There are an almost infinite number of factors that determine the outcome of a 162 game baseball season. The “experts” on most sports websites as well as the “experts” in Las Vegas who set the betting odds all seem to agree that the Philadelphia Phillies are going to run away with the National League East in 2011. I’d like to use this space to provide some reasons why they won’t.
For the regular season this year, a lot of it is going to depend on Chase Utley. I’ve heard reports that differ dramatically–all the way from “he’s going to be back in mid-May and he’ll be 100% ready to go and the injury won’t cause him any problems for the rest of the year” to “he’s for sure going to need surgery which will end his season, the only question is when.” Ruben Amaro is saying the former, Stephania Bell of ESPN is saying the latter. One of those sources is biased and one is unbiased. I guess time alone will tell.
- Starting Pitching
- Relief Pitching
I suppose it’s obvious that relief pitching is the least important of the four, simply because it is a factor in a much smaller percentage of each game. Let’s go through each category and see which team has the edge.
1. Offense: Braves
In 2010, the Phillies were second in the NL in runs, and the Braves were fifth. However, the Braves have replaced Troy Glaus in the lineup with Freddie Freeman, and they’ve replaced Melky Cabrera with Martin Prado. Prado’s ZiPS Rest-of-Season projection for 2011 is .290/.339/.432; last year Melky hit .255/.317/.354. This is a dramatic upgrade. Freeman’s ZiPS RoS projections are .269/.337/.443; last year Glaus hit .240/.344/.400. Another very significant upgrade. Moreover, the Braves have also addressed the biggest systematic weakness of their offense over the past four years in acquiringDan Uggla. Uggla’s ZiPS RoS projection is .252/.337/.458. The power upgrade cannot be disputed, and is precisely what kept the 2010 offense from being tops in the league in runs (they led the league in OBP but were just 10th in slugging). Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Prado, and Nate McLouth are all pre-prime and should be expected to improve over last year. Chipper Jones is older and won’t be very durable, in all probability, though when he’s in the lineup, he will continue to get on base at a ~.400 clip. Meanwhile, the Phillies have lost Jayson Werth, their second best hitter from 2010, and are without Chase Utley, their best hitter, indefinitely. Werth has been replaced with Ben Francisco, who is probably about half as good as Werth offensively. Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, and Ryan Howard are past their primes and one year older. Shane Victorino is 31 and exiting his prime as well. The Phillies’ offense has clearly gotten quite a bit worse on offense while the Braves have improved considerably. I think the realistic expectation would be for the Phillies to finish around the middle of the NL in runs scored this season, and for the Braves to finish either first or second.
2. Starting Pitching: Phillies
The Phillies have an absolutely dominant starting rotation and the Braves have a very, very good starting rotation. This category isn’t really close, either, though the Braves do have depth on their side. Whether or not the Phils’ rotation winds up being historically good, it will almost certainly be better than the Braves’. If Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, or Jair Jurrjens is injured, the Braves will call up Mike Minor, who is nearly as good as Lowe and probably every bit as good as Jurrjens right now. If Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, or Cliff Lee goes down, the Phillies will call onKyle Kendrick to start, who is so much worse than any of those four pitchers I don’t need to make an argument. But we have no reason to assume that one of the “big four” starters for the Phils will go down, so the edge is very clearly and undeniably for the Phils in this category.
3. Defense: Tie
In 2010, the Phillies were 4th in the NL in defensive efficiency, while the Braves were 6th. But the Phillies are without Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, their two best defenders from last season, while the Braves have upgraded dramatically at first base and in left field, and can realistically expect a big improvement in center field (Melky played CF when McLouth was out for a few months and was almost historically bad there). Dan Uggla is a pretty big drop-off from the combo of Prado and Omar Infante at 2B, which is a premium defensive position. Assuming Ibanez and Chipper Jones both get worse due to extreme aging, and assuming Utley comes back by June, I’m willing to call this a tie. The homer in me believes that the Braves are probably better than the Phillies on defense, but realistically, it’s quite close.
