February 2010

Lowe named Opening Day starter

With a vote of confidence, Braves manager Bobby Cox has announced that Derek Lowe will be his Opening Day starter for the second straight season.

Lowe will take the mound when the Braves open the 2010 season against the Cubs on April 5 at Turner Field.   Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are slated to pitch the other two games against the Cubs that week and Tim Hudson is scheduled to make his season debut on April 9 in San Francisco. 

Lowe’s eight scoreless innings against the Phillies on Opening Day last year served as one of the highlights of a season that soured for him down the stretch.  But he was provided this honor once again from Cox, who views the veteran sinkerballer as a “big-game” pitcher.

As long as his shoulder cooperates, Jurrjens will start the April 7 game against the Cubs.  Hanson would start the series finale the next day.  This arrangement provides Hudson a chance to pitch with at least one extra day of rest before each of his first three starts in April.

Hudson made seven starts after returning from Tommy John surgery last year and all indications are that he is healthy.  But the club wants to take it easy on him early and possibly be in position to monitor the innings completed by Jurrjens and Hanson during the season’s second half.
 

“We’re trying to keep (Hudson) strong and ready for the stretch
run, so that we can run him out there as often as we can and give Hanson and
Jurrjens a chance to be the guys that get the extra days in the second half,” Cox said.

Lowe would likely return to the mound for the April10 game in San Francisco.  Kenshin Kawakami would make his regular season debut the following day during the series finale against the Giants.

LATE ADDITION: 

Grapefruit League rotation:

Tues @ Mets  –   Hanson

Wed vs. Mets  –  Hudson  (Moylan and O’Flaherty also scheduled to pitch)

Thurs. vs. Pirates –  Kawakami

Fri. vs. Nats  –  Lowe (Saito and Wagner also scheduled to pitch)

Sat. @Astros — Medlen

Jurrjens will begin throwing off the mound again on Monday and after at least three side sessions, he could slot into the spot currently filled by Medlen.  

Smoltz not interested in congressional seat

When I was informed last night that the Atlanta-Journal Constitution was reporting that the Republican Party might approach John Smoltz to run for a Congressional seat, I’ll have to admit that I was caught off guard. 

Based on a series of text messages, I received from Smoltz this morning it is safe to assume that he was just as surprised.

Smoltz chose to go on the record with a statement that simply read, “this is not in my plans.”

Based on what Smoltz revealed, it’s pretty safe to say that the Republicans had never informed him that they were thinking about asking him to run for the congressional seat that will be vacated this year when U.S. Rep. John Linder completes his 10th term.

When asked for his thoughts about Smoltz running for Congress, Chipper Jones said, “I, I, I don’t know how to answer that.” 
 

Odds and ends from a rainy Saturday

Rain prevented the Braves from doing the fielding and baserunning drills today.  But Mother Nature wasn’t able to prevent Jair Jurrjens from taking another step in the right direction with the 20-minute long toss session he completed in the soggy outfield grass. 

Jurrjens said he felt good after throwing from a distance of 120 feet, but more importantly he truly looked like he was comfortable with his throwing motion by the time this session was completed. 

After throwing for five or 10 minutes, Jurrjens walked back toward Braves catcher Brian McCann, who was located along the left field foul line.  While standing next to the team’s trainer Jeff Porter, Jurrjens stretched his arm and spun it around in a helicopter motion multiple times. 

When he resumed throwing a few minutes later, Jurrjens’ throwing motion was looser and he seemed to have a little more life on his throws. 

Dating back to Feb. 17, when he learned his right shoulder discomfort was a product of inflammation, Jurrjens has said he would have to do more stretching than usual to get his shoulder to cooperate. 

Now it appears Jurrjens will get his next test on Monday, when he will likely begin throwing on a downward plane again off the mound.  If all goes well, he will likely need to complete three or four side sessions before being cleared to make his first Grapefruit League start. 

This puts him on schedule to make this start during March’s second week and be in position complete at least one five-inning appearance before the regular season begins.

In other words, there’s still a good chance Jurrjens will take his first turn through the rotation during the regular season’s first week.  But for now, the Braves can only show patience as their prized 23-year-old hurler does everything he can to make sure the shoulder doesn’t prove to be a lingering problem throughout the season.

