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January 17, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • A Braves New World: Back in the day, there was a rotation of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood. Let's look at the run for Braves' starters from 1996 to 1999 (100 innings pitched cutoff)
    
    Year   Maddux  Smoltz  Glavine  Avery  Neagle  Millwood  Total VORP
    1996     72.8    70.4     60.5   14.4                       218.1
    1997     89.0    64.8     65.7           60.4               279.9
    1998     83.3    47.7     77.6           41.6      23.9     274.1
    1999     47.7    58.0     45.7                     76.6     228.0
    
    To put things in perspective: in 2003, Tim Hudson led major league baseball with a 78.5 VORP. In 2004, it was Johan Santana with a 88.8 VORP and Curt Schilling second with a 72.9 VORP. Early 2005 PECOTA estimates show Santana and Randy Johnson the leaders in projected VORP at 63.6 and 63.2, respectively. The Braves rotation in 1997 averaged better than what we expect from Santana and the Big Unit this season. As a group, they almost kept pace on an overall basis with Hudson's 2003 or Schilling's 2004.

    That's a pretty nice run of pitching, ranking up there with the best staffs of all time. It would be unfair, of course, to expect the same out of the current Braves' rotation. So what can we expect, given that Bobby Cox & Leo Mazzone continue to work magic with their mirrors and fool the best of us every year? First, last season ...

    
    Year   Wright  Thomson  Ortiz  Hampton   Byrd  Total VORP
    2004     40.3     34.0   33.1     24.4   16.2    148.0
    
    The total VORP comes out all right, perhaps largely due to the magic of Leo Mazzone. Jaret Wright almost doubled his previous best performance, a 25.3 VORP all the way back in 1998. John Thomson, a more useful pitcher than many realize, had his best season, according to VORP, in 2004. Russ Ortiz had his second best season, following his fortunate 2001. Mike Hampton, while not the pitcher he was pre-2001, continued his recovery from Coors Field and posted a similar campaign to 2003. Finally, Paul Byrd, fresh off Tommy John surgery, pitched better than anyone could have hoped.
    
    Year   Hudson  Thomson  Hampton  Smoltz  Ramirez  Total VORP
    2005     31.8     16.3      9.5    20.8      7.4     85.8
    
    It's nice that they've been able to add Hudson to the rotation, but it's not like they're trying to corner the market on pitching a la George Steinbrenner. If Mazzone can keep everyone outperforming expectations and work a young pitcher into the rotation, perhaps we'll have to start campaigning to get a pitching coach in the Hall of Fame.

    With that in mind, the 2005 Braves probably need to lean on their hitting to keep their run of 13 consecutive divisional titles alive. The only problem is, they've lost their best hitter from last year, with J.D. Drew defecting to the Dodgers. That's left a huge hole in their outfield, and John Schuerholz can only juggle from Ryan Klesko to Brian Jordan to Gary Sheffield to J.D. Drew so many times. At some point, the answer needs to come from within...which leads us to:

  • Top 50 Prospects: The Braves have three strong candidates for this year's Top 50, which will be announced in February.

    • Andy Marte. At first glance, some might be disappointed in Marte's 2004. After all, he didn't destroy Double-A pitching the way Miguel Cabrera did in 2003. Very few people will do that, so it shouldn't take any shine off his star. He's all of 21 years young, defensive reports on his work at third base are good and he more than held his own at Double-A.

      What does PECOTA see for Marte? Let's look, along with last year's numbers.

      
      Year Lvl       G  AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS  VORP
      2004 Rook      3  15   7   4   0   1   2   2  0  0   .467 .529 .933  1462
      2004 AA      107 387 104  28   1  23  58 105  1  1   .269 .364 .525   889
      2005 PECOTA      324  85  18   1  16  42  82  1  0   .263 .348 .479   827  19.3
      
      If Marte sticks out of training camp and racks up, say, 550 at-bats, he projects to a VORP of around 32.8. That would be third on the Braves, behind Andruw Jones and Marcus Giles. The usual caveats for young players apply; that said, there's really not any reason not to like Marte. Rookie of the Year, anyone?

    • Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur has always been highly regarded in terms of his physical prowess and abilities on the field; the key is translating that to performance. It's started to come, but it's not quite there yet. He'll be 21 this season, so he has time to develop. Francoeur must improve the plate discipline; it's deteriorated as he's moved up the ladder, and major-league pitchers will eat him alive if he can't lay off marginal pitches.
      
      Year Lvl       G  AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS  VORP
      2004 A        87  331 97  26  0   15  22  69 10  6   .293 .346 .508   854
      2004 AA       18   76 15   2  0    3   0  14  1  0   .197 .197 .342   539
      2005 PECOTA       392 99  21  2   14  18  83  6  2   .251 .291 .426   717   1.2
      
      He's not quite ready, but an interesting project nonetheless. As an outfielder, he'll have to hit well if he's going to make it. Expect Francoeur to wind up around the middle of the pack in the Top 50.

    • Brian McCann. McCann is more of a long-term prospect, someone with a significant upside down the road. He held his own as a 20-year-old catcher in Myrtle Beach, a place notorious for being death on hitters. Let's look at his numbers along with another player from 1991, also a catching prospect at Myrtle Beach:
      
      Year  Lvl       G  AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS  VORP
      2004  A+      110  382 106 35   0  15  31  54  2  2   .277 .337 .487   824
      1991* A-      132  441 126 18   2  18  75  97  9  ?   .286 .390 .458   848
      2005  PECOTA       342  85 20   2  11  20  64  1  1   .248 .291 .413   704   2.4
      
      Let's watch what McCann does this year. He may move up the ladder quite a bit by next season; for now, expect him towards the back end of the top 50.

      By the way, that season with an asterisk above? It's Carlos Delgado's 1991 season at Myrtle Beach at 19 years of age. He seems to have turned out all right.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • New Life for Faded Prospects?: It wasn't that long ago that Josh Phelps graced our cover. (The 2003 edition of Baseball Prospectus, in case you're wondering.) He had mashed his way into our hearts, but the league caught up with him. Similarly, Brandon Larson seemed to have a world of hope a couple years ago with the Cincinnati Reds.

    Of all teams, curiously the Devil Rays have made a couple of low-risk signings that may pay off in spades. In addition, they may have the right manager to turn them around. For all his faults, Lou Piniella has done the most good with hitters, especially power hitters who haven't quite hit their stride. Chris Sabo, Bret Boone, Mike Pagliarulo, Paul Sorrento and Jay Buhner all seemed to have been positively influenced by Piniella.

    Let's look at Larson first. He's continued to mash in Triple-A (OPSes of 1060, 1001 and 871) the last three seasons. PECOTA likes him, but that hasn't yet translated into results in the majors. The risk is that Larson gets labeled a Quadruple-A player and follows the Russ Branyan career path, or worse. Some of his woes may be explained away by nagging injuries; at this point, Larson's window of opportunity is closing. Let's look at his PECOTA projected numbers versus actuals since 2003:

    
    Year            G  AB   H  2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS   VORP
    2003 PECOTA       248  62  13  1  12  19  68  2  2   .251 .310 .456   766   14.6
    2003 ActCIN    32  89   9   1  0   1  13  31  2  2   .101 .212 .146   358  -11.9
    2004 PECOTA       265  68  15  1  14  25  67  3  1   .257 .325 .474   799   16.5
    2004 ActCIN    40 118  25   6  0   3  14  35  1  0   .212 .304 .339   643   -1.1
    2005 PECOTA       262  68  13  1  15  25  78  2  0   .258 .326 .481   807   11.6
    
    Larson has been a huge underachiever to date, and as such is a solid low-risk proposition by the Devil Rays. If he doesn't work, he can be cast aside without losing much. If he does work out, they've found a nice power hitter for little investment. He's not likely to be with the Devil Rays the next time (if ever?) they win anything, but he could certainly make for some nice swag at the trading deadline.

    Now, on to Phelps. Poster boy in 2003, only to be moved in 2004 for a potentially useful career minor leaguer in Eric Crozier. Crozier's PECOTA projection is for a VORP of 14.7 in 236 at bats in 2005.

