October 2011

Braves trade Lowe to the Indians

The Braves have traded Derek Lowe to the Indians in exchange Minor League left-handed pitcher Chris Jones.    With this cost-cutting move, the Braves will save $5 million.  The Indians have agreed to pay $5 million of the $15 million still owed the 38-year-old pitcher as he enters the final year of his contract.  <p>

It’s quite safe to say Lowe did not live up to the expectations the Braves had when they gave him a four-year, $60 million contract in January of 2009.  The veteran hurler posted a 4.57 ERA in the 101 starts he made during his three seasons with Atlanta.

Lowe created optimism when he went 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his final five starts of the 2010 season.  But after being named the Braves’ Opening Day starter for the third consecutive season this year, he posted a 5.05 ERA in 34 starts.

With an additional $5 million to spend the Braves will now have some more flexibility as they attempt to sign a shortstop and potentially upgrade their outfield this winter.

Jones posted a 3.36 ERA in 43 relief appearances for Class A-Advanced Kinston this past season.  The 23-year-old southpaw recorded 65 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings and limited left-handed batters to a .143 (12-for-83) batting average.

Game 7 sure to produce yet another lasting image

In the process of covering the Braves for the past 11 years, there have obviously been many occasions when I have mentioned something about the epic 1991 World Series.  Twenty years later, fans still passionately talk about Kirby Puckett’s 11th-inning home run and the pitching duel John Smoltz and Jack Morris waged the following evening  in Game 7.

This was a Fall Classic that epitomized drama.  Five of the seven games were decided by one run and nine innings were not enough to determine a winner in the final two games.  Puckett’s walk-off homer in Game 6 forced the Braves to bring a 24-year-old Smoltz back on short rest.

Foreshadowing some of the success he would enjoy in the postseason over the next 15 years, Smoltz responded with 7 1/3 scoreless innings.  Unfortunately for the young right-hander, his effort was not enough to trump the one produced by his childhood idol.  Morris went the distance while leading the Twins to a 1-0, 10-inning, Game 7 victory.

Those who watched the game still talk about the tension it created.  Those of us who chose to pout and ignore the game now simply wish we had taken advantage of the opportunity to experience the rare opportunity to experience the splendor created by Game 7 of the World Series.

Once the Braves eliminated my beloved Pirates in the National League Championship Series that year, I figure I essentially put an end to my baseball season.   As hard as I try, I really do not remember seeing anything more than highlights from the ’91 World Series.

I remember being at my grandmother’s house the night a disgusted John Tudor sliced his finger while punching a mechanical fan after being pulled in Game 7 of the 1984 World Series.  I remember my dad driving us from Pittsburgh back home to Wheeling, WV in time to see the grounder go under Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

I know where I was sitting when Edgar Renteria produced his two-out, 11th-inning single to end the 1997 World Series.  And I remember I was sitting in a black papasan chair when Luis Gonzalez hit his game-winning single off Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

But I really have no vivid memories from the 1991 World Series.

I still remember coming home from football practice a few weeks later to learn Magic Johnson announce he had contracted HIV.  But other than what I gained from highlights, I really don’t remember anything about Puckett hitting that home run or Kent Hrbek lifting Ron Gant off the first base bag.

At 17-years-old, I did not have any desire to watch the World Series after seeing the Pirates bounced from the NLCS for the second straight year.   Twenty years later, it’s quite obvious that I was simply denying myself a chance to experience some of the greatness the postseason brings.

Fortunately this year’s postseason as a whole might be the greatest in baseball’s history.  Unfortunately for Braves (and Red Sox) fans, the drama actually began on the regular season’s final day.  Fortunately for baseball fans everywhere, the postseason has been extended to its limit with the Cardinals and Rangers set to play Game 7 of the World Series tonight.

It will seemingly be impossible for the Rangers and Cardinals to top what they created in Game 6.  It was ugly from both a pitching and defensive standpoint.  But from simply a competitive standpoint, it certainly felt like one of the greatest sporting events I have ever witnessed.

Twice the Cardinals tied the game in the ninth inning or later after being pushed to their last strike.   The guy (Lance Berkman) that they could have traded to the Rangers when they were seemingly out of contention in August produced a two-out game-tying single in the 10th inning.  Then the St. Louis native (David Freese) who had tripled off the right field wall to tie the game with two outs in the ninth inning drilled a walk-off homer to begin the bottom of the 11th inning.

You can’t make this stuff up.  The team that trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 25 is now just one win away from winning the World Series.  Standing in their way will be Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison, who of course was part of the prospect-laden package the Braves used to bring Mark Teixeira to Atlanta.

