Like the NCAA tournament brackets I will sumbit later this month, there is no way this first Opening Day roster prediction will prove to be perfect. The only difference is that barring a significant injury, I might still feel good about these picks when the weekend arrives.
The intrigue of this year’s Grapefruit League season is enhanced by the multitude of position and roster battles that will unfold over the next few weeks in Braves camp. With Nick Markakis (neck surgery) currently questionable for Opening Day, first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, catcher Christian Bethancourt and Julio Teheran should be the only ones feeling confident that they will be in the lineup for the April 6 season opener in Miami.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll get a better feel for whether Markakis will be ready and start to understand whether the Braves should indeed feel confident about putting either Eury Perez or Eric Young Jr. in center field on a regular basis. At the same time, we’ll see if Alberto Callaspo was a waste of $3 million or a productive versatile infielder who will keep the second base spot warm until Jose Peraza is deemed Major League ready.
There are some questions about who will fill the final bullpen spots and reason to wonder if the Braves should really be confident in Wandy Rodriguez’s ability to stay healthy enough to fill the rotation’s fifth spot.
With all of this uncertainty surrounding the Braves as they enter the exhibition season with today’s game against the Mets, these next few weeks will certainly prove interesting and likely destructive to these Opening Day roster predictions:
Catchers: Christian Bethancourt and A.J. Pierzynski
Reasoning: I liken this to beginning my NCAA bracket selection to advancing every number one seed to the third round (second round if you don’t recognize those games played at the majestic University of Dayton Arena.
Infielders: Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmmons, Chris Johnson, Jace Peterson, Alberto Callaspo, Phil Gosselin
Reasoning: Even before Callaspo arrived in camp looking like a slightly shorter version of Brayan Pena, there was reason to doubt his ability to halt his recent decline. While I believe Phil Gosselin would be a better option than Callaspo, that $3 million investment will likely influence the ultimate decision. I’m choosing Peterson over Gosselin because he is a better overall athlete who can provide more with his legs. I toyed with keeping Kelly Johnson instead of Gosselin because of his experience and ability to play left field if necessary. But because I’m predicting the Braves will need to fit a four other non-roster invitees on their 40-man roster, I’m going with the right-handed Gosselin.
Outfielders: Eury Perez, Eric Young Jr. Zoilo Almonte, Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes
Reasoning: In predicting Markakis will be ready for the start of the season, I’m essentially picking my one #13 seed to win at least one game in the NCAA tourney. Right now, it seems like a longshot, but he still has a month to prepare. When the season begins, I expect Eury Perez to get most of the time in center field. The Braves will spend the next few weeks evaluating whether Young is capable of being a sound defender in center. But I think Young will primarily platoon with Gomes in left field. When Young is not in the lineup, Perez will fill the leadoff spot. If Markakis is not ready, Todd Cunningham would likely begin the season in Atlanta.
Rotation: Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller, Mike Minor and Eric Stults
Reasoning: If Wandy Rodriguez stays healthy over the next few weeks, he might grab that fifth spot. But I’m not one who makes a habit out of picking a #15 seed to win at least one game. Thus, I’m going with Stults, who finished last season strong and has some history with pitching coach Roger McDowell. Top pitching prospect Mike Foltynewicz could seemingly benefit from spending a little more time harnessing his command at Triple-A.
Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel, Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson, Josh Outman, Jose Veras, Arodys Vizcaino, James Russell
Reasoning: This prediction will obviously prove incorrect if the Braves opt to limit Manny Banuelos’ innings by putting him in Atlanta’s pen to begin the season. But they can also moderate his workload by limiting him to three and four-inning stints during the early portion of the season with Gwinnett. While I was tempted to put Michael Kohn in this mix, the fact the Braves have to fit four non-roster invitees, Vizcaino seems to be the better bet. Luis Avilan could also make things interesting if he pitches effectively enough over the next few weeks to question whether it’s worth keeping Russell around. If Russell provides indication that he will struggle against left-handers again, it will be easier to make the decision.
