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There is now a chance La Stella will get a call sooner, rather than later

The morning after the Braves lost an eighth consecutive game on May 28, 2012, this blog was filled with an entry that revealed Andrelton Simmons would likely soon be promoted to Atlanta and Kris Medlen would soon move from the bullpen to the rotation.   Simmons got his call one day later and Medlen ended up having to wait two more months before becoming a starting pitcher on a full-time basis.

Now that the Braves find themselves in the midst of of a six-game losing streak —  their longest since that 2012 skid, there is reason to wonder if Tommy La Stella might soon be promoted to Atlanta to aid an ailing offense.  As of Sunday, it appeared a potential La Stella promotion was likely at least a few weeks away.  But as we’ve often seen, these kinds of decisions can be expedited when a club is in the midst of a stretch as miserable as the one the Braves have recently encountered.

This is not to say La Stella will be added to Atlanta’s lineup this week.  But it now at least seems to be a possibility that he could replace Dan Uggla as Atlanta’s starting second baseman sooner, rather than later.

La Stella has batted .313 with a .372 on-base percentage through his first 27 games with Triple-A Gwinnett.  The 25-year-old second baseman lacks power and might actually be a little less effective with the glove than Uggla. But while producing a .408 on-base percentage during his professional career, he has provided indication that he has the potential to provide much-needed contact presence to a Braves lineup that has been lifeless over the past week.

The Braves certainly aren’t thrilled with the prospect of potentially eating the approximate  $24 million Uggla is  owed through the end of the 2015 season.  But they are less excited about the prospect of continuing to play him on an everyday basis with the hope that he will escape the woes that have plagued him over the past 23 months.

Thus they have reached that point where they are now at least discussing any all options regarding Uggla, who has batted .186 with 35 home runs and a .657 OPS in 265 games  dating back to June 1, 2012.  Just seven other Major Leaguers —  B.J. Upton included  —  have produced a lower OPS while playing at least 250 games during this span.

After watching them both endure the most frustrating season of their careers last year, the Braves entered this season hoping Uggla and Upton would turn things around.  Upton has at least shown some signs of improvement as he has compiled a .735 OPS in the 21 games he has played since enduring a rough first week to this season.

Uggla batted .237 with two home runs (both hit on the same night) and a .671 OPS through his first 16 games of the season.   But he has recorded five hits (all singles) and struck out 13 times in the 41 at-bats that have followed.

Uggla is certainly not the reason the Braves have totaled 23 runs in their past 11 games and tallied less than two runs against six of the past seven starting pitchers they have faced.  Given that Atlanta’s offense  has produced through his past struggles, it might be more appropriate to blame this abysmal output on the more dependable lineup members who have struggled through these past 11 games.  Freddie Freeman has batted .163 with one extra-base hit and Chris Johnson has hit .206 with no extra base hits.

Unfortunately for the Braves, this offensive swoon has come as Jason Heyward has escaped his early-season woes and provided consistent production in the leadoff spot.  Heyward has hit .315 with a .345 on-base percentage over his past 13 games.

If Heyward extends this trend and Freeman returns to form, Atlanta a lineup that is more than capable to consistently support their pitching staff.  But it remains to be seen how much longer the Braves will be willing to include Uggla in this lineup.

 

A couple shaky starts with extra rest did not solve the Floyd dilemma

When it became apparent Alex Wood and Aaron Harang would be both be starting with two extra days of rest this week in Miami, I asked Tom Glavine if he liked those instances when he was forced to alter his normal preparations to pitch under this arrangement.  The simplified version of his answer was that he hated the extra rest when he was young and savored it during the latter years of his career.

In contrasting fashion, as Derek Lowe neared the end of his career with the Braves, he never liked starting with even one extra day of rest.

Like the rest of us, pitchers are a creatures of habit.  But their preferences and susceptibility to be influenced by these habits differ.

After seeing his improbable run of dominance conclude in horrific fashion as he allowed a career-high nine earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings on Wednesday night, Aaron Harang said his shaky command might have been a product of the altered preparations he had to make before entering this start.

“I don’t know if I was just a little off because we had two extra days this week,” Harang said. “That will throw you off a little bit. You’ve got to throw a couple bullpens in the middle of the week as opposed to just the one.”

Less than two years removed from those days when he made one start a week for the University of Georgia, Wood might have been too young to notice the difference as he started with two extra days of rest on Tuesday and then proceeded to allow more runs (7) in five innings than he had in the 35 innings that had encompassed his only other five starts this season.

Wood never mentioned the extra rest as being a deterrent. And that is  a good thing, considering this altered schedule could prove to benefit him as he attempts to remain strong throughout what is just his second full professional season.  The Braves are aiming to limit the southpaw to somewhere between 170-180 innings this year and as things currently stand he is what would approximately account for a month ahead of that pace.

The Braves might eventually need to move Wood to the bullpen in an attempt to more easily monitor his workload.  But they are not currently ready to do so.  If you didn’t believe manager Fredi Gonzalez when he said this yesterday, then ask yourself why is Wood still scheduled to start on Sunday, despite the fact that Gavin Floyd is available to pitch on normal rest that same day?

