Saturday, August 18, 2012

What To Do With the Six-Man Cluster****

Again, sorry for the lateness of getting back into the blog posting bit.  Today, we signed the contract on our house and Tuesday, we have an inspection.  So...that part is good.

Against my advice, the Braves and their mental midget-in-charge Fredi Gonzalez chose to go with a six-man rotation now that Tommy Hanson is perfectly healthy (wink, wink) and no longer suffering from any back pain (nudge, nudge).  Tonight, Hanson went 6.2 ING against the Dodgers before being unceremoniously removed following an RBI double by Shane Dick-torino.  The basic lines were the same as usual.  7 hits, 3 runs (all earned), 2 walks, and 5 K's with a homer allowed.  And that included a pair of perfect frames to open the game.  62 of his 100 pitches went for strikes.  He again struggled to hit 90 mph with much consistency.

As my old friend Dennis Green might say, Hanson was who we thought he was.  Wait, he WAS who we THOUGHT he WAS.  I always forget to speak with the right amount of manufactured outrage. 

Meanwhile, Kris Medlen tossed a five-hit shutout against the Padres the previous night, lowering his already stellar ERA to 2.03 with a nasty 2.61 FIP.  He's been awesome and I am wondering if his work is making the Braves believe that with Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, and Mike Minor already returning (provided Maholm's option is picked up), Medlen fits nicely behind them and allows Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran to battle for the fifth spot.

Still...send him to the bullpen to close the year.

I know it's unfair and I know that Medlen deserves a better spot, but at the same time, the differences between Medlen and the other non-Hansonish starters is not great.  On the other hand, the difference between Medlen and Chad Durbin is huge.

It's not right and I do believe Medlen as the fourth starter in 2013 is a cinch provided he remains healthy.  However, the Braves need to find out what they have with Hanson.  In 2011, he looked like a budding ace.  In 2012, he's an afterthought.  I understand Atlanta is competing for a playoff spot, but Hanson's not so bad that he won't occasionally luck into a win.  He was "meh" tonight and the Braves were able to win.  Think Meh-anson could catch on?  I don't care, it's my new thing.

Meh-anson has roughly seven, maybe more, starts to remind Atlanta of what they have always envisioned.  I doubt he will suddenly be able to turn it on, but stranger things have happened (like the fact that Juan Francisco suddenly looks like a true MLB talent).  In the meantime, improve the pen with the arrival of Medlen.  Tonight, due to a six-man bullpen, Fredi must demand innings out of his starting rotation.  Every Day Cory was demoted and you have to think Fredi would have not sent Hanson out in the seventh inning of a 2-1 game if he had a seven-man pen.  Hell, knowing Fredi, he would have used three guys to pitch the seventh.  Regardless, maybe a run would have been spared.

This idea that the six-man rotation will be used until this run of 500 Games of Summer ends and the project is truly a try-out period seems utterly ridiculous to me.  Either you are demoting Minor or Medlen to the bullpen in September.  Meds has already proven his value coming out of the pen, even if Fredi doesn't realize it.  I'd scrap the entire idea, but okay, do your fancy six-man staff until September and prove to yourself what you already knew.  Medlen can be a starter in the majors. 

And he will be. 

In April of 2013. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How Valuable is Ben Sheets?

With another solid outing the other night against the Phillies, Ben Sheets improved to 4-1 in his first five starts since June 15th.  He went a season-high 7.1 ING before being lifted and allowed one run on a solo homer while walking a batter and giving up seven hits.  Curiously, he struck out no one after entering the game with a superb 8.4 K/9 rate which might make us think that Sheets lacked his best stuff.  In addition, let's not kid ourselves - this version of the Phillies is hardly formidable.

Just the same, Sheets continued to build on his successful start and has brought a level of stability to the top of the rotation that simply did not exist after Brandon Beachy's injury.  Signing Sheets has appeared to be Frank Wren's best free agent signing to date since getting his current gig.