Quick hits:  Bobby Cox said that he’s currently leaning toward starting the year with Nate McLouth as his leadoff hitter.  This shouldn’t be too surprising.  Yunel Escobar seems to be only other legit option and he’s too valuable in a run-producing role.    

Tom Glavine is expected to arrive in camp around March 17 or 18.  When asked what Glavine would do, Cox said the 300-game winner would take in the Spring Training environment and spend some time helping with some of the young pitchers. 

“Tommy can do whatever he wants,” Cox said and I don’t think he was necessarily kidding.  Glavine will have the opportunity to see how Jason Heyward is progressing and take a look at some of the organization’s top Minor League pitchers. 

When the club’s top young pitchers are discussed, Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino, the prized return from the Yankees in the Javy Vazquez trade, immediately come to mind.  But Frank Wren provided the reminder that right-hander Randall Delgado should also be placed in this advanced category. 

Wren indicated that a couple of these top pitching prospects could begin the season with Class A Rome.  But he added that they all will likely spend some time together this year in Class A -Advanced Myrtle Beach’s rotation.

Cox said that he will announce the Grapefruit League rotation on Monday.  The team’s first game will be played on Tuesday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie.   

Heyward proving hazardous to health of vehicles

Jason Heyward will be the first to admit that it really doesn’t matter what he does at the plate while one of the Braves coaches are feeding him pitches. 

But my plan to avoid writing something about his batting practice exploits for a third consecutive day were erased when Bobby Cox informed us the club is actually thinking about instituting protective measures to guard against the fact that Heyward has spent this week attempting to do more damage to vehicles than a Toyota manufacturer. 

When architects constructed the Braves Spring Training complex (which officially became ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex on Thursday afternoon) they obviously didn’t account for this Heyward-like power that provides a daily threat to the cars of the team’s execs who park just beyond the right field wall.

But when he deposited a BP pitch into the sunroof of assistant general manager Bruce Manno’s car on Tuesday afternoon, Heyward produced expensive reminder that these cars aren’t safe when he’s standing in the left side of the batter’s box.

Damages to Manno’s team-issued car were set at $3400.

Truth be told, these cars were in dangerous position before Heyward arrived on the scene.  Kurt Kemp, the club’s director of player personnel, had two of his windshields broken last year and Heyward had nothing to do with that shattered glass. 

When Cox told us the club was thinking about putting some protective netting in front of the cars, it seemed like he was initially joking.  But he said he was serious and then jokingly said the club was going to start fining Heyward, whose left-handed swing has already produced a number of impressive BP blasts this week. 

“We should fine him,” Cox joked. “Make him hit the ball the other way.”

As some of you may already know, Heyward is more than capable of also showing his power to the opposite direction.   During an intra-squad game last year, he directed a Jair Jurrjens pitch off the scoreboard located in left-center field.

Cox on Chipper:  When Chipper Jones was struggling down the stretch last year, he mentioned that he would contemplate retiring if he endured another season as frustrating as 2009 proved to be. 

When asked about this by a reporter on Thursday, Cox quickly said he never gave much thought to the possibility that Jones would choose to walk away from the game before completing his  three-year contract extension that guarantees a $13 million salary each of the next three seasons.

“I never took it to heart at all,” Cox said. “He’ll play three more years and play good.”     

Schafer update:  Like Jurrjens is taking things slow with the hope that his sore shoulder will be strong enough for him to begin throwing off a mound again next week, Jordan Schafer understands there’s no reason for him to push too hard while dealing with a hand that is still dealing with effect that he was in a cast for 18 weeks last year. 

Schafer said that he plans to begin swinging a bat again on Friday.  He took the past two days off because his surgically-repaired left hand was “feeling weak”. 

“I’ve got to build all of those muscles back up,” Schafer said Thursday morning. “It feels a lot better today. I just want to get all of my strength back.  I’ve got six weeks to get ready for the season.  I’m not in any hurry.”

Rotation plans : Cox met with pitching coach Roger McDowell after Thursday’s workout to discuss the Grapefruit League rotation.  He will likely reveal the plans within the next two days.  
 

