Results tagged ‘ Derek Lowe ’

Busy holiday season for Wren and the Braves

After making my 11-hour journey back home for the holidays yesterday, I learned that that yesterday’s trade of Javier Vazquez had made many of you just as sick as my three female passengers, who had never previously been introduced to the twists and turns on West Virginia’s mountainous turnpike. 

But after looking at this trade and getting a feel for what the Braves learned while navigating this year’s trade market, I’d have to say the only reason that I currently dislike Braves GM Frank Wren stems from the fact that he made a point this morning to point out that the Mexican beaches he is enjoying lack the snow and cold temperatures that exist here in Wheeling, WV.   <p>

Before getting into this trade, let’s touch on Troy Glaus, who will seemingly become the Braves new first baseman once he’s able to get to Atlanta to undergo a physical.  Weather conditions in the northeast part of the country  imited hindered his immediate travel plans. 

So with some of the Braves doctors already beginning their vacations, it will likely be after the holiday break before Glaus could be introduced as the newest member of the Braves roster. 

Now back to the pitching front, where the Braves committed to trading either Vazquez or Derek Lowe once they gained the belief that Tim Hudson actually provided more certainty than either of these other two veteran right-handers. 

It’s no secret that the Braves pushed hard in an attempt to find a suitor for Lowe.  But in the process, they found just a couple of potential suitors and each of these clubs wanted them to eat about half of the $45 million the veteran sinkerballer is owed over the next three years. 

Given that Vazquez finished fourth in this year’s balloting for the National League Cy Young Award, there was reason to believe the Braves would have a much easier time moving him. 

But as time passed, it became apparent that among the clubs looking to acquire a starting pitcher via trade, the Yankees stood as the only potential suitor willing to spend as much as $10 million. 

With this in mind, the Braves were thrilled when the Yankees were interested enough in Vazquez to highlight this five-player trade with the inclusion of Arodys Vizcaino,  a 19-year-old right-hander who was rated by Baseball America  as the third-best prospect in the Yankees organization. 

The Braves view Vizcaino as being just as promising as Julio Teheran, a soon-to-be 19-year-old right-hander who was tabbed their third-best prospect by BA.

While making his frustrations known last week, Lowe playfully talked about reports that indicated the Braves were now just looking to get prospects for him.  This led the witty right-hander to ask, “What’s next?  You think they’ll be able to get an “L” screen for me?”

With Vizcaino, Mike Dunn and Melky Cabrera, the Braves got much more than they would have received in return for the salary dump they would have made by trading Lowe. 

Obviously to find value in this trade you have to look far beyond Cabrera, who will serve as a cheap versatile outfielder who can play each of the three outfield positions.  When the Braves are facing a tough right-handed pitcher, he could spell Matt Diaz in left field.  When they are facing a tough lefty, he could spell Jason Heyward in right field. 

Or maybe he just assumes an everyday role in right field until Heyward is deemed Major League ready.  Whatever the case, the Braves certainly didn’t view him as the centerpiece of this deal. 

There’s no doubt that it’s tough to see Vazquez depart after just one year in an environment where he proved to be so comfortable.  He’s a true professional who had a positive impact on Yunel Escobar, Jair Jurrjens and many of the other players in the clubhouse. 

But when it came time to make projections, the Braves certainly couldn’t assume that Vazquez would definitely match the career-best season he enjoyed this past season.  In fact, there were some members of the organization, who felt it was much smarter to sell high on him and avoid having to sell low on Lowe. 

Even with Lowe coming off a career-worst season and Vazquez coming off a career-best season, recent history indicates you could place them in the same category. 

Durign the past three seasons, Lowe went 41-35 with a 3.91 ERA and 605 innings pitched. Vazquez went 42-34 with a 3.74 ERA and 644 1/3 innings pitched during this span. 

Given that Vazquez spent two of those seasons in the American League and is three years younger, you could certainly argue that he was the guy to keep.  But at the same time, the Braves also came to the realization that he was the only member of this duo who was going to provide any kind of return. 

Thus while exercising your right to voice your opinion about this trade, keep in mind that it was one that was necessitated once the Braves made the decision to provide Hudson with his three-year contract extension. 

