June 2012

Looking back on another ugly night

With his team having blown four-run leads in two of the past three games, Fredi Gonzalez has taken a lot of heat over the past couple of days.  When he was dropping clothes off at the dry cleaner on Monday, a fan yelled toward him and asked what had happened on Sunday.

Hopefully, Gonzalez did not need to have any clothes laundered this morning.

It was hard to understand Gonzalez’s decision to bring Livan Hernandez in to a three-run game on Sunday with the bases loaded and one out.   Even that imposter that crashed this past weekend’s alumni activities can occasionally put a 66-mph spinner in play every once in a while.  Then to add to the disastrous turn of events we’ve witnessed the past three days, there was the decision to bring Cory Gearrin in to turn the switch-hitting Nick Swisher to the left side of the plate last night.

If that imposter knows how to hold a bat from the left side of the plate…

OK, we won’t go there.  But the knock against Gearrin has always been that he can’t get left-handers out.  Sure he improved his changeup and showed some improvement as left-handed hitters batted .236 (13-for-55) against him this year at the Minor League level.  But this is not the International League and left-handed hitters had accounted for two of the four hits he had allowed while working just two innings the night before.

But with Eric O’Flaherty unavailable last night, Gearrin stood as one of Gonzalez’s few options once it was apparent Jonny Venters’ disastrous eighth inning appearance might actually get worse.  He certainly was not going to turn to Hernandez again and with the game tied and the pitchers spot due up third in the bottom of the inning, they had to keep Cristhian Martinez ready to potentially make a multi-inning appearance.

Those of you who were calling for Craig Kimbrel to enter to record five outs, his only multi-inning appearance as a closer was created only because he was unable to hold a ninth-inning lead against the Dodgers on April 21, 2012.

Plus there obviously was not any reason for Kimbrel to know that he should begin warming up as soon as Venters entered the field. In other words, he was not going to be ready before Alex Rodriguez drilled his game-tying grand slam off of Venters.

Have to think even Ron Burgundy would say that eighth inning “escalated quickly.”   Click here to get an idea of what A-Rod, Swisher and the rest of the Yankees thought of the inning.

While it’s easy to spew venom in the direction of bullpen management, the Braves have every reason to be more concerned about O’Flaherty’s elbow and the extended struggles Venters has experienced.

Before going any further, I’ll say that I would have also pulled Mike Minor  and inserted Venters after the Yankees put a runner on base with one out in the eighth. Sure, you could have stuck with Minor one more batter. But it seemed to make more sense to go with Venters, who had allowed one hit in his previous five appearances.

Unfortunately, Venters pitched more like he had in May, when he surrendered three home runs and allowed opponents a .500 on-base percentage.  The game-tying  grand slam the left-hander surrendered Rodriguez was the fourth home run he has allowed in his past 12 2/3 innings.  He had allowed a total of three home runs in the 182 1/3 innings he had compiled during this stretch.

Venters allowed a home run to Mark DeRosa in his first exhibition appearance this season and then recorded three strikeouts without being damaged by as much as a foul tip in his next appearance.  The most concerning development in March might have been the discomfort he experienced around his biceps muscle near that latter part of the month.

While saying he has felt strong throughout this season, Venters simply has not generated groundballs with the same incredible frequency he had the previous two years.

Here are some numbers via Baseball-Reference.com:

Venters’ Groundball/Flyball Ratio

2010: 2.17

2011: 2.71

2012: 1.27

The balls hit in the air this year against Venters are also much more costly (numbers here are different than those seen on Twitter this afternoon.  Difference between the way Fangraphs and B-Ref equate HR/FB percentage)

Venters’ HR/Flyball percentages

2010: 1.7

2011: 3.8

2012: 13.8

There is no doubt the HR/FB ratio will drop from this high level.  But it will be interesting to see if Venters is able to start inducing groundballs as frequently as he did in the past.

Check back this afternoon for updates on O’Flaherty’s elbow and the plan for Kris Medlen, who could soon return to Atlanta as a starter or a reliever.  If the Braves make a move today, I would think they will send Gearrin back to Gwinnett.  Anthony Varvaro would be a candidate for a promotion.



