July 2012

Stability provided from a pair of unexpected sources

Going back one month to when we learned Brandon Beachy would be lost for the remainder of the season, how ridiculous would it have been to say, “The Braves will be just fine once Jair Jurrjens and Ben Sheets solidify their starting rotation.”  At the time, such a statement might have rivaled with, “This is going to be that year that Jack Wilson hits 20 bombs.”

Yet as we progress through the season’s first full week after the All-Star break, some of the optimism surrounding the surging Braves can be linked to the presence of Sheets and Jurrjens.

Sure the Braves could benefit from the addition of Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza or another veteran starting pitcher before the trade deadline.  Such an addition could prove to be the piece they would need if they advance to the playoffs and match up against some of the game’s best pitchers.

But if Sheets and Jurrjens can stay healthy and productive, the Braves have already found a pair of starters that are capable of producing the consistency they need to gain a playoff spot.

 

After Jurrjens made his successful return to the Majors with an impressive outing against the Red Sox on June 22, he essentially entered his next few starts surrounded by skepticism —  the realistic side of the oft-cruel baseball world. But to his credit, he has spent the past couple of weeks quieting his doubters and proving to be the reliable rotation piece the Braves needed.

Jurrjens has posted a 2.13 ERA and limited opponents to a .291 on-base percentage in the four starts he has made since experiencing a two-month long demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett.

Now the Braves can only hope to gain the same from Sheets, who might still be floating after allowing just two hits in six scoreless innings against the Mets on Sunday.   Not bad for a guy who had not pitched in a Major League game in nearly two years.

Twelve years ago, Sheets tossed a three-hit shutout against Cuba in the Gold Medal Game of the 2000 Olympics.  Four years ago, he found himself as the National League’s starting pitcher in an All-Star Game.  But now that he has had time to digest all that occurred on Sunday, I plan on asking him today if his latest thrill should now be considered his greatest.

Still as impressive as Sheets was while throwing a 90-91 mph fastball and that same ol’ nasty curveball on Sunday, he’ll enter his next couple outings surrounded by skepticism.  Some will wonder how long he can stay healthy and others will wonder when he might start to show some of the rust that developed while he spent the past two years getting healthy.

But even with some doubts still surrounding both Jurrjens and Sheets, it seems pretty safe to say the Braves are much better off with them sitting in the middle of their rotation than Mike Minor and Randall Delgado.

With this being said, Minor and Delgado will both make key starts over the next week.  Delgado will be called up from Gwinnett to start one of the games during Saturday’s doubleheader against the Nationals. Minor will start both Wednesday night’s game against the Giants and Monday night’s game against the Marlins.

QUICK THOUGHTS:  Obviously there was not a lot of excitement expressed from fans when it was announced the Braves had filled their need for a shortstop by acquiring Paul Janish from the Reds.  Such is the case when you acquire 29-year-old man with a .590 OPS.

But those understood the trade seemed to appreciate the fact that Janish should be able to provide the solid glove the Braves need until Andrelton Simmons’ broken right pinky finger heals.  Janish likely will not hit like Simmons did during his first five weeks in the big leagues.  But before getting too excited about this, remember there was certainly no guarantee that Simmons was going to continue exceeding offensive expectations.

It will interesting to see how Jonny Venters progresses once he comes off the disabled list on Friday. If he continues to struggle, there will obviously be a greater need for the Braves to acquire a reliever.  But this is a need they might also be able to fill in August when necessary.  Given the number of teams still in playoff contention, the waiver-wire trade season in August might prove to be a little more exciting than normal this year.

Here is a breakdown of the 73 batters Craig Kimbrel has faced dating back to May 15

39 have been retired via strikeout (53.4 percent)

6 have reached base via a hit or walk (8.2 percent)

4 have recorded hits (5.5 percent)

72.2 percent of the 306 pitches thrown have been strikes

Now for the stats that have been compiled during this 22-game stretch:  22 IP, 39 K, 1 HR, 1 R, 0.41 ERA

Opponents’ averages:  .056 BA, .082 OBP, .099 SLG

Barry Zito enters tonight’s matchup against Jurrjens with 2.45 ERA in five career starts against the Braves.  He has lasted at least seven innings in four of those outings, including each of the three made since the start of 2008.  Dan Uggla (6-for-20) is the only current Atlanta player with more than 10 career at-bats against the left-hander.

