Posts Tagged ‘Spring Training

14
Apr
10

Paging the Braves offense: We still have a problem

It would be easy to look at Monday’s ugly 17-2 loss to the Padres and panic.

But, I won’t.

Every team over the course of a long 162-game season endures an embarrassing and lopsided loss.

It just happens.

There is often no rhyme or reason as to why, but on any given night a pitcher’s poor misfortune is an offense’s playground. For Jair Jurrjens and the Atlanta Braves, that night was Monday. They were such victims of the Padres shelling at Petco Park for San Diego’s home opener.

Personally, I am just happy the Braves got their whooping out of the way in April.

Amen.

But, what’s more alarming to me is Atlanta’s proclaimed “improved” offense’s collective showing since their 16-run outburst on Opening Day against the Cubs.

I realize we are only seven games into the season, and it’s a tad early to raise the red flag, but warning signs are definitely already apparent in the Braves lineup.

Let’s take a closer look:

Lackluster at lead off : Melky Cabrera, Atlanta’s off-season “answer” for atop the batting order, is hitting a dismal .103.

If the Braves’ table setter isn’t getting on-base and creating scoring opportunities and subsequent mayhem on the base paths, the entire order is going to suffer considerably.

And so far, it has.

Middle-of-the-order misery : Free agent signee Troy Glaus, who has hit fifth in Atlanta’s order thus far, has yet to record an extra-base hit, while only batting .231.

If you factor in Glaus’s seven strikeouts and inability to produce with runners in scoring position, the magnitude of his struggles intensify.

Still in Spring Training mode : Nate McLouth had a very poor and public Spring Training.

His .118 average in Grapefruit League games warranted extra at-bats at the Minor League level while still in camp.

The season is now underway and McLouth is hitting .118 so far in games that matter.

It seems his Spring Training hiccups have transitioned into April.

So, while Atlanta exploded for 16 runs on Opening Day, they’ve managed just 19 runs in six games since.

Ouch.

In spite of those troublesome numbers, there have been a few positives for the Braves batting corps this season.

Martin Prado, I repeat, Martin Prado leads the National League in hitting.

Yes, that is correct. No typo here.

Brian McCann is quietly going about his usual business boasting a .300 average.

And, Chipper Jones has produced when he’s been in the lineup.

The key word in that sentence is: when.

Jones has already battled a strained oblique and back in the early going this season, and his health and ability to stay in the lineup will figure prominently in the success of the Braves this season.

Following Tuesday’s off-day, the Braves are hitting just .230 as a team.

With the exception of Monday’s blowout loss, Atlanta has again enjoyed strong pitching from its starters.

It is easy to see many similarities and make comparisons between this year’s squad and last year’s group.

What the Braves have to do to prevent their lineup’s woes from snowballing over the course of the season is to make adjustments now and to regain the improved plate discipline that made headlines during Spring Training.

If the offense continues to sputter, Cox could look to juggle the batting order.

Glaus could be moved down and Escobar and Heyward could be moved up.

And, while I might disagree, I can’t imagine Cox putting his 20-year-old rookie into high pressured RBI situations so early into the season and his Major League career.

Only time will tell if the Braves are just getting off to their very typical April slow start, or if this lineup is in serious need of restructuring.

But, if the first week is any indication, it looks like Atlanta’s offense still has a problem.

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05
Apr
10

Jason Heyward: Welcome to the Big Show!

The wait is finally over.

After capping his meteoric rise through the Braves farm system with a monumental spring training performance, 20-year-old rookie sensation Jason Heyward will make his Major League debut in right field for the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day today against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field.

Atlanta’s latest homegrown talent will open the book on what promises to be a long and illustrious career in front of his family, friends, and giddy new fanbase.

“J-Hey Fever” has reached epic proportions around the Atlanta area as of late, and today fans will finally get to usher in the Braves’ new phenom to the Big Show.

Bobby Cox put to end any potential speculation or suspense when he announced Heyward’s addition to Atlanta’s Opening Day roster early on March 26.

While, the announcement was one of baseball’s worst kept secrets, typically Cox tends to wait until the completion of spring training before making his final roster moves.

The decision to inform Heyward in advance that he made the team just goes to show how strong an impression the youngster had made on Cox and the deep level of respect the skipper already has for his new right fielder.

Heyward took the news in stride— not hooting and hollering like most 20-year-olds would after receiving the news that they’ve been pegged the new starting right fielder for one of the winningest and most successful franchises in baseball history.

That’s just not his way.

His reaction—calm and poised— is much like the way he goes about his business on and off the field.

J-Hey is a gentle giant of sorts. His monstrous 6’5, 245-pound stature and deep voice seem to contrast with his cool demeanor, eloquence, and class.

