October 2010

Presley appears close to becoming Orioles hitting coach

In an attempt to promote good health, here are a few tidbits to chew on this Halloween weekend.  In other words, put down the miniature Snickers bar and strengthen your mind by digesting some of this information. In case you forgot, that candy was bought for those Kris Medlen-sized figures who will soon be knocking on your door.

  • The list of candidates to serve as Fredi Gonzalez’s hitting coach appears to have dwindled.  A Major League source said he expects Jim Presley, who handled this same role for Gonzalez in Florida, to soon sign a two-year deal to become Buck Showalter’s hitting coach in Baltimore.
  • Matt Diaz has privately told some friends that he’d be willing to avoid arbitration and sign for the same $2.55 million salary he earned this past year. Still it appears, the Braves will likely non-tender him and possibly re-sign him if he’s willing to play for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1-1.5 million this year.  With this being said, I won’t be surprised to see Diaz end up in Philadelphia with his good friend and offseason neighbor Charlie Manuel.
  • Derrek Lee, Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito have all been classified as Type A free agents.  With Wagner and Saito both possibly contemplating retirement, their status likely won’t affect Frank Wren’s offseason decisions.  But if other teams show strong interest in Lee, the Braves would be able to more comfortably offer him arbitration without the fear that he would accept and gain a salary of more than $13 million for the 2011 season.

Freeman will not resume playing in the AFL

Braves hand specialist Dr. Gary Lourie examined Freddie Freeman’s injured left thumb in Atlanta Monday and determined that the highly-regarded first base prospect will not resume playing in this year’s Arizona Fall League. 

Lourie determined that Freeman suffered a mild left thumb strain during an AFL game last week.  The 21-year-old first baseman will spend at least the next two weeks at his California home wearing a splint and then return to Atlanta for further evaluation. 

Freeman said there is a chance he could be cleared to begin taking dry swings in three weeks.

Freeman began feeling discomfort in his thumb after attempting to make a diving catch during an Oct. 18 game.  A few innings later, he aggravated the injury while sliding into third base.

The Braves sent Freeman to the AFL to better prepare him for his projected role to begin the 2011 season as their starting first baseman.  He ended up playing just five games with the Peoria Desert Dogs before suffering this thumb ailment.  

After hitting .319 with 18 homers and an .898 OPS for Triple-A Gwinnett this past summer, Freeman was named the International League’s Rookie of the Year.  He hit his first career Major League homer on Sept. 21 against Roy Halladay.  <p>  

  

Freeman returns to Atlanta to have thumb examined

Freddie Freeman has returned to Atlanta to learn when he might be able to resume playing in the Arizona Fall League. 

Freeman will visit with Braves hand specialist Dr. Gary Lourie Monday.  The highly-regarded first base prospect has been sidelined since aggravating a left thumb ailment while sliding into third base during an Oct. 18 AFL game.   The thumb began bothering him a few days earlier when he secured a low throw to first base. 
 
An MRI exam performed last week showed no structural damage to Freeman’s thumb.  <p>
Braves general manager Frank Wren said that he is hoping that Freeman will be able to begin playing again within the next week.  The 21-year-old first baseman played just five games for the Peoria Desert Dogs before his thumb became too painful. 

Freeman is scheduled to fly back to the Phoenix area Monday night.   

Odds and ends: Freeman and Kawakami updates

Now that everyone in the baseball world knows Cody Ross, it’s time to reminisce about the day that Chuck James didn’t. 

Ross homered off James in the second inning of a July 25, 2006 game at Turner Field.  Two innings later, the then-Marlins outfielder took the Braves southpaw deep again. 

Now obviously I wasn’t present to witness the developments that ensued.  But this is how the story has been often told by Braves players over the past few years.

After Ross’ fourth-inning homer gave the Marlins what proved to be a decisive two-run lead, James slapped his glove against the bench and said, “I can’t believe he hit that pitch.” 

This prompted Scott Thorman to say, “I don’t know why you can’t believe it.  He hit that same pitch out two innings ago.”

