The Braves believe Mike Minor will be ready to join their starting rotation at some point during the regular season’s first week. But the fact that he will likely not start any of the first eight games adds to the difficulty of predicting who will be a part of Atlanta’s pitching staff on Opening Day.
In case you missed it, Minor underwent a urinary tract surgical procedure on Dec. 31 and was unable to do much of anything in January. His attempt to accelerate his preparations led to some shoulder soreness during the early days of Spring Training. Though he is currently behind schedule, the Braves believe he will be ready to fit in their rotation between April 10-12.
This sets up the likelihood that Minor will begin the season on the disabled list. Because the transaction could be made retroactive to any of the final 10 days of Spring Training, he still would be eligible for activation at some point during the first homestand, which includes three-game sets against the Mets and Nationals.
If Minor does indeed begin the season on the disabled list, scheduled offdays will give the Braves the option of using a four-man rotation through the season’s first eight games. Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood appear to be the favorites to form the potential season-opening quartet. But Freddy Garcia’s presence also has to be accounted for in the planning process.
When Spring Training began, I suggested that it might be wise to begin the season with Garcia in the rotation and Wood in the pen. My reasoning was influenced by the fact that Wood will be limited to 170-180 innings during what will be his first full season at the professional level.
If Wood joined the rotation at some point in May, he would likely not have to worry about being limited or possibly shut down at some point in September. At the same time, the Braves could use another left-handed presence in their bullpen.
But this option is flawed on multiple fronts. It is not easy to make the in-season adjustment from reliever to starter. And maybe more importantly, Wood is far too valuable to spend the season’s first month serving as the left-handed specialist that could fortify the already-strong Atlanta bullpen.
So, it seems much more likely Wood will begin the regular season in the starting rotation. This would set the stage for the Braves to occasionally skip one of his turns with the intention to limit his innings and increase the possibility that he would not be limited down the stretch.
If the Braves go this route, Atlanta’s Opening Day bullpen will likely include Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and Garcia. The next month will determine who might fill the last bullpen spot.
Avilan, who stands as the only left-hander in this projected bullpen, Walden and Carpenter have all produced splits that give manager Fredi Gonzalez the confidence they can handle both right-handed and left-handed hitters. But it still would be valuable to have a southpaw available to face a left-handed hitter or two during the middle innings.
Consequently Ryan Buchter stands as one of the favorites to earn a chance to begin the season in Atlanta’s bullpen. The 27-year-old southpaw surrendered 11 hits and recorded 48 strikeouts in the 89 at-bats left-handed hitters recorded against him as he pitched for Triple-A Gwinnett last year.
Along with being dominant against left-handed hitters, Buchter also created concern about his command. He issued 51 walks (33 vs. RHH) in the 62 innings he compiled over 51 appearances.
During Wednesday’s Grapefruit League season debut against the Tigers, Buchter issued a walk that led to a run. But he also struck out the only two left-handed batters he faced (Jordan Lennerton and Don Kelly).
Luis Vasquez’s hope to begin the season in Atlanta’s bullpen has diminished as he has spent the early portion of Spring Training recovering from a lat strain he suffered in January. Vasquez is aiming to begin throwing off the mound within the next few days.
Odds and Ends: Hard-throwing right-hander Juan Jaime lived up to his reputation while recording a pair of strikeouts in a scoreless inning against the Tigers on Wednesday. One National League scout said four of Jaime’s fastballs registered 100 mph. Jaime issued 28 walks and recorded 70 strikeouts while compiling a 4.07 ERA in 42 innings with Double-A Mississippi last year.
While Kris Medlen is destined to receive the honor as long as he remains healthy, the Braves will wait a couple more weeks before announcing their Opening Day starter. Manager Fredi Gonzalez said his current plan sets the stage for three different pitchers to start the three openers the Braves will experience. Along with opening the season in Milwaukee, the Braves will serve as the opposition in the Nationals home opener.
