Posts Tagged ‘Major League Baseball

22
Feb
12

Hope springs eternal: The Braves are back to right wrongs

Pitchers and catchers are in camp and the Braves’ spring workouts have commenced.

This year in particular, players were itching to get to camp to erase the dubious end to their now infamous and tragic 2011 meltdown. What’s encouraging to note is that a majority of position players have arrived early to camp and have begun their workouts, poised and more determined than ever to start fresh in 2012.

Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who also suffered a monumental collapse to their season in 2011, the Braves chose to not play the blame game — for that, they should be applauded.

Whether you agree with General Manager Frank Wren’s decision to keep his roster almost entirely intact, you have to respect that a knee-jerk reaction did not take place in Atlanta.

Sure, the Braves embarrassed themselves to a lowly 8-18 record after September 1 and squandered a seemingly insurmountable 10 1/2 game lead in the NL Wild Card to the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

What’s unfair to the Braves is that they are being judged and evaluated solely on how they finished their season in shame. While it’s without question, inexcusable — they’ve been punished enough.

Let’s not forget that this same team that Frank Wren is returning in 2012 had the fourth-best record in the majors through the first week in September.

The Braves suffered the loss of two of their best starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson for most of the second half. Jason Heyward’s sophomore season was a colossal disappointment and Dan Uggla didn’t find his stroke until after the All-Star break.

They watched two of their perennially clutch performers, Brian McCann and Martin Prado, rush back from injuries in the late summer months but never quite hit their stride down the stretch.

Most alarming of all, the Braves’ greatest strength — O’Ventbrel — the triple threat of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel at the back end of the bullpen, faltered mightily down the stretch. The threesome posted a remarkable 60-3 record when leading after 7 innings from April-August before going 7-5 in September. They also saw their ERA rise from a collective 3.34 to an inflated 4.17 in the season’s final month, according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez received a lot of criticism for the overuse of his bullpen after the Braves narrowly missed the playoffs on baseball’s final day. Jonny “Everyday” Venters earned his nickname, being called upon a Major League-high 85 times in 2011. Kimbrel’s 79 appearances were more than any other closer in baseball.

While the second-guessing is surely warranted, the Braves did partake in 55 one-run games, which was tied with the San Francisco Giants for most by any National League team with a winning record, Stark reported. They also played in 26 extra-inning games, which took an even greater toll on their relief corps.

It’s almost incredulous to reflect upon the Braves’ final month of the season — and how everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

This team didn’t have the character issues or the dissention in the locker room that the Red Sox had. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Braves possess one of the most harmonious clubhouses in baseball. They are a tight-knit group that never pointed fingers and placed blame on each other. They took their lumps as one collective group and exuded tremendous class and dignity in defeat.

I don’t doubt Frank Wren wanted to improve his club, if the right deal came along. But I also think he was right not to panic because he has given his troops an invaluable gift — confidence.

It’s early but players have seemingly come into camp with a positive outlook and a renewed sense of hope and optimism. They also have something to prove to themselves and the rest of the league — that last year was an aberration and that they’ve learned from it.

Jason Heyward is reportedly in fantastic shape, having shed over 20 pounds this winter. He’s worked tirelessly with new hitting coach Greg Walker this offseason in an effort to revamp his swing. The early results have been lauded by his teammates, who claim Heyward has begun to regain his old form and power.

Jair Jurrjens was fitted for orthotics after a troublesome toe contributed to his knee discomfort. Now Jurrjens claims to feel better physically than he has in months and doesn’t appear to have any limitations this spring.

Tim Hudson underwent back surgery this offseason and his recovery is going smoothly. Hudson won’t be rushed back to the rotation and his projected timetable for return is May. The Braves will turn to one of their many talented young arms to pick up the slack in Hudson’s absence.

Tommy Hanson suffered a minor concussion after blowing his tires on the way to the Braves’ Spring Training facility. He shouldn’t fall behind the other pitchers, even taking a few days offs, since he began his throwing program early this offseason.

Hanson altered his delivery in an effort to take pressure off his balky shoulder and back and also to limit the number of stolen bases against him in 2012. Hanson allowed a major-league leading 30 steals in 22 starts before being shut down for the season.

The Braves attribute a lot of last season’s late struggles to an injury-depleted rotation, an overworked bullpen and atypical performances from their biggest sluggers. If their arms stay healthy, their bullpen rested and they see a resurgence from some players who had poor years, they’ll be able to contend with the rest of the very competitive National League East.

There are a lot of questions and ‘what if’s’ surrounding the Atlanta Braves this season, but there is no shortage of talent and potential.  They may be receiving criticism for not being proactive, but sometimes the answers really do lie within one’s own roster.

