May 2011

Heyward and Moylan updates

After Alex Gonzalez proved his left groin was healthy enough to return to the lineup, there wasn’t a lot of good health-related news coming out of the Braves clubhouse Wednesday afternoon.  But there also wasn’t reason to be surprised about the updates regarding Jason Heyward and Peter Moylan.

Heyward did provide some encouragement when he said he is no longer feeling the numbness that plagued his right hand and forearm when he left Tuesday night’s game in the eighth inning.  But the 21-year-old right fielder said he is still feeling right shoulder discomfort.

“It feels like it’s loose, like there is space in there,” Heyward said. “There’s a lot of discomfort.”

Heyward will undergo an MRI exam Thursday.  While he would like to return as soon as possible, he said he might need more than just a couple days of rest.

“A couple days of rest is probably not going to be it,” Heyward said. “Something may need to be done.  I don’t know what.  I might need to sit and let it rest.  But I don’t think that will be it.”

Heyward has been feeling discomfort in his right shoulder since Spring Training.  But he hadn’t experienced numbness in his hand until the seventh inning of Tuesday’s game.  He exited during the next half inning.

After Heyward addresed the media, Moylan confirmed that he will undergo back surgery next week in Los Angeles.  The 32-year-old reliever was encouraged to learn there is still a chance he could pitch again this year.  He is hoping to return in 8-12 weeks.

When Moylan flew to Los Angeles to visit noted spinal surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins Monday, he had already been told by other surgeons he would need surgery.  Watkins will perform the surgical procedure next week.

“I wish he would have said ‘no you don’t need surgery, there’s a miracle cure I have for you, just take this pill and you’ll be back in a week,'”  Moylan said. “But he said exactly what everyone else is saying.”

Check MLB.com and braves.com for more details on both stories.

Braves pitching staff producing impressive numbers

Evaluating the Braves through their first 20 games, I wrote “there isn’t a lot to like about this team right now.”   My opinion has obviously changed as they have won 12 of the 16 games that have followed.  In fact, I’d even say there wasn’t a whole lot to dislike during three of the four losses (blew two late leads to Cards and allowed baseball gods to frustrate them with Kyle Kendrick again) they’ve incurred during this span.

One of the keys to the Braves’ resurgence has been their starting rotation which has gone 9-1 with  a 2.06 ERA in the past 17 games.   The starters rank first in the National League with a 2.90 ERA.  Philadelphia’s celebrated rotation ranks second with  a 3.14 ERA.

It’s probably far too early to even mention this, but I will anyhow.  The 2.91 ERA produced in 1968 was the best mark produced by starting pitchers in Braves history.    Of course pitching was so good everywhere that season that Major League Baseball opted to lower the pitcher’s mound in 1969.

The second-best ERA posted by Braves’ starters was the 2.95 ERA produced by the 1992 club.   A few months after this mark was posted, John Schuerholz still had the urge to sign some guy named Greg Maddux.

As we come back to this year,  it’s obvious it hasn’t just been the starters who have subdued opponents throughout the season.  The Braves pitching staff’s 2.85 ERA also leads the NL.    During this strong 16-game surge the staff has posted a 2.35 ERA and recorded 124 strikeouts in a span of 535 at-bats.

That last strikeout stat was thrown out there simply because the swing-and-miss Nats have arrived to begin a three-game series in Atlanta tonight.

While winning just six of their past 14 games, the Nationals have hit .221 and struck out 124 times in 444 at-bats.   Yes the Adam Dunn-less Nats have struck out once every 3.58 at-bats during this 14-game stretch.

As they attempt to right themselves they have been given the task of facing Tim Hudson in tonight’s series opener.   Coming off his masterful one-hit shutout of the Brewers, Hudson will be attempting to extend his mastery of the Nationals.

Are you impressed when you read:   Hudson is 11-2 with a 1.88 ERA in 19 starts against the Nationals?   Or is it more impressive to see:  Hudson has allowed two earned runs or fewer in 17 of his 19 starts against the Nationals?

Hudson have the luxury of having Alex Gonzalez playing shortstop tonight.   But Gonzalez doesn’t seem concerned about the minor left groin strain that led him to exit Sunday night’s game.  After taking batting practice Tuesday evening, he said he thinks he could return to the lineup Wednesday.

In other ailment-related news, Derek Lowe played catch today and had no problems with the blister that developed on his right foot with his no-hit bid still intact Friday night.

Lowe will start Thursday night’s series finale against the Nationals and Brandon Beachy will start Friday night’s series opener against the Phillies.    This means Jair Jurrjens will be pitching with an extra day of rest when he returns to the mound Saturday.

Teheran’s debut will be memorable

I’m sure many of you remember seeing this baby-faced version of Tom Glavine take his lumps for the Braves during the late 1980s.  And I’m quite confident none of you watched his Major League debut and said, “that kid is going to win 300 games and be in Cooperstown one day.”

