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June 25, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Where Are They Now?: The 2000 Myrtle Beach Pelicans won the Carolina League championship on the strength of some of the best pitching any pro team has seen in years. They racked up 27 shutouts and they were so far out in front in nearly every category that it was like they were competing against a pitch-back.
    
                     SHO   ERA   ER    R     H   BB
    Myrtle Beach      27  2.51  336  395   908  382 
    Closest team      12  3.81  510  615  1100  441 
    
    
    The only category they didn't lead was strikeouts, but they still had the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio. They won 88 games during the regular season and capped it off with a three-game sweep in the title series.

    So who were these guys and where are they now? Ideally, a minor league player would progress one level at a time. Carolina is an advanced Class A league, which would put the Myrtle Beach pitchers on target to reach the major leagues in 2003. Here's where real life intrudes.

    The Pelicans' rotation was led by Christian Parra, the organization's Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year. He started 25 games. Horacio Ramirez started 26. Nathan Kent was the only other pitcher to start as many as 20 games. The remaining slots in the rotation were split among Bong, and Dan Curtis. Six starts went to Matt McClendon before he was promoted to Greenville. Bullpen chores were handled by Tim Spooneybarger, Brad Voyles, John Foster, Chris Chavez, Michael Gray, and Billy Sylvester.

    Parra went 17-4, leading the league in wins, and finished second in ERA and strikeouts. The next year, he managed 18 starts in Double-A and hasn't been heard from since. He's still working his way back from numerous arm injuries. The injury imp assailed Ramirez for a while, too. Promoted to Double-A for 2001, he pitched only 14 innings. Last year he made 16 starts for Greenville. He's finally righted the ship this year though, cracking the big club's starting rotation.

    Belisle missed all of 2001 with a back injury. He came back strong in 2002, making 26 starts for Greenville. His strikeout rate was down a little from 2000, but overall his numbers were approximately where they were before the injury. This year it's more of the same:

    
    Year  Level          IP    H   ERA   R  ER  BB    K
    2000  A            79.0   72  3.43  32  30  11   71 
    2002  Double A    159.0  162  4.35  91  77  39  123 
    2003  Double A     86.1   77  3.54  41  34  32   67 
    
    
    In his second year back from injury he looks like he's steady enough to move on to Richmond, but his walk rate has increased from 1.3 per nine innings in 2000, to 2.2 last year, up to 3.3 this year. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is still better than two-to-one but he's walking nearly three times as many batters as he did when he was being graded as a top prospect.

    Curtis missed 2001, made it as far as Greenville, and is back in Myrtle Beach. Pierce hasn't been seen. In the 2001 book, we put McClendon at the head of the Myrtle Beach class but in return he gave us an 8.68 ERA in 2001 and an 8.66 ERA in 2002, totaling fewer than 30 innings over both seasons. Kent made 26 starts for Greenville in 2001 but has made only one since. Bong spent 2001 at Myrtle Beach and got 122 innings at Double A last year, splitting time between the rotation and bullpen. The Braves skipped him past Triple A and he has been a strong presence in the Braves bullpen this season.

    Spooneybarger and Sylvester made it to Triple A in 2001. Spooneybarger got a cup of coffee with the Braves that year and has been in the majors ever since. Sylvester spent last year in Greenville. He was still there to begin this season but was promoted to Richmond, where he has walked a batter per inning. Voyles is in Triple A with the Royals and about to be a major leaguer. John Foster was traded to the Brewers. Except for his ERA, which has jumped from the 1.00s to the 4.00s as he has moved up, he has maintained his 2000 performance level as well as anyone from the Pelicans' staff.

    The Pelicans play in one of the minor leagues' best environments for pitchers. The 2000 staff was good but they weren't as good as their stats superficially suggest, and predictably they dropped off once they went out into the world. For pitchers, the reason that a progression of one level per year is only an ideal is that pitchers are notoriously prone to injuries and mental or mechanical setbacks, and this staff has been no exception. Nothing fluky about what happened to these guys; they went out into the elements and some didn't survive. The only surprise is that the relievers have been the hardiest climbers.

Minnesota Twins

  • Free Johan Santana!: Two years ago, the Minnesota Twins boasted one of the best rotations in all of baseball, featuring a trio of starters--Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Joe Mays--who many considered to be the future of the franchise. Sure, they weren't dominating in the classic Koufax/Drysdale or Unit/Schilling sort of way, but they each were on the good side of 30, threw plenty of strikes, and seemed to understand how to use their defense in the optimal fashion.

    Oh, how things change.

    Fast forward to the present, and not one of the three aforementioned starters has lived up to expectations, however silly or unfounded they might have been. In 2003 alone, both Radke and Mays have posted ERAs approaching 6.00, while Milton has spent the entire season on the DL, unable to contribute.

    The result? A Minnesota rotation that ranks 18th in the majors in SNVA, down more than a dozen spots from where it was just two seasons ago. Granted, this isn't the Texas Rangers we're talking about here--perenially last in the AL in almost every pitching category--but this is still a team that has a number of serious problems to address, not the least of which pertain to their rotation.

    Which brings us to Johan Santana.

