Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Alex Rodriguez's Alternate Reality (About.com)

Alex Rodriguez is a lot of things. Self-centered, check. A liar, check. A steroid user, check. Maybe the best player of his generation, sure. A D&D player, probably not.

Another thing he isn't is a Brave, past or present. But there was a time that it looked far more likely that A-Rod was headed to the Braves to team up with the still young Chipper Jones and the budding superstar Andruw Jones to be the core that would bring in the next ring. Or two. 

This isn't even a maybe. John Schuerholz was ready and the franchise was willing to make this happened. Consider the possibilities and find out...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Reviewing BA's Top Ten: 2007

John Schuerholz's final year as general manager started with a nice cadre of prospects in the minors despite the Baby Braves of 2005 remaining a significant part of the roster. The Braves placed a trio of players in the Top 100, but they would deal all three in the ill-advised Mark Teixeira trade. Despite that, five of the players in addition to one of the youngsters that was sent to Texas to acquire Teix made it to the majors, including three "graduates," or players that were in the majors long enough to lose their rookie status.

See the previous versions of this list.

Atlanta's Top Ten Prospects for 2007 according to Baseball America
  1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c - BA Top 100: #36 - Other Years in Braves Top 10: 2005 (8th), 2006 (2)
  2. Elvis Andrus, ss - BA Top 100: #65 - Other Years: 2006 (3rd)
  3. Matt Harrison, lhp - BA Top 100: #90
  4. Brandon Jones, of - Other Years: 2006 (8th), 2008 (4th)
  5. Van Pope, 3b
  6. Eric Campbell, 3b - Other Years: 2006 (9th)
  7. Scott Thorman, 1b - Other Years: 2003 (8th)
  8. Jo-Jo Reyes, lhp
  9. Joey Devine, rhp - Other Years: 2006 (6th)
  10. Yunel Escobar, ss - Other Years: 2006 (4th)
Prospect Spotlight
The great thing about keeping an eye on the minor league system is that when a player's name pops up for whatever reason, it puts memories in your head. I wrote something related to this when Jamie Romak got to the majors last season. More often than not, if you remember a player from his minor league career, it was only because he played sparingly in the majors or never even got there. With that in mind, when I saw Van Pope's name pop up in today's list, it immediately stood out. He went from defense-first third baseman to a promising youngster with power and discipline to a failure of a prospect. And then, just to make us remember him a bit more, he became a pitcher. Well done, Van Pope.

A fifth round selection in 2004 from Meridian Community College in Mississippi, Pope's glove almost immediately made him a prospect to watch. He had the arm to play the hot corner plus range and soft hands. There was a time that Pope entered the conversation as an eventual heir to Chipper Jones. Of course, so did a lot of names. Pope never got his OPS over .800, but in 2006 with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, he banged out 123 hits and 201 total bases on his way to .263/.353/.430 plus 15 homeruns. That kind of production pared with his glove was enough to get him a Top 5 placement on this list.

Unfortunately, he would falter once he joined the Mississippi Braves the next year and over the next three seasons, he hit one fewer homerun than he did in all of 2006. While the defense was still there, you have to hit at least some. Just ask Joe Leonard. A minor league free agent after 2009, the Braves reached out to Pope and invited him back, but only if he came back to the Braves as a pitcher. He had been a closer in college and there was hope the Braves could still get value for their fifth rounder who appeared to lack the ability to hit like a corner infielder.

He returned to Myrtle Beach to open 2010. He struggled early, but strung together four consecutive scoreless appearances between May 8th and 20th. However, there was a catch. He had walked six to go with just one strikeout. That left him with a 6.35 ERA and 16 walks to just five K's in 11.1 ING. The Braves felt the experiment had run its course and released Pope in late May, saying adiĆ³s for good. Pope would play two seasons of independent baseball, but that was it. I don't have much information on Pope since then, but he did appear in last season's Rome Braves Alumni Event.

Biggest Bust
Not to be confused with the Mets player of the same name, Campbell was picked two rounds ahead of Pope in 2004 out of Fort Branch, Indiana. Campbell is another player whose name makes me remember his time with the Braves minor league system. Unlike Pope, it's a negative remembrance.

Campbell quickly became a tremendous offensive asset, destroying the Appalachian League in 2005 with a 1.016 OPS and 18 homers, four more than the nearest player while also tying the league record for homeruns until it was broken in 2011. Campbell wasn't the defender Pope was and some wondered if he really had a position, hurting his prospect status, but nobody doubted his bat. He posted a .852 OPS in the following season with Rome with 22 homers, showing that his power was for real. After the season, he was sent to play in the Hawaiian Winter League, but his time in paradise was cut short for disciplinary reasons. Unfortunately, Campbell's attitude problems and penchant for finding trouble wouldn't end there. After a 2007 season with Myrtle Beach where he struggled, he was suspended for the remainder of the season in late August for "unspecified disciplinary reasons." The suspension would either carry over into the next year or he swas suspended again as he started the year late. Regardless, when he got back onto the field, he rediscovered his power stroke, belting 19 homers in 88 games for the Pelicans to earn a promotion to Mississippi for 2009. There...he sucked and nearly two years after having his 2007 season cut short by suspension, Campbell was cut by the Braves. It was called a normal player release.

Campbell would play for three more seasons, logging time in both affiliated and un-affiliated ball. Both the Reds and Mariners gave him a look, but he never made it to AAA. Campbell is a cautionary tale on how you can ruin your career if you don't grow up quickly.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Steve Bedrosian

I almost never talk about the 1980's on this blog. I don't have much reason to. I try to keep most of my information relevant to the time I have followed the Braves, rarely travelling into the era of cocaine and Reagan if I can help it. But sometime, the random Ex-Brave generator throws me a curveball. Or in today's case, an unhittable slider.

Steve Bedrosian was born on December 6th, 1957 in the small Massachusetts town of Methuen. Know how many players went to Methuen High School and made it to the major leagues? One. Undrafted out of high school, Bedrocks spent time with both Northern Essex Community College and the University of New Haven, neither of which are particularly well known for their baseball, but Bedrosian was special. Very few pitchers at the time could match his heat and the Braves took him with their third round selection in the 1978 draft. Cal Ripken had just been selected five picks before Bedrosian. Gotta wonder where those two were on the Braves big board. The 1978 draft only produced a half-dozen major league players for the Braves, but between Bedrosian and first rounder Bob Horner, I'd say it was a pretty decent draft.

