March 2011

Memories are created on Opening Day

It’s just one of 162 stops on this long journey known as baseball’s regular season.  But something will happen in the baseball world over the course of the next 48 hours that you will remember much better than you would if this same event occurred on any other day between now and Oct. 1.

By the time the regular season concludes, the events of Opening Day will serve as just a tiny portion of the equation that dictates who plays in October.  But Opening Day is still one of the year’s most memorable events for the countless individuals who patiently wait through winter for its arrival.

Anybody have any recollection of the two-homer game Edgar Renteria produced for the Braves in a May 15, 2007 win over the Nationals?  How about the two homers he hit six weeks earlier in an Opening Day win in Philadelphia?

Without baseball-reference.com, I never would have remembered those homers Renteria hit against the Nats.  But I almost vividly remember his second homer on that Opening Day in Philadelphia being an opposite-field shot that landed just above the scoreboard in right-centerfield.

Likewise, I’ll always remember that Jordan Schafer’s Opening Day blast in 2009 landed over Philly’s centerfield wall and of course that monstrous shot Jason Heyward drilled with the first swing of his career last year.

Heyward admires Opening Day blast

It’s difficult to imagine anything proving any more memorable on Opening Day than Heyward’s shot into the Braves’ bullpen.  But those of you who were present on April 3, 2000 might agree that Andres Galarraga made Turner Field shake just as much as Heyward did last year.

After missing the 1999 season while battling cancer, Galarraga ended a scoreless battle with a seventh-inning shot that proved decisive for the Braves in a 2-0 win over the Rockies.

Here is a video clip of Galarraga’s homer.  Check out the excitement shown by Ozzie Guillen, who was in the stands that day to see his good friend’s return.

We’ll have to wait to see if Freddie Freeman’s Opening Day proves to be as memorable as the ones Schafer and Heyward experienced the past two years.

There is a lot of hype surrounding Freeman’s arrival and at the age of 21, he’s carrying a lot on those much broader shoulders he brought to Spring Training.  But I don’t think there is much reason to worry about the young first baseman.  He was seemingly born to hit and avoid those long slumps that can make the season feel so frustrating.

Last night a fan tweeted, “where do u see the Braves finishing up at the end of the season?”  I’m guessing he didn’t want me to reply, “with a three-game series against the Phillies in Atlanta Sept. 26-28.”

But simply writing that sentence creates a little bit of excitement.  Even with all that they’ve endured this past month on the health front (Chase Utley, Brad Lidge…), the Phillies will be in the hunt for a pennant race.  Cole Hamels can be either an asset or a liability.

But the Phillies know what they’re going to get from their other three top starters   — Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee.

Likewise, I think the Braves know they can rely on Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe.  Yes, I threw Lowe in this category.   There’s just something about the confidence he has shown dating back to the perfect run he had through September last year.

The wild card in the Atlanta rotation is Jair Jurrjens, who has the talent and intelligence to be considered an ace or number two starter.  But Jurrjens has given some reason to worry about his durability.   Now he must simply prove there isn’t any reason to worry.

Like every Major League club, the Braves have a couple potential holes in their bullpen.  But at the same time Spring Training showed they have plenty of depth (Jairo Asencio, Juan Abreu and Cory Gearrin) to fill those holes at some point.

I’m guessing Craig Kimbrel will end up handling the closing duties by himself at some point this year.  But for now, it appears the Braves have something special with Kimbrel and Jonny Venters serving as reliable anchors for the pen.   It should also be noted that Peter Moylan has grown more comfortable with his changeup and thus has a weapon to use against left-handed hitters.

With a rejuvenated Nate McLouth sitting in the two hole and a healthy Chipper Jones looking youthful again in the third spot, the Braves seem to have the makings of a formidable lineup.   Martin Prado, who might be the club’s most valuable player, will once again sit at the top to serve as a catalyst.

GM Frank Wren will likely add a right-handed bat to his bench at some point this season.  But the way things currently stand, I will buy into the optimism surrounding the Braves and say that this indeed will be the year they dethrone the Phillies and bring the National League East crown back to Atlanta.

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman

Hicks and Young on Opening Day roster

UPDATED VERSION

The Braves announced their Opening Day roster Sunday afternoon and revealed that they will wait a few days before deciding whether to put Jair Jurrjens on the disabled list.