4. Relief Pitching: Braves
I don’t think I need to do a full breakdown here. In all probability, the Braves will have one of the five best bullpens in all of MLB this year, and they have plenty of power arms on the farm in case of injuries. The Phillies should have one of the worst bullpens in baseball, assuming Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge are out for a while (and really, even if they’re not). Apart from Ryan Madson, the Phillies bullpen is pretty bad. Most of the so-called “experts” have been saying that the Braves’ bullpen is probably the biggest strength of the team, and I find it hard to argue with that, though I actually think it should be the offense.
At the time of this posting, the Braves are six games back of the Phils in the loss column. I don’t see any way that can possibly continue. This NL East race is going to be a dogfight till the end of September, and I see the Braves coming out on top. Even if Utley is back and healthy from June-September, the Phillies won’t score enough runs and won’t be able to close out enough games to take the division this year. The Braves are better positioned to withstand injuries and are a far more balanced team. These are very possibly the two best teams in the National League, but the Braves are better. Anything written on the internet is indelible, so check back with me on October 1st and we’ll see who was right.
We need a little content up here again. It’s been a while.
Barring an unlikely backup shortstop or backup center fielder acquisition, the Braves’ offseason moves are done. The big splash was made early this offseason with the acquisition of Dan Uggla. There is no doubt that the Braves got excellent value for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, particularly because Uggla fills a glaring weakness for the Braves: right-handed power. The move clearly made them significantly better for 2011.
The problem comes in when we consider the extension that Uggla signed on January 4th. The deal extends him beyond 2011 (in which he was arbitration-eligible) for four additional years, through his age 35 season, for a total cost of $62 million. As has been reported by Peter Hjort and others, Uggla does not play good defense at second base and is a prime candidate to see his offensive abilities fall off a cliff. He is precisely the type of player who you’d like to avoid signing to a long-term deal. His value is tied inextricably to his ability to hit for power, which is one of the first skills to decline as a player enters his mid-30’s. This deal is unlikely to be a disaster for the Braves, however, because $12.4m isn’t going to be overpaying as long as he’s a 2.5-3 win player. I think the most likely outcome here is the Braves get a great deal in years one and two of this deal, a fair deal in year three, a crummy deal in year four, and an albatross in year five. Maybe the need for right-handed power now and in 2012 makes the albatross that will be 2015 worth it. Maybe Uggla slides over to third base or (my preference) into left field after Chipper Jones retires, and is somewhat better there than he is up the middle–a distinct possibility. Maybe his offensive decline doesn’t begin until 2014, which automatically turns this into a great deal for the Braves. Maybe. But sitting here in February 2011, this doesn’t look like a good deal. Uggla as a one-year rental at $10m seems like it would have been the better bet. Because maybe this deal looks like a disaster in two or three years, and you have an albatross contract on your hands.
The Braves’ other offseason moves were mostly head-scratching. With Stephen Marek, Craig Kimbrell, Johnny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty all working for slave wages, the Braves looked like they’d be all set to have a dominating and exceedingly cheap bullpen in 2011. Instead, they gave $4m to George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, and Scott Proctor. Granted, that’s not a ton of money, even if you’re a mid-market team like the Braves. But it seems really unnecessary. I like the Sherrill signing fine, because it is definitely useful to have three lefties in the bullpen, and Sherrill joins O’Flaherty to give the Braves two really effective LOOGY’s. Linebrink can still be useful and the White Sox picked up the majority of his contract, so that’s OK too. The problem is Scott Proctor. He has never been any good in his whole career, and now he’s been hurt for two straight years. I just don’t understand that one.
For position players, the Braves largely stood pat. They got Uggla to play second base, and they signed Joe Mather as the primary right-handed pinch-hitter (apparently Mather can back up all three outfield positions passably and also first base), letting Matt Diaz go to free agency, whereupon he signed with the Pirates. They were unable to move Kenshin Kawakami and Nate McLouth, so everything else pretty much will stay the same from 2010.