If you weren’t in favor of bringing Hudson back, then you certainly have reason to be upset about the fact that Vazquez’s time in Atlanta was limited to just one season.  But while kicking and screaming about this, keep in mind there was no guarantee that the Vazquez that appeared last year was going to materialize yet again in 2010. 

Before saying happy holidays to all you loyal bloggers, I’d like to add that Wren left Lowe a lengthy message after the pitcher voiced his displeasures to me about the fact that it seemed like the club was giving up on him after just one year. 

A few hours later, Lowe sent Wren a text message that essentially said there were no hard feelings. 

OK, time for me to send Wren my own holiday wishes. I’m thinking it will consist of a reminder that stepping on seashells will prove much more painful than walking through this snow. 

  

Source confirms it is highly unlikely Vazquez would approve trade involving Angels

A source close to Javier Vazquez said this morning that it’s “highly unlikely” that the veteran pitcher would approve a trade to the Angels or any of the other clubs that compete in the Western divisions of the American and National Leagues. 

As many of you know, Vazquez has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to veto any trades involving clubs that compete in these two divisions. 

So while the Angels might have more interest in Vazquez than Derek Lowe, there’s seemingly little reason to believe they’ll be able to work a deal involving the 33-year-old right-hander, who has made it known that he’d like to pitch in Atlanta beyond the end of this upcoming season, when his current contract expires. 

The Braves remain focused on their attempts to deal Lowe.

Just received confirmation that the Braves have signed Joe Thurston to a Minor League contract and provided him an invitation to big league camp.  Thurston hit .225 and compiled a .645 OPS in 124 games with the Cardinals this past season. 

Thurston could at least provide organizational depth as utility player.  He made 55 of his 66 starts as a third baseman this past season. 

Braves will continue to focus on moving their pitchers

With this being the last fully day of this year’s Winter Meetings, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Braves general manager Frank Wren will leave Indianapolis on Thursday possessing the same offensive needs that existed when he arrived. 

Wren has placed his current focus on fulfilling his role as the GM, who has the pieces to solve the pitching needs possessed by a number of his peers. 

Before traveling back to Atlanta, Wren will continue attempting to move Rafael Soriano and Derek Lowe (or Javier Vazquez if necessary).  Yesterday he mentioned that there was at least one club that might be interested in trading for both of these veteran pitchers. 

But despite the fact that they fit this description, there’s little reason to believe that Wren would contemplate sending his former ace and former closer to either the Phillies or the Mets.  In fact, he’s going to continue exploring all options before reaching a point where he would determine that it would be best to send either of these hurlers to either of these division rivals. 

I’ve previously mentioned the Astros as a potential suitor for Soriano.  But there seems to be a belief that their financial situation might eliminate them from being a major player in the bidding for the right-handed reliever’s services. 

As mentioned last night, there appears to be mutual interest between the Braves and Xavier Nady.  If they were able to secure him with a free-agent deal, it appears he would primarily play first base and also spend some time in the outfield. 

Nady’s versatility would allow him to occasionally spell one of the regular outfielders  — a group that I would currently project as being Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz and Jason Heyward. 

Martin Prado would be able to play first base during those days when Nady (or another player that possesess similar versatility).  While Omar Infante could fill in as the second baseman, there’s also reason to wonder if the Braves will reach a point during this offseason, when they attempt to add another middle infielder.

With the Yankees seemingly prepared to add Curtis Granderson to their outfield mix, there have been reports indicating that Nick Swisher will be available via trade.

The Braves were interested in Swisher last year and like Nady he would be able to provide the same kind of 1B/OF versatiliy.

Mark DeRosa would also fit this category.  But he won’t fit on the Braves radar until his cost drops closer to the $5 million (average annual salary) range.  

This provides a sense of what Frank Wren has been alluding to when he has mentioned that he is still exploring a number of options that could satisfy his offensive needs.

The Braves had some interest in Ross Gload (another player who could serve as a 1B/OF) before he signed with the Phillies last night.  They were very high on his defensive skills at first base.

One American League scout described Gload as “a guy who will hit .270 play solid defense and provide little power.” 