Bedrosian was a starter in the minors, throwing 23 complete games in four years with five shutouts. He was understandably wild as he attempted to harnass the filthy stuff that would make him such a superb major league pitcher. After a cup of coffee to finish 1981, Bedrosian won a spot in the Braves pen to open 1982. He pitched 137.2 ING and K'd 123 while picking up 11 saves and a couple of votes for the Rookie of the Year. He would remain a very good pitcher for the Braves for two more years as a reliever, but new Braves manager Eddie Haas wanted Bedrocks to start. Well, in Haas's only year as a manager, 1985, he got his wish and Bedrosian starter 37 games. He also set a record that year for most starts without a complete game. He would never start another game and the inept Braves traded Bedrosian and Milt Thompson for Ozzie Virgil and, coincidentally enough, last week's Random Ex-Brave, Pete Smith. It was an awful trade for the Braves. Thompson stole 46 bases for the Phils while hitting .302 in 1987. And Bedrocks...well, under management that knew better than tinker with a good thing, Bedrosian flourished. He saved 29 in 1986 before saving 40 the following year on his way to a Cy Young award. I've argued before that Bedrosian won it over more deserving players, but hey, that doesn't change the fact that he has the award at home. The 40 saves was only six off the pace for the then-record.

After another year with Philly, he was traded in the 1989 season to the Giants and would play in the World Series that year, also known as the Earthquake Series. He would get a ring the following year pitching for the Twins, but was not nearly the pitcher he had been in his heyday. He was dealing with numbness in his fingers and the uncertainty of what was causing it. Doctors speculated it was his chewing tobacco habit or too much strain throwing split-finger pitches. Whatever the case, it looked as if his career might be over and what a way to go out with a World Series win against the team that misused you and traded you all those years ago.

Bedrosian returned to his adopted home in Newnan, Georgia and began to enjoy his early retirement with his four sons, including Cody who was battling leukemia. However, not only the itch to play return, but the numbness disappeared and Bedrocks came to camp in 1993 looking to make the Braves roster. He did that and more, posting a 1.63 ERA in 49.2 ING as one of Atlanta's most trusted set-up men while posting a 0.97 WHIP. Strangely, he did not pitch in the 1993 NLCS against the Phillies. Bedrosian would pitch well, though not as dominant, in 1994 before the strike. However, 1995 was not his year. He struggled to have clean outings and with the Braves likely to move him out in favor of a better option, Bedrosian announced that he would retire not at the end of the season, but after the Braves' August 9th game against the Reds. With the team wearing their socks up to honor Bedrocks, the Braves played like crap. Greg Maddux surrendered five runs and brought in with the game 5-3 in the ninth, Bedrosian himself turned it into a laugher in his final game giving up four runs (three earned) and not forcing the Braves to bring in Pedro Borbon to finish things.

Though his best years came with the Phillies, Bedrosian still logged over half of his career innings with the Braves. He only saved 41 games with the Braves, or just one more than he had in his Cy Young season with the Phils, and fulfilled many roles with Atlanta. Now, you can often see him at Alumni events. His son, Cam, made it to the majors last year and even faced the Braves in back-to-back games last June with former Brave Jason Heyward connecting on a homer against him.

Can Chris Johnson Be Fixed? (About.com)

Posted my most recent article at the new About.com site. Here is a summary...

Chris Johnson was a breakthrough player for the Braves in 2013, but an increase on swings, especially outside the strikezone, led to a rapid fall from grace. With a new three year deal beginning this season, what exactly went wrong and is it fixable?

Give it a look!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Breaking News: Atlanta Braves Spring Roster Balloons to 231 Players

You can't say that John Hart has been passive this winter.

In addition to all of the big moves and the recent additions of Kelly Johnson and Jonny Gomes, the Braves claimed Eury Perez off waivers from the New York Yankees Friday night. So, add him to the collection of players who will come to spring training and battle for playing time while the casual Braves fans try to figure out who the hell are all these people playing for the Braves this season.

Perez, a 24 year-old outfielder, is a veteran of eight professional seasons including the last six state-side. He's also appeared in the majors for three ultra-short cups of coffee. A former Washington National prospect, Perez twice took home the organizational Fastest Baserunner honor that Baseball America dishes out along with once being named the Best Defensive OF in the system. He was also twice a Top 10 prospect for the Nats.

Over the last couple of seasons, Perez stagnated in AAA while also failing to stay healthy. He hit .310/.371/.409 last season in the minors, which outside of some rehab work in the lower levels, was spent with Syracuse in the International League. He played a good deal of right field, which typically raises an eyebrow when center fielders get moved to the corner. Usually, that means defensive issues. But I just said he was honored as the Best Defensive OF in the Nats system once. Brian Goodwin, who might have a chance to replace Denard Span in CF, had moved to AAA so that helps explain that. The better prospect always gets the time.

After Washington picked up Pedro Florimon off waivers in September, they waived Perez to open a spot. The Yankees followed by claiming Perez and sending Josh  Outman away, who is now one of Perez's teammates. So, what kind of player is Perez? And could he replace B.J. Upton as some have wondered because, yeah, that's going to totally happen. The following breakdown covers both minor league numbers and the brief time spent in the majors.
Year vsRHP vsLHP
2014 .289/.363/.370 .342/.369/.468
2013 .273/.317/.372 .353/.369/.521
2012 .307/.340/.339 .327/.350/.410
2011 .261/.303/.317 .321/.354/.328
There does appear to be some platoon possibilities with Perez, who was good against righties last year, average in 2012, and pretty bad in 2013 & 2011. But his numbers against southpaws have traditionally been very good. Unfortunately for him, Gomes just signed.

