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Braves-haters know the story all too well. Injuries strike, the bullpen underperforms, Travis Smith somehow gets a start, yet Atlanta is still hovering at the fringes of the NL East race. Why? Same old, same old: John Schuerholz’s surprise offseason acquisition is making all the difference. This year, it’s Edgar Renteria.

At the time, Schuerholz’s trade for Renteria looked like a panic move: dump your uber-prospect to fill the position left vacant by your departing All-Star. Indeed, Renteria entered his age-30 season coming off back-to-back years with a 720-something OPS. PECOTA figured him for a mild bounceback into the 750 range, but given that he has topped that mark only four times in his ten-year career, including his Age-26 and -27 seasons, even that seemed optimistic.

After the first two months of the season, the picture is very different. Despite missing a few games with a strained ribcage, Renteria has been one of the primary offensive forces for the Braves. Leading the team with a .401 OBP, he trails only Omar Vizquel among NL shortstops in that department. His overall numbers so far this season recall nothing more than his career year in 2003–a campaign most observers wrote off as a peak-year fluke.

Making Schuerholz look even more savvy than usual, Renteria is the only player involved in that sequence of offseason moves to be performing well in 2006. Rafael Furcal‘s OBP is a respectable .341, but he’s slugging less than that. We’re years away from rendering a final judgment on Andy Marte‘s role in the deal, but if his May performance in Triple-A is any indication, he certainly isn’t ready to contribute at the big-league level. Even Julio Lugo, one of Atlanta’s alternatives to replace Furcal, missed the first month of the season on the DL, and has gotten on base less than 30% of the time since his return.

Of the replacement shortstop options that the Braves appeared to consider, the only one performing anywhere near Renteria’s level is Wilson Betemit. In his second full season, he profiles as a supersub-type, but hasn’t been used that way. Because of Chipper Jones‘s fragility, he’s gotten batches of starts at third both this season and last, and is also right behind Renteria on the depth chart at short.

When Jones and Renteria are healthy, Betemit has to instead settle for a pinch-hitting role. He’s one of the NL’s best hitters without a starting job: .295/.350/.516 in 95 ABs, including a .391 average in 23 pinch-hitting appearances. It’s understandable that Bobby Cox would want to keep that kind of weapon handy, but it’s questionable whether it’s the best use of his resources.

If Betemit can’t be moved around the diamond, the issue comes back to the flexibility of Chipper Jones. Even without Kelly Johnson, Cox has plenty of viable options in the outfield corners, but the situation isn’t the same at first base. Adam LaRoche has had a productive month, but it seems inevitable that there will be stretches where the Braves would much rather have LaRoche on the bench and Betemit in the lineup. Certainly Wilson would be a better option than Brian Jordan the next time LaRoche is out with an injury or has to be benched for laziness.

Is Chipper Jones about to move to first base to allow Bobby Cox to tweak his lineup at the margins? Probably not. However, Wilson Betemit is a man in need of a starting job, and if he keeps his OPS the neighborhood of 800, eventually he’ll have to be more than Chipper insurance.

Jeff Sackmann

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Entering the season, the Marlins were undergoing a well-publicized return to youth, and the expectation was that most of the kids would be overmatched. So far, much of that youth is proving that it belongs in the major leagues. May saw pitcher Josh Johnson win the National League Rookie of the Month award, beating out teammate Dan Uggla.

The fact that Florida had two contenders for that title shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Florida had 18 active players eligible for the honor. The average age for their roster is just 25.9 (the same figure for both their pitchers and hitters, actually).

The young pitchers haven’t had enough innings yet to constitute anything meaningful (Taylor Tankersley‘s three innings sure have been…great), so let’s save them for a later date. We have plenty to discuss about the young offense now that we’re about a third of the way through the year, though. Here are some highlights and lowlights on the offensive side from the everyday newbies:

(Each player’s name is followed by his age in parentheses, then his AVG/OBP/SLG, WARP1, and EQA. All stats current as of 6/7/06.)

