March 2008

Opening Day 2008 is upon us…

Today is Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves, and with that comes the renewed hopes of a 2008 season that will culminate in a World Series championship. The roster is set, the spring is now behind them and a new season and a brand new park await them in Washington D.C.

nats_park_open.jpgWhile the scheduling is a bit odd, it probably beats a trip to Japan in terms of jet-lag or other associated travel weariness. Surely, the Braves do not mind heading to Washington and help the Nationals open up the park by handing them their first loss.

Neither the Braves nor the hometown Nationals will be particularly familiar with how the park plays. Caroms off the wall and out of the corners, the speed of the turf on the infield and even how the ball flies will all be on display for the first time. Bobby Cox even mentioned the possibility of scheduling a morning practice to give the Atlanta fielders an opportunity to learn the in’s-and-out’s of Nationals Park.

On the mound, Tim Hudson gets the call for Atlanta. Hudson put together a quality 2007 season and followed it up with a fantastic spring in Grapefruit League play. If Atlanta can count on a repeat of the success of Hudson from a season ago – a campaign in which he could have well won 20-games – then they will be one step closer to realizing the post-season dream.

I guess everyone has seen the cuts that were made yesterday in order to get the club down to 25-men who’ll start the season. Have to say that there weren’t too many surprises there. Of course, claiming swith-hitting Ruben Gotay from the Mets made it necessary to juggle the infielders. Gotay does a few things that make the Braves bench more well-rounded. He excelled in the “close and late” situations last season (.349 in 43 AB’s) and that is always valuable off the bench.

Scott Thorman cleared waivers, to no real surprise, and will be heading to Richmond to start the season. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Braves give Martin Prado a shot at serving as the back-up at first base. Really, the Braves will have Mark Teixeira out there 99.9% of the time, but should he need a reserve then Prado can answer the call. This may be a season that Prado shows his value and versatility to the Braves and the rest of the NL.

The bullpen of Soriano, Moylan, Acosta, Resop, Boyer, Bennett, Ring and Ohman looks to help ease the load with Smoltz ready to be activated for his April 6 start against the Mets. It will be Soriano’s first shot at closing for a full season and a great deal rests on his powerful right arm. Unless or until Mike Gonzalez returns around mid-season, the Braves have no other candidates who have tangible closing experience at the Major League level.

Anyone else catch the front-page news on ESPN.com’s MLB page? Here’s the script:

A return to glory — You may find this shocking, but consider yourself warned: The Atlanta Braves are back. Here’s why they’ll win their first title since 1995. Jason Stark writes a compelling article that back the Braves for a run into late October.

So, enjoy the game.

Till Next time,

G-Mc

Down to the nitty gritty…

For some players, spring training is too long. For others, they’d like to have just a little more time to make that lasting impression as rosters are cut down to 25 guys. But for all involved, the clock is ticking and clubs are looking to trim things down. For the Braves, despite a round cuts yesterday, there are still some wide open battles for roster spots.

Javy_spring_1Saturday’s big story was the apparent retirement of catcher Javy Lopez. Getting a chance to watch him work this spring, it was fun to watch from the nostalgia stand-point. But you could tell that, for Lopez, there was a sense of urgency to make the big league club. Going to the minors never seemed to be an option. Thus ended a valiant attempt to rejoin the club for which he became a 3-time All-Star.

With Lopez gone, Atlanta has to focus on which one of the three remaining candidates they will take north. My instinct tells me that Corky Miller may have the inside track on the job. Miller just seems to fit that classic Bobby Cox preference as a back-up. He’s not expected to wow with the bat, but to provide a steady presence defensively.

Mike Hampton commented on how much he enjoyed throwing the Miller on Sunday, even going as far as to say that he only shook him off once. With six innings of quality work, that goes a long way for the stock of Miller when it comes to familiarity with the staff. Jeff Bennett also praised Miller’s abilities earlier this week. Toss in a fellow named John Smoltz throwing a few good words his way, and you start to get the feeling that Miller may be hte guy. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to get good references from the guys who would be working with you.

That’s not to say that Brayan Pena or the younger but equally capable Clint Sammons don’t have a shot. Pena is out of options, so he could find himself dealt away or placed on waivers and claimed by another club. That club would have to keep Pena (or any player out of options for that matter) on the Major League roster though. So that could play out a number of different ways.

