2004 Atlanta Braves Preview

Tuesday, March 02 2004 @ 12:08 PM EST

Contributed by: Anonymous

It's over. Over the last dozen years, the Braves have enjoyed the most sustained run of excellence in the post-Messersmith era. They've had as good a twelve-year run as any team, of any era, has ever had. And now is the time to appreciate it, because it's over.

-- Baseball Prospectus 2003

For twelve years, various people have predicted that this is the year that the Braves' run of division titles will come to an end. Some of these predictions have been based on accounting; others have been grounded in intuition. They've been made in newspapers, in private conversations, in baseball annuals, in blogs, and in every other sort of forum. And they've all been wrong. (Except in 1994, when the Braves were let off the hook by the strike, but we can't really count that.) Which makes it difficult to say that 2004 is the year in which they'll falter. However, the chorus of voices making that claim is an awful lot louder right now than it's ever been before; sometimes those who understand history are still doomed to repeat it.

Assuming that John Smoltz stays in the closer's role, 2004 will be the first season since 1988 in which Atlanta won't run Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, or Smoltz to the mound every five days. And while these three pitchers haven't been the only reasons for the Braves' success over the past thirteen seasons, they've certainly been the primary ones:

Season    RAA (Maddux,     RAA (rest    W-L 
Glavine, Smoltz) of team)

1991 47 58 94-68
1992 51 62 98-64
1993 97 111 104-58
1994 84 10 68-46
1995 115 -10 90-54
1996 141 -16 96-66
1997 127 83 101-61
1998 143 103 106-56
1999 53 126 103-59
2000 86 10 95-67
2001 66 20 88-74
2002 79 64 101-59
2003 30 137 101-61

From 1995 until 1998, the Braves could generally count on winning their division or at least the wild card as long as they could find twenty-two guys to put up league average numbers. But even great pitchers age, and in recent years Atlanta has come to rely more and more on contributions from their supporting cast: Kevin Millwood in 1999, John Burkett in 2001, and Millwood plus a bunch of nondescript relievers in 2002.

The Offense, 2003

In 2003, it was the offense's turn to make an unexpected contribution to the Braves' fortunes. Atlanta led the National League with 902 runs and a .284 equivalent average (EqA). Remarkably, the Braves managed to outscore all but two AL teams despite playing most of the season without a designated hitter. Essentially, the Braves' lineup in 2003 consisted of:

- three stars (Gary Sheffield and the Joneses) who played at or near their established levels
- two young players (Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles) who had breakout seasons
- one veteran of modest ability (Vinny Castilla) who played over his head
- a makeshift but reasonably effective first-base platoon between two guys (Robert Fick and Julio Franco) who could conceivably play in a father-son game together
- an overworked catcher in the decline phase of his career (Javy Lopez) who channeled the ghost of Brady Anderson en route to a season that simply defies explanation

Sheffield, Lopez, Chipper Jones, and Giles placed in the NL top 20 EqA list, and Furcal joined them in the top 20 runs above position (RAP) and runs above replacement position (RARP) lists. (EqA, RAP, and RARP are all Baseball Prospectus statistics.) Moreover, the lineup wasn't just good, it was healthy:
Player          Pos  PA   RAP  RARP    BA   OBP   SLG

Rafael Furcal SS 734 21.7 42.2 .292 .352 .443
Gary Sheffield RF 678 52.6 73.9 .330 .419 .604
Andruw Jones CF 659 13.9 35.3 .277 .338 .513
Chipper Jones LF 656 24.5 46.6 .305 .402 .517
Marcus Giles 2B 635 37.9 55.4 .316 .390 .526
Vinny Castilla 3B 578 1.0 19.1 .277 .310 .461
Javy Lopez C 495 51.1 64.4 .328 .378 .687
Robert Fick 1B 460 -9.6 7.3 .269 .335 .418
Julio Franco 1B 223 0.7 8.6 .294 .372 .452

Flotsam 873 -39.2 -9.0 .248 .304 .341

Pitchers 387 12.8 12.9 .155 .186 .234

A large part of the Braves' success scoring runs in 2003 stems from their ability to put their top lineup on the field day after day and avoid giving too many at-bats to players like Mark DeRosa, Darren Bragg, Henry Blanco, and Matt Franco. One might reasonably wonder why the latter three guys were around to begin with, but that's another issue.

