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August 20, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Finance and Economics. So John Schuerholz is claiming that the Braves are losing money. Yeah, right. Nice one, Johnny. Hey, buddy, don't tell anyone, but I can get 'ya real nice deal on a backup catcher. And since I'm such a nice guy, I'll throw in some AOL stock options at no additional charge. Hell, I'll even give 'ya Jane Fonda if it seals the deal. Whaddaya say, Johnny boy?

    Actually, Schuerholz' claim is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Back during the last round of labor negotiations, when Major League Baseball was fond of employing, uh, "progressive" accounting methods, the Braves, with their intercompany synergy between team and media outlet, had one of the easier books to cook. MLB claimed that the Braves lost $14 million in 2001--$25 million after revenue sharing!--a year in which the team drew 2.8 million fans to Turner Field. The more respected figures put out by Forbes painted a different picture, pegging the Braves with a $9.5 million profit.

    But the state of affairs has changed since then. Even with the unceremonious dumping of Kevin Millwood, the Braves' payroll rose this year for the fourteenth season in a row (you read that right). Attendance, meanwhile, while still relatively strong, is projected to fall this year for the sixth season in a row, this time in spite of a substantial drop in average ticket prices. Let's take a look at some summary financial data for the Braves based on the publicly available information:

    
    Braves financial report
    			    1999  2000	  2001	 2002	2003
    Attendance		    3.3m  3.2m	  2.8m	 2.6m	2.5m
    Average Ticket Price	  $19.21  $19.78  $22.05 $21.86 $18.59 
    Gate Receipts		  $63.4m  $63.3m  $61.7m $56.8m	$46.4m
    					
    Payroll			  $73.6m  $84.5m  $91.9m $93.5m	$104.6m
    Operating Income (Forbes) $18.3m  $7.7m	  $9.5m	 $9.5m	??
    
    
    Notes: All figures are taken from Doug Pappas' Business of Baseball Pages.

    1. 2003 attendance is projected based on year-to-date results
    2. Team Marketing Report, which provides the ticket price data, changed its method of calculating ticket prices between 2001 and 2002. This table includes an adjustment to 2002 and 2003 figures to restore year-to-year consistency.
    3. Gate receipts are equal to attendance times average ticket price
    4. Payrolls are as of opening day.

    The Braves have many sources of income apart from gate receipts, principally stemming from their associations with Turner. Even so, it's easy to verify Schuerholz' claim that the team will register an operating loss. According to the Forbes figures, the Braves recorded a $9.5 million profit in 2002. But their payroll has risen by around $11 million this year, while anticipated gate receipts are about $12.5 million lower. Assuming that the team's other costs and revenues remain fixed, Atlanta would be projected to lose around $14 million. Though a postseason windfall could help to make that up--a World Series appearance can easily be worth as much as $15 million, even before accounting for the lingering goodwill effects that a title creates--there's little doubt that the Braves' financial picture isn't as rosy as it was during the glory days of the Four Aces and the dot.com boom.

    What happened here? Pretty simple, really. The Braves have always relied on a mix of relatively expensive free agent acquisitions, and homegrown talent from the team's farm system. As the team has aged, and homegrown players like Los Dos have moved from being reserve clause guys to arbitration cases and on into their free agency years, the moderation in payroll that their mix of talent produced is no longer.

    Meanwhile, the Braves are playing in a saturated market. The Braves' long run of success in the nineties, coupled with the opening of Turner Field, covered for the fact that Atlanta has long been a tough town for pro sports. The Peach City also benefited more than most from the high-growth economy, and suffered more than most when the bubble burst. Blame Atlantans for being spoiled if you like, but it's not clear that the Braves are in a position to extract much more revenue from their local market than they already area.

    It's premature to speculate on the course that the Braves will take in the off-season--Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Greg Maddux are all free agents--but for all the success the franchise has had on the field, its financial situation is not enviable. This time at least, a GM who has cried poverty has not cried wolf.

Minnesota Twins

  • "Great" Game: Not too often will a 5-0 loss be classified as a "great" game, but last Thursday's 14-inning heartbreaker to the Indians definitely qualifies.
    
    Thursday, August 14, 2003
    
    --------------------------------------------|-------
    Team       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 | R  H E
    --------------------------------------------|-------
    Cleveland  0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0  0  0  0  0  5 | 5 10 3
    Minnesota  0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0  0  0  0  0  0 | 0  8 1
    --------------------------------------------|-------
    
    WP: T. Mulholland (2-2) 
    LP: J. Rincon     (3-5) 
    
    
    In many ways, this loss was a microcosm of 2003 for the Twins. Johan Santana was predictably awesome, going eight scoreless innings while allowing just four hits and one walk against eight strikeouts. The bullpen was airtight--for four-plus innings, at least--surrendering just one baserunner from the time Santana left the game until the top of the 13th when Juan Rincon allowed the floodgates to open. And the offense was...well, unsurprisingly impotent--accumulating just one extra-base hit and drawing just four walks in 51 (!) trips to the plate.