    
    Year            G  AB   H  2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS   VORP
    2003 PECOTA       393 100  23  1  25  42 120  2  2   .255 .334 .508   842  30.6
    2003 ActTOR   119 396 106  18  1  20  39 115  1  2   .268 .358 .470   828  23.7
    2004 PECOTA       395 107  23  1  24  43 105  2  1   .272 .355 .520   875  27.4
    2004 ActTOR    79 295  70  13  2  12  18  73  0  0   .237 .296 .417   713   2.3
    2004 ActCLE    24  76  23   6  0   5   4  20  0  0   .303 .338 .579   917   7.5
    2005 PECOTA       401 107  23  1  22  36 108  0  1   .267 .339 .495   834  26.3
    
    It wouldn't be surprising to see Piniella and a change of scenery help Phelps turn it around and decimate that projection. Once again, the Devil Rays are in a position to take chances. Either one of these two may pay huge dividends.

  • Top 50 Prospects: Like the Braves, the Devil Rays have one of the candidates fror best prospect in the game.

    • Delmon Young. He didn't put up Bondsian numbers. He's still got a ways to go to get to the majors. That's the downside.

      He was 18. There wasn't much he didn't do well. Hit for average, hit for power, drew some walks and stole some bases. Young has "hitter" written all over him, and he's likely to get better. What did he do last year, and what does PECOTA expect? Let's look:

      
      Year Lvl       G  AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS  VORP
      2004 A-      131 513 164  26   5  25  53 120 21  6   .320 .386 .536   922
      2005 PECOTA      408 106  20   4  12  33 105  8  3   .259 .321 .417   738  10.9
      
      Young may still be a long way from the majors, but a 19-year-old who looks like he could hold his own in the major leagues is special. Ask Ivan Rodriguez. Or Alex Rodriguez. Or the Devil Rays' own B.J. Upton. We still don't know what he'll become as a hitter; for now, there isn't much in the way of limits.

    • Jonny Gomes. PECOTA wonderboy? Wily Mo Pena was both the subject of ridicule and, eventually, astonishment when PECOTA pegged him for a big year in 2004. Gomes might be this year's version? To be fair, Gomes doesn't have the age advantage of Pena, and he's not highly regarded by scouts for his tools. He's 24 (won't turn 25 until next November), so it's not like he's young enough to have the upside of Young or Upton.

      What Gomes has, however, is the ability to hit. Although he's perhaps a little old for a prospect, anyone who's slugged .526 through their minor-league career has merit. Below are his career numbers along with his 2005 PECOTA projection.

      
      Year TM   LG   Ag Lvl  AVG   G  AB   H  2B 3B HR SB CS  BB  SO  OBP  SLG  OPS
      2001 PRI  App  20 Roo .291  62 206  60  11  2 16 15  4  33  73 .389 .597  986
      2002 BAK  CAL  21 A   .276 133 446 123  24  9 30 15  3  91 173 .431 .572 1003
      2003 ORL  SOU  22 AA  .249 120 442 110  28  3 17 23  2  53 148 .348 .441  789
      2004 DUR  INT  23 AAA .256 114 390 100  27  1 26  8  5  51 136 .368 .531  899
      
      2005 TB   AL   24 MLB .265     272  72  15  2 14  5  2  34  88 .366 .491  857
      
      With Rocco Baldelli out with a torn ACL, Gomes should get some playing time. That doesn't mean he will. The latest word is that Joey Gathright is going to get time in Baldelli's absence. Putting things in perspective, Gathright's projection of -4.5 VORP is the worst among the Devil Rays, below such luminaries as Brook Fordyce and Rey Sanchez. As fast as Gathright may be, as the old cliché goes, you can't steal first base. Gathright's PECOTA projection:
      
      Year Lvl         AB   H 2B 3B  HR  BB SO  SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS  VORP
      2005 PECOTA     338  85 12  3   1  23 67  23  7 .252 .311 .310  621  -4.5
      
      If the choice is between Joey Gathright and Jonny Gomes, it's not a tough one.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Anti-Moneyball? Just when you had J.P. Ricciardi pegged as a Billy Beane disciple, he throws a wrench in the works. Come to think of it, Beane's done that himself this offseason, so perhaps J.P.'s following suit. The similarity ends there, though. Beane realized he needed to retool and decisively made moves to try to inject fresh blood into the A's, all while leaving them options for the future. Ricciardi's latest moves seem like something intended to plug holes in the dam until better options are available.

