Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Warren Spahn - Greatest Left-Handed Pitcher of All-Time? (About.com)

In case you missed it, yesterday I posted the latest edition of my on-going series, Profiling the Braves. It was a lot of fun to write and maybe that is because Warren Spahn was the subject. Possibly the best left-handed pitcher the game has ever seen, Spahn was also an accomplished soldier in World War II, earning the right to be called the most decorate ballplayer of World War II. He also was a bit of a prankster, which might make Braves fans think of Greg Maddux. Spahnie tossed a pair of no-hitters and had a memorable 16 inning pitcher's dual with Juan Marichel at the end of his career.

The article is long, but I only felt I skimmed over his incredible life both before and after his career and even during his long and productive time on the mound. Even more, you know you are having fun when you look at a word count and think "really? It didn't feel like almost 1,800 words. Hope you give it a read.

Also, I posted yesterday's Roster Beat, looking at the trio of rookies - Todd Cunningham, Jace Peterson, and Christian Bethancourt - that helped to lead the Braves to victory yesterday. Also, is Michael Foltynewicz's rotation prospects finished after another underwhelming start? For more on that, read the article.

Taking A Look at the East: Philadelphia Phillies

Over the next four days, I'll give a short preview of the other four NL East teams the Braves will deal with in their efforts to shock the world because they are totally not rebuilding this season. Let's start with the team that makes me feel better about the Braves.

Philadelphia Phillies
Additions: Jeff Francoeur, Kevin Slowey, Aaron Harang, Jordan Danks, Chad Billingsley
Subtractions: Mike Adams, Kyle Kendrick, A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo, Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd
Rock Solid Win-Loss Prediction: 68-94

The Phillies finally got the memo this offseason and began to dissolve their veteran team, trading away Rollins and Byrd while attempting to cash in their biggest trade chip, Cole Hamels. They would also love it if you'd consider acquiring Ryan Howard. He'll eat fresh and they'll pay you a large sum. Since the Braves are absolutely not rebuilding in 2015, the Phillies look like a good bet to finish last in the NL East. They still have Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley and Maikel Franco, who's been optioned, could be a pretty good player, but with Cliff Lee on the mend, their rotation has reached such a level that Harang is scheduled to be their second starter next year. Ouch.

Philly is a like the Braves in one way, though. The trades have helped to rejuvenate a sliding minor league system and has the Phillies poised to be a rising team in the coming years. But 2015 looks lean. The rotation could have used Cliff Lee staying healthy. As is, they look to be relying on David Buchanan, Jerome Williams, and Slowey, who looks to have beat out Cuban Miguel Gonzalez. Their lineup should have a bit of pop, though missing Domonic Brown will certainly hurt. They probably won't walk much and who knows how many games Utley will miss? I do like buying low on Billingsley. He could turn out to be a find.

Overall, this is a massively flawed team and one that looks worse by comparison to the Braves, who at least sport some good pitching and a solid and still young middle-of-the-lineup threat. One has to wonder if this might be Ruben Amaro Jr's last season at the helm, though one had to wonder that last year, too. They should be better sooner now that they have acknowledged that their team was broken, but when Francoeur looks like a good bet to be in the outfield mix, it's probably hurt to take solace in the future.

Monday, March 30, 2015

2015 Top 30: And One More (...at each position)

Previous Rankings: 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-1

Over the last three weeks, I looked at my Top 30. You can revisit those links above, but today I am going to go the extra mile even though no one asked me to and add ten more players to the mix. This isn't necessarily the first ten that were out of the mix, but one player for each position. Some of these could be sleepers who by mid-season, we might know a little more about as rising prospects in the system. Others are guys who have been around and probably are nothing better than where they are graded now, but could still find a spot with the Braves at some point.

A small note on grading...simple A-F grading scale with pluses and minuses added. To be a grade-A player, you have to be a top prospect in all of baseball and spoiler alert, there is not a grade-A guy in the system according to my grading. There is one A-, though, and a trio of B+ guys. Only 11 players received a grade of B- or better. 

RHP Daniel Winkler, C....Picked up in last winter's Rule 5 draft from the Rockies system, Winkler has tempting numbers in the minors over the last four years. In 76 starts, he has a 9.4 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and a 1.13 WHIP. He was on his way to a nice run in the Texas League last year before having his year cut short by Tommy John. I looked into Winkler when the Braves picked him and used a bit more detail than I will here, but there's enough reason to believe Winkler will have a tough time staying healthy. Still, if you want a lottery ticket, you may as well go with the guy who led the minors in K's during the 2013 season.

LHP Yean Carlos Gil, C....Maybe the most surprising player added to the 40-man roster this offseason, Gil pitched well at Rome last year. In 126.1 ING, he kept the ball in the park (only 3 HR) while striking out 93 over 126.1 ING. That's Gil's strength is getting some natural sinking movement and turning that into grounders to his infield. To the point, he has showed thoroughly impressive control. Still, Gil was old for his level last year and his numbers aren't THAT impressive. He was probably the last or second-to-last guy that got pushed off the Top 30.

C Carlos Castro, D+....After Christian Bethancourt and Jose Briceno, the system is pretty bare of catching prospects. Castro has spent the last three years in the Dominican Summer League so his numbers last year, which were solid, are from a guy who played old for his level. He hit .308 with an .827 OPS over 49 games, which included 40 games behind the plate. Interestingly, this came a year after he moved from catcher-to-first. A right-handed hitter, Castro needs to get state side and produce to have much of a future.

