February 2010

Chavez impresses and Proctor appears to be ahead of schedule

The Braves enhanced the depth of their bullpen this past offseason and while watching his pitchers throw during their first official workout of the season, Braves manager Bobby Cox came away impressed by a number of the new acquisitions.
 
After Saturday’s workout concluded, Cox said he was impressed with what he saw from his closer Billy Wagner and his primary setup man Takashi Saito.  But he also had high praise for Jesse Chavez, the right-handed reliever who was acquired in exchange for Rafael Soriano in December.  

“I remember how hard he threw, but I didn’t know he had that changeup,” Cox said of Chavez. “The way he threw it today, it looked like he’d been throwing it forever, with the location and the break.”  

Chavez made an impression on Brian McCann, who labeled the reliever one of the toughest guys he faced last year.  Now he’ll be spending the next couple of weeks attempting to win one of the final available spots in the bullpen.  

Wagner, Saito, Peter Moylan, Eric O’Flaherty and Kris Medlen are in position to account for five of the seven available bullpen spots.  Chavez, Craig Kimbrel, Luis Valdez and surprisingly Scott Proctor  appear to be in position to battle for the final two spots.  

While Valdez wasn’t present on Saturday because of visa problems that are preventing him from getting to the United States, Proctor impressed Cox with a 50-pitch bullpen session that served as part of the rehab process that has followed the Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgical process he underwent in May.  

Originally, the Braves didn’t think Proctor would be available during the first month of the upcoming season.  But Cox said the veteran right-handed reliever might be ready to be part of the Opening Day roster.  

“He’s going to have plenty of time,” Cox said. “We’re going to get him out there as much as we can.   I think he will be ready out of camp.   If he’s not, he’ll be real close.”  

Cox said based on his velocity, Proctor seems to be ahead of where Peter Moylan was during the first week of camp last year.  As you likely remember, Moylan returned from this same surgical process in time to be part of the Opening Day roster.  

Saito and Kawakami chose not to throw live batting practice during the first day of workouts.  Instead both Japanese pitchers opted to get all their work in during 10-minute bullpen sessions.

Will Damon fall to the Braves?

Those of you who have been lobbying for the Braves to sign Johnny Damon certainly realize that this isn’t forum for you to receive any encouragement that the club might do so. 

But as time passes and clubs prepare to stage their first full-squad workouts early next week, there’s at least reason to wonder if the Braves are going to eventually learn that Damon is willing to accept the bargain-basement offer that they made more than 10 days ago. 

Having determined that Damon wouldn’t be willing to negotiate in the range of the one year offer — worth as much as $6 million according to the Chicago Sun-Times   — they made last week, the White Sox opted to pull this offer on Friday. 

When asked how this affects his club, Braves GM Frank Wren said, “Nothing has changed on our end.”

While the White Sox remain open to opening talks again before Sunday, it appears the Tigers are once again the clear-cut favorites in this bidding.  But earlier reports that they made a two-year, $14 million offer are now being disputed. 

Still it’s believed the Tigers have offered a one-year deal worth $7 million.  This is an offer that would still easily trump the one the Braves made. 

The Braves offered Damon a one-year contract that included deferred funds.  While the present day value of the offer has never been specified, a Major League source said last week that he believed the offer was for less than $4 million.

This offer was made because Damon expressed a genuine desire to play in Atlanta and because the Braves recognize that the veteran outfielder could possibly benefit them in some ways —  namely serving as a leadoff hitter. 

But if Damon opts to sign elsewhere, the Braves remain confident in Nate McLouth’s abilities to serve in the leadoff role.  McLouth’s inconsistencies at the plate last year seemed to be a product of vision problems that have since been fixed with contact lenses. 

In addition, with the ability to spend the offseason resting the left hamstring that plagued him last year, McLouth has the chance to be the efficient base stealer that he was in 2008, when he was successful with 23 of his 26 stolen base attempts. 

The Braves also remain confident that Jason Heyward will exit camp as their starting right fielder.  As for their left field mix, they believe that Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera will be able to form a successful platoon. 

Still, there remains a chance that the Braves may end up surprised that Damon eventually determines that he’s willing to accept their offer. 

In some ways, it’s as if the Braves have made an early offer during a silent auction and now find themselves possibly in position to win with a figure that they understandably assumed would be trumped.

Of course if they were to emerge the winners in this bidding, they would first have to evaluate the affect it would make on their current outfield plans to truly determine the real cost.     

.  

Odds and ends as Braves pitchers and catchers report

Had Nate McLouth known how miserable his beloved Michigan Wolverines
were going to make him feel, he might have chosen to wait until the end
of the football season before correcting his vision with contact lenses.

