December 22, 2005
Three Braves qualified for the batting title in 2005. In Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles, and Rafael Furcal, Atlanta had three players in their primes who added top-notch glovework up the middle of the field. Their five-tool play made them the Braves' three most valuable players by WARP-1: Furcal (8.2), Jones (7.9) and Giles (7.8) each topped the team's best pitcher (John Smoltz at 7.3). Of course, Atlanta successfully worked in several young hitters around that core.
Now the nucleus changes. With Furcal bound for LA, John Schuerholz shipped BP favorite Andy Marte to Boston for Edgar Renteria, making for an interesting shortstop tradeoff. Furcal is two years younger and coming off a career year (looking at the whole package, bat plus glove). By contrast, Renteria just finished his worst season ever. From that standpoint, Atlanta let Furcal walk at his peak value, while buying Renteria at a relative low point (if the cost of Marte can possibly be considered a discount). While no front office is above reproach, the Braves have a pretty decent track record both in trading prospects and in the NL East standings, with that neat little 14-years-and-counting trick.
Both shortstops are under contract through 2008, and with the Red Sox' help, the Braves will annually pay between $5-8 million less for Renteria than the Dodgers will for Furcal. Marte might blossom into a superstar, but there was no room for him in the 2006 Braves lineup. These factors are essentially where the benefits end for Atlanta. Furcal is clearly a superior player; over the past four years, he's posted no lower than a 5.8 WARP-3. Renteria's only exceeded that figure once, in 2003, when he graced the Cardinals with his 9.5 WARP-3. Here's a quick comparison of the two, from 2003-2005. As you can see, Furcal's defense (measured here by Rate2) will probably be missed most of all.
<--------Furcal--------> <-------Renteria-------> Age EqA Rate2 WARP-3 Age EqA Rate2 WARP-3 2003 25 .280 90 6.0 27 .308 100 9.5 2004 26 .266 102 5.8 28 .253 94 4.0 2005 27 .276 113 9.1 29 .262 85 3.4Sans Furcal, the lineup will have to compensate elsewhere, and catcher is one position that's poised to pick up some of the offensive slack. The Braves acquired a couple relievers in the recent trade of Johnny Estrada, but the deal is more likely to affect the team long-term by creating an opening for Brian McCann. McCann left quite an impression on the Braves in his rookie year. The power didn't show to the degree PECOTA expected--although his long swing was noted in the player comments as a potential hindrance to big league power--but his plate discipline, average, and defense were all markedly better. The transition from Double-A to the Majors was as smooth as can be expected for a 21-year-old. Now that Todd Pratt has been recruited to fend off opposing southpaws, Joe Sheehan has anointed the duo as "dollar for dollar, the most productive catching tandem in baseball next year." Pratt has a career .896 OPS against lefthanders; the lefty-hitting McCann actually hit better against his own kind at all levels in 2005, but that might well be a fluke. The loss of Estrada does sacrifice some defense.
The three young men who tended the outfield corners--Ryan Langerhans, Jeff Francoeur, and Kelly Johnson--all fared well in their Rate2 defensive tallies. Langerhans' Rate2 of 106 was spread around all three outfield spots. Francoeur's defense in right rated at 106, and Johnson's glove in left scored 113. Months of commotion from Francoeur's bat have likely earned him a full-time gig. But the Braves have some serious depth here, before even considering how young their outfielders are. The sneaky acquisition of Matt Diaz from Kansas City further deepens the pool, and he could spell the lefties Langerhans and Johnson.
The midsummer highlight reels make it very easy to overlook what these hitters did in the minors this year, so for comparison's sake, let's check.
JEFF FRANCOEUR - AGE 21 Level AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG AA 335 28 2 13 21 76 13 4 .275 .322 .487 MLB 257 20 1 14 11 58 3 2 .300 .336 .549 KELLY JOHNSON - AGE 23 Level AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG AAA 155 12 3 8 34 22 7 1 .310 .438 .581 MLB 290 12 3 9 40 75 2 1 .241 .334 .397 BRIAN McCANN - AGE 21 Level AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG AA 166 13 2 6 25 26 2 3 .265 .359 .476 MLB 180 7 0 5 18 26 1 1 .278 .345 .400 MATT DIAZ - AGE 27 Level AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG AAA 259 22 4 14 12 49 10 3 .371 .408 .649 MLB 89 4 2 1 4 15 0 1 .281 .323 .404A few things standout: Francoeur backed his power with plenty of doubles, Johnson's walk-to-strikeout ratio was easily the best of his career, and Diaz deserves a fair shake. The forgotten man in all of this is Wilson Betemit, whose stock rose considerably this year, but who currently lacks an infield position since the Renteria deal. If and when Chipper Jones starts hurting, Betemit can play third base, or perhaps they'll spot him at first to help replace Old Man Franco.
