April 2010

Quick turnaround brings Braves to San Francisco

Welcome to San Francisco, where the Braves are just now awaking and preparing for this afternoon’s game that would have appropriately been presented by Red Bull, Monster or any other  approved energy booster.
 
The last pitch in last night’s 2-0 loss to the Cubs was thrown at approximately 9:55 p.m. ET and about 90 minutes later, the Braves embarked on a five-hour charter flight that got them to their hotel here in San Francisco at about 2:30 a.m. PT, or just shy of  the time that many of you in Atlanta were preparing to go to the office or take the kids to school. 

While it might not sound good, the Braves players would have still been able to get around six or seven hours of sleep before heading to the ballpark.  Of course, knowing Bobby Cox, he probably went to the stadium around 7 a.m. to continue preparing for this weekend’s series that could seemingly be played without the services of Chipper Jones, who strained his right oblique muscle during last night’s game.

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco around 5 p.m. PT yesterday, I started to get texts and emails that alerted me that Jones had exited with what was originally termed a “sore right side”.    Initially it seemed like it might be something that sidelines him for just a couple of days and that still might be the case.

But having been down this road a couple of times, I’d have to say that Jones’ postgame comments at least provided reason to believe that he could miss the entirety of this six-game West Coast swing that pits the Braves against the Giants and Padres. 

In the past when Jones has been dealing with oblique issues, he has occasionally removed himself because he felt one more swing could severely aggravate the region.  But last night when he said something like “it bit me pretty good”,  I immediately gained the sense that we could be seeing Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad playing third base at least through Thursday’s series finale in San Diego.

Check back later this afternoon for an update on Jones’ condition and today’s lineup.   Tim Hudson was on my flight out here to the Bay Area and thus had the opportunity to get plenty of rest before making his season debut today. 
My guess it that Jason Heyward will fill in for Jones  in the third spot of the batting order.  Or Cox may choose to bat Heyward second and move Martin Prado into the third spot.

Looking at the small sample sizes provided, Nate McLouth, Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar enter today’s game looking forward to prolonging their success against Giants left-hander Jonathan Sanchez.

Escobar has three hits, including a double, in six career at-bats against Sanchez.  McLouth has homered in the process of matching the 3-for-7 career performance that McCann has posted against the southpaw. 

However the lineup is now situated, the Braves seem to be better equipped to survive for a few days without Jones.  They went 16-12 without him in the starting lineup last year.    This was a definite improvement in comparison to the previous two seasons — 2008 (17-27) 2007 (12-18).  

Will today be better than Opening Day?

Our friend Buster Olney concludes all of his blog entries with the phrase, “and today will be better than yesterday.” 

As I was driving to the stadium this afternoon through that green mist that is only satisfying to the manufacturers of Claritin, I was thinking it will be pretty difficult for Braves fans to exit Turner Field tonight with the same kind of excitement that was created on Opening Day. 

But with Mr. Heyward in the house you can bet it won’t be long before we see something special again. 

When Heyward drilled his three-run homer with the first swing of his Major League career on Monday, I was among the many who immediately felt chills going down my spine.  My immediate reaction was that Turner Field hadn’t been filled with that kind of energy since Brian McCann took Roger Clemens deep with his first career postseason at-bat in Game 2 of the 2005 Division Series. 

Still if I’m ranking the single greatest moments that I’ve witnessed since I assumed this beat in 2001, Heyward’s homer has to trump McCann’s.   Jeff Francoeur’s homer in his Major League debut was pretty special.  But the energy wasn’t quite the same because he wasn’t playing in front of a packed house. 

When we reminisce about Monday afternoon, we’ll always remember Heyward’s blast.  But long before he sent Carlos Zambrano’s 2-0 fastball into the Braves bullpen, you could definitely feel a sense of excitement that hasn’t been present in these parts the past few years.

Maybe it was because this was the first Opening Day home game since 2004.  Or maybe Heyward has already created the same kind of effect that Michael Vick had during the early part of this century when he seemingly single-handedly made the Georgia Dome the place to be on Sundays in the fall. 

Or maybe, the fans have simply taken notice of the fact that this seems to be the best team the Braves have assembled since at least the 2003 season.  And if I’m comparing the two teams, I’d have to say there’s no doubt that this team’s pitching staff is better than that one that benefited from the regular power that Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla, Gary Sheffield and Co. supplied on ’03. 

With the momentum created by their Opening Day victory, the Braves will now send their top three pitchers to the mound over the next three days.  Jair Jurrjens gets the call tonight and will be opposed by Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster. 