The injury to Omar Infante has opened the door on the infield front. Martin Prado has proven himself and seems to be a lock. Who else might make the squad will be interesting to see. Speedy middle infielder Brent Lillibridge has a chance, even playing a little third base to showcase his versatility.

You may have noticed that the real race for a roster spot has become the fourth outfielder role. It seemed at one time that Josh Anderson was a no-brainer, with Joe Borchard pushing to for a longer look. Coaches, teammates and fans alike raved about Jordan Schafer, but it seemed logical that he would be starting the season in the minors. Sure enough, Schafer was optioned to Mississippi, clearing up the candidates for the reserve outfield role. Right? Maybe not.

Seemingly out of no where comes Gregor Blanco. All he’s done this spring is pace the club with a .419 average (minimum 30 at-bats) and flash solid defense and above average speed. Blanco and Anderson could be one of the hardest choices that Bobby Cox has to make… or Blanco could continue on his current pace and make the decision easy.

There are more than a few pitchers who are also battling for a spot. Chris Resop was lighting up the radar gun against Houston on Sunday, hitting 98 mph multiple times. It seems as though Manny Acosta has worked himself into a spot in the pen, joining Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan as the only sure-things.

Tyler Yates, out of options, has struggled this spring (10.29 ERA and nine walks in seven innings) and would appear to be in some danger of not making the cut. He has been working on perfecting his split-finger fastball to keep hitters a little more off balance, but the results have not been particularly pretty thus far. Resop’s power arm should be enough to light a fire under Yates over the final week of spring.

Speaking of power arms, the Braves will have to take one long and possibly last look at Blaine Boyer, who is out of options as well. Noticing a theme here yet? Boyer has thrown consistently in the mid-90s with his fastball and has shown much of the promise that made him a bullpen regular as a rookie in 2005. In seven outings, Boyer has posted a 2.25 ERA and registered 11 punch-outs in 12 innings. He seems to have a strong chance to stick come March 29th.

On the southpaw front, Jeff Ridgway (acquired from the Rays for Willy Aybar) had a complete and total meltdown on Monday. Cleveland beat up Ridgway for six runs in the fifth inning, two coming on his own throwing error. Throw in a balk, four hits and two walks and you have all the things that make up a rough outing. That setback may have stamped a one-way ticket to Richmond.

Fellow lefty Royce Ring has been a touch on the wild side too from time time, walking roughly a batter per inning this spring. The presence of Will Ohman (2.25 ERA and no walks in eight appearances) could spell out how this battle will end. Ring has alot of upside, but has some strange righty/lefty splits – holding righties to a .182 average and lefties to a .205 mark. Ring is yet another out of options guy (couple that with the fact that Mike Gonzalez will not be back till late-May at the earliest) so he may just stick around as the second lefty option.

Taking a look at all the arms, I think the bullpen finalists should look something like this:

  • Rafael Soriano
  • Peter Moylan
  • Manny Acosta
  • Will Ohman
  • Blaine Boyer
  • Royce Ring
  • Jeff Bennett

That makes seven arms… and simple math tells us that with five starters on the roster as well, then we have a grand total of 12 pitchers. Throw in four out fielders, two catchers and seven infielders and you have your 25-man roster.

That’s just my thoughts though. What are yours?

Till Next time,

G-Mc

What does it take to be… number 5?

Rotation_battleAssuming Mike Hampton is healthy, which at this juncture is a fairly big assumption, the Atlanta Braves are going to have no shortage of candidates to fill in their fifth spot in the rotation. While some may be earmarked to for Triple-A Richmond in case of injury, others are locked in roster spot battle that should be fun to watch as it plays out.

Bobby Cox and Frank Wren are certainly not going to have an easy decision. I’ve boiled it down to the four candidates I believe have the best shot at grabbing that fifth spot. There are others, but these are the hurlers that are going to be in the forefront of the battle. So let’s take a closer look at each, because there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see each one get a shot before 2008 comes to a close.

Jair Jurrjens, RHP | Age: 22
The trade of Andy Marte for Edgar Renteria may have become the deal that just keeps on giving. Renteria is now a Detroit Tiger, dealt for righty Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. Both are ranked high on the Atlanta prospect depth chart, but it’s Jurrjens who has the chance to make his presence known as soon as this season.

Scouts, coaches and teammates alike all sing the praises of Jurrjens. His poise, repertoire and effective use of all of the above have propelled him to the top of the heap through the first two weeks of Grapefruit League play. Jurrjens is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts so far.

