March 2012

Heyward produces some encouragement

Growing up, I remember looking often looking at the Grapefruit League standings with the hope of seeing that the Pirates were nowhere near the top.  There was nothing scientific about this mindset.  Just somewhere along the line of my childhood, I determined that Spring Training success often equated to regular season disappointment.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I’ve come to realize some of you do not share this mindset.

If you are a part of that small group who chooses to believe wins and losses are important within a (Grapefruit) League where teams can tie, I will say that the the 2-10-1 record the Braves carry into this afternoon’s game against the Phillies should be considered as meaningful as the 5-1 start the Braves could encounter while playing the first six games of the regular season against the Mets and Astros.

By the end of September, nobody will remember the first six games of the regular season.  But you will at least be able to recognize the guys playing in the late innings of those games.

There are a plethora of things more concerning right now than wins and losses.  Jason Heyward provided some comfort on Wednesday night when he highlighted a two-hit night with a home run off Stephen Strasburg. Hitting coach Greg Walker spent some time this morning talking about how good Heyward looked last night.  Check for a story later this afternoon.

Now the Braves need Jair Jurrjens to make his own strides against the Phillies this afternoon. While he has said his right knee has not been a problem, scouts believe he has been somewhat hesitant with his delivery during his first two outings. Today we’ll have a chance to see if he is able to push off the rubber with a little more confidence.

Another popular question recently has been whether the Braves will begin this season with Tyler Pastornicky or Andrelton Simmons as their starting shortstop.  You know my opinion over the past couple months was that it would be best to keep Simmons in the Minors for a least a few more months this year.

If you’re talking about choosing one of these guys for one game, one week or even just one year, Simmons is undoubtedly the guy.  He’s far superior from the defensive end and might be every bit as productive as Pastornicky would be in the eighth spot of the lineup.

But would rushing Simmons to the big leagues limit what he might be able to offer from the offensive end during his long-term future with the Braves.  This is one of the many questions general manager Frank Wren and his staff will continue to debate over the next two weeks.

A week ago I was still assuming Simmons would begin the year in the Minors.  Now it does not seem wise to assume anything in regard to this shortstop battle.

TODAY’S LINEUP @ Phillies

Bourn 8

Prado 5

Chipper DH

Uggla 4

Hinske 3

Diaz 7

Heyward 9

Pastornicky 6

Boscan 2

Chipper reacts to reports

Chipper Jones admits saying, “I don’t know if I can make it through this year,” while talking to two national reporters after playing eight innings during Monday’s loss to the Cardinals. But during a telephone conversation today, he said the tone of his message has been completely misunderstood.

“Unfortunately, I said it around two guys who don’t know me very well and they didn’t realize I was kidding around,”  Jones said. “One of the guys asked, ‘You think you can make it through the season with your knees?’ I said, ‘Make it through the season, I don’t know if I can make it through tomorrow.’  Obviously, I’m joking.  That’s an obvious joke.  Really, I just came off the field after playing eight innings.  I’ve had eight at-bats all spring.  I was kidding around.

“It was tongue and cheek. I was kidding.  I just got done playing eight innings with three at-bats.  I was a little tired.  I wasn’t by any means suggesting I couldn’t make it through the season.  If I didn’t think that I could, I wouldn’t be out there.”

Nobody is gong to be surprised if Jones opts to retire at the end of this season. But with his 40th birthday a month away, he is not ready to put a specific timetable on the remainder of his career.

“If there was any question about whether I could make it through the season or not, I would not have come back (to play this year),” Jones said. “I will not only make it through tomorrow.  I will make it through this season with no problem.”

Check Braves.com and MLB.com this afternoon for more of Jones’ thoughts.

Follow me on twitter @mlbbowman

 

 

Odds and ends as Braves prepare to face Yankees

It seems pretty safe to erase any lingering concerns you might have had regarding Freddie Freeman’s right knee.  The 22-year-old first baseman is back in the starting lineup for a fifth straight day as the Braves prepare to host the Yankees this afternoon at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.

With split-squad games against the Blue Jays on Sunday and a two-day trip to Jupiter beginning on Monday, Freeman will also likely play at least two of the next three days.  The Braves can only hope the supportive sleeve Freeman now wears will prevent his right kneecap from popping out of place like it did on Feb. 28.

