August 2010

Freeman headlines list of September call-ups

When Nate McLouth arrived at Spring Training as the projected leadoff hitter, there was little reason to believe the Braves would head into September with reason to believe that Freddie Freeman could actually play a greater role in the midst of a pennant race.  

McLouth has completed his return journey to the Minor Leagues and will be in uniform for Tuesday night’s game against the Mets.  Freeman will make his much anticipated arrival to the Majors when the rosters expand Wednesday.  

Freeman, left-handed reliever Mike Dunn, right-handed reliever Scott Proctor, catcher J.C. Boscan and Kenshin Kawakami will all be added to expanded roster Wednesday. 

The Braves optioned Kawakami to Rookie Level Danville Tuesday, less than 24 hours after bringing him back to the Majors.  This move allowed them to activate McLouth, who hit just .205 in the 83 at-bats he compiled with Triple-A Gwinnett in August.

While McLouth’s bat is no longer viewed as a weapon, his speed could allow him to earn one of the final spots on the postseason roster.

Kawakami’s projected role is to serve as reliever in Atlanta for the remainder of this season.  But things could change if Derek Lowe feels some arm discomfort during today’s side session.

Freeman will spend the remainder of this season doing more than simply getting a taste of the lifestyle that awaits when he becomes Atlanta’s first baseman next year.  The highly-regarded prospect will enhance the bench’s depth and likely spell Derrek Lee for a few games.  He has hit .351 with 13 homers since June 1. 
 
Dunn and Proctor will enhance the bullpen’s depth.   Boscan will serve as the third catcher that Bobby Cox always likes to have on his roster during September.   It will be interesting to see if he’s willing to carry a third catcher if he’s given a chance to compose a postseason roster. 

Proctor has struggled in his attempt to return from Tommy John surgery.  But the veteran reliever has allowed just one earned run and five hits in his past nine innings for Gwinnett. 

Craig Kimbrel and Cristhian Martinez are expected to be added to the expanded roster once Gwinnett’s season concludes. 
 

 

Returning to work on regular rest

Like Jair Jurrjens, I am returning to work tonight on regular rest.   Over the past four days, I’ve drained both a bank account (down payment) and countless calories (moving boxes, furniture and whatever else Tammy wanted) while moving into our new house.  

Still I wouldn’t say this past weekend was as draining as the experience Jurrjens had last Wednesday, when he squandered a 10-1 lead and played the central role in what had to be the worst meltdown I’ve witnessed during my 10 seasons on the Braves beat.

What?  You guys have all moved past that Coors Field disaster.  Sorry to rekindle a nightmare, less than 24 hours after Matt Diaz and Brian McCann gave the Braves their Major League-high 23rd last at-bat (11th walk-off) win of the season.   

But to once again show why I believe this Braves team is a team of destiny, I had to remind you of the short time span that elapsed between this demoralizing loss and yet another thrilling victory.   

During a radio interview with 790 The Zone Friday afternoon, I was asked if the loss to the Rockies would create a debilitating hangover effect.  It might have seemed like it a few hours later when Tommy Hanson endured a second straight rough outing.   But in all honesty, this was a question that didn’t elicit a quick and clear response.  

The question was certainly justifiable.  But while watching this team score a Major League-high 240 runs after the seventh inning this year,  I guess I’ve forgotten the fact that they might at times be prone to the mental pitfalls that exist in both life and the athletic world.  
There’s no doubt that the flight from Denver back to Atlanta was a little more somber than the many others the Braves have experienced this year.  But this isn’t a bunch that was going to replay Wednesday’s events in their heads too long.
 
Instead, this never-say-die bunch was unknowingly positioning itself to fittingly become the first team to ever win a game that ended with an instant replay review.   OK.  The review obviously wasn’t instant.  But the 86-second review process proved to be shorter than the added argument that would have ensued.  

Infante Watch:  Omar Infante went hitless during the opener and finale of this past weekend’s series against the Marlins.   The last time he went  hitless twice in a span of three consecutive starts was July July 17 (vs. Brewers) and July 20 (vs. Padres).

Infante’s .341 batting average would lead the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify to be listed among the league leaders.   The versatile Venezuelan has collected 360 plate appearances and would need to average 4.4 plate per game to reach the 502 plate appearances necessary to qualify for the batting title without penalty.   

Infante has averaged 4.6 plate appearances per game since moving into the leadoff role on a permanent basis on Aug. 2.  If he continues to produce like he has over the past couple of months, there’s certainly reason to believe he could win the batting title after his batting average is adjusted to show him hitless over the number of plate appearances that separate his season total and the 502 needed to qualify without this penalty being assessed.   