This is just the fifth time in the past 20 years that the baseball world will have the pleasure of watching Game 7 of a World Series.   I suggest you don’t miss it.  You might still regret it 20 years from now.

Walker to be named Braves new hitting coach

Greg Walker has been given the opportunity to return to his native Georgia to serve as the Braves new hitting coach.

The Braves have hired Walker to serve as their third hitting coach in the span of three years.  Larry Parrish held the position for just one year before being fired two days after the end of this past season.

Walker spent nine seasons as the White Sox hitting coach before resigning at the end of this past season.   Veterans A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko have credited much of their success to the tutelage he has provided over the years.

Walker hit .260 during his nine years as a Major League player.  The 52-year-old native of Douglas, Ga. is an avid hunter who has gone on a couple hunts with Braves veteran pitcher Tim Hudson.

World Series teams strengthened bullpens as Braves rolled the dice

Instead of figuring out whether it was hitting, pitching or a combination of the two that doomed the Braves this year, somebody might want to figure out what the club did to infuriate the baseball gods to this level.

Seeing how they have had to spend the past three weeks trying to figure out how they simply self destructed in September, you would have thought they had endured enough pain to warrant a punishment.  But there seems to be a differing opinion from some of those same guys who blinded Chipper Jones as he attempted to field that two-out, ninth-inning grounder at Dan Marino’s Place.

Now the Braves find themselves subjected to watch a World Series that will feature a couple of teams that should be sending “Thank You” notes to Turner Field in the near future.

Had the Braves not included Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison in the prospect-laden package that brought  Mark Teixeira to Atlanta in 2007, the Rangers likely would not be competing in a second consecutive World Series.

And obviously, had the the Braves not completely collapsed while going 9-18 in September, the Cardinals would not have even gained  postseason selection.

Once again, had the Braves simply gone 11-16 in September, there would not be a bunch of people huddling to watch a game at Busch Stadium tonight.

This year’s World Series features a matchup of two teams with great offenses and a bullpens that were significantly upgraded at the Trade Deadline.

With the additions of relievers Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, the Rangers strengthened their relief corps.  As for the Cardinals, they completely altered their season when they used Colby Rasmus to add Marc Rzepczynski (Scrabble) and Octavio Dotel to their weak bullpen mix.

Over the past week, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has said his club might not have been a .500 team without that trade, which also added Edwin Jackson to the St. Louis rotation.

As you might remember there was definitely reason to believe the Braves would add a right-handed reliever before the Trade Deadline.   Many of the veteran players seemed to be expecting the club to do this to lessen the wear and tear experienced by Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel .

But instead of attempting to get a reliever, the Braves opted to roll the dice on 20-year-old Arodys Vizcaino and Peter Moylan, who was never expected to return from back surgery until September.

Long before the Braves revealed they had learned in January that Moylan had a slight tear in his right shoulder, there was no way anybody could have been confident about what he would provide in September.  The dude was coming off back surgery.

Now Moylan is  battling back from the shoulder surgery he was forced to undergo after making just six September appearances.

Vizcaino seemed to be the right choice in August.  But the 20-year-old prospect was never quite the same after he allowed five runs while recording one out as the Braves blew a five-run lead and lost to the Dodgers on Sept.  2.

Three weeks after the Braves concluded their epic September collapse,  there is still no reason to blame the collapses on one person or one event.   You have to wonder how things might have been different had Brian McCann or Martin Prado shown even the slightest bit of their normal consistency in September.

Of course, you also have to wonder where the Braves might have gone they had Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson in their rotation down the stretch.   Or what might have happened had the Braves added a reliever for the final two months?  Would this have been enough to prevent Kimbrel and Venters from faltering during the season’s most important stretch?

Throughout most of this season, the Braves had enviable depth in their rotation and bullpen.  Chipper Jones said the pitching staff was one of the deepest he had ever played alongside.

But by the end, this was a pitching staff that was simply trying to get by on a nightly basis.  The Braves had three rookies in the rotation in September and their 38-year-old veteran (Derek Lowe) was pitching like he was 58.   And of course, the once rock-solid bullpen crumbled with Venters and Kimbrel down the stretch.

To best understand how far the Braves fell by the end, you just have to remember that with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a tied game they needed to win on the regular season’s final day, they called upon Kris Medlen to make his second appearance of the season.

If the Braves had won the game after Medlen worked 1 1/3 scoreless innings that evening, the energetic right-handed pitcher might have been the focus of some great stories.

But because of the way things unfolded, Medlen now simply stands as part of that ugly story that will continue to be told until the Braves next prove successful in their attempt to preserve a lead in the playoff standings during the season’s final month.

