February 2009

Lowe makes Braves debut

As I was walking by the Braves clubhouse on my way back up to the press box, Derek Lowe  made sure that I heard him say something like  “Don’t worry kid, it’s just your first Spring Training start.  Go get ‘em.  You’ll be fine.”

The dude is downright hilarious.  He has a sense of humor that I’d liken to Will Ferrell’s.  In fact, before he threw his first pitch today, I was thinking he might fist-bump Dave Ross and say “Shake and Bake.”   Yeah, I just said that.

Along with seeing Lowe make his first appearance with the Braves today, we’ll get a chance to watch Blaine Boyer make his Spring debut.

Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Gregor Blanco (Venezuela) and Jorge Campillo (Mexico) will leave Braves camp after Sunday’s game and travel to join their respective teams in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.

Javier Vazquez won’t join his Puerto Rican teammates until Monday.  He and Jair Jurrjens will throw three innings a piece during an intersquad game that will be held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex on Monday morning. 

Today’s starting lineup:
Jordan Schafer CF
Kelly Johnson 2B
Yunel Escobar SS
Casey Kotchman 1B
Matt Diaz DH
Brandon Jones LF
David Ross C
Martin Prado 3B
Gregor Blanco RF

- Mark Bowman   

Kawakami makes scoreless debut

When Adam LaRoche was traded to Pittsburgh, I said, “Please do whatever you can to keep my dad interested in the Pirates until at least the end of May.”

Two years later, Dad’s positive remarks about the Pirates still solely center around PNC Park and their Friday night fireworks displays. It’s been 17 years since the late John McSherry incorrectly ruled Sid Bream to be safe and still it’s downright painful to be a Pirates fan. 

(NOTE:  As somebody pointed out after this post was published, it was actually Randy Marsh who made the call. McSherry started behind the plate and then began feeling ill.  Personally, I didn’t begin feeling ill until Bonds unleashed that toss, which certainly didn’t appear to have  the assistance of any banned performance-enhancing aids.)

But the Buccos do have a great Spring Training park and it’s a beautiful Friday afternoon for baseball.  Kenshin Kawakami worked a perfect first inning and allowed just a bloop single off LaRoche’s back in his scoreless two-inning sting. 

Kawakami threw 18 of his 29 pitches for strikes and ended his afternoon with a strikeout of Jose Tabata.  While pitching in the United States for the first time, the Japanese hurler made a solid first impression.   

In a few innings we’ll gain a better understanding about why members of the Braves front office are so high on Kris Medlen, who actually looks younger than Brent Lillibridge,

Medlen has been described as a poor man’s Greg Madddux.   The 24-year-old right-hander stands 5-10, weighs approximately 185 pounds and has a baby face that might lead some cinema workers to card him if he attempted to purchase tickets to a rated-R movie. 

After moving into Double-A Mississippi’s starting rotation midway through the 2008 season, Medlen worked 92 1/3 innings, recorded 90 strikeouts and issued 21 walks.  In the 25 innings he worked during the Arizona Fall League, he registered 25 strikeouts, issued one walk and limited opponents to a .203 batting average. 

“If he was 6-foot tall, you’d be hearing a lot more about this guy,” one National League scout said.

When asked this morning about who he is considering to use as his leadoff hitter, Braves manager Bobby Cox mentioned Josh Anderson, Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson.  It still appears Anderson is the favorite. 

But the fact that Anderson has recorded a .340 on-base percentage during his Minor League career provides some concern.  He doesn’t possess the same plate discipline as Gregor Blanco and there’s reason to wonder what his OBP would be over the course of an entire big league season.

Some of you have said you would have the perfect leadoff hitter if you meshed the best traits presented by Anderson and Blanco.  Over the past few days, I’ve heard some of the Braves coaches (not Cox) say the same thing.

- Mark Bowman   

Let's get ready to see this Hanson kid

If you want to figure out what all of this Tommy Hanson-hype is all
about, you should tune in today’s game against the Astros.  The big
right-hander is scheduled to throw the third and fourth innings of the
game, which will be broadcast on  MLB.TV and ESPN. 