But as we all know, things got much better for Mr. Glavine after he allowed six earned runs and 10 hits in 3 2/2 innings while making his Major League debut at the Astrodome on Aug. 17, 1987.  Those of you who weren’t following the Braves back then might recognize him better from the picture below, which was taken last summer when the Braves retired his No. 47.

As you watch Julio Teheran make his Major League debut against the Phillies tonight, many of you will wonder if you are watching the start of a truly special career.   Regardless of what transpires, it will take many more years to learn whether this proves true.

But for an hour or two tonight,  there’s no doubt you will be watching something that you will remember for many years to come.  You might walk away with the excitement you felt when Kyle Davies tossed five scoreless innings while making his Major League debut against the Red Sox on a cold, rainy May night in Boston six years ago.

Or you might walk away feeling disappointed like Steve Avery was when he allowed eight earned runs and lasted just 2 1/3 innings while making his big league debut against the Reds in 1990.

Davies won another 13 games for the Braves and Avery was an 18-game winner for the memorable 1991 Braves team.

Still while the individual results of a highly-regarded prospect’s debut mean virtually nothing, fans should fully savor the excitement surrounding the debut of a player like Teheran, a 20-year-old who ranks as MLB.com’s second-best right-handed pitching prospect.

Most of you likely remember exactly where you were when Jason Heyward used the first swing of his career to produce a  three-run homer off Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano.   Likewise, many of you likely have a story to tell about the three-run, eighth-inning homer Jeff Francoeur hit in his debut against Cubs left-hander Glendon Rusch.

Of course there are also the debuts in which a player impresses while achieving sub-par results.  After Tommy Hanson surrendered three two-run homers in his debut against the Brewers two years ago, I remember thinking about how much he had impressed during the early innings that afternoon.

Hanson then spent the next month showing why he was considered the game’s top right-handed pitching prospect.  He allowed just three earned runs in the 30 innings that encompassed his next five starts.   In other words, he and John Smoltz experienced different paths at the beginning of their careers.

Smoltz limited the Mets to one earned run and worked eight innings while making his debut at Shea Stadium on July 23, 1988.   He went 0-4 with an 8.44 ERA in his next five starts.

Because Teheran will return to Triple-A Gwinnett after tonight’s start, it will be some time before we see the path he travels during the early portion of his career.  But as long as he is on the mound tonight,  Braves fans will at least enjoy the opportunity to be introduced to the young kid with the very bright future.

At 20 years, 100 days old, Teheran will be the youngest Major League player to make his debut as a starting pitcher since San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner debuted in September 2009 at 20 years, 38 days. He will also become the youngest Braves pitcher to make his big-league debut as a starting pitcher since Avery did so in June of 1990 (20 years, 60 days).

Instead of pitching either Hanson or Tim Hudson on short rest for Sunday night’s game, the Braves decided it was best to call Teheran up for this one start.   But  Braves general manager Frank Wren said he wasn’t completely comfortable with giving the young hurler his debut in front of a nationally-televised audience Sunday night.

Thus the Braves opted to push Jair Jurrjens back to Sunday and allow Teheran to make his debut tonight.   Getting an extra day should be welcomed by Jurrjens, who has thrown at least 100 pitches in each of his first four starts of the season.

Teheran will be opposed by Kyle Kendrick, who will be making his first start while filling in for Roy Oswalt, who is on the disabled list with a sore back.

With or without Oswalt, the Phillies can feel good about a rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.  But with a little more than 20 percent of the season complete, the Braves’ starters have produced a better ERA.

Braves’ starting pitchers led the National League and ranked second in the Majors with the 2.88 ERA they had posted entering Saturday.  The Phillies’ starters  rank second in the National League with a 3.14 ERA.

The offense has obviously improved.  But pitching is the primary reason the Braves have won 11 of their past 14 games.  The starting pitchers have gone 8-0 with 1.93 ERA in the past 15 games.

Teheran to debut Saturday

Instead of having either Tim Hudson or Tommy Hanson pitch on short rest, the Braves will allow top pitching prospect Julio Teheran to make his Major League debut Saturday night against the Phillies.

The decision to promote Teheran had nothing to do with the health of Jair Jurrjens, who will now start Sunday, instead of Saturday.   The Braves are simply doing this because they didn’t feel comfortable bringing either Hudson or Hanson back on short rest for Sunday’s series finale.

“I’m excited,” Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. “Any time you get to see your top prospect, someone you have been reading about for three years, you’re going to be looking forward to it and feeling some excitement.”

While Teheran will likely return to the Minors after making this spot start, his presence will generate a lot of excitement around the baseball world.  MLB.com ranks the 20-year-old hurler as the game’s second-best right-handed prospect and the 10th-best overall prospect.

