June 2012

Braves-Nats Part III

When the Nationals made their first visit to Atlanta a little more than a month ago, Brian McCann was sick, Freddie Freeman could not see and Chipper Jones was about to begin a stint on the disabled list.   The Braves got swept that weekend and found themselves four games out in the National League East race when their losing streak reached eight games the following day.

Since the conclusion of the eight-game losing streak, the Braves have gone 14-11 and gained a half-game on the first-place Nationals in this tightly-contested division race.  Jason Heyward has proven to be one of the game’s most exciting and dynamic players during this 25-game stretch.

But with questions surrounding the rotation, McCann continuing to endure one of the most frustrating seasons of his career and Freeman only recently producing promise again, it seems safe to say the Braves have been only slightly than mediocre since concluding the eight-game skid.

In other words, if the Braves do start finding the consistency that they displayed during the season’s first seven weeks, the Nationals might be the club that looks back on this past month with some regret.

With that being said the Nationals have weathered the storm while closer Drew Storen, catcher Wilson Ramos and  outfielders Jayson Werth and Mike Morse have all missed significant stretches.  The primary reason has been the stability provided by their pitching staff, which leads the NL with a 3.11 ERA.  Their starting pitchers also lead the Senior Circuit with a 3.16 mark.

Meanwhile the Braves’ now-Beachyless rotation ranks 12th in the NL with a 4.14 ERA.

The Braves have reason to feel good every time they send Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson to the mound.   But they are essentially rolling the dice three out of every other five days.  Based on what he has done in his first two starts since returning from the Minors, maybe Jair Jurrjens should not be lumped in the same “uncertain” category as Randall Delgado and Mike Minor, who will start the first two games of this weekend’s series.

But while proving he is certainly more dependable than he was when he was sent to the Minors in May, Jurrjens has not given the Braves any less reason to aggressively pursue top target Zack Greinke and other starting pitchers on their wish list before the Trade Deadline.

The Braves have continued to show some interest in Ben Sheets, who has been attempting to show clubs he has the potential to add reliable depth to their rotation.  But with the necessary finances in place, they will likely attempt to make a much more significant splash by acquiring Greinke, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Edinson Volquez or another available starting pitcher via trade.

Heyward to the three hole:  As expected, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to leave the struggling Dan Uggla out of his starting lineup for the first time this season.  At the same time, Martin Prado is not in tonight’s lineup for an unknown reason.  Check back later for an update.

With Prado out of the lineup, Gonzalez has opted to bat Andrelton Simmons second and Jason Heyward third in tonight’s series opener against the Nationals.  Heyward has certainly earned the chance to stay in the three hole for more than just a game or two.  The 22-year-old outfielder is in the midst of the most impressive stretch of his young career.  With his arm, legs and bat, he has spent the past month providing reason to believe he truly is capable of living up to the tremendous expectations that greeted him when he reached the Majors.  <p>

Heyward has batted .370 with six home runs and a 1.111 OPS in the first 22 games he has played this month.  In addition, since hitting a decisive opposite-field single against Nationals’ left-hander Gio Gonzalez on June 3, he has proven he is indeed capable of hitting southpaws.

Heyward entered this month batting .194 (12-for-62) against left-handed pitchers.    He has nearly equaled that hit total while batting   .324 (11-for-34) against southpaws this month.

Meanwhile Uggla has had a month he would like to soon forget.  Since recording four hits against the Marlins on June 5, he has batted .108 (7-for-65) with a .310 on-base percentage and .169 slugging percentage.

Wish List Starts With Greinke

The Braves will keep their starting rotation in place with the intention of spending the next two weeks determining how aggressive they should be leading up to the Trade Deadline.   Barring a drastic change during this period, they will enter the All-Star break interested in the potential to land Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke via a trade and then sign him before he would be eligible to hit the free agent market at the end of this season.

With Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson currently standing as the only reliable assets in their starting rotation, the Braves will likely make landing a starting pitcher a priority before the Trade Deadline.  Greinke, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Edinson Volquez would be among their potential targets.

But if the Braves reach a point where they are committed to land a starting pitcher they will target Greinke, who would be the top-of-the-rotation asset that could capably replace the injured Brandon Beachy and have the ability to compete in a postseason setting.

