Where Do We Go From Here? (II: The Rotation)

As things stand right now, the Braves have three spots in the five-man rotation locked in. Russ Ortiz, putative ace, will be back for one more season (I believe the team has an option on his services for 2004). Mike Hampton is signed through 2067 or something. Horacio Ramirez didn’t have the season some rookies had but pitched more than well enough to keep his spot. The Braves will need to fill two spots — or one and a half, looking at it another way — and have a number of candidates. Breaking them down:

Greg Maddux: Maddux didn’t have a good year by his own standards. But he pitched just about as well as Ortiz and Hampton, and nobody’s complaining about them, and he’s still the one Braves starter most likely to go out and have a great game. He should get his 300th win next season, and for for sentimental reasons you’d like to see it in a Braves uniform. I think the team would like to bring him back, but there’s a time constraint. I’m pretty certain they won’t offer him arbitration this time around, and so if he’s going to come back, an agreement would have to be reached before the tender date.

Paul Byrd: History may show that the Paul Byrd signing was the biggest mistake of John Scheurholz’s tenure with the team. People tried to blame Maddux for the Millwood deal, but Scheurholz wouldn’t have been so stretched financially if he hadn’t given two years and ten million to an ordinary pitcher like Byrd. And then Byrd never pitched last year. I don’t really expect him to contribute this time, either. But until he’s officially shut down, the Braves won’t be able to count him out.

Shane Reynolds: Please, no. The Braves do have an option, but they’d be insane to pick it up.

Jason Marquis: I’m not sure he even fits in the team’s plans anymore. Beaten out by Ramirez in spring, banished to the deepest depths of the bullpen and Richmond, Jason then compounded his problems by complaining that he was a starter, not a reliever. His velocity looks okay, but he doesn’t seem to know where the ball is going much of the time. Trading Odalis Perez instead of Marquis in the Sheffield deal is another of those things looking to haunt the GM.

Jung Bong, Trey Hodges: Both broke out in relief early this past season, only to fall apart and eventually wind up in mopup roles. Whether they just didn’t get enough regular work or the league just caught up to them, they aren’t going to get many points for their 2003 performances and will need to look really good in spring to get prominent roles. I’m sure they aren’t going to be counted on this offseason unless the team is totally broken down.

Jaret Wright: Pitched magnificently as the setup man in September and October after getting jettisoned by San Diego. He’s got a lot of starting experience, but he’s also a recent Tommy John’s patient. There’s been word that Leo thinks he might move into the rotation, but I think he’s better off in the pen and letting his elbow continue to heal.

Adam Wainwright: I think that the Braves might have already pencilled him in as the fifth starter for 2004. He pitched well after making the jump to AA; he wasn’t dominant, but for a 21-year-old receiving his first exposure to the upper minors he was more than good enough. He’s the one pitcher the Braves have most likely to be an elite starter going on, and there are a lot of hopes riding on him. But you probably know the track record of minor league pitchers.

Kevin Millwood: Certainly won’t be back in Philadelphia, where his time with the team ended badly. There’s been speculation almost from the moment he was traded — at least, once we Braves fans stopped smashing things — that he would return as a free agent the next year. I suppose it’s a possibility, if Scheurholz can convince the suits to make a commitment over three or four years. Beyond that, there’s the question of how much you trust Millwood. He’s got six and a half seasons of major league experience now, and in those years he’s been excellent twice and essentially average the rest of the time. On the other hand, he’ll be only 29 next year, and a lot of power pitchers don’t break out until they’re in their late twenties, or even later.

Tom Glavine: Sounds weird, but it’s actually doable. The Mets are finally admitting they’re in a rebuilding phase, and Glavine doesn’t make any sense for them. They would probably like to see someone take him off their hands and would pick up a lot of his contract, too. He doesn’t make much sense for the Braves, either, but it’s something to think about.

Someone Else: There are a lot of pitchers available in the free agent market. Andy Pettitte hasn’t been mentioned as coming to Atlanta, but he’s a southerner and the Yankees seem surprisingly uneager to bring him back. I have heard Bartolo Colon’s name mentioned. Sidney Ponson will probably leave San Francisco. There are others, but those are the ones that come to mind. The Braves might also make another move after Javier Vazquez, whom they supposedly had a trade in place for before the Major League offices blocked it.

Prediction: The Braves will try to sign Maddux to a contract, maybe something with a lot of incentives but a much lower base salary. If that doesn’t work, they will go after another free agent — always keeing the Vazquez trade possibility open. They’ll sign someone for less 2004 money than Maddux made in 2003, probably for 3-4 years. The market for starting pitchers isn’t what it was a few years ago. They’ll keep up the pretense that Byrd will pitch for as long as possible, but will shut him down in March. Wainwright will be given every chance to win the fifth starter spot, while Bong, Marquis, and a cast of thousands are made his competition. Shane Reynolds signs with the Devil Rays, is released in May, and the Braves bring him back on another minimum contract just to annoy me.

