Posts Tagged ‘Braves

18
Nov
11

Braves’ offseason full of questions… what’s next?

Will Prado return to the Braves in 2012?

The Braves franchise is known as an illustrious one — rich with accolades, adornment and achievement.

Surely, adding a colossal, historic collapse to their resume of excellence wasn’t part of their master plan. Before the 2011 season, a team who had an eight-game lead for a postseason berth in early September has never missed the playoffs. Luckily for Atlanta, Boston suffered the same unfortunate fate this year and shared a good portion of the criticism and ridicule by fans and media alike.

Needless to say, the Braves’ failure to secure a playoff spot left a black mark on their legacy and a sour, bitter taste in the mouths of management, players, coaches and fans.

So, what’s next for Atlanta?

How does this team respond after such a traumatic, abrupt end to their 2011 season?

They fire their hitting coach, of course.

But all joking aside, that was 100% the right move — the only move — for the Braves to make whether the team made the playoffs or not.

Larry Parrish was not the right voice for these Braves hitters. While widely respected around the league for being a great baseball man, Parrish and his players suffered from a disconnect and lack of communication that couldn’t be bridged.

The popular sentiment around the league was that the Braves would turn to Triple-A Gwinnett hitting coach Jamie Dismuke to take over the reigns next season.

The majority of Braves sluggers, including Chipper Jones, endorsed Dismuke but the organization went an unconventional route.

Frank Wren hired not one but two men to tackle the job that Parrish had failed to master.

Wren tapped former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker, as well as a former Colorado Rockies infield coordinator Scott Fletcher, in a newly created hybrid role of assistant hitting coach. The Braves believe this tandem will compliment each other well in an effort to improve the overall hitting philosophy within the team.

Walker comes highly recommend by slugger Paul Konerko for helping him to evolve into the hitter he is today.

Fletcher, meanwhile, will provide another set of eyes for Walker and is expected to work closely with Jason Heyward. While searching for their new hitting coach, the Braves emphasized the importance of finding a voice that could reach the struggling Heyward.

The “J-Hey Kid” is coming off a brutal sophomore slump of a season, but has surprising ties to his new assistant hitting coach. Fletcher has watched Heyward play since he was 12 years old — his son Brian, now in the Royals system, played youth ball with the Braves’ right fielder.

If Walker and Fletcher can serve as mentors to Heyward and help the fallen young star rediscover his stroke, the Braves’ offense will be substantially better in 2012.

Despite the team’s decision to fire Larry Parrish, the powers-that-be have made it clear that they are not panicking. There will be no fire sale this offseason. Management firmly believes they have the key pieces in place already to compete for a playoff spot next year.

It is important to remember that a big part of Atlanta’s struggles came down the stretch when the team’s exceptional pitching staff became unhinged. Officials are confident that Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens will return healthy next season.

The questions surrounding Jurrjens are not related to his health, however, but rather whether he will return to the Braves or not?

Speculation around the league and media fodder suggest that Jurrjens could be traded this offseason in an effort to improve Atlanta’s shoddy offense — they are seeking a power-hitting outfielder in any deal.

But, it would surely take an enticing package for the Braves to pull the trigger on a deal for Jurrjens because despite his injury-laden past, the right-hander is still young at age 25 and two years away from free agency. He would be quite valuable to many pitching hungry clubs.

While I’m sure the Braves would love to keep an arm like Jurrjens’ in the fold for the long-term, the reality of that is unlikely. Super agent Scott Boras, whose relationship with the Braves is acrimonious, represents Jurrjens and he will demand a hefty salary that the Braves will not pay.

And why should they?

Atlanta has never had a shortage of arms and this upcoming year is no different. The Braves tout a new crop of young, prized pitchers who could easily fill Jurrjens’ shoes, if the club does deem him expendable.

Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor have all gained experience at the Big League level due to the team’s rash of injuries last season — the lone upside during the Braves’ September slide. Kris Medlen also returned from Tommy John surgery late in the year and was effective in some high pressure situations.

The Braves felt so confident those guys will figure into the mix in 2012 that they dealt 38-year-old veteran hurler Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians.

This move was also a pure salary dump for Atlanta, who many believed would be stuck with Lowe’s entire contract in 2012. The Tribe absorbed $5 million of Lowe’s exorbitant $15 million dollar contract, giving the Braves some financial relief to sign a shortstop and pursue an outfielder.

For the second year in a row, Frank Wren entered the trade market early by dealing Derek Lowe. Last year, he acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins before the hot stove was even boiling.