The Braves would like to avoid giving up the prospects that would be required to land Greinke.  But they will likely be tempted to do so unless Jair Jurrjens spends the next couple of weeks proving last Friday’s  start against the Red Sox was not a fluke.

But even if the Braves enter the break confident that Hudson, Hanson and Jurrjens will solidify the front end of their rotation for the remainder of the year, they still might be tempted to add another veteran presence to their rotation.

If the Brewers opt to trade Greinke, the Braves’ interest would hinge on being able to lock the former Cy Young Award winner up with a long-term contract.  They are not interested in landing the right-hander to be a two-month rental.  Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, they would no longer be eligible to receive draft pick compensation if he exited as a free agent after this season.

This means the Braves would likely have to be willing to offer something similar to the contract recently signed by Matt Cain, who will be guaranteed $112.5 million over the course of the next five seasons (2013-17).

Though the Braves do not have much payroll flexibility this year, they have already discussed the potential of using the money budgeted for 2013 to address their needs via the trade market this year.

With Chipper Jones ($14 million), Derek Lowe ($15 million), Michael Bourn ($6.84 million) among those coming off of the payroll at the end of this year, the Braves will have some money to play with this winter.  But some of these funds will be needed to either re-sign Bourn or acquire at least one more outfielder.

Braves burdened by pitching woes

When the Braves left Turner Field last weekend, they were in the midst of a 20-inning scoreless drought and preparing for a six-game road trip against the Yankees and Red Sox.  It seemed like they were destined for disaster.  Instead, they split this daunting six-game trip and still returned to Atlanta with legitimate concerns surrounding their club.

Given that the Braves have lost 18 of 30, they have to feel quite fortunate to enter Tuesday’s game against the D-backs just 3 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the National League East race.   Think about that.  They have won 12 times since leaving Tampa and are still within striking distance of a team that will visit Atlanta again this upcoming weekend.

Still after watching Randall Delgado and Mike Minor struggle during the final two games of this past weekend’s series in Boston, there is reason to wonder what changes the Braves have to make to their starting rotation.   Delgado and Minor both have potentially bright futures.

But the Braves are not in a position where they can afford to have them both enduring the inevitable growing pains they will continue to endure as this season progresses.  They are already committed to sending Jair Jurrjens to the mound every five days with their fingers crossed and the hope that Friday night’s outing against the Red Sox was not a fluke.

There is a chance the Braves could move Kris Medlen to the rotation by this weekend.  But the risk is the same as it was a few weeks ago when they were planning to make this move.  Moving Medlen to the rotation weakens a bullpen that has been weakened by Jonny Venters’ struggles.    This is a move that would be much easier to make if Peter Moylan were just a few days from returning or if Arodys Vizcaino had not blown out his elbow during March’s first week.

I mention Vizcaino simply because I think it has been easy to forget about the significance of his absence.  The hard-throwing 21-year-old hurler was one of the most impressive pitchers during the early days of Spring Training.  You have to think he could have made some kind of impact this season.

Five weeks from the Trade Deadline, it is hard to project exactly who the Braves might land.  Given the respect Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren developed for Ryan Dempster during their days together with the Marlins, one would have to think he will be high on the wish list.

But right now it is easier to project that the priority before the Trade Deadline will be pitching.  Sure it would be nice to add a bat.  But it seems much more important to add either a starting pitcher or a reliever.  Preferably both.

The Braves’ starting pitchers rank 13th in the NL with a 4.21 ERA.  The three clubs behind them   — Rockies, Cubs and Astros  — are all destined for a 90-loss season.

Despite all that has gone wrong in the past month, the Braves are still on pace to win 85 games this year.  But it’s quite obvious this pace will not improve without some adjustments made to the pitching staff.

 

 

Thoughts about Jurrjens’ encouraging return

Time will tell whether the Braves will truly be able to rely on Jair Jurrjens for the remainder of the season.  But there is no doubt that he produced the most encouraging  and surprising start of the season during last night’s 4-1 win over the Red Sox.

Asked for a prediction on Twitter before last night’s start, my first inclination was to say,  “It could go either way, but don’t expect something like seven scoreless innings.”

Instead, I provided a more conservative approach by replying, ” If you see velo at 90-91, might be OK. At 88-89, might be a short night.”

WRONG.

Jurrjens was impressive when his fastball sat between 90-91 mph and occasionally hit 92  during  the first three innings.  Then when his fastball dipped to 88-89 during the remainder of the game, he further impressed with his ability to keep the Red Sox off balance by mixing a heavy dose of changeups with his fastball.

