Monday, February 22, 2010

Musings on the Atlanta Braves as Players Report

This is my favorite time of year.

Pitchers are throwing to real catchers for the first time in months.

Rookies are gearing up for their first shots.

Aging vets are getting ready to fight to prove that they can still do what they've been doing since they were five-years-old.

And news is actually readily available without having to BS a ton.

This is the first musing that I've put out in some time, so I actually have some real topics to discuss (exciting, right?) without the previously mentioned BS (though I did throw some of that in here).

First thing, Johnny Damon.

The saga that most Braves fans have been emerging ourselves in has been that of the newly-christened Detroit Tiger, Johnny Damon.

I said before it started that the whole story seemed like a good setup to get my hopes up before throwing them to the floor in a fiery menagerie of frustration and disappointment.

And guess what?

That's not exactly what happened...which is a good thing.

After all, I had figured that (even though I really wanted him at the top of the Braves' order) the formerly-bearded one would spurn the Atlanta ballclub for greener outfields in the American League.

And, when Damon signed a one year, $8 MM deal with the Tigers this past week, I just sort of shrugged and just reminded myself that I would probably take four times (depending on the report you read) the guaranteed that the Braves were offering to play for Jim Leyland and his crew as well.

I was disappointed, don't get me wrong on that front, because I saw Damon as a legitimate option to improve the club...but I didn't get too worked up.

I still think this club is well-constructed enough to contend...just glad that ordeal's over.

And that brings me to my second support.

I'm going to ask that you scroll through a few Braves blogs (Mark Bradley, David O'Brien, and Mark Bowman would be the "beat guys" I would suggest with any Braves-related threads on MLB Trade Rumors being the other source I would recommend) and tell me if you don't get disgusted with some of the pessimistic and "woe is us" comments from the fans on there.

Frank "Do Nothing" Wren.

Third Place.

Terrible pitching staff.

Fourth Place.

Atrocious line-up.

Even a few folks calling fifth place for the Braves.

In the words of Keyshawn Johnson, COME ON MAN!

The months leading up to the season (unless Dayton Moore is your GM) are cause for optimism.

This is the time when you start to think about how awesome a little October glory would be.

Not when you're calling for the cellar for your "team" (because I don't think some of the people really like the Braves)...especially for a team that's as talented as the 2010 Atlanta Braves.

I mean, seriously.

Look at the corps going into battle this year.

You're going to have one of the top-five rotations in baseball backed by Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito, Peter Moylan, and Eric O'Flaherty in the 'pen and Yunel Escobar, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, and Troy Glaus, to name a few, in the line-up.

You're telling me that's back-end-of-the-division quality?

It's not...have a little faith (and no, I'm not bringing George Michael back again).

Next thing, Edward Salcedo.

If this kid's half of what he's being billed as, then the Braves may have found their long-term solution for third base...or at least part of it (more on that in just a second).

He projects to have solid power and is said to handle short-stop exceptionally well even at 18 (which is his controversy now).

His body size, though, has led many to call him a 3B down the line (that has yet to be seen, obviously).

Imagine if he pans out, though, and the talent an infield of Salcedo, Escobar (or those two could be switched since both are "big" dudes and Escobar has that epic arm), Prado, and Freeman would come up and slam on the table (since this would go beyond "bringing" something to the table).

And a potential OF of Johnson (I'm thinking without all of the Ks while retaining his mammoth power)-Schafer-Heyward with B-Mac behind the plate coupled with a rotation anchored by Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson?

Talk about talent...

That's all being eager (and, more than likely, overly-so), but it is nice to have an above-average infield prospect in the Braves' system now as opposed to hoping for some miracle pick in the draft.

Last thing, the first prediction on the record.

Okay (and this related to the second "point" I made), this is what I'm calling for the Braves in 2010...

Based on the incredibly strong staff and more-than-solid supporting cast, I'm marking the Braves down for 91 wins...good for second in the division and a berth in the playoffs via the wild card.

They came close last season, and I have a ton more confidence in this group than the one that hit the field to start the 2009 season in Philadelphia, so I'm expecting the Braves to do a little more this year than last.

Who knows, they may even run this league in the playoffs (sorry for the bad lead-up to this video)...

...with their mix of vigorous youth and proven veteran talent.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Atlanta Braves X-Factors: Eric Hinske

The Atlanta Braves, in what has proved to be their last notable signing of the 2009-10 offseason, signed a one-year, $1 million contract back in January.

And it really didn't send any sort of shockwaves through the Major League Baseball community.

