Jason Heyward has returned to the Braves lineup for this afternoon’s game against the Astros. OK, now that I’ve informed you that the phenom’s shin splints are no longer keeping him sidelined, is there really anything else below this that will prove to be any more interesting?
Well, I guess you might want to know that Chipper Jones was scratched from today’s lineup with because of an ingrown nail on his left big toe. Or maybe, you’d like to know that Kenshin Kawakami’s blister on his right index finger won’t prevent him from making his final preseason tuneup during a Minor League game that will be held here at Disney on Sunday.
“No problem,” Kawakami said without needing the assistance of his Japanese interpreter.
Likewise, Jones said that his ingrown toenail wouldn’t be a problem if this was the regular season. The veteran third baseman has batted .343 in the 35 at-bats he’s compiled during this exhibition season and like everybody else, I think he’s ready to take this show north.
This morning, I had two players and one coach approach me and say something like, “are you guys getting as sick of this Spring Training stuff as us?” While it’s always nice to come down here to Florida, I think it’s safe to say all of are looking forward to packing our bags tonight and heading back to Atlanta this weekend.
Speaking of this weekend, it will be interesting to see the slimmed down-version of Andruw Jones, who will be coming to town with the White Sox for a two-game series. Entering today, Jones was hitting .326 (15-for-46) with two homers.
Mark Kotsay, who assumed Jones’ role as the Braves center fielder during the 2008 season, has hit .426 in the 47 at-bats he has compiled with the White Sox this year. While Kotsay was in Atlanta for just about five months, I’d still have to say that he ranks as one of the best human beings that I have encountered in this business.
Speaking of good guys, I had conversations this morning with Tim Hudson and Billy Wagner about the value of having the kind of cohesive clubhouse that the Braves believe that they possess this year. Check braves.com later this afternoon for a story on this subject.
“From a personality standpoint, this is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Hudson said. “There’s a really, really good mix of guys and personalities in here. I don’t want to make it sound like we didn’t have a good group of guys before us, but I think with this group everybody is really going to like each other.”
Jason Heyward said that he hopes to return to action tomorrow and Craig Kimbrel now knows that he will begin the upcoming season as Triple-A Gwinnett’s closer.
As the Braves prepare to oppose CC Sabathia and the Yankees this afternoon, you can devour these mostly injury-related tidbits that were gathered during batting practice.
While Yunel Escobar’s back was healthy enough for him to return to return to today’s lineup, the Braves are going to give Heyward at least one more day to rest the shin splints that began bothering him on Sunday.
When I spoke with Heyward this morning he said, “I hope to play tomorrow.” But the 20-year-old outfielder added, “I know this is something that isn’t just going to go away immediately.”
While Bobby Cox said that there’s a chance Heyward might play tomorrow against the Astros, his tone provided indication that he might wait until at least Thursday before putting his 20-year-old phenom back in the lineup.
Having already compiled 49 at-bats during the Grapefruit League season, Heyward has made all of his necessary preparations for the season. Even if he rests for another day or two, he’ll still be able to get his timing back while playing the final games of the exhibition season.
Heyward took batting practice this morning and provided further indication that there isn’t any reason to think he won’t be ready for Monday afternoon’s Opening Day game against the Cubs.
Backup catcher David Ross still seems confident that he will be available on Opening Day. But Ross, who also experienced a pain-free batting practice session this morning, will spend the next couple of days testing the strength of the right groin muscle that he strained on Thursday.
Ross’ concerns were further diminished this morning, when he was able to run sprints and do striders without feeling any discomfort.
As for Jordan Schafer, he has recently started taking live batting practice and believes he could join the Gwinnett roster at the end of April. The 23-year-old center fielder said that he’s been able to strengthen his surgically-repaired left hand and is no longer bothered by the fatigue that it presented earlier this year.
Kimbrel impresses: With 14 career appearances above the Class A level, Kimbrel arrived in camp as a long shot to win a bullpen spot. But the 21-year-old right-hander certainly made a strong impression before learning this morning that he will begin the season as Triple-A Gwinnett’s closer.
Based on what he saw, Cox said that Kimbrel already has the stuff to be a successful pitcher at the big league level. But the Braves want him to continue improving his command through the regular work that he wouldn’t receive if he began the season in the Atlanta bullpen.
