Results tagged ‘ Mike Gonzalez ’

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.  

Expect Gonzalez and Soriano to be offered arbitration

Now that Charlie Weis’ tenure has expired, is it only a matter of time before we learn that Notre Dame is also interested in Mike Gonzalez?

There have been a number of clubs that have expressed interest in Gonzalez and with this being their first year of being associated, you can seemingly guarantee that Scott Boras is going to transform this interest into an attractive multi-year deal for the left-handed reliever. 

While the Braves would welcome the possibility if they’re still in search of a closer, there’s little reason to believe that Gonzalez will accept the arbitration offer that they will provide tomorrow.  By doing so, he’d simply set himself up for a one-year contract that would likely be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-6 million.

Needless to say, the Braves certainly wouldn’t be financially-devestated if Gonzalez were to aceept this offer.  In fact, they would seemingly gladly welcome him back for one more year at this price.  

With Gonzalez it has always been a no-brainer that the Braves would offer him arbitration before Tuesday’s deadline.  But only recently has there been more reason to believe that they will make this same offer to Rafael Soriano. 

Despite the fact that his name hasn’t been nearly as popular in this year’s rumor mill, Soriano also seems well positioned to receive a multi-year contract from somebody other than the Braves.

But if he doesn’t, would it be horrible for the Braves to provide him a one-year deal worth something in the neighborhood of $7-8 million. The guy was rock solid this year  — converting  27 of 31 save opportunities.  In his career-high 77 apperances, he posted a  2.97 ERA, a  1.06 WHIP, a .194 opponents’ batting average and 12.13 strikeouts per nine innings (NL’s second-best mark).

Given that there is at least a slight chance that both could accept, the Braves might run a small risk when they offer arbitration to both Gonzalez and Soriano.  But I think it’s pretty safe to assume that both will attract multi-year offers that will erase this twinge of worry. 

By offering arbitration to Gonzalez and Soriano, the Braves will set themselves up for the draft-pick compensation they would receive when another club signs either of these Type A free agents.  

As for the club’s Type B free agents, the Braves will likely offer arbitration to Adam LaRoche. But needless to say, this has never been consisdered an option for Garret Anderson. 

If the demand for LaRoche proves to be light and the Braves find themselves in position to sign LaRoche, they likely wouldn’t provide him anything more than a one-year deal.  The cost (approximately $7.5 million) they may incur via arbitration might be a little steeper than they’d like.

But like with Gonzalez and Soriano, LaRoche’s decision to accept this offer wouldn’t financially cripple the offseason plans.

<b> Pete and Skip HOF: </b> When the top 10 finalists for the Ford C. Frick Award have been announced over the course of the past decade, it has always bothered me that Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray are absent from the list. 

I’ll get into this more in tomorrow’s blog. But if you feel that these guys or the great Ernie Johnson belong in Cooperstown, then let your voices be heard via this year’s online voting, which begins on Tuesday and runs through the end of December.

<b> Chip Caray update: </b> Just got off the phone with Chip Caray and he seems comfortable with the fact that he and TBS have parted ways.  I’m about to write something more on this for the site.  But to give you my thoughts, this paves the way for Chip to pursue his desire to work on a daily basis and possibly be around the Braves on a much more regular basis.     

<b> Got to love Google’s wisdom:  </b> When you initially see Bean Stringfellow’s name in print, there’s obviously reason to think “well that’s an odd name.”  But some of you ardent Braves fans might actually have known about Thornton “Bean” Stringfellow long before he became recognized as Billy Wagner’s agent. 

The Braves drafted Stringfellow in the 24th round of the 1985 Draft, eight spots ahead of some kid out San Diego State named Mark Grace.  The left-handed hurler spent four seasons in the Braves system and pitched with both Tom Glavine and John Smoltz during his two-year stint with Triple-A Richmond. 

Gonzalez is now with Boras

Two Major League sources have confirmed that Mike Gonzalez has chosen Scott Boras to now serve as his agent.  The left-handed reliever had previously been represented by Dan Lozano of the Beverly Hills Sports Council. 

Boras’ affiliation should not have much affect on whether or not the Braves attempt to get into a bidding war to secure Gonzalez’s services.   The well-known agent and Frank Wren seem to have a good working relationship. 

