Atlanta Braves

Given that it’s spring training, let’s take a look this month at some players who might capture roles with their respective teams…

  • It’s about time:

    Wilson Betemit
    For all that the criticism he’s gotten for what he’s not, it’s time to give Wilson Betemit his shot. He’s never going to be the uberprospect so many desired, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make the adjustment to being a team contributor.

    The Braves need a utility infielder, and if they don’t give Andy Marte a shot, they need a contingency plan for aging iron glove Chipper Jones at third base.

    Betemit’s got a good enough glove to be useful, mostly at third. He’s got a little pop, can make contact and is still just 24. Here’s last year’s Triple-A line as well as this year’s PECOTA mean and 90th percentile projections, since he has wider variation than some players:

    Year Level    AB   H  2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    2004 AAA-Ric 356  99  24  2  13  32  99  3  3  .278 .336 .466  14.3
    2005 Pecota  233  59  13  2   7  23  61  3  1  .255 .321 .415   7.1
    2005 Pec90th 230  69  15  2   8  26  73  4  2  .300 .370 .491  17.4

    Betemit is still young enough, with enough demonstrated skill, to be a potential pleasant surprise if given playing time. Even the remote chance he could fulfill a fraction of his earlier expectations would make it interesting to give him some starts. Nick Green and Mike Hessman have their uses, but players like Jesse Garcia need not hold Betemit back from his date with destiny.

    Bill McCarthy
    When (not if) the Brian Jordan experiment runs into trouble, Bill McCarthy will be one of the internal solutions ready to fill the void.

    Year Level    AB   H  2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    2004 AA-Grn  233  70  12  2   9  26  67  1  2  .300 .375 .485   6.7
    2005 AAA-Ric 178  63  13  1   6  14  32  0  2  .354 .407 .539  17.6
    2005 Pecota  204  54  12  1   7  19  45  1  1  .268 .346 .446  14.5

    He’ll have to hit a little to help the Braves, but he and Ryan Langerhans should help the Braves resist the temptation to bring in the Tom Goodwin clones and consider it a solution.

  • Plan ‘B’ for the Bullpen: The Braves have consistently managed to build a bullpen from spare parts. This year, that will be more important than ever, with John Smoltz returning to the rotation. Danny Kolb may catch lightning in a bottle like the first half of last season, but the Braves need a contingency plan. Who might be ready to step onto the precipice?

    The first candidate is Chris Reitsma. Pros: Reliable. Established. Decent peripherals. Cons: Not going to go all Gagne on the league. What you see is what you get.

    Next option is Kevin Gryboski. Pros: Has gotten people out for a few years. Cons: We’re not sure how. The smoke and mirrors could disappear at any time. Strikeout-to-walk ratio of right around one the last three years; also hovering around a hit per inning pitched. May continue to be moderately effective, but certainly not the next Eck.

    Tom Martin. Pros: He’s not Jim Acker. He hasn’t had a Kevlar vest night sponsored in his honor yet. Cons: He’s 35 and seems to be the definition of mediocrity. Having said that, Leo Mazzone has turned similar non-descript veterans into gold.

    Ray Aguilar. Now here’s someone interesting. Pros: Since 2002, he’s averaged about a four-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio. Most of that time, he’s been able to strike out about a man per inning. He’s dominated as a reliever. And, as Tony Pena would say, he’s a leffftttyy. Cons: He struggled a bit at Triple-A Richmond last season as a starter. There isn’t really a good reason for the Braves not to give him a shot.

    Gabe White. Interesting project. Pros: Good command, good peripherals, has had plenty of success. Cons: The ball goes a long way when he’s too close to the plate; notorious flyball pitcher. Will be an interesting Mazzone project, as he can be very useful if the ball stays in the park.

    Jorge Vazquez. Crap shoot. Pros: Effective with good strikeout rates over parts of the past three seasons, definitely a live arm as long as he’s healthy. Cons: None significant, although his ERAs got a bit gaudy last season and his command could use a little improvement. Could be the most interesting Mazzone project of all.

    There’s a Darren Holmes missing here, and rest assured Mazzone and the Braves will find him. Judging by the look of the bullpen to date, they’ll need a pleasant surprise or two. Replacing the production of Smoltz, Juan Cruz and Antonio Alfonseca (yes, Mr. Six Fingers, El Pulpo himself) will not be easy.

  • Fifty-eight million: Tim Hudson has had a great career, but we wonder about giving him a $58 million contract. The Braves and Hudson agreed on a long-term deal that could last through 2010 and be worth $58 million; if they part ways after 2009, it’s a four-year, $47 million deal. We’re not big fans of most deals over for more than two or three years, given the risks involved in signing the typical already-reached-his-prime free agent. Factor in that Hudson’s a pitcher, and the deal’s even riskier. How likely is he to be worth all that money?

