The Braves are 45-50 at the 2008 All-Star Break, under .500 and 6.5 games behind the division-leading Phillies and Mets. There are a few problems with this if you’re a Braves fan:
- A 6.5-game deficit is a lot to make up with only 67 games left. If the 52-44 Phillies keep up their current .542 pace, they’ll finish 88-74. The Braves would need to finish 43-24 (.642) to match that.
- The Mets have won 10 in a row, and they could be even better than the Phillies. Or they could be worse, like they were before the streak.
- The Marlins are also ahead of the Braves in the division standings, so the Braves actually have three teams to catch.
I would love to be optimistic about the second half of the season, but the truth is that the Braves should be considering any offers they get for Mark Teixeira and plan to compete next season.
Nevertheless, if that didn’t run you off, I’ll change things up this time around and give a quick player profile of everyone on the current 40-man roster. Then, I’ll try to put it all together and say what I would do as manager. Season stats are up-to-date if you’d rather go straight there. Just follow the navigation links under the “Baseball” section.
I’ve probably said just about everything that could be said about McCann. He’s off to a fantastic start this year, and he should have been the All-Star starter based on his performance. At .302/.377/.563, he’s second on the team in OPS, only trailing Chipper Jones. He’s only third in WPA because he’s had one of the many fluky anti-clutch performances of the year. I worry about his workload, since he’s often having to work on off days because the Braves don’t have an adequate backup for him. He was off to a hot start in July after a cold June, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he faded just a bit in the second half.
Like I said, the Braves don’t have an adequate backup for McCann. Miller has an OPS of .333, which is only acceptable for a pitcher. Miller doesn’t save that many runs behind the plate, but hopefully the farm system or free agency will produce someone better next year, because I don’t see the team making a change at this point. Hopefully the Braves get good pitching when McCann has to sit.
Sammons really isn’t much of a prospect as a 25-year-old who isn’t hitting much in AAA, but you could make an argument that he’s better than Corky. He’s always been old for his level in the minors, and he probably hasn’t proven enough at Richmond for the team to give him a shot this year.
He’s playing hurt when he’s playing at all, but he has met my expectations so far this year. A .735 OPS is merely league average, but most teams will take ‘average’ at shortstop. By most indications, he’s a plus defender and he was hitting better before he started playing through his injuries over the last couple of weeks. He’s been below average in WPA, but I wouldn’t expect that to last if he can recuperate. The Braves could clearly do much worse at SS, and the combination of his talent, Jair Jurrjens’ start, and Edgar Renteria’s fade makes last offseason’s trade look almost prophetic.
Gotay has been with the team all year, I think, but he’s getting less than one plate appearance per game. His ceiling as a player is not high, since he doesn’t really play shortstop, but I think he’s probably going to be a better hitter than his .216/.302/.324 slash line showed in the first half. What I don’t understand is the need for redundancy that the Braves have with him and Martin Prado, but I’ll get to Prado shortly.
I’m listing him as an infielder even though he’s probably more valuable to the Braves in the outfield right now. Infante has been a plus utility man when he’s been healthy, hitting better than you would expect (106 OPS+) out of a typical middle infielder but below what you’d want in a regular corner outfielder. That still gives him some very good value on a team that’s been as injury-riddled as the Braves have been. I’m certain that his 30.9% line drive rate isn’t sustainable, but that’s a fantastic sign for keeping his BABIP (and thus his actual batting average) up all year, because it could represent tremendous improvement in his skills. His power is of the doubles/triples variety, and he’s not exactly a walk machine, but he gets on base enough to otherwise be a solid player. His defense is below average at short, but I’d still put him there in a pinch over Brent Lillibridge, and he deserves to be the primary backup at most of the other infield and outfield positions.
I think more power could eventually come for Kelly Johnson, since he’s still just 25, but he’s a good second baseman even if it doesn’t. His batting eye is seemingly rivaled on the Braves only by Chipper Jones, but both his walk rate and power are down slightly from last year, and he still strikes out a lot. He’s posting an above average slash line of .272/.340/.431 despite some of these issues, and his WPA has stayed close to zero all year.
