October 2013

McDowell’s potential departure will serve as the offseason’s first intriguing storyline

Now that the Red Sox have concluded yet another World Series in triumphant fashion, it is time to begin looking at what the Braves might do during what has the potential to be an interesting Hot Stove season.

Over the next few weeks and possibly months, the Braves will evaluate the trade market in search of an ace and a possible suitor for Dan Uggla.  But the first intriguing storyline will focus on pitching coach Roger McDowell’s future in Atlanta.

McDowell has been invited to return to Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez’s coaching staff next year.  But before signing his contract, McDowell will likely talk to the Phillies about their vacant pitching coach position.

Over the past week, it has become even more evident that McDowell is high on Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro’s wish list.  But the Phillies are not  permitted to have any formal discussions with McDowell until his current contract with the Braves expires at midnight tonight (Oct. 31).

McDowell met with Braves general manager Frank Wren this week to discuss the possibility of remaining in Atlanta.  But the meeting did not lead to an immediate resolution.

The Braves suffered a loss earlier this week when Dave Wallace ended his days as their Minor League pitching coordinator to become Baltimore’s pitching coach.  Making the jump from the Minor League level to the Majors was an easy decision for the 66-year-old Wallace, a highly-respected pitching guru who has significantly shaped and impacted McDowell’s coaching career.

The Braves would suffer a much greater loss if McDowell chose to take his expertise and knowledge of Atlanta’s system to the division rival Phillies.

McDowell stands as one of the most respected and valuable leaders on Atlanta’s coaching staff.   Along with leading a pitching staff that has produced the game’s best ERA since the start of the 2009 season, he has displayed a meticulous approach while devising scouting reports that well-traveled veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird has described as some of the best he has ever seen.

McDowell has a strong bond with Gonzalez and the many homegrown pitchers he has molded in Atlanta.  But the almighty dollar could lure him to Philadelphia.

Multiple Major League sources have said McDowell is one of the game’s lowest-paid pitching coaches.  With this in mind, the Phillies could make him an offer he can’t refuse.  But at the same time, there is always the Braves could provide a raise that would increase the odds of him remaining in Atlanta.

Regardless of what transpires, the next few days will provide a better understanding of McDowell’s immediate future.

We’ll likely have to wait a little longer to learn what the future has in store for Atlanta’s top two free agents  –  Brian McCann and Tim Hudson.

While some National League teams will show interest in McCann, it still seem much more likely that he will get his best offers from American League clubs that would be able to utilize him both as a catcher and designated hitter.  If you’re looking for an early favorite in the bidding for McCann, go with the Rangers.

Hudson’s future seems to be a little less clear as he nears the end of his recovery from the fractured right ankle that sidelined him for this season’s final two months.  Wren said he will talk to Hudson about the possibility of returning to Atlanta.   But the Royals and a number of other clubs are also expected to show some interest in signing the 38-year-old right-hander.

Since joining the Braves before the start of the 2005 season, Hudson has enjoyed the comforts of playing close to home.  He built his family’s dream house in Auburn, Ala., which is located approximately 90 minutes south of Turner Field.   There is also the allure of sticking close to his children who are beginning to participate in a variety of different activities.

But this will be yet another decision influenced by the financial aspect.  Given his age, Hudson has to look at the possibility that he could be preparing to sign the last contract of his career.  There is a chance the certainty provided by a two-year guaranteed deal could outweigh the opportunity to remain in Atlanta with a one-year,incentive-laden contract that might include an option for 2015.

In order to receive draft-pick compensation, clubs must make a qualifying offer to any of its qualifying free agents by Monday at  5 p.m. ET. The player has until Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET to accept the offer, which this year is a one-year contract valued at $14.1 million.   

While the Braves will almost definitely make a qualifying offer to McCann with the understanding he would likely not accept it, they have no reason to make the offer to Hudson, who would have plenty of reason to accept and as a result, nearly double his potential salary for next season.  

AFL Update:  Shortly after the All-Star break, a talent evaluator told me to keep an eye on Shae Simmons, a 23-year-old right-handed reliever who compiled a 1.69 ERA and limited opponents to a .263 on-base percentage in 50 combined appearances with Class A Rome and Double-A Mississippi this season.  Simmons has extended his success while compiling a 1.50 ERA and limiting opponents to four hits through the first six innings he has completed in the Arizona Fall League.

Simmons will serve as Atlanta’s only representative in the Fall Stars Game, which will be played on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.  The game will be broadcast on MLB Network and streamed live on MLB.com.

Second baseman Tommy La Stella has continued to show his offensive potential while hitting .318 with five doubles and a homer  in  the 44 at-bats he has compiled since the AFL season began.   La Stella opened some eyes this year when he hit .343 and drew more walks (37) than strikeouts (34) with Double-A Mississippi this summer.