Chipper Jones is also back at third base for today’s game against the Yankees.  Jones said his previously sore right leg did not bother him as he played seven innings during Friday’s loss to the Mets.

While Jones and Freeman now appear healthy, Arodys Vizcaino has not pitched since Sunday because of discomfort in his right elbow.  An MRI exam showed inflammation around the elbow.  The 21-year-old reliever will rest a few more days before being reevaluated.  But for now, the team does not seem too concerned.

Jason Heyward is getting a chance to rest after playing each of the past five days and enjoying a two-hit game against the Mets on Friday.  The 22-year-old outfielder wrapped around the double he pulled to right field in the second inning.  But he made solid contact with his seventh-inning single.

Likely Opening Day starter Jair Jurrjens will make his second start of the exhibitions season this afternoon against the Yankees.  Jurrjens said his knee was not a problem as he limited the Astros to two runs in two innings on Monday.  His fastball topped out at 90 mph and rested between 87-88 mph.  One American League scout thought Jurrjens was still being somewhat tentative as he attempted to throw his breaking ball.

BRAVES LINEUP vs. Yankees

Bourn CF

Prado LF

McCann DH

Uggla 2B

Chipper 3B

Freeman 1B

Pastornicky SS

Boscan C

Constanza RF

 

 

 

Chipper returns and Teheran aims to bounce back

Chipper Jones will be back at third base to play the Mets at Disney and Julio Teheran will attempt to rebound from his six-homer outing while facing the Yankees in a game that will be shown at 1 p.m. ET on MLB.TV and MLB Network.  This is already shaping up to be an eventful day for the Braves.

While Teheran is in Tampa facing the Yankees, Randall Delgado will be attempting to rebound from his own rough debut as he faces the Mets at Disney.  It will be interesting to see how both of these young prospects bounce back from the forgettable debuts they produced against the Tigers on Sunday.

Before Teheran allowed six home runs in two innings, Delgado allowed four runs and completed just one of the two innings he had been scheduled to pitch.  As I said earlier this week, it’s not a bad thing that both of these prospects were forced to eat some humble pie. Now it will be interesting to see how they digest it.

Jones will be playing for the first time since he experienced some soreness in the upper portion of his right leg during last Saturday’s Grapefruit League debut.  Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had him scheduled to serve as the designated hitter against the Mets.  But the 39-year-old veteran told Gonzalez he was ready to play third base.

“I want to get some reps on defense,” Jones said. “I don’t want to lose touch with the speed of the game.  I hate DH-ing too.  There’s no better way to get me to go 0-for-3 than to put me at DH.”

Jones will still have plenty of time to compile the 40-50 at-bats he believes he will need to find comfort from both sides of the plate before the regular season begins.

“The main thing is I make it out (of camp) healthy and the team makes it out (of camp) healthy,” Jones said. “That’s all I’m really concerned about.”

Sticking with the injury-related front, Tommy Hanson is looking forward to the chance to make his exhibition season debut on Sunday in the split-squad game against the Blue Jays in Disney.  This will mark the first time Hanson had pitched in a competitive atmosphere since his right shoulder sidelined him in early August.

“I’m excited,” Hanson said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a game after missing the last two months last year and then obviously this year, I got off to a little bit of a slower start.”

Sunday’s game will provide Hanson a chance to utilize his “altered delivery” against opposing hitters for the first time.  The 25-year-old hurler altered his delivery in January to lessen the strain on his shoulder and provide him some defense against potential base stealers.

“It’s not the new delivery any more,” Hanson said. “I’ve been doing it for a while.  So it doesn’t feel new anymore. It feels like I’ve been doing it.  So I wouldn’t say I’m anxious to try out the new delivery.  I’m just anxious to get out there and pitch again.”

Let’s wrap this up with Jones’ thoughts on how the first week of the exhibition season has progressed:

“For whatever reason, we haven’t pitched particularly well down here and we haven’t hit particularly well. But give the guys a time or two through the rotation to get their feet wet out there on the mound.   You see some of the guys in the bullpen have struggled.  That’s going to happen the first time or two out.  We haven’t had the lineup all together really with the exception of the first game.   So the lack of production down here is kind of a mirage. But I don’t care how we’re swinging it the first week, I care how we’re swinging it the last five or six games.  That’s what is important to me. If these guys take three or four weeks to get going, that’s OK as long as they get going before April gets here.”