While it seems highly unlikely that Rafael Soriano will return to Atlanta, there still seems to be an outside shot that the Braves will attempt to re-sign Gonzalez.  But the level of their interest will be based on the cost that is set courtesy of the interest the left-handed reliever receives from other clubs.

Gonzalez posted a 2.42 ERA and limited opponents to a .209 batting average in the career-high 80 appearances he made for the Braves this past season. 

The Braves are definitely expected to offer arbitration to Gonzalez, who made $3.45 million this past season. Because he has been classified as a Type-A free agent, this offer would provide them the opportunity to receive draft pick compensation if he were to sign elsewhere.

If a Type A free agent signs elsewhere before Dec. 1 or recieves an arbitration offer from their former club, the former club is eligible to receive a first-round draft pick and a sandwich selection between the first and second rounds.  

In the event that the signing club has one of the Draft’s first 15 selections, the former club would receive the sandwich selection and a second-round selection. 
   

Teams interested in Braves pitching surplus

The Rockies and D-backs both sent scouts to watch Tim Hudson make his return last night.  Like Hudson, these clubs are wondering whether the Braves will bring the veteran right-hander back to Atlanta next year.  

Even as recently as the All-Star break, it appeared the Braves weren’t going to be willing to bring both Hudson and Javier Vazquez back next year.  

But while there’s still a chance that one of them will be gone before the start of the 2010 season, there’s also a growing sense that  both could return to provide Atlanta with a rotation that would be deeper than any of the great ones it possessed during the 1990s.  

Hudson’s contract includes a $12 million club option and $1 million buyout for the 2010 season.  Vazquez’s cost of $11.5 million next year would be a definite bargain if he were capable of repeating the successful season he’s created this season.   

If the Braves were to enter the 2010 season in possession of each of their current six starters  —  Derek Lowe ($15 mil), Hudson ($12 mil), Vazquez ($11.5 mil), Kenshin Kawakami ($6.7 mil), Jair Jurrjens (approx. $500K) and Tommy Hanson (approx . $450K),  they would do so at a combined cost in the neighborhood of $46 million, which would eat up nearly half of their expected payroll.  

With Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano eligible for free agency, there’s a chance the Braves could choose not to bring either of these closers back and opt to have Peter Moylan fill that role at the approximated $1 million cost he may gain through his first arbitration-eligible season.

With Chipper Jones ($13 mil), Brian McCann ($5.5 mil), Nate McLouth ($4.5 mil), Matt Diaz (approx $2 mil),  David Ross ($1.6 mil), Omar Infante ($2.25 mil)  Yunel Escobar (approx. $500K), Martin Prado (approx $500 K), the Braves have approximately $30 million tied up in their position players and that’s without including the cost for a first baseman or outfielder.  

If you assume that the Braves bring Ryan Church back at around $3.5 million next year, then you could put their projected known costs at around $80 million.    

Then if Adam LaRoche was willing to stick in Atlanta for another year or two with an average annual salary of about  $6 million, the Braves would still be in position to account for non-arbitration guys (Kris Medlen, Eric O’Flaherty, etc.) and still satisfy their budget.

There’s no guarantee that the Braves will be willing to offer LaRoche this much during an offseason where a number of 1B/OF types will be available.   But I just wanted to throw that high-side figure out there to show that he could fit into a mix that would also include each of these starting pitchers.
 
While trying to show the Braves could have the financial means to keep each of these six starters,  I’ve included a lot of loose variables.

But at the end of the day, does it make sense to keep all of these arms?  Would it be more prudent to move Vazquez to gain prospects and have the opportunity to at least make a run at keeping either Gonzalez or Soriano, who will be Type A free agents?  

While there’s reason to wonder if Vazquez has found his comfort zone in Atlanta, history also shows that he’s had trouble putting together two consecutive strong seasons.  So should the Braves at least attempt to gain the solid return they could gain by dealing him?  

If the Braves simply chose to pay Hudson’s $1 million buyout, the only thing they’d be gaining is financial relief.  He currently doesn’t qualify as a Type B free agent.
 