When it was time to wonder if he would falter after the fifth inning, he completed a perfect seven-pitch sixth and then a seven-pitch seventh. For the first time in more than a year, it was apparent that he had the strength necessary to pitch again.

After limiting the Red Sox to three hits (two recorded when he allowed his lone run in the eighth) over 7 2/3 innings, Jurrjens said there is still room to improve.   While there are velocity readings that indicate this could be true, there is no doubt that he appears much better than he did before beginning a two-month stint with Triple-A Gwinnett.

According to BrooksBaseball.net,  the average velocity of Jurrjens’ four-seam fastball last night was 88.99 mph.  That average ranks third among those produced in his five starts this year.  But he produced his top average (89.28 mph) while throwing just 50 pitches against the Dodgers on April 23, his final start before being demoted.

Jurrjens’ second-highest average was 89.06, produced while he threw just 81 pitches in his April 13 start against the Brewers.  If possible to determine where his average velocity stood at the 50-pitch and 81-pitch marks of last night’s 103-pitch effort, this number would likely back up Brian McCann’s belief that the fastball had more life last night, especially when they were trying to pound left-handed hitters inside.

When Jurrjens was in Gwinnett, the Braves also wanted him to focus on putting some separation between the velocities of his fastball and changeup.  Last night there was 6.2 mph difference between the average velocity of his fastball and changeup.

While it has often been said a pitcher should have 7-10 mph separation between their fastball and changeup, coaches and scouts will say it all depends on the arm action.  So based on the results Jurrjens realized with his changeup last night, there is not any reason to focus on the difference in velocities last night.

NOTES:   In the 15 games played dating back to June 5, Jason Heyward has batted .389 with a .421 on-base percentage and .778 slugging percentage. Arizona’s Aaron Hill (1.277)  Toronto’s Jose Bautista (1.267) and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto are the only Major Leaguers with a better OPS than Heyward (1.199) during this stretch.

As the Braves attempt to win a fourth straight game on Saturday, they’ll be challenged by left-hander Franklin Morales who will be making his second start of the season.  Right-handed hitters have batted .258 (17-for-66) against him and left-handers .190 (8-for-42).  Looking to add a right-handed bat to his lineup, Fredi Gonzalez will use David Ross as his catcher and Brian McCann as his designated hitter.

Read about the seven-inning no-hitter Aaron Northcraft tossed for Class A Advanced Lynchburg last night.

 

 

 

Fingers crossed as Jurrjens prepares for his return

Around this time last year, there was debate about whether Jair Jurrjens should be named the National League’s starting pitcher at the All-Star Game.  Now, there is debate about whether he will last five innings when he makes his return to the Major League scene with tonight’s start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

Less than a year after entering the All-Star break with a Major League-best 1.87 ERA, Jurrjens enters tonight’s start shadowed by some of the same doubts that surrounded Kyle Davies as he prepared to make his big league debut against the reigning world champion Red Sox on May 21, 2005.  The good news is Davies allowed four hits over five scoreless innings that night.  The bad news is Jurrjens’ only scoreless effort this year came while he was pitching for Triple-A Gwinnett against the Rochester Red Wings.

Folks around the Braves organization were raving about the velocity and command Jurrjens showed with his fastball after tossing eight scoreless innings against the Red Wings on May 27.  Then five days later, he made the mistake of trying to pitch with the flu.  The 12 hits and 10 runs (six earned) he allowed in 4 2/3 innings that day against Buffalo once again created doubts about whether he would return to the Majors.

To his credit, Jurrjens pitched effectively during his next two outings and now finds himself given the opportunity to fill the rotation spot vacated by Brandon Beachy, who underwent successful Tommy John surgery on Thursday.  When you lose a pitcher who was leading the Majors in ERA, it’s certainly nice to replace him with a former All-Star.

That is unless he has posted a 6.87 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .335 in the 11 starts he gained that All-Star selection.

With that being said Jurrjens has made strides since being demoted after posting a 9.37 ERA in his first four starts with Atlanta this year.  Reports indicate his velocity is up a little bit, but still not where it was before his right knee became a problem at the end of the 2010 season. More importantly, it seems he has regained a better understanding of what he now has in his arsenal.