Injury updates on Schafer and Jurrjens

Jordan Schafer has been dealing with a sore left hand the past couple of days and may not be permitted to begin swinging for another day or two.  But manager Bobby Cox said this discomfort has nothing to do with the portion of the hand that was surgically-repaired in September. 

“It’s not a setback, (the hand) is just sore,” said Cox, who added that the club will take things slow with Schafer to increase the chances that he will be ready for the start the season. 

Cox has also said he takes the blame for not taking Schafer out of the lineup sooner last year.  The 23-year-old outfielder injured his hand during the season’s fourth game and was hitting .204 with 63 strikeouts (50 games) when his everyday duties ended with a demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on June 1. 

“I was kind of selfish because I left him in there because of his defense,” Cox said. “I thought we would hit enough to get by.”

Schafer served a 50-game suspension in 2008 and was limited to just 59 games (9 with Gwinnett) during last year’s injury-shortened season.  Having totaled just 499 at-bats the past two years combined, he will likely spend at least a few months with Gwinnett before getting another chance to prove himself in the Majors. 

Jurrjens update:  Jair Jurrjens said he felt even less discomfort while playing long toss today for the first time since undergoing his MRI exam last week.  The 23-year-old right-hander, who has been dealing with inflammation in his shoulder, remains hopeful that he’ll begin throwing off a mound again next week.

Youthful power:   After watching Jason Heyward dent a few vehicles with his batting practice display on Tuesday, Cox ventured back to the back fields today to see some of the other mortal prospects take their swings. 

Cox was impressed with what he saw from Freddie Freeman during the live batting practice session and then watched Cody Johnson unleash a few of his mighty swings when the coaches started throwing BP. 

“In BP, Cody will impress you as much as anybody,” Cox said of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound former first-round selection, who has hit 58 homers and registered  357 strikeouts in 912 at-bats during the past two seasons.

Even more impressive in batting practice than the 6-foot-5, 245 pound Heyward, who has hit 28 homers and registered 129 strikeouts during the past two seasons.

“I don’t know who is stronger to be honest with you,” Cox said. “We have to have two of the strongest kids in all of baseball.”

Odds and ends: As you have likely seen, former top prospect J.R. House signed a Minor League contract with the Braves and will likely spend most of his time at the corner positions with Gwinnett this year.  Given that he’s a former WVU football player, Gwinnett has already been declared the favorites in the International League…Here is a video clip of Edward Salcedo, the 18-year-old Dominican shortstop the Braves signed on Tuesday…Kenshin Kawakami and Takashi Saito completed their first live batting practice sessions on Wednesday.

 

Early look at position battles

It’s still far too early to make firm guesses about who might fill the final spots on this year’s roster.   But it’s already apparent that in comparison to recent years manager Bobby Cox has enhanced depth in the relief department and an increased number of versatile position players.

My early evaluation is that it’s currently much easier to project who will fill the final available spots in the bullpen.  With the projection that Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito, Peter Moylan, Eric O’Flaherty and Kris Medlen will fill five of the bullpen spots, it appears a group of relievers will be fighting for the final two spots.

ADDITION:  When I initially posted this, I should have mentioned that I’m assuming Scott Proctor won’t be ready for Opening Day.  He’s ahead of schedule.  But I think it’s safer to assume he won’t return until we’re at least a couple weeks into the season.

As he continues to impress Cox with his mix of above-average fastballs and changeups, Jesse Chavez could soon be considered a heavy favorite to claim one of the seven spots. .

With this in mind, the final spot could prove to be a battle between left-handers Mariano Gomez and Mike Dunn.  Although Dunn is the candidate who is currently on the 40-man roster, he will need to show better control than he produced last year, when he issued 46 walks and recorded 99 strikeouts in 73 1/3 Minor League innings.

Gomez posted a 1.99 ERA in 47 appearances with Triple-A Gwinnett last year.  But while registering 36 strikeouts and issuing 29 walks in 72 1/3 innings, he didn’t exactly display the “wow” factor that Dunn has the potential to produce with his power arm.