 

 

 

 

 

Braves acquire Janish from Reds

The Braves have satisfied their need for a shortstop by acquiring Paul Janish from the Reds in exchange for right-handed pitcher Todd Redmond.

With Andrelton Simmons set to miss at least six weeks with a fractured right pinky finger, the Braves have spent the past week attempting to land a shortstop via a trade. Janish provides them a solid defender who showed some flashes of offensive potential.

Janish has batted .237 with a .332 on-base percentage in 49 games with Triple-A Louisville this year.  The 29-year-old infielder has not played in the Majors since batting .214 with a .259 on-base percentage and .262 slugging percentage in 114 games with the Reds last year.

In 221 games at the big league level, Janish has batted .221 with a .591 OPS.

The Braves will now have the option to use Janish and Jack Wilson to handle the shortstop position until the sure-handed Simmons returns.  Wilson dislocated his right pinky finger on Friday night, but could be cleared to resume playing again within the next few days.

Redmond has gone 6-6 with a 3.58 ERA in 18 starts for Triple-A Gwinnett this year.  The 27-year-old right-hander has been stuck at Gwinnett since the start of the 2009 season.  He was named Southern League pitcher of the Year after going 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA for Double-A Mississippi in 2008.

Braves acquire Janish from Reds

The Braves have satisfied their need for a shortstop by acquiring Paul Janish from the Reds in exchange for right-handed pitcher Todd Redmond. 

With Andrelton Simmons set to miss at least six weeks with a fractured right pinky finger, the Braves have spent the past week attempting to land a shortstop via a trade. Janish provides them a solid defender who showed some flashes of offensive potential.

Janish has batted .237 with a .332 on-base percentage in 49 games with Triple-A Louisville this year.  The 29-year-old infielder has not played in the Majors since batting .214 with a .259 on-base percentage and .262 slugging percentage in 114 games with the Reds last year.

In 221 games at the big league level, Janish has batted .221 with a .591 OPS. 

The Braves will now have the option to use Janish and Jack Wilson to handle the shortstop position until the sure-handed Simmons returns.  Wilson dislocated his right pinky finger on Friday night, but could be cleared to resume playing again within the next few days. 

Redmond has gone 6-6 with a 3.58 ERA in 18 starts for Triple-A Gwinnett this year.  The 27-year-old right-hander has been stuck at Gwinnett since the start of the 2009 season.  He was named Southern League pitcher of the Year after going 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA for Double-A Mississippi in 2008.

Bourn replaces Desmond on the NL roster

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez called Michael Bourn into his office at Citizens Bank Park late Saturday afternoon to inform him that he has been added to the National League roster to replace injured Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who is dealing with a strained left oblique muscle.

Bourn was disappointed when he did not earn a selection when the National League and American League teams were announced on Sunday.  Then after finishing second in the Final Vote balloting process, he was prepared to spend this upcoming week in Houston.  But it’s safe to say he was thrilled when Gonzalez informed him that he had gained his second All-Star selection.

“It feels good, it’s just a different scenario for me,” Bourn said. “Things happen in different ways some times.  I thank God for it. It’s always an honor to be an All-Star and a blessing to be around the kind of caliber of players you get to be around.”

Bourn has batted .305 with 23 stolen bases and a .809 OPS in 83 games for the Braves this year.   His only previous All-Star selection came in 2010.

Bourn will join Braves teammates Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla and Craig Kimbrel in Kansas City for this week’s All-Star activities.

Braves look to extend Phillies’ first-half woes

Asked before yesterday’s game if this weekend’s series in Philadelphia would feel different because of the Phillies’ first-half struggles, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez essentially said, “No because the Phillies are still the Phillies.”