Heyward will wear No. 22 in honor of his former high school teammate, who was killed in a car accident.

He is just the kind of kid you root for.  He is worthy of being the hero-type figure young fans hope to emulate.

The five-tool talent is every bit the legend on the diamond that he’s been made out to be.

Heyward was named Minor League Player of the Year in 2009 by both Baseball America and USA Today and was dubbed the No. 1 overall prospect in baseball by numerous experts and media outlets.

The towering home runs he smashed this spring, with one traveling 50 feet out of the park and literally into the sunroof of Assistant GM Bruce Manno’s car, only added to his storybook tale.

While Heyward’s power, strength, and size have garnered him the most attention with Chipper Jones comparing his body mass to that of Jevon Kearse he’s proven to be agile enough to cover tremendous ground in the outfield, while possessing a cannon for an arm, making him all the more impressive.

But, what I believe makes J-Hey stand out from the hundreds of other highly touted prospects most notably, Braves former right field “phenom” Jeff Francoeur, who also made an early and much hyped ascent to the Majors is his unparalleled patience at the plate.

Unlike Francoeur, Heyward does not swing for the fences and will gladly take the walk.  His balanced swing is one that many young hitters aren’t yet equipped with, and his approach at the plate is wise beyond his years.

This kid is the total package, which makes it not surprising that he’s already been compared to the likes of Willie McCovey and even Albert Pujols.

While, there is no doubt a great level of pressure and hype surrounding Heyward, his off the charts makeup ease any concerns the Braves might have had regarding their young star’s much-anticipated debut.

I caution Braves fans to not panic when J-Hey looks human or even overmatched at times, because the kid is learning on the fly, and their will be ups and downs over the course of a long and arduous 162-game season.

But, it is Heyward’s maturity and confidence that will help him endure those normal struggles associated with making adjustments at the Major League level and will also prevent him from crashing and burning at the first sign of adversity.

Many anticipate Heyward will succeed Chipper Jones as the anchor of the Braves offense for the next decade while becoming the new face of the franchise when Jones retires.

There is no one more excited about this prospect than Chipper himself.  Jones will mentor Heyward this season and believes J-Hey is the best 20-year-old he has ever seen.

In his opinion, the power-hitting lefty is already leaps and bounds ahead of a young Andruw Jones, who made his debut amidst similar pandemonium at age 19.

Chipper also believes makeup wise, Heyward is better suited to handle the spotlight than even he was when he came on the scene in 1995.

While Jones admits to being “brash and cocky” as a rookie, he sees no signs of that in Heyward.

In fact, his laid-back demeanor and borderline-introverted personality could help serve him quite well in an attempt to ignore the growing circus that surrounds him.

Heyward finished spring training with a .305 batting average, 10 walks, and a 4.23 on base percentage.

The question was never will Jason Heyward be in right field for the Atlanta Braves?  The question was always when?

His time is now.

The Jason Heyward Era is officially upon us…just beware of where you park your car.

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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.

02
Feb
10

Can Braves rotation withstand the loss of Vazquez?

It’s day two of the Braves’ voluntary two-week, pre-spring training pitching camp at Turner Field, a program created and designed by former pitching coach Leo Mazzone to help the team’s pitchers get back on the mound early to alleviate the off-season rust.

The program, which was formerly known as “Camp Leo”, is now run by Roger McDowell but still preaches the same formula for success that has helped the Atlanta Braves build a pitching dynasty over the years.

This year’s camp opened yesterday with the club’s starting staff already facing a bounty of questions about how they plan to duplicate last season’s numbers.

Braves starters led the majors with a 3.52 ERA while compiling the second most innings (986), proving to be a steady and durable force in 2009.

Entering Spring Training this year, Atlanta is trying to maintain that level of excellence minus one very critical piece — their workhorse ace Javier Vazquez.

Vazquez (15-10, 2.87 ERA) was traded to the Yankees in December after the Braves found themselves with one starter too many.

Many baseball pundits question whether this year’s staff can withstand the loss of Vazquez?

If the Braves rotation hopes to replicate last season’s success, the majority of the load that was carried by Vazquez now shifts to 34-year-old Tim Hudson.

The Braves opted to re-sign Hudson to a three-year, $28-million dollar extension in November after the former 20-game winner made a successful return from Tommy John surgery late last year.

In seven starts after re-joining the Braves rotation, Hudson went 2-1 with a solid 3.61 ERA.

Hudson joins a staff comprised of Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami.

Jurrjens and Hanson are the team’s rising young stars and should serve as the backbone of this rotation for the foreseeable future.

Atlanta should also benefit from getting a full season out of Tommy Hanson, who finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting this winter.

The Braves called up their rookie sensation in June and watched Hanson soar to an 11-4 record with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts.