Since the Braves appear to not believe that Todd Cunningham is a legitimate option in center, Perez rockets up the charts to B.J.'s backup and the out-of-options outfielder will have every opportunity to win a spot this spring on a wide-open roster. On a team that might have to steal a lot of bases to press the issue, Perez could have some value both off the bench and, if BJ struggles, he could steal some time from the high-priced outfielder. Perez probably won't be much more than a fourth outfielder, who at best, could do a Juan Pierre impression. On a good team, he'd be in AAA. On a bad team...well, he starts to looks a lot better than he really is. So, I fully expect him to make the roster.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A New Opportunity (for me)

I don't often make posts with specific focus on me. Even when I do mention my history, I do so specifically in regards to a player, game, etc. That will be a little different in this post.

About a month ago, I accepted an opportunity to write for About.com with their new revamped sports section. The opportunity was too great for me personally. I am not trying to make blogging and analysis a career, but I do enjoy doing it. Now, you probably have visited About.com at some point for "how to change my lawn mower's oil?" or something similar. It has been their bread-and-butter for years, but they are opening up things a bit for more current news and analysis.

The page just went live today and I hope you will give it a read. It's going to be a slightly different voice than Walk-Off Walk, but I'm probably going to be the same know-it-all stathead.

Where does that leave this blog? Well, it will continue to be active. I'm not positive how I'm going to separate the two just yet. What I'm leaning toward is a higher degree of analysis and looking at prospects and ex-Braves with this blog while focusing more on quick analysis + general news with the About.com blog, but we'll see how it works. I am still going to aim for on an average, seven articles a week, but it may be 4-5 here and 2-3 over at About.com. Anyway, I would really appreciate if you added the About.com page to your favorites and/or followed me on Twitter. Thank you and go Braves!

Favorite Braves List - Right 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

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

Honorable Mention: Well, David Justice hit that homer in 1995 when he wasn't being an ass so that's enough to remember him fondly. Gary Sheffield was solid in two years with the Braves, though the only thing I really remember is the three hits in 30 AB for the Braves in the playoffs.

Favorite Braves List - Right Field
Jason Heyward

In full disclosure, I have had some issues sticking with this blog. I could tell you a wonderful story about being a father for a second time, returning to school, and so on and so forth and hey, it would be a true story, too. But whatever, it is what it is. One of the long running series for my blog is this one. Some have been confused about it. "Where's Warren Spahn? Rabbit Maranville?" But that wasn't the purpose of this list. If you want to talk about the best Braves of all time, players on my list may or may not be in the discussion, but if you want to spend some time talking about who were my favorite Braves that I actually watched, this list will save you some time from hearing me drone on.

When I started this list with McCann in June of 2012, I honestly thought I would get through the list in the span of a few months. I had them written down and I was good to go. But here we are in 2015 and I'm just adding my 12th player to this team and because it took so long, he has been traded away before he could join Kimbrel and Simmons as active Braves on this list. I'm such a lazy ass.

Jason Alias Heyward was drafted with the 14th overall pick of the 2007 draft. He only fell that far because of signability concerns and the Braves jumped at the chance to add Heyward to their collection of Atlanta-area draftees. Though I hate his nickname, the J-Hey Kid rocketed up the minors and always hit against pitchers much older than him. And he beat them up. One year of rookie ball and a year mostly spent at Rome led him to a 2009 season where he started the year at Myrtle Beach and ended the season with Gwinnett. In the process, he posted a .963 OPS with 17 homers and a BB for every strikeout. I remember seeing him play against the Lynchburg Hillcats as a member of the Pelicans that year. Lynchburg would go on to win the title, but Heyward was long gone by the time the Carolina League playoffs came around that year. In one game at City Stadium, Heyward blasted a homer into the Lynchburg night in a game the Braves won 6-0. Random, but after Craig Kimbrel replaced Brandon Beachy (he was a reliever back then), and Kimbrel came in throwing his typical heat, a Hillcat fan yelled, "we're already losing bad. You can go a little easier on us!" Here is a picture showing Heyward and his best friend on the team, Freddie Freeman, as they prepared for a 'Cats pitcher.
Okay, I might not be a photographer, but getting a chance to watch Heyward back then made me an even bigger fan than I already was. I felt fortunate because he was soon moved up to Mississippi and Gwinnett after that. There was talk that the Braves might call him up before the end of 2009, but with the Braves floundering toward an average finish, they rightfully let Heyward stick in the minors.

That led to spring training before the 2010 season. While the Braves didn't outright say the position belonged to Heyward, they certainly didn't bring in anyone for him to beat out. On opening day, Heyward showed why that he indeed belonged. He would hit 17 more homers and go to his surprisingly only All-Star Game. He added a sexy .393 OBP with the help of 91 walks.

Clearly, he needed to be changed. After struggling with injuries and Chipper Jones challenging his willingness to play with pain, Heyward came to camp in 2012 looking to shake off a bad sophomore season, new Braves hitting coach Greg Walker wanted Heyward to be more aggressive. It would lead to a career high 152 strikeouts, but to Walker's credit, it also led to Heyward's career-best 27 homers. Batting behind Michael Bourn, he also swiped 21 bases, another career high, while winning his first Gold Glove. Yeah, the walks were no longer there, but you can do a lot worse than .269/.335/.479.

Heyward would do worse than that, though. He struggled to open 2013 with Andrelton Simmons hitting leadoff and never getting on base. Once Heyward was moved to leadoff, things began to take off and Heyward's OBP kept climbing toward .350, but an untimely ball to the face from Jon Niese put his season in jeopardy. He would make it back for the playoffs, but managed just four hits in 23 trips to the plate. Even more notable...he didn't walk.

In 2014, there was a bigger spotlight on Heyward and he responded with his best season. With his glove, that is. In the batter's box, his OPS went to the wrong side of .750. After the season, he was traded to the Cardinals. And I cried.

At this point, I have no idea what type of player Heyward is. He's missed significant action twice in five years, posted three seasons with an OPS under .800, and he's blasted 20 homers once and stole 20 bases twice. With the glove, he is tremendous and a real weapon. Plus, watching him run the bases is like baseball porn. And that's the stuff I will miss now that he's gone. I thought the world of Heyward, though I resigned myself to believe he wouldn't be a Brave forever. After all, what kind of market can he really demand? Who's truly comparable? Certainly, it was too rich for the Braves' blood. 

