Posts Tagged ‘Mike Gonzalez

05
Apr
10

Atlanta Braves: 2010 Season Preview

It’s that time of year again… Major League Baseball Opening Day.

Today, hope springs eternal for all baseball enthusiasts as every team starts with a fresh slate as the 162-game marathon officially gets underway.

For Braves fans, this is the first year since the team’s past four October-less seasons, where there is a true sense of optimism surrounding Atlanta’s chances of returning to the postseason.

Last year, the Braves made an improbable late run at the National League Wild Card and stayed in contention for the spot until the final few games.

The remarkable turn of events had fans and the media buzzing about the “return” of the Atlanta Braves.

After an offseason in which the club decided to re-sign Tim Hudson and trade Javier Vazquez, add Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to the back end of the bullpen, sign Troy Glaus to serve as the team’s new first baseman while penciling in No. 1 prospect Jason Heyward in right field, the pre-season hype about the Braves seems legitimate.

Many preseason national pundits have predicted the Braves to indeed make the playoffs in 2010, offering a sense of excitement around the team’s loyalists.

It is no secret that this team has something to play for.

Iconic manager Bobby Cox is in his final year at the helm, and his players desperately want to send their skipper out on a high note.

However, the “win one for Bobby” mantra will only get this group so far.

And, they know it.

While, the players have added incentive and extra motivation to win which may serve them well in the dog days of summer, the talent also appears to be in place for Atlanta to once again taste October glory.

Chipper Jones believes this Braves club could win 90 games, if they stay healthy.

And, it is easy to see why.

Despite the loss of Javier Vazquez, Atlanta’s returning starting rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Kenshin Kawakami still figures to be one of baseball’s best.

Lowe looks to rebound from one of his most disappointing seasons in 2009.

Yet, despite an uncharacteristically high 4.67 ERA, D-Lowe still won 15 games for the Braves last year, which tied him with Vazquez for the team lead in wins.

Jurrjens has established himself as one of baseball’s best young hurlers, finishing last season with a 2.60 ERA, third-best among National League starters.

Hanson made his highly anticipated rookie debut in June and went on to win 11 games last year, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the 2009 Rookie of the Year balloting.

Atlanta’s top pitching prospect is more seasoned and mature heading into Opening Day, and the Braves rotation stands to benefit greatly from getting a full year out of Hanson in 2010.

Japanese standout Kawakami won 7 games in his rookie season in the U.S. for Atlanta last year, but proved he could go up against any elite starter, besting some of baseball’s top aces last season, including countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Kawakami figures to improve upon those numbers this season, as he has now grown increasingly comfortable with the pitching style in the states and has made the necessary adjustments this spring.

The Braves also boast an improved bullpen this season.

Atlanta added one of the game’s best closers in Billy Wagner to replace last season’s dual closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.

Takashi Saito was also brought in as a set-up man to Wagner, but his wealth of prior closing experience gives the Braves great depth late in games this season.

Atlanta’s offense, which undoubtedly derailed the team’s postseason aspirations last year, seems to have at least been marginally improved.

The Braves’ additions of Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera and Eric Hinske this off-season along with the emergence of Jason Heyward gives Atlanta a more well-rounded and deep batting corps than last year’s group.

The team still lacks a prototypical “big bopper” on paper, but with Glaus serving as the team’s clean-up hitter, protecting both Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, the pieces are in place for a solid middle of the order unit.

That is, of course, if all prove to stay healthy.

The key to Atlanta’s success will be if Glaus, Jones and McCann, who are all overcoming past health concerns, can stay on the field and out of the trainer’s room.

Jones, a future Hall of Famer, is expected to rebound from his career-worst season at the plate in 2009.

McCann, who was slowed early last season by vision problems, should benefit from his second Lasik eye procedure this winter.

The wild card for the success of the Braves offense is whether Jason Heyward can make an immediate and profound impact at the Major League level.

There is no doubt J-Hey is the real deal.

The question is: Can he can serve as a consistent force in the Braves lineup and help power what last season was an often punchless offense?

