It’s no secret that we here at Baseball Prospectus have a great deal of respect for the accomplishments of the Atlanta Braves. Their unprecedented run of 13 straight playoff appearances is remarkable, for it represents the ability of an organization to retool on the fly, turning over a roster multiple times while maintaining the ability to win now. The Braves have built from within through excellent scouting and drafting, traded astutely, and filled in the gaps with some smart free agent picks (Greg Maddux being, of course, the smartest). That they have only one World Championship to show for this run is beside the point; anything can happen in a short series and usually does. Building this kind of longevity in a winner is a testament to a great, well-rounded organization, from general manager John Schuerholz on down.
Lo and behold, the Braves are at it again, having recently zoomed past the Washington Nationals and into first place, swinging the balance of power in the NL East by about 10 games in the standings over a six-week period and doing so with a roster that’s included as many as 10 rookies. Most notably, Jeff Francoeur has hit a whopping .397/.405/.781 with seven homers in his first 21 games, Wilson Betemit has hit .307/.360/.474 while covering for an injured Chipper Jones, and Kyle Davies has stepped into a rotation that’s had as many as four starters on the DL and has been better than league-average. Meanwhile, Schuerholz made one of the few notable deals at a quiet trading deadline, acquiring gas-throwing reliever Kyle Farnsworth for Roman Colon and Zach Miner, two live arms who may or may not amount to much in Detroit and points beyond.
Trading tomorrow’s talent for a shot at today’s pennant is a common strategy, of course, and it’s worth a closer look to see how a given team fares in those exchanges. Last summer, as the trading deadline approached, I examined the track record of the Yankees front office in light of the previous year’s Brandon Claussen-for-Aaron Boone deal. Rather than be concerned with who the Yanks received in return or whether they “won” a particular trade based on some VORP- or WARP-related accounting, I focused on another issue: how well did the players they traded turn out?
To answer that, I examined every trade the Yankees made over a roughly 10-year period from the end of the ’93 season to Opening Day 2004. Not including conditional deals and ones in which no prospect for either side made the majors, the Yanks made 76 trades. In 44 of them, they traded what I termed unproven talent, players with fewer than 502 career major-league plate appearances or 162 career major-league innings pitched–an arbitrary cutoff, but one in which the numbers represent a single-season of qualifying for the batting or ERA crowns. This yielded a total pool of 70 players, the majority of which were still active at some level of professional baseball. For each, I recorded the player’s post-trade Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP3) career and single-season peak total.
While the books remain open on those active players, the results were nonetheless revealing. At the time the article was written, only 10 of the 70 players had accumulated even 10.0 WARP, a “career of consequence,” as I termed it, on the level of Homer Bush. At best, another seven have legitimate shots at achieving such lofty heights. In other words, less than 25 percent panned out to that admittedly arbitrary level of accomplishment.
That seems like a low figure, but we lack the context to evaluate it properly. While I dream of the day I can commandeer a fleet of SQL-savvy interns to undertake a thorough study of the other 29 teams, that day hasn’t arrived. But in the year since I wrote “The Claussen Pickle,” I’ve been struck by how often someone suggested I tackle the question from the standpoint of the Braves, using a timeline that covered Schuerholz’s tenure since his October 1990 hiring.
If the Yankees have done reasonably well at judging which of their prospects wouldn’t come back to haunt them if traded, then the Braves have done even better. Thus far only six of the 80 players who qualified for this study have had the so-called career of consequence, and while the books have yet to close on many of the others, the Braves ought to come out significantly ahead of their pinstriped counterparts.
