June 2009

Cincy has become a nightmare destination

After Tuesday night’s 7-2 loss to the Reds, Braves manager Bobby Cox essentially said that if you record 12 hits, you’ve got to win.   But since Great American Ball Park started to become his team’s house of horrors two years ago, Cox has come to realize this isn’t necessarily true.
  
While winning just two of the past 10 games they’ve played at GABP dating back to Aug. 21, 2007, the Braves have won just one of the six games during which they’ve recorded a  double-digit hit total. Their other win during this span occurred on April 24, when they tallied four hits, the first of which came courtesy of  Jeff Francoeur’s  two-out, fifth-inning homer.
 
So much has occurred over the course of these 10 games that it’s hard to pinpoint why Cincinnati has recently caused Cox more heartburn than Skyline Chili.   This skid started with Jo-Jo Reyes blowing a three-run second-inning lead by allowing the Reds to produce a five-run third-inning.
 
One day later, Edgar Renteria came off the disabled list and then went right back on it before even having the opportunity to do anything more than check his swing during his first-inning at-bat.   Then to cap off that three-game stretch in August of 2007, Adam Dunn continued his assault of Bob Wickman with a 12th-inning, walk-off homer.
 
Given that Wickman was released the following day, I guess you can say something good has come out of this 10-game stretch, during which the Braves have competed against the Bengals for the right to be considered the least successful team in Cincinnati.
 
Looking back at last night’s game, things might have certainly been different had Francoeur not grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the sixth.
  
But things like this are going to happen.  Former American League MVP Justin Morneau has grounded into 16 double plays (third-most in the Majors) during the 240 at-bats he’s compiled with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2008 season.   But he’s also compiled a .350 batting average and collected 130 RBIs in these situations.
 
The frustration that stemmed from Tuesday’s sixth-inning has to do with the fact that these situations seem to always find Francoeur.   The 250 at-bats he’s had w/ RISP since the start of 2008 ranks as the fourth-highest total in the Majors  —  a distinction that is partly  product of the fact that his aggressive nature limits his walk total and consequently increases his at-bats total.
 
If completely ignoring the big picture by solely looking at this from an RBI perspective, you would be able to say that Francoeur compares to Alex Rodriguez.  In 285 plate appearances w/ RISP since the start of 2008, Francoeur has tallied 85 RBIs, which is just one shy of the mark A-Rod has collected in 274 plate appearances.
 
But upon exiting the delusional world, it’s obvious that A-Rod has proven more productive while hitting .262 with a .403 on-base percentage and .463 slugging percentage during this span.
 
Those numbers don’t seemingly scream $59 million (A-Rod’s combined salaries in 2008 and 2009) worth of production, but they’re certainly more impressive than the ones posted by Francoeur, who has hit .216 with a .284 on-base percentage and .316 slugging percentage w/ RISP since the start of last season. 
 
Among the 14 Major Leaguers who have had at least 275 plate appearances w/RISP  since the start of last season, Francoeur and Rockies third baseman Garret Atkins (.226) are the only ones who haven’t hit at least .250 or compiled a .300 on-base percentage.

Among the 46 players who have had at least 250 plate appearances w/RISP since the start of last season, Francoeur’s .316 slugging percentage ranks dead last.  Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano’s .371 mark ranks as the second-worst.
 
Now re-entering the optimistic world and taking the approach that you’re only as good as your last at-bat, we’ll say Francoeur took a step in the right direction while scoring Chipper Jones from third base with his eighth-inning single on Tuesday night.
 
Unfortunately for the Braves, that single, which brought them within a run, only served as a tease.  Jones’ throwing error helped the Reds tally four unearned runs in the bottom of the eighth against Mike Gonzalez, who had allowed six hits while holding opponents scoreless over his previous nine innings.
 
This was another instance where Gonzalez encountered struggles during a non-save situation.  Just four of the 13 runs  he’s surrendered this year have come in save situations.  Five of the nine runs he’s allowed in non-save situations have been unearned. 