A 32-year-old bench-rider signing a microscopic (relatively speaking, I'd love a million dollars) contract with Johnny Damon still on the market (remember, the rumors for him started churning about the time Hinske was signed before signing with Detroit earlier this month) isn't exactly going to make the pundits on MLB Tonight and Hot Stove rant and rave.

But, I don't think the lack of publicity this move received should be allowed to downplay the significance of it.

Think about it...

This is a guy that is going to be relied on to fill holes at first, third, left, and right whenever they may pop up.

And with the question marks being what they are at both corners of the infield with Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus' recent injury histories (even though Chipper led the Bravos in games played last season), you have to figure the Braves are expecting this guy to be ready at all times.

Oh, ad did I mention that he's likely to be the primary pinch-hitter?

Dude's got a lot on his plate.

That's why I'm expecting him to get into 90-120 games this season (15-25 at the hot corner, 15-35 for Glaus, 15-20 in the outfield, and 45-75 games as a pinch-hitter--depending on his playing time in the field).

And if he does that, then I think that we have to hope for more than the (granted, most of this was as a PH, though he did play 56 of his 93 games in the field at some point last season) .242 average, eight homers, and 52:27 K:BB ratio he posted last season in a season split between Pittsburgh and the World Champion Yankees (the third time in three years with his third different team that he's gone to the Series...confusing enough phrasing?...thought so).

His talent isn't what you could call elite, so I'm not calling on him to replicate his 2002 Rookie of the Year campaign in which he hit .274 with 24 homers and 13 steals.

But something similar to his 2006 when he split time between a near-full-time role in Toronto and a bench role in Boston and hit .271 with 13 homers from the left side of the plate in 109 games would, for me, be more than passable for any ailments the Braves' may suffer from at any of the corners in 2010.

No matter how many games he ends up playing, I believe that he's going to be pivotal in determining the Braves' October chances when he does get his chances.

Be they from the bench in the eighth and ninth or in the field when Chipper strains a muscle, his chances will be coming when the tension's tightest and pressure is highest...and his performance in those situations will, without a doubt, affect the outcome of plenty of games in Hotlanta this year.

Now, with the "pressure" segue out of the way, I'll get to work on the next X-Factor...Chipper Jones and his (hopeful) comeback.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Felipe Lopez and the Atlanta Braves: Just Thinking

Let me preface this by saying that I have seen no linkage of any kind between the Atlanta Braves and Felipe Lopez.

This is all speculation/thinking on my part.

OK, now we can start...

With the Johnny Damon saga seemingly headed towards a two year, $14 million resolution in Motown, the Atlanta Braves appear to have been left with a hole that they were willing to commit about $5 million to fixing at the top of the line-up.

Right now, they sit in the same position they found themselves in about six weeks ago when Troy Glaus donned his new jersey during a press conference at Turner Field (save the minor inking of Eric Hinske).

Ever since that time we've heard they the team "likes where they are."

But, apparently, the club liked itself better with a more legitimate lead-off hitter, as evidenced by the previously stated offer to Johnny Damon.

With that ship sailing slowly down the Detroit River, I (and Gavin Andrews) have started thinking about what else is "out there" to fill the hole the Braves have shown their hand at having at the top of the order.

And the one name that keeps coming around is Felipe Lopez.

You know, the dude that just dropped super-agent Scott Boras for the illustrious Beverly Hills Sports Council.

The 29-year-old Lopez seems like the ideal offensive fit to bat at the head of the line-up for the Braves.

His .310 average last season would have been second to only Matt Diaz among players who appeared in at least 100 games last year in Atlanta and his .383 OBP would have landed him right between Chipper Jones and Yunel Escobar for third among players who meet the same criteria previously stated.

Oh, and his six stolen bases would have made him fourth on the team.

Sounds like a lead-off hitter to me (especially since his 155 games played would have bested the best the Braves had to offer, Chipper Jones, by 12 games)

Now, before we move forward here, I'm going to let you know a couple of things.

I know that Felipe is an infielder.

I know the Braves' infield is crowded.

I know that doesn't really seem to make a ton of sense.

But consider this proposition (in the form of a PA announcement at the Ted): "Now batting for the Atlanta Braves, left fielder, Marteeeeeen Prado."

Before you angrily comment about that, I ask that you consider this: Martin Prado plays right field in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues and has mustered a total of five games (four in the bigs) in the outfield in his professional career.

The dude also hasn't proved to be (statistically speaking) the best infielder...posting a -1.4 UZR (I hate this stat too...I find it useful for some comparisons, though) compared to Lopez's 7.8 UZR at second base this past season.

So, how would all of this fall into place?

I think of it this way...

