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May 6, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by David Kirsch

Atlanta Braves

  • Offensive Offense: Quick, who's third on the Braves in OPS? Chipper Jones is clearly number one with a 1.180 OPS. After that, it gets a little hazy, doesn't it?

    Second on the team is Wilson Betemit with an unusual .190/.393/.476 BA/OBP/SLG line, for an OPS of .869. If it weren't such a small sample size (29 plate appearances), we'd think he was channeling Rob Deer.

    The player third in OPS on the Braves defines the team's state of affairs right now. It's none other than pitcher Mike Hampton. Hampton's always been able to hit, but this is a bit much.

    Now, Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal haven't hit their stride yet. The Braves can expect some improvement when they come around. Meanwhile the Braves are continuing their winning ways in part because they have a 3.16 team ERA, second to the Marlins' 2.75 ERA in the National League. Have they been that good, or are the breaks going their way?

    
    Category  ERA  Opp.OPS   WHIP   K/BB  K/9IP
    Value    3.16     .710   1.32   1.87   5.91
    Rank        2        7      6      9     12
    
    
    It's better to be lucky than good. At least that's how it seems for the Braves, who are lagging in other pitching categories yet are holding on to the second best ERA in the National League. It's hard to see the results remaining the same if they don't have the peripheral numbers to support the ERA. Example: Hampton has had the good fortune to allow a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .250; Tim Hudson is at .260. With the rotation looking about as good as it's going to get given those peripherals, that leaves looking at the offense for an opportunity to upgrade.

    The Braves are second to last in the NL in runs scored, with the lowly Pirates setting the mark for futility. They need an injection of offense, whether it's from the farm or via trade. The Devil Rays are likely to be shopping Aubrey Huff in a few weeks, and the Braves could try to entice them with their deep farm system. Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi are not going to get it done, and Schuerholz had to know that going into the season. If the Braves want to keep their string of divisional titles alive, changes need to be made.

  • It's Getting Kolb in here: Although it may seem the vultures have been circling since before the season began, Danny Kolb isn't doing a lot to quell fears about his long-term prognosis at closer. Ten walks and six strikeouts in 12 innings with a 6.00 ERA can't inspire confidence. Maybe it's a sample size issue; Kolb's ground ball to fly ball ratio is 1.90. Normally, it's much higher than that. Last year his G/F ratio was 3.49, and his career number is 3.01. He needs to return to that form and lower his walk rate to be effective.

    Lo and behold, who's been at the top of BP's Reliever Run Expectation Report? None other than current set-up man Chris Reitsma with 8.8 Adjusted Runs Prevented. He would be the logical choice to get save opportunities should Kolb continue to falter. Kolb currently checks in at -2.0 (yes, that's negative) Adjusted Runs Prevented.

    There's another project lurking in Atlanta for Leo Mazzone. The Braves acquired a live arm just before the start of the season when they nabbed Jorge Sosa for Nick Green. Sosa's a 28-year-old right-hander who signed with the Rockies as an outfielder in 1995. The Mariners saw something they liked when they made him a Triple-A Rule V selection in 2000, giving him a shot on the mound. A year later, the Devil Rays made him a Major League Rule 5 draft selection. Although he never took off with the Rays, he did post 94 strikeouts against 54 walks in 99.3 innings last year. He has been prone to the long ball and his lowest ERA in the past three years was 4.62 in 2003. So far this year, he's struck out nine men in 10 innings pitched, but he's also allowed 10 hits and eight walks, so his 2.70 ERA could be described as fortunate. That said, he's an electric arm that didn't cost much, and Mazzone will try to mold him into another gem in the bullpen.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Seems Like Old Times: Lest we think the Devil Rays getting out of the cellar in 2004 would portend a better 2005, let's hold that enthusiasm in check. The good news, at least, is that the offense ranks fourth in the AL in OPS at .763 and middle of the pack in runs scored with 135. They've done that without Aubrey Huff hitting his stride. However, a deeper look reveals their offense might be emptier than that.
    
    Category  Runs    BA   OPS   IsoP   SecAvg
    Value      135  .291  .763   .137    .228
    Rank         7     2     6     12      12
    
    
    Their batting average is second only to the Orioles' .295. (The Orioles are slugging at a higher clip, but they're likely due for a fall of their own.) The Devil Rays' isolated power and secondary average (components of offense outside batting average) are near the bottom of the league. It looks like the offense will regress, unless Huff, Jonny Gomes and Josh Phelps can get going. But even though the offense may be due for a drop-off, that hasn't been their main problem.

    So far, the Rays' pitching staff has been beaten around like a rag doll, to the tune of a 6.00 ERA. Their starters have allowed opponents a .876 OPS, or roughly Alfonso Soriano in one of his good Yankee years. (That's the average hitter against Tampa, not just the cleanup guy.)

    The trickle-down effect from this is the bullpen's getting worked harder than any in the league, and the Rays may not have all the arms they need to support the effort. In addition, it's no secret that the Devil Rays would be willing to part with Danys Baez for the right price. Considering the meltdown many bullpens have seen early in the season, there ought to be plenty of suitors (Giants, Cubs, Mets, Rangers, perhaps Cardinals).

  • Hang On, Help Is on Its Way: Some of you may remember a pleasant surprise we discussed a while back. Chad Orvella has been lights-out since turning pro and converting to pitcher. He's up to more of the same this season.
    
