July 2010

Prado will miss at least a week

The Braves seemingly got some good news Saturday, when they determined that Martin Prado has a fractured right pinky finger that may cause him to miss just seven-to-10 games. 

Braves manager Bobby Cox said he will wait at least another day before determining whether Prado will be placed on the disabled list.  Once the All-Star second baseman proves he can grip a bat, he’ll be cleared to begin swinging again.

“If anybody can get back in the lineup quickly, it’s him,” Cox said of Prado, who suffered the fracture while sliding head first toward the plate during the 10th inning of Friday night’s win over the Reds. 

The Braves have technically called Prado’s injury a stable avulsion fracture of PIP joint of his right pinky finger. 

Wren believes he can strengthen his outfield internally

Some within the Braves organization believe one of Nate McLouth’s best at-bats of the season occurred with the bases loaded during the 11th inning of  Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Marlins.  For those of you who are masochists, I’ll remind you that this at-bat concluded with Hanley Ramirez fielding a sharply-hit grounder and then turning an inning-ending double play. 

When a player has hit just .168 through the season’s first 97 games, there is reason to stretch for the positive and take into account the fact that he has played just five games since missing six weeks because of a concussion.  <p>

But when this same player has hit .204 with a .639 OPS since the 2009 season’s All-Star break, there is reason to acknowledge the fact that he has to be on a very short leash. 

As the Braves attempt to stay ahead of the red-hot Phillies, who have moved within 4 1/2 games of the top spot in the National League East standings, they realize they can’t remain patient with McLouth too much longer. 

But with limited attractive options available on the trade market, it appears Braves GM Frank Wren believes the best way to strengthen his center field position is to utilize players that are already within the organization.

“I think we’re still looking internally at the pieces that we have,” Wren said early Monday evening.  “Right now, I’d have to say that’s the way that we’re leaning.”  <p>  

If McLouth continues to struggle, Melky Cabrera and possibly Gregor Blanco will likely see a majority of the playing time in center field.  Cabrera has hit .298 while the Braves have gone a Major League-best 44-23 since the start of play on May 10. 

While McLouth was on the disabled list, the Braves center fielders hit .318 with a .776 OPS.   It’s troubling to see that this stretch didn’t include any homers.  But with Jason Heyward providing instant optimism and Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske showing recent reason to believe they can prove productive in a left field platoon, the Braves could get away with sticking either Cabrera or Blanco in the eighth hole.

As mentioned last week, the Braves never really showed much interest in Florida’s Cody Ross, who will be a non-tender candidate when he becomes eligible to gain a $6 million-plus salary via arbitration this winter. 

Likewise, their interest in Corey Hart was minimal even before he injured his right wrist last week.  The Giants have shown much more interest in Hart and may be willing to provide the return the Brewers are seeking. 

If the Braves make a move before Saturday’s trade deadline, they will likely add a reliever.  But Wren believes he has the internal pieces necessary to further strengthen his bullpen. 

Within the next couple of weeks, Eric O’Flaherty should be able to regain the strength he has lost while battling a viral infection.   The Braves may also soon be persuaded to add Craig Kimbrel or Stephen Marek, who has posted a .065 ERA in the 42 combined appearances he has made with Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett this year. 

Kimbrel has posted a 1.89 ERA and limited opponents to a .163 batting average in the 38 innings he has completed for Gwinnett.  But while issuing 14 walks in 12 innings this month, the 22-year-old right-hander has given the Braves reason to allow him to gain more Minor League seasoning. 

I was thinking the Braves might also be able to improve their relief corps by sending Kris Medlen back to the bullpen and promoting Mike Minor to serve as Atlanta’s fifth starter.  But this doesn’t appear to be a one of the club’s primary options.    

Schafer demoted to Double-A Mississippi

The Braves sent Jordan Schafer a message Friday when they informed the former top prospect that he is being sent back to Double-A Mississippi. 

Schafer, who missed the first part of this season while his surgically right hand got stronger, was hit .201 in 52 games with two homers and a .255 on-base percentage with Triple-A Gwinnett this year. 

The Braves entered this season determined to allow Schafer to stay in the Minors for most of the year to make up for the time he missed in 2008 (50-game suspension) and 2009 (injured hand in fourth game of Atlanta’s season and then played through the end of May with the injury). 

By sending Schafer to Mississippi, the Braves are hoping he finds some of the focus he might have lacked the past couple of months, while having the comforts of living in the condo he purchased last year in Atlanta. 