1B Joey Meneses, C-....A native of Mexico, Meneses is the closest thing the Braves have to a first-base prospect in the minors right now. Last year, he hit .283 with 8 HR in 58 games with Rome, which was the second year he repeated the level. Obviously, injuries led to a reduced amount of games. Still, it was a good year that was capped off by hitting for the Cycle last May 10. Meneses could be a guy who climbs the charts with a big year in Carolina.

2B Elmer Reyes, C....I am a little surprised that Reyes, who is in his second year on the 40-man, didn't get a look this spring. Just five at-bats for Reyes, who finished with 221 PA with Gwinnett last year and overall, hit .295/.329/.422 between AA and AAA. He's a guy who could develop into a multi-positional guy with some hitting skills. Probably will never start for anyone, but could do just enough to be the 25th guy.

SS Daniel Castro, C....Unlike Reyes, Castro got a nice look this spring (16 PA) and didn't do so bad with his time (5 hits and a walk). Castro has reasonably close numbers to Reyes, but is younger and a bit better with the glove. Between Lynchburg and Mississippi, Castro hit .286/.312/.398 last year. He's hyper aggressive at the plate, but again, his glove could get him a chance to make a roster at some point.

3B Jordan Edgerton, C....I wrote about Edgerton last January and the 21 year-old out of UNC-Pembroke enters his first full season with Rome with a chance to do some stuff. He hit .275 with Danville after being drafted and his uppercut swing led to eleven sacrifice flies. He's got some pop as well and while his defense needs work, there is a lot to like about Edgerton, who might turn out as the second-best hitter from the 2014 class for the Braves.

OF Elias Arias, C-....It's hard to get excited about a 20 year-old in the Dominican Summer League where the average player is about 18, but Arias did hit .297 with 21 steals in 62 games last year. More impressive, especially from a young player with his background, was that he showed great plate discipline, walking 38 times to 39 K's. I'll get bullish about any 20 year-old who has a .406 OBP. He's a guy I hope we see in Danville in 2015.

OF Blake Brown C-....It wasn't much, but Brown finally showed some offense last year. An athletic, but raw fifth rounder in 2012, Brown hit .201 and .202 during his first two seasons in the minors, but upped that to .248 last year, including .261 with Lynchburg after earning his promotion. He showed much better plate awareness. He still struck out 120 times, but he walked 60 times and on-based .353. It'll be interesting to see how long the new scouting team buys into Brown. The 23 year-old is still pretty raw, but there's some talent there.

OF Sean Godfrey, C-....It's rare that a 22nd rounder from the previous year's draft gets even an at-bat with the big league club the next spring, but Godfrey is a rare bird. Drafted out of Ball State, Godfrey exploded as a professional, hitting .321/.358/.464 in stints with Danville, Rome, and even 11 games with the Hillcats last year. He was successful in 18 of 20 stolen base attempts and showed some range in center field. He's definitely a long shot, but he's a guy to watch in Carolina (or Mississippi if the Braves are especially aggressive).

And for extra credit, here's one bonus player.

3B Juan Yepez, Not Graded....The last big splash the Frank Wren regime had in the international market included Yepez, who was the their top target out of Venezuela last year. Standing 6'0" and 195 pounds, there was a lot to like about Yepez, who bats right-handed and has a quick bat with good power. Now, there are concerns he lacks the range to play third and will eventually be moved to first, but the Braves will deal with that if it ever happens. Hopefully, he'll make his in-game debut this summer.

Thanks for reading and I'll revisit the Top 30 sometime this summer.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

See ya, James!

The release of James Russell on Sunday was a bit shocking. Sure, Braves beat writers will point out that he gave up nine earned runs in 7.2 ING to go with a 3/3 BB/K. But it was still surprising to see a guy who was expected to be safe as one of the relievers in the remodeled bullpen get cut in spring training. No trade - just flat-out released. The Braves did save nearly $2M by releasing Russell before opening day.

That might not be his updated picture...
Russell had an odd 2014. Despite holding lefties to a .280 OBP throughout his career, including last season, he couldn't get them out at all in 2014. They slashed their way to .284/.351/.455, though he was a bit better against them once traded to the Brave (still a .333 OBP, but no power). Conversely, he was very good against righties, limiting them to a .421 OPS. All told, it wasn't the year he wanted, but here's the thing. When you put everything together, it was a pretty good year. He had a 3.44 FIP, a new personal low, and set personal bests in xFIP, HR/9, WHIP, and GB%.

Yet, he wasn't the pitcher he was before. After 33 shutdowns over the two years before 2014, he had just nine last year and for the first time since his rookie year, he had more meltdowns than shutdowns. And of course, when you are paid to get lefties out, getting the righty out after letting the lefty reach won't win over much confidence.

But he still appeared safe. After all, Josh Outman has also struggled this spring and doesn't have the past success to really lean on. Instead, it's Outman who appears to have a bit more job security. Luis Avilan, who struggled badly in 2014 and is hardly a favorite of those who use statistical analysis, might also have improved his stock enough to be safe. But there may still be a move to be made that would bring in another reliever. The Braves are also high on Brady Feigl, who I profiled earlier this month.

Russell had his moments. He was actually a starting candidate, but maybe it's just me, but players that were sought and rated highly by the previous front office just don't seem to have as much love with the new front office. Russell was a guy Frank Wren wanted. The Braves gave up a decent hitting prospect in Victor Caratini to get Russell, along with Emilio Bonifacio. Now, the the Braves have nothing to show for it. Seemed like an overreaction because you have to believe someone would have traded a borderline C prospect for Russell. But I guess the Braves felt he just wasn't worth keeping him around. I hope they're right.

