Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Best (and Worst) of June

Hey, cool, I made it a month.  The Braves finished off a 13-12 June with a 7-5 victory against the Nationals in the oven known as Turner Field today.  Despite the win over the revered Stephen Strasburg, Atlanta remains one of baseball's disappointing clubs.  After opening the season with four consecutive loses, the Braves righted the ship and were 14-8 after 22 games, but since April 29th, Atlanta is a weak 27-28.  June started with a 6-1 record, but they only were able to win seven of their remaining 18 games of the month.

Regardless, with the month over, it's time to look at who made the best of a mediocre month and who helped drag Atlanta down.

Top Rookie of the Month - Andrelton Simmons - Simmons arrived on June 1st after a superb run in Mississippi to replace the struggling Tyler Pastornicky and has only been awesome.  He's hit .333 this month with an RBI today, Simmons actually drove in the second most runs this month with 14.  His ISO has been around .200 for the month with six doubles, a triple, and three homers.  Oh, and by the way, he's damn awesome defensively.  While he has made a couple of careless mistakes, he posted a 5.9 UZR.  Now, obviously, defensive statistics lose whatever value they may have in a shortened sample size, but if you have watched even a couple of Braves' games this month, you notice how much of a lift his glove, range, and arm have provided Atlanta so far.  In addition, when you compare him to Pastornicky (-12.3 UZR, still worst in among MLB shortstops), what Simmons has provided is even more notable.

Worst Pitcher of the Month - Mike Minor - It's becoming a recurring theme every time the lefty pitches.  While two of the four runs charged to him today scored after he left the game, Minor continues to struggle to reach the potential that made him the seventh overall selection a few years ago.  I do think that Minor, at times, is a victim of bad luck and sometimes, gets killed by his manager's quick hook.  But the results simply haven't been there for Minor.  His ERA actually was sitting under 4.00 for the month coming in today's game, but his FIP (5.84) and xFIP (5.03) showed a clearer sign of how he was performing.  For a guy who essentially made it clear that the Braves should pitch him or trade him, you'd like to see more than a HR/9 rate hovering around 2.0 and a walk rate climbing toward 4.0 per nine.  This second half could go a long way to help the Braves decide if Minor is closer to the prospect they thought they were drafting or closer to Kyle Davies and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Others - Tommy Hanson, Eric O'Flaherty

Worst Position Player of the Month - Brian McCann - At a certain point, McCann has to really start to put it together, right?  After an 0-for-4 today, McCann hit a miserable .193 for the month with an ISO nearly .100.  There was a brief point there when we thought McCann was finally coming out of season-long slump when he strung together three consecutive two-hit games with a pair of homers June 12-15th, but since that day, McCann is 7 of 49.  When people start asking if McCann is a player the Braves should extend, they'd like to see some performance.  McCann has been a weak point for this offense almost all season, but eventually he has to start putting it together.  His .297 BABIP will get closer to his career .357.  I hope.

Others - Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske

Best Pitcher of the Month - Craig Kimbrel - Today, Kimbrel ended his month with a pair of nasty sliders to put away a couple of Nationals hitters.  If you ever want a picture on domination, Kimbrel provided it in June.  For the month, he faced 36 batters.  THREE of them reached base.  One of them homered, another singled and stole two bases, and the other was wiped out on a double play.  20 of the 36 struck out.  Oh, and he nailed down all eight save attempts.  Suffice it to say, he was pretty damn awesome.

Others - Tim Hudson

Best Position Player of the Month - Jason Heyward - This was oddly a tougher choice than I assumed it would be.  With the month that Andrelton Simmons had, he could easily have taken this from him, but you cannot deny what Heyward did in June.  Heyward hit nearly .350 with a slugging percentage approaching .700.  He's earned a spot in the top three in the lineup and it seems unlikely that Heyward won't stay there if he continues to come close to the month he had in June.

Others - Andrelton Simmons, Michael Bourn

A few fun monthly notes...
  • Michael Bourn stole his 7th and 8th bases of the month...four more than the rest of the team. 
  • Chad Durbin appeared in 15 of 25 games in June.  
  • The only bench player who had a remotely good month (and he had a great one) was David Ross who went 9 for 23.  Combined, the usual bench like Eric Hinske, Jack Wilson, Juan Francisco, and Matt Diaz went 17 for 100.  

Friday, June 29, 2012

The All-Stars

I will be completely forthright with this. 

I hate the All-Star Game.  I hate the idea that it "matters," I hate the fact that every team gets a player, I hate that fans stuff ballots for their guy, and I hate the choices that managers typically make for who gets to go and who doesn't.  Too often, guys aren't selected for what they have done in that season.  Case in point..."let's send Chipper to the All-Star Game!"  This is an often used rallying point and it's absurd to me.  Chase Headley is second in WAR among NL 3B with 3.2.  He's not a power hitter, but he has played stellar defense, gets on base, and has enough pop to get into scoring position in a hurry.  Chipper's a 1.5 WAR player, which ranks sixth, and three months into the season, Larry has played just 42 games.  So, please, official Braves facebook page...knock it off with your #votechipper campaign.

But because this is a Braves blog and the All-Star Rosters will be announced Sunday, here are the Braves that should be in the All-Star Game.  For what it's worth, I don't really care about voting results, every team gets an All-Star, and so on. 

2B - Dan Uggla - Though he has been more 2011 1st Half Uggla and less Uggla Smash lately, the results favor Dan Uggla to back up Aaron Hill as the top two 2B in the NL this season.  Uggla leads NL 2B's with 11 homers, 51 RS, and ranks second in RBI.  More notable is the 15.9% walk rate he's sporting, 2 points higher than his previous best.  He's striking out at a career pace as well so this patient approach has been a bit of a double-edged sword.  In addition, his slugging is the worst of his career and he's in danger of missing out on 30 homers for the seventh consecutive season.  In the field, call it a fluke, but Uggla is posting his best UZR/150 since his rookie season.  While I don't believe he will continue with that all season, it's irrelevant in trying to find this season's All-Stars and Uggla is a deserving one.  That said, you can go with Brandon Phillips and make a valid argument. 

LF - Martin Prado - If there is likely to be a major snub, it could come in the form of Martin Prado, though the guy in right field could also be snubbed.  Prado is having a wonderful bounceback season after last year's troubles.  He continues to display tremendous defense in left, at third, and even in cameos at first.  But you cannot sleep on the job he is doing at the plate.  While Ryan Braun is the obvious better play and Melky Cabrera won't be held out doing what he's doing (still a douche), Prado's .380 OBP and .370 wOBA have been huge catalysts in pushing offense on what has been, at times, a punchless lineup.  He's embraced the speed factor, swiping nine bases compared to 13 bases before this season.  Prado could be the manager's pick to fill out the team like Omar Infante was a couple of years ago, but Prado deserves his spot.

CF - Michael Bourn - When talking up Trevor Bauer, MLB Network's Mitch Williams used footage of Bourn swinging through one of Bauer's pitches for a strikeout and added "and that's a guy (Bourn) that never strikes out."  Well, he does nearly 20% of the time.  And that criticism is all I can use against Bourn, who is having a monster season as a Brave.  With two hits tonight, he could reach the century mark.  He's swiped 20 bases, scored 50 runs, and muscled seven homers after hitting just seven the last three seasons.  While I think he could do a better job getting on base and he does K a shitload for a leadoff guy, Bourn (and the guy who usually has followed him) have given the guys behind them a wealth of opportunities to accumulate RBIs.  His defense in center isn't even close to being matched by anybody in the NL. 

RF - Jason Heyward - An All-Star his rookie season, Heyward should return in his third year as one of the best young talents in the game.  Heyward started off good, slumped in May, and has been a beast in June.  If he continues, we may remember 2012 as the year Heyward started to figure it out.  He's passed all RF's in WAR with 3.1 and is truly the whole package.  10 steals, 12 dingers, a .370 wOBA, and a 7.7 UZR/150.  Oh, and I think he's really only scratching the surface.  Expect him to become more patient and hit even more homers as his experience grows.  And for those who have either compared Heyward to Jeff Francoeur or called Heyward a bust...hey, I'm not the type to say "I told you so"...

P - Craig Kimbrel - How awesome has Kimbrel been this season?  When he gives up a run, we start being concerned that the world is off its axis.  When he gives up a homer, we search the skies for an alien invasion.  Kimbrel has continued to just get better.  After a superb rookie year, Kimbrel has followed it up with a ridiculous first half of the 2012 season.  He has posted a 1.23 FIP in 29 games.  To put that number in context...Arodys Chapman is second among NL relievers in FIP with a 1.77 FIP, or essentially a half-run higher.  Kimbrel's 14.9 K/9 rate is second to Chapman and as is his 1.4 WAR.  His 8.9 weighted fastball is second to Sean Burnett's 9.9.  His 3.4 wCB is third to David Hernandez and teammate Kris Medlen.  Kimbrel is simply dominating at an unGodly pace right now which has been all the more important because the rest of the bullpen has been a major disappointment, save Medlen and Chad Durbin (for the most part). 

