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July 7, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Angels, Braves, Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus


ANAHEIM ANGELS
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The Angels finally did it: in cutting their losses with Jeff Weaver, they made room for his younger brother. Jeff's struggles (3-10, 6.29 ERA) and Jered Weaver's success made this inevitable, but it's not at all clear that the sibling swap will pay off for the Angels in 2006. Aside from a startling leap in home runs allowed, Jeff's peripherals do not suggest he has suddenly lost the ability to pitch at the Major League level:

Year                   K/9       BB/9       HR/9
-----------------------------------------------------
2004                   6.3       2.7        0.8
2005                   6.3       1.7        1.4
2006                   6.3       2.1        1.8
Career through '05     6.0       2.5        1.0

Perhaps the Angels shouldn't have expected an ERA in the low 4's that Weaver turned in at Dodger stadium the last two years. But even allowing for the substantial difference in talent between the 2006 AL and the 2004-5 NL, most statistical signs point toward something a lot prettier than an ERA of 6.29.

Jered's second half is much more difficult to predict. In five starts, he's dominated the American League the same way he manhandled Triple-A, giving up fewer than a baserunner per inning and striking out 31 in 33 frames. However, those starts have been against the Indians, the Orioles, the Mariners, the Devil Rays, and the Royals. Those opponents aren't all pushovers, but it's fair to say that he hasn't been put to the test.

Further, he has yet to see a team a second time, another seat-of-the-pants gauge of flukishness. Felix Hernandez made a similar splash last year, and now, as he faces opponents for the third and fourth times, he's struggling to keep his ERA under 5.00. This isn't to say that Jered doesn't have enormous potential, but for pitchers not named Francisco Liriano, there appears to be a steep learning curve involved in going from the PCL to the Cy Young Award. Before the season, PECOTA projected Weaver to perform just about how King Felix has: a weighted mean ERA of 5.03, making him worth about three wins less than his brother.

Now that Jeff has been dealt, it would appear that Jered owns a rotation spot for as long as he can hold on. As a result, prospect watchers can turn their attention to Joe Saunders, who has been nearly as impressive as Weaver in Salt Lake City. Like Weaver at the beginning of the season, Saunders sees a major league rotation without an obvious opening.

However, his Triple-A performance must be reassuring to the Angels brass. Bartolo Colon may be back and as good as ever, but there's no lack of scenarios in which Saunders could be needed. Aside from an injury to any of the starting five, an injury in the bullpen could make Kelvim Escobar more valuable in the late innings. Perhaps Ervin Santana could be the main chip in a deadline deal to land a slugger. Regardless of how the season plays out, Bill Stoneman is one lucky GM: Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders provide the insurance to weather just about any misfortune to the Angels pitching staff.

--Jeff Sackmann

ATLANTA BRAVES
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As most of the baseball world begins to accept the idea that 2006 does, in fact, mark the end of an era, you won't find much doom and gloom in this space today. Most everyone knows the Braves spent time in the cellar; in fact, they began the month of June by losing 18 of 20, and fell as deep as 16 games beneath the mighty Mets on June 26. If you're keeping tabs on the Playoffs Odds Report, you may have noticed their chance of playing in October dip below one percent on June 25. If you want to see a Braves fan really cranky, tell him or her that Bobby Cox's chances of raising his 15th straight "NL East Champs" flag are 250 to 1 as of Wednesday.

But really, what separates the 2006 Braves from the 2005 club? Apart from the exodus of Rafael Furcal and the subsequent Andy Marte/Edgar Renteria trade, it was a pretty quiet winter in Turnertown.

The ulcers caused by the bullpen are nothing new. Last year's squad ranked 12th in the National League in bullpen ERA at 4.74, and this year's ranks 11th at 4.68. Relief help might be the team's greatest need approaching the deadline, but it doesn't help explain the chasm between 2005 and 2006.

And despite the major drop-offs of Jeff Francoeur, Andruw Jones, and Marcus Giles, the offense has shown great resilience. It's scoring nearly five runs per game, better than it was in 2005, good for fifth in the NL through Wednesday. Renteria's hitting around his 90th percentile PECOTA projection (a level from which he's likely to show some regression over the second half). On the flip side, PECOTA was optimistic about Francoeur and Giles, who are both playing close to their 10th percentile projections. Perennial Team Health Report red light Chipper Jones was holding up until this week, and while Will Carroll's most recent report doesn't sound too serious, how fortunate are the Braves to have Wilson Betemit? Since the start of 2005, Betemit's hit .293/.350/.449 while playing third base, shortstop, and second. If the Braves weren't so loaded at those positions, his numbers might look quite a bit more like Bill Hall's in Milwaukee.

Adam LaRoche's top three comparable players are Tino Martinez, Todd Helton, and Jason Giambi, but you wouldn't know it from his performance. With LaRoche maintaining his severe platoon splits, perhaps the Braves are missing Julio Franco more than they thought they would. Brian Jordan, LaRoche's nominal platoon partner who is currently on the disabled list, has a 564 OPS while playing first base this season, primarily against southpaws. Since Jordan bruised his clavicle, lefthanded hitter Scott Thorman has been filling in.