    Here’s a rundown on Hudson since he broke into the league in 1999:

    Year    IP    BABIP   K/9   G/F  HR/9   ERA  VORP
    1999   136.3  0.305  8.71  2.27  0.53  3.24  44.3
    2000   202.3  0.262  7.52  2.02  1.07  4.14  49.6
    2001   235.0  0.287  6.93  2.26  0.77  3.37  58.2
    2002   238.3  0.298  5.74  2.03  0.72  2.98  71.4
    2003   240.0  0.258  6.08  2.26  0.56  2.70  78.5
    2004   188.7  0.302  4.91  2.53  0.38  3.53  48.6

    Hudson’s a great pitcher, but there’s cause for concern in that pattern. The good news is that he kept the ball down in 2004 and continues to produce some of the best groundball:flyball ratios in the game. The bad news it that while Hudson hasn’t relied too heavily on missing bats in the past, pitchers with strikeout rates below five strikeouts per nine innings have an ugly history. The drop in strikeout rate, combined with a nagging oblique injury, could portend trouble ahead; last year was the first season since he came into the league that he didn’t break the 200-inning barrier.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Is it better to be fast … or good?:

    Joey Gathright
    Not since the dawn of the modern era, since the power struggle that is Castillierre in Florida, has there been a prospect of such mighty power dearth.

    Yes, we’re talking Joey Gathright, who will try to steal first base. He’s determined to make Scott Podsednik look positively Bondsian.

    PECOTA sees a player projected to be worth -8.7 VORP over 350 at-bats at his 50th percentile. Should be manage 500 at-bats, PECOTA projects 24 extra-base hits. To date, he’s managed all of 27 extra-base hits in 1,047 professional at-bats (none of them home runs). Jonny Gomes, who will likely be on the outside looking in at the friendly confines of Tropicana Field, projects to 57 extra-base hits in 500 at bats. By the way–Gomes projects to slug close to .500, Gathright just over .300. Gathright is incredibly fast, and will likely supplant teammate Carl Crawford as the fastest player in the league.

    How long he’ll stick around to do that is another question. What kind of historical precedent is there in the post-expansion era for a hitter with so little power? Since 1970, the following players have managed the fewest extra-base hits in 500 or more at-bats in one season:

    Name             Yr   Tm    AB   H  XBH  XBH/AB XBH/H
    Hernandez Enzo  1971  SDN  549  122  12  0.022  0.098
    Taveras Frank   1976  PIT  519  134  14  0.027  0.104
    Yelding Eric    1990  HOU  511  130  15  0.029  0.115
    Campaneris Bert 1976  OAK  536  137  16  0.030  0.117
    Cruz Julio      1978  SEA  550  129  16  0.029  0.124
    Foli Tim        1972  MON  540  130  16  0.030  0.123
    Ordonez Rey     1996  NYN  502  129  17  0.034  0.132
    Puckett Kirby   1984  MIN  557  165  17  0.031  0.103
    Weiss Walt      1993  FLO  500  133  17  0.034  0.128
    Caruso Mike     1999  CHA  529  132  17  0.032  0.129
    Metzger Roger   1972  HOU  641  142  17  0.027  0.120
    Remy Jerry      1976  CAL  502  132  17  0.034  0.129
    Manning Rick    1979  CLE  560  145  17  0.030  0.117
    Vizquel Omar    1993  SEA  560  143  18  0.032  0.126
    Millan Felix    1974  NYN  518  139  18  0.035  0.129
    Goodwin Tom     1998  TEX  520  151  18  0.035  0.119
    Randle Len      1976  TEX  539  121  18  0.033  0.149
    Lansford Carney 1990  OAK  507  136  19  0.037  0.140
    Sizemore Ted    1974  SLN  504  126  19  0.038  0.151
    Royster Jerry   1976  ATL  533  132  19  0.036  0.144

    Kirby Puckett’s probably the biggest surprise on the list, but more because of his career path; he hit .330 with a .116 ISO power in the minors, which suggested he could hit for around 150 points of ISO if he kept developing. According to Clay Davenport, his really low power numbers of 1984-85 are just as shocking as the high values of 1986-88. By 1986, Puckett had 74 extra-base hits with 31 home runs and the rest, as they say, is history. (Thanks to Keith Woolner and James Click for the above numbers as well.)

    Gathright’s not in rarified air just yet. Keep in mind there are a lot of middle-infield types on that list, many from the power-starved 1970s; meanwhile, Gathright needs to hit like a 21st-century outfielder. Sadly, there’s not much in his minor league career to suggest he has any talent besides speed. Maybe we’ll simply get to see how many stolen bases he can accumulate with a sub-.300 on-base percentage.

  • We’re not bad, we’re just drawn that way: First it was Alex Gonzalez. Then the parade of meaningless signings moved on to Roberto Alomar. If they brought him in to help mentor B.J. Upton and improve his defense, you could almost understand it. However, all accounts are that Upton will start the season at Triple-A to work on his defense.