Now that the Braves have traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, some fans and media members have opined that they should now move Craig Kimbrel. Those who hold this opinion, question why a club would choose to keep the elite closer when it appears they are destined to struggle over the next couple of seasons.
While Braves president of baseball operations John Hart acknowledges that he has focused on improving the club’s long-term future with the flurry of moves he has made this winter, he remains optimistic that his team will be competitive this upcoming season. Thus, it was not surprising when he shot down the notion of moving Kimbrel when asked on Thursday morning.
“We love our core group,” Hart said. “We have added quality players around this group to allow us to compete while strengthening the farm system. We’ve added (Nick) Markakis, (Jason) Grilli, (Jim) Johnson, A.J. (Pierzynski) and others to help us compete this year. We have never entertained trading (Kimbrel) and have had zero conversations with any clubs about Craig. I want him finishing out a World Series win.”
Even if the Braves struggle this upcoming season, they believe some of the prospects they’ve acquired this winter could begin providing value as early as the 2016 season.
Kimbrel is signed through the 2017 season and has a $13 million option for 2018.
With the start of Spring Training a little less than a month away, the Braves are still talking to a few clubs that had shown interest in Evan Gattis during the early portion of this offseason.
As USA Today’s Bob Nightengale first reported, Gattis traveled to Houston on Wednesday for a physical with the Astros. But the Braves are currently talking to at least one other club about a potential deal that would involve Gattis.
If Gattis is traded, his most likely destination would be to the American League, where he could be utilized as both a designated hitter and catcher. The Astros, Rangers and Royals have been among the clubs that have shown interest this winter.
While the Royals now appear to be out of the mix, the Astros and Rangers might still have some interest in the right-handed power hitter, who has already tallied a pair of 20-homer seasons, despite not playing more than 108 games during either of his first two seasons at the Major League level.
There was a point when the Braves were hoping to land a Major League-ready starting pitcher or outfielder in exchange for Gattis. But it appears their most recent discussions have provided reason to believe they would be more likely to gain a crop of prospects if they deal the 28-year-old slugger, who will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season.
Gattis is currently slated transition from the catcher’s position to starting left fielder in Atlanta. While this would create the potential to compile approximately 150 additional plate appearances over the course of the season, it also creates some concern about his lack of experience as an outfielder.
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart has repeatedly said his club does not have the payroll flexibility to pursue the top starting pitchers on this free agent market. But with the opportunity to slash some funds off the payroll with some potential moves, Hart has at least not ruled out the possibility of giving Jon Lester a chance to be employed near his suburban Atlanta home.
A Major League source said Lester and the Braves will meet on Thursday. There is a chance this meeting will simply enhance the demand for the veteran left-hander, who is also drawing interest from the Red Sox, Cubs and Blue Jays. But at the same time, there is now further reason to believe the Braves are prepared to make more trades in order to create the financial flexibility necessary to significantly impact their need for starting pitching.
By trading Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals on Monday, the Braves improved their rotation with the addition of Shelby Miller and also took approximately $11 million off a payroll that is expected to rest around $110 million again this year. To get in position to afford Lester, who is expected to gain a $20 million-plus salary, Atlanta would likely have to trade Justin Upton, who is owed $14.5 million before becoming a free agent next year.
There has long been reason to believe the Braves would trade Heyward, Upton and possibly Evan Gattis at some point this winter. Given that he has one more arbitration-eligible season remaining, a trade involving Gattis would not create any immediate financial relief. But the right-handed slugger could draw a nice return from an American League club that could use him as a catcher and designated hitter.
Lester’s draw to the Braves might be rooted in the fact that his Peachtree City, Ga. home is located approximately 25 minutes from Turner Field. The 30-year-old southpaw produced a 2.46 ERA and 2.80 Fielding Independent Pitching mark while combining to make 32 starts for the Red Sox and A’s last year.
Atlanta’s rotation currently consists of Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and Miller. Given that David Hale is the only other Major League-ready starting pitcher in the system, the Braves are expected to target more starters over the next few weeks.
Kevin Seitzer has been hired to serve as the Braves hitting coach. The club could make an official announcement on Monday.
