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April 8, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by David Kirsch

Atlanta Braves

  • Contingency Plan for the Second Base Man: Marcus Giles is a wonderful player.

    That said, we've got to wonder at some point if he's going to follow the Cliff Floyd career path, struggling to ever get in a full season. The season had barely started before Giles banged up his knee on a hard slide into second base. As Will Carroll has reported, if the injury prone have a role model, it might be Giles. It's becoming more and more obvious that the Braves need plan 'B' with Giles around. So what could it be?

    Nick Green is gone to the Devil Rays. Mike Hessman is spending time with the Tigers. Jesse Garcia is enjoying the sun in San Diego. Mark DeRosa is killing time in Texas. None of them are all-world or anything approaching Giles' talent, but they had varying degrees of value and were insurance policies who aren't around any longer.

    The Braves are fighting the replacement level conundrum. They need to get a Jason Alfaro or a Keith Ginter or even a Chris Woodward onto their roster, and pronto.

    Put another way: What if Giles were seriously injured and out for any length of time? Who's currently on the bench and who's realistically available in the minors?

    We've been hearing about Wilson Betemit for so long it seems like he ought to be in his 30s. He's only 24, and he's evolved to the point that he provides some pop and reliable defense. That's at third base. He started as a shortstop, so we'd hope he can handle time at second base. If he hasn't spent enough time there, though, do you really want him getting his feet wet at the big league level?

    Another option is Pete Orr, who'll turn 26 in June. He's a good-fielding middle infielder from Richmond Hill, Ontario (a Toronto suburb). Behind the age curve at every level, he was already 21 when he entered the New York-Penn league in 2000. Last year, he inexplicably began to hit at Triple-A Richmond in the International League. He managed a .320/.349/.404 (BA/OBP/SLG) line to improve his career minor league numbers to .265/.317/.340. He's around for his glove, not his bat. As nice a story as he might be (just got his first major league hit), he's not any kind of substitute for Giles.

    Beyond that, the cupboard is bare. If Betemit can't play second base and Orr is who we think he is, they're in trouble. At the minor league level, they picked up 23-year-old infielder Jason Bourgeois off waivers from Texas at the end of spring training. His minor league line of .271/.338/.378 doesn't exactly inspire fear. The same is true for 24-year-old Tony Pena and his career line of .248/.282/.324.

    Shame on Schuerholz for getting himself into this position. Rather than proactively anticipating this, he'll now be dealing from a position of weakness in trying to acquire a backup or spare part from another team. He'll likely overpay for any acquisition.

  • Will Youth be Served?: One thing the Braves have done well over the course of their dominant run of division titles is inject enough youth into the team to maintain long-term competitiveness. As we've evolved into a new decade, the reversal of that trend has seemingly coincided with less and less faith in the Braves' ability to stay on top of the division. Let's look at the trend of their average team age during their run:

    
    Year 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
    Age  27.6 28.0 27.8 27.8 27.7 27.9 28.2 29.2 29.1 31.1 30.9 30.9 30.7 29.5
    

    A quick look at this year's starters shows an average age of approximately 31.4 years old. While reserves and call-ups may help to lower that number, it would be the oldest team the Braves have had since they started their run of titles in 1991. Old teams can win, especially if they're the Yankees and can outspend any mistakes. In the long haul, however, there are a lot of potholes to avoid, especially severe drop-offs in performance.

    The Braves may win again this year with an old team. Don't expect it to continue, though, unless John Schuerholz makes some moves to breathe new life onto the roster.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Building a Bullpen: Danny Baez staked his claim to the closer role in 2004 after some bizarre shenanigans in Cleveland made him available. He was in that scary good-but-not-great territory, and has looked very good again this spring. This would be the perfect time for Chuck LaMar to find his replacement while his value is highest.

    Here's what else the Devil Rays have in their arsenal beyond Baez. In addition to Baez, below we have Jesus Colome, Seth McClung, Travis Harper, Lance Carter and Trever Miller. Casey Fossum may be a swingman so we've included him along with Chad Orvella, who's currently in the minors.

    
    Player   Age    IP     H  BB   SO  HR   ERA  VORP
    Baez      27   64.3   63  28   49   8  4.31  11.8
    Colome    27   57.0   54  30   46   7  4.43  10.4
    McClung   24   82.0   80  42   58  13  4.99   9.0
    Harper    29   74.7   75  24   53   9  4.09  15.1
    Carter    30   69.0   74  19   36  14  4.61  11.7
    Miller    32   56.7   56  20   46   6  4.10  11.7
    Fossum    27  125.3  130  48  106  17  4.72  13.6
    Orvella   24   64.0   54  15   58   9  3.31  19.8
    

    That's an acceptable bullpen, but the biggest problem is mediocrity. Nobody really stands out. They ought to be effective but it will be difficult to find obvious room for improvement unless some of them take big steps forward or backwards. Colome seems the best candidate to move up. Harper would probably be the next option, as he gets it done but doesn't wow you with his stuff. We've included Fossum here as well in case he revives his career in the bullpen after his faded top prospect status. Should things break right, however, keep your eyes out for Orvella, who we've discussed previously in this space.

