February 2017

2017 Braves Spring Training Live Blog (2/14)

Atlanta Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training today. I’ll be keeping a live blog of all the news and notes from Day 1. Be sure to check back often for updates, which will be posted throughout the day.

I’ll be doing plenty of social media as well, so be sure to follow me:

Twitter/Periscope:  @grantmcauley

Facebook: Around The Big Leagues

Also, get to know the 2017 Atlanta Braves in my 5-part preview series:

12:15 PM — The Braves invited left-hander A.J. Minter to big league camp this spring. He impressed the organization while recovering from Tommy John surgery last season. I had a chance to chat with him about his expectations for 2017.

 

11:43 AM — Matt Kemp is among the early arriving position players. He appears to have dropped some of the bad weight he was carrying last season. He’s definitely trimmer and perhaps even added a little muscle. Kemp wasted little time getting to work. He was out on the main field running and doing agility drills after getting set up in the clubhouse and squaring away his locker. Kemp’s weight became an ongoing winter storyline after Braves GM John Coppolella called attention to it an interview late last season. To his credit, it appears Kemp made the most of his time this winter. His bat is an important part of the Braves lineup.

11:30 AM — Spent some extended time in the Braves clubhouse talking to a number of players, many of whom are getting acquainted with new teammates and trying to get the lay of the land before workouts begin on Wednesday morning. Among those chomping at the bit to get started this season is Mike Foltynewicz, who said he’s ready to prove he belongs in the rotation after an encouraging 2016.

Mike Foltynewicz on building off his progress from 2016…

“Last year was a kind of a roller coaster, so I’m trying to find that medium out there instead of hitting ups and downs. That’s one of my goals this year, is just trying to be [consistent] instead of dipping up and down. The other thing I have to work on this year is command of the strike zone and not walking people. Trying to get through the lineup, for me the third time was really a struggle for me last year. That’s what I have to work on this year, trying to fool people and watch a lot more video.”

On veteran pitchers Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia joining the rotation…

“Anything to help the team win, and bringing in those three guys is going to help to help us younger guys tremendously this spring and even throughout this season. Anything can happen during the season, but just learning from those guys who have years and years of experience and just picking any one of their brains one time is going to be helpful. Like I said, anything to help the team win. These guys are solid. They’re going to go out there and give you quality starts, start after start. It’s really awesome to see these guys come in and help us win. We’ll just go from there.”

11:02 — New Braves starter Jaime Garcia is excited about the chance to pitch for Atlanta. He also discussed the opportunity represent his home country of Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, though he has not made a final decision on whether or not he will take part. He made it clear that his top priority is getting ready for the regular season.

Garcia on being part of a rotation with Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey…

“Not only is it going to help out on the field, but it’s going to help in the clubhouse. I’ve never played with those two guys, but they’re both great people. They’ve had a lot of success and long careers in this game.  They’re great teammates, great clubhouse guys from what I’ve heard. I include myself, a lot of people are going to pick their brains and learn from how they go about it. For me personally, anything I can bring to any of these young guys, that’s what I’m here for.”

His first impression of manager Brian Snitker and becoming an Atlanta Brave…

“The positiveness and the great attitude. Guys love him around here and respect him. I’m extremely excited to be a part of this. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Atlanta Braves. They were one of my favorite teams growing up. I love the history of this team and just how they go about it… I’m definitely very excited and humbled by the opportunity to be a part of it.”

How pitching in the WBC for Mexico affects his preparation for the season…

“My goal this year is to prepare for April and hopefully to pitch through October. That’s my goal and that’s what I’m preparing for. I’ve been around for some time and I know what I need to do. So, WBC didn’t change one bit of my preparation. It doesn’t change my spring training philosophy. If I go out there and pitch in one round, two rounds, whatever I do, it’s going to be like being in spring training. Obviously, I’m going to try and do well, but every time I take the mound, whether it’s a bullpen, or spring training game or a World Series game when I’ve been on that stage, its always with the same intensity. I don’t try to throw harder. I don’t try to do anything different. It’s pretty much just the same. Anytime I take the mound, I don’t take it for granted ”

 

9:45 AM — Brian Snitker met with the media and provided plenty of updates as the team arrives at the Disney complex this week. Here are some highlights from this morning’s media session.

An update on Sean Rodriguez…

“I was more worried about his family. I talked to him on the way down here and really didn’t even ask him about him. I was more concerned with how the kids are, his wife and family pretty much. Just the short time I’ve known Sean, and played against him, the guy is a baseball player. He’s a gamer and really enjoys everything about this whole gig. So, it’s tough for a guy like that to have a setback like that.”

On addition of Brandon Phillips, who figures to hit in the middle the of the order…

“He’s still a really good player… he’s still one of those guys that I hated to see come up. He’s dangerous. The guy, for me, I always marveled at how easy he played the game. He’s a good player. I think he further legitimizes our lineup and lengthens it. I don’t think it will be anything but a good thing to have him in the middle of our lineup.”

