June 2017

Could Braves Move Freddie Freeman to Third Base?

ATLANTA — With Matt Adams slugging in the absence of Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta Braves are apparently mulling a major change on the infield. The team is considering trying Freeman at third base upon his return from a broken wrist in order to keep both he and Adams in the lineup.

It’s a move that Freeman himself initiated.

“A couple weeks ago I mentioned it and said I’d be willing to move over to third base to accommodate Matt,” said Freeman following an early afternoon fielding session at third base with Ron Washington on Wednesday. “I’m completely on board with it. I want to do it. We’ve got to keep Matt’s bat in the lineup and I’ll do anything to win.”

The initial reaction to this concept is varied, but Atlanta is apparently willing to put everything on the table in an attempt to keep Adams’ power bat in the lineup when Freeman returns. Just how far this experiment goes remains to be seen, but the fact the wheels are already in motion seems to speak volumes about how much better the club believes it can be by finding a way to put both sluggers in the lineup every day.

While it’s commonplace for players to switch positions over the course of a career, it’s the timing which sticks out in this case. It seems a curious path to take with an established first baseman of Freeman’s stature, especially given that he will be coming back from a significant injury in the middle of the season.

Manager Brian Snitker did not expect this turn of events, but you can count him among those impressed with the selflessness of  Freeman’s offer.

“Says a lot about him, that your best player wants to do anything he can to help make this club better. I think it’s pretty cool,” said Snitker. “He’s way into this too. That’s the thing. He was talking about doing it and he even mentioned it before I think it really became serious. When Matt came over and what he’s doing, [Freeman] sees what that can do to this club, what it does to our lineup if he does this.”

Freeman is a two-time All-Star and was among the top three hitters in baseball prior to his injury on May 17. The initial timetable called for an 8-10 week recovery from the fractured left wrist he suffered when he was hit by a pitch from Toronto’s Aaron Loup. That would put him back on or around Aug. 1.

After having his wrist in a cast for four weeks, Freeman had it removed on schedule last week and began throwing on Monday. The first order of business will be recovering both strength and range of motion in the wrist. He is set for a CT scan on Friday and could be cleared to hit if that comes back clean. Freeman will be ramping up baseball activities over the coming weeks and was already taking grounders at third on Wednesday at SunTrust Park.

At the time of the injury, Freeman was slashing .341/.461/.748 and leading the National League with 14 home runs. General manager John Coppolella acted quickly to snag Adams from the Cardinals, where the five-year veteran had been relegated to pinch-hit duty. Adams did not cost the the Braves much in the prospect department and is under team control for 2018 as well.

It would be an understatement to say that Adams has far exceeded expectations in his time with the Braves. He’s slashing .296/.349/.635 with 10 home runs in 29 games. After slimming down some 30 pounds over the winter, it appears Adams may be in the midst of a career renaissance at age 28. At the very least, his hot streak has opened eyes in Atlanta.

Despite an improved physique, Adams did not take well to left field in a brief trial with St. Louis. Granted, he was not given much time to get acclimated with the new position, which he only started playing toward the end of spring training. The Braves could revisit the idea, but with corner outfielders Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis already entrenched it presents its own set of problems.

While both Freeman and Adams are better suited playing first base, Adams’ limited versatility led the Braves to do some serious outside-the-box thinking with their franchise player. Freeman appears to have been the impetus for this possible change.

“I’m going to travel with the team to San Diego and Oakland to work with Wash every single day,” said Freeman. “Everybody knows me, so do the rehab people. They’re going to try to force me to go slow, but I’ve been getting cleared of things the last few days that weren’t supposed to be cleared for a couple weeks. So, I’m pretty much ahead of schedule right now. I feel good. My bone doesn’t hurt at all, so it’s just getting the okay from the doctor on Friday.”

If things go well, Freeman is confident that his timetable could be sped up and include a return well ahead of schedule.