    Since the Devil Rays aren't hurdling the Red Sox or Yankees any time soon, the next few months would be a great time to build up Baez' value as a closer before moving him for future value. At that point, they could decide to hold an open audition for a replacement if someone hasn't already staked a claim.

  • Outfielder du jour: Ever since Rocco Baldelli went down with a knee injury, it seems like the Devil Rays are shooting for the "Days of the Week" outfielder mix.

    First it was Joey Gathright. Then they signed Danny Bautista. He retired. Oops. Then noted substance abuser Alex Sanchez, who should've raised everyone's suspicions when he doubled his home run output last season. He got suspended. Oops, they did it again. Then Chris Singleton came into the picture. All of a sudden Gathright reappeared. We hear Tom Goodwin and Doug Glanville are available, at least if Dusty Baker hasn't already staked a claim to both of them.

    With Carl Crawford around, the Devil Rays could put him in center field and hide Jonny Gomes in left field while Aubrey Huff mashes in right.

    The Devil Rays have nothing to gain by playing Bautista or Sanchez or Singleton, unless they're trying to hold back the service time clocks of Gathright and/or Gomes. You could argue similar things with Gathright, but at least in his case they have the excuse that he's young and fast.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Sunk Costs: For all we've criticized with the Blue Jays, they've made a couple decisive moves recently that make a lot of sense.

    When it was apparent Billy Koch wasn't going to help the team, the Blue Jays decided to set him free rather than keep him around as a cheap reliever experiment holding a roster spot hostage. Who noticed the bizarre happenings at Tropicana Field in which Koch taunted his former team? Doesn't the saying go, "Hell hath no fury like a closer scorned?"

    In addition to Koch, the Jays cut loose Kerry Ligtenberg, which is a promising sign. It confirms J.P. Ricciardi accepts the notion of sunk costs and is willing to eat a contract if it helps the team.

    If only the same could be said for the Scott Schoeneweis signing, which was inexplicably for two years when he seemed to be the "build a bullpen from spare parts" prototype. Schoeneweis has already been bombed once; let's keep an open mind, it's a long season.

    Let's take a look at the bullpen that's still around, along with what PECOTA saw for the now departed Koch and Ligtenberg.

    Included below are Brandon League, Vinny Chulk, Jason Frasor, Justin Speier, Schoeneweis and Miguel Batista.

    
    Player      Age    IP     H  BB  SO  HR   ERA  VORP
    League       22   47.3   54  20  30   5  4.95   6.1
    Chulk        26   52.0   55  23  38   8  5.09   6.6
    Frasor       27   57.0   57  27  46   7  4.52  11.1
    Speier       31   54.0   56  18  41   9  4.51   9.1
    Schoeneweis  31  102.3  116  42  65  14  5.24   9.8
    Batista      34  129.0  149  56  74  15  5.21  11.9
    Koch         30   43.3   43  26  40   6  4.82   5.4
    Ligtenberg   34   49.7   55  20  38   8  4.69   7.6
    

    Neither Koch nor Ligtenberg was likely to set the world on fire, so it's certainly reasonable to see what the kids can do. Maybe the Jays are hoping a different role helps Batista get on track, hoping the addition of magic closer pixie dust increases his value to flip to a contender at mid-season. Otherwise, it's hard to understand why you switch roles early in the contract of someone brought in to be a starter--especially when they've been effective as a starter in the past. We know a little about Frasor and Speier from their performance last season, but any of the top four on that list could surprise.

    With a significant chunk of money committed by ownership over the next three seasons, it would be easy for J.P. Ricciardi to fritter it away casually and retain mediocre players. He's not--at least so far--and he deserves credit for that.

  • Gross-ed Out?: Gabe Gross kept pounding the ball after we last mentioned him, finishing spring training with a .385/.468/.904 BA/OBP/SLG line with eight home runs for an impressive 1.372 OPS. Major sample size caveats apply, but it's safe to say you'd rather have that line than go 0-for-spring.

    Word is that the Atlanta Braves have come calling and inquiring about Gross.

    Now would be a great time for the Jays to sell high. While it's possible Gross has turned some of that doubles acumen into fence-clearing power, do you really want to bet on that from a 25-year-old corner outfielder who's never hit more than 12 home runs in a professional season? In poker terms, wouldn't that be similar to playing a pair of Sixes or Ace-Jack off-suit in Texas Hold'Em behind a raise and a re-raise? It might work, but do you really want to gamble that much?

    It seems like a natural match. The Braves need an outfield alternative for when Brian Jordan's knees implode, and possibly for when Raul Mondesi explodes. Of course, the Braves could realize they have two viable options in Ryan Langerhans and Bill McCarthy, but it's up to them to notice.

    Here's how PECOTA sees 2005 for Gross, Langerhans and McCarthy:

    
    Player    Age  AB   H   2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    Gross      25  278  75  16  1  10  35  60  3  2  .268 .354 .440  13.4
    McCarthy   25  204  54  12  1   7  19  45  1  1  .268 .346 .446  14.5
    Langerhans 25  187  50  12  1   7  25  45  2  1  .265 .357 .456  15.6
    

    PECOTA doesn't see a great deal of defensive difference between them, but Langerhans can handle center field so let's give him credit for that. The logical question here is why the Braves want Gross, when they've got similar options in-house? Maybe that hot spring did matter, after all.

David Kirsch is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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