Because his 30-day Minor League rehab assignment expires on Friday, Floyd must be activated from the disabled list on Sunday.  But it remains to be seen exactly how he fits into the club’s plans moving forward.

If the clock has indeed struck midnight and Harang’s Cinderella run is complete, Floyd could fill that spot in the starting rotation.  But I’m of the notion to believe Harang is somewhere in the middle of being the pitcher who posted a 0.85 ERA through his first five starts and then got lit up on Wednesday night.  If this proves to be true, he would seemingly be a better option than Floyd, who seems destined to become the latest of the pitchers who battle inconsistent stretches for a few months after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Gonzalez said there is a chance Floyd will be placed in the bullpen when he returns.  This is certainly not the role the Braves envisioned when they gave the righty a one-year contract that includes a $4 million deal.  But given what happened to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy in March, they also never envisioned reaching a point where they would have to wonder how somebody could fit into their rotation.

The Braves rotation surrendered 28 earned runs through this season’s first 24 games and 15 earned runs during the first two games of this week’s series in Miami. Still starting staff’s 2.32 ERA stands as the best mark for an Atlanta rotation (since 1966) has ever taken into May.  The previous best April ERA for an Atlanta starting staff was the 2.84 ERA produced by the 1968 club.

So for now, the Floyd dilemma stands as a good problem to have.

 

 

 

Braves starting staff will attempt to extend success and harness the always-dangrous Hamilton

Welcome back to the conclusion of Freak Week at Turner Field.  Three days after dealing with Jose Fernandez’s nastiness, the Braves will spend the next three days dealing with Reds rookie outfielder Billy Hamilton’s tremendous speed.

Upon popular demand, Major League Baseball has clarified the way the transfer rule should be interpreted with expanded instant replay and announced that starting tonight such plays will be ruled as they had been over the past century, minus the past four weeks.   Fortunately for the Braves, MLB has done nothing with the rule that states a player can’t steal first base.

As other opponents have seen over the past few weeks, Hamilton wreaks havoc once he steps on the basepaths.  He has tagged and advanced on fly balls hit to the shallow portion of the outfield and taken advantage of most every opportunity to steal a base.  But he has also produced a meager .266 on-base percentage through his first 21 games of the season.

Evan Gattis, who will be behind the plate tonight, gained a first-hand look at Hamilton’s speed when the two played against each other in the Southern League two years ago.  Gattis vividly remembers the stolen base Hamilton recorded against him.

“I got a good pitch and had a good chance to get him,” Gattis said. “But in that situation, I probably still don’t get him. It’s silly. He’s different. He’s a game-changer. You’ve just got to try to keep him off base. If he puts the ball in play and gets on enough, it’s silly.”

Gattis is fortunate to be part of a club that has seen its starting rotation limit opponents to a Major League-low .266 on-base percentage  (Side note:  The Reds starters rank second, having limited opponents to a .278 on-base percentage.

Yesterday’s offday story focused on how good Atlanta’s once-suspect starting rotation has been and pointed out that it has started this season more impressively than any of the great Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz rotations of yesteryear.  Here is a closer look at how this current rotation’s start ranks with those of the quintets Atlanta has used dating back to the magical 1990s.

Best ERA for Braves rotations through the first 21 games dating back to 1991:

2014  —  1.50

1997  —  2.52

1994  — 2.62

1998 —  2.63

1993 — 2.70

 

 

 

Looking back at Kimbrel’s blown save, Heyward’s bunt and Teheran’s slider

If the opener was a sign of things to come, this current homestand might prove to be every bit as eventful as the action-packed road trip the Braves ended with Sunday afternoon’s 14-inning loss to the Mets.

Coming off the marathon finale in New York, the Braves proved fortunate to claim a 4-2, 10-inning victory in Monday’s series opener against the Marlins.  Craig Kimbrel’s second consecutive shaky appearance netted him his first blown save of the year and it might have resulted in a loss had former Brave Reed Johnson not misread Derek Dietrich’s game-tying double off the left-center field wall.  Here is Johnson’s take.

Had Johnson not hesitated believing Justin Upton was going to get to Dietrich’s long fly, the Marlins might have scored two on Dietrich’s double and set  the stage for their dominant closer Steve Cishek, who has posted a 1.05 ERA and limited opponents to a .190 batting average while successfully converting each of his past 32 save opportunities dating back to June 8.

Those are Kimbrel-like numbers or at least the kind of dependability we had seen Kimbrel provide before he has produced two consecutive Kolb-like appearances since getting a chance to rest a sore right shoulder last week.

The fact that Kimbrel recorded three consecutive strikeouts following Dietrich’s game-tying nine-pitch at-bat at least minimized the concerns that began developing when Kimbrel surrendered two runs before being pulled from Saturday night’s game against the Mets with two outs in the ninth.  But until he produces a couple of clean outings in a row, there will naturally be some lingering concern.

“I can go out throw 95-96 and then go out and be 98-99,” Kimbrel said Monday night.  “I really can’t control that. I’m just trying to throw strikes.”

Kimbrel’s velocity has been a tick slower than normal in his past three appearances.  Per Fangraphs.com,  Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity during his first five appearances of this season was 96.2 mph.  His average velo in the 68 appearances he made last year was 96.9 mph.

