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August 6, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Rollin' The Dice: Is it too early to call this one? Following Monday's off-day, the Braves have an 11-game lead over Philadelphia with about 50 games left to play. That's certainly a substantial cushion, but is it an insurmountable gap?

    We ran 10,000 trials of a simple simulation program designed to play out the rest of the season given the following assumptions:

    No need to flood our inboxes--we're well aware that each of these assumptions has its flaws. With that caveat, an exercise like this can be enlightening; the magnitude of Atlanta's advantage is greater than you might have thought. Here's how the simulation played out:

    
                            Won             Max    Min   Average
    Team    "True" WP  Outright  Shared    Wins   Wins      Wins
    ------------------------------------------------------------
    ATL     .591          9,921      33     116     91     103.1
    PHI     .575             39      25     105     77      90.3
    FLO     .554              7       8     101     74      88.2
    MON     .476              0       0      96     69      81.8
    NYM     .380              0       0      78     52      64.4
    
    The Braves won the division outright more than 99% of the time. In the real world, the Phillies and Marlins have slightly better odds than that because of the large number of intradivisonal games, but even so, it would take a cataclysmic and unforeseen event--three or four big injuries or Stone Mountain suddenly turning volcanic--for the Braves to blow this one.

  • Minor League Report: If it's fair to start looking toward the post-season, the first order of business is what the Braves' postseason roster is going to look like. The trade deadline came and went without a deal, and while it's possible that John Schuerholz will prevail upon AOL-Time Warner to loosen their purse strings so that he can pull off a waiver wire move, the Braves also need to consider their in-house alternatives.

    There are no Francisco Rodriguezes here, but these are four Braves-in-waiting that could make an appearance on the post-season roster:

    • Johnny Estrada will forever be associated with the player he was traded for, provides nothing with the stick, and is on the roster mostly because he's signed to a guaranteed contract and is Greg Maddux's personal catcher. Although we'd dump Blanco and tell Maddux to quit his whining, a more plausible scenario is that Estrada gets called up if Bobby Cox pulls a Bobby Cox and decides to go with three catchers.

    • At age 31, Joey Dawley is no prospect, and he was lit up in five appearances with the big club early in the year. But Dawley has had dominant stretches at Richmond, striking out 62 batters in 46.1 innings. The Braves would be wise to give him another chance in August before the postseason roster deadline.

    • Buddy Hernandez, selected by the A's in the Rule 5 Draft before being returned to Atlanta, is another Richmond Brave with great peripheral numbers (and a great PECOTA forecast). Hernandez has two big strikes against him--he's generously listed at 5'9" and doesn't have a big heater--but he's great at keeping the ball down, and would be a better fit as a post-season left-hander than a converted starter like Jung Bong, Jason Marquis, or (gasp!) Mike Hampton.

    • Donzell McDonald, a once-upon-a-time prospect, is a longer shot to make the roster, but would provides two advantages over Darren Bragg as a fourth outfielder: he switch-hits, and still has tremendous speed. Every team needs its Chone Figgins.

Minnesota Twins

  • Down For The Count?: Currently four-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Royals, and two-and-a-half games behind the recently-streaking White Sox, a number of people have stepped up to pronounce an early death for the Minnesota Twins. We're not buying it, though.

    Yes, we admit, the Twins were one of many losers on Deadline Day, refusing to use their strength (a gaggle of good-hitting outfield prospects) in order to patch one of their weaknesses (take your pick). But even so, that doesn't necessarily mean that Torii Hunter & Co. should plan on scheduling early-morning tee-times for the month of October.

    The reason? Check out the Twins' schedule going forward, compared to their AL Central counterparts:

    
    Opponents      ChA   KC    Min   AdjW%
    --------------------------------------
    New York       6     6     -      .618
    Boston         5     -     -      .610
    Oakland        3     -     -      .585
    Arizona        -     1     -      .547
    Anaheim        7     6     6      .535
    Baltimore      -     -     -      .472
    Texas          7     6     6      .458
    Cleveland      3     6     12     .442
    Tampa Bay      -     4     -      .435
    Detroit        3     8     10     .336
    --------------------------------------
    Weighted      .523  .467  .426    
    Average
    
    
    For those of you who neglected to read yesterday's White Sox PTP, the above chart has been constructed out of Clay Davenport's Adjusted Standings, which accounts for both luck and prior strength of schedule. The Twins, as you can see, have by far the easiest schedule of the three contenders from here on out--playing a combined 22 games against the rebuilding Indians and the hapless Tigers, and zero games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Athletics.

