February 2011

Freeman impressing with bat and glove

As we prepare to watch Derek Lowe face the Astros in the third game of this exhibition season, it’s time to throw out some thoughts and observations gathered this past weekend.

Those who have followed Freddie Freeman knew he was quite capable of doing what he did Saturday, when he produced three doubles (one to each field) in Saturday’s opener against the Mets.  Thus, I would have to say it was even more impressive watching him begin a double play in Sunday afternoon’s contest. 

Freeman ranged to his right, regained his balance and used his strong right arm to fire a pinpoint throw to shortstop Alex Gonzalez who then threw to Rodrigo Lopez at first base to complete the twin killing. 

It’s a play you would expect to see at least a handful of Major League first baseman make.  But it’s still impressive to see a 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame start this turn with relative ease. 

Just to give you a sense about how much Freeman’s offseason conditioning program altered his frame, a National League scout very familiar with the Braves first baseman showed up this morning and said, “Wow! Freddie really got big.”

Mike Minor breezed through his 17-pitch, two-inning performance Sunday afternoon in very efficient manner. I’m among those who believe he could benefit from some additional time (a month or two) at the Minor League level. 

But if Brandon Beachy doesn’t give the Braves complete confidence that he will be reliable in the role, then they might not have any other choice but to have Minor start the year in the Majors. 

Yeah, Rodrigo Lopez is around for insurance.  But for now, I think we should just assume that the Braves have learned from the Mark Redman experiment. 

The Braves were given further reason to be encouraged about Chipper Jones when he returned to the park today and said his knee was sound enough for him to once again serve as the designated hitter this afternoon. 

As said before, the left knee is going to continue providing problems as camp continues.  The Braves and Jones are just hoping it becomes less and less of a problem as the days and weeks pass in March. 

Jones might serve as the designated hitter again on Tuesday and then take a break Wednesday when the Braves make the three-hour trek to Ft. Myers to play the Red Sox. Nice  veteran, perk huh? 

By the way, Tim Hudson wasn’t afforded this perk.  He’ll make the three-hour drive to Ft. Myers to make his two-inning exhibition season debut and then make his second start next Monday, when the Braves drive 2 1/2 hours to play the Marlins in Jupiter. 

I haven’t mapped out the rest of his scheduled.  But Huddy said, the rest of his starts are scheduled to be made at Disney.

Scott Proctor wasn’t guaranteed the last available bullpen spot coming into camp and while allowing Russ Adams a three-run homer in Sunday’s loss to the Braves he certainly didn’t aid his cause. 

There’s obviously still plenty of time for Proctor to make many more positive impressions before camp concludes. But if he continues to struggle, that last spot could be grabbed by Cristhian Martinez, who made some contributions in Atlanta last year. 

Martinez is just an early guess.  Don’t forget Fredi Gonzalez didn’t like him enough to find a spot for him in the Marlins bullpen at the beginning of last season.

With this in mind, I’ll say that Stephen Marek and Anthony Varvaro are the two other top candidates. 


Prado 7
McLouth 8
Chipper DH
McCann 2
Uggla 4
Heyward 9
Gonzalez 6
Hinske 3
Hicks 5  



Chipper could debut Sunday

Chipper Jones didn’t make the trek down to Port St. Lucie this morning.  But he does plan to make at least one of his club’s four scheduled trips down here and allow the Mets fans to once again show how much they love their favorite Larry. 

When Chipper arrived at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex Friday morning, he was both frustrated and relieved.   His frustration stemmed from the fact his surgically-repaired left knee had cause him problems again during Thursday’s workout. 

His relief stemmed from the fact that the discomfort had subsided overnight without the need to drain any fluid from his knee. 

A few hours later, Jones ended a two-hour workout with sliding drills (he did slide on his right side) and some baserunning conditioning drills.

“It might take some time,” Jones said. “But I would like by the end of March to be able to go at it every day and not think about it anymore.  That would be perfect world stuff.”  <p> 

Jones’ frustration has been a product of the few rough days he’s had during the early day of camp.  But with this being said, the 38-year-old third baseman has participated in every workout and impressed front office members with the enthusiasm he brings to the park on a daily basis.

Jones could make his Grapefruit League season debut as a designated hitter in Sunday’s game against the Mets at Disney. He would like to begin playing defense in games later in the week.    

It sounds like Kenshin Kawakami could arrive in camp Tuesday or Wednesday.  The Japanese right-hander’s arrival has been delayed because the Braves applied for his visa later than normal.  This was a result of the fact they weren’t sure they were going to invite him to Major League camp. 