There you have it...the five Braves that should be headed to the All-Star Game.  Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Beachy might have been included, but we all know why they won't be going. 

Random Prospect of the Day - Matthew Kennelly

Back to the offensive random prospects, helped out by a Random.org number generator, and I land on yet another backup catcher type.  For what it's worth, the focus with this column is to not have a love affair with super prospects, but shine light on maybe some guys most Braves fans have never heard of.  They might be journeyman, long-shots, or never-will-be's, but the majority of players who make up the system are guys you won't ever be on any Top 20 prospect list.  For previous versions of this column, click here and here.

What a handsome devil!  My wife would just love you.  Granted, you are a catcher and I'm not sure my wife has ever seen a catcher she didn't love.  Still, congrats on not being ugly.  The guy to the left is Matthew Kennelly, a Braves farmhand since he was 16.  What makes his story a little unique from the typical one is that Kennelly was signed out of Australia, where he was a member of the 2006 team that played for the World Junior Championship. 

Kennelly finally made his stateside debut after he turned 18, appearing in 39 games for the Gulf Coast League's squad in rookie ball.  The results were not very pretty as Kennelly hit just .215 with a .578 OPS.  Kennelly continued on, joining Danville the following season (2008) and appearing in 44 games for the D-Braves sandwiched around a late July trip up to Rome where he played in ten games before coming back.  With Danville, Kennelly hit .246 and showed zero plate patience with 8 walks to 37 K's.  His 13 extra-base hits included four homers, but the Braves probably had hoped for more than a .650 OPS.  In 10 games between late July and early August with Rome, Kennelly went 16 for 35 (.457) with 5 2B's.  Between the two stops, he gunned down 57% of would-be basestealers, dominating that part of the game.

Kennelly would bounce between Rome and Myrtle Beach the following season, playing in 46 games with Rome and just one more game with the Pelicans.  His 2009 stats didn't give the Braves much to be excited about, though his walk rate improved dramatically.  He obliterated his previous high of ten walks with 27, but OPS'd under .600 between the two stops.  His numbers for the Pelicans were even worse as he OPS'd .499 when he played there.  After looking like a Mini-Pudge Rodriguez with his arm the previous season, his follow-up campaign wasn't nearly as good as he threw out just 20%.  He was on the provisional roster for Team Australia's 2009 World Baseball Classic team, but wasn't selected to join his mates (hehe).

He spent 2010 as a the primary starter at catcher for Myrtle Beach, spending the entire minor league season there and getting into 76 games during the Pelicans' final year with the Braves.  He improved his walk rate slightly and set a new high with seven homers, but again only hit .226 while throwing out just 28% of would-be basestealers. After the season, he returned home and played in the Australian Baseball League, hitting .306 for Perth, where he played alongside his brother Tim, who is a utility player in the Phillies organization. 

If you aren't going to produce offensively, become a catcher because regardless, you are getting promotions.  Kennelly went to Mississippi to open 2011, though he would quickly be needed for an injury replacement in Gwinnett and played in two games there before returning to Mississippi to complete the season.  Kennelly played in 74 games and had his best year stateside since 2008.  He hit .262 with a .675 OPS.  He also went 2 for 7 with Gwinnett in his brief time there.  Again, he played for Perth in the ABL after the season and hit six homers in just 45 games with an OPS topping .800 so the value of these numbers aren't high.

This season, he has hit to the tune of .210 for Mississippi while backing up Christian Bethancourt.  He's in the process of walking more than he has struck out (15 to 14), though he has once again displayed zero power.  He also played in his first games away from behind the back of the dish, getting a game at first and two at DH (how bad is your offense when Kennelly is DHing?). 

Overall, Kennelly remains an organizational guy who lacks the potential that made Braeden Schlehuber a high draft choice or the potential that has made Bethancourt such a high reward talent.  Kennelly might head to Gwinnett next year to caddy Bethancourt or might back up Schlehuber at Mississippi.  Or he might just be released.  Likely to be included as a World Baseball Classic possible participant for the 2013 version of the event, Kennelly is a long-shot to ever sniff a major league roster.

Though, hey, J.C. Boscan has been in the majors each of the last two seasons. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How Awful is Jack Wilson?

Jack Wilson just grounded out as a pinch hitter in tonight's game against the Diamondbacks.  It was 2-2, the Braves were guaranteed eleven more outs, and no one was on base with the top of the lineup due up.  Fredi Gonzalez goes to Jack Wilson to get a rally started.

Don't think about that idea too long or your head might explode.  Jack Wilson is hitting .172 on this season in 36 games and 70 PA.  Does he get on base?  No - two walks.  Does he hit for power?  No - 1 2B, 1 3B.  Oh, so he's still an amazing defender, right?  Nope - negative UZR over the last three seasons with a -13.1 UZR/150 this season. 

I get that he had a history of being a solid defender with some outstanding seasons as a Pirate and with Tyler Pastornicky sucking it up as a major leaguer, the Braves needed a defensive option to be the Rev's caddy.  Andrelton Simmons, however, has been in the majors since the beginning of June and is a better defender.

I am Jack Wilson's Utter Lack of Ability.

Listen, I know I'm not privy to all of the insides of baseball.  Maybe Wilson is a great guy in the clubhouse.  Maybe he plays jokes and settles differences and gives awesome backrubs.  Like I said, I don't know.  What I do know is that Wilson is a beyond horrible ballplayer in today's game.  It's not personal, it's just a fact.  Why a team wouldn't change out a bad bench player for one that might be productive is beyond me.  I understand that currently, Wilson is the only Brave capable of playing shortstop behind Chipper.  But that doesn't mean you can't grab a shortstop-capable backup to join the bench.  

This continues to be one of my pet peeves.  Don't stick with bad ballplayers with no potential.  Move on and improve your team in every possible way.  I understand improving the 25th man on your roster doesn't have the same importance as acquiring a starting pitcher to stabilize the top of the rotation, but regardless, the Braves need to stop carrying Wilson because...

Well, it pisses me off.

That and he's terrible.  But still, it pisses me off.

What Starters Should the Braves Target?

As the Zack Greinke rumors begin to fly and the possibilities of bringing him aboard explored by a few bloggers, I felt it was time to take a look at what starters the Braves should seek out.  I'll try to keep this exercise reasonably realistic.  Obviously, a team headed to a sub-.500 finish would still be a little hesitant giving up a team-controlled starter simply because they should be sellers.  I also lack much "inside" knowledge so what I know is easily accessible and my suggestions are sometimes just desire rather than any rumors whatsoever.

Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs - Currently on the D.L., but expected to return before the All-Star Break, Dempster has often been mentioned as a target and with good reason.  Dempster joined the Cubs in 2004 and both as a closer and starter, "Dumpster" has found success, including four consecutive seasons of 2.8 WAR and above.  He will finish his $14M contract this season and become a free agent at 35 so a big run is the last chance to get a multi-year contract.  He has full 10/5 rights so he can refuse any trade, though indications are that he would jump to join a contender.  Despite an overly misleading 3-3 record, Dempster has put up a 3.25 FIP and 1.9 WAR in 12 starts.  However, the Braves will need the Cubs to cover some salary and while the Cubs are willing to do that, it may take some serious prospects to do so.  Trading a guy like Randall Delgado might make the top of the rotation more formidable, but it still puts a lot of the weight on Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor.  It all depends on what the Cubs are willing to take in return for covering salary, but because this isn't a fire sale, the offers might need to be high. 

Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs -  A Super 2 arbitration guy, Garza is actually retain-able past this year, though it would come at a raise from his current $9.5M salary.  Garza was tremendous last year, posting a 2.95 FIP and 5 WAR.  He has come back to Earth so the question that needs to be raised that seems to be ignored...is Garza worth $12M in the final year of arbitration and the players the team acquiring him would have to surrender?  Garza enters today with a 4.00 FIP and a 3.54 xFIP so the production level's not terrible, but I'm not sure he fits into Atlanta's budget for next season.  I've mentioned Garza a few times, but I do think this idea is probably not the right direction for Atlanta. 

Zack Greinke, Milwaukee - Often mentioned as a prime target, Greinke is the best available starter on the market.  A true number one starter, Greinke is a free agent at year's end so any trade would likely include a window to sign Greinke long-term.  Will the Braves be willing to sacrifice a considerable package and the money toward an extension for Greinke?  Well, yes, they should if the Braves can keep Julio Teheran and afford the extension.  Greinke is a tremendous performer, capable of quietly posting a 5.1 WAR season like he did in the year following his 2009 9.3 WAR Cy Young season.  Greinke's FIP is sitting at 2.22 and while the package would be costly, an extension added on would make this a coup.  But can the Braves compete with other teams gunning for him?  Some big cities may shy from Greinke, afraid that he's not big-city material, whatever bullshit that is.  Things would have to fall right for Atlanta, but Greinke as a Brave could be the biggest move of 2012. 