You sign Lopez to a one-year deal in the range of $3-4 MM with an eye to the future (moving Prado back to second and having an OF of McLouth-Schafer-Heyward in 2011).

After that, you trade one of Diaz or Leche to free up a spot (if Heyward wins a job out of Spring Training)...this sort of move would only preempt a move that would come with the OF I mentioned coming in another year.

Then, you set the line-up like this:

S 2B Felipe Lopez
R LF Martin Prado
S 3B Chipper Jones
R 1B Troy Glaus
L C Brian McCann
R SS Yunel Escobar
L CF Nate McLouth
L/R/S RF Heyward/Diaz/Cabrera

Now, you may be asking how that would help the team.

After all, having an inexperienced left fielder (even if he is a solid athlete...and many of us--myself included--thought Dan Uggla could be a fit in left just a month ago) would be compromising to the team's defense (like Loaf wasn't...) and neither of these guys would supply any additional power (Lopez only had nine homers last year).

Well, with a team that will (barring Damon choosing to sign for fewer years and dollars with the Braves) be relying on near total run "production," having one more high average/high OBP guy at the top of the order that has averaged 18 stolen bases per year over the course of his career wouldn't hurt.

Add to that his durability (at least 143 games in every "full" season) and consistency (only one sub-.274 year in any full season and one sub-.342 OBP season), and you would have the only "guaranteed" top-of-the-order option on the Braves' roster.

The questionable attitude's legitimacy is brought into question depending on where you go (though, the Braves have a solid foundation and the "issues" pop up in places that have nothing to play for), so I will leave that hit to people that know the dude.

I'm not saying that the Braves need to go out and ink the inked Puerto Rican, but I do believe that his presence would positively impact the Braves' efforts for postseason baseball.

That impact wouldn't be as great as Damon (who would complicate things a little less and be a very strong clubhouse influence), but, for me, his numbers during full-time play when his efforts mean something speak for themselves when it comes to discussing him as a lead-off option.

In other news...this is the first article that I've written since surpassing the one-year mark on Bleacher Report.

I know, it's hard to believe that people have been reading my baseball poop for over 365 days...and its an experience that can best be likened to this...

OK, maybe it's been better than that...thanks for reading, and Happy Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Musings on the Atlanta Braves with 11 Days Left Until Spring Training

As with many of the late musings, little has happened in Bravesland.

Well, I should say that little had happened transaction/real news-wise...the blogosphere always yeilds something to discuss.

This musing is a day late, so I did have time to find one big-time juicy nugget to work with.

With that said, I see no other direction to go other than right into the content...

First thing, the Braves' Caravan.

No. I am not from the Braves' PR Department.

But, let me tell you, this is quite an experience.

Even though the event I want to in Charlotte this past Wednesday didn't have the cream of the Braves' traveling crop (Peter Moylan, Brooks Conrad, Otis Nixon, Eric O'Flaherty, Terry Pendleton, Zane Smith, and Frank Wren--who is surprisingly short...I'm 6'1" and when he walked by me before the autographs started he was probably a little above my shoulder), just to see the people that you've admired and followed in person is pretty cool.

Maybe that feeling came from the fact that I've never gotten any kind of autograph before...but still.

If the Caravan is going to come anywhere close to you in it's final week, I would highly recommend that you get to speak to the players, to get them to sign your stuff, and (if you're fortunate enough to have the event you attend be at a Wild Wing Cafe) great food.

I mean, look at how much fun homer was having... I filmed him on my low-quality cell phone camcorder (just so you know why the quality's so bad).

Oh, and, no, I wasn't skipping school...we had a snowday but the highways going from Winston to Charlotte were clear so a friend and I decided to go.

Second thing, what's with all the criticism of the Braves' rotation?

Now, this isn't the first time I've seen something like this quote I read from Mark Bradley's blog today.

But, it is the first time that I've seen an "expert" say this and I feel that this is a good base from which I can fully assert my opinions on this matter.

Here's the meat of Bradley's blog (which totaled 285 of his own words) in which he responded to/agreed wit Jon Heyman's analysis of the Braves' offseason:

"My two cents (hey, I’m cheap, too!): Even if the Vazquez trade helps the Braves down the road — I’m thinking of prospect Arodys Vizcaino — there was no way they should have surrendered the man who might well have been their Opening Day starting pitcher without getting a starting position player in return. (Cabrera is seen as a fourth outfielder.) And I don’t buy the argument that the Braves’ rotation will be just as strong without Vazquez.