We learned Kimbrel’s shoulder was bothering him after his fasball averaged a season-low 95.5 mph during his April 12 scoreless appearance against the Nationals.  Since getting a chance to rest for an entire week, his average velo in his past two appearances has been 96.4 (Saturday) and 95.6 (Monday).

All told, Kimbrel’s fastball has averaged 96 mph thus far this season, which is similar to the 96.3 average he produced during his first eight appearances last year.   Given this and the fact that he says is now pain-free, his recent struggles seem to be more a product of command than his shoulder.

“I felt great, better than I had before my rest,” Kimbrel said.  That’s a good sign. So we’ll go from here.”

Kimbrel said the success he had at the end of Monday night’s appearance was a product of his decision to be more aggressive with his curveball, which he used to conclude each of his three strikeouts.   He missed the strike zone with three of his first four curveballs and then hit it with five of his final six.

“I was trying to throw it more for strikes more than just throw it and see what it does,” Kimbrel said. “That is what I started doing (during the latter part of the inning).”

 

Evan Gattis’ walk-off home run saved Kimbrel some heartache and also deflected some attention away from the fact the Braves had left the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, which began with Jordan Schafer’s opposite-field double against Carlos Marmol.  The Twitterverse erupted when Jason Heyward attempted to advance Schafer to third base with a sacrifice bunt.

After the game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he had given Heyward the option to bunt in that situation.

“I left it up to him,” Gonzalez said.  “Whatever he wanted to do, whatever he felt comfortable doing there. You don’t want to play extra-inning games and the chances of scoring a run from third base is greater than scoring a run from second base, especially with a guy like Marmol. With a guy on third base, maybe you take one of his breaking pitches away or his split because he doesn’t want to bounce it and let the runner score there. That was fine. I had no problems whatsoever.”

 

All of the late-inning action overshadowed Julio Teheran’s latest gem.  Coming off his three-hit shutout of the Phillies during which he threw 115 pitches  (second-highest total of his young career),  Teheran needed 39 pitches to complete the first two innings.  But once he regained a feel for his slider, he needed just 53 more pitches to complete his final five innings.

Teheran’s inability to consistently gain a good feel for his slider might be a product of the weather  His slider accounted for 35.7 percent of the pitches he threw inside Miller Park’s dome on Opening Day.  In two of the next three starts he made (including last week’s gem in Philadelphia), he used his slider less than 14 percent of the time.  The game time temperature for those two starts were 51 degrees and 48 degrees.

Teheran’s slider accounted for 24.2 percent of the pitches he threw during Monday night’s game, which began with a temperature of 78 degrees.   This array was similar to what he displayed when he threw his slider 21.4 percent of the time on April 11, a home game that started amid a very comfortable 71 degrees.

There really hasn’t been any reason to complain about what Teheran has done while posting a 1.80 ERA through his first five starts.  But as the summer months quickly approach, you have to wonder if he will have even more opportunity to benefit from the slider, which has the potential to be his greatest weapon.

 

 

Another road game against the Mets, what could go wrong?

As the Braves come off a three-game sweep of the Nationals and an entertaining series victory in Philadelphia, what could go wrong as they spend this weekend playing the Mets at Citi Field?

This question is obviously filled with sarcasm. The more appropriate question might be, will the Braves actually escape a road trip against the Mets without incurring  a serious injury?

Maybe it was coincidental that Tim Hudson (season-ending ankle injury) and Jason Heyward (fractured jaw) suffered traumatic injuries during the final two trips Atlanta made to Citi Field last year.  But when Kris Medlen blew out his right elbow during the first trip the Braves made to Port St. Lucie during this year’s Grapefruit League season, there was no longer a comedic element to this coincidence.

So of course the baseball gods have aligned things so that Jason Heyward will oppose Jonathan Niese to begin the first road game the Braves play against the Mets this year.  This will be the first time Niese has faced the Braves since he dented the right side of Heyward’s face with a fastball on Aug. 21.

In other words, this is not necessarily the optimal setting to break out of the 2-for-27 skid Heyward will carry into this series opener.  Heyward has hit just .136 (8-for-59) and five of his eight hits have been compiled within two of this season’s first 15 games.  He’s gone hitless in 10 of the past 13 games.

Obviously, this has caused some of you to call for the need to move him out of the leadoff spot.  But, considering what Heyward did in this role when he was initially introduced to it last year, it still seems to be a little too early to pull the plug.

Yeah, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was willing to sit Chris Johnson for two straight games at the start of this week.  But that decision was influenced more by Johnson’s temper than the 3-for-18 skid he had carried into Sunday’s series finale against the Nationals.   While going hitless in five at-bats during Saturday’s win over the Nationals, Johnson had thrown his batting helmet and turned over a number of items in and around the dugout.  In other words, he created one of those scenes that led first base coach Terry Pendleton to grab him in the dugout at the conclusion of the second-to-last game of last year’s regular season.

After hitting five home runs in the process of totaling nine runs in Monday’s series opener against the Phillies, the Braves tallied just one run over the course of the final two games played in Philadelphia.  Fortunately that one run supplied by Evan Gattis’ solo shot on Wednesday was enough to doom Cliff Lee, who has suffered two of his five career complete game losses during his past two outings against Atlanta.