A Japanese media member said an Orioles source said their club offered the Braves somewhere between $1-2 million for Kawakami earlier this winter. 

It will be interesting to see if the Braves get at least that amount if they are fortunate enough to find a suitor for Kawakami before the end of Spring Training. 

Schafer  DH
McLouth 8
Heyward 9
McCann 2
Hinske 7
Freeman 3
Conrad 4
Hicks 5
Hernandez 6 

Schafer impressing Fredi with his work ethic

Because there is a potential that Jordan Schafer still has a bright future, it seems hard to believe the Braves would begin the season with him as their fourth outfielder.  It would seem more prudent to allow him to make up for the time he lost the past couple years by spending at least a few months playing everyday in the Minors. 

With this being said, the Braves have to spend the next couple weeks allowing Schafer to play as much as possible in Grapefruit League games.  If Chipper Jones’ knee ever becomes problematic enough that Martin Prado is forced to experience a long-term stay at third base, Joe Mather could play left field. 

But instead of putting too much faith in Mather’s ability to play an everyday role, the Braves would seem better suited to give Schafer every chance he can to play and further prove that he has distanced himself from the left wrist injury that has wrecked his past two seasons. 

In somewhat of a selfish manner, I’m hoping Schafer spends the next couple of weeks proving to be just as exciting as he was during the 2009 Grapefruit League season.  As I’ve said in the past, I’ve grown to like the kid, who has understandably been defined as brash and cocky. 

If he was brash, cocky, lazy and expecting everything to be handed to him, it would be tough to like him.  But while showing some arrogance, this kid has proven that he is willing to work and put in the extra time necessary to resurrect his once highly-promising career.

“I’ll tell you what, (Schafer) and Prado are probably the two hardest-working guys we have,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “They’re here at  6 o’clock in the morning and when you leave, they’re still in there doing something.”

It appears Kenshin Kawakami could arrive in camp next week to get a close look at Schafer’s work ethic. Of course the Braves will be satisfied if he simply arrives in time to prove impressive enough for some pitching-hungry club to prove willing to trade for him and relieve the Braves of some of his $6.77 million salary. 

Kawakami has landed an appointment to complete all of the steps needed to secure his visa.  The Braves believe this should allow him to exit his native Japan within the next couple of days.

By the time Kawakami arrives, Eric O’Flaherty might have fully digested the 48-ounce steak he ate at Shula’s Steakhouse Wednesday night.  He also consumed a bowl of French onion soup long before Chipper was left with the big bill.

  As mentioned earlier this week, Brett Oberholtzer has been impressing many of the Braves coaches during the early days of Spring Training.  In fact, there are some who believe this left-hander out of Delaware will soon be mentioned with the organization’s Big Three —  Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino…Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Nate McLouth, Eric Hinske and Schafer will all make the trip to Port St. Lucie for Saturday’s Grapefruit League season opener. 


Oberholtzer turning heads in Braves camp

MacChip.JPGBrian McCann has won four Silver Slugger Awards and been named to five All-Star teams through the first five full seasons of his career.  But as he watched this man with the 39-year-old surgically-repaired left knee blow by him early this afternoon, he proved he’s also quite capable of impersonating DeAngelo Hall.

Obviously Chipper’s knee was feeling good today as he and the rest of his Braves teammates endured some sprints at the end of this afternoon’s workout.  But he wasn’t necessarily feeling as good as Jason Heyward and Jonny Venters, who both learned how much money they’ll be making this year. 

Heyward’s $496,500 salary is the highest figure the Braves have awarded any player with just one full year of service.  Venters’ 79-appearance season has netted him a $429,500 (corrected) figure, which seems pretty nice for a guy who really wasn’t getting much attention this time of year. 

Every year during Spring Training, there is seemingly at least one guy who emerges as a pleasant surprise.  Last year, it was Venters and this year it might be left-hander Brett Oberholtzer.  The 21-year-old southpaw likely won’t break camp with the big league club.

But Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez is among the members of the Braves coaching staff who have taken notice of Oberholtzer’s pinpoint control. 

In fact when asked who has impressed him most in camp, Perez gave the obvious answer of Julio Teheran and then added just Oberholtzer’s name. 

“He’s impressed me a lot,” Perez said, while adding he likes the approach the young southpaw takes to completing his bullpen sessions. 

Oberholtzer, who was acquired in the eighth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, combined to go 6-8 with a 3.78 ERA in 26 appearances (22 starts) for Class A Rome and Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach last year. 

In the 135 2/3 innings he completed during this span, he recorded 126 strikeouts and issued just 23 walks.