In 14 save situations, Gonzalez has limited opponents to a .200 batting average and .302 on-base percentage.  In his 17 appearances without a save on the line, he has allowed a .270 batting average and .378 on-base percentage. 
 
Yankees and Red Sox tickets:
  Tickets remain for next week’s games against the Red Sox (June 23-35) and Yankees (June 26-28).   While purchasing these at braves.com, you can also buy a daily parking pass that will admit you to one of the team’s lots.  Fans without these passes or season permits will have to find other parking options or utilize MARTA.

Back to life and back to reality

Nate McLouth provided an immediate upgrade and he’ll undoubtedly prove to be an asset to the Braves over the course of the next few years.  But as we’ve seen through the first week of his career in Atlanta, his five-tool talents aren’t great enough to serve as the solution to his new team’s offensive woes. 

When the Braves were shutout during the first two games of the McLouth era, they opted to move their new center fielder into the leadoff spot and magically they found themselves scoring 19 runs during a three-game span that began on Sunday.

But stealing a line from the old Soul II Soul song, the final two games of the Pirates series brought the Braves back to life and back to reality..
 
When the Braves prevented Tommy Hanson from losing his debut on Sunday, they (or Chipper Jones specifically) took advantage of Manny Parra, who has an 11.90 ERA in his past four starts,  and an over-taxed Brewers bullpen.
   
The majority of Monday’s seven-run uprising came at the expense of Zach Duke, who was charged with six runs and 11 hits in six innings.  But this was nothing new for the Braves.  Back in April, when Brian McCann couldn’t see, they actually pounded the left-hander with 12 hits and six runs in six innings.
 
Then Wednesday night, they botched the opportunity that was provided when Charlie Morton’s early exit prompted the impromptu entrance of Jeff Karstens, who had suffered the loss during  Monday’s 15-inning marathon with an 18-pitch outing.
 
With a quick rebound, Karstens allowed one run over 4 1/3 innings and set the stage for Paul Maholm, who allowed one unearned run over seven innings on Thursday afternoon.  Maholm till hasn’t surrendered an earned run in the 14 innings he’s tossed against Atlanta this year.
 
“I thought Maholm pitched another great game, but, we’re saying that too much in here,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. 

Chipper Jones said that Thursday was actually a day when the Braves justifiably had to tip their caps to Maholm.
 
While respecting Jones’ opinion, I’m sticking with Cox and holding the belief that Mike Hampton likely would have already damaged his wrist if he had to tip his hat as frequently as the Braves hitters have this year. 

While hitting .224 on this recently-completed nine-game homestand, the Braves were limited to two runs or fewer five times.  Making matters worse is that they went winless in the four games that their starters allowed two runs or fewer. 

Over the course of the past nine games, the Braves starters allowed 26 earned runs and posted a 3.90 ERA.  Take away Tommy Hanson’s debut and that ERA drops to 3.33. Regardless, either way you look at it, this span should have included more than four wins.

While the Braves were able to at least enhance their feeble outfield production with the acquisition of McLouth, they’ll need to do much more to make the necessary improvements to a lineup that still relies too heavily on the production of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. 

” If (Brian McCann) isn’t playing and I go O-fer, we’re in trouble,” Jones said. “If I’m not playing and Mac goes O-fer, we’re in trouble.”  

While there was no doubt that this lineup would be centered around Jones and McCann, the Braves obviously were counting on more from Garret Anderson and Jeff Francoeur, whose fourth-inning single on Thursday provided him just his fourth hit in his past 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
 
Anderson is who he’s always been minus the power that he displayed during the early years of this decade.   When they signed him, the Braves knew about the fact that he’s a far from vibrant personality.  But it’s safe to say that they envisioned him hitting better than .254 with a .373 slugging percentage through his first 40 games.
 
Anderson’s struggles have only magnified those of Francoeur, whose .621 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is actually 32 points lower than the mark he produced during last year’s disappointing campaign. 

Courtesy of the disappointing statistics he’s produced over the past two years, Francoeur has been forced to face the reality that he’s subject to regular criticism. 

While being one of the many who have been critical of his production, I would certainly never question Francoeur’s determination and passion for the game. He’s still the same great kid that arrived on the scene four years ago. But he’s currently not the same great player we had envisioned. 