On Thursday afternoon, it was Alex Wood’s turn to suffer a tough-luck loss, one that was blemished by his inability to get a sacrifice bunt down in the top of the decisive eighth inning.  But Wood’s impressive eight-inning effort extended the remarkable success generated thus far by Atlanta’s starting rotation, which has stood as baseball’s most surprising group during this season’s first three weeks.

On the eve of the season opener, I opined that a modernized version of former Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern’s classic “Spahn and Sain” poem might be recognized by these words:  Teheran and Wood, then skip the next three days  if we could. 

Well this injury-depleted rotation has since welcomed Ervin Santana to the fold and watched Aaron Harang conjure memories of what he did for the Reds before being burdened with injuries.  As for Julio Teheran and Wood, they have simply given the Braves even more reason to be encouraged to believe they could both establish themselves as legitimate frontline starters for many years to come.

The Braves lead the Majors with a 1.58 starting pitcher’s ERA.  Oakland ranks second with a 2.48 mark.

It might be too early to get overly excited about statistics.  But given what it has included, it is remarkable this year’s Braves rotation has started this season more impressively than any of those that included Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

Here’s a look at the top starting pitcher ERAs the Braves have produced through the first 15 games of a season dating back to 1990:

2014:  1.58

1998: 1.85

1994: 2.21

2013: 2.24

1993: 2.33

1997: 2.36

 

 

 

Kimbrel further eases concerns after playing catch

Before getting overly concerned about the fact that a sore right shoulder prevented Craig Kimbrel from closing Monday night’s thrilling win in Philadelphia, remember some of you were also worried about him around this same time last year.

Or maybe more importantly,  Kimbrel has already played catch today and given himself more reason to believe he will be available to pitch if rain does not prevent the Braves and Phillies from playing tonight’s scheduled game at Citizens Bank Park.

As Kimbrel worked a perfect inning against the Nationals during his sixth appearance of the 2013 season, his average fastball velocity  (per BrooksBaseball.net)  was 94.5 mph.  This eyebrow-rising drop in velo was influenced by the fact that he had worked a perfect inning approximately 17 hours earlier.

After he rested two days following those back-to-back appearances, his average fastball velocity in his seventh appearance of the season was 99 mph.

All of this was provided to simply provide some context in the event that Kimbrel is indeed simply dealing the kind of normal shoulder soreness that can be healed with a couple days of rest. But until the Braves closer has a chance to prove he is not dealing with something that could possibly sideline him, there will be at least some level of concern, regardless of what Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said as he spoke to reporters after Monday’s game.

“Not worried at all,” Gonzalez said. “I’m talking to Craig and our trainers. I think it’s one of those things that every reliever goes through. [If we hadn't gone ahead in the ninth], you guys wouldn’t have even known it. So throughout the course of the season, there are guys that are banged up and they’re not the closer. If it’s not a save situation, nobody would even know, so I’m not concerned at all.”

While a reliever is seemingly destined to deal with some kind of soreness at some point during a season, some of you might have been more comforted had Kimbrel not revealed that his shoulder has occasionally bothered him dating back to Spring Training.

But with this being said, there have not necessarily been any glaring signs that Kimbrel has been dealing with any burdensome discomfort.

Yeah, he issued a walk and allowed a pair of two-out, run-producing singles after being assigned to clean Jordan Walden’s ninth-inning clutter during Wednesday’s win over the Mets.  Dating back to the start of the 2012 season, he had entered just four other games in the middle of an inning with at least one runner on base.

But Kimbrel has been perfect in four of the five innings he has started this year.  The only thing separating him from being 5-for-5 in this category was the one-out single he surrendered in the process of notching his fifth save on Saturday.

If you’re wondering about his arm strength, here is a look at his average fastball velocity through the first six games of the past three seasons (once again courtesy to the fine folks at brooksbaseball.net).  Notice that Kimbrel’s velo thus far has been a tick better than it was at the same point of his historic 2012 season.

2012: 96.7 mph

2013:  97.05 mph

2014: 96.98 mph

 

 

Looking back at Thursday’s lost opportunity

Given that they have been shutout twice and that they have totaled two runs or fewer in three of their first four losses, it can be said that the Braves have squandered a few opportunities to take advantage of the fact that their injury-depleted starting rotation has produced a Major League-best 1.74 ERA through this season’s first nine games.

But it wasn’t until Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Mets that it truly felt like the Braves lost a game that they could have easily won.

Yeah, the slumbering offense tallied four runs for a second straight night. But at the end of the day, the Braves ended up scoring in just four of the 27 innings played this week against the Mets, who at last check are not currently able to rely on  the likes of Seaver, Gooden or even Harvey.

In other words, let’s not yet say the Braves have completely halted the early-season offensive woes that have led them to produce 2.56 runs per game  —  the second-worst mark in the Majors.

Justin Upton provided some signs of encouragement on Thursday when he homered twice and sent two of his three hits to right field.  As B.J. Upton made solid contact during three of his four plate appearances he might have been benefiting from the tutorial Chipper Jones had offered a few hours earlier.