BRAVES LINEUP vs. Mets

Simmons SS

Prado DH

McCann C

Uggla 2B

Chipper 3B

Hinske 1B

Heyward RF

Gartrell LF

Cunningham CF

BRAVES LINEUP @ Yankees

Bourn CF

Pastornicky SS

Diaz RF

Freeman 1B

Ross C

Bethancourt DH

Sutton 2B

Hicks 3B

Constanza LF

 

 

 

 

 

Braves struggle through the early days of the exhibition season

There has not been much reason to get overly excited about what the Braves have shown through the first four games of the Grapefruit League season.  They notched one hit in the opener, got blasted 18-3 the next day and then followed Monday’s win over the Astros with a ho-hum offensive effort against the Nationals.

Freddie Freeman got through Tuesday’s game without any problems with his knee and Martin Prado has provided some early indication that he is feeling comfortable at the plate.  But the Braves have gone through their rotation for the first time without seeing Tommy Hanson and Chipper Jones has now missed four straight games as he has rested sore legs.

In the grand scheme of things, there is not much reason to worry about either of these players.  Jones will still have plenty of time to compile his necessary at-bats before the regular season begins.  Hanson seems to be in line to make his exhibition season debut on Sunday and should be ready to start one of the regular season’s first six games.

But the Braves did not necessarily need to add to their list of worries this early in camp.

Hanson has said that he is still comfortable with the altered delivery that he developed in January. But it would have been in his best interest to spend the six weeks of Spring Training without any distractions.   Along with gaining more comfort with his delivery, he needs to shake off some of the rust that has developed since his right shoulder forced him to end his 2011 season in early August.

Speaking of rust, Jair Jurrjens understandably showed some during his two-inning debut against the Astros on Monday.  His fastball topped out at 90 mph and rested between 87-88 mph.   He seemed happy with the outing and said that his right knee was not a problem.  But at least one American League scout said he thought Jurrjens was still a little tentative when he was throwing his breaking ball.

Sticking with the Curacao theme, the most exciting player in Braves camp this year has been shortstop Andrelton Simmons.  He’s one of the guys that can dazzle during infield practice.  But along with living up to the defensive expectations, he might not be too far away from the Majors from an offensive perspective.

Simmons entered camp widely recognized as the best shortstop in the Braves system.  The next few weeks and months will provide better indication about how soon he could make his way to the Majors.

There is no doubt Simmons could benefit if he can spend at least half this season facing pitching at the Double-A or Triple-A Minor League levels.  But if he passes the necessary tests and Tyler Pastornicky struggles at the big league level, the Braves may have a tough decision to make at some point this season.

NOTE:  As long as Thursday’s live BP session goes well, Tommy Hanson will start Sunday’s game against the Blue Jays in Disney.  Kris Medlen will be scheduled to enter in the third inning and pitch three innings.  The Braves will send Sean Gilmartin or one of their other younger pitchers to start the split-squad game against the Blue Jays in Dunedin that day.

 

 

Looking ahead: Freeman returns; Hanson makes progress

Freddie Freeman was back in Tuesday’s lineup and Tommy Hanson could be pitching in a game by the start of next week.  As for Chipper Jones, he will rest his sore legs for a couple more day.

There was obviously plenty of health-related news floating around Braves camp on this morning.  Fortunately, none of the developments provide any reason to worry.

Freeman prepared to start Tuesday afternoon’s game against the Nationals without much concern.  The 22-year-old first baseman has not experienced any problem with his right knee as he has taken aggressive batting practice swings and fielded grounders over the past few days.

As of early Tuesday morning, Freeman still had not repeated the same stretching motion he was making when his right kneecap popped out of place exactly a week ago.  But he did not seem to worried as he took the field for batting practice wearing a stabilizing sleeve on his right knee.

“I can’t go out there worrying about it happening again,” Freeman said. “I’ve just got to go out there and play.”

Hanson experienced no problems as he completed a five-minute, live batting practice session this morning.  As long as he does not experience any further setbacks, he will likely throw a longer live BP session on Thursday. There is a chance he could make his exhibition season debut on Sunday against the Blue Jays.  But for now, the Braves are just taking it one step at a time.

Hanson once again said that he felt comfortable with his “altered delivery” again this morning.  This seems to be the most encouraging development from the two live BP sessions Hanson he has completed since Sunday.  He was not allowed back on the mound for nearly two weeks after suffering a Grade 1 concussion on Feb. 20.

