January 2011

Odds and ends: Heyward, Teheran, etc.

Before I get married this weekend and enjoy both a Hawaiian honeymoon and Steelers Super Bowl victory next week, I’m providing this entry full of some things I’ve heard or discussed over the past week. 

Heyward update: There didn’t seem to be much reason for concern when Jason Heyward said Wednesday that he still doesn’t have full range of motion in the left thumb that he injured in May.

“I don’t have any pain in it, but I still don’t have the full range of motion in it,” Heyward said. “I still can’t bend it anywhere close to where it was before.  I don’t know if I ever will be able to do that.  But I know it’s not holding me back from hitting.”

If he were a professional thumb wrestler, there might be some concern about Heyward’s limited range of motion.  But given that he’s still happy with the career choice he’s made at the ripe age of 21, it should simply be comforting to hear him say he’s able to swing the bat in a pain-free manner. 

Teheran, a sleeper for fifth spot?:  Two weeks ago, the Braves informed Julio Teheran that he was invited to attend his first big league camp this year.  This wasn’t a surprise.  Nor was it surprising to see the 20-year-old right-hander listed among MLB.com’s 10 best prospects. 

Teheran is one of the finest pitching prospects to ever pass through the Braves organization and they certainly don’t have any plans to rush his development. 

But based on what they’ve seen from him, there are some members of the Braves organization who believe Teheran will make it difficult for them to determine when or maybe even if they should send him to back to Minor League camp. 

Given that Teheran has had one injury-free professional season, which consisted of just 142 innings, there is very little reason to believe the Braves would begin the season with him in the Majors.  But the fact that they are at least anticipating that he will make them debate the possibility gives you a better idea about how special this kid could be.

Wishing the best for Pete: It was nice to catch up with Pete Van Wieren this week and even better to hear him say that doctors are optimistic as he nears what is scheduled to be his final round of chemotherapy treatment.  His final treatment is scheduled for Feb. 7.  

Van Wieren has been undergoing these treatments once every three weeks since learning in October that he would have to once again battle against cutaneous B-Cell lymphoma.  He battled this same condition around this time last year. 

It was discouraging to hear Van Wieren say that he won’t make it down for any portion of Spring Training this year.  But it was encouraging to learn, the proud grandfather is planning to take the grandchildren to Disney during the early days of April.

The treatments have weakened him to some degree.  But it was still great to hear the excitement in his voice when he spoke about being able to play poker and watch baseball again some time soon. 

Wide-eyed Minor Leaguers: The Braves seemed quite pleased with how their first Rookie Development Program went last week.  It was cool to see how the Minor Leaguers reacted while listening to the motivational speeches delivered by John Schuerholz and then Bobby Cox. 

I just wish I would have been in the room when the young kids looked up and saw Hank Aaron just walking through the middle of the clubhouse.  It was an unplanned part of the program.  Aaron was simply making his exit after completing an early-morning workout.

It was nice to get to talk to some of these prospects and put a face to a name.  Matt Lipka had a stronger frame than I envisioned when the Braves took him with their first selection in June.  This probably had something to do with the tales about the success he enjoyed as an All-State wide receiver in Texas. 

Lipka has spent the past couple of months working out a gym owned by former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson.  He has added some upper body mass and focused on maintaining the speed that proved so appealing to baseball scouts last year. 

Out of all the players the Braves worked out at Turner Field before last year’s Draft, there was just one that proved to be faster than Lipka. 

His name is Kyle Wren, the son of Braves general manager Frank Wren.  Kyle is projected to serve as Georgia Tech’s starting centerfielder as a true freshman this year. 

Catch you in a couple weeks.    
  

Odds and ends from an icy week

When Fredi Gonzalez answered the phone Wednesday and informed me that he and Roger McDowell were in the process of shoveling Bobby Cox’s driveway, I figured I had gained a light-hearted tidbit to start a story. 

But when Cox called from his sunny Mexico locale Thursday, he informed me that I didn’t get all of the story.  In fact, I missed what truly was the humorous part. 

When I told Cox that Fredi and Roger had cleaned his driveway, he said, “Yeah, I know.  Did they also tell you that they both fell down and slid all the way to the bottom of the driveway?”

That would have been priceless.  Roger has proven that he has the versatility that most other closers have never possessed.  I mean over the course of the past two decades he has been both the Second Spitter and the Second Luger.  Not many people can ever cough that up when composing their bio.

OK, enough of the winter-related nonsense.  I mean, we don’t even have time to mention that the number of school days missed by our kids here in Atlanta matched the number of wins Kawakami totaled in his final 33 starts with the Braves. 

Speaking of Kawakami, it will be interesting to see if the Braves decide to invite him to Spring Training. 

Julio Teheran, who will most likely be among this year’s non-roster invitees, will be one of the 26 Braves prospects who will gather at Turner Field next week for the club’s first Rookie Development Program.

Teheran, Edward Salcedo, Randall Delgado, Christian Bethancourt, Matt Lipka, Arodys Vizcaino and Tyler Pastornicky are among the most recognizable prospects who have been invited to participate.

They will participate in some on-field activities with Minor League field coordinator Dave Trembley and also learn about some off-field issues, like how to deal with the media and social media. 

When you get a chance, check out the story I wrote about Chipper today.  It’s tough to say somebody looked good when they are in an indoor batting cage in the middle of January.  But as he continued to center Alan Butts’ pitches today, you could see Chipper still has that confidence and swagger. 

It’s amazing how things have changed since June, when he was ready to retire at the end of 2010.  While talking to him today, I would have to say that he genuinely believes that 2012 could be in his future. 

