Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Arbitration Preview: Mike Minor

What a difference a year makes for a player like Mike Minor. When the last December ended, he was coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him throw 204.2 ING with a 3.21 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 3.5 fWAR. Everything was looking up for Minor. And then, there was 2014 with its oddball injuries, 4.77 ERA, 4.39 FIP, and 0.2 fWAR. Last year, Minor looked like a guy the Braves might extend. This year, it could be the toughest arbitration case the Braves have.

When this offseason began, the Braves had potentially eight players eligible for salary arbitration. Through releases, non-tenders, and trades, that number has been decreased to three, all pitchers. The most notable of the group is Minor so I will start the arbitration previews with him. You may recall that Minor was a first round selection out of Vanderbilt in 2009 and joined the Braves for a cup of coffee the following season. After struggling until the second half of 2012, Minor was able to turn it around and finish strong setting up what we hoped was a breakthrough 2013. After all, it sure looked like a breakthrough season. The southpaw built his success around solid, though not spectacular stuff, that helped get strikeouts at a nice clip (8 K's per nine) plus superb control (2 BB's per nine). A flyball pitcher, homers were a given, but solo shots are the thing you can deal with when you are keeping runners off base. Of particular interest for Minor's success was modest increases in O-Swing%, First-Pitch Strike%, and SwingingStrike%. This told a story of a confident pitcher who was getting ahead of hitters and forcing them to swing at his pitches versus the nibbler he had been.

His 2013 was almost perfect. Well, except for a December 31st surgery to "repair scarring around his urethra." Because, ya know, that happens. That immediately sidelined him when the Braves opened camp. Add in some shoulder tendinitis and Minor was behind schedule, which led him to open the season on the disabled list. He finally made it back on May 2nd and never appeared to have the same stuff and control that made his 2013 season so good. He was even skipped once in August and the Braves shut down early because something just wasn't right.

Hardly the kind of season one wants to have right before entering arbitration for the second time. For Minor, it's the second of four seasons as he's Super 2 eligible, a fact that made Minor all the more attractive as extension candidate before his depressingly bad 2014 season. While the Braves will have plenty of money to cover his arbitration this time around, an extension would appear to most definitely be off the table. A one-year pact would appear the only sensible solution to his contract situation for 2015. But what could he expect?

Last year's season definitely throws a wrench into the works and will add some tough variables. I've identitified three pitchers I believe are reasonable comparisons to Minor as they headed toward their second arbitration filing. First, I'll handle the basics on Minor and follow with the pitchers I am going to compare him to.

Minor is a 27-year old pitcher who has started 110 games in five years at the major league level, plus one game out of the bullpen in 2010. He has maintained an ERA of 4.10 with a low of 3.21 (2013) and a high of 4.77 (2014), excluding a 5.98 ERA in 40.2 ING during 2010. He has a career high of 204.2 ING set in 2013, but has only averaged 176 innings over the last three seasons. His WHIP was at its lowest in 2013 when it was 1.09, but it ballooned to 1.44 last season. His homer numbers are pretty consistent in the 1 HR/9 to 1.3 HR/9 area. He made $3.85M in his first season of arbitration last year. Fangraphs values his current WAR at 6.9, including 0.2 in 2014.

Phil Hughes was headed into his age-26 season when he was eligible for salary arbitration for the second time. In 120 games, he had started 71 for the Yankees between 2007 and 2011 with an ERA of 4.46 and a WHIP of 1.30. Like Minor, Hughes had what was considered a breakthrough season ahead of his first year of salary arbitration when he went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP in 2010, which landed him a spot in the All-Star Game. However, he had less starting experience than Minor, having been used almost exclusively out of the pen in 2009. He agreed to $2.7M during his first year of arbitration, more than a million less than Minor. He followed with an awful 2011 that included a 5.79 ERA and 4.58 FIP over 74.2 ING, a season that was both shortened by injury and his ineffective play. He agreed to $3.2M ahead of the 2012 season, a modest increase of $500K. At the time, Hughes had amassed 7.3 fWAR, but only 0.7 fWAR in 2011.

Before 2014, Bud Norris was 29 and had pitched in 130 games, including 127 starts - mostly with the Astros ahead of his 2013 deal to the Orioles. He had a 4.36 ERA, a 4.12 FIP, and a 1.42 WHIP to use as ammo for his second trip through the salary arbitration proceedings. He also had impressive strikeout numbers, including 700 in 740.1 ING. During his first run in arbitration, Norris had agreed to $3M with the Astros and completed a 30 start season in 2013 with a career-best 4.18 ERA, though he was better with Houston than he was with Baltimore. Fangraphs only valued Norris as a 4.9 WAR pitcher with 1.5 WAR coming in 2013. He would sign for $5.3M, a raise of $2.3M.

Finally, Mike Leake was heading into his age-26 season when he agreed to salary arbitration for the second time. During his first four years in the majors, Leake had started 109 of 114 games with a 3.99 ERA and 1.31 WHIP to go along with a 4.32 FIP. Much like Norris, he "peaked" at the right time in that he went 14-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 201 while setting new highs in innings pitched and strikeouts. His advanced metrics were poor and Fangraphs only valued his best season at 1.6 WAR, giving him a total of 4.8 WAR. Still, he was able to secure $5.925M in his second year of salary arbitration, nearly doubling his $3.06M salary of 2013.

While Minor compares favorably overall with both Norris and Leake, he shares a common thread that muted Hughes' salary - a season of disappointment. Now, it is unlikely Minor only makes $3.2M or even around that number in 2015 after making closer to $4M in 2014. How big of a raise is debatable. MLBTradeRumors suggests that a good landing point is about $5.1. My first impressions is that number is soft even when taking into account Minor's poor 2014 season. With the rising price of players and what a player like Leake received just last season, I would think $6M is fairly reasonable, though common sense should side with the team getting a little bit of a break considering Minor's struggles the previous season. With that, I'll put my prediction at $5.5M, a raise of less than $2M. If the team and player do exchange figures, I see the team lowballing around $4.8M and Minor overvaluing closer to $6.1M. That again provides a solid middle around at about $5.5M. Minor again becomes an intriguing extension candidate if he pitches himself back into form in 2015.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Reviewing BA's Top Ten: 2003

I think last week worked much better so we'll keep with that method. For the second consecutive season, the Braves landed a trio of prospects in the overall Top 50. They would do that for three more seasons, providing the backbone to the 2005 Baby Braves.

If you'd like to take a view at previous versions of this series, click here.

Atlanta's Top Ten Prospects for 2003 according to Baseball America
1. Adam Wainwright, rhp - BA Top 100: #18 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (7th), 2002 (2nd), 2004 (3rd)
2. Wilson Betemit, 3B - BA Top 100: #49 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (1st), 2002 (1st)
3. Andy Marte, 3B - BA Top 100: #40 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2004 (1st), 2005 (2nd), 2006 (1st)
4. Bubba Nelson, rhp - BA Top 100: #58 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2002 (8th), 2004 (4th)
5. Macay McBride, lhp - BA Top 100: #68 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2004 (7th)
6. Jeff Francoeur, of - BA Top 100: #95 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2004 (2nd), 2005 (1st)
7. Carlos Duran, of - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2002 (5th)
8. Scott Thorman, 1b
9. Brett Evert, rhp - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2000 (10th), 2002 (4th)
10. Gonzalo Lopez, rhp - 2002 (8th)

Prospect Spotlight
The only player to be one-and-done on this list was Scott Thorman. The Cambridge, Ontario native was an impressive physical presence when the Braves spent their first round selection on him coming out of the 2000 draft straight out of high school. He signed for slightly more than a million, giving up a chance to head to the University of South Carolina. He opened his career as a third baseman, but after injuries wiped out his 2001 season, he headed across the diamond to open to 2002.