Using the assumption that Infante could be given three days to rest down the stretch, his current average would drop from .341 to .327 if you were to account for him going hitless over 15 at-bats.   The red-hot Carlos Gonzalez enters this week leading the National League with a .326 batting average.
 
As Infante continues to compile plate appearances, there will be a less significant effect on his adjusted average.  

Cox’s last ejection?  You have to wonder if yesterday marked the last time that we will see Braves manager Bobby Cox ejected.  With 32 regular season games remaining, Cox has been tossed four times this year (once every 32.5 games).  When you account for the fact that one of these ejections (Jonny Venters’  hitting Prince Fielder) didn’t even include a heated exchange with umpires, there’s certainly a chance that the beloved manager will head into retirement with his all-time ejections record total sitting at 157.  

NOTES:  Jurrjens is 5-0 with a 1.81 ERA in seven home starts and 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA in nine road starts this year.   He has notched each of those five wins while posting a 1.71 ERA in the five starts he’s made at Turner Field since returning from the disabled list…Freddie Freeman has hit .352 with 13 homers since June arrived.   The highly-regarded first base prospect might be too young to fill an everyday role in the midst of a pennant race.  But you’d have to think he could certainly help the Braves in September and maybe even October.  

Without Holliday, Coors Field might feel like a vacation spot for Lowe

Once Todd Helton retires or at least ends his long career with the Rockies, Tim Hudson will finally understand what it’s like to exit Coors Field without frustration.   This belief is strengthened by what transpired last year when Derek Lowe learned how tranquil Denver can be without the presence of Matt Holliday.
 
Against Lowe, Holliday hasn’t matched the perfection that Helton has produced while recording hits in each of the eight at-bats he’s ever recorded against Hudson at Coors Field.  

But Holliday is certainly a primary reason that Lowe will return to Blake Street tonight having gone 3-4 with a 5.66 ERA in nine career starts at Coors Field.    The All-Star outfielder batted .650  (13-for-20) with a 1.167 OPS against the veteran sinkerballer in Denver.  He has been just a .333 (5-for-15) hitter against  him in environments that don’t include the thin Rocky Mountain air.

When Lowe made his Coors Field debut for the Red Sox during Holliday’s 2004 rookie season, he tossed seven scoreless innings.  He has allowed four earned runs or more in five of his other eight starts at this spacious park that is an offensive haven, with or without the humidor. 

When Holliday was a member of the A’s on July 10 of last year, Lowe exorcised some of his Coors Field demons by limiting the Rockies to one run and four hits over six innings.  During his third start of this season,  he recorded yet another win against  the Holliday-less Rockies.  

Lowe has gone 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA in his past five starts against the Rockies, dating back to June 2, 2008.   It should be noted that just one of these starts was made in Denver. 
Another thing going for Lowe is the fact that the Rockies aren’t planning to wear “Nationals” across their chests tonight.  

Lowe has gone 3-6 with a 3.65 ERA in his past 13 starts.   In the 10 starts that weren’t made against the Nationals during this span, he has gone 3-3 with a 2.93 ERA.  

Heyward heating up
:  Before grounding into a double play to end the seventh inning last night, Jason Heyward had reached base safely in 10 consecutive plate appearances and recorded hits in seven consecutive at-bats.
  
Over his past three games, Heyward has recorded nine hits in 13 at-bats.   Not bad considering he had totaled just nine hits in his previous 56 at-bats this month.   Before starting this mini-surge on Saturday, the rookie All-Star had hit .171 over his previous 21 games. 

After Sunday’s four-hit, two-homer performance at Wrigley Field, Heyward admitted  he’s still feeling some discomfort in the bruised right thumb that plagued him throughout June and sidelined him during the two weeks leading up to the All-Star break.  

Still while health has played a part, his inconsistencies are also a product of the fact that this 21-year-old outfielder is still going through the sometimes cruel initiation process that has welcomed almost everybody who has had the opportunity to play in the Majors. 

Through May, Heyward was on pace for a 30-homer season and seemingly destined to be named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.   The thumb injury opened the door for Giants catcher Buster Posey and Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez to join the Braves outfielder as top NL ROY candidates.

If the past couple days are an indication of things to come, Heyward could certainly end the season hitting above .280 with 18-20 homers and 80-plus RBIs.  Entering his first Major League season, I don’t think much more should have been expected from him.

One more late night:  If any of you need to go to bed before the conclusion of tonight’s game, but still want to know the outcome before you wake up, I suggest you simply watch what transpires in Philadelphia tonight.
 
