- End of the Road?: Many analysts predicted that 2003 would be the final year of the Braves’ dynasty. Their once-vaunted rotation didn’t look so fearsome after losing Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood to division rivals, and there were few bright spots in the lineup.
But as they’ve done every year since 1991–save the washed-out 1994 season–Atlanta nabbed another division title, largely on the strength of their free-agents-to-be. In the process of facilitating a $15 million budget cut, the Braves said goodbye to much of their core for the first time in years. But take a look at how much the hitters let go by the Braves are expected to regress in 2004:
Player 2003 VORP 2004 VORP (projected) ----------------------------------------------------- Vinny Castilla 24.7 9.0 Rob Fick 7.8 13.0 Javy Lopez 75.9 26.3 Gary Sheffield 78.9 44.2 Totals 187.3 92.5
John Schuerholz deserves credit for letting these guys go. Drastically lowering salary was not a problem he had to take on very often during the dynasty. He chose wisely to let the big spenders in the AL East throw their money at his aging hitters instead of re-signing them and cutting salary elsewhere. Looking at the numbers above, it is clear that the Braves probably wouldn’t have been able to repeat their offensive rampage in 2004 even if they were able to keep their 2003 lineup intact.
- Wrong Stuff: Nobody really remembers how Jaret Wright got here, but we can tell from his awkward failure that he’s not very good. Atlanta should just value his presence for what it is: The Braves’ answer to William Hung. The fact that he’s trying out for a major league team should be for entertainment value only.
Unfortunately for the Braves, Wright is actually being considered for the fifth-starter spot, behind the top four of Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, John Thomson, and Horacio Ramirez. It’s not like they don’t have any more options to fill their rotation out. Bobby Cox has a wide range of pitchers to choose from once he gets past Wright. Andy Pratt struck out more than a batter per inning as a starter in Richmond last year. Bubba Nelson has a little upside and is being mentioned as a sleeper for the job. Paul Byrd is still breathing and throwing 80 mph, so he should be a candidate for innings after his early-season return. Cox will even take a look at Trey Hodges, whose Equivalent ERA projection of 4.43 would make him Atlanta’s second-best starter according to PECOTA’s weighted-mean projections. PECOTA also likes Jung Bong.
If none of these guys can do the job, Atlanta can still take a look at Jose Capellan or the almost famous Chuck Smith. The Braves have plenty of starting pitching depth, but they need one or two studs at the top of the rotation if they expect to compete in spite of depleted offense.
- Job Battles: The corner infield jobs are also up for grabs in Atlanta. As of now, Mark DeRosa seems to be the leading candidate for the third base spot and prospect Adam LaRoche will get a long look at first base. Andy Marte, Wilson Betemit and Russ Branyan may also figure into the mix at various points during the season. Eli Marrero, who should be the Braves’ starting catcher, is also rumored to be in the running for one of the corner spots should Johnny Estrada win the catcher’s spot. The best move for Atlanta would be to cement Marerro behind the plate, where he could be one of the league’s better catchers, and give Branyan enough at-bats to see if he has the breakout year PECOTA gives him a 38% chance of having. That would leave one spot up for grabs.
- Last One Out of the Bullpen, Please Hit the Lights: Last season, the Twins, according to Michael Wolverton’s Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP), had the best relief corps of any AL Central team. Their team total of 31.4 ARP narrowly edged the Indians’ tally of 29.8. It’s very tempting to think that won’t be the case this season. That’s because the Twins’ two most valuable relievers from 2003, LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado, are now toiling for the Cubs and Mariners, respectively. How vital were Hawkins and Guardado last season? Well, without their combined ARP bestowals, the Twins’ team ARP total would’ve been a paltry -2.7. Yep–in the red. Remove the contributions of Johan Santana, who figures to spend all of 2004 in the Minnesota rotation, and the team ARP total becomes a grislier -10.6.
But that’s not accounting for the importing of Joe Nathan in the A.J. Pierzynski trade with the Giants, not to mention the quality arms the Twins have in the organizational queue. Nathan’s minor league numbers don’t inspire a great deal of confidence (5.47 runs per game, 1.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but he is coming off a strong season as setup man to Tim Worrell in San Francisco. In 2003, Nathan worked 79 innings, struck out 83, walked 33 and allowed 2.96 runs per game. He could stand to cut down on his walks, and he’ll be in a less pitcher-friendly environment this season, but he’s proved he can be a capable reliever at the highest level. The Twins, in fact, have him penciled in as closer.
But the real boost may come from the farm. Jesse Crain, besides having a cinematic-sounding baseball name, is also one of the best relief prospects in the game. Crain, like the more ballyhooed Ryan Wagner of Cincinnati, is a product of the University of Houston, and he’s also a possible future closer in the majors. In 111.2 minor league innings, Crain has whiffed 143, walked 36 and allowed exactly zero home runs. He pitched at three different levels last season, so it’s possible he’s been rushed, but he’s toting around some highly impressive numbers. Don’t be surprised if he thrives in the Minny pen this season and takes a big hunk out of that APR deficit.