“He’s one of the top pitchers in the Minor Leagues and everybody raves about his stuff,” Braves centerfielder Nate McLouth said.  “It will be exciting.”

Teheran has gone 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his five starts for Triple-A Gwinnett this year.   He has recorded 25 strikeouts, issued eight walks and limited opponents to a .118 batting average.

“Give the kid a chance,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He’s been pitching good.”    <p>

Heyward opts to change representation

AP Photo/Rob Carr

Jason Heyward has ended his affiliation with Atlanta-based Career Sports Entertainment.  Multiple sources have said he will now be represented by Casey Close, whose high-profile clients include Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

Heyward had been affiliated with CSE since the Braves took him with the 14th overall selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.  During this time, he formed a strong bond with Victor Menocal, who served as one of CSE’s agents before leaving the agency in early April.

It is believed that Heyward is following Menocal, an Atlanta resident who played shortstop for head coach Danny Hall at Georgia Tech.   Long before coming to Tech, Hall was an assistant coach for the University of Michigan teams that Close starred for in the 1980s.

Heyward  will not be arbitration-eligible until the end of the 2012 season.   While the Braves may attempt to give the 21-year-old outfielder a multi-year deal before he becomes arbitration-eligible, there have been no known negotiations.

With the help of Heyward, CSE also added Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to its list of clients.  Freeman has not revealed whether he will be affected by Heyward’s decision.

Moylan’s immediate future uncertain

Peter Moylan just went through the Braves dugout slapping hands and providing his teammates some encouragement before this afternoon’s doubleheader against the Brewers.   Unfortunately, it’s still not known whether he’ll be able to offer the Braves any more than this during the remainder of the season.

Moylan didn’t provide details after visiting with a doctor early Wednesday morning.  But as he gingerly walked through the Braves’ clubhouse, it was quite obvious that he is still feeling significant discomfort in his lower back.  An MRI exam performed two weeks ago showed a bulging disc.

While there was hope that Moylan could return soon, it now appears he might need to undergo a surgical process that could end his season.  It seems like he is attempting to get multiple evaluations and weigh his options.

Moylan underwent back surgeries while playing what amounted to recreational baseball in Australia in 2001 and ’03.  The sidearm delivery that helped him get noticed in the 2006 World Baseball Classic was a product of attempts to lessen strain on his back.

If Moylan is unable to return, the Braves might ask Scott Proctor to fill the void once he is eligible to join their roster on May 15.  Proctor struggled in Spring Training and was released.  But he quickly re-signed with the Braves and has since prospered while working with Triple-A Gwinnett pitching coach Marty Reed.

Proctor has allowed two earned runs in 12 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett and limited opponents to a .205 batting average this year.  The 34-year-old right-hander combined for 166 appearances for the Dodgers and Yankees during the 2006 and ’07 seasons.

Gonzalez provides great value at short

AP photo

With Yunel Escobar’s attitude becoming even more of a problem, it seemed quite obvious that the Braves had best satisfied their immediate needs when they sent him to Toronto in exchange for fellow shortstop Alex Gonzalez at last year’s All-Star break.

For a 2 1/2-month span, there was no doubt Gonzalez would serve as the better fit in the Braves lineup and most definitely in their clubhouse.  But thinking Escobar might eventually mature and wondering how mobile Gonzalez would be at the age of 34, I wasn’t so sure the deal would look as good once this season concludes.

There is a lot of season left.  But there is no longer reason to wonder if Frank Wren made the right move when he made this trade to the delight of his players, who gave Gonzalez a standing ovation when he walked in the clubhouse before playing his first game for Atlanta last year.

During the four seasons he spent with the Braves, the 28-year-old Escobar proved he could do some special things with his glove.  But the 34-year-old Gonzalez has spent the first month of this season proving to be even more valuable in the field and at the plate.

It truly seems like Gonzalez has made a sensational defensive play on a nightly basis this year.  Along with drilling the game-winning three-run double in last night’s sixth inning off Yovani Gallardo, the veteran shortstop added to his highlight reel with a couple more defensive gems.

The one that sticks out occurred in the fourth inning, while he was on the other side of second base with a shift on against Prince Fielder.   When Fielder produced a chopper up the middle, the veteran shortstop charged the ball, grabbed it as he passed the second base bag and made a strong throw across his body to record the out.

It’s not a play you see everyday and certainly not one that is practiced.  But it was one that allowed Gonzalez to once again make the difficult look easy.

“He’s swinging it pretty good,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of his veteran shortstop. “Really I love the offense and I love the run production.  But I could care (less) if he hits .085 the way he plays defense.   I know it’s hard to equate.  But we’re 15-15 and if it wasn’t for him playing shortstop, we might be three or four games under (.500).”

