Archive for July, 2007

Salty for Tex

Yesterday, the trade we’ve been hearing about for two weeks finally happened. The Braves sent Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, and a PTBNL (most likely Matt Harrison) to the Rangers for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. This is one of those trades where you really have to pay attention to the contract status of the players. Salty is in his first year of service, so he is going to be cheap for several years to come. None of the other Braves prospects have any MLB service time. Tex makes $9 million this year and has one more year of arbitration and Mahay makes $1.2 million and will become a free agent. In other words, the Braves just sent a lot of cheap talent to the Rangers in return for superior expensive talent. But this doesn’t mean it was a bad deal. Actually, I like the move.

Both Tex and Mahay are earning salaries slightly less than they generate in revenue. I have Mahay valued around $3.5 million and Teixeira around $11 million for 2006. With revenue growth they’re both probably contributing more than that. It’s tough to lose a guy like Salty, but I think the Braves are going to win now. Salty probably ought to be playing catcher until he proves his bat is good enough to play in the field. And what the Braves get in return is good. Teixeira is an excellent hitter and defender, and Mahay gives the team a decent lefty in the pen. The Rangers get some quality talent to win down the road. It’s no surprise for me that the deal makes sense for both teams: voluntary trade is mutually beneficial, and Scheurholz and Daniels are smart guys. This deal reminds me of the J.D. Drew trade, where the Braves gave up some quality prospects to win now.

Why did the Braves go for hitting instead of pitching? Well, pitching is expensive right now. What matters is the run differential. If you can’t stop the other team from scoring, you need to score more runs. Plus, Scheurholz may find some pitching by the end of the day—rumor has it that Octavio Dotel is coming to the Braves for Kyle Davies.

I am somewhat surprised to see the Braves give up so much young pitching. If Davies and Harrison go, the Braves are going to have to find some major-league ready pitching help for next year. I don’t think Jo-Jo Reyes is quite ready, and I wish the Braves could afford to let him get some more seasoning in the minors.

Will the Braves sign Teixeira long term? I think it makes sense to try to do so in the offseason. Play against a player’s fear of injury and fondness for Atlanta and lock him up if you can.

Celebrating 756

You can read my thoughts on Barry Bonds’s pursuit of the record for all-time home runs in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In years to come, we may learn that Bonds broke the rules. At that time, it will be proper to view Bonds with contempt. But what if that day never comes? Baseball fans will have missed the opportunity to celebrate a truly great achievement and give credit to a man who deserves it. As a baseball fan, I am going to enjoy watching Bonds breaking the record, and I hope other baseball fans choose to do so, too.

What Happened to Andy Marte?

Two years ago, the Braves traded away the number-one-rated prospect in baseball Andy Marte. At the time, the Braves had bounced him up and down from Atlanta to Richmond for a year. Yes, prospects are prospects, but he looked ready to hit the majors full time after he was shipped to Boston and then Cleveland during the 2005-2006 offseason.

In Richmond (2005), Marte posted a .275/.372/.506 line at the age of 21. This followed a .269/.364/.525 season in Double-A Greenville. When I take a quick look at a prospect, I look at two things: walk rate and power. He had walk rate of 12.9% and isolated-power of .256 in Greenville; 13.9% and .231 in Richmond. Basically, I thought he was a lock to be a major league regular if not something special. Now, he’s not too old to give up on, but he has definitely fallen off the right track.

Since the Braves swapped him for Edgar Renteria, Marte has spent most of his time in Triple-A Buffalo. Coming into this season, I thought his 2006 was just a bad year (.261/.321/.451), but his 2007 is looking even worse (.245/.282/.439). In particular, he’s lost his ability to walk and hit for power. In 2006, his walk rate and isolated-power dropped to 8.7% and .190. In 2007, he’s at 5.3% and .194.

There have been many top prospects who just couldn’t cut it in the majors, but I cannot remember seeing someone so primed for stardom stall out in his third season in Triple-A. I wish I had the answer as to why.

What Can Baseball Learn from Cycling?

