Archive Page 2

26
Jan
11

Trio of Braves prospects succeed Heyward on MLB’s top 50

Julio Teheran

Last year, Jason Heyward ranked No. 1 among all Major League Baseball prospects. And boy, did he ever deliver for the Braves in his 2010 rookie campaign.

While the “J-Hey Kid” certainly helped thrust Atlanta back into the playoffs last season, he isn’t the sole reason the club is beaming about its seemingly bright future.

Three Braves players — right-handed pitching phenom Julio Teheran, projected starting first baseman Freddie Freeman and left-handed pitcher Mike Minor — are ranked within the first 21 spots on MLB’s top 50 prospect list.

Teheran, who has garnered comparisons to Pedro Martinez, figures highest among the trio at No. 10. The youngster’s star continues to skyrocket as MLB.com listed him as the game’s second best right-handed pitching prospect. Teheran showed steady improvement with three different Minor League affiliates in 2010, concluding the season with a 3.38 ERA for Double-A Mississippi. Equipped with a make up that has been deemed off the charts for a 20-year-old, Teheran could see time with Atlanta in 2011.

Freeman claimed the 17th position in the prospect rankings, four ahead of his teammate Minor. Both players got the call to the Big Leagues late last season and made quite the impression on team officials.

The 21-year-old Freeman amassed 24 Major League at-bats in 2010, notching his first career home run off of Philadelphia ace and eventual NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. After rehabbing a thumb injury that limited him to just five games in the Arizona Fall League, Freeman is now poised, healthy and ready to claim the Braves’ starting first base duties.

Minor got the call to the Bigs after Kris Medlen went down with season-ending Tommy John surgery — and his brief stint with the club provided a mix bag of results. After setting an Atlanta rookie record for strikeouts with 12 in an Aug. 22 victory over the Cubs, Minor showed obvious signs of fatigue and faded down the stretch, posting a 9.37 ERA over four starts. Still, the southpaw’s ceiling remains high as MLB.com ranks him as the fourth-best left-handed prospect in baseball and he figures to be a front-runner to break camp as Atlanta’s fifth starter.

Renowned for growing and cultivating their own talent year after year, this season appears to be no different for the Braves, whose pipeline to the Minors is as rich and stocked as ever before.

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08
Dec
10

Frank Wren dazzles with Dan Uggla acquisition

During my hiatus on this site, the Atlanta Braves surged to their first postseason appearance in five years — winning the 2010 National League Wild Card — and endured the subsequent retirement of venerable skipper Bobby Cox. It’s safe to say the Braves were anything but idle during my absence.

While the hot stove is now burning for most Major League teams at this year’s Winter Meetings, the Braves have already settled most of their offseason business after landing Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins. The slugging second baseman fills Atlanta’s most pressing need — a right-handed, middle-of-the-order power bat to help balance out a predominantly left-handed lineup.

Braves General Manager Frank Wren set the tone for this offseason’s inevitable flurry of deals, pulling off one of the shrewdest moves so far this winter on Nov. 16. Wren coerced Uggla — a free agent at the end of the 2011 season — away from the division rival Marlins by only relinquishing super utilityman Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn in return. The Fish balked at Uggla’s demands of a five-year, $71-million dollar contract extension thus sparking the trade.

Uggla, 30, is a two-time All-Star and the 2010 National League Silver Slugger recipient at second base. He hit .287 with 33 HRs and 105 RBI last season.

To put into context what Uggla’s bat means to Atlanta’s restructured lineup: After entering the league in 2006, Uggla’s 154 home runs are second to only Albert Pujols’ 207 among National League right-handed hitters during that span.

More impressively, Wren was creative in his approach of finding the Braves’ new masher.

Seemingly entrenched at second base for Atlanta was All-Star Martin Prado, who is recovering from a hip pointer injury this offseason. With the exception of Jason Heyward, the NL’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, the 2010 Braves sported a rather inferior, patchwork outfield consisting of Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Rick Ankiel. With Cabrera, Ankiel and Diaz all gone and Hinske re-signed as the team’s primary pinch-hitter, it was assumed a bat would be acquired to bolster the outfield corps.

