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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

 

NL East Arms Race: Philadelphia Phillies

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The past two seasons have seen the rise of a new powerhouse in the National League East, as the Philadelphia Phillies ascended to the top of the baseball world with a Fall Classic victory over the Tampa Bay Rays last season. Philadelphia’s prolific offense often takes the headlines, but the men on the mound will be the key contributors to any World Series repeat.

The foundation of the Philadelphia staff is budding ace Cole Hamels. Signing Hamels to a three-year $20-million contract this offseason underlines the fact that the club is well aware he has established himself as one of the premier pitchers in the National League, a claim further cemented by his World Series MVP performance. It also saves them from having to suffer through the arbitration years.

Hamels, 25, stayed healthy last season and went 14-10 with a 3.09 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 227.1 innings before blistering through Philadelphia’s October opponents. His playoff numbers were even more impressive, 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 30 punch-outs in five starts.

Brett Myers came up big in October for the Phillies, giving the club hope that his transition back from the bullpen may have finally come full circle. At 28-years old, the former first rounder will need to improve his work on the road primarily to give himself a chance to win 15 or more games in 2009.

In 14 home starts, Myers was 7-5 with a 3.01 ERA, but his numbers away fell to just 3-8 with a 6.21 in 16 starts. He has surrendered his fair share of the long ball last season as well, giving up 29 in 190 innings of work. Myers was at his best in the second half and that momentum carried through the postseason, where he was 2-1 in three starts.

The ageless wonder Jamie Moyer, 46, went 16-7 and shaved more nearly a run and a half off his ERA from 2007, down to 3.71 for the year. Moyer’s good work earned the soft-tossing lefty a brand new two-year contract worth $13 million this winter.

Moyer is entering his 23rd season, having piled up 246 wins in a career that essentially didn’t get off the ground until the age of 30. His ability to change speeds and give Philadelphia nearly 200 innings will be just as vital this time around.

Like Myers, Joe Blanton, 28, is another former first rounder who will be seeking to revert to his 2006 form. Blanton supplies innings, averaging 206 innings over the past four seasons, and has shown he could win games during his Oakland days. Run support shouldn’t be a problem with the Phillies.

Chan Ho Park resurrected his sagging career when he returned to the Dodgers last season, where his career began with such promise. In 54 appearances, Park went 4-4 with a pair of saves and a 3.40 ERA. While he did make five starts for Los Angeles, general manager Ruben Amaro did not immediately say how the Phillies plan to use the 35-year old Park.

Philadelphia also has both Kyle Kendrick and prospect J.A. Happ to compete for spots at the back of the rotation this spring. After starting the season 8-3 in his first 19 starts, Kendrick’s frequent shellings resulted in a 7.59 ERA in 12 appearances after the break and forced the Phillies to leave him off the playoff roster.

Happ got the nod to take over Kendrick’s spot in the rotation and quickly went about solidifying a claim for future starter consideration. He finished last season with a 1-0 record and 3.69 ERA in 31.2 innings, notching 26 strikeouts, with a 2.28 ERA in his four starting assignments.

Highly regarded right-hander Carlos Carrasco was rated the second best prospect in the Phillies organization by Baseball America and should be ready to battle for the fifth starter role. Carrasco, 21, was signed as an undrafted free-agent from the Dominican Republic in 2003 at the age of 17. Last season, Carrasco went 9-9 with 155 strikeouts in 25 starts between AA Reading and AAA Lehigh Valley.

Adam Eaton has completely pitched his way out of the Phillies plans and will likely find himself released if no trade can be brokered. This will put an end to a rather painful three-year $24.5-million contract that was signed prior to the 2007 season, when he turned in a 10-10 record and a 6.29 ERA in 30 starts.

In the bullpen, Brad Lidge leads what is a pretty sound Philadelphia relief corps. Last season was simply unbelievable for Lidge, as he converted all 41 regular season save opportunities before going perfect in seven more postseason chances.

At 32, Lidge is still in the prime years of his career and will continue to anchor the Phillies pen after signing a three-year $37.5-million extension last season.

Big righty reliever Ryan Madson turned in a 3.09 ERA in 76 appearances and staked his claim as one of the best eighth inning men in the National League. After an attempt to use him as a starting pitcher, the Phillies were rewarded for putting Madson back in the pen over the past two seasons.

Madson was at his best in September and October, turning in a 0.64 ERA in 13 games down the stretch, while going 1-0 with a 2.13 ERA in 11 postseason appearances. His good work earned him a three-year, $12-million extension this winter, allowing the Phillies to avoid arbitration and buy out Madson’s first two free agent years.

J.C. Romero was slated to serve as the primary left-handed reliever, but was suspended for the first 50 games of 2009 after a positive test for an over-the-counter drug. Last season, Romero paced the Phillies with 81 appearances and posted a 2.75 ERA while holding left-handed hitters to a minuscule .102 average.