Along with announce Brandon Hicks and Matt Young will be on the OD roster, the Braves revealed right-handed reliever Scott Proctor was released and Joe Mather was placed on waivers.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez also said the club will wait a few more days before deciding whether Jair Jurrjens needs to begin the season on the disabled list. Jurrjens left Thursday’s start against the Blue Jays after just one inning because of discomfort in his right side.

Jurrjens will complete a bullpen session Monday and if that goes well, he’ll likely pitch in a Minor League game later this week.

Even if Jurrjens proves to be healthy, it appears Brandon Beachy will now fill the fourth spot in the rotation and pitch the April 4 game in Milwaukee.  The Braves are hoping Jurrjens will be ready to pitch April 6, which is when Beachy was originally slated to pitch.

If Jurrjens is placed on the disabled list, he wouldn’t be able to pitch until April 9.   Because he’s already on the 40-man roster,  Mike Minor would likely be recalled to make any starts that Jurrjens is unable to make.

Young and Hicks were informed before Sunday morning’s batting practice that they will be with the big league club for Thursday afternoon’s season opener in Washington D.C.  This is the first time that either has been included on an Opening Day roster.

“I can’t keep the smile off my face,” Young said. “There aren’t enough words.”

Matt Young

Like the 5-foot-6 (my blog, my estimates apply) Young, Hicks didn’t come to camp as a favorite to win an Opening Day roster spot.  But the slick-fielding shortstop showed great improvement at the plate and led the Braves to give him one of their final bench spots.

“I knew that spot was open and I was working hard this offseason to make that spot,” said Hicks, who spent a portion of the the offseason hitting with Brian McCann and Mark DeRosa in Atlanta.

Brandon Hicks

Infielders (6):   Brooks Conrad, Brandon Hicks, Freddie Freeman, Alex Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, , Dan Uggla

Outfielders (5):    Jason Heyward, Eric Hinske,  Nate McLouth, Martin Prado, Matt Young

Catchers (2):    Brian McCann, David Ross
Pitchers (12):    Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrjens, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Peter Moylan, Eric O’Flaherty, George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, Cristhian Martinez.

 

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman

Braves still evaluating as camp nears an end

We’ve already learned Brandon Beachy will begin the season in the starting rotation.  But with five more exhibition games remaining, the Braves’ still haven’t determined who will fill the final spots on their bench and the final spot in their bullpen.

It’s no secret that Scott Proctor has damaged his odds of making the Opening Day roster.   The veteran right-hander has allowed 10 runs in his past 2 1/3 innings and struggled to find command.

Proctor was scheduled to pitch this afternoon in front of his family in friends who traveled to Port St. Lucie from nearby Ft. Pierce.  But the Braves opted to scratch him to give him a chance to stay at Disney to throw a bullpen session in front of veteran pitching guru Dave Wallace.

The Braves will likely give Proctor one more chance to prove  himself tomorrow afternoon against the Phillies.   Then they will make a decision to keep, release or trade him by Monday.   If they release him by Monday, they are only responsible for a portion of his $750,000 salary.

Because Proctor hasn’t exactly made himself very attractive recently, I’m guessing the Braves will end up releasing him and beginning the season with Cristhian Martinez in the bullpen.

Jairo Asencio and Juan Abreu seem quite capable of being assets in the bullpen at some point this year.   But the Braves sent them down Thursday to simply get a little more work at the Minor League level.  Don’t forget, Jonny Venters didn’t begin last season in Atlanta.

Even though he has struggled since showing some promise last week, the Braves will likely begin the season with George Sherrill as their left-handed specialist.  But his leash certainly won’t be long as he will need to prove much more effective against left-handed hitters than he has been in his past two outings (5 ER in 2 IP).

The final bench spot will go to either Ed Lucas or Brandon Hicks.  It’s almost ridiculous that I haven’t mentioned much about Hicks until these past couple of days.  He’s obviously the best defensive option among those infielders fighting for a bench spot.   In addition, he has consistently swung a good bat under the watchful eyes of Larry Parrish and Lee Elia, who have both received great praise throughout camp.