Andrelton Simmons arrived in Braves camp hoping to be the next member of the club’s talented core to receive a contract extension. Two days later, he received his wish.
The Braves announced Thursday morning that Simmons has signed a seven-year contract extension that will keep him in Atlanta through the end of the 2020 season.
Since making his Major League debut midway through the 2012 season, Simmons has established himself as one of the game’s elite defensive players. The 24-year-old shortstop was credited with 41 defensive runs saved last year, the highest total ever recorded by a player since the stat was first used in 2003.
The Braves also saw Simmons provide some surprising power courtesy of the 17 home runs he hit while batting .248 in 157 games last year. Optimism regarding his offensive potential was enhanced as he produced a .796 OPS after the All-Star break.
Over the past two weeks, the Braves have given long-term extensions to Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran. These deals have set the stage for each of these players to still be in Atlanta in 2017, when the club moves to its new stadium in Cobb County.
As Joey Terdoslavich spoke to Justin Upton during batting practice on Monday morning, he glowingly spoke of Luis Vasquez, much like many many of the scouts who saw the Braves right-handed reliever spend his offseason pitching in the Dominican Winter League.
“He’s 88-91 (mph) from down here and then all of the sudden he’s 95-97 from the same spot,” Terdoslavich said while simulating a sidearm motion. “He also sometimes throws (with a three-quarter delivery) He’s nasty.”
Because he also spent a portion of the past few months competing in the DWL, Terdoslavich is one of the few in Braves camp who has actually had a chance to see Vasquez pitch.
After resolving a visa issue that prevented him from traveling from the D.R. to the United States, Vasquez reported to Atlanta’s Spring Training complex on Monday morning. But because he recently suffered a mild lat strain, the 27-year-old right-hander will be evaluated by the club’s medical staff before he is permitted to begin throwing.
Vasquez is one of the more intriguing players in Braves camp this year. Shortly after the Braves signed him as a Minor League free agent on Nov. 3, scouts began buzzing about the plus fastball he was producing with this sidearm delivery that he began utilizing two years ago.
Somewhere in the midst of producing a 7.47 ERA in the 43 appearances he combined to make for the Dodgers at the Double-A and Triple-A Minor League levels, Vasquez discarded his traditional overhand delivery and began developing this sidearm motion that resuscitated his career and ultimately allowed him to come to Spring Training with a chance to begin the upcoming season in Atlanta’s bullpen.
While it appears Vasquez could begin pitching again within the next few days, Tyler Pastornicky is anxiously looking forward to meet with Braves orthopedist Dr. Marvin Royster this weekend. Royster will evaluate Pastornicky’s surgically-repaired left knee and then give the backup infielder a better sense of how much he might be limited over the next few weeks.
Floyd cleared to throw breaking balls: Gavin Floyd took another step in his rehab process when he was cleared to begin throwing curveballs during what proved to be a pain-free bullpen session on Monday.
Echoing what many other managers have said about many other pitchers who are nine months removed from Tommy John surgery, Gonzalez said, “If you didn’t know that he was coming off Tommy John stuff, then you would think ‘boy this guy is really ready to start the season.’”
The Braves certainly have reason to be encouraged by the pain-free progress made by Floyd, who is hoping to join Atlanta’s rotation in May. But given how successful Brandon Beachy’s 12-month rehab process proved to be for all but the final two weeks, it seems smarter to temper the excitement right now.
Lineup plan: As expected, Gonzalez plans to construct the top of the lineup the same way he did when Jason Heyward was healthy during last season’s final two months. Heyward will sit in the leadoff spot and be followed in order by Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis.
By using Gattis in the cleanup spot, Gonzalez will have to jumble his lineup for that game or two a week in which Gattis is getting a break from his role as the club’s primary catcher.
The Giants (Buster Posey) and Indians (Carlos Santana) were the only two clubs who had a catcher tally at least 200 plate appearances in the cleanup spot last year. Some of those plate appearances notched by Posey and Santana came while they were being utilized at first base or as the designated hitter.