Luke Hochevar, Kansas City - The chances the Royals will cut bait on Hochevar are not high and since a bad start to the season, the Royals have began to turn things around, but would a chance to add a couple of reasonably ready players entice Dayton Moore to move his best starter?  For those of you staring at his ERA, take a look at his FIP (3.60) and his increasing strikeout rate (7 K/9).  A Super 2 arbitration guy before last season, Hochevar will have two more seasons of team-control before free agency hits and with the Braves' luck with Scott Boras clients, chances are you are acquiring two-plus seasons of performance.  If the Braves could get Moore to go for Hochevar without surrendering some of their prime prospects, he could become a nice consolation prize if the Braves do not want to meet the Cubs and Brewers' demands for their stud starters.  He's not a first target, but I think could he could throw some quality innings in August and September.

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota - Unlike Hochevar, Liriano does have a lot of rumors beginning to swirl about him.  After a terrible start to the season, Liriano has righted the ship and has a 2.84 FIP in June, a far cry from the 6.55 FIP in April.  There are some legitimate concerns about Liriano, who was once one of the best young pitchers in the game.  His control left him last year and until recently, had yet to return.  What's to say Liriano isn't having one good month of success and will succumb to the struggles he had earlier this year that pushed him to the bullpen?  Considering that the market might be high for him and thus, the price may be bumped up, can the Braves hope that he has found himself again?  Well, it all depends on the market price.  If other teams are considering packages higher than, and this is purely speculative and I'm not a prospect expert, Zeke Spruill and Todd Cunningham, then the Braves will probably have to bow out because the price is too high and the risk too great. 

There are some other names, but often there are questions about their health (Brandon McCarthy, Shawn Marcum) or they are just rotation filler (Joe Saunders).  The Braves should aim higher. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Favorite Braves List - First Base

(Previous information about this list can be found here.)

Favorite Braves List (so far)
Catcher - Brian McCann

A few weeks ago, I began what should be a recurring list over the summer - My Favorite Braves of All-Time.  Brian McCann was an easy choice and today, we head over to first base.  This position was ultimately an easy choice (much like catcher), though I imagine we will start getting tougher choices with the rest of the list. 

Some honorable mentions - Adam LaRoche was quietly a solid first baseman for the Braves for three seasons until he was traded to the Pirates.  His return for a two-month stint in 2009 helped give the Braves a lift.  While nearing the usual retirement age for most people, Julio Franco kept getting hits.  He hit .291 in Atlanta during parts of six seasons, playing in 501 games.  Andres Galarraga was a likable guy who had two explosive seasons sandwiched around a year lost to cancer.  He hit .303 with 72 homers for Atlanta.  Freddie Freeman might push his way onto this squad once he finds his stroke again.  Sid Bream started three consecutive opening days for the Braves, but his place in Atlanta lore will always be remembered for beating the throw from Barry "Girl's Arm" Bonds to end the 1992 NLCS. 

Favorite Braves List - First Base
Fred McGriff

130 homers, three All-Star Games, two 10 MVP finish, and one press box fire. 

Those just a few of the reasons that McGriff tops this list.  First base has been a position void of long-term stability behind three-year reigns by Bream and LaRoche, though in between those two was the "Crime Dog," who started for four+ years for Atlanta in the middle of "The Streak."  He helped Atlanta to their only title in 1995, hitting two homers in the Series, and OPSing over .900 during the postseason as a Brave.  There is so precious little to get down on McGriff for.  Not counting the year the Braves acquired him, McGriff was an 11.7 WAR player for his four full seasons as a Brave and while UZR doesn't like his defense, he always seemed rather capable around the bag.

Here's a funny number.  In his four full seasons after the trade from the Padres, McGriff batted fourth all but five times.  Once Chipper Jones was settled into his spot ahead of him, the Braves offense made things very easy on Bobby Cox.   McGriff was the dependable power threat from first base that simply came to the stadium and produced. 

McGriff began his career as a ninth round selection by the New York Yankees in 1981, but his stay with the volatile Yanks didn't last long as he was traded after the 1982 season to the Toronto Blue Jays with Dave Collins (who led the league in triples for the Jays) and Mike Morgan (who played for 12 MLB teams) with the Yanks getting Tom Dodd and Dale Murray.  Talk about a dumb deal.  The Yankees had traded Dodd to the Jays for John Mayberry just seven months earlier.  Murray was an average to bad reliever who would be out of baseball within a few years.  While neither Collins or Morgan became long-term contributors for the Blue Jays, McGriff became a star.

At the time of the deal, McGriff had spent two seasons at rookie-ball and was still not 20.  In his first year in the organization at two stops at A-ball, McGriff exploded for 28 homers.  He hit another 22 homers in '84 between AA and AAA.  After an injury-shortened 1985 season, McGriff posted an .816 OPS at AAA in '86, earning a brief cup of coffee.  After a rookie season platooning at DH and backup first with Cecil Fielder, McGriff took over first base in 1988 for the Jays and began a three-year run as one of the top 1B's in the game.  In his first three seasons as a full-time starter, McGriff hit .283 with a .927 OPS to go with 105 homers.  He finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice and won the first of three Silver Sluggers.

However, with John Olerud also at first in 1990, the Jays looked to cash McGriff in to fill out the rest of their team.  Toronto sent McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter.  Rarely does a deal that includes a budding superstar leaving your franchise work out so perfectly.  Alomar and Carter were instrumental in Toronto winning their only titles in 92-93.  Meanwhile, McGriff continued to produce, spending the next two-and-a-half seasons with the Padres.  He hit .281 with 84 homers and a .906 OPS.

The Braves, who continued their 1991 platoon of Sid Bream and Brian Hunter into 1993, were in need of a jolt.  Trailing the Giants by eight games in their final season as an NL West member, the Braves had pitching but their hitting was sluggish.  Only two teams had scored less runs in the National League.  Terry Pendleton was in the midst of a down year and getting little production from catcher, first base, second base, third base, and center field nightly was keeping the Braves from being the contender worthy of their starting staff.  Packaging Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott, and Melvin Nieves together, the Braves got their man in Fred McGriff.  His arrival was preceded by a fire and culminated in a fantastic run that saw the Braves win 51 of their remaining 69 games to pull into a tie for the division lead on September 10th.  The Braves would pull four games ahead, but saw the lead whither in the final days to a tie on September 30th.  The Braves hosted the Rockies for the final series and took the first two games while the Giants beat the Dodgers two straight to match them.  It came down to the final day.  Atlanta roughed up former farmhand David Nied while Tom Glavine won his 22nd game of the year, winning 5-3, and immediately went to the clubhouse to watch what was happening in L.A.  Salomon Torres walked five while not finishing the fourth inning and the Dodgers rolled all over the Giants 12-1.  McGriff hit .310 with a 1.004 OPS in 68 games with the Braves, a driving force behind erasing an eight game deficit (though the Giants did help), and pushing Atlanta back into the playoffs.  They would fail in the NLCS, though McGriff was fabulous, hitting .435 with four extra base hits in the six-game series. 

McGriff settled into life as a Brave in 1994, hitting a career-best .318 over the strike-shortened season with while finishing fourth in the league in homers (34) and RBI (94).  He became the first Brave to win the All-Star MVP.  He even finished one off his career best with seven steals.  Fangraphs gives him 4.9 WAR and career-best .423 wOBA.  Like others in the game, possibly the best season McGriff would ever was cut short in early August due to the work stoppage.

While a solid contributor over the next two seasons of his career, the days of McGriff placing himself very well in the leaderboards was over.  McGriff's OPS slumped into the .850 range the next seasons as he began the early 30s stage of his career.  He was an All-Star again in 1995, the second-to-last trip to the Midsummer's Classic.  In 1997, McGriff posted the worst OPS of his career up until that point at .797 and as an upcoming free agent, Atlanta wondered if McGriff's best days were past him. While productive during the NLCS against the Marlins, McGriff's costly error in Game 1 led to three unearned runs in a 5-3 loss while he was the last player at the plate during Game 5, known as the Erik Gregg game. 

After the season, the Braves performed the rare act of selling a player to another team as the expansion Devil Rays acquired the first baseman on the same day as their expansion draft.  Two days later, the Braves moved on with former Rockie Andres Galarraga as part of a three-year deal.  McGriff was rejuvenated in the AL and posted an .864 OPS over 577 games as a Devil Ray, including a 27-game run in 2004 that led to a release to end his career.  McGriff also spent a year-and-a-half as a Cub and one injury-riddled season with the 2003 Dodgers. 

McGriff was an easy choice for this list.  The Braves didn't have a first baseman up to his level before him and have struggled to replace his production level since.  From his dramatic beginning as a Brave to the sad ending of his time as a Brave (thanks Eric Gregg...no really...it was totally a strike!), McGriff endeared himself to the Braves universe as one of the most consistent, likable, and productive players the Braves had.  While Freddie Freeman has the chance to bump him off this list, right now, McGriff is the clear pick for first base on my Favorite Braves squad.  In fact, he's the clubhouse leader to hit cleanup.