Roster Prediction: Where the 25 Stand (March 29 Final Edition)

Time to make one last 25-man roster prediction for the season. By this time next week, we will know what the roster is finally. It's been as wide-open as any spring in recent memory and I am willing to bet at least two of the guys I have on the 25-man won't be there when the season opens. But...hey, gotta try to guess. Although, the Braves threw me a curveball when a guy I thought was pretty safe, James Russell, was released.

For the first three versions of this series, click here or here or even here.

Starting Rotation
1. Julio Teheran
2. Alex Wood
3. Shelby Miller
4. Wandy Rodriguez
5. Eric Stults

My Take? No change here unless we see a trade open up things. Michael Foltynewicz had a bat outing and Manny Banuelos was optioned. Cody Martin is still around, but at this point, I think the Braves are going with these five until Mike Minor returns.

Bullpen
Closer - Craig Kimbrel
RH - Jason Grilli
RH - Jim Johnson
---
LH - Luis Avilan
RH - Michael Kohn
RH - Brandon Cunniff (added)
LH Josh Outman

My Take? My best when we saw Mark Bowman talk this week about what it would take to release Outman or Russell that something was going to happen. I figured it would be Outman getting the heave-ho, but instead, it was Russell, who has forced me to edit this from the original draft from last night. I still think that a trade will add a buy-low, high-reward guy to this mix and Cunniff won't be there when the season opens, but with Russell gone, Cunniff has made a good case to be the best internal option. Martin still could drop into this role for a long guy. Of course, the Braves could also cut Outman.

Lineup
1. Eric Young Jr., CF
2. Nick Markakis, RF
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Chris Johnson, 3B
5. Jonny Gomes / Zoilo Almonte, LF
6. Andrelton Simmons, SS
7. Jace Peterson, 2B
8. Christian Bethancourt, C

My Take? With the season so close, I want to talk a little bit more about the lineup. It's hard to ever get a feel for how Fredi Gonzalez, or really any manager, wants to use the lineup in spring training because you rarely see all of the regular starters together. I've seen C-Beth clean up and we've seen a lot of Jace batting second. We've also seen Markakis hit second and third with Freeman pushed to cleanup. Above represents my best guess, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Jace leadoff rather than hit second. I don't think Fredi wants to go with a trio of lefties following Young.

Bench
C - A.J. Pierzynski
IF - Kelly Johnson
IF - Alberto Callaspo
IF/OF - Philip Gosselin (added)
OF - LF Platoon Guy Not Starting (Gomes/Almonte)
Dropping: OF Eury Perez

My Take? The bench got a little cleared up with the demotion of Eury this week. For the time being, I've added The Goose to the bench and I think it's a pretty reasonable addition. Obviously, Pedro Ciriaco has been hitting the lights out of the ball and I could easily put him there, but I still think the sheer amount of the spots that would have to be cleared on the 40-man roster for non-roster guys might play a role before the beginning of the year. From this roster, I am looking at finding room for two starting pitchers, a reliever, a starting player, and a bench guy. That's five spots total. Not that the 40-man roster is packed with irreplaceable talent, but do the Braves want to move on from so many guys? Something might get cleared up by a trade and there are reports the Braves are in the market for an outfielder. Of course, Russell getting cut helped out a little.

Random Ex-Brave: Ray Holbert

I admit this series is an odd bird. There is no rhyme or reason to it outside of looking at players since 1991 who have been a part of the experience of me watching the Braves. Some were long-term fixtures while others had just a year or two. But because of the nature of this series where I use a random year and a random player from that year, I sometimes get a guy like Ray Holbert. He spent all of 115 games in the majors and only eight of those games came with the Braves. But...that doesn't stop him from joining the rest of the Random Ex-Braves. It's kind of what I love about this series, to be honest. Of the 26 I've profiled so far, I can go from guys like Tom Thobe (profile) and Derrin Ebert (profile) to others like Javy Lopez (profile) and Kevin Millwood (profile). It's too easy to profile guys who were stars. The Holbert's of the world take a bit more effort.

Born September 25, 1970 in Torrance, California, Holbert has the honor of being born on one of the most Barveist of days. The Braves lost 7-4 to the Astros in 12 innings that day despite 17 hits. They left 18 runners on base and squandered a four hit day by Dusty Baker. As for Holbert, he attended David Starr Jordan High School in Long Beach until his selection during the third round of the 1988 draft. He was the first pick of the the third round. The sixth selection, Darren Oliver, would work out a bit better. The 19th pick, which included the Expos picking Marquis Grissom, worked out much better.

As a minor leaguer, Holbert was the kind of player who needed a couple of years before he started to show much. In his fourth year, he increased his batting average into the .260's, which was decent enough with his combination of speed and willingness to take his walks. Basically, he was Pedro Ciriaco if Ciriaco ever thought a pitch wasn't worth swinging at. By 1994, Holbert reached the .300 plateau, swiping 27 bases for the Las Vegas Stars with an .803 OPS. The experience got him a week or so in the majors and his first major league hit off former Red and deadbeat dad Tom Browning.