Where Ozzie Albies is on his road back from broken elbow…

“He had the surgery and he’s on a rehab program pretty much. It’ll be a few weeks before he’s in games. He’s going through the process and they have a program mapped out for him, so he’ll be a little behind. The biggest thing is just getting him healthy and not trying to rush him. He’s a young kid and it’ll be hard for him, I’m sure, to tone it down a little bit because he’s an aggressive kid that wants to play. But our medical staff has a plan for him and they’ll stick to it and it’ll work.”

On the addition of veteran starting pitchers and getting his first look at the new pieces…

“There’s still going to be competition for jobs, but we got the guys we wanted (R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon and Jaime Garcia). At the end of last year we started looking at how we wanted to improve our club and the guys we wanted to go after. We got the guys we wanted.”

On Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair competing with Mike Foltynewicz for the final rotation spot…

“I think it’s a job that right now, I’m not giving it away. The competition is good and I think everybody needs to feel like they can be that guy. We have seven weeks, so a lot can happen. I think these guys will be ready. Competition isn’t anything but good for a situation like that.”

What Ron Washington brings to the table…

“There’s probably nobody out here with more energy than that man… He’s a baseball rat. He just wants to get on that field and work. Everything everybody has told me is you’re not going to outwork that guy and you’re probably not going to get out here any earlier than him. He has his programs and I think it’ll be very beneficial to our infielders, that day in and day out approach that he brings.”

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher). All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Braves trade for Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips

The Atlanta Braves acquired veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports broke the news of a deal late Saturday evening. Cincinnati will pay the majority of Phillips’ $14 million salary while receiving only a minimal return. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that the Braves are responsible for just $1 million of Phillips’ 2017 salary, with the Reds on the hook for the remaining $13 million. In return, Atlanta sent pitchers Andrew McKirahan and Carlos Portuondo to the Reds to complete the deal, which was officially announced on Sunday afternoon.

“We are excited to add Brandon Phillips to our club,” said Braves general manager John Coppolella. “He is a Gold-Glove caliber defender who will also deepen our offensive lineup. We are thrilled to ‘welcome home’ Brandon to Atlanta, where he will play in front of his family and friends and many of his fans.”

Atlanta found itself in need of a second baseman after Sean Rodriguez was injured in a car crash late last month. He is reportedly set to undergo shoulder surgery and is expected to miss 3-5 months as a result. That led the two teams to rekindle trade talks involving Phillips, who has been reluctant to agree to a trade in the past. Rosenthal reports that a medical review of a minor injury to Phillips’ left hand, suffered late last season, appeared to be the only hold-up and proved to be a formality. Phillips is viewed as a one-year fix for the Braves and will be a free agent after the season.

Atlanta had pursued Phillips previously, only to have the veteran infielder invoke his 10-5 rights (10 years of service and five consecutive with the same team) to block a trade to the Braves earlier this winter. That marked the third time over the past two seasons that Phillips vetoed a potential trade, with the Nationals and Diamondbacks both having attempted to acquire his services last winter. Where it not for the injury to Rodriguez, this trade was unlikely to be revisited. Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer added that Atlanta was able to entice Phillips to waive his no-trade clause by making some minor changes to his deal. In a follow up statement, the club announced its intention to honor Phillips preexisting 12-team no-trade list and that he would receive an assignment bonus if dealt again. This is uncharted territory in many ways for the Braves, who have not offered no-trade clauses dating back to 1991. Coppolella issued the statement, which outlined the special provision for Phillips and added that the team has no intention of changing its standing policy as relates to no-trade clauses going forward.

“We will honor Brandon’s limited no-trade clause because we are bound to honor the contract provision just as we are bound to honor other contract terms whenever we trade for a player,” said Coppolella. “If Brandon would happen to be traded from the Braves to another team, he would receive a $500,000 assignment bonus.”

Phillips had played with the Reds since 2006, but is an Atlanta native. Those ties no doubt make this an exciting opportunity. He grew up in nearby Stone Mountain and still has a home in the metro-area. Phillips confirmed the deal and thanked his agency for clearing the necessary hurdles in a pair of tweets late Saturday.

Phillips is a three-time All-Star and four-time gold glove award winner over the course of a 15-year career that began with the Indians back in 2002. He batted .291/.320/.416 with 11 homers, 64 RBI and 14 steals last season, but his defense regressed. Phillips committed 14 errors – easily his most since 2006 – and finished with a career worst -2.3 UZR/150 and -7 DRS (defensive runs saved) per FanGraphs. This trade will allow more regular playing time for Phillips, who appeared unlikely to receive that amidst a crowded infield on the rebuilding Reds. He may not be an impact bat (99 OPS+ during Reds career), but should prove far more useful in Atlanta than he would have by staying put.