If you think Barry Bonds’s home run chase is juicy, then take a look at the Tour de France. Yesterday, after an exciting stage win that virtually guaranteed him to win the Tour, Michael Rasmussen was pulled from the race by his own team. Why? Supposedly he didn’t follow some team rules after the race, and allegations about some missed drug tests prior to the race were already dogging him. The day prior, Alexander Vinokourov was kicked off the tour for failing a drug test.

Some in the French media have asked for the cancellation of this year’s Tour. After all, when top contenders are being yanked from the race, what is the point of watching? I watched the end of the race yesterday with much excitement. I was reminded of how much fun cycling can be, only to learn that it didn’t matter. The men who had just had their saddles handed to them by Rasmussen had really finished first and second.

I think the most troubling part of the doping cloud that surrounds cycling is that the procedures designed to keep the race clean are failing miserably. We should know soon whether last year’s Tour winner Floyd Landis is stripped of his title. His arbitration hearing in May revealed the testing safeguards are a charade—a system designed to make it look as if the sport’s overseers are in control. Rumors and speculation are enough to bar riders from the races. It’s now clear that whatever testing procedures are in place have no deterrent effect. And why should they? The testimony of the lab “technicians” in charge of Landis’s blood samples revealed the testers were incompetent. There was no secrecy, gaps in the chain of custody, and—worst of all—the people running the tests did not know how to operate the machinery used to run the tests. Hey, if you’re going to railroad the guy, at least educate your own witnesses. But why go to the effort? If a rider fails a test, he’s guilty. There is no need to look at problems with the test or the system.

What the Landis case has done is reveal that the convicted riders have a legitimate beef with the system. Every criminal claims his innocence, so we are normally skeptical of these complaints. When the Rasmussen news broke, my first thought was not “I’m glad they busted that cheat”—which it should have been—but, “I guess the organizers told the team to make him go away or you’ll pay the price.” It is possible that Rasmussen did purposely avoid drug tests to hide illicit activity, but my first reaction was skepticism of the system not the rider. Drug tests are useless if we have no confidence in the results, no matter the outcome. If I’m a cyclist, why not cheat? If you’re not popular you’re going to catch hell anyway, especially if you are good, so it makes sense to do what you are accused of doing anyway.

The bodies that oversee doping in international sports need to start over. Fire Dick Pound and others in charge of catching dopers. In their quest to bring legitimacy to the sport they set up a system designed to show “hey, we’re doing something” rather than actually doing something. Set up a system with true confidentiality in testing and employ multiple competent labs and personnel that know what they are doing and don’t leak results to the media. Teams should also take a role by starting their own testing programs than use independent labs to keep tabs on their own riders and make all results public to gain the trust of fans.

This is a circus. Few are willing to criticize the system, because that means siding with dopers. But siding with the alternative is a little more repulsive.

The Harry Potter Effect

I’m a big Harry Potter fan. Despite my plan to purchase Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows after waking up on Saturday morning, I could not resist temptation and found myself in line at Kroger at 11:55pm on Friday night. Coincidentally, I had purchased Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix at this same store four years ago, and there were only about five people in line then. On Friday, there were about 50 people there. I’d hate to have been at the nearby Barnes & Noble.

Anyway, when I wasn’t sleeping or playing with the kids on Saturday, I read the book. I finished it about 24 hours after making the purchase (I loved it!). I did not even think about turning on the Braves game, which is rare for me. I don’t think I’ve missed a televised Saturday game in a long time. Given the popularity of the book, I wondered how many others did the same and if this had an effect on alternative forms of entertainment, like baseball games.

The league averaged 39,110 fans at the ballpark on Saturday. Last season, these same home teams averaged 38,003 for Saturday games in July. That’s an increase of 2.9 percent over the 2006 season. Attendance is up this year; but, because of scheduling differences and other problems, isolating how much attendance is up is difficult. Looking at the 2006 and 2007 seasons through July 22, game attendance is up about 4 percent—1.1 percentage points more than this past Saturday’s increase. Assuming that the league’s attendance would have been four percent higher than it was in July 2006, Harry Potter cost teams an average of 418 fans per game—a total of 6,270 fans. Using average ticket prices this translates to about $138,000 in lost gate revenue. Add in concessions and the losses are still small. The biggest impact probably occurred with in television watching—these are the marginal baseball watchers most likely to skip a game for book—but I suspect the effect there was not all that large either.