He would make the Braves Top Ten after a big year with Macon. He picked up 230 total bases and 57 extra base hits, including 16 homers, while slashing his way to .294/.367/.489. Not hard to imagine why he made this list. Nor is it hard to imagine why he soon fell off. Not only did the Braves produce even better prospects, Thorman would struggle in Myrtle Beach in 2003, his OPS falling over 150 points to .702. And this would begin his need to repeat levels, a sign of a fringe prospect.

Thor has the honor of playing in the final season of the Greenville Braves and the first year of the Mississippi Braves. In 2006, Thor appeared to reclaim his prospect status with a .298/.360/.508 run at Richmond through 81 games ahead of a promotion to the majors to play left field. As a piece of advice to the 2015 Braves, you can't just put anyone out in left and everything will work out. Course, Thor also didn't hit that well, which made it all the more confusing why the Braves would ship out Adam LaRoche after the season and hand the job to Thor. It appeared to work out early when Thor slashed .288/.339/.538 in the first month of 2007, but from there, his season went the way we probably should have expected. John Schuerholz, in a ridiculous need to salvage the Streak, made the Mark Teixeira trade and everything went dark.

From there, Thor went to a sub role before heading back to the minors for 2008. He spent a few years playing for other AAA teams, getting opportunities with Oklahoma City, Omaha, and Toledo, but never in the majors. After five games in the Mexican League, Thor returned home and called it quits. He has since re-joined the Royals organization, this time as a coach for their affilate in Burlington.

Biggest Bust
In the 2002 season, Thorman was producing every first day for Macay McBride, a young lefty out of Sylvania, Georgia. He went 12-8 for the year with a 2.12 ERA and very solid line of 7.9 K/9. The season was good enough for McBride to win the South Atlantic League's Most Outstanding Pitcher. And while his years of productive play didn't end with the 2002 season, we can see why he was amazing that one season, which included his only professional shutout. 6.8 H/9. Should have known something was up. McBride would post a 2.95 Myrtle Beach-assisted ERA in 2003, but his marks would fall from there. Shipped to the pen, he made it to the majors in 2005 for 23 games and 71 games the following year. It seemed like he was better than he actually was, but his WHIP was over 1.50.

A trade to the Tigers in 2007 followed and with it, a lot of injuries. In fact, after 2007, he would pitch one game for AAA Toledo in 2008 and one game for Lancaster in the Atlantic League in 2010. Since giving up baseball, he has returned home and opened a sports academy in his home town of Sylvania. One day, a youngster he has helped could be the next Atlanta Brave.

Other Highlights
-While four of the players in the Top Ten were international pick-ups, of the six players out of the draft, five were selected in the top 51 picks. The old compensation system with Type A and B free agents truly helped a team like the Braves.
-Francoeur's first appearance came after 38 games in rookie ball following his pick as the 23rd overall selection of the 2002 draft.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Henry Blanco

(Been a hell of a couple of days. To add on to Christmas, I spent most of the 26th sick. Yesterday was spent entirely on recuperation. I'm better now, though a sore back isn't helping much. Had plans for a few articles before this one, but they will have to wait until the week when I can catch up.)

While Greg Maddux had a few personal catchers during his time with the Braves, we really only remember Eddie Perez and maybe Charlie O'Brien. But there were other guys such as Henry Blanco, who amazingly turned defensive ability and intangibles into a 16 year career, including two with the Atlanta Braves.

Credit: toddhundleysucks.blogspot.com
It might astound you that Blanco, who only retired after the 2013 season, began his professional career as a third baseman after signing with the Dodgers in 1989n. Never much of a hitter, Blanco was moved behind the plate for a game in 1995 before landing there for the bulk of his playing time the following year. His sudden change in position helped improve his stock. As did finally hitting with the help of the hitter's paradise known as the Pacific Coast League. A couple of big seasons in the PCL with a cup of coffee in Los Angeles in 1997 had Blanco on the cusp of claiming a major league job. All he needed was a chance.

That need was met when he signed with the Rockies ahead of the 1999 season. Colorado didn't need that much offense from their catcher position considering their offense sported a quartet of 30-homer guys. Blanco received the majority of starts behind the plate during his rookie year, though two other older catchers and the young Ben Petrick also played frequently. Blanco's claim to fame was his arm, which allowed him to throw out 40% of those trying to swipe a base on him. You have to think that was a weapon when runs are so easy to be had in Coors Field.

However, the thing about being a good defensive guy is that you almost are always expendable. The Rockies made him that when they shipped him off to Milwaukee following the season as part of a three-team deal that included six players and cash moving between Colorado, Milwaukee, and Oakland. Blanco would serve as Raul Casanova's defensive better-half for two seasons with the Brew Crew. While the switch-hitting Casanova would outproduce Blanco with the bat (an OPS that was .90 points higher), Blanco received over 200 more plate appearances presumably for his trusted his defense.

Yet again, his time in Milwaukee would not be long. In fact, in 16 years in the majors, Blanco played for 11 teams. That's not because he was in demand so much that every team believed they could do better. Except the Braves. They were counting on Blanco being better than what they had. With Eddie Perez struggling to stay healthy and the Braves unimpressed with Paul Bako, they traded the latter with pitcher Jose Cabrera for Blanco about two weeks ahead of the 2002 season. Cabrera had been a one-year wonder with the Braves after washing out as an Astros prospect. The fact that it took guys to get Blanco said how desperate the Braves were.

For two seasons, Blanco was the backup to Javy Lopez in Atlanta, serving as Greg Maddux's personal catcher. There were very few notable moments during his time with the Braves. On May 2nd during his first season with the Braves, Blanco entered after Lopez had been run for in a 2-2 tie. In the tenth inning, Blanco led off with a homer on a 1-2 pitch against Mike DeJean, leading the Braves to a 3-2 win in Milwaukee against the team that had traded him away about six weeks before the game. A couple months later, Blanco capped off a six-run first inning with a three-run shot.

Credit: chattanoogan.com
After a 2002 season where he slashed his typical .204/.267/.335, Blanco's numbers tumbled in 2003. Considering where they were in 2002, that's saying something. With the Braves promoting Johnny Estrada to Javy's old job in 2003 and bringing back Perez to mentor him, the Braves let the 31 year-old go with 415 PA with the Braves. That mark is the third most Blanco ever achieved in one place.

Blanco would follow with arguably his best professional season. Anchoring a Twins staff in the wake of Joe Mauer's injury, Blanco threw out nearly 50% of potential basestealers while hitting a career-high 10 homers. He added an eleventh homer in the ALDS against the Yankees, but the Twins lost in four. His success did land him a rarity, though. A two-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. After successfully performing his duties as the backup catcher, Chicago rewarded him with a second two-year deal.

