May 2008

With veterans returning, tough roster moves loom

It’s not everyday that a team gets to bolster its bullpen with three hurlers the caliber of John Smoltz, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez. However, that is exactly what the Braves have ahead of them in the not too distant future. As these three come back, Atlanta will have to make some tough calls on who goes out to make room for these relievers on the road to recovery.

Smoltz_Mississippi.gifAll three men are on the mend, with Smoltz and Soriano in full rehab appearances and Gonzalez wrapping up a successful trial in extended Spring Training action. Smoltz needed just 12 pitches to throw a scoreless frame with Double-A Mississippi on Saturday night. With some tightness the day after but no pain reported during the outing, the Braves will presumably decide when to activate him or further his assignment sometime early this week. He may see one more appearance before coming back to Atlanta.

When he is activated, Smoltz will rejoin the bullpen after spending more than three seasons in the starting rotation as the team’s ace. It became clear to Smoltz that, at this point in his career, his durability was not going to allow him to give his club the innings they need from a starter.

Some would call it noble, others have called it a case of going back on what he said prior to 2005. He did leave the pen to alleviate the day-to-day stress he encountered as reliever. Becoming a starter again was supposed to remedy that. For a good while, it did, but this is an older Smoltz. He’s not thinking about ways to extend his career at this juncture.

Look, I don’t know what is best for John Smoltz, but I do think that after all these years that he knows what is best for himself. He has gone on record as saying that he simply cannot push himself beyond five innings. I believe that the 2005 transition was the right move for the club… and I believe that this one would be as well. The bottom line is, Atlanta has the chance to turn that negative (a five inning starter) into a major positive. Now we all just have to wait and see if he’s the same guy who racked up 144 saves from 2002-2004.

One interesting thing to note, it will be a different John Smoltz who returns. He broke a three-quarters arm angle during his recent simulated game at Turner Field earlier in the week. That adjustment will hopefully help relieve the stress on his shoulder.

Moving on to Soriano, who pitched a perfect inning for Mississippi on Friday, the Braves are hoping to have him back in the fold sometime in the next week. Assuming he is able to resume his role from a year ago, he should see some spot saves and a good portion of the set-up work. It’s doubtful that Atlanta is going to run Smoltz out there too many nights in a row. Soriano makes that reality a little less stressful.

Gonzalez will further that sentiment when he returns as well. Missing roughly a year’s worth of action with Tommy John surgery, the lefty Gonzalez will serve as the perfect late inning compliment to the nasty Smoltz/Soriano combo. He may see some ninth inning chances himself, having been a successful closer for Pittsburgh in 2006. Gonzalez was slated to be evaluated by team doctors on Sunday and, given a clean bill of health, to start a rehab assignment of his own.

So who stays and who goes? That’s always a tough call. The problem at the end of spring was the fact that more than a handful of relievers are all out of options. Royce Ring, Blaine Boyer and Chris Resop all stayed on, while Tyler Yates was sent to Pittsburgh for a minor league hurler. Atlanta has already had to part was with Brayan Pena this week, whom they had held on to as a third catcher and utility-type player. He’ll find work, but it just goes to illustrate that there aren’t always enough roster spots to go around. 

If you ask me, my gut feeling is that Phil Stockman, Ring and Resop are the most likely candidates to go out for the returning trio of relievers. Stockman will be able to head back to Richmond, but Resop and Ring would have to be designated for assignment when the time comes. With Smoltz or Soriano coming back in the near future, look for Stockman to head out first, followed by Resop and finally Ring when Gonzalez shows he is healthy. While Atlanta would love to hang on to both Resop and Ring, it just isn’t possible with the lack of options.

When all the shuffling is done, the Atlanta Braves could be building their strongest relief corps in years as these three return. While most teams scramble at the trade deadline to acquire more arms, Atlanta will be able to bolster their bullpen from within. Adding a healthy Smoltz, Soriano and Gonzalez to an already effective squad that includes Will Ohman, Manny Acosta, Jeff Bennett and Boyer will give the Braves one of the best bullpens in the game. Bar none.

 

Till Next time,

G-Mc

Leading the way, Murphy endorses Chipper as Hall of Famer

When Chipper Jones drove a Mike Pelfrey pitch into the center field stands for his 398th career home run on Wednesday, the blast tied him with long-time Atlanta Braves fan favorite Dale Murphy for 45th on the all-time list. Elite company to be sure, and yet another accomplishment in a storied career of Chipper Jones.