1B Mike Jacobs (25), .236/.337/.420, .7, .267

OK, so maybe PECOTA was a little irrationally exuberant about last year’s .730 SLG with the Mets. His rather average-looking offensive line this year is heavily weighted by an abysmal April, when he hit just .179/.293/.346 out of the gate. He’s been far better since, hitting .280/.368/.470 post-April. Wes Helms took both first base starts last week against Noah Lowry and the Giants, a trend which has held up so far this year–Jacobs has just 44 ABs against lefties, with not-so-good results. As a righty-masher, though, he’s been terrific.

2B Dan Uggla (26), .303/.354/.459, 3.1, .283

Though his above-average OBP is batting-average driven, the Rule 5 pick has been the second-best second baseman in the league, behind Chase Utley. Chances are pretty good that if you saw this coming, you also own a Dan Uggla replica jersey. He’s not young, and he’s probably not a .300 hitter, but he’s making the most of his opportunity. To keep an eye on for the rest of the year: how he handles the power-suppressing nature of his home park. As of now, he has more road ABs, though he’s still hitting over .300 at home. He doesn’t have a great batting eye, so watch for opposing pitchers to exploit his need for contact.

SS Hanley Ramirez (22), .304/.371/.469, 2.3, .295

Ramirez’ VORP of 20.5 trails only Justin Verlander‘s 23.5 for tops in the majors among rookies. The major knock on Ramirez coming into this year was that, for a highly-touted prospect, his 2005 Double-A debut was rather unspectacular. You couldn’t tell that just by looking at his current line, though, as he’s been just about a perfect leadoff hitter this year. He’s not as dependent on contact as Uggla is, he’s been one of the more efficient basestealers in the majors (17 successes against 4 caught), and he’s in the top ten in all of baseball in terms of pitches seen per plate appearance (4.12).

This keystone combo has been one of the better stories in baseball so far, and the two players have been bright spots for Marlin fans who’ve already dealt with more than their fair share of turbulence over the last nine months. Here’s to hoping this excitement has some longevity.

LF Josh Willingham (27), .267/.353/.461, 1.2, .284

His season’s turning out about as well as expected. He’s terrible with the glove, hasn’t seen a whole lot of time behind the plate (despite manager Joe Girardi’s spring training proclamations), and has been a pretty good bat for the middle of the lineup, all of which was expected with him as he was pretty low-risk. This is probably as good as it gets with Willingham, as he’s not the type of player to age well, and the traditional downslope of a career is just around the corner.

RF Jeremy Hermida (22), .289/.394/.546, .4, .303

Hermida was a popular Rookie of the Year candidate coming into the year, but a hip flexor injury and a trip to the DL handicapped those early hopes, leaving him with a lot of ground to make up. His line, while solid, is still coming in only 60 ABs or so, so gleaning anything from it is pretty foolish. He’s outperforming his PECOTA weighted-mean projection in all three rate categories, but early signs are promising that he’s not like his #1 PECOTA comp (Jack Cust).

OF Reggie Abercrombie (25), .231/.287/.363, 0, .226

It’s really hard to believe he’s still just 25 considering he’s been kicking around the minors for what seems like forever. For a team that needed to remake almost an entire roster in one offseason, he wasn’t a terrible gamble, but he stands to lose time to both Joe Borchard and Cody Ross now that he’s confirmed that neither his hitting nor fielding are up to code. He’s almost the anti-ROY candidate: among rookies with significant playing time, his -3 VORP ranks ahead of only Chicago’s Brian Anderson (-8.8 VORP) and Baltimore’s Nick Markakis (-6.2). If Abercrombie were a Belgian-style witbier, he’d be the Saranac Belgian White: looks good, inexpensive, comes with an iffy track record so you suspect it won’t be that great, and yet it still manages to disappoint you.

John Erhardt

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