After spending George W. Bush's second term with the Cubs, Blanco went back to his nomadic lifestyle, playing a year in San Diego and with the Mets. He did log two years with the Diamondbacks before a 2013 season that saw him spend time with both the Blue Jays and Mariners.

Blanco signed with the Diamondbacks ahead of the 2014 season, but was not able to secure a job in the spring. The 42 year-old decided 16 years was enough and retired to begin his coaching career, also with Arizona. Following the season, he landed in Chicago with the Cubs again as their new quality assurance coach, a job formerly held by new Braves co-hitting coach Jose Castro.

You have to really admire a guy like Henry Blanco. He wasn't void of all skills. After all, he had a tremendous throwing arm, was a solid receiver, and had some power for a backup catcher. But the fact that he kept plugging along until his 40's as a backup is truly amazing. Outside of four years with the Cubs, teams weren't all that keen on keeping him around. He didn't let that stop him from continuing a career that began in the 80's and ended in the 2010's. His time with the Braves is pretty much forgetful. He was like so many other guys who came through Atlanta during that time between when Perez's hey-day and Maddux's departure from Atlanta. But that's why this column exists...so we remember these little pieces that ultimately played fairly significant roles.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Braves Sign Jason Grilli...Because Reasons

It's been only a few months since John Hart assumed the job as "dude in charge" for the Atlanta Braves and the moves so far have been fairly uneven. Trade Jason Heyward, sign Nick Markakis. Ship out Tommy La Stella, add Alberto Callaspo. Send Justin Upton packing, ink...Jason Grilli? What's next? Trading Mike Minor to bring back Aaron Harang?

Grilli is the latest addition to the remade Atlanta Braves, signed to a $8M contract over the next two seasons with an option for 2017...the amazing wonderful year where it will all make sense. This is probably too much snark for Christmas Eve, but Hart made me do it.

The former Pirates closer joins a bullpen that already included the dominating Craig Kimbrel, arbitration-eligible arms like David Carpenter and James Russell, newly minted Jim Johnson, reacquired Arodys Vizcaino, holdover Luis Avilan, and a list of young guys looking to establish themselves: Shae Simmons, Chasen Shreve, Ian Thomas, and Juan Jaime. Oh, and David Hale.

That would appear to signal a pending trade including at least one reliever to clear things up a little. But even with that trade, this signing is just odd. After all, if a trade took away one of the known guys (Kimbrel, Carp, Russell, Johnson), you would still have a lot of names working their way into the picture. Course, you could have it be even more complicated if you still had Anthony Varvaro, but luckily, he's a Red Sox now. Dodged that bullet (?).

And why the Braves had to sink $8M and two years into Grilli is also a conundrum. Coincidentally, the Cardinals just signed our old buddy Jordan Walden to a 2 year, $6.6M, but I'll give you that the comparison between the two is moot because Walden was still arbitration-eligible.  As far as multiple year contracts go, Grilli's is the third cheapest contract given out on the free agent market so far. But that's also the rub. Guys like Grilli typically don't get, coming off an unimpressive 2014, a contract with multiple seasons guaranteed.

With that said, who is Grilli? Well, you can always buy his book and figure it out. Or if you want to save yourself the brain aneurysm, you can read the tremendous review of said book from Bucs Dugout. I can't stress this enough. Do the latter.

Oh, wait, what kind of pitcher is he? A former first round pick, Grilli has struggled to stay healthy and even when he was, he hasn't been all that effective until landing in Pittsburgh. His success culminated into a dominant 2013 where he posted a 1.97 FIP with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5. That is pretty damn good. That should get you excited. A two-pitch pitcher, Grilli relies on a well-spotted 92-95 mph fastball to set up his out pitch, a slider that he shelved his big breaking curveball around 2007.

Why did he go from All-Star in 2013 to traded away for pennies the next year? He wasn't controlling the count. In the two years preceding 2014, 14.4% of his strikes were swinging strikes. Obviously, that is an example of sick stuff and good counts. Only eight relievers were better, including Kimbrel. This led to the 12th best O-Swing%, or the percentage of total swings that were on balls outside the strikezone. When Joe Simpson goes to the cliche pantry and pulls out "swinging at a pitcher's pitch," that's what he's talking about (provided Simpson is lucid and not on his painkillers again). Those marks that were so good in 2012-13 saw significant drops in 2014, leading to a higher contact rate, fewer strikeouts, and the Pirates shuffling him off to Los Angeles to play in Anaheim with the Angels. That team name is still stupid.

Now, this doesn't mean Grilli stopped being a quality pitcher. The great thing about being awesome at any point is when you lose something, you're still good. So, compared to his previous seasons, Grilli was crap. Compared to a lesser pitcher, Grilli holds his own. Still gets a K an inning, still keeps his FIP relatively low (3.37 last year and much lower with the Angels), and his velocity was pretty stable.

All told, Atlanta got a quality pitcher at a reasonable sum. You're sensing a "but," aren't you?

However, it's still a rather confusing signing. The Braves, who have known weaknesses and holes to deal with added to what could be at worst classified as adequate and as best, a strength. In addition, they did it over two years while adding a guy for his age-38 and age-39 seasons. This gets us back to the point that concerned me earlier this winter. Are we rebuilding or doing the "well, we still got a some good guys so let's try to sneak into the playoffs" thing? There's probably a better way of saying that, but hopefully you get the jist because the second one annoys me. Commit to one thing. You've spent all winter badmouthing the former general manager and talking about the state of the franchise in his aftermath. Yet, you talk about how close the team really is and how you are gearing up to compete. The inconsistency would drive Joe Morgan mad. The longest rebuild comes form the franchise that refuses to commit to a philosophy.

But hey, if this is just to buy time for the youngsters because you can find a team willing to pay a premium for Kimbrel, great move, Hart!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Fifth Starter Hunting

While a rebuild is in place, the Braves still need to add to next year's squad. During a Q&A with David O'Brien, John Hart even talked about the need to go searching for a starting pitcher. But who? At this point, the market is still heavily saturated with starters, but many are likely not exactly what the Braves should be searching for. Obviously, bargain hunting and signing James Shields do not mix. Plus, there is several approaches to consider. Do the Braves go after a veteran, either looking toe extend his career or looking to re-establish value after a down year? How about a guy who won't win any awards, but could hold down a job for a couple of seasons? Or should the Braves get back into the trade market and target a team-controlled guy who might be part of the 2017 roster we keep hearing so much about?

For my part, I would go with the first approach. My rationale is that for a team looking to rebuild, they could benefit from grabbing a veteran on a one-year pact and if he produces, sell him off for a prospect at the deadline. Sure, chances are you won't get a star in return, but the Pirates got both Andrew Lambo and James McDonald for Octavio Dotel in 2010. While Dotel wasn't a starter, the idea is that that one-year stopgap could turn into a player or two that might help at some point. Being that the team who acquires this veteran is likely looking at what he's already providing the Braves (dependable innings as a reasonable salary), a team looking to shore up their staff for the stretch run could pay well for the services of our unnamed pitcher. Also, the Braves could theoretically send cash if the interested team is in a bind, which also improve the quality of the prospect.

With that in mind, here's seven to consider. Warning: nobody on this list will excite you. You'll avoid drafting them for your fantasy league. The only positive reaction you'll have is to know that a worse pitcher wasn't signed or that the job was David Hale's.

