Atlanta Braves

  • Whither Chipper?: That the Braves will finally drift from contention this season is a familiar and foolhardy refrain. The Braves, with their slapdash pitching staff and aging iffy lineup, may well be headed for a 13th consecutive trip to the playoffs. After overcoming so many dire predictions in the past, that shouldn’t be surprising at this point. What is surprising is that the club has met with nominal success despite the struggles of its long-standing best hitter, Chipper Jones.

    At this writing, Jones is hitting a paltry .223/.336/.438, and he ranks a measly 13th in Value Over Replacement-Level Player (VORP) among NL third basemen. So is there any hope for a Chipper renaissance?

    Yup. Consider his peripheral skills: Jones’ ISO of .215 doesn’t lag far behind his career ISO of .232. What’s more, his 2004 Isolated OBP (AVG minus OBP), to concoct a metric, of .113 is actually better than his career mark of .096. In other words, Chipper’s doing what he’s always done, except hit as many singles and, ergo, post as high of a batting average. This season, Jones is hitting a single every 9.9 plate appearances. For his career as a whole, he’s averaged a single every 6.3 plate appearances. That’s a significant drop-off. While Chipper doesn’t have enough time to salvage a season in keeping with his career numbers, he does figure to have a strong second half. With his other skills intact, the singles, given better fortune, will likely start falling for him.

    Small sample sizes aside, recent trends indicate he’s back on track. Since July 1, Jones is hitting .268/.388/.536, and since the All-Star break he’s hitting .318/.423/.682. Jones is probably entering the decline phase of his career, but he’s still more productive than the first ten weeks of the season would lead you to believe. A regression to the mean for Chipper and a healthy Marcus Giles mean the Braves will be tough to beat in the NL East.

  • Under Orders: If the Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings Page is any guide (and it is), the Braves may need to fret more about the Mets than the Phillies or the Marlins. In terms of first-order standings, which are gleaned from each team’s runs scored and runs allowed according to the Pythagenport methodology, the Braves lead the Phillies by roughly three games and the Mets by roughly four. The second-order standings, which are Pythagenport-derived based on Equivalent Runs scored and Equivalent Runs allowed, have the Mets leading the Braves by roughly one game and the Marlins by a pair. And for third order standings, which use Equivalent Runs adjusted for quality of competition and, again, the Pythagenport method, the Mets lead the Braves and Marlins by the same margins. That’s good news for Mets fans, and a cautionary tale for the faithful at Turner Field.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Ah, to Be Young, Untested and Signed through 2013…: In the baseball world, bad ideas coming out of Tampa are about as shocking as a Rush Limbaugh divorce proceeding–easily anticipated and no longer novel. But this latest one hints at new levels of irresponsibility.

    Shortstop B.J. Upton started the season ranked a lofty eighth on our 2004 Top 50 Prospect List. And although he’s slated to be called up on August 1 and, hence, may exhaust his prospect status before next year, there’s a reasonable chance he could top our list next year. There’s no doubting that he’s lavishly gifted prospect; the second overall pick of the 2002 draft is hitting .311/.416/.541 at Triple-A Durham (good for the third-best EqA in the International League) at the unthinkable age of 19. It’s also worth noting that since Upton is a U.S. prep product, there’s no questioning the legitimacy of his age.

    Still, would you sign a player who’s yet to play a day in the majors to a nine-year contract? Of course not; it’s a silly idea. But according to a recent report in the St. Petersburg Times, that’s precisely what Rays GM Chuck LaMar is considering. LaMar met with Upton’s agent, Larry Reynolds, on July 19 and acknowledged that talks are underway on what could be an eight- or nine-year deal.

    Upton’s potential is unassailable, but to lock a player in to a guaranteed contract that will run almost a decade before he’s even made an appearance at the highest level is folly. Sure, erstwhile Cleveland GM John Hart was on to something when he bought out the arbitration and, in some instances, free agent years of some his young Indians charges. But that was after they’d shown they could handle major league competition.

    It’s possible that such a gambit could pay off for LaMar if, in fact, he’s in possession of the next Alex Rodriguez, but it’s an incredibly risky endeavor for a franchise that’s supposedly so blighted.

  • Gomes Sweet Gomes: Outfielder Jonny Gomes didn’t appear on the aforementioned 2004 Top 50 Prospects List, but he’ll almost certainly be there next year.

    Coming into this season, Gomes, an 18th-round choice in the 2001 draft, sported a career line of .270/.403/.525. That’s obviously impressive, but he’s done nothing but raise his stock since the end of the 2003 season. Gomes torched the Arizona Fall League this off-season to the tune of .295/.441/.705, and this year at Durham he’s hitting .256/.373/.563 with a .307 minor league EqA. While his career strikeout rate of one whiff every 2.8 at-bats is problematic and is probably suppressing his batting average to a degree, his secondary skills are substantial. Coming into 2004, Gomes sported a career Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO) of .255, which is excellent and points to his tremendous raw-power skills. He had also drawn an unintentional walk in 12.9 percent of his plate appearances. This season, he’s posted an outstanding .307 ISO, although his unintentional pass rate has dropped to 11.9 percent. Gomes has also shown an uncanny knack for reaching bass via the HBP, having been plunked a fairly astounding 90 times in his minor league career.

    He doesn’t have the range for center or the arm for right, but he can man a capable left field and certainly has the bat for it. Hey, and he also made Dayn Perry’s Triple-A All-Star Team for 2004.

    Gomes doesn’t have the ceiling of an Upton or the press clippings of Delmon Young, but he’s shaping up to be a special offensive talent.

Toronto Blue Jays

    Marcum Up: The Jays, thanks mostly to their recent emphasis on drafting high-command college pitchers, have cobbled together a near embarrassment of riches of quality arms within the system. Right-hander Shawn Marcum isn’t one who gets a great deal of ink, but he may be turning into a premium prospect.

    In 2003, the Jays selected Marcum, age 22, with a third-round pick out of Southwest Missouri State. In college, he multi-tasked as a shortstop and reliever, but since becoming a pro he’s been exclusively a pitcher. Upon signing, Marcum worked as a reliever last year in the short-season NY-Penn League, and he was dominant: 34 innings, 47 strikeouts, seven walks, one homer allowed, 1.59 runs/game.

    This season, the Jays transitioned him to a starting role, and he’s responded incredibly well. The first 13 starts of his pro career came at Charleston of the Sally League, where in 79 innings, Marcum whiffed 83, walked 16 (that’s a 5.19 K/BB ratio) and gave up 64 hits.

    After a June promotion to High-A Dunedin of the Florida State League, Marcum has pitched even better. In 35.1 innings, he’s struck 41 and walked only three. Marcum does show a modest weakness for the home run, but that career K/BB of 6.58 is simply filthy. His fastball hits the low 90s, and his slider is already a plus pitch. With the transition to starting, he’s also done a nice job of cultivating a curve and changeup. That he’s thrived to such a degree despite pitching at two different levels and plying his trade as a starter for the first time speaks highly for his future. He’s yet another pitcher to watch within the Jays’ system.

  • Bully Bargains: A dose of off-season conspicuous consumption hasn’t helped the Toronto bullpen this season.

    Using the Baseball Prospectus Reliever Evaluation Tools, we learn that, according to Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP), the two best Blue Jay relievers this season have also been the cheapest. Vinny Chulk and Jason Frasor have combined for 23.5 ARP while each costing Toronto only the league minimum. Terry Adams, Valerio de Los Santos, Justin Speier and Kerry Ligtenberg, meanwhile, have teamed up for a grisly -16.3 ARP while earning a combined $6.15 million. Hope they kept the receipts.

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