Atlanta Braves

  • Good Arms: The Braves made a flurry of trades in the ending weeks of spring training to bolster their pitching staff. Among the goodies received were Juan Cruz and Chris Reitsma. Both players are on the good side of 27 and have shown flashes of very strong pitching in the past. After struggling in the Reds rotation, Reitsma posted an impressive 10. Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) in 66.2 innings out of the bullpen. He’ll give the Braves a very solid means of preserving leads for John Smoltz. Cruz may establish himself as a dominant reliever this year, but if he bombs, he’ll fall into obscurity faster than The Verve Pipe. The real Juan Cruz hasn’t shown up in the big leagues yet, and this could be the year we find out what he’s made of. PECOTA gives him nearly equal chances of breakout and collapse, so Cox is wise to employ him in low-leverage situations until Cruz establishes his level of expected performance.

    This pair of trades comes in the nick of time for Atlanta, who were projected to rely on Antonio Alfonseca as their setup man for the start of the season. Having avoided that catastrophe, Alfonseca will be delegated to lower leverage innings, like his seventh inning appearance in yesterday’s 7-2 game against the Mets. They still may have to rely on C.J. Nitkowski more than they would like until Armando Almanza returns from the DL, but things are much improved for Atlanta in middle relief. The Braves have seen some big changes to the bullpen, but the rotation stays as expected:

    Player         2004 PECOTA ERA
    Russ Ortiz           4.27
    Mike Hampton         4.37
    John Thomson         4.03
    Horacio Ramirez      4.70
    Jaret Wright         5.88

    This gives them four good starters. We’ve seen Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone turn water into wine before, so maybe blind faith in that fifth starter is stronger than reason. Even if the Braves can’t conjure up another miracle, they can always bump Wright from the rotation once Paul Byrd comes back from the DL.

  • Busted Bench: While the Braves starting lineup isn’t looking very good, at least they won’t have to worry about losing any playing time to their backups. Aside from Eli Marerro, who is among the best reserve catchers in baseball and a capable outfielder, Cox has very little to work with on his bench. He’s got Mike Hessman, Dewayne Wise, and their combined 2003 MjEQA .214 to play the outfield. He’s got Jesse Garcia, the kind of reserve shortstop that would make Neifi Perez a lock for 162 starts. His best pinch hitter is pushing 46. And their 25th man, Eddie Perez, looks like a big burly yam, but hits more like a sack of turnips.
  • Strength of Schedule: The Braves only play three games against an opponent with a projected winning percentage of over .500 in the month of April. A slow start could doom their chances of being in contention at the All-Star Break. If they can stay within a few games of the Phillies by the break, a trade for a big hitter would go a long way in getting the Braves to the playoffs.

Minnesota Twins

  • Note to SportsCenter: Hold the “Balfour” Jokes: Despite a crackin’-good spring (11.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4 H, 15 K, 5 BB), right-hander Grant Balfour is not the team’s fifth starter.

    Balfour has limited experience at the highest level, but a fairly strong minor league profile (534 IP, 3.42 ERA, 452 H, 567 K, 196 BB). As for Thomas, his farm numbers aren’t quite as strong as Balfour’s, but they are solid (891.1 IP, 3.87 ERA, 936 H, 694 K, 276 BB). If there’s something that notably distinguishes them, it’s Thomas’ elevated hit rate, which could hint at problems to come as a starter in the majors. He has limited success in Triple-A, but Thomas does have much more experience as a starter in the minors than does Balfour. On balance, though, he’s likely a modest drop-off from what Balfour could’ve provided.

    But even once Balfour is back in throwing shape, manager Ron Gardenhire may be sufficiently peeved to hand the fifth starter’s job to Rick Helling, who’s hoping to be recovered from a broken leg by late April-when the Twins will first need a fifth starter. Balfour’s object lesson: hiding an injury is not only bad for your arm, it’s also bad for your credibility with the organization.

  • Crain Drain: The Twins, by parting with ways with Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins, are embarking upon the 2004 season with a retooled and untested pen. You’d think that having one of the game’s best relief prospects would give them a leg up, but for that to be the case said relief prospect must first be placed on the roster.