This was a playoff team that had a better Pythagenpat record than the Phillies in 2010. In 2011, only Chipper Jones is a candidate for significant age-related regression, and only Tim Hudson is a candidate for regression-to-the-mean regression. Dan Uggla’s acquisition should help the offense. Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward are one year closer to their primes. There is much to be excited about for a Braves fan as we head towards Spring Training. The Braves project as probably the second-best team in the entire National League in 2011. Unfortunately, the best team in the N.L. is in their division: the Philadelphia Phillies. This should be a great year, another Wild Card year, another playoff year for the Braves. As a fan, you gotta love that. And of course with the #2 or #3 farm system in baseball (depending on whom you ask), the Braves’ long-term outlook is rosy as well. Pitchers and catchers report in just 12 days!
Smallest of small samples, of course, but even over five outings, when someone’s breaking the FIP/xFIP model like Kimbrel is (-1.71 FIP), it’s worth noting. And he’s looked unbelievably nasty doing it. Feeling pretty good about his future-closer title.
Caveat: I realize I shouldn’t be thinking about next year in the middle of a pennant race, but it’s impossible not to. If you only care about this year and don’t wanna think about this issue till next year, just skip this post.
In 2011, the Braves will have Jason Heyward in right field. The other two outfield positions are a currently a mess.
Nate McLouth isn’t really adequate as a center fielder even when he’s healthy and “right” at the plate. And in 137 PA at AAA, Mclouth has hit .237/.350/.404 and played lousy defense in CF. He was horrible defensively before his demotion and hit even worse, as we all know. I do think he could be adequate defensively in left field, but I can’t see him hitting enough even in a platoon situation with Matt Diaz out there for that to be a good solution for LF in 2011. He’s guaranteed $7m for the 2011 season and it’s hard to imagine the Braves getting anything at all for him in a trade without eating nearly all of that money. It’s impossible to predict what they’ll do with any accuracy, but my best guess is they’ll DFA him. Yes, they’ll still have to pay him that money, but it’s a sunk cost at this point. No need to compound the problem by allowing him to play for the Braves next year, thereby taking wins away from the team.
As for Matt Diaz, he will be eligible for arbitration for the last time next season. He shouldn’t and won’t be playing every day for the Braves. Depending on what else happens with the outfield situation, he could wind up in a platoon again or on the bench. Possibly a cheap outfield bat like Luke Scott could work, or bringing back Eric Hinske, or as I mentioned above, platooning with Nate McLouth (who has never ever been able to hit left-handed pitching, not even when he was “good”, but maybe Frank Wren will want to give him a shot against righties). Diaz will probably provide enough value even in limited usage to be worth his arb contract, and I think the Braves will bring him back. How much playing time he gets will be a function of whom else the Braves bring in for the outfield.
Omar Infante, who has a cheap club option for 2011 that the Braves will definitely pick up, will probably have to start in the outfield if he’s going to start at all, as I think Chipper Jones will return as expected from his injury (his rehab schedule has him back to 100% health by February). With Alex Gonzalez, Martin Prado, and Freddie Freeman completing the infield picture, there’s not a spot for Infante that I can see. Infante has started just 21 games in his career in center field and has posted an ugly -2 DRS in that small sample. It’s obvious he is not the answer in center field. His .393 BABIP this year also indicates that his ridiculous offensive numbers are largely the result of luck on balls in play, and I think he’ll go back to his super-utility role for next year. I’m not saying he 100% can’t or shouldn’t start for the Braves, just that I don’t think it’s likely. He’s been more than adequate defensively at shortstop throughout his career, with a +13 DRS over 187 starts there, so I suppose it’s possible the Braves will decline the option on Alex Gonzalez and start Infante there all year. That seems doubtful to me, though. Infante could also platoon in left field (where he’s been adequate defensively) with Diaz, as Diaz hits lefties very well and Infante has a reverse platoon split and has always hit righties better. That doesn’t seem like a very good solution either, nor a likely one.
There are no other in-house options for the outfield. Melky Cabrera would receive about $5m in arbitration if the Braves were to offer it, so they won’t. Rick Ankiel has an astronomical $6m mutual option for next year with a $500k buyout, so the Braves will definitely be letting him go. And Jordan Schafer has utterly fallen apart as a prospect this year and will either take a year or two to get back to being a major league caliber player, or more likely, be out of baseball altogether.