As an aside, the Braves spent most of the year with a five-man bench and a twelve-man staff. Their thirteen core position players combined for 5901 plate appearances, and their pitchers accounted for 387 more. Only 90 PAs were accumulated by position players other than the core thirteen, which must be close to a modern-day record.

Finally, you know it's a good year for your offense when your most disappointing performance at the plate comes from a pitcher (Mike Hampton):
Season      PA    BA   OBP   SLG

1998-2002 400 .296 .320 .430
2003 74 .183 .246 .350

The Pitching, 2003

John Schuerholz took a great deal of heat in the winter of 2003 for his pitching moves, which included:

- Letting Tom Glavine walk, and replacing him with Paul Byrd
- Trading Damian Moss for Russ Ortiz
- Offering Greg Maddux arbitration, thinking that he wouldn't accept
- Trading Kevin Millwood to the Phillies for a 27-year-old minor-league catcher (Johnny Estrada)

Now that the dust has settled, it's time to give credit where credit is due. Glavine was a league-average pitcher in 2003 and didn't come close to earning his keep. While Byrd showed up to camp with a broken wing and didn't pitch at all in 2003, I'd still rather have his contract (2 years, $10 million) than Glavine's (3 years, $35 million.) Ortiz outpitched Moss and was a bargain for $4.6 million. Maddux and Millwood both ended up as albatrosses, pitching pretty well but not nearly well enough to justify their salaries. The much-maligned Millwood-for-Estrada deal looks pretty good for the Braves in hindsight, as Millwood has gone back to being a marginally above-average starter and a weight on the Phillies' payroll. Think Mondesi-for-Wiggins, although Millwood does have a lot more upside than Mondesi did.

Atlanta ranked in the middle of the pack in 2003 in ERA (4.10, 9th in the National League), support-neutral value added (3.9, 12th in the majors), and adjusted runs prevented (-3.4, 19th in the majors.) The rotation included four pitchers (Greg Maddux, Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, Horacio Ramirez) who were modestly above average and one (Shane Reynolds) who was modestly below:
Pitcher          GS   IP   ERA+ SNVA SNWAR SNPct  $H    $BB   $K    $HR

Greg Maddux 36 218.1 105 1.2 3.4 .558 .282 .037 .138 .027
Russ Ortiz 34 212.1 109 1.5 3.2 .562 .250 .112 .163 .019
Mike Hampton 31 190 108 1.6 3.2 .576 .277 .095 .134 .017
Horacio Ramirez 29 182.1 104 0.9 2.6 .552 .275 .092 .128 .027
Shane Reynolds 30 167.1 77 -1.4 0.1 .430 .311 .081 .129 .027

[where $H = H/(AB-K-HR), $BB=BB/PA, $K=K/PA, $HR=HR/PA, and SNVA, SNWAR, and SNPct are as defined here.]

Greg Maddux's 3.4 SNWAR was good for 30th in the majors, although Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz bested him in SNPct. Maddux's 105 ERA+ was his highest since 1987, and his 24 home runs allowed were a career high. Russ Ortiz pitched like Russ Ortiz: decent strikeout rate, lousy walk rate, good home run rate, and an inexplicably low batting average on balls in play. Mike Hampton had an excellent comeback season, and Horacio Ramirez might have been a deserving ROY candidate if he hadn't come up in the same season as Brandon Webb and Dontrelle Willis. Shane Reynolds seems to have had some hard luck; his defense-independent numbers are essentially the equal of Hampton's or Ramirez's, but his batting average allowed on balls in play was unusually high, which is reflected in his poor ERA. Like the batsmen, Atlanta's starting pitchers were uncommonly healthy in 2003; only three starts were made by pitchers other than the top five.

