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June 16, 2003

Prospectus Today

The Braves' Conversion

by Joe Sheehan

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After a dozen seasons of tremendous baseball, of winning their division in every full season, reaching five World Series and winning one championship, the Braves were supposed to be done. Last December's budget-paring decisions to let Tom Glavine leave and to trade Kevin Millwood to Philadelphia for aging catching prospect Johnny Estrada were the final steps in the process. The Braves would be just another team, owned by corporate penny-pinchers and run by a front office no better or worse than most others. The Phillies would ascend, led by expensive acquisitions and some homegrown pitching, and the transition--anticipated for a number of years--would be complete.

Not so fast.

This year is actually becoming a validation of the Braves' player-development system. After years of not being able to stock a lineup that would support the great pitching staff, the Braves now have the second-best offense in the game (.284 EqA, just behind the Red Sox). While some of that is imports Gary Sheffield (an MVP-caliber (Non-Bonds Division) .345/.427/.647) and Robert Fick (.297/.348/.473, great for recent Braves first basemen), the Braves are largely atop the league in runs because of their homegrown talent:

  • Javy Lopez: .301/.333/.683, 20.3 RARP, 2nd among MLB catchers

  • Marcus Giles: .317/.395/.535, 22.9 RARP, 3rd among MLB 2Bs
  • Rafael Furcal: .309/.374/.522, 25.8 RARP, 3rd among MLB SSs
  • Chipper Jones: .297/.406/.495, 17.5 RARP, 10th among MLB LFs
  • Andruw Jones: .306/.366/.571, 20.7 RARP, 3rd among MLB CFs

No team in baseball is getting that level of performance from five guys they signed and developed themselves. Three of them are non-drafted free agents from the Caribbean, while Chipper Jones was a #1 draft pick and Giles a 53rd-round pick. The five are at different points in their careers, but all have spent their entire professional lives with the Braves. That's the kind of player-development performance every team in baseball would kill for, and it's because of these guys that the Braves are playing .670 baseball in a year when they were supposed to be done.

So far, Lopez, Furcal and Giles have solved the biggest problem the Braves had in recent seasons: an offense that included two good hitters and a bunch of other guys. Now, the Braves have a lineup with the potential to score when the Joneses and Sheffield don't hit, and to score a lot more when they do. They've gone from having a terrible up-the-middle core to perhaps having the best one in baseball.

The pitching staff hasn't been a disappointment, either, although it looks a lot different. Of the team's starting rotation opening the 2001 season, Glavine is in New York, Millwood is in Philly and John Smoltz is in the bullpen. Only Greg Maddux remained, and he on a one-year contract. In their places were imports with a history of inconsistency--Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd--the exact opposite of what the Braves' rotation had provided for a dozen years.

However, with the reversal of the Braves' offense, they've gone from a team that needs excellent pitching to one that simply needs adequate mound work and innings, and that's exactly what Ortiz and Hampton provide. Shane Reynolds has done much the same since being signed as a free agent, and Horacio Ramirez has replaced Jason Marquis adequately. According to Support-Neutral stats, the Braves' rotation comes in at just slightly above average, 0.1 SNVA. Of the five pitchers who have started at least 10 games, all are between -0.3 SNVA and +0.5 SNVA.

Supporting that rotation is another good, if not great, Braves bullpen, fortified by two more products of the farm system. Jung Bong has an ERA of 3.48 with 29 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings, and an ARP of 2.8. He has benefited from Bobby Cox not turning him into a one-batter lefty, and responded by providing good work in mid- and high-leverage situations. Trey Hodges has been one of the top 30 relievers in the game (7.1 ARP), posting a 1.64 ERA in 33 innings. Bong was also a non-drafted free agent, while Hodges is a 17th-round pick from 2000.

There are two stories here, and they're both great. The Braves are dominating the National League having completely changed their team concept. I doubt any team in MLB history has done such an abrupt turnaround while maintaining their level of success. (Heading off some e-mails...the A's in recent years have transitioned through something similar, but that's taken about three seasons.)

More significantly, however, the Braves are illustrating one of the most fundamental concepts in the game: a productive player-development system is the primary path to success. Draft and sign well, get good players to the majors, and you will win.

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

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