The question that remains now is will the Braves stay relatively quiet for the duration of the offseason, like they did after trading for Uggla last year. Or, will they make a splash and deal Jurrjens and/or infielder turned left fielder Martin Prado?

Prado is the epitome of a super utility star. When the Braves gave him a chance to play everyday at second base in 2010, he thrived. But last season when the team moved him to left field to accommodate the Uggla trade, Prado and his production suffered.

At season’s end, a lot was made of Prado’s staph infection affecting his stroke and also rigorous Spring Training and early season pre-game workouts that might have burnt him out before the stretch run.

Will he get a chance to rebound in Atlanta or will it be elsewhere?

I think there’s a fairly good chance that Prado will get moved — a far greater likelihood than the team dealing Jurrjens, in my opinion.

However, I wouldn’t put too much stock into the Prado-for-Delmon Young rumors. The Braves don’t appear interested in Detroit’s Young and I don’t see Wren pulling the trigger on that deal straight-up. The Colorado Rockies are the newest team to express interest in Prado, but surely won’t be the last.

Still, Wren has expressed a willingness to listen to all offers this offseason — and who can blame him.

After last season’s heartbreaking conclusion, the Braves’ GM is exploring any and all ways he can ensure his team is never on the wrong side of history again.

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21
Apr
10

Braves stun Phils with improbable comeback win

Just call him Nate McClutch.

The Braves center fielder, who was hitting a mere .138 with just one RBI all season, sure picked a good time to break out of his slump.

McLouth hit a leadoff 10th-inning solo blast against Jose Contreras to cap Atlanta’s stunning comeback 4-3 win over division rival Philadelphia.

The Braves have now won five of their last six games and find themselves in a first-place tie with the Phillies atop the National League East standings.

For McLouth, his heroics couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

This is the first walk-off home run he’s recorded at any level of ball he’s played in, from Little League up to the Majors.

McLouth got a chance to be a hero in the 10th thanks to back-to-back two out homers from Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward in the bottom of the ninth.

The Braves may have enjoyed other improbable comeback wins in the past, but this stunning turnaround is one of the most unpredictable and character building victories in team history.

For 8 2/3 innings, Atlanta only managed four hits and was an out away from being shutout.

Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, who was sporting an ugly 17.47 ERA this season, put the Braves offense on the defensive.

This isn’t the first time struggling pitchers have faced the Braves lineup and left the game looking like Cy Young.

The difference now is that this team didn’t fold.

Kendrick handed the ball to Ryan Madson in the ninth, who is filling in for the injured Brad Lidge at closer, and suddenly the Braves found new life.

Madson walked Chipper Jones with one out and then retired Brian McCann, which brought Troy Glaus to the plate.

The Braves fans’ new whipping boy, who again was the target of the hometown faithful’s wrath after committing a costly error earlier in the game, couldn’t possibly come through with two outs—could he?

He did.

Glaus smashed a two-run blast, sending a jolt through Turner Field and giving the Braves a sliver of hope.

While still down a run, the Braves turned to their No. 6 hitter in the lineup to keep the game alive.

On a normal night, that would be Yunel Escobar.

But, not on this night.

No, on this night, Bobby Cox adhered to the ongoing chatter of moving rookie stud Jason Heyward up from the seventh spot in the lineup.

So, there he was, “Joltin’ Jason” as some are now calling him—with a chance to tie the game, again.

If you remember, Heyward was the hero in Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Rockies with a two-out, bases loaded single in the ninth.

No way he does it again, does he?

He does.

Heyward’s shot heard ’round the world tied the game and made Cox look like a managerial genius again.

From there, pandemonium ensued.

Jason Heyward found himself in the middle of two unlikely heroes.

Who would have thought Troy Glaus and Nate McLouth would deliver late-inning home runs, when they’ve been the subject of boos and ridicule all season long?

And, with each passing day, the legend that is the “J-Hey Kid” grows even larger.

For two straight games, the 20-year-old sensation has helped usher the Braves to back-to-back comeback victories.

He leads all major league rookies in home runs (four) and RBIs (16) by a large margin.

But, Heyward’s impact on the Braves is not just all in the numbers.

The electricity that he’s brought to the table has lit a fire under the entire team and has them playing their most inspired and exciting baseball since, well, 1991.

Yes, the year the Braves went from worst-to-first in their division and came within one win of being crowned World Champions.

That year began the rich, glory days of excellence that Atlanta had then enjoyed for 14 consecutive seasons.

But, that competitiveness and winning attitude that has been missing since 2006, appears to finally be resurfacing.