24 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? (II: The Rotation)”

  1. “But he pitched just as well as Ortiz and Hampton, and no one’s complaining about them.”

    I agree. But something tells me you’re going to catch some flak over that one…

    I imagine the Braves will make another big run at Vasquez, once whoever is GMing in Montreal gets everything sorted out. If Bud goes through on the threat he made to the players to slash their payroll even more, it could be a bloodbath up there.

    A lot of this comes down to how the Braves feel about Horacio Ramirez. From a scouting perspective, he’s a young lefty with good stuff and makeup who’s already had some level of big league success. From a statistical perspective, his run prevention was pretty solid last (this?) year, but those peripherals…wow, are they bad.

    Usually I would think that the Braves’ front office would go with the scouting perspective, but they traded away Moss in almost the exact same situation last offseason.

  2. Horacio has the stuff to be a much better pitcher, but he can’t seem to get the strikeouts. Actually, he has some similarity to Ortiz from the other side. I’m not certain that Atlanta is the best place for him to learn. It may be that he needs to be told to go after the hitters more instead of nibbling.

    Vazquez is the main man, I think. It will cost to bring him in, however, and Ramirez would likely be part of the package. If Byrd can pitch, the Braves could probably do that, but…

  3. In response to Mac’s column about the rotation, here’s what I think:

    We all agree about Hampton, Ortiz, & ramirez taking up 3 slots. The other two will be taken by Adam Wainwright and Kevin Millwood. The Braves front office is looking to severly shave payroll and considering Maddux’s drop in production the last couple of years, Scott Boras’ financial demands behind closed doors will quicken Greg’s departure to a western team, either Arizona or Texas. Maddux is gone.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that the Braves were stopped dead in their tracks by two over powering pitchers this post season, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Kevin Millwood, despite some of his average years, has show he is capable of excellence with guidance from Leo Mazzone. Since he’s coming off a down year, his price tag will be lower, he’s still under age 30, and a true power pitcher we can put at the front of the rotation. If they fail on Millwood, I believe we will bring in Bartolo Colon. Schuerholz is clearly cogniscant of our post season failures and Wainwright with Millwood or Colon is the best and most affordable ways to fill out the staff.

  4. These predictions seem sound, but might the Braves opt instead for Andy Pratt, while Wainwright gets stronger at AAA?

  5. Boras is also Millwood’s agent, so him coming home to Atlanta isn’t a given either.

  6. Tom Glavine: Sounds weird, but it’s actually doable

    I think hs 11+ ERA against Atlanta effectively took care of any chance of that. Which is interesting, because his ERA against every other team wasn’t so bad.

    I’m not ruling out Pettitte, and that scares me. JS often likes players who have beaten Atlanta, and he’s likely looking desperately for guys who’ll “step it up” in October. But Pettitte’s overall postseason numbers aren’t as great as his rep, and he seems to me a guy who benefits a lot from Yankee Stadium – not quite the Tino Martinez of their staff, but not far off either.

    I’m betting they do keep Maddux.

  7. On the other hand, Pettitte is a pitcher of the Glavine type, reliant on his defense, and the Yankees’ defense is just awful. I think he has 2-3 good years left in him, and would look a lot better with ambulatory infielders behind him.

    Pratt goes into the list of guys who will be given a chance to win the #5 job. Anyone predicting before last season that Horacio Ramirez was going to be in the rotation?

  8. Mac, no mention of Smoltzie? Just based on his post-surgery comments, it’s a situation worth looking at. I don’t think the front office will be jumping to get him in the rotation because of the financials, but if he feels very strongly about it, they might consider.

  9. That’s a reasonable point, Troy. I just guess that he won’t hold up for a full season of starting, so they’ll need a replacement for him anyway. I also don’t think they’ll move him to the rotation unless he waives his bonus.

  10. I’ve loved watching Maddux pitch over the years, but I think his time has come. Having a 5-6 inning pitcher as your No. 1 starter wears out the bullpen, especially when Ortiz and Hampton are prone to six-inning, 125-pitch outings themselves.

    That $15 million would be better spent elsewhere. Let him go win No. 300 as a Padre. I’d rather see the Braves bring in 2-3 players with that money and win the World Series than have another first-round flameout punctuated by a personal milestone in mid-August.

  11. It bears repeating — Smoltz’s bonus should have ZERO effect on the decision to put him in the pen or in the rotation. While he gets an extra $100k per start (max ~$3m/yr), his contract becomes guarenteed at $12m only if he closes. I don’t see him getting anywhere near $12m as a starter unless and until he proves he can pitch close to 200 healthy innings, something he hasn’t done in five full seasons. Like the configuration of the Hampton financial obligation, you have to look at the entire picture, not just the one year / one game snapshot.

