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August 18, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Feeling Less Chipper?

by Christina Kahrl

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There's something very wrong with the picture: the Braves, in a pennant race for the first time in five years, Bobby Cox's last stand, and Chipper Jones is out. Not just out, but out for the season, and depending on how he feels about trying to come back, possibly out for forever.

A thicket of questions arise. Who is it and what is it that the Braves have really lost? Can they replace the production? Do they need to go shopping and take their chances on the waiver-trade market?

The thing to keep in mind is that Jones, for all we know about him after almost 10,000 plate appearances and almost 2,200 games, is that he's far from a sure thing any more. In the last two seasons, he's not slugging for anything like the Hall of Fame-caliber power, settling for a .429 SLG/.164 ISO across the last two campaigns. That's handy, but hardly irreplaceable in the abstract. Similarly, while his defensive performance has been all over the map, from simply awful early on in his move to the hot corner to merely inconsistent in the last several seasons, he's neither a major asset or a liability. His work with leather may no longer merit a derisive snort from Jay Jaffe, but we're not talking about Brooks Robinson here.

Now, whether or not there's a morale-related hit is something else. The reason I bring this up is that a visceral expectation as far as Jones' value to his team might well be the legend of Chipper Jones, stretch-drive hero, Met-slayer, the switch-hitting slugger with an uncanny sense of timing. Naturally, some mainstream writers will cite the devastating absence of Chipper Jones' force of personality, his charm or his example. In contrast, there are certain to be some statheads who will want to be self-consciously radical-seeming by repeating the decisive-sounding, decisively stupid "team chemistry is bullshit" meme. I sort of operate from the principle of tedious obviousness, that it's just something we can't quantify—you can accept it or dismiss it, depending on your inclinations, but I think we'd be better off just admitting that this isn't something statheads know any more about, any more concretely, than sportswriters. It's something we just don't know, no better and no worse than the J school-trained wing of the Fourth Estate.*

It's fairly obvious from the 30,000-feet-up view that the major contribution Jones has made to the Braves has been in OBP, with that nice, steady walk rate around 16 percent that he's been hanging around even as his power has flagged. However, getting men on base is something Atlanta leads the league in, with an NL-high .340 team OBP and a league-leading 436 unintentional walks. They've lost Jones, but they should still have a lot of walks to look forward to. What they're missing is power, where their team ISO of .143 is slightly below league average (.145). Even if Jones wasn't slugging a ton, losing him risks hurting the club in this department as well because this is a lineup already struggling to get power from Troy Glaus at first base or from its collection of outfielders. Some folks might draw a comparison to my comments last week on Adrian Beltre's importance to the Red Sox; although Beltre has been considerably more productive for the Sox than Jones has been for the Braves, via True Average we're talking about the distinction between second-best third baseman in Beltre (.317 TAv) versus the sixth-best in Jones (.297).

Which is where the real problem is: Chipper Jones may no longer be the star player at his peak, but he's still an incredibly valuable asset. Unlike the absence of Martin Prado, he isn't coming back this year, so replacing him isn't a temporary issue of roster logistics, it's about picking the right pony (or ponies) and riding them down the stretch.

Whether Bobby Cox replaces his fellow aging Brave with Omar Infante, Brooks Conrad, or Eric Hinske (damning the defensive torpedoes, as it were), you might be somewhat sanguine about how this works out, because it's of a piece with how the Braves have handled their roster all season. But a multitude of options doesn't equal an answer. Putting Hinske in the mix is really just for the sake of argument, but between questions over his defensive utility and his hitting so droopy it has kept Melky Cabrera in an outfield rotation, he may not be much of a practical answer.

So let's focus on the more practical, on-hand solutions, Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad. Getting Prado back from the DL yesterday puts Infante solidly back on the third-base menu, which sounds like a better fix than it is. If you only consider their 2010 numbers for Marginal Lineup Value, you might think the Braves were perfectly fine: Infante (.161) and Conrad (.144) have been more valuable on a per-game basis than Jones (.135). Infante's production owes everything to his .385 BABIP, and even if we can dismiss the idea that he'll regress all the way back down to league average when his career rate is .313, he's due for a few more singles to wind up where they is instead of where they ain't. Conrad has done all of his damage against right-handers, hitting .250/.327/.568—and falling, because that's in just 102 PAs, and I don't think anybody expects Conrad to slug at that clip.