Let's play "Which of these is unlike the others?" for a minute:

Season  Team ARP (adjusted to league average)

2000 9
2001 3
2002 82
2003 -12

It's not often that a team's bullpen contributes nine more wins in one season than in the next, but Atlanta managed the feat in 2002-2003. The 2002 Braves placed four relievers (Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger, Darren Holmes, and John Smoltz) in the top 30 ARP list and had a fifth (new Blue Jay Kerry Ligtenberg) who just missed the list. Moreover, their sixth and seventh men (Tim Spooneybarger, Kevin Gryboski, and Albie Lopez) were solid.

During the 2002-2003 offseason, the Braves lost Hammond, Ligtenberg, Lopez, Remlinger, and Spooneybarger, and replaced them with a combination of Jung Bong, Roberto Hernandez, and Ray King. They also moved Trey Hodges into a full-time role and found some innings along the way for doghouse-boy Jason Marquis, journeymen Will Cunnane and Jaret Wright, and oldtime Brave Kent Mercker. The resulting bullpen didn't perform nearly as well as the 2002 version, but was this bad roster management or simply a return to the mean?

The returning members of the 2002 pen slipped somewhat in 2003, as Darren Holmes returned to earth and Trey Hodges was given more innings:
                ---2002---   ---2003---

Kevin Gryboski 51.2 -3.4 44.3 2.3
Trey Hodges 11.2 -1.4 61.0 -10.0
Darren Holmes 54.2 18.6 42.0 -2.8
John Smoltz 80.1 17.8 64.3 22.7

Total 198.1 31.6 211.6 12.2

The cups of coffee ( ---2002--- ---2003---

C. Coffee 15 -8.5 18 -9.2

The new members of the 2003 pen didn't fill the shoes of the pitchers whom they were replacing. However, the departing members of the 2002 pen wouldn't have filled those shoes either if they'd stayed around:
                ---2002---   ---2003---

Departing 298.7 68.4 257.3 5.9
Arriving 187.3 3.5 243.3 -6.5

It's clear that the 2002 pen was pitching way over its head; trying to keep it intact for 2003 would have cost a great deal of money and made very little difference. If Schuerholz deserves blame for anything, it's not for letting Hammond, Ligtenberg, Lopez, Remlinger, and Spooneybarger leave, but rather for replacing them with a bunch of guys who were similarly mediocre. In Schuerholz's defence, this was a bullpen constructed on the cheap; none of the Braves' relievers made seven figures in 2003 save John Smoltz, who made eight. However, as the example of the Blue Jays' 2003 bullpen shows us, "free talent" too often equates to "free of talent," which is a lesson worth learning in Atlanta as well as Toronto.

Offseason Moves
        Arrivals              Departures
------------------------ ----------------------

OF/C-R Eli Marrero C-R Javier Lopez
C-R Eddie Perez C-R Henry Blanco

1B-L Robert Fick

3B-L Russell Branyan 3B-R Vinny Castilla

IF-L Matt Franco

OF-L J.D. Drew OF-R Gary Sheffield
OF-S Gary Matthews Jr. OF-L Darren Bragg

SP-R John Thomson SP-R Greg Maddux
SP-R Shane Reynolds

RP-R Antonio Alfonseca RP-R Jason Marquis
RP-L Armando Almanza RP-R Roberto Hernandez
RP-L C.J. Nitkowski RP-L Kent Mercker
RP-L Ray King

SP-R Adam Wainwright

Folks, there just ain't no good way to spin these moves, although it must be acknowledged that most of them may be attributed to a need to slash payroll. Replacing Maddux v.2003 with John Thomson is essentially a wash (although the sponsorship banner on Thomson's Baseball-Reference page reads "Welcome aboard, John. You have some big shoes to fill"), and I can see absolutely no reason to expect much of a positive contribution from any of the other new pitchers. Shane Reynolds and Ray King take 226 serviceable innings with them, and Jason Marquis would have been a useful rotation option. Adam Wainwright is a well-regarded pitching prospect who put up a 3:1 K:BB ratio with a good home run rate last year in the Southern League at the age of 22; he'll definitely be missed.