“I’m going to push the envelope like I always do,” joked Freeman. “With the All-Star break in a couple of weeks, everybody is talking about the first game, July 14, being my first game back, but I’m going to everything I can to get back for that Washington series (July 7-9).”

It’s worth noting a potential move across the diamond for Freeman would be an unorthodox position switch. Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera did so in 2012, but he had previous experience at the hot corner during the early part of his career. Chipper Jones moved to third base upon reaching the big leagues full time with Atlanta in 1995, but his shortstop background made it a much more natural conversion. Jones moved to left field in 2002, but that was viewed as something done out of necessity. He willingly swapped positions to allow the club to install Vinny Castilla at third base. However, that was a move that proved challenging and ultimately led Jones back to third base midway through 2004.

Jones has already voiced his support of Freeman’s willingness to give third base a try:

Freeman’s desire to put the team first and try a new position is certainly refreshing. He and Jones have already discussed the challenges ahead when it comes to learning the ins and outs of a new position.

“He just told me it’s going to be tough to do, ” Freeman said of his talk with Jones about moving to third. “I understand that. I haven’t played there in 10 years, but when you want to win you’ll do anything to win. Obviously Chipper was that kind of guy too. I’ve never put myself first. This is another thing for me. I want to win and get back to the playoffs. It’s been since 2013, so if me moving to third base to keep a bat like Matt Adams in the lineup is the best choice then I’m going to do it.”

Atlanta will have to monitor Freeman’s progress as it debates the merits of this potential switch. Freeman played some third base in his high school career and appeared in five games there with the GCL Braves in 2007, committing three errors in 14 chances. While those stats mean next to nothing at this point, it’s fair to question the likelihood of a smooth transition to third base after a decade-long break from the position.

That fact and the questions that come with it are not lost on Freeman.

“I think if I can do the little things correctly then everything else will fall in,” said Freeman of the value of the extra work he’ll put in with Washington over the next few week. “I’m obviously not going to go out there and make the spectacular plays. I don’t expect that. Maybe I’ll surprise some people, but I just want to be comfortable and confident over there going into the first game… I feel confident in myself that I can be able to handle it.”

Whether or not he should be handling the transition at this time is an interesting question, given that he is attempting to return from a significant injury in the middle of the season. It’s apparent that Freeman believes this is the best course of action for the team.

“My mindset is coming back as a third baseman,” said Freeman. “First base mitt is getting tucked away in the back of my locker. I’ve got an infielder’s glove and getting more sent to me. My mind is 100 percent on third base.”

Adams has been a tremendous boost to a Braves lineup that was in need of all the help it could get when Freeman went down. That one month of production appears to have warranted moving the franchise cornerstone from one corner to the other, though there is still ample time for the team to decide the best course of action.

For now, the Braves will wait and watch as Freeman goes through the process of becoming perhaps the most unlikely third baseman in franchise history.

 

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.

Braves Select Kyle Wright, Drew Waters in Draft

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves added another big time arm to their stable on Monday, selecting Vanderbilt right-hander Kyle Wright with the No. 5 overall pick in the first round of the 2017 Major League Baseball draft.

The team followed that up with the selection of switch-hitting, high school outfielder Drew Waters, a local product, with the 41st pick.

Wright, 21, is a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of Huntsville, Ala. He was a first team All-SEC selection after turning in a 5-6 record with a 3.40 ERA in 103.1 IP as a junior for the Commodores. He finished his college career 19-11 with a 2.79 ERA with 86 walks and 290 strikeouts and just nine home runs allowed in 255 IP.

As far as the scouring report, Wright boasts a low-to-mid-90s fastball that has touched 97 mph and backs that up with a curveball that has received high marks along with a slider and a changeup he continues to develop. Atlanta sees Wright as an arm who could ride a faster track that some of the recent prep picks. It’s worth noting, however, that some of those younger arms have been aggressively promoted and seen success of late, including Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, who are both just 19 years old and already pitching at Double-A this season.