But he threw at least six bullpen sessions in January with this new delivery that was altered to lessen the strain placed on his shoulder and to improve his defense against potential basestealers.

“I’m glad I did,” Hanson said. “This has been weird. It was a weird January and this has been weird.”

Pitching coach Roger McDowell still believes Hanson will be ready to make his first turn through the rotation.

Hanson could have an additional week to prepare for his regular season debut if he starts the sixth game of the year on April 11 against the Astros. But the Braves are not ready to specifically target when he might return. In fact, they have not yet ruled out the possibility he could pitch during the opening series against the Mets.

After Kris Medlen completes his two innings this afternoon, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty will each make their exhibition season debuts. Today’s feature story will focus on these three relievers.

While in the clubhouse this morning, I threw around some potential nicknames for these three relievers.  They really don’t believe they deserve a nickname until they prove themselves again.  But it’s safe to say they do not like the O’Ventbrel moniker that has been used by some other media outlets.

“That’s brutal” Venters said when O’Ventrbrel was mentioned.

TODAY’S LINEUP

Bourn 8

Prado 5

McCann DH

Uggla 4

Freeman 3

Diaz 7

Heyward 9

Ross 2

Simmons 6

 

Teheran and Delgado could benefit from Sunday’s game

The Braves recorded one hit in Saturday’s exhibition season opener and then saw two of their top pitching prospects get beat up in Sunday’s 18-3 loss to the Tigers.   On the bright side, they dropped just one game behind the Cardinals, who open their Grapefruit League season this afternoon.

Teams obviously never want a young pitcher surrender six home runs within a span of 11 batters. But the Braves could benefit from the embarrassment Julio Teheran experienced in Lakeland, Fla. on Sunday.

In fact, I’d say Teheran will benefit more from the yesterday’s experience than he would have had he simply thrown a ho-hum two scoreless innings. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a top prospect to consume some humble pie, especially during the first week of March when results are secondary.

Randall Delgado was also humbled Sunday when he issued two walks and surrendered two extra-base hits (double and a homer) in a four-run first inning.  As he exited, it seemed like the storyline would be “has Teheran now passed Delgado as the favorite to win the rotation’s fifth spot.”  About 30 minutes later, some of you were shouting, “I told you (Kris) Medlen is better a option than both of those heralded prospects.”

Obviously if Teheran and Delgado both continue to struggle this month, Medlen will be ready to begin the season as a starter.  But for now, you should continue to assume one of these young hurlers will be in the rotation in April.

Teheran and Delgado both returned to the stadium this morning in good spirits and ready to prepare for their next outings on Friday.  There’s no doubt both need to show better command the next time out.  But the Braves were just as interested in seeing how they handled this situation.  So far, they seemed pleased with their reactions.

Jair Jurrjens will start this afternoon’s game against the Astros.  Cory Gearrin, Todd Redmond, Luis Avilan and Erik Cordier are also scheduled to pitch.

Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty are all scheduled to make their exhibition season debuts during Tuesday’s game against the Nationals.

MONDAY’S LINEUP @Astros

Bourn 8

Pastornicky 6

McCann DH

Uggla 4

Hinske 3

Heyward 9

Terdoslavich 5

Constanza 7

Boscan 2

Odds and ends from Braves camp: Friday

When the Braves near Opening Day, they’ll once again start hearing about last year’s miserable conclusion.  But after spending the past five months fielding questions and being reminded about how everything suddenly went wrong last year, they are set to spend the next four weeks playing games and preparing for a season that they hope ends different than last year’s.

It won’t have the same feel as Opening Day and the nerves that are present throughout the regular season will likely be absent.  But there will be a sense of anticipation when the Braves host the Tigers to open the Grapefruit League season on Saturday afternoon.

Mike Minor will be the first big league pitcher to throw a pitch to Prince Fielder wearing a Tigers uniform and Tyler Pastornicky will get a better feel for what he will experience when he becomes a Major Leaguer and Atlanta’s starting shortstop next month.

There will be plenty of story lines to follow over the next month as Jason Heyward and Martin Prado attempt to rebound from their frustration-filled 2011 seasons.  Heyward’s struggles were influenced by a physical ailment (sore right shoulder) and the bad habits it created.  Prado’s problems were enhanced once he developed a staph infection in June.  But in a story that will run Sunday, he will explain how he was as messed up mentally as he was physically from the start of the season.