That doesn't stop me from wanting to keep the 25 year-old. If he ever breaks out, he will be among the best in the game and live up to the hype. If he doesn't, he will still be a very good player. Either way, Heyward is a worthy addition to my Favorite Team. I only wish he could be an addition for my favorite team. Or should I say, return to it. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Spring Training Preview: The Bullpen

When the 2014-15 offseason is looked it, we will be mesmerized by the amount of turnover. Of the 39 players who played at least one game with the Braves last season, 19 of them are already gone and that does not include Kris Medlen or Brandon Beachy. Outfield stands out as a position in great change and I profiled the starting rotation last week which saw an entire starting staff move on. Let's not ignore how much the pen has changed, though. Of the 440.2 innings thrown by the bullpen last year, 183.1 innings, or 42%, have to be replaced. Of the five most used relievers, three have been traded this offseason. The bullpen will look very different and in my opinion, it is unlikely to be as good.

With that in mind, let's say goodbye to...David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro, Jordan Walden, Chasen Shreve, Jonny Venters, Cory Gearrin, Pedro Beato, Ryan Buchter. The last four is just piling on and of course, Venters may never throw another major league pitch. Shreve was a promising young reliever who was used in the Manny Banuelos deal, but the biggest losses in innings is from the first three, who have all been significant parts of the Braves bullpen for the last couple of seasons. Losing all three hurts, though when the team is headed towards a rebuild, having a shutdown crew in front of your closer is often considered an unnecessary luxury.

Five pitchers who are returning logged at least 20 innings last year and an additional ten are in the picture for the 2015 season either as surging minor league prospects, free agent acquisitions, or left-over guys with little chance of sticking. Let's start at the top.

Here's a funny number for you. Craig Kimbrel had his worst WHIP in three years. Of pitchers with at least 50 innings in the bag last year, only 20 had a better WHIP. Kimbrel lost the title of best closer in the game last year to Aroldis Chapman, but you'd have a tough time finding many others that have posted a four year start to their career with much more domination than Kimbrel. Granted, the Braves probably don't need a dominating closer, but Kimbrel is signed long term and is unlikely to bring back a significant return unless a team gets very desperate.

But when he looks around this spring, he will see at least three new faces expected to set the stage for what saves Kimbrel does get. 12-year veteran Jason Grilli and 9-year veteran Jim Johnson both have closing experience. Grilli was an All-Star in 2013 and damn effective as his 1.97 FIP showed. He struggled last year, but was actually pitching good ball down the stretch after being traded to the Angels. He should be pretty good, though the fact that he was signed for both his age-38 and age-39 seasons was a little surprising. Remember when I said Kimbrel was 21st in WHIP last year among pitchers with at least 50 innings? Johnson was last, posting a 1.95 WHIP. That number looks a lot nicer as an ERA. That was coming on the heels of back-to-back 50 save seasons with the Orioles. He was never that dominant, but he kept the ball in the park and didn't walk people. Until last year. Another new face is Josh Outman, a lefty reliever, who does one thing and one thing only. Get lefties out.

That leaves three open spots and we can pencil James Russell in for one of those spots provided he doesn't break camp in the rotation. But I mentioned 15 options and that's without adding fifth starter candidates Michael Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos to the mix as I believe if they aren't in the rotation, they will go to Gwinnett to start games. If Kimbrel, Grilli, Johnson, Outman, and Russell are in the pen already, who gets the remaining two spots among the remaining ten I see as possibilities?

Shae Simmons, if healthy, is a good bet to be one of them. Simmons appeared in 26 games last year and struck out over a batter an inning with a 3.13 FIP. He has the skillset to be at least a very good reliever in the majors if not one getting high leverage innings. But injuries ended his 2014 prematurely. Speaking of a guy who knows about injuries, Arodys Vizcaino is back from a sabbatical with the Cubs of Chicago. The Cubbies graciously rehabbed Vizcaino for us and now he is ready to try and contribute at the major league level. I think he still has at least one option, maybe two, left so the Braves won't be forced to keep or lose him this season, but "if healthy," he still possesses the raw ability that made us sad to see him traded to the Cubs in the first place.

Though he probably doesn't deserve the amount of crap he gets on Twitter, Luis Avilan did himself no favors by stinking up the joint last season. He had a weird 2013 in that he lowered his WHIP, but also lost 3 K/9. That backfired in 2014 as he missed more spots leading to a sharp increase in walks to the point that his BB/K got embarrassingly close, though in his defense, seven of his 21 walks were intentional. With two lefties already in the fold, he's no sure thing. Neither is last year's long guy, David Hale, who is also in on the fifth starter competition. People tell me Hale is better suited to be a starter than a reliever. I find that cute in that people think he's best suited to be a pitcher at all. That sounds mean, but he possibly would make more money on Wall Street if he wants to use that "operations research and financial engineering" degree he got from Princeton to better use.

I'd say Simmons, Vizcaino, Avilan, and Hale have the strongest chance right now to  those two spots in the theoretical bullpen, but the Braves could use other options. From the left-hand side, Ian Thomas makes for a fun story as he he was undrafted and signed out of the Atlantic League, but he impressed enough last spring to make the club and did not look overmatched at all. But questions remain as his season ended a month short. Also still around is Juan Jaime. It might be unfair, but every time I saw Jaime, I thought "cool, the Braves brought back Manny Acosta." Yes, Jaime has great velocity, but it looked far too straight and too often, not in the strikezone. I don't think pitchers who subscribe to the Three True Outcomes really succeed on high amounts of Ks, BBs, and HRs. Signed on a minor league deal, Michael Kohn has 126 games in the majors and provided he doesn't walk nearly 8 per nine like he did last season, he could be in the mix as well.

The rest of the names are waiting for their first callup. Ryne Harper is a 37th rounder who has a 2.18 ERA in 148 minor league games along with a 1.16 WHIP and 10.6 K/9. However, the Braves thought so much of him that despite a 1.79 ERA with Mississippi in 2013, they made Harper repeat the level in 2014. One of Harper's teammates last year was John Cornely, who posted a 1.15 WHIP in nearly 70 innings with seven saves. Yet another Mississippi Brave was Brandon Cunniff, who the Braves protected by placing him on the 40-man roster this winter. Like Ian Thomas, Cunniff was signed out of independent ball. He probably won't strike out a small village, but he has great natural sinking movement.