Since trading wins and losses on Aug. 13 and 14, the Braves and Phillies have experienced the same verdict during each of the past eight days that they both have played games.

The Braves own the same 2 -game lead they held over the Phillies at the end of play on Aug. 1.  They are also 3 1/2 games in front of the Cardinals and Giants, who both sit a game behind the front-running Phillies in the NL Wild Card race. 
 

Infante improving odds of winning a batting title

Here’s the shortened version of an earlier entry that disappeared like Luis Valdez.

Omar Infante learned this afternoon that his three-homer performance during this past weekend’s series in Chicago allowed him to earn National League Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career. 

Infante’s bid to win his first career batting title will be influenced by the fact that he didn’t become an everyday part of the Braves lineup until the early portion of July. 

With 333 plate appearances entering Monday, Infante would need to compile 169 plate appearances (4.4 per game) over the Braves final 38 games to raise his season total to  502, the mark that allows a player to qualify for the batting title without penalty. 

If a player falls short of this mark, his candidacy for the batting title would be based on where his batting average would stand after accounting for him going hitless over the number of at-bats that would raise his season plate appearance total to 502.

The .370 batting average Infante has compiled since June arrived has been bettered only by the .410 mark posted by top American League MVP candidate Josh Hamilton.  Buster Posey (.333) and Joey Votto (.331) are the only NL players to hit better than .330 during this span.

Entering Monday, Votto led the NL with a .323 batting average.   If Infante is able to keep his batting average above .340, this might be the year that he could win a batting title even if he comes up shy of the necessary plate appearances.  

Minor rest:  Bobby Cox confirmed that he will utilize the benefits of Thursday’s scheduled offday and give Mike Minor a few extra days of rest before his next start.  Minor, who matched a franchise rookie record with 12 strikeouts Sunday in Chicago, will make his next start next Tuesday against the Mets.

Instead of assigning him a certain number of innings, the Braves believe they can protect Minor’s workload by giving him extra days of rest when possible.   Basically Cox wants the rookie right-hander as a part of his rotation for the remainder of this season.

Sorry for keeping it brief.  Let’s just say that my computer had visa issues.  Oh wait, I forgot that was Valdez’s excuse.

TONIGHT’S LINEUP

Infante 4
Heyward 9
Prado 5
Lee 3
McCann 2
Hinske 7
Gonzalez 6
Ankiel 8
Hudson 1

 

     

 

Hanson needs something more than another thrillng finish

Welcome back to Wrigley Field, the second-best stop on the National League circuit.  San Diego still ranks as the best stop on the Senior Circuit.  But it’s hard to beat a trip to Chicago in the summer the months.   

There were a number of Braves fans present to see Rick Ankiel deliver his two-out game-winning triple on Carlos Marmol’s two-strike delivery yesterday.  With this clutch delivery, Ankiel became the 14th different Braves player to collect a game-winning RBI this year. 

As you already know, Bobby Cox said he told assistant trainer Jim Lovell before Friday’s game that he expected Ankiel was going to have a big series.  <p>

“He was due,” Cox said after Friday’s 5-3 win. 

Since being acquired from the Royals, Ankiel has proven to be a superb defender, who benefits from what Cox described as “the best outfield arm” that he’s seen during his years in professional baseball. 

At the plate, Ankiel recorded just five hits in his first 36 at-bats for the Braves.  But the former pitcher entered this afternoon’s game having hit .421 (8-for-19) over his past six games. 

Ankiel was due to deliver at the plate and also due to become the latest to deliver the decisive hit in one of the Major League-high 22 last at-bat wins recorded by the Braves this year.  This is the highest total posted by the Braves since they notched 31 such victories in 1999. 

Jason Heyward has accounted for five of the decisive hits in these last at-bat wins and Brooks Conrad has tallied three others.  Ten other Braves have accounted for the hits that have proven to be the difference in these thrilling victories.

“It’s like there’s something in the water around here,” Ankiel said.  “It’s fun.  It’s like no matter what, we’re never out of it.  It’s fun to be a part of it.”   <p>     

Tommy Hanson enters this afternoon’s start as the only pitcher since 1913, when earned runs were deemed an official stat in the National and American Leagues, to go winless over a span of five consecutive starts in which he’s allowed one earned run or fewer.  

The Braves have scored two runs or fewer when Hanson has still been the pitcher of record over the course of his past five starts.   He would have still won one of these games had Billy Wagner not erased a one-run, ninth-inning advantage against the Astros on Aug. 11. 

When Wagner was told that he has one fewer win (7) than Hanson (8), he said, “Yeah, that’s partly my fault.” 