Seitzer spent this past season as the Blue Jays hitting coach. The former All-Star third baseman will fill a vacancy that was created when Greg Walker resigned as Atlanta’s hitting coach at the conclusion of this past season.
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said last week that he would like to continue using two hitting coaches like the club did the past two years with Walker and recently-dismissed assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher. It has not been revealed who might fill the role Fletcher previously held.
Before being hired by the Blue Jays around this same time last year, Seitzer served as the Royals hitting coach from 2009-12. He also served in this same capacity for the D-backs during the 2006 season and the first half of the 2007 campaign.
Seitzer has ties to both Hart and Braves president John Schuerholz. He concluded his career with the Indians, while Hart was serving as Cleveland’s general manager, and made his Major League debut in 1986 with the Royals while Schuerholz was serving as Kansas City’s GM.
As this past week has progressed the Braves have discussed alterations to their front office and a coaching staff that might soon include former Astros manager Bo Porter. But the only significant addition they have confirmed thus far was the hiring of former Yankees scout Gordon Blakeley to serve as a special assistant to the general manager.
This has been a busy week for interim general manager John Hart, who met with manager Fredi Gonzalez on Wednesday morning to discuss the coaching staff and a roster makeup. Hitting coach Greg Walker’s resignation stands as the only current change among the coaches. But there is certainly reason to believe at least a couple more changes will come that could open the door for Porter, who served as Gonzalez’s third base coach with the Marlins.
Given that the Braves have not yet hired a permanent GM to fill the role vacated by the recently-terminated Frank Wren, it remains to be seen who will serve as Blakely’s boss. But Blakeley’s addition confirms that assistant GM John Coppolella does have some additional power within this new front office makeup.
Dating back to their days together within the Yankees organization, Blakeley has always stood as a mentor to Coppolella. Now the veteran scout will have a chance to work with his prized pupil and more importantly attempt to help the Braves on international front as much as he did the Yankees. Robinson Cano, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez are among the players he was credited for signing while he was with the Yankees.
While Hart has taken on an active role over the past couple weeks, there still has not been clear indication that he wants to fill the GM role on a permanent basis. Thus there will continue to be speculation about the potential return of Royals GM Dayton Moore, who seemed to be an obvious candidate even before Wren was officially terminated. But with the Royals still in the playoffs, Moore’s focus is currently elsewhere.
As the Braves were getting destroyed and nearing the inevitability of being swept by the woeful Rangers on Sunday afternoon, it was hard not to think about all the negative developments that this organization has experienced since nearly forcing the Dodgers to a fifth game in last year’s National League Division Series.
Before getting into specifics, I think it’s safe to say that while this year’s Hall of Fame experience in Cooperstown was wonderful, the Braves did not want a celebration of the past to be this year’s most memorable occasion. Coming in a close second might be the three-week stretch this past winter when a flurry of long-term extensions gave hope for the future.
However you want to look at it, there hasn’t been much reason to be excited about the present for the Braves, who are expected to make significant changes once this season concludes. The only question is whether general manager Frank Wren and all of the members of the coaching staff will survive what has been the most disappointing season the Braves have experienced since the 1980s.
Coming off a 2-7 road trip that concluded in embarrassing fashion in Texas, the Braves now sit four games behind the Pirates and 2 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the battle for the National League’s second Wild Card spot. Needless to say, with 13 games remaining, the odds of passing both the Pirates and Brewers are slim.
But it would be easy to just continue harping on the negative. We’ve been doing that as the Braves have gone 58-67 going back to April 29. To put this in perspective, the Braves have matched the Mets during his span, played a half-game better than the Astros and one game better than the Cubs.
Sorry about that, I meant to get back into positive mode. If you want to hold out hope for a miraculous turnaround that would earn the Braves a playoff berth, you can look at the fact that the Pirates will play three games against the Brewers this weekend and then come to Turner Field for a four-game set that might have plenty of postseason intrigue.