Now Chipper is quickly approaching the 400 home run club, a mark which remained just out of reach for the stoic Murphy. In the 43-year history of the Atlanta club, Jones and Murphy may well be the most popular players of their respective generations. And while homer number 400 will be yet another Hall of Fame qualifier for Jones, it’s number 399 that will see him surpass the “Murph” in the record books.

Dale_Murphy_85.jpg

Murphy, now 52, visited Turner Field with his son Jake over the weekend, perhaps paving the way for his son to join “the family business.” 

With son Shawn drafted by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, it was time to see what the next in line could do with the leather and the lumber. After watching Jake take a round of batting practice prior to Saturday’s contest against the Oakland Athletics, Murphy had high praise for the man who was then closing in on his spot on the home run leaderboard.

“I knew it was a matter of time before all that would be erased,” said Murphy of the offensive numbers he put up over his 18-year career. “Chipper is a great talent and he’s having one of his best years. He just gets better and better.”

No one questions Murphy’s class-act credentials as Hall of Fame caliber, but his statistical accomplishments have fallen into the borderline category amongst the majority of voters. We remember Murphy as the clean living, two-time NL MVP who won the hearts of Atlanta fans in his nearly 15 seasons with the Braves. It was more than enough to earn him a spot in the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame.

However, Murphy’s decline was precipitous over his final five seasons. A career-best 44 homers and a .295 average in 1987 marked the last great campaign for Murphy. In 1990, shortly after the Braves drafted an 18-year old shortstop named Larry Wayne Jones out of Jacksonville, Florida, Murphy was on his way to Philadelphia to make room in the Atlanta outfield for an up and comer named David Justice. The Braves immediately embarked on a magical post-season journey that lasted for 14 seasons, with Chipper Jones at the center of most of those teams.

For a moment, it looked as though Chipper may suffer the same kind of late career decline, albeit thanks to a number of nagging injuries that began in 2004. But those injuries have been unable to derail the former number one pick from making good on all the talent that the Braves saw in him way back in 1990. Moving back to his more familiar position of third base after a brief sojourn in the outfield, Jones has embarked on a renaissance of sorts at the plate.

Chipper’s just a great player,” said Murphy, singing the praises of this generation’s premier Braves hitter. “He’s a Hall of Famer. Switch-hitter, he’s smart and he knows how to hit.”

Chipper_Pullquote.pngHis dominance has been noticed by just about everybody this year. Jones is the only batter still boasting a batting average above .400. Chipper’s nightly hitting displays this season have put him in line for that elusive batting title that escaped him in 2007, when he hit a career-high .337. 

While we are on the subject of batting average, Chipper (.309) is the only switch hitter in the history of the game to have 300 or more homers and a career batting average above .300. Trailing only Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504) on the homer list for switch hitters, Jones’ accomplishments could earn him a spot in Cooperstown one day. That, my friends, is some pretty serious company.

It’s incredible,” remarked Murphy. “Let’s be honest, he’s towards the other half of his career as opposed to the beginning half and it’s amazing to get your average to continue [at that level]. Most guys go the other way. Mike Schmidt is one of the few guys I remember that got better and better.”

They don’t come much better at the hot corner than Schmidt. Throughout the early ’80s, Murphy and Schmidt traded MVP seasons, with the two combining to win the award every season from 1980-83 and Schmidt grabbed another in ’86. Chipper captured his MVP in 1999 as the Braves reached the World Series for the fifth time in the decade.

Chipper.jpgBraves manager Bobby Cox saw most of Murphy’s and has seen all of Chipper’s career in his time with Altanta. He has spent years at the helm in the dugout, beginning with his first stint in 1978-1981. In his final season as the team’s general manager, Cox was the man who both drafted Chipper and traded Murphy during the last of the lean years. Some 18 years after the summer of ’90, Cox has seen every one of Chipper’s 398 career home runs. It’s the most to start a career by any player under one manager. 

With his two-homer game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 5 of last season, Chipper  passed Murphy’s Atlanta record of 371. Having managed them both, few could put it in better perspective better than Cox, who echoed the sentiments that best described the occasion.

“It’s a pretty darn good honor to pass Murphy,” said Cox when Chipper became the Atlanta homer leader. “Murph has been a legend in Atlanta for a long time, and still is. So I think it means an awful lot.”