Atlanta did not give up much to get this deal done, sending left-hander Andrew McKirahan and Cuban right-hander Carlos Portuondo to Cincinnati. Neither figured to factor into Atlanta’s 2017 or future plans. McKirahan, 27, was slapped with a PED suspension in 2015, a season he finished with a 5.93 ERA in 27 appearances. He underwent his second Tommy John surgery last March. Portuondo, 29, was signed by Atlanta last February and made just 17 appearance in the minors in 2016.  Phillips will also become teammates with Bartolo Colon, for whom he was traded as young shortstop back in 2002. That deal between the Expos and Indians saw Colon head to Montreal in exchange for Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore, a stunning return for a three month rental.

Rodriguez was not initially expected to be sidelined following a recent two-car accident, but concern over his shoulder mounted over the past two weeks. He and his family were riding in an SUV when they were struck by a man driving a stolen police cruiser in Miami late last month. Rodriguez reportedly did not suffer major injury, while his wife and children were hospitalized. All are now recovering. The suspect driving the stolen vehicle died in the crash. Rodriguez, 31, signed a two-year deal with the Braves in November after a career year with the Pirates in which he batted .270 with 18 home runs in 300 at-bats. The Braves also have infielders Jace Peterson and Chase d’Arnaud who are capable of playing second base, with top prospect Ozzie Albies waiting in the wings.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

2017 Braves Preview Series: The Bullpen

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

Jim Johnson | RHP | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2-years, $10 million

Atlanta has proven to be a good landing spot for Jim Johnson not once, but twice over the past two seasons. The former All-Star closer got his career back on track in 2015 before being traded to the Dodgers, then returned to do it all over again in 2016. After taking over ninth inning duties and turning back the clock to his Baltimore days, Johnson found himself the recipient of a two-year extension on the final day of the season. The move may have surprised some, but the club was happy to ensure that a proven closing option would be present in the bullpen for the foreseeable future. Johnson has done anything the team has asked during his two stints with the club. His quiet leadership and unselfish attitude should help set the tone for the relief corps. Johnson posted a 3.06 ERA (2.71 FIP) and fanned a career-best 9.5 batters per nine innings last season. His 7.9 H/9 also marked his lowest rate since 2012, the first of his consecutive 50-save seasons for the Orioles. Atlanta has quite a few hard-throwing relievers in house, but Johnson’s power sinker made him the most effective of the bunch as he gained velocity in the second half. The results speak for themselves. After posting a rather unimpressive 4.06 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 2.7 K/BB with a .683 opponents’ OPS over 31 appearances in the first half, Johnson turned in a 2.14 ERA with 18 saves, 11 K/9 and 4.1 K/BB with a .584 opponents’ OPS down the stretch following the break. His fastball, which had been sitting between 90-92 in the first half, bumped up to 94-96 with great sinking action. Johnson will enter 2017 looking to pick up right where he left off.

 

Arodys Vizcaino | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.55 million

A power arm that many thought would be closing for Atlanta last season, Arodys Vizcaino comes to camp looking to reestablish himself yet again. Injuries have led to numerous setbacks for the talented right-hander, but he exited 2015 poised to handle the late innings for Atlanta. Unfortunately, that carryover effect was derailed by the All-Star break as both an oblique strain and shoulder inflammation limited him to just seven appearances over the final three months. Throw in a topical infection in July and Vizcaino pretty much ran the gamut of maladies, while avoiding major injury. It is unlikely that Vizcaino will unseat incumbent closer Jim Johnson at the outset of the season, but team’s top priority is insuring that the hard-throwing righty is ready to contribute to the late inning mix in some form or fashion. Vizcaino approaches 100 mph and backs up his fastball with a sharp breaking pitch in the mid-80s that is sometimes difficult to classify as either curveball or slider. Regardless, this two-pitch mix has been extremely effective when he’s healthy. Fastball command is the key to his success and sets up his breaking ball as a swing-and-miss weapon. Vizcaino averaged 12.4 K/9 over the first 34 appearances in 2016, sporting a 1.93 ERA and .554 opponents’ OPS, numbers that made him an intriguing trade candidate had injuries not cropped up. Atlanta avoided arbitration with Vizcaino, who was first time eligible this past winter. If he is healthy and back to full speed, then Atlanta’s eighth innings will be in very capable hands to open 2017.

 

Mauricio Cabrera | RHP | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Of all the pitching prospects in the system over the past few years, none boasts better pure velocity than Mauricio Cabrera. Despite that weapon, he was something of an enigma in his six years in the organization. That all changed upon his move to the bullpen. Only one reliever in baseball held a higher average fastball velocity than Cabrera’s 100.1 mph in 2016, and that was Aroldis Chapman. There are, of course, differences both subtle and not-so-subtle between those two pitchers. For starters, Cabrera has yet to refine his arsenal to yield the requisite number of strikeouts to be a truly dominant closer. While Chapman has used his overpowering stuff to average an absurd 15.2 K/9 during his career, Cabrera (7.9 K/9 across all levels) has yet to turn the corner and approach that kind of success. Atlanta promoted Cabrera from Double-A and he rewarded the club with a 2.82 ERA (3.04 FIP) in 41 games. He made a career-high 66 appearances between the minors and majors last season, which may have led to his September slowdown – 4.15 ERA with 9BB/3K in 8.2 IP over his final 11 outings. It wasn’t the innings, but the amount of appearances that seemed to add up. That aside, Cabrera stands 6’3” and weighs 245 pounds, so he has the build to go with the big arm and durability shouldn’t be an issue. Like Vizcaino, the foundation for success is fastball command. Unlike Vizcaino, Cabrera does not possess the plus-breaking ball that leads to insane K-rates. Instead, he has a biting low-90s slider that will need refinement to maximize results going forward. Cabrera figures to see plenty of high-leverage work this season as the club grooms him for the closer’s role down the line.