Evaluating the retired players is the easiest task. Of the 42 who met the criteria, only two went on to accumulate more than 10 WARP, both of them relievers: Turk Wendell and Tony Castillo. Only 14 even managed 1.0 WARP:
Player, Pos W3 post Peak Turk Wendell, P 22.1 4.8 Tony Castillo, P 16.3 4.4 Melvin Nieves, OF 7.0 2.7 Tyler Houston, IF 6.8 1.7 Yorkis Perez, P 6.5 1.3 Tony Tarasco, OF 5.8 3.6 Joe Roa, P 4.9 1.8 Ben Rivera, P 4.5 3.2 Matt Turner, P 3.8 3.3 Rico Rossy, IF 1.9 1.2 Freddy Garcia, IF 1.5 1.7 Donnie Elliot, P 1.1 1.0 Mike Porzio, P 1.1 0.9 Pat Gomez, P 1.1 0.6
As a group, the 42 players accumulated 83.5 WARP, an average of 2.0 apiece. The 23 pitchers contributed 61.0 WARP to the equation, nearly three-quarters of the value. That figure is distorted by Wendell and Castillo, though some of the other pitchers can claim brief spots of usefulness. The 20 hitters averaged 1.1 WARP apiece, and unless you’ve got a fetish for spare parts such as Tyler Houston, Melvin Nieves, or Tony Tarasco, the pickings are much slimmer. For comparison, the 25 traded Yankees prospects who had retired averaged just 0.9 WARP, with Russ Davis‘ 8.9 topping the list.
Turning to the 38 active players, 12 have seen time in the major leagues in 2005 (all data through August 5):
Player, Pos Team W3 post Peak Jason Schmidt, P SF 40.4 8.4 Jermaine Dye, OF CHA 34.2 8.2 Esteban Yan, P LAA 18.5 4.0 Ray King, P STL 12.7 2.8 Jamie Walker, P DET 9.3 2.6 Rob Bell, P TB 7.2 3.0 Chad Fox, P CHC 7.1 3.6 Wes Helms, IF MIL 4.6 2.9 Nick Green, IF TB 2.5 2.1 Damon Hollins, OF TB 2.3 1.1 John Foster, P ATL 1.8 0.7 David Cortes, P COL 0.9 0.4
Looking at the current season’s stats:
Player Team Age PA EqA RARP WARP1 Dye CHA 31 384 .383 17.4 3.1 Helms MIL 29 122 .269 3.2 1.1 Green TB 26 291 .265 9.5 2.1 Hollins TB 31 261 .285 14.4 2.3 Player Team Age IP ERA PRAR WARP1 Schmidt SF 32 128.3 4.28 29 2.2 Yan LAA 30 47.3 3.80 7 1.0 King STL 31 29.0 2.79 10 1.2 Walker DET 33 35.3 2.55 16 2.2 Bell TB 28 25.0 8.28 -4 -0.4 Fox CHC 34 8.0 6.75 0 0.0 Foster ATL 27 22.0 3.68 8 1.1 Cortes COL 31 27.3 4.25 7 1.0
This list, not surprisingly, includes a few who got away. Both Jason Schmidt and Jermaine Dye have had long, successful careers that have far surpassed those players the Braves acquired for them (Denny Neagle for the former in 1996 and Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart for the latter in 1997). Though he’s struggled a bit this year, Schmidt developed into a Cy Young contender as a Giant after a half-dozen so-so seasons in Pittsburgh. Dye, now with the White Sox, has finally put the broken leg he sustained in the 2002 postseason behind him. He’s got some pop, with 182 homers and a career slugging percentage of .466, but his lack of plate discipline (just a .333 lifetime OBP) means he’ll never be confused with an elite hitter.
Elsewhere, this group is dominated by relievers of varying success. Ray King, who was actually traded twice by the Braves before reaching the 162-inning qualifier, has developed into one of the game’s top lefties under Tony LaRussa. Jamie Walker is a decent situational lefty for the Tigers, while John Foster has returned to the Braves to fulfill that same role. Esteban Yan has had intermittent success while wandering in a desert of 5.00 ERAs. Chad Fox ought to have a scalpel as the logo on his cap; he’s one of the few players to have undergone two Tommy John surgeries and at last notice, was staring down the barrel at a third. David Cortes is a 31-year-old rookie pitching in Colorado with a reasonable amount of success. Rob Bell has spent much of the season on the disabled list battling anxiety attacks, as if being a Devil Ray weren’t bad enough. He’s currently rehabbing at Triple-A Durham, but with a double-digit ERA.
Turning to the hitters, Wes Helms is a decent corner infielder off the bench for the Brewers. Nick Green is a semi-regular second-baseman for the Rays, where he’s joined by Damon Hollins, a 31-year-old rookie who has taken a long, strange trip to the majors. Drafted by Atlanta in 1992, Hollins spent the better part of seven seasons in the Braves’ system, getting a brief sip of coffee with the big club before being traded to the Dodgers, for whom he was a September callup. He bounced through the Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Minnesota systems before returning to the Braves last year, where he got all of 22 at-bats. Signed as a minor-league free agent over the winter, he’s been a bright spot for the Rays in an otherwise dark season. That’s perseverance.