Naturally, Atlanta fans are beginning to be curious about how Sheets will fit in next year and beyond.  Or at all, for that matter.

Without getting the buggy before the horse, Sheets has five starts in two seasons and was last a major player for a rotation during a full season in 2008.  He's not exactly Mr. Durable.  So far, Sheets has relied heavily on his cutter to supplement his game, a stark change from his years in Milwaukee when he essentially was using his curveball to offset the hard stuff.  Now, he still has one of the game's best curveballs, but the cutter has kept batters off balanced and made his fastball all the more problematic.  The change began two years ago, when as an Athletic, he began to incorporate the cutter a career-best 5%.  Now, he uses it almost 14% of the time.  This is a considerable move for Sheets because before this year, he never had a third pitch.  He occasionally brought out the changeup, but 90-95% of the time, you either got a fastball or a curveball.  Both were great pitches and the Sheets' stuff and masterful location still made him successful.  His cutter isn't up to the level of his other two pitches, but it gives him something else and has helped to bring back the effectiveness of his curveball.

With every outing, Sheets is giving Atlanta what it desperately needed and is helping soothe the sadness of not getting an ace before the trading deadline.  In addition, he might be pricing himself out of the Braves' plans for next season.  This season, Sheets will receive the prorated amount of $2.5M, or a shade over a million.  He can and probably will reach all of his incentives if he remains healthy to add $1.5M to the total investment for Atlanta.  Even for three-and-a-half months, $2.7M or so is a paltry sum for Sheets.  He will not be that cheap in the offseason.

Obviously, I write this under the belief that Sheets remains healthy.  Chances are solid, I believe, that Sheets can command as much as $8M easily, especially over a short-term deal.  At 34 and with an injury-laden history, Sheets can probably only get two years and that's pushing it.  Some teams may look to get some assurances that they can get out of the second year of possible or simply make it a 1+1 year with an option for the second season. 

So, the question must be asked...will Ben Sheets be a Brave next year?  I want to believe that he will be provided some conditions are met.  Clearly, he has to remain healthy.  Second, I don't see the Braves engaging in a bidding war for his services.  Either their offer is good enough or he will be on his way.  That might require Sheets to take less.  And third, it cannot be anymore than two seasons.  So, if Sheets stays healthy, I'll plug in a 2-year deal with $16M plus another $4M in incentives.  $1M for 30 games started in both seasons, $1M for a Cy Young, $1M for 380 combined innings during the life of the deal.  My gut says Sheets will get more and I don't believe the Braves can match that. 

To help with finances, I would also lock up Tim Hudson for 2 years and $15M.  He has a $9M option for next season so the money saved won't be great, but Huddy might be willing to take some money deferred.  He obviously doesn't want to leave and having Huddy and Sheets at the top of the rotation until they are passed by some of the younger pitchers would provide stability and experience.  Both have injury concerns, but I believe Atlanta can take a shot.  If more payroll flexibility is required, trading Tommy Hanson is always an option.

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Not Braves related, but you may have noticed that this blog has received some sporadic updates lately.  Part of it was due to the internet issues I was having with the Verizon jetpack router.  The other part and the part that continues is that my wife and I are nearing closing on a house.  As we prepare for the move and get settled in the new house, updates might be tough.  I am excited about this blog and still have ideas.  This weekend, I hope to add a player to the Walk-Off Walk Favorite Atlanta Braves squad and also, another random prospect. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Should the Braves go to a 6-man staff?

So, as I am prone to doing, I brought up DOB's twitter account and looked for any interesting news.  Typically, there isn't much, but a retweet caught my eye.  AJC's Jeff Shultz contends that "Medlen should give Braves reason to consider 6-man staff."  Oh, really?

