Results tagged ‘ Kenshin Kawakami ’

NL East Arms Race: Atlanta Braves

Derek_Lowe.jpgThere was a time when the Atlanta Braves were perennial Division
Champs. For 14-consecutive seasons, Atlanta marched in to October largely on
the strength of their outstanding starting rotation.

Now, some three seasons removed from their last postseason
appearances, the Braves are going back to their roots in order to gain
entry to October. The “Arms Race” series rolls on with an in depth look
at the Atlanta pitching staff.

Looking back at the 2008 season, the Braves can readily identify
that injuries in the pitching department cost them any chance of
returning to the postseason. The losses to key personnel were not
exclusive to the rotation either, as Atlanta’s bullpen suffered the
same kind of misfortune to key arms.

General Manager Frank Wren was a man on a mission this
winter, charged with rebuilding a beaten and battered rotation for 2009
and beyond. Wren stated his goal was to add at least two
front-of-the-rotation starters at season’s end.

The initial targets to anchor the rotation included San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy and free-agent A.J. Burnett.
However, after weeks of negotiations, any trade agreement with the
Padres reached an impasse. Opting to stay in the American League,
Burnett signed a five-year pact with the New York Yankees.

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While the early travails of the GM were met with disappointment,
Wren made the first move when he hooked up for a trade with the Chicago
White Sox that netted veteran right-hander Javier Vazquez just prior to the winter meetings.

Vazquez, 32, had long been coveted by Braves manager Bobby Cox.
While his stuff has not always translated into the results many have
thought were to come after his breakthrough season of 2001, Vazquez has
averaged 13 wins and 216 innings over the past nine seasons.

The new year got off on a bad note when Braves icon John Smoltz left the only Major League club he had known for 21-season to sign with the Boston Red Sox.

Smoltz had hoped to return to Atlanta, but was unimpressed with
Atlanta’s largely incentive-based offer. The Braves cited health
concerns that tempered their willingness to make a large guarantee for
Smoltz, who was recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery.

Ultimately, Boston came up with an offer with a larger base salary,
more attainable incentives and that targets a June 1 return date for
Smoltz. Just like that, Smoltz and the Braves turned a page that many
thought would happen only in his retirement.

While fans and scribes alike scrambled to make sense of Smoltz’s
decision, Wren proved unabated by the inability to lure Burnett to
Atlanta and went back to the free-agent well with two bold moves in a
span of 72-hours.

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The first move was signing Japanese right-hander Kenshin Kawakami
to a three year $23 million deal. Kawakami, 33, spent an 11-year career
with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League and compiled 112-72
record with a 3.22 ERA in 1642.1 innings.

Just two days later, the Braves landed one of the top starting
pitchers available when they signed Derek Lowe to a four-year $60
million contract. Lowe, 35, will anchor the new-look Braves rotation
after going 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 34
starts last season.

Lowe spent the first eight seasons of his career in the AL,
primarily with the Boston Red Sox. Since 2002, the sinker-balling
righty has averaged 15 wins and 208 innings per season. In a 12-year
career, Lowe is 126-107 with a 3.75 ERA and 85 saves.

The acqusition of Lowe, Vazquez and Kawakami fortifies the rotation in front of stand-out young hurler, Jair Jurrjens.
In his first full season, Jurrjens, 23, turned in 13 wins and a 3.68
ERA in 31 starts to come in third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

One of the more interesting position battles for Atlanta this spring
will be for the fifth starter’s spot. Some of the pieces left over from
2008’s “all-hands-on-deck experiment” will be vying for the opportunity
to fill out that final spot.

Among these pitchers will be right-handers Jorge Campillo and Charlie Morton, as well as lefty Jo-Jo Reyes.
Campillo, 30, enjoyed modest success after joining the Atlanta
rotation, going 8-7 with a 4.34 ERA in his 25 starts. His relief work,
1.25 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 15 appearances, bodes well if Atlanta
chooses to utilize Campillo out of the pen.

Morton, 25, and Reyes did not fair as well on the whole, though both
showed flashes of what put them among the top organizational pitching
prospects. Morton, was just 4-8 with a 6.18 ERA in 14 starts after a
June call-up.

Possessing a four-seam fastball that tops out around 95 mph that is
complemented by a two-seamer, solid curve and change-up, Morton has all
the tools to develop into a valued starter. Command problems hampered
Morton’s development earlier in his minor league career and seemed to
relapse during his stint with Atlanta.