Fortunately for the Braves, the Phillies are not the Phillies that the National League East has feared over the past five years.  Yes, Ryan Howard will return tonight to join a lineup that was recently bolstered by Chase Utley’s return.  But as the Braves attempt to end a disappointing first half on a positive note, they will not have to deal with Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels or the still-injured Roy Halladay.

Instead the Braves seem to have the advantage in each of this weekend’s pitching matchups —  Tim Hudson vs. Kyle Kendrick; Tommy Hanson vs. Joe Blanton and Jair Jurrjens vs. Vance Worley.

OK, so maybe you don’t agree that the Braves have the advantage in Sunday’s matchup between Jurrjens and Worley.  But the Braves’ hurler, who has proven to be a flyball pitcher, has posted a 1.80 ERA and allowed just two home runs in 40 innings offensively-friendly Citizens Bank Park.

Now back to the Phillies.  Maybe they have dug themselves too big of a hole as they sit 10 games below .500 and 13 games behind the first-place Nationals in the NL East race.  But with Howard back and Halladay returning after the break, this is a team that could certainly keep things interesting, especially given the fact there will be two available Wild Card spots available this year.

This simply adds to the importance of this weekend’s series.  The Braves want to enter the All-Star break with some momentum and strengthen some of the confidence that has been weakened as they have won just 17 of their past 40 games.

But at the same time, this weekend will also provide a chance to create some separation from this still-dangerous Phillies club that has also won just 16 of their past 40 games.

Think about that.  As bad as the Phillies have been during this injury-plagued first half, the Braves have been just one game better over their past 40 games.

Fortunately for the Braves, they owned the NL’s second-best record 40 games ago and are still within six games of the first-place Nationals.

Ben Sheets is scheduled to return to the Majors after the All-Star break and there is a chance Atlanta’s starting rotation will also welcome either Zack Greinke or another starting pitcher before the trade deadline.   These additions will provide the Braves a better chance to find the consistency that has eluded them during the season’s first half.

But before looking toward what needs to happen after the All-Star break, the Braves will first focus on trying to halt their struggles against the Phillies.  They have won just eight of the past 27 games played against the reigning NL East champs.

It’s no secret that Hudson has had his troubles against Howard, who is expected to return tonight for the first time since tearing his left Achilles tendon after grounding out to end last year’s National League Division Series against the Cardinals.

Howard has batted .327 with 6 home runs, a .429 on-base percentage and .712 slugging percentage in 52 career at-bats against Hudson.  But it should be noted that three of those home runs were hit during a game played six years ago.

Since the start of the 2010 season, Howard has collected five hits, including a home run and a double, in 18 at-bats against Hudson.   Not surprisingly, the competitive and confident pitcher has issued him just three walks during this span.

The Braves will be challenged tonight by Kendrick, who posted a 6.96 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .401 on-base percentage in his six June starts.

Of course,  the Braves are still well aware of  what Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija did to them on  Monday night after producing similar numbers in June.  But more importantly, they are well aware of the struggles they’ve had against Kendrick.

Kendrick has gone 5-1 with a 2.58 ERA in 10 career starts against the Braves.   He has posted a 4.68 ERA in his other 100 career starts.

 

Braves, Venters searching for answers

One year after preparing for his first All-Star Game, Jonny Venters appears to be a lost soul who has spent the past couple months searching to regain the successful form he possessed during his previous two seasons.

While uncorking another wild pitch that scored an inherited runner and surrendering yet another home run on Wednesday night, Venters made what will be his last big league appearance for a couple weeks.

Late Wednesday night, Luis Avilan Tweeted that he had been called up to the big league roster.  When he arrives at Turner Field today, the left-handed reliever will likely hear a thing or two about how the club would like him to begin using Twitter as frequently as @TommyHanson48.