Speaking of Perez, he was quite proud of the way his good friend Javy Lopez dealt with top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt last week.  In camp as an extra coach, Lopez basically told Bethancourt it was time to stop showing the body language that has led some to believe he is lackadaisical and cocky. 

Bethancourt certainly wouldn’t be the first 19-year-old, highly-regarded prospect to be labeled in this manner.  But Lopez basically wanted the young catcher from Panama to gain some of the same lessons he had nearly 20 years ago.

“Javy talked to him a lot and helped him a lot,” Perez said. “Javy told him, ‘I was stupid just like you.’  When he aske what he meant, Javy explained to him that he didn’t always carry himself the right way because he knew he was good and thought people should just adore him. Then he told him that he had to start working harder.   And you know what, he’s looked better the past three days.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez announced Jair Jurrjens will start Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener in Port St. Lucie against the Mets.  For a breakdown of the early exhibition season rotation, click here.

Based on the way the days fall Derek Lowe is lined up to make a third straight Opening Day start for the Braves.  But Gonzalez warned before announcing his rotation that he could tinker with it as the weeks progress. 

It should also be remembered that pitching coach Roger McDowell has attempted to get his starters at least one extra day of rest leading up to their first regular season start. 

If you haven’t checked out some of the things his teammates had to say about his work ethic, check out this story about Martin Prado.

Following Chipper’s lead, it’s time to take this one to the house.

Second week of camp begins

Martin Prado has been one of the first players to arrive at the stadium during Spring Training and he has always been the last to leave this year.  To Brian McCann and those who have known Prado throughout his professional career, this simply isn’t a surprise. 

“You’re not going to find a guy who works harder than him,” McCann said early Monday morning. 

Strength and conditioning coach Phil Falco could only nod his head when he was asked if he basically has to tell Prado that it’s time to leave the weight room.

But Prado has never seemed to believe enough is enough until the late afternoon hours arrive.  Like clockwork, he has been leaving the Spring Training headquarters around 2:45 p.m. ET, or approximately 90 minutes after most of his teammates. 

Prado spent the past two Spring Trainings inspired by the belief that he had to fight for a roster spot.  This year, he’s fighting to prove he can make the quick transition to left field and continue to be the dependable offensive contributor that he has been the past couple of years.

He has spent most of his time focusing on taking fly balls in left field.  But with the realization that he will eventually move back to the infield (this year or within the next couple of seasons), he has also continued to take grounders with Chipper Jones at third base.

PradChip.JPGSpeaking of Chipper, he has had two good days since his surgically-repaired left knee proved to be sore during Saturday’s workout.  As mentioned multiple times, he’s going to have good days and he’s going to have bad days. 

The Braves can only hope that once the middle of March rolls around there are few mentions about his knee. 

Manager Fredi Gonzalez said he isn’t ready to announce his Opening Day starter.  But it seems quite obvious that he will choose either Tim Hudson or Derek Lowe, who has made both of the previous Opening Day starts for the Braves.

With this being said, Gonzalez said he will reveal his Grapefruit League rotation tomorrow.  This might provide at least some clue whether Hudson or Lowe will be on the mound for Opening Day in D.C.  

Tidbits from first full-squad workout.

As he sat at his locker with a sense of frustration showing late Saturday afternoon, Chipper Jones seemed to be having a tough time dealing with the reality that there are simply going to be days when his surgically-repaired left knee doesn’t cooperate. 

Saturday proved to be one of those days. 

“It was a bad day today,” Jones said. “I didn’t feel good doing anything…Some days I wake up and I can tell it’s going to be a good day and other days, I’m going to have to fight my way through it.”  <p>

After running the bases Friday, Jones might have led the knee to decide to prove ornery for Saturday’s first full-squad workout.  He remained active through most of the three-hour workout. 

The veteran third baseman said he probably would have skipped some of the activities that placed too much demand on his knee.  But because they were going over Fredi Gonzalez’s bunt defense and defensive fundamentals, he decided he should participate.

“I didn’t do everything today,”  Jones said. “But I still went out there and got my reps in for three hours.  The good thing is I haven’t had two bad days in a row.  Hopefully, I don’t start now. 

“It’s going to happen.  I just don’t want to pile days on top of each other where I can’t get in shape or get my reps in.  It might keep me from doing my conditioning.  But it’s not going to keep me from doing my reps  — hitting, fielding, throwing.”