Schafer is a very likable kid, but his confidence can often be mistaken for cockiness.   Hopefully this will be the kick in the rear that will allow him to realize he’s going to have to show some more determination before he gets a chance to truly live the big league lifestyle again.

Fregosi in Miami:  While Braves top scout Jim Fregosi is in Miami this weekend for the Marlins series, I’m back in Atlanta.  Yes Fregosi has had a chance to watch Cody Ross over the course of the past few days. 

But it appears the primary reason he remained near his residence in south Florida this week was to have the opportunity to talk with Bobby Cox and get a better understanding of what the Braves might need down the stretch.

There’s a chance the Braves could land Ross if the Marlins reach a point where they aren’t asking for much in return.  But right now, it doesn’t appear that they are showing definite interest in the 29-year-old center fielder, who has hit .167 with a .464 OPS this month.

NL showdown will feature plenty of good pitching

Exactly one week after securing World Series home-field advantage for the National League, Brian McCann  will have an opportunity to  help his Braves teammates maximize the number of games played at Turner Field in October. 

The Padres enter tonight’s series opener at The Ted with the NL’s best record, one-half game better than the Braves. There was little reason to think these two teams would be in this position when they matched up in early April.

There was certainly reason to believe the Braves would be a postseason contender.  But it would have been hard to predict that the Padres pitching staff would enter July 20 with the best ERA (3.25) in the Majors.  They ranked 17th during the 2009 season, while having the benefit of having Mat Latos only make 10 starts. 

Fortunately for the Braves, they won’t have to see Latos this week.  The talented young right-hander is currently on the disabled list because of an aborted sneeze that caused him to strain a muscle in his left side.

Greg Maddux likely isn’t among those who might be surprised to see what kind of pitching staff Bud Black has assembled.  When I asked Maddux to name the game’s best pitching coach about eight years ago, he quickly nominated Black. 

With this I regress and once again express my belief that Roger McDowell has what it takes to be a successful Major League manager.  But it appears that he’ll be happy to remain in his current role under Bobby Cox’s successor (a.k.a. Fredi Gonzalez). 

When Jair Jurrjens takes the mound to oppose Wade LeBlanc in tonight’s series opener, he’ll be much different than he was on April 12, when he allowed the Padres eight earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings.  His velocity was significantly down that day and only since returning from the disabled list has he admitted that he still was attempting to regain strength in the right shoulder that ailed him at the beginning of camp. 

As Jurrjens walked toward the dugout that day and Jo-Jo Reyes took the mound, I turned to Jim Misudek, the new Braves media relations assistant, and said, “It’s about to get a whole lot worse.” 

After losing that series opener in San Diego by a count of 17-2, the Braves came back and won the final two games of the series.  Of course the next couple of weeks weren’t exactly memorable for Cox’s troops. 

But since May 10, the Braves have produced a Major League-best 41-20 record.  The 5 1/2-game advantage they hold over the second-place Mets in the National League East race is the largest division lead they’ve held this late in the season since Sept. 27, 2005.

As you know, Nate McLouth is expected to return from the disabled list tonight and resume his role as the club’s primary centerfielder.  McLouth didn’t exactly abuse International League competition during his Minor League rehab stint. 

But he’s healthy and the Braves need to evaluate him over the course of the next week to see if they are confident in his ability to be a productive piece down the stretch.

It will be interesting to see what Jonny Venters (four games) and Cox (one game) have to say about the suspensions MLB handed them in response to Prince Fielder getting hit with a pitch on Saturday night. 

Whether or not you believe Venters was intentionally throwing at Fielder, you can’t dispute the fact that he gave everybody plenty of reason to believe he was throwing at the big first baseman.  In the end, MLB had to levy some kind of punishment.    
 

Venters and Cox suspended

Major League Baseball didn’t buy Jonny Venters’ claim that he wasn’t intentionally throwing at Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder during Saturday’s eighth inning at Turner Field.

Venters has been handed a four-game suspension and levied with a fine for an undisclosed amount.  Bobby Cox has also been given a one-game suspension for what MLB described as “the intentional actions of Venters after a warning had been issued to the pitcher following the first intentional pitch thrown at Fielder.”  <p>

For those needing a reminder, Fielder hit a game-tying homer off Tim Hudson in the seventh inning.  When he came to bat to open the eighth, Venters threw a first-pitch slider over his head.  This prompted Angel Hernandez to issue warnings to both benches. 