Kimbrel will remain with the big league club this week and will likely make an appearance during one of the exhibition games played against the White Sox this weekend.
First time for everything: Having been involved in professional baseball since arriving in Dodgers Minor League camp in 1960, Cox has seen plenty of oddities the game can present But when the Yankees send Pat Venditte to the mound this afternoon, the Braves manager will see an ambidextrous pitcher for the first time.
Venditte pitched for the Venezuelan Winter League team managed by Eddie Perez this past winter. Perez said the young Minor Leaguer has good stuff from both sides of the plate, but is especially effective against left-handed hitters.
You can watch today’s game on MLB.TV and CSS. Brian Jordan and Mike Morgan will serve as the broadcasters.
Before this afternoon’s game against the Phillies, I mentioned that I felt the final two bullpen spots would be claimed by Jo-Jo Reyes and Jesse Chavez. A few hours later, I’m willing to make this assumption with greater confidence and also say that I think Brooks Conrad currently holds the lead in the battle for the last roster spot for a position player.
Conrad ended an 0-for-15 slump that extended back to March 18 with a seventh-inning homer this afternoon off Chad Durbin. But my thinking has more to do with the fact that even during his prolonged slump the Braves never soured on this journeyman, who gained a lot of favor with the work ethic he brought to the park during his short stints with Atlanta last year.
Had Thurston been in the Braves organization last year he might have gained the same advantage. So far he has proven to be the same kind of likable player who is very similar to Conrad in many ways.
But if I had to guess right now, the nod will go to Conrad, who also draws the advantage provided by the fact that he is already on the 40-man roster and Thurston isn’t.
“Brooksy did a great job for us last year,” Bobby Cox said. “He won us some games.”
Chavez at least regained his sanity this afternoon while working a perfect inning against the Phillies. During his previous two outings, he had worked 1 1/3 innings, allowed 11 hits (all singles) and eight earned runs.
“The last two outings haven’t been indicative of the way he’s pitched,” Cox said. “He kept the ball down and he did it again today. It was the same as the last two times for me.”
Cox has repeatedly pointed out that Chavez was marred by bad luck in those previous two outings and those who witnessed both could certainly back up my belief that this wasn’t just another case where the veteran manager was going out of his way to back up a player that didn’t deserve to be defended.
When we approached Chavez this afternoon, he looked relieved. Thinking back on his two previous outings, he could only laugh and say, “what did I give up like 11 singles and only about half of them even left the infield?”
“I’m not the first to say it, but I’m not a spring pitcher,” said Chavez, who was a surprise addition to Pittsburgh’s Opening Day roster last year. “But this is what it’s for. Get them out of the way now and be ready to roll once the lights turn on.”
It was interesting to hear Cox say after today’s game that there is some concern about putting Reyes in the bullpen to start this year because of the fact that as a starter at Gwinnett he would provide insurance if one of the members of the Atlanta rotation was sidelined.
“It’s a predicament because Jo-Jo is a starter/backup guy if we send him out,” Cox said. “If we keep him, he could help us here too.”
With Reyes pitching two perfect innings today and Jonny Venters seemingly crumbling under the pressure while allowing the Phillies three runs in just two-thirds of an inning, there’s even more reason to believe the Braves would rather go with Reyes.
Venters allowed a leadoff double to Jimmy Rollins and issued consecutive walks to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard (with the bases loaded) before recording his first out. As for Craig Kimbrel, the only thing he surrendered while going up against Utley, Howard, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino was a single by Howard.
But the Braves seem to be shying away from sending the still-green Kimbrel to the Majors with just 14 games of experience above the Class A Minor League level. With this being said, he’s shown enough to lead me to expect to see him in Atlanta at some point this year.
If all of this proves to be true, those final bullpen spots will go to Chavez and Reyes. And if the Braves are really hesitant about the fact that they don’t have much depth in the starting pitching department, they could send Reyes to Gwinnett to get stretched out when Scott Proctor is deemed ready to join the Atlanta bullpen.