Today’s games will influence the makeup of the Braves’ rotation

Mike Minor bought himself at least one more start last weekend he allowed one run and four hits over five innings against a Marlins team that was in the midst of hitting .197 over a six-game stretch.   The Yankees will provide a much greater challenge tonight and potentially influence how the Braves’ rotation looks over the course of the next couple of weeks.  <p>

If Minor impresses during tonight’s matchup against CC Sabathia, he could keep his spot in the rotation.  If he extends the troubles that have haunted him as he has posted an 8.84 ERA in his past eight starts, then the Braves will have to choose who will start Sunday’s series finale against the Orioles.

The three primary candidates to make that start would be Minor, Randall Delgado, who minimized damage during Monday night’s sloppy start, or Kris Medlen, who will make his third start for Triple-A Gwinnett tonight against Pawtucket.  After throwing 58 pitches over five scoreless innings against Lehigh Valley last week, he went to the bullpen and threw approximately 15 more pitchers to further stretch his arm.

If Medlen enjoys another strong outing while getting his pitch count between 90-100, he could certainly be deemed ready to return to Atlanta to join the starting rotation.  But if Minor delivers a strong outing tonight, some might question whether it would be better to simply bring Medlen back to restrengthen the bullpen.

If this happens, Medlen would have every right to feel like he wasted the past couple of weeks with Gwinnett.  But I’m guessing he won’t have to worry about this.

Even if Minor enjoys a strong performance tonight, there could be a need for Medlen to give Brandon Beachy a break.

Beachy and the Braves are not discussing the slight elbow discomfort he felt recently.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said the decision to start Beachy with three extra days of rest on Saturday has something to do with the dip in velocity he realized during the last inning he threw on Friday night against the Blue Jays.   But considering he threw just six fastballs that inning and five were from the stretch with nobody on base, this just seems to be code for “his elbow was barking a little bit and we decided to give him a couple extra days.”

The fact that Beachy is still scheduled to pitch this weekend indicates the Braves are not too concerned about his elbow.  But the decision to move him back combined with the inconsistent command he has displayed in his past few outings certainly provides reason to keep an eye on where this storyline progresses.


Chipper declares himself ready and responds to Foxworthy

The Braves activated Chipper Jones from the disabled list on Sunday afternoon and placed him in the starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Blue Jays.

Jones declared himself ready after experiencing no problems while playing six innings for Class A Rome on Saturday night. The normal soreness he had felt while playing five innings the night before was a product of the fact that he had recorded just one pinch hit appearance since being struck on the left calf with a line drive on May 18.  <p>

When asked what he accomplished during his two-game stint in Rome, Jones provided the reminder that he does not like rehab assignments.

“I told them I was fine when I went down there,”  Jones said. “I told them I could have played nine (innings) the first game down there.  My legs felt great.  I didn’t even have any soreness the second day.  There’s no limitations.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez playfully said he lost a bottle of wine because he was not able to convince Jones to play at least three games during his rehab stint.  But he seemed pleased that his 40-year-old third baseman at least gave himself a chance to strengthen his legs for a couple days.

“I think they just wanted to make sure I didn’t come off the DL and tweak a groin or a hamstring or something and then have to go back on the DL,” Jones said.   <p>

Jones said he will wear a protective guard to cover both his right and left ankles while batting.   He can only hope he is not reintroduced to the misfortune that struck him when he was hit on the left calf with a sharp grounder that hopped off the Tropicana Field turf on May 18. An ugly bruise formed and worsened until he was placed on the disabled list a week later.

“I’ve seen plenty of guys spike a slider and guys get hit in the back foot, back ankle,” Jones said. “I think if I took another one off that area, just take me out back and shoot me.”

Jones said he was regrets that this rehab stint prevented him being present on Friday, when the Braves inducted John Smoltz into their Hall of Fame and retired his jersey.

“That was very disappointing,” Jones said. “I’m the guy who has played with Smoltzie the longest and certainly wanted to be here.  It was a great weekend for the Braves’ organization.  Anytime we are retiring one of our own, I want to be there for that. Hopefully, he doesn’t hold it against me in the future.”

