Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
The reformulation of the Braves as a team primarily reliant on offense alters the NL landscape. Atlanta easily could enter 2004 without Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood, or Greg Maddux in the starting rotation, a prospect that would leave Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Horacio Ramirez as the only returning starters. While the system possesses significant quality pitching depth, maintaining the offense now appears more important than overspending on more pitchers.
With Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones nearly guaranteed to remain with the Braves over the next few years, keeping one more elite bat seems vital to the club's continued success. Re-signing Gary Sheffield, adding Vladimir Guerrero, or even dealing for someone like Magglio Ordonez all look like good ideas. Johnny Estrada could make the Millwood trade look good next year, and between Rob Fick, Mark DeRosa, Mike Hessman, and at least one free agent infielder, I'm not worried about the bottom of the lineup. However, unless Andruw finally takes the next step forward offensively, Atlanta needs one top bat. Without the contracts of Maddux, Javy Lopez, or Vinny Castilla on the books, the Braves should be able to cut payroll while maintaining their run-scoring proficiency. The four homegrown studs should stay indefinitely, and then prospects like Estrada, third baseman Andy Marte, and possibly Jeff Francoeur or Gregor Blanco eventually will join the lineup. Any outfield addition simply would push Chipper to first base, so while Carlos Delgado would be a great short-term fit, keeping Sheffield simply makes more sense right now if it appears financially feasible.
Atlanta could enter 2004 with a rotation of Ortiz, Hampton, Ramirez, and some combination of Jason Marquis, Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, Bubba Nelson, and Adam Wainwright, but GM John Schuerholz almost certainly will add a veteran to the mix. Maddux likely won't return, although several sources suggest Kevin Millwood might return. Millwood obviously would be a great fit given his past success, although we'd like to see Hodges get the first shot at the 5th starter's job. Even if Maddux departs and Hampton and/or Ortiz slip, Atlanta's starting corps at least should remain at the same level for another year.
Keeping John Smoltz happy with his role is the key to the Braves' bullpen success. He is among the top closers in the game and changes the dynamic of the team. Will Cunnane, Ray King, Kevin Gryboski, and perhaps Marquis and Bong are a competent set-up crew. Schuerholz will add at least one veteran to this mix as always, and possibly both a lefty and a veteran right-handers, but this area also doesn't appear likely to falter.
Transitioning to an offense-based team makes Atlanta's road slightly tougher in the playoffs, however given the current composition of the organization, I think the team appears more likely to sustain their streak of a dozen consecutive division titles under this new direction. Even with Lopez departing and Fucal, Giles, and Sheffield all slipping in 2004, a likely rebound from Chipper and the potential return of Millwood give Atlanta fans a lot to which they can look forward. While both Florida and Philadelphia may possess better overall major league depth right now, a few smart free agent signings, including a top right fielder, a decent defender who at least can platoon at third, one quality starting pitcher, and a pair of relievers, should keep Atlanta among the NL elite.
Mike Hessman, 25, OF-R
Promising power and positional flexibility will give Hessman a good chance to break camp with the Braves in the spring, and depending on their other moves, he could wind up with significant playing time at the corners. However, his numbers also declined across-the-board in his second season at Richmond, so he probably needs another year of seasoning. Right now he looks like an endgame gamble at best, as well as someone to avoid in minor league drafts due to his apparently limited upside.
While LaRoche posted fairly strong stats in the upper minors this year, he doesn't own a history of excellent performances aside from 250 at-bats of a .336/.406/.512 in the Carolina League during the first half of 2002. Giving him another few months in the minors seems like the logical moves, but given his reportedly outstanding defense, Atlanta probably will give him a look in the spring alongside Mike Hessman and the Francos. Perhaps the best news here is that he maintained respectable plate discipline despite a quick advance from A-ball, suggesting that the 29th round draft choice shouldn't struggle badly if forced into a starting role. I don't view him as a future star and you shouldn't expect great marks from him in 2004, but LaRoche merits a look in any league since he should push double-digit value in a regular role.
If given the opportunity, Pratt could emerge as a very useful member of the rotation, particularly if his control improves. He at least merits significant consideration for a bullpen job given his overall dominance in the upper minors. Exercise caution here since he could post a poor WHIP, however as long as your league allows you to bench him if he struggles, Pratt appears worth no less than an endgame selection.
Ray Aguilar, 23, LH Swingman
After three years in the minors split between almost all of Atlanta's affiliates, Aguilar owns a career 1.99 ERA on a 268:61 K:BB in 248.2 IP with 191 H and 11 HR. Considering his AA dominance this season, Aguilar should compete for a lefty relief job in the spring and at least should join the Braves no later than next fall. While his likely limited role means he merits little fantasy consideration now, I expect Aguilar to emerge as fantastic roster filler in the near future as long as he maintains his established walk and hit rates at the highest levels of the system.