While Kris Medlen is certainly capable of making a spot start if necessary, his positioning in the rotation could weaken the bullpen’s depth. As mentioned last week, this young right-hander has proven that his versatility extends to his ability to be a detriment to left-handed hitters.
With Medlen in the bullpen mix, the Braves could be confident carrying Eric O’Flaherty as their only true left-handed middle reliever.
While spending this past weekend with a bunch of West Virginia fans in the hospitable city of Lexington Ky., I guess I missed a couple of big events in Braves land. But I’m still thinking it was a lot more fan watching my family members celebrate WVU’s victory just minutes from the UK campus.
When I arrived in Kentucky on Friday afternoon and saw that Bobby Cox had told Jason Heyward that he will begin the season as his starting right fielder, the sarcastic side of me said, “‘well that’s one way to draw attention away from a story about a Minor Leaguer who had been busted soliciting a prostitute.”
But really, this announcement had everything to do with the fact that Cox didn’t seen any reason to delay the inevitable. Even before the Grapefruit League season began, I think we all assumed that Heyward would be starting in right field next Monday afternoon.
Now with Opening Day exactly one week away, the Braves just have to hope that a couple days of rest will prove to be enough for Heyward to get rid of the discomfort caused by the shin splints that have bothered him the past couple of days.
This morning, Cox said shin splints can “bother you for a while.” But with his tone, it was obvious that he doesn’t seem to concerned about this minor ailment. It appears Heyward will likely return to the lineup in the next day or two.
In other injury-related news, Yunel Escobar will miss today’s game against the Phillies in Clearwater because of a sore back that has kept him sidelined since Friday.
“He worked out great (on Sunday), but woke up stiff today,” Cox said. “So I told him to stay back.”
Heyward and Escobar have spent the past five weeks making all of their necessary preparations. Now the Braves will provide them whatever rest necessary to provide them a chance to enter the regular season at or at least near full strength.
ROSTER BATTLES: Heading into these final days of the exhibition season, it appears the Braves are still debating whether to give their final roster spot for a position player to either Brooks Conrad or Joe Thurston.
Things haven’t exactly changed since I last posted an entry on Thursday. During the past three games, Conrad has gone 0-for-8 and Thurston has gone 0-for-6. This race is currently too close to call.
On the bullpen front, Cox said there are still a number of relievers still battling for the final two spots. Four of those relievers – Jesse Chavez, Craig Kimbrel and LHPs Jonny Venters and Jo-Jo Reyes – will be pitching against the Phillies this afternoon. Scott Proctor is the other pitcher who is still being placed in this mix.
With the belief that Proctor will be given a few more weeks to strengthen his arm, I’m still thinking that Reyes and Chavez will get the final two spots in the bullpen. Then of course after a couple of weeks one of these guys will be sent to the Minors to make room for Proctor.
HUDSON vs. Minor Leaguers: Instead of facing the Phillies for the second consecutive time, Tim Hudson will pitch in a Minor League game back at Disney this afternoon. Check back later this afternoon for his results.
The Phillies are sending J.A. Happ to the mound to face the Braves for the second time in six days. This certainly shouldn’t bother Brian McCann, who took the southpaw deep twice last week at Disney.
TODAY’s LINEUP vs. Phillies
Back in the comfortable and familiar surroundings of Bradenton, former Pirate Nate McLouth has set himself up to break out of his maddening slump.
As I was completing this blog, McLouth drilled Charlie Morton’s 0-1 pitch the other way and over the left field wall for a leadoff homer. It was the Braves center fielder’s first extra-base hit since March 6 and just his third hit in the 39 at-bats he’s compiled this year.
McLouth, who was acquired in the June trade that sent Morton to Pittsburgh, has taken advantage of two opportunities this week to compile at-bats in Minor League games. Before today’s game, Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton said that he was gaining the sense that the 28-year-old outfielder was putting less pressure on himself and finding comfort at the plate.
POSITION BATTLE: When Brooks Conrad was seemingly making a highlight play with his glove on a daily basis, there was reason to believe that he was at least establishing himself as the favorite to win the last roster spot for a position player.
But with the end of the Florida portion of the exhibition season just a week away, it seems pretty difficult to get a sense about whether the Braves are leaning toward filling this final spot with Conrad or Joe Thurston.