With Vazquez, the fourth and fifth starters would have been Lowe, who even in a down year won 15 games, and Tim Hudson, who had Tommy John surgery in 2008. Without Vazquez, those two must move up a slot and Kenshin Kawakami, who won seven games last season, again becomes the No. 5 starter. I’m sorry, but that’s a downgrade."

Now, I'm not going to say that I have no idea where he's coming from with this...because I do.

This reaction (especially the part about KK only winning seven games last season...I'll go into more in a second) just strikes me as something that a very, very, very lazy person would write, though.

Not a paid sports journalist.

And I have some serious qualms with someone with the stage and "influence," if you will, of Bradley spewing something of this low of a caliber out (not saying that I'm the be-all, end-all of the Atlanta Braves or anything) without any real statistical backing.

I can tell you with full confidence that the 2010 version of the Braves' starting rotation will be just as strong and reliable as the 2009 version.

Timmy Hudson is a career 3.49 pitcher with 148 wins and served as (virtually) the Braves' ace from about 2006 until his Tommy John Surgery, posting 13, 16, and 11 wins in those seasons (with a 3.17 ERA through 22 starts in the 11-win campaign).

Right there is your replacement for Javy Vazquez who was due for a regression following a season in which he posted career bests in ERA, walks allowed, H/9, and HR/9 and his second best K total.

Jair Jurrjens is, simply put, Jair Jurrjens.

There's no reason his stuff, command, and mound presence shouldn't improve.

Tommy Hanson...see JJ.

He's young, his stuff's dynamic, and he didn't bat an eye against some of the best hitters the bigs have to offer.

Derek Lowe should gravitate back towards his career norms as Vazquez will.

I don't want to carry on for too long here, so I'll give you this link that gives you a nice, long explanation, if you care to read it.

Now we come to Kenshin Kawakami.

Even though the Japanese right-hander only posted seven wins last season, I'd like for you to examine this:

In the months of April, May, June, July, and August, Pitcher A started: 5, 6, 5, 5, and 5 games; posting an ERA of 3.38, 3.76, 1.98, 2.94, and 3.03; K totals of 42, 44, 39, 33, and 34; and 2, 2, 1, 3, and 3 wins in those months (this pitcher had 32 starts total).

Pitcher B started 4, 5, 5, 5, and 6 games with ERAs of 7.05, 3.03, 3.33, 4.72, and 2.87 with Ks totaling 18, 26, 16, 16, and 22 with 1, 2, 1, 1, and 2 wins (this pitcher had 32 starts total with some of his appearances in August coming in relief).

Pitcher C started 5, 6, 5, 6, and 6 games with 1.72, 3.38, 3.68, 2.09, and 3.65 ERAs, totaled 16, 24, 28, 25, and 29 Ks and had 2, 3, 0, 4, and 1 wins (this pitcher had 34 starts total).

Notice that if you throw out the highs and lows in ERA between A and B and do the same for strikeouts between B and C, you'll find that those pitchers (for either category) compare quite favorably.

It's obvious that Pitcher B was Kawakami, but when compared directly to Javier Vazquez (A) and Jair Jurrjens (C), he doesn't look too bad.

If he can continue to adjust to all of the factors that were working against him last season (culture and baseball), then he should only see improvement.

There's more to dissect in his blog, but I've already offered more in my rebuttal, if you will, than he typed up, so I'll stop with this here.

(That wasn't necessarily all about "calling out" Mark Bradley, it was more about this growing idea that the 2010 team lacks something the 2009 team had)

Last thing...

This isn't really so much of a "point," as much as it is a general question.

But, what's your favorite spring training facility?

I've only been to Legends Field (now Steinbrenner Field) in Tampa, but if I were to go back down, where would you say is the best place to see a game?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Atlanta Braves X-Factors: Derek Lowe

An X-Factor is, according to, an "unknown factor...which adds a a certain value to [an] object, element, or person."

(I know it's a general term, but bear with me...this is a poor attempt at a "hook" for this series)

For the Atlanta Braves, I believe there are several players (I think I've settled on five) that could easily have the word "X-Factor" slipped into their description for the upcoming season.

In the first edition of this series, I am going to be running up and down Derek Lowe and his potential impact on the team in 2010.

To avoid me rambling on for 200-300 words here, I think it's best that we go ahead and begin...

Last offseason the Braves, in haste following the less-than-pleasant departure of John Smoltz, inked then-35-year-old Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60 million deal to serve as the team's ace in front of the likes of Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami (who was signed shortly after Lowe), and one of two Tommy's (Glavine and/or Hanson).

And Lowe delivered...a 4.67 ERA with 111 Ks (to 63 BBs) while allowing a league-high 232 in 194.2 innings.

But hey, at least 15 wins?