After explaining that Kris Medlen can do everything short of solving the debt crisis, Shultz says...
There is one option the Braves should consider, at least in the short term: a six-man rotation.
It’s a little out there, and not something a team would do in the season’s final pennant-chasing weeks (when you want your best pitchers to get as many starts as possible). But it makes sense now, both because of the circumstances of those in the Braves’ rotation and because there is an upcoming stretch of 20 straight games without an off day (beginning Friday in New York).
I like how Shultz explains the idiocy of the option and then contends how it makes sense in the next sentence.  The reason why you "want your best pitchers to get as many starts as possible" is because that helps your team win games.  And for the record, every single game counts the same.  They may mean more on September 25th than they do on August 12th, but they count the same.  In addition, yeah, it's 20 games in 20 days, but that's just four trips through the rotation and half of those games will be against sub-.500 opposition, including seven against the Padres.

Listen, I get why Meds is loved and if the decision is to let him start, that's not a terrible decision.  I think Atlanta has to explore every option under the sun to better their bullpen and that's with Medlen.  The urgency to pull a nice August trade for a good relief option (or two?) becomes all that more important.  However, if the choice is to make sure Medlen stays in the rotation, adding a sixth starter simply isn't an answer.

Shultz knows that will be the contention made by folks who have ever paid attention to baseball.

Now, there are those ruled by “numbers” in baseball who might think this idea is ridiculous.
“Six-man rotation? You sir are a moron. According to Chapter 17, subsection 12, paragraph 2 of the Sabermetrics Guide To Pitching Rotations …”

But consider:

• No. 1 starter Tim Hudson has bone spurs in his ankle. He already has received two cortisone injections. The rest would help.
• Perceived No. 2 starter Ben Sheets has started four games after not pitching in two years. Wear and fatigue could be issues.
• No. 3 Paul Maholm would be taken out of his every-fifth-day rhythm. If you consider that potentially catastrophic, raise your hand. (Anybody?)
• No. 4 Mike Minor has long surpassed his career single-season high with 116 2/3 innings (he threw 82.2 last year). Another off day should be welcomed.
• No. 5a Medlen isn’t going to complain.
• No. 5b Hanson is in no position to complain.
All valid points, but not for the argument you are making.  Because of the flimsy nature of the staff, the Braves need their bullpen at full strength.  I assume the argument here is that one of the bullpen spots would go to a starter and that would stretch a bullpen to six relievers.  Activating Hanson and installing him into the rotation would probably take Cory Gearrin or Luis Avilan's spot and if Peter Moylan makes it back all the way, he likely gets the other spot.  Your bullpen, at that point, has one long guy in Lispy Martinez to cover any time where Hudson has an episode, Sheets shows the wear and fatigue, Minor forgets to trust his stuff, and really...Hanson needs a full pen every night he pitches.  The wear and tear on the bullpen would be immense.  And what happens after August 30th off-date?  Do the Braves switch back to a five-man rotation?  Oh, wait, I'm sure we will cross that bridge, right?

And I didn't even need to access my Sabermetrics Guide to Pitching Rotations or, as we call it, common fucking sense.  By the way, Minor pitched 183.1 innings last year when you combine his Gwinnett work.  He topped 160 innings the previous season.  Why cherry-pick only his MLB numbers from last year?
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said he hadn’t thought of a six-man rotation until it was brought it up.
Great.  Now you gave this bad idea to a guy who thinks because it's quirky, it must be a good idea. Thanks a heap.

Then he said, “Yeah, I could see that. Those guys have pitched well enough and they could use a breather. Minor has some issues. Hanson has issues. There’s Huddy’s [ankle]. Sheets — who knows? We could do it. The only downside is we have to go at least one short in the bullpen or with a position player.”
Those are pretty significant downsides, especially in the National League.  Maybe in a DH-heavy portion of the schedule in the AL, giving this idea shot if you have a very flexible bench wouldn't be the worst idea.  Hell, I would rather do the Rockies' inane idea of a four-man rotation on 75 pitch limits than a six man staff.