Of course in order for their to be some drama surrounding next week’s Pirates series, the Braves will first have to take care of business against the Nationals and Mets. And since we are focusing on positives, it seems fitting to point out that Stephen Strasburg (0-4,4.98 ERA in past nine starts vs. Braves) and Gio Gonzalez (0-6, 5.53 ERA in his past seven starts vs. Braves) are both scheduled to pitch this week in Atlanta.
While the Braves long ago bid adieu to hope of defending their division crown, they now have to win two of these next three games against the Nationals to prevent a National League East title celebration from taking place on their home turf. The Nationals managed to avoid this embarrassment when the Braves put them in the same position last year.
Obviously the offense has been the primary problem throughout this frustration-filled year for the Braves. But long before scoring became a nightly struggle, this organization started to experience some of instability that seemingly marked the start of the struggles that have followed.
Highly-regarded scout Dom Chiti and notable pitching guru Dave Wallace both left the Braves to join Buck Showalter’s coaching staff in Baltimore. While both benefited financially by going to a Major League coaching staff, Wallace had indicated in the past that he was not interested in going back to the big leagues. But his mindset changed as he butted heads with members of the front office.
Then of course, the Braves nearly made the mistake of allowing pitching coach Roger McDowell go to the Phillies. President John Schuerholz stepped in at the last minute to keep McDowell, whose value extends far beyond what he does for the pitching staff.
A few weeks later, when Schuerholz hired his good friend John Hart to serve as a senior advisor in the baseball operations department,there was obvious reason to wonder about Wren’s job security. There is still reason to wonder a year later. But it does seem like Hart like his other ventures, especially as an MLB Network analyst, to assume the position on a full-time basis.
This past offseason’s most significant development centers around the departure of Tim Hudson. While for more than a year it had been assumed Brian McCann would depart after the 2013 season, there was at least some reason to think Hudson would remain close to his family by continuing to play in Atlanta as he faced the uncertainty surrounding his attempt to return from a fractured right ankle.
This mindset changed last September, when he said he had not had any conversations with the Braves about sticking around. Then of course came the early November revelation that the Braves had essentially offended him with an initial one-year, $2 million offer that included an option for the 2015 season.
Though the Braves’ offers improved, they would have never matched the two-year, $23 million offer Hudson received from the Giants. But as another disappointing September elapses, there is at least reason to wonder how beneficial Hudson’s clubhouse presence might have been this year had the Braves at least reached out last September and made him a respectable offer that he might have accepted.
As Hudson has spent the past few months experiencing an All-Star selection and aiding in the development of Madison Bumgarner, the Braves have lost three rotation members (Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd) to elbow injuries. While it’s never easy to overcome this kind of damage to a rotation, the Braves can’t say pitching is the reason they are now on the brink of being eliminated from the postseason scene.
If the Braves end up going on an incredible run and making the postseason, some of the struggles experienced over the past year will be forgotten. But in the midst of extended disappointment, there is no choice but to wonder how things might have been different if so many of these things had not gone wrong.
As the offensive woes have continued to mount, there has been reason to wonder when the Braves might break out of their funk and at least start hitting more like they did last year. But with less than three weeks remaining in the season, we’re probably way past the time when we should be using the word “funk” when describing a team that has disappointed at the plate since being shutout on Opening Day.
Instead, it might be time to accept that this offense is either an underachieving group or one that proved deceptive enough last year to be grossly overvalued entering this year.
If former NFL coach Dennis Green was currently serving as the Braves manager, I wonder if this would have been his reaction following Monday night’s 2-1 loss to the Nationals:
Reporter: What did you see from your offense as it was held to one run or less for the sixth time in the past nine games tonight?
Green: The Braves are who we thought they were.
Let’s not forget that while winning 17 of their first 24 games, the Braves hit .245 compiled a .705 OPS and averaged 3.7 runs. The Pirates, Cubs, Cardinals and Padres were the only NL clubs to average fewer runs per game during that period.
Since getting off to that 17-7 start, the Braves have gone 57-63. In the process, they have hit .242, compiled a .669 OPS and averaged 3.7 runs. Given that the average runs total is identical within these differing sample sizes, it must be the pitching that has been different.