Obviously center field is the real issue here. If the Braves were to make a trade for or sign a real center fielder who can actually man that position defensively (and not be a total black hole on offense), then they could make do with what they have or sign someone pretty cheap and come up with some combination that would be fine in left field. The production they’re likely to get from Heyward in right is more than solid, so if the other two outfield positions are just league-average both offensively and defensively, that’s fine. The problem is, who would they be able to get to play league-average center field? Such players are exceedingly rare.
There isn’t one single free agent CF this offseason who is going to be even close to league-average. By my count, there are only two outfielder free agents who would be better than what the Braves can get from Infante / McLouth / Diaz: Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford. Neither of them is a center fielder, and both will come at a steep cost. I can’t imagine the Braves being able to scrape together enough money to sign either of them. The only significant money the Braves have coming off the books is to Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner, and that total is probably entirely eaten up by all the arbitration raises coming to the younger players. Additionally, the Braves’ payroll has dropped by $20m since 2008. I think it’s far more likely that they will continue to decrease payroll than they will change directions and increase it. And of course it’s also well-documented that the Yankees are keen on signing one of these two and making Brett Gardner their fourth outfielder, and you’re not going to out-bid the Yanks. If that were to happen, you’d be bidding against every other team in MLB that needs an outfielder for whichever one the Yankees didn’t get. So Crawford and Werth are almost certainly pipe dreams. That leaves the always ludicrous-until-they-happen trade possibilities.
My first choice would be Colby Rasmus. There are rumblings that Tony La Russa has some pretty strong animosity towards Rasmus and that only one of the two will be with the Cardinals in 2011. If the Cards choose to bring back La Russa, it sounds like they’ll explore the trade market for Rasmus. He’s been worth +6 and -1 DRS in center field the last two years, so he’s definitely league average or better there. And this year, he’s hitting .268/.352/.501 which is excellent. He’s also only 23 years old, with one more year at near league-minimum salary and then three arbitration years.
Current A.L. East outfielders B.J. Upton, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury would be intriguing options. All three could play CF, but Ellsbury doesn’t play it well. One thing that would complicate any of those potential deals is the fact that Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, and Andrew Friedman are probably all more shrewd than Frank Wren is. I think they would see our center field options and drive up the price, knowing that our needs were dire. Still, any of those three would be welcome upgrades to Nate McLouth in CF every day. Ellsbury and Upton would be bottom-of-the-order hitters, while Gardner would probably bat leadoff for the Braves. Ellsbury is entering his age 27 season and coming off a year lost to injury, so he’s intriguing as a “buy low” candidate. However, he might be so dreadful in CF that acquiring him wouldn’t be worth it. Both +/- and UZR have always hated his CF defense, and since he isn’t a fabulous hitter, that’s a tough combo. Still an upgrade over internal options, but not much of one. He did post a .355 OBP last year with 70 stolen bases in 82 attempts, so there’s an outside chance he could be a table setter. Upton’s defense was among the best in the game in CF prior to this year, and he’s still only 25, so he’s probably valuable even if he doesn’t hit much. Consecutive down years offensively make him a possibility for the Rays to want to move and another possible “buy low” candidate. Gardner is the best option offensively, as he’s hit .286/.387/.383 this year and stolen 37 bags in 44 chances. For his career, he’s been excellent defensively in left field and above average in CF. You’d be buying a bit high on him, though, and it remains to be seen if the Yankees will sign Crawford or Werth for corner outfield and keep Granderson as their everyday CF. So I’d call Gardner the least likely for the Braves.
Frankly, none of them are particularly likely. These types of young, impact players are rarely moved while they still have years of team control left. And when they are, it’s often at the expense of top prospects, which the Braves are not likely to want to move. To sum up: The Braves are in bad shape for 2011 regarding the left and center field positions. CF in particular is going to be awfully tough to solve. Good luck, Frank Wren. You’re going to need it.