Of course if Jair Jurrjens’ shoulder proves to be a lingering problem, Medlen may begin the season as a starter and open a bullpen spot for somebody like Manny Acosta or Chris Resop. Whatever the case, I think you can expect Craig Kimbrel to at least begin the season at the Minor League level to refine his control.

With the assumption that Jason Heyward will begin the season in the Majors, it appears there might be just one available roster spot for position players.   The versatility of Melky Cabrera (can play all three OF positions) and Eric Hinske (can play both corner positions in the outfield and infield), it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what the Braves might need. 

Joe Thurston would provide further versatility with his ability to serve as both an infielder and outfielder.  But his offensive capabilities off the bench are seemingly trumped by what the likes of Mitch Jones (can play first base and corner OF positions) or infielder Brooks Conrad (limited defensive versatility) could provide.

Right now, it’s seems to early to guess which direction the Braves might go when deciding how to fill out their cast of position players.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they continue to look for an affordable player who has the capability to be the offensive bench threat that the Phillies possess with Greg Dobbs.

This is the kind of acquisition that could be made at the end of Spring Training or during the early weeks of the regular season after clubs have released veteran players who don’t fit on their 25-man rosters.    

  

Odds and ends from Day 4 at Braves camp

After Bobby Cox surprised his players by saying that he felt nervous while delivering this morning’s annual preseason speech, Jason Heyward lived up to expectations with an impressive power display during his first on-field batting practice session of the year. 

Well I guess you could argue that assistant general manager Bruce Manno wasn’t exactly expecting Heyward to drill his car with one of the many titantic shots that soared over the right field wall. 

But enough about what Heyward did against the batting practice pitches delivered by Terry Pendleton, who playfully threw behind the 20-year-old outfielder after nearly being hit with a liner that was torpedoed itself into the protective screen in front of the mound. 

The day’s most significant news centered around the signing of Edward Salcedo, the highly-regarded, 18-year-old Dominican shortstop.  At a cost of $1.6 million, the Braves believe that they secured one of the best available players in the international market. 

This deal was completed with a handshake last week.  But after the young shortstop’s agent then seemingly started soliciting other offers, Braves director of international scouting Johnny Almaraz went directly through Salcedo to get the deal completed. 

Some Braves talent evaluators have compared the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Salcedo to Hanley Ramirez. While it remains to be seen whether the kid can live up to this lofty comparison, there’s certainly reason to believe that he would have equated to a top 10 draft selection this year. 

Based on the way the Braves handled Yunel Escobar and many of their other young stars, I think it’s safe to assume that Salcedo will spend a majority of this season with Class A Rome.

Unless he utterly terrorizes the South Atlantic League, there’s little reason to believe that he would be rushed to Myrtle Beach this year.

Jurrjens update:  Jair Jurrjens played catch from a distance of 60 feet today and felt better than he did while completing this same exercise on Sunday.  If he feels good when he awakes on Wednesday, he’ll begin playing long toss and then possibly begin playing off the mound early next week. This still presents the possibility that he’d be ready for the start of the regular season. 

Jurrjens is feeling a slight pinch in the front of his shoulder when he releases the baseball.  But he has been encouraged that the discomfort level has steadily subsided over the last week. 

Lighter Prado: 
With assistance from the P90X nutrition plan, Martin Prado lost 14 pounds during the offseason and reported to camp noticeably leaner than he was last year.  This should certainly help increase his range at second base. 

Prado, who spent the offseason with his girlfriend here in the Orlando area, is happy to currently have his mother in the United States.  She will have to return to Venezuela next month, but will be permitted to return in June for an additional five months. 

This is obviously encouraging news for Prado, who began experiencing exertional headaches in August, while dealing with the stress he felt when his mother had to return to Venezuela.

Diory injured:
If you hadn’t already, you can erase Diory Hernandez from the list of candidates to fill one of the final roster spots.   The infielder injured his left shoulder while sliding into a base while playing in the Dominican Winter League.

Hernandez said he will begin hitting off a tee again in about a month.  But the club doesn’t believe he’ll be ready to resume playing for at least another 3-4 months. 

Murph’s neighbor:
When you look at the power numbers that Mitch Jones produced during his Minor League career, there’s reason to believe he would be physically imposing.  But the 32-year-old outfielder is just your run-of-the-mill 6-foot, 215 pound player, who obviously finds a way to generate power with his swing. 