Kevin Correia - RHP - Tough to find a pitcher who is less impressive than Correia. He wasn't doing so hot with the Twins ahead of his late season move to the Dodgers (traded for a player to be named or cash) and was roughed up then, too. He doesn't have the marks that we would expect from a guy who could potentially have an impressive season and gain a prospect in return. If you're a week away from camp and need to grab an arm, Correia is worth a look, but he's an ugly choice otherwise.

Roberto Hernandez - RHP - Not to be confused with Boom-Boom, the former Fausto Carmona had a decent ERA ahead of his trade to the Dodgers (who grabbed every "meh" starting pitcher last summer). The sabermetric numbers give him no positive marks, though. However, for a few months of decent pitching, the Phillies got a pair of prospects from the Dodgers and while both prospects are years away, they fit the idea of potential sleepers that help build a system. Carmona is homer prone, but in a park that plays down homers like Turner Field, you might fool a team into thinking the old Fausto is back. Compared to others on the market, I would have to be Correia-level desperate before taking a chance on Hernandez.

Kyle Kendrick - RHP - I wouldn't think Kendrick would get to the point this offseason where a one-year deal would be all he could find, but the still just 30-year old might think getting away from Philly's park, where has given up over half of his homers, will go a long way toward getting him a better deal next winter. In that respect, he does fit into our plans, but again, I do think a team will give him multiple years and I'm trying to stay away from committing money to non-core players. Oh, and I'm not keen on the idea of giving a guy with a career 4.42 ERA multiple years.

Paul Maholm - LHP - This guy again? Here's the deal with Maholm. I see his numbers with the Dodgers last year, too, but it's also the worst season of his career. Between 2008 and 2013, his FIP lived in the 3.78-4.24 range, an acceptable landing point for a guy we want to get roughly 20-24 starts from. His velocity remains as underwhelming as ever so the only thing I can chalk up last season's failures to was his move to the bullpen for most of the season. Returning to a park he's comfortable pitching in, Maholm could look like a solid cog at the bottom of the rotation and someone another team would target.

Kevin Slowey - RHP - The problem with Slowey for this exercise is that he has just two seasons with 150 or more innings and we are searching for innings eaters. On the flip-side, what makes him appealing is that his FIP is constantly lower than his ERA. That also makes him confusing. We should expect him to perform better than he has, but he's not only failed to that year-in and year-out, he has failed to either stay healthy or stay in the rotation. Nevertheless, if my choice is Correia, Slowey, or Hale, I'll give Slowey a long look.

Ryan Vogelsong - RHP - A feel-good story when he came back to reach the majors in 2011, Vogelsong's numbers have taken a bit of a tumble the last two seasons, though he pitched just about as well last season as he did in his 14-9, 3.37 ERA year of 2012 when you delve deeper into his FIP and xFIP. One issue he has had over the last two seasons is a declining groundball rate, which has led to a higher line-drive rate. That never works out for the pitcher. He also has thrown a lot more cutters the last two seasons rather than his two-seam fastball which can help explain why he's getting fewer groundballs. Maybe using his cutter more sparingly will help him recapture his former glory, at least until the Braves trade him.

Finally, there's Aaron Harang. Coming off his best year since the Bush administration, he should be able to get a two-year offer somewhere and I would hope that it didn't come from the Braves. He had a great year (for him, at least) last season and it wasn't only smoke-and-mirrors, but hoping for lightening to strike twice (or three times in a two-year pact) is chancing our luck. However, if he wants to go the one-year route, he's as good as any of the above to post a reasonably effective season and get some trade interest.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Reviewing BA's Top 10: 2002

Changing things up a little this week. As you know if you follow the blog, over the last month, I have been taking a retrospective look at the Baseball America's Top Ten Prospects in the Atlanta Braves system yearly report. It's a fun look back, but as can be expected, many of the prospects repeat as they move up the ladder. This presents too many redundant entries. So, starting this week, I'll spotlight one prospect, talk about the biggest bust, and add some other comments. I'll start with the top 10 along with, if applicable, their placement in that year's Top 100 and/or placement on previous Top Ten's for the Braves.

If you'd like to take a view at previous versions of this series, click here.

Atlanta's Top Ten Prospects for 2002 according to Baseball America
1. Wilson Betemit, ss - BA Top 100: #8 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (1st), 2003 (2nd)
2. Adam Wainwright, rhp - BA Top 100: #42 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (7th), 2003 (1st), 2004 (3rd)
3. Kelly Johnson, ss - BA Top 100: #47 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2005 (8th)
4. Brett Evert, rhp - BA Top 100: #66 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2000 (10th), 2003 (9th)
5. Carlos Duran, of - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (7th)
6. Matt Belisle, rhp - BA Top 100: #96 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (4th)
7. Zach Miner, rhp
8. Gonzalo Lopez, rhp - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (10th)
9. Bubba Nelson, rhp - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (4th), 2004 (4th)
10. Jung Bong, lhp

Prospect Spotlight
Some of you readers may have associated with me at our former forum, www.chopnation.com. While the group has moved to Facebook for the most part, the forum was our haven for Braves talk in the latter half of the 21st Century's first decade. We got to know each other and the kind of players each forum member liked. Some were intrigued by speedy guys and believed stolen bases were lacking in Atlanta. Others were attracted to the hype and hope that a player like Jeff Francoeur had. Me? Kelly Johnson was my guy. I was known as his apologist and even as I accepted that non-tendering him following the 2009 season was the right move, it still hurt to see him go. A running joke at our current Facebook group is that whenever there is even a hint at a weakness at his positions, I'll champion the idea of bringing back KJ.

Back in 2002, KJ landed on this list and was recognized as one of the top 50 prospects in baseball after a massive season for Randy Ingle and the Rome Braves. He slashed a cool .289/.404/.513 with 23 homers, 25 steals, and 71 walks. He also didn't ground into a double play in some baseball stats oddity. Kelly, who was the 38th pick in the 2000 draft and only 19 during the 2001 season, was fast on his way to becoming one of the hottest prospects in baseball. A disappointing 2002 followed where the Myrtle Beach wind took away his power. 2003 with Greenville was interrupted by injuries, but he finally reclaimed his prospect status with a .818 OPS with the G-Braves the following season. By 2005, he was knocking on the door and made his debut that season, taking over left field for the Baby Braves out of necessity. After missing the next season due to injury, KJ landed in the majors with a big 2007 season as the leadoff hitter and learn-on-the job 2B.

His two follow-up campaigns didn't live up to the hype of his first season and the Braves sent KJ packing after a 2009 season that saw the emergence of Martin Prado. Since then, he has played for all of the AL East teams along with the D'Backs. Recently, he has developed into a utility guy, playing three infield positions and the corner outfield positions just last year. For his career, he has posted a .755 OPS and nearly 17 fWAR in nine seasons.

Biggest Bust
Before the 2002 season, it was reasonable to think Bubba Nelson was the next in the long line of top starters the Braves would churn out. While it would be easy to bury Nelson in the system that posted three starters in the Top 100, Nelson was hardly a slouch. Drafted 13 picks after KJ, Nelson was also a member of that prospect-laden Macon roster. In fact, only one of the five starters would make it to the majors with Wainwright the best of the group. The one that missed the majors? Nelson.