In any event, these numbers are rough (jagged is more like it) and just for fun. Speaking of fun, I feel like I need to read the book again. :-)

About Comments

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in comments that has forced me to disallow several submitted comments over the past few weeks. There is no need to be insulting or rude if you do not like what someone else says. This is not a chat room or a message board where posters engage in insult wars. I don’t mind criticism or disagreement, but I ask that you be polite. Before you post something, ask yourself if any statements that you make are irrelevant to the discussion. Phrases like, “I normally like what you have to say, but X is ridiculous”, “you make me laugh”, or “you’re an idiot” add nothing to the discussion except to insult me or other commenters. They should be excluded. I could respond, but I don’t really care to get involved with discussions with such people. I just remove such comments in order to keep things civil. If you don’t like this, feel free to start your own blog and rant about me all day long. I don’t care.

Julio Franco

So, the Braves are bringing Julio Franco back. Most likely the Braves will send a pitcher down—they have 13 on the roster, and Ascanio, Davies, and Reyes could all use some time in the minors—and Julio will join Thorman in a pinch hitter platoon off the bench. I suspect he’ll get a few starts against lefties when Salty gets days off—he’ll need them if he’s backing up McCann—and play in blowouts.

I like the move probably more than I should, because I like Julio. But the Braves always add a veteran PH about this time every year, and I prefer to have someone who is cheap (prorated league minimum) who has a good approach. While he didn’t do much with the Mets this year, he didn’t get much of an opportunity. He hit .200 in just 50 ABs, but he walked 10 times. Maybe some of that plate discipline will rub off on teammates. The Mets have started the leak machine that he’s done and that he was a clubhouse problem, which nearly guarantees he’ll punish the Mets later this year. Come on guys, have a little class. We don’t need someone to tell us he’s old, and I don’t think anyone is buying the bad teammate story. In Atlanta, it will be nice to have another right-handed batter on the bench. If he’s done, well he’s done. But it’s hard to imagine he’s a worse option as a PH than Chris Woodward.

I see a few losers for the Braves: Scott Thorman (obviously), Brayan Pena (now there really isn’t a place for him, unless Thorman is moved), and Terry Pendleton. By all accounts, Julio is popular with Braves players, and I don’t think many will turn a deaf ear to his advice. If his career ends at the conclusion of the year, and players give Julio some credit (instead of other players’ fathers), TP might find himself in a new position.

How Long in the Oven?

Last night, Kyle Davies hit near rock bottom when he was pulled from the game without recording an out. He faced five men, issuing three walks and two singles.

Davies now has a career ERA of 6.15 (70 ERA+) with 6.53 K9, 4.78 BB9, and 1.29 HR9—not good. But he’s only 23 years old—younger than many of the top Braves prospects. Davies has pitched 237 innings in the majors since he was called up in 2005 at the age of 21. Kyle pitched exceptionally well early in his minor league career, but was merely good at Double-A and Triple-A. He made it all the way from Myrtle Beach to Richmond in 2004, the year before he received his call to the big leagues. He would be sent back to Richmond in 2005, but he began 2006 in Atlanta (I think this is right). His woeful 2006 campaign was interrupted by a groin tear. I suspect that he will be sent back to the minors today.

Was Davies rushed? If so, how can we know if he was rushed? These are difficult questions to answer, but they are important. While some favor letting the kids play as soon as possible, I wonder what is lost when a player is forced to play when he is not ready. And there is also the possibility that playing above your true talent level early on can harm development.