When Chris Johnson saw that Jones was at Turner Field, he comically tweeted a question asking if he was still in the lineup.  But he wasn’t laughing a few hours later when he became the first Braves player to strike out four times in a game this year.   His only previous four-strikeout game had come during the 2012 season.

Still the Braves managed to keep the game tied until manager Fredi Gonzalez made the baffling decision to replace a dependable veteran (Luis Avilan) with a green rookie (Gus Schlosser) who has not exactly impressed during his first five career appearances.

When asked why he replaced Avilan with Schlosser, who surrendered Juan Lagares’ decisive single, Gonzalez indicated that Avilan had been put in that spot because three of the first four hitters he was scheduled to face were left-handed hitters.   Two of those lefties reached safely between a David Wright strikeout and the other (Ike Davis) hit a weak popup to leave runners at second and third with two outs.

Instead of allowing Avilan, who has limited right-handed hitters to a .205 batting average since the start of last year, Gonzalez turned to Schlosser, who has now surrenderd hits to six of the first 21 hitters he has faced.

There was nothing wrong with using Avilan in the seventh inning given who the Mets were set to send to the plate.  But given the success he has had against right-handed hitters, there aren’t too many fathomable scenarios where he should be used like a specialist.

Gonzalez also made the baffling decision to sacrifice defense for what he hoped would be offensive potential by using Ryan Doumit instead of Gerald Laird as his starting catcher on Thursday night.  Doumit’s reputation was upheld as Eric Young successfully swiped three bases.   Opponents have been successful in each of the seven stolen base attempts that have been made with Doumit behind the plate this year.

While this doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, it has been surprising to see the Braves give Doumit two starts behind the plate when Laird was perfectly capable to play those games in place of Evan Gattis, who is targeted to catch approximately 100-110 games for Atlanta this year.

When the Braves acquired Doumit, it seemed the plan was to have him serve as a pinch hitter, who might occasionally get a start in the outfield or at first base.  But I don’t think anybody, especially Laird expected to see Doumit behind the plate to start two of this season’s first nine games.

 

 

 

A look at Atlanta’s recent futility in Milwaukee

Because of an affinity that dates back to those youthful days when he would go to County Stadium to see Hank Aaron and his beloved Milwaukee Braves, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has declared that the Braves and Brewers will play the final two games of this week’s series at Fox Cities Stadium, the home of the Wisconsin Timbler Rattlers.

And to further level the playing field, any current Brewer who has pitched against the Braves at any point during the past few seasons has been given a two-day suspension that must be served immediately.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has since announced Sidd Finch will serve as his starting pitcher tonight and in Wednesday afternoon’s series finale.

I’m not much for the April Fools’ thing  But given what the Braves have experienced over the past few years while playing in Milwaukee, I figured this was an appropriate time to provide some levity to those of you who have chosen to forecast impending doom based on what transpired during the first of the 162 games Atlanta is scheduled to play this year.

While these next couple nuggets might provide the appearance that I am extending this April Fools theme, they are legitimate facts that prove how dominant the Brewers have recently been against the Braves.

The Braves have been shutout in five of the seven games played against the Brewers dating back to last year.

If possible, this factoid becomes even more unbelievable when you account for the fact that Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo has started just one of these five games —  Monday’s 2-0 Opening Day contest at Miller Park.   Milwaukee’s starting pitchers in the other four games were Wily Peralta, Donovan Hand, Marco Estrada and Kyle Lohse.

Since the start of the 2013 season, the Braves have played 4.3 percent of their games against the Brewers.  Yet, 27.8 percent (5 of 18) of the shutout losses they have incurred during this span have come courtesy of Milwaukee’s pitching staff.

The Braves have lost nine of the past 10 games played at Miller Park

Since the start of the 2011 season, the Braves have produced a National League-best .525 road winning percentage.  But they have lost nine of the 11 games played in Milwaukee during this span.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this futile stretch can be blamed on Ben Sheets and shadows.

To make this span even more baffling, the Brewers have gone 2-8 at Turner Field since the start of the 2011 season.

LOOKING AHEAD:  This might be a good time to mention that the Braves have not been shutout in consecutive games to begin a season since opening the 1980 season in Cincinnati.

But things won’t get any easier for the Braves when the Brewers send Lohse to the mound tonight.  Given what has occurred the past two times the veteran right-hander has faced Atlanta, there is a chance that something odd or riotous could occur.

Lohse served as the Cardinals starting pitcher the night that umpire Sam Holbrook became a villain in Atlanta with his infamous infield fly ruling  during the 2012 National League Wild Card playoff game.  Lohse was also on the mound last September when Brian McCann halted Carlos Gomez’s insane home run trot approximately 10 feet in front of home plate.

And as fate would have it, Lohse will be opposed by Braves southpaw Alex Wood, who will be making his first start since he vociferously critiqued umpire CB Bucknor’s performance as he walked off the mound at Nationals Park on Sept. 18.

Less than two years removed from his days at the University of Georgia, Wood possesses a genuine sense of confidence that should prove beneficial as he encounters the inevitable frustrations that even the best young players are bound to encounter during the early portion of their careers.