You could really go on with Donnie Veal, Aaron Kurcz, and others, but I'd rather not write a novel today. The 2015 bullpen will look significantly different from the bullpen that often pitched so well last year. That's not to say the new group can't be good themselves, though. I wouldn't bank on it. Still, stranger things have happened. Like me getting to the point where I complain about getting rid of Varvaro.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Kelly Comes Home

It's worth noting that, yes, I do know that Kelly Johnson was born in Texas, but nobody likes a stickler for details so run with the title of this post dammit.

I have probably mentioned this before and if we go way back, you need no reminding, but I was a big fan of Kelly Johnson as he climbed up the ladder to the majors. The 38th overall pick of the 2000 draft struck out a lot, but he fulfilled my elementary understanding of Moneyball. This is when I point to Peter Brand and he says "he gets on base." After signing with the Braves, Johnson went to Macon in 2001 and set the friggin world on fire with a .289/.404/.513 campaign. He played shortstop, but most agreed that he lacked the necessary defensive skills for the position. Besides, the Braves had Rafael Furcal who surely would a Brave for another ten years anyway. KJ's bat would play up everywhere.

So what if his OPS fell 199 points in 2002. That was that infamous wind in Myrtle Beach's fault. And who cares that in an injury-marred 2003 year with Greenville, Kelly popped just six homers. It would be okay.

Hello, my name is Tommy and I have a man crush.

KJ would bounce back in a second season with Greenville before destroying the International League ahead of his late May, 2005 promotion. Yep, he was a Baby Brave. Here's a fun fact...KJ batted third in his first game. He moved Chipper Jones to cleanup. If that doesn't give you reason to think KJ was considered a future big time player for the Braves, I don't know what will. Another fun fact. Kelly went 1 for his first 30 during his first eleven games before going off on an eleven game hit streak where he belted a trio of homers. It was the first validation for a common complaint by those who hate a good thing. "He's too streaky!"

Kelly would eventually settle into a lower spot in the order and hit .241/.334/.397 for the year while playing left field. It wasn't a particularly wonderful season, I'll grant you, but the rookie didn't embarrass himself even though Bobby Cox benched him in the playoffs. Naturally, the Braves lost. Just sayin'...

Even though he wasn't a pitcher, Keller missed 2006 with Tommy John probably out of sympathy. In 2007, with second base open after Marcus Giles was let go, Kelly moved to second base with the help of Glenn Hubbard to prepare for the season and claimed the second base job and even the leadoff spot. What followed was a remarkable season where he slashed .276/.375/.457, reached doubled digits in 2B-3B-HRs, and walked 79 times. He did have his defensive mistakes as he struggled with getting his glove in the proper spot on balls to his right, but not many 2B post an .831 OPS. Or even the .795 OPS he followed up the year with while foolishly taking the advice of Terry Pendleton to be "more aggressive." Why mess with a good thing? How many times can I call KJ a "good thing?"

I'd skip talking about 2009, but since it was his final year with the Braves...well, KJ sucked. His batting average hovered around .220 and his OPS was a hundred points lower than the previous year. At the same time, some usurper named Martin Prado took his spot. What nerve! The Braves decided paying Kelly over $3M was not "financially responsible" or some other crap that your parents tell you when you want a new iPad.

He left for the Desert and had a wonderful season just to show off. The D'Backs sent him north of the border because KJ decided he would start a nomadic experience in the AL East, playing for the Jays, Rays, and in one year, completed the "American Tail" by playing in the Bronx, Boston, and Baltimore just because he was in such high demand.

In all seriousness, Kelly has a tough road to make the 2015 Braves, though why the hell not give him a chance? He has moved into the utility stage of his career and last season played first, second, and third base along with the corner outfield slots. That kind of versatility is valuable. On a minor league deal, it's a worthwhile gamble. And frankly, as you can tell by my irrational love for the guy, I hope he makes it and succeeds. After this offseason, I could use some awesome news. Thanks for throwing people like me a bone, John Hart.

Jonny Gomes: A win-win situation

I think a lot of people have this idea that when you rebuild a team, you just throw as many young players into the mix and roll with it. See what the kids can do is the common sentiment shared by many who see a team rebuilding. However, the reality is that if a player is not major league quality, giving him at-bats just to "see what he can do" is a ridiculous proposition. Oh, I realize how can we really know what they can do if they don't get a shot, but let's be honest...if you weren't impressive in the minor leagues, why should you get playing play just because of your age? If you don't cut it, you don't cut it.

And that is kind of the problem. The Atlanta Braves have a lot of outfield options, but none are that intriguing. Todd Cunningham has a career minor league OPS of .721 for a reason. Joey Terdoslavich is a nice bench option, but his defense is questionable at best. The only skill Jose Constanza really has is licking a bat. And who knows what the Braves have in Dion Toscano? The best you can see for this group is that they are diverse. But none of these four project to be anything more than a fourth outfielder, let alone a guy getting significant at-bats.

But we are conditioned to think just play them. They're young so maybe you'll get surprised. Well, Constanza's not young, but you get the point. After all, who remembers Charles Thomas? Maybe one of these guys could be him for a year.

That kind of mindset might explain why people look at the news of pursuing Jonny Gomes with disdain. He doesn't fit into the typical idea of what a rebuilding team should look like, except he does fit the typical idea of what a rebuilding team actually looks like. While we naturally think rebuilding teams play a lot of kids and they often do, they are meticulous about when to play those kids. Things like their readiness and service time are considered. And those prospects, unlike the four I mentioned, are actually real prospects.

Outside of those guys, teams focus on smart veterans to fill the team. Their role isn't just as a mentor, though that's definitely a part of it. They are often better than what you have on hand, though, or at least bridge the gap between that kid being ready for the majors. Guys like Gomes fit that description. Sure, he's not a great player, but he does do something well. He hits southpaws.
Year AVG OBP SLG
2012 .278 .413 .561
2013 .236 .347 .447
2014 .276 .373 .371
You telling me you can't find a reason to a play guy like Gomes against left-hand pitching? You wouldn't want those stats against Cole Hamels or Gio Gonzalez? Now, granted, his power has decreased the last three seasons, but he's still getting on base and is a tough out. And really, who's at-bats would be taking away?

