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July 23, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

    Remember high school? Whether your experience was John Hughes idyllic, Harmony Korine tragicomic, or Richard Linklater toxic, chances are that your senior class gave out those stupid awards along with the yearbook that you haven't looked at in twenty years--Cutest Couple, Class Clown...you know the drill. Although it seems that fewer and fewer schools are passing out such honors in an official capacity these days--it's hard to pin a label like Least Likely to Succeed on some future burger flipper in these times of political correctness--the good kids at East Jessamine High School in Nicholasville, Kentucky have kept the tradition alive, and with their help, we hereby present the inaugural Atlanta Braves First Sixty Two Percent Awards.

  • Most likely to succeed: There's no surer thing in baseball right now than John Smoltz, who might be having one of the two or three best seasons ever by a closer. The gold standard in these things is Dennis Eckersley's 1990 campaign, and Smoltzie's numbers this season are comparable.
    
                         IP     H%     BB%   K%     HR%   ERA   Sv
    Eckersley (1990)     73.1   15.6%  1.5%  27.9%  0.8%  0.61  48
    Smoltz (projected)   81.0   19.5%  3.8%  29.7%  0.5%  0.92  60
    
    Half-a-dozen of one, six of the other: Smoltz's control isn't quite as good as the Eck's best effort, but he's striking out a few more hitters, and he's been available to work a little bit more regularly. There's no reason to think that he'll encounter any trouble from here on out.

  • Ditziest: Oh sure, he looks bookish, but Greg Maddux' performance has been the fourth flakiest in the National League according to Michael Wolverton's SNWL numbers. Maddux' margin of error has always been pretty slim, and while his command is as good as it's ever been, he's had nights when he's just plain ol' hittable, especially on the first pitch--opponents are managing a .996 OPS against him with the count empty. Maddux may need to (gasp!) learn to work more effectively out of the strike zone. Besides that, he might want to look at some scouting reports between innings instead of flipping through Seventeen magazine.

  • Best Eyes: Gary Sheffield, who has walked nearly twice as often as he's struck out, and leads the Braves in OPS. Sheffield, of course, may also be eyeing a big free agent contract.

  • Best Athlete: Given our predilections, you might think this award would be a kind of backhanded compliment, but Rafael Furcal is using his multitude of athletic skills to his advantage. There's a popular half-truth out there that speedy players age better. While that may be the case, speed itself is the often the first ability to go, and players who rely on it too much--think Roger Cedeno--do not age gracefully. It's the players who combine speed with other strengths that have long, productive careers; Furcal, who has improved his power game this season, seems poised to do just that. Ray Durham sits at the top of Furcal's PECOTA comparables list and is a good model for what to expect going-forward.

  • Class Flirt: Shane Reynolds, who must be doing something extracurricular in order to keep his job. Reynolds simply isn't as adept anymore at doing the things that once made him successful--his walk rate is easily the highest of his career, and his groundball-to-flyball ratio easily the lowest. Reynolds has been good in his past couple of appearances, and performances like his are less noticeable when the team is playing at a 100-win clip, but the Braves might do better to dump him and give someone like Jason Marquis or Andy Pratt a shot.

  • Class Clown: Wilson Betemit, who has "adapted" to his new position, third base, by making 20 errors at AAA-Richmond. His offense isn't much better, either, as his EqA is down at .217 after an awful start to the season. Vinny Castilla's contract, mercifully, is up after the season, but it seems like the Braves may need to look outside the organization for a replacement until Andy Marte is ready.

  • Most Talkative: Skip Caray and Pete Van Wiren, thankfully, now restored to the TBS broadcast booth after having been banished in the spring in favor of the younger (?), hipper (??) duo of Joe Simpson and Don Sutton (who, incidentally, was a runaway winner in the Worst Haircut category...it's not just a perm, it's also a mullet!). Thanks, Ted, for making this right.

  • Most Likely to Get Lost in the Parking Lot: Marcus Giles, at least until that concussion clears up.

Minnesota Twins

  • Looking Back: Coming into 2003, the Minnesota Twins were the odds on favorites to win the American League Central. They had more depth than any team in the league, their grab-bag of prospects was beginning to ripen, and their division was prime for the taking. Sure, they lacked the potential pop of a team like the White Sox, but they were as good of a bet to win between 80 and 90 games as any team in the league--and in the AL Central, that number could very easily pace the division.