As I said yesterday, the Phillies know all too well what a young, rising superstar can bring to the clubhouse.

What Howard did for the Phillies when he came on the scene in 2005 is what Heyward is doing for the Braves in 2010.

Howard began a new era of winning baseball in Philadelphia.

And, now it seems Heyward is bringing that mantra back to Atlanta.

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20
Apr
10

It’s early but it’s big… Braves and Phils set to collide

For 14 years, opponents knew they had to go through Atlanta to get to the playoffs—and, to the World Series.

For the past three years, they go through Philly.

It may only be April 20 and the first of many meetings between these two divisional foes, but for the Braves it is never too early to make a good impression.

After all, first place is up for grabs.

The Phillies hold a one-game lead over the third-place Braves in the NL East standings coming into tonight’s series opener at Turner Field.

Atlanta spent over a decade at the top of the National League East, but in recent years they have taken their lumps in an effort to regain the level of excellence they had come to expect.

The Braves haven’t tasted October since 2005, but last season after a strong, albeit late push for the NL Wild Card, they got one step closer to returning to the playoffs.

This year, they are billed as the Phillies chief competition in the NL East.

While an April series isn’t make-or-break for either club, the buzz surrounding this series is unmistakable.

Last year, the Braves knew they waited too long before making their playoff run and just ran out of games.

It is these pesky games early in the season that often count just as large as the ones in September, but are long forgotten when a team comes up a game or two short of the postseason.

Still, don’t expect these Braves to put too much stock in this series outcome.

Atlanta won’t wave the red flag if they lose the series and they surely won’t become complacent if they win it.

But, what a series win would do for the Braves is send a message to the Phillies that the preseason hype surrounding this club was legit.

And, let’s not forget that last season, Atlanta handled Philly with relative ease in the early going.

The Braves were winners of seven of the first nine meetings between the teams, including a series sweep just before the fourth of July.

Then, Ryan Howard happened.

Howard torched the Braves over the final nine games between the clubs, of which his team won six, blasting eight home runs.

However, Atlanta still won the season series 10-8, but still fell short of the playoffs.

The Braves know at the very least, a series win is expected again this year if they hope to reach the postseason.

And, if they hope to make a legitimate run at the World Series, they figure they will see these Phillies again in the NLCS.

The hope and buzz surrounding this year’s squad lends credence to the belief that the Braves can compete with any team in the league even the big, bad Phillies.

With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe lined up to pitch in this series, the Braves expect their starters to go toe-to-toe with Philadelphia’s.

No surprise there.

The Braves have always won with pitching, and their staff has rivaled if not exceeded the Phillies starters over recent years.

But what the Bravos have this year, that they haven’t had in the past, is their very own one-man wreaking crew.

His name is Jason Heyward.

While the comparisons between Heyward and Howard have begun, it is far too early in the youngster’s career to pit him against Philly’s RBI machine.

But for those of you looking to add to the fodder, in the season’s first two weeks, Heyward does have one more RBI.

The Phillies are about to get their first glimpse at the beast that is the “J-Hey Kid,” and pardon me if they don’t feel a little deja vu.

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08
Apr
10

Chipper’s late heroics bail out Glaus, Braves

Mr. Clutch has returned.

Never one to shy away from a big game situation, Chipper Jones delivered again proving why he’s still one of baseball’s most feared hitters.

With the Braves trailing the Cubs 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth, Jones smashed a 3-1 fastball from John Grabow over the left-center wall, propelling Atlanta to a come-from-behind 3-2 win.

In his season debut, Braves starter Jair Jurrjens allowed two runs, both unearned, on three hits with three walks in five innings.

Jurrjens, who was oft a victim of poor run support in 2009, suffered again with such luck last night.

But this time, thanks to Jones and the Braves’ late rally, Jurrjens was spared from recording a hard-luck loss.

The veteran Jones, who is entering his 16th season with the Braves, is no stranger to heroics.

His latest display of late-inning magic helped deflect attention away from an abysmal performance by Atlanta’s new offseason acquisition Troy Glaus.

Glaus, a former third baseman, received the strongest reaction from the hometown crowd last night with a loud chorus of boos.

Now serving as Atlanta’s new first baseman, Glaus made a costly error in the fifth inning that opened the door to two unearned runs after botching a bases-loaded grounder that bounced off his glove.

Glaus didn’t fare any better at the plate, striking out four times, including once with the bases loaded.

In the first two games of the season, the Braves’ new “big bopper” already has six punch-outs, looking overmatched and just plain ugly at the plate.