When Venters followed with a fastball that drilled Fielder in the back, he and Cox were both ejected. 

After the game, Venters said he wasn’t intentionally throwing at Fielder.  Cox uttered this same belief in what seemed to be with what seemed to be a believable tone.  In other words, there wasn’t any indication that this was one of those instances where he was trying to quickly cover something up. 

MLB vice-president of on-field operations Bob Watson obviously didn’t buy these claims.

 Cox will serve his suspension during Tuesday night’s series opener against the Padres.  Venters will likely appeal his suspension, which would allow him to serve it at a later date. 

With left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty on the disabled list, the Braves can’t afford to go into this series without Venters, who ranks fourth among NL relievers with a 1.25 ERA.

There was reason to believe the Brewers would attempt to gain some retribution and some Braves believe they did during Sunday’s sixth inning when both Jason Heyward and Troy Glaus were hit with pitches. 

If Manny Parra was supposed to hit Heyward, he likely needed to explain himself after simply grazing the rookie outfielder’s right thigh.  Later David Riske drilled Troy Glaus on the left thigh with a 2-0 fastball that loaded the bases and marked the third of his seven consecutive pitches that missed the strike zone.

“We weren’t trying to hit Prince, but at the same time it looked bad,” McCann said Sunday.”Obviously their whole team thought we were trying to hit him.  Things like happen. They hit a couple of our guys today. But it’s over with.  No harm was done and that’s how you play the game of baseball.” 

 

McLouth expected to be activated Tuesday

Nate McLouth is expected to be activated from the disabled list and likely placed back in the starting lineup for Tuesday night’s series opener against the Padres. 

After going hitless in four at-bats Sunday afternoon, McLouth didn’t travel with the Triple-A Gwinnett club to Scranton, Pa.  Instead, he stayed in Buffalo to catch a flight back to Atlanta. 

When McLouth is activated, the Braves are expected to option Gregor Blanco back to the Gwinnett roster.  Given that Blanco has hit .310 and compiled a .394 on-base percentage in the 35 games he’s played for Atlanta, this won’t be a popular decision among fans. 

But with the July 31 trade deadline approaching, the Braves need to get McLouth back in their lineup.  The probability of GM Frank Wren making a move this month will be greatly affected by what McLouth shows over the course of the next week. 

McLouth hit .258 (8-for-31) with one homer in the seven rehab games he played for Gwinnett. Wren said Sunday morning that the 28-year-old centerfielder is healthy and showing signs that he has made some necessary adjustments at the plate.  He has been sidelined since June 9 while recovering from a concussion.

About a week ago, when I tweeted that a scout said McLouth “was swinging better than I’ve seen all year,”  a fan replied, “compared to what?”

Given that McLouth had hit .176 in the 57 games he played before suffering his concussion, my only suitable reply was, “good point.”  
  

Hanson searching for consistency

After watching Tommy Hanson struggle again during last night’s loss to the Brewers, Chipper Jones said, “For the first three or four innings, they were swinging like they knew what was coming.” 

There’s obviously a chance that Hanson has been tipping his pitches.  But his problems seem to primarily stem from the fact that he’s had trouble finding a consistent release point.  This seemingly led to him throwing more sliders than normal on Friday night.  

Instead of simply referring to Hanson’s inconsistencies as a sophomore slump,  it might be better to describe them as a product of one of the disadvantages created by a 6-foot-6 frame. 

While this might not have been a problem last year, Hanson has certainly had plenty of trouble keeping his lanky frame in sync with many of his deliveries this year. 

This is not a problem that will be fixed overnight.  But by the time October rolls around, the Braves will need him to be ready to serve as one of the horses that could carry them through the postseason. 

Heyward rests: With Chris Narveson starting for the Brewers tonight, Braves manager Bobby Cox has decided to rest his left-handed sluggers —  Jason Heyward and Brian McCann.   Left-handed hitters have batted just .204 against Narveson this year.  Right-handed hitters are batting .335 against him. 

BRAVES LINEUP
Prado 4
Infante 9
Gonzalez 6
Glaus 3
Diaz 7
Cabrera 8
Ross 2
Conrad 5
Hudson 1  

Escobar or no Escobar, Braves are the team to beat

Now that Alex Gonzalez has been acquired in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan says the Phillies must react by making a move.ESPN’s Buster Olney says the Braves made a great trade with the Blue Jays and labels them as the “team to beat in the National League East.” 