  • State of the Union: So what happened? Despite a bullpen that ranks among the best in the American League, the Minnesota Twins have been down-right mediocre this season, resulting in just 44 wins before the All-Star break, and a winning percentage of just .495.

    Well, first of all, their rotation fell short of expectations. Brad Radke has been awful. Rick Reed has been worse. And Joe Mays was doing a pretty good Glendon Rusch impersonation before being relegated to the bullpen. At the moment, the Minnesota Twins are employing exactly one starter with an ERA below 4.70--Johan Santana, surprise, surprise--and he wasn't officially named to the rotation until this past month.

    Second of all, they've been carrying dead weight at both shortstop and second base. Despite 2000 and 2001 campaigns that showed legitimate promise, respectively, both Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman have seemingly refused to develop offensively, leaving the Twins with with not one but two replacement-level bats in the lineup. In fact, even PECOTA seems to have over-estimated what both Guzman and Rivas' contribution would be in 2003.

    
    		       Actual         Projected
    		   AVG  OBP  SLG    AVG  OBP  SLG
    Cristian Guzman   .252 .281 .339   .274 .307 .405
    Luis Rivas	  .263 .319 .351   .270 .321 .387
    
    Ewww.

  • Looking Ahead: With all that being said, the Twins still aren't out of the race. With series against Baltimore, Detroit, and Cleveland extending from now until the middle of August, there's a good chance that the Twins could be within a game of the first-place Royals when they meet for the first of seven games this month on August 15. It won't be an easy task, mind you, but the AL Central is still as wide open as a division can be on the 23rd of July--and don't let Rany Jazayerli tell you differently.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • First-Half Star: A tip of the cap to Aubrey Huff, who was the fifth-best offensive right fielder in baseball during the first half of the season, putting him in the Magglio Ordonez and Bobby Abreu class of talents. His power has continued to develop, and he's on pace for 54 doubles and 30 home runs. His .303/.361/.537 line is a near dead ringer for PECOTA's 75th percentile projection. While Rocco Baldelli has gotten the notice, Huff has quietly developed into one of the game's best hitters. At just 26 years of age, Tampa would be wise to see that he spends the rest of his prime years swinging the lumber in Tropicana Field. The bright spots for Lou Piniella have been few and far between, but none have been brighter than Mr. Huff.

  • First-Half Stiff: Enough choices here to make Support-Neutral Winning Percentage of just .176. To be fair, Brazelton can share the trophy with those who presumed he was ready for the major leagues after a very mediocre campaign in AA last season. With his confidence now in pieces, Tampa has determined the best way to get him back is to send him to class-A ball, Roy Halladay style. Through two starts, California League hitters aren't finding him that difficult to hit either. Needless to say, this isn't the career path Chuck Lamar envisioned when he selected Brazelton third overall in the 2001 draft.

  • First-Half Surprise: The Devil Rays have gotten a big boost from medical marvel Jeremi Gonzalez, who actually allows teammates to use his body to play "Operation!" during off days. Gonzalez's .616 SNWL percentage is good for 18th best in the majors, a better mark than those posted by Roger Clemens, Mark Prior, and Hideo Nomo, among others. Right-handed batters are hitting a whopping .166 against Gonzalez on the season. For the price of a minor league contract, the Devil Rays have obtained a 28-year-old pitcher who gives them a chance to win every time he takes the hill. His return after not pitching in the major leagues since 1998 provides a glimmer of hope to the current batch of rehabbing youngsters.

  • Help on the Horizon: The Futures Game provided the first national exposure for Pete LaForest, who has been treating the International League like a beer-league softball tournament. A very strange visa snafu cost him the first half of the season, but he's been impossible to stop since the Canadian government allowed him into the country. His .306/.416/.671 line for Durham comes in only 85 at-bats, but is still good for a .311 MjEQA. He's never hit quite this well, but has showed offensive promise the past two seasons, and there are signs that this is legitimate improvement and not a sample size fluke. 14 of his 26 hits have gone for extra bases, which is an Adam Dunn-like rate, showing that he's not benefiting from bloopers and seeing-eye singles. He's also drawn 15 walks against 23 strikeouts, showing his grasp of the strike zone to be among the best in the entire organization. While he won't provide a great throwing arm behind the plate, he handles a staff adequately and can handle the tools of ignorance. His bat, however, should be what makes an impact in Tampa sooner rather than later.

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