To which I was left to wonder, “Does he also come with Casey Kotchman’s vibrant personality?”  

Wren heading to Indy with a shorter shopping list

Now that we know that Tiger Woods wasn’t slipping out in the middle of the night to take advantage of one of last week’s door-buster sales, it’s time to focus on the remaining shopping list that Braves general manager Frank Wren will take to next week’s Winter Meetings in Indianapolis.
  
Would it have been more appropriate to refer to them as window-busting sales?

Regardless, it’s safe to say Wren certainly came out swinging during the early stages of this offseason.  While bidding adieu to a pair of Type A free agent relievers (Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano) who could net him four picks in next year’s Draft, Wren grabbed a pair of Type A free agent relievers (Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito) while losing just one draft pick.   

Saito would have been labeled a Type A free agent had the Red Sox not dropped them from their 40-man roster in October.  This was simply a procedural move that provided them the opportunity to pursue the Japanese right-hander at a cost cheaper than the option (worth at least $6 million) that was in his contract.

Wren certainly took a small risk by offering arbitration to both Gonzalez and Soriano when he had a good sense that in the next 48 hours he would sign both Saito and Wagner.  But it was a calculated one primarily based on the fact that Gonzalez and Soriano now arguably stand as the two best relief options on a free-agent market that grew thinner this week when the Braves reconstructed the back-end of their bullpen. 

There’s very little reason to believe Gonzalez would align himself with Scott Boras and then opt to take the one-year contract that would come via accepting the arbitration offer.  He’s going to get some of the same attractive multi-year deals that will be offered to Soriano, whose health history provides even more reason for him to find the security provided by a multi-year offer.  

Soriano and Gonzalez have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday to accept these arbitration offers.  It’s hard to imagine them doing this and ignoring the opportunity to field the offers that will be made by those teams that may have seen their wish lists shortened this week by the signings of Wagner and Saito. 

With his bullpen needs filled, Wren will head to Indianapolis with the opportunity to focus his attention on finding at least one bat and a suitor that is willing to deal for either Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez. 

The Braves still seem hopeful that they’ll be able to move Lowe instead of Vazquez.  My feeling has been that John Lackey, the top starter available on this year’s free-agent market, will sign before the Braves are able to move one of these two hurlers. 

But Wren doesn’t believe this is necessarily true.   

“I think teams have to have some sense of what the market is,” Wren said. “It’s the unknown that makes it difficult for clubs.  The top guy doesn’t necessarily have to sign.  But the top guy has to have a market established.  That will obviously create some players and some non-players.” 

In other words, during next week’s meetings, when we start hearing what clubs are offering Lackey, we may gain a better sense about which teams will prove to be the most likely suitors for Lowe and Vazquez.

Whether the Braves deal Vazquez, who is set to make $11.5 million in the final year of his contract, or Lowe, who is owed $15 million during each of the next three seasons, they will still seemingly have a similar amount of fund to fill their offensive needs. 

If they are able to trade Lowe, it still seems like they will have to eat somewhere between $1-2 million per year.   Thus their potential cost savings made by dealing either of these two hurlers may be only differ by this same range.  

As he evaluates who will play first base and fill his final outfield void, Wren has his sights set on finding a right-handed bat.  Marlon Byrd’s agent, Seth Levinson, said earlier this week that the Braves have “strong interest” in his client. 

But it seems like Byrd, who hit 14 of his career-high 20 homers inside Texas’ offensively-friendly ballpark this year, stands as just one of many candidates that Braves are evaluating.   
Some of the Braves players are lobbying for the club to bring Mark DeRosa back.  DeRosa would certainly prove valuable in the fact that he could play a number of different positions and add some power potential to the roster. 

It’s believed that DeRosa would be willing to take a “hometown discount” from the Braves.  But it might take some time before his view of a discount corresponds with what the Braves are willing to offer.  

As the next week progresses, we’ll likely learn more about the interest being shown to these players and other free-agents like Jermaine Dye, Xavier Nady and Mike Cameron.  In addition, Wren has made it known that he could opt to fill his offensive needs via trade.

