January 14, 2013 at 12:06 pm by Ben Duronio under Atlanta Braves
I have been one of the major supporters of Mike Minor for about as long as he has been a professional baseball player. On draft day, I was somewhat confused about the team going after what was supposedly a low-ceiling, high floor starter, but seeing his development over the first year of his professional career gave me confidence that the Braves knew what they were doing when they drafted him in the first round.
In the majors, Minor has had a ton of ups as well as a ton of downs. His first stint in the majors was impressive but his arm tired toward the tail end of the season which caused his ERA to balloon to an astronomical level before being shut down for the season. His next year as the team’s sixth starter, he posted numbers that us sabermetricians find appealing. He struck out nearly a batter per inning, kept his walks at a relatively low level, and did not allow the ball to leave the ballpark. Unfortunately, in his 15 starts he was also rather hittable, leaving his ERA at 4.14 while his FIP was at a very respectable 3.39.
In his first full year in the rotation, which it is important to note that last year was the first time that he knew he would be starting against major league hitters every time he took the hill, he continued on his rocky road. Starting 30 games gives us a nice round number to look back and see where things turned, since he started the season off with one of the worst ERAs in the majors. Through his first 10 starts, Minor had a 6.98 ERA and was close to losing his spot in the rotation. Things changed after that, as I am sure most of you are aware. In his final 20 starts of the season, Minor posted a 2.74 ERA, with 94 strikeouts, 35 walks, and 13 home runs allowed in 121.1 innings pitched. While his strikeouts were down compared to the previous season, he was able to walk batters at a much lower rate and keep the ball in the ballpark as well. He allowed 26 home runs over the course of the full year, so 13 of them came in the first third of the year and the next 13 came in twice as many starts. That is progress, and progress that is terrific to see from a first year starter.
As my colleague Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs notes, Minor made an alteration to his fastball’s break and began to see a tremendous amount of success. With the new fastball, his walk rate jumped to elite levels and his home run rate, as previously mentioned, dropped like a ton of bricks. Entering the year, Minor will have a tremendous amount of confidence in how he ended the season and is my bet to throw the most innings on the roster. With his control becoming more and more impressive, he should be able to benefit from a great defense behind him and many quick innings. I am sure he will have his struggles, but as long as his mechanics stay strong and he focuses on pounding the zone, he should put together a season in the 3.0-4.5 win area. That is a wide range, but if he pitches like he did for 34 starts as he did in last season’s final 20, he would be a Cy Young candidate. Of course, I think those numbers are probably on the higher end of the spectrum, but he has shown what he is capable of and should be able to perform at a level not incredibly far off of those numbers.
January 11, 2013 at 12:22 pm by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
Note before we begin: the first post of this series was a preliminary projection of the talent of the team. It was mainly to get a general sense of how good the team was in order to figure out what direction the team should take moving forward. Saying the Braves are already a 90-win team is not meant to say so specifically. Injuries, luck, random production fluctuations, etc. can affect what actually happens. Saying they’re a 90-win team simply illustrates where they are in the competitive cycle: win-now mode. This means that each additional win is more valuable than the average win and that the Braves should look to favor safety over upside (ie. an established player over a prospect – unless the Braves can get a guy like Oscar Taveras, which is all but impossible). What follows here and in two more posts next week is an evaluation of what they “can try” to do to make the team better.
Platoons are the ultimate sabermetric catnip. Most of the time, you find two players who hit with the opposite hand, play the same position, have trouble hitting pitchers of the same hand, and deploy. What the Braves may attempt to fill the spot out in LF would be kitty crack for the sabermetrician. With the retirement of soon-to-be-Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, Martin Prado is the assumed 3B for 2013, but because the Braves haven’t added an everyday LF, the situation has become more complicated.
For now, let’s assume the Braves don’t add anyone. We want to find out what the best internal option is in order to figure out what the Braves would have to find externally to improve upon what they have. We’re basically concerned about 4 players here: Prado, Johnson, Francisco, and the bench player/regular LF/platoon player. They have 5 choices based on the current roster:
1) Prado plays 3B every day, and Reed Johnson does the same in LF.
2) Prado plays 3B every day, and Johnson platoons with Jose Constanza or Jordan Schafer in LF.