Like McCann, there’s not much left to say about Chipper this year. In July, he has continued his inevitable decline from playing at a superhuman level to being merely excellent. His OPS by month: 1.145 in March/April, 1.152 in May, .995 in June, .923 in July. Of course, the big deal is that he’s only hitting .273 in July, but let’s face it: he’s extremely unlikely to hit .400 this year. Can we settle on him being simply the team’s best bat and one of the best players in the league?
I had higher expectations for Brent this year (and last year, too), and he hasn’t lived up to them. He tore through A-ball as a 22-year-old in 2006, and he was merely decent against advanced pitching at AA and AAA last year. He’s taken a step back in AAA this year and also hasn’t impressed in his time with the big-league club, where he has a 79 OPS+. Only Corky Miller has produced more negative win probability per plate appearance for the Braves this year. Both his power and contact skills have been worse this year than they were last year, and if it were up to me, I’d be leaving him in AAA to try and sort things out during the second half of the season. For now, it looks like he’ll continue riding the shuttle between Richmond and Atlanta, and I can’t imagine that helping his development as a player. At least that will be a shorter shuttle next year, when he’ll probably still be in AAA.
Again, I’m not sure why MLB.com chooses to list him as an infielder when more than 75% of his defensive innings have been as an outfielder, but I’ll follow convention and list him here as well. Norton had sort of a fluky good season with Tampa Bay in ’04 (.296/.374/.520 in a half-season’s at-bats) that probably has extended his career a year or two beyond what it might have otherwise been. Decent power kept him around into his 30s when he hadn’t posted a 100+ OPS+ since his cup of coffee in 1996. “Decent” has become “passable” since 2006, but he’s not a bad bat to have on the bench, I guess. His line drive rate suggests that his average will creep back into the lower mid-.200s, which will give him an acceptable OPS as long as he maintains his power.
Prado is like a younger version of Infante, once you get past some of his strange fielding miscues this year. Those make me think he won’t be able to back up a shortstop, but his bat is decent enough off the bench, with a 103 OPS+ this year and a minor-league track record that suggests he’ll keep it up. I can actually understand keeping more than one guy like him around, given Chipper’s tenuous hold on good health, but the Braves have at least three in Infante, Prado, and Gotay (plus Lil’ Brent, whose sole purpose seems to be a hedge on Escobar’s health). I would rank the three in that order, and one needs to go when the Braves’ outfield returns to full strength.
Unless the Braves have a truly awful road trip, which is certainly within the realm of possibility, I expect that the Braves will hang on to Teixeira and let him walk at the end of the year for compensatory draft picks. Tex’s history would seem to have suggested he’d be the team’s best or second-best hitter this year, but some early-season struggles that lasted longer than usual have kept his OPS down in the merely “good” range at .858. This might not be a surprise if you notice that his park-adjusted OPS+ is precisely in line with his career performance (130). His OPS away from Texas had been in the .860 range historically. He’s still a very valuable first baseman, but someone’s going to overpay for him in the coming offseason. The Braves will need him to be every bit as good as his career numbers, and possibly better, if they are to make a run in what should be his last season in Atlanta.
Josh Anderson actually has a career OPS+ of 113 in two major-league cups of coffee, but his minor league numbers would peg him for a career as a speedy fourth outfielder with pretty good baserunning instincts to complement his speed. He has little to no power and only moderate on-base skills, however, making him a possible staple at the new Gwinnett County ballpark in the future if he’s not on the I-85 shuttle to Turner Field. His best hope of becoming a regular is to keep improving his contact, which has made him successful in 100-or-so major league plate appearances. Like I’ve said about some of the other reserves, the Braves could do worse, and his role is somewhat redundant on the 40-man roster because of Gregor Blanco.
Blanco has been the #4 man in the outfield after a Willie-Harris-in-2007-like hot start. He projects as a .280s/.290s hitter with better on-base skills and similar speed to Anderson, but with somewhat poorer instincts running the bases (his 68% minor-league success rate is basically the break-even point for adding value when it comes to actually stealing bases). He also has no power, and right now he’s hitting just .257. He’s a little better than that, I think. Blanco actually wouldn’t be terrible as a pure leadoff guy given his on-base skills, even though I’d prefer to put only the best hitters at the top of the lineup. Even the #1 guy in the lineup usually doesn’t lead off more than 2 or so innings in a game.