If Alex Gonzalez is sidelined for more than a couple days at any point this season, I would expect Hicks would serve as his replacement.  But the Braves may opt to begin the season with Lucas on their bench to give Hicks a chance to continue developing the improved swing he has shown this month.

As some of you might know already, Mike Hampton called this morning to reveal he has decided to retire.  As we spoke this morning, it was nice to reminisce with an old friend who understands there are plenty of people who will always consider the eight-year, $121 million deal he signed in 2001 as one of the worst contracts in professional sports history.

During his six seasons (20003-08) in Atlanta, Hampton proved healthy enough to make 85 starts, while making more than $88 million (not all paid by the Braves).

I understand that it didn’t  matter if writers or teammates attempted to tell the public how hard he worked or how much it hurt him to not be able to pitch.  Fans cheer production, not effort in the trainer’s room.

But here is what Hampton said when I asked him what he thought about the contract:

“It’s unfortunate,” Hampton said. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be underpaid, not overpaid. Even though I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn’t from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he’s telling the truth.”

Click here to get a full account of Mike’s thoughts about his career and retirement.

Before we end this post, here are two of my favorite Mike Hampton stories.

As the Braves were boarding their charter flight in 2003, John Smoltz attempted to have fun with his short new teammate by asking him if he would be able to reach high enough to put his luggage in the overhead bin.

Without hesitation, Hampton laughed and said, “If I’m not, I’ll just stand on my wallet.”

Then a couple of years ago as he and I were joking with each other, Hampton said, “I could do your job and be just as good as you in two weeks.”

This prompted me to reply, “Yeah, but then you’d probably get carpal tunnel syndrome a few days later.”

Hampton became a fan favorite in Houston and gained acclaim in New York when he was named the 2000 NLCS MVP after leading the Mets to that year’s World Series against the Yankees.   His tenure in Atlanta will always be remembered by the fact he made just 25 starts in the final four years he spent with the Braves.

But Hampton did make some early contributions in Atlanta.   He notched 14 wins for a division winner in 2003 and went 10-1 with a 2.81 ERA in his final 13 starts of the 2004 season.

Love him or hate him, the man was a fierce competitor who rose much higher than anyone ever envisioned when he was growing up in a small town along Florida’s west coast.

“I’m a small kid from Homosassa (Fla.),” Hampton said. “Whoever thought I would have made it. Nobody had ever heard where I was from, let alone was able to point it out on a map. I think with the talent and the body type, I think I pretty much got as much out of my body as I could.”

 

 

Beachy wins fifth spot

The Braves have optioned Mike Minor to Triple-A Gwinnett and informed him that Brandon Beachy will begin the season as their fifth starter.   Minor was informed of the decision Thursday morning. <p> 

“We just feel Brandon gives us a better chance to win right now,”  Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “It was a tough decision to make.”

Beachy began receiving congratulatory messages from his teammates shortly after arriving at the clubhouse Thursday morning.   

“Obviously I’m happy about it,” Beachy said.  “I’m excited about the opportunity.  Hopefully we can a few wins and I can be a big contributor to help us reach our goal.”   <p> 

Minor, the seventh overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, has compiled just 175 innings in pro ball.  The 23-year-old left-hander has tremendous upside, but could seemingly benefit from having a chance to spend more time refining his curveball and changeup.

“We just told him to go down and stay ready because you never know when you’re going to be needed,” Wren said.

Minor said he was simply happy a decision had been made.  Last week, he seemed to be preparing himself to the possibility he would begin the year in the Minors.

“It’s going to be a good,” Minor said. “I just wanted an answer and today I got it. Now I can focus on getting ready for the season at Triple-A. It’s going to be good for me to work on my curveball and hopefully go back up when I have all three of my pitches going and be able to spot them up.”   <p>    

Beachy, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008,  has made a meteoric rise after beginning last year in Double-A Mississippi’s bullpen.  He made three strong starts for Atlanta at the end of last year and has shown great command during Spring Training.

“To be in this situation to break with the team, it’s awesome,” Beachy said.  <p>  

Uggla and Gonzalez gear up for Fish

Welcome back to Disney for the resumption of the Grapefruit League schedule.  After enjoying their only offday during Spring Training, the Braves will return to action this afternoon to play the most important game Disney has ever hosted in March. 

