Atlanta Braves

  • He’s Back… Pop quiz: which one of these players is not like the others?
                            2004 PECOTA
                EqH9   EqHR9   EqBB9   EqSO9   EqERA
    Player A     8.7     1.0     2.9     6.5    4.43 
    Player B     8.7     1.0     4.4     7.0    5.07
    Player C     9.0     0.9     3.5     6.5    4.59      
    Player D    10.0     1.4     4.4     6.2    6.37     

    You guessed it. Player A is Trey Hodges, B is Andy Pratt, C is Jung Bong, and D, of course, is the Braves’ new fifth starter, Jaret Wright.

    Previously, we compared Wright to American Idol superstar William Hung. In a cruel twist of fate, just as young William received his recording contract, young Jaret secured his rotation spot. Now Bobby Cox’s decision would make slightly more sense if Wright was pitching lights-out this spring, but the unfortunate truth is that all three of the youngsters have been throwing better. Sure, Wright still has a nasty fastball, isn’t afraid to pitch inside, and uh, did some fine work in the 1997 World Series. But with his general lack of success in the 21st century and a right shoulder about as fragile as Omarosa’s head, Atlanta just isn’t the right place for Wright’s 17th comeback.

  • The Victims: As Wright enjoys the view from the top, Pratt, Bong, and journeyman C.J. Nitkowski are locked in an epic battle for the coveted second left-handed spot in the bullpen behind Armando Almanza and his shiny new elbow.

    Pratt led the International League in both strikeouts and walks in 2003, and has continued that trend this spring with a 7/8 BB/K ratio and two hits allowed in eight innings. Meanwhile, Bong’s peripheral stats in the Grapefruit League resemble those of a soft-tossing junkballer more than someone with his assortment of pitches, but the results have been pleasantly respectable.

    Most impressive, however, has been Nitkowski’s late surge for legitimacy. After moving through five organizations in the past three years, Nitkowski is making a strong case as a NRI to stick with Atlanta this spring, striking out 12 in only 9.1 innings. Still, the fact that left-handed batters jacked him to the tune of .317/.382/.480 from 2001 to 2003 is slightly disheartening.

    All three have pitched well enough to merit a spot on the roster, but Cox’s decision to have a 12-man pitching staff means that two guys are headed for Richmond. It’s a tough decision to make between the new blood and the delicious, veteran-y goodness, but in all likelihood, Cox’s affinity for pitchers that have played for him in the past will land Bong in the in the money, with Pratt and Nitkowski left to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Old Dominion State. At least they’ll be comforted knowing that Kevin Gryboski‘s shoulder is scheduled to implode any day now.

  • The Rookie: In other Grapefruit League news, first baseman Adam LaRoche hit his first two homers of spring training last Saturday to bring his totals up to .278/.316/.556. PECOTA projects LaRoche to have an equivalent line of .258/.333/.427, enough to match the 2003 totals of Robert Fick but certainly unable to offset any of the losses of Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla.

    On the flip side, LaRoche is regarded by scouts as a terrific first baseman defensively. However, Mike Hampton, who made two throwing errors to first base in yesterday’s game against the Astros, was quoted referring to LaRoche as having “heavy feet.” How the rookie handles the glove this season remains to be seen.

Minnesota Twins

  • Approaching the Bench: Let’s have a look-see at how the Twins’ bench is likely to shape up this season.

    Minnesota will likely carry 12 pitchers to open the season. In the AL, that means four available roster spots for bench players. For the Twins, those players are likely to be Henry Blanco, Lew Ford, Nick Punto and Jose Offerman.

    Blanco will be the catch-and-throw backup to phenom Joe Mauer (who happens to rank particularly high on BP’s Top 50 Prospect List). Blanco’s ballyhooed defense has actually declined steadily over the last three seasons, and his career-best OBP of .320 came back in 1999 while spending half his games on Planet Coors. So he’s not a threat with the bat, and he’s a withering one with the glove.

    Ford has nice potential as a fourth outfielder. His career minor league numbers are quite solid: .296/.368/.456-solid on-base skills and good gap power. He can play all three outfield positions and is a decent base-stealer. Ford also had a highly impressive showing in 73 ABs at the highest level last season. In short, he’s all you want in a fourth outfielder–defensive flexibility, a good bat, pinch-running chops.

    The problem is that the Twins this spring are becoming dangerously enchanted by Mike Ryan. Ford has better minor league numbers than Ryan, and they’re performing on about the same level in Grapefruit League play. But Ryan is left-handed, and manager Ron Gardenhire wants another lefty stick on the bench, even though the Twins are poised to carry two reserve switch-hitters in Punto and Offerman. The club will be making an error in judgment if it goes with Ryan instead of Ford on the roster.