3) Prado plays 3B every day, and an unlikely ST performer (Evan Gattis, Todd Cunningham) takes the LF spot or shares it with Johnson.
4) Juan Francisco plays 3B every day, and Prado does the same in LF.
5) Kitty crack – Prado plays 3B and Johnson plays LF when a LHP is on the mound; Francisco plays 3B and Prado plays LF when a RHP is on the mound.
I think most of us can assume what the best option is, but let’s actually check.
Scenario 1 – Prado at 3B, Johnson in LF
This is an unlikely scenario. Johnson will be 37 all next season, and the last time he amassed over 500 PA was 2006 with the Blue Jays. With a BABiP of .366 (30 points over his career mark), Johnson was actually very good that season, netting 4.5 fWAR, but other than that one season, he’s never been worth more than a win and a half. I’d rather not go into the season trying to beat the odds on that one.
As for Prado, his 2012 offense mirrored his career marks, and there’s no reason to think he’ll nosedive in 2013. Defensively, however, Prado might see some regression to the mean as he posted a very high +18 (I’m not saying he wasn’t very good last season, but I also won’t take for granted that he was THAT good), but if he moves to 3B, he’ll gain some positional value along the way and should still be a plus defensively. Our projection of nearly 5 wins seems pretty reasonable (and about what other projection systems have him for as well).
Francisco ends up as a pretty limited bench player in this instance, and the Braves would add a bench player (external or a guy like Ernesto Mejia) for the other 25-man spot currently in reserve for a LF.
Value of Scenario 1: Prado (4.5-5 wins) + Johnson (.5-1.5 wins) +Francisco (.5) + Bench (.5) = 6 – 7.5 wins
Scenario 2 – Prado at 3B, Platoon in LF with Johnson and Constanza/Schafer
This scenario is a little bit more reasonable, but it still doesn’t strike me as terribly likely. Johnson is a very nice complimentary player, but he has his limits. For his career, he is a .266/.324/.380 (84 wRC+) hitter against RHP and a .311/.367/.461 (119 wRC+) hitter against LHP. If he was left-handed and that was flipped, you might be able to get away with Johnson playing every day, but because most pitchers are right-handed, that’s seeing Johnson’s bad side a little more than we’d want. If the Braves are going to use Johnson in LF, we’d probably want them to use him as part of a platoon.
This brings up who would play the other part of the platoon. Two guys already on the 40-man roster are Jose Constanza and Jordan Schafer. They’re left-handed, fast, and can play LF. Let’s take Constanza first. For his career, he’s a .281/.332/.341 (85 wRC+) hitter, and if you want the splits, he hits .340/.365/.340 (97 wRC+) against LHP and .259/.320/.341 (80 wRC+) against RHP (small sample size issues as he has just over 200 PA in his career). Constanza was more conventional in minors, so I expect the platoon issue is a SSS one. Considering his BABiPs are .405 (vs LHP) and .311 (vs RHP), I would expect that he’s not even as good of a hitter as he’s been, which isn’t very good, and Johnson is basically as good against RHP. As for Schafer, he’s hit .233/.317/.314 (75 wRC+) against RHP in almost 700 PA. Both of these players might be better defenders and baserunners, but we can move along now.
In this scenario, Constanza/Schafer is taking the 25th spot on the roster.
Value of Scenario 2: Prado (4.5-5) + Johnson (.5) + Constanza/Schafer ((-.5)-.5) + Francisco (.5) = 5 – 6.5 wins
Scenario 3 – Prado plays 3B, and a surprise ST performance (ie. Evan Gattis, Todd Cunningham) gets or splits LF with Johnson
We’ve talked about Prado and Johnson, so we’ll just move straight to the prospects. The main obstacle to this happening is that neither is on the 40-man roster, and while that does not eliminate them, you would presume that the team would like to hold onto roster spots unless one of these guys shows they are definitely better than the other options on the roster.
Evan Gattis is the common man’s choice. By now, most of you have heard his story, and although I have personal reasons for wanting him to make the majors, I’m not sure April 2013 will be the moment – he’s only had about 200 PA in AA and none in AAA and is right-handed, which doesn’t make a convenient platoon with Johnson. Gattis, however, has significant power and can also serve as the backup C, which could actually save a 40-man spot. If Gattis can hit at the MLB level, he might be able to produce 2 wins of value (if he starts almost every day), which is more than what Johnson probably could give the Braves, but he could also bottom out and be unable to adjust to the superior pitchers of the NL.