The Braves have gone pitching heavy at the top of the draft in recent years. Scouting director Brian Bridges said the selection of Wright not only gave the club the player they wanted, but the best player available in the entire draft class.

“We are very fortunate to get Kyle Wright from Vanderbilt,” said Bridges. “He’s a horse and features four pitches, plus-fastball, plus-curveball, plus-slider, has feel for a changeup and great command.”

Wright was seen a potential No. 1 overall pick and rated the No. 2 prospect by Baseball America and the No. 3 draft prospect according to MLB.com.

“We had heard a little talk… that we had a chance of getting him,” said Bridges, who was skeptical up and until the time they selected Wright. “It’s far-fetched when you get the guy who’s still on the board, but shouldn’t be on the board. He’s advanced for his age and he brings everything we want to see. You know, there’s 29 other clubs and dependent upon which way they wanted to go, we felt like he was definitely up there, No. 1 on our board at the time, so we feel really good about where we are.”

Like many draftees before him, Wright admitted his affinity for the Braves growing up, which is not surprising given his Alabama roots.

“Me and my brothers grew up being the biggest fans of the Braves so it really could not be any more of a special or prouder moment for me right now,” said Wright. “I’m just very thankful for everyone who believed in me and proud to be a part of this great organization.”

Before Atlanta’s picked Wright, the Twins opened the night by selecting high school outfielder Royce Lewis with the No. 1 overall pick. The Reds followed by selecting fellow prep star Hunter Greene, a two-way star who will begin his professional career on the mound. The Padres then took prep left-hander MacKenzie Gore at No. 3, setting the Rays up to select Louisville first baseman Brendan McKay with the fourth overall pick.

The first day of the draft was not over for the Braves, who selected Waters out of nearby Etowah HS in Woodstock, Ga. with the No. 41 pick. A switch-hitter with speed, Waters impressed team officials during two private workouts at SunTrust Park, where he flashed some power that piqued the club’s interest.

Waters, 18, is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound switch hitter who batted .510 with 15 home runs in 104 AB for Etowah in his senior season. Those exploits helped the Eagles capture the first 7-A state title in school history. He was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Georgia and had committed to the University of Georgia.

“He played on our scout ball team in Jupiter [Fla.] and Fred McGriff had a chance to manage him and really said this kid has some intangibles that some other kids don’t,” said Bridges. “He really believes in his ability, really believes in who he is. He wants to be at the plate in big situations. He has a lot of confidence in himself and a lot of confidence in his ability.”

Bridges added that there was some discussion that Waters could’ve been an option with the No. 5 overall pick. As it turns out, the club got two players it coveted in Wright and Waters.

With its first two selections made, Atlanta has 38 more rounds to complete its 2017 draft class. There has been a focus on arms in the early going over the past few years, but Waters represents a quality position player making an early entry onto the Braves draft board. Rather than simply drafting for perceived needs going forward, the club will stick with the same strategy it has in recent years when it comes to deciding between arms and bats.

“We’re not scripting it out,” said Bridges. “We’re just trying to go with the best available player from here on out.”

The 2017 First-Year Player Draft continues on Tuesday with Rounds 3-10, then concludes on Wednesday with Rounds 11-40.

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.

Newcomb Shines in Debut, What’s Next for Braves Rookie?

The Atlanta Braves turned to a young gun to help fill a gap in their starting rotation. Highly-touted left-hander Sean Newcomb took the ball in Game 1 of Saturday’s double header against the New York Mets and made his much anticipated major league debut.

The results did not disappoint.

Newcomb turned in a strong line: 6 1/3 innings pitched, 4 hits , 1 run, 0 earned runs, 2 walks, 7 strikeouts  (96 pitches/70 strikes).

He opened his career in fine fashion, using his breaking ball to great effect to notch his first strikeout in short order.