Or maybe it makes sense to gain some financial relief by attempting to trade Kawakami, who wouldn’t provide the same kind of return as Vazquez.
 
The Braves may not have as many needs to fill as they did during last year’s offseason.  But as the D-backs and Rockies have proven, there are already a number of teams wanting to know how they’ll deal with their surplus of starters. 
 
Church returns, Chipper sits:    Ryan Church’s ability to return to Wednesday night’s lineup provided Chipper Jones to get a night off.  Jones’ back was a little sore on Tuesday night.  But he will likely return for Thursday night’s series finale.
 
Short bullpen:  Soriano threw 66 pitches while making appearances each of the past three days.  So the Braves will likely utilize  Gonzalez or Moylan as their closer tonight.   Gonzalez and Moylan have pitched both of the past two nights.
 
While Gonzalez threw 31 pitches through this span, Moylan totaled just 10.   

Soriano battling some right shoulder discomfort

Mike Gonzalez was ready and somewhat expecting to pitch the ninth inning of Friday night’s loss to the Phillies.  He knew the situation would allow him to begin the inning against two left-handed batters and was also cognizant of the fact that Rafael Soriano had been battling some discomfort behind his right shoulder.
 
But after Gonzalez prolonged his recent success with an impressive eighth-inning escape act, Braves manager Bobby Cox opted to stick by the book and insert his closer into the ninth inning of a tie game at home.
 
Four pitches later, Ryan Howard prolonged Soriano’s recent struggles against left-handed hitters with a game-winning leadoff homer. 

When Soriano arrived at Turner Field on Saturday, he admitted that he’s been feeling some muscular discomfort behind his right shoulder.  But the once-dominant closer wasn’t willing to use this ailment as an excuse to explain the fact that he’s now allowed three game-winning homers over the course of his past eight starts. 

“He’s just tired,” Gonzalez said.  “He’s been used a lot.  I know how Soriano works and I think these couple of days are going to be great for him.”

The Braves wouldn’t say that Soriano wasn’t available for Saturday afternoon’s game.   As for the right-handed reliever, when asked about his availability, he said that he thought he could pitch again as soon as Sunday.  
Soriano was pitching on Friday night with five days rest.   After he felt some fatigue after pitching for a fourth straight day last Saturday night in Los Angeles, he asked the Braves not to make him available during Tuesday and Wednesday night’s games against the Nationals. 

“He’s throwing 95 (mph) with every pitch,” said Cox in reference to Soriano, who did hit at least 94 with each of the five four-seam fastballs he threw during Friday’s ninth inning.
 
While he may have possessed his ability to maximize the velocity of his fastball, Soriano is still looking to regain the success he’d possessed while limiting left-handed hitters to a .179 batting average and zero homers before the All-Star break. 

Since the break left-handed hitters have hit .435 (10-for-23) against Soriano and accounted for each of the game-winning homers that he’s surrendered.   As for right-handed hitters, they have gone hitless in the 18 at-bats they’ve recorded against the stone-faced right-hander since the break.
 
“When he’s on, nobody hits against him,” Gonzalez said. 

With the Phillies sending two left-handed hitters (Howard and Ibanez) to the plate to begin the ninth inning, Gonzalez admits he was among those who wondered if he’d be given a chance to make his third multi-inning appearance of the season.  He hasn’t allowed a run during the previous two he’s completed this year. 

“I was definitely ready to go and in that situation, I kind of thought that also,” Gonzalez said after being told many fans questioned why he wasn’t used. “But then again, it was the ninth inning and you know you’ve got to put your closer in there. 

“I would have totally understood (going two innings) it if would have given Soriano another day.  Another day is huge.  I would have sacrificed two innings yesterday and then come back today to see how I felt.” 

Howard, who has hit .193 and accounted for just three of his 28 homers  against left-handed pitchers this year, took advantage of Cox’s decision to go with Soriano.  The Phillies first baseman is now hitting .311 against right-handed pitchers.  

Since July 1, Howard has hit .150  (6-for-40) with zero homers against left-handed pitchers and .337 with eight homers against right-handed pitchers.

Meanwhile Gonzalez has limited left-handed hitters to a .159 (7-for-44) batting average and just two extra-base hits (two doubles) since June 1. 