There isn’t any reason to read to much into the fact that Conrad is starting at third base for this afternoon’s game against the Pirates and Thurston will enter during the middle innings.
While you could decipher this to mean they are currently favoring Conrad, you could also deduct that this means they want to get a better look at Conrad playing third base.
Having made 55 starts at third base for the Cardinals last year, Thurston has already shown what he can do at that position.
STATS entering Thursday’s game
Conrad .265 BA (9-for-34), 1 HR, .390 OBP, .441 SLG
Thurston .353 BA (12-for-34), 2 HRs, .371 OBP, .529 SLG
The fact that Conrad is already on the 40-man roster might seemingly give him a slight advantage. But when it comes time to make their final roster decisions, the Braves seemingly have the flexibility to add both Jason Heyward and Joe Thurston if they desire. In fact, they may even be able to make room for Craig Kimbrel too.
With Diory Hernandez recovering from shoulder surgery, the Braves could open a roster spot by placing him on the 60-day disabled list. In addition, I think they could comfortably remove Stephen Marek, James Parr and possibly even Luis Valdez, who still hasn’t arrived because of visa problems, without too much fear of losing them to another clubMcLouth 8
Kawakami 1 .
Whenever the Braves have mentioned the possibility of Jo-Jo Reyes starting this season in their bullpen, I’ve always felt they would be better off sending him to Gwinnett to continue serving as a starter, who would be available if one of Atlanta’s starters was sidelined with an injury.
But the more I think about this, the more I wonder if they have reached the point where they’ve seen enough of him as a starter at the Major League level. I mean you can only ask a horse to cover a mile so many times before you decide you better at least try him in some sprint races.
During the 18 starts he has made dating back to his last victory, Reyes has gone 0-9 with a 6.59 ERA. Of course he’s also allowed seven earned runs in the 3 2/3 innings of relief that he has compiled during this stretch.
Of course with his desire to be more aggressive in the strike zone this year, Reyes has at least kept himself in the picture to win one of these final bullpen spots.
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that the Braves might decide between Reyes and Jonny Venters to determine who will team with Eric O’Flaherty to serve as left-handed option in the middle innings.
But with Kris Medlen in place, the Braves may opt to begin the season with O’Flaherty as their only left-handed setup man.
Medlen’s 2009 splits
vs. RHs .328 BA .386 OBP .508 SLG 29 Ks 10 BBs
vs. LHs .183 BA .291 OBP .278 SLG 43 Ks 20 BBs
Medlen and Peter Moylan pitched in a Minor League game this morning. Check back later for their results.
BRAVES LINEUP vs. LHP J.A. Happ and the Phillies
Am I right with my assumption that those of you who predicted that Jeff Francoeur would homer and draw a pair of walks in his first three plate appearances today are also the same people who predicted that Northern Iowa would beat Kansas?
Francoeur soured Tommy Hanson’s five-inning performance on Tuesday afternoon with a solo homer that easily cleared the center field wall in the fourth inning.
“We were just setting him up for the regular season,” joked Braves catcher Brian McCann.
Francoeur’s second homer of the year accounted for one of the four hits surrendered by Hanson, who allowed two earned runs, recorded five strikeouts and issued three walks during this 91-pitch effort.
Slated to go six innings, Hanson was lifted after five innings because of his pitch count.
“My arm feels good and I didn’t feel tired one bit,” Hanson said. “It’s good to throw that many pitches and still feel good. I think it’s another start and another step in the right direction getting ready for the season.”
Hanson will make one more start in Florida and then likely throw just three or four innings while making his final appearance of the exhibition season against the White Sox at Turner Field on April 2.
Heyward update: After reaching base safely during each of his first 12 games of the year, Jason Heyward hasn’t reached first base in either of his past two games. He is hitless in his past seven at-bats and he has struck out in three of his past five plate appearances.
This mini-slump shouldn’t cause any reason for concern. But it will be more important to monitor what Heyward does during these final two weeks of the exhibition season, when he finds himself facing more Major League-caliber pitchers than he did during the previous couple of weeks.
Braves general manager Frank Wren said that the club hasn’t made a firm decision regarding whether Heyward will begin the season in Atlanta.