Todd Cunningham was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2013, and he had a promising AA season. Improving his contact rate while keeping his walk rate steady as he made the perilous jump to the upper minors, Cunningham is trying to prove he’s more than just a 4th outfielder. Here’s the catch with Cunningham and other possible prospects – with a playoff berth within grasp, the Braves really need safety over risk, probable production over ceiling. If there’s a better alternative, you’d rather take a couple wins from a safer play over the uncertainty of a prospect, especially one that isn’t star-caliber such as Jason Heyward or Freddie Freeman.
Gattis strikes me as more likely to win a spot on the roster because of his ability to play behind the plate and his offensive promise, but I wouldn’t expect more than perhaps a win or two from Oso Blanco. He has a higher ceiling than Johnson but also a lower floor.
Value of Scenario 3: Prado (4.5-5) + Johnson (.5) + [Gattis ((-.5)-2) or Cunningham ((-.5)-1)] + Francisco (.5) = 5 – 8 wins
Scenario 4: Francisco at 3B, Prado in LF
Now we’re getting somewhere. If you’re not a fan of platoons, this is probably the most likely scenario. As long as Prado stays excellent in LF and continues hitting the way he did, he’s probably still a 5-winish player for 2013. The question really revolves around what Francisco will be once given a full-time spot.
In a little over 200 PA in 2012, Francisco was worth almost a win, and if you’re someone who likes to push that out to a whole season, Francisco would have been worth 3 wins given a full-time spot. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Francisco only has about 400 PA at the major-league level (spread out over 4 seasons), so he’s relatively new to the league. The newness means the league may not have fully caught up to his weaknesses (breaking balls and strike-zone discipline), but once the cat is out of the bag, they’ll exploit it full-force. It happens to every player, and the ones who survive are the ones able to adapt. The Braves’ desire for him to adapt and improve has been well-documented. They worked on mechanical and approach changes as the season wore on (and as the league caught on), and he’s been losing weight this winter. Whether that works or not remains to be seen. One thing Francisco will have to improve is his ability to hit lefties. For his career, he’s hit .272/.320/.487 off of RHP but only .190/.224/.222 off of LHP. Though that encompasses only 400 total PA, there’s no reason to believe he should have been better (1.5% BB%, 36% K%, .300 BABiP). Young players can improve, but again, we’d like to limit risk if we can.
Johnson, in this instance, is relegated to a pretty minimal bench spot, but the Braves would also add another bench bat.
Value of Scenario 4: Prado (4.5-5) + Francisco (1.5-2.5) + Johnson (.5) + Bench (.5) = 7 – 8.5 wins
Scenario 5 – Kitty Crack
So now we get to the fun part. In this situation, Prado would play 3B on days in which a LHP is on the mound and LF when a RHP is on the mound. Francisco would play 3B when a RHP was on the mound, and Johnson would play LF with a LHP on the mound. It’s almost elegant. Doing this would take advantage of everyone’s strengths while limiting key weaknesses. Prado is versatile and needs to play every day, and Francisco can mash righties while Johnson mashes lefties (well kinda anyway). It’s kind of beautiful.
So how does the production shake out? Prado bounces back-and-forth and probably still pulls down 5 wins. Francisco would probably get 425 PA with Johnson receiving about 225. Sheltering each player will help their production. We’ll give Francisco 1.5 wins (about the FANS projection for him) and Johnson close to a full win (basically what he’s done the past few seasons). Altogether, that’s about 7-8 wins from this platoon.
Now, here’s my concern. Moving Prado around like this is a bit unusual, though I guess it’s not unprecedented. Miguel Cabrera played 55 games in LF and 34 games at 3B in 2003, and Pujols basically did it during his first three seasons. So it can be done, though I admittedly just cherry-picked (I’m sure there are more instances). But I still wonder about making someone do that for an entire season. I’d bet that Prado would accept the situation and do what was best for the team, but I guess it just seems inconvenient, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.
Value of Scenario 5: Prado (4.5-5) + Johnson (1) + Francisco (1.5-2) + Bench (.5) = 7.5 – 8.5 wins
So What’s the Best Internal Option?