Smoltz’s good friend Jeff Foxworthy actually made sure Jones was a part of the ceremonies.  The comedian began his hilarious address with some lines that referenced the veteran third baseman’s health.

Foxworthy began by saying that he got excited because the Braves called him just a few days before last week’s Draft. He followed with this:

“I was like, yes they finally see the benefit of a 53-year-old ballplayer. I know a lot of you are thinking that is crazy, you couldn’t play pro ball, you’re old.  Well, so is Chipper.  He’s breaking more than a Pakistani taxi cab these days.  And his knees.  I’ve seen better joints on Ron White’s bus.  I told Smoltzie, Chipper is playing 12 more games a year than I do, but making $18 million more.”

Chipper laughed and provided this response:

“That’s funny.  A guy that sits there and writes jokes for a living is bagging on me.  OK.  I’ll save mine. Hey Jeff come to my ceremony please.

Day 2 of Braves MLB Draft Coverage

Last night the Braves made right-hander Lucas Sims from Brookwood High School in suburban Atlanta the 21st overall pick of the First-Year Player Draft. Today, the Draft resumes with rounds 2-15.

I’ll be providing coverage of the Draft today, here on the blog and over at Braves.com. We’ll be updating this post throughout the day as the Braves make their selections. Their first pick of the day will be at No. 85.

So pull up a chair and get ready for another fun day of MLB Draft Coverage.

-Teddy Cahill, Associate reporter

Recapping the first five rounds

The Braves have collected a wide variety of players with their first five picks of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Scouting director Tony Demacio picked local high school right-hander Lucas Sims with the 21st overall pick last night and has so far picked a college left-hander, two high school position players and a college outfielder this afternoon.

The Braves’ first two picks – Sims and Georgia left-hander Alex Wood – fit in with their longstanding tradition of selecting area talent. Their next three picks show a desire to inject toolsy players into the system. Center fielder Justin Black is especially representative of this, as his high school in Billings, Mont., doesn’t even have a baseball team.

The Draft continues with 10 more rounds this afternoon and rounds 16-40 Tuesday beginning at noon.

Round 2, LHP Alex Wood, Georgia

The Braves stayed local again with their second round pick, selecting left-hander Alex Wood from Georgia. Wood was the Bulldogs’ ace and often throws his fastball in the mid-90s.

Wood is a redshirt sophomore after missing 2010 while he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Wood went 7-3 with a 2.73 ERA this spring and struck out 100 batters in 102 1/3 innings. Coaches in the Southeastern Conference made him a second team All-SEC pick.

Round 3, C Bryan de la Rosa, Olympic Heights HS, Fla.

The Braves picked high school catcher Bryan de la Rosa with their third-round selection. De la Rosa is a native of Puerto Rico but played for Olympic Heights High School in Florida this spring.

Listed at 5-feet-8 inches, de la Rosa is slightly smaller than most catchers, but he is known for his strong arm and defense.

After taking a pair of pitchers with their first two picks, De la Rosa is the first hitter the Braves have taken in the Draft.

De la Rosa is committed to Florida State.

Round 4, CF Justin Black, Billings High School, Mont.

After picking three players from the Southeast at the start of the Draft, the Braves went way out West to Montana to pick center fielder Justin Black in the fourth round.

Black attends Billings High School, which does not have a high school baseball team. To make up for that, he has played with the Langley Blaze, a club team in British Columbia, this spring. He also played American Legion ball last summer and was selected to their team for last year’s Tournament of Stars, an elite event for high school juniors held at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary, N.C., in June.

Black is known for his speed, but remains very raw at the plate and in the field. Already 19, he is a bit older than most high school seniors. Black is committed to Nebraska.

Round 5, RF Blake Brown, Missouri

With their fifth-round selection, the Braves took Missouri outfielder Blake Brown, their first college position player of the Draft. Brown has played center field at Missouri, but the Braves took him as a right fielder.

Brown was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection in back-to-back seasons. He hit .302 with 10 home runs this spring and led the Tigers with 17 stolen bases. He sometimes has trouble making contact, however, and struck out 61 times in 225 at bats this season.

Brown was the Pirates’ 48th-round pick in 2009 when he graduated from Normal (Ill.) High School.