Mike Nakamura is another reliever likely to play a key role this season in Minnesota. He was used sparingly after being called up last season, but he does have an impressive minor league dossier. Over his career, he’s struck out more than a batter per inning and maintained a 3.4 K/BB ratio. He’s already 27, but there’s no reason he can’t be an effective reliever in Minnesota this season.
- The Once and Future Catcher: This past November, the Twins dealt the aforementioned Pierzynski to the Giants for the aforementioned Nathan and lefty Francisco Liriano. Replacing Pierzynski behind the dish will be native son Joe Mauer, a highly-touted youngster who also happens to occupy a certain lofty spot on BP’s Top 50 Prospect List.
Mauer’s future is as bright as any in the game, but the Twins figure to lose a few runs from the position in 2004. PECOTA’s Weighted-Mean Forecasts call for Mauer to put up a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of 0.7 in 307 at-bats. Pierzynski, meanwhile, is tabbed for a VORP of 22.5 in 408 at-bats. As it stands, that’s a loss of about two wins, which could be critical in the nip-and-tuck AL Central. Mauer may one day be great, but he hurts the Twins in the near term.
- Go Fish: While the media has spent the last few seasons shooting holes in the theory of competitive imbalance in baseball–their own Frankenstein monster–in Tampa’s case, it may be true. The rest of the AL East has torn through the baseball landscape like the Viking hoard while the Devil Rays have been as intrusive as a Jehovah’s Witness. Whether that’s because Tampa is unwilling or unable is up for debate, but it seems the Rays have decided to batten down the hatches with discarded veterans on short-term deals rather than aggressively pursue some of baseball’s upper-class talent.
The variety of players assembled by GM Chuck LaMar this off-season includes such household names as John Halama, Paul Abbott, Tino Martinez, Robert Fick, Jose Cruz Jr., and Rey Sanchez. While it’s fair to concede that rebuilding a franchise takes time, it’s also true that it takes a plan. By signing their new acquisitions to short-term deals, the Rays appear to be playing the waiting game, keeping things warm until B.J. Upton and Delmon Young are ready for the big leagues. If Upton and Young both pan out, the Rays should have Tom Hicks’ illusive “financial flexibility” when they arrive.
How well have the Rays been building the last few years? Looking at the Opening Day lineups for the last few years should be informative:
2004 2003 2002 2001 1B - Robert Fick Travis Lee Steve Cox Fred McGriff 2B - Antonio Perez Brent Abernathy Brent Abernathy Bob Smith 3B - Geoff Blum Aubrey Huff Bob Smith Vinny Castilla SS - Rey Sanchez Rey Ordonez Chris Gomez Felix Martinez LF - Carl Crawford Carl Crawford Jason Tyner Greg Vaughn CF - Rocco Baldelli Rocco Baldelli Randy Winn Gerald Williams RF - Jose Cruz Jr. Ben Grieve Ben Grieve Ben Grieve C - Toby Hall Toby Hall Toby Hall John Flaherty DH - Aubrey Huff Al Martin Greg Vaughn Steve Cox
There are a lot of failed experiments in that list, but with Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and possibly Antonio Perez in place–for better or worse–for the next competitive Tampa team, things look better than they did three or four years ago when the roster was weighed down by more dead weight than, well, this. At least this time around, LaMar hasn’t locked any of the veterans into long-term contracts that could hamper the franchise for years after they leave. Throw Upton and Young into that lineup instead of Cruz and Sanchez and things are starting to look respectable.
The other 52%: While the batters may turn things around in the next couple years, baseball also involves guys who can throw the ball, a commodity that Tampa seems lacking. The rotation is far from set: Jeremi Gonzalez, Victor Zambrano, Mark Hendrickson, and Damian Moss would all be #4 starters at best on teams not from Arlington. The chances that Halama or Abbott makes the rotation are slim to none, and Slim left town. Most of that list will start games at some point during the season, but there just isn’t enough talent around for anyone to lock down their spot.
Looking down the line, young hurlers Doug Waechter and Chad Gaudin, who both had nice cups of coffee in 2003, could be part of the next wave of Tampa farm products to stick with the big league squad. Gaudin projects much better than Waechter, especially this year, but he turns a tender 21 next month, making injury as much of a concern as with every young pitcher. Waechter–who just turned 23–is already being penciled into the rotation in some circles, but he’s less likely than Gaudin to pan out as a staff ace or frontline starter. After getting rushed up and roughed up last year, 2001 #3 overall pick Dewon Brazelton needs to be sent back to the farm to polish his skills and reduce his walk rate. He could still turn things around and return to the prospect status he had when he was drafted, but he needs time to develop and demonstrate that he’s ready for the Show.
The main hole in the Rays rebuilding plan right now is frontline pitching. Assuming standard attrition rate for pitching prospects, only one–at most two–of Gaudin, Brazelton, and Waechter figures to be with the Rays when Upton and Young arrive and none of the projects to a top starter. Once out from those misplaced veteran contracts from 1999, Tampa’s first priority has to be a starter or two. Combine the right free agent pitchers with the Upton-Young tandem and the Rays will be a good bet to field a competitive squad in 2005. For now, though, Tampa will have to sell the intrigue in seeing how long before Lou Piniella’s first tantrum.