Eddie
Perez witnessed pure mastery on those countless nights when he sat
behind the plate and watched Greg Maddux demoralize opposing batters. 
Given that he spent most of his career serving as the primary catcher
for one of the greatest pitchers to ever toe the rubber, you might
think that it would take a lot for Perez to get excited. 

But
like most us, Perez arrived at the stadium on Thursday looking forward
to the opportunity to see Hanson make his first appearance in a Major
League setting.  Baseball America lists Hanson as the game’s fourth-best overall prospect and the top right-handed pitching prospect. 

“I
haven’t seen a pitching prospect like this since I started coming to
big league camp and guys like Steve Avery and John Smoltz were getting
started,” said Perez, who now serves as Atlanta’s bullpen coach.

Braves
manager Bobby Cox compares Hanson’s slider to the one thrown by Smoltz.
When you consider that many consider Smoltz’s slider to be the best in
the game, that’s pretty lofty praise.

Chipper making the trek to Bradenton:  When
Kenshin Kawakami makes his Braves debut against the Pirates on Friday,
Chipper Jones will be there to play alongside the Japanese hurler and
reminisce about his earliest days in professional baseball.

This
will be the first time that Jones has returned to Bradenton since
playing rookie ball there after being selected by the Braves as the top
overall selection in the 1990 Draft.  The first curfew punishment he
received that summer came after he was caught by current Braves first
base coach Glenn Hubbard, who had just started his professional
coaching career.

Chipper on managing
:  When I told
Chipper that some of you were talking yesterday about the possibility
of him one day serving as the Braves manager, he laughed and said
something like, “my wife would divorce me so fast that it’s not even
funny.”

“The managing part is more time consuming than playing,”
Jones said.”Quite honestly, I don’t know if I have the patience to put
up with everything that you have to put up with.  Whether it’s with
young cocky players, the media and what not, I think I’d be better
suited to be an instructor.

Today’s lineup:
Jordan Schafer CF
Kelly Johnson 2B
Chipper Jones 3B
Casey Kotchman 1B
Yunel Escobar SS
Jeff Francoeur RF
David Ross C
Brandon Jones LF
Greg Norton DH

Jorge
Campillo, Hanson, Boone Logan, Jeff Bennett, James Parr and Mike
Gonzalez are all scheduled to pitch against the Astros, who will send
Roy Oswalt to the mound to start the game.

- Mark Bowman

Thoughts from Lakeland

When some scouts were comparing Jordan Schafer to Grady Sizemore last year, I didn’t exactly see the comparison.  But I guess that’s why they’re paid to project and I’m paid to use their thoughts in an attempt to display intelligence. 

While Sizemore and the Indians have abandoned their former Spring home of Winter Haven, his clone returned to Polk County on Wednesday and showed why Baseball America has rated him the game’s 42nd-best prospect and the seventh-best center field prospect.

Schafer showed off his arm with a strong first-inning throw, displayed his speed with a fifth-inning stolen base and then flexed his muscles while hitting a seventh-inning homer.  

“There isn’t a tool this kid doesn’t possess,” said Matt Diaz, who spent the winter training with the young prospect who is going to bring Schafe-mania to Georgia next month. 

One exhibition game obviously doesn’t change the fact that in some ways it makes sense for Schafer to start this season at Triple-A Gwinnett.   But at the same time, when you see how natural this kid looks when he’s on the diamond, you can’t help but wonder how long the Braves can seriously keep this gem at the Minor League level.

<b> Garret update:  </b>  Garret Anderson worked out at Disney today and Cox thinks his new outfielder might be able to make his exhibition season debut early next week.   I’m still of the opinion that Anderson was a solid pickup and possibly the best bargain of the offseason. 

But when you just get a taste of what Schafer can do on the field, you get a better idea about why some of the Braves felt they would be fine if GM Frank Wren didn’t land an additional outfielder.

<b> Here comes Hanson:  </b>  This is my ninth season covering the Braves and never before have I been more excited about seeing somebody pitch.  Tommy Hanson is scheduled to throw two innings against the Astros tomorrow and when he takes the mound, it might mark one of those rare occasions when every media member is simultaneously actually paying attention to what’s going on during an exhibition game.