Holbert would play a bigger role for the Padres in 1995. He spent most of the year in the majors, but was rarely used and played in just 63 games, though he had a pretty big moment on July 17. He was just 3-for-30 entering the game (again, he wasn't used much), but Holbert got the start at shortstop against the Reds. It was the second of six consecutive starts so I imagine an injury had opened up some brief playing time for Holbert. With the Reds up 6-3, Holbert stepped in against another future Brave, C.J. Nitkowski. The Reds had opted to walk Brad Ausmus to load the bases to get to Holbert. As Reds manager Davey Johnson said, "You have to go right after" the "8-hole hitter who'se not hitting a buck 50." Holbert took a first pitch ball before whacking Nitkowski's delivery beyond the left-field wall at the old Jack Murphy Stadium for a Grand Slam. The Reds, who led the game 5-0, lost 8-6. Holbert would hit just two homeruns over his 202 AB career with the second coming near the end of the year against the Giants. Of his 11 career RBIs, 36% came on that one swing.

After the year, the Padres moved Holbert to the Astros for Pedro Martinez (no, not the Pedro). It send Holbert back to the minors where he spent one injury-riddled campaign with the Tucson Toros, playing just 28 games. After the year, the Astros chose not to bring him back and he signed with the Tigers, but again was back in the minors for the year. During the winer of 1997-98, the Braves came calling and signed Holbert. He would open the year in AAA, but an injury to Rafael Belliard, who was playing because Walt Weiss was was a little dinged up, led to Holbert joining the Braves on April 10. He would start two consecutive games for the Braves, going hitless with a walk. Holbert spent the rest of April and the beginning of May rarely playing and only received one start following his two-start beginning. By Mid-May, the Braves designated Holbert for assignment to make room for Ozzie Guillen and Holbert ultimately chose to try free agency.

He would finish 1998 with the Montreal organization and played two games with the big league club. After the year, he landed in Kansas City and got his second biggest single-season exposure in the majors with the Royals in 1999. He played in 34 games and even hit .280, becoming a good backup on the infield. Kansas City would bring him back in 2000, but he didn't make the team out of camp and outside of a three-game stint in June, he spent most of the year with Omaha. His last game in the majors came on June 18, 2000. With the Royals already down by 15, Holbert got a chance to play third base. In his first at-bat, he singled to lead to Kansas City's third run. He struck out swinging in his final at-bat and the Royals eventually lost 21-3. I imagine Chris Berman made a hilarious Raiders/Chiefs reference.

Holbert would sign with Tampa Bay in efforts to prolong his career, but he either was released or retired because his last game came as a member of the Omaha Golden Spikes in 2000. Since retiring, Holbert has been involved in Financial Destination, Inc...which depending on who you believe is either an innovative marketing company or a pyramid scheme leaving people feeling ripped off. Holbert last updated his twitter since 2011 so I'm not sure if's still involved with FDI. His brother Aaron Holbert has stayed involved in baseball, though, and is preparing for his 4th season as the Mississippi Braves manager.

More Random Ex-Braves
John Burkett (2000-01)
Derrek Lee (2010)
Kevin Gryboski (2002-05)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Braves Roster Beat: March 28 (About.com)

In today's on-going series that looks at those who helped or hurt their case to make the 2015 roster, I looked at the surprising Pedro Ciriaco, who started in left field on Saturday. We've also see Philip Gosselin in the outfield and both got a cameo in center field as the Braves search for a backup there. It made me wonder if Gosselin's 40-man status will help him make the 2015 roster, but it's going to be tough to keep Ciriaco at bay the way that he's hitting. Same with Kelly Johnson, who whacked a double and walked twice.

Plus...Juan Jaime's done, right?

For more, give my article at About a read. Please and thank you.

Profiling the Braves: Chipper Jones (About.com)

In the fourth addition to the Profiling the Braves series at About, I looked at Chipper Jones. I call him the best Atlanta Brave of all time because, unlike other Braves greats like Warren Spahn, Henry Aaron, or Eddie Mathews, Chipper spent his time with the franchise in Atlanta. And unlike Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux, he didn't rack up numbers elsewhere. He spent 19 years in an Atlanta Brave uniform and is one of the top 5 or 7 third basemen in history. Not bad for a guy who was average at his best defensively. Offensively, he rarely stood out as the best, never winning a homerun title and winning just one batting title, but his consistency at a high level is a marvel. His worst OPS was .803 in his rookie season. Even at 40 when he was missing time because of one issue or another, he was still productive.

Please give my article a read and feel free to sign up for the newsletter. They usually drop just once a week so they won't fill up your e-mail.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Braves Roster Beat: March 26 (About.com)

If you missed it, the Braves played today. They even won. Chris Johnson capped off a five-run first inning with a two-run homer, though sadly Bad Wandy Rodriguez showed up and switched uniforms with his better alter ego. He was still in line to get the dubya, but Josh Outman failed to live up to his name. Fortunately, the Braves have Jonny Gomes and he homered to put the Braves back on top. For more analysis, check the About.com page where I go a bit more into Johnson and Outman, plus go over a semi-surprising retirement.

Favorite Braves List - Left-Hand Reliever

(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 
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
#2 Starter - John Smoltz
#3 Starter - Tim Hudson
#4 Starter - Tom Glavine

Closer - Craig Kimbrel
RH-Reliever - Peter Moylan
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
Right Field - Jason Heyward
Backup Catcher - Eddie Perez

Defensive Replacement - Rafael Belliard

Honorable Mention: For awhile there, Mike Remlinger was as good as any reliever in the game. Also as good as any reliever was Eric O'Flaherty, who in nearly 250 innings with the Braves, had a 1.99 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP. My favorite memory of O'Flaherty was that he was the only Brave who seemed capable of retiring Ryan Howard.

Favorite Braves List - Left-Hand Reliever
Jonny Venters

It is unfair that everything that made Venters so good was also led to the injuries that eventually made Venters a frequent visitor to Dr. James Andrews' clinic. The spiked curveball. The torque on his delivery to get the great natural sinking movement. But the magic couldn't last and now Venters isn't a Brave. Fortunately, he's enshrined on the Favorite Braves List.