Yesterday, when I was compiling a story about Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, who will start Thursday night’s series finale against the Cubs, I found it interesting that Jurrjens and Tom Glavine had compiled a nearly identical workload through each of the seasons completed before they turned 24 years old. 

Glavine  23-29   72 starts  431.2 IP  4.29 ERA
Jurrjens  30-21  72 starts  434 IP  3.21 ERA

Jurrjens’ better record is a product of the fact that he has started his career with the benefit of being on teams much stronger than the ones that Glavine was a part of during his early years.  But this still seems to be yet another comparison that proves that the young right-hander from Curacao could be headed toward a very bright future.

TONIGHT’S LINEUP vs. Cubs RHP Ryan Dempster

Melky Cabrera 7
Martin Prado 4
Chipper Jones 5
Brian McCann 2
Troy Glaus 3
Yunel Escobar 6
Jason Heyward 9
Nate McLouth 8
Jurrjens 1 

Let the memorable journey begin

While we don’t know where this journey will lead, those of us (fans and media members) who follow the Braves on a daily basis are seemingly guaranteed to enter this offseason knowing that they have witnessed something special. 

As Jason Heyward introduces himself to what appears to be a bright future, Bobby Cox prepares to say goodbye to a job and organization that he has loved since Ted Turner provided him his first stint as the Braves manager in 1978. 

Hank Aaron will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before this afternoon’s Opening Day game at Turner Field.  As the living legend stands on the mound and hears the cheers provided by a sold-out Turner Field, Heyward can dream of the day when he might be held in the same high esteem. 

But even when you consider how great Aaron was and how great Heyward might prove to be, I still believe that 20 or 30 years from now you could still argue that Cox was the most influential man in the history of a Braves organization that dates back to 1876. 

Those players who were part of the 1982 club that claimed the 1982 National League West crown appreciated Joe Torre’s leadership and recognized that the accomplishment was a product of the determination that Cox had displayed while serving as Atlanta’s manager the previous four years. 

When Cox returned to serve as the general manager in 1986, the organization had once again positioned itself to be the laughingstock of Major League Baseball.  But with the assistance of Paul Snyder and Bobby Dews, Cox changed the attitude and direction of an organization that still provides a blueprint that other organizations strive to follow. 

As this season progresses, criticize Cox just like you have in the past. He certainly doesn’t want to be treated any different during what many of us are calling his farewell tour. 

But when it’s time for Cox to say goodbye, the masses should recognize that no man has ever proven to be as loyal and beneficial to this organization and the city of Atlanta. 

After leading the Blue Jays to the 1985 American League East title, Cox jumped at the opportunity to return to his home in Atlanta to complete what he had started from 1978-81. 

This marks the start of the 25th season since Cox returned to serve as the Braves general manager and once again the city of Atlanta anticipates Opening Day with a sense of excitement and optimism. 

It seems only fitting that this journey would allow Cox to experience at least one more run into the postseason.  But even if he and his troops fall short of this goal, Braves fans will still have reason to look back on this year and realize they had the opportunity to follow the end of a historic run.   

For the first time in recent years, I think the Braves truly have positioned themselves to be a playoff participant.  In fact, I think they have what it takes to possibly overthrow the Phillies as NL East champs.  But as we’ve been reminded over the past few years, you really never know what you will encounter over the course of the marathon known as a 162-game season. 

BRAVES OPENING DAY LINEUP
Melky Cabrera 8
Martin Prado 4
Chipper Jones 5
Brian McCann 2
Troy Glaus 3
Yunel Escobar 6
Jason Heyward 9
Nate McLouth 8
Derek Lowe 1

Braves make final roster decisions

Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters made solid impressions while experiencing their first Major League Spring Training.  But the two young Braves relievers learned Friday afternoon that they will begin this upcoming season with Triple-A Gwinnett.

Manager Bobby Cox just announced that Jo-Jo Reyes and Jesse Chavez have claimed the final two available spots in his bullpen.  In addition, he revealed that Brooks Conrad won his roster battle with Joe Thurston, who will also begin the season in Gwinnett. 

Once Scott Proctor is deemed ready to return from Tommy John surgery in a few weeks, Reyes or Chavez will likely be sent to the Minors. 

The Braves also revealed that highly-regarded first base prospect Freedie Freeman will begin the season with Gwinnett.  There was some thinking that he would spend at least a month or two with Double-A Mississippi. 

But some within the organization believe he needed to be at the Triple-A level where he will likely see more strikes than he would at the Double-A level. 