Round 6, C Josh Elander, TCU

The Braves selected Texas Christian catcher Josh Elander with their sixth-round pick, making him the second catcher they have taken in the first six rounds. Scouts have at times questioned Elander’s catching ability, but he drew rave reviews last summer when he served as Team USA’s catcher.

Elander has hit well throughout his college career and is hitting .316 with a .442 on-base percentage and 10 home runs this season. He has helped the Horned Frogs reach the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

Before the season, there was some buzz that Elander could have been a first-round pick. Ultimately, it appears questions about his defense pushed him down draft boards.

Elander was drafted in the 37th round by the Nationals in 2009 after graduating from Round Rock (Texas) High School.

Round 7, LHP David Starn, Kent State

The Braves took another college left-hander with their seventh-round selection, picking David Starn from Kent State. Starn is a senior and has been a big part of the Golden Flashes deep runs in the NCAA Tournament the last two years. He will likely start the first game of Kent State’s Super Regionals matchup at Oregon on Saturday.

Starn owns the Golden Flashes career strikeout and wins records and is 10-3 with a 2.01 ERA this season. He has 118 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings and was named the Mid-American Conference Pitcher of the Year.

Starn doesn’t throw hard, his fastball often topping out in the upper-80s, but he is able to effectively mix his changeup and curveball to keep batters off balance.

Round 8, RHP David Peterson, College of Charleston

With their eighth-round selection, the Braves picked College of Charleston closer David Peterson. He is the third college pitcher taken by the Braves in the Draft, but the first right-hander.

Peterson is a senior and became the Cougars closer this year. He saved 10 games and had 40 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings, while walking just 15 batters.

Peterson was picked in the 49th round by the Astros last year but elected to return to school.

Round 9, RHP Steven Schils, Florida Tech

The Braves took their third straight college pitcher with their ninth-round selection, picking Florida Tech right-hander Steven Schils.

Schils pitched in only 10 innings for Florida Tech, a Division II school, this season. He had four strikeouts and walked 13 batters and saved five games.

Schils began his college career at High Point, where he pitched for two seasons before transferring to Florida Tech, which is closer to his hometown of Cocoa, Fla.

Braves take local high school pitcher with first round selection

Four days before retiring John Smoltz’s number, the Braves selected a local pitcher who grew up idolizing Smoltz.

The Braves took suburban Atlanta’s Lucas Sims with their first round selection in this year’s First-Year Player Draft.  The 18-year-old product of Gwinnett County’s Brookwood High School possess a fastball that has touched 94-mph and a hard curveball.

Recognized as having one of the best arms among available high school products, Sims is working on a changeup.  Scouts like his mound presence, his aggressive nature and the athleticism he displayed both on the mound and while playing shortstop.

This marks the fourth time in the past five years that the Braves have taken a pitcher with their first selection.  They had taken left-handed collegiate pitchers —  Mike Minor and Sean Gilmartin — first in two of the previous three Drafts.

With an abundance of young pitchers who have already gained Major League experience there was some thinking the Braves would go with a position player.  But the Braves determined that their best option was to go with Sims’ powerful right arm.

Sims’ selection ironically comes 10 years after the Braves took a couple Gwinnett County high school products Jeff Francouer and Brian McCann in the first two rounds of the 2002 Draft.

Because they did not offer arbitration to any rated free agents lost via free agency this past winter, the Braves do not have any compensation picks in this year’s Draft.   When the Draft resumes on Tuesday, their second round pick will be the 85th overall selection.

Braves-Nats Part II

Remember the concern some of you expressed when the Braves recorded one hit in their Grapefruit League opener and then won just two of their first 14 exhibition games.  Seemed pretty ridiculous at the time and even more so when the Braves scored the most runs in the National League through their first 35 games and had the NL’s second-best record through their first  43 games.

How about when they started off 0-4? The panic felt during the early days of the regular season evaporated as they won 13 of their next 16 games and 26 of their next 38.

Then of course we had the recent eight-game losing streak that included being swept at home last weekend by the first-place Nationals.  By the time Bryce Harper and his guardians left town late Sunday, the Braves were four games out and many of you had come to the conclusion your Memorial Day weekend had been ruined.