Soriano rebounded from Howard’s homer by striking out the next three batters he faced, including Ibanez, a left-handed threat, who is hitting .289 with 17 homers against right-handed pitchers this year.  But by then, the damage had already been done.

“(Soriano) didn’t have any trouble against Ibanez and he’s a much better hitter than most lefties,” Cox said. 

Braves may have made all their significant moves

Braves general manager Frank Wren has never been accused of being a procrastinator and with the trade deadline resting a little more than a week away, there’s a chance that he’s already made all of his significant deals.
 
This line of thinking could be altered if the Braves were to struggle during this week’s four-game series against the Giants.  But at the same time, this belief could be strengthened if they were to claim at least three of these four games against the National League Wild Card leaders.
 
Having won 12 of their past 18 games, the Braves entered Monday night’s series opener trailing the Giants by 4 games.   Seeing how the Phillies have become immune to losing since they were swept out of Turner Field earlier this month, the Wild Card race has become much more intriguing from a Braves perspective.
 
There’s no doubt that the Braves could benefit from another power bat and another veteran reliever.  But as the season’s second half enters its first full week, it’s apparent that the makeup of their roster is much stronger than it was a month ago.

“We like our club the way that we’re situated right now,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “We like the balance we have in our lineup.  We’ve liked our pitching really from the beginning.  I think we’re observing and if there are ways to improve, I think we’ll at least look at them.  But right now we like our club.” 

Wren improved two of his three outfield spots with the trades that brought Nate McLouth and Ryan Church to Atlanta.  The left field position has been improved as Garret Anderson has provided the offensive consistency that negates some of the defensive deficiencies that come courtesy of his suspect range.

This month, the Braves lead the National League with a .292 batting average and rank second in both on-base percentage (.366) and runs (84). 

Yes, the Braves are just five of 16 NL teams to have played 16 games so far. But the 5.25 runs they’ve score per game this month, look a whole lot better than the 3.57 runs per game that they scored in June.   In April they scored an average of 4.04 runs per game and in May they improved that mark to 4.66. 

“Up and down our lineup, I think we’re getting more quality at-bats, which we think will translate into more runs and more wins,” Wren said. “(Offense)  has been the area that has held us back.”

If the Braves truly believe they are in the thick of the postseason race, they’ll likely look to keep Javier Vazquez, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.  As Type A free agents, Soriano and Gonzalez will only be moved for a significant return. 

Of course if they were to fall out of the race, the Braves could utilize each of these hurlers to help them begin building for the 2010 season and beyond. 

While Vazquez could be moved to provide the financial flexibility to gain another bat for the season’s final two months, the Braves are providing more indication that they’d like to keep the impressive right-hander around throughout the remainder of this season and possibly beyond. 

But  it doesn’t appear that they will have the financial resources that would allow them to keep both Vazquez and Tim Hudson around for the 2010 season.  Coming back from Tommy John surgery, Hudson won’t rejoin the Atlanta rotation before Aug. 25.  

If the Braves continue to win, the most likely candidate that they’d move before the trade deadline would be Kelly Johnson.  But as they found while attempting to deal Jeff Francoeur, there aren’t a lot of clubs lining up to acquire Johnson’s services.  

Johnson’s Minor League rehab assignment expires on Saturday.  So sometime within the next week, the Braves will have to trade him, place him back on the big league roster, or activate him from the disabled list with the intention of optioning him back to Triple-A Gwinnett’s roster. 

With Martin Prado manning the everyday role at second base and Omar Infante just a couple weeks away from being activated from the disabled list, there is limited need for Johnson in Atlanta.
  
Since becoming an everyday member of the lineup on June 30, Prado has hit .400 with two homers, a .458 on-base percentage and a .759 slugging percentage.  The Braves have won 11 of the 17 games played during that span.

“There’s a certain chemistry and feeling that every team has and when you feel like you’ve reached that right balance, you are a little hesitant to make a change,” Wren said.  “I know the guys on this club feel good about this team right now and that’s a positive.  That doesn’t stop you from inquiring and seeing if there are other things that you can do.  But we’ve done quite a bit already.”  

