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March 10, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Sweet Memories: Sometimes people keep mementos of lost friends and relatives. You might save Grandpa's favorite chair or a letter from a friend. It can be healthy to reflect on the good times you've had with a loved one.

    However, there are times when it's best to just let go. Note to John Schuerholz: Greg Maddux is gone. Bringing Eddie Perez back to Atlanta might conjure up some great memories about 90-pitch shutouts and Atlanta pitching dominance, but he will not bring Maddux's innings back. Hauling Perez in to back up Johnny Estrada and Eli Marrero is no better for your sanity than keeping your ex-girlfriend's unmentionables around after she's left you. In addition, keeping Captain Granny Pants around as a third catcher might really end up costing the Braves in terms of late-inning situational play.

    If Atlanta carries a 12-man pitching staff as expected, they will only have room for six infielders. With Mark DeRosa expected to win the third-base job and Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Adam LaRoche, and Julio Franco cemented into their roles, it looks like Bobby Cox will have to choose between Russell Branyan, Wilson Betemit, and Jesse Garcia for the last infield spot. It's not the best plan of action, but Cox can still get by with three catchers if he's a little creative. His best option would be to resist the urge to lug around a card-carrying backup middle infielder like Betemit or Garcia. This would allow him to pinch-hit with Branyan in big situations instead of using Gary Matthews--projected to hit only .233/.305/.355 this year. If Furcal or Giles needs a day off, Cox can get Branyan in the lineup at third while sliding the more-than-capable DeRosa over to the middle infield.

  • Rapid Raffy: It's an absolute shame Rafael Furcal wasn't born in the 19th century. He's one of the most enjoyable everyday players in the majors to watch. He can gun and he can run, but Raffy's missing one of those great old- fashioned nicknames. As it stands now, Furcal might be forgotten, but Skeeter Furcal is somebody we can tell our grandkids about.

    While we're waiting for the right nickname, Furcal just might be able to make a real name for himself. Here are his career batting lines, with speed indicators broken down by year.

    
    Year     PA       AVG/OBP/SLG      SB%    GIDP         
    2000    528      .295/.394/.382      74.1       2
    2001    348      .275/.321/.370      78.6       5
    2002    679      .275/.323/.387      64.3       8
    2003    724      .292/.352/.443      92.5       1
    
    

    An important set of numbers to look at here are Furcal's stolen base percentages and double play rates. In 2000, Raffy broke into the Braves lineup, flashing incredible speed. He hit more than twice as many ground balls as fly balls, relying on his speed to make himself a useful player. In the two following years, he battled injuries and saw his hitting numbers decline. The correlation between these poor numbers and diminishing speed indicators seemed to be an ominous sign of a player who was going to have trouble being productive without his legs.

    Well, the numbers say that Raffy has regained any speed he might have lost, and he again placed himself among the NL's top shortstops with the bat in 2003. While he's still a top shortstop, Furcal isn't the same player he was as a rookie. Back then, Furcal was an on-base machine, hitting a lot of singles and earning a lot of walks. The new Furcal can put a charge into a lot of the pitches he used to take, so his hacks at them have produced a surprising amount of extra-base pop. He also doesn't try to leg out as many infield hits as before, as more than 40% more of his balls in play were hit in the air in 2004 as in 2000. PECOTA predicts that the new Furcal will retain most of the progress he made in 2003, with a .287/.345/.416 projected line.

Minnesota Twins

  • On Second Thought: Minnesota's loyalty to second baseman Luis Rivas is puzzling to say the least. In the three seasons since he became the Twins' regular keystoner he's put up EqAs of .266, .256 and .259. So it's his dazzling glovework that keeps him in the lineup, right? Eh, not so much. Over those same three seasons he's been a total of 38 runs below the average second baseman in terms of defense. Basically, he has no business being in the starting lineup.

    So are the Twins finally catching on? In an interesting Grapefruit League development, forgotten prospect Michael Cuddyer made a start at second over the weekend. While right now the Twins are working to increase Cuddyer's positional flexibility with an eye toward making him a utility player, don't be surprised if this evolves into a battle for the second base job. Cuddyer was drafted as a shortstop (seventh overall pick, 1997) and spent his first season as a pro at that same position. However, a gruesome error total forced him to third. There he would spend the next two-and-a-half years before his error proclivities forced him to split time among first base and the outfield corners.

    Given his developmental hiccups with the glove, it might seem unwise to make a second baseman out of him. But, as the numbers above illustrate, the Twins have been doing quite nicely the last three seasons with an inadequate glove man--and bat--at second. It's easy to forget that Cuddyer was not long ago considered one of the best young hitters in all of baseball. He's got a track record of power and patience, and moving him to a position of offensive scarcity is a worthy gamble. They might just wind up with a poor man's Jeff Kent.