Further proving that he was never suited to be a rocket scientist, James said, “That was that same guy?” 

While James revived his playing career as an effective reliever in the Nationals Minor League system this year, Ross was enjoying a roller-coaster ride that has introduced him to October fame and put and his Giants teammates one win away from reaching the World Series. 

This certainly didn’t seem to be expected when the Giants slipped past the injury-depleted Braves with three one-run wins in the National League Division Series. But while walking through the Phillies clubhouse after they lost Game 4 Wednesday night, it was obvious that they have certainly come to respect this San Francisco bunch that has verified you can successfully gamble on offensive pieces if you have a strong pitching staff in place.

There is certainly no reason to take anything away from what Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and San Francisco’s solid bullpen have done during this NL Championship Series.  But you have to wonder if they would have found this same level of success if Chase Utley was at full strength. 

Utley injured his thumb sliding into second base on June 28 and learned a few days later that he would need to undergo a surgical procedure that would sideline him for a little more than six weeks.  In the 43 games he played after returning the All-Star second baseman hit .273 with a .410 slugging percentage. 

While going 2-for-15 with no extra-base hits through the first four games of this NLCS, Utley has continued to search for the power he displayed while compiling a .533 slugging percentage in the four seasons combined. 

Sound familiar? 

Jason Heyward hit .299 with a .608 slugging percentage in the 31 games he played before injuring his left thumb sliding into third base on May 14.   The Braves outfielder ended up missing just two weeks (just before the All-Star break) with this injury, which wasn’t deemed serious enough to be surgically repaired. 

But there was no doubt that the injury proved serious enough to prevent Heyward from operating at full strength for the remainder of the season.  He slugged just .421 in the 111 games that he played after jamming his thumb.  The 21-year-old All-Star simply looked fatigued while slugging .385 in his final 30 regular season games. 

Taking two weeks off gave Heyward a chance to occasionally display his great potential in the season’s second half.  But this seemingly wasn’t near enough time for him to completely overcome this thumb ailment, which is similar to the one his good friend Freddie Freeman is currently nursing. 

Freeman jammed his left thumb while sliding into third base during an Arizona Fall League Game Monday afternoon. An MRI exam showed no structural damage to his ligaments. 

But as of late Thursday afternoon, Freeman’s thumb was still pretty swollen and providing a great deal of discomfort.  The Braves aren’t ruling out the possibility that he could begin playing again in the AFL later this month.  They will re-evaluate him again in about a week. 

Progress in Kawakami talks: It sounds like at least one Japanese team has shown strong interest in acquiring Kenshin Kawakami from the Braves.  The club is believed to be willing to assume approximately $3 million of the $6.67 million the Braves still owe the Japanese right-hander next year. 

One Japanese reporter indicted the Yomiuri Giants and Nippon Ham Fighters have shown some interest.  But it’s believed the Braves might have found at least one other more attractive suitor from the Japanese League. 

Heyward’s commercial: Heyward spent a portion of this week in New York City filming a SportsCenter commercial.  The ad, which is expected to run just before the start of Spring Training, will feature him with ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt and the Stanford Tree.  

Braves release Melky Cabrera

When I arrived at AT&T Park for Monday afternoon’s National League Championship Series workout, it seriously felt like it had been two months since Rick Ankiel drilled that 11th-inning pitch into the water and gave the Braves what proved to be their last win of the year. 

It was hard to believe that it had been 10 days since Ankiel delivered that blast and it’s even harder to believe that it’s been a week since awaking with the harsh reality that Bobby Cox’s days as the Braves manager were complete. 

But with memories of the 2010 season still fresh, Braves general manager Frank Wren and many of his top lieutenants are currently in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. planning for the 2011 season. 

While beginning to reconstruct the 40-man roster, they have already released Melky Cabrera, Takashi Saito and J.C. Boscan.  None of these moves were viewed as a surprise.  But I am checking to see why they needed to release Saito, who had signed just a one-year deal.