With the additions of the switch-hitting Melky Cabrera and super utility man Eric Hinske, the Braves are afforded a great deal of versatility this season.

Cabrera will likely serve as the team’s leadoff hitter when he plays and can man left or center field, depending on the pitching matchup and Cox’s preference of playing Matt Diaz or Nate McLouth at the other spot.

I believe Chipper said it best, in terms of assessing the team’s lineup in 2010.

This offense is not “sexy,” but it is balanced top to bottom.

There are no easy outs, and if a player does go down, there are veterans with experience and depth who can step right in and contribute immediately and effectively.

Moreover, the Braves are a more confident and a much more cohesive unit then they’ve been in years.

The club has always enjoyed a great deal of chemistry over the years, especially during their run of 14 consecutive division titles, but never before have the personalities meshed quite like this year’s troops.

Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson credit the closeness and camaraderie among this bunch as a significant intangible that can’t be overlooked.

They’re right.

How often do you see a team stacked with superstars top to bottom but the egos couldn’t play together and the success on paper never quite translated to the field?

To build a winning roster, you need a group that is talented, versatile and that can compliment each other well.

That’s the makings of a true “team.”

The Braves are far from the most talented group assembled on paper in the Majors, and they aren’t even the cream of the crop in their own division.

However, funny things happen over the course of a marathon season.

Legends are made, heroes emerges and storylines develop.

I can’t help but think that Jason Heyward could be that legend and that any number of heroes could stand up to help cement the greatest storyline of the year sending Bobby Cox out as a winner.

Oh, the beauty of Opening Day…where no dream is too big.

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08
Dec
09

Soriano stuns Braves, accepts arbitration offer

Rafael Soriano

The Braves thought free agent reliever Rafael Soriano’s agent Peter Greenberg was bluffing over the weekend when he claimed his client was seriously considering accepting Atlanta’s arbitration offer by Monday’s midnight deadline.

Turns out he wasn’t.

Soriano chose to take arbitration and return to the Braves on a one-year deal that could net him between $7 and $8 million in 2010.

The decision to accept a one-year, non-guaranteed arbitration offer over exploring free agent offers that could have landed Soriano a multi-year deal came as quite the surprise to Atlanta.

The Braves were almost certain that Soriano, along with Mike Gonzalez, two of the highest ranked free agent relievers, would decline the team’s arbitration offers, and as a result the Braves would receive two compensatory draft picks for each when they departed.

Gonzalez, a Scott Boras client, declined as expected but Soriano’s decision to take the Braves’ offer shows he wasn’t garnering the type of attention on the free agent market that he had hoped for.

His agent spoke with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros before announcing Soriano’s decision late Monday night, but didn’t receive indication that his client would be better off declining arbitration and continuing talks with these clubs about a suitable multi-year offer.

The Braves, who with the off-season additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, had already replaced Soriano at the back end of their bullpen and seemingly do not have the money in their budget to afford to keep him as a high priced middle reliever next season.

Even though retaining Soriano would give the Braves arguably one of the deepest bullpen’s in all of baseball, the club will now look to deal the right-hander, once they receive permission from him to do so.

Atlanta believes Soriano will give them the go-ahead to trade him by the June 15 deadline once he receives word of his diminished role with the club if he were to remain with the Braves in 2010.

GM Frank Wren hadn’t anticipated having to deal with this headache, but has said that Soriano’s decision to accept arbitration will not deter the Braves from following through with the rest of their offseason plans.

Wren will continue to be aggressive in his pursuit of a right-handed bat and believes having a new bargaining chip in Soriano only enhances the team’s options and ability to make trades this winter.

While Soriano’s surprising decision to return to the Braves was the biggest news for the club from the first day of the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Indianapolis, other developments have the team actively shopping 2B Kelly Johnson and RHP Derek Lowe.

The Braves have reported heavy interest in Kelly Johnson from multiple other clubs and also now have reason to believe they will be able to move Lowe and the majority of his high-priced contract this winter.