    How bad has it gotten for Alomar? Let’s look at his 50th & 90th percentile PECOTA projections:

    Pct  AB    H  2B 3B HR  BB  SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    50   224  56  10  1  4  20  31  2  1  .252 .315 .360   0.1
    90   218  63  11  1  5  23  45  4  1  .289 .358 .413  10.0

    So, if things break really well for the Devil Rays, Alomar could give them about as much value as another cheap generic player on the market. Or, they could give some playing time to Jorge Cantu and see if he’s for real:

    Pct  AB    H  2B 3B HR  BB  SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    50   377  96  22  1 12  16  56  1  1  .256 .291 .415   4.8
    90   501  151 35  2 18  25 113  2  2  .301 .340 .488  34.7

    If Cantu’s a free-swinging pretender, they’ve spent the league minimum to get reasonable production, and can decide if they want to fish or cut bait. If, however, he surprises them, they’ve got a 23-year-old who profiles bit like Alfonso Soriano. Cantu deserves a clean shot at winning the starting job.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Jockeying Jays:

    Jason Alfaro
    New A’s starting second baseman Keith Ginter may be the best guide in looking at Jason Alfaro‘s career path. Alfaro can play a little as a utility infielder, much like Ginter. He was also stuck toiling in the upper levels of the Astros farm system. Ginter got a couple cups of coffee before the Brewers plucked him away; he’s since built a nice career.

    Alfaro’s last two season lines at Triple-A New Orleans read: .296/.354/.449 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 361 at-bats in 2003, .325/.363/.477 in 465 at-bats in 2004. New Orleans is an extreme pitcher’s park, establishing park factors of 880, 880 and 882 the last three seasons. By comparison, Dodger Stadium checked in at 922, 935 and 950, with Safeco Field in Seattle registering 943, 947 and 942. (Keep in mind, park factors are relative to league.) Bottom line, the man can hit.

    He’ll be 27 this season, the same age as Ginter was when he broke out with the Brewers. Don’t be surprised if Alfaro picks up his share of playing time, especially if Russ Adams stumbles out of the gate or Orlando Hudson or Corey Koskie miss time due to injury. Alfaro’s 2003-2004 numbers along with his PECOTA mean:

    Year Lvl Age   AB   H  2B 3B  HR  BB SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    2003 AAA  25  361  107 20  4   9  30 53  2  3 .296 .354 .449  24.6
    2004 AAA  26  465  151 32  0  13  26 58  3  6 .325 .363 .477  29.6
    2005 Pec  27  147   40  8  0   4   9 25  1  1 .273 .322 .418   6.2

    His biggest challenge will be finding playing time; as long as he can do so, the Jays may have a nice little surprise on their hands.

    Gabe Gross
    Gabe Gross has been a ‘tweener’ for a while now. He doesn’t have that new prospect sheen, but it’s not like he carries the Josh Hamilton air of disappointment either. Gross hasn’t slugged .500 since 2001 in the Florida State League, and that was in limited (126) at-bats.

    Still, there’s upside here. Gross has shown an ability to get on base, with good doubles power. This year will be critical in determining whether he becomes an everyday player or journeyman. PECOTA’s weighted-mean likes him a bit:

    Player Pos Age  AB   H   2B 3B  HR  BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    Gross  OF   25  278  75  16  1  10  35  60  3  2 .268 .354 .440  13.4

    So far Gross has taken advantage of his window this spring:

    Player  Pos Age  AB  H 2B 3B HR   AVG    SLG
    Gross   OF   25   8  5  0  0  4  .625  2.125

    All the usual sample size caveats and spring training warnings apply, but he’s doing what he needs to do thus far. Gross needs to make his move soon to avoid the career of a fourth outfielder.

    Brandon League
    One of the Jays’ top prospects, Brandon League brings high-90s heat and a nasty slider. Not just a toolsy fireballer, the results have shown up as well, with League showing particular prowess in keeping the ball in the park. Given the state of the Blue Jays’ bullpen last season, he’ll get a chance sooner or later. Last year’s line, along with his PECOTA:

    Year  Age    IP    H  BB  SO  HR   ERA  VORP
    2004   21  104.0  92  41  90   3  3.38  12.5
    2005   22   47.3  54  20  30   5  4.95   6.1

    Outside of a misstep in the second half of 2003, League’s had good peripherals, the scouting reports have been good and he’s kept his home runs allowed totals down. Perhaps related to that late swoon in 2003 and possible fatigue, League started spending time in relief in 2004. His command needs some improvement if he’s going to get back to starting. He may be a good candidate to work his way into the rotation through long relief, following the Jimmy Key path; even if he doesn’t, in all likelihood you’ve got a solid reliever on your hands for several years. Provided talented pitching prospects Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario continue their recovery from Tommy John surgery, they may well have the flexibility to experiment.

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