 

Ian Krol | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: 1-year, $900,000

The Braves will be counting on southpaw Ian Krol to build off his best season to date. After turning in what could be considered a breakout campaign of sorts in 2016, he seems to have the inside track on a spot in the Atlanta pen this season. Krol’s splits that are relatively neutral, which makes him better suited for full inning work rather than the lefty specialist role. Krol struggled a bit down the stretch, but finished the season with a 3.18 ERA in 63 appearances. He turned in excellent rates (9.9 K/9 – 2.3 BB/9 – 0.7 HR/9) over 51 innings. Atlanta acquired Krol from Detroit, where he’d struggled the prior two seasons, posting a 5.34 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9 and 1.70 WHIP in 78 appearances (60.2 IP). While he did an excellent job limiting walks last season, he did allow more than a hit per inning. Krol issued just one walk in his final 20 outings and it was intentional, but opponents batted .345 with a lofty .452 batting average on balls in play. With a little luck to lower that BABIP and the ability to continue missing bats, Krol should be a serviceable member of the Atlanta bullpen this season.

 

Paco Rodriguez | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: 1-year, $637,500

Atlanta has waited quite a while to put Paco Rodriguez into the bullpen mix and it appears this spring will finally be the time. Rodriguez was acquired from the Dodgers in the Hector Olivera trade and ended up having Tommy John surgery in October of 2015. That was an unforeseen setback for the lefty who sports a 2.53 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 124 career games. Rodriguez has not appeared on the mound since May 29, 2015 and is now nearly 17 months removed from elbow surgery. An excellent lefty specialist for Los Angeles in 2013, he has limited left-handed hitters to a .174/.245/.234 slash line in 186 plate appearances. If he proves to be healthy and effective, that would seem to be the role Atlanta has reserved for Rodriguez. However, it’s been a long road back and this spring will help determine whether or not he needs some minor league time to knock the rust off at the very least. Rodriguez starred as a reliever at the University of Florida before being taken in the second round of the 2012 draft by the Dodgers. He works with a low-90s fastball, but has a deceptive delivery and relies primarily on his cutter and slider to confound hitters. Toss in the occasional changeup and Rodriguez has the mix to be an extremely effective lefty reliever. However, health is the question he will have to answer this spring.

 

Josh Collmenter | RHP | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.2 million

Over the past few seasons, the Braves have picked up various spare parts in hopes of creating a patchwork rotation or simply trying to fill out a beleaguered bullpen. Jose Collmenter may actually be able to help out in both of those roles. As a starter, he provided the Braves with a handful of useful outings in late September and appears poised to serve as the club’s long reliever in 2017. Collmenter was the Diamondbacks’ opening day starter in 2015, but fell out of Arizona’s rotation by midseason and has bounced between starter and reliever over the past six years. He is a soft-tossing righty who does not top 90 mph and relies on deception and location to keep hitters off balance. With an average fastball velocity that sits around 85 mph, Collmenter’s changeup and slow curveball are an effective change of speeds. Collmenter owns a career 3.50 ERA in 678.1 IP, but has out-performed his 4.02 FIP. Obviously, throwing strikes is a big part of his success. Collmenter’s 2.1 BB/9 is solid and he misses just enough bats (6.3 K/9) to remain effective. The Braves have some young arms on the way and a couple of veterans in camp who could see time in the Triple-A rotation, but Collmenter remains the first line of defense should the rotation falter in the early going this season.

 

Chaz Roe | RHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Another cast-off who found a home in the Atlanta bullpen last season, Chaz Roe used his wipeout slider to pile up strikeouts in 2016. It’s a pitch that can seemingly defy the laws of physics and adds a valuable dimension to the Atlanta bullpen. Before launching into his backstory, it’s important to note that the complimentary remarks about the slider are not simply hyperbole. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote a piece in 2015 in which he laid out the reasons why Roe’s slider was in the same category as Jose Fernandez’s breaking ball. It all comes down to command, however. That is something that is still a work in progress for Roe. He was claimed off waivers from the Orioles in August and joined his ninth organization in the process. He posted a 3.60 ERA in 21 appearances with 7BB/26K in 20 IP for Atlanta. Teams are always looking for relievers who can miss bats and that’s precisely what Roe does. His 11.7 K/9 last year with the Braves was the high water mark, but a 9.7 K/9 over 90 big league appearances serves as proof that his slider is an excellent weapon. Roe has just over a year of service time, so the Braves could have quite a bargain on their hands over the next two seasons at the very least. A good spring training should allow for Roe to make his way back to Atlanta, where he could finally find a home after years of bouncing around.