Well, of course it has. No sane individual expected Atlanta’s rotation to maintain the ridiculous 1.57 ERA it produced during the season’s first 24 games. The pitching staff as a whole produced an incredible an unsustainable 2.04 ERA during that stretch. <p>
While winning just 57 of the 120 games that have followed, the Braves have seen their injury-decimated starting rotation produce a 3.84 ERA. The staff as a whole has a 3.59 ERA during this span.
The Pirates have produced an identical 3.59 ERA going back to this same date. But while going 65-52 during this stretch, Pittsburgh has been 9 1/2 games better than the Braves in the standings. The Buccos have made up this ground while hitting .266, compiling a .749 OPS and averaging 4.3 runs within this span.
Consequently, the Pirates would earn the National League’s second Wild Card spot if the season ended today. They are 1 1/2 games in front of the Braves and Brewers.
The Pirates will host the Brewers (Sept. 19-21) and then come to Atlanta for a four-game set that might determine which of these two clubs will earn a playoff spot.
Three weeks ago, it did not seem like these two teams would be in their current positions. When the Braves took the first two games of a series in Pittsburgh, they extended their winning streak to five games and handed the Pirates their seventh straight loss. But the tide turned in that series’ finale, during which Jordan Walden’s command issues and a lack of communication between the Upton brothers led to a bad loss for the Braves.
Going to back to that final game in Pittsburgh, the Pirates have won 11 of 17 and the Braves have lost 10 of 18.
Though Atlanta’s offense has been a problem throughout the season, its current stretch of futility has been quite troubling. Along with being limited to one run or less in six of the past nine games, the Braves have hit .211 and compiled a .582 OPS while averaging 2.3 runs in their past 15 games.
There is still a possibility that the Braves will turn things around in time to gain a playoff spot. But as every day elapses, there is more reason to begin assuming these guys simply are who they have been most of this season.
As Alex Wood neared the completion of his latest gem on Sunday, I decided to take a quick look at how unfortunate he has been because of a lack of run support. Given that I really don’t care for the quality start (six innings and three earned runs or less) stat, I opted to simply look at those starts in which he had completed at least seven innings while allowing two earned runs or less.
I found that before preserving his eight stellar innings in Sunday’s 1-0 win, the Braves had lost six of the previous nine games in which the young lefty had allowed less than three earned runs and recorded at least 21 outs.
That’s mind boggling. But those of you who have closely followed this team and its oft-slumbering offense were likely at least prepared for the numbers to not be pretty.
This led me to check the Braves’ overall record whenever their starting pitchers complete seven innings and allow two earned runs or less.
I chose to go back to 2009 because that was the last year in which the Braves would not have qualified for the postseason under the current format which allows for two Wild Card entries from both leagues. In other words, they would have qualified in 2011 had the two-team WC format been in place.
If the Braves are going to return to the playoffs this season, they will obviously need their maddening offense to provide some form of consistent production over the next four weeks. Since totaling 28 runs over a four-game span (Aug. 18-21), the Braves have totaled 23 runs in the 10 games that have followed. They have scored more than three runs just twice during this 10-game span.
This troubling trend is nothing new for the Braves, who count the Padres as the only Major League club they have scored more runs than this year.
The .680 OPS produced thus far would be the lowest recorded by the Braves since the glorious 1988 (.646) and 1989 (.647) seasons.
LEADOFF SPOT: Whether or not you view Jason Heyward as a leadoff hitter, it is hard to argue against the belief that he is the best option the Braves have. My only argument would be that they could get away with putting Emilio Bonifacio in the leadoff spot in games they’re facing a left-handed starting pitcher.
Heyward has batted .301 with a .366 on-base percentage in the 18 games he has played since moving back to the leadoff spot on Aug. 13. He has reached safely on a third of his plate appearances against lefties during this span. This latter stat was obviously aided when he walked in his first two plate appearances against the erratic Cole Hamels on Monday afternoon.
REMAINING SCHEDULE: As mediocre as the Braves have been over the past few weeks, let alone the past few months, they have to feel quite fortunate that they stand just 1 1/2 games back in the battle to claim the National League’s second Wild Card spot. Their most likely fellow combatants in this battle will be the Pirates, Brewers, Cardinals and either the Giants or Dodgers.