“Right now, there are a lot of different possibilities,” Wren said.
 
Odds and ends:  Don’t forget that you can help Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren  and Ernie Johnson, Sr. move one step closer to the Hall of Fame by voting for this year’s Ford C. Frick Award.  Click here for the ballot.
 
You may have noticed that Wagner will wear the No. 13 jersey that was adorned by Nate McLouth last year.  Wagner said that he knows he may have to provide McLouth a portion of his new $7 million contract to show appreciation for the opportunity to continue wearing this number that he has sported dating back to his childhood days in Virginia. 
 
Wagner said the number has gained more sentimental value since his now-deceased grandfather provided him a medal that was engraved with the No. 13.   The medal was one of the ID pieces that his grandfather wore while working in the coal mines.
 
Tim Hudson invited Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen to join him for last week’s Iron Bowl in Auburn, Ala.  As a sign of appreciation the two comical hurlers arrived on Hudson’s former campus and asked where they might be able to buy some Alabama gear.  

Braves not interested in Hart

The Braves see the Brewers as a potential suitor for Derek Lowe.  But contrary to a report on FOXSports.com, they have never been interested in trading the veteran sinkerballer in exchange for Brewers outfielder Corey Hart. 

The report indicated that the Brewers seem reluctant to deal for Lowe because he is owed $45 million over the next three years.  While that is certainly understandable, the Braves have also provided indication that they are not interested in Hart. 

In other words, if the Braves end up having to trade Javier Vazquez to the Brewers, there’s little reason to believe that Hart would be part of the return package.

Indications are that the Braves don’t like Hart’s undisciplined offensive approach.  The Brewers outfielder, who could draw a $5 million salary via arbitration this winter, hit .260 with 12 homers and a .753 OPS this past season. 

As the Braves continue to explore their options with Lowe, they still think there’s a chance that the Angels may be willing to add the veteran sinkerballer to their young rotation. 

It appears that instead of getting a Major League-ready outfielder in return, the Braves would be more interested in digging into the Angels farm system. 

Braves not talking to Dodgers about Vazquez

If the Braves determine that they can’t move Derek Lowe, they will have to increase their efforts to move Javier Vazquez.  But contrary to a tweet posted by former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden, they aren’t currently talking to the Dodgers about Vazquez. 

As many of you have already pointed out in this forum, Vazquez’s contract includes a clause that prevents him from being traded to any of the teams from the West divisions of the American and National Leagues. 

In addition, early Friday afternoon a team source said that the Braves and Dodgers aren’t currently in the midst of any trade discussions. 

Before moving Vazquez and the $11.5 million that he is owed next year, the Braves will concentrate their efforts on moving Lowe and the $45 million that he is owed over the course of the next three years.

Earlier this week, I mentioned that the Yankees might have some interest in Lowe. But it now appears that they won’t attempt to land the 36-year-old sinkerballer, who went 15-10 with a 4.67 ERA for the Braves this past season. 

It now appears the more likely suitors for Lowe would be the Brewers or Angels, a pair of teams looking to add a veteran front-line starter.  

But the Angels will first wait to get a better understanding about how much it might take to bring John Lackey back to serve as their ace.   If the highly-sought right-hander signs elsewhere, they could gauge the possibility of trading for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay before turning their sights toward Lowe.

As for the Brewers, there has been some indication that they would be more interested in acquiring Vazquez. 

The Waiting Game

As we wait to see how this offseason’s chess match will unfold, let’s go back to this time last year, when you were exhausting your refresh buttons with the hope of learning that the Braves had acquired Jake Peavy.  

One year later, many, if not all, of you are rejoicing that fact that Peavy didn’t feel that the future was very bright in Atlanta.   Had the Alabama native chosen to waive his no-trade clause to play closer to home, the Braves would have lost Yunel Escobar and likely the comfort to once again dig into their organizational depth to acquire Javier Vazquez in early December.

This topic has been debated many times and I present it only to set up the consequences of the waiting game that clubs experience during these early days and weeks of the offseason.  