But whenever asked about the remaining position battles, the club’s officials often just mention the battle being waged between Joe Thurston and Brooks Conrad.
“There’s still 13 days left before Opening Day,” Wren said regarding Heyward. “So we just want to continue to watch and monitor and make sure that we’re doing what’s best for him and for us.”
Tim Hudson will be on the mound when the Braves return to Disney tomorrow afternoon to face J.A. Happ and the Phillies. This game, which will be televised by ESPN, will also include an appearance by Jo-Jo Reyes, who is fighting for a spot in the Braves bullpen.
With just 10 Grapefruit League games remaining, it’s still unclear exactly who will be filling the final spots on the Braves Opening Day roster. But with Nate McLouth still fighting to break out of his slump, there’s certainly reason to doubt that he will begin the season as the club’s leadoff hitter.
Melky Cabrera is positioned at the top of the lineup again for this afternoon’s game against the Mets and as I mentioned the other day, there’s at least reason to wonder if he could be there on a regular basis while the Braves use him as part of a platoon in left field and center field.
With this being said, it’s far too early to simply assume that McLouth won’t be able to right himself before the exhibition season concludes. While hitting eighth today, he’ll get his first chance to see if he benefited from the six plate appearances (one per inning) he gained during Sunday’s rain-shortened Minor League intra-squad game.
When it was mentioned that McLouth was 1-for-35 with 14 strikeouts, ESPN’s Peter Pascarelli thought back to his early days as an Orioles beat writer and told a story about the questions he asked Earl Weaver when Eddie Murray went 3-for-42 during Spring Training.
“Weaver told me, ‘he’s the worst Spring Training hitter ever,’” Pascarelli said. “Then he said, “don’t worry about him.’”
Based on memory, Pascarelli remembers Murray driving in somewhere around 120 runs that same season.
At the end of the day, Spring Training batting averages really don’t matter. But during these final days of the exhibition season, McLouth can provide some encouragement by at least putting the ball in play with greater regularity.
This marks the fourth time the Braves have seen the Mets this year and the first time that they will be facing a lineup that includes Jeff Francoeur, who enters this game hitting .194 (6-for-31) with a homer and four RBIs.
Jason Heyward is present and could be inserted during the late innings of this game, which will be televised by ESPN.
This certainly wasn’t the kind of performance Jair Jurrjens is hoping to provide when he takes the mound to face the Cubs at Turner Field on April 7.
But after allowing a pair of runs and plunking a couple of the Tigers Minor Leaguers that he faced at Disney on Monday afternoon, the Braves right-hander still seemed pretty satisfied with the effectiveness of the slider that he displayed with great regularity.
More importantly, he was once again able to extend his shoulder a little further without feeling any of the discomfort that was present during the early days of camp.
“Right now, I’m not worried about how many runs I give up,” Jurrjens said. “I’m just working on the quality of my pitches and getting ready for the season.”
Forced to pitch in this Triple-A Minor League game because his scheduled start on Sunday was rained out, Jurrjens allowed two hits and five earned runs in four innings. He threw 36 of his 55 pitches for strikes, hit two batters and didn’t issue a walk.
“Any pitcher I’ve ever known gets killed when they pitch in these (Minor League) games,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “JJ was fine. He looked really good in the second inning. His velocity was there and he got to throw all of his pitches.”
Jurrjens’ first pitch was drilled to left field by Danny Worth and six pitches later Casper Wells was drilled by a wayward fastball. Brennan Boesch delivered an RBI double to the right-center field gap before the Braves hurler completed the first inning with the second of the seven flyouts that he recorded on the afternoon.
While facing the bottom three hitters in the Tigers lineup, Jurrjens worked a perfect second inning that included two of his three strikeouts. His third-inning troubles began when he got ahead with an 0-2 count and then hit his second batter of the afternoon.
Three batters later Boesch tallied his second RBI with the second of consecutive two-out singles surrendered by Jurrjens, who was one pitch away from a perfect fourth before surrendering a two-out double on a 3-2 fastball that had “I don’t want to issue a walk” written all over it.
Jurrjens will make two more starts during the exhibition season and when he takes the mound to face the Nationals on Saturday, he said he plans to approach the outing like he would a normal start.
