Atlanta Braves

  • Johnny Dangerously: Guess: Who’s second on the Braves in VORP? Those who don’t follow the team closely, or those who pilloried the Kevin Millwood trade, might be surprised to learn that it’s catcher Johnny Estrada (who’s bested by only the healthy and raking J.D. Drew).

    Estrada’s line on the year is .333/.387/.502, which is largely out of line with the rest of his career. He’s put up similar numbers in only two previous seasons: back in ’97 in the short-season NY-Penn League, and last year at Triple-A Richmond. Estrada’s value this season is built largely around his batting average and singles-hitting abilities. His ISO of .169 is solid but not especially strong, and he’s not showing much plate discipline.

    The problem, from an analytical standpoint, is that, as tempting as it is to dismiss Estrada’s performance this season as an aberrant walk on the wild side, it does come on the heels of his .328/.393/.494 season at Richmond in 2003. As has been the case throughout much of his career, the switch-hitting Estrada hits much better from the left side–to the point that he needs to consider abandoning the switch-hitting thing. So is his excellent work this season a new level of performance, or a fluke?

    The choice is tough, and either answer is defensible. If he keeps it up and the Braves drift further from contention, a “sell high” trade might not be a bad idea. Then again, if Estrada has actually found such a highly productive stroke after years of floundering, it could be a deal the Braves live to regret. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that Estrada, his two most recent seasons aside, is hitting beyond what his record of performance suggests he’s capable of. The bold move would be to trade him while his value is presumably at its highest, but expect the Braves to take the risk-averse path of keeping him, which is understandable given his somewhat perplexing career curve.

  • The Distorting Power of the Save, Installment 4,376: Since John Smoltz is only on pace to record 26 saves this season, so you won’t hear many bellow from the rooftops that 2004 was his best season as a closer. But it’s on target to be just that. Remove his June 11 blow-up against the White Sox from the calculus, and his runs-per-game drop from 3.21 (nothing wrong with that) to 2.00. Also, since we’re two-and-a-half months in and it’s no longer complete and utter folly to talk about the pace that a player is on, it’s worth noting Smoltz is on course to fan 68 this season while walking only two. For humanities majors, that’s a K/BB ratio of 34.0; it’s also obnoxiously good. But without the gaudy saves total and the spotlight of contention, Smoltz won’t get the ink he deserves when the year is over.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Are the Kids Alright?: Well, that’s more like it. The Rays ripped off a whopping 12 wins in a row and pulled within a game of the .500 mark before losing to Toronto last night. Joe Sheehan’s already done a spot-on job of breaking down the Rays’ hot streak, but it’s also worth examining how much of the team’s “success” this season is attributable to players who’ll be around for years to come. Joe observes that the highly-promising Chad Gaudin is one to count on, and that Jesus Colome may finally be harnessing his devastating stuff. But what of the hitters? As Joe points out, Tino Martinez and Jose Cruz Jr. have been the team’s two best hitters over the course of the streak. What should be somewhat troubling for Rays fans–both of you–is that Cruz and Martinez have also easily been the team’s two best hitters for the entire season. Martinez’s contract expires at season’s end, and Cruz is signed through 2005.

    As for the kids, well, they’ve been a mixed bag. Aubrey Huff, the team’s best hitter over the last two years, has struggled badly in 2004. He’s been hitting better of late, but his drastic loss of power without any apparent underlying injury is a troubling trend.

    For all the talk about Rocco Baldelli‘s “sophomore slump,” it’s worth keeping two things in mind: one, his rookie season wasn’t that great to begin with, and two, his meaningful numbers this season are remarkably similar to last year’s. His rate stats from ’03 were .289/.326/.416, and this season they’re .285/.335/.411. He still isn’t showing much power, raw or otherwise, but let’s keep in mind that his 23rd birthday won’t roll around until the final days of the season. Baldelli is infamous for his jaw-dropping lack of plate discipline, both in the minors and during his rookie season. He doesn’t display the sort of bad ball-hitting skills displayed by guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Nomar Garciaparra and Alfonso Soriano, so it would certainly behoove Baldelli to cultivate better patience at the dish. He may be doing that. Last season, he drew an unintentional walk in only 3.8 percent of his plate appearances. In 2004, that figure has risen to 5.2 percent. That’s hardly desirable, but it is a considerable step forward for Baldelli. If he continues to make progress in waiting for his pitch, a power spike will likely follow.

    If there’s greater promise to be gleaned from the Rays’ young hitters, it’s in the progress that Carl Crawford has made. He has fantasy cachet because of his base-stealing prowess, but it’s the progress he’s made in other areas that’s more critical. From last season to this one, Crawford has improved his OBP by 11.3 percent, his SLG by 21.0 percent and his unintentional walk rate by 62.8 percent. Although his plate discipline is still below optimum levels, that last figure is particularly encouraging. Throw in his stellar defense in left and the fact that he’s still only 22 years of age, and you have a player who can be a vital member of the first relevant D-Rays team. How Crawford fares over the second half of the season will be telling.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Ted and Miggy–Not a “WB” Sitcom: We know all about Roy Halladay‘s mound chops, but if recent history is any guide, the Jays may be in for better fortunes in the months to come. Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly have both been highly impressive thus far in the month of June. Batista, who posted an ERA over 6.00 in the season’s first month, has a 1.48 ERA in 30.1 June innings. Lilly, meanwhile, has a 2.03 ERA for the month in 26.2 innings. It’s little wonder the duo has received quite a bit of attention in recent days.

    But before we declare Batista and Lilly as having made notable steps forward, we need to peer a bit more deeply at the numbers. Each has made four starts in June. Let’s break them down by opponent, opponent’s rank within their respective leagues in runs scored and current 2004 park factor for that particular game:

    Date Opponent    Offensive Rank    Park Factor
    6/3    @OAK            8th             994
    6/9     LOS           13th            1029
    6/15   @SFO            3rd             920
    6/20   @SDO           14th             920
    Averages               9.5             965.8
    Date Opponent    Offensive Rank   Park Factor
    6/2    @SEA           14th             936
    6/8     LOS           13th            1029
    6/13    ARI            8th            1029
    6/18   @SDO           12th             920
    Averages              11.8             978.5

    As you can see, both Batista and Lilly in the month of June have toiled largely against below-average offenses in pitcher’s environments. It may be that they indeed have turned a corner and will pitch much better in the weeks ahead, but the strides they’ve seemingly made in June may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

  • A Trade in the Minor Key: In a swap that passed under most radars, the Jays, in a trade with their Canadian label-mates in Montreal, picked up SS Julius Matos for INF G.J. Raymundo.

    Matos is a career minor leaguer who was drafted by the Indians way back in ’94 with a sixteenth-round pick. Coming into this season, Matos was a .279/.316/.375 career hitter in the minors. As a pro, he’s played every position but catcher, and while his upside at the highest level is nil, he will provide Syracuse with utility-infield help and back-of-the-roster pinch hitting.

    Raymundo, meanwhile, is a 26-year-old third baseman who put up a career line of .293/.372/.435 coming into this season. He has modest on-base skills, but he’s never hit for much power above the Cal League. He has more of a shot at some manner of usefulness in the majors than does Matos, but the Jays have no shortage of guys like Raymundo.

    On balance, this is a trade that will have negligible impact on either organization.

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