"I cannot forecast to you the the action of Seattle. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Is this how ole' Winston would explain the still-in-flux 2006 Mariner roster? And if so, would he be very far off?
The Mariners have made a number of moves so far this off-season, mostly on the pitching side of the ledger. Some of their moves, while not blockbuster deals, have made sense. Shigetoshi Hasegawa, for example, is not the player he once was. And without debating the merits of each player, acquiring young pitchers on the cheap like Marcos Carvajal, Luis Gonzalez, and Jake Woods are the types of moves that don't draw a lot of attention in December but could pay off in the dog days.
To balance these deals, however, the M's decided to give Jamie Moyer one more turn. The $5.5 million given will turn out to be a bargain if he performs the way he did this past season, but how likely is that? While Moyer rebounded from a disastrous 2004 to double his 2005 VORP weighted-mean PECOTA, all Moyer is going to do is help the ship sink that much slower.
More of the same will come with their signing of Jarrod Washburn. His season screams fluke in the worst way:
Washburn, 2005 IP ERA VORP Stuff WARP PECOTA Weighted Mean 132.0 4.68 18.1 1 3.1 PECOTA 90th Percentile 157.0 3.73 37.4 7 5.3 Actual performance 177.3 3.20 48.8 6 5.6When a player outperforms his forecasts so drastically, one would expect some sort of improvement in his peripheral statistics. Unfortunately, no such improvement exists in Washburn's case. In fact, his translated statistics were worse in 2005:
Washburn Translated Statistics Year Age H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 2002 27 8.2 0.8 2.3 5.6 2003 28 7.6 1.2 2.3 4.8 2004 29 8.6 1.0 2.1 4.7 2005 30 9.8 1.0 2.5 4.7Washburn allowed the most baserunners of his career, yet managed to have his third best season in terms of WARP1. Color us skeptical.
Smaller moves aside, the Moyer and Washburn deals signal a problem that may not be curable. Successful teams exploit the inefficiencies of the marketplace. Throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve it, and if there isn't a lot of good pitching available, there is no need to chase the mediocre just because it's there to be chased. The Mariners need to be building their next wave of talent, which starts with Felix Hernandez. Players like Yorman Bazardo and Jose Lopez could fit into this group, but when they hit their primes Jamie Moyer will be long retired. When Hernandez enters his age 24 season in 2010, Jarrod Washburn will be 35, as will Richie Sexson. Ichiro Suzuki will be 36; even Adrian Beltre will be the ripe old age of 31. When the market does not bear out pieces that can help a team build around its most valuable assets, what is the point in spending large chunks of the budget in said market?
Such moves can be tolerated when they could conceivably be the "last pieces of the puzzle," and the players are not going to be counted on to help carry their clubs. However, neither is true of Moyer or Washburn. Along with Hernandez, they will be tasked with anchoring the Seattle rotation--and they are most certainly not the last pieces of what is becoming an increasingly complex puzzle in the Emerald City. The team had plenty of offensive problems in 2005, as the following chart illustrates:
Seattle Offensive Production by Position, 2005 Pos VORP MLB Rank C -18.3 30 1B 49.3 7 2B -5.4 28 3B 5.0 23 SS 13.5 18 LF 10.3 20 CF -3.2 28 RF 31.3 9 DH 14.9 8As discussed last month, Kenji Johjima should help here, and some of their younger players should improve, but the Mariners still have a long ways to go before they upgrade from outdated models like "Old Ironsides" to a newer CV model. If Mr. Churchill was still gracing us with his presence (and following the Mariners), he would probably need to rent out some Deep Drone 7200's to find the Mariners '06 season.