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September 3, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Post-season Roster Preview. The BP post-season odds report puts the Braves' chances to win their division for the 12th straight completed season at a cool 100.0%. OK, to be more precise--99.96%; there's a 1-in-22,000 chance that they fail to take the division crown. Can you blame us for looking ahead a little bit?

    Bobby Cox's post-season roster arrangements have been a source of controversy in the past, often leaving the Braves tragically short of a bat off the bench. You'd figure that there wouldn't be the same problem this year, what with the abundance of hitting talent on the Braves' roster, but let's take a look at their post-season roster alternatives and see what's likely to shake out.

    Taking advantage of baseball's perverse post-season rules, which rewards teams for having players on the DL, the Braves provided themselves with some additional flexibility by optioning Horacio Ramirez to Richmond on Sunday. The move came just one day after he had beaten the Pirates, and Ramirez was recalled again on Monday when rosters were expanded, but by recalling a hitter (Jesse Garcia), the Braves were able to freeze their post-season hitting-to-pitching split at 15-to-10. Ramirez, of course, remains as eligible as ever for the post-season.

    Starting Pitchers (4): Russ Ortiz, Greg Maddux, (LH) Mike Hampton, (LH) Horacio Ramirez or Shane Reynolds.

    Without a division race to worry about, Cox will have the flexibility to set his post-season rotation however he sees fit. How that is, exactly, is anybody's guess. Here's how the five starters have pitched since the All-Star break:

    
    Hampton:  7-1, 2.76 ERA
    Maddux:   6-2, 2.95 ERA
    Ortiz:    6-1, 4.18 ERA
    Ramirez:  1-1, 5.07 ERA
    Reynolds: 4-3, 5.12 ERA
    
    

    The expectation here is that Maddux' strong finish, coupled with Bobby Cox' preference for veterans, will be enough to earn him the Game 1 start. Arranging the remaining starters Hampton-Ortiz-Ramirez would allow the Braves to alternate lefties and righties. Reynolds could steal Ramirez' spot if the Braves face an opponent like the Astros that are heavy on right-handed hitting. On the other hand, since Reynolds doesn't have the sort of out pitch you'd want from a converted reliever, he could be dropped from the post-season roster entirely.

    Relief Pitchers (6) John Smoltz, (LH) Ray King, (LH) Kent Mercker, Will Cunnane, Jaret Wright, and the loser of the Ramirez-Reynolds derby.

    The Braves' biggest weakness all season has been the lack of a quality right-handed set-up man; Kevin Gryboski was pitching well enough, but with a partially torn labrum, he's likely done for the year.

    Enter Cunnane, who had put together 21 scoreless innings in Richmond and a 19:2 K/BB ratio, and has been scored upon only twice since being promoted to Atlanta. PECOTA compares him to Brad Clontz, which somehow seems appropriate. Wright's ERA is a gawdawful 8.03, but he was still striking people out in San Diego, and Leo Mazzone will have a month to work his magic. Jung Bong is likely the odd man out since the Braves are overstocked with lefties, while Jason Marquis, though technically an alternative, simply hasn't pitched well all season.

    Catchers (3): Javy Lopez, Henry Blanco and (B) Johnny Estrada.

    Yes, they'll carry three catchers...

    Infielders (8): (L) Robert Fick, Marcus Giles, Vinny Castilla, (B) Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa, Julio Franco, (L) Matt Franco, Jesse Garcia.

    Outfielders (4): (B) Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, (L) Darren Bragg.

    Most of these picks are straightforward. Since Fick can move to a corner spot if needed, giving them five outfielders, the Braves can afford to have three catchers, both Los Dos Francos, and a second utility guy--Jesse Garcia--available. A less conventional approach would involve rookie 1B-3B Mike Hessman, who is also eligible for the post-season after a brief call-up last week, but with an OBP under .300 at Richmond, it's not clear that he'd be any better an alterative. Garcia can also serve as a pinch runner.

    This roster is plenty adequate for post-season play; if the Braves pull a one-and-out again this season, they'll need to find something else to blame.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Been Down So Long: While it will come as no shock to longtime BP readers, the Brewers recent ten game win streak means next to nothing outside of the fact that a bad team has added ten wins to its "W" column. As Joe Sheehan points out in his recent PT (link), streaks such as this often come against weak competition. While these happened to come in a row is interesting and easily quoted on telecasts and highlight shows, there is almost no predictive value in streaks. Streaks--or worse, numbers like "12 out of 13" or more dubious combinations with random endpoints--are statistical anomalies. While many are comparing the recent Brewers streak to the 20 game run by the 2002 Athletics, there's little comparison between the teams.