Despite being a Top 75 prospect according to Baseball America in both 2003 and 2004, Nelson would fail to get just about anyone out at the AAA level. The latter of those accolades came after the Braves had moved Nelson to the Reds in the Chris Reitsma trade. Nelson lasted two seasons with the Reds and a year each with the Padres, Phillies, and Jays. But no matter the stop, AAA hitter brutalized im. In 161 innings over 46 games, and 23 starts, Nelson posted a 5.87 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and gave up 26 homers. That last stat is more informative when you make it 1.5 HR/9. In 2001, he K'd over a batter an inning. In parts of four seasons in AAA, that number was about 6 K/9. Nelson's career was over after 2009, which was spent not getting outs for the independent level Pensacola Pelicans. Since giving up baseball, he has apparently became an educator.

Other Highlights
-Talk about what could have been. Gonzalo Lopez was a big international free agent signing and was excellent in the Gulf Coast League in 2001 and with Macon the following season. Only 19, things looked great for the kid. However, the injuries became too much for Lopez, who pitched 10 innings in 2003, 12.1 ING in 2006, and 47 innings in 2008 while missing all of 2005 and 2007. His career was over following his 6.32 ERA in 2008.
-Carlos Duran found a second life following his last American professional season in 2007 when he joined the Italian League and in 2010, he became the only non-Italian to win the league's Triple Crown. Not bad considering how his prospect life as a Brave was short.

-In today's era of memes, Jung Bong would have been a star.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Norm Charlton

This is kind of a strange bit of randomness, but bear with me. The way I prepare for this weekly column is to open random.org and baseball-reference.com in two different tabs. Using the years of 1991-2014, I am giving a 24 year sample. I go to random.org and get a random number with those parameters. For instance, if the generator gave me a number of "2," that would point me to 2013. Clicking on the 2013 page at b-r, I would get an alphabetical list of the players from that season. This would send me back to random.org to change the parameters to 1 through 44 with the latter representing the amount of players who played at least one game with Atlanta in 2013. Random.org gave me 34, which pointed to Cory Rasmus. He would get the Random Ex-Brave treatment for the week.

I mention this because last week's Ex-Brave is connected to this week's Ex-Brave via a transaction. In mid-August of 1997, the Braves, who were searching to add more to their bullpen, waived Paul Byrd after they added the recently released Norm Charlton to finish the season. Anyway, I'm a dork and I found it interesting that the two landed back-to-back weeks in this random gig.

Credit: sullybaseball.blogspot.com
Couldn't find a Braves pic
Charlton was famously a member of the 1990 Nasty Boys with Randy Myers and all-around douchenozzle Rob Dibble. It was Charlton's second full season in the majors and while we immediately think of him coming out of the pen with those other two, he was also a spot starter in 1990. After the '90 World Series-winning season, Charlton again was used both as a starter and reliever in 1991 before replacing Myers as the team's closer in 1992. He was a dominating force for the Reds that season, striking out 10 per nine innings while heading to his first and only All-Star Game. He landed in Seattle next and was good before injuries and a Strike took away some of his Prime Years.

He spent a half season with the Phillies after the Strike was over before returning to Seattle to be part of their memorable run to the postseason. That was really his last run of significance. By 1998, he was on a one-year contract with the Orioles after a 7.27 ERA in 71 games with the Mariners during the previous season. His time with the O's was just as bad, though. He couldn't throw many strikes, but when he did, they tended to get blasted toward downtown Baltimore. Ultimately, the going-nowhere Orioles cut Charlton at the trading deadline. A week later, the Braves came calling and that was fortunate because otherwise this blog post would be a lie.

As I mentioned, to find room for the lefty, the Braves released Byrd. He made his Braves debut on August 12th, a week after signing, but was roughed up for two hits and two walks in an inning of work against the Padres where one ultimately unimportant run scored in a 5-1 loss. However, he would only give up one more run as a Brave. Unlike the Orioles, Bobby Cox rarely called on Charlton for one hitter. He faced less than three just twice in 13 games and was often used to finish games, either when Atlanta had a "too big" of a lead to use their closer or the Braves were trailing. He was hardly great and was more lucky-than-good, but he did throw 13 innings of two-run ball. He even picked up his second-to-last save against his former teammates in Philadelphia, throwing a hitless ninth inning to preserve a 3-0 win for Kevin Millwood. Of mild surprise was that Charlton didn't appear in the playoffs and Odalis Perez did.

Charlton would plays parts of three more seasons, including return trips to Cincinnati and Seatle, the former of which lasted just two games before arm troubles. He actually wasn't half bad for the Mariners in 2001, the season they won nearly every game it seemed. Charlton was 38 that season and struck out over a batter an inning for the first time since 1995. He made his final appearance in the majors in Game 4 of the ALCS, retiring one of the three batters he faced and leaving runners on first-and-second that would eventually be stranded. The Mariners lost that game 3-1 on a two-run walk-off homer by Alfonso Soriano and would see their once-promising season go up in smoke the next night.

Credit: caller.com
Charlton tried to prolong his career according to his B-R transaction list, but wouldn't appear in another game after 2001. He spent some time in the Mariners system as a coach and was the Bullpen Coach for the 2008 Mariners, but that lasted only a year. Since walking away from the game, he has operated a fishing/hunting guide business in Texas called "Norm Chalton's Big League Adventures." As one article said, he has something his competitors lack. A World Series ring. And 13 games for the 1998 Atlanta Braves. The former is probably more impressive.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

John Hart: Okay, so I lied. This is a rebuild.

Since being "hired" to head up things in Atlanta, we have heard John Hart mention several times one particular point that needed to be clarified. John Schuerholz has parroted the line.

This is not a rebuild. We don't use that word. We are retooling and trying to compete in 2015 with an eye towards having an even better club when the new ballpark opens in 2017. We are totally not rebuilding and breaking down something that won the division in 2013.

It was a nice message. It was full of crap, but it was a nice message to ticket buyers. For people like me who despised the idea of half-assing a real rebuild, it was disconcerting. Change the culture all you want with a guy like Nick Markakis, but if you believe what Frank Wren built was flawed, do something about it. More to the point - make a decision to rebuild or compete.

Well, on Friday, that decision was clear. The Braves are rebuilding and trying to acquire a wealth of young talent. Having already added Shelby Miller, Tyrell Jenkins, and Arodys Vizcaino in trades, the Braves pulled off the blockbuster we have been waiting for as they moved outfielder Justin Upton to the Padres for four prospects - none as good as the ones we had been hoping were on the table. And the idea, supported by me, that Upton should be worth more in a trade than Jason Heyward didn't hold true, though that was apparently the Braves' goal. Maybe they meant Upton would be worth more prospects, not better quality. Further, the Braves couldn't even package one of their ugly two contracts with J-Up.

What did they get, though?

