September 2009

Heyward at Turner Field tonight and Oudin will arrive tommorow

Fresh off her inspiring run during the U.S. Open, Atlanta’s tennis phenom Melanie Oudin will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Saturday night’s game against the Phillies. 

But the Braves were unsuccessful in their attempt to lure Serena Williams to Atlanta this weekend to provide Bobby Cox a chance to take a break from his in-game negotiations with umpires. 

While Williams won’t be at Turner Field on Saturday, Jason Heyward is here tonight.  But it still appears we’ll likely have to wait until next year before seeing Heyward make his Major League debut. 

Heyward will be among the Braves Minor League Players and Pitchers of the Year honored before tonight’s game.   Last week, Baseball America named Heyward its Minor League Player of the Year.

This year’s POY honorees are:

Organizational: Heyward (player), Craig Kimbrell (pitcher)
Triple-A Gwinnett:  Barbaro Canizares (player), Mariano Gomez (pitcher)
Double-A Mississippi:   Matt Young (player), Kyle Coffield (pitcher)
Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach: Donell Linares (player), Cory Gearrin (pitcher)
Class A Rome:  Yoel Campusano (player)  JJ Hoover (pitcher)
Rookie Level Danville: Christian Bethancourt (player), Robinson Lopez (pitcher)
Dominican Summer League:  Edison Sanchez (player), Andy Otero (player)

Cox has earned the right to wait before determining his future

Just as the Braves are providing reason to wonder if they’re capable of what seemed to be the impossible last week, we now find ourselves going back to a topic that we touched on when they were struggling in June.   

At the time, I pointed out that time had allowed me to learn that I’d shown my youth four or five years ago, when I wrote that Braves manager Bobby Cox had earned the right to manage this club as long as he wanted.

Cox has repeatedly said that he’ll continue to manage as long as he possesses a passion for the competition that awaits him when he takes his seat on the bench on a nightly basis.

Via the relationship that I’ve formed with Bobby over the last nine years, I can honestly say that passion is going to be extend beyond the time, when age prevents him from possessing the mental capacities necessary to capably handle all of the daily responsibilities a manager possesses.  

With his bullpen decisions and the stubborn loyalty he’s shown Greg Norton, Cox has caused many of us to wonder if that time has already arrived.  

And behind those closed doors in the Braves front office, you can be assured that the Braves execs have assumed their responsibility of evaluating whether Cox is still the right man for the job.

But at the end of the day, Cox obviously can’t and won’t be treated just like any other individual in his role.   When Chipper Jones has referred to him as the grandfatherly figure that we’ve all come to love, he speaks for players, coaches, execs and media members.  

With John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, the Braves have already experienced two emotionally-challenging goodbyes this year.  Pushing Cox out before he’s ready to say goodbye would prove to be even harder and possibly much more damaging.  

When Cox arrived to serve as the Braves general manager in 1986, the club was the laughingstock of baseball.  Those 14 consecutive division titles that soon followed were more than just a product of the contributions he provided when he assumed the managerial role midway through the 1990 season.  

Cox brought a sense of professionalism to the Braves organization and rebuilt the farm system that John Schuerholz successfully continued to procure once he assumed the GM role.   

Without Cox, there may have never been a Doyle Alexander-for-John Smoltz trade and a less patient GM might have traded Glavine after he won just 33 of his first 74 decisions.   And aren’t you still thankful that he took Todd Van Poppel’s advice and took some kid named Chipper Jones with the first pick in the 1990 Draft.

That’s why at the end of the day, I think you could argue that Cox ranks right there with Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn as the greatest legends to ever grace the organization.  

Because of all that he’s provided this organization, Cox has indeed earned the right to stick around at least one more year.  But at the same time, the 68-year-old skipper may have to push some of his stubborn loyalties aside and do so with the understanding that there will have to be some changes made to his coaching staff before the start of the 2010 season.

Like was mentioned in this forum a few months ago, Cox isn’t any different than Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden, who have been forced to rely more heavily on their coaching staffs as they’ve continued to win their battles against Father Time.  

This isn’t to say there would have to be a major overhaul on the coaching staff.  But the organization could benefit from parting ways with a couple members of Cox’s staff and also changing the roles of some of the other current coaches.  