It doesn't take too much to recognize that Lowe had a pretty bad year...especially at $15 million.

It looked even worse next to his teammates who posted 2.60, 2.87, 3.86, and 2.89 ERAs (respective to the order I had above).

That's why the Braves did everything they could to dump Lowe off to a team willing to take on the majority of the right-hander's ace-like deal after they inked Tim Hudson to an extension.

But, when the Braves could find no takers, they had to move down to their other non-cornerstone, move-able starter and deal Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees for Melky Cabrera and a pair of Minor Leaguers (Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino).

So, as it stands right now, the Bravos are heading into Spring Training with a rotation looking a little like this:

1 R Tim Hudson
2 R Jair Jurrjens
3 R Tommy Hanson
4 R Derek Lowe
5 R Kenshin Kawakami

And for 1, 2, 3, and 5, you have to expect some special things.

Hudson's just that much further away from Tommy John Surgery; Jair Jurrjens' and Tommy Hanson's dynamic arms should only come out with more firepower in '10; and Kenshin Kawakami only improved last year as he adjusted to the cultural aspects, ball, mound, and hitters of Major League Baseball last season.

Lowe, the guy that was expected to be the "given" for the Braves' rotation for the next three years when he signed last offseason, stands as the only real "iffy" factor in the Braves' rotation as we look upon it here two weeks prior to pitchers and catchers reporting.

So, what should we be looking for from Derek Lowe in 2010?

After all, he's not getting any younger and hitter's aren't going to be cutting he any slack.

Well, I have a couple of thoughts...

First thing, I'm expecting the sinker to be a little more effective this go-'round.

Last season, Lowe had the lowest ground ball rate of his career (well, for as long as FanGraphs has been keeping up with GB%) at 56.3%.

That's compared to (including last season) a 63.4% career rate.

If you recall, the Jon and Boog (who has been replaced by the utterly disgraceful Chip Caray) discussed Lowe "tinkering" with his grip on his trademark sinker because of the increasing "sloppiness" from using his other grip.

This was around late-June and early-July.

And if you look at his month-by-month ERAs, you can see where this tinkering worked a bit.

In April and May, the Michigan native had very Lowe-like numbers as he posted 3.10 and 3.76 earned run averages, respectively.

In June, his ERA jumped to a Jo-Jo Reyes-esq 6.54 ERA, his worst numbers of any month in which he started more than one game.

If he did indeed make the adjustments that I just mentioned around the time that I stated, then it shows, as his ERA fell down to a very respectable 3.38.

Now, in August and September, his three digits went back to 5.08 and 5.61.

There were probably a variety of reasons for this, as he was probably runnin' on empty and losing heart before ultimately becoming completely heartless (the first link is for classic rock lovers, the second for modern pop-rock lovers, the last for Kanye fans).

But, I think the biggest factors were cropping up on the tips of D-Lowe's fingers in the form of blisters developing from his "adjusted" grip on his sinker.

This season, given nearly five full months to fix mechanical and grip-based issues, I think we can expect Lowe to come close to logging of full season's worth of 2009's positive months while reverting to his usual plus-60 groundball rate.

Number two, Lowe's got a chip on his shoulder.

In an interview with Mark Bowman this offseason, Lowe expressed his displeasure with the trade winds blowing through his backyard.

After the Vazquez trade he spoke with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien and, basically, said that everything was in the past and he was excited about the upcoming season as he threw in a couple of other cliches that PO-ed ballplayers always use.

I don't know about you, but Lowe seems to have the personality conducive to turning anger into positive results.

That tenacity on the mound, you know.

I don't know the guy personally, so I cannot say that with certainty...but the TV tells me that it's there.

And if it is really there, then I think Lowe will have a very, very, very, (x10), strong season just so he can prove his critics wrong.

Cy Young?

Probably not.

But a strong veteran presence putting up better-than-league-average numbers?


To sum it up...

I'm not looking for Lowe to come in and dominate the league like his contract suggests he should (as he's making $1 million less than Justin Verlander's average salary shiny new 5-year extension in Mo-Town).

Those days are behind him.

But, I am expecting Lowe to come into with a fire inside and a nasty, non-blister-inducing sinker ready to join his fellow Brave starters in posting all sub-4.00 ERAs (you know, to make it a set).

If he can do that, I can live with saying "hey, if you average it out, JJ, Hanson, and Lowe average out to about $5 MM a piece...that's pretty reasonable" for another couple of years because that would mean that the Braves would have the best starting rotation in baseball.

Here's a toast to D-Lowe... we move on to Troy Glaus in the next "Atlanta Braves X-Factors."