As things currently stand, it’s tough to envision Francouer being back with the Braves beyond this season.  But at the same time, it’s not like Frank Wren is going to his team’s outfield woes by trading him.

While there’s still a chance that the Braves could deal Francoeur at some point this season, they certainly aren’t going to do so until they have somebody capable of filling the right field position.
 
Thoughts of Matt Diaz playing right field every day are erased by the reality that Anderson isn’t capable of playing left field on an everyday basis.  Plus with Jordan Schafer and Brandon Jones currently ailing, I don’t see any other internal options developing any time soon. 

So with limited available funds, the Braves will continue to evaluate the trade market with the hope that it produces a solution before it’s too late. 

To get the return that they are seeking, they will have to supply something significant.  While dealing Javier Vazquez would provide the opportunity to gain some financial breathing room, the Braves may be reluctant to deal him before having a better feel about what they could expect from Tim Hudson during the season’s final two months and next year. 

Without a suitable replacement, it’s also tough to envision trading Yunel Escobar.  But for every sensational contribution the shortstop provides, he seems to further bother his teammates by habitually committing mental mistakes and displaying the flashy personality that infuriates opponents and umpires.    

Wren’s task isn’t an easy one.  But as it becomes harder for him to watch his anemic offense there’s certainly reason to believe he’ll be further motivated to improve it.      

Braves promote Canizares

This morning’s surprise came courtesy of the lineup board, which showed that that Barbaro Canizares will be batting cleanup during this afternoon’s series finale against the Pirates.

Canizares, who was hitting .344 with eight homers and a .533 slugging percentage with Triple-A Gwinnett, could play first base until Casey Kotchman returns from the disabled list.  He also could be used as a designated hitter when the Braves spend both of the next two weekends in an American League park. 

To make room for Canizares, the Braves placed Greg Norton on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right ankle.  Norton has hit .098 in 41 at-bats this year.   

The 29-year-old Canizares has always shown the ability to swing the bat.  But his rise toward the Majors had been delayed by his defensive shortcomings.

Canizares will wear No.25, which most of you remember was worn by Andruw Jones throughout his career in Atlanta. 

Braves select Mike Minor

As soon as it became obvious that the Giants were going to take Zack Wheeler, there was little doubt that the Braves were going to grab Mike Minor with the seventh overall selection in this year’s First-Year Player Draft.

In fact after selecting Minor, Braves director of scouting Roy Clark provided every indication that he was always the pitcher that they truly wanted. 

“I’m very pleased with the guy that we got and I know that the baseball world thought that we were taking Zack Wheeler,” Clark said.  “But we’re very pleased with the guy we got.”  <p>

While going 6-6 with a 3.90 ERA during his recently-completed junior season at Vanderbilt University , Minor didn’t necessarily produce eye-opening stats.  But Clark said the 21-year-old left-hander flourished after he was allowed to call his own pitches. 

Given the opportunity to do the same with Team USA last year, Minor went 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA.   After beating the Cuban national team twice, Baseball America named him their summer player of the year. 

In other words he proved to be even more impressive than Stephen Strasburg, the heralded right-hander who is set to grab a record bonus after being selected by the Nationals with Tuesday’s first overall selection.

“There were some pretty good players on that team and I know one of them throws 100 miles per hour, but this guy is a winner,” Clark said.  “We’ve been tracking him for a long time.  We were hoping for the opportunity to select him and now I’m just hoping for the opportunity to sign him.”   

Minor, who is being advised by Bo McKinnis (one of the good guys in the agent business), will find himself entering the negotiating game.  Teams have until Aug. 17 to sign the players selected in this year’s Draft.

  

Will it be Minor or White?

When I called B.B. Abbott this morning, I jokingly asked him if his Draft party was going to be similar to the ones that Drew Rosenhaus throws for his top prospective NFL clients.

Before he could even provide an answer, he received another call from a scout and provided every indication that he’s among the many agents, who are going to be swamped today while fielding calls from clubs that are investigating the signability of the players they’re advising. 