He should be coming off the DL any day now, and hopefully he’ll forget how he was hitting in 2008 (.250/.270/.311, 56 OPS+) and revert to ’06-’07 form (114 and 124 OPS+). His lack of patience can be fairly compared to Jeff Francoeur’s, and he’s not particularly fast, so he needs some solid contact and power numbers to fit at the corner outfield spot he’s suited to play. Without that kind of production, the Braves are better off sticking with Blanco in the starting lineup and trying to make an upgrade from outside the organization. That’s sad because of the numbers Matt has put up in his previous Braves seasons, but it’s the reality at this point.
Jeff started immediately as one of the Braves’ rising stars three years ago, and the fans responded to his incredible 2005, and the team marketed him as one of its best players. That was a little premature, as it’s easy to see now, and in 2 1/2 years since, the Braves may have created a monster. He seemed genuinely hurt by the team’s move to demote him, and he responded to the media accordingly, prompting the team to err once again by promoting him after three whole days of work in the minors. This team and this player seem destined for one another now, and we as fans will just have to watch as he tries to learn how to hit big-league pitching consistently. That’s tough for anyone to do, much less someone with major flaws in his game (those being an inability to get on base and strangely declining power). Let’s just hope his development has not been permanently scarred by the his and the team’s shared careless approach. Right now, he’s probably the league’s worst regular outfielder if he keeps up a .659 OPS.
Jones has more potential than any of the Braves’ near-ready minor league OF, as he showed by posting a 106 OPS+ in his stint with the big club this year. Both his power and contact numbers are down this year from his career minor league numbers, but he’s just a week older than I am, which for now means he’d still be a young major leaguer. I’d love to see a big second half that forces him into the mix for 2009, but more of the same will hurt his prospect status.
Kotsay hasn’t strayed far from his career numbers this year as a Brave, with a .279/.329/.394 slash line that makes him a slightly below-average hitter. That’s actually okay as long as you can play center field, and Mark can do that. Not bad for a guy who was effectively picked up off the scrap heap for $2-3M because of his injury history. Expect more of the same in the second half, but don’t expect him to stick around too long as a Brave. The team is pretty high on Jordan Schafer, but I think they’ll need someone else, if not Kotsay, to be around for ’09 as he makes his way to the majors.
It’s interesting to look at Perry’s minor league career numbers and see someone who has really taken his time progressing through the various systems he’s been in. I wouldn’t say he’s reached “journeyman” status yet, but he’s played for four different organizations despite some impressive OPS figures at many of his stops. Usually a guy who puts up numbers like Perry has makes his ML debut before age 27, but it took a high-profile demotion for him to finally get a shot. His power peak is occurring right now, and he could be a 30-homer quad-A player who never really breaks into the big leagues (like Nelson Cruz), but you can’t fault the Braves for giving him a shot. He’s providing good organizational depth even if his talent never translates to the majors.
He’s good, as long as you don’t pitch him in close games. For some reason, Acosta hasn’t pitched well in high-leverage situations, which is bad when he’s your nominal closer. Now that Mike Gonzalez has returned, Acosta has been used more sparingly. He has a live arm, but a lot of live arms never pan out. Live arms also usually record lots of Ks, and Acosta’s not doing that this year. Right now his ERA is around 4, and he’ll be useful if it stays there. The Braves have done much worse than Acosta in the very recent past, and they could do worse now.
Bennett has gone from spot-starter to more of a traditional bullpen role. That seems to suit him, since he walks too many guys (without the “stuff” to make up for it) in order to be effective as a starter. A long man with an ERA of 4.28 has some value, even if there’s not a ton of upside to be found in Bennett.
The pace has slipped somewhat from Bobby Cox following the Peter Moylan Road to Destruction with Boyer, but his name has still been called for 51 appearances in the team’s first 95 games. Only a select few can keep up that kind of workload for more than a season, and Moylan followed a year like Boyer’s 2008 with Tommy John surgery. Boyer already has an injury history that should be a warning sign against this type of usage. There’s simply no reason he should be used more than every other day, especially since he has a worse record than Manny Acosta when it comes to blowing close games.