Cabrera hit .255 with four homers and a .671 OPS in 147 games with the Braves this year.  While taking some bad routes and sometimes looking lackadaisical in the field, he proved to also be a defensive disappointment.  

The 26-year-old outfielder had one arbitration-eligible season left and stood as a prime candidate to be non-tendered.   He hit .274 with 13 homers and a .752 OPS while playing 154 games for the 2009 World Series champion Yankees.

Saito posted a 2.83 ERA in 56 appearances and when healthy, proved to be the reliable setup man the Braves envisioned this year.  But a troublesome shoulder limited the 40-year-old reliever’s workload after the All-Star break and sidelined him for the final two weeks of the regular season.

When the Braves were eliminated from the National League Division Series last week, Saito said he was unsure about whether he would continue to pitch. 

The Braves produced a feel-good story when they brought Boscan to the Majors when the rosters expanded in September.   The 30-year-old catcher has hit .227 with a .629 OPS in 14 Minor League seasons, 12 of which have been spent in the Braves organization.  

Boscan has long appeared to be destined to find some kind of coaching or instructing role within the Braves organization.  If he chooses to continue playing, there’s still a chance the Braves could offer him a chance to play again at Triple-A Gwinnett.

Heading to the stadium now for Game 3 of the NLCS.  I’ll provide updates once I get a chance to talk to Wren.  

Braves were undone by decision to go to Dunn

Instead of simply stating the obvious and reiterating what has been tweeted, blogged and talked about at great length over the course of the past 14 hours, I’m going to blame all the pain and disgust many of you are feeling on Eric Hinske. 

Had Hinske not provided you hope with that go-ahead, eighth-inning blast, Braves manager Bobby Cox might have never made that ill-fated determination that left-hander Mike Dunn had a better chance to retire Aubrey Huff than his strikeout specialist Craig Kimbrel. 

Game 3 was ultimately lost because Brooks Conrad was still showing that same defensive apprehension that many of us, including this National League scout, have witnessed for more than a week.

But had Cox simply allowed Kimbrel a chance to prove that he is indeed ready to serve as the closer, Buster Posey might never have had the chance to shoot and score through Conrad’s legs. More importantly, the Braves might have actually been sending Derek Lowe to the mound tonight to face a short-rested Tim Lincecum with a chance to clinch matchup against the Phillies in the National League Championship Series.

Instead if a short-rested Lowe proves better than 21-year-old Madison Bumgarner tonight, the Braves will have to travel to San Francisco for Wednesday’s Game 5 to face Lincecum, who will have had an extra day to recover from the 119-pitch masterpiece he produced in Game 1.

Before we delve further into this post, I’m not trying to overlook the significance of Conrad’s three-error performance. The ninth-inning error obviously proved decisive.  The errors he made in the first two innings proved destructive as they led to an unearned run and forced Tim Hudson to throw an additional 25 pitches.

Hudson ended up throwing 104 pitches in seven innings.  Without Conrad’s early miscues, the Braves ace certainly could have completed at least eight innings. If that was the case, then Jonny Venters and Kimbrel would have both been available to pitch the ninth inning. 

Instead, Cox chose to pull Kimbrel with runners at first and second and two outs in favor of Dunn, who promptly lost his lefty-lefty matchup by allowing Huff to deliver a game-tying single to right. 

“If [Huff] hits a double or a homer off Kimbrel, then you’re asking why we didn’t bring in the lefty,” Cox said after the game. 

With all due respect, I don’t think this would have been an overwhelming thought even if the much more experienced Venters had still been available.

In Billy Wagner’s absence, Kimbrel stands as the club’s best option in the closer’s role.  Dating back to Sept. 9 extending through the end of the regular season, the 22-year-old rookie matched Wagner with a Major League-leading 18.26 strikeouts per nine innings. 

With runners on first and second and two outs in last night’s ninth inning, the defensively-challenged Braves were certainly in need of one of those strikeouts.  But Cox chose to allow Dunn to face Huff, who hit .297 with an .894 OPS vs. right-handed hitters and .296 with an .884 OPS vs. left-handed hitters this season. 

