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April 30, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • The Wright Stuff?: One of the interesting Brave subplots this year was how Jaret Wright would respond to making his first start in almost two years, and how he'd react to further instruction from the impregnable coaching chops of Leo Mazzone. So far, the results have been a mixed bag. That's progress; prior to coming to the Braves late last season, Wright's bag was most decidedly unmixed in recent seasons.

    Thus far, Wright has tossed 20.1 innings, all as Atlanta's fifth starter, posted a 4.43 ERA (the league ERA is 4.47 at this writing), and logged 14 strikeouts against 15 walks. What immediately jumps out is the grisly strikeout-to-walk ratio of 0.93. That obviously can't continue if he's to continue besting the league ERA. If you remove from the calculus his calamitous outing against the Reds on April 22, when he walked five in 1.2 innings, his K/BB becomes a slightly more tolerable 1.2. Slightly, I said.

    On the upside, the Braves' primary mission in their reclamation of Wright--besides improved and adequate performance, of course--was to impart to him the value of keeping the ball down. There's some reason to believe he's doing just that. His groundball/flyball ratio of 1.33 is his lowest since 1998, and he's surrendered only one homer on the year, which, if it held up (unlikely, I know) would be the best HR ratio of his career by a ridiculous margin.

    PECOTA's 50th-percentile projects Wright to post a 4.66 ERA this season. If he makes even modest strides with his command and continues working low in the zone, as he appears to be doing thus far, he might better that mark. A better-than-average ERA from the service entrance of the rotation would be quite a boon to the Braves' hopes in '04.

  • Thomson Time: Here's the seasonal line for one of this winter's pitching afterthoughts, John Thomson: 27 IP, 2.67 ERA, 26 H, 20 K, 8 BB, 1 HR. The final stat--his home runs allowed--is particularly notable. As has been previously observed, Thomson's lone glaring weakness as a Ranger in 2003 was his home run proclivities. As has also been previously observed, that's likely to improve simply by virtue of his jumping from the homer-rrific Ballpark to Turner Field. Throw in a dose of Mazzone, and you've got a genuine sleeper for '04. So far so good for Thomson as a Brave. It's almost certain he won't maintain a 2.67 ERA for the season, but a sub-4.00 offering for the year is quite tenable given his peripherals and environment.

  • It's Early, But : Is first-base prospect Scott Thorman beginning to craft a breakout season? First, the caveats: sample size alert at DEFCON five, he's a bit old for the Carolina League, and he's repeating the loop.

    Now for the good stuff. Thorman, a first-rounder in 2000, is putting up a batting line of .339/.406/.593 in 69 plate appearances this season. His calling card has always been raw power, and his Isolated Slugging of .254 (compared to a pre-'04 career mark of .168) suggests that element of his game may finally be coming around. Revisit the caveats, but also keep in mind that Myrtle Beach is probably the toughest park for hitters in professional baseball. At the very least, Thorman merits further attention this season to determine whether this is early-season white noise or genuine skills growth.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Are the Kids Alright?: Rays fans may know that B.J. Upton and Delmon Young ranked eighth and 31st, respectively, on this year's Top 50 Prospects List. Rays fans may also be wondering how they're faring so far. As always, we're built to please...

    Upton is toiling for Double-A-Montgomery of the Southern League, and thus far the shortstop is hitting like a house afire. In 70 plate appearances, Upton has drawn nine walks and put up a line of .344/.429/.525. Sample-size concerns abound, but what's encouraging, even in the early going, is that Upton is showing power. Prior to this season, he'd drawn walks and hit for a career average of .297, but the second overall pick of the 2002 draft had yet to show the power stroke he'd displayed as a prep in Virginia. He's still appears to be terribly error-prone (nine in 13 games thus far in 2004 after recording 56 last season), but on balance he's faring very well for 19-year-old in the high minors.

    As for Young, he's off to a less encouraging start in the Sally League: .237/.247/.355 in 77 plate appearances. Those numbers are ugly, but it's early. Still, Young's drawn only a single walk against 76 at-bats, which is troubling to say the least. The thing to keep in mind is that, other than a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, this is the first professional stop for Young, and the Sally League is a fairly high starting point for a high-school trained ballplayer. It's far, far too early to begin casting aspersions at his promise.