If Davies had stayed in the minors, he would be working on getting to the majors. The downside of playing in the minors playing baseball against inferior talent, but the upside is working on potential problems to aid is future performance. In the minors, a pitcher can work on developing new pitches, painting corners, and experiment with new mechanics in game conditions without risking damage to the major league club. At 23 Davies is far too young to give up on, but I wonder where he would be if he hadn’t been called into duty so early. We can never know, but I don’t see he’s gained much from pitching at the big league level. I also wonder if his excellent start in 2005 gave him a false sense of his ability.

This leads me to Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy was called up unexpectedly in the 2005 season after the Mondesi-Jordan experiment failed. At the time, he was posting an .809 OPS in Double-A with a walk rate less than six percent. This is not bad for a 21-year-old prospect, but not dominant. Brian McCann, on the other hand, had been called into emergency duty with an injury to Johnny Estrada and Brayan Pena’s inability to call a game. His OPS in Mississippi wasn’t much higher than Francoeur’s, but his walk rate was nearly 13 percent, which he had improved over the previous season. McCann showed all the signs of a player who had used the minors to improve, while Francoeur was still developing. I’m not surprised that McCann has become the better player.

Francoeur surprised me by posting a .885 OPS in 2005. He batted .300 and hit 14 homers in 70 games (a pace that would have given him 32 over 162 games) while swinging at everything. McCann posted a respectable .745 OPS in 50 games, but he maintained his excellent walk rate. I have speculated before that Francoeur’s fast start was a combination of good play, excellent luck, and poor advance scouting. It’s a formula that is great for the present, but not so good for the long term. Frenchy became an Atlanta hero. Even when he’s in a slump, no other player gets as many cheers at Braves games. He admitted that his fast start lulled him to sleep, and it may have stunted his development. He hit .300 and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, what more did he have to learn? In 2006 and 2007 his OPS has been more than 100 points below his 2005. He continues his free swinging ways, and I have to wonder if he is going to develop into anything more than an passable right fielder.

But did rushing him to the big leagues have anything to do with his development? We can’t know. He might have become a better player or it may have just prolonged his minor league career. It’s something we should study and think about more. It is a question that ought to be of great importance to teams.

Braves Mid-Term Grades

I meant to post this a week ago, but things kept getting in the way. The grades below are based on performance before the All-Star break.

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I’m back from my vacation on the South Carolina coast. Given the “popularity” of my last post on the Braves I thought I’d do another. Grades are based on performance relative to the player’s position. I do not weight performance according to age. Numbers in parentheses are OPS+ for hitters and ERA+ for pitchers.

Hitters
Chipper Jones (168) A: Chipper Jones is having another season of outstanding offense limited by injury. If he could stay healthy he’d be getting a lot more recognition.

Edgar Renteria (130) A: Edgar is having another nice offensive season. For a shortstop, he’s off the charts good. I wish he were a better defender, but he gets the job done. The year in Boston was a fluke (let’s forget that “he’s an NL player bullplop”), and he will continue to be a productive hitter for several years.

Kelly Johnson (128) A: Kelly has had a magnificent first half, yet he finds himself out of a jobs as the leadoff hitter and the team’s everyday second baseman. Willie Harris’s hot bat, combined with his speed, has taken his place as the leadoff hitter when both are in the lineup. Hot prospect Yunel Escobar leads off and plays seconds against left-handers. I feel bad for Kelly, because he’s had a good season and might have had a shot at the All-Star team with a little publicity. To his credit, he’s handled the situation well and should find himself back in the everyday leadoff role before long. Kelly is a guy that the Braves might want to think about locking up to a long-term deal. At worst, Kelly is a solid big-league player and I expect him to have a better career than Jeff Francoeur. He doesn’t have the eye of the public like Francoeur or McCann and might be willing to secure his future at a low price.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (125) A: Speaking of flukes, I think Salty’s year in Mississippi was a poor indication of what type of player this kid is. He may be hitting a bit over his true ability, but he’s doing quite well for a 22-year-old catcher/first baseman. I think he’ll being playing first base everyday before long.

Matt Diaz (125) B+: Why did the Royals let this guy go? What sort of roster crunch necessitates giving up on a guy who could play in the majors for the league minimum? No more complaints about how this small market team can’t compete, please! Diaz is 29 and probably isn’t as good as his numbers, but he’s a good player to have on the roster.