Scott Cunningham | Getty Images
Everything about Venters struck you as a long shot. He was drafted in the 30th round in 2003, though I should mention that round was actually a pretty good round in unearthing some major league talent. Ignoring two others that made it to the bigs, but didn't sign after the 2003 draft so that they could be drafted higher in subsequent years...the 2003 30th round gave us Scott Feldman, who's had a pretty decent career, and Eric Young Jr., who appears destined to be a Brave once the 2015 season opens. All things considered, that's a pretty haul for any 30th round, especially when it was book-ended with the selection of Venters as the 907th overall selection.

Venters did not sign right away, though. After graduating from Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, FL, Venters would attend Indian River Community College before signing right before the 2004 draft. This was the practice known as draft-and-follow, which new rules have ended. Teams would spend a late round pick on a guy, control his rights for a year, and the player would be given the chance to improve his value so that before the next year's draft, the team and the player could decide what was most beneficial. Sign now or head back into the draft. Tommy Hanson is another example of a Brave who went down this route.

It would be accurate to call Venters' minor league career unremarkable. After his first two years, he would undergo his first of now three Tommy John's in 2006. He would make it back to play for Myrtle Beach in 2007, but was limited to a shade under 35 innings in 2008 due to injuries. He actually pitched nearly as many innings for the Honolulu Sharks in the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League. It's sad that the HWB folded after 2008. How cool would it be to vacation in Hawaii during the winter and still get to watch baseball? Anyway, Venters was finally able to stay healthy and pitched a career-high 156.2 ING in 2009. It was hardly much to write home about, except that it was 50 more innings than he had pitched in the previous three years.

The year attracted attention and with his always valuable left-hand arm about to become Rule 5 eligible, the Braves added him to the 40-man roster after the 2009 season. He came to camp and showed great velocity and an improving spike curveball that had Venters on the rise. The Braves began Venters in Gwinnett for 2010, but by mid-April, he was in the bigs. He threw three innings in his first game, a 4-0 loss against the visiting Rockies. In fact, the Braves would lose in six of the first seven games he entered, though not because of him. It took Bobby Cox a month, but by mid-May, Venters was beginning to get action in save opportunities as a bridge to the 8th inning before becoming Billy Wagner's main lead-in two months into his major league career. He had some iffy moments down the stretch where his control became hit-or-miss, but he would finish his rookie year with a 1.95 ERA in 79 games. He struck out 93 over 83 innings and even garnered a Rookie of the Year vote, finishing in a tie for eighth. Venters appeared in all four postseason games. He gave up seven hits in 5.1 ING, but no runners scored against him and he K'd 8. Possibly his most memorable moment came on July 17 when Venters, after a warning had been issued, hit Prince Fielder in the back. It led to a four-game suspension, but that was ultimately revoked.

After his dynamite 2010 season, there was a lot of talk that Venters might replace Wagner, who retired following the season. Or he might serve as dual-closers with Craig Kimbrel, the rookie righty who had arrived later on the scene in 2010. All of that was quickly scrapped and from Day 1 of the 2011 season, when the Braves downed the Nationals 2-0, a three-headed monster had been created. The seventh belonged to O'Flaherty, especially after Peter Moylan went down. Venters handled the 8th and Kimbrel came with heat in the 9th. Together, the trio came known as O'Ventbrel and for the 2011 season, they were as awesome as any trio of relievers have ever been. Kimbrel ran away with the Rookie of the Year after saving 46 games with a 2.10 ERA. O'Flaherty became the first pitcher in history to have an ERA under 1.00 in at least 70 appearances. And Venters? He took his 2010 dominance and became even harder to hit, lowering his WHIP to 1.09 with a 1.84 ERA over 88 innings. The Braves' blueprint in 2011 was simple. Get the lead and turn it over to O'Ventbrel. Wins shall follow.

It was a great plan. Until September. The trio was done by a couple of factors. The offense was miserable and injuries to the rotation, along with Derek Lowe's general suckage, led to a lot of short outings. Only Tim Hudson was able to give the Braves 190 innings that year. O'Flaherty was actually great, but Kimbrel gave up six runs in September, matching his highest single month output. He also gave up two homeruns after just one entering the month, and his WHIP nearly doubled from August to 1.41. The decline was even worse for Venters. His ERA over the final month was 5.11. He walked ten in just 12.1 ING and his WHIP of 1.87 made every outing an adventure. The Braves would eventually complete a collapse on the season's final day against the Phillies. Venters worked around a pair of walks, but Kimbrel gave blew the save in the ninth.

O'Ventbrel's dominance would last really just one year. O'Flaherty and Venters would both miss time in 2012 even as Kimbrel became as nasty as he's ever been. Venters also wasn't nearly as good. His WHIP for the season was an unsightly 1.52 and after surrendering just three homeruns in 171 innings entering 2012, he gave up six in 58.2 ING. It was a sign that things just weren't right with Venters. His last outing came in the 2012 Wild Card Game. With the Braves already down 5-2, Venters came in to face Matt Carpenter. As was typical of that night, Carpenter hit a little soft grounder that neither Venters or Freddie Freeman seemed to want to field. Finally, Venters picked the ball up and missed Carpenter on a tag attempt. All the while, Pete Kozma sprinted from second-to-home to score St. Louis's sixth run. Venters remained in and induced a double play off the bat of Jon Jay. We didn't know at the time, but that was the last pitch Venters would throw as a member of the Brave. And until he comes back, it could be the final pitch he throws as a major leaguer.