Interest in La Stella has certainly increased because of the uncertainty surrounding Uggla, who is owed $26 million over the final two years of his contract.  The Braves will certainly try to move Uggla and at least a portion of that contract.

If Uggla is traded this winter, the favorites to begin next year as Atlanta’s second baseman would likely be either La Stella Tyler Pastornicky, who is expected to recover from his torn anterior cruciate ligament by the time Spring Training begins.  Ramiro Pena could also be a candidate.  But his presence in the lineup could weaken the value of the versatility he provides as a utility man.

 

 

Braves stick with Garcia after Dodgers opt to go with Kershaw on short rest

Regardless of what is deciphered from the paragraphs that follow, most of you are not going to understand why the Braves are sticking with the plan to send Freddy Garcia to the mound for tonight’s game against the Dodgers.  The team that led the Majors in ERA this year will enter its first true do-or-die situation with the hope of getting a solid outing from a veteran pitcher, whose most encouraging credentials are a product of the nine postseason starts he made before Brian McCann celebrated his 22nd birthday.

And to further sweeten the debate pot, the Dodgers have announced Clayton Kershaw will return on short rest to oppose Garcia tonight and attempt to eliminate the Braves.

Before the Dodgers made this announcement early Monday afternoon, there was debate about why the Braves were going to stick with Garcia instead of handing the ball to Kris Medlen, who like Kershaw has never previously followed a start with another on short rest. Four of Medlen’s career starts have been made within four days after he had a relief appearance, none of which consisted of more than one inning or 24 pitches.

All indications are that the Braves will stick with Garcia, setting up one of those classic postseason battles that pits the top Cy Young Award candidate against a veteran who is just six weeks removed from making the last of the 14 starts he made at the Triple-A level this year.

This decision made by the Dodgers creates the possibility that they will send Zack Greinke to the mound with regular rest for Game 5 on Wednesday if necessary.  Had they gone with Medlen on short rest, the Braves would have the opportunity to do the same with Mike Minor.

From an optimistic point of view, the Braves are going to have to hope getting a second look at Kershaw four days after he threw 124 pitches in Game 1 proves to be beneficial.

Kershaw’s only regular season start this year that consisted of more than 120 pitches came on May 14, when he tossed 8 2/3 scoreless innings against the Nationals.  Making his next start with an extra day of rest on May 20, he allowed three hits and allowed one run while going the distance against the Brewers.

There is no doubt that Kershaw currently stands as the game’s best pitcher.  But history has proven that it is hard to predict how a pitcher will fare when pitching on short rest.

Braves pitchers have gone 10-11 with a 3.75 ERA in the 31 starts that their pitchers have made on short rest during the postseason, dating back to 1991.   But these numbers accounts for starts that have been made within four days after a relief appearance.

Accounting simply for the short-rest starts that have been made following a start, Atlanta’s pitchers have posted  5.61 ERA in the 17 starts that fit this criteria since 1991.

John Smoltz had little trouble as he posted a 2.45 ERA in five short-rest starts in October. Greg Maddux allowed four earned runs and combined for 10 innings in the two playoff starts he made for Atlanta with short rest.

Tom Glavine compiled a 6.09 ERA in six postseason starts made on short rest.  But this is another misleading number created by a small sample size.  Glavine allowed three earned runs or fewer and lasted at least five innings in five of those outings. He just happened to allow seven earned runs while lasting fewer than three innings in two others.

Glavine made three consecutive starts on short rest during the 1992 playoffs.  In the first, he allowed the Pirates seven earned runs and lasted just one inning.  Four days later, he  opened the World Series by limiting the Blue Jays to one run while going the distance.  In Game 4, he allowed two runs over eight innings.

Regardless of what transpires, we can assume either Mattingly or Gonzalez will be second-guessed by the end of the night.  ‘Tis the postseason, a period during which every decision, mistake and accomplishment is critiqued to the Nth degree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Game 1 loss puts the Braves in a very familiar position

While tossing and turning in their sleep of simply daydreaming at work, many Braves fans have spent the past 12 hours thinking about all that went wrong during Thursday night’s 6-1 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. 

Jason Heyward did not make an aggressive attempt to prevent the always-aggressive Yasiel Puig from going first-to-third in Los Angeles’ two-run second inning.  Then to compound his mistake, he allowed his adrenaline get the best of him with his errant attempt to prevent Puig from scoring on Skip Schumaker’s sacrifice fly.  

Yes, you have to come up throwing toward the plate despite the fact the odds of retiring the speedy Puig at the plate.  Heyward provided sound reasoning when he said you have to attempt to prevent any run possible when going up against Clayton Kershaw.   At the same time, he recognized the fact that he needed to make a throw that could have been cut. Had he done so, Juan Uribe would not have advanced to second base and found himself in position to score when Evan Gattis turned A.J. Ellis’ two-out liner to left into a run-producing double.