Instead, Wren found the best available right-handed bat — in the form of Uggla — and traded for him, before announcing Prado would move to the outfield. A rather savvy move indeed, considering Prado’s past history playing left field in winter ball leagues.

Now, with Wren’s move being lauded among fellow GM’s and baseball personnel, the only question remaining is: When will the Braves begin talking contact extension with their new slugger?

According to David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chatter emerging from the Winter Meetings yesterday suggest that the Braves anticipate opening such dialogue with Uggla and agent Terry Bross soon.

While Uggla stands to earn in the neighborhood of $10 million in arbitration in 2011 before becoming a free agent, Atlanta hopes to ink the Columbia, Tenn. native to a multi-year deal sooner rather than later.

With familiar ties to new manager Fredi Gonzalez — having played under him in Florida — and growing up a Braves fan with his family and friends now able to travel a shorter distance to watch him play, Uggla seems to have a strong desire to work out a long-term deal with Atlanta, too.

It appears to be a perfect match for both sides, but only time will tell if and when Uggla decides to sign.

In the meantime, for the Atlanta Braves and their gritty second baseman, the future is now.

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13
Jul
10

UPDATED: A message from “Ace”

Dear Readers,

Beginning in June, I went away on assignment and have been working feverishly on some exciting new ventures. Due to my schedule and commitments to other projects, I have put  “Ace of Braves” on hiatus.

I apologize for the absence of blogs but want to assure you that “Ace of Braves” will resume at a later date with the same insight, expertise and passion for Braves baseball that you have come to expect.

Thank you so much for your patience and support.

01
Jun
10

Braves surge past Phillies to overtake National League East

Oh, how the tables have turned.

The Braves extended their season-high winning streak to six games and moved into first place in the National League East with a 9-3 spanking of division rival Philadelphia at Turner Field on Memorial Day.

Chipper Jones homered for the first time this season from the left side and snapped his six-week long homerless drought with a two-run blast in the first inning, staking the Braves to an early lead that they would not relinquish.

An even more encouraging sign that Jones is finding his stroke is the single he hit in the bottom of the seventh while batting right, showing an increased comfort from both sides of the plate.

Troy Glaus capped the Atlanta onslaught with a three-run homer off Philadelphia reliever Chad Durbin to put the final nail in the Phillies coffin.

With his latest blast, Glaus tacked three more RBIs on his astounding and unexpected total of 28 for the month of May, which led the National League.

Atlanta’s good fortune comes just one month after a nine-game losing streak had them dwelling in the cellar of the NL East, staring up at these same Phillies.

Just as the Braves began to hit their stride, the Phillies fell into a slump of their own.

Since the last time these two teams played, the Braves have gone 16-4 and erased a six-game deficit in the NL East standings to overtake the sputtering Phillies, who have gone 9-10 during that stretch and have dropped out of first place for the first time since May 1st.

Ironically, the offensive woes that hampered the Braves in their last meeting with the Phillies, have seemingly been solved and now take up residence in Philadelphia.

The Phils have dropped seven of their past nine games, having been shut out five times during that span.

As a whole, they’ve hit a dismal .187 with a .264 on base percentage, a .257 slugging percentage and just one home run.

This is a serious concern for a club that supposedly boasts one of the most feared offensive units in the game. The Phillies ongoing struggles with the bat have been a far cry from the explosive power the team had come to enjoy.

For Atlanta, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

The nine runs the Braves scored on Monday were two more than they’d scored in each of their first two series losses to the Phillies.

While Atlanta’s offense was befuddling to watch in the early going this season, the turnaround of Troy Glaus is a big reason why the Braves have been able to right the ship.

No one had been more critical of and frustrated by Glaus than me, but I will give credit where credit is due.

Glaus’ red-hot May where he has hit. 330 with three doubles, six home runs, and 28 RBI in 28 games is one of the greatest single months ever enjoyed by a player.

Since May 14 when Bobby Cox permanently moved Martin Prado to the leadoff spot and Jason Heyward into the No. 2 hole ahead of Jones, Glaus has been a run-producing machine.

As a result, he has driven in 14 runs in 17 games with four home runs.

Also interestingly to note, as I suggested in my last blog, having continuity in a lineup that had so many struggling hitters, could prove to breed successful results.