Another post-trade concern was that Escobar would eventually regain power he had when he hit 14 homers in 2009 and that the 17 homers Gonzalez hit before the last year’s All-Star break were partially a product of something odd occurring in Toronto.

Well Jose Bautista is still hitting homers for the Blue Jays and Gonzalez has continued to provide the Braves with consistent power.    He has hit .241 with four homers and  a .420 slugging percentage in 30 games for the Braves this season.

Escobar has hit .267 with two homers and a .386 slugging percentage in 26 games for the Blue Jays this year.

There’s still a chance Escobar will eventually live up to his tremendous potential.  But nearly 10 full months since he was sent to Toronto, there doesn’t seem to be anybody in the Braves organization worried about the fact that he could do so while benefiting another organization.

(Lack of) Speed Kills:  Nobody expected the Braves to be among the league leaders in stolen bases.  In fact, some of you might not even be surprised to see they rank last in the Majors with five stolen bases.  But it does seem ridiculous that they have been successful with just five of their 15 stolen base attempts this year.

The Braves are the only Major League team that has a lower than 50 percent success rate with stolen base attempts this year.  The only club with a 50 percent success rate entering Tuesday was the White Sox, who had been successful with 17 of their 34 attempts.

Making matters worse is the feeling that the Braves haven’t even been close with many of their  stolen base attempts.  Many of the 10 unsuccessful attempts have come via botched hit-and-run situations, like last night when Martin Prado was thrown out by two Priest Lauderdales (you thought you’d never hear his name again) during the first inning.

As they continue to prove unsuccessful on the basepaths, the Braves might want to avoid aggressively going for the green when it’s apparent they don’t have the right club in their bag.    As Prado slid toward second base last night, I saw visions of Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy.

Braves still trying to break out of funk

As they spent a portion of Friday afternoon addressing the ridiculous actions of Derek Lowe and Roger McDowell, Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez both spoke about the need for the team to bond together during an embarrassing stretch.

“Hopefully this is a point of the season that will define us and build character,” Gonzalez said.

Approximately 24 hours later, the Braves had lost consecutive games in which they had a lead in the eighth inning or later.   But instead of suffering another disheartening decision in Sunday afternoon’s series finale, the Braves managed to regain the lead they’d squandered in the eighth inning and enjoyed their first walk-off win of this young season.

With last year’s Mr. Clutch Brooks Conrad delivering the decisive hit in Sunday’s 6-5 win, the Braves might have created that moment that truly does allow them to turn things around and enjoy one o those extended successful streaks they were flirting with when they entered Friday with wins in five of their previous six games.

But it’s quite obvious that we really don’t know the turnaround point of a season until well, it’s proven that something has indeed been turned around.

Through the first 29 games of this year, the Braves are in better position than they were last year, when they were 12-17 and showing absolutely no signs of life on offense.  During their 28th game, Scott Olsen held them hitless through the first seven innings.  One night later in Philadelphia, 47-year-old Jamie Moyer created history while tossing a two-hit shutout against the Braves.

Three days later, the Braves began a 39-game stretch during which they would record 29 victories and average 5.7 runs per game.  Nobody saw this coming and there was certainly little reason to believe Troy Glaus would be the most valuable player during this stretch.  He hit .194 with a .292 slugging percentage in April and then hit .300 with a .614 slugging percentage during the pivotal 39-game stretch.

In other words, there’s still plenty of time for Dan Uggla to do something more than produce the occasional clutch hit.  He did provide a hint of encouragement with four hits, including two doubles,  in the 12 at-bats he collected this weekend.  But it’s about time for him to step up and  allow the Braves to feel a little better about the five-year, $62 million deal they gave him in January.

The 39-game stretch that ended the Braves’ woes last year began with a four-game series against the Brewers, who just happen to be in Atlanta tonight to begin a four-game series.

If you only keep tabs on the Braves, you might not feel good about the odds of Jair Jurrjens getting enough run support tonight to beat Yovani Gallardo, who tossed a two-hit shutout against the Braves on April 5 to improve to 3-0  with an 0.96 ERA in five career starts against them.

But since tossing his gem against the Braves nearly a month ago, Gallardo hasn’t been nearly as effective.   While posting an 8.86 ERA in the four starts that have followed, he has allowed opponents to hit .380 against him.    He has allowed at least four runs in each of those four outings.

Of course the Braves still haven’t given reason for pitchers to feel threatened this year.

While going 5-11 from April 5-21, they batted .225 with a .294 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage.   While winning six of their past nine games, they have hit .229 with a .299 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage.

So there still hasn’t been a dramatic improvement for an offense that needs Uggla and Brian McCann to start showing more consistent power.   But heading into the 30th game last year, there also wasn’t much reason to be optimistic about the offense.

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