But
now that he’s had about four months to get used to his contacts,
McLouth has arrived in Braves camp happy about the fact that he’s going
to be able to see better than he did towards the end of the 2009
season, when he started having trouble with his vision, particularly
during night games.   

“During the day, it was OK,” McLouth
said.  “But at night, when there’s  a lot of lights, things kind of
blurred together.  Now with the contacts, it has been great.” 

As
Braves pitchers and catchers reported to camp on Friday morning,
McLouth and Matt Diaz highlighted the group of position players who had
reported to camp early. 

Japanese hurlers Kenshin Kawakami and
Takashi Saito arrived at the newly named ESPN Wide World of Sports
comlex early Friday morning and immediately exchanged pleasantries with
the likes of Tim Hudson and Peter Moylan, a pair of fun-loving hurlers
who know how to create some laughs around the clubhouse. 

Early
indications are that they’ll be having some fun with their new closer
Billy Wagner, who came to camp this morning wearing a flannel shirt,
jeans, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.

Craig Kimbrel, the
hard-throwingreliever who has been called the right-handed Billy
Wagner, shied away from his first opportunity to meet the veteran
closer. He’ll likely have the same kind of timid reaction when he first
sees Chipper Jones, whose number he wore while growing up as a third
baseman in Alabama.  

“Right now I’m just trying to get past
seeing guys that I’ve watched when I was younger,” Kimbrel said.  “I’m
trying not to let that get to me.  I’m trying to focus on getting the
job done and remembering that it’s just a game.”

While Kimbrel
adjusts to this new Major League lifestyle, Wagner has already taken
advantage of the opportunity to get used to his new catcher Brian
McCann. 

After they completed a short throwing session
together, Wagner took McCann to the plate and started talking to him
about how he likes to throw to certain hitters, based on where they are
standing in the batter’s box. 

The always-jovial Wagner also
took time to provide some laughs when talking to reporters.  When asked
if he bought into thoughts of doing whatever it took to make sure Bobby
Cox’s final season is a special one, the veteran reliever provided the
reminder that he’s the one who has never had the opportunity to play in
the Fall Classic.

“Heck I haven’t been to the World Series
ever,” Wagner said with his southern drawl. “How about going out there
and putting out a little effort for me.  (Peter Moylan) can go out
there and go like an inning and two-thirds and give me a
third-of-an-inning save every once in a while.   I mean Chipper and all
these guys, Bobby, they’ve gone to the World Series a couple of times. 
I’ve never been.  How about one for Wags?” 

Wagner, who
remains confident that his arm is strong, is looking forward to the
opportunity to spend some more time with Saito, who was with him in
Boston’s bullpen for the final weeks of the 2009 season. 

When
asked how they had developed such a bond, Wagner once again stirred
some laughs while pointing out that Saito had a firm grasp of the
English language. 

“He speaks English,” Wagner said.  “Like I
told him, it’s like everybody else. When you’ve got a second language,
you only can’t speak English when you’ve had a tough game…It’s
something where sometimes wish I had a second language.”     

Another
former Red Sox pitcher, Derek Lowe chose not to come to the stadium on
Friday. But pitchers and catchers were only required to report at some
point during the day that they have arrived. 

The Braves expect Lowe in camp on Saturday, when pitchers and catchers stage their first workout. 

Check
MLB.com and braves.com later today for stories that include more
information about Wagner, McLouth and some of the other figures who
have reported to camp.

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman 

Pitchers and catchers arriving to camp

Welcome back to newly renamed  ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex, where if you aren’t seeing ESPN’s logo, then you aren’t looking.  

Braves pitchers and catchers are reporting on this overcast morning and they will hold their first official workout on Saturday morning.  But there are already a number of position players here in camp. 

Just after 8 a.m. ET,  Brian McCann, Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer, Dave Ross, Clint Sammons and Matt Diaz made their way to the batting cages beyond the left-center field wall.

Those of you who read that graph before saw that I had included Chipper Jones.  But I’ve since learned that he and Clint Sammons have a similar looking strut from about 300-feet away.   Chipper hasn’t arrived in camp yet.  

Check in throughout the day for updates. 

Jurrjens relieved after receiving MRI results

Count Jair Jurrjens among the many members of the Braves family who gained a sense of relief on Wednesday morning, when MRI results showed that he isn’t dealing with any structural damage in his right shoulder. 

After Jurrjens felt some discomfort while throwing at the club’s Spring Training complex last week, he was sent to Atlanta to undergo an MRI exam on Tuesday.   The 24-year-old Braves right-hander was told that exam showed he is simply dealing with inflammation and tightness in his shoulder.  