    Team         Year  Lvl   IP    H  BB  SO  HR   ERA   K%*
    Charleston   2004  A-  47.3  28   5  76   4  1.33  43.4
    Bakersfield  2004  A+  17.7  13   4  24   2  3.06  34.3
    Montgomery   2004  AA   7.0   0   0  14   0  0.00  66.7
    Montgomery   2005  AA  14.0   8   3  16   0  0.00  30.2
    
    
    *K% is the percentage of batters faced that struck out, rather than strikeouts per nine innings pitched, which may indicate a good strikeout pitcher who's not very efficient (i.e. allows lots of base runners, getting more opportunities for strikeouts).

    Even if he still needs to refine his craft a bit, that's an impressive run. That's an aggregate strikeout percentage of 39.4%, albeit influenced heavily by lower levels. If Orvella remains anywhere close to that, he'll find great success. The best starters at the major league level are usually around 30%--Randy Johnson and Johan Santana were at 30.1% in 2004. Top relievers are higher: Eric Gagne was at 35.0% and Brad Lidge at 42.5% last year. It's rare for even a reliever to get above 35%, so Orvella's in good company if he continues to develop.

    We'll be interested to see how long he can keep this up. He's allowed 5.0 (no, not a typo) hits per nine innings through his professional career. Assuming that's a repeatable skill and not luck, he's a lights-out closer waiting to happen. There are two major factors to watch at this point: his health and long ball tendencies at higher levels.

  • Silver Lining: If there is a bright spot for the Devil Rays' pitching staff, it's been Scott Kazmir. We know the caveats. His mechanics are messy, he's wild, he's not pitch-efficient. Even with all that said, he's fared pretty well. In 2005, Kazmir's compiled a 3.71 ERA in 34 innings pitched, allowing 16 walks to go with his 26 strikeouts. That may not seem like much, but it's an improvement in control to date. He hasn't gone more than 109 pitches in a start and his pitches per plate appearance and per inning pitched have gone down. Although his strikeout rate's taking a temporary dip, in his case it might be significant in terms of reducing stress and workload. If he's going to remain healthy and eventually go deep into games, he's not going to do it throwing 100 pitches in five innings. While the risks remain high, given Victor Zambrano's track record and continued struggles and much higher salary, it's hard to see this deal as anything but a big win at this stage.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • The Kids Are Alright: Ever since Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen left town, the Jays have had a constant challenge to rebuild their rotation. Roy Halladay is the homegrown ace they haven't had since the days of Jimmy Key or Dave Stieb, but it's been getting mighty lonely for him. Now, the Jays have gotten a nice start from Gustavo Chacin and Josh Towers, which helps offset Ted Lilly's early scuffles.

    So far, the Jays lead the AL East with a 4.23 ERA. Chacin reportedly added a cut fastball to his repertoire last season, but it's still hard to see him keeping this up for too long without a huge ground ball to fly ball ratio (just over one last year and this year, so he doesn't qualify). Chacin's peripheral numbers don't say anything special; that strikeout rate is low (20 punchouts in 40 innings pitched). While Towers isn't likely to dominate with his stuff, it's nice to see him getting back to the form he had in 2003, when he posted a 42-to-7 strikeout to walk ratio for Toronto; this year, it's 25-to-2. He's allowed more than a hit per inning at almost every stop since entering Baltimore's system in 1996.

    In addition to Chacin, Towers and David Bush, the Jays have Josh Banks and Shaun Marcum making a splash at Double-A New Hampshire with the Fisher Cats. Banks was the Jays' #2 pick in 2003; both he and Marcum were collegian draftees (common with the Jays nowadays), with Marcum making the conversion from closer to starter. Banks struggled at Double-A after being promoted from High-A Dunedin last season, with the long ball (15 in 91.3 IP) an Achilles heel. This year is a different story, although Banks' home run rate still bears watching. Meanwhile Marcum posted a 72-to-4 strikeout to walk ratio at Dunedin last year in 69.3 innings pitched, and seems to be picking up where he left off.

    Let's see what both are doing this season:

    
    Player      Age    IP     H  BB  SO  HR   ERA   K%
    Banks        22   30.7   22   2  25   4  2.05  22.5
    Marcum       23   32.3   28   4  26   4  2.78  20.6
    
    
    The rest of the season will give us a good idea of what kind of prospects they really are as Banks and Marcum face tougher competition. Their collegiate polish likely allowed them to run over the competition at lower levels; Double-A, Triple-A and the majors will be the real test.

  • A Hill of a Problem: Aaron Hill has gotten off to a nice start, posting a .326/.374/.539 line (BA/OBP/SLG) at Triple-A Syracuse. He's often been compared with Russ Adams as if the two are interchangeable, but Hill is clearly the more advanced bat at this point, continuing to show development. The problem is that he's blocked. He's not likely to break into the majors at shortstop (seven errors in 22 games this season), and he's blocked at either third base or second base were he to move.
    
    Player  Age   AB   H  2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    Hudson   27  105  28   3  1   1   7  17  1  1  .267 .313 .343   0.0
    Adams    24  68   17   3  0   1   6   8  1  0  .250 .311 .338   1.4
    Koskie   32  108  28   3  0   5  11  32  1  1  .259 .333 .426   3.9
    
    
    Orlando Hudson will come around, and Corey Koskie has a three-year guaranteed contract. The only place Hill could play for now is shortstop, and it doesn't seem like he's going to stick there.

    It seems likely that Hill's going to continue to develop. He came on strong in the second half last season after having initial difficulties at Double-A, and how he's already handling Triple-A effectively. The Blue Jays need to start making plans for getting him playing time.

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