After spending most of this year with Triple-A Gwinnett, Dunn spent the final month of the season in Atlanta, allowing left-handers to hit .250 (6-for-24) against him.  He did record 12 strikeouts in the 24 at-bats left-handers compiled against him during this span. 

But there certainly wasn’t a reason to replace one rookie reliever with another, especially when the formula includes somebody as talented as Kimbrel.

After he returned to the Majors at the conclusion of Gwinnett’s season, Kimbrel limited left-handed hitters to a .133 batting average.  He struck out 10 of the 15 left-handed batters he faced in this span.  

There was obviously a chance that Kimbrel would have also allowed Huff to tie the game.  But even if everything had played out in the same manner, I don’t think anybody would have second-guessed Cox’s decision to stick with his impressive young right-hander while Dunn remained idle in the bullpen. 

Now the Braves have to find a way to win two games in a row. In the process, they’ll have to arouse a slumbering offense that has tallied just two runs (one earned) against the Giants starters.

And of course, they have to address the Conrad issue.  My guess is that we’ll see Troy Glaus at third base and Omar Infante at second base tonight. Glaus could certainly prove to be a defensive liability at the hot corner. But right now, the Braves have no other choice. 

Plus their lineup might benefit from the instant offense that Glaus could provide with his occasional power.

In San Francisco, the Giants fans chanted “Posey’s better” when Jason Heyward came to the plate.  The Braves fans countered with some “Heyward’s better” chants when Buster Posey strolled to the plate yesterday. 

So far this head-to-head matchup has been a mismatch.   Heyward has struck out seven times and gone hitless in 12 at-bats. Posey has five hits, including a double, and just three strikeouts in 12 at-bats.

Through the first three games of this NLDS, the Giants have undoubtedly been better than what’s left of what was once a pretty good Braves club.

But with Lowe and Tommy Hanson going in the final two games, the Braves can feel that they at least still have a chance.   

Kimbrel gives the Braves peace of mind

When Billy Wagner limped off the field Friday night, I’m sure many of you were saying, “enough is enough.”  Now the Braves can only hope that enough doesn’t prove to be too much.

Without Chipper Jones, the Braves could lean on Martin Prado.  Without Jones and Prado, the Braves find themselves leaning on the hope that their pitching staff will require scoring just a couple of runs or that Giants closer Brian Wilson is asked to record six outs. 

Without Wagner, the Braves have lost the best closer they ever had not named Smoltz.  But with Craig Kimbrel already providing indication that he could soon fit in that elite category, they find themselves capable of surviving without Wagner. 

Manager Bobby Cox has said that he might also utilized Jonny Venters, Peter Moylan or Kyle Farnsworth in the closer’s role, based on the situation of the game.  But right now, Kimbrel legitimately stands as one of the game’s most impressive relievers. 

Dating back to Sept. 9 (when Kimbrel made his first appearance after the completion of Triple-A Gwinnett’s season) and extending through the end of the regular season,  Kimbrel and Wagner led the Majors (min. 10 IP) with 18.26 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Here’s how similar Wagner and Kimbrel truly were dating back to Sept. 9: 

Wagner: 11.1 IP, 4 H, 2 runs, 1 ER, 5 BBs, 23 Ks
Kimbrel:  11.1 IP, 4 H,  0 runs, 5 BBs, 23 Ks.

Kimbrel obviously has nowhere near the valuable experience Wagner has acquired during his storied career.  But the 22-year-old right-hander certainly showed great poise while delivering those two scoreless innings in enemy territory to keep the game scored heading into the 10th inning Friday night. 

With Tim Hudson opposing Jonathan Sanchez this afternoon, the Braves will be looking to win a game that has proven pivotal in most other NLDS.

The team that has won Game 3 to claim a 2-1 series lead has gone on to win the NLDS 15 of 16 times.  Unfortunately for the Braves, the lone exception came after they won two of the first three games they played against the 2002 Giants.     

Reslient Braves will win in four

By now you’ve seen many of the expert predictions and likely come away with the understanding that the Braves are understandably entering this National League Division Series against the Giants as the underdogs.  