The rotation is where the disparity becomes clearer. No one is pitching outrageously badly, but almost every starter has slipped. John Smoltz's peripherals are vintage John Smoltz, but a slightly elevated BABIP might help explain the ERA bump. Tim Hudson's 4.57 ERA is easily the worst of his career, and more than a run higher than his career mark. John Thomson missed some time due to injury and is having his worst campaign since his days as a young Rockie in 1999. Jorge Sosa, he of the ridiculous 2.55 ERA last year, is back to normal and got moved to the bullpen, due in part to his poor showing in the rotation and in part to the demise of Chris Reitsma.

Chuck James, summoned from Richmond to replace Sosa, could make a notable difference. Pegged by PECOTA for a 4.42 ERA and nearly eight punchouts per inning. James won his first three starts, and is keeping up his extreme flyball tendencies, a hot button for James' future that has caused plenty of internal debate among BP staff. Among pitchers who have tossed at least as many innings as James this year, James has the second-lowest groundball rate:


Pitcher          IP      GB%    SO9
Keith Foulke     32.0    20.0   6.5
Chuck James      31.1    26.6   5.7
Jered Weaver     33.1    27.0   8.4
Rafael Soriano   43.2    27.0   9.9
Chris Young     103.2    30.4   8.3

With a pair of big wins over the Reds the last two nights, the Braves pulled within ten games of .500, but they've only been outscored by 12 runs on the season. Their odds for title number 15 are still quite long, but hey, the Mets just put Pedro Martinez on the disabled list. Between James, the potential for bounceback from the rest of the rotation, the upsides of Francoeur, Andruw Jones, and Giles, and the distinguished track record of trader John Schuerholz, don't stick in a fork in the Braves just yet. If there's one thing we've learned from this team over their string of titles, we should know that a 13.5 game deficit shouldn't faze them.

--Dave Haller

TEXAS RANGERS
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With Mark Teixeira's mysterious power outage threatening to bring down the Ranger offense, two career role players have turned in some well timed unexpected production. Mark DeRosa hit very well in Ian Kinsler's absence, and upon Kinsler's return, he took over in right field for Kevin Mench. Through Wednesday night's games, DeRosa was hitting .336/.388/.502, and has even played a solid right field with a Rate2 of 109 in 24.4 Adjusted Games.

Usually when a player goes to the Rangers and performs above their career levels, the inflated offensive levels of The Ballpark in Arlington are to blame. DeRosa is hitting .298/.351/.452 at home, but it is on the road where he has caused the most damage, walloping opposing pitching to the tune of .381/.431/.562 in 105 at-bats. He has also been terrorizing left-handed pitching so far, slapping southpaws around at a .400/.443/.655 clip.

How sustainable is this performance by DeRosa? Let's take a look at his batted-ball data, to see what exactly may be causing this serious upswing in performance level.

          P/PA     LD%      BABIP     GB%     IF/F      HR/F
20040      3.6    19.9%     .281     47.9%     N/A      3.6%
2005       3.9    18.6%     .267     46.9%    10.3%    18.3%
2006       3.8    28.6%     .397     47.6%     2.2%     8.2%

DeRosa's Line Drive percentage is the highest among players with 250 plate appearances, and it is well above the 20% level of performance he set previously. His Batting Average on Balls in Play is incredibly high as well, second only to Joe Mauer's .424 mark, with the same plate appearance caveat. His BABIP is actually in line with his expected BABIP though--.406; LD% + .12 gives you expected BABIP--so it should fall back to the mean as his line drives start to regress.

He has cut down on his infield flies considerably, which might mean he has changed his approach at the plate and his swing. This also presents the possibility that his altered approach has caused him to hit more line drives, allowing him to get more hits, drive the ball more, etc., but even if this is the case his LD% is still too high to be sustained over the long run. This looks like Derrek Lee 2005, but on a smaller scale and with a less talented hitter. Will he be a better option than Kevin Mench when he stops hitting this well? It's possible, depending on whether or not he actually has improved himself as a hitter. Mench hasn't exactly torn up the league as the Rangers corner outfielder--.269/.330/.450 this season, and .258/.311/.457 on the road since 2004--and DeRosa may be a better fielder as well.

Gary Matthews Jr. is the other Ranger outperforming expectations; his .331/.376/.527 line has earned him a trip to Pittsburgh during the all-star break. His rate statistics are very batting average-driven, and this is due to his BABIP:

        P/PA     LD%     BABIP     GB%      IF/F      HR/F
2004     3.8     23.7%    .322     45.2%     N/A      14.4%
2005     3.8     16.8%    .283     51.4%     19.5%    12.3%
2006     3.7     21.%     .380     48.3%     11.3%     9.2%

Rate is not a fan of Matthews' defense--and never really has been--and it reflects in his -12 Fielding Runs Above Average so far in 2006. Matthews' reputation with the glove is that of a reliable fielder, but Zone Rating also shows him to be performing poorly this year, accumulating roughly -7 runs below average defensively. In order to be worth the trouble, Matthews will have to bring his defense back up to its established levels while maintaining, at the least, average offensive production. Considering the high praise John Dewan's Fielding Bible gave Matthews this offseason, he just might be up to the task.

The Rangers will need both Matthews and DeRosa to continue outperforming expectations if they are to make the playoffs. Brad Wilkerson has been very inconsistent, Hank Blalock has improved on his awful 2005--but still has not rekindled the potential we saw in 2004--and Mark Teixeira has been a complete mystery, struggling mightily at home. Luckily for Texas, the Athletics have not been able to figure out how to consistently win, either.

--Marc Normandin


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