It’ll become apparent quite early if Wren’s decision to give this group another go together was best in the long-run. I believe the Braves deserve the chance to right their wrongs in 2012, and hopefully write a storybook ending in the process.

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02
Dec
11

Braves Winter Meetings Preview

Will Pastornicky be the Braves' starting shortstop in 2012?

When Braves’ General Manager Frank Wren arrives in Dallas on Monday for the start of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings, the question on many excitable and anxious fans minds is if Christmas will indeed come early.

Will Wren double as Santa Claus this year and bring home a bounty of talent as well as a new look squad to Atlanta?

Or, will he leave empty-handed?

The Braves are one of the more talked about clubs heading into the Winter Meetings this year with Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens’ names dangling like prized bait.

Both players could be had if the price is right.

With Prado set to make in the neighborhood of $4.5 million in 2012 and Jurrjens in the ballpark of $5.5 million, the Braves could decide to use their allotment of salary to boost other weak areas of their club.

Wren has said repeatedly that he is not shopping either Prado or Jurrjens but that he will listen to any and all offers. It has been widely speculated that a power hitting outfielder and shortstop would whet Wren’s palette.

The Braves are not in the financial position to sign a big name free agent, so if they are going to improve their club they are going to have to do so via the trade market.

Hence why the price for Prado and JJ has been deemed so high.

Prado, who is coming off a career worse year, has intrigued multiple clubs early this offseason who believe his second half decline was an aberration. An early rumor that’s still been circulating entering the meetings involves the Colorado Rockies and outfielder Seth Smith.

While Smith mashes right-handed pitching, he is only considered to be a platoon left fielder for the Braves, if acquired. It appears that the key to any deal with the Rockies would have to include a near ready center-field prospect. The Braves are already shopping for an insurance policy for Michael Bourn, in the event that he departs via free agency next offseason.

The Braves are also set to bid farewell to their defensive wizard shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzo has wielded interest from multiple teams already this offseason including the Giants, Cardinals and Brewers. It is believed he is seeking a two-year deal, at the very least. The Braves have made it known they are not looking to sign a veteran shortstop to a contract that exceeds the 2012 season.

And it is with good reason.

The Braves have a very talented young shortstop Tyler Pastornicky in their pipeline and he appears close to being Major League ready. While the Braves would ideally like to sign a veteran shortstop to a one-year deal to help bridge the gap to 2013 or have the 22-year-old split time at the position next season, they won’t hesitate to give the youngster the starting reigns if a better fit isn’t found before Opening Day.

Pastornicky doesn’t have any Major League experience under his belt but he hit for a .314 average with a .359 on-base percentage in 2011 for both AA Mississippi and AAA Gwinnett, quelling any of management’s lingering concerns about his ability to perform at the Big League level next season.

The Braves are sure to pop up in numerous other rumors, whether true or fictional, over the course of the next week. But, will they wheel and deal?

C’mon, Frank. No one likes a Grinch.

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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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03
Mar
10

Braves young guns impress in grapefruit league opener

It’s no secret that Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson are being touted as the future stalwarts of the Atlanta Braves.

In Tuesday’s 4-2 Grapefruit League opening loss to the New York Mets, the young guns lived up to the billing.

Making his spring debut, Major League Baseball’s top prospect made an immediate impact in his 4 1/2 innings of work.

Heyward reached base in all three of his plate appearances and finished the day with a hit, two walks, and a stolen base.

Not too shabby for the 20-year-old whiz kid who hopes to win a starting job in the Braves outfield this season.

Hanson, last season’s rookie sensation, picked up right where he left off. The 23-year-old phenom struck out three batters over two scoreless innings.

Kris Medlen succeeded Hanson and was equally as impressive, throwing up zeros in his two innings of work. Medlen departed with the Braves leading 1-0 after four innings.

The wheels came off when the Mets line-up tagged new Brave Jesse Chavez for three runs in the fifth, which proved too costly for Atlanta to overcome.

Despite the loss, the talk after the game centered around Heyward and Hanson’s performances.

Hanson continues to lend credence to the belief that he will one day anchor Atlanta’s rotation, and be the ace of the staff for years to come.

The hype around Heyward has been astounding, but the 6 foot 5 245 pounder has a lethal combination of skills that make him truly special.

While his power and high on base percentage set him apart from other young hitting prospects, it is the level of poise and maturity he’s already displayed that leaves no doubt that this kid will one day be a bonafide superstar.

It’s just a matter of when.

Offensively, Heyward appears ready. If he can impress Cox with his defense this spring, the Braves’ next “Chosen One” may begin his reign in Atlanta this April.

Stay tuned…

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17
Jul
09

A tribute to an icon… Greg Maddux to be inducted into Braves Hall of Fame.

Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux

Many people have asked me what was the inspiration or driving force behind my choice to pursue a degree and profession in sports journalism?