That has been the case for Atlanta. As the roles in the Braves lineup have become solidified, the proof is in the numbers.

The rest of Atlanta’s hitters have found a newfound comfort and confidence that has now transcended onto the field and in the standings.

But, there is no time for complacency.

The next two games against the Phillies loom as large as ever as the Braves look to not only stay in first place but to build upon their lead.

With a good chunk of the season left, it is awfully early to gauge how the season may end. But, the Braves may have history on their side.

The last time Atlanta was in first place on June 1 was in 2005, which just so happens to be the last year they made the playoffs.

Also, 66% of the teams that are atop their division on the first of June, have made it into postseason play.

Will the same ring true for the 2010 Atlanta Braves?

Only time will tell.

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10
May
10

Observations of the Braves from a weekend at Citizens Bank Park

My cousin Jaime (left) and I enjoy a game at Citizens Bank Park.

Being born and raised just outside the Philadelphia area, I make it a tradition to see at least one Braves-Phillies series a season.

This year, I made my first trip to see the 2010 Braves in a weekend set against the Phillies on May 7-9.

The results weren’t pretty.

On Friday night, Derek Lowe was on the mound for the Bravos. He was opposed by the 86-year old Jamie Moyer.

I kid, but from a pitcher’s standpoint, the dude is old.

However, he carved up the Braves lineup like he was Tim Lincecum, enroute to a 7-0 victory in the series opener.

At age 47, he is the oldest player in Major League history to toss a shutout.

While, Moyer steamrolled through the Braves lineup, it didn’t come as a surprise to me.

I knew the Braves were in trouble from the moment I took my seat, in the first row nonetheless, and heard the starting lineup announced.

This is how it read:

Omar Infante

Martin Prado

Chipper Jones

Troy Glaus

Matt Diaz

David Ross

Melky Cabrera

Nate McLouth

Derek Lowe

Yikes.

The first thought that ran through my head after hearing our starting nine was—”Who are these Braves?”

I didn’t mean it in a literal sense.

Of course I know who these guys are and what their different roles are with the club.

I meant it more figuratively—and, symbolically.

The Braves are unrecognizable these days.

Sure, missing on this night due to various injuries or ailments were the team’s regular cleanup hitter Brian McCann, along with their dynamic shortstop Yunel Escobar, and the phenom himself, rookie sensation Jason Heyward.

But still, these are not the Braves that fans, management and the league had all grown accustomed to over the years.

While the names on the back of their jerseys had to change and players moved on or retired, the aura of excellence and swagger that this team use to possess is gone.

The Braves, who use to be one of the elite teams in baseball, are now spitting mediocrity like any average major league club.

Although, on paper, it looks even worse.

Atlanta has performed below average as of late becoming victims of their sputtering offense and numerous injuries, which has them dwelling in the cellar of the National League East.

When I left the ballpark Friday night, I took comfort in knowing that the Braves are not this bad.

They have serious issues that go far beyond their injuries, but they are not the hopeless cause they appear to be on the field.

However, it doesn’t make them any easier to watch right now.

When it was reported that the Braves clubhouse resembled a morgue after Friday’s embarrassing defeat, I was not surprised.

The Braves are their own harshest critics.

They know how bad they are right now.

But, they also know they can and will get better.

A small beacon of hope emerged on Saturday afternoon when the Braves snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Atlanta was getting no-hit, yet again, through four innings against Phillies hurler Joe Blanton and trailed 1-0 after five.

In the sixth, the Braves bats woke up and Atlanta rallied for three runs against Blanton, and added an insurance in the ninth after Troy Glaus’ RBI single.

There were many positives to take from this game besides the “W”.

The Braves pitching was excellent, top to bottom.

Kris Medlen, who was called upon from the bullpen to make the start for the injured Jair Jurrjens, gutted through 4 1/3 innings, allowing only a single run.

Medlen pitched out of numerous big jams, one of which came in the bottom of the third, when he struck out Ryan Howard and got Jayson Werth to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Following Medlen were six relievers who combined to shutout the Phillies the rest of the way, allowing Atlanta’s offense the time to rally to secure the 4-1 victory.

The Braves bullpen has been the unsung hero for the team so far this season.