    In the past month, the Jays have gone out and gotten Corey Koskie, Shea Hillenbrand, Scott Schoeneweis and Billy Koch. Koch comes back to the Jays in a low-risk, low-cost deal; if he finds himself again, he could certainly be nice bait for a mid-season deal. Schoeneweis is a bit more confusing, as he's had one semi-useful campaign in relief.

    Let's look at the recent position player acquisitions within the context of dollars per anticipated win (salary divided by projected Wins Above Replacement, in millions).

    
    Player      AB(est) WARP  VORP(est)  2005 Salary   $MM/Win
    Koskie           4.8     29.9     3,500,000*       $ 729K
    Hillenbrand      3.2     13.0     4,000,000**     $ 1250K
    Crozier          2.2     14.7       300,000        $ 136K
    * includes pro-rated signing bonus
    ** high-end estimate at arbitration; 2004
    WARP numbers are projected from 2004 PECOTA projection
    
    It's hard to justify the Hillenbrand acquisition, although there are some mitigating factors. He didn't cost a lot in terms of talent--C pitching prospect Adam Peterson--and the Jays seemed to have some money to spend this season. He's not a financial albatross, and can be traded or cut loose fairly readily. There wasn't much left on the market in the way of right-handed power or first basemen. If he puts up good raw numbers, he could be flipped for something useful when a desperate team comes calling mid-season.

    The Koskie signing looks like a good value proposition, at least in comparison to the players above. Unfortunately, he's going to be blocking Aaron Hill by the end of this year, and at 32, it's not likely that he'll be revisiting his 2000-03 peak. Expect Koskie to take over third base while Hinske moves across the diamond to first base, with a plethora of options having Hillenbrand and Crozier around. They're certainly covered at third base if anyone gets hurt, having just about cornered the mid-market third basemen.

  • Top 50 Prospects: The Jays have a deep farm system, but lack the top-tier guy the Devil Rays and Braves each have.

    • Guillermo Quiroz. 2004 was a tough year for Quiroz. He had all the luster and sheen of a top catching prospect, and a nagging hand injury derailed his season. There's still plenty of opportunity, but he'll wind up moving downward in our prospect list until he can establish that he's healthy and the lost season hasn't derailed his development. His 2004 numbers along with his PECOTA projection:
      
      Year Lvl       G  AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS  VORP
      2004 AAA      76 255  58  19   1   8  28  54  0  0   .227 .309 .404   713
      2004 TOR      17  52  11  2    0   0   2   8  1  0   .212 .250 .263   513
      2005 PECOTA      291  74  16   1  12  26  68  0  1   .254 .326 .441   767  13.9
      
      Quiroz still projects quite well, albeit in limited playing time. His catching skills are still well regarded; if he continues to build on those and his peripheral batting skills, he won't have to hit for a high average to be valuable. If he does, it'll be gravy. Expect Quiroz to be middle to back of the pack in our Top 50 Prospects list. If he returns healthy and continues to develop, he'll be far more valuable than that.

    • Russ Adams. Adams is a more difficult story. He looks like he'll be a useful player for a few years, with little or no star potential. The Jays can plug him in, have an affordable shortstop (or second baseman) for a few years, then shift to a utility or backup role. He did have a nice cup of coffee in 2004, but he'll have to keep that up much longer to convince us this is a real change and not sample size variation.
      
      Year Lvl       G  AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS    AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS  VORP
      2004 AAA     122 483 139  37   3   5  45  62  6  2   .288 .351 .408   759
      2004 TOR      22  72  22   2   1   4   5   5  1  0   .306 .359 .526   887
      2005 PECOTA      303  81  17   3   6  30  40  4  2   .268 .338 .396   734  14.1
      
      Adams is likely to have a few productive years, then become a utility player or part-timer. Look for him to get an honorable mention in our Top 50 Prospects list.

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