The best player of the deal for the Braves is Max Fried. That's kind of depressing because he just had Tommy John surgery in August. It's not that Fried's not a top prospect. After all, we are talking about a dude who was was around 50th in many publications for the best prospects in the game over the last couple of seasons. Fried has a lot of potential and is still a month away from being 21. He possesses a great curveball and many pointed to Cole Hamels as an apt comparison of Fried before the 2012 draft where he was taken seventh overall. Hamels, a southpaw like Fried, has turned out pretty good. Plus, I don't see anything necessarily ugly in his delivery to think he can't put August's surgery in the rear-view mirror and move on. Nevertheless, that's an added factor for a guy who won't pitch for your system until 2016. Maybe he'll become our Adam Wainwright and maybe my expectations were entirely too high. Fried as the second best player of the trade is acceptable. As the centerpiece? Ugh.

Atlanta also acquired a trio of hitters. The only one ready to contribute in 2015 is Jace Peterson, a middle infielder who got to the majors for 27 games last season. The 58th overall selection of the 2011 draft possesses good speed and athleticism. He also fits into the new Braves Way in that he grinds out at-bats and won't strike out. That's a product of what Baseball America once ranked as the best bad speed in the Padres system. He fits into the mold of the guy who will serve pitches where they're "pitched" over look for a pitch he can elevate. He had a tremendous 2013 season, but he also played in the California League, one of the most hitter friendly leagues in baseball and certainly wasn't a young rising prospect either at the age of 23. So, it wasn't surprising that the Padres pushed him quickly to AAA after a short stop in AA to open 2014. He hit well with El Paso, but again, the league (PCL) makes Andy Marte and Brock Peterson look damn good. His ceiling as a major leaguer is low. Basically, he's going to have to scratch for everything he does earn. Jace is part of the battle for playing time and should provide the team some depth. He could even platoon at either second or third depending on his performance. Still, he might only be a utility guy for a good team, stretched by bad teams into too many plate appearances.

Outfielder Mallex Smith has a ton of speed (88 steals last year), but hasn't faced AA pitching yet despite spending 240 of his 265 career games above rookie ball. There are some who love him, some who aren't super impressed. I'm part of the latter group. I acknowledge he's a decent enough prospect and might be a better player than I right now feel he's capable of. I haven't read enough on his defense, but so far, I've missed any glowing reports on it. It's not enough to have speed. To be better than Juan Pierre, you have to have another tool. I'll say this about him, though. His chances of being a successful major league player are better than running into someone who shares his first name.

Finally, third baseman Dustin Peterson, who is not related to Jace, but IS related to a guy the Braves were supposedly interested for when it came to trading Upton to the Mariners. The younger of two, Dustin was considered a better pro prospect out of high school than his older brother, which is why D.J. went to college and Dustin signed as a 2nd rounder by the Padres in 2013. He played short in high school, but has been a 3B (to little success) in his short professional career. Despite a compact swing and great bat speed, Peterson struck out often last season which could be an example of bad adjustments. He did show a little pop (ISO of .128) and is expected to have value at the plate, though where he plays defensively is a question and he could get moved to the outfield.

Overall, the general consensus is that it was a decent haul for the Braves. I came away unimpressed, but I admit my grades might be lower than others, especially in regards to the last two members of the deal. For me to get excited about what the Braves got, a better prospect would have had to be the centerpiece since Fried is hurt. I do like Fried, but my hope for the other three prospects in this trade is minimal. Is it still a win to gain six years of Fried for one year of Upton + compensation pick? Probably, but it's hard not to wish for more. Obviously, if one of the Dos Petersons and/or Mallex the Conqueror break through, it would tip this deal considerably in the favor of the Braves, especially since this next season (or two) are basically lost years.  My only real quibble is that the Braves were holding out for weeks for the right deal and this one just doesn't give me that feeling.

The big picture also puts into light other moves Atlanta has made this offseason. The one that sticks out is the signing of 31-year old Nick Markakis to a four-year deal. While he fits what the Braves essentially are looking for (high contact), spending that kind of money on an older player while in the midst of a rebuild calls into the question the consistency of the moves.

In addition, are the Braves done? Since the Heyward deal, it appeared that the trade of Upton was unavoidable. Even though the front office was throwing the ridiculous "this isn't a rebuild" mantra out and had spent heavily on Markakis, it was obvious that the Braves were doing away with the Frank Wren years. After this trade of Upton, that same feeling isn't there. The Braves could try to deal away Evan Gattis or find some more salary relief by trading Chris Johnson, but it would appear, barring a surprising move, that the Braves are likely taking a backseat to the ridiculously active trade market. They could look for more signings like the ones that brought Alberto Callaspo and Jim Johnson to town. Low-cost and short-term moves that are aimed at providing the team with, at worst, potential solid trade bait at the deadline. They could target Aaron Harang and/or Emilio Bonifacio for return trips, though the latter wouldn't appear to fit onto the roster now. Maybe get creative and target Jeong-ho Kang. They could also try guys who might be undervalued like Joba Chamberlain. But either way, the Braves have money to spend and an offense that went from bad to worse. Granted, the Braves might not compete in 2015 regardless, but the offense can't get much worse before our pitchers start going all seppuku.

This Upton trade isn't bad. It's not terrible. It's not even one you can look at and get angry about. Sure, you might hope for more in terms of the players coming to Atlanta and I do, but that's splitting hairs to provide fodder for longer blog posts. (did I break the fourth wall?)

And just the same, you can come away thinking the deal wasn't good. It wasn't great. It wasn't even one you can look at and get excited about. It was simply a reasonable collection of talent for Upton. There is a chance it works considerably in the favor of the Braves, especially is Mallex hits like some think he is capable of. This deal lacked an immediate return and that probably makes me think "meh" more than anything.

That said, at least we can bury this "rebuild v. retool" argument once and for all.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Favorite Braves List - Center Field

(Previous information on this series can be found here. Of importance, this is not a best list, but a favorites list since I started to follow the Braves. That limits options from 1991-to-now.)

Favorite Braves List (so far)
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
#2 Starter - John Smoltz
#3 Starter - Tim Hudson
#4 Starter - Tom Glavine

Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles
Shortstop - Andrelton Simmons
Third Base - Chipper Jones 
Left Field - Ryan Klesko

Honorable Mention: Obviously, Otis Nixon should get a little love for this catch. He might get a little more love if he followed this advice: Crack is whack. Marquis Grissom also made a cool catch. Michael Bourn stopped a long string of awful replacements to today's addition to the Favorites Squad.

Favorite Braves List - Center Field
Andruw Jones

Before there was Andrelton Simmons, there was Andruw. He was the guy we almost grew to expect a big thing to happen from nightly. Baseball players rarely have that that special factor to that demands our continuous attention. Baseball's all about the marathon season and the long haul, not that one moment. That's why it's not like football. When there is a special player, your eyes just focus on them expecting something big. Deion Sanders in his prime. Barry Sanders. Reggie Bush in college. Guys with such a gift rarely are like that in baseball, but Andruw, like Simmons now, had that special ability. It really didn't even become obvious to me until his last couple of seasons when it was pretty much gone. He was still as solid as any center fielder in the game, but more balls to the gap were dropping and more balls were getting over his head. Andruw was no longer special. No longer unique. No longer it.

Born in Willemsted, Curacao, Andruw was a legend long before he monopolized our attention on TBS. He was bigger than those older than him, faster than those leaner than him, and could hit the ball longer than most of the adults who had their jaws drop when they saw him. If he was a Dominican, he would have been the most highly sought after amateur free agent in a generation. Instead, he was from a little island that many teams didn't even scout. The Braves, though, were mining Curacao and Giovanni Viceisza, a businessman and part-time scout for the Braves, made one of the biggest signings in Braves history.