Romero’s absence will leave the Phillies scrambling for a replacement to fill the void, but veteran lefty Scott Eyre should be able to help out. Eyre, 36, was acquired in an August trade with the Chicago Cubs and went 3-0 in 19 games 1.88 ERA with Phillies last season and signed a one-year $2-million deal last November to return to the defending world champions.

Clay Condrey, who was 3-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 56 appearances, and Chad Durbin, who was 5-4 in 71 games with a 2.87 ERA, will also hold down spots in the Phillies bullpen. The Phillies could choose to utilize any of the hurlers who do not grab the final spots in the rotation, with Park being the leading candidate to bolster the pen further.

Till next time,

G-Mc

 

NL East Arms Race: New York Mets

K-Rod_Mets.jpgThe moving and the shaking has not missed the National League East this hot stove season, with more than a few new faces joining East squads that are setting their sights on a trip to October. Atlanta brings a new look rotation into 2009, but their divisional rivals have made some big improvements as well. This installment of the “NL East Arms Race” delves into the pitching staff of the New York Mets.

Over the past three years, the Mets have been built to win, holding onto first place for large chunks of time before falling at the hands of the Phillies in the end. A near World Series trip in 2006 still fresh on their minds, the Mets have taken strides each off-season to bolster their squad. That trend continued this winter with a bullpen makeover.

When the Mets lost ninth inning man Billy Wagner to elbow surgery last season, they suffered through numerous late inning collapses and finished the year with 29 blown saves as a team. New closer Francisco Rodriguez comes off a record setting 62 saves last season for the Angels. Signing Rodriguez to a three-year deal was just step one of general manager Omar Minaya‘s plan to solidify the achilles heel of the 2008 Mets.

K-Rod will have help from another American League late inning star, J.J. Putz, who was acquired in a December trade with the Seattle Mariners. Putz will serve as the primary set-up man for manager Jerry Manuel. Lefty Pedro Feliciano and righty Duaner Sanchez will return to their roles in the pen this season and will be joined by right-hander Sean Green, who was also acquired in the Putz deal.

The Mets rotation will be the next place Minaya looks to fortify as Spring Training approaches. Johan Santana was spectacular in the second half of last season, but even his stellar work was not enough to lift the Mets above and beyond the September slide. The bullpen cost Santana a chance to win 20 games and likely take home his first Cy Young Award in the National League.

Minaya has already signed veteran right-hander Tim Redding to bolster the back of the rotation. Redding, who will be 31 when the seasons starts, revived his career while pitching for the Washington Nationals over the past two seasons. He tied a previous career-best with 10 wins and notched a career-high 182 innings in 33 starts in 2008. Still, Redding projects to be no more than a fourth or fifth starter in the Mets plans.

The Mets have turned their focus to bringing back lefty Oliver Perez, having lost out in the  Derek Lowe sweepstakes. Perez, 27, was brought over in a 2006 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates and promptly re-established himself with a 15-win season in 2007. His electric stuff is often overshadowed by his lack of command and penchant for bases on balls.

Perez, 10-7 with a 4.22 ERA in 34 starts a year ago, lead the National League with 105 walks last season and set career-highs with 11 hit batsmen and nine wild pitches. New York extended a three-year $30 million offer to Perez and agent Scott Boras, but those terms are far short of the reported five-year $80 million deal that Boras is believed to be seeking for Perez’s services.

That figure is mind boggling for a pitcher who won less games in 2008 than Ubaldo Jimenez, Kyle Kendrick, Brian Moehler and Jason Marquis. Pitchers who matched Perez’s win total from a year ago include Redding, Jorge De la Rosa, Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan and Barry Zito. None of those names can exactly be looked upon as impact players, but Scott Boras has a way with words and dollar signs. Just ask Zito.

Mike Pelfrey is a young talent on the rise, but more on the level of a Jair Jurrjens of Atlanta. Neither pitcher has the experience that makes them a bona fide number two starter in their teams’ rotation. Going 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA and logging 200.2 innings in his first full season with New York, Pelfrey proved to be a key component when injuries sapped the rotation of Pedro Martinez and John Maine.

Speaking of Maine, his health will be absolutely vital the Mets hopes this season. In just 25 starts a year ago, Maine was 10-8 with 122 strikeouts in 140 innings before a strained rotator cuff put him on the shelf late in the year. Surgery to remove a bone spur in his throwing shoulder should have him back at 100 percent and ready to go this spring.

Prospect Jon Niese, 22, could also figure into New York’s rotation with a strong spring, perhaps grabbing the fifth starter’s spot. Niese has won 11 games in back-to-back seasons and is coming off a very solid campaign that earned him a September call-up. Last season, Niese was 11-8 with a 3.13 ERA in 29 starts, striking out 144 batters in 164 innings between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A New Orleans.

If the Mets are unable to come to terms with Perez in a time frame that suits them, they could benefit from the standstill between the Yankees and Andy Pettitte and lure him away from the Bronx. The 36-year old Pettitte went 14-14 for the Yankees last season while logging 204 innings. A shorter term pact with Pettitte would not only save the Mets money, but also bring in a pitcher who carries 14 victories in 35 career post-season starts.

Till next time,

G-Mc