Additionally, the three players given up for McGriff in 1994.
  • Vince Moore never made it to the majors.  The outfielder seemed to fall apart after the trade, in fact.  He was hitting .292 with 14 homers for Durham at the time of the trade and finally seemed to be reaching the potential that had made him a fifth round pick in 1991, but his OPS fell 80 points after the trade.  He hit a miserable .161 over 54 games in 1994 and never hit better than .256 or hit over 15 HR with the Padres system and when he left the organization after 1997, he had played in 92 games at AA and none above that.  He played independent ball for the next seven seasons.
  • The Braves had acquired Donnie Elliott the previous season for Ben Rivera and he was superb finishing the season with the Greenville Braves in 1992.  He struggled through 18 starts at Richmond in 1993 before the trade, but he was a semi-significant performer for the Padres in 1994, appearing in 30 games, all but one as a reliever.  However, after an injury-shortened 1995 campaign that saw him pitch in 8 games (one with the Padres), Elliott was released.  He spent 1996 with the Phillies AAA squad and after probably a season lost to injury, Elliott split 1998 between the Texas League (independent) and the Texas Rangers AA team.  He would be out of baseball as a player following 1998.  Still, getting 31 games out of Elliott was better than zero from Moore.
  • Melvin Nieves was the big prospect from the trade and was named the 39th best prospect by Baseball America entering 1993.  He was hitting .278 with 10 homers for Richmond at the time of the trade.  The Padres took it slow with him and he spent the next year-and-a-half with Las Vegas, appearing in just 29 games with the Padres.  In 1995, he joined the Padres for 98 games and hit a paltry .205.  The Padres sent him to the Tigers as part of a seven person trade during the 1996 spring training and Nieves seemed to find some footing in the bigs as he posted an .807 OPS and finished third on the team with 24 homers, but 158 K's in 484 PA was concerning.  The following season, all of his marks fell and though he still hit 20 homers, he posted 157 K's in 405 PA.  After '97, the Tigers shipped him off to the Reds in a deal that included future Brave Paul Bako.  Nieves appeared in 83 games as a Red, mostly off the bench, and posted a .717 OPS.  His MLB career was over after 1998.  He went to Japan for two seasons before coming back state-side in 2001 for a 13 game run in the Rockies organization.  A year in the Mexican League and one in the Atlantic League followed.  After not playing in 2004, Nieves joined the Nationals organization in and while solid, never got a callup.  In 2006, he played for three different teams in two different independent leagues.  He finished up after a year off by playing in six games in the Mexican League in 2008.  As far as prospects go, Nieves failing made this deal even more of a win for the Braves because Nieves had the power to develop into a big threat at the major league level, but never could make enough contact. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not-So-Random Prospect of the Day - Aaron Northcraft

When someone does what Aaron Northcraft did Friday night, they need not wait and hope to randomly be chosen as a prospect to write about.  Northcraft, starting his 14th game of the year for the Lynchburg Hillcats (A+), quietly tossed the first no-hitter of his professional career against the Salem Red Sox.  In full disclosure, Northcraft's no-hitter was shortened to seven innings because doubleheaders in the minors typically are shortened to avoid too much stress on the pitchers.  Still counts, though.  All told, Northcraft faced three above the minimum because he walked a pair of hitters and hit a batter, but Northcraft K'd ten batters.  He induced eight ground balls to one flyball.  One ground ball was booted by Matt Weaver and the 'Cats turned a double play.

It was a great night for the Hillcats, who won the first-half title in the Northern Division.  After a rain-out last night, they opened the second half with a double header sweep of the Red Sox.  In the first game, Weaver laid down a bunt that ended an 11 inning game with a squeeze.

Northcraft was drafted by Atlanta in the tenth round during the 2009 draft.  Mike Minor is the only Brave to make it to the bigs so far from that draft, though David Hale has some nice stuff.  He signed for a $125,000 bonus, the sixth highest bonus among 2009 tenth-rounders.  He was the first guy drafted out of high school by the Braves that year, which spoke of philosophical change the Braves had moved toward at the time.  Northcraft is a California-native who, when drafted, was considered a guy who projected very well, could touch 91 mph on his fastball at 19, and already had a nice hammer of a curveball.  At the time, he was also considered a solid outfield prospect with big-time raw power.  However, the Braves liked him on the mound.  

After signing, Northcraft went to the Gulf Coast League and had an uneven performance that would begin to characterize his career.  In 11 games, all but one as a starter, Northcraft struggled considerably to harness his stuff.  His walk rate reached 4.9 BB/9 and he hit nine guys in 40 innings.  The K rate was decent enough at 7.0 and he allowed less than a hit an inning, but you can't walk nearly five guys every nine innings and expect much success.

In 2010, Northcraft headed to Danville as a 20 year-old and he started to show some signs of progression with the D-Braves.  He walked just nine in 58.2 innings (a 1.5 BB/9 rate) and while his K rate fell, you can be a damn good professional with a 4.22 K/BB rate.  He earned a promotion to Rome to finish the season and didn't translate that success so well.  In four games, three starts, Northcraft was battered to the tune of 21 hits and 15 walks in 14.1 ING.  He struck out just eight batters while allowing 18 runs, 13 of which were earned.  

Needless to say, Northcraft came back to Rome in 2011.  He spent the whole season with the Rome Braves, pitching in 23 games, 19 starts, and reaching the century mark in innings for the first time.  His FIP was at 4.30 for the year so I wouldn't call the season a success, but at the same time, his walk rate fell to 3.5 BB/9 and his K/9 rate got back to 7.0.  But his bouts of wildness remained a concerned.  He hit 12 guys and uncorked nine wild pitches.  A nice sign was that his GB% rate was nearly 50%.  There were enough potentially good signs, though you would like to see some more progression.  Northcraft wasn't rocketing up any prospect lists.  John Sickels didn't give him a spot in the Top 20, though he did mention him in the "Others" section. 

Northcraft went to Lynchburg to open 2012.  Overall, he's been damn good sometimes and downright ugly other times.  But one thing that Northcraft has been doing very well this season is getting a ridiculous amount of groundballs to go with a high strikeout rate.  His GB% was sitting pretty at 61% coming into tonight's 8 GB/1 FB/10 K outing.  8.4 K/9 is the best of his career, a full strikeout better actually.  Add the seven innings of tonight's ball and Northcraft hasn't given up a homer in 80 innings.  His WHIP is a bit high, but his FIP is damn good (2.92).  

Now, given, the Carolina League is a pitching-heavy league.  Regardless, you have to take a step back and look at what Northcraft has put up this season.  He has a real shot at being a potential rising prospect for Atlanta.  Put a good infield behind him (which defensively, the 'Cats lack...he should have been here last year to have Andrelton Simmons at short) and Northcraft has the ability to reach high levels of success.  You have to love the strikeout rate.  If he continues, Northcraft should be entering some Top 20 prospect lists after this season and in a perfect world, would have a career as a major league #3/#4 starter or nice reliever.   

Friday, June 22, 2012

Random Notes

Don't really have a specific subject in mind, so here are a few things of interest.

The Braves are third in WAR among non-pitchers in the majors.  A big part of that is due to the Braves currently leading the bigs in the fielding component of WAR, which for non-catchers is UZR.  Last year, the Braves finished in the bottom ten in the fielding component.  The outfield has been tremendously important to this change, even though they are not different from the team that closed last year.
However, that has been all season. Andrelton Simmons is already fifth in UZR among shortstops and he doesn't even a full month of action to amount such statistics.  It helps put his numbers in perspective.  UZR is not a counting stat so it can go up and down, but that is a fairly amazing start to his career without even getting into anything else.

In addition, Atlanta is currently the only team with two guys in the Ultimate Base Running top 10.  UBR is the base-running component of WAR. 

Now, of course, some crotchety old guy is yelling that games are played by players, not by robots and wins are the only thing that matters.  And I won't argue that the Braves haven't been a particularly dominant team, but that is not the fault of the defense.  In fact, compared to recent years, this defense is amongst the best Braves squads in years.  You have to go back to the 2005's year of the Baby Braves with Andruw, Francoeur, KJ in left field, Langerhans, and the up the middle combo of Giles and Furcal. 

Hitting-wise, this team has struggled and pitching-wise, there has been some problems, but for once, the defense of this team is a strength.  For all of the talk about moving Prado to third next season, maybe the Braves should try to keep him out in left for his defensive skills.

I have always been a Tommy Hanson fan.  Maybe sharing our first names helped.  However, after looking like he was on the verge of becoming an ace last season, Hanson's numbers have taken a fall this year and largely, it's the same fucking problem that Jair's had.  Loss of velocity.  Hanson's fastball averaged over 92 mph coming into last year where it lost 1 mph to 91.  His slider and curve are so good that loss of velocity was made up in some regards.  This year, his average fastball is 89.8 mph.  Looking at Jurrjens, this was the career arc that has led to at least some of his struggles. 

If Hanson doesn't start to turn it around, I would think the Braves should learn from Jair's fall and see what the trade market might look like for Hanson.  I love him, but I hate losing.