Boyer’s negative clutch performance of (-1.660, 3-for-9 in “effective outing” chances where the Leverage Index is twice the normal level) is more than twice Acosta’s (-.650, 3-for-8), and that represents three full games lost that you wouldn’t have expected based on his other numbers. If Acosta can’t pitch in the close ones, Boyer shouldn’t even think about warming up.
Having said that, I’m not sure the whole clutch performance thing comes down to an innate skill, and Blaine has kept his ERA under 4 and shown excellent command (2.5 K/BB ratio), so he’s one of the team’s better relievers. I guess if Bobby keeps throwing him out there, that clutch performance number will eventually turn around.
He has done the smoke-and-mirrors routine better than anyone I can recall, but how long can it last? His FIP has already climbed to 3.70, and his 3.06 ERA will eventually start to catch up. That doesn’t take away from his first half, in which he posted the staff’s second-best WPA/LI (+1.605), but here’s my honest assessment. Hitters are getting line drives against him 22% of the time, so his low BABIP won’t last forever. When that starts to rise, he’ll probably only be a serviceable pitcher, but that’s not a bad level of performance to get out of a minor-league deal. Let’s just not get our hopes too high for someone with a very hittable fastball.
I’m not sure I can explain why Buddy Carlyle has been so good this year. He’s a two-pitch guy with a middling fastball, and all of a sudden he’s averaging over a strikeout an inning while maintaining decent command, and he’s been virtually unhittable on top of that (5.5 H/9). He’s been lucky not to have allowed a homer as a fly-ball pitcher, but even with 3-4 homers allowed he’d be having a great season. I’m not sure what role fits him best right now, since he’s been great in long relief. The Braves don’t have an opening in the rotation, and I’d be hesitant to tinker with him by converting him to a high-leverage role from long relief. Perhaps it’s time to start exploring those options. Of course, this could also be a half-season fluke, but only time will tell.
Cuevas has been in the Braves’ system since 2004, and he’s older than some members of the major league team, but he has to be #40 on the 40-man roster. He has one decent season to his credit: last year, he posted a 3.55 ERA in 25 high-A starts. Problems? He was 23, which is too old for a good prospect to be in high-A, his control was spotty at best, and Myrtle Beach is a fairly strong pitcher’s park. He’s stinking it up in Mississippi this year, and it’s probably only a matter of time before he becomes a minor league free agent.
If Tom Glavine isn’t completely done, I think he’s probably done as an effective major leaguer. It hurts to see one of my favorite players growing up not be able to get people out, and I can’t imagine a future Hall of Fame pitcher wanting to rehab just to be able to pitch 160 innings with an ERA around 5. That’s his prerogative, but I hope the Braves allow him to do it on someone else’s dime next year.
Since 2005, Glavine’s fastball has declined on average by 3 mph to around 82, and the difference between his fastball and changeup became 6 mph rather than 7, making that pitch also less effective. He also stopped using his slider and curve as often, presumably because they were becoming less effective. In 2005, he used them 7.6% of the time, and that figure was under 3% this year before his injury. While I think that his first bad season with the Mets in ’03 was more of a blip on the radar, last year really seemed like the beginning of the end. I can’t wait to see him get into the HOF, though.
The Braves’ TV broadcasters have been harping on Gonzalez’ lack of velocity since his return from TJ surgery, praising him for being able to get batters out anyway. FanGraphs’ pitch speed data would disagree, as his average fastball has been in the 91.5-92.6 range dating back to 2005 (the first year for which they have that data). This year, it’s 92.0, right in the middle of that range. Perhaps he can’t turn it up a notch to the mid-90s when he needs to, but I don’t know. You’d think his average would be lower if there were a real difference.
Since I don’t see that difference, his results make it to me like he’s pitching at full strength. A mid-twos ERA is about what you would expect, and that makes him one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. There’s no question that he should be pitching in the highest-leverage relief situations, and I would probably limit him to only those situations this year as a precautionary measure.
There’s no point writing anything here, because he’s got about as much of a chance of pitching for the Braves this year as I do.