    I did say next to nothing, because the streak does tell us some things. Ned Yost hasn't lost the team, something many predicted would happen when his rah-rah personality began to wear on a team being worn down. We've learned that amongst the spare parts that currently inhabit the Brewers lineup, there are things that have the makings of a major league contender. Bill Hall has played well during the streak, raising his batting average by sixty points, playing a passable middle infield, and proving he's good enough to be a backup infielder. His complete inability to draw a walk leaves the door wide open for Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy to come in and claim jobs in spring training.

  • I'm Coming Up: The Brewers front office said for weeks (but not Rickie Weeks) that few, if any, of their top prospects would be shown Miller Park in 2003. Give them points to sticking to plan--the Brewers called up only three players for September: Luis Martinez, Shane Nance, and Mike Crudale. While Nance and Crudale will bolster a weak bullpen, Martinez will be given a couple starts to see if the breakthrough season he's had will stick. Martinez has battled elbow problems over his last few starts, so the Brewers will be cautious with him, backing him with Glendon Rusch out of the bullpen. For many of the Brewers top prospects and performers, the lack of reward for a good season is frustrating. Players like Pete Zocolillo, the Triple-A MVP, J.J. Hardy, and Prince Fielder were all left waiting for a callup or even just a pat on the back from the braintrust of Reid Nichols and Gord Ash. (I use the term 'braintrust' loosely.)

  • We Got Next: A 10-game win streak brings hope...and a bit of ridicule. While we try to pluck the image of Mike Maddux in short-shorts out of our mental eye, let's focus on the hope. The Brewers had two minor league MVPs in Prince Fielder (Midwest) and Lou Palmisano (Pioneer), plus several more players that earned consideration for other awards. J.J. Hardy was by acclimation one of the better prospects in the Southern League. Jim Rushford was in the top 10 in batting average and OBP for the second year in the International League. Brothers Matt Childers and Jason Childers showed promise as future bullpen filler, with Jason's Zito-esque curveball proving to be nearly unhittable. Corey Hart, Dave Krynzel, Anthony Gwynn, and Kennard Bibbs are also names to remember for the next spring training in Arizona.

  • The Big...Two?: With the youngsters coming and Doug Melvin's proven record of rebuilding the Texas system through player development, focus moves to the "Big Three" of established Brewers players: Geoff Jenkins, Richie Sexson, and Ben Sheets. With Jenkins out for the season for a second year in a row (this time much less serious), the questions come about the Brewers pathetic payroll and if Melvin will flip one of his stars for more prospects. There were discussions of a Sexson for Paul Lo Duca deal which fizzled when Sexson failed to clear waivers, but the likeliest to move could be Sheets. An established mid-level starter closing in on arbitration would be attractive bait to bring in some of the needed parts that the Brewers have been looking for. Expect a team that thinks they're close--Cleveland, Texas, or Toronto--to come calling this offseason.

Minnesota Twins

  • It's About Time: Nearly one month ago, we made a call in this space for Rochester Red Wing Grant Balfour--and his killer K rate--to join the Twins' bullpen for the home stretch. It was a match made in heaven, you see: since the All-Star break, the Twins' bullpen had taken a noticeable step back from it's usual impressive self; meanwhile, Balfour was chewing up Triple-A competition like Will Carroll at your local Sizzler.

    Well, someone from the Twins was obviously listening, because since August 6th, Balfour has made eight appearances for the Twinkies, continuing his Gagnesque assault on the men with sticks:

    
    2003              IP  H  HR  BB  SO   ERA  WHIP   BAA  ARP
    ----------------------------------------------------------
    Grant Balfour   16.1  6   2   6  19  1.65  0.73  .113  6.7
    
    
    The next step, of course, is to get Balfour into the rotation--a position he thrived in this season at Triple-A--for the beginning of 2004. That's where his talents would be best utilized, after all, and that's where the Twins need him the most, going forward.

    That said, not everyone we've communicated with agrees with this plan of attack. In fact, one anonymous AL General Manager even went so far as to suggest we are hypocrites with regard to our position on the use of Johan Santana--a player with a similar modus operandi to Balfour. Santana, after all, is just young man--according to critics of this approach--and young pitchers need to be handled with kid gloves until they're not so young anymore.

    The thing is, Santana's (and thus Balfour's) case is a bit more complicated than that. First of all, both pitchers are 24 years of age--approximately one year away from the time when pitchers typically see a significant decline in their likelihood of injury. Thus, questions of overuse can be somewhat lessened; this isn't Mark Prior we're talking about, here. Second of all, the Twins are competitive right now. As Joe Sheehan pointed out yesterday in his column, whether the TNSTAAPP crowd likes it or not, pitchers--even young pitchers--involved in pennant races need to be handled differently than pitchers who aren't. A flag flies forever, after all. Lastly, it isn't as if the Twins have better options waiting in the wings. With Joe Mays, Brad Radke, and Kyle "Powder Keg" Lohse signed for the immediate future, it's the rotation that's going to need help more than anything else. Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins have got that bullpen thing covered.