    Speaking of Punto and Offerman, the former will be the primary utility infielder, while the latter will spot at first and DH and probably be Gardenhire’s default-settings pinch hitter. Punto came to the Twins as part of the Eric Milton trade with Philly over the winter. He has an excellent glove and showed solid on-base skills in the minors, albeit very little power. In 103 ABs at the highest level, he’s struggled, but if he’s able to take his walks and provide good defense he’ll have modest value and justify his spot on the roster.

    Offerman was a fine role player in the mid-to-late ’90s, but he didn’t play in the majors last season and posted a .320 OBP in 2002. At age 35, a renaissance of usefulness probably isn’t in the offing. But he’s hitting .348 this spring, and that has the Twins thinking he’s their best option. That’s too bad. Earlier in the spring they’d been giving Michael Cuddyer some time in the middle infield in attempt to expand his defensive bag o’ tricks. We know Cuddyer can hit, and if they’ve somehow managed to sour on him as a full-timer, why not make him into a super-utility type of the Frank Catalanotto-as-Ranger type? He’ll certainly have more value to the team, which has nothing but contention on the brain, than will Offerman.

    In short, if the Twins go with Ryan and Offerman instead of Ford and Cuddyer (who should really be the team’s starting second baseman), they’ll be weakening what could’ve been a rather strong bench. The club could also increase Gardenhire’s tactical flexibility by making Matt LeCroy the backup catcher/primary pinch hitter/platoon partner of Doug Mientkiewicz and installing the fully ready Justin Morneau as the full-time DH.

    But such a tack apparently hasn’t been given serious consideration. Oh well.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Knife Goes In, Guts Come Out: With the Devil Rays and the Yankees imminent departure for Japan, Manager Lou Pinella has to make his final roster decisions earlier than most teams. The Rays initially said that they will take 33 players to Japan, but that number has been pared to 30. The five extra players will be allowed to play in the two exhibition games against Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants, but the roster will be trimmed to the official 25 before the two games against the Yankees. Most of the roster is set, but there are a few decisions to be made.
    • Starter: Despite Mark Hendrickson‘s struggles so far this spring, the Rays show no sign of removing him from the starting rotation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tampa will send Dewon Brazelton back to Triple-A Durham. These decisions leave castoffs Damian Moss and Paul Abbott battling for the final spot. Here what PECOTA thinks of the twos prospects:
      Player  ERA   K   BB  K/BB  Wins
      Moss    5.46  57  56  1.0   -0.2
      Abbott  4.70  73  44  1.7    1.2

      A case for keeping Moss could be made based on his age, but as badly as the Rays need pitching in the future, Moss isn’t the answer. Abbott looks like the better one year fix in this case. Curiously, there are rumors than the Yankees are interested in obtaining either Moss or John Halama for some left-handed help. The Rays would do well in this case to get something for Moss before turning him loose.

    • Reliever: Danys Baez, Lance Carter, Trever Miller, and Jorge Sosa are in; Halama seems more likely than not to make it. That leaves Chad Gaudin, Jesus Colome, Travis Harper, Bobby Seay, Todd Jones, and Mike Williams fighting it out for the last spot or two, depending on the number of pitchers the Rays decide to carry. With two righties, two lefties, and Baez playing closer, handedness doesn’t factor into the decision. Tampa recognizes that there’s little reason to bring up the 21-year-old Gaudin. Jones and Williams are beyond consideration.

      Choosing between Colome, Harper, and Seay is like picking Steven Segal’s best movie, but the public comments from Spring Training so far indicate that Colome is the leader based on a strong spring performance. Colome and Harper’s PECOTA forecasts are virtually interchangeable, so a strong spring is as good a reason as any to keep Colome. Seay is out of options, so choosing Colome means cutting Seay loose, but, as unfeeling as it is, he’s exactly the kind of player that Tampa must learn to drop.

    • Third Base: The fact that the Rays are considering playing Robert Fick at third should be all you need to know about how pathetic their current options are. Damian Rolls, Geoff Blum; Geoff Blum, Damian Rolls. This debate might be betting a lot of press, but, continuing with the Segal theme, would anybody really notice if a theatre was playing Out for Justice and not Hard to Kill? Rolls projects to .255/.309/.375; Blum .247/.302/.367. Neither is a good defender; the only way to differential between the two of them is that Blum is five years older and he was one of the Rays big offseason signings at $1.5 million. If anything, the fact that Rolls is outplaying Blum this spring should call attention to what a gross miscalculation that contract was. Rolls should be given the job, but Blum will probably be given a month or two to play himself out of his contract.