Let the Hot Stove season begin
When I arrive at Citizens Bank Park for this afternoon’s Division Series workout, I’m going to present Ryan Howard with the First Annual White Flag — an award that will be presented to the player that proves to be the most destructive to the Braves over the course of the regular season.
Howard won this year’s award in a close battle against Dan Uggla and Jeff Bennett, who will receive an autographed picture of Kevin Brown to recognize that he was unanimously chosen as the Braves player who was most destructive against clubhouse property this year.
When the Braves won seven of the first nine games they played against the Phillies this year, Howard hit .250 with two RBIs, seven strikeouts and a .659 OPS. The powerful first baseman didn’t homer or walk during this span
While dropping six of the final nine games played against the defending world champs, the Braves saw Howard hit .438 with eight homers, 14 RBIs, eight strikeouts, two walks (one intentional) and a 1.776 OPS.
Despite his early struggles, Howard still hit more homers (8) and collected more RBIs (16) than any other player against the Braves this year. Among those who registered at least 20 plate appearances, his .794 slugging percentage ranked fourth behind Jay Bruce (1.000), Ryan Braun (.833) and Andre Ethier (.800).
During their final six wins against the Braves this year, the Phillies totaled 27 runs. Howard drove in 11 of those runs and each of these RBIs came courtesy of the longball.
When Tommy Hanson took the mound during home games this year, he was serenaded by Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy.”
My suggestion would be for the Braves to provide a friendly reminder to their pitchers by playing this song whenever Howard strolls to the plate at Turner Field in the future. Or maybe they should just cut to the chase and play Aerosmith/Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”.
Before flying to Philadelphia last night, I went to Turner Field to talk to Bobby Cox and Frank Wren. Here are some of their interesting thoughts that weren’t included in the story I wrote for MLB.com and braves.com.
At the All-Star break, I chose Yunel Escobar as the team’s first-half MVP and I think I’d have to say he deserves he still deserves this distinction when evaluating the entire season. (We’ll debate that in a blog I’ll post later this week).
Anyhow, those mental mistakes that tarnished Escobar’s tremendous talents during the first half were basically non-existent during the second half. He committed just two errors in his last 75 games and continued to take advantage of a healthy percentage of the opportunities he was provided to drive in runs.
When I asked Cox if Escobar made some impressive strides this year, he chose not to address the improvement element. But he does now share the opinion that Chipper Jones expressed last year, when Escobar’s name was being included in the Jake Peavy trade talks.
“He’s the best shortstop in baseball right now,” Cox said. “I can’t think of anybody better honestly.”
Another guy who would draw consideration as the club’s MVP this year is Martin Prado, whose value extended far beyond his .307 batting average. He’s not a Gold-Glove infielder, but he certainly enhanced the club’s defense after he was provided a chance to play second base on a regular basis.
When asked about Prado, Cox talked about what he’s heard about the defensive skills Prado has shown while playing the outfield in Venezuela.
“They say he’s a real good outfielder ,” Cox said. “That’s why we weren’t hesitant to put him out there (on Sunday)) when we had to pinch-hit (Brooks) Conrad to try to win the game. He plays right field on a regular basis in Venezuela. He has for the past couple of years. So he’s a possible candidate.”
Yes the Braves will be looking for a power-hitting, right-handed outfielder. But I wouldn’t expect Prado to ultimately fill this need.
Cox’s comment likely had something to do with the fact that the Braves don’t know what they’ll do with Kelly Johnson. Despite his struggles this year, Johnson is still drawing attention from a number of clubs, who recognize his talents and believe he can still experience some of the success that has been on display in the past.
So I would think they’ll be able to trade him before reaching a point where they may have to debate whether to tender him a contract.
“We just can’t give up on Kelly,” Cox said. “He had too solid of a season last year. I think if he’d have gotten the at-bats, he’d have been close with all of those numbers (from 2008), except for the batting average maybe. But the homers, doubles and triples, if you add another 250 at-bats would have probably been the same.
“I feel bad about Kelly Johnson, not being able to get him in there at all. After Prado got in there, you couldn’t take him out. He was the hottest hitter we had.”
Next week, Jason Heyward will begin competing in the Arizona Fall League. At the same time while the Braves are holding their planning meetings in Orlando, the 20-year old top prospect’s name will be a hot topic of discussion. Or that’s at least Cox’s expectation.
Heyward has just 173 at-bats above the Class A level. This was Wren’s response when he was asked if the club could go into Spring Training with an open mind about the possibility of the young phenom starting the 2010 season in the Majors:
“I think it’s premature to have any mindset about Jason,” Wren said. “We know that he’s an outstanding young talent. We just want him to go play in Arizona and get as much experience as possible. We’ll see where that takes him.”
I’ll be covering the Phillies-Rockies Division Series and the NLCS. But obviously I’ll be keeping up with the Braves-related news and updating this blog frequently. The Hot Stove season will allow us to keep this forum just as lively as it was during Spring Training and the regular season.