The Braves were planning to spend the early part of Thursday discussing the counter move for this transaction.  They opted to put Venters on the 15-day disabled list with a left elbow impingement.

Before delving into the statistics, which I’m sure many of you have already analyzed, one of the most telling numbers is the percentage of fastballs that Venters has thrown.

According to FanGraphs, the average velocity of Venters’ fastball has dropped from 94.7 mph to 93.5 mph.  Last year, his hard sinking fastball accounted for 79.7 percent of the pitches he threw.  This year, that number has dipped to 62.4 percent.

Venters’ inability to command his fastball has led catcher Brian McCann and to some extent David Ross more hesitant to call for the pitch in many situations, primarily when there are men on base. This is a problem for any pitcher, especially one who has allowed opponents to compile a .412 on-base percentage.

Like Mariano Rivera would have been nothing without his cutter, Venters is nothing without his ability to confidently throw his hard sinker at any time.  But until he regains confidence by consistently commanding the pitch, he will have problems.

It is amazing to think two of the three pitchers (Venters, Jair Jurrjens and Craig Kimbrel) who represented the Braves at last year’s All-Star Game have struggled to the point where the club has been forced to at least think about sending them to the Minors.  But that’s not important right now.  They simply have to hope Venters finds a way to prove serviceable again, like Jurrjens has after spending two months with Triple-A Gwinnett.

“You feel like you can get him over the hump, so you put him in situations where you think he can be successful,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Wednesday night.  “If we don’t get him right and I don’t even mean last-year right, I’m just saying a good left-handed arm out of the bullpen, we’re going to be up against it.  We’ll keep working.  He’s got a good frame of mind.”

Those following on Twitter last night know that I was critical of Gonzalez’s decision to bring Venters in after Randall Delgado surrendered a leadoff double in the seventh inning.  Three months into the season, we’ve seemingly come to the conclusion that the left-handed reliever is not the same guy he was last year when he might have been able to kill this threat with a couple strikeouts or weak grounders.

But like many Major League managers, Gonzalez chose to show faith in his guy one more time.  Given the results, I think that it’s safe to assume the skipper would not even think about making the same decision again any time soon.

Through his first 40 appearances, Venters has posted a 4.45 ERA and a  a 1.794 WHIP.  He has surrendered six home runs and been charged with six wild pitches.

In his 85 appearances last year, Venters posted a 1.84 ERA and a 1.091 WHIP.  He surrendered two home runs and uncorked six wild pitches.

While limiting opponents to a .176 batting average, .289 on-base percentage and .219 slugging percentage last year, Venters saw his BAbip rest at .250.

This year while opponents have compiled a .313, .412 on-base percentage and .496 slugging percentage, his BAbip sits at .427.

Opponents recorded 72 total bases against Venters in 2010 and 66 last year.  That number already sits at 65 this year.

It’s still amazing to think Venters allowed three home runs in the first 182 1/3 innings of his career and six in the 21 innings that have followed.  Something is obviously not right and the Braves can only hope there is at least some sign of improvement before this season concludes.

Chipper to replace Kemp on NL All-Star team

Chipper Jones will not have to wait to see if he gains an All-Star selection via the Final Vote balloting process.  The Braves third baseman has been added to the National League roster to replace injured Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.

Jones received word just before he and his Braves teammates began Tuesday night’s game against the Cubs at Turner Field.   This is the ninth All-Star selection for the 40-year-old third baseman, who will retire at the conclusion of this season.

“I’ve savored each and every one of them,” said Jones in reference to his eight previous All-Star selections.  “It’s a tremendous honor.  Making All-Star teams, in a certain sense, is a popularity contest.  But when you go to a bunch of them, you separate yourself as the elite of the elite.  Everyone who dons a Major League uniform is an elite ballplayer.  But when you get to an All-Star Game, that puts you in a different category.”

This year’s All-Star Game will be played next Tuesday night at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.   This is the only current ballpark in which Jones has not played.