We’ll wrap this up with some telling thoughts from Wood as he prepares to build off the success he had after being called to the Majors last year.

“I feel more weight on my shoulders now than I ever did last year, because last year if I did well, I exceeded expectations,” Wood said. “If I didn’t, it was, ‘Oh he’s 22 years old,’ or, ‘He went through the Minor Leagues fast, he’s going to have some growing pains.’

“Well, I really didn’t experience many growing pains last year, so now what I did last year is what everyone expects. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. My biggest thing is getting an opportunity. If I get an opportunity, I don’t typically let it get away.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick thoughts about each member of the Braves Opening Day roster

If former Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern was still around to cover the Braves the updated version of his famous poem about Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain might be recognized by these words:  Teheran and Wood, then skip the next three days  if we could. 

A National League scout recently asked if a team has ever entered a season with three pitchers who haven’t thrown a pitch at the Major League level?  My immediate response was, “I can guarantee you this year’s Braves bunch will be the first two do so after leading the Majors in ERA the year before.”

Unfortunately, relievers Ian Thomas, Ryan Buchter and Gus Schlosser do not stand as primary sources of concern as they prepare to introduce themselves to the big league scene within the next few days.  The concern has more to do with the guys who are going to force Thomas, Buchter and Schlosser to be on high alert early and often as the Braves spend the early portion of this season dealing with the consequences of losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries within a 24-hour span earlier this month.

The 1927 Yankees would not have felt good about entering a season with a four-man rotation that includes an aged veteran (Aaron Harang) that has been with six different organizations in the past calendar year and a rookie (David Hale) whose promise is a product of the two strong starts he made during a month (September) that scouts and talent evaluators have long recognized as one that can often produce faulty evaluations.

But instead of focusing on the obvious fact that the Braves are going to have problems with their rotation until Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd all make their expected season debuts at differing points over the past week, we’re going to attempt to keep things a little more upbeat by taking a quick look at what Spring Training told us about each member of Atlanta’s Opening Day roster:

B.J. Upton —  If you’re still choosing to give Spring Training statistics some validity, remember that B.J. hit .347 in 75 Grapefruit League at-bats last year and then didn’t much of anything over the six months that mattered.  With that being said, it should be noted that he struck out in 13 of the final 35 at-bats he recorded this exhibition season. But there were signs of improvement as the veteran center fielder got used to the more stable batting stance he attempted to regain this winter.

As B.J. begins this year positioned in front of Freddie Freeman in the lineup’s second spot, he might see a higher percentage of fastballs than he did last year.  According to FanGraphs’ Pitch f/x data, he saw nearly the same percentage of fastballs the past two years. In 2012 he had a 12.4  wFB (Fastball wins above average).  Last year that number dipped to -4.8.  Thus maybe it is fitting that two of B.J.’s most encouraging at-bats over the past month ended with him hitting Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler’s fastball for singles  —  one that went right up the middle and the other to right-center field.

Dan Uggla  –  Like addicts on the road to recovery, Uggla seemed to take a big step when he admitted that he has been “homer-happy” the past couple of years.  In an effort to rid himself of the bad habits that led his front side to fly open far too frequently, the veteran second baseman spent this winter focusing on keeping his left hip and left shoulder square.  He struggled during the early portion of the Grapefruit League season, but he finished strong, recording seven hits and striking out just five times in his final 21 at-bats.  Taking an old familiar line from Bobby Cox,  “you can tell he feels good because he’s smiling again.”

Freddie Freeman  — Other than dealing with an armpit rash caused by his Spring Training jersey, Freeman spent the past six weeks smiling.  I think it’s one of those indelible ones that comes with receiving $135 million.  As for that rash, it didn’t prevent him from going 9-for-15  in his last six exhibition games.

Andrelton Simmons  —  As he packed his bag after the final home game at Disney, Simmons said he was feeling great at the plate.  When I asked if he had gotten comfortable with hitting coach Greg Walker was preaching in attempt to gain a more consistent swing plane, Simmons said, “about five of the 10 things he suggested work for me.” This isn’t the space to go into detail. But obviously given what he brings with his glove, nobody is going to complain if he hits around .250, pushes his on-base percentage above .300 and hits 10-15 home runs.  Yeah, he hit 17 taters last year.  But there’s no reason for him to aim to match that total at the expense of becoming a better-rounded product at the plate.

Chris Johnson  —  Very interesting to see that Fredi Gonzalez plans to bat Johnson in the cleanup spot.  In order for this to work, Johnson has to stick with the “hit the ball to all fields” approach that helped him rank second in the NL with a .321 batting average last year.  He batted .336 with runners in scoring position and .396 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Given the .394 BABIP he produced last year, we’ll likely see some regression with the batting average.  But he’s certainly capable of flirting with the .300 mark again.

Jason Heyward  —  As I enter my 14th season on this beat, I still contend that J.D. Drew’s 2004 season was the most overall (offense, defense and  base running)  impressive one I have covered in Atlanta.  If Heyward remains healthy and plays at least 150 games this year, there’s a chance I will no longer have to give Drew this status and then attempt to explain to those who forget how good a motivated J.D. Drew was.  Heyward has to potential to be much greater.  In fact if I had to pick the one Braves player most likely to win the National League MVP Award this year, it would be the 24-year-old right fielder.