While waiting to see if Peavy would provide the Padres the OK to attempt to send him to Atlanta, the Braves held off on their attempt to obtain Nick Swisher from the White Sox.   The Yankees acquired Swisher on Nov. 13 and 24 hours later, Braves GM Frank Wren revealed that he was no longer actively pursuing Peavy.  

As the Braves saw their left fielders combine to hit .270 with 17 homers, 70 RBIs and a .725 OPS this year, Swisher was hitting .249 with 29 homers, 82 RBIs and an .869 OPS for the world champions.   

(I used the left fielders as the comparative point because I would assume that Swisher would have started the season there while Jeff Francoeur maintained his position in right field).  

Had the Braves been able to get Swisher in the same deal that brought Vazquez to Atlanta, there’s no guarantee that the Braves would have improved their fate.  But they wouldn’t currently find themselves potentially looking for an outfielder during a second consecutive offseason.  

If Swisher had joined the Braves, it’s hard to tell how the rest of the offseason might have unfolded.  Along those lines, maybe his presence would have prevented the Braves from making the Nate McLouth midseason acquisition that still has a chance to prove very profitable.

While we don’t know this for sure, we certainly realize that everything that occurs in November and December has an effect on what transpires between the first weeks of April and November.  And with that one sentence we’ve once again proven that instead of referring to this current period as “the offseason” it would be more appropriately be called “the non-playing season”.

We’ve long known that the Braves are going to end up trading either Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez.  Based on what happens to John Lackey, we’ll gain a better sense about where the Braves might send either of these two right-handers.  

As the top available free-agent starting pitcher Lackey will command interest from those same clubs that would be financially-capable and willing to assume the $45 million cost that Lowe will bring over the course of the next three seasons.  

Early indications are the Braves believe that the Yankees or Angels might be willing to deal for Lowe.  Before doing this, the Yankees will make a run for the younger Lackey, whose financial demands will determine whether the Angels attempt to bring him back to continue his role as their ace.  

If Lackey does exit Southern California, there is a belief that the Angels would then attempt to work a trade for the Blue Jays to acquire Roy Halladay, who will cost just $750,000 more than Lowe next year.   

This obviously could further complicate things for the Braves, who are looking to move one of these starters to create the financial flexibility to take care of some of their other roster needs   —   first baseman, closer and outfielder.  

So while the Braves would like the opportunity to keep Vazquez, they may find that they have to deal him before paying the consequences of the waiting game that will transpire as they wait to see whether there will be a team that is willing to trade for Lowe.  

If the Braves are able to deal Lowe, then they are expected to begin seriously discussing the possibility of offering Vazquez an extension that would keep him in Atlanta beyond the 2010 season.
 
Vazquez found a comfort zone in Atlanta and he has made it known multiple times that he doesn’t want to be traded.  But for now, like the rest of us, he finds himself simply playing the waiting game.

Hudson update:  Speaking of waiting games, it looks like the Braves will finally be able to announce Tim Hudson’s three-year extension before Thursday concludes.  Just to play it safe, let’s just assume that I meant tomorrow or any other remaining Thursday during this calendar year.  

McDowell has high praise for Wallace:   As you likely read yesterday, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell is a big fan of Dave Wallace, who was recently hired as the club’s Minor League pitching coordinator.  McDowell met Wallace during the early 1990s and has the highly-respected pitching guru for giving him his first shot at being a pitching coach at the professional level.
 
You can’t discount the fact that McDowell and Wallace share a history and more importantly many of the same beliefs about pitching.   Too many young pitchers have recently arrived in Atlanta and shown that they haven’t yet received the proper development at the Minor League level.   

This should change under the leadership of Wallace, who will be able to provide the Braves young pitchers with many of the same beliefs and philosophies that he’s shared and gathered during his many conversations with his close friend Sandy Koufax.  

“We have a history and I think for a lack of a better word he’s ‘the best’,” McDowell said on Tuesday “He’ll make the kids better and I think he’ll make the coaches better.  The body of work that he’s had under him speaks for itself.  Dave is as quality as you get.” 
 
McCann’s event:  If you want to do something other than watch West Virginia beat Cincinnati on Friday night, you should head down to Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium to see Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Tim Hudson, Kelly Johnson and Leo Mazzone participate in the inaugural Brian McCann Rally Softball Game.  