<i> Baseball America </i> has rated Hanson as the top right-handed pitching prospect.  He ranks fourth on the overall list, just one spot ahead of Braves outfielder Jason Heyward, who is rated the game’s top corner  outfield  prospect. 

The five Braves listed in BA’s top 100 list include: Hanson (4), Heyward (5), Schafer (42), Gorkys Hernandez (62) and Freddie Freeman (87).

Brandon Hicks, a non-roster invitee who hasn’t received enough attention during the early days of camp, is rated as the game’s 10th-best shortstop prospect. 

“He’s a Major League shortstop,” Cox said while Hicks was showing his power potential during batting practice on Wednesday.

  

This Time It Counts

I’m not sure if I should have checked with the MLB licensing execs before using that headline.  But given what has transpired with the Braves over the course of this offseason, I didn’t see any need to wait until the All-Star Game to use it.

Before you ask whether one of Paul Kinzer’s term sheet requests or premature speculation is going to prolong the soap opera that was Frank Wren’s offseason, I figured I’d let you know Garret Anderson really has signed and no, he didn’t use invisible ink. 

Having been left at the alter on more than one occasion this offseason, the Braves were very guarded about the comments they made before Anderson underwent his physical on Tuesday and officially said, “I do.”

It’s quite obvious that many of the Braves are ecstatic about the fact that Ken Griffey Jr. opened the door that allowed Anderson to come to Atlanta.  Instead of worrying about the uncertainties Griffey would have brought while serving in a platoon, they now find themselves looking forward to the consistencies that Anderson will provide while playing left field on a regular basis. 

“It’s a tremendous pickup, great, great pickup,” Braves manager
Bobby Cox said. “This guy can practically play every day.”  <p>  

These aren’t exactly the words you’d want to hear if you’re Matt Diaz, who now finds himself as a backup who will see occasional time in left field.  But Chipper Jones is among those whose seems happy to know Anderson will be resting with him somewhere in the middle of the lineup.

“He’ll make a difference, ” Jones said. “We’re a little left-handed for my taste.  But Garret is going to help this team win ballgames and that’s all I care about.” 

The projected Braves lineup consists of two right-handed hitters: Jeff Francoeur and Yunel Escobar; and one switch hitter in Jones.  But manager Bobby Cox doesn’t seem too worried about the fact that his lineup will regularly consist of five left-handed hitters   — Anderson, Josh Anderson, Casey Kotchman, Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson. 

“Garret, Johnson, Mac and Kotchman have all hit left-handers in the past,” Cox said. “It really doesn’t matter how it shapes up.”

<b> Morton update:  </b>  Charlie Morton strained a muscle on his left side on Tuesday and it will be at least another week until he’s able to resume throwing. 

<b> Going to Lakeland </b>  Chipper Jones and Garret Anderson (presumably) will be the only projected starters not making the trip to Lakeland for Wednesday’s Grapefruit League opener.  Jair Jurrjens, Jo-Jo Reyes, Manny Acosta, Stephen Marek and  Eric O’Flaherty are all scheduled to pitch.

Late blogotorial addition: (Sorry we didn’t have this information for the early edition)

<b> Minor freak injury:  </b>  As I mentioned earlier in a comment, Blaine Boyer sent me a text to tell me the cut he suffered on his right index finger came courtesy of an apple slicer.  Unfortunately for the right-hander, he had no intention to even make contact with that utensil.  He was simply reaching for a can opener. 

Boyer said the small laceration had no effect on him during his Tuesday morning bullpen session.  But he won’t make his scheduled appearance against the Tigers on  Wednesday.

- Mark Bowman

Soriano highlights Monday's workout

Anderson, Anderson and Francoeur. Seriously, should I have actually laughed out loud while wondering if this sounds like a law firm or an outfield trio? Actually there’s no need to answer that.  I just read over it again and formed the same stone face that Rafael Soriano displays whenever we ask him a question. 

Speaking of Soriano, he actually impressed Bobby Cox today with the velocity he showed during the bullpen session that preceded his first live batting practice session of the season on Monday morning  All indications are that the right-handed reliever’s elbow is healthy. 