 

Jose Ramirez | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

There will be no shortage of live arms in the Atlanta bullpen. Jose Ramirez is yet another with a mid-90s fastball, but pairs his with a quality changeup to find success. The Braves acquired him in a trade with the Mariners last winter. His first few chances at the big league level were rocky to say the least, including a brief stint with Atlanta to open 2016. Out of options, the team had to sneak him through waivers in order to send him to Gwinnett, but by season’s end Ramirez established himself as a viable major league relief option.  He was roughed up in two April appearances (6 ER in 2 IP), but returned in late July to compile a 2.05 ERA with 14BB/29K and a .196 BAA in 30.2 IP over 31 outings. Ramirez averaged 95.3 mph on his fastball last season, which is a tick faster than Mike Foltynewicz (95.2 mph AFV). Yes, there is the matter of sample sizes and roles that play a factor, but Ramirez is just one of the many Braves relievers who can crank up the velocity and make it hard on opponents with a nice change of speed. With so much depth available to manager Brian Snitker, it may be hard to imagine that some of these arms will not be working in the eighth and ninth innings. This, however, is exactly what the Braves are looking for – sustainable, quality depth on the pitching staff.

 

Prospect Heatseeker

A.J. Minter | LHP | Age: 23 | Acquired: 2nd Round, 2015 | ETA: 2017

Perhaps no other relief prospect since Craig Kimbrel has generated as much buzz in Braves circles as A.J. Minter, who checks in at No. 21 on my Braves Top Prospects for 2017. The Texas A&M product was back from Tommy John surgery with a vengeance in 2016, wiping out opposing hitters with a nasty fastball-slider combo that had top team executives mentioning his name throughout the summer. Atlanta opted to take Minter with the 75th pick in the June draft two years ago despite the arm injury and he rewarded them for their patience last summer.

Minter sits in the mid-90s and can also rely on a cut fastball a few ticks off that. He backs up that velocity with an excellent slider, a weapon that helped him post 12.2 K/9 in 34.2 IP last season. Minter could have been a first rounder were it not for the arm injury and obviously Atlanta thought enough of him to spend a top pick on him anyway. He was eased back in to action last season, posting a 1.30 ERA across three levels, ending the season in Double-A. The one caveat, however, is that he has yet to throw on consecutive days, something relievers are routinely asked to do. As the Braves remove that restriction this season, it’s possible Minter could begin 2017 with Mississippi and see a relatively quick promotion to Gwinnett. If he has a good showing in the spring, Minter could be ticketed for Atlanta sooner than later.

 

The rest of the 40 man:

Jason Hursh is one of the last vestiges of Atlanta’s system from before the rebuild began. Hursh, 25, was a first round pick in 2013, who transitioned from starter to reliever last season. Despite a live arm and the ability to keep the ball down, he’s struggled to miss enough bats. That’s something that would have to change in order for Hursh to take the next step… Luke Jackson was acquired from the Rangers over the winter, adding a power arm to the system. He saw some time in the big leagues (8.50 ERA in 15G), but was unable to stick in Texas. Jackson, 25, throws in the mid-90s, but was hit hard in 11.2 IP last season (22H, 14R, 8BB/3K). He could be a late inning option if he can harness his control… Akeel Morris came over from the Mets in the latest version of “the Kelly Johnson trade” last summer and could find his way to Atlanta to stay later this season. Morris, 24, made a brief appearance in the big leagues in 2015, but appears bound for Triple-A this season. He has an excellent fastball-changeup combo that has helped him average over 12 K/9 in his minor league career. Morris is likely on the short list to make the jump if and when Atlanta needs reinforcements… Armando Rivero, 29, was selected in the Rule 5 draft from the Chicago Cubs, which means he must stay on the roster the entire season or be offered back. His eye-popping strikeout numbers (14 K/9 in 2016, 12.4 K/9 career) and success at AAA last season put him on Atlanta’s radar. With so many viable right-handed options in camp, it will take a good showing this spring to force a decision… Daniel Winkler suffered a gruesome injury that ended his 2016 season. A broken elbow has put his career in doubt as he comes to spring training hoping to make the club. He’s a fascinating case. Winkler is a Rule 5 pick who still has 53 days to go to fulfill his service time requirement, lest he be offered back to the Rockies. His strikeout ability is intriguing, but injuries have cost the righty much of the last three seasons. While Winkler could open the year on the DL, he appears to be a long shot to head north with the club.