Here is an excerpt from the blog I wrote the day after Jurrjens was sent to Gwinnett:

Average velocity of Jurrjens’ four-seam fastball according to FanGraphs.com’s PITCH f/x data:

2007  91.9

2008 91.8

2009 91.2

2010 91.3

2011 89.1

2012 88.4

Even when Jurrjens found success in his first 16 starts last year, his average velocity of his four-seamer was just 89.4 mph.  That figure dropped to 88.6 mph in the seven starts he made after the All-Star break.  And as the chart above shows, he’s been around that same mark this year.

If Jurrjens’ fastball once again sits around 90-91 mph tonight, the Braves will have reason to be encouraged because history shows he can be successful with that kind of velocity.  He was in this neighborhood during his last couple starts with Gwinnett.

But until he takes the mound tonight and shows the progress he has made over the past two months, the Braves have no other choice but to cross their fingers and hope for this former All-Star will prove to be a capable replacement for Beachy.

 

 

Pictures of Chipper’s visit to Yankees Museum

Braves general manager Frank Wren does not expect to get an update regarding Brandon Beachy’s condition until early Wednesday evening.  Wren said Beachy was scheduled to be one of the last patients Dr. James Andrews sees on Wednesday.   Obviously leading the Majors in ERA does not earn you priority status with the renowned surgeon.

In the meantime, check out some of these pictures of Chipper Jones’ visit to the Yankees Museum this morning. It was a true pleasure to see the genuine joy Jones gained from holding bats used by Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.  My esteemed colleague and Mantle expert Marty Noble will have a story on MLB.com this afternoon.

Chipper’s father Larry Jones taught him to appreciate Mantle at a very young age.

 

 

Chipper holding the 42.5 inch bat Babe Ruth used.

 

 

Another look at Chipper marveling at the heaviness of Ruth’s bat.

 

 

Chipper looking at Ruth’s old jersey

 

Chipper looking at some memorabilia collected from the man most responsible for the fact that his own father made him a switch hitter.

 

Minor looks to further encourage the Braves

While waiting for Brandon Beachy’s MRI results and the start of a three-game series against the red-hot Yankees, I’ll attempt to brighten your day with the revelation that the Braves’ starting rotation has posted a 2.50 ERA in the first 14 games of this month.

For now, the Braves can only hope Beachy will miss just a few starts.  But if they learn he needs to undergo Tommy John surgery or another surgical procedure that cost him the remainder of the season, all would not necessarily be lost.

Sure Beachy leads the Majors with a 2.00 ERA and has been the most consistent member of the Atlanta rotation since the start of the season.  But Tommy Hanson has once again taken on the appearance of a front-line starter and the Braves have enough depth to survive much like the Cardinals did without Adam Wainwright last year.

Over the course of this week, we’ll might get a better feel for who might be capable of stabilizing a Beachy-less rotation.  Jair Jurrjens will get a chance to prove himself at the Majors again on Friday, when he fills Beachy’s turn with a start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.   There will be many fingers crossed when Jurrjens faces big league hitters for the first time since being demoted in late April.  His velocity has been up a tick and minus the one start he made while sick earlier this month he has recorded encouraging results recently.

Maybe Jurrjens will surprise in the same manner as Mike Minor, who seemed to be pitching for a chance to stay in the Majors before turning in the most impressive start of his young career last week against CC Sabathia and the Yankees.  When he exited with a 4-0 lead and one out in the eighth inning last week, he certainly did not look like a pitcher who had produced an 8.84 ERA in his previous seven starts.

Minor’s reward is this opportunity to pitch at Yankee Stadium for the first time in his life. Sounds like a nice perk until you remember Minor has surrendered the second-most homers among NL pitchers and the Yankees have hit more nine more home runs than any other Major League club this year.  And of course we’re at Yankee Stadium, where even Rafael Belliard might have had a chance to go deep every once in a while.

But if you’ve watched this game long enough you know things seldom develop exactly like you expect when first looking at the matchup.

While losing six of their past seven games the Braves have compiled a .249 batting average and hit just .170 with runners in scoring position.  They squandered a number of opportunities while recording 10 hits and four runs in the seven innings that Sabathia completed in Atlanta last week.

The Braves have not provided any updates regarding Brandon Beachy’s MRI exam.  Check Braves.com and MLB.com for updates.

