Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Dragon & The Phanatic... 

ESPN.com is running a series of articles on baseball in the Far East that I thought was interesting. Of particular interest to me was an article by Jim Caple about baseball in China where Caple speculates that the Olympics might spur China to be the next great superpower of baseball development.

Former Big Leaguer and Manager Jim Lefebvre is the Chinese team’s manager and might be a valuable conduit for major league talent wanting to leave China to compete in the MLB. The problem is that Lefebvre played for the Dodgers for eight years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and managed the Mariners, Cubs and Brewers. Having Lefebvre coaching the Chinese team will likely hand those teams – save maybe the Brewers, whose association with Lefebvre was brief – an advantage in securing Chinese talent. The Dodgers and Mariners are West Coast teams with large Asian-American, and more specifically, Chinese-American, immigrant populations. The Cubs are an iconic team from the third-largest city in America, the capitol of Midwestern America, the team that plays with WGN beaming its signal across America. These are the teams that I expect to benefit from this pipeline flowing from the Far East to the West.

China is rising in the world community and might end up dominating the new century. James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly – just about the only thing I read when I am not busy reading about baseball – has been writing an interesting series of articles for the magazine with respect to China in the New Century. “Postcards From Tomorrow Square” is an interesting article from Fallows looking at the pitfalls of Chinese society and its development. For people interested in reading a little about about China’s development as a world power, check out Fallows article.

A little off-topic … I was stunned by this article I came across in National Geographic about Zheng He, the Chinese Admiral who led a series of seven naval expeditions to India and Africa in the early 1400’s, nearly a century before Christopher Columbus sailed into the Caribbean. Zheng He sailed dozens of massive treasure ships that were four or five times as long as Columbus’ ships and weighed many more tons across the distant sea. China’s efforts to explore Africa and India dwarfed Spain’s expeditions to America. Had the Chinese continued to explore the Indian Ocean and advanced into the Atlantic, the history of the world might have been radically different. Instead, the Chinese withdrew and tried to close their borders, an effort that left their society stagnated culturally and economically well into the modern era.

What is frustrating, reading Caple’s article on China, Jim Allen’s on the development of the game in the Far East, and all of the others ESPN wrote about Far Eastern baseball, is how utterly removed from this talent pool teams like the Phillies were. There is a vast, vast reservoir of talent out there and the Phillies seem uninterested in developing it. The globally-minded Dodgers seem to grasp the idea that there is money and talent out there. The ambitious Yankees and Red Sox are East Coast teams and they grasp the concept of globalizing their reach and expanding into the Far East. I am amazed that Pat Gillick, who was the GM of the Mariners during the days of Ichiro! Hasn’t moved to correct this deficiency.

The articles from ESPN.com about China can be found here.

Okay, here is what is going to happen on A Citizens Blog in the coming days. Next week I am posting my 2007 predictions for the A.L. (March 12) and the N.L. (March 14 or 16), as well as a post on the Florida Marlins. The week after that (March 19), I am posting a one-part Season Preview for the Phillies. After that I have some projects on the backburner that I want to get to.

Have a nice weekend, everyone!


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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Adrian Cardenas 

The other day I talked about Kyle Drabek, the Phillies first pick in the 2006 Draft, and noted the impressive strides that Drabek made as a player last season that seemed to fly under the radar of most fans. Today I want to turn my attention to Adrian Cardenas, the Phillies talented shortstop-of-the-future.

The Phillies drafted Cardenas, who was just eighteen years old, in the first round of the draft out of Monsignor Pace High School in Opa Locka, Florida. The immensely talented Cardenas hit .647 (75-for-116), with eighteen home runs, eighteen doubles, three triples and fourteen stolen bases. Cardenas had a whopping 65 RBIs and 52 runs scored. Cardenas led Monsignor Pace to a victory in the state title game. Baseball America was so amazed by Cardenas performance that they named him the 2006 High School Player of the Year. The Phillies liked him so much they took him with the thirty-seventh pick in the draft, after they took Drabek.

A calm, intelligent player (he graduated in the top ten percent of his class), Cardenas seems to have an outstanding background and poses a low character risk. He moved from high school ball to the Gulf Coast League – rookie league – very well, leading the GCL Phillies in On-Base Percentage (OBP) and Slugging Percentage. Cardenas was clearly the GCL Phillies finest player, placing first on the team in runs scored, RBIs, and stolen bases. He finished fourth in the Gulf Coast League in OBP and was eighth in stolen bases.