Three of the four save opportunities that Wagner has blown since July 21 have cost Hanson wins.   Thus the 23-year-old hurler enters this start having gone 0-2 with a 1.33 ERA over his past six starts. 

TODAY’S LINEUP
Infante 4
Heyward 9
Prado 5
Lee 3
Diaz 7
Gonzalez 6
Ross 2
Ankiel 8
Hanson 1
   

Lee will bat cleanup in Braves debut

When the Braves acquired Derrek Lee Wednesday, I thought Braves manager Bobby Cox would flip-flop Brian McCann (vs. right-handers) and Derrek Lee (vs. left-handers) in the cleanup spot. 

So much for assuming. 

Lee will bat cleanup this afternoon when he faces his former Cubs teammates, who will be sending right-hander Ryan Dempster to the mound to oppose Jair Jurrjens.

Obviously it wasn’t enough to simply ask Lee to make his Braves debut less the 48-hours after he was forced to say goodbye to his Cubs teammates.  Facing Dempster for the first time in his career will simply stir the emotions of Atlanta’s new first baseman.

Dempster and Lee grew up together in the Marlins organization and were teammates in Florida through the early portion of the 2002 season.  They were reunited when they both joined the Cubs in 2004.  

There’s no doubt that Dempster shared a special bond with Lee, who has been beloved by his teammates throughout his career.  

Late last night I received a text from Mark Kotsay that simply read, “You’re going to love  my boy D. Lee.” 

I’m heading down to the clubhouse to meet Lee.  Check back in throughout the day for updates. 

TODAY’S LINEUP
Infante 4
Heyward 9
Prado 5
Lee 3
McCann 2
Gonzalez 6
Cabrera 7
Ankiel 8
Jurrjens 1

    

Braves and Cubs still discussing Lee

UPDATED:

The Braves appear to be in the final stages of the process to land veteran first baseman Derrek Lee from the Cubs. Multiple sources seem quite confident that the trade will completed within the next hour or two.  

Lee’s recent back problems are certainly concerning.  But at the same time, it has simply been uncomfortable to watch Troy Glaus play through the leg discomfort that has him to be a liability in the lineup the past couple of months. 

The Braves have seen enough to know that Glaus’ legs aren’t going to get any better this year.  They can only hope that Lee’s back discomfort proves to be temporary. 

With Adam LaRoche reportedly clearing waivers, the Braves would have an option to bring him back to play first base for the rest of this season.  But they would rather get a right-handed bat with the power potential that Lee finally showed again this weekend.

Lee has batted .282 with six homers and a .454 slugging percentage over his past 43 games.  Four of those homers were compiled this weekend against the Cardinals.  Braves top scout Jim Fregosi was present during that three-game series in St. Louis.   <p>

Given that most of his recent power came during this recent three-day stretch, Lee isn’t a definite solution to the Braves offensive problems.  Entering this past weekend, he had homered just twice in his previous 41 games.

But while hitting .265 with a .682 OPS  during this 41-game stretch, he at least proved more productive than Glaus, who has hit .175 with a .551 OPS in his past 45 games.

Throw in the fact that Lee is clearly a superior defender and it’s obvious that this trade would at least improve the Braves.   But at the same time, it’s not exactly comforting to know that he would be coming to Atlanta with one of these back problems that seemingly never disappear overnight. 

If this deal falls through, the Braves might at least want to look at the risk of adding LaRoche to their already left-handed heavy lineup.  He has batted .382 (21-for-55) with two homers against left-handed pitchers since the All-Star break. 

Braves attempting to land Derrek Lee

The Braves are aggressively attempting to acquire Cubs veteran first baseman Derrek Lee.  

According to a source familiar with the situation, the Braves are currently evaluating Lee’s health.  The 34-year-old first baseman has recently been bothered by lower back discomfort.   

Lee has a full no-trade clause that he exercised last month when the Cubs attempted to trade him to the Angels.   It is still unknown whether he has said he would accept a trade to the Braves. 

Reached by MLB.com, Lee had no comment. 
 
With Troy Glaus struggling at the plate and experiencing more leg discomfort recently, the Braves have been looking for a veteran first baseman who can hit in the middle of their lineup.  
Lee has  hit .251 with 16 homers and a .751 OPS this year.   The two-time All-Star is in the final year of his contract.  He is still owed  a little more than $3 million for the remainder of this season.  

Prado activated from the disabled list

Martin Prado has been activated from the disabled list and placed in the Braves starting lineup for Tuesday night’s game against the Nationals. 