Murphy is not alone in his summation of Chipper’s surge in the latter part of his career. This extended period of hot hitting over the past few seasons has catipulted Jones back on the offensive leaderboards each season, a fact that is certainly not lost on Cox.

“I think Chipper, the last two years, is swinging a bat and playing… as good as I’ve ever seen him,’ said Cox.

Chipper’s hitting exploits continue to power the Braves offense this season, as always. Conventional wisdom may have pointed to his decline when the injuries crept in, but Jones has thrown that aside and continued to be one of the best hitters in the game. His resume for Cooperstown seemingly grows each game.

But what of Dale Murphy? Will Murphy one day make it to the Hall of Fame? It’s difficult to tell. Murphy is on a short list of the very best players from the 1980s, the last decade before the steroid question really came into the picture. If the stigma of the steroid era starts to keep a Rafael Palmeiro and a Barry Bonds and a Mark McGwire out, there could be a whole new appreciation for the numbers that the ultra-clean Dale Murphy put up. Maybe he will eventually find a place next to Chipper in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

Till next time,

G-Mc

Closing time?

John Smoltz threw Sunday. A simple game of a catch, albeit not the same variety you or I may know with dad in the back yard. It was just 25 throws, on flat ground at that. What could possible be so special about that? I’ll tell you what. This particular session could set a time table that will spell the return of one of the most dominant late inning pitchers that the game has ever known.

When the season began, the Braves were hoping to coble together one of the most veteran and successful rotations they’ve had in some time. Smoltz, Tim Hudson, the returning Tom Glavine and perhaps – dare we say – a healthy Mike Hampton. Then again, things have not gone according to plan. Injuries have sapped the rotation, first Hampton, then Glavine, then Smoltz. Young Jair Jurrjens has been the saving the grace in the early going.

Smoltz’ 2008 season started with a bang. On April 22, he notched career strikeout number 3,000 as part of his second straight 10-K performance. That may well have been highlight of a swan song for the grizzled veteran in the starting role he returned to just three seasons ago.

He’s on the record now. John Smoltz is coming back as a reliever. That’s what he says. Returning the dominant closer of 2001-2004 to the bullpen might be one of the best things the Braves could hope for as they battle for NL East supremacy. Or it could leave a gaping hole in the starting rotation. Either way, the Braves and Smoltz have a decision to make.

Here are some numbers to help make this decison just that much harder:

As a closer from 2001-2004 (Pitcher A)

YEAR

G

W

L

SV

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

ERA

WHIP

BAA

2001

36

3

3

10

59.0

53

24

22

7

10

57

3.36

1.07

.238

2002

75

3

2

55*

80.1

59

30

29

4

24

85

3.25

1.03

.206

2003

62

0

2

45

64.1

48

9

8

2

8

73

1.12

0.87

.204

2004

73

0

1

44

81.2

75

25

25

8

13

85

2.76

1.08

.245

 Totals

246

6

8

154

285.1

235

88

84

21

55

300

2.65

1.02

.224

And now as a starter from 2005 – Present (Pitcher B)

YEAR

GS

W

L

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

ERA

WHIP

BAA

2005

33

14

7

229.2

210

83

78

18

53

169

3.06

1.15

.243

2006

35

16*

9

232.0

221

93

90

23

55

211

3.49

1.19

.251

2007

32

14

8

205.2

196

78

71

18

47

197

3.11

1.18

.249

2008

5

3

2

27.0

22

6

6

2

8

36

2.00

1.11

.214

 Totals

105

47

26

694.1

649

260

245

61

163

613

3.18

1.17

.246

 

So now I will pose the question to all the armchair GM’s out there…

Which one of these pitchers, A or B, would you like to have on your staff? Both have consistently great numbers. Pitcher A lead the league in saves (in red) while pitcher B lead the league in wins. Decisions, decisions.

If only it were that easy; because injury is the reason we are having to ask ourselves this question to begin with. We are talking about a veteran pitcher who has made it known exactly which capacity he would like to be utilized. On some levels, announcing to the press that you will be swapping roles when you make your return from an injury is highly unorthodox. Mostly because his manager, pitching coach and even the general manager had not come to the same conclusion. The idea may have always been in the back of their minds, but no tangible internal discussions had even taken place. Talk about being side-swiped.