  12. Creg,
    Maddux averaged over 6 innings a start (6.06). Plus you need to consider he had 3 rain delay starts that almost any other starter (including all of his opponents) would have been out early in. He saved the bullpen. You are thinking of 2002 and the nagging injuries. Maddux finished 6th in the NL in Innings pitched (4 innings away from 3rd place and 15 from 1st place). He finished first on the team in IP. As compared to the vast majority of other starters in baseball he saved the bullpen. Now you can question if he is worth the money, or if he gives up too many runs but he was an inning-eater this year.

  13. Yeah, he also led the majors in starts, with 36 (same as Halladay). That’s reliable and very good. Sure, his ERA wasn’t up to past standards, but I don’t think that neccesarily points to an obvious flaw, just a few bad starts. I agree that 15 million could be well spent elsewhere, but I won’t be disappointed if Maddux spends next year with Atlanta.

  14. I wouldn’t pay anything close to $15 million; you could probably get two years of Ponson or somebody like that for that much money. I doubt any free agent pitcher on the market this year will much exceed $10 million. Whoever trades for Vazquez might wind up extending him for more.

    What I think that the Braves will offer Maddux is something with a much lower base salary — say “only” $7 million — with lots of incentives and a perfomance-based option for 2005. The way I figure it, you won’t mind paying Maddux $15 million if he’s Greg Maddux again.

  15. Mac, Most performance based incentives are prohibited by the CBA. You can have incentives based on quantity of play or incentives based on award voting, but you can’t have them based on numerical indicators of quality of play. That is, we can’t pay him $5m plus $5m if his era is below 4.00 plus $5m if its below 3.00. We could pay X plus an incentive if he pitches 225 innings or 35 starts or finishes in the top 5 in Cy Young voting, but that doesn’t seem like what you are talking about.

  16. Maybe I’m just cranky from breathing all this smoke since my whole state is on fire but…

    But you probably know the track record of minor league pitchers.

    Every major league pitcher was at one time a minor league pitcher. So I’d say the track record is pretty good.

    And next time someone tells you what a bad gamble high school pitchers are, refer them to the 2003 Marlins. Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, and Dontrell Willis are all high school pitchers. Braden Looper, Chad Fox, and Mark Redman are college pitchers. High risk, high reward. Low risk, low reward.

    As far as the rotation, I hope it’s Ortiz, Hampton and three kids. And I really hope they don’t put Pratt or Wainwright in the bullpen to stunt thier careers like they did Bong and Hodges this season. It’s been fun Greg, enjoy San Diego. That is if there is any San Diego left.

  17. Roger Clemens was a college pitcher. Greg Maddux wasn’t. Mark Prior: college. Kerry Wood: high school. The Braves’ staff of the nineties was all high schoolers until Denny Neagle came around. The current A’s staff is all collegians. Hey, it takes all kinds. The point is that using a high draft pick on a high school pitcher is a sucker bet like the lottery. Sure, someone has to win, but that doesn’t mean it’s you. Just ask Brien Taylor — I think I saw him working the counter at Burger King the other day. Maddux — and Tom Glavine, too — was a second-round pick. The only reason so many highly drafted high school pitchers become good major leaguers is that teams still use a ton of draft picks on them, even if the casualty rate is eighty or ninety percent.

    Gosh, look at the guys you listed. Penny’s a decent pitcher, but hardly the ace he was supposed to become. Pavano’s on his third or fourth team and only now becoming a quality pitcher.

    There seems to be an injury plateau at about age 20 for pitchers. (And many pitchers lose velocity at about that age, for some probably related reason.) The implication of that is obvious: The guys coming out of college have already passed that plateau and you just have to worry about all the other injuries and things that can go wrong.

    But the point about minor league pitching prospects is that most are ground up and never become effective starters in the majors. Wainwright’s made the first of the two big jumps — from A to AA — but he still has a long way to go. Bruce Chen, at a similar stage, was a better prospect than Wainwright. Jason Marquis was just about as good. The Matts, McClendon and Belisle, were A, A- prospects three years ago. McClendon’s vanished, and the Braves gave Belisle away. Any of the Mets’ three prospects of several years ago was that good, pre-Dallas Green. Now one’s a journeyman, another a reliever, and the third an insurance salesman.

    There is a chance that Wainwright will be outstanding, and he’s almost certain now to have a significant major league career. But the odds are against him becoming an ace, just as they are for anyone at his age and level of achievement.

    Dan, I figure that if Maddux isn’t pitching well, he won’t throw 220 innings or whatever. Are there any limits on bonus numbers, though?

  18. Wow a six paragraph response. I must have hit a nerve. All you have to do is go to Baseball America and look at thier draft pick study. They found that high school picks make the majors at a slightly lower rate but those that make it have a higher ceiling. Of course this is what common sense tells us.