Non-roster options:  

There are plenty of other arms in camp hoping to earn a spot in the Atlanta pen. One familiar name is righty Blaine Boyer, 35, who returns to the organization after stops with six other clubs since 2009. In recent years, he’s been a useful pitch-to-contact reliever with a historically low K/9 (just 3.5 in 66 IP last season for Milwaukee). Boyer is well-liked and is hoping to force a tough decision as the team breaks camp. He could find himself in Triple-A Gwinnett on the ready for an opportunity later this summer, or be a trade piece for some club looking for proven help… Rhiner Cruz, 30, is a signing that has minor league depth written all over it. He has 72 big league appearances, but has been pitching primarily in Japan and Mexico since the 2014 season. He is another righty who may find himself in Triple-A, hoping for a call from a big league club sometime this season… Sam Freeman was a fairly effective lefty for the St. Louis Cardinals, but is coming off a bad 2016. He has good stuff, but a tendency to spend too much time behind in the count and out of the strike zone at times. Freeman, 29, also holds reverse platoon splits, limiting the possibility that he could operate as LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) for Atlanta. If he can parlay a good spring into a bounce back campaign in Gwinnett, then he may earn a promotion at some point… Adam Kolarek is another lefty option who comes to camp hoping to impress. The 28-year-old is yet to see big league time, but has shown the ability to miss bats during a seven-year minor league career. He’s averaged a strikeout per frame while posting a 3.50 ERA in 411.1 IP. He was a bit erratic (5.3 BB/9) at two stops in the Rays system last year and appears earmarked for Gwinnett to begin 2017…  Eric O’Flaherty was once a household name in the Atlanta pen, but the lefty has been hit hard by injury and inconsistency over the past few seasons. He underwent elbow surgery late last year and the club was encouraged enough to sign him to a minor league deal. O’Flaherty, 33, is a well-respected reliever who can help set the tone for younger pitchers this spring, but he must put up the numbers to warrant a longer look in a crowded camp.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

2017 Braves Preview Series: The Rotation

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

Julio Teheran | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 3-years, $26.3 million

The Braves will rely on Julio Teheran to set the tone for a rotation that is sturdier than it was a year ago, but still very much in transition. Teheran’s name has been the subject of trade speculation for much of the past two seasons, but the Braves hold one of the best value contracts for any young starter in baseball – 6-years, $32.4 million with $12 million option for 2020, his age 29 season. Teheran held up his end of the bargain last season, though a stint on the DL in the second half cost him a handful of starts. The righty posted a 3.11 ERA in 188 innings. Both of those numbers were by far the best on a starting rotation that employed 16 different starting pitchers in 2016. His 7-11 record was a byproduct of receiving just 3.37 runs per game from his offense – tied for worst run support among all qualified pitchers in baseball last season. Quite a few statistical indicators serve as encouraging signs as well. He topped 8.0 K/9 for just the second time in his career and first since his rookie season of 2013. Additionally, he finally enjoyed sustained success away from Turner Field, a park where his ERA was nearly a full run better over the course of his career – 3.02 at home vs. 3.80 away. Last season, he recorded a 2.69 ERA in a dozen road starts and did a much better job of limiting the damage by opposing hitters despite the occasional home run. Overall, Teheran was stingier against opposing hitters. His 7.5 H/9 was a career-low as was his 2.0 BB/9. Those two numbers fueled a career-best 1.05 WHIP. While the home runs do haunt Teheran from time to time, he’s hardly alone in that regard and he kept that total in line with his career rate (1.1 HR/9). Once runners get on base, they’d better keep alert. Teheran has picked off 23 runners in his young career and  serves as an excellent stolen base deterrent.

When it comes to Teheran’s arsenal, there is no doubt that he is a pitcher who relies on command and deception in order to be effective. Gone are the days of a 95 mph fastball that helped him rank among the elite prospects in the game five years ago. He sits in the low-90s now, but can reach back for a little extra when the situation calls for it. Location is a major component in Teheran’s success, because he does not have the velocity to get away with frequent mistakes. That said, he has shown the willingness to adapt and the work ethic to elevate his game. Teheran moved to the first base side of the rubber late in 2015, which has allowed him to have more success against left-handed batters in particular. His delivery helps his stuff play up, while his slider has improved to the point where he can rely on it to keep hitters off his fastball. Being able to throw his breaking ball for a strike gives the pitch an added dimension. To that end, he keeps a nice little overhand curveball in his back pocket to add an extra wrinkle. Teheran’s changeup is an offering that I would expect to see him continue to refine as his career wears on. While it’s perfectly acceptable now, it could benefit from a bit more fade. Keep in mind, his changeup was another calling card of his super-prospect days. While he may never be a true front of the rotation type starter, he has the ability and the drive to be a very good pitcher for years to come.