With Freeman’s presence, the Braves obviously don’t have the luxury of routinely keeping Gattis in the lineup by putting him at first base. And it certainly wouldn’t make much sense to give him a chance to rest his legs by having him play left field on those days he is not catching.
So approximately once every five games, the middle of the Braves lineup could assume a different look. Gonzalez said he might put Freeman in the cleanup spot when Gattis is not in the lineup. Doing so, would likely drop Justin Upton to the third spot and create the need to move either Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson or B.J. Upton (if he proves to be much improved) to the second spot on those days.
If one of these guys proves to be effective in the two hole, this might be one of those “potential problems” that in hindsight will be described as over-analyzed. Or maybe, Dan Uggla proves to be the Dan Uggla of yesteryear and gives Gonzalez the confidence to man the cleanup spot on those days Gattis is resting.
In other words, if B.J. and Uggla both prove to be productive, having to jumble the cleanup spot once or twice a week won’t seem to be a problem. But I think it goes without saying that this specific “if” scenario would solve potential problems that are deemed much more substantial than this one.
Over the next few days, countless individuals will be buying Powerball tickets with the hopes of winning a $400 million-plus jackpot. I would suggest taking a safer bet, like signing up for the Braves file-and-trial program.
When Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Jason Heyward exchanged salary arbitration numbers with the Braves on Jan. 17, they were each positioned to have their 2014 salary determined by an arbitration hearing.
The Braves confirmed they would adhere to their file-and-trial philosophy, which calls for teams to immediately end negotiations once arbitration are exchanged with the plan to take any of the unsigned arbitration-eligible players to a hearing. As these past few weeks have proven, the fine print in Atlanta’s philosophy indicates this does not apply to negotiations involving multi-year deals.
Since these figures were exchanged, the Braves have given each of these three players the a financial comfort they would not have received through the arbitration process. Hours after Heyward received a two-year, $13.3 million extension nearly two weeks ago, Freeman gained a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract.
Instead of going to his scheduled hearing on Monday, Kimbrel will now have time to think about how he can spend the $42 million he is guaranteed to receive over the next four years. His contract, which was announced on Sunday morning, includes a $13 million option for the 2018 season and has a maximum value (bonuses and incentives included) of $58.5 million.
If you’re keeping score, the Braves have committed at least $190 million to these three players in the month that has passed since those now meaningless arbitration figures were exchanged.
Braves general manager Frank Wren will continue to stress that his file-and-trial policy is strict in terms of negotiations regarding one-year deals. But given what has happened over the past month, some agents might be less influenced by the presence of this philosophy and how it might pertain to their clients who play for the Braves.
The file-and-trial policy has been adopted by a number of clubs who want to attempt to prevent agents from submitting an escalated asking price. If a hearing takes place, the arbitrator simply determines whether the player will get what he requests or what the team has offered. There is nothing in between. <p>
With all of this being said, it must be remembered that this year’s events were unique given the caliber of players involved. In other words, had the agents who represent Jordan Schafer or Chris Johnson opted to test this policy, they were likely going to have been involved with a hearing at some point this month.
With Freeman, Kimbrel and Heyward, the Braves had the comfort and desire to provide these multi-year deals. The players benefited from the fact that this desire was enhanced by the club’s need to keep a strong product on the field in preparation for the 2017 opening of the new stadium in Cobb County.
Wren has spent the past few weeks building a solid foundation for his future roster and at the same time, given his players reason to believe the organization is committed to extend its recent success.
When the Braves announced the new stadium plans in November, B.J. Upton was the only player signed through at least the 2017 season. Three months later, Freeman, Kimbrel and Julio Teheran, who signed a six-year, $34.2 million contract on Friday, now know that they are part of the club’s long-term plans.
Andrelton Simmons appears to be the most likely other candidate to become the latest Braves player to receive a multi-year deal before the season begins. His negotiations are complicated by the monetary value placed on the combination of his tremendous defensive skills and offensive potential. But it goes without saying that the Braves would like to have him manning the shortstop position for many years to come.