Justin Upton  – Upton put the Braves on his back during the two most influential stretches (April and late July-early August) last year.  While every player is “streaky”, this 26-year-old right fielder seems to take “streakiness” to another level.  Despite hitting at least 26 home runs three of the past five seasons, he has never had a 100-RBI campaign. He’ll have a chance to reach this mark this season.  But he will have to be more productive than he was while hitting .243 with runners in scoring position last year.

Evan Gattis:  I’ve never been a fan of using the catcher as in the cleanup spot because once every five days the middle of the lineup is jumbled.  Manager Fredi Gonzalez didn’t seem bothered by this when asked during the early days of Spring Training.  But after Gattis struggled during Spring Training, the Braves opted to move him from cleanup to the seventh spot in the lineup.  Gattis will be looking to prove he can remain durable enough to remain offensively productive while serving as the starting catcher for 100-110 games this year.

Gerald Laird: With the recent departures of Tim Hudson, Peter Moylan, Eric Hinske and Brian McCann, the Braves have lost jovial characters who keep the clubhouse loose.  Along with being able to provide this attribute, Laird will play a significant role this year as should get more playing time than the average backup catcher.

Jordan Schafer:  There was a time last year when it appeared Schafer was going to start sharing time with B.J. Upton in center field. Unfortunately for Schafer, that time came right around when he suffered a stress fracture in his foot.  While he has aspirations to play on an everyday basis again, this athletic outfielder must get back to where he was early last season, when he was putting the ball in play consistently and benefiting from his tremendous speed.

Ryan Doumit:  While he might not get much playing time in the field, the switch-hitting Doumit will likely serve as the club’s primary pinch hitter throughout this season.

Ramiro Pena:  While providing a number of clutch pinch hits and a reliable glove as he often served as a late-inning defensive replacement for Johnson, he was Atlanta’s most valuable bench player before he injured his shoulder last year.  A strong offensive showing during Spring Training proved he is healthy.

Tyler Pastornicky:   Two years removed from beginning a season as Atlanta’s starting shortstop, Pastornicky is now a utility man whose defensive skills are most valuable on the infield’s left side.

Julio Teheran:  Ask his teammates about this 23-year-old hurler and in some way or another they’ll tell you he is fearless.  We saw how stoic he was last year when he plunked Bryce Harper and then walked directly toward Harper as the Nationals outfielder was yelling at him in August.  Yeah, that can sometimes be “false” bravado.  But instead, of being overwhelmed by the emotions that night at Nationals Park, the young hurler completed his victorious six-inning effort without allowing another run.  <p>

While Teheran has quickly gained a stronger feel for the English language, the language barrier is still somewhat evident when he says things like, “I think I’m the best.” He’s not the egotistical, boastful type.  But as Gerald Laird said, “He’s got a good edge to him.”

Alex Wood: When the Braves were set to draft Wood in the second round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, legendary scout Paul Snyder told the club to stay away from the collegiate southpaw if they had any intention of messing with his funky delivery.  Fortunately, nobody has messed with this funky delivery that helped Wood post a 0.90 ERA in five August starts last year.  Along with having a deceptive delivery and effective curveball, Wood has a genuine level of confidence you might not expect from somebody who is less than two years removed from his career at the University of Georgia.

Aaron Harang:  I’m still baffled as to why the Braves believe Harang was a better option than Freddy Garcia. When pitchers reach this point of their career, I’ll take craftiness over a velocity advantage.  Regardless, Atlanta will be in trouble if Harang needs to make more than 10 starts this year. Yeah, the same would have been said in reference to Garcia.

David Hale:  Hale is one of the few Major Leaguers who can claim that some of his college buddies are currently making more money than him.  This Princeton grad produced two strong starts last September.  But if the Braves really believed that he was capable of doing what he did, then why did Kameron Loe start that Sept. 4 series finale against the Mets?

Craig Kimbrel:  Kimbrel went through Spring Training without having to accelerate his preparations like he did when he participated in the World Baseball Classic last year.  Now that the regular season has arrived, he will once again begin displaying his high-octane fastball and ridiculous slider.

Luis Avilan:  Stump your friends with this one: Who has the lowest ERA among all left-handed relievers who have made at least 80 appearances dating back to Aug. 1, 2012?  Avilan is much more stable than Jordan Walden and will likely serve as Kimbrell’s primary setup man.

Jordan Walden:  Walden was quite impressive until he strained both groin muscles and then was essentially worthless during last season’s final five weeks.  Injuries have plagued the right-hander throughout his career. But if he can remain healthy, the Braves will once again rely on him to record outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

David Carpenter:  Carpenter had a heck of journey last year as he began the season in the Minors and ended it by surrendering a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the  NL Division Series against the Dodgers.   The 0.82 ERA he produced in 11 Grapefruit League appearances indicated that he is not battling any lingering effects.

Anthony Varvaro:  Varvaro struggled during the early portion of this year’s exhibition season as he attempted to develop a slider he has since ditched.  Minus the second inning of a multi-inning appearance he made against the Orioles on March 21, the veteran reliever at least showed some signs of improvement as the regular season approached.