Kenshin Kawakami followed Soriano on the mound and showed more consistency with his  location than he had when he threw his first live BP session on Saturday.  The Japanese hurler mixed in a few more breaking balls and received some compliments from the hitters that he faced. 

“You can see how that guy could have a lot of success by putting the ball where he wants it and where hitters don’t like it,” Kelly Johnson said. 

Charlie Morton impressed Cox with a solid bullpen session and then possibly strained an oblique muscle while throwing to hitters.  Over the next few days, the Braves will gain a better understanding about how much time Morton might miss.

There’s a slight chance that Garret Anderson could undergo his physical and join his new Braves teammates near the end of Tuesday’s workout.  Regardless as long as everything goes well, he’ll likely be officially introduced on Tuesday afternoon.

After Monday’s workout, many of the players headed out to participate in Tim Hudson’s charity golf tournament.  While practicing his swing, the always witty Peter Moylan said, “I’m the new John Smoltz and I’ve got the hairline to prove it.”

- Mark Bowman

Did Griffey do the Braves a favor?

While writing the early version of the story about Garret Anderson and the Braves agreeing to the terms of his one-year, $2.5 million contract, I didn’t exactly have a firm opinion about whether or not he’d be a better fit than Griffey would’ve been. 

But after talking to some of the Braves and doing some more research before updating my original story, I gained the belief that Braves general manager Frank Wren might want to send a thank you note to Griffey and his agent Brian Goldberg.

When one of my respected colleagues opined  that Anderson is “the most underrated player of his generation to me," I certainly took notice. 

But such a compliment wasn't going to completely sway somebody who believes Griffey was the most purely talented player of this generation.  (Obviously raw stats aren't the only components I used to gain this opinion.)

So while attempting to evaluate the current talents of two former superstars who are past their primes, I have to give the nod to Anderson, who is 2 1/2 years younger, undoubtedly the better defensive option,  and a player whose offensive capabilities provide the Braves the opportunity to place an experienced and proven bat in left field on a regular basis.  

The fact that Griffey would have been platooning at least provides reason to wonder what kind of production Matt Diaz would have provided during those days when he was playing left field.  During his first two years with the Braves, he devoured left-handed pitchers.  But before he injured his knee in late May of last year, he created reason to wonder if he could rekindle the magic he experienced in 2006 an 2007, when he combined to hit .333 with 19 homers and an .856 OPS.

Looking solely at the statistics he might have produced while batting solely against right-handed pitchers, you could argue that Griffey would have provided more power.   But in doing so, you have to assume that he’s regained all his strength in his surgically-repaired right knee.

Assuming Griffey was at optimal strength, you might project that he and Matt Diaz could have combined for 25-30 homers while serving in a platoon role in left.   But the “if” that accompanies this argument seems to provide a greater variable than the certainty Anderson has shown through his consistent production he’s provided since ending his days as a legitimate power hitter.

Anderson  hit .293 with a .774 OPS against right-handed pitchers last year and .290 with a .704 OPS against left-handers.Over the past three seasons, he’s hit .295 with a .799 OPS against right-handers and .272 with a .713 OPS against southpaws.

When the Braves are facing a tough left-hander or Anderson needs a day off, Cox may choose to play Diaz, who has hit .328 with a .508 slugging percentage against them in his career.

But for the most part  I think you’ll see Anderson in left and he’s told friends he’s looking forward to the opportunity to play 120-130 games in the outfield this year.  This workload would  provide  Diaz the opportunity to be more than simply a valuable bat off the bench.

Anderson obviously isn’t the great player that he was at the beginning of this decade.  But because he still has the ability to give the Braves an experienced and proven presence in left field on a regular basis, I’ve gained the opinion that he’s better than any other options Wren has explored over the course of the past week.

- Mark Bowman

Anderson is coming to Braves camp

A Major League source has confirmed that Garret Anderson has agreed to a one-year contract with the Braves.  The veteran outfielder is expected to arrive in Florida to undergo a physical within the next two days and an official announcement could come on Tuesday. 