It didn't take long for the rest of baseball to drool at what the Braves had found. The Team of the 90's was ready to restock its major league squad with yet another weapon and Jones was rewarded back-to-back #1 spots in Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects in the Game for 1996 and 1997. Andruw possessed grace that truly was amazing to watch plus a natural smile that never seemed to leave his face. Opposing pitchers must have hated him.

By the end of 1996, he was already in the majors at the ripe old age of 19. While people his age were wondering what to have for dinner - Ramen or Mac & Cheese - Andruw was homering off Denny Neagle (as he did in his second major league game). Six games into his career, he already had a two-homer game. But it was the playoffs that made Andruw Jones the "next big thing." He was pretty quiet through the NLDS and NLCS, though he did homer in the 15-0 thumping the Braves put on the Cards in the deciding Game 7 of the NLCS. That quiet was shattered in Game 1 of the World Series in the House That Babe Ruth Built. He homered in each of his first two at-bats of the Series, becoming the youngest player to do so. Andruw was awesome in the Series, but sadly, the rest of the team wasn't.

Still not able to drink (legally), Andruw would spend 1997 as the fourth outfielder, sharing time in right and center field. It wasn't until 1998 that Andruw would become the starting center fielder for the Braves, a job he would hold until the end of 2007. He would post an OPS of .836 that season, homering 30 times and stealing 27 bases while earning his first of ten consecutive Gold Gloves. Only two outfielders, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, have been awarded more Gold Gloves and they were pretty good.

While Andruw's defense was extraordinary and made his pitchers routinely look better than they actually were (and they were pretty damn awesome), his offense never seemed to deliver on the promise that his minor league stats and one night in Yankee Stadium indicated he was capable of. He was very, very good, but it seemed like an .839 OPS in 12 seasons with the Braves was a let down over what we expected. He routinely teased us with glimpses of what he could be. In 2000, when he was still just 23, Andruw went to his first All-Star Game while slashing .303/.366/.541. Publications were positive that he would finish his breakthrough with an even bigger season in 2001. I recall how for three or four years, every season preview The Sporting News put out had Andruw as the preseason MVP.

But it never happened. His OPS fell over a hundred points in 2001 and he would post just one more .900 OPS in his career.

His base stealing ability, which once allowed him to swipe 56 bases in the minors, was completely gone by 2002. His batting average ventured north of .270 just once after 2000. He did post a MVP runner-up season in 2005 when he belted 51 homers to pace the league and it's worth noting he had a solid follow-up campaign in 2006 with a near-.900 OPS.

Then...there was 2007. The pending free agent was probably gone no matter what, but when he slashed .222/.311/.413, he was really gone. What a crappy end to what should have been a long and productive career for the guy who was supposed to be the perennial MVP candidate and the NL's answer to Ken Griffey Jr. But maybe that's our fault. Maybe our expectations were always too high. Maybe it took having Andruw gone and the replacements like Josh Anderson, Nate McLouth, and Jordan Schafer coming through for us to realize what we lost. Even a lesser Andruw was preferable.

But without Atlanta, Andruw was worse, too. He washed out after one excruciatingly awful year with the Dodgers. After that, he transitioned into a backup role with the Rangers, White Sox, and Yankees while largely staying away from center field. Over the last two seasons, he has played in Japan, continuing his quest to be the Curacaoian version of the Three True Outcomes.

His time in Atlanta was exciting, special, frustrating, disappointing, and under-appreciated. His defense alone deserves recognition in Cooperstown. His off-the-field troubles are well documented and he was no saint, but six or seven times a week on TBS, he was one of the best things to watch. Granted, at the time, his competition was the Andy Griffith Show and WCW Saturday Night, but the point still stands.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Howdy Aaron!

When the Braves designated Anthony Varvaro for assignment on Monday, many of us were either confused or angry or both. Now that he has been dealt to the Red Sox for Aaron Kurcz and cash considerations, I'm not sure if that made anything better, but at least it was something. I guess.

Let's look at what the Braves got. Kurcz has had a pretty interesting career, both before becoming a professional and since. A fan of Chipper Jones growing up, he went to the Air Force Academy after high school, which would theoretically end or severely limit his hopes of being a professional ballplayer at some point. However, he ended up wanting to devote more of his time to baseball and headed back home to attend the College of Southern Nevada, where he was a teammate of Chasen Shreve and threw to then-catcher Bryce Harper.

After his first year with Southern Nevada, Kurcz was the Cubs' tenth round selection in 2010. He struck out a ton after starting his career, including 46 in 26.1 ING with Boise, the short-season A squad of the Cubs. He even picked up nine saves. The following year, the Cubs tried him a starter despite the fact that he was also a reliever in college. He was still pretty good, though the K numbers predictably fell as he tried to pitch deeper into games.

What plans the Cubs would have for him ended after the 2011 season, though, as he was sent to the Boston Red Sox as compensation for Theo Epstein's defection to the Friendly Confines. It's rare for players go through what Kurcz did. Get moved for another player? Get cut so they can go to another player? Whatever the case, that's just the business of baseball. Get "traded" for a front office guy? Well, the Braves' David Carpenter can sympathize. He was also moved to the Red Sox less than a year later when he was dealt with manager John Farrell for Mike Aviles.

Kurcz was throwing a lot of multi-inning outings in 2012 with Portland, the Red Sox's AA team, when he went down with arm troubles that would eventually require (waitforit) Tommy John surgery. Every Braves pitcher of the last five years can also sympathize. Kurcz was still racking up K's (70 in 50.1), but his walks were noticeably higher which had his WHIP nearing 1.40 before going under the knife.

He wouldn't take the mound for meaningful action again until 21 months later on April 22nd of this year, again for Portland. It appears the Red Sox were handling him with kid gloves after pushing him hard in 2012 as Kurcz pitched five more games, but pitched about eight fewer innings. His K's were solid and he probably was a little lucky that more balls in play weren't converted into hits as his WHIP fell proportional to a fall in H/9.

And now, the Braves have him. What should we expect? His mechanics are little violent, as you can see in this poorly shot video from the AA All-Star Game shortly before his season went kaput in 2012. You can compare it to this video from his college days (and laugh at Bryce Harper). Kurcz stays in the mid-90's and throws both a four-seamer and two seamer. He also mixes in a change-up and slider, the latter of which will need to be considerably better to get outs in the majors.

Was it enough for Varvaro? Well, it was something and the scouts probably liked Kurcz, but it seems rather confusing. He doesn't seem that much different than the guy they gave up except the latter was established in the majors. Overall, there would appear to be some potential here, but when, and not mention if, that potential turns into an effective major league reliever is unknown. It was a bit of a letdown from the hope that Varvaro was a piece in a bigger deal.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Braves will Strike Out Less, but Will It Help?

The last two seasons under Frank Wren were uneven as the Atlanta Braves offense was both productive and dreadful. The only things that seemed to be consistent about the team was a pitching staff doing its job regardless of the injuries that were piling up and the constant reminder about how the team was striking out. Oh, the strikeouts.