On the offensive side of the ledger, things are worse. J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero came over from the Cardinals in exchange for King, Marquis, and Wainwright in an attempt to fill the Gary Sheffield-sized hole in right field. While Drew is a good hitter, he's not Gary Sheffield, and he's averaged only 372 at-bats in his five full seasons. Marrero is pretty good with the stick for a catcher (though not for an outfielder), and I wouldn't be completely shocked if he outhit Javy Lopez this year, but he won't come within a light year of replacing Lopez's 2003 production.

Even though it was well-known around baseball that Sheffield intended to sign with the Yankees, the Braves failed to offer him arbitration. I'm not sure whether this was an overreaction to Maddux's unexpected decision to accept arbitration the year before or a conscious desire to save the couple of million dollars that it would cost to sign the extra drafts picks resulting from Sheffield's departure; either way, it was a bonehead move.

Russell Branyan plugs nicely into the Vinny Castilla decent power, lousy on-base role; it should be noted that PECOTA's 90th percentile forecast for Branyan is a ridiculous .277/.384/.620. Rookie Adam LaRoche may be an improvement over Robert Fick, and Eddie Perez and Gary Matthews Jr. should have no trouble replacing Henry Blanco and Darren Bragg's "production," although they shouldn't be expected to make much of a positive contribution.

PECOTA believes that the pitching moves leave the Braves roughly where they started, while the new position players should be expected to provide roughly fourteen fewer wins that the old ones. Yes, fourteen.

Help From The Farm

If DeRosa hits like the utility infielder that he is and Branyan hits like the 1991 version of Rob Deer rather than the 1992 version, the Braves might turn to top 3rd base prospect Andy Marte. At 19 years of age, Marte hit .285/.372/.469 for high-A Myrtle Beach last year on the heels of a .281/.339/.492 debut with low-A Macon the year before. He was named the 11th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America and the 3rd best by BP, and was the top third baseman on both lists. Marte is being compared to Miguel Cabrera more than is probably good for him, but there's no denying that he's a serious talent.

Adam LaRoche is the favorite to win the vacant first-base job. He hit .283/.381/.511 in AA Greenville and .295/.360/.466 in AAA Richmond last summer at the age of 23, earning a low spot on BA's top-100 list. LaRoche isn't going to make any All-Star teams, but he probably won't be a liability either, and the price is certainly right.

Right-hander Bubba Nelson is in the running to be the fifth starter in 2004. He pitched mostly in Greenville last year, posting a good ERA (3.18) but mediocre peripherals (7 HR, 45 BB, 77 K in 119 IP.) Baseball America likes his fastball-slider combination enough to rank him just below LaRoche in their top 100.

There's a lot of talent in this system, but most of it is concentrated at the lower levels. Two other Braves made BA's top 100 list: CF Jeff Francoeur and LHP Dan Meyer. Left-hander Macay McBride, righties Kyle Davies and Anthony Lerew, and catcher Brian McCann are also highly regarded. However, none of these players reached AA in 2003, so it's hard to imagine any of them arriving next season.

Although Andy Pratt isn't considered a top prospect, he struck out 161 batters in 156 innings for Richmond last season (against 77 walks), and at 24 years of age he's hardly over the hill. He could earn a spot at the back of the rotation or bullpen if he has a good spring. Wilson Betemit posted a .355 batting average in 183 AB for Greenville at the age of 21 three years ago, which seems like an eternity. Betemit hasn't done anything with the bat since then, and he'll never have a better chance at a third base job than right now.