    Johan Santana is arguably the best pitcher the Twins have at this point--save, perhaps, Kyle Lohse. He's young, he's left-handed, and he strikes batters out like it's going out of style. So why isn't Santana in the rotation, pitching twice the innings he's assigned as a reliever? It's not like he hasn't done it before:

    
    2002          ERA    IP   H  HR  BB  SO
    Starter      3.13  74.2  58   6  38  89
    Reliever     2.67  33.2  26   1  11  48
    
    
    The answer is that manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan feel that Santana's talents are better utilized in a relief role--a la Eric Gagne--where nearly 100% of his innings are logged after the seventh. And that's fine too; after all, performance analysts have been wailing for years for a team to use its best pitchers in the most high leverage situations.

    The only thing is, that's not happening with Santana. Following the Twins this season, there are a number of occasions when the game has been close and Gardenhire has opted for a lesser reliever instead. The most glaring of these incidents happened just last Thursday when Santana was pulled in a tie ballgame, after just one inning, in favor of Juan Rincon. Rincon recorded one out, but gave up the winning hit--losing the game for Minnesota, 2-1.

    Now, is it guaranteed that Santana wouldn't have done the same--give up a game-winning hit to the Brewers in the bottom of the ninth? Of course not. What's more, it's equally not guaranteed that Santana will be able to continue his success as a starter. After all, some people just aren't cut out to pitch every fifth day.

    But if you're Ron Gardenhire, and your lead over the Kansas City Royals has dwindled to literally nothing, wouldn't you at least want to be sure of that? Wouldn't you at least want to be sure that you're getting the maximum value out of the most dominant pitcher on your staff? Because while high-leverage innings by a reliever might be more valuable, pound-for-pound, than innings by a starter, the difference is simply not great enough to justify using the reliever only half as often. It's just isn't.

    And that goes double for when the starter you'd be replacing is named Rick Reed.

    Scream it from the hills, my brothers and sisters, for the good of the Twins: Free Johan Santana!

  • Not Getting It Done: A little less than a month ago, Joe Sheehan pointed out that the Minnesota Twins were scheduled for--by far--the softest interleague schedule in all of baseball. With an aggregate Opponents' Winning Percentage of just .390, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Twins would run through interleague play like a kid in a candy store, and emerge at the beginning July with the AL Central more-or-less in the bag.

    So what happened?

    Well, the Kansas City Royals happened. Despite a May that appeased the Regression To The Mean Gods to no end, the Royals have stayed competitive through the month of June, taking three in a row from the Twins and going 11-8 overall.

    If the Twins actually want to win the AL Central this season, they're going to need to start getting serious and stop misusing one of their most dangerous weapons.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Style or Substance? Traditionally, this is the time of the season when the manager of the reigning AL champs starts sweating over which deserving player gets the All-Star snub to make room on the squad for the token Devil Ray. While the newly expanded 32-man roster makes things easier, lowering the bar isn't necessary to find a qualified Manta for this year's Summer Classic. There are two, and only two, candidates:

    • Rocco Baldelli: Clearly the sexy choice, and the only D-Ray who appears on the voting leader boards (currently 11th among outfielders)--no small feat when you play for a team that is last in combined home and road attendance. He has the name, the hype, and the .300+ batting average loved by the masses. But despite all the attention, Baldelli has been no better than the sixth best center fielder in the Junior Circuit in 2003.

    • Aubrey Huff: Huff has quietly developed into a potent force in the middle of a punchless lineup, a la Brian Giles. Right now, he trails only Ichiro Suzuki as the best right fielder in the AL this season. Here is his batting line since last year's All-Star break:
      
        G   AB    H  XB  HR   AVG   OBP   SLG
      151  605  193  47  31  .319  .372  .552
      
      

      It is all the more impressive that Huff has been able to maintain that production while shuttling between first base, third base and DH before settling into right field earlier this season.

    It's unlikely that a team on pace to lose 108 games will be honored with two All-Star representatives, so it boils down to a question of whether to give the fans what they want or select the best player. Baldelli has played well against the Angels this season while Huff hasn't--all the more reason to expect Mike Scioscia to opt for the sizzle, not the steak.

  • Don't You (Forget About Me): With few exceptions (the excellent U.S.S. Mariner being one), writers in the cities involved in the off-season swap that resulted in Lou Piniella prowling the first base dugout in The Trop refer to the trade as being Piniella for Randy Winn. It's generally overlooked that Antonio Perez arrived in the Sunshine State along with Mount P.

    It marked the second time that Perez's name appeared in agate type as part of a major trade. The first was when he was one of four players Cincinnati bundled to acquire Ken Griffey Jr. from Seattle in February 2000. At that time, Perez was a raw 18-year-old shortstop coming off a very promising season with the Reds' Low-A affiliate. Three years later and four-and-a-half years older (rumored age shenanigans proved true), Perez had totaled less than 700 at-bats in the Mariners' system because of a series of hand injuries that sapped his power when he was able to take the field. Consequently, Mariners' brass didn't bat an eye when Devil Rays' GM Chuck LaMar asked that Perez be thrown in to balance the deal.

    Early returns indicate that Perez alone may soon tip the scales in Tampa Bay's favor. While Winn has been little more than Rich Amaral with sport wheels, a healthy and still just 23-year-old Perez is hitting .290/.352/.550 (.270 MjEQA) since his promotion to Triple-A Durham in early May. The pop in his bat is also back, as 28 of his 60 hits this season have gone for extra bases.

    In the field, Perez now patrols the right side of the keystone, where the play of incumbent Marlon Anderson hasn't inspired any warm feelings that he is the long-term solution there. If Piniella puts actions to his words about giving the youngsters the run of the house the second half of the season, Perez could lay claim to the D-Rays second base job for 2004.

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