Forget about that Domincan Republic-Venezuela game in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.  This afternoon’s matchup against the Marlins is much bigger for former Fish Dan Uggla and Fredi Gonzalez. 

In fact the Braves called a closed door team meeting this morning and sources have said Uggla went all Chris Brown on some bathroom mirrors after this video was shown.

Truthfully, these Marlins-Braves matchups will truly mean a little more once the season arrives.  In fact, today’s game appears to be a sidebar to the other events unfolding here today.

Luis Salazar returned to camp this morning for the first time since March 9, when he was hit with a foul ball and suffered injuries that cause him to lose his left eye last week.  Per his Twitter account (@LV_Ware) Minor League outfielder L.V. Ware said, “Just seen Luis Salazar & he is good spirits.” 

Salazar is scheduled to talk to us around 10 a.m. It’s remarkable that he is able to do all of this just two weeks after enduring a traumatic experience that could have ended in a much more tragic manner.  

Check MLB.com and braves.com later this morning for a report.  You can also follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman.

There will also be some attention pointed in the direction of Tommy Hanson, who is scheduled to throw six innings against a group of Braves Minor Leaguers this morning.  Because Hanson’s back was a little sore, the Braves pushed this start back two days.  No big deal, but it will be interesting to see what the big redhead says after this outing. 

With the end of the exhibition season one week away, there are still some questions to be answered.  It’s still not clear who will win the last couple spots on the bench?  I’ll stick with Ed Lucas and Brooks Conrad as my guesses. 

Once Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor make their scheduled starts this weekend, there might be more clarity about which will be named the fifth starter.  But for now, I’m sticking with Beachy.  If you want to see my argument against Minor go back to a number of different blogs posted throughout Spring Training.  The short of it is, he needs more time.

The Braves also need to fill the final spot in their bullpen and as time has passed it has seemed less likely that Scott Proctor will fill it.  Cristhian Martinez has emerged as a favorite because he can work multiple innings and serve as the “swing guy” in the pen.  But Jairo Ascencio, formerly known as Luis Valdez, has been making multiple-inning appearances and looking like the more impressive option. 

Before I wrap up this morning, I have to ask how many of you would have provided the same response I did when my wife was telling me the “special” numbers she had chosen for last night’s Mega Millions drawing. 

Of course if they were so “special”, I wouldn’t be composing this blog and getting ready to watch the Braves and Mets play today. Sorry it’s just become habit to write that.  It’s still the Marlins this afternoon. 

Anyhow, when she asked me to guess which numbers she had selected, I correctly guessed “1″ because she was born in January.  Then after I guessed wrong with a couple numbers, she said “29″ and I responded with “John Smoltz?”

After going silent for a few minutes, she said, “I can’t believe you would say that? Do you not remember we got married January 29?”

It didn’t work when I attempted to save myself by saying, “Funny you should mention that.  I was watching old footage of Smoltzie the other day and every time I saw his jersey number, I thought about our anniversary date.”   

Roster battles still being waged

Welcome to the final full week of Grapefruit League action.  Or as those who came to camp hoping to win a roster spot might say, welcome to the one week that truly matters during Spring Training. 

The past month has certainly been important to both Chipper Jones, who has gained confidence in his knee, and Nate McLouth who has simply proven that he does once again have confidence in himself.

The early weeks of the exhibition season have also proven beneficial to Wilkin Ramirez, the extremely athletic 25-year-old outfielder who went from being a respected prospect in the Tigers organization to a player that they were willing to part with for a little cash. 

Those who have only had a chance to evaluate Ramirez based on what they’ve seen in the box scores this year are understandably excited about the 25-year-old outfielder.  But is there really any reason to put much difference in the .310 batting average he’s compiled and the .207 mark Matt Young has recorded.

Both players have compiled 29 at-bats.  Ramirez has just been fortunate to tally three more hits during this short span.

Most of you were already well aware of the fact that there is no reason to put stock in exhibition season stats.  With this being said, I do recognize that the Braves would have certainly liked to have have seen Joe Mather tally more than the four hits he has compiled in his first 36 at-bats.

But because he’s already on the 40-man roster and out of options, I still feel it’s a foregone conclusion that he will be on the roster.  