They have been nothing short of brilliant.

What is unfortunate is due to the Braves prolonged woes with the bats, Atlanta hasn’t been afforded the luxury of having a deep bullpen.

It doesn’t do a team any good to have a lights-out setup man and closer when they can’t get the ball to them with a lead.

But, what is reassuring is that when the Braves right the ship from an offensive standpoint, they have a strong bullpen to fall back on and depend on.

A reliable bullpen is an asset that many contending teams lack so Atlanta should feel so fortunate.

The Braves tapped Kenshin Kawakami to start the rubber game of the series against Phillies starter Cole Hamels.

It was an ugly beginning for the winless Kawakami.

He staked the Phillies to an early 4-0 lead before finding his groove in the later innings.

With the Braves rallying to within one, Kawakami didn’t allow another run until Shane Victorino’s solo home run in the bottom of the 7th inning sealed his and Atlanta’s fate.

For the day, Kawakami allowed five runs and seven hits in 6-2/3 innings pitched.

While it was the first time he pitched into the six inning all season long, he still suffered his sixth loss of the season.

For the Braves, they have now lost five of six road series, and dropped two of three from Washington and Philadelphia on this current nine-game road stretch that concludes with a trip to Milwaukee that begins Monday night.

Offensively, they have only mustered a .211 average over their past 17 road games.

After witnessing their performance in person, I offer you my observations of their offensive woes and some suggestions on how to fix them:

1) No game plan: It seems many of these hitters come to bat with no approach.

I am watching too many guys swinging at first pitches and I’ve come away with a general sense of a far too aggressive, almost reckless approach at the plate.

I am not seeing enough plate discipline, which is resulting in too many frequent short at-bats and quick innings for opposing pitchers.

The Braves hitters aren’t working counts and they aren’t executing the fundamentals in run producing situations.

They are also not advancing guys when their are runners on first and second with less than two outs, which is a crippling rally killer.

I’m also not seeing enough sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs, sacrifice flies, and contact hitting with runners on base.

This team strikes out too much and runners are stranded left and right.

As a result, the team squanders far too many scoring chances and wastes the opportunities they do generate.

2) Listless at Leadoff: The Braves have no answer at the leadoff spot, that much is crystal clear.

Cox has toyed with too many different guys in the leadoff spot, and now I feel that’s creating more harm than good.

In the Phillies series alone, both Omar Infante and Nate McLouth served as the leadoff hitter. Yunel Escobar has also seen time at that spot throughout the early portion of the season before going down with an injury.

Consistency can serve a team well.

And, it might also spark one of these guys to get going.

It is hard to produce when a player isn’t comfortable at the plate and comfortable in their role.

It is important that Cox make a decision about the leadoff spot and stick with it, at least for the immediate future, or until a replacement is brought in.

This patch quilt attempt to find his answer at the top of the order hasn’t been working.

It’s time to commit to a change.

3) Lineup Roulette: To go along with my observation and suggestion for the leadoff spot, I offer a similar approach be taken with the overall lineup construction.

While a certain good can come from juggling a lineup to find a formula that works, too much maneuvering can become chaotic.

Too many of the Braves hitters are struggling to find their stroke right now that moving them up and down in the order isn’t serving much of a purpose at this time.

Case in point—If you take a look at Sunday’s starting lineup excluding the pitcher, the Braves had three players in Matt Diaz, Brooks Conrad, and Nate McLouth who were hitting below .200.

Cox might find that settling with one lineup combination over the next couple of weeks could prevent the guys from pressing any further and allow them to relax into their defined spots.

While this is a unique circumstance because the Braves are subbing many players into the starting lineup due to injuries, the message I feel remains the same.

When this team gets healthy, they still need consistency in the lineup, beginning at the leadoff spot.

From there, the Braves can see what they have to work with and what moves they need to make from the outside to fix this mess.

The end of the downward spiral begins with a baby step.

It is time for Cox and these Braves to take the first one.

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30
Apr
10

Bobby Cox’s Swan Song Not Going As Planned

This is not the storybook ending to the Bobby Cox Era that the Atlanta Braves had envisioned.

In fact, it is a nightmarish beginning to the end of the illustrious Braves manager’s 29 year career.