  • Zambrano Fan Buzz Kill: Before anyone joins ESPN in touting Victor Zambrano for the AL Cy Young (or, for that matter, joining anyone touting anyone for the Cy Young in April), let's indulge in some perspective. Yes, he's saddled with an uninspiring pile of teammates, but they've averaged nine runs of support for his three victories. Moreover, in 31.1 innings, Zambrano has coughed up four homers, struck out 24 and walked 17 (all unintentional). That comes to a K/BB ratio of 1.41--tolerable but not good--and a BB/9 of 4.9, which isn't acceptable. Also keep in mind that Zambrano is a pitcher who, in 211 minor league appearances, made only seven starts. While he has performed better as a starter than reliever at the highest level, expect him to regress.

  • It only Gets Worse from Here: The D-Rays rank seventh in the AL in ERA, and they currently place last in the AL in runs scored (by a hefty margin on the latter). Based on this, we can surmise that pitching and defense are the Rays' strengths to date. A glance at the pitching peripherals suggests things might soon decline on the run-prevention side. Consider these numbers: 1.31 team K/BB ratio (the worst in the AL), 1.05 team GB/FB ratio (12th in the AL), 1.25 team HR/9 (12th in the AL). Those numbers don't square with what's otherwise a league-average pitching staff. Tampa Bay's team strength may not be such a strength for much longer.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • What Happened?: That the Blue Jays are tied for the worst record in the AL is surprising enough; that the offense is just as culpable as those charged with run prevention is even more surprising. On the pitching-and-defense tip (measured by runs allowed), Toronto ranks ninth in the junior circuit.

    When it comes to runs scored, the Jays also rank ninth. The good news is that three key performers have gotten off to slow starts and, accordingly, are strong bets to reverse course as the season wears on. Those three are Carlos Delgado, Josh Phelps and Vernon Wells. Let's take a look at their current rate stats compared to their PECOTA weighted-mean forecasts:

    
    Player              Current                   PECOTA
    Delgado           .253/.362/.456          .285/.402/.555
    Phelps            .265/.330/.361          .270/.353/.516
    Wells             .220/.276/.330          .293/.341/.502
    
    

    Among the three of them, that's 128 points of OBP and 426 points of SLG to make up just to make par according to PECOTA. In other words, the heart of the Blue Jay order--their three, four and five hitters--is likely in for major improvement, particularly in the power department. Fret not, Jays partisans. Yet, anyway.

  • With Closers Like These, Who Needs Openers: Toronto broke camp with a job-sharing arrangement in mind for the closer's role. The two job-sharers would be Aquilino Lopez and Justin Speier. The Jays are an organization aware of the principles of optimal bullpen usage, but in this instance, their two "best" arms in the pen have failed them.

    The bullpen ERA, at this writing, is 4.29. Extricate the contributions of Lopez and Speier (who've combined for 20 innings and a 8.10 ERA), and the bullpen ERA becomes a rather sparkling 2.51. Moreover, of the eight home runs allowed by relievers, Lopez and Speier are responsible for seven of the them.

    To the Jays' credit, they're not embracing the status quo; Lopez has been dispatched to Syracuse for the purpose of righting himself, and the club has called up Mike Nakamura (a recent waiver claim from the Twins) and Jason Frasor (the swag from the Jayson Werth deal with the Dodgers), both of whom have substantial promise as relievers at the highest level.

  • Pleading (for) the Fifth: The Jays have designated Josh Towers for assignment after he logged a 7.27 ERA in two starts this season. Replacing him as the fifth starter (for now) is Justin Miller. Miller, who missed several months after undergoing shoulder surgery last May, has some fairly impressive minor league numbers in his back pocket, but he's coming off, as mentioned, shoulder surgery and a fairly brutal taste of the majors in 2002. He's not likely to be a vast improvement over Towers, but he's only keeping a spot warm until someone from the Jays' growing cadre of high-upside arms is ready for the highest level.

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