 
 
 

Wren takes a neccessary gamble on Uggla

Over the past few years I’ve heard some Braves players and coaches complain about the fact that the front office has not been able to make the likes of Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew and Mark Teixeira anything more than short-term rentals. 

Sheffield, Drew and Teixeira each made an impact during their short stays in Atlanta.  But they weren’t given the opportunity that awaits Dan Uggla, courtesy of the five-year $62 million contract extension he and the Braves agreed to Tuesday night.

Uggla gained the fifth guaranteed year that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria wondered would be granted by another club. 

When talking to the Marlins about a five-year deal, Uggla was believed to be asking for $71 million.   So for now, it could be said that the Braves gained somewhat of a bargain. 

But as we all know, deals of this magnitude will only prove to be a bargain if the expected production is maintained over the life of the five-year deal.  

Braves general manager Frank Wren has made an aggressive commitment by giving Uggla this five-year deal, which includes the highest annual average salary  ($12.4 million) ever given to a second baseman.

Consequently, Wren has opened himself up to the criticism that he and each of his peers are forced to take any time they do something out of the ordinary.

But I’m guessing that Wren will be sleeping much more
comfortably than Nationals GM Mike Rizzo might any time he attempts to
break down the seven-year, $126 million contract he provided Jayson
Werth, who just happens to be 10 months older than Uggla.

Here’s a look at the numbers produced by Werth and Uggla over the past three years: 

Uggla:  .264 BA, 96 HR, 95 doubles, 11 SB, 287 RBI, .855 OPS 

Werth: .279 BA, 87 HR, 88 doubles, 53 SB, 251 RBI, .889 OPS  

Werth would certainly be considered more valuable from a defensive perspective and he has already proven to be valuable for championship-caliber teams in the heat of the postseason. 

But can you justify him getting nearly two times the amount as Uggla spread over two additional years?  

Not within the realm of the business model utilized within this baseball world that simply forces fans to routinely debate things like the value Uggla might bring over the course of five seasons. 

Some have already questioned how productive Uggla will be when he’s 35 years-old and entering the final year of this contract.  Others have already grown concerned about the possibility that his defensive liabilities could trump his offensive contributions over the life of a five-year deal.

These are both legitimate concerns, especially now as improved drug policies have seemingly made players north of 35 to once again be classified as “aging”.  But in reality, none of us, Wren included, knows exactly what Uggla will end up doing over the length of this contract.

As Andruw Jones was preparing to enter the free-agent market following the 2007 season, I wrote a story that was essentially based around the “buyer beware” theory.  After watching him on a daily basis, I had gained a sense that playing on a daily basis for so long had taken a toll on his legs, which were supporting a frame that had added a few pounds over the previous few years.

The story infuriated his agent Scott Boras, who basically told me I was ignoring what many of the other great players had recently done in their 30s. But it certainly didn’t influence Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who gave the veteran outfielder an ill-fated two-year, $36 million contract.

Colletti certainly didn’t know Jones would hit .158 and total three homers while lasting just one year in Los Angeles.  Nor did I envision that Andruw would hit just .204 with a .724 OPS over the course of these past three seasons.

After watching Jones on a daily basis over the previous six months, it was simply obvious that he was in decline.  It certainly didn’t take a genius to figure out that he simply didn’t look like himself while hitting .222 with a .724 OPS in 2007.

Considering that Jones’ demise with the Dodgers happened while he was 31 years-old might not be encouraging within the framework of a story about Uggla, who will hit this age in March. But there really isn’t any comparison here.

Jones played a much more grueling position on an everyday basis for 10 consecutive years before he began his rapid decline.  Entering just his sixth Major League season, Uggla enters 2011 with plenty of momentum. 

While .287 with 33 homers and an .877 OPS this past summer, Uggla solidified his place as one of the game’s best offensive second basemen.

Over the past three seasons, Uggla has hit .264 with 96 homers and 287 RBIs.  He’s totaled 16 more homers and 21 more RBIs than any other Major League second baseman during this period.

Uggla  has hit at least 30 homers in each of his past four seasons and the 154 homers he has compiled over the past five seasons are 20 more than the total amassed by any other Major League second baseman. 
 
Philadelphia’s Chase Utley and New York’s Robinson Cano are the only second baseman to produce an OPS greater than the .837 mark that Uggla has posted during his first five Major League seasons. 

Uggla’s .488 career slugging percentage ranks as the fifth-best mark among second basemen in Major League history and his .837 mark ranks 10th. 

Looking simply at these numbers, Uggla has a chance to be considered one of the best second basemen the game has seen.  But those who have watched him play on a daily basis have questioned whether he is best utilized as a second baseman.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has said all the right things when asked about the defensive skills he’s watched Uggla display essentially on a daily basis over the past four years. Others who have routinely watched the Marlins have said they are among those who view him as a defensive liability.

In a perfect world void of emotions, the Braves could have kept Martin Prado at second base and moved Uggla to left field for this upcoming season. 

But in this world that is filled with both oxygen and pride,they had no choice but to grant Uggla his wish to remain at second base.  If they had approached him about the possibility of making the move to the outfield, he would have likely spent his one year in Atlanta and entered next year’s free-agent market looking for a club to provide both riches and a chance to play second base.

If Uggla’s glove proves to be too much of a liability over the next few seasons, the Braves could always approach him about the possibility of changing positions. But for now the plan is for him to spend the next five seasons as Atlanta’s second baseman.

Check back some time during the 2015 season to see how a 25-year-old Jason Heyward is faring and to further debate whether Wren was wise to give Uggla the five-year deal way back in the early days of 2011.     

 

 

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