It is difficult to evaluate if Cardenas will be a power hitter given that it is difficult to hit many home runs in the GCL (The Tigers rookie team led the league with thirty-five in fifty games), but his two home runs don’t seem to dictate that he’ll be a singles hitter for his entire career. I looked it up and discovered that of all of the balls put into play in the GCL in 2006, 48% of them were ground-balls, 12% were line-drives, and 31% were fly-balls (the rest were pop flies). When Cardenas put the ball into play, he hit grounders 45% of the time, line-drives 17% of the time and 32% were fly-balls. Cardenas .826 OPS is one-hundred and sixty-one points above the GCL average. Generally, I found Cardenas’ numbers to be pretty much average-to-above-average, which suggests to me that he won’t be a singles hitter exclusively. Cardenas will develop a little power to his swing.

Speed isn’t an issue. Cardenas is fast. He attempted sixteen steals in 2006 and was successful thirteen times. He also hit four triples. The triple, which requires a player to round the bases and go 270 feet while the ball is still in play, is the most exciting play in baseball and requires a lot of speed to make happen. Cardenas’ four triples tied him for fourth in the GCL with four other players. He’s got speed to burn.

I looked at Cardenas and it struck me that he resembled Chase Utley a lot, so I looked at Utley’s numbers from when he entered the minors in the summer of 2000. Because Utley played baseball at UCLA he got to skip rookie league ball and advance to short-season Single-A ball in Batavia. The comparisons between Utley and Cardenas are uncanny:

Cardenas / Utley
GPA: .283 / .283
ISO: .124 / .137

Yes, the comparisons aren’t perfect: there are some differences between the GCL circa 2006 and the New York-Penn League (NYPL) circa 2000, but the basic similarities are there. They both hit two home runs in almost the same number of At-Bats (153 for Utley, 154 for Cardenas), they drew nearly the same number of walks (18 for Utley, 17 for Cardenas), and they struck out nearly the same number of times (23 for Utley, Cardenas 28). They profile as nearly the same player.

In the final analysis, I think the Adrian Cardenas has a very, very promising future. He’ll advance swiftly through the minors (expect to see him in Single-A Williamsport or Single-A Lakewood in 2007) and arrive in Philadelphia in 2009 or 2010. He’s an extremely talented player and I will be shocked if he isn’t wearing a Phillies uniform in the future.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Know Thy Enemy: The 2007 Nationals 

A year removed from their surprising 81-81 2005 campaign, the Washington Nationals played more at their level, coming in again – for the third consecutive season – in fifth place, but this time with a record ten games worse than last year at 71-91. The former Montreal Expos have settled into a difficult situation in our nation’s capitol. A terrible team that was basically a ward of the state when they were in Canada, the Nats are trying to rebuild and turn their franchise around but are finding it difficult given the problems with building a new stadium and competing financially with teams in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Worse still was the Nats inability to leverage Alfonso Soriano at the trading deadline. Maybe the Phillies didn’t get a lot when they dealt Bobby Abreu, but they managed to shed his contract and get some talent. The Nats, never a playoff contender, failed to move Soriano and watched him walk to the Cubs and received nothing in return. No, the Nats have a very unenviable position and this year ought to be more of the same.

I. Offense. I suppose you have to take into account the fact that the Nationals play in an extreme pitchers park – RFK’s 86 Home Run Factor made it the third-hardest park to get a home run in during the ’06 campaign – but you also have to acknowledge the fact that the Nationals have a terrible offensive unit. The ’06 team scored 746 runs, below the N.L. average of 771. They ranked to the middle and bottom of the pack in terms of home runs, hits, total bases, etc.

The Nats seemed to play a style of play devoted to small ball: bunting, base-stealing, etc. They ranked second in the N.L. in terms of overall Manufactured Runs according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook, with 185 (thirteen behind the Colorado Rockies), and they were second in the N.L. in deliberately Manufactured Runs (“Type 1” Manufactured Runs) that are the product of bunting and base-stealing. Perhaps the team’s focus will change with Frank Robinson having moved on as the team’s coach, but I doubt it.

The big issue for the Nats is how they will replace Soriano. It is not easy replacing a guy who hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases. Soriano had 121 Runs Created* with the Nats, ninth-best in the N.L. They will miss Soriano’s production in a big way.

* Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times ((S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K))] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF). If you use ESPN’s version be advised that it is pitifully is out-of-date, however. James adjusted RC after the 2004 season ended.

The ’07 Nats will have some bats in their lineup, however, beginning with Ryan Zimmerman, their Third Baseman and 2006 Rookie of the Year candidate. Zimmerman hit 20 home runs and had 110 RBIs and will need to duplicate that performance next season for the Nats to score 700+ runs. The biggest question mark about Zimmerman is whether or not Austin Kearns will have a monster season since the Nats stole him from the Reds. Unless Kearns and Zimmerman each hit 30+ home runs, and 100+ RBIs, then the Nats will be suck offensively.

II. Pitching. The 2006 Nats featured one of the worst pitching staffs in the majors despite playing in a park that is very, very friendly to pitchers. Ramon Ortiz, their primary starting pitcher, surrendered a 5.57 ERA in 2006 and led the majors in losses with 16. As an Angel in 2002, Ortiz surrendered forty home runs.

The rest of the staff isn’t much better. Their bullpen was twelfth in the N.L. in ERA, so leads weren’t even safe once they were gotten. Honestly, I can't say anything else about the Nats pitching because it is so lousy.

III. Defense. The Nats were okay defensively in 2006. Their .694 DER* was a touch better than the league average (.693), but they allowed five more unearned runs than the league average (69 vs. 64). They also converted fewer than the league average in double plays, had more errors and allowed a higher percentage of base-stealers (the Nats catchers caught 21% vs. the N.L. average of 28%). Really, they could use some work at nearly every facet of the game.

* DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.

One player they will miss is Soriano, who struggled at times in left field, but turned in a nice performance defensively, throwing 22 assists. Soriano was also the third-best LF in 2006 according to the +15 John Dewan, author of the Plus / Minus fielding system (see, the 2007 Bill James Handbook).

IV. Outlook. In a word: grim. No Soriano, no upgrades to the pitching staff … Yikes, this team could be bad. This team could be sub-70 wins bad, which is good news for the Phillies. The 2007 Nats are no threat, whatsoever, to the Phillies for primacy in the N.L. East. Sure, the Nats stung the Phillies a little late in the season, but the ’07 Nats can only hope to be spoilers, contention is out of their reach.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Scientists tell us that the fastest animal on earth, with a top speed of 120 feet per second, is a cow that has been dropped out of a helicopter.

-Dave Berry

Speed in baseball has been on my mind a lot these days. The Phillies have lived and breathed the long ball in recent years and appear – partly thanks to the presence of new first base coach Davey Lopes – to be emphasizing speed in their training and pre-season strategy these days. This isn’t a bad development in my judgment, as long as the Phillies don’t become the Anaheim Angels, because the Phillies probably ought to diversify their offensive philosophy a little. Few teams can get away playing exclusively small ball and win, and few teams can simply play station-to-station baseball expect to do the same. According to Steve Boros, the Oakland A’s manager in ‘82, the key to winning isn’t just base-stealing or just hitting home runs: “You can’t win with only stolen bases. Few teams win with only power, because they eventually can be pitched to. The great modern teams [Big Red Machine, mid-‘70’s A’s] had a blend of speed and power.” Diversity. Teams without at least some diversity will get into trouble because they can't threaten the opposition at either aspect of the game.

The Phillies will have a nice blend of speed and power in 2007. They are coming off of a season where they were third in the National League in Home Runs with 216 and ranked eighth in stolen bases with 92. The Phillies don’t utilize the stolen base as often as some teams, but they are faster than your average squad of slow-footed sluggers. The Atlanta Braves, for example, led the N.L. in home runs with 222 and stole just 52 bases, worst in the N.L. No surprise then that the Braves were never seriously in the playoff race.

Even with Bobby Abreu (20 steals in 24 attempts) wearing the blue pinstripes instead of the red, the 2007 Phillies have a lot of speed to burn. Specifically, they have six players – three starters and three bench players – who will challenge the arms of defenders in the field. First … a word about what I mean about “speed”. I categorize two plays as being "speed" plays: the stolen base and the triple. The steal is obvious – a player has to cover ninety feet while the ball is being delivered to home and beat out the throw from the catcher. This is a play that Mark McGwire did not excel at. The triple is also a speed play as well because a player has to cover 3/4 of the field while the ball is in play. I don’t consider the double a display of speed because many players can cover the distance without any trouble if they drive the ball hard enough. The triple, that extra ninety feet of distance, is the mark of a fast, fast player.