This leaves a pool of 26 players. Seven have yet to appear in 2005 and may well join the retirees before too long (if they haven’t already). Outfielder Mike Kelly (4.0 WARP) was last seen playing for the Yankees Triple-A Columbus affiliate last year. First baseman Ron Wright (0.0), remembered for a one-game big-league career that included hitting into both a triple play and a double play for the Mariners in 2002, was sighted in the independent Northern League last year. The rest are TNSTAAPP exhibits: Jason Shiell (0.6) and Tim Spooneybarger (0.9) are both recovering from Tommy John surgery. Jimmy Osting (-0.1) was last seen disabled by a shoulder injury in the Tampa Bay system. Ruben Quevedo (1.5) lasted only a single inning with the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate in 2004 and left no forwarding address. Elvis Perez (no major league record) was released by the Mariners last year. So it goes.
The remaining 19 include the familiar names of organizational war horses whose big-league shots have come and gone (George Lombard, Roosevelt Brown, Micah Bowie, Brad Voyles) sprinkled with a few bona fide prospects. All stats below are through August 6. As an aside, it’s worth bemoaning the state of minor league statistics on the Internet. Whether at Baseball America or MinorLeagueBaseball.com or individual team sites, team pages list only current players; if they’ve been promoted or demoted, fuggedaboutit. The individual player lines available via stat searches don’t include such crucial data as total batters faced, so in some cases (denoted by asterisks) estimates have been used to figure batting averages on balls in play.
Pitchers Age Level IP ERA K/9 K/W HR/9 BABIP WARP Winston Abreu 28 AAA-PCL 32 5.91 11.3 3.1 1.4 .365 0.0 AAA-Mex 20 1.35 14.4 6.4 0.0 .270* Jung Keun Bong 25 A+-FSL 4 4.50 2.3 1.0 0.0 .267 -0.1 Micah Bowie 30 AA-Eas 4 6.23 10.4 5.0 2.1 .462 -0.2 R-GCL 8 1.08 13.0 12.0 0.0 .409* Andy Brown 24 AAA-Int 57 3.63 11.7 4.6 1.1 .288 0.0 Jose Capellan 24 AAA-PCL 89 3.96 7.1 1.8 0.4 .307 0.0 Ben Kozlowski 24 AAA-Int 11 3.18 5.6 1.8 1.6 .297 0.1 AA-Sou 111 4.04 6.6 2.6 0.8 .329* Matt Merricks 22 A+-FSL 25 3.91 8.9 2.5 1.8 .203 0.0 A+-Cal 2 7.71 7.7 1.0 0.0 .444* Dan Meyer 24 AAA-PCL 71 5.45 6.5 1.5 1.6 .309 0.0 Bubba Nelson 23 AA-Sou 56 4.95 9.1 2.6 0.6 .337 0.0 Andy Pratt 25 AAA-PCL 51 8.35 9.1 1.3 2.0 .359* -0.6 AA-Sou 14 3.86 12.9 2.0 1.9 .310 Brad Voyles 28 AAA-Int 86 4.60 7.5 2.3 1.4 .288 0.4 Adam Wainwright 23 AAA-PCL 144 4.70 6.7 2.6 1.0 .320 0.0 Alec Zumwalt 24 AA-Sou 45 4.80 6.4 1.7 1.0 .290 0.0 Hitters Age Level Pos PA AVG OBP SLG WARP Roosevelt Brown 29 AAA-Int OF 317 .298 .368 .484 1.8 Troy Cameron 26 AAA-PCL 3B 15 .071 .133 .071 0.0 AA-Sou 32 .138 .219 .172 Richard Lewis 25 AAA-PCL IF 208 .207 .277 .277 0.0 AA-Sou 13 .182 .308 .455 A+-FSL 82 .246 .373 .333 George Lombard 29 AAA-Int OF 465 .257 .341 .460 1.1 Fernando Lunar 28 AAA-Int C 91 .170 .189 .227 1.2 Alej. Machado 23 AAA-Int 2B 366 .319 .375 .386 0.0
First, the pitchers. Two of them here made our Top 50 Prospect List and were key components in high-profile winter deals. Southpaw Dan Meyer, #29 on the list, was sent to the Oakland A’s in the Tim Hudson trade. He’s had a rough year in Triple-A, one that’s included being sidelined by shoulder fatigue. That’s better than a tear or a sprain, but his year looks to be somewhat lost. Our #40 prospect, Jose Capellan, was acquired by the Brewers in the Danny Kolb trade. Capellan can dial up his fastball near 100 MPH, but he lacks a strong supporting repertoire. He’s well suited to wind up as a reliever in someone’s bullpen before too long. To that end, the Brewers moved him to the bullpen at Triple-A Nashville in June and he’s been stellar thus far.