PREDICTION:  Rangers in five games.

 

Braves would like to “disremember” September

It has been more than a week since the Braves completed their epic collapse and if you’re a Braves fan,  I’m pretty sure you’re quite sick of reading the words “epic” and “collapse”.   Back in the days when we didn’t have to worry about people’s feelings, we might have swapped this term with “complete and utter disaster.”

There were many colorful ways to describe the September that the Braves experienced and I’m quite sure many of you would like nothing more than to avoid reliving some of the details yet again.  In fact if put under oath and asked to explain what transpired, I’m thinking many of you might channel Mark McGwire and say, “I’m not here to discuss the past…I’m here to be positive.”

If Roger Clemens were a Braves fan, he would likely like to “disremember” September.

As the Cardinals prepare to play the Phillies tonight in a winner-take-all fifth game of the National League Division Series, they are still recognized as the Cinderella bunch.  They trailed the Braves in the Wild Card race by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 26 and 8 1/2 games back when September began.  Heck, they were still three games back with just five games to play.

Yet, here the Cardinals are with an opportunity to match their ace Chris Carpenter up against Phillies ace Roy Halladay tonight to determine who will reach the NLCS.

Even after watching the disaster unfold in September, some of you might still be wondering what might have been had the Braves held on and qualified for the playoffs.   Most of the rest of you have likely adopted, “there’s no way they would have advanced past the Division Series” theory.

Truthfully, there is no way to know exactly what October might have been like for the Braves.  But even if it had proven to be a very short experience, it’s quite obvious that it would have been less painful than September.

The Braves exited August with the game’s fourth-best winning percentage.  While winning just nine of their final 27 games, they produced a National League-worst .333 winning percentage.

Even after firing hitting coach Larry Parrish last week, Braves general manager Frank Wren said it would not be fair to put all of the blame on any one person or aspect of the club.   While he seemed right with this assessment, a lack of consistency from an offensive perspective hurt the Braves all year.

When the offense ranked 11th in the National League in runs scored during the season’s first two months, a strong pitching staff kept the team afloat.  Unfortunately the combination of a struggling offense and a pitching staff that kept games close on a nightly basis only added to the workloads experienced by setup man Jonny Venters and closer Craig Kimbrel.

Still the offense proved most destructive down the stretch when it needed to pick up a starting rotation that added a pair of rookies to the spots vacated when Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson were felled by injuries. Much of this could be blamed on the fact that Brian McCann and Martin Prado were shells of their former selves once they were activated from the disabled list.

The Braves scored at least 105 runs in each of the first five months of the season.  The 87 runs they scored in September were the second fewest in the NL.    The only team to score fewer runs was the Padres, who scored 79 runs and still managed to win 11 games during the season’s final month.

Had the Braves gone just 11-16 during September, they would have won the Wild Card by one game and began the Division Series in Milwaukee.    Brandon Beachy would have started the first game and Tim Hudson likely would have started Game 2 on short rest.   Jair Jurrjens would have been available to pitch one of the games.

And if Brett Favre had remained with the Falcons….OK. Yep.  Time to turn the page.

Braves general manager Frank Wren and all of his top scouts will meet in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. next week to evaluate what went wrong in September and what they need to do to prepare for the 2012 season.

Finding a new hitting coach is obviously on the shopping list.  But if I had to guess, there are probably a lot more pressing matters on Wren’s plate.  Obvious needs are to find a shortstop (Alex Gonzalez is a free agent), a backup infielder and possibly some other bench help.

But coming off this kind of conclusion also requires him to essentially evaluate every one of his players to determine exactly how they might best fact into his club’s future plans.  Hiring a hitting coach can certainly wait at least a few more weeks.

As you might have noticed when Wren addressed the situations of Jason Heyward and Derek Lowe last week, he was not in the mood to protect people’s feelings.  But based on the responses received via Twitter, it seemed like the best time for him to run for public office was last week after it was revealed what he had said about these two players.

When he said Heyward is not guaranteed an everyday role next year, it seemed like he was simply trying to light a fire under his young outfielder as he entered the offseason.

When Wren said he didn’t see Lowe in his rotation next year, he was confirming he was not going to allow finances to dictate the makeup of his starting rotation.  There will be attempts to trade Lowe and at least a portion of his $15 million salary. There’s also that possibility, the 38-year-old hurler could enter the 2012 season as the game’s most expensive mop up reliever.

Hey things could be worse.  At least guy has been known to have made just half of that salary while spending this past summer pitching for the Mississippi Braves.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,649 other followers