In the exhibition season-setting, you have little control over which pitchers the batters face.  Once the regular season begins, Mather will be in a position to draw most of his at-bats against the left-handed pitchers that have been much friendlier to him than right-handed pitchers in the past.

I’m also still thinking Brooks Conrad will get one of the final available bench spots.  The Braves need his bat off the bench and they can get by with using Mather in center field if necessary. 

Conrad is beloved in the clubhouse and respected by members of upper management.  If there was legitimately a better alternative, it would be much easier to send Conrad to Gwinnett to begin the season.

But even with Ramirez impressing with his great athleticism and having the ability to serve as  legit backup option in center, I still expect Conrad to get the nod simply based on the fact he proved productive in the role last year. 

Meanwhile Ramirez combined to hit .234 for three different Minor League clubs last year.  This is not to say he doesn’t have tremendous upside and could possibly be in the Majors within the first couple of months.

But Ramriez seems to be in a position where he could benefit from a little more time in the Minors.  When the Braves acquired him last year, scouts labeled him as an extremely talented player who has had trouble hitting the breaking ball. 

While I’m still thinking Conrad will get one of the two final bench spots, I really don’t know whether it will be Ed Lucas or Diory Hernandez who gets the other one. 

Last week, I thought they might go with Lucas and I will stick with that belief because he could be used in the outfield if necessary.  This becomes even more important with the assumption that Conrad will be on the roster instead of Ramirez or Matt Young.

I’ll take a closer look at the final available pitching spots over the next couple of days.  But if pressed for a guess right now, I’ll stick with Brandon Beachy winning the fifth spot.  

My reasoning for Beachy hasn’t changed. The Braves paid Mike Minor a big bonus and his upside is tremendous.  Thus with just 134 career Minor League innings under his belt, the Braves need to maximize their investment by giving Minor another month or two in the Minors to work on his secondary pitches. 

Some of you will say the Braves need a left-hander in their rotation to start the season.  That’s fine, but I think it’s more important to do whatever necessary to increase the odds that you will get the most you can from Minor. 

As for that final bullpen spot, I think Cristhian Martinez is the clear favorite.  Scott Proctor struggled Thursday night and simply isn’t able to provide as much as Martinez, whose value rests in his ability to serve as both a middle man and long reliever.

The Braves will likely trade to Proctor over the next week.  If they are unable to move him, they could release him by March 28 and only have to pay a fraction of his one-year, $750,000 contract.  

 

 

Chipper remains hot and Heyward exits in pain-free fashion

Chipper Jones drilled his third homer of the exhibition season and Jason Heyward gave pretty good indication his back is sound when he turned on a Todd Coffey pitch and deposited in the Braves bullpen beyond the right field wall. 

With Freddie Freeman adding his first homer, Thursday was a good night for all of the Braves not named Scott Proctor, who is certainly no longer a favorite to win the final spot available in the bullpen. 

While allowing five earned runs and three hits in just two-thirds of an inning Thursday, the veteran right-handed reliever struggled to command his breaking ball and gave further reason to believe Cristhian Martinez will end up winning that last available spot in the bullpen. 

The Braves signed Proctor to a one-year, $750,000 contract in November.  But because he was  still arbitration-eligible when he signed, they could release him within the next few days and only pay a portion of his salary.

Before we look at post-game comments made by Jones and Heyward, I figure some of you might want to know why right-handed reliever Stephen Marek was among the eight players cut from Major League camp Thursday. 

Marek allowed one run and four hits in 6 1/3 innings this exhibition season.  He impressed the Braves coaches but also showed some room for improvement while issuing five walks. 

” During a Major League season, you will need pitching,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “You don’t end with the same 12 (pitchers) you leave Spring Training with.  For me, I’d feel comfortable with him pitching in a Major League game right now.  He’s a big piece of this organization and I think we’ll see him in the Major Leagues.” 

Heyward returned to the lineup Thursday after missing five games because of back discomfort.  A Braves doctor looked at an MRI from 2009 and informed the 21-year-old outfielder he needs to stretch more frequently to make up for the fact he has less cartilege between his discs than the normal human being. 

He also has more muscles than the average human being. But that doesn’t seem to be bothering him too much.