This is where this story gets sad. Venters would feel some left elbow discomfort during spring training. He eventually got a plasma injection in hopes to avoid surgery. It only put off the inevitable. Venters' 2013 eventually ended on May 16 with his second Tommy John. After beginning 2014 on the DL, Venters attempted to work his way back toward a rehab assignment. However, setback-after-setback ultimately led to another MRI and the knowledge that he would need yet another Tommy John. Confident that he would eventually return, Venters elected for the surgery last September. He will miss all of 2015 and after the season, the Braves released Venters.

He would eventually find a new home in Tampa Bay on a two year minor league deal. It's the kind of low-cost, high-reward deal smart teams make. We all kind of hope Venters does make it back, though how likely that will be is hard to guess at this point. What we do know is that when he was healthy, his arm was as electric as any in the game. He gave the Braves two amazing years and O'Ventbrel was a sight to see when they were clicking. You could tell the other team felt downtrodden when Fredi Gonzalez went to the bullpen with a lead. Get a hit off O'Flaherty? Venters? KIMBREL? Are you kidding me? Unfortunately, all good things must end.

As an editorial aside, this completes my Favorites Team List. I may add another position at a later date or a player may push one of my guys to the bench, but for the moment, there are no plans to add to the team. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Top 5 3B in Braves Franchise History

In my latest article for About.com, I looked at the top five third basemen in Atlanta Braves history. Surprisingly, no Chris Johnson, but the Braves are pretty fortunate to claim two of the top five third basemen in history in Eddie Mathews and Chipper Jones. Which one ranks #1? Read the article to find out.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Braves Roster Beat: March 23 (About.com)

Added a blog to the About.com page about today's game, which, if you missed it, was a bit of a non-pitcher's dual. The Braves scored 14 times. All in one game. The Astros scored ten times, though six of them came in the later innings when the Braves played the junior varsity kids. Nick Markakis finally got into a game and was solid while Zoilo Almonte's bat started to sizzle. We also saw good games from Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson, along with Eric Young Jr. On the negative side, James Russell is not a starter. Alberto Callaspo isn't either. And Eury Perez wasn't all that impressive either. Check out the blog for more.

Random Ex-Brave: John Burkett

(actually wrote this up Saturday to publish on Sunday, but something went wonky)

There's a lot that can be said about Leo Mazzone as Braves pitching coach. Some believe that anyone could look good when you oversee three Hall of Fame pitchers, though wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that Mazzone helped them reach the Hall? Others faulted Mazzone with young pitchers who maybe didn't want to throw six inches off the outside portion of the plate every time. One thing's not up for debate and that's how Mazzone seemed gifted at squeezing out a year or two out of a veteran long thought to be done. Chris Hammond should owe Mazzone residual checks for the money he made off the Yankees in the free agent market. In 2000, three teams said "it's not me, it's you" to Darren Holmes as they ushered him out of the clubhouse, but Mazzone found nearly 100 innings of sub-3.00 ERA out of him. Jaret Wright as a broken down reminder of the Indians' failures before Leo. The Yankees again wondered how they got duped into giving Wright millions to not look the same without Mazzone.

Burkett at the 2000 All-Star Game
Otto Gruele Jr. | Getty Images
Another of the group of guys who found themselves rolling in the dough after Leo did his magic was John Burkett. A former All-Star, Burkett had been a big money bust for the Rangers before arriving in Atlanta. But presto, change-o, he was back in the All-Star Game. That's just how things went for the Braves during The Streak.

A graduate of Beaver High School (yep), Burkett was a sixth rounder by the San Francisco Giants back in 1983. It would take him quite awhile to establish himself in the majors, but Burkett would finish fourth in the 1990 Rookie of the Year voting. He was a pretty solid middle of the rotation guy for the Giants over the next two seasons, but appeared to break out in 1993. He led the league in wins and finished fourth in the Cy Young that year. He pitched in the final three games for the Giants, getting a win to keep pace with the Braves before San Francisco ultimately failed on the final day of the year. Still, it was a productive year for Burkett that included a trip to the All-Star Game.

He took a moderate step back in 1994 before the strike and the Giants would let him head to free agency. The Marlins, desperate for any talent in their rotation, overpaid to bring Burkett to Miami for $18.45M over five years. They tired of him after a year-and-a-half, dealing Burkett to the Rangers along with Ryan Dempster for Rick Helling.

Arlington was not a good spot for Burkett. He wasn't a strikeout guy and gave up too many flyballs. That led to a lot of runs in Arlington, especially in the steroid-infused late 90's. In 600.1 ING with the Rangers, Burkett had a 5.13 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. Because of the park and the ERAs of the time, Burkett wasn't as bad as those numbers might look as his adjusted ERA+ was just 4% below the adjusted league average, but still, that was hardly impressive.

Burkett landed a make-good minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the 2000 season, but by the end of camp, the Rays said, "We'd rather see what we have with Tanyon Sturtze, Esteban Yan, and Dave Eiland." The Rays would then lose 92 games. Ouchie.

But the Braves were desperate. Injuries to Odalis Perez and more importantly, John Smoltz, had wrecked the staff. It would force the Braves to use Terry Mulholland as a starter before ultimately growing tired of him and acquiring Andy Ashby. But before Ashby, there was Burkett, who signed on to join the Braves for another division title in 2000. He wasn't great and was often used in relief, but he did post the best K/9 of his career with 7.4, a good K better than his Rangers days. It wouldn't stay his personal best for long.