In other words, we won’t be seeing him test his slider as much as he did this afternoon against the Tigers Minor Leaguers.
With ominous rain clouds hovering around the Disney area this morning, Jair Jurrjens and Nate Mclouth may have to alter today’s plans.
But it now appears that Mother Nature may cooperate until at least 2 p.m. ET. This would likely allow Jurrjens the chance to complete the four innings that he is scheduled to pitch against the Cardinals today.
If rain prevents the Braves and Cardinals from playing this afternoon, Jurrjens would get his work in during a Minor League game tomorrow.
Because the Braves slated each of their pitchers to have at least one extra day of rest before their first regular season start, Jurrjens would still be on a normal schedule leading up to his season debut on April 7 against the Cubs.
Speaking of Minor League games, McLouth was originally slated to bat eighth during this afternoon’s game against the Cardinals. But the Braves decided it would be better to have him head to one of the back fields today to rack up some at-bats against Minor Leaguers.
If this Minor League game is played, McLouth would be able to compile nine at-bats (one per inning) and possibly get out of the funk that has led him to record just one hit and 14 strikeouts in his first 35 at-bats this year.
If Mother Nature prevents play today, McLouth could certainly attempt to compile these at-bats during the same Minor League game that Jurrjens would be pitching in tomorrow.
Second round of cuts: The battle for the final two available spots in the Braves bullpen lost a few candidates this morning, when it was revealed that right-hander Jeff Lyman and left-handers Mike Dunn and Mariano Gomez will spend the rest of camp on the Minor League side.
Dunn and Lyman were optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett. Gomez was among four players re-assigned to Minor League camp. The others were catcher Orlando Mercado and outfielders Mitch Jones and Brent Clevlen.
While Dunn showed the strong arm the Braves knew they were getting when they acquired him as part of the deal that sent Javier Vazquez to the Yankees, he also displayed the inconsistent command that has been present since he ended his days as a position player at the conclusion of the 2006 season.
“Dunn has that good arm,” Cox said. “He just needs more command of that fastball. He rushes out there a little too much. It’s just a matter of command.”
Lyman, who allowed one run and recorded five strikeouts in four innings, also impressed Cox during his first big league camp.
But as we move forward, it now appears that the battle for the final two bullpen spots will be waged between Scott Proctor, Jesse Chavez, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Jo-Jo Reyes and Manny Acosta.
It still seems optimistic to think that Proctor, who is just 10 1/2 months removed from Tommy John surgery, would be ready by Opening Day. Cox understands that the veteran right-hander wouldn’t be available on a regular basis during the early weeks of the season.
But with some scheduled offdays present during this two-week stretch, Cox is still at least keeping this possibility alive.
Assuming that Proctor begins the season on the disabled list, Chavez, Venters and Reyes could be deemed the front-runners in this competition. Kimbrel undoubtedly has the greatest upside and it’s obvious that Cox really likes this young flamethower.
But Kimbrel could benefit from a little more Minor League seasoning and the Braves would have reason to be reluctant to open a 40-man roster spot for him with the understanding that he might be sent back down when Proctor is deemed ready.
Chavez has pitched more effectively since struggling in his first two outings and has the experience that he gained while making 73 appearances for the Pirates last year.
Venters or Reyes would team with Eric O’Flaherty to give the Braves two left-handed options during the middle innings.
With the lack of depth in the starting pitching department, it still would seemingly benefit the Braves to have Reyes start the year with Gwinnett and be stretched out in the event that one of Atlanta’s starting pitchers goes down with an injury.
While Kris Medlen would be available to make a spot start or fill a vacant rotation spot for an extended stretch, you could argue that his move into a starter’s role weakens the depth that could benefit the Braves as they attempt to protect the arms of Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito and Proctor.
Still with Reyes pitching just one inning in his past two outings, it seems the Braves are seriously thinking about having him begin the year in Atlanta’s bullpen.
Cox has routinely praised Venters’ sinker and history has shown that he likes to have a pitcher (think Kevin Gryboski) like this available to utilize when there’s a need to erase a threat with a double-play groundout.
BRAVES LINEUP vs. Cardinals