Based on what is seen over the next two years, the Braves will gain a better feel for the kind of commitment they might make to a few members of their rotation, namely Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. There also could come a point when the club has to decide whether it wants to keep Heyward or Justin Upton.
But for now, Wren has already given his player and Braves fans reason to be encouraged about what the future has in store.
Say what you want about the file-and-trial program. After what I’ve seen the past few weeks, I just want an application form.
Welcome back to Disney World, where Freddie Freeman and Ryan Doumit have spent the past couple days showing off their legs and proving you don’t have to visit the Magic Kingdom to see snow white.
While pitchers and catchers will not hold their first workout until Friday, Atlanta’s latest winter storm led many of the players to migrate a little sooner than expected this year. As for Gerald Laird, he chose to get acquainted with his new truck while making a 33-hour drive from Phoenix to Orlando. He broke the trip up in three segments. But it should be noted that his time on the road was just slightly 20 hours longer than the trip Freeman and Fredi Gonzalez made from Turner Field to their suburban Atlanta homes two weeks ago.
So far, all of the injury-related news has been positive. Brandon Beachy (elbow) and Ramiro Pena (shoulder) have both arrived in camp without any restrictions. Tyler Pastornicky will be restricted from some activities over the next couple weeks. But he has been encouraged by the way his surgically-repaired knee has responded as he has been running over the past month.
It is still too early to accurately project when Gavin Floyd might be able to join Atlanta’s starting rotation. But the veteran hurler, who is returning from elbow reconstruction surgery, was further encouraged after throwing a 75-pitch bullpen session in front of the Braves coaches on Thursday morning.
As things currently stand, it appears the most intriguing roster battle will determine which two pitchers gain what appears to be the final two available spots in Atlanta’s bullpen. If Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter all remain healthy, they are obviously guaranteed bullpen spots to begin the season. Anthony Varvaro, who his out of options, also seems to be a likely candidate to be in the pen when the regular season begins in Milwaukee on March 31.
Left-hander Ryan Buchter and right-hander Luis Vasquez rank as the most likely candidates to fill those final two spots. But the hard-throwing Juan Jaime and Wirfin Obispo, who made a strong attempt to earn a spot in Atlanta’s pen out of Spring Training last year, could also produce strong candidacies.
J.R. Graham has unlimited potential and he has come to Spring Training looking to impress like he did in his first camp last year. There’s a chance he could gain a spot in Atlanta’s pen at some point this year. And if looking ahead even further, this vibrant, hard-throwing reliever might be a top candidate to serve as closer once Craig Kimbrel’s days with the Braves are done.
But given that Graham missed all but six weeks with a sore shoulder last year, he will likely be given a chance to gain a little more Minor League seasoning before he gets his first call to the Majors.
Another factor to consider when projecting the bullpen is the opt-out clause in Freddy Garcia’s contract. If Garcia has not been guaranteed a Major League roster spot by March 25, he can void his Minor League contract and become a free agent.
When he reported to camp on Thursday, Garcia said he did not sign with the Braves until they decided to offer him this opt-out clause a few weeks ago. The 37-year-old pitcher says he would rather return home to his family than pitch at the Triple-A level this year.
So if Garcia pitches effectively during the Grapefruit League season, there is seemingly plenty of reason to believe he will be on the Opening Day roster as either a starter or a reliever.
If the Braves opt to put Garcia in the rotation, one of those two available bullpen spots could be filled by left-hander Alex Wood. While the club still views Wood as a starter in the future, the decision to put him in the bullpen at that beginning of this year would create the opportunity to moderate his workload. He will be on an innings limit as he enters what will be his first full Major League season.
There is certainly a chance Wood could be in Atlanta’s rotation at some point this year. And if the club believes he could be an asset down the stretch, it might be wise to limit his innings during the early portion of the season and then stretch him out to start, like he did last year.