Over the last four years, the Braves have struck out at least 1,200 times after not doing so once in the previous 135 years of the franchise. The last two seasons have actually climbed north of 1,300 K's, an astonishing amount in sheer raw data. On one hand, it was nice charity to cool down The Ted in July and August with a constant state of wind coming from swings-and-misses, but on the other hand, it was frustrating. Striking out is one of the two most frustrating ways to make an out (the other is double plays). We are taught in little league that strikeouts should be avoided at all costs. Choke up with two strikes. Just put the bat on the ball. Whatever you do, force the defense make a play. On the face of it, that is an entirely reasonable approach. There are probably a few kids out there like me when I was younger. I could field the ball at third, but my arm, while powerful enough to get it to first, was massively inaccurate. Billy Black, my first baseman, looked big enough to be in high school when we were in the fifth grade, but I still had him leaping to try to catch my sailing throws. Just making contact seems like a way to make something happen in little league.

But this is the Major Leagues. Last year, there were 2,914 errors, or about one for every two games that were played in the majors. Reaching base via an error is exceedingly rare. To add on, there were 3,711 infield hits in 2014, less than one a game. But what about just slapping the ball around? The batting average on grounders last year was .235, which outside of one notable outlier (2007), that number is pretty consistent. Now, to be fair, .235 is a better batting average than .000 when striking out. Also, hitting flyballs results in just as many hits proportionally, though the tendency of extra base hits increases with flyballs as we might expect (much easier to hit a homer when it's in the air). Connecting on liners results in hits over 70% of the time. An approach that is designed to just make contact will rarely result in liners because you are more concerned with putting the bat on the ball over staying within yourself and being more concerned with hard contact. I should note that every player is different and some players with extraordinary hit skills or tools have the hand-eye coordination to turn a "make contact" approach into one that produces more liners, which creates more hits. To test that, I looked at last year's Top 30 in both Contact% and Line Drive%. Guys who make an exorbitant amount of contact, but don't sacrifice their best chance for success, via the line drive, to do so. Eight players were in the Top 30 of both. So, it's not impossible to do both, but it takes a special kind of player and Michael Brantley was the only one of the group to hit 20 homers. Even in a game that has seen its homers dramatically decrease, power is still a massively important skill.

Atlanta is hoping to build a roster that goes against what they did all too much of the last two seasons. Striking out. The first real sign that this was their approach comes back to the hiring of Kevin Seitzer. Now, we can't immediately come to the conclusion that a hitting coach's teachings will mirror his career approach, but one reason Seitzer was canned in Kansas City was that the Royals were expecting more power and Seitzer's approach of grinding out at-bats and focusing on hitting the ball gap-to-gap was counter to what the Royals believed themselves capable of. Seitzer would also have issues reaching Colby Rasmus, leading to the latter getting benched. This isn't to say that this was a bad hire. Seitzer might be exactly what the Braves need to get the most out of Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons, and God willing, B.J. Upton. But his approach wouldn't appear to mesh with what former Brave, Jason Heyward, did at the plate. Same with Justin Upton, a guy who is at his best when he waits for his pitch and doesn't miss it, leading to walks, strikeouts, and long flies that he pulls toward left.

But those strikeouts are an issue for a team that wants to change their offensive approach in their effort to get away from all things Wrenish. But that implies that strikeouts were an issue. Here is where the math doesn't match the perception. The math says that if you strikeout the same exact percent of the time (like the Braves did in 2013 and 2014), you can't score such a wildly different amount of runs (+115 in 2013). At the end of the day, it doesn't matter so much if you strike out vs. ground out. Or pop out or even fly out. What matters is that you made an out in the first place. I always like the accepted truth that baseball is the only major team sport that doesn't include a clock. In a way, it does. It's called the 27th out. You are promised 27 outs in a regular nine-inning game to score more runs that the opposing team. You grind out as many at-bats as you want or strike out ten times, but all that truly matters is how many people you score before those 27 outs are up. There is no one right approach and a team must craft its approach to the players it has. I'm not a "smallball" guy or "smartball" or whatever passes as a cliche that allows David Eckstein and Craig Counsell to annoy me. By the way, Eckstein's website includes a scary pitcher of him holding a bat and the phrase, "What if you could bring St.Louis Cardinal David Eckstein to your home to meet your kids!"

Running away from strikeouts is not a bad thing. For that matter, striking out is not a bad thing. Making outs at a Francoeurian rate...now, that's a bad thing. So far this winter, the Braves have added two major league bats (along with a couple of guys who aren't established in the majors). Nick Markakis fits the grinding approach the Braves want. He puts the bat on the ball and makes the defense make a play. He also tends to get on base, as his .358 career OBP eludes to. It's worth noting that he has been below that career OBP in both of the last two years and depending on your perspective, the differences, which range from a drop of 16 points to 29 points, are either concerning or do not present much significance. Remember that the OBP for the league has also fell the last two seasons. His line drive rate has fluctuated around 20%, which is about the league average. He also hits a lot of grounders (slightly better than the league average), though he's only reached base via an error 43 times in his career, of roughly four-to-five times a year. Markakis fits what the Braves appear to be aiming for.

Moving onto Alberto Callaspo, Clearly, unlike Markakis, Callaspo isn't here for the long haul. He's a stopgap until the point that Jose Peraza is ready. The marks I just went over with Markakis see similar rates with Callaspo, though Callaspo is coming off a much worse year and is not as good of a hitter.

A guy like B.J. Upton wouldn't fit into this current regime's plans even if he was coming off a solid year with the Rays. Neither would have his brother, though, and his brother has been the second best offensive player over the last two seasons the Braves have had. And that is the crutch of the problem. It's fine to put together these grind-it-out types, but are they going to produce enough? According the sabermetrics, it's questionable. Remember that offense isn't just hitting the ball, but what you do on the bases and how it compares to the league, park, and year you have played in. Replacing Heyward with Markakis is a significant drop as far as Off goes, the statistic used to gauge offensive output in wins. Callaspo has been below 0, or the baseline average, in both seasons.

So, the Braves offense, on paper, has simply declined further.

That will be true unless the change in approach implemented by the coaches yields positive results with the returning Braves from last year's woeful offense. Ignoring that better luck could play a role, the Braves offense, as dysfunctional as it was last season, is left to just hope that the missing ingredient was the approach. The moves so far have made the Braves better suited for that approach, which is a stark difference from last year when it appeared they tried to be more aggressive at the plate, but were left flailing themselves into bad counts and bad at-bats. Like in football, you need the personal to run the offense. So far, whether you consider the offense the right choice, the moves will help get closer to the results the Braves want.

Of course, this is a process. Players like the Upton Brothers, Johnson, and even Evan Gattis don't fit into the philosophy that the Braves appear to want. Those players won't grind it out. Whether swinging or watching a called third strike, they will turn and head to the dugout at least a fifth of the time, or around once a game. It's the kind of player they are and changing that, especially if they are productive, is extremely unlikely. Hell, it's unlikely even if they are unproductive. Just ask B.J.

At the end of the day, we will see if the approach change yields much positive results when the season gives us enough results to make an observation. My personal feeling is that the Braves are likely 2-3 years away from getting the lineup they want. Like changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3. you just aren't suited to make the switch right away. The Braves will certainly strike out less this upcoming season than they did in either of the last two seasons. Will they turn those plate appearances into more non-outs, let alone runs? Where's my shrugs.gif?