By the way...in case you missed it, that wasn't a suggestion.

Schultz finishes the article by talking up Meds.  Really, I'm not against demoting Hanson either to Gwinnett or to the bullpen to work through his problems and leaving Meds in the staff.  I think Atlanta is better off with Meds in the bullpen simply because, if Hanson is your fifth starter (provided Minor's success continues), he's not a terrible fifth starter and Meds' value is higher to the bullpen, especially in close games.  Take today for instance.  Albeit, maybe Hanson doesn't give the bullpen the ball in the sixth with no outs, two runners on...but for argument's sake, if Hanson did that and looked cooked, you don't feel as skittish going to Medlen like you do when Fredi calls on Gearrin (for the FIFTH time in SIX days, mind you).  You have a level of comfort that Medlen, as Schultz contends, can "rescue a teammate in full mound meltdown mode."

However, the choice is either Medlen or Hanson, not BOTH.  Let's not screw around just cause it's different.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Best (and Worst) of July

Atlanta finished July by tying their season best of seven consecutive wins.  That streak allowed them to close the book on July with a season-best 18-8 record.  Sadly, the Nats were only one game worse than that record so Atlanta didn't gain much on the Nationals for the month, though they were able to open a lead in the second Wild Card spot.  Not to spoil anyone's fun, but the Cardinals have been one of the most unluckiest teams up to this point so...don't be surprised to see them make another run.

Regardless, it's time to hand out some Walk-Off Walk awards for July.  Course, I'm three days late, but internet issues led to that.

Top Rookie of the Month - N/A - With the injury to Andrelton Simmons and the demotion of Randall Delgado, pickens were slim here.  

Worst Pitcher of the Month - Jair Jurrjens - It was difficult for anyone to even compete in this category because, by large, success was experienced by the majority of the staff last month.  However, one guy truly stuck out like a sore thumb.  Jurrjens has, outside of a couple of outings, been horrible this season and July was more of the same for him.  A K/9 rate of 3.38, a FIP over 5.00, and a lost rotation spot.  That is how you see your career with the Braves head south in a hurry. 

Dishonorable Mentions - Tommy Hanson, Anthony Varvaro

Worst Position Player of the Month - Dan Uggla - What can you say about Uggla's struggles except that every time he has a hit, I am reminded of a line out of Little Big League.  "Kid, don't you think there's a problem when you get that excited over a seeing-eye single?"  Right now, it's like that with Uggla.  He's still playing pretty solid defense, especially for him, and is doing everything you ask from a baseball player except hit the ball.  Last month, his slash line was pretty brutal.  .115/.281/.179.  All you can say is "cool, he's walking."  Now, recently, Uggla has started to turn things around a bit.  Hope it continues.


Dishonorable Mentions - Paul Janish, Eric Hinske

Best Pitcher of the Month - Ben Sheets - I hate giving this title to relievers and while Craig Kimbrel deserved back-to-back months as Best Pitcher, I am giving this to Sheets.  Over three starts and 18 innings, Sheets gave up just one run.  He was lucky over the month with over 94% LOB rate, but he was also extremely successful with a 3 K/BB rate.  Sheets was a big second-half pick-up for Atlanta and the Braves need him to continue for their season to be as successful as they would like.  So far, so good.

Honorable Mentions - Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor

Best Position Player of the Month - Brian McCann - A tough choice because Chipper Jones was superb over July as well.  McCann was my choice last month for worst position player, but he turned it around and led the Braves in just about every offensive power-related category.  9 HR, four more than Jason Heyward.  21 RBI, 2 more than Freddie Freeman.  .296/.354/.704 with a .408 ISO and .434wOBA.  There are few catchers that can do that over a month and McCann has done it several times over his career.  Before July, I spoke several times of how important McCann and Freeman were to the Braves' hopes of getting to October, let alone catching the Nats.  Both had tremendous July's to go with Chipper's effort.  Last month's choice for this category was Heyward and he was solid in July, but not nearly to the level of the other three.