There were some rumblings that Jair Jurrjens might be an All-Star, but if any Braves pitcher deserved that honor, it was Tim Hudson. He can go deeper into a ballgame than any other starter on the team because he uses an efficient 3.55 pitches per batter, and I think his performance is clearly more sustainable than Jurrjens’ because of his track record. Hudson seemed to re-discover the sinking action on his fastball last year, and that success has carried over into 2008. He is unquestionably the staff ace.
With merely a high-80s fastball, Chuck needs to locate both his fastball and changeup very well in order to succeed. If he doesn’t keep them low in the strike zone, opposing batters are going to look eerily similar to Josh Hamilton in the Home Run Derby a few nights ago. Triple-A batters haven’t been able to figure him out this year, but I’d like to see better command numbers over more minor league starts before bringing him back up. The Braves have the luxury of doing that right now, due to the relative success of Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Charlie Morton.
This year’s performance really isn’t out of line with Jurrjens’ minor league career. The question with him seemed to be: would he be able to do it so soon at the major league level? The answer appears to be yes, based on his 3.00 ERA in the first half. He has stepped in as the Braves’ #2 starter after starting the season as the #5 guy, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed anyone. Few pitchers as young as he is (DOB 1/29/86) have such strong composure on the mound, so I have high hopes that he’ll be a good pitcher for a long time. He’s probably due for a second-half regression, but there’s always room for a young pitcher like him to improve. I feel much more comfortable with him in this important role than I would have in April, though.
Lerew is rehabbing from June ’07 TJ surgery and is more than two years removed from his last stretch of decent pitching. He’s now fairly old for a prospect at 25, but I guess his veteran status in the organization is what has him on the 40-man roster.
Here’s a guy who seemed to put his talent to use this year out of nowhere. In 2006 and 2007, he was allowing more than a hit an inning while showing relatively poor command at Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. Promoted to Richmond anyway after a strong spring, he cut his hits almost in half while showing better command, almost pushing it up to a strikeout an inning while cutting down on walks. That hasn’t translated to major league success yet, but it’s a promising sign for his future. I think he would do well to have a full season in AAA if the Braves could find another pitcher to stick in the rotation, but everyone needs pitching, and Morton might not be a terrible major leaguer the rest of the year. He’s probably the odd man out if Buddy Carlyle ever steps into the rotation.
I don’t think it’s wise to ride a single reliever like Bobby Cox tends to do with whoever has the hot hand. You end up damaging arms and stalling careers, which is stupid even if you can find someone like Blaine Boyer to come along next year and do the same thing. Moylan’s another TJ casualty now, but it looks like he’ll be a good reliever if he can return to full strength.
I just don’t get how you can allow a guy who hadn’t pitched a full season for four years until 2007 to rack up innings like the Braves have with Nunez at Richmond this season. He’s having a good year, though, so his usage pattern isn’t likely to change with the major league club, except for the leverage he faces. I’d love to be able to compare his pitch selection to when he was successful in the early 2000s, but I’m not aware of any data to do so.
In a market starved for good lefty relievers, Will Ohman has raised his stock considerably this year. He may not re-sign with the Braves for 2009, but he’s probably their second-best reliever down the stretch. Ohman is a perfect 8-for-8 in effective outing chances, so you can’t go wrong with that. What’s interesting to me about his performance is how much he’s changed his pitch repertoire since his last successful season in 2005. He’s lost almost 2 mph on his fastball, but he’s throwing it more than ever before: 68% of the time this year compared to 36% in ’05. Rather than throwing his breaking pitch 2/3 of the time, he’s turned that completely around and somehow found success doing it another way.
Jo-Jo seems to be about a year ahead of Charlie Morton from a development standpoint. His major-league command is dramatically improved this year, even though he still gets hit around occasionally (as is evident by his mid-4s ERA). Reyes is throwing basically the same pitches he did last year, but with a 2 mph slower changeup that is presumably helping him miss some more bats. He’s still primarily a fastball guy in the low-90s, and he sprinkles in two different breaking balls, so he’s got a pretty good repertoire to build on. Now’s the time for him to start improving at the major league level, because he’s not going to kill your chances to win most of the time.
After two solid minor-league seasons in the Rays organization, Ridgway looked like good organizational depth for this year (and probably nothing more). He’s actually been pretty bad at Richmond, and I don’t think the Braves would have stepped out to sign Julian Tavarez if they thought there were good internal relief options. He might be back in Atlanta at some point, but I wouldn’t be particularly excited to see him.