Gonzalez chose not to reveal which relievers will pitch Saturday.  His choice.  That’s all.

Anyhow, the other starting pitchers the first time through the rotation will be:

Julio Teheran/Randall Delgado @ Tigers Sunday

Jair Jurrjens vs. Astros Monday.

Kris Medlen vs. Nationals Tuesday.

Brandon Beachy @Tigers Wednesday

With Tim Hudson expected to miss at least the regular season’s first month as he recovers from back surgery, Delgado and Teheran are battling for the rotation’s last spot.   Their second turn through the rotation falls on March 9, when the Braves are scheduled to play the Yankees and Mets in split-squad games.

Tommy Hanson will likely make his exhibition season debut on March 11, when he will piggyback with Medlen.

Freddie Freeman jogged around the field once today without any problems.  His steady progress leads me to believe he will miss closer to a one week than two.

Gonzalez plans to use the designated hitter every game through March 18.  Matt Diaz will serve in that role on Saturday.

 

 

 

Odds and ends from Braves camp: Thursday

Most of the talk around Braves camp on Thursday centered around Major League Baseball’s desire to add an additional Wild Card team in both the American League and National League.  Yeah, I know they’re doing it one year too late right?  I mean you would have at least been able to keep your hopes up one more night last year to watch the Braves travel to St. Louis for a one-game playoff against the Cardinals.

Odds are the trip would have simply salted the wounds that seemed to become gaping as the Braves lost their final five regular season games and eight of their last 10. But there was also that chance that the Braves could have won that one game and salvaged all that had been squandered since they had entered September with an 8 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card standings.

So yeah, the Braves would have loved the chance to play that one game to make ammends for all that had gone wrong over the previous four weeks.  But removing last year from the equation, many of the guys in the Atlanta clubhouse are among those who do not like the idea of a one game determining the fate of teams that did not have equal records at the end of a 162-game season.

Many of the comments made by Braves players are included in today’s notebook.  The general consensus was that they did not mind the addition of a Wild Card team as much as they did the fact that the two Wild Card teams from the respective leagues would be squaring off in a one-game playoff.

But you can count Chipper Jones among those who does not like either concept.  He’d rather go back to the days when there were two divisions in each league and no Wild Card entrants.  It’s easier for him to take this stance at the end of his career when he will not benefit from the television dollars that have already made Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols quite happy this winter.

“I’m not for it,” Jones said.  “I think the elite teams deserve to make it to the playoffs .  Pretty soon, Major League Baseball is going to be like the NBA.  There will be more teams that make it than don’t.   The season is too long as it is.  Now you’re going to give teams more travel.  I don’t agree with it, but we’re just a piece of meat.  We do what they tell us to.”

There are certainly pros and cons to this proposal.  It would not have seemed fair had the Braves kept their September lead, finished eight games ahead of the Cardinals and lost that one-game playoff.  At the same time, that eight-game lead would have afforded them the opportunity to preserve Tim Hudson for that one game.

The best thing about this proposed change is the fact that it would once again give the division winners an advantage.  The team that likely uses its ace and advances past this one game would be matched up against the team with the best record (regardless of the division) from its league.

“If they had the extra Wild Card team last year, I don’t think the Cardinals would have won the World Series,” Tim Hudson said. “They might not get past the first round.  Anything can happen in one game.  We could have gone up there and beat them.  It didn’t look like we could have beat anybody. But you never know what could happen in one game.”

The picture above shows Chipper Jones and country music artist Jason Aldean taking a breather after batting practice on Thursday.  Aldean was in camp for the filming of Day Jobs, a reality show that will air on Great American Country in August or September.

Aldean, a lifelong Braves fan from Macon, Ga., has developed friendships with Jones, Hudson and Brian McCann.  The 35-year-old musician last played baseball when he was 18 years-old.  But he seemed quite comfortable fielding grounders and picking low throws at first base.

“He’s the best celebrity I’ve seen,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We get a lot of celebrities coming through here to do a lot of this stuff.  He’s by far, the best I’ve been around at doing that kind of stuff.”

Fortunately for the Braves, Freddie Freeman was walking around much easier today.  He will likely be sidelined for at least another week.  But the Braves have not reached the point where Aldean is an option for the position.

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