 

Bartolo Colon | RHP | Age: 43 | Contract Status: 1-year, $12.5 million

The Braves added one of the most dependable starters in baseball by signing Bartolo Colon. Despite his advanced age, Colon has been a valuable member of the Mets rotation in recent years and was a National League All-Star in 2016. He finished 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA in 191.2 innings, walking just 32 while striking out 128 batters. It’s no secret that quality innings were hard to come by for Atlanta last season. Julio Teheran’s 188 IP led the staff, while Matt Wisler (156.2 IP) was the only other Braves pitcher to eclipse the 150 IP mark in 2016. Colon has averaged 195 innings per season since 2013 – all after turning 40. On top of that, his control has gotten better with age. Colon has led the NL in fewest walks per nine innings in each of the past two seasons, another key to his success. That pinpoint control and a reliance on the fastball – which he threw a major league-leading 89 percent of the time last season – have led to a career renaissance for the big righty. After winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, Colon battled injuries and made just 47 starts from 2006-2009. Considering that he was all but out of baseball seven years ago, it’s amazing to see what he has accomplished since. And he’s done it in what would be considered the twilight of one’s career. Now sitting on 233 career victories, Colon is chasing history as well. He trails only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (243) in wins among pitchers from the Dominican Republic and is only 13 wins away from surpassing Dennis Martinez (245) for most wins all-time by a Latin American pitcher. Breaking those records is a goal that has motivated Colon to keep pitching.

Atlanta had previously pursued Colon in 2014 and was able to lure him away from New York shortly after free-agency began with a $12.5 million deal last November. That was a raise of more than $5 million over his 2016 salary. His ties to the organization actually date back to 1997, when Braves president of baseball operations John Hart, then GM of the Indians, signed Colon as an international free agent. He spent the first five seasons with Cleveland and has gone on to enjoy a 19-year career. Atlanta committed a total of $20.5 million to Colon and fellow veteran R.A. Dickey, with nothing on the books guaranteed past 2017. The free agent market was pretty underwhelming this winter, so the club took special care not to block the path of numerous prospects in the pipeline by signing some mid-level pitcher(s) to a multi-year deal. This short-term arrangement with Colon is beneficial to both parties. He received a nice bump in pay, while the Braves bolstered their rotation with a capable veteran for 2017. Both Colon and Dickey are former Cy Young Award winners, giving the Braves a pair of those on the staff for the first time since 2008, when Tom Glavine reunited with John Smoltz. Unfortunately, those two combined for just 18 starts that season. Atlanta is hoping to get considerably more out of its veteran duo in 2017.

 

R.A. Dickey | RHP | Age: 42 | Contract Status: 1-year, $8 million

The Braves made the first free-agent signing of the winter when they agreed to a one-year deal with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on November 10. It was the first of two veteran starters that Atlanta would add in short order. The 42-year-old is itching to get back in rotation after losing his spot with Toronto during the postseason. He will make $7.5 million and the club has an $8 million team option with a $500,000 buyout, bringing his total guarantee to $8 million. With his track record for durability and the fact that knuckleballers have a different expiration date than most pitchers, Atlanta may choose to retain his services beyond 2017. Of course, that will depend on Dickey’s ability to capably eat innings and provide quality starts. Like Colon, Dickey is a former Cy Young Award winner. He went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 230 strikeouts when he earned the honors with the New York Mets in 2012. Dickey has spent the last four seasons with Toronto, where he went 10-15 with a 4.46 ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts) for the Blue Jays last season. Few pitchers have the kind of story that Dickey can tell of his 14-year career. Originally a first round pick by the Rangers way back in 1996, the club found that Dickey was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow (the ligament that is replaced in Tommy John surgery). It was nothing short of a minor miracle that he’d established himself as a pitcher given that condition. Of course, this was long before he learned the art of the knuckleball. Like many pitchers, injury and inconsistency worked against him during the early portion of his career. He was never able to carve out regular work and spent a decade toiling in the Texas system before transitioning to a full-time knuckleballer in 2006.

It took a few years and quite a few sessions with other knuckleball pitchers (including Hall of Famer and Braves great Phil Niekro) for Dickey to eventually gain control of the most uniquely inconsistent pitch in the game. He enjoyed his first major success at the age of 35 for the Mets and baffled NL hitters during his three-year stint in New York. He was not a dominant force in Toronto, but remained a dependable starter over the past four years. Over the last seven seasons, Dickey has averaged 206 innings. That is something the Braves found themselves in desperate need of in 2016. As discussed at length with Colon, who was signed right after Dickey, Atlanta chose to hedge its bets on dependable veterans with a history of going to the post and covering innings rather than dabble with a longer-term arrangement with younger starters who simply lacked the ceiling to warrant either the years or the money. In doing so, the door is left open for several of the young starters in Atlanta’s system to have an opportunity in 2018. Among those displaced by the signings of Dickey and Colon are Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, both of whom figure to begin the season in Triple-A. Joining those two in Gwinnett will be lefty Sean Newcomb and right-hander Lucas Sims. While others could press the issue with a break-out season, those four men are the most likely to earn starts in the big league rotation this season. If all goes according to plan, however, the Braves would like to see Dickey and Colon cover at least 350-375 innings this season. That means, barring a trade, the opportunities may be much more limited than in recent years. Though the situation with the rotation remains fluid for the immediate future, it appears much more stable in 2017. For Braves fans, this will be the first chance to see an Atlanta starter relying on the knuckleball since Niekro called it a career some 30 years ago.