Atlanta has let it be known they may be willing to eat a portion of Lowe’s salary, which has made him more attractive to potential suitors, but have been led to believe that once John Lackey signs, interest in Lowe will only heat up.

The club looks to continue talks about both of those players, as well as continuing its search for a power bat, as the meetings continue this week.

03
Dec
09

Busy Braves add veteran Saito to rebuilt bullpen

Takashi Saito during his Dodger days

Frank Wren sure moves quick.

Just one day after signing Billy Wagner to be the team’s closer, the Braves announced they’ve come to terms with free agent reliever Takashi Saito to further strength their bullpen.

Saito agreed to a one-year, $3.2 million contract to serve as Atlanta’s primary set-up man and back-up closer.

Last season with the Boston Red Sox, the 39-year-old veteran posted a 2.43 ERA in 56 games.

Prior to his stint with Boston, Saito had a 1.95 ERA with 81 saves and 245 strikeouts in three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Saito, who will turn 40 in February, did have a career-low 52 strikeouts last season but should still prove to be a valuable addition to the back end of the Braves’ new-look bullpen.

Wren confirmed that Saito will mainly pitch the 8th inning for Atlanta next season but with his experience as a closer will provide insurance and relief for Billy Wagner.

The combination of Saito and Wagner brings the same depth to the new Braves bullpen that Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano afforded the team last year.

The rebuilt bullpen stands to be equally as good as last season’s if not stronger with Saito and Wagner’s proven ability to shorten the game while also providing veteran experience and leadership to the staff’s younger members.

It is believed Saito chose Atlanta over seven other potential suitors.

He joins starter Kenshin Kawakami as the team’s second Japanese acquisition in consecutive offseasons.

02
Dec
09

Closing in on Billy Wagner…..

Billy Wagner pitching with Boston last season

The Atlanta Braves sure didn’t waste any time in their hot pursuit of a new closer.

Just hours after Atlanta offered arbitration to free agents Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez reports surfaced that the Braves have reached a preliminary agreement with Billy Wagner on a one-year, $7 million dollar contract with a $6.5 million vesting option for the 2011 season.

Wagner, who ranks sixth in major league history with 385 saves, missed most of the 2009 season recovering from ligament-transplant replacement surgery.

The Braves interest in the 38-year-old reliever stems from his successful comeback late last season with the Mets and Red Sox.

In his 17 appearances in the season’s final two months, Wagner posted an impressive 1.72 ERA, held opponents to a .174 batting average and notched 26 strikeouts over 15 2/3 innings.

The deal is expected to be finalized and announced after the flame throwing lefty passes a physical that is scheduled for today in Atlanta.

Sources believe that Wagner, a Virginia native, could have commanded more money on the free agent market but chose to take less to come to Atlanta for its close location to his home, its position to compete for a playoff spot next season, and for the opportunity to play for a manager he’s always admired in Bobby Cox.

The two sides were believed to have ironed out most of the details on the contract this weekend and were just waiting for confirmation of Boston’s offer of arbitration before moving forward in the process.

Wagner, along with the Braves’ Soriano and Gonzalez, were considered to be the elite relievers on the free agent market.

The duo of Soriano and Gonzalez split closing duties for Atlanta last season and combined for 37 saves and 192 strikeouts in 150 innings.

The Braves’ decision to offer arbitration was a precautionary measure as both Soriano and Gonzalez, who are classified as Type A free agents, had seemingly priced themselves out of Atlanta.

They are expected to command multi-year, high priced contracts from others teams with all indications pointing to both hurlers declining arbitration with the Braves receiving first-round draft picks as compensation.

With the signing of Wagner, another Type A free agent, Atlanta will have to give up a first-round pick to the Red Sox but should get that pick back and some after Soriano and Gonzalez exit as expected.

If Soriano and/or Gonzalez surprise and accept arbitration from the club, the team’s relief corps would stand to be one of baseball’s best, albeit most expensive bullpens.

Soriano could net up to $8 million if he returns on a one-year contract with Gonzo expected to make at least $5 million next season under arbitration.

A more likely scenario has Atlanta searching for a replacement setup man on the free agent market.