Before any of these decisions are made, Cox will have to tell the Braves that he is indeed committed to returning for the 2010 season.  

Like each of us, Cox is affected by the daily change of emotions the game of baseball brings.   While he might have exited the Sept. 6 game against the Reds wondering if it was truly time to spend more time with his wife and family, the six wins in the seven games that have followed have certainly altered his mindset.

In a perfect world, it would be nice to have already learned whether Cox wants at least one more chance to skipper the organization that he once resurrected.  But at the same time, I think it’s safe to say that he’s also earned the right to delay this decision for at least a few more days or weeks.  

Braves playoff hopes still alive

If the Braves truly were dead after they were swept by the Reds last weekend, then whey I did wake up today and start looking for a pulse, while evaluating their remaining schedule and the ones that await the clubs in front of them in both the National League East and Wild Card standings?  

This job calls for me to be more of a realist than an optimist.  But now that the Braves have provided reason to wonder courtesy of their 5-1 road trip that concluded with a sweep of the Cardinals, I don’t see the benefit of treating the remainder of the regular season a three-week death march.  

Sitting 7 games back in the division and six games back in the Wild Card with just 19 games remaining, the odds of the Braves making the playoffs rival those of Lane Kiffin actually making it throughout this week without saying anything that will further incite the Florida Gators.

But I’m quite certain members of the Philadelphia media were saying something similar when the Phillies were six games back with just 19 games remaining during the 2007 season.  Standing at 76-67 at that time, the Phils would go 13-6 down the stretch to overtake the Mets, who went 6-13 during that same stretch.  

That year’s version of the Rockies sat 3 games back in the Wild Card standings through 143 games and then managed to win 15 of their final 19 games to set up the one-game playoff with the Padres.  

Looking solely at these examples provides further reason to believe the Braves would have to win something like 16 of their remaining 19 games to gain a chance.  But really, the only reason I presented these examples was to provide the reminder that crazy things sometimes do occur during the final weeks of the season.  

“It’s possible and until we’re mathematically eliminated, we’re going to go out with the feeling that we’ve got a shot,” Chipper Jones said.  

Mention of the 2007 season also allowed me to present one of the funnier press box lines that I’ve heard.   After Smarty Jones was upset in the Belmont Stakes and lost his bid to complete thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, one Phillies scribe proclaimed, “Typical Philadelphia athlete.”  

Instead of being the chokers, the Phillies were the benefactors of the collapses the Mets experienced the past two seasons.  To have any hope of winning the division, the Braves will need to sweep a few of their remaining six series and have the Phils change roles this year.  

The Braves benefit from the fact that 13 of their final 19 games are against the Mets and Nationals.  But it’s not like they’ve thoroughly dominated either of these two teams  –  Mets (7-5,  Nationals (7-4)–  this year.

During their final 18 games of the season, the Marlins are scheduled to play two against the Cardinals, three against the Braves and six against the Phillies.  They’re also slated to play four games against the Reds, who have lost six of eight since exiting Turner Field with the sweep.  

Further hindering the Braves division hopes is the fact that the Phillies play 11 of their final 20 games against teams that currently have a losing record.  The only teams they’ll play with winning records are the Braves and Marlins.  

The most encouraging part about the Rockies remaining schedule is that eight of their remaining 17 games will be played against the Cardinals, Giants and Dodgers.  

The Braves need the Giants to complete their three-game sweep of the Rockies this week and then fall apart during a 16-game stretch that will include just seven games against teams (Cubs and Dodgers) with a winning record.

Shorthanded lineup going for sweep

While trying to complete a three-game sweep against Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, the Braves utilized a lineup that was absent both Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.

A couple of days ago when neither of these guys were providing any offense in the middle of the lineup, this might have provided the opportunity to playfully say that this was a wise strategical move.

But whenever going up against Carpenter, who is 11-0 with a 1.97 ERA, in his past 13 starts, there’s never much reason to laugh about the fact that you’re going into the game shorthanded. 

Braves manager Bobby Cox stuck with his plan to give McCann a day off and Jones was forced out of the lineup because of a strained left groin that he suffered while quickly stopping at third base during the ninth inning of Saturday afternoon’s win. 