Newcomb, who turns 24 years old on Monday, became the first Braves player to make his major league debut at SunTrust Park and continued the success that he’s enjoyed at the Triple-A level so far this season. Fan expectation ranged from pure euphoria to cautiously optimistic, but there weren’t too many complaints to be had with the southpaw’s outing. He pounded the strike zone to great results, issuing just one unintentional walk. Outside of a throwing error that led to an unearned run in the second inning, Newcomb enjoyed just about everything about his first day on the job at SunTrust Park.

A big, projectable lefty with electric stuff, Newcomb has carved up minor league batters for a career mark of 10.7 K/9, but that comes with a hefty 4.8 BB/9. On the plus side, opponents have managed to hit just .215 with only 14 home runs against Newcomb in 348 innings over his 71 career starts.

And he entered his major league debut on a serious roll. One that dated back to last season.

Coming into the season, Newcomb ranked No. 4 on my Top 30 Braves Prospects for 2017. The ability to pile up strikeouts is his calling card and his arsenal includes a mid-90s fastball to go along with a dynamic curveball that generates plenty of swings and misses.

Take a look at that hook.

In his 11 starts in the International League, Newcomb picked up where he left off in Double-A during the second half of 2016. He is 3-3 with a 2.97 ERA with 33BB and 74K in 57.2 IP –  good for a career-best 11.5 K/9, but a career-high 5.2 BB/9. He’s done all of that while allowing just three homers and limiting opponents to a .215 batting average. It’s front of the rotation stuff with room to grow and a few rough edges to smooth out.

Here’s the complete scouting report from my aforementioned Top 30 Braves Prospects List:

As the big return for shipping the popular Andrelton Simmons to Los Angeles, Sean Newcomb has faced high expectations since the day he joined the Atlanta system. The big left-hander has front of the rotation stuff, but refining his command is the big hurdle. The Angels took Newcomb with the 15th overall selection in the 2014 draft out of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. At 6’5” and 255 lbs., Newcomb has drawn comparison to Cubs ace Jon Lester throughout his minor league career. A glance at the size, stuff and throwing motion confirm that observation. After just one full season in the Los Angeles system and a trip the Futures Game in 2015, Newcomb switched organizations. He finished his first season with the Braves with an 8-7 record to go along with a 3.86 ERA and led the Southern League (and all Double-A pitchers) with 152 strikeouts, a total that tied him for second in the organization. Newcomb’s fastball is typically in the low-mid 90s, but he can easily push it to 97 mph, with reports he has touched triple digits over the past two seasons. His curveball is a plus pitch and generates plenty of swings and misses. The changeup is adequate and provides the necessary variety to be a useful third pitch.

The organization was encouraged with the way Newcomb finished his 2016 campaign with Mississippi, where he posted a 2.70 ERA with 23BB/69K and a .497 opponents’ OPS in 56.2 IP over his final 10 starts. When the Braves traded for Newcomb, he was at the forefront of the rebuilding effort and the first of many top arms added to the system. Now 23, he is the oldest of Atlanta’s top pitching prospects, but is still a work in progress in some respects. That’s not to say he is old by any stretch of the imagination. Though he will get a cursory look this spring as the Braves evaluate all their in-house rotation options for 2017, Newcomb appears bound for Gwinnett to open the season. If he picks up where he left off in 2016, he could be pitching in Atlanta before the summer is over.

With the double header coinciding with an injury to the struggling Bartolo Colon, the Braves will get their first look at an arm they hope will be a big part of their rotation in the future. Now with one stellar start under his belt, the club will have to decide if  this is a temporary promotion for Newcomb or if he’ll be given the opportunity to stick around and pitch his way into its plans for the remainder of the season. It’s worth noting that he was added to the 25-man roster, while Matt Wisler was utilized as Atlanta’s 26th man for the twin bill. That seems to be an indication that Newcomb is in line for an encore after a successful debut.

If he lives up to the scouting report, Newcomb will miss plenty of bats, but will also issue his fair share of free passes. His ability to strike a balance between those categories will be the key to his success, both immediate and long term. He did just that on Saturday, his first step into a larger world.

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.