These numbers are obviously ballparked, but the best options appear to be 4 or 5. Scenario 5 limits the risk because everyone’s weaknesses are being shielded, but Scenario 4 has a higher upside if Francisco’s ability to make contact improves without much of a drop in power production (Francisco could probably put up a 3-4 win season if he learned to strike out a little less, walk a little more, and still drop pimp-job-worthy blasts, but I just find it pretty unlikely). Scenario 3 has a decent upside if Gattis really comes through, but again, I’m not sure a team wants to really bet on that (to be honest, I love Gattis, but I think his most likely future is a lefty-mashing bench guy who has some added utility because he can catch and play OF; that’s valuable, but it’s also not a saving grace).
Either way, the best ways of shuffling these 4 spots around seems to get the team 7-8.5 wins. If we look back at the projections from Thursday, we get 6.1 wins (4.7+.7+.7) from Prado, Johnson, and Francisco with the last spot left to fill. In order to improve the team over what is currently on the roster, the Braves would have to add a player likely to get 1.5-2.5 wins, or an average MLB starter (ie. Jason Kubel). The discussion, however, doesn’t end there. Acquiring an outside player would cost in additional money and/or prospects while a decent bench bat might cost $1-2 million (if they didn’t just go with Mejia). That means the Braves would want to get a better than average player if they wanted to improve efficiently.
That now sets our target range. Adding a platoon player to pair with Johnson isn’t likely to make much of a difference, basically because the Braves already have a platoon situation (although odd) on the roster. Over the next couple posts, I’ll look at various external options – free-agents and trade – that could fit the bill.
January 10, 2013 at 10:03 am by Ben Duronio under Atlanta Braves
Below is the official top prospect list from the group over at CAC. We decided to go a bit deeper and go back to the 40 that Peter used to do a few years ago rather than the 25 we have done recently. Ethan is currently doing writeups on all of the prospects which will be released in parts over the next few weeks, and we are also planning a podcast to discuss the prospects, our rankings, and what we think of the system overall. Enjoy.
1. Julio Teheran
2. Lucas Sims
3. J.R. Graham
4. Sean Gilmartin
5. Christian Bethancourt
6. Alex Wood
7. Mauricio Cabrera
8. Nick Ahmed
9. Jose Peraza
10. Zeke Spruill
11. Edward Salcedo
12. Todd Cunningham
13. Evan Gattis
14. Joey Terdoslavich
15. Tommy La Stella
16. Matt Lipka
17. Bryan De La Rosa
18. Brandon Drury
19. Aaron Northcraft
20. Kyle Kubitza
21. Luis Merejo
22. Luis Avilan
23. David Hale
24. Cody Martin
25. Navery Moore
26. Cory Gearrin
27. Juan Jaime
28. Josh Elander
29. William Beckwith
30. Fernelys Sanchez
31. Daniel Rodriguez
32. Justin Black
33. Carlos Franco
34. Connor Lien
35. Joe Leonard
36. Nathan Hyatt
37. Johan Carmango
38. Chris Jones
39. Blake Brown
40. Ernesto Mejia
January 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
When examining the roster heading into this postseason, the Braves had a specific focus – CF with the departure of Michael Bourn, LF or 3B depending on where they planned to put Martin Prado, and basically the entire bench with the exceptions of Paul Janish and Juan Francisco. Though the Braves lost one of the best backup backstops in David Ross, the rest of the off-season should be considered a mild success for the Braves with the signing of BJ Upton for CF, the re-signing of Reed Johnson, and trading a declining Tommy Hanson for the young fireballer Jordan Walden. The one conspicuous hole remaining is the one in left field.
While Braves country would love to add a stud like Justin Upton, the question is what do the Braves really need from that spot moving forward. Baseball decisions are all about opportunity cost – when you choose to acquire a player at a particular price, you are giving up the opportunity to acquire another at a different price. Let’s take this LF situation as an example. If the Braves were to trade for Justin Upton, they would likely be parting with several good, young players and the $38.5 million needed to pay his salary, but they are also giving up the opportunity to acquire an alternate player for LF. If the Braves had signed Nick Swisher, they would have given up a draft pick and the money required to pay Swisher, but they would have also given up the opportunity to acquire Upton or someone else. The question becomes how the Braves can add the most wins by giving up the least – or how they can use their resources most efficiently. The first step is figuring out what kind of team the Braves look to be in 2013.