Cox also revealed that catcher Clint Sammons, shortstop Brandon Hicks, outfielder Matt Young and  right-handed pitchers Jeff Lyman and Cory Gearrin will also begin the season with Gwinnett.

Check back later for other roster announcements.

Final roster decisions expected to be made today

As many of the Braves pitchers are running and throwing in the bright green Turner Field outfield grass, manager Bobby Cox, general manager Frank Wren and the members of the coaching staff are discussing their final roster decisions. 

It’s 3:15 p.m. ET and within the next hour or two we could learn who is going to fill the final two bullpen spots and whether the final spot for a position player will go to either Brooks Conrad or Joe Thurston. 

While I am pretty confident that the final two bullpen spots will be given to Jesse Chavez and Jo-Jo Reyes, I’m not going to be shocked if the Braves select Conrad or Thurston to begin the season as an extra utility player. 

The similarities between Conrad and Thurston extend far beyond the fact that their defensive abilities limit them to second base and third base.  Conrad runs a little better and draws the benefit of being a switch-hitter. 

Based solely on their offensive performances during the Grapefruit League season, Thurston would be the easy choice.  While he has finished strong and improved his batting average to .319 through 47 at-bats, Conrad has slumped and enters today hitting just .229 in 48 at-bats. 

But as you know, these decisions are never solely based on statistics compiled during Spring Training.

Despite the fact that Conrad has struggled with the bat recently, I still think his advantage comes from the fact that he was with the organization last year.  In the process, the Braves came to appreciate the work ethic and no-nonsense approach that he brought to the park every day. 

At the same time, Thurston must have been doing something right while appearing in 124 games last year for a Cardinals team that won the National League Central.   In the 64 games that he started he hit .227 and in his 61 plate appearances as a pinch hitter, he hit .216 with a .344 on-base percentage.

Reyes and Chavez will likely earn the final roster spots solely based on their experience.  Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters have much higher upsides and the need to spend a few more weeks or months nurturing their skills at the Minor League level. 

The potential ramifications of having Reyes begin the year in the bullpen have been discussed.  But with Kris Medlen available to serve as an emergency starter, the Braves seem willing to roll the dice through that they can escape the first 4-6 weeks of the season without having to deal with a rash of injuries in their starting rotation. 

Medlen is certainly capable of making a few starts if necessary.  And if the Braves were to lose two starters during the early portion of the season, they would have a problem that would trump the fact that one of their most glaring weaknesses entering the season is the fact that they don’t have any enviable depth beyond their first five starting pitchers. 

Heading down to the clubhouse.  I’ll be back shortly with the decisions. 

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman 

Braves ready to take this show north

Just returned from the clubhouse and it’s pretty safe to say that all the guys are ready to compile a couple of at-bats during this afternoon’s game against the Tigers and then head to Atlanta as quick as possible. 

As I was shooting the breeze with Jason Heyward this morning, I said something like, “well it will be nice for you to get back to your own bed tonight.”  When he responded, “yeah, for like five days”, I said “enjoy it, you’ll come to appreciate even these opportunities that allow for just a short stay at home.”

That advice I provided Heyward will not benefit him as much as the words of encouragement that he received from Hall of Famer Al Kaline this morning.  The former Tigers outfielder came to the Braves clubhouse to see Bobby Cox and then took time to tell the young Braves outfielder things like “good luck, play hard, work hard, etc.”   

Cox will likely announce his Opening Day roster after either Friday or Saturday’s game.  I’m still guessing Brooks Conrad gets the last spot for a position player and that Jesse Chavez and Jo-Jo Reyes fill the final two bullpen spots. 

As for lineup projections, it still seems like Melky Cabrera will hold the leadoff spot until Nate McLouth can regain a consistent groove.  

Today’s lineup also provides reason to believe there will be some instances when Brian McCann is placed in the cleanup spot when the opposing team is starting a right-handed pitcher. It’s also interesting to see that Heyward is batting sixth and Yunel Escobar is in the seventh spot of the order.

While wrapping up the Florida portion of their exhibition schedule today, the Braves are going up against right-handed knuckleballer Eddie Bodine.   With this in mind, it’s time to wish a happy 71st birthday to Phil Niekro. 

The baseball accomplishments that I share with Niekro are limited to the fact that our fathers bought our first baseball gloves at a little sporting goods store in Wheeling, W.Va called Kelly Mikes.  

TODAY’S LINEUP vs. Tigers
Cabrera 7
Prado 4
Chipper 5
McCann 2
Glaus 3
Heyward 9
Escobar 6
McLouth 8
Hinske DH

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