While these beliefs certainly make sense, I’m not sure the Escobar trade significantly altered the NL’s landscape. Sure the Braves got rid of a negative clubhouse presence who hadn’t produced offensively and replaced him with a capable veteran shortstop who is enjoying one of his finest seasons at the plate. 

But regardless of who was playing shortstop in Atlanta, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro was going to spend these next couple of weeks attempting to improve his rotation and bullpen with the hope that his club would become strong enough to kill the optimism that currently rests in Atlanta. 

The Braves improved the strength of their organization yesterday by using two pieces they didn’t want (Jo-Jo Reyes and Escobar)  to gain a Major League-ready shortstop and two respected prospects, who certainly have a chance to get to Atlanta.

But my belief that the Braves enter this season’s second half as the favorites to represent the NL in the World Series, has little to do with the fact that Escobar is no longer around.  It has much more to do with what happened last week, when they took four of six on the road against the Phillies and Mets.

This small stretch legitimized everything that they had accomplished over the course of the previous two months.  While going 39-18 since the start of play on May 10, they have recorded a better winning percentage (.684) than any other Major League club and proven to be four games better than the Dodgers who have compiled the NL’s second-best record (35-22) during this span. 

While gaining eight games on the Mets and 10 1/2 games on the Phillies during this two-month span, the Braves showed their greatest strength — their depth.  Jair Jurrjens and Matt Diaz were sidelined during most of this stretch and after sparking this torrid run Jason Heyward did very little while battling a sore left thumb in June. 

Heyward will be evaluated once he arrives at Turner Field this afternoon and if the medical staff clears him he’ll be in tonight’s lineup against the Brewers.  If this transpires, the Braves will essentially be whole for the first time since April 29, the day they suffered a ninth consecutive loss and also lost both Jurrjens and Escobar to injures that required stints on the disabled list.

As long as Gonzalez stays healthy, this Braves lineup certainly has a chance to be more productive than the one that was saddled by Escobar’s surprising struggles.

Given that he entered this season with a .301 BA and .426 slugging percentage, it’s hard to imagine that Escobar will continue to be the guy who has slugged .284 this year and totaled 12 extra-base hits, none of which have been home runs. 

But as the Braves smelled the chance to win this year, they couldn’t risk remaining patient with Escobar at the expense of seeing his lackadaisical approach or mental mistakes prove detrimental to what they were trying to accomplish. 

It’s obviously no secret that Escobar wasn’t a popular figure among his teammates.  During Spring Training while talking about the team’s chemistry one player said, “We really only have one (jerk) in here.”

There was no reason to ask who he was referencing.

Andy Martino of the New York Daily News wondered if this trade was the product of another example of a culture clash between white and Latino players. It’s a justifiable question.  But within this blog entry, Martino concludes by pointing out the essential fact, which was that Escobar’s problems stemmed from a personality flaw, not cultural differences. 

Just like there are plenty of white players (John Rocker, Bob Wickman Robert Fick) who have drawn the ire of Braves management and seen their time in Atlanta cut short, there are a number of Latin players (Andruw Jones, Eddie Perez and Martin Prado to name just a few) who have drawn admiration and appreciation from the club’s decision makers.

In the classic movie Rudy,  the man playing Notre Dame head football coach Dan Devine said to an uninspired player, “If you had half the heart of Ruettiger’s you would’ve made
All-American.”

Well if Escobar had the heart and drive of his boyhood friend Brayan Pena, he would have already legitimized his potential to be one of the game’s top two or three shortstops.  He also would have escaped the All-Star break without learning that he’ll be spending most of the next couple of months in Canada. 

 

Wren had to trade Escobar

If their current offensive numbers remain the same, I would still enter
this offseason with the belief that instead of Alex Gonzalez, I’d still
rather have Yunel Escobar as my shortstop during the 2011 season.

But
if placed in Braves general manager Frank Wren’s shoes, I would have
also pulled the trigger on Wednesday’s five-player trade with the Blue
Jays.  There’s a difference between making projections in the offseason
and taking care of immediate needs during the season. 

There’s
certainly a chance that Escobar will turn things around and Gonzalez
will spend the second half of the season looking more like a .402
slugger (his career slugging percentage) than the guy who is currently
on pace to hit 31 homers this year, seven fewer than he hit over the
course of the past five seasons combined.

But there’s also a
chance that Escobar’s personality would have continued to prove to be a
negative presence within an otherwise harmonious clubhouse.