Why are the Braves wasting time with Tyler Pastornicky playing shortstop-only at Gwinnett?  I'm sure his makeup is solid enough that he can handle the ego hit of being demoted and turned into a utility player.  The best chance he has of getting back in the majors and stay this time is to have positional flexibility. 

Watching MLB TV, former Phillies clown Larry Bowa said that NL teams cannot match up to the Yanks at Yankee Stadium.  I could have swore the Braves just 2-out-of-3 from them in Yankee Stadium.  Even more...the Braves are managed by Fredi Gonzalez so that's all the more impressive that the Yanks lost 2-of-3 to them.   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Was Jair Jurrjens' Trade Value Hype?

Coming into the offseason after last year's debacle, any trade speculation involving the Braves also seemed to include Jair Jurrjens.  According to Dave O'Brien, Jon Heyman, Jayson Stark, and a score of bloggers, the Braves were fielding offers for Jurrjens.  Even more, Frank Wren was in the enviable position of waiting for a Zack Grienke-like haul, or at least that was the feeling.

But as the winter months got colder, no deal seemed relatively close.  There was the Rockies and reports said they were interested in both Jurrjens and Prado and names like Seth Smith, Charlie Blackmon, and Tim Wheeler were thrown around.  The Reds supposedly liked Jurrjens before trading for Mat Latos.  The Yankees were expected to be interested, though not sure if they really cared.  The Orioles liked him, but weren't fond of trading him as part of a deal that included Adam Jones.  The Royals were in on Jurrjens, but a reported deal of Jurrjens/Prado for Lorenzo Cain/Wil Myers was quickly shouted down.

All told, 8-10 teams were supposedly in on Jurrjens, but the winter ended with Jurrjens still a Brave.  A messy spring with injuries followed.  Once games started to matter, Jurrjens fell flat, walking more batters than he struck out and posting a sad FIP of 7.89.  A quick demotion and an uneven reign as a Gwinnett Brave later, Jurrjens will return to Atlanta on Friday to take Brandon Beachy's spot in the rotation.

Makes you wonder if Jurrjens' trade value ever matched the hype that he was getting on the interwebs.  Jurrjens, who turned 26 last January, is a young starter with a 119 major league starts on his record, 115 before this season.  A 1.28 WHIP with a 120 ERA+ coming into this season gave the impression of a good starter, but the hype was that he was being marketed as a great starter.  One thing is clear.  Even before this season, Jurrjens didn't have the credentials of Greinke or the domination of Latos.

(Sidebar, Latos has struggled with the Reds...and I think a big part of that comes down to the fact that he gives up too many flyballs.  Why the Reds don't focus on extreme groundball-type guys in that park boggles my brain)

Jurrjens' walk rate has routinely topped the 3.0 BB/9 mark, though it fell sharply last year to 2.6.  In addition, his K rate had topped a half-dozen per nine innings, though that also fell last season to 5.3.  The people who are paid the big bucks should have seen the writing on the wall.  When your ERA is a full run lower than your FIP, something is amiss and last July, the ballsy never-done move would have been the right one.  Course, hindsight's great and everything.  However, a view at the numbers BEHIND the numbers gave the impression that Jurrjens wasn't so much taking his place among the better pitchers in baseball as he was getting by with 75%, 25% smoke-and-mirrors.  His positive production wasn't sustainable, even without going into his final few months of injury-shortened baseball.

July of last year was really the only window Wren had to cash in on Jurrjens to hope for the Geinke-like package.  If he was still hoping to see it last winter, he was a fool.  I'm not privy to any numbers that no one else can't see and most upper management includes at least one guy who has heard of FIP or WAR.  Maybe they don't listen to them so frequently, but they are there.  And maybe they look like Jonah Hill from Moneyball, but really, they are there and advising other GM's.  As they prepared offers for Jurrjens, because while his value wasn't sky-high, he still had value as a good clog in the middle of the rotation, their offers and interest simply couldn't match the hype about Jurrjens.  The results were there to show this.  The Royals weren't in the slight bit interested in giving up Myers for Jurrjens and his salary bump despite their huge need for starting pitching.  The Rockies wouldn't even consider Nolan Arenado and tried to pawn off some high-reward guys.  The O's?  Yeah, I can imagine that discussion.

Wren:  "Yeah, I really like Adam Jones and I think I can put together a good package of players starting with All-Star Jair Jurrjens and...hello?  Hello?"

Whether Wren was all that interested in the big package of players headed his way like the Royals got for Greinke or the D'Backs got for Dan Haren is up for debate.  I'd like to believe he wasn't that stupid.  I'd like to believe he was interested in getting a couple of potentially good bats, but hardly top prospects.  Or maybe he was convinced that, coming off an All-Star year and a supposedly breakout campaign, Jurrjens was now one of the top young pitchers in the game.  If he was, I'd add that fact to an increasing number of notes that are giving me the impression that a man I once thought was one of the better GM's in baseball doesn't deserve such respect. 

Jurrjens is back in the bigs come Friday and is trying to rebuild himself as a significant member of the Braves.  His 4.46 FIP in the minors this year doesn't give a guy much confidence that he can reach that former success.  If he can put together a couple of good starts, Wren needs to sell high.  He needs to market Jurrjens as a starter headed back to his former glory and maybe now, the O's will be interested in a lesser deal.  The Orioles are so desperate, they have given minor league deals to guys like Jaime Moyer and Dontrelle Willis.  Why not trade for Jurrjens?  The market might not be much, but maybe the O's would be up for 1B Tyler Townsend, IF Tyler Kelly, and anyone else named Tyler to go along with left-handed reliever Troy Patton or right-handed reliever Darren O'Day.  This may not seem like a lot, but Jurrjens doesn't look to me like a guy who has much of a future.  Grab some potential bats and a reliever to help this season and let the O's or another squad gamble on him. 

But this does require Jurrjens to, ya know, pitch relatively well for a couple of starts.  A foreign concept, I know.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are the Braves Built to Win?

Several years ago, then-General Manager John Schuerholz published an ego-stroking book called Built to Win.  At the time, the Braves were coming off the "Baby Braves" year of 2005, a year that was supposed to jump-start the next string of playoff appearances.  Since that book was released during the spring of '06, the Braves have made one trip to October baseball and find themselves in the midst of a disturbing trend of loses.  On May 20th, Tim Hudson and the Braves shutdown David Price and the Rays 2-0.  Since that win, the Braves are 9-16.  By the way, that string includes a six-game win streak.  They have lost a game-and-a-half lead and now trail the NL East by 4.5, which is only possible because the Nationals are remembering that they are the Nationals of late.

Did the book create a curse or are the Braves just not built to win anymore?  Well, since I don't believe in curses, I am forced to look at what it holding the Braves back.  This is a team that has the fourth most valuable offensive player according to fWAR in baseball leading off.  Martin Prado follows with 2.9 WAR, good for 12th.  Dan Uggla has played some of the best baseball of his life, though you wouldn't know it by seeing the comment pages at Yahoo, MLB.com, or the AJC.  But, to their credit, those people are fucking idiots.  Jason Heyward's defense has been tremendous and his .339 wOBA has been productive, though the Braves justifiably were hoping for more.  Brandon Beachy has been great, though that looks like it has ended.  Tim Hudson's FIP of 3.08 makes his 3.90 ERA look much nicer and Craig Kimbrel has shown that, if not the best, he's among the class of his position.

That's a lot of great stuff, huh?  Well, outside the the whole Beachy injury.

Two things truly stand out quite negatively.  One, I only mentioned three pitchers.  Randall Delgado has turned it around a bit and we have seen some good things from Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen, but that is about it.  Mike Minor has turned into a schizophrenic - sometimes good, sometimes bad, rarely just okay.  Makes a guy miss Russ Ortiz...and that gives me the shakes.  And really, outside of Minor, the rotation is the only good thing about this staff.  Jonny Venters has been a disappointment and his FIP doesn't show signs of unluckiness, though his xFIP gives some hope I guess.  Eric O'Flaherty is in the same boat.  Chad Durbin's results have been much nicer than the way he's pitched.  I guess Lispy has been decent, though.  Getting Meds back into the pen is almost a necessity because of how poorly the guys trying to get the game to Kimbrel have been. 

And let's not even go into the abysmal failure that has been the Braves bench.  There is no legitimate reason why Jack Wilson and Juan Francisco are in the major leagues.  Francisco's on-base is .243.  It would be all find and dandy if this was the Pirates, who took a chance on Brandon Wood figuring it out, but the Braves are supposed to be contenders.  You don't keep hoping Francisco gets it together while wasting at-bats and assisting the competition in beating you.  The demotion of Tyler Pastornicky means that Wilson's "job" as defensive replacement was voided.  The Braves are essentially keeping a guy whose main value now is that he bunts really nicely.  Matt Diaz has had his moments (I guess) and I give Eric Hinske a longer leash than many because, well, he's been exposed because of injuries.

Brian McCann has been in a season-long slump, though he has showed signs of turning it around.  Chipper Jones, between ugly-ass bruises and a second wife tired of his affection for Hooters (I'm guessing), has struggled since returning off the DL.  First, Freddie Freeman couldn't see and now he can't hold a bat.  Tomorrow, I imagine he will lose the sense of smell.