Burkett would re-sign with the Braves for the 2001 season, but the Braves had to think he was fifth starter/swingman material at best. Smoltzie was expected back at some point and Odalis looked like he would be ready for opening day. Plus, Jason Marquis was expected to make a jump. Burkett was just around to provide depth for the rotation until better options forced him to the pen or the unemployment line.

A funny thing would happen, though. Burkett started to look good. Like really good. After a pair of unimpressive outings to begin the year, Burkett tossed seven scoreless against the Mets. Three games later, he was masterful in a three-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks, his first shutout since 1996. From that Mets game, his third start of the year, until August 26th, or the 28th start of the season, Burkett had a 2.21 ERA over 175 innings. He K'd 154 in that time frame, which was more than all but once full season of his career (he had 155 in 1996). The highlight of this streak, aside from the shutout, was a trip to the All-Star Game where many felt he should get starting consideration. That ultimately went to Randy Johnson, but Burkett would throw a scoreless fourth inning as the NL eventually lost.

However, if someone points to a streak of games, it typically comes with the caveat that things weren't nearly as good after that streak. Burkett went from masterful to ugly as in his final six starts, Burkett was touched up for a nearly 6.00 ERA. Suddenly, batters weren't dinking little flyballs to the outfield while hitting grounders up the middle that turned into outs. Now they were finding the gaps and runs were scoring.

Burkett would right the ship briefly to throw six solid against the Astros in the NLDS, giving him his second postseason victory. However, Burkett would flop in Game Three of the NLCS. With the series tied, Burkett gave up a two-run double to Steve Finley early before loading the bases with one out in the fifth. A Chipper Jones error and Finley striking against Finley led to three more runs. Braves would lose 5-1 and would lose the next two games to sent the Diamondbacks to the World Series, which they would win.

A free agent, Burkett parlayed his best season of pitching into $11M with the Boston Red Sox. He had a 4.85 ERA with the Sox during his time with them, though he started two games in the 2003 playoffs despite meh numbers. He was on the mound for Game Six of the ALCS against the Yankees. He left after surrendering the lead in the fourth inning to the Bronx Bombers, but they would rally to win the game and force a Game Seven. Grady Little may have preferred just losing Game Six.

After the Red Sox said goodbye to Burkett, he spent most of the winter open for another shot at baseball glory, but ultimately retired ahead of the 2004 season. He has since began a second career. Bowling. His pitching set-up finally makes sense...

More Random Ex-Braves
Derrek Lee (2010)
Kevin Gryboski (2002-05)
Brian Jordan (1999-2001, 2005-06)

2015 Top 30 Prospects: 10-1

Previous Rankings: 30-21 | 20-11

Ah, the top ten. The creme of the crop. This section would have looked a lot more depressing had the trades this offseason not brought an influx of top-end talent. Half of the top 10 were acquired this offseason. If you include the top 12, seven were picked up since the end of 2014's season. That means that guys I graded at C+ would be in the second half of the Top 10 without these new guys. That's pretty ugly and when people ask just how improved the minor league system is, that's the kind of change I look at. Not that the system lacked any top-end talent before this offseason, but prospects are kind of like raffle tickets. Yeah, you may hit on the one you buy, but you'd like to improve your chances with more tickets.

A small note on grading...simple A-F grading scale with pluses and minuses added. To be a grade-A player, you have to be a top prospect in all of baseball and spoiler alert, there is not a grade-A guy in the system according to my grading. There is one A-, though, and a trio of B+ guys. Only 11 players received a grade of B- or better.

10. Braxton Davidson, OF, B-....In today's era of power decline, raw power and the ability to show it often in games becomes a significantly valued asset. That's why Davidson ranks so highly for the Braves. He also is very patient at the plate, a skill that the Braves should be actively pursuing. He had a .387 OBP last season, built in no small part by 31 walks in 50 games. The Braves want to use him as an outfielder rather than saddle him at first. Hopefully, he is successful in the transition.

9. Tyrell Jenkins, P, B-....Is Jenkins ever going to show he's more than just an impressive collection of tools? Hopefully. He has never pitched more than 82.1 ING in a single season, though part of that appears to be based on pitch count concerns. Jenkins is the kind of guy scouts rave about and that's why he's ranked this high for the Braves despite mostly pedestrian numbers in the minors. The potential is there. Need some results, though.

Jonathan Daniel | Getty Images
8. Christian Bethancourt, C, B-....The time is now for C-Beth. He turned just 23 last September, but it seems like Bethancourt has been on the cusp of greatness for years. With just one option year remaining and a spot behind the plate opened up specifically for him, Bethancourt has come to camp and actually hit pretty well (.360 with 6 doubles). But he hasn't walked and may never walk for that matter. His offensive value will be wrapped up in his batting average and his ability to show some pop that has developed over the last couple of seasons. The defense, while impressive, sometimes is prone to bad habits. There's a lot here to love, but also enough to wonder if he'll ever come close to the potential many believe he has.

7. Ozhaino Albies, SS, B-....No other team is able to scout and sign players out of Curacao like the Braves and Albies is the latest exciting player they have found from the small island. The most impressive thing about Albies was that he handled college-age pitching with Danville last year at the age of 17. A switch-hitter with the ability to find the gaps for extra bases, Albies has also showed a top-notch batting eye at the plate. He's got a long road to travel, but he has the skill set to be a first-tier starter.