Atlanta is hoping Lowe bounces back and enjoys a resurgent season after the veteran righty struggled in his first year with the Braves.

While still netting 15 wins for the club, Lowe also posted a 4.67 ERA, second-highest of his career.

Kawakami is expected to improve in his second season in the U.S.

The Japanese standout was a 33-year-old rookie last season and ended the year with an impressive 3.86 ERA despite a 7-12 record.

Despite losing Vazquez, Atlanta’s rotation is still stacked with a plethora of talent and a good mix of youth and experience.

Whether the talent on paper translates to wins on the field rests largely on not just the starters but the entire staff’s ability to stay healthy.

Atlanta’s additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito at the back end of their bullpen should benefit the rotation by giving the team security late in games.

But, with Wagner’s history of injuries and the age of these hurlers, it is critical that both relievers don’t get overworked in an effort to preserve them for the duration of the season.

The good news is the always pitching rich Braves have the pieces in place yet again to put up impressive numbers while contending for a playoff spot.

It is not often a team could lose a Cy Young candidate, like the Braves did in Vazquez, and still have a chance to have arguably one of the deepest rotations in baseball.

All these years later, the importance of a pre-spring training pitching camp is not lost on the Braves or the pitchers who jump at the opportunity to participate in it.

12
Jan
10

Greg Maddux joins Cubs front office

Former Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs pitching icon Greg Maddux will now return to the Cubs in a new role: special assistant to general manager Jim Hendry.

Maddux will provide input in all aspects of baseball operations, including assisting in player development and evaluation, as well as helping with instruction of major and minor leaguers in Spring Training.

Maddux is one of the greatest students of the game; this is a huge move for the Cubs.

Maddux will put his astute knowledge and baseball intellect to good use in this new position, which could serve as a stepping stone for a larger role with the club in the future as an executive, coach, manager, or even general manager.

The Braves were rumored to be one of a few teams interested in bringing Greg Maddux to Spring Training this year as a special instructor.

Many in the organization had hoped to lure both Maddux and Tom Glavine back to camp in an effort to bring two of the franchise’s most storied players back into the fold.

That scenario was squashed when Maddux received a bigger and better offer from the Cubs; his new title holds much more weight and responsibility.

Many in BravesNation wonder why GM Frank Wren didn’t “up the ante” and make Maddux a similar offer to join the Braves’ front office in an effort to compete with the Cubs?

I’m sure, among other things, Wren recognized Maddux’s strong desire to remain out west near his family.

Maddux was in no particular rush to return to baseball; he has only been removed from the game for one year.

A factor that almost certainly sweetened the pot for Maddux is that the Cubs play in Arizona during Spring Training, which is a lot closer to Maddux’s Las Vegas home than the Orlando-based Braves’ complex in Florida.

From a business perspective, while it would have been great for the Braves organization in the short and long-term to get Maddux back, the assumption that Wren could have done more to make it happen is unfounded.

Chicago was just the right fit at the right time for Maddux.

Maddux began his career with the Cubs in 1986, where he won his first Cy Young Award in 1992, before leaving as a free agent to sign with Atlanta that winter.

From ’93 to 2003, Maddux pitched for the Braves where he went on to capture three more consecutive Cy Young’s from 1993-1995 and helped lead Atlanta to the playoffs every season in which he played for them.

The 355-game-winner also won his only World Series ring as a member of the Braves Championship team in ’95.

Maddux later returned to Chicago for his second stint with the club from 2004-2006 and won his 300th game as a member of the Cubs during the 2005 season.

He was traded to the Dodgers at the end of the ’06 year before retiring at the conclusion of the 2008 season with the San Diego Padres.

12
Feb
09

Glavine, Braves still talking contract…

Me and Tom Glavine in Philadelphia, PA... May 2008.

Me and Tom Glavine in Philadelphia, PA... May 2008.

Braves pitchers and catchers are due to report to Spring Training at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex on Saturday, February 14th, with the team’s first workout scheduled for Sunday. The question on the minds of Braves Nation is, will Tom Glavine be in camp?

The veteran lefty and 300-game winner is still negotiating with Braves GM Frank Wren, trying to work out a creative, incentive-laden contract to return to Atlanta in 2009.

Glavine, who turns 43 in March, is recovering from off-season surgery on his elbow and shoulder. The Braves have offered Glavine a one-year contract that is worth $1 million guaranteed and up to $3 million in incentives. While he understands the Braves reluctance to offering him more guaranteed money, he hopes the team will increase the incentive portion of his contract so he can prove his health and worth to the ballclub this season.

Glavine hopes to speak with Wren again this week but has put no timetable on the contract talks, acknowledging he’d like to be in camp in March but doesn’t need to be present when pitchers and catchers report this weekend.




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