Anyhow, Heyward didn’t feel any discomfort during Thursday’s game and seemed to be at full strength when he smacked Coffey’s changeup into the Braves pen.

“I know I’m not as loose as I’m used to being,” said Heyward, who had missed the previous five games with back discomfort.  “But it didn’t bother me.  I know it’s still there.  I’m not 100 percent, but I’m heading in the right direction. ”

I know that we’ve all reported that Jones had his left ACL repaired last August.  But the way he’s been playing the past couple of weeks, I’m thinking he underwent some kind of surgical procedure that made him feel younger.  

Jones highlighted Thursday’s two-hit performance with his third homer of the exhibition season –  a fourth-inning leadoff shot to dead center.   He has nine hits, including four doubles and two homers, in his past 15 at-bats. 

But whether he was playing with a surgically-repaired knee or just one knee, we kind of figured Chipper could come down here and hit the likes of Yunesky Maya.

More impressive Thursday night was the mobility he showed with his defense.  He charged Mike Morse’s slow roller, barehanded it and made a strong throw to end the third inning. Later he showed quick reflexes when he pushed off his surgically-repaired left knee and snared Jesus Flores’ seventh-inning liner. 

“I’m not even thinking about the knee because it’s not an issue,” Jones said. “I have no pain in the knee whatsoever.  I would love to really open up and go from first to home on a double while I’m down here.  I feel like I turned a corner about 2 1/2 weeks ago with my knee.  I’m just really excited to get this season started, right now…right now.” 

   

My prediction: Conrad and Lucas will be on OD roster

Welcome back to Disney, where Tim Hudson will finally introduce himself to the home mound against the Mets, who have become familiar with the Braves this year.  This marks the fourth time these clubs have met and we’re just 15 days into the exhibition season. 
 
After tonight’s game, I’m going to head back to Atlanta to spend a couple days reintroducing myself to my wife and kids.  Before heading out, I figured I’d stir some debate by projecting which position players might fill the final available roster spots.  

With the assumption that Joe Mather, Eric Hinske and David Ross are all assured spots on the Opending Day roster, the Braves seemingly have to fill just two of the 13 spots reserved for position players. 

Brooks Conrad, Matt Young, Diory Hernandez, Ed Lucas and possibly Jordan Schafer seem to be the top five candidates fighting for this spot.  Before going any further, I’ll say that my position hasn’t changed with Schafer.  I still think it’s in his best interest and the club’s best interest that he goes to the Minors and plays on an everyday basis for at least a couple of months. 

Also, there is obviously a need to have a backup for Alex Gonzalez.  With Hernandez and Lucas standing as the only candidates capable of playing shortstop,  I think one of them is assured of being on the Opening Day roster.

For whatever it’s worth, Lucas and Hernandez have both hit around .400 through 20 at-bats this exhibition season.  .

Lucas was drafted as a shortstop out of Dartmouth in 2004 and started becoming more of a utility player the next year.  The versatile 28-year-old player has played every position (except catcher) at least once in his professional career and he’s actually spent the most time at third base (361).  He has played just 115 games at short. 

Hernandez has played shortstop in 449 of the 655 games he’s played professionally.  He has played 77 games at third base and has made just one appearance as an outfielder.

Given the lack of upper-level shortstop depth the Braves have had the past couple years, not a whole lot should be made of the fact that Hernandez has been the one who has continued to play shorstop on a regular basis.  

Just because I think Lucas has the potential to provide more with his bat, I’m going to predict he wins this battle against Hernandez. 

The battle between Conrad and Young might have been even more interesting had Young been a right-handed hitter. 

The Braves really like Young and he would stand as the legit backup centerfielder they don’t currently possess.  But the club really doesn’t need another left-handed bat on the bench and if necessary, Mather could play center. 

Thus, I’m going to say the switch-hitting Conrad gets that last roster spot.  He has recently attempted to make himself more marketable by taking grounder at first base.  He actually played the position during last Wednesday’s “B” game against the Cards. 

Obviously adding the ability to play first base to his resume isn’t going to get Conrad the job.  Instead, he’ll end up getting this role based on the fact that he’s already proven capable of handling it in impressive fashion.  