Well five days later, the Braves are in Washington D.C. preparing for yet another three-game series against the Nationals while standing just two games back in the National League East standings.   They are just one game further back than they were entering last weekend’s series against the Nats.

As bad as the eight-game losing streak might have seemed, it was nowhere near as destructive it likely felt.

While there is a chance the Braves could be in first place by the end of this weekend, this is not necessarily the place for them to complete a sweep.  Dating back to when they helped open the park at the start of the 2008 season, the Braves are 14-22 at Nationals Park.  They did complete a sweep to keep the final week of the 2009 season interesting.

But far too often, this place has been a house of horrors for the Braves.  They have won just seven of the past 18 games played in D.C.

The Braves’ latest win at Nationals Park came against Stephen Strasburg, who just happens to be toeing the rubber tonight for a Nationals team that just got swept by the Marlins this past week.

Beyond the presence of a small sample size, the fact that Strasburg is 1-2 with a 5.28 ERA in three starts against the Braves does not mean much.  One of those losses came in the fifth start of his career and the other came in the fourth start he made while returning from Tommy John surgery.   The win came last weekend when he allowed four runs and six hits in five innings.

Last weekend Chipper Jones showered Strasburg with praise, saying he has the “best repertoire” of any pitcher he has ever seen.  While this might be true, the 23-year-old right-hander is still prone to making the occasional mistake.  His mistakes have been fewer and far less costly than the ones recently committed by Mike Minor.

But both are still enduring some growing pains.

Taken six picks after the Nationals grabbed Strasburg with the top overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Minor will take the mound tonight looking to avoid the critical mistakes that have destroyed him over the past five weeks.   He has allowed 12 home runs in the six starts he has made dating back to April 30.

Philadelphia’s Joe Blanton ranks second in the NL with nine home runs allowed during this span. Tommy Hanson ranks second among Braves’ pitchers with five home runs allowed since April 30.

Before concluding last Saturday’s matchup against the Nationals with three scoreless innings, Minor endured a costly three-run second inning.  After retiring the first two batters he faced in the inning, the southpaw surrendered consecutive singles to Jesus Flores and Strasburg, who had padded his current .389 (7-for-18) batting average with a home run in his previous start.

Danny Espinosa followed with a three-run homer to extend the struggles for Minor, who has posted a 9.95 ERA in his past six starts.

Minor’s past two starts have been doomed by that stretch of three batters and the four solo homers he allowed America’s Great Home Run Park.  The most encouraging part of this stretch has been the fact that he has continued to be accountable and confident that he can turn things around.  Obviously we’re nearing a point where it does not matter how he reacts to this adversity. If the results do not improve he obviously will not remain in the rotation.

But just a hunch, I think the Braves will benefit from the patience they have continued to show in Minor.

Minor will have the benefit of having slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons playing behind him tonight.  Simmons will be making his much-anticipated Major League debut and looking to prove he is indeed capable of handling himself at the Major League level.

By now you’ve heard about how Simmons has soft hands, a rocket arm and all of the other intangibles you would expect from a guy many scouts considered to have been the best defensive shortstop in the Minors.  Now you’re going to get a chance to see for yourself why some members of the Braves organization wanted him to make the jump from the Class A Advanced Minor League level to the Majors at the start of this season.

From a developmental standpoint, the Braves made the right choice by starting Simmons at Double-A Mississippi, where he hit . 292 with a.794 OPS in 43 games.  He may not show some of the patience Tyler Pastornicky displayed while accepting the challenge of hitting eighth in a National League lineup.

But Simmons will provide Braves pitchers the confidence they could not possess with Pastornicky playing behind them.  At the same time, I do not think the athletic product of Curacao will embarrass himself at the plate.

Like with any young player, there might be some growing pains after scouts have some time to evaluate him.  But this is not the first time his offensive skills were questioned.  The Braves saw him more as a pitcher than a position player when they drafted him two years ago.  Last year, he won the Carolina League batting title.

When he exited Spring Training this year, some wondered if he could handle the challenge of Double-A pitching.  Having passed that test, he will have a chance to prove what he can do at the Major League level.  But regardless of the results at the plate, the Braves are a better team with the added range and dependability he brings as their shortstop.





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