You can also follow me on Twittter @mlbbowman

 

 

Beachy exits with apparent right arm ailment

Brandon Beachy was in complete control before being forced to exit Saturday night’s game against the Orioles with what appeared to be a right elbow injury.

Beachy exited after allowing the Orioles to produce their first base runner of the night courtesy of a two-out walk issued to Chris Davis in the fourth inning. The Braves pitcher did not appear to be comfortable when he opened the plate appearance by throwing consecutive curveballs in the dirt.

Beachy, who leads the Majors with a 2.00 ERA, felt some elbow discomfort after his June 8 start against the Blue Jays. After seeing his velocity drop during the final inning of that outing, the Braves opted to give him three days of extra rest leading up to this assignment against the Orioles.

Before throwing the consecutive curveballs to Davis  in the dirt, Beachy was constructing a gem. He threw first-pitch strikes to nine of the first 10batters he faced and recorded five strikeouts during this span.

 

Simmons impresses with more than just his glove

As Andrelton Simmons took ground balls during batting practice at Lakeland’s Joker Marchant Stadium on the morning of March 7, I turned to Braves media relations representative Adrienne Midgley and said, “That kid might be the best defensive shortstop located in the state of Florida right now.”

It was just one of those statements made while getting an early look at a young player with tremendous skills.  As the past few months and weeks have evolved, it has at least become a statement that might have some merit.

Simmons has provided the Braves a much better defensive infield since arriving on the Major League scene and managed to also make some key contributions at the plate.  Through his first 12 games, he has notched two three-hit games, five multi-hit games (including three in a row entering Saturday) two home runs and a .333 batting average.

The early offensive success is not too surprising considering there are many young players who have made immediate impacts and then struggled once opposing clubs have had time to get a better sense about how to pitch to them.  Whether he was struggling or producing in the manner that he is now, it is obviously too early to project exactly what Simmons might provide with his bat during the coming years.

But during his first two weeks in the Majors, Simmons has given us a better understanding of his mental makeup and baseball IQ.

Simmons showed great patience while batting with Jason Heyward on second base in the 10th inning of the June 7 win over the Blue Jays.  Instead of jumping at a slider that he expected to see from Francisco Cordero, he held back because he could see Heyward had got a good jump with his attempt to steal third base.  An errant throw to third base allowed Heyward to cruise toward the plate with the winning run.

“[Cordero] threw me a slider,” Simmons said. “I started chasing. I was thinking he saw me chasing so he’s going to try it again. I was looking for that slider and sure enough, he threw it. But I saw Jason start running. I thought he had a good jump, so I just took it. The catcher made a mistake of even throwing because he had the base already stolen.”

Then last night after making the first error of his career, Simmons highlighted a three-hit night by drilling a two-run sixth inning home run that gave the Braves a lead they would not squander.

Simmons also possesses the kind of confidence you like to see in young players.  Asked about his early success at the plate,  he said, “It’s not surprising if I’m feeling that good at the plate because I’m seeing the ball really well and I’m not missing my pitches. If I’m feeling like this, I’m expecting to see results.”

While Simmons might be confident, he has not shown signs of arrogance or cockiness.  After delivering the biggest hit of his young career last night, he remained on the field and shook hands with each of the fans who were winners in the Braves’ Jerseys Off Our Backs promotion.

 

 

Medlen recalled; Livan designated

The Braves have ended the Livan Hernandez experiment by designating the veteran hurler to make room for the return of Kris Medlen.

Medlen will likely rejoin the Atlanta bullpen after spending the past couple of weeks with Triple-A Gwinnett. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will provide more information about his plans for Medlen when he meets with the media later this afternoon.

Everybody will agree that Medlen essentially wasted his time while spending the past two weeks stretching his arm out in preparation to return to the Majors as a starting pitcher.  But Gonzalez indicated on Wednesday that he likely will not remove Mike Minor or Randall Delgado from the starting rotation.

Two weeks ago when the Braves sent Medlen to Gwinnett to make a few starts, Minor and Delgado were both struggling and giving the club reason to look for other options.

Hernandez had never served as a reliever before agreeing to join the Braves hours after the Astros designated him for assignment in late March.  He posted a 2.73 ERA while allowing opponents to reach base at a .327 clip during his first 16 appearances of the year.  But he allowed nine earned in the 4 2/3 innings that he completed in his past two outings.

 

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