Willie Harris (131) B+: Here’s a nice surprise. You have to love it when a career 67 OPS+ hitter outperforms his career numbers like this. He’s a versatile defender who is a legitimate base-stealer. I hope he keeps it up.

Brian McCann (99) B+: For a catcher, McCann is still a good hitter even though he’s not playing up to his 2006 campaign. He was reluctant to take his All-Star invitation, but when you look at the rest of the NL backstops it’s clear why he was selected. He played through some injuries and doesn’t complain. Everyone expects a better second half, including me.

Yunel Escobar (101) B: Escobar got of to a good start, but I don’t think it will last. He wasn’t blowing away Richmond and he’s not playing better than Kelly or Edgar, so I think he’ll be going back to Richmond to get some regular time. Is he being showcased for a trade? I doubt it. Major league scouting departments are aware that players play in the minor leagues and know how to translate this play to a higher level. There is no reason to put him on display if he’s taking away time from Kelly. But, I don’t want this to be all negative—hey, I did give him a B. He’s hit the ball well and played good defense.

Jeff Francoeur (103) C: Frenchy has improved since last year, but after starting off showing some patience at the plate, he has reverted to his old free-swinging ways. For a right fielder his offense is not spectacular, and his loss of power is a bit scary. He’s hit four fewer homers than he did in his first season in about 100 more at bats. I still wonder what kind of player he would be today if the Braves had left him in the minors a little longer. The hype/true-ability ratio is still far greater than one.

Andruw Jones (91) C-: Yuck! Now, that was an ugly first half. And what a time to have it: your contract year. Rafael Furcal did the same thing a few seasons ago and turned things around in the second half and earned himself a nice free agent pay-day with the Dodgers. Let me reiterate, Andruw Jones is a pull hitter. He has never had success hitting the ball the other way, even in when he is putting up good numbers. Joe Simpson, please stop talking about this; and no, I don’t see him doing whatever you say he is doing wrong in the replay of his swing. Just let the guy have his slump in peace and shut up about it. Now, the good news. PrOPS says his OPS is 100 points less than what it ought to be. Before the season started, Andruw stated that one of his goals was to improve his walk rate, and he’s done that. His isolated-power is .200. Part of his low batting average has been a product of bad luck. He hasn’t played his best baseball at the plate, but his problems are more a product of outcomes than process. It’s a huge credit to Andruw that he isn’t hitting the panic button, and I expect he will have a much better second half. Andruw also deserves praise for his continued excellent defense.

Scott Thorman (70) D: Please, make it stop. Thorman’s offense is bad, especially for the cold corner (can I call it that?). What is worse is his behavior after he strikes out or pops up. Someone please get this guy a copy of Moneyball, and make him read the excerpts about Billy Beane’s playing days. The tantrums seem to be a sign that his problems are mental not physical. I think a trip to the minors would do him good. Take some pressure off and send him to Richmond for some hitting instruction. Tell him, “you’re not going back to Atlanta until September, just relax.”

Brayan Pena (49) D: He didn’t have much time and he’s needed to spell the catchers. The Braves ought to call him up and send Thorman down, so that Salty can play more.

Chris Woodward (45) D-: The Braves need a back-up shortstop who you don’t mind getting splinters in his backside. Woodward matches this description and therefore avoids the F. Pinch-hitting this guy and playing him at first are the manager’s fault, not his own.

Ryan Langerhans (-20) F: Ryan’s not this bad a player, but his time with the Braves this year was bad. I thought he was the 2008 center fielder, but I guess not.

Pete Orr (9) F: Finally, he was sent to the minors. I don’t see any place for him in the organization anymore. He can’t hit, and a defensive replacement infielder who can’t play shortstop doesn’t have much value.

Martin Prado (13) F: I’m not a Prado fan.

Craig Wilson (53) F: Well, that didn’t work. I thought it was a good signing, but Wilson just didn’t get it going. I don’t blame the Braves for trying.