In seven starting assignments for the Tigers in 2007, Jurrjens turned in a 3-1 record and a 4.70 ERA despite shoulder problems that forced him to the DL after his third start. Most of the buzz around spring training camp at Disney’s Wide World has been about the talent of Jurrjens, making it difficult to say that he may not have already clinched a spot.

His last start against he Astros was somewhat shaky (four runs on four hits with four walks in 2 and 2/3 IP), but his other starts produced just one earned run over nine previous innings.

Prediction: MLB Starting Rotation

Chuck James, LHP | Age: 26
After winning 11 games in the past two seasons, Chuck James finds himself in danger of losing his spot in the rotation. James was Atlanta’s number three starter for the majority of the 2007 season, but his inability to consistently pitch beyond the fifth inning added still more stress to an already over-taxed Braves bullpen.

James brought some guts and a solid change-up to the Braves in 2006 and went 11-4 as a rookie, even though he did not get a start until the disastrous month of June that sunk the Braves play-off hopes. There was no reason not to expect more good things from the diminutive lefty last season.

On some levels, James produced on the stat-line. He went 11-10 with a 4.24 ERA in 30 starts. Unfortunately, with his club starving for innings, James pitched seven innings in just four starts last season. Some have astutely noticed that James devolved into a two-pitch pitcher, relying solely on a fastball/change-up combination. If James is able to effectively mix his slider back into the mix, then he could re-assert himself into the Braves rotation.

Shoulder woes have forced James to get a late start on his spring, but he was impressive with two scoreless innings in his first outing. It’s likely that the Braves will want him to continue to build up his arm strength with regular work at Triple-A, especially since the fifth start will not see as much action during the season’s first month.

Prediction: AAA Richmond Starting Rotation.

Jo-Jo Reyes, LHP | Age: 23
The Braves are certainly lucky to have no shortage of lefty starters, from Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton to Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes. Atlanta has a bright pitching prospect in Reyes, who seemed to get things going as the season drew to a close.

Reyes went 12-1 in 19 minor league starts last season before going 2-2 with a 6.22 in 10 starts with the parent club. After rough returns in the early going, Reyes mounted a respectable September (2-0, 3.10 ERA in 20.1 IP). More importantly, he only allowed one homer in his last four appearances of the season after allowing eight in his first seven outings.

The talent is there. Reyes has impressed the Braves at seemingly every stop along the way. He has three quality pitches with the ability to throw all of them for strikes. That is what helped Reyes make it to Atlanta last season, though the walks have become a bit of a concern since his arrival.

Reyes has issued more than his share of walks in his three spring appearances (seven in seven innings) to go along with nine hits allowed. All those base runners are going to pose a problem. With only six starts at Richmond last season, it is possible the Braves may wish to give him a little more time to sharpen his control before installing him in the rotation. He should be ready, should injury befall one of the Braves starters.

Prediction: AAA Richmond Starting Rotation

Jeff Bennett, RHP | Age: 27
Sometimes a club finds a pitcher by complete random chance. That is the case for the Atlanta Braves and Jeff Bennett. He exploded on to the scene with eight strike outs in five and 2/3 innings to earn a win in his Atlanta debut. By the way, Not only was that his first appearance with the Braves but it was also his first Major League start.

Bennett battled injuries after spending the 2004 season as a reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers. After spending 2005 in the minors, Atlanta had signed him in January of 2006. Unfortunately for Bennett, he wound up having his contract voided when a pre-existing elbow condition was discovered. But that didn’t stop him from the goal of making it back to the big leagues.

Spending most of last season as a reliever in stops with Mississippi and Richmond, Bennett made six starts while at Triple-A. That was enough to earn him a shot at the Major Leagues in September. One of the things that many noted about Bennett this spring was the fact that he has shed roughly 50 lbs.

The slimmed down Bennett has looked solid in his outings thus far, but not spectacular (0-1, 3.86 ERA in four games). Expectations should be tempered based on the fact that last season’s debut and subsequent outings was not an accurate sample size.

Still, Bennett looks to have something to offer. My guess is that it may just be in relief. With Oscar Villarreal now pitching for Houston and Tyler Yates struggling a bit, the Braves may want to keep the right arm of Bennett around in his original role.

Prediction: MLB Reliever

So there you have a look at four guys who could make an impact for the Braves this season. That’s just my look though. Injury could change everything around a couple of times before it’s all said and done. What do you think? Send along some comments/emails.

Till Next time,

G-Mc