Declining walk and contact rates in Betemit's second season at Richmond certainly suggest his prospect status is disappearing, however he doesn't even turn 22 for another week. He still can play either position on the left side of the infield and probably could adjust to the second base or the outfield if necessary, and given his age and statistical history, I see no reason why he can't enjoy a decently lengthy big league career. Of course, Betemit needs a strong rebound in 2004 or Andy Marte will finish blowing past him in the Braves' system, thereby placing Betemit on the path to journeyman status. If a frustrated owner in your league dumps him in the spring, feel free to roster him in minor league drafts, yet don't spend a high pick since the odds of him achieving his potential with Atlanta continue to diminish.
His terrible batting average and negligible power output give Clapp little value at the moment, although strong plate discipline and positional flexibility should keep him employed indefinitely. Clapp will merit roto attention if he ever regains the skills he demonstrated during his first two years at AAA Memphis, but he barely qualifies as roster filler right now, so avoid him until further notice.
His excellent record, solid ERA, and respectable walk rate should keep the Braves' attention, however his extremely unimpressive strikeout rate gives him little long-term upside. While Colon should develop into a decent middle reliever, I don't expect him to earn much fantasy value during the next few years.
Continually excellent control will give Curtis the opportunity to contribute in the majors, particularly after posting these solid AA stats. Unfortunately, Atlanta simply possesses too much pitching prospect depth to give him much consideration in the near future, so Curtis will need to find the opportunity he needs with another organization. Curtis certainly could develop into decent rotation filler, but since his negligible dominance suggests he'll find more long-term success in middle relief, he isn't a viable fantasy option right now.
Despite Dawley's disappointing time with the Braves, he at least regained his effectiveness after returning to the minors. Perhaps remaining in relief will allow him to minimize the downside of his apparently poor flyball rate. Unfortunately, even though his command remains impressive, you can't consider him for your team next spring due to his age and uncertain role. Avoid Dawley until he secures a roster spot by compiling several solid innings of work in the majors.
Emiliano might never reach the majors if his strikeout and hit rates don't improve, but his normally respectable walk rate at least gives him some value. Unfortunately, while the minor league free agent capably can complete a AAA staff, he offers little immediate upside to MLB and fantasy owners.
The 1999 7th round pick looked like a solid starting prospect a year ago, so his partial conversion to the bullpen this season surprised me. Of course, the Braves' increasingly depleted bullpen has more openings than Atlanta's rotation, which indicates that this move could expedite Evert's progress to the majors. He possesses the talent necessary to succeed in either role, but until he demonstrates solid skills in the majors, Evert isn't worth a fantasy gamble.
While Green posted a better batting average than he managed in AA a year ago, drops in his other averages and primary skills suggest he will plateau as a backup at best. Considering he also possesses little speed, he merits little fantasy consideration and may not even deserve a long look as roster filler when he finally reaches the majors.
Oakland's decision to purchase Jeremy Fikac's contract rather than retain Buddy Hernandez at the end of spring training continues to confuse me as Hernandez strongly echoed his 2002 performance despite a promotion to Richmond. The short right-hander still doesn't appear part of Atlanta's future, however his overall skills suggest he should enjoy a reasonably length career in someone's bullpen. Hernandez will merit fantasy attention as soon as a he earns a secure role in the majors.
Hollins compiles relatively decent quantitative numbers at AAA every year, however he simply lacks the overall upside to warrant more than an occasional cup-of-coffee. Despite decent power, his lack of speed and plate discipline will keep him to a bench role even if some team gives him a long look as a backup in the majors some year. He isn't someone to target on fantasy teams barring an unexpected abundance of injury-replacement at-bats.
Hopefully the Braves will let Johnson consolidate his skills with a return trip to Greenville rather than unfairly pushing him to AAA Richmond. While he still owns decent plate discipline and promising power potential, Johnson's failure to build on his .289/.404/.513 performance in the Sally League in 2001 suggests a limited long-term upside. Johnson still could break through with a strong season at any time thanks to his relative youth, however I see little reason to target him in fantasy leagues now give the Braves' middle infield strength at the major league level.
Oakland selected Johnson from Texas in last year's Rule 5 draft, Kansas City claimed him after the Athletics waived him, and then the Royals returned Johnson to the Rangers by May. Texas, obviously dissatisfied with Johnson's progress, dumped in mid-season, and then Johnson finished the year by posting a very unimpressive performance with Atlanta. I suspect the minor league free agent will head back to AA somewhere in 2004, however given Johnson's historically strong plate discipline and speed skills, we should see him return to the majors in a year or two. While no fantasy owner should consider him now, I expect Johnson will begin accumulating positive roto value by 2007 at the latest.