Oh, you want me to mention Zoilo Almonte? Good catch, Mr./Mrs./Dr. Reader. I purposely didn't mention Almonte because he would appear to be platoon-limited, too. Here are are his splits for the last three seasons at the minor league level against right-handed pitching. Note...Almonte is a switch-hitter.
Year AVG OBP SLG
2012 .303 .349 .542
2013 .288 .355 .421
2014 .272 .313 .478
Now, granted, that is against minor league pitching so the comparison isn't exactly the same, but for a second, consider combining Almonte and Gomes. That looks like a pretty good hitter. Not a great one, but a good enough one similar to the Julio Franco/Matt Franco platoon of yesteryear. Almonte, though a switch hitter, shows remarkably high platoon differences. Just because a guy can bat from both sides of the plate doesn't mean the difference between the two won't be significant.

Signing Gomes, if the Braves go down that route, gives a punchless offense a little extra value. It gives the Almonte signing a real purpose. And who knows, if the Braves suck like most of us think they will, Gomes could bring in a decent bullpen prospect before the deadline. Value is the name of the game and Gomes gives the Braves depth and production against left-hand pitchers. If you were against this type of signing or even on the fence, these numbers might not change your mind, but at least it brings clarity why Atlanta might be interested.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Reviewing BA's Top Ten: 2006

We continue our quest to review the last 15 years of Baseball America's Top Ten Prospects in the Braves system with the 2006 list, or as we might remember, the year after all of the Baby Braves arrived. A few of them made this list, though that didn't stop a wealth of turnover in the Top Ten with only three players who appeared in the rankings previously. Still, the Brave placed five prospects in the Top 100 and a pair in the Top 20. Unfortunately, they would only get one starting position player and briefly, a starting pitcher from this rankings. Oh, and one year of Mark Teixeira's prime. Yep, that's gonna be a big part of this list.

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

Atlanta's Top Ten Prospects for 2006 according to Baseball America

  1. Andy Marte, 3b - BA Top 100: #9 - Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (3rd), 2004 (1st), 2005 (2nd)
  2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c - BA Top 100: #18 - Other Years: 2005 (8th), 2007 (65th)
  3. Elvis Andrus, ss - BA Top 100: #61 - Other Years: 2007 (2nd)
  4. Yunel Escobar, ss - Other Years: 2007 10th
  5. Anthony Lerew, rhp - BA Top 100: #93 - Other Years: 2004 (10th), 2005 (5th)
  6. Joey Devine, rhp - Other Years: 2007 (9th)
  7. Chuck James, lhp
  8. Brandon Jones, of - Other Years: 2007 (4th), 2008 (4th)
  9. Eric Campbell, 3b - Other Years: 2007 (6th)
  10. Beau Jones, lhp

Prospect Spotlight
It was only natural. At the forum I was cutting my teeth at and learning more and more about baseball (believe it was braves.net?), when Chuck James arrived on the scene as a minor league presence ahead of the 2006 season, the references to Chuck Norris was likely inevitable. Chuck James doesn't get cancer, cancer gets Chuck James. You know the deal. It almost overshadows that #36 was a bit of a prospect. It was a long road for James in that with his physical limitations withstanding, he also broke both of his wrists shortly before the 2002 draft doing what stupid kids do. Jump off the roof into a swimming pool...or at least, that was the goal. But not all of us can be Golden Gods.

The injury sent James to the 20th round where the Braves took a chance on him. He signed late and didn't play due to injury until 2003 when he dominated the Appalachian League with Danville. 2004 was more of the same (2.24 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.6 K/9), yet James continues to fly under the radar. In 2005, he finally demanded attention from not only us as fans, but Baseball America, cracking the Top 100 in the only year he even appeared in the Braves list. He opened the year with seven starts with Myrtle Beach, shined in sixteen sweet starts with Mississippi, and kept his WHIP under 1.00 with Richmond in a half-dozen games before wearing his fourth uniform of the year as he appeared in two games out of the pen for the big league club. His minor league numbers that season...2.12 ERA, 193 K's in 161.2 ING, and a 0.86 WHIP. So, yeah, we were ready for him to be a star.

And he was pretty decent in 2006. In 25 games, 18 starts, he sported a 3.78 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP, numbers that were reasonable for a rookie. However, a 5.14 FIP due in no small part to 20 homers in just 119 innings probably should have concerned us. But James, who worked in the offseason as a installer at Lowe's, was on a team whose pitching was getting just awful and James represented hope. 2007 dashed all hope as he posted a 4.24 ERA with a 5.48 FIP. He was who we probably should have thought he was. A guy who battles, but has no out pitch and subsequently, was not an impact prospect. Most troublesome was that he started 30 games, but only logged 161.1 ING. He was no longer Chuck Norris's cousin. He was Five Inning James.

James would struggle through injuries the following year and when he was on the mound, hitters destroyed many of his pitches. With James arbitration-eligible ahead of the 2009 season, the Braves felt he wasn't worth bringing back. He would miss 2009 before coming back with the Nationals organization for 66 minor league innings in 2010 where he returned to his former success. The following year, the Twins brought him aboard and turned him into a reliever. That got him back to the majors for eight games that year, but he still couldn't get major league hitters out. He tried to make the 2012 roster for the Mets, but they cut him and he retired soon after. Today, he has returned to the home construction field, working as a consultant for Window World, Inc. in Dallas, GA.

Biggest Bust
The Braves went all-in on Joey Devine and got nothing but heartache and Mark Kotsay for it. After Devine set a North Carolina State Wolfpac record for saves in a single season, the Braves made him the 27th overall selection of the 2005 draft. There was some good reason for optimism. Devine had filthy stuff and was considered as close to major league ready as possible. However...he was just a reliever. Obviously, I don't have access to the "Big Board," but the Braves passed on Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, and Clay Buchholz (also first rounders) to get Devine. Again, to their credit, he did appear in the majors less than three months after being drafted. On the other hand, when he got to the majors - UGH!