Projected Roster
                       2004  ------2003 statistics------
Starting Lineup Age PA BA OBP SLG EqA

C-R Eli Marrero 30 114 .224 .267 .355 .214
1B-L Adam LaRoche* 24 550 .290 .370 .487 .248
2B-R Marcus Giles 25 635 .316 .390 .526 .312
3B-R Mark DeRosa 29 288 .263 .316 .383 .245
SS-S Rafael Furcal 26 734 .292 .352 .443 .281
LF-S Chipper Jones 31 656 .305 .402 .517 .314
CF-R Andruw Jones 26 659 .277 .338 .513 .286
RF-L J.D. Drew 28 326 .289 .374 .512 .300

*statistics from AA/AAA


C-S Eddie Perez 35 367 .271 .304 .420 .246
C-R Johnny Estrada 27 39 .306 .359 .306 .241
1B-R Julio Franco 45 223 .294 .372 .452 .285
IF-L Russell Branyan 28 204 .216 .322 .438 .260
OF-S Gary Matthews Jr. 29 513 .248 .314 .361 .244

Starting Rotation Age IP ERA+ SNVA SNWAR SNPct

RHP Russ Ortiz 29 212.1 109 1.5 3.2 .562
RHP John Thomson 30 217.0 102 0.8 2.6 .534
RHP Mike Hampton 31 190.0 108 1.6 3.2 .576
RHP Horacio Ramirez 24 182.3 104 0.9 2.6 .552
LHP Jung Bong 23 57.0 82

Bullpen Age IP ERA+ ARP

RHP John Smoltz 36 64.1 371 22.7
RHP Kevin Gryboski 30 44.1 108 2.3
RHP Antonio Alfonseca 31 66.1 73 -13.3
RHP Trey Hodges 25 65.2 89 -10.0
RHP Will Cunnane 29 20.0 153 5.3
RHP Jaret Wright 28 56.1 54 -28.3
LHP Armando Almanza 31 52.1 66 -6.3

Outlook for 2004

The days of holding enough aces to bankrupt half of Las Vegas are over, but Thomson, Ortiz, Hampton, and Ramirez should be somewhat above average in aggregate in 2004; Ramirez has the most upside. Four regulars from the 2003 offensive juggernaut (Giles, Furcal, and the Joneses) are still around, and there's no reason to expect a large decline from any of them. J.D. Drew provides a fifth above-average bat if he can stay healthy. The positions up for grabs in spring training are catcher (Johnny Estrada, Eddie Perez, and Eli Marrero), first base (Adam LaRoche and Julio Franco), third base (Russ Branyan, Andy Marte, Mark DeRosa, and Wilson Betemit), and fifth starter (Jung Bong, Paul Byrd, Trey Hodges, Bubba Nelson, Andy Pratt, and Jaret Wright's shredded sinews.) The bullpen has a bunch of guys who can charitably be described as question marks, but John Smoltz is a pretty darn big exclamation mark, and he can go a long way to compensate for lousy sixth and seventh men. The big question regarding the bullpen is how long Cox will stick with Wright and Almanza if they pitch as badly as they should be expected to pitch. A secondary but similar question is how long Cox will stick with Alfonseca, Cunnane, and Hodges if they pitch as badly as it is reasonable to assume that they might pitch.

While it's clear that Atlanta has lost a lot of talent, remember that this is a team that won 101 games last year, so there was a lot more talent around to be lost. That being said, the loss of Sheffield and Lopez's production hurts, and no team should expect to be as healthy as the Braves were in 2003. I think Atlanta will be competitive in 2004, but I'd put my money on Philadelphia or Florida for the division crown. Put me down for 85 wins and a failed wild-card run; if Drew stays healthy, Marte pulls a Miguel Cabrera, the string-and-baling-wire bullpen holds together, and a decent fifth starter is found, 95 wins are a possibility.