With the help of Delta Air Lines, McCann has been able to organize this event which aids the Rally Foundation in its fight to find better cures and treatments for children battling cancer.   First pitch is set for 7:35 p.m. ET and a home run derby will begin at 7 p.m.   

Question to ponder:  As I was leaving Yankee Stadium after Game 6 of the World Series last week, a Japanese reporter approached me and told me how excited they were that Hideki Matsui had just been named the World Series MVP.
 
In fact, he said that he and many of the other members of the Japanese  felt that this honor was bigger than the accomplishment that Ichiro Suzuki achieved in 2004, when he recorded a record 262 hits.
 
Needless to say, I’m going to have to say I view Ichiro’s season-long accomplishment to be a bigger deal.  What is your view? 

Lowe has provided value

When Derek Lowe looks back on this season, he’s going to remember plenty of disappointment.   What started out as a promising first year in Atlanta quickly fizzled into one that brought greater reason to wonder how much the Braves might regret giving him a four-year, $60 million contract in January. 

Still through all the troubles, which essentially started during the middle portion of June, Lowe has managed to compile a team-high 15 wins this season, a total that has so far been reached by just five other National League hurlers.

Lowe will be the first to admit that it’s not wise to judge a pitcher’s season via a win-loss record.  But with that being said, dating back to the beginning of the 2000 season, he’s recorded just the 14th 15-win season for a Braves pitcher.

If Jair Jurrjens were to notch his 13th win tonight, the Braves will still have a chance to have three 15-game winners (Lowe and Javy Vazquez included) for the first time since 2002 when Kevin Millwood, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux all reached that mark.  

Through his first 13 starts this season, Lowe went 7-3 with a 3.44 ERA and limited opponents to a .240 batting average.  In the 19 starts that have followed, he has gone 8-6 with a 5.47 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .343 batting average.

As he was speaking after last night’s win over the Mets, Lowe was interrupted by a reporter who had joined the scrum as Lowe was alluding to the fact that the Braves have 12 more games to hope to gain the miracle to join the postseason mix.

Having heard just part of the statement, the reporter  asked, “what were you talking about, (stinking) 12 games ago or something?

Lowe responded with, “I’ve (stunk) in a lot more than 12 games.  Come on.”
 
When Lowe has struggled this year, there’s no doubt that he’s created a couple of ugly results.   But the Braves still have managed to win 20 of the 32 games that he’s started and there have been just six occasions this year when he’s allowed more than three earned runs. 

While Lowe might not have been the ace that some were hoping he’d suddenly become, he still has proven to be a solid member of the rotation and a strong clubhouse figure,  whose unmatched work ethic has provided a good example to many of the younger players. 

With Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens, and likely either Vazquez or Tim Hudson in place next year, the Braves don’t necessarily need Lowe to serve as an ace.   They can only hope that his dedication to conditioning allows him to continue proving to be a productive presence over the next three years.
 
As we enter the final days of this season, I’d still have to say the Braves should feel fortunate that they provided the large contract to Lowe and didn’t incur the financial and health-related burdens that Jake Peavy or A.J. Burnett would have brought. 

Cox’s future:  Braves manager Bobby Cox still hasn’t revealed his plans for the 2010 season.  But  he has at least provided another hint that he’ll be back next year. 

While talking about next year’s schedule, he asked, “when are we going to Minnesota next year?”

Cox will also refer to the Braves as “we”.  But at the same time I think this provided even more reason to believe that he’s not ready to enter into retirement.  

Citi Field:  While the Mets might not like the dimensions at Citi Field, the Braves have found the new park to be quite accommodating.   

During their seven games in New York this season, the Braves have outhomered the Mets 10-3.  In other words, they compiled 21 percent of the total (48) the Mets have hit in their first 76 home games this year. 

With his solo shot off Derek Lowe last night, Daniel Murphy became the all-time home run leader at  Citi Field with a grand total of six.   In 23 at-bats (or 207 fewer than Murhpy), Matt Diaz has cleared this stadium’s walls three times. 
 