Cox, in his 25th season with the Braves and in the final year of his brilliant managerial career, just watched his club endure an 0-7 road trip, their worst since 1949.

His team has lost nine straight games to drop them to an embarrassing 8-14 on the season.

To add injury to insult, Braves starter Jair Jurrjens and shortstop Yunel Escobar were hurt in Atlanta’s latest 10-4 loss at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday.

Jurrjens exited after the first inning due to a strained left hamstring and Escobar departed in the seventh with what was described as a strained left abductor.

The Braves righty hopes to make his next start and Escobar is currently listed as day-to-day.

These latest blows to strike the Braves made Atlanta’s winless seven-game road stretch and nine-game losing streak even more intolerable and unbearable to watch.

While tempers are running high throughout the entire team, the person’s frustration who is at the most heightened state right now is Bobby Cox.

It has been 30 years since Cox has suffered a comparable losing streak.

In 1980, he was at the helm when the Braves went 0-6 to start the season. However, that team did not have the preseason expectations that this year’s club had.

The usual affable manager appears baffled by his team’s struggles and is desperately searching for the right lineup combinations or roster adjustments to spark his sputtering squad.

Cox and the Braves haven’t talked much about his swan song to this point. They were hoping to translate wins on the field—with the hope that success would instead speak volumes.

There is still five months of the season left which is enough time for the Braves to right this sinking ship and send Cox out on a winning note.

But, to this point, the Braves have let their skipper down.

For a man that ranks fourth on Baseball’s All-time Managerial Wins List and is a shoo-in future Hall of Famer, he deserved more in his final season.

Much, much more.

The listless, apathetic, uninspired play from his troops over the past nine games is shameful.

It is time for Chipper Jones and the veteran leaders of the Braves to grab hold of this despondent group and arrange for a players only team meeting to turn this season around.

A manager’s moves can ultimately only go so far, it is now up to the players to get out on the field and execute.

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29
Apr
10

A call for action to Frank Wren…is he the problem?

Frank Wren is preaching patience…but is anyone listening?

The Atlanta Braves have missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.

In his reign at the helm of the Braves, Wren is 0-3 for his efforts.

So, in effect, he’s batting .000 as general manager.

That number looks comparable to the number of wins the Braves have mustered in the past eight days…a bunch of zeroes.

Maybe that’s why Wren has some sympathy for his punchless offense and underachieving team that now has the second-worst record in baseball—a far cry from the preseason playoff predictions many had for this club.

Wren offers this analogy to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The Braves have only completed one-eighth of the season. He contends that if this were football, the Braves losing streak would be equivalent to the Falcons dropping two in a row.

Wren argues the Braves have the luxury of time.

Truth is, however, they don’t.

While every team suffers through slumps and hitting droughts over the course of the year, the difference here is this Braves team as constructed has crippling issues that need to be addressed now by their general manager.

This is a call of action to Frank Wren.

But, instead, Wren has turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the Braves’ woes.

As Schultz pointed out in his article, unlike Wren, his predecessor John Schuerholz earned his team, city and entire fan base’s unwavering confidence and support.

Schuerholz never panicked, but he also knew when his team needed fixing.

Oh, and he also built winners.

While Wren has yet to lead Atlanta to the promise land, Schuerholz was the brilliant constructor of fourteen consecutive division championship squads.

Those are the kind of results that illicit patience.

In contrast, Wren continues to ignore the glaring hole in the leadoff spot and the lack of production from first base and the outfield.

These are the same issues he chose to ignore in the offseason.

With that being said, what warrants giving Wren the benefit of the doubt?

In the last eight games, the Braves have scored 13 runs and have been shut out three times.

Wren contests he has the payroll flexibility to make a move but isn’t looking to do so now.

He claims general managers start assessing the construction of their team around the “quarter poll.”

He targets Mid-May as the time that GM’s begin to get a sense of where there club is and June 1 as the time when decisions start getting made.

The Braves are 8-13 and mired in an eight-game losing streak that stands as the team’s longest since 2006.

If that doesn’t signal the need for immediate action, I don’t know what does.

For Wren’s sake, come June 1, let’s hope his patience was truly a virtue.

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