National League manager Tony La Russa said earlier this week that he was hoping Jones’ veteran presence would be added to his roster.  The former National League MVP has batted .291 with six home runs and a .828 OPS in 45 games for the Braves this year.

“When I’ve been in there, I feel like I’ve played well,” Jones said on Sunday. “I just have not played a lot. Are there more deserving people? But I also get why I’m on the ballot.  If people want me to go, I’d love to go.”

Braves have the willingness and flexibility to pursue Greinke

Since revealing last week that Zack Greinke stands as the Braves’ primary target on the trade market, the most most popular question I’ve received is, “Is this really something they can do?”

Well they have the pieces to interest the Brewers and the willingness to move one of their top pitching prospects  —  Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado or Mike Minor).   While it might be tough to part ways with one of these highly-regarded prospects, the Braves have an immediate need to pair a front-line starting pitcher with Tommy Hanson.

Tim Hudson will turn 38-years-old next year and his body has already started to break down.  This is not to say he could not return and continue to serve as a valuable piece of the rotation next year.  But given his age and recent medical history, the Braves can not enter a season depending on him to be one of their most reliable starters.

If Jair Jurrjens proves steady the remainder of the year, the Braves will make every attempt to trade him.  As long as every other projected rotation member stays healthy, there is not a likely scenario for him to be back next year.

As for Teheran, Delgado and Minor, we have simply been reminded they all need some more time before potentially becoming front-line starters.   The same can be said of Kris Medlen, who could certainly stand as a rotation candidate next year.

Brandon Beachy will not return from Tommy John surgery until around this time next year and will likely not be at top form again until 2014.

For the first time since the winter leading up to the 2009 season, the Braves will have the financial resources to compete for top-level free agents.  But some of the club’s top-level decision makers have made it known they would rather fill needs via trades rather than free agency. It’s safe to say  the Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami experiments influenced this mindset.

So instead of attempting to land a starting pitcher this winter, the Braves will take a run at landing Greinke now with the intention that he will be around for more than two months. Some have suggested he grew up a Braves fan and would love the chance to return closer to his native Florida to play.

But trying to figure out what Greinke might be thinking is not necessarily smart.  He’s a unique spirit who is brutally honest, but still loved and respected by his teammates.

One baseball executive who spent many years with Greinke recently said the pitcher will definitely not sign with a club unless he is extremely confident they will be able to win over the next few years.

Well the Braves have the potential to do so.  But the addition of a front-line starter like Greinke would significantly improve the odds.

Still as much as the Braves would like to add Greinke, they will not be offering the Brewers anything that resembles the package provided the Rangers in exchange for one calendar year of Mark Teixeira.   Three of the five players sent to the Rangers have earned All-Star selections and a fourth, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was considered a worthy candidate this year.

What the Braves would end up having to offer to get Greinke would depend on what other teams are offering.  Guessing right now, I’d think they might need to include one of their top young pitchers  —   Teheran, Delgado or Minor  —  plus one more top 15 prospect.

From a financial standpoint, the Braves would likely have to be willing to provide Greinke an average annual salary in the neighborhood of $20 million. That might alter the amount of money they might offer Hudson to return next year.

But with Chipper Jones ($14 million) Derek Lowe ($15 million — $10 million this year) Hudson ($9 million) and Michael Bourn ($6.85 million) all coming off of the books, they will have the flexibility to take care of their arbitration-eligible raises (primarily Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson), pursue Bourn or another outfielder and also secure Greinke to stand at the front of their rotation for the next five years.

Odds and ends: McCann’s struggles, Greinke Watch and Final Vote

It does not seem that long ago that a wide-eyed Brian McCann strolled down the hallway of a Pittsburgh hotel wondering where he needed to be for an All-Star Game media gathering.  When this same sort of annual gathering takes place in Kansas City next week, it will mark the first time in seven years that McCann will not be present.

Sure it would have been great to see McCann extend his annual tradition of playing in the All-Star Game.  It was always a pleasure to see and hear the genuine excitement his parents got when preparing to watch their son play in the Midsummer Classic. The veteran catcher stands as the only player in Braves history to earn All-Star selections in each of his first six full seasons.