My good friend and MLB.com colleague Matthew Leach opened his prediction column with, “If good pitching beats good hitting — and more often than not, it does — just imagine what great pitching can do to a wounded lineup.”  

It makes perfect sense to favor a pitching staff that posted a 1.91 ERA over its final 31 regular season games over a lineup that no longer has the benefit to lean on Chipper Jones or Martin Prado.  

But many of these journalists who are picking the Giants to advance to the NLCS are new to this game of doubting the Braves.  Those of us who spent long stretches of this season doing so have come to realize that this Atlanta bunch seems to be at its best when backed into a corner and left for dead.   

Over the course of the 10 weeks leading into the All-Star break, the Braves weren’t the same team that won just one of its final 10 games in April.  In fact, it would be easy to argue that they spent that span proving to be the National League’s finest.  

They managed to win two of three against the Twins in Minnesota and then returned from that road trip to take two of three from a Rays team that at the time owned the Major League’s best record.   

Unfortunately for the Braves, they enter this postseason having spent the past two months attempting to regain that dominant form that enabled them to win 39 of its final 57 games before the All-Star break.   

When the Braves took three of four from the Giants in August, they were showing signs that they might still be the NL’s best club.  They might have swept that four-game set had they not committed a pair of ninth-inning errors (Jones and Alex Gonzalez) and then issued a pair of 11th-inning walks (Peter Moylan) in the Friday night game.  

A few days later Jones blew out his left knee and forced the Braves to start limping toward the finish line.  Jason Heyward became a monster again near the end of August.  Omar Infante continued to be a steadying force when he took over the leadoff spot after  Prado moved to third base and began batting third in place of Jones.  

Without Jones, the Braves exited August with optimism.  Meanwhile the Giants won just 11 of 26 in August and entered September with their postseason hopes fading.  Adding to the San Francisco fans concerns was the fact that Tim Lincecum had spent the season’s fifth month going 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA.  

With a Derek Lowe-like turnaround, Lincecum went 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September.  If you need a reminder, Lowe went 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his final five starts for the Braves.  

Now Lowe and Lincecum will square off against each other tonight hoping to carry the final-month success into October.  Or maybe more appropriately, both are hoping to be the one that receives the two or three runs of support that could prove decisive in each of the games of this Series that will feature two less-than intimidating offenses.  

Deservedly much has been made about the Giants pitching staff.  But if Lowe continues his recent success, the Braves trio (Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson also included) can prove to be just as effective as Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.  

From an offensive and pitching perspective these two clubs are very similar.  But as one scout mentioned yesterday, this is a Series that could be determined by the gloves.  

The Braves allowed 17 unearned runs in their final 29 games of the regular season.  They had gone through the previous 53 games allowing just 17 unearned runs.  

The Giants allowed just five unearned runs in their final 32 regular season games.  They allowed a total of 17 unearned runs in their final 77 games.  

Bobby Cox has said that the defensive woes are out of his club’s system.  He better hope so because this evenly-matched Series could be decided by just one or two defensive miscues.  

The Giants have home-field advantage, a rock-solid rotation and the momentum created by a strong run through September.  

But proving that I am indeed capable of learning my lesson, I’m not going to once again assume the Braves to be doomed.  In fact, I’m predicting the Braves will win this Series in four games.    

Braves reveal NLDS roster

With some uncertainty still surrounding Takashi Saito’s right shoulder, the Braves opted to include five rookie relievers on their National League Division Series roster.
 
The Braves NLDS roster will actually include a total of seven rookies  —  right fielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Brooks Conrad, right-handed relievers Craig Kimbrel, Cristhian Martinez and Brandon Beachy; left-handed relievers Jonny Venters and Mike Dunn.

This marks the first time in franchise history that the Braves have had seven rookies on a postseason roster.  Yesterday, I indicated that they would like have eight.  But since then, I’ve learned Diory Hernandez is not a rookie. 
 