    Take it from someone who saw every minute of all 14, painful innings: this wasn't just a loss, this was a spirit-crushing, soul-draining reminder to GM Terry Ryan why his team is trailing both the Royals and the White Sox in the race for the AL Central. Or at least we'd hope so--for the sake of Twins fans everywhere.

  • Star Performer: Who else?
    
                 ERA  W  L    IP   H  HR  BB  SO   BAA
    As Starter  2.52  5  2  64.1  40   8  14  59  .176
    
    

  • JacqueWatch: For those of you who have been following the Twins coverage here at Baseball Prospectus, you'll know that one of the main topics we like to keep an eye on is the development of outfielder Jacque Jones.

    Jones is an interesting player. Despite some very obvious weaknesses in his game--a poor control of the strike zone and an inability to hit lefties, specifically--he's managed to hit for a high enough batting average and play good enough defense to over the course of his career to remain an effective ballplayer. He's not a star, mind you, and doesn't project to develop into one going forward--but he's a useful ballplayer, and an asset to a Twins lineup that is in the bottom-half of the American League in runs scored.

    In fact, a number of people have gone as far as to compare Jones to another impatient corner outfielder who's received more than his share of ribbing from statheads over the years: Garret Anderson. In our next PTP, we'll explore this comparison, and see how apt it truly is.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Underhyped Matchup of the Week: OK, so maybe it wasn't underhyped, or overhyped, or even hyped at all, but last week's showdown with Cleveland was a great matchup. The two teams, who combine for about as much big league experience as Rickey Henderson, split the four game set that included back to back extra inning games on Sunday and Monday.

    Game 1: Victor Zambrano continued his great season, tossing eight shutout innings for the no-decision. He has posted a .545 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage against some of the toughest lineups in baseball. It will be interesting to see if Zambrano, at 28 years old, can turn himself into a solid starter, or if the Devil Rays' defense,which currently ranks third in the AL in Defensive Efficiency, is masking Zambrano's poor peripherals.

    Game 2: The second game of the series saw the Major League starting debut of Rays prospect Chad Gaudin. After being drafted in the 34th round of the 2001 draft, Gaudin showed that being a small, right-handed high school pitcher doesn't automatically preclude suckiness. Gaudin dominated the Southern Atlantic League in his first professional season, throwing 106 Ks against 37 BBs despite being a year or two younger than most of his opposing hitters. This season, Gaudin has raped and pillaged his way through the minors, posting a 93/26 K/BB ratio to go with a combined 1.81 ERA, which included a perfect game in Double-A. For some teams, this might be enough to warrant a promotion to Triple-A, but this is the Devil Rays, so Gaudin is in the big league rotation for the time being. Gaudin is bound to take some more beatings like the one he took on Saturday, but if Lou will just let the kid play, as promised, by giving his young pitcher a defined role as either a starter or a reliever, the Devil Rays may be pleasantly surprised at what the 20-year old Gaudin can do.

    Game 3: Another game, another poor performance for Joe Kennedy. Kennedy who has been pitching below PECOTA's 10th percentile, should have been Tampa Bay's ace this year. Instead, teammate Dewon Brazelton is the only thing that has kept him from being the major's worst pitcher, according to Support-Neutral Winning Percentage. Kennedy was relieved in this game by Jorge Sosa, who struck out a franchise record eight men in relief. With a heater in the high nineties and a devastating slider, Sosa's stuff made Octavio Dotel look like Bob Tewksbury. He is a stud to the naked eye, but not unlike Neifi Perez, Sosa still sucks. He has struggled with his control all season, and in spite of wicked stuff that makes scouts drool, Sosa only has 48 Ks in 89 innings.

    Game 4: The final game of the series highlighted Tampa Bay's bullpen. Mark Malaska, Brandon Backe, and Lance Carter combined for 6 2/3 innings, allowing only three hits and one run. While Lou Pinella is still a volcano of profanity, he hasn't been stubborn about his bullpen. Lou switched relievers frequently in Seattle, playing the LaRussian bullpen matchup game, but he has been letting his young relievers work out of trouble frequently in Tampa Bay. In fact, Rays' relievers average more IP per appearance (1.48) than any other unit in baseball. It is by no coincidence that Tampa Bay's bullpen RRE falls among the top half of Major League bullpens. The Rays' season's biggest positive is the good work of their young relief arms.

  • The Devil Rays: The problem with Tampa Bay's offense, as always, is plate discipline. As of this writing, the Devil Rays are the only team in baseball that isn't drawing walks in at least 7% of their Plate Appearances. Take away Ben Grieve's 197 PAs, and the Devil Rays are proud owners of a .065 walk rate, equivalent to a lineup full of Juan Encarnacions. However, if you notice a September callup wearing purple and green taking pitches like he's Jeremy Giambi, don't adjust your TV sets. You're probably watching catcher Pete LaForest. LaForest has been drawing free passes every sixth trip to the plate in Double-A and Triple-A this year. If he doesn't get called up when rosters expand, he will play in the Arizona Fall League.

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