    Instead, the Twins, presumably based on five innings of Grapefruit League work (in which he struck out seven and walked one), opted to dispatch Jesse Crain to the minors. We’ve detailed in this space how impressive Crain’s minor league performance has been, and his combined work in the Eastern and Pacific Coast Leagues last season suggests he’s ready to help a major league pen.

    There’s little question that Crain would contribute more than three of the arms that beat him out for a spot–Aaron Fultz, Joe Roa and Carlos Pulido (who hasn’t appeared in the majors since 1994). For a team carrying 12 pitchers on the 25-man roster and wringing hands over its bullpen, the decision not to take Crain north is indeed a puzzling one. In any event, Chris Kahrl opines that Roa’s stay might be a short one. Twinkie fans should hope it is and that the Twins opt for the painfully obvious replacement.

  • Mauer Power: OK, it’s ridiculously early in the season to be addressing this matter, but score some early AL RoY points for Joe Mauer (guess where he ranked on our Top 50 Prospects list). Through Mauer’s first two games as a major leaguer, he was batting .750 with two walks and a key tag out at home plate to preserve Monday’s game in the 10th inning. On the downside, Tuesday’s tilt saw Mauer exit the game with mild left knee sprain.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Last Man Off, Turn Out the Lights: Having returned from the East with a satisfying split with the Yankees, the Rays have finalized their 25-man roster, answering many of the questions we posed last time. We noted that the Rays were likely choosing between Jesus Colome, Travis Harper, and Bobby Seay for the last bullpen spot. As is common, the Rays were not on the same page as we were: all three relievers have been dropped from the 25-man roster.

    Instead of sending Chad Gaudin down to Triple-A Durham and stalling his arbitration clock for a few more months, the Rays decided to increase his service time while getting little in return from the 21-year old that they couldn’t get from Colome or Harper. Instead, the elder pair was sent back to the minors while Seay, who was out of options, was cut. There’s little reason to keep Gaudin–one of the organizations few decent pitching prospects–on the roster if he’s not going to see decent playing time.

    The silver lining would be if Tampa has chosen to use Gaudin in a Rafael Soriano/Johan Santana development role, an assumption that would require a certain amount of prescience not seen from GM Chuck LaMar thus far. However, in the season’s first three games, Gaudin has been brought in twice, both times to face Alex Rodriguez. The first was in garbage time in Japan, but the second was yesterday with the Rays up three in the seventh and a runner on first. Gaudin faced Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield and gave up nothing more than a hot groundball single to Giambi; this impressive sequence was followed by an equally efficient eighth inning. Grooming Gaudin in the major league bullpen rather than starting in the minors would both reduce his risk of injury and give him more exposure to good competition. If Tampa intends to move him to the rotation in a year, keeping him on the roster for now isn’t as bad of a decision as it appears.

  • One Man’s Trash: Among new Dodger GM Paul DePodesta’s plethora of moves last week was the swap of infielders with Tampa which saw Antonio Perez heading west and Jason Romano coming to town. The 25-year-old Romano has been hopping up the Dodger ladder quickly over the past few seasons, but most of his value is tied up in his batting average. While that’s usually been up around .300 at most levels, his OBP has peaked at a paltry .341 since 2001 and his power is non-existent. Romano has been playing center the past few years after starting out as a second baseman, but with the Rays cornucopia of outfielders, he’ll likely move back to the infield.

    There was little reason to move Perez, especially for a player like Romano. Perez is a year younger and has put up much better power and on-base numbers than Romano over the last two years, including his respectable stint with the big league club last year. Perez isn’t going to be a superstar, but neither is Romano – or current Ray Rey Sanchez. This player swap is exactly the kind of to expect between organizations with differing player evaluation techniques. Individually, it certainly doesn’t spell doom in Tampa, but enough of these type move add up to overpaying for mediocrity.

  • Cruzin’: The season’s only three games old, but thus far Jose Cruz has looked like the Rays best pickup since, well, ever. After a solid debut complete with a dinger in Japan, Cruz was a healthy 4-for-5 last night in Tampa’s second win over the Yankees, needing only that Far East homer for the cycle. Cruz will provide a significant defensive upgrade over Aubrey Huff and if his offense returns to anywhere near 2001 form, it will be a welcome boon to the Rays bats.
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