While Anderson doesn’t possess the power that he did earlier in his career, he certainly provides the more power potential than Brandon Jones, who might have platooned with Matt Diaz in left if the Braves hadn’t gained the veteran outfielder that they’ve been seeking.

As opposed to their plans for Ken Griffey Jr., Anderson might not necessarily be used in a platoon role in left field.  He hit .293 with a .774 OPS against right-handed pitchers last year and .290 with a .704 OPS against left-handers. 

During his career, Anderson has hit .299 with a .481 slugging percentage against right-handers and .291 with a .441 slugging percentage against left-handers.

- Mark Bowman 

Maybe Anderson is coming to Atlanta

Whenever asked to respond to something that has been written, Nationals president Stan Kasten often replies, “Do you believe everything that you read?”  In doing so, he’s often provided reporters at least a sense that the story actually does have some validity.  <p>

With this in mind, I’m not totally believing everything that I wrote after Griffey decided to go to Seattle.  At the time, the Braves said they were going to give their young outfielders a chance to show they’re ready for the Majors.  For some reason, I actually bought into it like one of the victims of a ponzi scheme.

Like Griffey might have changed his mind, I’m now doing the same.  Now, I’m of the opinion that the Braves have definite interest in Garrett Anderson and may be working to get a deal done with him in the very near future.

Anderson, who will turn 37 on June 30, hit .293 with 15 homers and a .758 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) for the Angels last year.   While his power has declined with age, he has hit at least 14 homers each of the past 11 seasons.

Stay tuned.  We may have more updates as the day progresses.

- Mark Bowman

Impressions of Kawakami

Just before Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur started drilling rocket shots off bench coach Chino Cadahia’s batting practice fastballs on Saturday, Josh Anderson, Gregor Blanco and Brandon Jones did the same against the ones supplied by Kenshin Kawakami. 

But before any of you start to worry, you should know that Chino was just working on a few pitches, trying to find his location and tinkering with his delivery.  Or maybe my notes are wrong and that was actually the Japanese dude that’s getting paid $23 million over the next three years.

In all seriousness, I’m putting next to zero stock in what Kawakami is doing on Feb. 21.  All that matters is that he’s ready to pitch when the season begins in April.  But to guard against shaken confidence, he probably doesn’t need to know that Blanco compiled a .309 slugging percentage last year.

The only National League outfielders who compiled 500 plate appearances and produced lower marks were Michael Bourn and Willy Taveras, who have stayed at the Major League level simply because of their existence as stolen base threats.

At Blanco’s expense, we’ve gained a transition to Anderson, who seems to be in position to beat Blanco and Jordan Schafer in the battle to open the season as the team’s starting center fielder.  While Schafer undoubtedly is the most talented candidate, it still appears the Braves might be more comfortable starting him in the Minors. 

Anderson’s cause is aided by the fact that he’s out of options.  And unless you’re among those who don’t believe that he’s capable of hitting left-handed pitching, he might also be the team’s top candidate to serve in the leadoff role.  He’s been successful with 80 percent (247 out of 310) of his stolen base attempts at the professional level.

As I mentioned in an earlier comment on a previous post,  I don’t really worry too much about the fact that Anderson has hit .254
with a .299 OBP in 63 big league at-bats against southpaws. He hit .304
with a .352 OBP against them at Richmond last year.

My feelings about Anderson’s capabilities against left-handers improved after talking to Bobby Cox on Saturday afternoon.  This conversation also made me think less about the possibility that he might be used in CF platoon with Omar Infante.

“Everybody is going to struggle against certain left-handers,” Cox said. “He’s faced them his whole life. He’s never platooned anywhere that he’s been. All he has to against lefties is make contact. If he hits a dribbler or one in the hole, he’s going to beat it out.  Contact is what we’ll preach to him against lefties.  If you put it in play, amazing things can happen with a left-handed hitter like (Anderson) who can fly.”  <p>

In other camp news, Chipper Jones’ cough sounded horrible on Saturday. But he participated in the workout. 

Cox said Jason Heyward hit a ball “a mile” on one of the back fields.  While I didn’t see that one, I did see Francoeur drill one of Chino’s fastballs halfway up one of the flag poles situated on the hill above the left field wall.

- Mark Bowman

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