Honorable Mentions - Chipper Jones, Freddie Freeman

Howdy Paul and Reed!

So, shortly after my last post, which was about a random prospect last Sunday, our wireless internet router from Verizon met our daughter and our daughter won.  She ripped the cord out, tearing out the little metal thing that the charger plugs up to.  After the battery in the router was exhausted, our internet was out.  By the way, the MLB trading deadline is an awful time for your internet to go out.

Last Monday, Atlanta made a deal with the Chicago Cubs that was not nixed by one of the players acquired as they picked up Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson.  In exchange, Atlanta said good-bye to a pair of pitchers in Aroyds Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman

Maholm has been a solid pick-up for the Cubs this year after leaving Pittsburgh as a free agent.  The left-hander inked a 1 year, $4.25M deal with a club option for $6.5M next season and has posted a 4.13 FIP and a 4.16 SIERA so far this year.  One thing Chicago has continued from last year's season with the Pirates is that Maholm is throwing is slider a lot.  The result has been a few less groundballs as people are getting under the pitch and when it's not moving, it can and will leave the park.  However, his control has become a true asset and his K/BB rate is the best of his career.

Overall, the opinion on Maholm is valid.  You can plug him into the fourth/fifth spot in the rotation, get a durable arm (26 or more starts in six consecutive years entering this one), and your defense will have to perform.  Maholm is not going to make the top of your rotation formidable, but he rarely have the Mike Minor/Randall Delgado type of game where he gets beat up early and gets removed, burning your pen.

Johnson made my Mining for Gold list and has already appeared in a pair of games for the Braves.  For fans that love the cliche term "gamer," Johnson is your guy.  There is nothing notably impressive about Johnson, but he does a lot of things well enough.  He hits lefties, a quality many on this team struggle with.  He won't walk much, but he will get hit-by-a-pitch.  He's not overly fast, but will swipe a base and play decent defense in the outfield, especially in the corners.  Overall, you get a good talent with Johnson and he was the kind of player the Braves needed.

The package it took could be considerable or forgettable.  Chapman has been in the system since 2006 and has been almost exclusively used as a reliever.  If Chapman was a lefty, he would have made it to the bigs already.  As a righty, he gives you K's at a great rate while also struggling with his control.  If he gives up less free passes, he will be a pretty solid arm out of any pen.  Still just 25.

Of course, the jewel of this deal was Vizcaino, the hard-throwing righty who is missing this season with Tommy John.  For Braves fans who look at the package the Braves received, the fact that they gave up one of the four big arms to do so seemed like a massive overpay.  However, maybe we as fans blew the idea that teams won't give up big talent in deadline deals anymore out of proportion.  Sure, you might not be able to get a draft choice in compensation, but you still want to win and prospects aren't helping you win today, especially injured ones.  Giving the choice between not upgrading his team and keeping all of his prospects and the opposite, Frank Wren made the right choice and gave up the right prospect.

Last year, Vizcaino was untouchable, but many scouts seem to believe that his future is in the bullpen.  Those guys are very valuable, but as much as we were disappointed to trade off Tim Spooneybarger and Joey Devine, did it really matter?  The value of a league average starter and a young, high-ceiling prospect who might be best used out of the pen will never work in the favor of the prospect.  Maybe Vizcaino becomes a starter and if so, this deal starts to look worse.  However, remember that the value of Chapman is really not large and the Braves essentially acquired two useful major leaguers for an injured prospect.  Also, that prospect threw a career-high 114.1 innings last year, hardly the typical huge amount of innings that we expect to possibly land a youngster in injury hell the next season.  In addition, Vizcaino missed over two months two years ago.  I think the Braves had enough to be concerned about. 

Overall, my first thoughts were not warm on this deal and if I had internet at the time, maybe I would have blasted it.  A few days later, I like this deal.  It was the one the Braves had to make.