The Phillies fastest player in lead-off hitter Jimmy Rollins, who stole 36 bases in 40 tries in 2006. Rollins is a real speedster, having taken 207 bases in 259 attempts in his career. His 36 steals were ninth in the N.L. in 2006. Rollins also hit nine triples, which was good for ninth in the N.L. Rollins has 61 career triples and has led the N.L. in three-baggers three times: ’01, ’02 & ’04. That aggressive speed on the bases is what makes Rollins the Phillies best speed threat.

But will Rollins still be stealing bases with frequency in 2007? The team has floated the possibility of batting Rollins fifth in the order to provide support for Ryan Howard. I am not sure that is the best of options, but having a player with Rollins unique blend of power and speed that low in the lineup would lengthen the Phillies lineup and give some options for the team, e.g., having Rollins steal a base to give the Phillies a runner in scoring position for Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand and to prevent the double play. However, I am opposed to the move because J.Roll is more valuable as a lead-off hitter. I expect Rollins to try for 50-60 steals in 2007.

Expect to see Chase Utley run a little more as well. Utley might be the Phillies most complete player, hitting 32 home runs, 40 doubles and stealing 15 bases along with hitting four triples. He’s quick, he hits hard and he plays – like Jimmy Rollins at shortstop – a tough defensive position: second base. It is astonishing that the Phillies have a middle infield that features good defensive players with both speed and power to their game.

Finally, we come to Shane Victorino. Victorino is an interesting player, probably the Phillies best defensive outfielder, and could be a major speed threat in 2007. Victorino attempted seven steals and was successful just four times, not a good percentage. However, Victorino also hit eight triples. I think he’s got a lot of speed and talent. Expect to see Victorino hit second (or perhaps first if the Phillies move Rollins to fifth in the lineup) and expect to see him try 30 or so steals in 2007.

Speed from the Bench: The Phillies seem to be set with Danny Sandoval and Chris Roberson to come off the bench to help out in the infield and outfield respectively, while Michael Bourn could (and should) get some playing time. I am wary about rehashing ground that I’ve already covered with my post on Bourn vs. Roberson, but I’ll have a few points to make …

Michael Bourn has a lot of speed and I would be very, very interested to see how he’d do if he got some playing time. As a Reading Phillie and Scranton Red Baron he got a lot of playing time and displayed speed to burn. Bourn got 87 hits as a Reading Phillie. Fifteen went for extra-bases and six of those were triples. As a Red Baron he got 43 hits, thirteen for extra-bases and seven were triples. Total, thirteen of Bourn’s twenty-eight extra-base hits were three-baggers, and 10% of Bourn’s hits were triples (13 of 130).

On those mundane occasions where he only drew a walk, Bourn was still looking to test the defense with a steal. He attempted fifty steals in 2005 and 2006, going roughly 1/3 of the chances he had to do so:

Times on Base* / Attempted Steals
Scranton (’06): 55 / 16
Reading (’06): 113 / 34
Reading (’05): 185 / 50

* defined as singles, doubles and walks. Naturally, there were probably occasions where Bourn drew a walk or hit a single and second base was closed. And stealing third is an atypical play in baseball.

Roberson and Sandoval used to incorporate speed into their game, but not any more. Sandoval, who will turn 28 this year, has been trying to break into the majors for years and finally did it in 2006.

Sandoval got around, starting the year in Reading (Double-A), then moving to Scranton (Triple-A), playing in 28 games for the Phillies, and then traveling in Venezuela to play in the Venezuelan Winter League. I wouldn’t categorize his speed numbers as being particularly good: with the Reading Phillies and Scranton Red Barons he attempted a total of four steals, despite having been on base 109 times. Only one of his 97 hits was a triple. As a Phillie he had 8 hits in 38 At-Bats, but just a double as his sole extra-base hit and without any steals. In Winter League ball with Pastora de los Llanos, Sandoval tried to run more. He was on base 54 times and attempted nine steals. Unfortunately he was successful just five times. He also failed to hit a triple.

Base-stealing had once been a vital part of Sandoval’s game: in 2005 with the Red Barons he had tried to steal 22 times, but had been caught 11 times. I suspect those struggles compelled either Sandoval or the Phillies minor league instructors to curtail his running on the bases.