Clutch hits have provided rotation more consistent support

While discussing the different feeling that has existed in the Braves clubhouse over the course of the past few weeks, Derek Lowe said, “We believe that we’re going to win every day instead of just hoping that we’re going to win.”  

During the first three months of this season, Lowe and the rest of the Braves rotation simply hoped that the offense could manufacture enough to support their efforts on the mound.  But over the course of the past month, they’ve had the opportunity to toe the rubber with the confidence that their efforts won’t be wasted by a slumbering offense.  

While there’s no disputing just how important it was for the Braves to take the three of four from the Dodgers this past weekend, it might be more appropriate to say that this season’s turning point actually occurred with the 2-1 win at Wrigley Field on July 7.
 
Coming off of three consecutive losses that had killed the momentum they’d gained by sweeping the Phillies the previous week, the Braves gained that one-run victory with a pair of RBIs from Brian McCann and Javier Vazquez’s ability to outduel Carlos Zambrano. 

Dating back to that July 7 game, the Braves have hit .277 with a .355 on-base percentage, a .440 slugging percentage and 34 homers (1.10 per game).   In the process of going 20-11 during this stretch, they have hit .302 with runners in scoring position.

In the 82 games they played leading up to that date, they’d hit .261 with a .331 on-base percentage, a .396 slugging percentage and 66 homers (.80 per game).    During this 39-43 stretch, they hit .266 with runners in scoring position.

Obviously the biggest difference in these stretches comes from the fact that they’re now generating homers and clutch hits with much more frequency. 

During those first 82 games, Yunel Escobar hit .408 (31-fo-76) with runners in scoring position and over the course of the past 31 games, the talented shortstop has hit .450 (9-for-20) in these situations.

That rough early stretch was hindered by the fact that Kelly Johnson hit just .188 (9-for-48) with runners in scoring position before experiencing his Minor League stint.    Since unseating Johnson at second base and becoming an everyday member of the lineup, Martin Prado has hit .370 (17-for-46) with runners in scoring position.

Jordan Schafer also obviously hindered the offense during the first two months in numerous ways, including the fact that he recorded just five hits in his 46 at-bats with runners in scoring position. 

Jeff Francoeur actually hit .250 with runners in scoring position during the season’s first 82 games.  Still while that stat looks good compared to the .192 mark he compiled last year, it’s not the one you want to see generated from a guy who had 12 more at-bats in that situation than any of your other players during that span.

Since joining the Mets, Francoeur has hit .314 with runners in scoring position.  But this is just one of the many of his statistics that look better than the ones he compiled in Atlanta. 
 
In his first 33 games with the Mets, Francouer has hit .303 with five homers  (equal to the mark he compiled in 82 games with the Braves) 20 RBIs and a .820 OPS  (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

Still like Francoeur has proven to be better off away from the undue stress he placed upon himself in Atlanta, the Braves are certainly better in right field without his presence. 

In the 85 games they played with Francoeur primarily in the lineup on a daily basis, the Braves saw their right fielders hit .255 with a .286 on-base percentage, a .355 slugging percentage, five homers and 37 RBIs. 

In the 28 games that Matt Diaz and Ryan Church have shared the position, the Braves right fielders  have hit .257 with a .348 on-base percentage, a .396 slugging percentage, three homers and 15 RBIs. 

There’s not a drastic difference in these numbers.  But the improved on-base percentage has provided a greater flow to a lineup that has obviously been upgraded since those days when Schafer and Johnson were providing daily frustration.  

McLouth update:  Nate McLouth felt better while chasing down some fly balls during Wednesday’s batting practice and vowed that he’ll definitely be in the lineup for Friday night’s series opener against the Phillies.

McLouth was excited to tell me that he got a shipment of Michigan gear today and that Derek Lowe, another Wolverines fan, immediately dug into the box and dressed himself from head to toe in maize and blue.  

It’s certainly nice to talk to somebody else that’s excited about the start of the college football season.  But I guess McLouth forgot my feelings about Rich Rodriguez are on par with the way many of you feel about Bill Hohn.