So to keep this simple, let's say we use something like Infante's 2008 (.050) or 2009 MLVr (.074) to get a sense of what the Braves are dealing with as far as a likely future from their on-hand third basemen over the next 40 games. Using .062 as the midpoint between those marks and thus keep our standards on the pessimistic side of things, that still adds up to less than a half-win's worth of difference over the balance of the season. That's not so tough to overcome... if Jason Heyward delivers some second-half power, or if Troy Glaus rallies from his .196/.295/.299 slump since the All-Star break. If Martin Prado's power spike comes back from the DL with him. If, if, and if. The problem with the Braves offense isn't that they might or might not be able to adequately replace Jones, but that the patches they'll employ to cover for their being less Chipper can't be used to fix the other leaks in the lineup.

Does that mean they have to make a trade? Not necessarily, because they can reacquire that depth down the stretch if they do as they've done in the past, and turn to the top almost-ready talent they've developed themselves. A Freddie Freeman call-up would involve accelerating the timetable for the 20-year-old, but over in Gwinnett the kid has hit .319/.384/.531 against right-handers overall, and has pasted everybody at a .371/.427/.603 pace in 131 PAs since the All-Star break. He doesn't have to be next Andruw Jones or Chipper Jones for the Braves to simply keep up ahead of the Joneses. Nor does it have to involve moving Glaus to third base as an everyday player—it's about getting offense period, not just finding a third baseman.

In that light, describing turning to Freeman as a “risk” in light of their reliance on Heyward strikes me as particularly silly—an aging, slumping Glaus is no more of a sure thing, having been something of an accepted risk with placeholding potential from the moment Frank Wren signed him. Glaus was supposed to keep the seat warm from the get-go, and if Freeman's bat is already re-setting the timetable for his arrival, that doesn't need reference to Chipper Jones' situation, but Jones' absence certainly eats into Wren's ability to let it ride with Glaus for much longer.

Trading for a replacement might look better than an aggressive brand of faith in Freeman or resigning themselves to Glaus, but how many players do you really expect are available, even if you expand the Braves' range of selections from just third base to include first? Aramis Ramirez has been bandied about as one contractually unlikely possibility. There are lots of accessible possibilities, filler players like Craig Counsell or Ty Wigginton, Brandon Inge or Kevin Kouzmanoff, maybe even Lyle Overbay, but none of that lot really helps the Braves' offense so much as any one of them might just re-expand Bobby Cox's full spread of lineup options. Adding any one of them would be more about messaging, to their fans and to the clubhouse, about how committed the team was to delivering on Cox's death ride.

There are two further possibilities of this sort that I like to mull at the moment. Taking Andy LaRoche off the Pirates' hands would be cheap, and might be a matter of resurrecting a prospect by reacquainting him with life on the relevant side of the tracks. If he flops, no harm—he's cheap, and he's already slipping into history's washout bin. If a change of scenery doesn't reverse his fortunes, he's en route to a Quad-A player's career. The other is phoning up the Braves' branch campus out in Kansas City and offering Wilson Betemit a shot at escaping the step-system and doing his original parent some good. You can see how either subsequent narrative could turn out as something more than just another one of the veteran dogsbodies, but I wouldn't want to freight either of them with any outlandish expectation. They're worth pondering on what they once were and might still be, and that makes them somewhat different from the minor measure of adding an Inge.

The more interesting possibility is whether or not players with bad 2010 performances and significant financial commitments into the future make it through: The Mariners' Jose Lopez or Chone Figgins would be especially interesting as immediate and near-term fixes for a Chipper-free future at third. In 2009, Lopez produced a .132 MLVr that would look like a perfect plug-in right about now, and he's only under contract through 2011. Figgins has his past associations with multiple Angels contenders, his past value as a leadoff asset, and at least $26 million owed through 2013 (plus a potentially vesting $9 million option for 2014) going for him. Putting Figgins' quality glove at third plus providing the Braves with a potential leadoff answer would make him especially interesting. Add in both players' multi-positional utility, and whether Wren elected to retain either after a trade, or in case Jones decided he'd rather not retire, the Braves would have flexibility to keep their add-on or repackage him in a subsequent deal. Mark Reynolds would also be interesting, as he's under contract for at least $13 million through 2012; concern over what he might hit away from Phoenix might be reasonable, but only up to a point, considering he's slugging .473 on his career away from the bob-less BOB, which would go a long way towards answering the Braves' power needs.

To some extent, calling up Freeman can be treated as an and proposition: they can see whether or not they can acquire Figgins or Reynolds or Lopez cheaply and plug Freeman in at first base. But if the vagaries of the waiver-trade market don't pan out, at the very least they should call up Freeman before roster expansion.

*: I suppose we could numericize this as simply as plugging in Napoleon's maxim that the relationship of morale to the physical, but after the whole 52 percent imbroglio, I figure performance analysis has one too many pat assertions about ratios of value.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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