Jones said he would rest Saturday night and be back on the field Sunday afternoon, when the Braves resume their workouts.  Players will once again have physicals in the morning.  Thus the workout will begin at 1 p.m. ET.  <p> 

While Jones’ 38-year-old body is giving him some trouble, Martin Prado appears to have overcome the hip pointer and oblique strain that he suffered on Sept. 27.  

Prado has long been known as a workout warrior and he certainly hasn’t disappointed this week.  He has been leaving the park at least two hours after he and his teammates have exited the field this week. 

Most of his time in the afternoons has been spent in the weight room.  While he’s attempting to get stronger, he looks even leaner than he did when he came to camp last year in such great shape. 

Jordan Schafer has also drawn praise from those who have recognized that he came to camp in great shape.  Gonzalez praised his 24-year-old center fielder after watching him take some swings against Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran in live batting practice. 

Earlier this week, Schafer also homered off Jonny Venters who allowed just one homer in his 79 appearances last year.

It should be noted that Venters did throw a four-seam fastball and this is the time of year when the batters know what’s coming. Of course if he had known Venters was throwing his patented two-seamer, it probably wouldn’t have meant a whole lot of difference.

Worth Noting:  Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez arrived Saturday in time for Saturday’s workout…Braves general manager Frank Wren didn’t have any updates when asked about Kenshin Kawakami, who has seen visa problems delay his exit from Japan.


Relaxed setting as pitchers and catchers report

When a member of the Braves clubhouse staff asked if Brian McCann had been seen Monday morning, one of the All-Star catcher’s teammates said “no” and suggested “he’s probably home relaxing and enjoying one of the last day’s off he’ll have in a while.” 

Once the exhibition season begins McCann and his teammates will gain occasional chances to catch your breath.  But as many of the Braves gathered at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex Monday morning, they were celebrating the dawn of a new season and getting ready for the daily grind that will begin Tuesday — when the club’s pitchers and catchers stage their first workout of the season. 

There was a sense of excitement Monday morning when Braves pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training.  The always-enthusiastic and suddenly slimmer Peter Moylan took time to introduce himself to Dan Uggla and marvel at Nate McLouth’s bleach-blonde hair before playing catch. 

Moylan, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel were among those who took time to play catch Monday.  Martin Prado, Jordan Schafer and Uggla took a few swings in the batting cages before the morning hours concluded. 

So far Fredi Gonzalez’s camp has the same exact feel as those conducted by Bobby Cox.  There will obviously be some changes.  But Uggla’s description of Gonzalez’s camps with the Marlins sound a lot like what the Braves experienced under Cox’s direction. 

Once they concluded a Monday morning meeting,  members of the Major League and Minor League coaching staffs and the front office went to a local golf course to enjoy a round together.

Courtesy of a late-morning text, Lowe revealed that McCann wasn’t simply taking it easy Monday.  The veteran pitcher was scheduled to tee off with his catcher at 11:30 a.m.

There will be plenty of other rounds of golf completed over the next couple of weeks.  But most of the rounds will be staged in the afternoon hours.  The pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout Tuesday morning and the first full-squad workout will be held Saturday. 

Because they were injured at the end of last season, Chipper Jones and Prado will both be able to participate on the field during the workouts for pitchers and catchers.

Prado will be taking time to better acquaint himself with the left field position that he acquired once Uggla was obtained via November’s trade with the Marlins.

While the Braves said Prado has played the position consistently during Winter Ball, the former second baseman said his time in the outfield has been rather limited.

“There’s a bunch of stuff I have to work on,” Prado said. “I’m asking everybody for tips.”

When Opening Day arrives six weeks from now,  Prado might find himself quite comfortable with his new surroundings. 

But as he enters the long journey otherwise known as the baseball season, Prado can only view this as one of the many challenges that he and his teammates are destined to encounter.

“We’re like every other team,” Lowe said. “In Spring Training,
everybody thinks they’re going to win.  There’s no negativity yet. 
Nothing bad has happened.  Everybody likes the acquisitions that their
teams have made. We’re no different.” 



In many ways, Spring Training does matter

When Bobby Cox was nearing the end of his managerial career just a few months ago, I began to wonder how so many of our lives might have been different had Ted Turner and the Braves front office not hired Chuck Tanner almost immediately after the 1985 season concluded. 

At the time, Cox was guiding the Blue Jays through their first postseason experience.  Once his club was eliminated, he made it known he wanted to return to Atlanta even though the only job the Braves had to offer was the general manager’s role. 

Had Cox made it known he wanted to get closer to his wife and daughter, Tanner might never have made his way to Atlanta.  At the same time, the Braves might not have gained the direction provided once Cox, Paul Snyder and Bobby Dews committed themselves to overhauling a horrible farm system.

