Saturday, March 13, 2010

Atlanta Braves X-Factors: Billy Wagner

Who else remembers Billy Wagner's first appearance back from the disabled list last season?

Metallica's "Enter Sandman" blaring over the Citi Field speakers before the 5'11" (generously) lefty dismantled the Braves' eighth inning threesome of Reid Gorecki, Chipper Jones, and Brian McCann (striking out the first and last dudes mentioned).

About an appearance later, Wagner was placed on waivers and traded to the Boston Red Sox.

All told, Wagner appeared to be "back," as he managed 26 Ks to eight walks in 15.2 innings while posting a sparkling 1.72 ERA.

With those stats as their sample, the Atlanta Braves jumped on Wagner as soon as he started fielding offers and inked the 38-year-old Virginia-native to a one-year deal that is set to pay him $7 million in 2010 (with an option for 2011 that kicks in if and when he finishes 50 games).

But, were those numbers flukes?

Did the Braves just throw away close to ten million dollars that could have been put to the, at least right now, questionable offense?

Will Billy Wagner come close to the pre-Tommy John surgery years?

To answer those questions, I'll say: "probably not," "no," and "sure, why not."

Wagner, upon his return, was throwing in the mid- to upper-90s as he had in his glory days (although, 100 was more the norm back in the day) with the same cutting slider and loopy curve that made him one of the greatest door-closers of all time.

Why would you expect Cowboy Billy to be anything less than what he was in '05, '06, '07 after that kind of showing?

Keep in mind that Tommy John Surgery has about a 93 percent success rate and we, as Braves fans, have seen the likes of Mike Gonzalez and Peter Moylan have a ton of success in the past two years following the ligament replacement procedure.

I look for Wagner to have a strong campaign with the Braves in 2010...and I have little doubt in my mind that he won't at least approach 40 saves for the club.

A 2.75-3.00 ERA with something like 95 Ks in 70 or so appearances seems like a fair bet for Wagner.

But, his potential for on-the-field success isn't the only reason for his appearance on my list of Braves X-Factors.

Not even close.

I'm looking at the impact he could have as a leader in the Braves' clubhouse.

Even though he has made some, let's say, obscure comments over the years, he seems to respect people who are accountable for their actions (not always prevalent in the Mets' clubhouse) and, by all accounts, carries out his business the "right way" (hustling out all of the spring drills et all).

In an environment where he'll be around up-and-coming relievers like Eric O'Flaherty, Jesse Chavez, Kris Medlen, and closer-in-waiting (and fellow short dude) Craig Kimbrel, you have to figure that his simple presence and apparent work ethic will leak into these guys and help out their performance in the majors.

If he can couple that sort of "mentorship" with his potential on the field this season, then I think we're talking about the steal of the offseason.

An anchor at the end of the 'pen and an exceptional teacher and influence?

For $7 million?

Eat your heart out (insert name of a GM/owner overpaying for any closer).

Now, to couple one of the most dramatic 9th inning presences of all time, I present one of the most dramatic songs of all time (and my personal favorite)...

Up next in this series, the man, the myth, the Hey...a top-to-bottom look at what Jason Heyward brings to the Braves in 2010.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Jason Heyward Situation: My Take

It's becoming more and more obvious with each passing batting practice 450 foot, car-demolishing blast and Spring Training walk and slash, that Jason Heyward is becoming, and will likely remain such for the next decade or two, the apple of Braves Nations' eye.

The big-boned Atlanta prospect looks to be, even at a mere 20 years of age, the real deal.

And, with that, is looking more and more like one of the, as Braves officials have, in a somewhat round-about way, coined it "best 25 men in camp."

So, it's a no-brainer that he starts the season at the Ted against the Chicago Cubs, right?

Not so fast...

In his most recent downer-blog, venerable Atlanta-Journal Constitution writer Mark Bradley profiled the dilemma that henceforth shall be referred to the J-Hey Conundrum.