    For a team like Oakland who lives and dies by a steady stream of cheap minor leaguers I agree it’s probably a good idea to take the safe bet. Richer teams can go for the homerun a larger percentage of the time. The optimum strategy would be a nice mix of HS and college. The SABR-friendly stategy of ignoring high school pitchers (one that would have told the Marlins to pass on Josh Beckett) is nuts. In fact with more teams switching to college-only drafts, now may be the time to grab more overlooked high schoolers.

    And man I hope your not arguing that college pitchers don’t get hurt. Nearly all pitchers get hurt, high school guys just have the time to recover.

  19. Dan, I figure that if Maddux isn’t pitching well, he won’t throw 220 innings or whatever. Are there any limits on bonus numbers, though?

    Other than the player must receive at least league minimum salary, I know of no monetary restrictions on bonuses.

    Something I’ve often wondered: why are teams/players prohibited from negotiating bonuses based on team performance? Give the player some incentive to do something that is in the team’s interest, but perhaps not in his individual best interest.

    For example, John Smoltz will, in the long run, get more money for getting more saves. But most statheads (myself included) would suggest that his performance could be better leveraged by appearing in tie games rather than games where the team is ahead by 3 runs. If he was paid for team wins rather than individual saves, wouldn’t that help sell the idea of going back to a 70s era fireman-type use?

  20. Robert, you hit a nerve, all right, because I got sick of watching the Braves blow first round picks on high schoolers in the nineties. Not just pitchers. Braves first round picks between Chipper and Wainwright: Jamie Arnold, Jacob Shumate, Chad Hutchinson (never signed), AJ Zapp, Troy Cameron. Then there were the second round busts like Belisle and King, and the big-ticket teen free agents from parts unknown like Glenn Williams and Jean Boscan.

    The Braves drafted a bunch of heavily hyped high schoolers in the nineties, paid them a bunch of money to keep them away from college, and watched none of them make any sort of impact on the major league level. There were two high school pitchers of quality developed by the Braves in that period: Jason Schmidt (eighth round in 1991, four rounds after Chris Seelbach) and Kevin Millwood (11th round in 1993, three rounds after Micah Bowie). That 1993 draft shows the problem with the whole high schooler philosophy. The Braves produced three genuine major leaguers — actually, three All-Stars — in that draft, all from high school. Millwood in the eleventh, Jermaine Dye in the 17th, John Rocker in the 18th. But their first nine picks — seven from high school — produced one marginal major leaguer, Bowie. Why not draft low-risk players in the early rounds, then go for the high schoolers?

    BA has a longstanding bias towards very young players, doing things like anointing pitchers who haven’t even pitched high A-Ball as organizations’ top prospects. They have a vested interest in promoting the potential of very young, very obscure players, because they know and cover those guys better than anyone. I’m not bashing them: BA is a great publication. But they have a bias. I want to see their methodology. Marcus Giles was a 53rd round draft pick from high school in 1996: that doesn’t argue very much for using first round picks on high schoolers. As for “ceiling”, how many pitchers have performed better in the draft era than Roger Clemens? The answer is “none”. Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver… How well did these guys have to pitch to have a “high ceiling”?

    I’m not suggesting that college pitchers don’t get hurt. I’m saying that lots of pitchers have an injury crisis at about age 20. The difference is that college pitchers have already been through that, while you don’t know yet which high schoolers will make it through. Given two 22-year-olds at AA, the high schooler and the collegian probably have the same chance of getting hurt, but the odds are the high schooler will never get that far because of injury or control issues.

  21. I invite you to check out thier study. You may or may not agree with thier methodology but any reasonable interpretation will show that ignoring high schoolers is foolhardy. If I remember right, the stats were broken down by round and position, etc.

    As far as yield, there are some 40+ rounds of drafting every year and 25 spots on the major league roster (and half of those will be filled by foreign players not in the draft). The yield for any and every draft strategy will be very low. If you have 10 first round picks and get a Chipper Jones, a marginal player, and 8 busts, you are not doing too bad. (And yes I know Todd VanPoppel didn’t work out) Focusing on just the failures of the Braves drafts is overly negative in my opinion. Especially considering the Braves are pretty famous for being able to reload on the fly with good minor league prospects.

  22. The SABR-friendly stategy of ignoring high school pitchers (one that would have told the Marlins to pass on Josh Beckett) is nuts.

    Of course, let’s not forget that Beckett has yet to show he can pitch for an entire season without getting hurt. The Marlins were lucky in that he actually stayed healthy for the most crucial part of the season.

    In fact with more teams switching to college-only drafts, now may be the time to grab more overlooked high schoolers.

    I’d agree on this. Some higher-risk/higher-upside guys may now be dropping a round or two, so they may be useful pickups if you can get them.

    Colin

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