Will Wren be a buyer or seller?

With the three-game losing streak they carried into Tuesday, the Braves found themselves in the same position they were when they began their five-game winning streak on June 28.  Still the five-game division deficit they now face seems much more daunting than it did just a week ago, when the fumbling Phillies were coming to Turner Field.
 
While the first-place Phillies have won four straight since being swept out of Atlanta last week, the Braves have destroyed all of the positive energy they’d created before saying goodbye to their season-best five-game winning streak during the eighth inning of Saturday’s game in Washington D.C. 

Since being six outs away from recording a sixth straight win, the Braves have completed 20 consecutive innings without a lead and provided even more reason to believe that even with their strong starting rotation, they are destined for prolonged mediocrity.
 
Braves general manager Frank Wren finds himself essentially in the same position he was on this date last year, when his club was six games back.  At the time, he said he was going to continue monitoring the pulse of the club before determining whether he was going to move Mark Teixeira.
 
Wren remained patient until the Braves blew five-run leads on consecutive days in Philadelphia (July 26 and 27) and then opted to deal Teixeira with the handicap of having to find a trade partner that could provide a first baseman in return.

With Javier Vazquez, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, Wren possesses three pitchers, who could each individually provide a greater return than Teixeira, who was traded to the Angels in exchange for Casey Kotchman and Steven Marek.

Affordable relievers who have the ability to close and durable starters prove to be in more demand than first basemen, who could prove to be just a two-month rental.

 But while still waiting for his team to experience its first string of prolonged success,  Wren really doesn’t know whether he’ll be a buyer or a top seller when this year’s trade deadline arrives. 

Without the ability to add to his payroll, his position as a buyer in search of another bat will certainly be financially hindered.
  
But with these three pitchers, he could prove to be an attractive seller with the ability to start building for the future. 

Until they definitely fall out of the postseason picture, the Braves won’t even attempt to trade Vazquez.   Thoughts of moving him to gain funds to add a bat are erased by the reality that the Braves need him in a rotation that won’t include Tim Hudson until at least the final week of August.
 
And if Wren isn’t blown away with any offers for Vazquez, there isn’t any definite need to trade the 32-year-old right-hander, who is set to make $11.5 million during the final year of his contract next year.
 
Hudson, who is one year older and coming back from Tommy John surgery, has a $12 million option and $1 million buyout for the 2010 season.  Of course any concerns about his health could be trumped by the concerns created by the fact that Vazquez has proven to be one of those inconsistent pitchers, who encounters success on an every-other-year basis.

With both Gonzalez and Soriano being Type A free agents, the Braves are going to ask for significant returns if they reach a point where they decide to trade either or both of these closers. 
 
Instead of simply settling for the best available return like they did with Teixeira, they’ll be content to allow both Gonzalez and Soriano enter the free agent market, with the understanding that they’ll either bring one back or at least be compensated with the draft picks their departures would provide.  

There was very little chance that Teixeira was going to accept the arbitration offer that the Braves would have provided had they kept him through the remainder of the 2008 season, with the desire to at least receive draft pick compensation. 

Of course had Teixeira accepted an arb offer, the financial ramifications would have been much greater than those provided by the small risk the Braves would  take if they reach a point in December, where they have to offer arbitration to either Soriano or Gonzalez.  

Wren has already assumed the role of buyer once this year with his June 3 acquisition of Nate McLouth, who is a hitter that many offensively-needy teams would currently covet.
  
Still while McLouth has proven to be a definite upgrade, the Braves won just 13 of the 30 games they’ve played since he joined their lineup.   Of course four of those wins were notched last week, when McLouth was sidelined with a sore left hamstring.

There’s no doubt that McLouth is going to make an impact in Atlanta beyond this year.  He’s a legit five-tool player, whose presence in Atlanta would already been much more celebrated had he not arrived just in time to see both Chipper Jones and Brian McCann start to endure simultaneous struggles. 

Over his past 21 games, McCann has hit .250 with two homers and seven RBIs.  The always-dependable All-Star catcher also has just four hits in his last 22 at-bats with runners in scoring position. 

As for Jones, over the course of his past 25 games, he has hit .213 with one homer and nine RBIs. 