Forget about the defensive miscues he made when forced to serve as an everyday player and remember how many times Conrad’s bat proved clutch coming off the bench last year. 

    

Encouraging news for Salazar and Kawakami

There was some encouraging news coming out of Braves camp Friday morning as GM Frank Wren revealed Luis Salazar is communicating with his family and already talking about returning to work. 

There was also some relief when Kenshin Kawakami revealed that he exchanged email messages with his family in Japan.  Through his translator, he indicated that all of his family members are safe.  

While Kawakami’s family lives on the southwestern coast of Japan, former Braves reliever Takashi Saito’s hometown is located near the northeast coast, in proximity to the area that was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami this morning. 

MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy reported Saito has contacted his wife and children. But as of late Friday morning, he still hadn’t contacted his parents.

Kawakami made the trip to Tampa this morning to make his scheduled Grapefruit League season debut.   He is scheduled to pitch two innings. 

The Braves announced Anthony Varvaro will pitch in place of Eric O’Flaherty today.  It’s unknown why O’Flaherty didn’t make the trip. 

After his club returns to the Orlando area tonight, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to attempt to visit Salazar.   Braves president John Schuerholz visited the injured Minor League manager this morning.  

“He’s doing much better,” Wren said. “He’s visiting with his family and he’s eager to get back to work.”   <p>

The Braves aren’t ready to reveal when Salazar might return to his role as Class A-Advanced Lynchburg’s manager.  Wren and his staff are just encouraged that doctors have told them that they don’t see why he couldn’t handle the role once he gets healthy.  

Since being struck with a foul ball that knocked him unconscious before he hit the rubberized floor of the dugout Wednesday, Salazar has undergone at least two surgeries.  One attempted to repair some of the facial fractures he suffered and the other, performed yesterday, focused on repairing his left eye. 

There has been some fear Salazar will not regain vision in his left eye.  But it doesn’t appear doctors will actually know the full extent of the damage until after performing another surgical procedure on the eye this weekend.

“They’re still evaluating the eye and they’re going to have another surgery this weekend,” Wren said. “We won’t have any other comment until after that surgery.  But he is making good progress.”  <p> 
 

McCann returns to camp

Here are a couple of tidbits to devour before the Braves and Cardinals play this afternoon: 

Brian McCann was anything but his usual self when he arrived at Champion Stadium this morning.  He was obviously relieved that he had the opportunity to interact with Luis Salazar at the Orlando Regional Medical Center last night.  

But at the same time McCann was still shaken up about hitting the foul ball that provided a near fatal blow to Salazar Wednesday afternoon.  Click here to read more about McCann’s thoughts about this situation. 

There were no updates on Salazar’s condition Thursday.  It appears he incurred significant damage to his left eye.  The significance will be revealed within the next couple of days.  

MLB.com’s Greg Johns reported Mariners outfielder Franklin Gutierrez has left camp and flown to Florida with his wife Vivian, who is Salazar’s daughter.

As Braves general manager Frank Wren said, it was tough to focus on yesterday’s game after Salazar got hit.  But this morning, a handful of scouts were raving about what they saw from Arodys Vizcaino.  

The Disney scoreboard clocked one of  Vizcaino’s fastball at 101 mph and a couple of scouts agreed with that reading.

When one of these scouts was told an American League scout had the young right-hander topped out at 97 mph, he responded by saying, “he did throw a couple of fastballs that were 97 mph.” 

Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard at least two people say they believe Vizcaino will end up being a closer.  With his live fastball and the potential he has with his curveball, he could seemingly be very intimidating in this role. 

Earlier this week when I mentioned Vizcaino needed to find a little more consistency with his breaking ball, a fan told me I needed to check my reports or at least update them. 

When I asked one evaluator, he described Vizcaino’s curveball as filthy. Two others have shared my belief that his arm action is slower with his curveball than it is with his fastball.

Regardless of which of these assessments you share, this kid has plenty of time to become even more impressive than he has been during his first Major League camp.  He won’t even turn 21 until November. 

With this being said, don’t be surprised if Vizcaino and Brett Oberholtzer are among the players cut from big league camp this afternoon.  This is the time of year, where clubs need to make sure they have enough available innings for their Major Leaguers and high-level Minor Leaguers. 

  

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