Jones is hopeful that he will return to the lineup on Tuesday.   When asked if this groin has bothered him at any point this year, the veteran third baseman said,  “there hasn’t been much that hasn’t bothered me this year.”

Carpenter is 2-0 with a 2.62 ERA in the four starts he’s made against the Braves dating back to the start of the 2005 season. 

Jones has three hits, including a double, in six career at-bats against Carpenter and McCann has gone 2-for-7 with a homer against the right-hander.  

With eight hits in his past 13 at-bats, McCann has at least interrupted the maddening funk that has followed him most of the past three months.

If the Braves were still in legitimate postseason contention, McCann might have found his way into the lineup, especially after Jones was deemed unavailable.  But the All-Star catcher has been fatigued by this mentally-trying season and definitely could benefit from the opportunity to have two days off before the Mets come to Atlanta on Tuesday to begin a three-game series. 

 

Heyward promoted to Gwinnett

When Jason Heyward arrived for his first Major League Spring Training in February, he said that his goal was to finish this season in the Majors.   Nearing the end of a stellar season, the recently-turned 20-year-old prospect now finds himself just one step away.  

While there’s a chance that Heyward’s ultimate goal will go unfulfilled this year, he’ll at least have the opportunity to attempt to help the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves win meaningful games over the next couple of days and weeks.

The Braves announced Saturday that Heyward had been promoted to the Gwinnett roster.    After being promoted to Double-A Mississippi in early July, the highly-touted prospect had hit .352 with seven homers, a .446 on-base percentage and a .611 slugging percentage.   

If injuries were to create a need for an outfielder in Atlanta, there’s a chance that Heyward could receive the call.   But for now, it appears that his targeted Major League debut will likely occur during the 2010 season.  

The Braves decision to promote Heyward was primarily based on their desire for him to help the Gwinnett club, which is one win away from clinching a spot in the International League playoffs.  

“Jason has played well at Double-A,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said.  “So he was the player the player development staff felt could help the Gwinnett club during the playoffs.”   

Heyward,  who combined to hit .322 with 17 homers and a .561 slugging percentage with Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach and Mississippi this year, batted third during his debut with Gwinnett on Saturday night.  

When the Braves took Heyward with the 14th overall selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, they knew they had something special.   But the young outfielder, who is scheduled to participate in the Arizona Fall League may have already exceeded early expectations.   

With their midseason evaluations this year,  Baseball America tabbed Heyward as the game’s top overall prospect.
   
One veteran scout said that Heyward’s talent, intellect and  poise make him the most impressive prospect he’s seen since Derek Jeter.   Another scout, who evaluated 24 clubs this season, said that Heyward was the only prospect that he provided with the highest grade possible.  

In other Gwinnett-related news, the Braves provided their bullpen some more depth by purchasing right-handed reliever Vladimir Nunez’s contract.  To make room for him on the 40-man roster, they promoted Jordan Schafer from Gwinnett and then placed him on the 60-day disabled list.    

Teams interested in Braves pitching surplus

The Rockies and D-backs both sent scouts to watch Tim Hudson make his return last night.  Like Hudson, these clubs are wondering whether the Braves will bring the veteran right-hander back to Atlanta next year.  

Even as recently as the All-Star break, it appeared the Braves weren’t going to be willing to bring both Hudson and Javier Vazquez back next year.  

But while there’s still a chance that one of them will be gone before the start of the 2010 season, there’s also a growing sense that  both could return to provide Atlanta with a rotation that would be deeper than any of the great ones it possessed during the 1990s.  

Hudson’s contract includes a $12 million club option and $1 million buyout for the 2010 season.  Vazquez’s cost of $11.5 million next year would be a definite bargain if he were capable of repeating the successful season he’s created this season.   

If the Braves were to enter the 2010 season in possession of each of their current six starters  –  Derek Lowe ($15 mil), Hudson ($12 mil), Vazquez ($11.5 mil), Kenshin Kawakami ($6.7 mil), Jair Jurrjens (approx. $500K) and Tommy Hanson (approx . $450K),  they would do so at a combined cost in the neighborhood of $46 million, which would eat up nearly half of their expected payroll.  

With Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano eligible for free agency, there’s a chance the Braves could choose not to bring either of these closers back and opt to have Peter Moylan fill that role at the approximated $1 million cost he may gain through his first arbitration-eligible season.

With Chipper Jones ($13 mil), Brian McCann ($5.5 mil), Nate McLouth ($4.5 mil), Matt Diaz (approx $2 mil),  David Ross ($1.6 mil), Omar Infante ($2.25 mil)  Yunel Escobar (approx. $500K), Martin Prado (approx $500 K), the Braves have approximately $30 million tied up in their position players and that’s without including the cost for a first baseman or outfielder.  

If you assume that the Braves bring Ryan Church back at around $3.5 million next year, then you could put their projected known costs at around $80 million.    

Then if Adam LaRoche was willing to stick in Atlanta for another year or two with an average annual salary of about  $6 million, the Braves would still be in position to account for non-arbitration guys (Kris Medlen, Eric O’Flaherty, etc.) and still satisfy their budget.

There’s no guarantee that the Braves will be willing to offer LaRoche this much during an offseason where a number of 1B/OF types will be available.   But I just wanted to throw that high-side figure out there to show that he could fit into a mix that would also include each of these starting pitchers.
 
While trying to show the Braves could have the financial means to keep each of these six starters,  I’ve included a lot of loose variables.

But at the end of the day, does it make sense to keep all of these arms?  Would it be more prudent to move Vazquez to gain prospects and have the opportunity to at least make a run at keeping either Gonzalez or Soriano, who will be Type A free agents?  

While there’s reason to wonder if Vazquez has found his comfort zone in Atlanta, history also shows that he’s had trouble putting together two consecutive strong seasons.  So should the Braves at least attempt to gain the solid return they could gain by dealing him?  

If the Braves simply chose to pay Hudson’s $1 million buyout, the only thing they’d be gaining is financial relief.  He currently doesn’t qualify as a Type B free agent.
 
Or maybe it makes sense to gain some financial relief by attempting to trade Kawakami, who wouldn’t provide the same kind of return as Vazquez.
 
The Braves may not have as many needs to fill as they did during last year’s offseason.  But as the D-backs and Rockies have proven, there are already a number of teams wanting to know how they’ll deal with their surplus of starters. 
 
Church returns, Chipper sits:    Ryan Church’s ability to return to Wednesday night’s lineup provided Chipper Jones to get a night off.  Jones’ back was a little sore on Tuesday night.  But he will likely return for Thursday night’s series finale.
 
Short bullpen:  Soriano threw 66 pitches while making appearances each of the past three days.  So the Braves will likely utilize  Gonzalez or Moylan as their closer tonight.   Gonzalez and Moylan have pitched both of the past two nights.
 
While Gonzalez threw 31 pitches through this span, Moylan totaled just 10.   

Barton clears waivers to make room for Hudson

Tim Hudson has been activated from the 60-day disabled list and the Braves made room for him on their 40-man roster by placing outfielder Brian Barton on waivers.  Barton cleared waivers on Monday and was outrighted to the Triple-A Gwinnett roster. 

Hudson’s start against the Marlins tonight will be his first Major League appearance since July 23, 2008.  The veteran right-hander is coming back from Tommy John elbow ligament transplant surgery.

Barton has hit .261 in 108 games for Gwinnett this season.  His three-hit performance against Durham on Monday night aided the club’s postseason push. 

Gwinnett is one game behind Durham in the International League’s South Division and they currently lead the Wild Card race with a 3 1/2-game advantage over Syracuse. 

Monday night’s victory was also aided by the five-hit performance provided by center fielder Gregor Blanco, who could possibly be added to the Atlanta roster later this month. 

But with the defensive range he’s displayed over the past couple of days, Omar Infante has provided the Braves more confidence in his ability to man the center field position until Ryan Church or Nate McLouth prove healthy enough to play on a consistent basis. 

As mentioned last night, infielder Brooks Conrad, right-handed pitcher Luis Valdez and catcher Clint Sammons have been promoted from Gwinnett and will join Atlanta’s expanded roster today. 

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