Bobby Cox has gone as far as to say that for the Atlanta Braves to be a championship club, they need John Smoltz in the starting rotation. Who could blame him? Take a look at the numbers (not to mention the track record) that has made Smoltz one of the best and most reliable starters in the game. Tack on the fact that he is the winningest pitcher in post-season history and a strong case can be made for Smoltz – the starter.

On the other side of the coin, Smoltz has stated that the team will not be able to win if he is only a “five inning pitcher.” He brings up an interesting point, since closing out games has been among the biggest weaknesses the Braves have had since 2005. If they could have sealed the deal in the ninth, Smoltz may have been a 20-game winner in ’05 and ’06. Honestly, he should have been.

Dan Kolb, Chris Reitsma, Kyle Farnsworth, Reitsma again, Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano, and now Manny Acosta have all worn the cap of closer in the past three seasons and the first month of 2008. Just four appearances and one save into this season, the Braves had to shut down Soriano because of elbow tendinitis. With no real ETA for Soriano’s return, a healthy Smoltz could be just the answer for the late innings.

Peter Moylan could have played a major role in Soriano’s absence. But shortly after nailing down his first save, Moylan went down and required Tommy John surgery. Gone for the year.

The Braves have Mike Gonzalez on the mend. He racked up 24 saves for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006 and was off to a great start last season (1.59 ERA in 18 appearances) before needing Tommy John himself. The return of Gonzalez could be right around the corner, but Atlanta can ill afford to put all their hopes on a reliever who hasn’t pitched in a Major League game since May of last year.

Yes, it would appear that the stars have aligned for Smoltz to make the transition back to the end of the Braves bullpen. There is no other qualified candidate that has his credentials, his poise, his stuff and his resume. No one. Period.

Still, it won’t be a decision that anyone in the Braves camp will jump to. There are questions of durability. While this is the same guy who said that going back to starting would be easier on his arm, logging so many innings to keep the Braves in the ballgame the past three seasons finally added up. The results spoke for themselves, but maybe the bulk of the workload has become too taxing. Really, who is to say he isn’t right about this move too?

Smoltz will likely have to battle soreness throughout the remainder of the season. But that is nothing new. This is a man who has pitched through pain before. It would stand to reason that he knows just how much he has left. However, soreness could play a factor in how many consecutive nights that Bobby Cox will be able to make the call for his could-be closer.

Not to rain on the parade, but Smoltz is older now. There is no way of knowing that he will be the same force he was in the pen four, five or six years ago. But there is reason to believe… and there’s only one way to find out.

We may be watching the final chapter of a Hall of Fame career in Atlanta this season. It is hard to imagine life after John Smoltz. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As they say, “Only time will tell.”

Till next time,

G-Mc

Hamilton hyperlink…

This won’t be a long entry. I’m going to stray from Braves country for a minute.

Sometimes, as I’m patrolling all the MLB sections of various sports sites, I’ll stumble upon a good story. Occasionally, they even come from the strangest of places. For example, this one that I am about to share with you comes from esteemed columnist/author Jeff Pearlman.

I can’t say that Pearlman’s style has ranked among my favorites, in subject matter or execution. But I will take the time to post a link if something grabs my attention. This particular piece is on the Texas Rangers multi-talented centerfielder Josh Hamilton.

To give you a little backgrond on Pearlman, he is the author of Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Anti-hero. A former senior writer for Sports Illustrated (that courtesy of his bio on ESPN.com’s Page 2), he also penned that lovely look we all got into the life of John Rocker in the December 23, 1999 issue of S.I.

Personally, I’ve read dozens of stories about the miraculous turn-around of this young man’s life. From Sports Illusrated’s spread a couple of years back, to the dozens that poured out when a Rule 5 pick became one of the feel good stories of 2007.

My hat is off to Hamilton for being able to push himself out of the darkest depths of addiction and on to live out his dream of being a Major League Baseball player. I further applaud the way that Pearlman sheds light on the fact that many people miss. There are some things you can boo a player for, and some things that we as human beings should keep off limits. Hamilton is just as human as we are. I hope his story continues to be as positive as it has the past two seasons.

Click here for the story. And you can click here for Pearlman’s rather random take on where his relationship with Rocker is now. If you make it all the way through the second article, then you get a gold star!

 

Till next time,

G-Mc