Once Cox returned to the bench in the middle of the 1990 season, he began the historical journey that included 14 consecutive division titles. 

When I asked Cox what would have happened had he returned to Atlanta to be the Braves manager in 1986, he said he would have ended up in “in five different places trying to raise a family.”

Had Cox been forced to continue living the nomadic lifestyle reserved for many baseball managers and coaches, he might have never crossed paths with Fredi Gonzalez — the man he proudly will watch assume his role as the Braves manager.

(Of course if the Braves are 10 games out of first place by the end of May, I’m pretty sure many of you will have wished that Cox never had gained that opportunity to be impressed by Gonzalez.)

Life is full of twists and turns that are influenced on yesterday’s events. There are countless “what if” scenarios that could be analyzed in every aspect of life.  In fact, if we wanted to further the one above, we could ask “what would have happened if the Tigers didn’t make John Smoltz available or if the Cubs gave Greg Maddux what he was seeking?” 

With this said, it was still interesting to sit with Gonzalez this week and hear him talk about “the good fortune” he has experienced during his coaching career. 

While in Atlanta for the final weekend of the 2001 season, the Marlins parted ways with a number of coaches, including Gonzalez.  A few weeks later,  Gonzalez accepted the Braves offer to manage their Class A club in Macon.

It was a role he would have filled had some guy named Carlos Tosca not vacated his role as Triple-A Richmond’s manager to become the Blue Jays manager.  Yeah, this is the same Tosca who will once again serve as Gonzalez’s bench coach this year.

After working in Richmond during the 2002 season, Gonzalez was watching television and saw that Ned Yost was hired to serve as the Brewers manager.  His reaction was simply “good for Ned.”

Soon he realized, it was actually “good for Fredi”.

With Yost no longer around to serve as his third base coach, Cox called Gonzalez and asked him to fill the role. 

It was funny to hear Gonzalez reminisce about taking this call and hearing Cox say, “do you want to talk to your wife about it and call me back?”

Obviously there was no need for Gonzalez to talk to his wife.  This was the opportunity he wanted and the one that brings us where we are today, anticipating how he will do while serving as Cox’s successor.

Those previous 16 graphs were either meaningless or simply longest introduction ever written.  Let’s go with the latter and promise that we’ll make these graphs and thoughts a lot tighter by the time this computer is brought back north at the end of March.

Looking back on the paths traveled by Cox and Gonzalez, we are reminded that every decision and every action can influence what transpires in the future. 

This is pertinent now because over the next few weeks, you’re bound to read or hear somebody say, “it doesn’t matter what happens in Spring Training.”

In some instances, this is somewhat true.  In other words, I don’t think people are going to be overly concerned about what Brian McCann hits or the ERAs produced by Tim Hudson or Derek Lowe during the Grapefruit League season.

Because of the small sample sizes, there really isn’t any reason to put stock in the stats produced during Spring Training.  But with this being said, Nate McLouth is one of those guys who desperately needs to head back north with a batting average that starts with a 3 or above.

McLouth is on a mission to regain his confidence and he’s seemingly made some progress during the winter.  But the only true way for him to truly do this is to find success at the plate during this exhibition season.

As he struggled to hit during last year’s Grapefruit League season, McLouth attempted to convince himself that things would change once the regular season arrived.  When they didn’t, he gained first-hand knowledge of the value of confidence.

The Braves will truly benefit if they are re-introduced to the care-free McLouth, who can provide a power-speed mix at the plate and also play much more aggressive defense than he did during his 2010 nightmare.   

During the past two exhibition seasons, Freddie Freeman has held his own in big league camp.  But now that he’s at the mature age of 21, he will have to do so with the pressure of knowing he’s being counted on to serve as Atlanta’s starting first baseman. 

If he needs any advice about how to handle this pressure, he can simply ask or tweet his good friend Jason Heyward, who truly never seemed fazed by all of the attention he gained when he was in the same position last year.

Heyward, Freeman and many of the other position players will participate in the first full-squad workout next Saturday, exactly one week before the Grapefruit League opener is played against the Mets.

Because the game is in Port St. Lucie, there’s definitely no reason to believe Chipper Jones will be playing in that first game. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll take it easy during the first week of games. 

But it still appears he’s confident that he’ll be ready to play by the time Opening Day arrives.  Whether or not this proves to be true will be dictated by what transpires over the next couple of weeks.

I‘ll be providing regular blog updates again beginning Monday, when Gonzalez welcomes his pitchers and catchers to camp.

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman


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