But the fact that he did not earn a seventh straight All-Star selection should prove beneficial to him and the Braves.

Chipper Jones earned five All-Star selections from 1996-2001.   The only year he did not receive an invitation during this span was 1999, which just happened to be the same year in which he won his only National League MVP Award.

Given McCann is hitting .226 with a .295 on-base percentage and a .385 slugging percentage, I’m certainly not going to predict he will be named  MVP at the end of this season.  But when he was preparing to make his first start in All-Star Game at this time last year, he was at least in the MVP discussion.  Through his first 91 games last year, he batted 306 with 18 home runs and a .889 slugging percentage.

Then McCann suffered the oblique strain that completely altered the direction of his career.   He returned from the disabled list too early and struggled mightily while proving tentative with his swing. After recording three consecutive two-hit games in the middle of June, he felt he had finally cured some of the bad habits that developed while he was hesitant to stretch his oblique too far last year.

But he has hit .143 (7-for-49) with two extra-base hits in the 12 games that have followed.

In the 99 games played since suffering the injury, he has batted .210 with 15 home runs, a .294 on-base percentage and .371 slugging percentage.  His .294 on-base percentage and .664 OPS rank last among all Braves players who have compiled at least 400 plate appearances since he made his early return from the disabled list.

Braves hitting coach Greg Walker has raved about some of the pregame batting practice sessions McCann has recently completed.  But the results have not yet matched the excitement.

Jones thinks McCann was victimized by a number of defensive shifts early in the season and is now pressing too hard to escape this maddening stretch.   If this is the case and it certainly seems logical, McCann might benefit from the chance to get away from the game for a few days next week.

Greinke Watch: The Braves will have a scout in Milwaukee tonight to watch Zack Greinke pitch against the Marlins.  The signing of Ben Sheets to a Minor League contract was a (very) low-risk high reward transaction that could prove quite beneficial.  But the Braves will continue searching for starting pitching and Greinke will remain the target.

As mentioned last week, the Braves are not going to make this deal (see this year’s American League All-Star team) without the confidence they will be able to lock the pitcher up beyond this season.  Expectations are that they would need to provide the former Cy Young Award winner an annual salary of approximately $20 million.   That might be a little steep. But knowing this is a possibility, the Braves have not seemingly lessened their interest in Greinke.

Greinke is represented by Casey Close, who also represents Sheets, and Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward.  The fact that Sheets threw for at least four teams   – Phillies, Cardinal and Royals included  —  last week at Georgia Tech might have benefited the Braves.  Close has had a good relationship with Georgia Tech head baseball coach Danny Hall dating back to the days when he played for Michigan while Hall was coaching the Wolverines.

Final Vote: During Spring Training, Adam LaRoche and Mark DeRosa indicated Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was a class act.  Everything we’ve seen or heard since then has seemingly supported this fact.

When the Final Vote candidates were announced yesterday, it was easy to assume the battle would between Jones and Harper.  Then after the Braves and Nationals concluded their series finale yesterday,  Harper showed the respect he has for the game by saying Jones deserved the chance to be at one more All-Star Game.

“You’ve got Chipper up there and I think a Hall of Famer should be able to go to the All-Star Game in his last year, so if I was gonna make a vote, I’d vote for Chip,”  said Harper, who was three years-old when Jones played in his first All-Star Game.

While it would be nice to see Jones gain one more All-Star selection, Michael Bourn, who is also on the Final Vote, ballot is also very deserving. There is a chance Bourn could added to the roster to replace the injured Matt Kemp.

Click here for the Final Vote ballot.

To receive the 2012 All-Star GameMLB.com Final Vote presented by Firestone mobile ballot, text the word “VOTE” to 89269. To vote, simply text message N1 (Bourn) or N5 (Jones) to 89269. Mobile voting in Canada also is available and fans should text their choices to 101010. Std rates may apply.

 

 

 

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