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September 16, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • A Braves Race Worth Following?: While the Braves' "race" in the NL East these days is about as engaging as your garden-variety tone poem, it's nonetheless worth the team's fans' while to pay attention to the balance of the regular season. If you like, call it the "Race Not to Play the Cardinals in the First Round."

    According to Clay Davenport's Playoff Odds Report, between the Astros and Cubs there's a 67.3% chance that the NL wild card will come from the Central division. Since MLB rules prohibit two teams from the same division meeting in the Division Series, the fearsome Cardinals would likely match up in the first round with whichever team between the Braves and Dodgers finishes with the worst record (the Braves presently have a 99% chance of winning the East, while the Dodgers have an 87.1% shot of prevailing in the West).

    At this writing, the Braves are 1 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers in the jockeying for playoff seeds, a game ahead in the loss column. Here's how the remaining schedule shakes out:

    Braves: 1 @NYM, 3 @FLA, 3 CIN, 3 FLO, 3 NYM, 3 @CHC
    Dodgers: 1 SD, 3 @COL, 3 @SDO, 3 @SFO, 4 COL, 3 SFO

    The Braves have 16 remaining games, nine of which are at home and nine of which are against winning teams. As for the Dodgers, they have 17 remaining games, eight of which are at home and 10 of which are against winning teams. That's a slight advantage for the Braves. It also means they have a slightly better chance of dodging the Cards in the opening round of play. Of course, if the wild-card team comes from somewhere other than the Central, it'll be the Braves and Dodgers in one half of the NLDS.

  • Arm and the Man: Jose Capellan will spot for the injured Mike Hampton in the rotation for at least one more turn, and figures to weigh heavily in the Braves' pitching mix for 2005. So let's take a look at him.

    Capellan, age 23, was signed in 1998 as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican. In 2001, he tore up his elbow and missed the next calendar year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2003, his first healthy year since the surgery, he sported a heater that was a few ticks faster (occasionally hitting 100 on the gun). Here are his cumulative numbers prior to this season:

    
       IP     H    R/G     K    BB    HR    K/BB
    209.0   185   4.87   188    95     4    1.98
    
    Those numbers were all compiled in the low minors. As you can see, it's a mixed bag. Capellan's strikeout rate in nothing special for a hard thrower in the bottom rungs of a system, and his command is a bit lacking for a premium prospect. However, he did an outstanding job of keeping the ball in the park.

    Here are 2004's digits:

    
      IP     H    R/G     K    BB    HR    K/BB
    93.1    86   2.70    90    34     1    2.65
    
    Things improved this season. Capellan's strikeout-to-walk ratio jumped and he made significant strides in run prevention. Yet again, his homer rate was tremendous.

    There's some concern within the organization about Capellan's mechanics and lack of quality off-speed stuff. Those worries may augur of an eventual move to the bullpen. Based on his profile, he'd likely do quite well in such a role. As a starter, however, he figures to have a limited ceiling.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Belly Itchers: The Devil Rays this year rank a vaguely respectable ninth in the AL in fewest runs allowed this season. However, any merits to be gleaned from that ranking should go straight to the defense. In fact, Tampa Bay leads the junior circuit in defensive efficiency.

    When you have the best defense in the league but only the ninth-best runs allowed tally, you know the pitching staff isn't doing its job. Indeed, the Rays' staff fares quite poorly in the elements of the game over which it exerts the most control. Tampa hurlers place 12th in the 14-team AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio, 13th in strikeouts per nine innings, 12th in complete games and last in DIPS ERA.

    What's also troubling is that most of the staff's good work is being done by the bullpen. Ponder these breakdowns:

    
                 K/BB      K/9    HR/9     ERA
    Starters     1.32     5.16    1.27    5.31
    Relievers    2.02     6.69    1.04    3.79
    
    D-Ray relievers have been notably superior to their starting brethren in every regard. Of those relievers, only Danys Baez is a reasonable bet to be a meaningful contributor to next, er, first relevant Rays team. Jesus Colome is out for the season with shoulder trouble, Trever Miller is a 31-year-old journeyman likely enjoying his career year and Lance Carter is succeeding despite striking out less than four batters per nine.

    In short, the bullpen has been the team's strength in terms of pitching, and there doesn't seem to be much repeatability there. Even after the trade for Scott Kazmir, the Rays are dangerously thin in terms of promising arms. There's Kazmir, Chad Gaudin and…who? Dewon Brazelton has awful peripherals, and there's really no one else to point to. Things may be looking up for the D-Rays overall, but only on the most relative of scales.

  • And Yet…: The Rays are on pace for the best season in their history. If trends hold, they'll finish 70-92 and out of last place for the first time ever. Twice before (2000 and 2001) they finished with 69 wins, but never have they risen above the dank basement (perhaps filled with racist literature and a hastily scribbled manifesto) of the AL East.

    However, it's not likely they'll finish with the franchise-best run differential. Here's how the tale of runs has gone for the Rays over the years:

    
    Season   Run Diff.
    2004       -117
    2003       -137
    2002       -245
    2001       -215
    2000       -109
    1999       -141
    1998       -141
    
    At this pace, they'll finish with a 2004 differential of -140, which would be only third "best." A sudden reversal of fortune could see the Rays challenge hoary mark of -109 set in 2000. A nation waits with bated breath.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Frankie Say Relax: It might strike some as strange that a frugal and somewhat risk-averse organization like the J.P. Ricciardi-run Blue Jays would decide to offer a multi-year deal to a player who's lost for the season with a major groin injury; however, that's just what the Jays did this week when they signed Frank Catalanotto to a two-year, $5.4-million deal.

    On the injury front, our own Will Carroll says Catalanotto should be good to go for next season and shouldn't have many lingering problems related to this injury. As a Blue Jay, Catalanotto made $2.2 million in 2003 and $2.3 million this season. In those two seasons, he's put up EqAs of .284 and .260, respectively. For what comes to a modest raise of $450,000 per year over the next two seasons, the Jays should get more of the same. Catalanotto's PECOTA projections, as of last spring, sooth a .272 and .274 EqA for the next two seasons. It's also worth noting that Catalanotto's breakout rate sees a slight uptick in the coming seasons. In 2005, it rises from 10.0% to 10.3% and then to 11.0% in 2006. In 2007, when he'll likely be elsewhere, it falls to 6.2%. So not only are the Jays poised to get similar production out of Catalanotto for similar dollars through 2006, but they've also secured him when he has his best chance of significantly besting projections.

  • Beasts of the East: While the Blue Jays' highest minor-league affiliate at Syracuse had a disappointing season at 66-78, the rest of the full-season affiliates fared very well when compared to other AL East organizations. Listed below is each organization's cumulative record and winning percentage for full-season minor league affiliates (meaning Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A) and "standings":
    
    Organization         W-L       Pct.       GB
    
    Blue Jays          310-248     .556        -
    Yankees            290-268     .520       20
    Red Sox            283-278     .504       28 ½
    Devil Rays         269-294     .478       43 ½
    Orioles            260-303     .462       52 ½
    
    If we change the comparative measure to the more revealing system-wide run differential (again using only full-season affiliates), the Jays still come out on top.
    
    Organization       Cumulative Run Diff.
    
    Blue Jays               +189
    Yankees                 +170
    Red Sox                  -56
    Devil Rays               -78
    Orioles                 -212
    
    These numbers aren't entirely instructive without correcting for age, but they do demonstrate that the Jays' system is quite strong relative to their AL East peer group.

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