There are good things to start off your career with and then, there are bad things. Devine had an absolute hellish beginning to his major league career. He got the call in the 13th inning against the visiting Padres hours after being called up on August 20th. With two outs and a runner on second, the Braves walked Brian Giles to get to Joe Randa. Devine couldn't find the strike zone and walked him unintentionally. Xavier Nady followed by sending one deep into the stratosphere. Three days later, with the Braves already down 4-0, Devine relieved the ineffective John Thomson with one out and two out and a runner on. A double, a walk, and a Jeromy Burnitz moonshot out of Wrigley and the Braves were down 8-0. No pitcher has ever began his career by surrendering Grand Slams in each of his first two appearances. Notably, Devine only surrendered three regular season homers in his career. Of course, he would also surrender a postseason homer. In the 18th inning. To Chris Burke. And I hate Chris Burke.

Devine would appear in 20 games with the Braves over the next two seasons, though he only logged 14.2 innings. The Braves sent Devine packing before the 2008 season to acquire the aforementioned Kotsay and Devine followed with the breakthrough season the Braves were counting on when they drafted him in the first round. He posted a 0.59 ERA in 45.2 ING. How good is that? Since 1912, when ERA became an official stat, no one has ever posted that low of an ERA in at least 45 innings. But his success was short-lived. Arm troubles kept him away from the A's for two years and ended a promising 2011 season prematurely. After another surgery and being non-tendered, Devine would retire with just 88 innings in the majors. I'm not sure what Devine has done since moving on, but sadly for what could be an awesome story, he's not this Joey Devine (Oh, and language...and he's not that funny).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Pete Smith

Baseball is filled with players who have a career season. Maybe their BABIP went wonky in the positive direction or they got unusually lucky with a few flyballs that landed three feet in front of the left-center wall instead of beyond it. But even those players often have had a somewhat productive career filled with average seasons.

Today's random ex-Brave had one season where he looked like he would give the Braves a true embarrassment of riches, but just as quickly, he became an afterthought who was sent packing. In 1992, Pete Smith was humming at Richmond until August, but once he landed in the majors, he was one of the hottest pitchers in the majors. I remember having a poster after Greg Maddux signed with the title "Five Ace's" with Smith joining the likes of three Hall of Famers and Steve Avery. Yet, before the 1994 season, he was traded to the Mets for a fourth outfielder. That's just the way it goes for a pitcher who never lived up to the promise.

Drafted in 1984 with the 21st overall pick by the Phillies, Smith graduated from the same school as Amy Poehler. At the time, Smith projected well as a pro and was picked seven choices ahead of recent Random Ex-Brave Norm Charlton and several choices ahead of second rounders Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Al Leiter. That 1984 draft was packed.

The often horrible Braves would acquire Smith after he spent just one-and-a-half seasons in the Phillies organization, sending Milt Thompson and Steve Bedrosian to Philadelphia for Ozzie Virgil and the young pitcher. Smith was rushed to AA and ultimately the majors, making his debut as a 21 year-old for six starts in 1987. He was a regular in the rotation for the next three seasons, notably throwing three shutouts in 1988 and suffering from injuries in 1990. When the Streak began the following year, Smith was holding down the fifth spot behind Glavine, Avery, John Smoltz, and Charlie Liebrandt, but he would struggle and with the Braves in a surprise playoff hunt, Atlanta sent Smith to the minors in July and basically adopted a four-man staff. Smith took the demotion hard and was lit up both in Macon and Richmond. In 13 starts, Smith's minor league ERA was 7.42. 

The Braves let veteran Mike Bielecki compete for the starting gig in 1992 and his play sent Smith back to the minors to open the season. Smith would make one relief appearance on June 3rd, but spent the rest of the time shaking off the demotion and pitching well for Richmond. This served him well as Bielecki, who had been pitching excellent ball himself, suffered a season-ending elbow injury at the end of July. Bielecki's misfortune allowed Smith to reclaim his fifth starting spot. At the time, the Braves were trying to move past the Cincinnati Reds, who were a half-game up when play started on August 2nd. On that day, the Braves faced the Giants in a double header with Smith getting the starting assignment in the opener facing Bill Swift, picked second overall in that 1984 draft. Smith would shut the Giants down for eight scoreless innings and the Braves rolled 3-0 in the first game. After winning the second game as well, the Braves took over first and would not give it back.

Part of the reason for that was that the Reds faded, winning half of their remaining 60 games while the Braves went 39-22 down the stretch. But Smith deserved some of the credit. He started ten games and the Braves won each game. He gave up three runs just once and in one other time, he surrendered four. Outside of that, he was almost untouchable, throwing a four-hit shutout in the Astrodome and throwing a complete game against the Cardinals where he surrendered just one earned run. Smith was shining on the game's best staff, but even though he finished with a 2.05 ERA in 79 innings with a 1.15 WHIP, Smith was still the fifth guy and when the playoffs came, he got the short end of the stick and went to the pen. Notably, he logged three innings in relief of Avery to keep Game Six of the World Series against the Blue Jays at a 2-1 deficit. The Braves would eventually tie it on an Otis Nixon RBI single with two outs in the ninth, but lost the game in extra innings, which that sent the Braves to back-to-back losses in the World Series.

1992 was the only postseason experience Smith would have. He would struggle to repeat the previous's year success in 1993. After a 1.50 ERA in four starts to open the year, the wheels came off and with the Braves desperately trying to win the NL West with the surging Giants threatening, the Braves would basically adopt a four-man rotation for the final two months with Kent Mercker making spot starts. 

As the Braves geared up for 1994, they opened up the fifth starter spot for a competition that Mercker would ultimately win and memorably throw an early-season no-hitter in Los Angeles. That left no room for Smith and the Braves sent him to their new divisional foes, the New York Mets, acquiring outfielder Dave Gallagher to provide depth to their bench. Smith would struggle in Flushing, posting a neat, but awful, 5.55 ERA. The Reds signed him ahead of the 1995 season, but they cut him in July. After a year in the minors, Smith closed out his major league career with a couple of years playing for the Padres and Orioles. He tried to prolong it further, but after one more year in the minors, Smith's career was over before the new century began. 