Not long ago, I had a fairly extended discussion on Jason Heyward in the comments of a Dave Woody post. An intended continuation was trumped by Chipper Jones’ torn ACL and then the Lee trade*
*Quick hit analysis of said trade: fair. Would have liked to hang onto Robinson Lopez to leverage more in a different trade, but that’s really marginal, seeing as the chances of him making a real impact at the MLB level for the Braves were really low (he’d have to become a productive major leaguer and then have a spot on the staff to get enough innings, both of which seem iffy).
Now that there’s a bit of a lull, though, all my diabolical plans come to fruition (by writing a post about Jason Heyward, yes. I need better plans).
First, a quick review: Heyward has posted a 2.5 win season so far, with a 121 wRC+ and 3.0 UZR (his +/- is more favorable, at +11 DRS). I want to emphasize that this is really, really good. Rookies in their age-20 season don’t generally perform as above average major leaguers. It isn’t the Albert Pujols type rookie year it looked like we might see over the first couple months of the year, but that isn’t any reason to undersell the value Jason has already brought in, nor the continued optimism that he can be a class-of-the-league type star if some things go right.
It’s felt by some, though (most notably for this post, the aforementioned Dave Woody), that we really were in store for something legitimately Pujols-ian, if not for a thumb injury that was sustained in early June. The injury basically ruined that month, and in that regard certainly has been a drag on his cumulative stats to one degree or another. Heyward was then placed on the DL from late June stretching through the all-star break. His performance in the time period following (30 games going into this afternoon’s contest) is where opinions diverge: either the thumb injury is a more serious problem which won’t really heal until the offseason – and thus is hindering performance to a large degree – or it was largely salved by the DL stint, and is either affecting production to a fairly small degree (well within error bars for luck) or not at all.
There is obviously some middle ground here, but for the purposes of this post it’s basically going to be ignored. So are, really, the actual merits of each argument – Heyward’s struggles can be attributed to the thumb, or a simple continuation of some problems that were always prevalent; namely unfortunate ground-ball tendencies. The latter point of view also hinges on pitchers gaining a bit of a book on Heyward, as happens with most rookies.
The point, then, of this post (other than to summarize), if it isn’t to examine merits, is to look at what each argument would mean, if correct. During the original thread, my position (that the thumb injury is probably a fairly small factor post ASB) was seen as being overly optimistic, I guess because it implies we should see a definite rebound at some point in the final month of the season and into whatever post-season play the Braves are involved in. In a wider view, though, I think it’s actually the more pessimistic view (this is to make no statements on quality – again, not merits here): if you think that Heyward’s thumb injury is significantly sapping his performance, the implication is that his true talent level is within a reasonable distance of his season-opening performance, which would mean we’re looking at 6 win type seasons going forward (this is a possibility in both scenarios; mine would just require more development).
If, however, you think we’re looking at something more akin to simple rookie season inconsistencies (to dip a toe into merits despite my aversion, I think this is strongly supported by Heyward’s strong month of July – albeit only in 15 games – which in terms of rate stats is squarely between his April and May.), that would make predictions of slightly less super human performance into the next few years a lot more reasonable. If, say, Heyward ends up around 3 WAR total for this year, you might project 4 or 4.5 going into 2011 – it’s hard to say, as it should be with rookies.
So, there are your viewpoints. Either the first two months of the season were very close to real and the Braves have a legitimate 21-year-old star whose had some bad luck, or he’s just a very, very good rookie who also had a tough break, but not a season-shattering one. We don’t know which one is correct currently, and we might not ever, really, but where you fall has a huge impact on where you’ll project the 2011 Braves.
The Atlanta Braves have acquired Derrek Lee plus about $1.5m in cash from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for minor league pitchers Robinson Lopez, Tyrelle Harris, and Jeffrey Lorick. They have also optioned Troy Glaus to the 15 day disabled list, with a stated intention of having him rehab at third base for AAA Gwinnett. If he can handle third defensively, he’ll be the regular 3B for the Braves down the stretch and into the postseason.