  • Compare/Contrast: As we mentioned in the last Twins PTP, literally dozens of people have emailed us over the course of this season, suggesting that outfielder and hacker extraordinaire Jacque Jones is likely to develop in a similar fashion to former stathead whipping boy and current Home Run Derby Champion Garret Anderson. While that's a nice idea, however, the truth of the matter is that there are some fundamental differences between the two players' skill sets. Take a look at their respective age 27 and 28 seasons, for example--a comparable year for the two players in terms of production and development.
    
    Player     Year   Age   AVG  OBP  SLG  EqA  BB%  SO%  XBH%
    ----------------------------------------------------------
    Jones      2003    28  .307 .335 .468 .278   3%  20%   10%
    Anderson   1999    27  .303 .336 .469 .270   5%  10%   12%
    
    
    As you can see, Jones is having a strikingly similar year to Anderson's 1999: their batting averages, OBPs, and slugging percentages are all within four points of one another. The fundamental difference, however, manifests itself within Jones' peripheral statistics: while neither player was the second-coming of Rob Deer in their fifth, full major-league season, Anderson walked slightly more often than Jones currently does, while striking out considerably less.

    This fact--while not terribly meaningful from a value perspective--is crucial information with regard to forecasting development at the plate. Players who exhibit a poor control of the strike zone (i.e., rarely walk but strike out frequently), after all, are much less likely to take a giant leap forward than players who walk and strike out at more moderate levels.

    Thus, while Anderson's vault into the upper echelon of American League outfielders was improbable to say the least, its likelihood was significantly better than what we can forecast for Jones at this point in his career. But then again, PECOTA could already have told you that one.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Managing to Succeed: When the Devil Rays parted with Randy Winn for the rights to pay Lou Piniella a large amount of money (and got Antonio Perez as a throw-in; thanks Pat), there was understandable jeering. Piniella, never known for his ability to deal with losing teams or develop young players, was being asked to take over a team of kids who were not going to win. Instead of impending disaster, the team has improved throughout the season, and Piniella has garnered more respect for his work this season than in any in recent memory.
    
                    Runs Scored     Runs Allowed    Record
    Pre All Star    4.11 Per Game   5.50 Per Game   32-60
    Post All Star   4.90 Per Game   5.11 Per Game   21-22
    
    
    Don't chalk it up to easier competition, as the Devil Rays second half opponents have a combined .501 winning percentage, and the schedule included series with Boston, Oakland, and Seattle. No one player has been responsible for the improvement, but we'll tip our hypothetical caps to Travis Lee, Julio Lugo, and Jeremi Gonzalez, who have been three large contributors to the Devil Rays march to respectability.

  • Fading Star?: Remember when Rocco Baldelli was the runaway leader in the Rookie of the Year voting? As expected, his hack-a-matic ways have been his undoing, and he hasn't been a contributing member of the offense since May.
    
    Month     BA     OBP     SLG     AB     XBH     BB       K
    April   .368    .389    .509    106      11      3      27
    May     .314    .348    .438    105       7      6      17
    June    .255    .293    .426     94      10      4      21
    July    .283    .313    .453    106       9      4      17
    August  .261    .290    .319    119       7      5      26
    
    
    The lesson, as always, is trust not in singles hitters. Few things in baseball are subject to as large of fluctuations as the hit that nets one base. Baldelli still has a bright future and has had a successful rookie season, but won't be among the top five rookies when all is said and done.

  • Rebel in the Camp: B.J. Upton, who celebrated his 19th birthday two weeks ago, finished a terrific debut season with 73 walks in 489 at-bats between Charleston and Orlando. He led the entire organization in the base on balls, and it wasn't even close. Below are the leaders for each full-season club in the organization along with their walk totals (combined numbers for promoted players):
    
    Name             Level          Age     AB      BB
    Travis Lee       Majors         28      449     53
    George Lombard   Triple-A       28      438     45
    Jonny Gomes      Double-A       22      461     55
    Edgar Gonzalez   High-A         25      349     45
    B.J. Upton       Low-A          18      489     73
    
    
    More impressively, Upton's walk rate did not falter after his promotion to Double-A. He clearly understands the value in pitch selection and has not employed the swing-at-anything approach that has been practiced by his teammates. This kind of patience is a great sign for his future, and the Devil Rays are rightfully excited about their young shortstop.

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