I’ll try not to rehash any old points I made about Roberson, but he doesn’t really take advantage of his speed the way that Bourn does. Roberson was on-base 103 times with the Red Barons and attempted 34 steals. Not bad, and comparable to what Bourn did. Roberson only had two triples and 14 doubles in 2006. What it tells me is that Roberson is a more timid runner than Bourn, who tried to stretch doubles into triples with far more frequency. Like Sandoval, Roberson played some Winter League ball, playing in the Mexican League with Naranjeros de Hermosillo where he only hit one triple and attempted nineteen steals in 94 times on base. His efforts at base-stealing were somewhat for naught, as he was caught nine times in nineteen tries.

His efforts at being quick on the base-paths used to be there a little more: in 2005 he tried 48 steals after having been on base 189 times. He hit eight triples in Reading, but that is much less impressive when you realize that he did that while getting 172 hits and where 47 for extra-bases. Roberson is fast, but just not as fast as Bourn.

So there are my thoughts on speed. Expect to see the Phillies get more aggressive on the bases, trying to stretch some doubles into triples and trying to challenge the arms of catchers more by stealing bases.

Mind you this base-stealing strategy isn't one that I am enamored of. Base-stealing runs counter to the central tenents of sabremetrics theory: when teams have a runner on first with no outs, they can expect to score .9227 runs in an inning. If that runner successfully steals second, their run scoring probability rises to 1.1629. If that runner is caught, their run probability drops to .2877. In other words, a successful steal makes you just 26% more likely to score a run, while being caught stealing makes you 69% less likely. This is why I am skeptical that teams like the Rockies, the Dodgers or the Angels can really be successful in the long-term employing this small ball approach. I am open-minded enough to agree that diversity on offense can only help the Phillies and I am willing to say that the Phillies should run more, stretch more doubles into triples, try and take that extra base with a steal. Just so long as the Phillies don’t forget that their identity is the power offense. Doubles. Home Runs. Walks.

Let’s see what the Phillies do.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Know Thy Enemy: The 2007 Braves 

I’ll kick-off my 2007 "Know Thy Enemy" series with a look at the Bland Empire, the Atlanta Braves. I find it very cathartic that the Braves 1991-2005 run of success collapsed the year that their GM released a book promoting his own genius entitled “Built to Win”. The book itself was a nauseating collection of shoddy arguments, fuzzy logic and self-gratifying ego-massaging. No. I did not like that book.

But alas, the Braves are trying once more rise from the ashes, which is a forlorn hope. I refer to the Braves as the Bland Empire and I think they fit the bill quite nicely. No team did more to kill fan enthusiasm about baseball in the 1990's than the Braves, a collection of dull, colorless players whose passionless, mechanical domination of the N.L. East made the game a big yawn. I don't believe that Braves domination of the N.L. East was the product of their manager's genius either. Perhaps the Braves were built less to win, than the rest of the N.L. East was built to lose. The Braves record looks a lot less impressive taking into account the incompetence in Queens, New York, that mired the Mets in the 1990s, as well as the parsimonious ways of the Phillies and Marlins. Throw the hapless Expos into the mix and you’d have to say that the Braves won those division titles partly by default all of those years. Tellingly, the Braves would flop in the playoffs each and every time. Oh sure, they played in the World Series a few times in the early ‘90’s* (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996), but they won just one ('95) and since 1996 have played in just one World Series – 1999 – where they were easily beaten by the Yankees. Year-in and year-out, they dominate the N.L. East, partly thanks to the unbalanced schedule, and then flame-out in the playoffs. It is hard to be impressed by that.

* I think one of the reasons why the media rallied around the ’93 Phillies was the fact that the Braves were such a dull team and the Phillies restored some luster and character to the game that the Braves were bleeding out.

The 2006 Braves went 79-83, their first losing record since 1990, when they went 65-97. The psychological impact of the collapse will be felt for a long time if the Braves can’t mount a comeback in 2007. Was 2006 the end of the Braves dynasty?

I. Offense. A team that once prided itself on doing every phase of the game right suddenly found itself behaving like a one-dimensional squad of slow-footed sluggers. The Braves led the N.L. in home runs with 222 and Isolated Power at the plate at .184, but finished dead-last in bases stolen with just 52. These aren’t the Braves of Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff. Their fastest player was Edgar Renteria, who stole just 17 bases. They also hit just 26 triples, another sign of the Braves lack of team speed. Yes, the Braves scored lots of runs – 849, second in the N.L. to the Phillies – but they lack the balance they used to have. Seeing the Braves rely on home runs to win games strikes me as odd … I expect to see the Braves win a lot of 7-6 games in 2007 and lose as many by that score too, even without Adam LaRoche.