The Braves Without a LF
Luckily, there is little left for the Braves to do, so we can quickly explore what the Braves roster projects to be in 2013.
I asked each of the CAC writers to give me their wins projections for next season, and I added up the sections, added 43 to that (for replacement level), and averaged them together. Our range of wins without a LF specified is 91-98 wins with the average coming in around 94 wins for next season, and even if you take off a few wins because you believe us to be overly optimistic, the Braves still appear to be a 90-win team before we account for the LF. But how optimistic are we?
I doubt any of the position player projections really surprise you. Most of them seem to retain much of their 2012 value, and that shouldn’t be terribly surprising considering that none of the starters are above the age of 30 with the exception of Dan Uggla, who will be (gulp) 33 all next season. As for the bench, the numbers for Johnson and Francisco reflect the playing time they would receive if there was a regular LF, and the rest of the bench players are pretty insignificant (at least as far as a projection goes), though Laird receives note because he’ll be starting 40-60 games this season. 29 wins from Braves’ position players would have put them 6th in all of baseball in 2012, exactly the same as their actual 6th place finish, and we haven’t even added in the LF yet.
One area of concern could be the rotation, though this projection is very positive. Can Hudson remain effective at 37/38? How will Medlen perform in his first full season as a starter? Will Minor continue his second-half roll, or will he continue to battle his Jekyll-and-Hyde demon? How will Teheran and/or Delgado progress in their transition(s) from top prospects to major-league cogs? And how will Beachy perform when he comes back from Tommy John surgery? While this is a talented and deep rotation, it is not one of pedigree, and if the wheels fall off, this is where I’d expect it to start. That being said, there were significant and real improvements made by Medlen and Minor in the second half, and with a full season from each of them (barring injury), the rotation could very well improve from 2012. 15 wins here would have made this the 8th most valuable rotation in baseball in 2012, up from the actual 17th place finish.
Last but certainly not least, we have the bullpen. Led by Craig Kimbrel, the Braves look to have a deep and cheap bullpen for the 2013 season, and although relievers are volatile in nature due to the limited amount of innings they pitch each season, there’s every reason to believe this bullpen should be just as good as it has been for the past few seasons. Their 7 wins of value would have ranked 2nd last season, up slightly from their actual 4th place finish.
What Does This Mean for LF?
As things currently stand, the Braves have a 90-winish team for 2013, and 90 wins firmly places the team in playoff contention. Once a team gets into this area, the value of extra wins becomes increasingly important, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you want to go for broke because of the new playoff format and the added benefit of winning your division, but on the other hand, it may not be worth paying the additional cost for the star because he doesn’t guarantee you the division. This is where the idea of opportunity cost is crucial – how do the Braves use their resources in the most efficient way?
Adding Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, or Giancarlo Stanton would make a splash and add another young star, but it would cost dearly in prospects and young major-league talent (in this situation, it does the team no good to trade one hole for another as I imagine Simmons, Freeman, Teheran, and/or Delgado would have to be part of a package for either; gaining a LF would mean there is a hole elsewhere that needs to be filled), not to mention that it would have to make sense for the other team to trade their player to us. Re-signing Michael Bourn would also make a splash, but it will cost a lot of money (I doubt he takes less than the $13.3 million offer tendered to him earlier) and the loss of a draft pick (that the Braves would have gotten if another team signed Bourn). Acquiring a smaller name wouldn’t bring as many additional wins, but it also wouldn’t cost as much, leaving the team with more depth for injuries and future trades. A final option is the complicated Johnson/Francisco/Prado platoon. This would maintain financial flexibility and player depth but may add only a win or two once you adjust the playing time for Francisco and Johnson. Opportunity costs are everything in baseball, and over the next few posts, I’ll be taking a close look into the costs and benefits of potential options for LF to see if it makes sense to go for broke.
But fear not, this already looks like a playoff-caliber team even if the Braves don’t add anyone.
This was Mark Smith’s first post with CAC, he will be joining us for the foreseeable future and we could not be happier to have him on board. Mark is an established writer and fits in perfectly with what we do, and he was even with the team’s front office last season! With that said, all of his thoughts and opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the team whatsoever. - Ben