Colon Placed on DL, Spot in Braves Rotation in Question

It’s safe to say that the Atlanta Braves have a big decision to make in their starting rotation. Any resolution was put on hold on Tuesday as the club placed veteran right-hander Bartolo Colon on the 10-day disabled list with the left oblique strain. A move that felt oddly more like a stay of execution than respite for an ailing, struggling player.

“I kind of feel there’s something going on that’s not allowing him to perform the way he’s capable of,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “We figure it’s good to back off the stress and try to get him right. We’ll take 10 days and hopefully everything clears up to where he can start doing what he’s capable of doing.”

At the very least, this DL stint is an unusual development in a situation that has been trending in the wrong direction for the better part of two months.

After an inauspicious April, Colon suffered through a dismal May. But it was his first start in the month of June which left many wondering when and not if the team will remove him from the starting five. The tipping point I speak of may have arrived in the wake of Colon’s Monday outing, when the Phillies tallied eight earned runs and chased the veteran right-hander in the fourth inning. Colon found himself on the disabled list the following day with Snitker hoping that the break will help the 20-year vet both physically and mentally.

“He’s been getting treatment for a while,” said Snitker. “But I think at some point sometimes you have to make a decision to protect a player from himself a little bit to get back healthy and back off the throttle a little bit. Hopefully the plan is to skip a start or two and try to get right, just get back healthy. Sometimes those guys that have been around longer, you know they’re such warriors that they have little things going on and they don’t want to  back off.”

The Braves invested $12.5 million in Colon this season and appear to have already reached the point of diminishing returns just 12 starts into the deal. With an ERA approaching 8.00 through 12 starts, Colon has proven largely ineffective with Atlanta. Following six innings of one-run ball against the New York Mets in his Braves debut, Colon has turned in just one other quality start in his last 11 assignments. That one came way back on April 16 against the Padres.

Colon, who turned 44 last month, has allowed 24 runs (17 earned) over his last 11 innings, culminating in his third consecutive losing decision on Monday. Following the game, manager Brian Snitker would not indicate whether or not Colon will make his next start, which is scheduled to come on Saturday as part of a double header against the Mets. The fact the club needs two starting pitchers that day may be the only thing that affords the veteran righty another chance.

With several young arms in the minors at their disposal, the Braves will have to choose a replacement for Colon and will be in need of at least two arms to pitch in Saturday’s twin bill against New York. As previously mentioned, both Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair remain on the 40-man roster and have big league time, while Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims represent the next wave of higher ceiling arms yet to crack the majors. All four men are currently pitching in Triple-A Gwinnett. Calling on Newcomb or Sims carries more weight, given the developmental needs of both pitchers and the fact that they will likely have some struggles when they are called upon.

Snitker added that Atlanta will not accelerate the timetable for right-hander Kris Medlen, who returned to the organization over the winter and is trying to work his way back to the major leagues after suffering a shoulder injury last season while with Kansas City. Medlen, 31, debuted in mid-May, but has made just four minor league starts and has yet to throw 100 pitches in any of those. General manager John Coppolella indicated at the time of the signing that the team was eyeing the All-Star break as an initial timetable for Medlen’s return if all goes well.

“I think Med would’ve been a good option, but he’s not there yet,” said Snitker. “I don’t think it would be fair to him until his workload gets a little more substantial. He would be a guy you’d be real comfortable with because he knows how to navigate around a lineup and all, but I don’t think at this point in time, as far as he’s come and as good as he’s doing, we really don’t want to do that to him yet. I think three weeks from now would probably be a different story, but right now it’s just a little too early in his workload that he’s had so far to think that [Medlen] would be an option.”

Despite the dreadful results, the team seems committed to giving Colon another opportunity once healthy. It was unlikely the team would simply cut ties with Colon, hoping to avoid paying Colon to pitch for another team should he find a way to turn things around.

Whether or not Colon finds a way to remain in the Braves rotation upon his return remains to be seen.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.