In
the end, Escobar gave Wren little reason to continue weighing the pros
and cons.  Once the Cuban shortstop made his lazy throw to first base
and nearly caused Troy Glaus great harm on Friday night at Citi Field,
the Braves GM began accelerating the efforts that enabled him to land
Gonzalez from the Blue Jays on Wednesday.

“It’s easier to put up with that kind of stuff when the guy is hitting
.300,” one veteran Braves player said in reference to the fact that he
and his teammates have been less forgiving of Escobar’s mental mistakes
while watching him hit just .239 with ZERO homers and 19 RBIs this
year. 

When you look at Gonzalez’ career statistics you see
jumps that appear to be as dramatic as the ones Escobar has staged while
drawing attention to himself in the on-deck circle.

When you
look at Escobar, you see a 27-year-old shortstop with a world of
potential and a personality that could have proven to be detrimental to
the Braves as they attempt to make a strong postseason push this year. 

Wren
saw this potential and also recognized the fact that many members of
his team wanted him to get rid of Escobar. Thus when the Blue Jays were
willing to offer Gonzalez and two respected  20-year-old prospects
(shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and left-handed pitcher Tim Collins), he
jumped at the opportunity.

The Braves needed a Major League-ready
shortstop who would be as affordable as Escobar.  Gonzalez will receive
$2.5 million via an option for the 2011 season and Escobar will make
around $3 million when he becomes an arbitration-eligible player at the
end of this season.  

“How can (the Braves) want to get rid of a
guy so bad and then end up getting a shortstop and two good prospects
like that in return,” one American League scout questioned Wednesday
afternoon.    

As the Blue Jays look toward the future, they
have reason to be happy with Escobar’s capabilities.  As I’ve said many
times, he was the most valuable Braves player in 2009 and remains one of
the game’s best defensive shortstops.

Wren said Gonzalez is
comparable to Escobar defensively, but “not as flashy.”  That will be
just fine with the members of the Braves coaching staff who grew tired
of watching the Cuban shortstop attempt to make the routine double play
turn into one that appear on all the highlight shows. 

Over the
course of the next couple months, the Braves will likely be happy with
the fact that they’ve replaced Gonzalez with Escobar.  It appears he’ll
have little trouble fitting into this clubhouse. 

“I can’ say
enough about Alex Gonzalez the person more than the player,” Blue Jays
GM Alex Anthopoulos said.  “The production and the results speak for
themselves. As I told Alex, the two most professional position players
that I’ve probably been around in my time in the game has been Scott
Rolen and Alex Gonzalez. Just the way he carries himself, the way he
conducts himself, he’s a tremendous teammate and a quiet leader — not
an easy guy to part with.” 

Based purely on talent and
potential, it wasn’t easy for the Braves to part ways with Escobar.  But
as he continued to prove stubborn and unwilling to learn from his
mistakes, he left Wren with no choice.

Wagner declines All-Star invitation

Billy Wagner was appreciative Saturday night when he was extended an invitation to pitch in this year’s All-Star Game.  But the Braves closer has decided it would be better for him to spend the next few days resting his sore right ankle.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel invited Wagner when it was determined Jason Heyward wouldn’t be ale to play in Tuesday night’s game.  Heyward’s roster spot will now be filled by Dodgers left-handed reliever Hong-Chih Kuo.

“It’s just good that I take some time off,” Wagner said.  “I can pitch on it.  But I’d hate to try to push it, when I know that I had some time. I’d feel better if I knew that I was around for the whole duration of this year, rather than trying to fight through this ankle all year.  When we get closer to the end, I’m going to have to be ready to go everyday and there’s no days off.”

Along with converting 20 of his 23 save opportunities, Wagner has posted a 1.24 ERA, compiled a 0.86 WHIP, and limited opponents to a .162 batting average and .492 OPS.   Each of these marks stand as the best compiled by any National League closer this year.
 
Since turning his ankle during June 17 appearance against the Rays, Wagner has been unavailable to pitch just one game.  While bothersome, the ailment hasn’t prevented him from continuing his dominant run toward retirement.
   
In the 11 innings Wagner has completed since turning his ankle, he has allowed one earned run, surrendered five hits and recorded 17 strikeouts.  

Wagner, who has shown no signs that he will alter his plan to retire at the end of this season, will still be recognized as gaining this seventh career All-Star selection.  He will not accompany the five other Braves All-Stars to Anaheim this week. 

 

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