Reyes, 24, seemed to be hitting his stride after eight brilliant
innings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 13. However,
from that point on Reyes dropped his final seven decisions to finish
just 3-11 with a 5.81 ERA in 23 appearances. Both Reyes and Morton
could be used as trade bait to net the Braves an outfielder as well.

The list does not stop there. Top prospect Tommy Hanson, a
22-year old hard throwing who lit up the Airzona Fall League will
likely be given the opportunity to audition as well. Hanson was 11-5
with a 2.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 25 starts between two stops.
Atlanta could also choose to let Hanson begin the season in Triple-A
Gwinnett.

Righty James Parr got a brief look last season and will also
be in camp to compete for a spot on the big league squad. Parr, who
turns 27 later this month, posted two good starts before being shelled
in his final three. He figures to be a long shot to grab the vacant
rotation spot.

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Tom Glavine could emerge as a candidate to fill the fifth
starter’s slot as well. That is, if the Braves and the 42-year old
Glavine can agree on terms. Glavine’s homecoming was marred by injury
and ended when the 300-game winner had surgery on both his elbow and
shoulder after going just 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA in 13 starts.

With a clean bill of health issued by his doctors, the Braves have
made Glavine an offer that is believed to be worth $1-2 million and
contain little or no incentives. The search for a left fielder will not
allow the Braves to stray from their initial offer, so the ball is
essentially in Glavine’s court.

The Braves also have Tim Hudson, who could make a comeback
from ligament replacement surgery in August or September. Hudson, 33,
was having a stellar 2008 season, 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA in 23
appearances, before the elbow injury.

The dominoes in the bullpen started falling in the spring, when projected closer Rafael Soriano
reported to camp with discomfort in his pitching elbow. Soriano had
just three saves in 14 appearances and spent much of the year on the DL
before elbow surgery ended his season in August.

Set-up man Peter Moylan came into his own in 2007, sporting a
1.80 ERA in 80 appearances and holding righties to a .184 average. His
encore campaign was over by mid-April, when he was forced to undergo
Tommy John surgery. The loss of Moylan was a void Atlanta struggled to
fill for the rest of  the season.

Mike Gonzalez returned in June to assume the closer’s duties,
picking up 14 saves in 16 opportunities. Now fully healed from his
Tommy John surgery in 2007, Gonzalez has pronounced himself ready to
show the Braves the same pitcher they sought when they acquired him
from Pittsburgh in December of 2006.

The rest of the cast includes right-handers Blaine Boyer, Jeff Bennett and Manny Acosta. Each saw more than their fair share action due to the rash of injuries.

Boyer spent his winter working out with Smoltz, in hopes of building
both the mental and physical stamina to become a more complete pitcher.

Last season, Boyer seemed to tire from his frequent appearances.
After posting a 3.93 ERA in 51 first half appearances, Boyer was
shelled for an 11.17 ERA in 25 outings after the All-Star Break and was
all but shut down in September.

Acosta, 27, had a brief opportunity as Atlanta’s closer before a
wild streak in June and a freak hamstring injury suffered running the
bases took put him out of action.

Atlanta will likely utilize Bennett as a long reliever, along with
one of the starters who fails to earn a rotation spot. Bennett, 28,
made a career-high 72 appearances and seemed to find a groove over the
season’s final month. Buddy Carlyle could also get a look in the long relief role.

Wren added lefty Boone Logan in the Vazquez deal, and claiming lefty Eric O’Flaherty from the Seattle Mariners. The duo will compete with Jeff Ridgway,
among others, to earn a spot as lefty specialist or in middle relief.
Logan has seen the most time in the majors of the three, totalling 144
appearances over the past three seasons while with the White Sox.

The Braves are still optimistic that they will be able to bring back lefty Will Ohman,
who enjoyed a career season in his first year with Atlanta. Ohman, 31,
made 83 appearances in 2008 and held opposing lefties to just a .200
average. Wren extended an offer to Ohman more than two months ago, but
the two sides do not appear any closer to a deal in the first week of
February.

Till next time,

G-Mc

 

Turning things around, Braves sign Kawakami

The off-season has not been what the Atlanta Braves had in mind when they entered the market with money to spend. With the fall-out of John Smoltz‘s departure fresh on their minds, Atlanta agreed to terms with one of their free-agent pitching targets on Saturday, signing Japanese right-hander Kenshin Kawakami to a three-year contract.