Of the rest, Andrew Brown, sent away to the Dodgers in the Gary Sheffield deal, has put up an excellent year in Buffalo (the Indians acquired him in the Milton Bradley trade) while moving beyond his injury woes. In a bullpen less successful than the Indians, he’d have merited a shot already; he may get one come September. Six-foot-six Adam Wainwright, acquired by St. Louis in the J.D. Drew deal, was at one point the Braves’ top pitching prospect and then bore the same title for the Cardinals. His stock has fallen in the wake of elbow troubles–and so have his strikeout rates–but he’s young enough that he may sort it out yet. Lefty Matt Merricks, sent to the Dodgers in the Tom Martin deal, was a Rule 5 pick by the Rockies this past winter. They placed him on the DL with a strained shoulder, farmed him out on a rehab assignment, and ultimately returned him to the Dodger organization.
The Reds have three of these former Brave prospects. After getting rocked in Triple-A last year, Bubba Nelson, traded to Cincinnati in the Chris Reitsma deal, has had some success out of the bullpen in Double-A. Also in that deal was Jung Keun Bong, a pitcher whose name always elicits coughs, giggles, and suspicious glances. Bong made some negative headlines recently (no, not for that); while recovering from shoulder surgery, he was arrested on domestic battery charges. Ick. Happier news from the Reds chain comes in the form of lefty Ben Kozlowski, who’s recovering nicely from 2003 Tommy John surgery and a subsequent cleanup last fall. His fastball tops out in the high 80s, but his curve draws good reviews.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to write home about among this batch, or among the hitters either. The only hitter with any hope for a real future in the bigs is Alejandro Machado, who’s spent time in the Kansas City, Washington and Boston chains since leaving the Braves. Now in Pawtucket, he played second base for the first couple months of the season, but shifted back to shortstop to accommodate Dustin Pedroia, who was promoted from Double-A. Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez figure to be the real future of the Sox infield. As befits someone whose top PECOTA comp is Jose Oquendo, Machado, with little power but a decent batting eye, reasonable glove, and raw speed, might eventually make it somewhere as a utilityman.
That’s more than can be said for the rest. Richard Lewis, not to be confused with Larry David’s pal, was the Southern League MVP in 2004, hitting .329/.391/.532, but his development has stalled. He made a weak showing in Triple-A Iowa, was demoted to High-A, and has yet to get back on track in Double-A. Caveat emptor. Lombard and Brown are Triple-A vets who might help as someone’s stopgap in the near future, but they’re mainly organizational players at this point. Troy Cameron and Fernando Lunar both drew their walking papers earlier this summer. Meh.
Taken all together, the Braves come out way ahead of the Yankees in this analysis. Six out of 80 have reached the career of consequence level, and even if that number doubles, that’s only 15 percent, well behind the 25 percent ceiling of success estimated for the ex-Yankees. Of the current big leaguers, Jamie Walker and perhaps a couple of the others might reach 10 WARP, though it’s safe to say none will top Schmidt or Dye. Similarly, it’s unlikely that more than a few of these minor leaguers will pan out to that level, let alone surpass that duo. The pitchers are a much stronger group than the hitters, but an alarming number of them appear to be working their way back from one arm problem or another–the Injury Nexus strikes again. John Schuerholz should sleep well at night knowing he hasn’t let too many useful prospects get away.
Peter Quadrino contributed research to this article.