Jones, who led the Minors with 35 homers last year, said that he has theorized his power is a product of the many hours he spent helping his dad screen print t-shirts in the family-owned screen printing shop. 

“I grew up a long time in a screen printing shop, screen printing shirts,” Jones said. “So I don’t know, maybe my hands got stronger.”

Jones’ Orem, Utah home is located just a few blocks away from Dale Murphy’s residence.  He said that he often runs into Murph at the local high school or Home Depot. 

Murphy is expected to be in camp within the next couple of weeks.  This year’s other special spring instructors will include Phil Niekro, Gene Garber and the always-popular Javy Lopez.     

Wrapping up a busy day from Disney

Today was further proof that things can get a little busy when Hank Aaron arrives in camp. The Hammer expressed his appreciation for Bobby Cox, threw some love in the direction of Tommy Hanson and said that he’s reserving judgment on Jason Heyward until he sees how the 20-year-old outfielder performs at the Major League level. 

Oh yeah, he also said that he was happy with Mark McGwire’s steroid confession, but wished the admission had been made sooner. 

Before going over some of the highlights of Hank’s address, I’ll let you know that the Braves still haven’t provided confirmation that they have signed highly-regarded Dominican shortstop Edward Salcedo.

But it still appears that this deal could be confirmed in the very near future with the completion of a physical. 
 
Braves international director of scouting Johnny Almarez was in camp today and there is reason to believe that his arrival had something to do with Salcedo, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound shortstop who is regarded among the best international prospects. 

Early indications are that the Braves will be providing Salcedo with a signing bonus that is worth slightly north of $1.5 million, but less than $2 million. 

OK now to recap some of the things Aaron had to say about the Braves:

(Thoughts about Cox’s retirement at the end of this season)

“It’s going to be sad when he leaves. He’s not only been great for Atlanta, but also the game of baseball.  The game of baseball is going to miss him.”

(Thoughts about Tommy Hanson)

“This kid has the world in front of him, really. If everything stays on par and he pitches the way I think he can pitch, I think the Braves have a superstar.”

(on Heyward, who he will see for the first time during Tuesday’s first full-squad workout)

“I think he’s going to do well, but I don’t get excited until after I see them perform in the Major Leagues. Then I will try to put an opinion on what I think they can do.” 

(when asked if he could take Billy Wagner deep)

“I think my deep days are over with.   The only thing I can hit is a golf ball –  all over the place.”

Tuesday’s workout: Balls will be flying tomorrow when the position players start taking their first rounds of batting practice on the field. It will be nice to see the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward take his swings. 

But if you’re looking for raw power and you’re coming to camp tomorrow make sure you watch Cody Johnson take his BP cuts. 

It’s too early to determine whether Johnson’s mighty swing will ever provide the consistency needed to make it to the Majors.  But based on what I saw during Brian McCann’s charity softball tournament in November, it’s fun to watch the powerful kid launch balls into orbit.

Also check back in tomorrow morning to get an update on Jair Jurrjens, who is planning to begin his throwing program at some point this week. 

Heyward and Hank Aaron make their arrivals

Jason Heyward has arrived at Spring Training to enhance the growing legend that has built during his Minor League career.  But with the presence of Hank Aaron, there truly was a legend present in Braves camp this morning.  

While Aaron has flown to Florida with other Braves execs to just spend a couple days around camp, Heyward will be spending the next six weeks attempting to prove he’s ready to begin the season as Atlanta’s starting right fielder.  

After making his arrival to Braves camp on Monday morning, Chipper Jones once again expressed that he is confident that the 20-year-old Heyward will be quickly transitioning himself from being one of those invitees with a high jersey numbers to being a big leaguer on Opening Day.  

“I’m going to say he’s not (wearing) No. 71 at the end (of Spring Training),” Jones said in reference to Heyward’s current jersey number.  “Just a hunch.”  

Heyward, who is widely considered the game’s top prospect, has grown to be even more physically imposing than he was last year, when he experienced his first big league camp.  Conditioning and maturity have allowed him to blossom into a 6-foot-5, 245 pound muscular figure.  