Pitchers

John Smoltz (137) A: More excellent pitching from Smoltzie. I hope he stays healthy and keeps his mouth shut about other players.

Oscar Villarreal (111) A-: I can’t believe I’m giving Villarreal an A-. A year ago, Chris Reitsma was the only thing distracting fans from how bad this guy was. He seems to have found his niche in long relief, though he his still prone to moments of awfulness. Given the Braves problems with starters, I don’t see why Cox won’t give him a chance. In a way, I guess he sort of is, considering he normally comes in for several innings when the starter can’t make it out of the third. He’s doing a nice job of keeping the ball in the ballpark.

Tyler Yates (105) A-: I can’t believe I’m giving Yates an A-. A year ago, Chris Reitsma was the only thing distracting fans from how bad this guy was. He seems to have found his niche in setting up the set-up man, though he his still prone to moments of awfulness. He’s doing a nice job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. (That was easy.)

Rafael Soriano (151) A-: He’s been good, and will probably be the closer before the year is out. I have more confidence in Soriano than any other member of the bullpen.

Tim Hudson (119) B+: A nice season so far, and he’s keeping the ball in the ballpark. Seems to have runs of good pitching and bad pitching.

Peter Moylan (198) B: Moylan is an example of why teams should be wary of giving big-money long-term contracts to relievers. Moylan was picked up for peanuts and stuck.

Mike Gonzalez (265) B-: He pitched decent when he played. Not giving up a single homer was nice.

Buddy Carlyle (93) C: Carlyle is making the most of his return to the majors. Even if he collapses, he’s shown enough to guarantee himself a shot on an MLB roster for next season.

Chuck James (106) C: Not a world beater, but not Kyle Davies. It’s hard not to like this guy. If he can get the homers under control without increasing his walks he’s going to have a good major league career.

Bob Wickman (88) C: Someone asked me which player will surprise Braves fans the most this year, and my answer was that Bob Wickman isn’t as good as his 2006 Atlanta numbers. He’s a good pitcher, but not that good. I think he’s decided he’s about done, and it shows.

Kyle Davies (76) D: It’s time to send Kyle to Richmond. Please, don’t say, “he’s got nothing to prove in Triple-A.” The minor leagues are not about proving you can succeed against other minor league players, they are about learning is a setting where the games don’t matter. Few scouts have bad things to say about him, which is why he was a highly touted prospect. I’d like to see him get some special instruction where the games don’t count. I’m afraid if he stays on the major league roster, by the time he figures things out, he’ll begin getting some big arbitration awards.

Macay McBride (117) D: I was surprised to see McBride have so much trouble, and even more surprised to see the Braves give up on him so fast. Clearly, someone in management didn’t like him.

Chad Paronto (101) D: More walks than strikeouts is a big no-no. At least he’s keeping the ball in the park.

Lance Cormier (28) F: Why were people so excited about this guy? He had a good spring training? So did Ryan Langerhans.

Anthony Lerew (54) F: Another prospect fizzled. He’s injured.

Mark Redman (36) F: I thought it was a good signing, but he didn’t have it. I would have at least kept him for the bullpen. Apparently, he never really got into shape over the offseason; or, maybe he’s just done.

Kevin Barry (19) NG: Called up just to fill the roster.

Blaine Boyer (125) NG: He’s part of the Braves future plans. I hope he works his way back.

Steve Colyer (86) NG: I forgot he played for the Braves this year. I will forget again in a week.

Joey Devine (NA) NG: I wish the Braves would leave Devine down until they really need him.

Wilfredo Ledezma (65) NG: I’d rather have McBride.

Jo-Jo Reyes (28) NG: He’s a prospect making a spot start. Please, send this guy back to the minors.

I can’t wait for this round of “fan” mail.

I’m Back

Sorry for the outage yesterday. The site was down most of yesterday afternoon, but we’re back now. If you submitted a comment yesterday that was not posted, it is lost. Please, feel free to resubmit it.

I have been meaning to post my grades for the Braves first half, but I haven’t had time to do so this week. I hope to do that by the end of today.