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.  

9 Comments

Mark, just don’t start slacking on your updates!

Thanks for keeping it going Mark. Too bad you can’t be covering the Bravos this October. Have fun and keep up the good work!
Bowman Bloggers:
Any power hitting right handed outfielders worth going after for 2010?

Go after Brandom Phillips to be our 2b. Keep Prato as super utilty for now and heir to 3b when Chipper is done. Big bat at 1st, Laroche or trade for Dunn. Sign Chef as temporary fill in until Heyward and/or Schafer are ready. Keep G Anderson and/or Chef to replace Norton off the beach and OF depth. Keep all our starters for depth. We fill all our needs and have a good blend of veteran and young players, and now we have the money to sign a top closer!

I think Carl Crawford would be the perfect solution to another solid outfielder / lead off hitter. The room we make by dumping one of our type A closers and one of our starters (Lowe, kawakami) etc… would allow us to afford CC.

Why not just get Dan Uggla from the Marlins? I’m not sure if he will be a FA or if we will have to acquire him via trade. But, the guy can hit 30+ homers a year. I can’t imagine Uggla having a huge contract since he hits for a mediocre average. You can move Prado to 1B for the time being. Chipper can stay at third. Once Freeman is ready in a couple of years, Prado can take over at 3B. If we wish to keep LaRoche, Prado can play in the OF/3B along with Diaz, McLouth, and possibly Heyward, Schafer, or Infante. I feel that the Braves will get a power bat, I just hope that the Braves do not depend on Peter Moylan to be the closer. I think he is a great bullpen arm, but he has not done a great job of closing in the past.

I don’t think there is a huge need at second base. Prado earned the every day role. If you read Mark’s articles, its obvious that the Braves front office will be looking to bolster the outfield… and rightfully so. Nothing is broke at second base, so why try to fix it? Obviously, McClouth is not a lead off hitter and the Braves need a lead off hitter that hits for average as well as steal bases. I believe Carl Crawford is the answer to all of those needs. I haven’t looked at his contract, but I know the rays are starving for pitching… CC gets my “it’s only October and I’m already thinking about the 2010″ hot stove suggestion.

I do not think that there is anything wrong with second base. However, the Braves need a power bat in the middle of the lineup, plain and simple. You can not insert a catcher who, although a great hitter, hits 20 HR or so a year (In fact, about most of the guys in our lineup are about 15-20 HR, and 60-80 RBI guys). We did not even have a guy near the 100 RBI club this season. Plus, McCann doesn’t even play every day. The Braves need a big bat far more than a leadoff hitter. If nothing else, a power guy will give whoever hits in front of him better pitches (i.e. Gary Sheffield a few years ago, ask Chipper how nice that was). The Braves need to be creative and insert a big bat into the middle of the lineup however they can determine would be best for the team. However, I hope the Braves do not go cheap on this investment and try another Raul Mondesi or Garrett Anderson project hoping that the guy will come around after a couple of off years. In fact I feel that the leadoff position is not even the second most important spot for the Braves to fill this offseason. The closer role will be much more important since its probably doubtful that Gonzalez or Soriano will return. That leaves the Braves with no one that has proven successful at the closer’s role.
As for the leadoff role, the days of Otis Nixon or Marquis Grissom are over in Braves land. Bobby rarely plays small ball other than bunting a guy over, so the prototypical leadoff guy is not a big concern. Diaz did a fine job at leadoff, although that was only for a few games. I still think that the Braves feel the sting of putting their faith in Francoeur to be the next big cleanup hitter for Atlanta. The Braves will probably solve the big bat problem this offseason, which will give them a very formidable team in the ’10 season. However, that great pitching staff will not do us a bunch of good if we cannot close out games. I can think of three save opportunites missed this season that really put us into a hole.

gee guys let go after arod why at it. crawford is untouchable uggla too. If we should go after someone it should be teahen from the royals and josh hamilton from the rangers.

I would like to see Wren grab Carlos Lee or Xavier Nady somehow. Both are solid, available hitters.
I think the Braves should be premptive with Chipper’s career coming to a close, and capitalize on Casey McGehee’s success this year by scooping up Mat Gamel. Gamel is on the block despite being a highly-touted prospect still developing, and the Brewers want pitching.

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