Since retiring, Smith has stayed involved with the game, often playing with the Braves Alumni Association for charity events. And hey, 1992 was still pretty cool so he always has that in his back pocket for bragging purposes. 

Want more Ex-Braves? Check out the last three...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Braves Continue Scorched-Earth Policy

Just when you think, "okay, so, this team is the one the Braves largely will go into spring training with," they make yet another trade that crosses that all up. On Wednesday, the Braves made their third trade of the new year as they sent Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros for a trio of prospects. Well, at least, they sold a bunch of polar bear stuff.

I've actually been a little underwhelmed with the trades that John Hart and his team have put together since the end of the season. The best I could say for the Jason Heyward deal is that the Braves did good to get something for him while the Justin Upton trade just didn't win me over. However, when it comes to this trade, Hart and the Braves get the clear victory and not only because of the talent they received.

Many have complained about the offense for 2015, especially being that it now is without three of the best four hitters they had on a bad offense last year. That's an understandable concern...for a team competing in 2015. To come to accept what this offseason has led us to, you have to accept that the Braves are punting in 2015. Sure, they could get lucky, but chances are this is a team that won't score enough to have a higher goal than .500.

But they were going to be a bad team with Gattis. With the arrival of Christian Bethancourt and signing of A.J. Pierzynski, Gattis had been pushed out of the one spot that made sense for a National League team to play him at. That left a move to left field, which would have muted Gattis's value not only because his bat wouldn't play nearly as high there, but also because of his defensive limitations. That last part is being kind. Gattis would have been an ugly nightmare to watch in left field. He would have helped replace the lost offensive value of Upton, but that's about it.

Of course, that knowledge didn't stop many fans from going nutso about the trade, but we should expect that because Gattis was severely overrated by Braves fans. It was, after all, a pretty cool story and to his credit, he did post an .810 OPS. However, the season was limited because of his health issues. That's not even getting into his terrible plate discipline as he was allergic to walks. We would typically say "but he's just two years into his career," but Gattis was already 28. With the Braves ready to move him out from beyond the plate, the natural next move was to move him off the team.

Hart did that and got plenty of talent. Michael Foltynewicz is the only one who has already made it to the majors and he could be part of the 2015 team if he wins the fifth starter battle. Folty has already thrown triple digits in the majors and has a plus-grade breaking pitch. What he needs is a consistent third pitch to become a real major league starting option and Roger McDowell will have to work with Folty to bring his change-up from its current weak state to a legitimate third pitch. Folty appears to slow down his delivery in effort to throw it, which will get a lot of them sent to the gaps and beyond in the majors. Braves either got a possible high-leverage reliever or starter with front-of-the-rotation stuff and it will all depend on how they can develop the 23 year-old who was picked 19th in 2010.

Maybe the more intriguing option is third baseman Rio Ruiz. Picked in the fourth round of 2012 out of California, the 20 year-old was a bit disappointing in the power department last year, but showed greatly improved on-base skills. Probably a couple of years away, Ruiz does have the capabilities to stay at third base and be a poor man's Chipper Jones, which was the guy he attempted to emulate. I could see regular slashes of .280/.350/.475 with years where he could be even better. I like him more than Folty and believe Ruiz has the skills to supplant Chris Johnson.

Finally, the Braves took a shot on Andrew Thurman, who lacks the impact potential of Folty and Ruiz, but might be the surest best to reach his ceiling. Like Mike Minor, Thurman increased his velocity after being drafted, but unlike Minor, his control took a hit as a result. Provided Thurman can retain the velocity in the low-to-mid 90's with his plus changeup, he could be a surprise out of this deal. If he can develop his curve or slider into a plus pitch, he becomes a very good prospect. Right now, he projects as a swingman, but there's something here to have enough hope in.

Ruiz will likely be in Mississippi while Thurman will join Carolina to open 2015. Where Folty starts will be decided this spring. I imagine that if he doesn't start the year in the staff, he'll be in the minors where the Braves can continue to develop him as a starter to try to get max value. Either way, for a guy with weak on-base skills and no real position on the 2015 team, the Braves did well to get what they did.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Braves add Wandy

As I feared in my last post previewing the starting pitching situation pre-spring training, the Braves have already further complicated the issue by signing Wandy Rodriguez. The long-time Astro who spent the last two-and-a-half years not starting many games for the Pirates, Rodriguez joins an increasing battle for the fifth starter spot. Rodriguez received a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. If he makes the team, he will get a base salary of $2M.

That salary was about what Rodriguez would have made for the Phillies before their contract to secure the left-hander's services fell through due to a failed physical. What exactly led to that failed physical is unknown, but Rodriguez did suffer through some knee inflammation last year before he was released by the Pirates and missed considerable action in 2013 due to a left forearm strain. He eventually had knee surgery last year in hopes of getting it back to 100%. Before that, Rodriguez was durable a pitcher as you could find, rounding out the Top 20 in innings pitched from 2007-2012.

But it's 2015. What can the Braves expect now? Since being cut by Pittsburgh and rehabbing after knee surgery, Rodriguez made it back to the mound for seven innings in the Dominican Winter League, allowing a run, two walks, and striking out six. That doesn't mean a lot, but it does mean he was at least healthy enough to get some time on the mound, which is important. Obviously, failing a physical makes it difficult to believe Rodriguez is going to do much, if anything, for the Braves in 2015, but if he can take a turn every fifth day, Rodriguez could allow the Braves the opportunity to keep Manny Banuelos in the minors to start the season. It could allow them to avoid having to start David Hale. For that matter, it could allow them the opportunity to turn Rodriguez into a prospect later on.

Overall, Rodriguez is a decent option to take a chance on. He won't overpower you with his late 80's velocity, though his curveball, historically, has been a plus pitch. He'll get you out by being crafty and relentless. This is the type of pitcher that brings a certain degree of calmness to a young rotation. I like this pickup even if Rodriguez pitches no innings for the big league club. He's worth a shot and who knows, you might get lucky. For a team with so many question marks, getting lucky is Atlanta's best hope to surprise some people.