  • Grant's Tomb...(work with me): Will Carroll's recent Twins Team Health Report paints a fairly rosy picture for 2004. Even so, Grant Balfour's sore elbow this spring may be a cause of concern. Besides the obvious concerns about a pitcher coming down with a bad elbow, Balfour was poised to claim one of the two up-for-grabs spots in the Minnesota rotation. If healthy and deployed properly, he could be the third-best starter on the team.

    In parts of seven minor league seasons, Balfour has struck out more than a batter per inning, maintained a 2.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and posted a 3.42 ERA. This past season, at Triple-A-Rochester, he fanned 87 in 71 innings and walked only 16 (which comes to an outstanding K/BB ratio of 5.4). He's a better bet for success this season than Rick Helling or Carlos Silva, his rotation competitors this spring. Twins fans better hope that Balfour's OK and that the team's decision makers plug him into the starting five. Of course, if he doesn't make it we'll see a merciful reduction in the number of lame SportsCenter puns involving his infelicitous surname.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • We Want a Pitcher...: Last time in this space, we discussed the fact that, as compared to their prospects with the bat, the Devil Rays are lacking in the pitching department. In order to get a better idea of the situation, let's take a more detailed look at the various arms in the Tampa system. In order to do this, we'll employ the use of BP's STUFF metric. STUFF combines many of the indicators about pitchers into a single number. In general, players who score a 10 with STUFF have a shot to become an average major league starter; anything above 20 is very impressive. Here are the main contenders in the Devil Rays farm system for those rotation spots in the next couple years, shown with their age and PECOTA STUFF projection for 2004:

    
    Player             Age   STUFF
    Chad Gaudin         21     10
    Jarod Matthews      21      3
    Jason Standridge    25      0
    Jon Switzer         24      0
    Doug Waechter       23    -10
    Dewon Brazelton     24    -14
    Brian Stokes        24    -14
    Seth McClung        23    -18
    
    

    Not pretty. Even expanding the list to look at relievers who could be converted into starters doesn't yield anyone with a STUFF rating higher than Chad Gaudin's 10, barely high enough to project him into an average performer down the road. Obviously with players this young, the predictions span a wider range than with more established players, cracking the door open for a slim ray of hope. Realistically, though, expecting the Rays to come up with more than one average major league starter from this group is like expecting Britney to put her clothes back on. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    There are several factors working against the Rays. Primarily, they haven't shown much aptitude in developing their own pitchers. While Victor Zambrano and Jeremi Gonzalez both came up through the Tampa system, both took their sweet time before arriving in the majors and neither is really what you would consider an ace. Joe Kennedy had everything that anyone could want in a pitching prospect, but he hasn't panned out, instead getting shipped to pitching hell in last year's three-way deal for Mark Hendrickson. Now, perhaps frustrated by the tardiness of Zambrano and Gonzalez, the Rays have rushed virtually everyone else in the system, an even greater sin.

    The other main issue is timing. Jumping into our convenient BP Time Machine, let's go back to spring of 2003. Rocco Baldelli is 21, having spent the last two months of the season jumping to Double- and Triple-A. Carl Crawford is 21, but has already skipped Triple-A and spent half the season with the big club, so his arbitration clock is ticking, with arbitration expected after 2004 (as a Super Two) and free agency after 2007 or 2008. Aubrey Huff is looking like he's figured things out, but his clock is ticking as well, looking to free agency after 2006. B.J. Upton was drafted last spring and looks promising so far. The Rays know they have the #1 pick in the upcoming draft which means either Delmon Young or Rickie Weeks or any number of other promising prospects. Given all of this, the target date for fielding a competitive squad should be 2006 and looking upward to 2007.

    Getting back to the point, the real problem is that the pitching needs to be timed to show up with those hitters, but there isn't enough time to develop anyone, and there isn't really anyone to develop. Even assuming Zambrano, Gonzalez, and Gaudin manage to eat up some innings, 550-600 innings of league-average pitching must be complemented by at least one ace if the Rays are to turn the corner.

    Therefore, as we mentioned last week, the Rays have put themselves in a position of need to acquire an ace or two soon, and they're going to have to get him from someone else. That means signing a top-tier free agent--something Tampa hasn't proven they can do with confidence--or trading someone for a pitcher who's going to be ready to contribute in 2006. That's a pricey and risky commodity, and scraping up enough talent to swing that kind of deal would likely rob the Rays of one of the main components of their offense.

    Now, with Huff a free agent after 2006, Crawford after 2007 or 2008, and Baldelli after 2008, the Rays' window is much smaller than it could have been if Crawford and Baldelli hadn't arrived in the majors until this year. Trading someone like Huff at the deadline for a pitching prospect or two would be easier if it didn't look like the Rays plan to compete with him in 2006. Instead, Tampa's best hope this season is that Jose Cruz or Robert Fick commands some pitching prospects at the deadline. If that fails, the Rays will have to look to take advantage of the free agent market after 2004 or 2005 to get some marquee free agents. And we all remember what happened the last time they tried that...

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