Based on what I’ve seen from the video that MLB.com has provided, it’s a shame that the Braves likely won’t have the opportunity to grab Zach Wheeler, the lanky right-hander from suburban Atlanta’s East Paulding High School. 

Instead while serving as Wheeler’s advisor, Abbott is likely to find himself negotiating a bonus with either the Orioles or Giants, who are selecting directly in front of the Braves, who will be making the seventh overall pick tonight. 

If Wheeler is gone, the Braves could grab the University of North Carolina’s Alex White, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who some consider to be the second-best collegiate pitching prospect behind Stephen Strasburg.

But within his final Mock Draft, MLB.com’s Draft guru, Jonathan Mayo predicts that Braves director of scouting Roy Clark will pass on taking a fellow Tar Heel and instead grab Mike Minor, a left-hander from Vanderbilt University.

Take a look at these videos to make your own comparisons between Minor and White.

I’m going with what Mayo projects because as Clark said yesterday, “Jonathan really knows his stuff.”

While heading the Braves scouting department since 2000, Clark has gained a strong reputation as being one of the game’s top talent evaluators. 

With his contract expiring at the end of this year, the Braves will need to do whatever possibile to keep him and consequently prolong the link to Paul Snyder, the great scout who was instrumental to the rebirth of their organization during the late 1980s.

While doing some research on Garret Anderson last week, I learned that that Angels took him with the 125th overall selection in the 1990 First-Year Player Draft.  With their fourth-round selection coming 22 picks earlier, the Braves grabbed an outfielder named Johnny Walker. 

This leads me to wonder if Clark and his staff started sipping some Johnnie Walker after grabbing Chipper Jones with the first overall pick that year. 

Speaking of Jones, the dude is currently on fire.  When he singled in the fifth inning last night, it marked the eighth consecutive plate appearance during which he reached safely.  It also made him 6-for-6 since encountering that dizzy spell on Saturday night.

Last week, Jones said that the summer would make Turner Field more suitable to the Braves offense and once again his words have proven prophetic.  Since totaling eight homers during their first 22 home games, the Braves have hit 10 homers during their past seven game at The Ted. 

It was encouraging  to see Kris Medlen allow just one hit over three scoreless innings and notch the win last night.  It seems like the rookie hurler has overcome those nerves that marred his first two career starts and he now finds himself in a position where he could prove to be a key reliever during the rest of this season.

When we’ve talked about making trades that take advantage of a particular area of strength, we’ve been referencing moves like the Pirates made last week when they dealt Nate McClouth to the Braves with the confidence that Andrew McCutchen would be capable of handling their center field duties.

While recording two triples and finishing about 15 feet short of the homer he needed to record a cycle during Monday four-hit performance, McCutchen certainly had to calm the emotions of those Pirates fans who were furious last week when they learned that McLouth had been dealt.  

With his talent, McCutchen isn’t going to be one of those speed demons like Emilio Bonifacio, who energized the Marlins lineup for about a week before falling victim to Major League scouting reports.

Those same reports, which also played a part in Jordan Schafer’s struggles,  will soon start to affect McCutchen. But from what I saw last night and during Spring Training, my dad and friends might want to stop bashing the trade and simply enjoy the fact that they’ve still got a potential superstar in center field.     

Speaking of Schafer, he felt some discomfort in his left wrist during a swing on Friday night and was evaluated by a doctor on Monday.  I should have some more information tonight, when the Braves may also reveal the results of the MRI exam Brandon Jones underwent with the hope of finding out what is causing his left knee discomfort.   

Welcome Mr. Hanson

I’m not sure how Tom Glavine and John Smoltz passed the time leading up to their Major League debuts, but it’s quite obvious that they weren’t provided the technological luxuries that Tommy Hanson utlized to calm his nerves heading into this afternoon’s game. 

As he played solitaire on his iPod or iPhone, Hanson didn’t seem fazed about the fact that he was about to experience a debut that had been hyped more than the ones that Glavine and Smoltz experienced at the start of their illustrious careers. 