Financial terms have not yet been announced, as the deal is still pending a physical which will take place on Monday. During an 11-year career with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League, Kawakami is 112-72 with a 3.22 ERA in 1642.1 innings.

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Kawakami was 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA in 117.1 innings last season, missing some time with a back strain late in the year. Though he was part of a six-man rotation for the Dragons, most project Kawakami to fit into the middle of the Braves rotation, behind Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens.

Some have compared Kawakami to Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who signed a 3-year $35 million deal with Los Angeles last winter, but his career ERA was nearly half a run better than Kuroda’s 3.69 mark. Kawakmi’s achievements include the 1998 Rookie of the Year award and the 2004 Sawamura Award, which is the Major League equivalent to the Cy Young Award. Kawakami hurled a no-hitter in 2002 against the Yomiuri Giants.

Signing Kawakami is the first of what Atlanta hopes will be a two-step process to take the bad taste out of the mouths of all involved with the “Winter Not to Remember.” The second, and more major move, could be the signing of veteran hurler Derek Lowe over the next few days.

Atlanta put on the full court press for Lowe this past week, meeting for more than three hours with the righty and his agent, Scott Boras. Reports had the New York Mets making a three-year $36 million offer last week, but Boras disputes that claim and has made it clear that those parameters will not get a deal done for Lowe.

Lowe is coming off a 14-11 season with a 3.24 34 starts. His 211 innings mark the fifth time in seven seasons that Lowe has surpassed the 200 inning plateau. His durability and his average of 15 wins per season since 2002 would fit the bill of the front of the rotation starter Atlanta was seeking this off-season. 

How Lowe can we go?

Lowe_LA.jpgThe really big contracts have already gone out this winter, but all the major players in the free agent pitching market are not yet off the table. Secondary pursuits should start to fill the empty seats for the clubs that missed out on the likes of CC Sabathia, and in the Braves case, A.J. Burnett.

Look, I’m just excited to see a pitcher who doesn’t go by two initials attracted some attention on the market. It was starting to get a little weird. Although, I bet Derek Christopher Lowe would be more than happy to go by “D.C.” if he knew it would land him the rumored $16 million per year over four seasons that he desires. Were it not for the fact that he will turn 36-years old in June, his track record and post-season experience would easily net him a bigger deal than Seattle handed Carlos Silva last winter (4-years and $48 million). 

If the Braves were willing to go the distance in the Burnett bidding, only to fall short, then it would seem the money would still be available to put toward bringing Lowe to Atlanta. Injury was the question with Burnett, but age is the major point of contention for handing a multi-year deal to Lowe. His durability is not in question, however. Over the past seven seasons, Lowe has won 106 games and averaged 208 innings. Adding his veteran presence to that of Javier Vazquez and perhaps John Smoltz would give the Braves the experience factor. Throw in talented young right-handers, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, and you could have the makings of a strong rotation. Tim Hudson will likely miss the entire 2009 season as he recovers from his Tommy John surgery.

Atlanta’s interest in Lowe has been tepid at best thus far. It does not rule out their involvement altogether. However, to get into the bidding for Lowe, Frank Wren would have to approach the Mets initial offer of 3-year and $36 million that Lowe has already rejected. Also working against bringing Lowe to Atlanta is his agent, Scott Boras. The Braves history of signing and even retaining Boras clients is not exactly inspiring. It is doubtful that Boras and his team view Atlanta as anything more than leverage at this point, useful for driving up the price the New York Mets or Boston Red Sox would be willing to pay. Those two clubs also fit a certain criteria that every free agent is looking for, the ability to win now.

As most GM’s do, Wren has other irons in the fire, including Japanese hurler Kenshin Kawakami. There are reports that he has narrowed his choices to the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins. The AJC’s David O’Brien reports to the contrary after speaking with Kawakami’s agent this week. Perhaps Atlanta will remain in the mix. Kawakami will be 34-years old midway through next season, making him a few months younger than Hiroki Kuroda, who was signed to a 3-year $35 million deal by the Dodgers last winter. That price tag brings us back full circle to Lowe.

Though he may not be a clear ace, Lowe would fill Atlanta’s off-season goal of adding two quality veteran starters. Lowe is not Jake Peavy, but that ship sailed long ago.

Till next time,

G-Mc