Prado will bat third and play third base during this series opener against the Nationals.  The All-Star second baseman had been sidelined since July 30 with a fractured right pinky finger. 

With Chipper Jones out with a season-ending knee injury, Prado could serve as the Braves primary third baseman for the remainder of the season.  Over the past two seasons, many within the organization have said this is the position that best satisfies his defensive skills. 

Prado went 1-for-4 while playing a rehab game for Triple-A Gwinnett Monday night.

TONIGHT’S LINEUP

Infante 4
Heyward 9
Prado 5
Diaz 7
Glaus 3
Gonzalez 6
Cabrera 8
Ross 2
Minor 1 

Who should fill the three-hole when Prado returns?

When the Braves needed a leadoff hitter in May, Martin Prado stepped in and filled the role in stellar fashion.  Now that they need a three-hole hitter, he’s once again a primary candidate to fill this role.

There has been reason to believe that Jason Heyward would eventually force himself into the three-hole at some point this season.  But while opting to bat Alex Gonzalez third and keep Heyward in the two-hole during this series against the  Dodgers, Bobby Cox has showed he’s not quite ready to give the phenom this role.

Heyward, who has missed three of the past five games because of a sore right knee, is back in the lineup tonight.  When asked about the ailment yesterday, he essentially said he just wants to make sure he’s healthy and strong down the stretch. 

As the Braves head down the stretch without Chipper Jones, they’re going to need Heyward to move away from his rookie inconsistencies and regain the form that he had while belting 10 homers and compiling a 1.017 OPS through the first 46 games of his career. 

When Heyward batted .389 with a .992 OPS in the first 14 games he played coming out of the All-Star break, he provided indication that he was no longer bothered by the right thumb injury that plagued him throughout June and sidelined him during July’s first two weeks. 

But while hitting .140 and striking out 10 times in his past 43 at-bats, Heyward has provided the reminder that he just celebrated his 21st birthday last week.  There’s no doubt that he and Brian McCann are still the most intimidating figures in the Chipper-less lineup.  But at the same time, the kid is still gaining the experience necessary for to find success in this three-hole for many years to come.

Instead of putting added pressure on Heyward, it might make more sense to put Prado in the three-hole when he returns to the lineup during this week’s series against the Nationals (I’m guessing he’ll be playing in Tuesday’s series opener).

Well it does, until you look at the fact that Prado has hit .242 with runners in scoring position this year. Making matters worse, he has hit a team-worst .156 w/RISP dating back to May 30.

Meanwhile Omar Infante has hit .338 w/RISP this year.  This hasn’t been a fluke.  Since the start of the 2008 season, Infante has also hit .338 w/ RISP  — the seventh-best mark among all Major Leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances in this situation during this span.

While showing increased power with the six homers he hit during the 19 games played before he fractured his right pinky, Prado hit just .250 with a .305 on-base percentage.  In his absence, Omar Infante has provided the kind of production you would want from a leadoff hitter. 

Infante has hit .378 with a .403 on-base percentage in his past 17 games (all starts) and .360 with a .380 OBP over the course of his past 55 games (40 starts).  Throw in the fact that he has the ability to occasionally steal a base and it’s easier to see why I think he would be the better option to bat leadoff in the Chipper-less lineups that will be constructed the rest of this season.    

So Prado possesses the power potential you would want in the three-hole and lacks the speed you would want at the top of the order. Infante possesses the clutch hitting potential you want in the third spot of the lineup and lacks the power. 

With all this being said, it only makes sense to give Brooks Conrad an everyday role, right?  I mean he has homered seven times in 112 at-bats and batted .324 w/RISP this year.  If he continues to thrill in the late innings, Webster’s will soon place his picture beside the word “clutch.”

Now that I’ve allowed loyal blogger “billreef” to get excited, I’ll return to reality and confirm that I realize that now is not the time to place a 30-year-old with 185 career at-bats in the third spot of the lineup of a team with World Series aspirations.

In some ways, I think Heyward is still the best option to place in the third spot of the lineup.  But with Brian McCann continuing to struggle against left-handers this would leave the Braves susceptible to be doomed by late-inning matchups against top left-handed relievers. 

So I say give Prado a chance to further enhance his team MVP credentials by proving that he can end his RISP struggles while hitting in the third spot of the lineup.  His presence there would at least allow Cox to alternate left-handed and right-handed hitters through his lineup.

Here’s how tonight’s lineup looks:

Infante 4
Heyward 9
Gonzalez 6
McCann 2
Glaus 3
Conrad 5
Ankiel 8
Cabrera 7
Hanson 1
  

 

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