This is just the kind of impact trade the Braves needed to make in my opinion. By my calculations, it adds a little bit more than one full win over the remainder of the regular season, and perhaps more if it allows Troy Glaus to be any kind of contributor in September or in the postseason (be that as a pinch-hitter, first base fill-in, DH, or possibly even a part-time third baseman). I’m very sorry to have to see Robinson Lopez go, but if we’re trying to win one for Bobby this year, it had to happen. Lopez is probably 4 years away from the big leagues, and may project more as a reliever if he can’t get more consistent with his curve or ever figure out a third pitch. He has a very projectable frame and a very live arm, but he’s young and raw and basically a lottery ticket. The other two pitchers are just organizational depth with the potential to be bullpen arms for a major league club in a few years but also very much with the potential to flame out of baseball altogether. Minor league fodder, if you will.
Let’s have a look at what Lee adds over Glaus at first base for the rest of 2010:
ZiPS Rest of Season projections (wOBA):
Troy Glaus: .343
Derrek Lee: .366
Lee has been worth +4 Defensive Runs Saved so far this year, while Glaus has been worth an ugly -8.
So, we add 23 points of wOBA and +12 defensive runs. Phillies fans who are calling this a lateral move are not looking at the stats. This is a very clear and very real upgrade on both sides of the ball. I don’t look for Lee to put up his ridiculous .306/.393./.579 line from last year (.412 wOBA), but if he can remotely approach that at all, while giving Glaus the rest he desperately needs and playing excellent D at first base, then he’ll be exactly the right handed middle-of-the-order hitter the Braves need him to be.
As for the idea of Glaus moving to 3B in September, I think it’s fine to try it out in Gwinnett, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Two weeks of rest for his knees won’t give him the mobility that he’ll need to play the hot corner effectively, I don’t think. Omar Infante has a reverse platoon split (hits better against righties than lefties, even though he’s a RH batter), so starting Glaus against some LHP at third base could make sense down the stretch–if he can handle it defensively. I wouldn’t be willing to put money on this either way, but I kinda doubt he can do it. More likely he’s our big right handed bench bat and our DH if we make it to the World Series. And of course if Lee’s back gives him some problems and he needs a day off here and there in September, having both Glaus and Eric Hinske as very capable 1B fill-ins is pretty sweet.
My lineup would be:
- Omar Infante 2B
- Martin Prado 3B
- Jason Heyward RF
- Derrek Lee 1B
- Brian McCann C
- Eric Hinske / Matt Diaz LF
- Alex Gonzalez SS
- Rick Ankiel / Melky Cabrera CF
A bench with Hinske or Diaz, Melky or Ankiel, Brooks Conrad, David Ross, and in September, Troy Glaus on it would rival any NL team’s bench. That lineup would score plenty of runs, particularly if Lee’s back holds up and Heyward finally busts out of his slump. Braves’ starters have the 4th best FIP in the National League, and Braves’ relievers have the best FIP and xFIP. The defensive upgrade to Lee over Glaus makes the pitching marginally better. There’s really very little not to like about this team right now. I’m totally stoked about this trade and the Braves’ chances. This makes them better offensively and defensively, and probably adds just enough wins to hold off the Phillies for the NL East.
…he’d deal Chone Figgins to the Braves for Kenshin Kawakami and a fringe prospect. The Braves would be getting a legit leadoff hitter for a below-market contract, and unloading Kawakami’s contract to boot. The Braves would then be able to make the stretch run a little easier this year, and they could move Figgins to center field next year if Chipper Jones returns. With Kawakami off the books and out of the organization, the Braves would basically be getting Figgins for free until 2012, and they’d be able to keep Mike Minor in the starting rotation next season. With Kris Medlen out for the year, this is a good thing.
Cameron is not the GM in Seattle. I hope Frank Wren uses the same argument Cameron does in his excellent piece and convinces Jack Z to do this deal. Chone would almost certainly clear waivers because the only other contending team who might be interested, the Cardinals, can’t take on that contract due to the impending free agency of Adam Wainwright and Albert Pujols. The Braves could certainly use some help, and regardless of where on the diamond Figgins were to play, he would be exceedingly helpful.