“Those guys weren’t as heralded,” Cox said.  “Noboby really knew John (Smoltz) because we had traded for him and then he came through our system.  Everybody knows Tommy (Hanson) because of Spring Training.” 

Actually before Hanson impressed during his first big league camp this year, he was well known throughout the baseball world.  After his 0.69 ERA allowed him to become the first pitcher named the Arizona Fall League MVP, the big right-hander became as heralded as any of the game’s pitching prospects.    

There’s no doubt that Hanson will battle some of the same nerves that his close friend and roommate Kris Medlen encountered during his May 21 Major League debut.

But at the same time, he’s confident that he won’t experience the same kind of meltdown that led Medlen to throw find the strike zone with just three of his 18 third-inning pitches. 

When asked if he’d provided Hanson any advice, Medlen said, “what do you mean, like how not to (stink) during your debut?”

When Glavine debuted on Aug. 17, 1987, he allowed six earned runs and lasted just 3 2/3 innings against the Astros.   

While introducing himself to the Majors on July 23, 1988, Smoltz limited the Mets to one run over eight innings.

The likes of Chuck James, James Parr and Kyle Davies have provided the reminder that a career path isn’t determined during the debut or first few starts of a pitchers career. 

But it would certainly be nice to see Hanson experience a good start to a career that the fans of Atlanta would like to enjoy for many years to come.   

Glavine pondering grievance

The Tom Glavine saga gained another chapter on Saturday, when Fox Sports reported that the veteran left-hander is pondering the possibility of filing a grievance against the Braves, who released him on Wednesday. 

According to Ken Rosenthal’s report, Glavine’s agent, Gregg Clifton, has discussed this matter  with a labor attorney and the players’ union.

While Glavine believes that his release was financially-motivated, the Braves contend that their decision was based on the performance they’d evaluated during his Minor League rehab starts.

Braves general manager Frank Wren said his team wouldn’t be responding to this report.

After evaluating Glavine’s three rehab starts, the Braves determined that he would have trouble finding success at the Major League level.   Going with a younger option, they’ve  instead inserted Tommy Hanson into their available rotation spot. 

While understanding the argument that Hanson could be considered the better choice, Glavine said he became more convinced that the decision was financially-based when the Braves acquired Nate McLouth from the Pirates on Wednesday night.

Glavine would have received a $1 million bonus when he was placed on the active roster.  He believes the Braves opted to utilize those funds to help pay for the prorated portion of McLouth’s $2 milllion salary.

“By not paying me, I think that freed up some money for them to do that,” Glavine said.  “So I think it was much more of a business and financial situation than it was a peformance situation.”  

 

Right move, wrong time

When the Braves released Tom Glavine on Wednesday, Chipper Jones said that we were all denied the opportunity to see a storybook conclusion to a splendid career. 

While it certainly would have been fun to watch Glavine dip into the fountain of youth and enjoy a successful summer in Atlanta, this was actually a fairy tale that was doomed the moment the Braves opted to sign Glavine in February. 

Had the Braves opted against signing the veteran left-hander, they would have spent a couple of days dealing with the public backlash that would have stemmed from the fact that they said goodbye to both John Smoltz and Glavine in a span of six weeks.

Instead, they’ve now bid adieu to Smoltz and Glavine within a span of six months and both of these organizational icons currently find themselves wanting to have nothing to do with the Braves.
 
Those wounds will eventually heal and there will once again be a day when both Glavine and Smoltz will once again proudly associate themselves with the organization that they helped resurrect during their youthful days in Atlanta.
 
While still bitter about what he perceived as limited communication during this past offseason, Smoltz actually found his emotional blow to be far less severe than the one delivered to Glavine.
 
As I look at all of the details that surrounded Glavine’s departure, I can only conclude that this was the right move that was executed at the wrong time.
 
Had the Braves opted to provide Glavine the opportunity to make his anticipated regular season debut this weekend, the controversy would have surrounded the fact that the Braves were allowing their emotional ties to block the bright future possessed by Tommy Hanson, who will now be able to make his Major League debut on Sunday.
 