 

Jaime Garcia | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $12 million

With two veteran starters on board, many wondered if the Braves would add another arm to the mix. It was a fair question considering the plethora of younger starters already in the stable. The trade rumors were rampant, many linking Atlanta to various front-line starters like Chris Sale, Chris Archer and Sonny Gray. That kind of deal never materialized for one reason or another, but it did not stop John Coppolella from adding another experienced arm to the rotation in Jaime Garcia. A talented pitcher who has not been able to stay healthy over the course of his career, Garcia adds a much needed lefty presence to the rotation.  The Cardinals chose to exercise his option and dealt him to the Braves for a pair of mid-level pitching prospects – righties Chris Ellis and John Gant – and speedy, light-hitting infielder Luke Dykstra. Garcia joins Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey in Atlanta’s revamped rotation, one that has added 916 starts worth of experience to its ranks this winter. These moves were designed to create some much-needed stability in 2017, while leaving the door open for the numerous pitching prospects lining up in the Braves system.

Garcia has battled arm injuries over the course of his eight-year big league career, but has displayed plenty of promise as well. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2008, he returned to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, when he went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA. He followed that up with a 13-7 season as St. Louis won the World Series in 2011, but shoulder injuries cost him time over each of the next three seasons. He underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2013 and again to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in 2014. After making just 36 starts from 2013-2015, Garcia was 10-13 with a 4.67 ERA in 32 games (30 starts) for the Cardinals last season. He turned in a career-best 7.9 K/9, but also allowed a career-worst 1.4 HR/9. His fastball velocities sat just above his career norm, while some of his secondary pitches seemed to drop a tick in 2016 (per FanGraphs). If both healthy and effective, Garcia could be the left-hander this rotation has been without for much of the last two seasons. In fact, Atlanta did not receive a single start from a lefty in 2016. When it comes down to it, the Braves are operating under the theory that there are no bad one-year deals. If Garcia has a good year, he could not only help the Braves every fifth day, but could also become an attractive trade chip. This franchise is built on the foundation of great young pitching that is being developed in the system, giving Coppolella little reason to expend funds on an underwhelming free-agent on a multi-year deal.

 

Mike Foltynewicz | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves have spent two years stocking the farm system with young arms in hopes of building a brighter future. While the results have been mixed, hard-throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz has shown flashes of potential in his short time with Atlanta. He was part of the first wave of arms to reach the major leagues and earn a baptism by fire of sorts. While he has battled injury and inconsistency the past two seasons, Foltynewicz showed signs of turning the corner in 2016. His season was interrupted by a DL stint in June for bone spurs in his elbow, so his numbers may not jump off the page or vault him into top starter’s status just yet. Despite that setback, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that Foltynewicz can build off the progress he made in 2016. He finished the year 9-5 with a 4.31 ERA and 35BB/111K in 123.1 IP across 22 starts. He not only led the staff in victories, but also with 8.1 K/9 – a total that would have been top 15 in the National League had he qualified. Foltynewicz cut his ERA by nearly a run and a half from his rookie season and really appeared to get comfortable with his pacing last season. He admitted that when he has gotten in trouble in the past, he tended to want to get the ball back and immediately fire the next pitch. After gaining experience, he’s come to the realization that executing the game plan and locating his pitches will always trump relying on pure velocity to escape jams. This is a big step in the development of a pitcher who has the best stuff in the entire Atlanta system and one of the best arms in the game. While the team may discuss the competition they hope to see among young starters for the final spot in the rotation this spring, there’s no question that Foltynewicz is far and away the favorite in this derby. Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are among those who appear bound for Triple-A in order to find some answers that eluded them in 2016.

Just how live is that right arm, by the way? Foltynewicz ranked seventh in MLB with an average fastball velocity of 95.2 mph in 2016 (FanGraphs Leaderboard). That was just a fraction of a mph behind Jose Fernandez and ahead of the likes of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. It’s a known fact that Foltynewicz throws hard, but it’s what he started doing with his entire arsenal that began to take root over the final three months last season. The most notable improvement was in the home run column. After surrendering 11 home runs over his first 42 innings, he allowed just seven over his final 81.1 IP (14 starts). The next big step will be finding ways to neutralize hitters on the third and fourth time through the lineup. Opponents are slashing .240/.287/.404 in their first plate appearance and .226/.313/.405 in their second plate appearance, but that jumps to .342/.367.542 upon their third time seeing him in a game. The ability to make continual adjustments will unlock the door to becoming a dependable big league starter. He maintains his velocity late in starts thanks to above average arm strength, but exploiting hitters’ weaknesses through pitch sequencing appears to be the final piece of the proverbial puzzle for this young starter. It’s a big piece, however. Last season, he did an excellent job of getting ahead of hitters, but that is only step one of an at-bat. Foltynewicz went back to his slider and relied on it heavily as he and the team searched for the right breaking ball to pair with his high-octane fastball. He also throws a slower curveball from time to time. The changeup is there to keep hitters honest, but could ultimately be the pitch that allows him to put everything together.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.