Gus Schlosser:  Schlosser is a better option in the rotation than both Harang and Hale.  But the right-hander who produces an effective sinker with his side-arm delivery also stands as one of the best middle relief options in an Atlanta bullpen that also currently lacks depth.   He might have to remain available to serve as a long reliever during the season’s early weeks. But he has the potential to see some time in high-leverage relief situations before this season is complete.

Ian Thomas:  Schlosser would have been this year’s feel-good Spring Training story, had Thomas not made the rise from the independent leagues to the Majors in two years.  The lanky left-hander’s unexpected rise has come with the benefit of a curveball he began refining as he prepared to begin the 2012 season with the Atlantic League’s York Revolution.

Ryan Bucther:  There’s a lot to like about this left-handed reliever who has produced impressive strikeout totals the past few years.  Unfortunately, he needs time to address the command issues that will likely send him back to the Minors when Ervin Santana’s return allows Atlanta to go to a five-man rotation next week.

 

 

 

 

 

Braves exit Spring Training with rotation concerns

It is not necessarily easy to evaluate all that transpires with a club during the six-week period known as Spring Training.  But I think it’s safe to say, it is never good when Dr. James Andrews is the one who is making the most significant cuts.

Given all that occurred over the past month, I have to think many of you are longing for those days when your primary concerns centered around whether Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton would created reason for encouragement during the Grapefruit League season.  Instead, you are now looking at this pitching staff and wondering if the new replay coordinator Horacio Ramirez still has a few innings left in his left arm.

That’s obviously wondered in jest.  Well kind of.  I mean…

Seriously we should have known we had entered the bizarro world when Mike Minor informed us that a Dec. 31 urinary tract procedure had caused him to remain inactive for a month, consequently putting him behind schedule at the beginning of Spring Training.

Mike Minor has had trouble urinating over the past two years and thus will not be ready to join Atlanta’s rotation until the latter portion of April.

While that sentence might be disturbing, odd and definitely unique, it is also much more pleasant to read or write than those countless sentences we wrote about Medlen and Beachy having to undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery for the second time in less than four years.

First and foremost, you feel for Medlen and Beachy who realize that there is a good chance they will not be the same even if they are fortunate to pitch at the big league level again.  At the same time, you have to wonder where this leaves the Braves as they enter this season with a four-man rotation that will consist of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Aaron Harang and either David Hale or Gus Schlosser.

The Braves will go to a five-man rotation when Ervin Santana is ready to enter this mix at some point during the regular season’s second week.  Then order might be further restored by April’s fourth week, when Minor and Gavin Floyd are expected to make their respective season debuts.

If Minor and Floyd stick to their projected path here is a breakdown of the number of starts that could be made by each Braves starting pitcher through the regular season’s first 20 games:  Teheran (5), Wood (4), Harang (4), Santana (3) Hale/Schlosser (3).

I used 20 games because there is a chance Floyd could return to start the 21st game on April 22.  Minor’s schedule would allow him to debut the next day.  While there will obviously be a need to do some shuffling, this at least gives you an idea of when the starting pitching staff could start looking whole again, IF everything goes according to plans, hopes, wishes and prayers.

While Floyd has drawn rave reviews from Bobby Cox and current members of the Braves coaching staff who have seen him throw bullpen and live batting practice sessions over the past few weeks, it should be remembered that he is coming off Tommy John surgery and thus will be subject to the inconsistencies that Adam Wainwright and so many other pitchers have experienced until they are closer to 18 months removed from the procedure.

Fortunately for Minor, he has gone more than a month without feeling the discomfort that briefly shelved him during the early portion of Spring Training.   If this encouraging trend continues, his return to the rotation will have a greater immediate impact than Floyd’s.

But as the Braves plan to limit Wood to 170-180 innings during what will be just his second professional season, Floyd’s presence will prove even more valuable as the season progresses and he moves further away from surgery.

So, if Teheran builds off his rookie success and Minor continues to be the top-flight hurler he has been since the second half of the 2012 season,  the Braves have two legitimate candidates to serve as the ace of a staff that should benefit from Santana’s steady hand.

If Wood’s rookie campaign was a sign of things to come, he like Santana will be a solid number three starter, who has the potential to occasionally match up with the game’s top starters.  And of course if Floyd returns in time to prevent the Braves from relying on Harang for more than a couple weeks, then manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell might get through this season with their sanity in tact.  <p>

Still as my Hall of Fame MLB.com colleague Paul Hagen told me nearly a decade ago, “The more times you say the word ‘if” when talking about a team coming out of Spring Training, the more likely you’re going to see problems as the season progresses.”

So while the Braves have the makings to survive with a rotation that will not include Medlen and Beachy, it is hard to feel confident about a quintet that is  currently surrounded by so much uncertainty.

Before closing, I’d be remiss not to reminisce about one of the funnier events that transpired during Spring Training.

As the Braves prepared to play their Grapefruit League opener, Minor League reliever Juan Jaime asked Tigers first base coach Omar Vizquel to take  a picture with him.

A short time later Jaime went to the social media world and posted the picture with a caption that essentially read: “Me with my favorite player Roberto Alomar.”

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