A lot of the above really sucks, but let's be honest, the coaching doesn't seem to be doing the Braves any favors.  There is a growing movement in social media to axe Roger McDowell.  I am not there yet, but I can see the validity in contending that McDowell isn't right for the job.  In his defense, he is dealing with a lot of young pitchers and the regression of Venters and O'Flaherty happening in the same year is a bit much to deal with.  That said, this is a results-driven business and his job is on the line during the second half.  Or at least, it should be.

But then, Fredi Gonzalez should be on the hotseat.  Gonzalez, who was at the helm during last season's epic collapse, has saw these Braves get an early start.  After a great opening to the season, with the offense no longer slugging or at least stringing together long at-bats, the Braves are no longer a front-runner and that does, in some part, fall upon Gonzalez's shoulders.  Listen, I do believe that we as fans tend to overdo the idea that the manager deserves all the blame.  I don't think it's all Fredi's fault, but some of the roster and game decisions have been so damn frustrating that it's hard not to think something needs to be changed with the leadership.  Playing short-handed rather than DL certain players, most memorably Chipper, hurts the team and with very little good reason.  I'd rather lose a guy for 15 days and have an extra spot on the roster, especially in the NL, than lose a guy for ten days and play with 24 men.  His usage of the pen has been downright mind-boggling at times.  His quick hook has hurt more times than it has helped and he doesn't seem to adjust to that.

The Braves are a mix of nice pieces and dead weight.  Beyond that, management seems incapable or unwilling to move this franchise toward bigger and better things.  The Bobby Cox-handpicked successor is a failure to this point.  Damn his winning record.  Most Braves fans feel, and I agree, that this team has just about as much talent as any contender, but the Braves seem destined to finish under .500 for the second consecutive month.  With every day that nothing is done to this roster or management, the feeling that this team is headed to yet another early offseason grows.  No, this team isn't built to win, but it's not a terrible squad either.  There is enough here to cobble together a Wild Card winning team, a team that, if hot, has the chance to go deep into the playoffs. 

But changes need to be made today, not tomorrow.  You can lose a shot at making the playoffs in June just as easily as you can September.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Random Prospect of the Day: Luis Avilan

Welcome to the second edition of this column.  Like before, using a random number generator and the list of pitchers used at the minor league level by the Braves, I came up with a random prospect.  Basic idea is that most sites will go over the big stars, but what about the sleeper guys?  The never-will-be guys?  The minor league veterans?  That's the purpose of this column.  In full disclosure, this was the third guy randomly chosen.  The first was a guy in the Dominican League and I'll shy away from those guys for the most part.  The second was a utility player who pitched an inning.  Finally, random.org gave me number "1" and that was today's random prospect.

Say hello to Luis Avilan, a Venezuelan southpaw who the Braves signed in August of 2005 as a 16 year-old.  Avilan has slowly made his way up the system since that contract was signed.  I don't have too much information on whether or not he was a semi-big international signing for the Braves or not, though they must have thought he had some potential to bring him into the fold less than a month after his sweet sixteen.

Avilan began his professional career with two seasons in the Dominican Summer League.  His first season in 2006 was fairly average.  He pitched in 12 games, started eight of them, and was near the top five on the team in most counting statistics while posting a 3.29 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP.  Hits were a problem.  He displayed solid control, though.  The next season, Avilan began to display a pretty good arm.  He took the ball 14 times, all but one as a starter, and formed a damn good top of the staff with Randall Delgado and Dimasther Delgado.  Avilan led the team in wins, innings, and finished behind the lesser known Delgado in K's.  His ERA was lowered to 2.44, though it's worth stating that was the worst ERA of the five main starters the club used.  His 1.00 WHIP was good for second among those five starters, though.

Avilan was moved stateside to begin the next chapter of his career.  As an 18 year-old, he finished 0-3 in ten games with four starts, but his numbers were decent.  He led the team in K's, striking out a career best 11.5 K/9.  His 1.20 WHIP was better than Dimasther Delgado, who struggled with the GCL Braves.  Atlanta felt he was good for another promotion, this time to Danville to open 2009.  Similar results were found.  He often didn't start the game (3 GS in 14 G), but he was typically good at getting a couple of innings in with little damage.  He finished with a 3.05 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and a career-low 2.00 K/BB ratio.  Avilan was mostly a bullpen guy because people like Brett Oberholtzer, Chris Masters, and that Julio Teheran guy were around.

Finished with rookie-league ball, Avilan went to Rome in 2010.  For the first time, Avilan was used entirely as a reliever.  The results were solid with Avilan getting promoted after just ten games to Myrtle Beach.  He finished the year with the Pelicans, posting a 3.54 ERA in 41 games overall between the two stops.  He led the Pelicans in saves with nine.  His WHIP was a four-year high at 1.22 while his K rate fell for the third consecutive year to 7.6 K/9.

Continuing to roll, Avilan spent last season in Mississippi where, for the first time since 2006 as a 16 year-old, Avilan gave up over a hit an inning.  He set a new high in innings by reaching the century mark for the first time while starting 13 of his 36 games, but his WHIP ballooned to 1.40.  He gave up ten gopher balls and his K rate tied his career-low with 6.6 K/9.  For the first time, Avilan seemed to regress.  However, according to this blogger, it was the move from the pen to the rotation that got Avilan going.

Regardless, the Braves weren't about to let his left-hand arm get away and added Avilan to the 40 man roster after the season.  Avilan went to spring training with an outside shot of working his way into the mix and caught the eye of Fredi Gonzalez.  However, Avilan was demoted back to Mississippi to open this year.

The results have been about in line with last year.  His ERA is much better at 3.17, but his FIP is almost exactly the same (4.30 this year, 4.31 last year).  The K's are back to some degree and he's inducing some more groundballs than he did last year, but there's little in the numbers to think Avilan is again putting his name into the hat for an opportunity, which is a shame considering how the Braves bullpen could really use an arm like his if he was getting similar results to his play at A-ball.  There is some potential here.  Just hoping it comes out.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Could the Braves be Interested in Joe Saunders?

According to The Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro in a recent article, Atlanta is "said" to have interest in Joe Saunders, a right-handed starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The blog post has little to say on why the Braves could be interested, nor what the D'Backs could be looking for aside from adding that Saunders could bring back a decent return.  After dealing Saunders, the D'Backs could turn to Trevor Bauer, one of the better pitching prospects in the minors. 

I hate really biting on these type of columns because what does "There is said to be interest from Atlanta..." actually mean?  Is the author or his buddies sitting around wondering what teams might have a need for a starter whose prime value is his ability to take the ball every fifth day?  Or do they look at what teams might have interest in Ryan Dempster and use those teams as a list of squads interested in Saunders? 

Joe Saunders is owed the remainder of his $6M contract and will be a free agent for the first time this offseason.  After three seasons of struggling to claim a spot in the Anaheim rotation after his debut in 2005, Saunders began a string of what is now four consecutive seasons of 31 or more starts in 2008.  The D'Backs got him at the trading deadline in 2010 in the Dan Haren trade with the Angels.  That deal has worked out well for the Angels, though maybe Tyler Skaggs can turn that around.

Saunders' most similar hurler through his age 30 season, which Saunders finished last season, is Dennis Rasmussen and I think that's the kind of career Saunders can expect.  Rasmussen pitched for five different teams (six if you include two stops in San Diego) and pitched over 250 games in the majors, even though he put up an adjusted ERA+ of 94, or 6% than the adjusted league average over his career.  You always wanted to replace him, but you also always knew he could take the ball when it was his turn and typically, if you give him run support, you might get wins.  Guys like Russ Ortiz are a bit similar as well.

Overall, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Saunders.  He will get you some innings, not many K's, a solid walk rate, a high amount of homers allowed, and like Rasmussen, you will probably think you can do better.  It's not that Saunders is a bad hurler or anything like that, but he's also not a good one.  A 4.51 career xFIP that is pretty in line with his 4.60 career FIP.  This season, his ERA is 3.48, a shade under his 3.94 FIP, but his xFIP is closer to his career mark with 4.30.  That makes one think he is due for a regression. 

His fastball tops off around 90 mph and he will throw it a lot.  He will use his changeup to keep hitters off-balanced and adds a curve and a rarely used slider.  His change is probably his best pitch. 

Overall, you are looking at a 1 WAR player.  Those are valuable, but the Braves have 1 WAR potential starters coming out of their rear without needing to cash in a prospect or two.  Saunders has value, but his value is higher for a team who has four starters rolling and could use a fifth guy to stabilize things.  That's not where the Braves are...at least, not yet. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

See ya, Livan!

Officially, Livan Hernandez has been designated for assignment, not flat-out released.  Regardless of the semantics, Livan has been cut and his days as a Brave are concluded.  Good thing, too, because I get to introduce a new column..."See ya!" 