With six games remaining against the Nationals, the Braves can hold on to a glimmer of hope that a miraculous September will allow them to defend their division crown. But they might be better off focusing on the Wild Card chase which could be significantly influenced when the Pirates come to Atlanta for a four-game series (Sept. 22-25).
By the time the Pirates arrive in Atlanta, they will have completed their current three-game series against the Cardinals and the three-game set they’ll host against the Brewers (Sept. 19-21).
The Cardinals and Brewers are scheduled to square off seven more times. The Dodgers and Giants have six more matchups as they battle for the NL West crown.
So, the Braves can hope that the NL West and NL Central clubs (Pirates, Cards and Brewers) beat up on each other over the next couple of weeks. But none of that will matter if the Braves do not halt their offensive woes in time to prevent going into this offseason with an empty feeling.
It is far too early to compare this current four-game surge to the 14-game winning streak that essentially ended the National League East race last year. But if this does prove to be the start of a special surge for the Braves, we will remember that like last year’s streak, it began when there did not seem to be much reason for optimism.
Last year was different simply because the Braves got off to a hot start and held a division lead of at least four games every day after May 20. But some doubt crept in on July 25 when they dropped to 19-21 over their previous 40 games. More importantly, they had lost Tim Hudson to a season-ending ankle injury less than 24 hours earlier and the NL Central-leading Cardinals were coming to Atlanta the next day.
Instead of being burdened by doom and gloom, the Braves showed their resiliency by producing an incredible streak that enabled them to celebrate a special season. Though, this previous sentence was in reference to last year, there is a chance it could apply to what is transpiring this season.
Or as tonight’s starter Aaron Harang will attest, some of these same words could have been used to describe what he and his 2002 A’s teammates experienced when they produced a 20-game winning streak that took them from being 4 1/2 games back on Aug. 12 to 3 1/2 games up on Sept. 4.
“We have the team that can do that,” Harang said. “When that happened (with the A’s), we got multiple guys all producing all at once and pitchers all were trying to feed off each other. One of the guys would go out and throw seven or eight innings of one run ball or no runs and the next night the guy would come in and say I’m going to one up you. You just kind of feed off of each other when you get in that situation…Every night, it was somebody else who was getting that big hit.”
When Harang toes the rubber at PNC Park tonight, he’ll attempt to add to the recent success of Atlanta’s starters, who have allowed three earned runs or less in five of the past six games. The only rotation member to be part of a loss during this span is Harang, who had another forgettable afternoon outing against the Dodgers last week.
Harang will not have to deal with the afternoon elements that have existed during two of the three occasions he has allowed more than four earned runs this year. But it looks like he will have to deal with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is expected to come off the disabled list tonight. McCutchen went 3-for-3 with a double against Harang last year.
Meanwhile, the Braves will have to adjust to the oddity that Francisco Liriano presents when he takes the mound for the Pirates tonight. Liriano will become just the 25th different left-handed starting pitcher to face the Braves this year. STATS, LLC. says this is the lowest total for any club in the Majors this year.
This fact jives with what Jason Heyward said on Monday when he was asked about his struggles against left-handed pitchers this year. He has batted .157 with a .228 on-base percentage against LHPs and .306 with a .391 OBP against RHPs.
“It’s just nice to face (left-handed starters) again,” Heyward said. “I feel there has been some inconsistency in regard to when we face them. It’s tough to face shut-down lefties out of the pen regardless. But when you have to face them without getting any at-bats off of starters, it makes it that much tougher.
Liriano, who has produced a 1.89 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, is the second left-hander the Braves have faced within the past three days. A two-run homer by Justin Upton helped them beat southpaw Jon Lester and the A’s on Sunday night.
Speaking of the younger Upton, Elias says he is batting .388 (19-for-49) against pitchers who were selected for this year’s All-Star Game. Matt Adams (.476) and Jose Altuve (.441) are the only players who have compiled a better batting average with at least 40 plate appearances against this group.