It began with my love of writing. Journalism was my craft.

My career path’s journey veered toward sports with my passion for Braves baseball, which was due largely to one man… one man so superhuman, so awe-inspiring, so talented and gifted, that I knew his kind did not come around often.

That man was Greg Maddux. Pitching was his craft.

And tonight, before the Braves take on the division rival New York Mets at Turner Field, Maddux is being so rightfully and deservingly inducted into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame. The team will also retire his jersey number 31.

I’m only 25 years old but today I feel my age.

This is because I remember so vividly the day, December 9, 1992, the Braves shocked the baseball world and announced that they had won the heated pursuit of the free agent reigning National League Cy Young Award Winner.

For the Braves, and former General Manager John Schuerholz, to give a free agent a five-year contract, the significance and magnitude of this signing would resonate for years to come.

Greg Maddux went on to win three more consecutive National League Cy Young Awards with the Braves, becoming the first of only two pitchers, Randy Johnson being the second, in history to ever win the coveted award four years in a row.

I knew I was witnessing history every time Mad Dog stepped on the mound.

One year in the particular is really engrained in my memory.

I was in Philadelphia during the 1995 season, watching Maddux’s pre-game bullpen session, as I always had every time I had seen him pitch live before.

But this time was different.

Maddux had an ungodly ERA and was trying to become one of the select pitchers in history to accomplish the feat of finishing a season with an ERA under the 2.00 mark. (He did, of course, finishing the ’05 season with a 1.63 ERA.)

This moment was significant to me because it was then that it officially clicked in my mind… I was in the presence of greatness.

A greatness that sports fans can only read about in the history books and wish they could have been able to personally witness.

Not only did I get to live in an era that produced arguably the greatest pitcher of our generation in Greg Maddux, but I was afforded the great honor and privilege to see him pitch first-hand every five days for the 11 years he donned an Atlanta Braves uniform.

That’s quite an embarrassment of riches. And, I knew it.

But, I never once took it for granted, which is not something I can say is true of my time as a Braves fan.

During the Braves unprecedented run of fourteen consecutive division titles, I honestly believed it would never end. As sure as the sun would be shining every morning, I was convinced there wouldn’t be an October that didn’t include the Atlanta Braves.

Call it wishful thinking; call it a confident swagger, but playoff baseball and the Braves, to me, were one in the same. Obviously, my thought process was absurd. Everything comes to an end in sports, even the most remarkable of streaks.

But the one thing I knew for certainty that would end was the Greg Maddux Era. That is why I tried to make it a point to never miss one start, one interview, or one chance to see him live and in person.

And, I didn’t.

It is because of Greg Maddux that I will always prefer a good pitcher’s duel to a slugfest.

It is because of Greg Maddux that I will forever respect finesse pitchers and have a deep appreciation for the art of control. He wasn’t flashy. His stuff wasn’t overpowering. But, he was as accurate as any pitcher to ever play the game.

It is because of Greg Maddux that I’ve become thirsty for an even greater knowledge of the game. They called him “The Professor” at times. Not just because of the glasses he would sport off the field but for the great intellect and insight he would provide on the game of baseball. He was more then a teacher and mentor, he was a true strategist, just a fountain of knowledge that one could only hope to begin to tap. Some called him the smartest pitcher they’ve ever seen. I’d have to agree.

It is because of Greg Maddux that my faith in iconic baseball figures is not completely shattered. Growing up in the “Steroid Era” and watching so many big names fall victim to the juice, I take even greater pride knowing that Maddux played the game the right way—cleanly, and with integrity and class. His numbers always spoke for themselves but with the likes of Roger Clemens, whose records are now tarnished with the all too familiar asterisk next to them, it elevates Maddux to an even greater level.

His legacy is now cemented in the history books.

While it was sad for me personally to watch Maddux leave the Braves and go on to win his 300th game in a Chicago Cubs uniform, before then finishing his career out west, I do feel his benchmark years were those spent in Atlanta.

Today’s induction in the Braves Hall of Fame is only the beginning.

The greatest culmination of his career comes later… when he is inducted into Cooperstown.

Greg Maddux, the 4-time Cy Young winner.

Greg Maddux, the 8-time All-Star.

Greg Maddux, the record 18-time Gold Glover.

Greg Maddux, the 300-game winner.

All of those accomplishments are remarkable but can’t compare to the ultimate: Greg Maddux, the World Champion.

That last feat, which came when he was a member of the Braves in 1995, is why I know Greg Maddux will go into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame as an Atlanta Brave.

That would be the final and only fitting ending to an illustrious career.

Greg Maddux was a master of his craft and if I can be half the journalist that he was pitcher, then my career path was indeed the chosen one.




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