“I thought the throw home was a good‑‑ the right basic throw,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Friday afternoon. “Maybe a little bit high.  I thought not throwing the ball to third base (to keep the double play in order) I thought that was the correct call on Jason’s part.” 

Gattis’ inability to dive and catch Ellis’ liner was not necessarily surprising.  It was just a reminder that he is a catcher who is playing left field because the Braves feel the need to have his bat in their lineup on a daily basis. 

Instead of strengthening his outfield defensive by playing Jordan Schafer in left field in Game 2′s matchup against right-hander Zack Greinke, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez stuck with Gattis.  Those who like small sample sizes will point out Schafer has five hits in 11 at-bats against Greinke.   That accounts for a 4-for-7 showing in 2012 and a 1-for-4 showing this year. 

But it’s apparent Gonzalez values power potential more than previous success in a few games.

If the Braves have a lead in the sixth inning or later, it’s pretty safe to assume Schafer enter the game to play left field.  But for now Gonzalez is willing to sacrifice defensive ability for the offensive capability of Gattis, who hit .255 with six home runs and a .780 OPS in 100 September plate appearances.

Gattis’ inability to grab Ellis’ liner was not any more costly than Elliot Johnson’s inability to secure Carl Crawford’s hot shot that was hit right at him to begin Los Angeles’ two-run third inning.  Without the miscue, which was ruled a hit, Adrian Gonzalez would not have had the opportunity to drill his crushing two-run homer off Kris Medlen. 

As the Braves marched toward their 15th loss in their past 20 postseason home games, it seemed like the baseball gods were having some fun at their expense.  Much of the buzz this week has centered around Atlanta’s decision to leave veteran second baseman Dan Uggla off the NLDS roster.  

So, of course in his postseason debut as Uggla’s replacement, Elliot Johnson made the costly defensive miscue and went hitless in four at-bats with three strikeouts. 

With some more assistance from his defense, Medlen could have certainly fared much better than his line  — four-plus innings, nine hits and five earned runs  –  might have looked a little more respectable.  But he certainly didn’t pitch like he had while posting a 0.84 ERA in his final six regular season starts. 

“With Medlen, it’s about control; it’s about working inside‑outside, up and down,” Brian McCann said. “His changeup is his best pitch, and last night he hung it a little more than usual.  I mean, I said last night, his location, that was the difference last night, I thought.”  

 

McCann has spent the past few months attempting to avoid any questions about his future.  But as he drove to Turner Field on Friday, it was impossible for him to overlook the fact that he would be preparing for what could be his last home game with the Braves.  He will be a free agent at the end of the season and there are already a number of teams planning to make a strong push to sign him.

“When I think about it, it’s definitely there,” McCann said. “But at the same time, I mean, this is what we’re doing here today is way more important than what’s going to happen to me after the season.  You know, I’m just focused on today’s game.  We’ve got to get the series 1‑1 and go to LA and make this thing a series.”  

 

It’s not like the Braves are in unfamiliar territory.  They have lost Game 1 in eight of the past nine NLDS in which they have participated.  Their only series win after losing the opener in one of these best-of-five series came in 1999, when they eliminated the Astros in four games.

The pessimist will say the Braves are destined for yet another brief postseason experience.  The optimist will say they are due to benefit from one of those Walt Weiss postseason-changing moments.

Uggla could be left off the Braves NLDS roster

When the Braves announce their National League Division Series roster on Wednesday, there is a distinct possibility Dan Uggla will not be included.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez met with some players regarding roster decisions after the team held a workout that was closed to media members on Tuesday at Turner Field.  An industry source said Uggla was informed that he will not be part of the 25-man roster the Braves will use during their best-of-five NLDS matchup against the Dodgers.

Before making anything official on Wednesday, the Braves will first evaluate the health of some of the players, including right-handed reliever  Jordan Walden, who has been ineffective in three of the four appearances he has made since missing three weeks with a strained groin.

If Uggla is indeed left off the roster, the Braves could go with a 12-man pitching staff, which could provide some insurance in the event that Walden’s struggles continue.

Uggla has batted .179 with 22 home runs and a .671 OPS in 136 games this season.  The veteran second baseman has hit .133 with one home run and a .508 OPS in the 77 plate appearances he has compiled while playing 24 games since undergoing LASIK surgery to repair his vision in August.

As the regular season’s final weeks unfolded, it became apparent that Elliot Johnson would serve as Atlanta’s starting second baseman when the postseason began.  But there was some thought there might still be a bench spot for Uggla, who drew the club’s highest salary ($13 million) this year.

 

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