After Derek Lowe said Heyward “looks like an outside linebacker”, Jones said, “He’s Jevon Kearse.”

Whatever the case, Heyward’s success over the next couple of weeks will play a big role on how the Braves look during the early weeks and months of the season.   Despite the fact that he has compiled fewer than 200 at-bats above the Class A level, he is viewed as potential difference maker in this lineup.

When the Braves made their half-hearted attempt to pursue Johnny Damon, they recognized he might be able to improve their lineup as a leadoff hitter.  But if Heyward proves he’s ready for the Majors, they knew that they probably could utilize the dollars that were earmarked for Damon in a more efficient manner.  

If Heyward struggles during the early weeks of camp, the Braves may evaluate possibilities to grab a low-cost outfielder, who could help Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera in the corner outfield spots.  But for now, they are hoping their 20-year-old phenom is with them when the Cubs visit Turner Field for the April 5 Opening Day matinee.  

“He’s going to be fine,” Jones said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders.  He knows how to handle it.  I doubt that any of us are going to have to say a word.  We’re just going to sit back and watch.   The kid has a good head on his shoulders.   He knows what he has to do.  He was here last year and he knew last year that he was going to be in this situation this year.  He’s been preparing all year for this moment.”

Troy Glaus also arrived in camp today.  There haven’t been any sightings of Yunel Escobar or Martin Prado.  

Odds and ends from Day 2 in Braves camp

Before the Braves begin their workouts on this sunny Sunday morning in ESPN land, I figured I’d provide you a couple of light-hearted notes that have been gathered during the early days of this camp that is still awaiting the arrivals of Chipper Jones, Troy Glaus, Jason Heyward and a handful of other position players, who aren’t required to report until Monday.

When Derek Lowe called the Braves this winter to express interest in changing his number to 24, he was told the number had already been claimed by Nate McLouth, who was forced to change his to appease Billy Wagner’s request to wear number 13. 

“The only reason that I took 24 is because it’s my favorite TV show and Lost isn’t a number,” said McLouth, who wasn’t willing to divulge what kind of compensation was provided by Wagner.

Lowe said he last wore 24 in high school and has since been unable to claim it in the Majors. When he played for the Mariners, some guy named Ken Griffey Jr. was wearing it and he’s unsure of why it was unavailable during his days in Boston.  Then when he signed with the Dodgers, he learned the number had been retired for Walter Alston.

Wagner’s redneck football:  Wagner is big believer in the benefits a pitcher can gain by throwing a football and he’s spent some time the past couple of days gripping the pigskin while sitting at his locker. 

“It strengthens the arm, but also helps your grip,” Wagner said.  “You’ve got to have strong fingers to throw a football correctly.” 

While sitting at his locker this morning, Wagner tossed the football across the room to Takashi Saito and quickly learned that the Japanese hurler certainly hasn’t had much previous experience throwing one. 

After Saito’s ugly unorthodox throwing motion produced a few wobblers acrosss the room, Wagner said, “He’s going to teach me Japanese and I’m going to teach him redneck football.”

Bye-bye Yankees paraphernalia: When hard-throwing left-handed reliever Mike Dunn learned that he had been traded to the Braves that sent Javier Vazquez to the Yankees, he gained the sense that he’d been provided a better opportunity to reach the Majors.

“I’m excited to come here and play,” Dunn said. “It’s a good chance for me.  I’m not saying anything bad about the Yankees. They took care of me and I love them, but I think I have a better opportunity outside of the Yankees organization.”

As for Dunn’s family members, who pull for a range of teams located in the western portion of the country, they welcomed the opportunity to end their days of pulling for the Yankees. 

“I tell you the family was pretty happy to get rid of the Yankees stuff,” Dunn said. “No matter what team I’m on, they’re going to cheer for them and that’s going to be their new team.   But they were pretty happy to get rid of their Yankees stuff and drop the YES Network immediately.”

Wagner, who grew up within a family and rural Virginia community that includes plenty of Braves fans, also seemed to draw a positive reaction from friends and family members when he opted to sign with Atlanta in December.

“It’s funny because now everybody back home says, ‘now I can truly root for you,’”  Wagner said.

  

 

       

    

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