually reluctant to say a young guy is ready. Cordero clearly has the talent but the mental step is like nothing else in this sport. There's no way to measure that but he seems like the kind of guy who can handle it. This is an area where they probably ought to look for a more experienced guy who could become available during spring training, a guy who could close now and then but still can be useful setting up.

NP: Considering the large number of 5.00+ ERA seasons Loaiza has had, is this guy going to be better than any of the people who could have
otherwise gotten a 5th spot?

PW: He's no more or less of a gamble than any of those other guys. Rauch is the most interesting coming off a small sample late last year. But nothing about any of the other possibilities should give anyone reason to get excited.

NP: At this point, our starters seem to be Hernandez, Loaiza, Armas, Ohka and Day. Who is at risk if they have a bad spring training?

PW: Probably Loaiza and Armas, though I think it's more likely anyone with a bad spring will get more time than that to lose his job.

NP: In the same vein, who is a dark horse to make the rotation?

PW: Rauch, as I mentioned. We'll probably get to see Mike Hinckley before the year is over but he could create some discussion among the staff with a big spring. Still, he probably would go back to the minors at least for awhile.

NP: Ayala, Cordero and Osuna are safe bets to be in the bullpen. Is this where we expect to see Rauch and Patterson go if they don't make the
rotation, or will either of them be sent to AAA?

PW: Both could pitch in the bullpen and be kept as a swingman/spot starter. If Rauch looks good enough that he makes himself next in line to start, it makes more sense to put him in Triple-A to build up some innings.

NP: Who else do you expect to see in the bullpen when opening day arrives?

PW: I still think there might be another guy or two from the outside. Assuming Eischen is healthy, he'll make it. I'd rank T.J. Tucker and Gary Majewski next, maybe Claudio Vargas.


At 2:20 PM, Blogger Chris Needham said...

Great job, John! The questions weren't tooo biased ;)

It's always nice having an informed outsider perspective on these things.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Basil said...

Great pull, John! How did you pull this off?

At 6:16 PM, Blogger John said...

I approached him after his speech at DC SABR. He's a great guy, who was quick to say "yes". I've also got a few more things like this in the pipeline, which should hopefully kill some of the dead time we have coming up.


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