While Glaus’ struggles persist, Braves rookie phenom Jason Heyward continues to sparkle.

J-Hey stroked an RBI double to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead in the second inning, but the offense was stymied from that point on until Jones stepped to the plate in the eighth and saved the day for the Braves.

Heyward is currently batting seventh in the Braves’ lineup, but his bat has begun to make the argument that he deserves to be moved up higher in the order.

Clean-up hitter Brian McCann was intentionally walked to load the bases in the third after consecutive singles by Melky Cabrera and Martin Prado, only to see the threat come to a crashing halt when both Glaus and Yunel Escobar struck out to end the inning.

The question left in the minds of many after that failed run-scoring opportunity was would Cubs starter Ryan Dempster have still walked McCann if, say, Heyward was on deck and not Glaus?

One has to wonder.

I know it’s early, and Bobby Cox’s managerial history points to being patient, almost stubbornly so, with his perceived best-laid plans.

But, if Heyward continues to soar and Glaus keeps giving at-bats away, it may serve the Braves skipper well to make an adjustment to his lineup sooner rather than later.

Unlike Glaus, another of Atlanta’s new offseason additions has gotten off to a strong start.

Billy Wagner notched the 386th save of his careerand first as a Braverecording three strikeouts in the ninth.

Atlanta has won the first two games against Chicago in the season-opening series and goes for the sweep tonight at Turner Field.

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04
Mar
10

Is Yunel Escobar’s language barrier causing image misconception?

He was arguably the Braves’ best player last season, hitting .299 with 14 homers and 76 RBI, all the while playing solid defense.

In his first three seasons in the majors, he’s already proven to be a consistent force, posting a .301 career average.

In 2009, his .373 batting average with runners in scoring position ranked third in all of baseball, making him one of the most dangerous hitters to face in clutch situations.

He is also considered one of the most underrated shortstops in the majors.

Defensively, he’s got the tools and potential to be a gold glover. In his final 75 games last season, he showcased his cannon for an arm and accuracy by only committing two errors.

And, while he’s never stolen more than five bases in a season, his goal of swiping between 20-25 bags in 2010 doesn’t seem out of reach with his speed and athleticism.

So, why is Yunel Escobar’s name frequent fodder for trade rumors?

The Cuban defect has been portrayed in the media as being arrogant, cocky, and abrasive.

Escobar has experienced a series of public blunders that have many around baseball wondering if Atlanta’s shortstop’s “bad attitude” will derail his talented career?

Last year, while in the middle of another productive season, Escobar was removed from a game for a perceived lack of focus and was subsequently benched by manager Bobby Cox.

This move made waves in the Atlanta media because Cox is notoriously known for being a player’s manager and an advocate for his troops. His willingness to make an example of Escobar showed the growing frustration within the organization of their young shortstop’s antics.

Later in the season, Escobar endured more public scrutiny after he took offense to a ruled error and then made what many believed was an inappropriate gesture towards the press box.

There is an assumption that Escobar plays with a chip on his shoulder and as a result of his previous transgressions, accusations began to run rampant about the seriousness and legitimacy of a hip injury he nursed on and off last season.

So is Yunel Escobar really the brash young man the media has made him out to be?

I don’t think so.

The 27-year-old Escobar, who is still in need of an English interpreter, thinks the misconception surrounding him stems from the strenuous language and culture barrier he’s experienced since arriving in the states from Cuba in 2007.

While Latin players are often known for their aggressive, no nonsense style of play, Escobar believes he too is just a product of that model and claims to have a great respect for the game.

I tend to believe him.

I had the pleasure of meeting and “talking” baseball with Escobar last season, and did not come away with the impression of an entitled, spoiled ballplayer.

In fact, I was left with quite the opposite opinion.

Escobar’s initial struggle to communicate with me and his need to use his Latin teammates who do speak the language as interpreters, showed me a very vulnerable and human side of the man that isn’t seen on the baseball diamond.

It was my belief that Escobar often chooses not to talk because he’s embarrassed that he won’t be understood or that he’ll say something stupid.

Once he got comfortable in his element with his fellow teammates, he started trying to communicate on his own and actually came across to me as very intelligent and surprisingly humble.

Yes, humble.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite confidence that Escobar exudes, the very confidence that makes him the dynamic ballplayer he is on the field. But it doesn’t come without similar insecurities that we all face, in some aspect everyday.

This season, Escobar is about to tackle those insecurities and take a big step in trying to change the public persona about him.

It has been reported that Escobar has vowed to finally commit to learning English as a way to ease the tension between himself and the media.