Former Brave and another Type A free agent Octavio Dotel along with Type B free agent Fernando Rodney are potential candidates for the club to pursue after finalizing the deal with their new closer.

Billy Wagner comes to Atlanta with an impressive resume.

He has a career 2.39 ERA, 1,092 strikeouts in 833 2/3 innings, and more saves than any other active closer except for Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

The veteran hurler who is just 39 saves shy of tying John Franco for the record of most saves by a left-handed closer now has the chance to accomplish that feat while also aiding in the Braves’ effort to return to the postseason in 2010.

03
Aug
09

The state of the Braves… post trade deadline.

Adam LaRoche returns to Atlanta

Adam LaRoche returns to Atlanta

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone leaving many in Braves Nation wondering, does this team have the horses to be legitimate contenders for a playoff spot heading down the stretch?

Before Monday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, the Braves find themselves in third place in the National League East, seven games behind first place Philadelphia. While the division remains a lofty goal for Atlanta, it is certainly not out of reach.

The Braves have dominated the defending champions this season winning seven of nine games against them. The Bravos overwhelming success against the Fightin’ Phils coupled with the fact that the two rivals are still scheduled to meet nine more times before the season concludes, offers a definite sense of hope.

Still, Philadelphia has been riding a hot streak since the All-Star Break and with the addition of a bona fide ace to their rotation in Cliff Lee, the division does appear to be a long shot.

That means Atlanta’s best chance of playing October baseball will likely be if the team nabs the National League Wild Card.

The Braves are only five games out of the Wild Card spot but are chasing four teams, including the Florida Marlins, another divisional foe.

So, are the Braves contenders or pretenders?

With a starting rotation that ranked third in the National League heading into Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers, and a revamped line-up which has improved on the dearth of power that has plagued the team all season long, the Braves seem poised to make a run.

In July, the Braves manufactured an NL-best .828 OPS and ranked third in both runs (139) and home runs (32). That production is a stark contrast from an inconsistent and often shoddy offensive showing from the team in the season’s first three months.

The Braves also feel their mid-season acquisitions of Nate McLouth and Adam LaRoche give the club a more potent offensive punch going forward.

McLouth has been a stabilizing force in the lead-off spot, allowing the rest of the line-up to gel and settle into their roles.

LaRoche, who played for Atlanta through the 2006 season, knows the organization well and has statistically performed big in the second half of the season.

While LaRoche’s career .252 batting average leaves something to be desired, his .295 average after the All-Star break combined with his impending free agency, are reasons why the Braves decided to re-acquire their former slick fielding first baseman.

The improved offense stands to benefit what has been a solid, but often under-appreciated Braves pitching staff.

A rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami, and rookie sensation Tommy Hanson could go up against any rotation in baseball.

And, in the coming weeks, the Braves staff looks to get that much stronger and deeper with the return of Tim Hudson from Tommy John surgery.

The Braves bullpen boasts three relievers in the top six in appearances in Peter Moylan (58), Mike Gonzalez (53) and Eric O’Flaherty (43).

While the back of the bullpen has held up thus far, the team wouldn’t mind adding another arm to the mix for the stretch run.

Any reliever acquired would have to pass through waivers, sometimes making it harder for a team to complete a deal, although the Braves are still exploring any and all options.

If the Braves could indeed bolster their bullpen, that fresh arm could provide added security to what could otherwise become an overexposed relief corps.

So, again, the question looms… contenders or pretenders?

The Braves have given every indication, on the field and off, that they are poised, confident and ready to compete for a playoff spot.

It was the team’s consistently strong starting pitching that has kept them afloat early in the season and it will be the team’s starting pitching that will give them their best shot at October.

One can never have enough pitching. Good pitching beats good hitting. These age old adages have been proven true time and time again and are the main reason why the Braves were able to win fourteen consecutive division titles.

With that being said… do the Braves still have holes?

Absolutely.

But, so does every team.

And, this team’s holes have become increasingly less glaring.

So, buckle up Braves fans. It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.




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