Off We Go
July 15, 2005

The Nats are taking a beating in the media because their run differential is that of a .500 team.  Everyone is jumping on this bandwagon that they have been extremely lucky and are due for a hard fall.  OK, that's all well and good, but when is someone going to talk about how lucky the Braves have been?  Seriously.  Last year they won the division going away because they got beyond-career year production from the likes of Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero, and benefited from the first year since little league that JD Drew didn't spend half the season on the DL.  This year they are getting it done because Andruw Jones has been hitting everything in sight, but also because Wilson Betemit is having the best year of his professional career despite it being the first in which he's had more than 50 at bats in the majors.  Kelly Johnson is on pace to hit 25 homers (given a full year's playing time) despite the fact that he totaled 23 homers over the last two years split between rookie ball and AA.  Is major league pitching that much easier to hit than what AA or rookie ball has to offer?  It's not that I think that Johnson or Betemit don't have talent.  They do and should become pretty good ballplayers.  The same can not be said of Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero.  But isn't it strange that they both emerge at the precise time when the Braves need players at their positions?  Betemit has been around forever and was thought of by many as a failed prospect, yet just when Furcal suffers his worst season in the majors, that's when Betemit  begins to realize his potential.  The Nationals have been lucky for half a season... how is that any more likely than the Braves being lucky for the last year and a half? 

I'm not even going to get into the pitching side because of the whole Mazzone-is-the-coaching-god thing.  Suffice it to say that if he's so great at keeping pitchers healthy, why have three of the Braves starters spent time on the DL this year?  Forget about all the Tommy John and other reconstructive surgeries other Atlanta pitchers have gone through - and there have been a decent number of them.  Why hasn't he been able to develop more than one or two of the hoard of star quality young pitchers the Braves have brought through their farm system?  Late last season I pointed out on this website that Jorge Sosa was a good candidate for a breakout.  I said the same thing about Juan Cruz and Jaret Wright the year before.  Is it possible that the Braves scouts are seeing the same traits I am, recommending that Schuerholz target these guys for trade, and then watch them blossom as Braves?  Is it possible that Leo Mazzone is little more than the beneficiary of excellent scouting? 

The Nats will slow down because Frank Robinson is wearing out his bullpen in an effort to get as many wins as possible (perhaps under orders from above in order to drive up the team's sale price?).  But the Braves have been just as fortunate to get the production they have as well.  Luck, as Branch Rickey once noted, is the residue of design.  In Bill Shanks new book on the Braves, he argues that the Braves success is by design in the way they scout, sign and develop players.  Maybe both the Nats and Braves are winning, not because of luck or one apotheosized pitching coach, but because they are well-designed

How about some trade rumors and some deals that have already been done... the newest one making the rounds is Toronto's Gustavo Chacin to the Marlins for AJ Burnett.  If it happens, Chacin will gain the benefit of a bigger park.  Even though Burnett moves to the AL and a smaller park, I don't think it would be a bad move for him.  He's become much more groundball oriented (2.58  per flyball this year) than he used to be, so the fact that AL batters aren't familiar with him should be enough to offset the ballpark effects to a large degree.  The infield defense of the Jays is nearly as good as that of the Marlins, so while he'll give up a few more hits because of facing the DH, he shouldn't suddenly become vastly more hittable.  For some reason, lefties who come to the NL do great their first time through.  Improved defense, bigger park and unfamiliarity should give Chacin's numbers a big boost the rest of the way if the deal is made.

As noted in a previous article here, Preston Wilson's numbers might not take that big of a hit coming to RFK from Coors because he is a line drive hitter.  He probably got a few more base hits because of the expanse of the Coors outfield, but I don't believe he experienced a huge boost in power numbers because of the altitude.  He just doesn't put the ball way up in the air enough for it to make a huge difference.  His average will drop 20-30 points, but that might be about the extent of the damage.  Zach Day is still trying to gain consistency so despite his extreme groundball tendency, he'll still struggle in Denver.  Long term, however, he's worth keeping an eye on because if he ever gets his mechanics straight, he should fare well despite the altitude because he keeps the ball on the ground so well.   Eric Byrnes likely won't stay long in Colorado as he is much more expensive and has less upside than any of the Rockies' current young outfielders.  It would not surprise me to see him in a Yankee uni before long. 

The A's trading for Payton didn't make much sense to me.  They seem intent on giving Swisher his opportunity, which means any outfield playing time Payton gets will come at the expense of Bobby Kielty.  Unfortunately, neither guy hits right-handers particularly well and Kielty is much better at hitting lefties (.991 OPS this year, .912 career).  My guess is that Kielty moves to DH against lefties as Payton has more range afield, and until Hatteberg and/or Durazo start hitting, Payton and Kielty will see time against right-handers based on individual histories of success.

With Betemit having such a breakout year, the Braves may entertain trading Raphael Furcal.  The question is which contending teams need a shortstop with a potent bat.   There are three clubs that could use an offensive upgrade at short and one of them - the Nationals - isn't likely to benefit from the Braves' largesse.  The other two - the White Sox and Twins - both have serviceable options and don't appear to be panicking.  The White Sox can bide their time with a huge lead in the Central and hope that Juan Uribe finds his hitting stroke.  Until then, Pablo Ozuna is hitting enough to offset any deficiencies in his defense.  The Twins have Jason Bartlett tearing up AAA whenever they tire of the out-machine known as Juan Castro.  So neither team has any urgency that would compel them to give up the farm.  It's interesting to note that it was just a few years ago that the Braves and media alike were comparing Furcal to the likes of Ty Cobb because of what he was accomplishing at his age (which has since been proven to be several years older than originally reported), yet now they seem perfectly comfortable parting with him.  Most teams, especially successful ones, don't part with Hall of Fame talents so passively.  So the question is this: is Furcal as talented as once thought but carries much more off-the-field baggage than is commonly known, or has his reputation outstripped his ability?  It might be both.

Chad Orvella might very well be ready to close in Tampa but it's probably going to be newly signed Joe Borowski who gets the first shot at the job once Danys Baez is traded.  Borowski's velocity still isn't very good coming off shoulder surgery last year and a broken wrist this year.  It shouldn't be surprising if he struggles.  However, he throws a lot of strikes and AL hitters don't have much familiarity with him, so he might not fare too badly initially.  It's not as though the Devil Rays are contending so if Borowski struggles and they don't feel that Orvella is quite ready to take over closing full-time, they may opt to pick their spots with him.  What this means is that it's possible that both guys could be terrible yet still get saves in the second half.