The Braves will carry two catchers  — Brian McCann and David Ross  — and an 11-man pitching staff.  They plan to use a three-man rotation during this best-of-five series.  

Catchers: McCann , Ross 
Infielders: Derrek Lee, Conrad, Omar Infante, Alex Gonzalez, Troy Glaus  and Diory Hernandez
Outfielders:Rick Ankiel, Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, Heyward, Melky Cabrera 
Starting pitchers:  Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson 
Relief pitchers:  Billy Wagner, Venters, Kimbrel, Peter Moylan,  Dunn,  Beachy, Kyle Farnsworth,  Martinez.   

Braves and Giants preparing for pitching showdown

When the NCAA basketball tourney pairings have been announced in the past, a friend has often hoped that his beloved Oklahoma Sooners play their first round game on Friday night.  

“It makes it feel like you’re in the tournament longer,”  he has playfully reasoned.  

Well all of this year’s American League teams will have played the first two games in their respective Division Series matchups before Tim Lincecum throws his first pitch at 9:37 p.m. ET Thursday night to mark the start of the Braves-Giants National League Division Series.  

In some ways it’s nice to have the extra day to rest some tired arms (Jonny Venters) and tired legs (Brian McCann).  But while sitting here watching Jeff Francoeur drive in the first run of this year’s postseason, you can’t help but grow more anxious just to see what will transpire over the next couple of days, when the Braves and Giants pit their strong pitching staffs against each other.  

Over their final 31 regular season games, the Giants posted a 1.91 ERA.  That staggering number becomes even more impressive when you consider that the San Francisco pitchers not named Barry Zito posted a 1.64 ERA during this span.  

During their final 31 games, the Braves posted a 3.59 ERA.  That number drops down to 2.73 when he don’t account for the damage incurred by Cristhian Martinez,  Mike Minor, Scott Proctor and Jair Jurrjens.   

There is reason to believe that Zito and Jurrjens will both be left off the Division Series roster.  Minor and Proctor definitely won’t be part of the 25-man roster the Braves submit before Thursday morning and Martinez will likely stand simply as the final selection of an 11-man pitching staff.

Before the Braves left Turner Field yesterday, Brandon Beachy confirmed that he will be on the DS roster and Takashi Saito (shoulder) said he would not be included.    Jair Jurrjens would likely have to wait until the NLCS before having a chance to prove that his right knee is truly healthy enough for him to pitch.  

My projected Braves NLDS roster:

Catchers: Brian McCann , David Ross

Infielders: Derrek Lee, Brooks Conrad, Omar Infante, Alex Gonzalez, Diory Hernandez, (updated: erroneously omitted when first published)Troy Glaus

Outfielders:  Rick Ankiel, Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, Jason Heyward, Melky Cabrera

Starting pitchers:  Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson

Relief pitchers:  Billy Wagner, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, Peter Moylan, Mike Dunn, Brandon Beachy, Kyle Farnsworth, Cristhian Martinez.

While posting a 1.91 ERA in their final 31 games, the Giants went 20-11.  Five of those losses came in games started by Zito.   But they also hit just .232 and averaged 3.6 per game runs during this span.  

Sound familiar?  

While winning just 13 of their final 29 games, the Braves hit .243 and averaged 3.5 runs per game.

With Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez getting the ball in the first three games for the Giants, the Braves will spend the next few days gaining more reason to wish Chipper Jones and Martin Prado were still around.   

But with Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson getting the first three starts for the Braves, manager  Bobby Cox’s club certainly also has the potential to prolong San Francisco’s offensive struggles.

Initially I was surprised when Cox chose to go with Hanson instead of Hudson for Game 2.   The veteran skipper has seemingly always favored his veterans.   

But when you look at the .Hanson’s final month (1.81 ERA and .176 opp. BA) and combine it with the fact that Hudson exerted a lot of physical and emotional energy in Sunday ‘s outing against the Phillies, it made sense to give Hudson a chance to get a couple extra days of rest.  

Check MLB.com and braves.com later today for more updates.  Heading to the stadium now for this afternoon’s workout.  

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44,810 other followers