    Now, does any of this mean that the Twins should suddenly be the favorites to win the AL Central? Of course not. They still have four-and-a-half games to make up on the Royals, and the White Sox are beginning to score runs like its going out of style. But it does mean that they're still in the race, and that they shouldn't be dismissed simply because they were unable to acquire a middle infielder who can actually dent a garbage can with his bat.

  • Kick-Save and a Beauty: Though not overriding and completely burdensome, one of the most prevalent themes for the Minnesota Twins over the past two seasons has been that of wasted talent. From the oppression of Johan Santana to the neglection of erstwhile outfielder Bobby Kielty, the Twins organization has done a sub-optimal job of recognizing production within their system and from there putting it to use.

    Enter Grant Balfour.

    At 25, Balfour is a little old to be called a prospect, but nevertheless, it's tough to dismiss his production. In 60 innings at Triple-A Rochester, Balfour has absolutely dominated the competition, posting a K rate of nearly 11 while posting a BB rate of one-and-a-half. Check it out:

    
    2003        Lvl   IP   ERA   H  HR  BB  SO
    ------------------------------------------
    Balfour     AAA   60  2.10  37   5  13  73
    
    
    And it's not like this is new territory for the Austrailian and former catcher. Here are his minor-league numbers since 1997, when he entered the Twins organization:
    
    1997-2002    IP  GS   ERA  H/9  BB/9  SO/9
    ------------------------------------------
    Balfour     461  49  3.59  7.8   3.5   9.4
    
    
    I believe the word you're looking for is "Wow."

    Though it would be controversial, the Twins front office would be smart to bring up Balfour as soon as possible and give him every relief inning that would otherwise be assigned to Joe Mays. As we noted in the section above, the Twins currently have four-and-a-half games to make up on the division leader, and a relatively soft schedule ahead. The Twins simply cannot afford to give any of those games against the Indians and Tigers away, and bringing Balfour up for the home stretch would put them one step closer to accomplishing just that.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Unwanted Help: According to a recent blurb in the Tampa Tribune, the Devil Rays have decided that Travis Lee "has yet to hit enough to persuade them to exercise their half of a mutual option for 2004." The option on Lee calls for the Devil Rays to either pay Lee a $500,000 buyout to go away or let him earn $2.5 million as their first baseman next year, with another $500,000 available in incentives. Considering the going rate for major league first baseman, this should be considered something of a bargain. Here is a look at the company Lee is keeping this year:
    
    Player            Age    AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA  2003 Salary
    -----------------------------------------------------------
    Kevin Millar       31   .286  .353  .505  .299   $2,000,000
    John Olerud        34   .275  .378  .408  .294   $7,700,000
    Jeff Bagwell       35   .272  .367  .499  .291  $13,000,000
    Rafael Palmiero    38   .251  .353  .497  .289   $9,000,000
    Ryan Klesko        32   .252  .352  .485  .289   $5,500,000
    Travis Lee         28   .287  .361  .479  .288     $500,000
    
    
    The youngest player of the group, in his prime, is performing as well as some of the biggest names in the game while pulling down a fraction of the income. Yet, apparently, it hasn't been enough for the Devil Rays front office. Lee, however, isn't done putting a lid on his 2003 season just yet. After a slow start, he was among the league's best hitters in July, posting a .344/.455/.567 line and drawing 19 walks against just 10 strikeouts. Since the All-Star break, Lee is hitting .365/.487/.667 (in all of 63 at-bats, mind you). However, his walk rate is up, his strikeouts are down, and he's showing the best power of his career, as 42% of his hits have gone for extra bases. Maybe Lee should hire Scott Hatteberg's agent.

  • On the Farm: In their attempt to draft every athletic high school outfielder available in 2002, the Rays may have found a gem in fourth round pick Wes Bankston. Bankston terrorized pitchers during his professional debut in the Appalachian League last summer, pounding out 18 home runs and a .546 slugging percentage as an 18-year-old. However, he drew just 18 walks in 246 at-bats, which got him lumped into the hack-a-matic types that have dominated the Tampa system since their inception. Bankston has sought to break out of the mold, however, and has significantly improved in his approach at the plate. Despite being one of the youngest regular players in the South Atlantic League this year, he has drawn 31 walks in 301 at-bats, though his 72 strikeouts are still a concern.

    The improved walk rate isn't a fluke, either. Bankston has made a legitimate effort to lay off curve balls out of the strike zone and focus on hitting pitches that he can drive. His raw power is still among the best in the minors, and adding the ability to reach base consistently would make him a potential middle-of-the-order hitter. After spending the summer in the shadow of B.J. Upton, all eyes will now be on Bankston as Charleston winds down their season. While he still has significant adjustments to make, his rate of improvement since being selected is very encouraging.

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