June 29, 2006
As they near the end of a particularly dreadful month, the Braves will likely be perceived as sellers for the first July in fifteen years. It's not unusual for John Schuerholz to look at his team at midseason and see a collection of underrated veterans and spare-part youngsters, but it will be different for him to evaluate with an eye toward who will help in '07 and beyond.
To make his job that much simpler, no one over the age of 25 in the Braves bullpen deserves to survive that judgment. Ken Ray is the only member of the pen with the semblance of competence--a 2.80 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 35+ innings--but even his performance is built on a shaky foundation. As Bobby Cox found out, a walk every other frame coupled with one home run per nine does not a reliable closer make. And while 31-year-old rookies may make great off-day features, he's not going to be the next Chris Hammond. After Ray, there are a few guys who still qualify to be described as "young" and "promising": Oscar Villareal, Lance Cormier, and Macay McBride. As a trio, though, they'd be better supporting a good late-inning corps than impersonating one.
Other questions arise at first base and the outfield, and greatly depend on where Chipper Jones will play in 2007. Even if Chipper doesn't migrate down the defensive spectrum, there are still far too many players for four positions: Adam LaRoche, Scott Thorman, Ryan Langerhans, Kelly Johnson, Matt Diaz, Jeffrey Francoeur, and, if he's still around, Andruw Jones. In Langerhans, Johnson, and Diaz, Atlanta has the best collection of fourth outfielders this side of Nashville. In LaRoche, they have unreasonably high hopes for a platoon player who will probably never live up to his hype.
LaRoche may find a new home next month doing his usual modest righty-mashing for a contender, leaving Schuerholz with his most difficult decisions in the outfield. If Andruw Jones also departs, the roster squeeze is ameliorated, but the offensive doldrums are not. A team with Chipper, Edgar Renteria, Marcus Giles, and Brian McCann covering the diamond can afford to skimp on outfield offense, but not to the tune of a full win below replacement, which is what Langerhans and Francoeur have accomplished between them so far this year.
For Langerhans, such offensive mediocrity is excusable: most metrics and scouts agree he's a wizard in the field, and as such he played an important role for Atlanta's more successful '05 edition. His bat's better suited for a fourth outfielder. There's reason to hope that Francoeur can improve: once upon a time, Sammy Sosa had many of Frenchy's patience problems. But if Jeff doesn't become more like Sammy, he could instead turn into an an out-making machine of historic magnitude. If Francoeur is a Sosa-like future star who will man right field for a decade, the Braves GM can let the offense rebound in 2007 and focus his attention elsewhere. If Jeff is instead the next Horace Clarke, Schuerholz will have to look at this year's mediocre Houston outfield and decide whether what's good enough for the Juice Box is good enough for the Ted.
The Padres are an interesting team to analyze. They have no real team strength outside of their defense, which is currently ranked second in the league in Defensive Efficiency behind the Tigers. Their offensive leader in VORP is their backup catcher, Josh Bard, and he was not even on the roster until the beginning of May. Chris Young is enjoying his first season in the National League as a starting pitcher, but Jake Peavy has been inconsistent. Despite all of the team's struggles, they are ranked in at number 11 in this week's edition of Prospectus Hit List, and they only sit a half-game back of the first-place Dodgers, who have plenty of their own issues to deal with.
The Padres are going to need to improve at the margins in order to have the most success possible for the rest of the season. Considering that their top three offensive players only have EqA's of .291, .289 and .277, cutting bait on a certain offensive black hole--a player with so much negative value that no offense can escape--at the hot corner would certainly be a great start.
The deal for Vinny Castilla did not look like such a terrible one when Brian Lawrence was forced to go under the knife and onto the shelf for the 2006 season. Then the season started, and certain Padres fans realized that an injured Lawrence would do less to damage the club's playoff chances.
Currently, Castilla's batting line of .234/.268/.325 is good for an Equivalent Average of .211, 29 points under replacement level. Rate and Zone Rating both find him to be an above-average defensive third basemen, but not enough to offset the damage his lack of hitting prowess is causing. In fact, his play is valued at roughly -35 runs above average per 150 games--adjusted for position--and he's already accumulated -10 VORP on the season.
The Padres have other options for third base on the roster: Geoff Blum and Mark Bellhorn. Blum is not a much better option than Castilla so far this season, as he is not playing as well defensively and has an EqA of .217. On the other hand, Bellhorn is essentially a league-average fielder at third, and has an EqA of .255; he may have a .220/.298/.433 line, but there is life in one of those three statistical categories, which is more than Castilla can claim. Bellhorn has played at a rate about -5 runs above average per 150 games so far, which, although negative, is still +30 runs above Castilla. With more than half of the season left to play, that is a change that could certainly make a difference in the standings.
One last easily attainable option for the Padres is to reacquire Sean Burroughs, who was designated for assignment by the Devil Rays. Burroughs struggled mightily in Triple-A Durham, hitting .221/.258/.257, but he's a fine defensive player and worth taking one last flyer on. He's still only 25, he's familiar with the Padres, and he cannot possibly cause more damage than Castilla. Considering that he was ranked as the sixth-best defensive third basemen in the league from 2003-2005--while only playing in half of his team's games--by John Dewan and his +/- system, he certainly has more upside than Castilla.
At the least, Mark Bellhorn should take over at third to improve the Friars' lineup. The National League West is a close race once again this year, and it is entirely possible no team will win 90 games this season. With Peavy starting to return to form, the Padres need to do all that they can to gain some ground where they can, and subtracting Castilla from the mix is the most obvious move they can make.