Livan was signed just before the season on March 30th to be the long guy in the pen.  At the time, it seemed like a reasonable move.  With O'Ventbrel covering the late innings, Kris Medlen handling a decent amount of the other high leverage situations, and Lisp Martinez and the recently acquired Chad Durbin getting any other leftover innings, Livan could focus on low-leverage, multiple-inning stints.  Those outings would often come with big leads/deficits or as the last guy out of the pen in a long extra innings affair.

It kinda started off like that.  Livan retired five or more batters in each of his first seven appearances.  The results weren't wonderful, but he did post a 1.28 WHIP, kept the ball in the park, and avoided walks.  He was averaging over two innings an appearance but then, things got weird.  Livan became an one-inning hurler.  In his final eleven games as a Brave, he retired five or more batters just four times.  Why the change?  Well, sure, part of it was that the high-leverage guys were getting overworked largely because of Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty's ineffectiveness. But the other part is probably Fredi's fault.  He's an idiot after all.

Livan had lowered his ERA to 2.73 when everything went to shit on May 27th when, for some odd-ass reason, Fredi decided to start using Livan as a rally-killer with runners on.  Livan had started some 924 games before this season and now, he's good to be Fredi's Kevin Gryboski?  Well, like a Gryboski, things got awful.  In a 2-2 game, Livan was called upon with a runner on and no outs.  Fredi had decided to throw Brandon Beachy out for another inning and after he hit the first batter, he got the hook.  Sure, sure, hindsight's awesome and stuff, but one of my huge problems with Fredi is this idea of his to run out a starter with a huge pitch count until he gives up a runner.  Well, you increase the other team's chances of scoring because scoring from first base is 90 feet easier than scoring from the batter's box. 

Livan gave up three runs in that inning, plus the run charged to Beachy, and the Braves went on to lose 7-2 after Livan gave up a fourth run on a Bryce Fucking Harper homer. 

Now, here is where you throw him back out in a few days to try to get him some work.  I mean, you won't let that bad taste linger, right?  Oh...you didn't like that idea, did you?  Fredi buries Livan on the bench until...two weeks later on June 10th against the Blue Jays.  The Shitfest to end all shitfests...until that Yankee game.

Julio Teheran made a spot start and looked pretty decent until the fifth inning.  Up by four, Teheran loaded the bases with one out before giving up an RBI single.  Needing a rally to be killed, a blindfolded Fredi points at a name on the lineup card and calls in Livan from the pen.  Because he worked so well as the rally killer before.  Four consecutive hits and it's 6-4.  A couple of homers in the next inning and the rout was on.  Jays cruised to the 12-4 win.

Five days later, Livan was cut for the returning Kris Medlen.  I don't really have a problem with the move because it does make the team better.  Livan's FIP was at 4.71, though he really wasn't doing any different than you would expect him to do when you look at his last three years. 

Just the same...See ya, Livan!  You did exactly as well as you should have been expected to do and got cut for it.  Sucks to be you, guy.  For the first time in your career, I didn't loathe you this season. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Josh Willingham: 2013-2014 Left Fielder?

According to the wonders of three tweets from David O'Brien, a guy who the Braves should keep in mind for any trades this season is Josh Willingham.

Buster writes that the Twins might consider trading Josh Willingham if they decide they’re hopelessly out of the playoff picture before the trade deadline.
If I’m the Braves, I would pursue a trade for Willingham, and I mean seriously pursue it. Signed for $7 mill each of the next two seasons (2013 and 2014). He’s your left fielder, Prado goes to third base, and then you’ve got plenty of money to either re-sign Bourn if at all possible or trade or sign another proven leadoff hitter who’s not quite as expensive as him, plus have some money left to fill other needs.
I spent many a post on my former blog making fun of DOB's ramblings that often were ill-sighted at best.  In fact, I rather enjoyed picking apart his comments, though not nearly enough as Mark Bowman's shitty shit.  Still, it surprised me considerably as I viewed the comments on Mac's Bravesjournal after the latest Braves loss to see the quoted remarks.

This could work!

That sentence screamed in my head like a new mantra.  Now, I realize the chances of a move like this occurring are quite minimal.  Somewhere between my wife being okay with me sleeping with the newly divorced Winnie Cooper and sleeping with Winnie Cooper.  But let's just play a little of what I call ROSTERBATING LIKE A SEAMHEAD WITH THE NEW BASEBALL PROSPECTUS BOOK

That title may need some work.  Anyway, this isn't the first time I've considered Josh Willingham.  Last offseason, in fact, I thought about Willingham as a possibility should the Braves deal Martin Prado and not get back a left fielder in return.  At the time and right now, I remain conflicted because he provides both above average offense and below average defense.

First, the defense is, with respect, terrible.  Willingham began his career as a catcher and it should surprise few people that his defense hasn't really took off in left.  We're not all Craig Biggio.  Most catchers are more like Todd Hundley.  They were behind the plate for a reason, though it should be stated Willingham was actually a utility player when he began his career in 2001 as a minor leaguer, playing six different positions and none of them...were catcher.  Still, the moving around the field as essentially stopped and since 2010, he has played nowhere else except left field.  Three different teams, three different bad UZR's.

Suffice it to say, Willingham's value is his bat and it's pretty good.  11.4 BB%, .219 ISO, .368 wOBA is a pretty good season for most players and that is Willingham's career marks.  He has never hit 30 homers, but he has good power.  He won't hit .300, but he won't be an embarrassment and will suppliment his stats with walks and a oddly high number of HBP (tied for fifth most in baseball since the start of 2009).  He will get you 2 WAR and maybe 3 WAR.

He also tends to miss some time, due in some part, I'm sure, to an oddly night number of HBP.  Since 2008, he's hit the 130 games played mark twice and failed to do so twice (.500 AVG isn't good enough here).  But hey, since the Braves are losing Chipper Jones next year, might as well make the loss less of a shock, huh?

He's due $7M over the next two seasons and the Braves may need assistance to pay the rest of the $7M he's due this season.  In addition, he will get an extra million if he reaches 525 PA next season.  That's pretty good value for what Willingham provides, though you will likely to have to caddy a defensive replacement to him or grab a strong defender at third and move Prado to left when needed next season.  As for this season, it might seem a stretch to grab Willingham, but it's not insanely hard to see this working.  Between Prado's versatility providing off days at 1B/3B and moving Willingham to right for a game or two, it could conceivably work.  Willingham provides a right-handed power threat to a lineup void of it, especially in big situations late in games.

What would I give up for him?  Well, I'd start with an offer of Zeke Spruill, Todd Cunningham, and Juan Francisco and see what the Twins return with and see about meeting somewhere in the middle.  I wouldn't overpay for Willingham...he does have a couple of considerable and valid worries (defense and injuries), but under the right circumstances, getting Willingham could possibly play huge dividends.

Beyond giving me something to write about that didn't include the words "fire Fredi Gonzalez" as part of it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Favorite Braves List - Catcher

 (For information on this list, please click here.)

A couple of honorable mentions, though this one wasn't a tough choice.  Javy Lopez holds a majority of records for catchers in the franchise, including one of eight Braves in the franchise's history to hit 200 HR.  Greg Olsen was an All-Star for an awful 1990 squad, but more notable for this list, he was the guy in 1991 when watching baseball on TV suddenly became something I actually wanted to do.  Of course, he was also part of that notable Sports Illustrated cover.  If John Smoltz was Rick Vaughn, Olsen was Jake Taylor. 

Favorite Braves List - Catcher
Brian McCann

In 2005, when the Baby Braves took over the landscape, Jeff Francoeur became the new face of the franchise.  I would make the argument that the guy with the bigger future was the one who pushed Johnny Estrada out of a job.  Seven years later, Brian McCann has six All-Star selections, five Silver Sluggers, and Francoeur is on his fourth team.

At a position where offense is sometimes considered a plus, McCann has posted OPS's between .817 and .896 since 2008 with his wOBA now falling below .348.  Catchers like Miguel Montero, Carlos Santana, and Buster Posey have shown signs of being his contemporary, but only one player has been near him for the same time period and that guy, Joe Mauer, has fell somewhat back into the pack.

Not to say McCann is perfect.  While his offensive numbers have been great, they have also been falling every year since 2008.  It's hard to quantify catcher defense, but from the eye test, McCann is a failure behind the plate in throwing out runners, not the best at blocking pitches, and his game calling seems to be handicapped by micromanaging from the dugout.

However, with all that in mind, McCann has became his position's gold standard in today's game and truly one of the guys you to root for.  His effort is unquestioned and he seems to be one of the most liked members of the team.    McCann has slumped most of the year, though a BABIP of .236 helps to explain his struggles. By the end of the season, it is hard not to believe McCann will have an OPS topping .800 and another 20 or 25 homers. 

Finally, here is where my personal appreciation of a guy falls into conflict with my desire to see the Braves win.  McCann is a free agent after 2013 and I see no reason to extend him.  Those things I was critical about above...they aren't going away.  And while McCann will be only 30 in the first year of any new contract he signs so chances are he won't suddenly become horrible, is he worth the going rate for the better catchers in the league set by Yadier Molina (5 year, $75M) and Montaro (5 year, $60M)?  What if he wants to match Mauer's $184M, at least on average payment per year?  Is McCann worth $23M a season?  $115M over five years?