Formerly a top closer candidate, Ring kept getting hurt and lost out on some chances to succeed. He was actually consistently good throughout his minor league career, and I think he could sustain his current major league success. He also doesn’t have as big a platoon split as you might expect from his usage (usually to retire just a single left-handed batter), at least not when you look at his career as a whole. He’s been a little hit-lucky against righties overall in his career, so that could be part of the reason he still isn’t getting the chance to face many more of them. I’d say he’s a keeper, even if one-out lefties are probably overvalued on the market.
He won’t be pitching again in 2008, or possibly ever. Like Glavine, I’d go ahead and hang it up, even though Smoltz could probably return as an effective pitcher. He was almost as good as Hudson when healthy, and he actually had a 2.57 ERA when he got hurt.
He had been a great closer who only had occasional trouble with the long ball before his elbow issues. Now he’s having “discomfort” often enough that you’d think the doctors would call it something more definitive, like “pain.” I’m hoping he’s not a TJ candidate, but I have no clue what the timetable might be for a 2008 return. If he returns, I’d make him the #2 guy behind Gonzalez.
He was actually effective in 2006 as a reliever for the Red Sox, posting a 106 ERA+, and he wasn’t terrible last year. I think he’s better suited for relief work, which is where the Braves plan to use him. His ERAs in three stops this year aren’t encouraging, but he hasn’t lost any velocity in the last few years, so I have a hard time arguing that the Braves shouldn’t have taken a flier on him. Hopefully he’s not finished, and perhaps his struggles this year are only because he hasn’t settled down in one place. His BABIP won’t be .444 all year if he continues getting chances, but there are also no guarantees for success.
I’ve already written close to 5000 words, so I won’t add a whole lot more. Here’s the direction I would take the team for the rest of the year, assuming that some players return from injuries and others don’t.
I know that won’t happen because Bobby would never bat Chipper 2nd, but I can dream about him getting to the plate more often, right? The team’s three best hitters follow Escobar, who can get on base fairly well. I would actually hit Blanco leadoff when he starts, pushing Escobar down between Johnson and Kotsay. I might also consider batting Francoeur/Diaz/Blanco ninth after the pitcher.
Bench: Infante, Prado, Blanco/Diaz, Norton, Miller/Sammons
I guess the Braves don’t want to pay Sammons at the major league level if he’s not guaranteed to hit any better than Miller, but I’ll throw him out there anyway. Infante is the only feasible backup shortstop in this case, but I’d rather have that problem than yank Lillibridge around. That’s five bench players, leaving room for 12 pitchers.
In total, that lineup is probably good for close to 5 runs per game, so I think they’ll improve on the 4.43 they’ve scored so far.
Rotation: Hudson, Jurrjens, Reyes, Campillo, Morton
The Braves could improve the back end of the rotation if they wanted to, but I’m not convinced it would be worth trying, given the quality of pitchers available now after the Sabathia/Harden/Blanton trades.
I would obviously organize the bullpen differently, using my best reliever in the highest-leverage situations rather than “save” situations, so I’ll call these roles what they are under traditional usage first, then what I would call them second, if different.
Lefty Specialist/Lefty-above-average-leverage: Ring
Long reliever/Multi-inning swing-guy: Carlyle
Next in line: Boyer, Bennett, Nunez, Acosta, Tavarez
I like the idea of using Carlyle in a close game when you have 2-3 innings to use him, so that you can keep him in shape to possibly start at some point. I’d probably use most relievers for more than one inning, based on where the pitcher’s spot falls in the lineup, and they would all have fewer appearances that way I guess. Acosta and Tavarez would be left out in this scenario under my 12-pitcher rule.
This rotation and bullpen probably ends up with an ERA in the low fours. If I assume 4.9 runs scored and 4.4 runs allowed (adding a little cushion for unearned runs), then the Braves are a 37-30 team in the second half. Can the Braves be six games better than that and possibly pass the Phillies or Mets? It’s a long shot, which is why the Braves are being given about a 10% chance to reach the playoffs right now, depending on which predictor you use. Hopefully this is a pretty realistic assessment of the team, but I’d be interested in getting other thoughts.