I encourage you, provided your view on the world is of a cynical nature, to read it and the caption from ESPN's Rob Neyer.

(For the record, Bradley does present his facts in a straight-forward manner, very professional...but it's so depressing to read one of his columns. Give him and David O'Brien the same stats and information, and you'll walk away from DOB's piece thinking opposed to the sluggish sensation you get as you navigate away from Bradley's publications.)

Anyway (I wrote a blog a couple of weeks back that I was too embarrassed to let tough B/R because of the utter disgust I heard when I read it back...I don't want to let this one get to that point), back to the downer-blog...

In it, Bradley (through Neyer, who wrote his lecture through Bryan Smith) likens the Heyward situation to that of both Tommy Hanson last season and Evan Longoria in 2008.

Which I get.

In both of those cases, the teams (the Braves and Rays, respectively) were looking to sacrifice a little bit of production in the beginning of their 162-game campaigns to save a little money down the line.

But consider the cost, beyond just dollars, in both cases.

The Rays, as we all know, inked Longo to a nine-year, $44 million-plus contract days after calling him up to make the entire "service time" situation moot (172 days is a full year...Longo would have had 170 if anyone had been counting upon a contract falling trough back in '08 or whatnot)--and I know that's what everyone in Atlanta and the entire southeast (and pretty much everyone who brandishes a cap with a fancy "A" nationwide) would like to see.

And in the end, not calling him up didn't hurt the eventual '08 AL Champs at all.

They got their affordable deal for an up-and-coming MVP and a berth in the World Series.

Then look at Tommy Hanson who has yet to make any sort of long-term (as in, beyond his arbitration years) commitment with the Bravos.

Sure, the team keeps nasty arbitration hearings out of the picture for another season, but the Braves were also, for my money, kept out of the 2009 playoffs because of this decision.

Think about it...give Hanson 10 more starts last season to build on his stellar 2.89 ERA and 8.2 K/9 rate and we could've been talking about a deep run for the Braves and that staff that so elegantly graced the field last season.

That's not to say that he definitely would have propelled the Braves to the few additional games they needed to clinch a spot; I'm just saying that the spark Hanson provided was something to behold and would have brought about more positive ramifications than any uninspired Jo-Jo Reyes start.

And that brings us back to the J-Hey Conundrum.

Should the Braves be sweetening the Kool-Aid all of the residences of Braves Nation have been drinking...even though it is somewhat of a risky (no guarantees Heyward is as accommodating as Longoria) route, and call the J-Hey Kid up while Super-Two and "early-arbitration/free agency" loom heavy?

Or should they pour all of the hype and anticipation down the sink in an effort to delay big-time, high-pressure contract negotiations?

For me, the answer is simple--bring out the Domino!

I can admit that I come within an inch of peeing myself every time Heyward comes to bat and does something (be it a single, double, stolen base, walk, or pop out) because of my school girl-like giddiness over the McDonough Man-Child (there's a nickname for ya).

And I'm sure I'm not alone in that sensation (though most dudes probably would not liken themselves to a school girl publicly).

But, the reasoning (though paralleling that in a way) goes much deeper than just my own personal man-crush on J-Word.

It goes beyond, as one commenter on Bradley's blog put it (this dude was anti-Heyward in the majors, for the record) "[Giving] 14 days and getting 365."

It goes to the state of the pissed off, foaming-at-the-mouth, hungry Braves' fan-base that lets its "trollish" wrath be heard daily around the interweb, and the atmosphere down at Disney that you feel radiating out of any of the veteran Braves' comments.

Since 2005, when can you remember THIS sort of utter joy and giddiness radiating from the depths of Braves forums?

When is the last time that you've heard so much national interest in the franchise?

When is the last time you've seen such an immaculate talent rise through the Braves' farm system?


It's been a while.

At some point, you have to reach out to the fan base and say "we're really trying" (not that I doubt that).