II. Pitching. The Braves of the 1991 – 2005 era followed a fairly easy to understand and uncomplicated formula for success. Three parts pitching, two parts fielding and a pinch of offense. It got them far, but the team’s problem is that their pitching staff is in shambles these days. The Braves got started when their trio of talented pitchers – John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and John Avery – matured and turned into a formidable rotation. After adding Greg Maddux to the mix, the Braves rode them to their … umpteen division titles in the 1990s.

The problem is that the Braves haven’t done a particularly good job replacing them. Avery is loooong gone, but so are Glavine (now a Met) and Maddux (now a Padre). Smoltz is still with the team, but he is getting long in the tooth and is the Braves best pitcher. He went 16-9 with a 3.49 ERA in 2006 (his FIP* ERA was almost right on the money at 3.46), and had a dominating season.

* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).

After Smoltz, however, the pitching staff is a mess. Tim Hudson started 35 games like Smoltz, but went only 13-12 with a 4.86 ERA. Let’s not mince words here: Hudson was terrible. His strikeout / walk ratio was under 2-to-1. He surrendered 25 home runs, a career high. Never a strikeout artist, Hudson is a groundball pitcher who relies on his fielders to make outs. They didn’t, so Hudson suffered. When Billy Beane unloaded Hudson on the Braves rather than see him walk in free agency, pundits assumed that the Braves had gotten the better part of the deal, acquiring a Cy Young candidate for a few minor leaguers. Now, two years later, it looks like Bill Beane swindled the Braves, getting talent for an over-paid pitcher who needed a top-flight defense to be successful.

The rest of the starting rotation is a mess. Injuries forced the braves to go with rookie Chuck James as their third starter. Surprisingly, james went 11-4, but his 3.78 ERA masked a FIP ERA that is 5.16. Bottom-line: the Braves played very good defense behind James (.753 DER*), but that won’t be repeated in 2007. He’ll get shelled, often.

* DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.

The bullpen has been bolstered by the acquisition of Mike Gonzalez, a fairly arrogant move for the Braves. The deal, which sent talented first baseman Adam LaRoche to the Pirates, is the sort of deal teams thinking they can contend make. Gonzalez is a talented relief artist who saved all 24 games he could for the Pirates, surrendering just one home run in 54 innings of work. The problem is that Gonzalez is going to discover that his new team has as much use for his services as his old one: the Braves aren’t going to be handling Gonzalez leads to protect night-after-night, because they are going to be behind because their starting rotation is as porous. I can’t imagine the Braves improving on their 19-33 record in one-run games in 2006.

III. Fielding. It was a major surprise to me that the Braves defense profiled on as badly as it did in 2006. Atlanta’s .689 DER was .004 below the league average This team has Andruw Jones in centerfield. In 2006 Jones was +30, the second-best mark in the majors. Over in left field, Jason Lanerhans was +15, so this team has a lot of talent on defense and ought to have played better than they did. The problem the Braves have is that while their outfield defense is outstanding – the Braves +63 was the best in the majors by far – their infield was simply awful at a combined -48.

Edgar Renteria and Marcus Giles are an atrocious middle infield combination. The Red Sox made a savvy move by dumping Renteria after the ’05 season, another move that pundits applauded the Braves for making that turned out to backfire. Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is a shadow of his former self at third base.

I don’t see much hope for the braves to improve this season. Their infield returns intact, but for LaRoche, who might have been the strongest performer of the quartet. Their outfield is strong, but defense really starts in the infield.

IV. Outlook. I think most pundits are making the assumption that the Braves will improve on their 79-83 record and make a run at the Mets for the division title. I say they won’t. The sun has finally set on the Braves Empire. This is an aging team, with an ailing farm system, and a rotation that is thin and old. This team can’t keep up with the younger, more aggressive Phillies and Mets. The balance of power has finally shifted north. It was inevitable – all of the great empires of the world have risen, dominated the world and then fallen into the abyss … Rome, the Byzantines, the Aztecs, Venice, Spain, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain … all empires rise and then fall. It is inevitable. Now the Braves can fall into the abyss. It’s their turn.

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