While winning just 10 of their past 25 games, the Braves have received a total of 19 RBIs from McCann and Jones.
  
There’s no doubt that McCann and Jones will turn things around.  But will they do so before Wren is forced to make the decision to enter the trade market as a seller? 

Cincy has become a nightmare destination

After Tuesday night’s 7-2 loss to the Reds, Braves manager Bobby Cox essentially said that if you record 12 hits, you’ve got to win.   But since Great American Ball Park started to become his team’s house of horrors two years ago, Cox has come to realize this isn’t necessarily true.
  
While winning just two of the past 10 games they’ve played at GABP dating back to Aug. 21, 2007, the Braves have won just one of the six games during which they’ve recorded a  double-digit hit total. Their other win during this span occurred on April 24, when they tallied four hits, the first of which came courtesy of  Jeff Francoeur’s  two-out, fifth-inning homer.
 
So much has occurred over the course of these 10 games that it’s hard to pinpoint why Cincinnati has recently caused Cox more heartburn than Skyline Chili.   This skid started with Jo-Jo Reyes blowing a three-run second-inning lead by allowing the Reds to produce a five-run third-inning.
 
One day later, Edgar Renteria came off the disabled list and then went right back on it before even having the opportunity to do anything more than check his swing during his first-inning at-bat.   Then to cap off that three-game stretch in August of 2007, Adam Dunn continued his assault of Bob Wickman with a 12th-inning, walk-off homer.
 
Given that Wickman was released the following day, I guess you can say something good has come out of this 10-game stretch, during which the Braves have competed against the Bengals for the right to be considered the least successful team in Cincinnati.
 
Looking back at last night’s game, things might have certainly been different had Francoeur not grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the sixth.
  
But things like this are going to happen.  Former American League MVP Justin Morneau has grounded into 16 double plays (third-most in the Majors) during the 240 at-bats he’s compiled with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2008 season.   But he’s also compiled a .350 batting average and collected 130 RBIs in these situations.
 
The frustration that stemmed from Tuesday’s sixth-inning has to do with the fact that these situations seem to always find Francoeur.   The 250 at-bats he’s had w/ RISP since the start of 2008 ranks as the fourth-highest total in the Majors  —  a distinction that is partly  product of the fact that his aggressive nature limits his walk total and consequently increases his at-bats total.
 
If completely ignoring the big picture by solely looking at this from an RBI perspective, you would be able to say that Francoeur compares to Alex Rodriguez.  In 285 plate appearances w/ RISP since the start of 2008, Francoeur has tallied 85 RBIs, which is just one shy of the mark A-Rod has collected in 274 plate appearances.
 
But upon exiting the delusional world, it’s obvious that A-Rod has proven more productive while hitting .262 with a .403 on-base percentage and .463 slugging percentage during this span.
 
Those numbers don’t seemingly scream $59 million (A-Rod’s combined salaries in 2008 and 2009) worth of production, but they’re certainly more impressive than the ones posted by Francoeur, who has hit .216 with a .284 on-base percentage and .316 slugging percentage w/ RISP since the start of last season. 
 
Among the 14 Major Leaguers who have had at least 275 plate appearances w/RISP  since the start of last season, Francoeur and Rockies third baseman Garret Atkins (.226) are the only ones who haven’t hit at least .250 or compiled a .300 on-base percentage.

Among the 46 players who have had at least 250 plate appearances w/RISP since the start of last season, Francoeur’s .316 slugging percentage ranks dead last.  Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano’s .371 mark ranks as the second-worst.
 
Now re-entering the optimistic world and taking the approach that you’re only as good as your last at-bat, we’ll say Francoeur took a step in the right direction while scoring Chipper Jones from third base with his eighth-inning single on Tuesday night.
 
Unfortunately for the Braves, that single, which brought them within a run, only served as a tease.  Jones’ throwing error helped the Reds tally four unearned runs in the bottom of the eighth against Mike Gonzalez, who had allowed six hits while holding opponents scoreless over his previous nine innings.
 
This was another instance where Gonzalez encountered struggles during a non-save situation.  Just four of the 13 runs  he’s surrendered this year have come in save situations.  Five of the nine runs he’s allowed in non-save situations have been unearned. 