He’s tired of being a subject of off the field distractions, and this is his chance to silence his critics once and for all and win their praise and accolades for his work on the field.

Escobar’s poised and determined to show people the real man behind the myth.

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18
Feb
10

No shoulder damage for Braves’ Jair Jurrjens

The Braves got the best news possible on Jair Jurrjens’ ailing right shoulder.

An MRI that was conducted on Wednesday showed no signs of structural damage in Jurrjens’ throwing shoulder and the Braves right-hander was instead diagnosed with a mild case of inflammation.

The Braves’ team orthopedist, Dr. Xavier Duralde, has recommended a week of rest for Jurrjens before he can start throwing again.

Jurrjens, who began throwing in December, believes this minor setback shouldn’t put him that far behind other Braves pitchers who are set to arrive in camp tomorrow.

While the Braves publicly stated Jurrjens’ MRI was no cause for concern and just a precautionary move, Jurrjens himself can now rest easy in preparation for the new season.

It is believed the type of soreness that Jurrjens is suffering from is nothing more than the routine discomfort some pitchers feel after they resume throwing following an offseason.

At age 24, Jurrjens is one of baseball’s best young pitchers and rising stars.

In just his second full season in the majors last year, and an oft victim of poor run support, Jurrjens still managed to post a 14-10 record with a 2.60 ERA, third lowest in the National League.

The Braves expect Jurrjens to figure prominently in their quest to return to the postseason this year.

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09
Feb
10

Should the Braves still pursue Johnny Damon?

Free agent Johnny Damon

I was asked by hotstove.com to participate in a Braves mailbag question asking whether Atlanta should still try to sign Johnny Damon.

After submitting my response, I read various new media reports claiming the Braves, along with the Detroit Tigers, remain interested in the free agent outfielder.

These reports come not long after Braves officials publicly stated they were satisfied with their club as constructed. While they didn’t shut any doors, it seemed a potential Damon acquisition wouldn’t happen unless the current group of outfielders projected to make the Opening Day roster struggled in Spring Training.

The Braves, who have Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera, and Matt Diaz in the mix, also seem excited and intrigued about the possibility of the top prospect in baseball, Jason Heyward, winning the right field job.

If the 20-year-old Heyward does make the team, he would do so with only 50 games and 173 at-bats above Class A.

But, he’s that special.

Heyward has been ranked the No. 1 prospect by MLB.com, ESPN’s Keith Law, and Baseball America, who also named him minor league Player of the Year last season.

Some have criticized the Braves for being cheap this offseason, but the fact of the matter remains that they have a bonafide star-in-the-making in Heyward and would be crazy to sign anyone—especially an aging veteran—to a lucrative, long-term contract, effectively blocking their rookie phenom for the foreseeable future.

The Braves would be satisfied to break camp with Heyward if the youngster proves ready, but the uncertainty at the top of their order leaves lingering concerns.

Re-enter Johnny Damon.

If the Braves do decide to pursue Damon again before Spring Training, it will have more to do with the team’s lack of a traditional leadoff hitter than their outfield situation.

Adding a proven winner like Damon to the mix and penciling him atop the Braves order instantly strengthens their line-up from top to bottom.

Atlanta hasn’t had a prototypical leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal departed for the Dodgers in 2006 and coincidentally hasn’t made the playoffs since.

Also, if the Braves are to get back in the running for Damon it will be because they won’t have to commit more than one year to the 36-year-old free agent, which assures the team flexibility in regards to their future plans built around Heyward.

The Braves say they are about at their payroll limit, although reports indicating the team has at least $5 million remaining in the budget seemingly contradict that statement.

Damon’s stock has fallen so far that the belief around the league is that he could be had cheaply and perhaps for even that one-year deal, which the Braves have preferred all along.

Damon’s agent Scott Boras is still trying to scratch a two-year deal out of Detroit and if he gets them to bite, then the debate ends there.

But if not, the Braves may be smart to abandon their original plan and not wait until they get to Spring Training before jumping back into the Damon sweepstakes.

The team’s goal is winning championships and putting the best product on the field even if that means going slightly over their desired payroll.

If Heyward still impresses in camp, make room for him.

The Braves have pieces they could move if need be.

Nothing should prevent this signing from happening if Damon can be had at the rumored discount rate.

Team officials owe it to the fans, the players, and especially Bobby Cox, who is entering his last season as manager, to do whatever it takes to win now.

The question is: Will GM Frank Wren take the bait?

He seems content to wait, and if Damon falls into his lap, so be it.

In the meantime, the dance continues.




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