While he owns sufficient plate discipline and speed skills to contribute in a limited role, Langerhans needs at least a full year at Richmond before Atlanta seriously should consider him a bench job. He merits little roto attention right now unless he sneaks into the majors during the season and your team desperately needs speed.
While he probably possesses enough overall skill to success as a starter, McConnell's stats suggest he belongs in the bullpen, where he at least should receive consideration for a big league job as a lefty specialist. McConnell may not merit much fantasy attention this winter, his solid walk rate indicates potential as roster filler as soon as he wins a regular role in the majors.
His lack of power notwithstanding, McDonald's patience and speed merits him a backup role in the majors next season. Unfortunately, he doesn't possess sufficient upside to attract the attention of most teams, but I see no reason he couldn't help any team as a fifth outfielder and pinch-runner. McDonald's speed also gives him decent roto potential once he secures a spot in the big leagues, so once you see him in the majors in a regular role, target him if you need speed.
Kenny posted an outstanding 1.72 ERA in the Carolina League last year, but unfortunately his unimpressive 2003 performance suggests he deserves a full year at Richmond at best. While he probably should head back to Greenville to continue starting, Nelson also could challenge for a big league bullpen spot, a job for which he simply requires more preparation before he'll have a reasonable shot at success. Of course, given the press surrounding him as a Braves' pitching prospect, Nelson should be overrated by some of your fellow owners. Unless he dominates everyone he faces during spring training, let someone else roster Nelson next year due to the high likelihood of extended struggles if Atlanta rushes him to the majors.
Despite Sylvester's obviously excellent dominance, his perpetually terrible career should insure he spends most of his career in the minors. While his strikeout rate suggests some upside as a short reliever, his WHIP problems should prevent any roto owner from seriously considering Sylvester in the foreseeable future.
While Wainwright could compete for a rotation job in the spring, he may rank as the favorite for the 2005 Rookie of the Year award if his skills improve again at AAA Richmond. Even though he didn't dominate the Southern League in the same manner in which he excelled in A-ball, a sharply improved walk rate without any drop in overall effectiveness suggests he should enjoy a long career. Wainwright ranks among the top pitching prospects in baseball, and considering the Braves' excellent defense, I see no reason he won't begin earning double-digit roto value as soon as a secures a big league roster spot. He merits a high minor league pick in any fantasy draft.
Waters lacks the long-term upside of most Atlanta pitching prospects, however if he can maintain a decent hit rate, his solid control should enable him to develop into a useful reliever. While he isn't a viable fantasy option now, he could challenge for a spot in the Braves' bullpen within a year.
Gregor Blanco, 19, OF-L
Blanco's solid speed still merits some fantasy attention, however this performance is a definite disappointment after his impressive 2002 numbers. His walk rate dropped from .18 to .12 this year, and with only a mild contact rate increase, he no longer seems guaranteed to find work as a leadoff man and likely will end up similar to Tom Goodwin. Only owners in the deepest NL-only standard leagues should roster Blanco next spring.
Considering Francoeuer appears no less than three seasons away from the majors, you probably shouldn't draft him in the spring. I expect his long-term upside will attract some owners in most leagues, but given his questionable plate discipline and obvious need for significant development time, I see little reason to pursue Francoeur right now.
He easily could rank as the best infield prospect in the game if he maintains this level of performance as one of the youngest players in the Southern League next year. Marte must improve his defense, but his great walk rate, decent contact rate, and very solid power numbers give him significant long-term power potential. He also almost certainly will remain at third base indefinitely, so while I don't expect him to contribute in the majors before the fall of 2005, his probably upside means you need to roster him immediately if you want an infield anchor for the latter half of this decade.
McBride essentially maintained all his skill ratios despite progressing from the Sally League to the A+ Carolina League, however a severe increase in his hit rate suggests some future problems. Considering the Braves' pitching depth, you probably shouldn't roster McBride next spring, but I still see enough upside here to recommend him in deeper leagues; he just isn't guaranteed to experience any major league success before 2006.
Adams LaRoche and Wainwright easily rank as the most impressive prospects in the system, and though Andy Marte and a couple of outfielders and starting pitchers at the lower levels of the system appear rather impressive, I don't expect them to contribute much in the next two years. The upper levels of Atlanta's system also appear rather bare right now given the recent promotions of Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, and Horacio Ramirez, as well as the struggles of Wilson Betemit and Kelly Johnson.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Minnesota Twins(Restovich, Mauer, Crain, Balfour, Bartlett)
1. Adam LaRoche, 1B
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