In 14 save situations, Gonzalez has limited opponents to a .200 batting average and .302 on-base percentage.  In his 17 appearances without a save on the line, he has allowed a .270 batting average and .378 on-base percentage. 
 
Yankees and Red Sox tickets:
  Tickets remain for next week’s games against the Red Sox (June 23-35) and Yankees (June 26-28).   While purchasing these at braves.com, you can also buy a daily parking pass that will admit you to one of the team’s lots.  Fans without these passes or season permits will have to find other parking options or utilize MARTA.

The old Gonzo is back

Watching Mike Gonzalez record three strikeouts against the heart of the Cardinals lineup on Tuesday night brought back memories of  the pure dominance he displayed on consecutive August nights three years ago at Turner Field. 

While notching a pair of perfect innings for the Pirates those evenings, he collected five strikeouts.  His final three strikeouts came during an 11-pitch span against Adam LaRoche, Matt Diaz and Marcus Giles. 

Unfortunately after throwing another perfect inning in Houston the following day, Gonzalez began experiencing elbow soreness that would prevent him from proving dominant again until now.

On the way to notching Tuesday’s save, Gonazalez needed just 15 pitches to record consecutive strikeouts of Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick.  His fastball is once again resting around 94 mph and his breaking pitches are consistently sharp.

“That’s the old Gonzalez from Pittsburgh that I remember,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “He was outstanding.”

Always confident and upbeat, Gonzalez seemed to truly regain his swagger when he gained a 3-2 count by getting  Pujols to look at consecutive fastballs.  This brought the crowd to its feet and led the left-handed closer to exagerate his pre-delivery sway before unleashing a slider that the St. Louis monster simply watched. 

In the seven career at-bats Pujols has registered against Gonzalez, he’s recorded one hit and struck out three times.  When asked about this success, the left-handed closer said that guys like Chipper Jones and Pujols bring out the best in him.

Look Jones is one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen and it’s been a pleasure to have had the opportunity to cover him over the course of the past nine seasons.  But it still makes you pause when anybody is placed in the same category of King Albert. 

Still somehow the Braves have managed to limit Pujols to one hit in eight at-bats during the first two games of this series.  

“We try hard,” Cox said. “He’s going to be one of the greatest players in the game’s history.  There’s nothing he can’t do.”

When Gonzalez displayed limited velocity during Spring Training, he said he would be fine once the bright lights were shining on him during the regular season.  While wanting to believe him, I heard him say some of the same things just two years ago, when he eventually had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Doubts about Gonzalez grew when he allowed four earned runs in his first five innings this season.  But since surrendering a two-run, eighth-inning homer to Nate McLouth on April 17, he’s struck out nine of the 13 batters that he faced.

After surrendering that homer to McLouth, Gonzalez sat motionless at his locker, simply staring forward.  A little more than a week later, he finds himself confidently serving as the anchor for a much-improved Braves bullpen.

Change of emotions
:  As 9:30 p.m. ET approached last night, the Braves were seemingly destined for another frustrating evening.  But Peter Moylan, who had issued a costly walk in Tuesday’s loss, pitched a perfect eighth inning and Matt Diaz produced the clutch hit the offense has too often lacked over the course of its two-week slumber, during which they’ve scored two runs or less in eight of 12 games.

From afar, there was also reason to worry about the fact that Brian McCann was hitless in three at-bats for Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach in a Minor League rehab assignment.  But   after writing my recap of what had occurred in Atlanta, McCann called to say that his vision was better than it had been since his left eye had started to bother him.

With a -.50 contact lens in his left eye and a -.25 lens in his right eye, McCann will make one more rehab appearance for Myrtle Beach and then return to Atlanta.  He believes he’ll be fine by the time he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 8.

While it was nice to see Jo-Jo Reyes pitch so effectively on Tuesday night, the evening’s real feel-good moment occurred when McCann revealed that he was encouraged about his improved vision. 

As time progressed and doctors weren’t able to pinpoint the reason for his left eye ailment, you couldn’t help but worry about the possibility that he might be dealing with something that would at least hamper him throughout what appears to be a very bright future.