Say that "you know what, we are a better team with this guy than without...even if we lose out a little on the back end."

Even without the emotional ties, the dude, with his .352/.446/.611 line at AA last year and incredible maturity (both on- and off the field, by all reports), has proved that he, at the very least, deserves an unbiased (from a cash perspective) look.

He's proven that age is just a number with his "30 ought six" shots to the outfield and high praise (I think they're too much of s stretch, so I'm not going to specifically mention them) from the man that should be his manager on April 5, Bobby Cox.

Even more than all of that, he brings a quiet confidence and a "Francoeur-like" energy that doesn't always seem to be readily available when you look at any of the Braves' starters

As Heyward says on his Twitter account, "it all feels the same, enjoyin the game i love."

And looking at all of the smiles in every BP photo and autograph signing you see of him, you believe that.

As long as he doesn't go 0-for the rest of the spring (though one-for would probably not be acceptable, either), he is the best option available for the Braves in right field...regardless of any cash concerns...and should have a number "nine" penciled in next to his name come Opening Day as he runs onto the grass of Turner Field.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Atlanta Braves X-Factors: Chipper Jones

This past season was rough, to say the least, for Chipper Jones.

The venerable Braves third baseman posted the lowest batting average (.264) and slugging percentage (.430) that his 16-year (including the eight games in '93) has ever seen.

The now-37-year-old Jones also saw his first sub-20 homer season as a full-time player.

In fact, '09 was so bad for the face (at least until J-Word starts tearing it up) of the franchise, that retirement talks were being floated by Hoss himself this offseason as he enters the first year of a three-year extension.

Even with these pint-sized numbers, the Braves as a whole really did not suffer the fate many would have expected with those abysmal numbers from No. 10.

They still won 86 games and were well within striking distance during the season's final weeks.

But, imagine what this past season could have been with the Chipper we've come to know and love over the past few years in Atlanta's three hole.

You know, that .320, 20 homer guy that slices up defenses with teardrop bloopers, screaming gappers, and the occasional 400-foot blast.

The guy that can carry the team when it occasionally finds itself sans-B-Mac, -Escobar, or -clean-up hitter.

Had you plugged that into the line-up the Braves featured in the second half of 2009, and we may be talking about the deep playoff run the Braves and their exceptional pitching staff had in the 2009 postseason...but I digress.

We all know what C. Jones means to the Braves.

He's the guy that leads all of the young guys with his actions and is always accountable for his actions...a true professional.

But, he is getting up there in age and is now looking down the barrel of Bobby Cox's final know, his second father who has served as his only MLB manager.

You have to wonder if he can handle the pressure that's going to stem from 2009, Cox, and his birth certificate.

Because, if he can't, you're likely looking at another postseasonless season in Hotlanta.

This really is the dude that can push the Braves over the line of mediocrity if he can come in and post something close to the afore mentioned "norm" that Braves fans have come to expect from their aging star.

Personally, I think he's got enough in the tank to do something this season.

We certainly can't expect anything close to his '99 MVP season as a 27-year-old, and I don't think any of us really are.

But, when you consider the pressure a legitimate bat like Troy Glaus take off of Jones' shoulders (who has admitted to attempting to boost his power numbers with a "bigger," if you will, swing) and the work he put in this offseason to fix some flaws in his swing, you have to think that .290-.310 and 20-25 homers is well within the realm of possibilities.

If I had to put money down on it, I think .307 (that is his career BA) with 21 homers and an OBP in the neighborhood of .420 would be completely reasonable.

That average falls short of his '06-'08 and those homers would match his 2005 (when he batted .296).

He won't (and I think you can mark that down) set the world on fire...but he also shouldn't be the, let's say, anti-Chipper that we saw in least I hope.

And...well...I can't think of any good way to slip this video in here other than to say that I really like the song...

Anyway, I think we'll be looking at Billy Wagner in our next edition of Atlanta Braves sure to check back.