This is why I an enjoying McCann for the next year-and-a-half and hoping he is not a Brave come 2014 unless he gives the homest of hometown discounts.  Regardless, he is easily my favorite Brave and I am hoping the rest of my list is this easy.

Favorite Braves List

One of the ideas I have been throwing around is to include a list of my favorite Braves and I will start today.  Do not expect a new one everyday.  In fact, it may be another week before I include a new member to my Favorite Braves list, if not longer.  I will add a navigation to the right to make the list stand out.  Some guidelines...

I admit that I was not a fan of the Braves from birth.  One, I was born in Virginia and two, the local minor league club was the Mets and then the Red Sox.  I really didn't get into the Braves until 1991.  So, with that in mind, my list will start in 1991 to the present day.  No Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy, Warren Spahn, or Eddie Matthews.  This isn't a list for the Best Players in franchise history, but MY favorite Braves. 

There will be 15 positions.  Your eight regular starting spots, a four-men rotation, a right-handed reliever, a left-handed reliever, and a closer.  Over time, I may add to the list with other positions.  In addition, I won't cheat to add guys.  Sure, Chipper played left field, but he was a third basemen.  Sure, John Smoltz was a tremendous closer, but he was a starter. 

The list is a work in progress.  A player can play his way onto it and push a guy off the list.  For instance, Freddie Freeman probably won't be on the list right now, but he could conceivably push a player off the list.  Conversely, a player can be removed from the list, but it will take a Glavine-to-the-Mets type thing to make that happen. 

I hope this list is fun and provokes some responses.  And in a few hours, the first player will be added to the team. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Juan Francisco: Cut the Cord?

Toward the end of spring training, I was without internet because of a move to the boonies and most satellite internet costs too damn much for too shitty service.  Ultimately, we decided on Verizon who offers internet via their cell towers.  It's pretty good and cheaper than Hughes.

To keep up with the Braves, I'd take my wife's laptop to wifi locations or use my phone.  Using my cheapass phone, I accessed the AJC's section on the Braves and saw that the Braves, amidst a flurry of last-minute activity, acquired Juan Francisco from the Reds in exchange for J.J. Hoover.  I saw Hoover a lot when he was in the Carolina League and thought he didn't have too much potential for a starter.  Others agreed and he was shifted to the pen last year and has pitched for the Reds this year in that role and has had some success despite an insane GB rate of 25.6%.

My first thoughts on the deal were overwhelming positive.  It was the kind of deal I would have made, to be honest.  Juan Francisco has serious, Major League-quality power.  From 2008-2011, his lowest ISO in the minors was .219.  If he could, if he could, if he could just learn a little patience and strikezone discipline, he could be a solid corner-infield bat.

I'm sure Reds fans thought that when Francisco first showed up in 2009 and had a super positive 25 PA that included nine hits and a nearly .500 wOBA.  He has the power, but could he put the rest of his game together.  A few days ago, I spoke of Andrelton Simmons ability to improve as time went by.  Francisco...not so much.

Sure, the ISO got even better, but his highest walk rate was a smidge below 5%.  Let's put that into perspective, shall we?  In his first full season in 2006, Jeff Francoeur's walk rate was 3.4%.  He played every game that season and stepped up to the plate 686 times to walk only 23 (and six were intentional).  Francisco compounded the situation with a strikeout rate that settled in the 20% to 24% range.  Even Francoeur did a better job at putting the ball in plate.  Now, Francisco kept hitting the ball and even hit .307 last year.  But as Crash Davis would have you know, they don't throw ungodly breaking stuff in the minors like they do in the majors.  Doubt he saw too many exploding sliders playing in Norfolk or Scranton. 

Francisco doesn't have the patience to stick around, nor does he seem either able or willing to change his approach to allow for that.  He has 99 PA with the Braves this season and has K'd in 31 of them.  Add the three amazing walks and you get a guy who just doesn't look capable.  He's going to hit homers and he could easily reach 20 as an everyday player.  But he's not going to on-base .300, nor is he even going to provide something resembling a competent defense.  He has the arm, but not the instincts.  His UZR is below average and that's even an improvement over the butchering of third he did last year with the Reds.  To make matters worse, Francisco seems to not give a shit that he's overweight.  I am, too, but I can't hit a ball 450 feet, either.  At least, not without some cheat codes. 

The idea was that Francisco had the opportunity to settle into a role with the Braves and, if things went well, he might be able to compete for the starting job.  Frank Wren reasoned that his kind of power was hard to find, especially at third base.  He's right.  But that's all Francisco is.  A glorified batting practice king. 

Cut the cord?  Absolutely.  I know it's only been two months and it must be tough to settle into a bench role as a young player when you've always been a starter.  Also, he's out of options and something tells me there is some team out there willing to give Francisco an extended look.  However, the book is out on Francisco.  Throw him fastballs out of the zone, but focus more on throwing him a majority of the soft shit.  He might get one that's hanging, but he'll typically be an out, either without making contact or with a weak grounder.

Bring back Jose Constanza and ever saying that disgusts me.  Bring up Stefan Gartrell.  See what Bill Pecota is doing.  It's time to call this experiment a bust and move on.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Random Prospect of the Day: Braeden Schlehuber

(Introduction...I randomly generated a number from the current 117 Atlanta Braves minor leaguers who have an at-bat this year.  Hope to make this a weekly article or something close to it.)

Meet Braeden Schlehuber.  He kind of looks like a psycho.  No, really, he's cool.  I want to say that because, yes, I am kind of scared. 

Schlehuber was born in Bountiful, Utah on January 7th, 1988.  A right-handed hitting catcher, Schlehuber was drafted in the fourth round in 2008 and received a $240,000 bonus.  A product of the College of Southern Nevada, Schlehuber was one of five guys to be drafted from the school in 2008.  Solid numbers from a junior college, I'd say.  In fact, Bryce Harper went there to prepare to be drafted by the Nats.  Fellow Lynchburg Hillcat teammate, Chasen Shreve is also from the college, drafted in 2010.  Also, briefly a Brave, Mike Dunn was drafted from the college in 2004.  Schlehuber was considered a raw prospect with potential and was a calculated risk by the Braves. 

Shortly after he was drafted, Schlehuber signed and headed to the Gulf Coast League for his first taste of the professional experience.  In 42 games, all but six behind the plate, Schlehuber hit .268/.359/.301. Great on-base skills and he added seven steals.  Skipping Danville, Schlehuber headed to Rome to play in 2009.  The results were pretty miserable.  He hit .199, on-based .265, and slugged a paltry .308.  He did cut down 39% of baserunners in his 74 games behind the plate.  A pair of other catchers (Matthew Kennelly and Jesus Sucre) logged a combined 69 games as well behind the plate for the Rome Braves. 

Back at Rome in 2010, Schlehuber showed little improvement.  He hit .221 with a .562 OPS while backing up Christian Bethancourt.  Promoted to Myrtle Beach on July 15th, Schlehuber was even worse.  He hit a buck-fifteen as Kennelly's primary backup following the promotion of Sucre to Mississippi.  Why couldn't I have gotten Kennelly?  He also sucks, but he's played in Australia! 

Suddenly, without warning, Schlehuber showed signs of having a bat in 2011 with the Lynchburg Hillcats, my ex-hometown team.  I remember one instance when chasing a popup, he slid knee-first into the unprotected concrete behind home plate.  That's all I really remember, but Schlehuber did hit .248/.298/.430 while being the primary backup to Shawn McGill.  He threw out 38% of potential basestealers and was forced up to Mississippi for Bethancourt's promotion to Lynchburg last July.  Backing up Kennelly again, Schlehuber was competent and posted a .233/.316/.326 line. 

This season, Schlehuber is back in Lynchburg where for the first time since 2009, he is the primary backstop.  Now 24 and in his fourth season of A-ball, Schlehuber is hitting .293/.353/.512 for the first place 'Cats.  He's thrown out 35% of potential basestealers and has been a constant in the lineup.  If you make the cutoff 125 PA, Schlehuber's .865 OPS would rank 16th in the league.  Legitimate shot for the All-Star team which should be announced this week. 

Schlehuber seems to be a plus defensively and looks to have a good, strong, and accurate arm.  But eventually, you have to hit and Schlehuber has not been able to do that, outside of this season.  Let's be honest, though.  If you can't hit the Carolina League at 24 and in your fourth year of A-ball, you probably don't have much a bat.  If he sustains his offensive production, he will likely stay in the Braves' plans for another year.  The two primary catchers for Rome are both hitting under .200 so it's not like Schlehuber will be pushed or passed over. 

You'd like to get more out of a fourth round pick than a plus defender behind the plate with no major league potential.  Schlehuber was considered raw coming out and he could possibly be turning a corner.  Considering the lack of potential behind the plate outside of Bethancourt (ala J.C. Boscan getting promoted...again), the Braves would love to see Schlehuber continue his success at Mississippi next year and give the Braves at least a nice guy who can fill in as the backup catcher in a pinch.