McCann is great baseball player and an even better person.  Let’s hope he provides another encouraging call tonight.

Hampton returns Friday:  It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Hampton is received when he returns to Turner Field on Friday night to pitch against Derek Lowe and the Braves.  What do you think?  Will the crowd boo the injury-plagued hurler, who was on the disabled list throughout most of final four years in Atlanta?

Or will he just receive an apathetic welcome from a fan base that began to forget him as his injury woes mounted from 2005-2008?

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbravesscribe 

Bullpen taking shape

Jordan Schafer’s early success has been refreshing and Jeff Francoeur’s improved approach has been encouraging.  But if you’re attempting to identify the two most important developments the Braves experienced during the regular season’s first week, you have to focus your attention on Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan.

The most glaring concern for the Braves six games into the season has obviously been the bullpen which has accounted for  15 of the 25 earned runs the club has surrendered.  But as we were still wondering how this relief corps had allowed eight of those runs in one inning, Soriano and Moylan started to turned doubt into optimism. 

Soriano’s velocity hovered around 90 mph while he made just four appearances during the exhibiton season.  Yet four appearances into the regular season, we’ve seen him complete four scoreless innings, surrender one hit and issue two walks. 

Jeff Bennett is the only other Braves reliever who hasn’t been charged with an earned run.  But in the 3 2/3 innings that he’s completed, Bennett has surrendered six hits, hit a batter and issued a walk. Don’t even try to figure out how he’s maintained a 0.00 ERA while opponents have compiled a .471 on-base percentage. 

Nor do we need to determine why Moylan wasn’t able to retire any of the first five batters he faced this year.  Overexcited about returning  to the mound from Tommy John surgery, he was rushing his delivery and deny himself the opportunity to create sink with his fastball.

While slightly shortening the stride of his delivery Saturday night, Moylan struck out the only three batters that he faced.  Along with being perfect, the inning also proved to be the most important the Braves have experienced this year.

There isn’t a late-inning situation that Moylan can’t handle.  The side-winding Aussie can retire an opponent’s top left-handed or right-handed hitter.  He can induce the groundball when neccessary and when provided the opportunity, I truly believe he will prove to be a dominant closer. 

In essence, Moylan is the most valuable piece to this year’s bullpen and that’s why you have to give Cox so much credit for sending him back out there to protect a one-run lead Saturday night.  By doing so, he allowed the right-handed reliever to regain the confidence he’d shown while proving to be the club’s most impressive pitcher during Spring Training.

After Moylan exited Saturday’s game, Soriano worked a scoreless eighth and Gonzalez produced a perfect ninth, during which he threw nine of his 13 pitches for strikes.

This is the way Cox envisions ending a number of games this year.  At the beginning of Spring Training, he said his bullpen’s success hinged on the health of Moylan, Gonzalez and Soriano, who have all undergone season-ending elbow surgeries over the course of the past two years.

Soriano pitched all three games this past weekend and his most
impressive effort came Sunday, when he threw 10 of his 14 pitches for
strikes and notched two strikeouts in a perfect ninth inning

With this being the final year of a contract that calls for him to earn $6.1 million this year, there probably wasn’t reason to wonder if Soriano would be healthy when the regular season began.

Because he’s less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, there was reason to wonder about Moylan’s arm.  But proving to be somewhat of a medical marvel, he hasn’t provided any indication that he’s felt any sort of discomfort while throwing over the course of the past two months. 

Gonzalez still hasn’t regained the velocity he possessed before undergoing TJ surgery in May of 2007.  But if he continues to spot his curveball consistently, he can still be effective with a 92-93 mph fastball. 

With Kris Medlen waiting in the wings, the Braves have the ability to fortify the front end of the their bullpen when necessary.  But based on what we witnessed this past weekend, the back end is shaping up nicely.

Glavine update: Tom Glavine is expected to return to Turner Field this afternoon after meeting with Dr. James Andrews.  There’s obviously a chance he could tell us he’s experienced a tear and needs to retire.  Then again, he could just tell us that his shoulder discomfort is a product of broken scar tissue. 

Whatever the case, I’d have to think it will be at least another month before he’d be cleared to pitch in a game with the big league club. 

 

  

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