Upset about the tone of Wednesday’s farewell meeting, Braves president John Schuerholz has issued a public apology that he says he’ll also personally convey to Glavine.
 
But really the only fitting apology would be the one that centers around the fact that over the last two weeks, the Braves strung Glavine through three Minor League rehab starts while fully understanding that he would be ready to pitch in Atlanta at the same time they were ready to bring Hanson to the Majors. 

There’s no doubt that Glavine would have been a nice insurance policy if the Braves starting rotation would have suddenly been decimated by injuries.  But barring a rash of health-related issues, it’s long been obvious that there wasn’t going to be a vacant rotation spot once the 43-year-old left-hander was ready to begin testing himself against big league hitters. 

Thus when Glavine aggravated his shoulder during his April 12 Minor League rehab start for Double-A Mississippi, the Braves should have at least talked to him about the possibility that his ensuing rehab would prolong to the point, where he might no longer needed in Atlanta. 
Whatever initial disappointment Glavine might have felt would have paled in comparison to the disgust he is currently feeling.

I can at least buy the possibility that the Braves might have still been hoping to see a mix of increased velocity and consistent control when Glavine made his May 28 rehab start for Triple-A Gwinnett.  But given that they obviously weren’t impressed with those results, it seems like they could have at least voiced these concerns before having him make a 90-minute trek to Class A Rome for a rehab start on Tuesday night. 

After Glavine tossed six scoreless innings for Rome, Braves general manager Frank Wren said you can’t accurately judge results based on the stats compiled during a Class A game.  While understanding that a future Hall of Famer could have some fun teasing 19-year-old prospects with his changeup, I can’t quite understand why the Braves gave him this assignment that seemingly provided no reward. 

Understanding that he wasn’t suddenly going to start consistently throwing 85 mph fastballs, Glavine has drawn his own conclusions about why he was scheduled to pitch in Rome. 

“I’m pretty certain they knew Tuesday afternoon that we were going down this road, yet they still paraded me out in Rome to a sold-out crowd,” Glavine said.  They never asked me if I wanted to pitch somewhere else.  They wanted me to pitch in Rome. They make money off of me being there.  So why would they want me to pitch somewhere else?”

While the Braves didn’t recently give Glavine his due respect, they certainly showed some when they provided him a contract in February without any clear indication about how he would perform once he began pitching. 

Had Glavine made his scheduled regular season debut on April 18, he would have been in position to make seven starts before the Braves were ready to promote Hanson.  During the course of those seven starts, he would have made $3.25 million or $464,285 per start.  If Derek Lowe makes 35 starts this year, he’ll make $457,142 per start.  

In other words, while knowing that Hanson would likely be ready when June arrived, the Braves still were willing to show Glavine respect with a financial obligation that further strapped them at a time when they were still attempting to fill a greater need with a power-hitting outfielder. 

So to say the Braves don’t respect and admire all that Tom Glavine did for their organization isn’t exactly accurate. 

But because of their actions over the course of the past couple weeks, they found saying goodbye proved to be more painful than it would have been in February or April. 
 

Braves not interested in Penny

It’s been an eventful and hectic week for the Braves.  But contrary to an ESPN.com report, a Major League source said that the Braves don’t have any interest in acquiring Brad Penny from the Red Sox. 

If John Smoltz gets through another rehab start tonight, the Red Sox will view Penny as even more expendable.  But the Braves won’t be among the teams showing interest in the big right-hander. 

With Tommy Hanson’s arrival on Sunday, the Braves will have form a rotation that they envision keeping in place for the rest of the season.  If Kenshin Kawakami would struggle, Kris Medlen could vacate his bullpen spot and return to the rotation.

Braves obtain McLouth

The Braves have acquired All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth from the Pirates in exchange for three highly-regarded Minor League prospects. 

A Major League source had confirmed that the Pirates will send McLouth to the Braves in exchange for left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke, outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and right-handed pitcher Charlie Morton. 

McLouth, who is hitting .256 with nine homers and a .470 slugging percentage this year, will likely serve as the Braves every day center fielder.    The 26-year-old outfielder hit .276 with 26 homers and 94 RBIs last year.   

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