Jurrjens said that the Braves doctors didn’t give him a specific
timetable about when he could start pitching again.  But he’s under the
impression that he could begin a throwing program within the next few
days and still be in line to be ready to make his first
scheduled regular season start.

“It’s a big relief,” Jurrjens said.  “I wasn’t worried.  But any time they start talking about having to have an MRI, it’s not something you want to hear.”  <p>

No reason to panic about Jurrjens yet

While we wait to learn Jair Jurrjens’ MRI results, it’s still too early for Braves fans to panic. But it’s quite obviously not a news angle the Braves wanted surrounding them as their players start filtering into their Spring Training camp.

As much as the Braves might want to hope that Jurrjens is simply dealing with normal soreness, there’s little normal about the fact that his right shoulder discomfort has proven significant enough for him to fly back to Atlanta to see the team’s doctors.  

Jurrjens is tough, but he’s also smart. Given that it is still just Feb. 16, maybe it does make the most sense for him to take whatever precautions to attempt to prevent this shoulder discomfort from lingering throughout the season. 

Seeing how you are now saying, “I told you the Braves never should have traded Vazquez”, I’ll remind you that Javier Vazquez was sent back to Atlanta to be evaluated when he felt some discomfort during his final start before the All-Star break. 

These kinds of things happen to pitchers.  You just have to hope that when they do occur, you don’t find yourself worrying about the arm of young pitcher as talented as Jurrjens.

While the best-case scenario would be for doctors to give him a clean bill of health and allow him to resume all throwing activities immediately, you have to think that the best thing Jurrjens will learn is that he just needs to rest his arm for a few weeks. 

This obviously would put him behind schedule and in position to miss the beginning of the regular season.  Unfortunately for the Braves, this year’s schedule forces them to utilize each member of their five-man rotation before the first weekend is complete. 

As you might remember, last year’s schedule was aligned in a way that would have provided Tom Glavine just two starts in April, with the first coming on April 20.

If Jurrjens is forced to miss more an extended amount of time, there’s no doubt that it would be a big blow to the club’s chances of sending Bobby Cox out as a winner.  But as long as Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe pitch live up to the expectations set by their successful pasts, this Atlanta rotation would still be strong enough to help the team become a postseason contender. 

It seems like Cox is really looking forward to seeing Kris Medlen in the bullpen this year.  But the 24-year-old right-hander, who recorded 72 strikeouts and issued 30 walks in 67 2/3 innings last year, would likely start the season in the rotation if Jurrjens is unable to do so. 

Another name you’ll hear often over the next couple of weeks is Jose Ortegano, who Eddie Perez has labeled the best pitcher he’s seen in the Venezuelan Winter League the past two years.  Ortegano caught upper management’s attention last year when he went 5-2 with a 2.83 ERA in eight starts for Double-A Mississippi.

The 22-year-old Ortegano and Mike Minor, the club’s top selection in last year’s Draft, seemingly need to gain some more seasoning in the Minors.  But either of them could find their way into the rotation at some point this season.

Within the next couple days, there might no longer be a need to speculate about who could fill Jurrjens’ spot in the rotation. 

But for now, the Braves are going to deal with the fact that regardless of the MRI results, they will be spending the early days of camp with a lot of attention placed in the direction of Jurrjens’ shoulder.
  

Glavine ready to take next step with the Braves

Tom Glavine is ready to officially put an end to his playing career and enter his next venture with the Braves. 

The Braves have announced Glavine has accepted their invitation to serve as a special assistant to team president John Schuerholz. 

When he meets with media members this afternoon at Turner Field, Glavine is expected to confirm he has no plans to attempt to pitch again. His 305 victories stand as the fourth-most ever registered by a left-handed pitcher in Major League history.

Glavine will assist Schuerholz with a variety of projects on both the baseball and business ends.  In addition, the 300-game winner will also have a presence with the club in both the television and radio broadcast booths.

Most of Glavine’s broadcast responsibilities will be with the club’s new radio partner 680 The Fan. But he will also do television work during some games broadcast on FOX Sports South.  

Glavine, who made his Major League debut with the Braves in 1987 and notched 244 of his victories with Atlanta, is expected to spend some time with the club during Spring Training. .  

Source says Braves made offer to Damon

As Spring Training nears, there’s more reason to wonder if Johnny Damon will eventually accept what the Braves are willing to offer.  But for now, insiders still feel like the veteran outfielder will end up signing elsewhere.

Early this afternoon a Major League source confirmed the Braves have made a one-year offer to Damon. 