TONIGHT’S LINEUP

Church 8
Prado 4
Chipper 5
McCann 2
Garret 7
Yunel 6
LaRoche 3
Diaz 9
Lowe 1

 

Time for the Braves to experience a prolonged winning streak

When I arrived at my Pasadena hotel this afternoon, I clicked on MLB.com and had to laugh when I saw the image used to lead into the story about this weekend’s four-game series between the Yankees and Red Sox.
 
Standing in the middle of this image was John Smoltz, who while opposing Joba Chamberlain during tonight’s series opener, is going to have a chance to set the tone for what occurs over the next four days in the Bronx.
 
Nevertheless, it’s still quite odd to see Smoltz wearing that Red Sox uniform and suddently standing as one of the key figures in what is undoubtedly the game’s top rivalry.
 
Sure, you have the Cubs-Cardinals and the Dodgers-Giants.  The Interleague era has obviously allowed intrigue to follow some of the matchups between the Mets-Yankees.   But nothing beats the anticipation of what precedes those four-hour, epic affairs the Yankees and Red Sox are seemingly destined to encounter every time they oppose each other. 

With the Dodgers having to travel to San Francisco on Monday to begin a three-game series against the second-place Giants, can the Braves hope that Manny Ramirez and his mates will look beyond this weekend’s four-game series at Dodger Stadium?  Or did I simply spend too much time reading college football magazines on this morning’s cross-country flight?

Seriously though, while the Dodgers still own the best record in the Majors, they are currently in the midst of their roughest stretch of the season.  They’ve lost eight of their last 13 games and unfortunately for the Braves, two of the five wins notched during that stretch occurred last weekend at Turner Field. 

While splitting their first 20 games since the All-Star break, the Dodgers have experienced the same rollercoaster journey that has followed the Braves, who have won 16 of their past 26 games?   Or is it more timely to say that they’ve lost five of their past nine? 

Whichever way you want to view it, with 54 games left this season, the Braves can’t afford to experience any more extended stretches of mediocrity.  They’ll enter tonight’s series opener five games back in the Wild Card race with three teams in front of them (Giants, Rockies and the tied NL Central combo of the Cards/Cubs).  As for the Marlins, their 55-53 record is identical to Atlanta’s. 

The Braves have 13 games remaining against the Marlins and three against the Cardinals.   While they’re done playing the Giants and Rockies, they can hope that these two NL West rivals beat each other up in their remaining division contests.   The same line of thinking can be used when thinking about the Cubs and Cards, who are lining up produce a great battle to win the NL Central.

 There’s hope if the Braves win the games they’re supposed to against the likes of the Nationals and Padres.  But at the same time, they’ve put themselves in a position where they need to also find success against the game’s elite.

With pitching matchups of Derek Lowe vs. Randy Wolf, Jair Jurrjens vs. Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw vs. Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez vs. Hiroki Kuroda, the Braves certainly have a chance to win at least three of the four games played this weekend. 

Lowe beat Wolf last weekend.  Jurrjens pitched effectively before experiencing his forgettable two-out struggles during last Sunday’s loss to Billingsley.  I’ll take Vazquez against most any other Major League pitcher right now. 

And once again, we’re looking at Kawakami’s start as the one that draws doubt.    The Braves have lost each of the past four games started by the 34-year-old Japanese right-hander.  Those four losses account for half of the total they’ve compiled in 20 games since the All-Star break. 

Minor’s bonus:  As I write this Mike Minor is likely dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” to secure the $2.42 million signing bonus the Braves have offered him.    This is the highest bonus ever given to a player selected seventh in the Draft and the largest one in the organization’s history.
 
But at the same time, it’s a cost the Braves knew they were going to incur while provided their highest Draft selection since 1990.
 
While it would have been nice to get Minor into the system as early as possible, the fact that he was able to rest his left arm most of this summer could also prove to be beneficial.  The 21-year-old southpaw completed 110 2/3 innings for Vanderbilt this year and spent last summer pitching for Team USA.
 
If Minor proves to be a quick climber, there’s a chance he could move into the back end of the Braves rotation some time during the 2011 season.   Lowe will be in the final year of his contract and if they follow their current path, Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson will form a formidable 1-2 punch at the front-end of the rotation.  

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