UPDATED:  Financial terms still haven’t been learned.  But a Major League League source said that even with the deferred fund accounted for, the offer was for less than $4 million.

This is the primary reason the Tigers or late entry into the Damon sweepstakes still appear to be more likely suitors for the 36-year-old outfielder.

Chipper Jones didn’t confirm whether the club has asked him to serve in the recruiting role that he often takes when in pursuit of a top-flight free agent.  But he said that he could see the benefit of bringing the veteran outfielder to Atlanta to serve as a legit leadoff hitter.

“I think he’d be a good addition,” Chipper Jones said.  “He’s a guy with experience and he provides us depth at the outfield position.” 

The addition of Damon could facilitate a trade or minimize the impact that Jason Heyward could have during this upcoming season.But for now, it doesn’t appear the Braves are making a serious push for Damon.  

Braves still not actively pursuing Damon

Well it looks like National Signing Day will conclude without Johnny Damon knowing where he’s going to be playing this year.  But it still certainly appears that Atlanta isn’t in his immediate future. 

Instead of taking the negligent route of saying there is absolutely no way the Braves eventually sign Damon, I will acknowledge that this landscape could be quickly altered if one of Atlanta’s outfielders were to suffer an injury during the early days or weeks of camp.

Or maybe there will come a time when Damon would be willing to accept the $1-2 million the Braves might be willing to offer. But this seems doubtful given the likelihood that the Blue Jays or Tigers would seemingly be willing to provide something greater.

After a brief exchange with a team source again this morning, it was evident that the Braves still aren’t actively pursuing Damon. 

Placed in the same situation two years ago, when the 36-year-old Damon still had the youthful legs that provided him great range in center and the ability to sweep bags with regularity, the Braves might have shown some interest. 

Of course the price tag wouldn’t have been the same either. 

At the end of the day, the only reason the Braves would have interest in Damon is to allow him to serve as the leadoff hitter that they lack.  But while hitting .284 with a .349 on-base percentage and .446 slugging percentage on the road last year, did he really provide the confidence that he will be productive in this role. 

Another alarming stat comes from the fact that he attempted to steal just 12 bases last year. Over the course of the previous three seasons, he had averaged 34 attempts.  Was this a sign of age or just a product of the fact that he had been dropped down one spot, out of the leadoff role in a Yankees lineup that had plenty of middle-of-the-lineup power? 

While hitting in the leadoff spot last year, Nate McLouth hit .260 with a .354 OBP and .426 SLG.  In his 82 plate appearances as hit team’s first batter, McLouth hit .173 with a .244 OBP and .320 SLG.  In 183 PAs leading off an inning, he hit .204/.273/.365.  

These numbers don’t provide reason to believe McLouth is capable of serving as a consistently reliable table setter.  But the gritty outfielder serves as the club’s best source of speed.  Without the hamstring problems he battled during the final two months of the season, he would have likely swiped more than 25 bags. 

Because of his speed, it makes sense to keep McLouth in the leadoff spot.  Likewise, because of his ability to hit in clutch situations, it makes sense to continue providing Yunel Escobar an opportunity to hit in the fifth or sixth spots of the order.

But I think you can also argue that it makes the most sense to put Escobar in the leadoff role. Remember this argument proved futile over the course of the past two years, when Kelly Johnson’s name was being placed in the leadoff role. 

In 75 career starts as a leadoff hitter, Escobar has batted .309 with a .371 OBP and .428 SLG.  In the 75 PAs he’s totaled as his club’s first batter of the game, these stats are .411/.427/ .616.   In 360 PAs leading off an inning, these numbers are .312/.364/.423. 

Given that Escobar has hit .337 in his career with runners in scoring position, it would be tough to put him in a spot where he’d often come to the plate with the bases empty.  But at the same time, he provides reason to wonder if he would be the club’s best catalyst at the top of the lineup.

My Projected Lineup w/ Escobar in the leadoff spot:

Escobar
McLouth
Chipper
Glaus
McCann
Prado
Diaz/Cabrera 
Heyward

Separated at birth?
  A few years ago, I asked Frank Wren if anybody had ever told him he looked and sounded like ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.   At that time, he told me they both sent their kids to suburban Atlanta’s Landmark Christian Academy.

Wren.jpg 

Since then, I’ve seen fewer physical resemblences.  But when I awoke this morning with the television on, I could have sworn I heard Frank talking to me about something that Peyton Manning or Drew Brees was going to do this weekend. 

chris Mortensen.jpg

Listen to Mort as this week progresses and tell me if I need to get my ears checked.  Here’s a clip of  Frank’s voice.

 

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