6. Manny Banuelos, P, B....Left-hand arms will always intrigue and Banuelos, who has been a prospect for some time now, is that kind of arm. ManBan's biggest problem appears that while he has four major league quality pitches, he lacks an out pitch. His curveball and changeup are pretty solid, though. He'll be limited this year by an innings limit after throwing 76.2 ING in his first year back from Tommy John last year. He's really more a guy to look at in 2016.

Christian Peterson | Getty
Images Sport
5. Rio Ruiz, 3B, B....The second-best position prospect in these rankings, Ruiz has the right profile to finally bring stability and consistent performance to third base for the Braves in the post Chipper Jones world. He hit .293 with 50 extra base hits and an .387 OBP last season in the California League. The Southern League isn't quite the hitter's league, but it still wouldn't surprise me to see him finish with even better numbers considering he could mature and hit for more power. He still needs to work on his defense, but he shows good athleticism at the hot corner.

4. Michael Foltynewicz, P, B+....It's all about his secondary pitches. If he had three major league quality pitches, he'd be the top prospect on this list, but right now, he has a devastating fastball and questions about an inconsistent off-speed stuff. His fastball averaged 98 mph out of the pen last season with the Astros, but he brings it down a couple of ticks as a starter, but what he really needs to locate his curveball. It does have plus potential, but it's so hit-or-miss that it becomes rather maddening. He has a better feel for his change-up, which looks even better compared to his fastball. Folty could be the best player from this list or the biggest bust. Or he could be a great reliever, which limits his value. The Braves don't want that and neither does Folty. He seems ticketed for a season with Gwinnett and the results are less of a concern vs. him harnessing the arsenal of pitches he has. He could be due for a bad year at Gwinnett where everyone panics ala Julio Teheran before coming back to the majors with impressive results.

3. Max Fried, P, B+....Possibly a Top 50 prospect in baseball before Tommy John surgery, Fried remains an intriguing pitcher with room to be even better as he ages. He'll miss most of 2015, which will set back his development some, but this was still only his age-21 year. One thing about him is that he already has a feel for three pitches, including a really good curveball. Fried has a great ceiling and I think his floor isn't all that bad either. By 2020, he could be one of the Top 25 pitchers in baseball.

2. Lucas Sims, P, B+....It wasn't the year anyone wanted out of Sims as his ERA went from 2.62 in 2013 to 4.20 in 2014, but he showed improvement in the second half, finishing the year with a sub-3 ERA in August. Oh, and did I mention he was the youngest player when the 2014 Carolina League season opened? I love his delivery and he's not afraid to come at hitters. Don't get too down by his 2014 numbers. He has the skills to be a star and might break through this season.

1. Jose Peraza, 2B, A-....I am still not sure he deserved an A- considering the questions that still exist about Peraza, but I am very comfortable giving him the #1 spot on this list. With a compact swing that allows him great bat control, Peraza has an exciting combination of a strong hit tool to go with great speed and baserunning aptitude. Ah, but there are questions as I said. Though not Dominican, he exemplifies the old saying about why Dominican players don't take walks ("You can't walk off the island"). He also lacks much power so his entire game is built on putting the ball in play and hitting for a high average. On the plus side, he's a career .306 hitter. Peraza had the skills to stay at shortstop and should be a top defender at second when he arrives in the majors, which could be this summer.

Thanks for reading and next week, I'll go the extra mile with one extra player at each position who might make the jump to the Top 30 by midseason.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Roster Prediction: Where the 25 Stand (March 22 Edition)

Another week in and some new changes to the roster for the third edition of "Where the 25 Stand." For previous editions, you can click here or here.

Starting Rotation
4. Wandy Rodriguez (up from #5 starter)
5. Eric Stults (downgraded to #5)

My Take? No one has outpitched Wandy so far in camp so it's not difficult to understand why he's already just about claimed the fourth spot. Stults hasn't been great and he won't strike out anyone, but really, the challengers aren't there to take this spot from him. Michael Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos needed to have ridiculous camps to really claim a spot and veterans James Russell and Chien-Ming Wang haven't exactly been intriguing. Then...there's Cody Martin. If the Braves are able to cash in Wandy or Stults for a decent enough prospect, Martin could leapfrog into the fifth spot to start the year.

Bullpen
Closer - Craig Kimbrel
LH - James Russell
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My Take? I still haven't made a change since my first edition and I feel comfortable with this seven. That said, I'm not married to the idea. Arodys Vizcaino has shown some life of late and some pitchers in other organizations will get pushed out due to being out out of options. Juan Jaime has to be considered because he is actually out of options, but retiring just 13 of the first 24 he faced this spring won't help considering he's been so poor. I'd put Martin as a possibility, but I think they'll want him at Gwinnett if he's not in the majors stretched out. That said, if Stults falters, could Martin push Stults to the pen? Doubtful, but I guess it's possible.

Lineup
1. Eric Young Jr., CF

Bench
IF - Kelly Johnson (added to bench)
OF - LF Platoon Guy Not Starting (Gomes/Almonte)
Dropping: 1B/OF Joey Terdoslavich (dropping)

My Take? Last week, I had Eury replacing KJ, but KJ's shown signs of life over the last week and Terdo has began to struggle. I'm starting to think Zoilo's job, which I've assumed was set in stone, might be up for grabs. He hasn't looked that good this spring, but he is out of options and the Braves can afford to take an extended look at him. If this bench holds, it would be shame for both Terdo and Todd Cunningham, who would be ticketed for a third trip to Gwinnett even though both have had good camps. I've kept Pedro Ciriaco off the list because I don't think he's a major league talent, but Fredi might be fooled. 

Finally, there is a developing issue. With two starters, a reliever, and two other position players - the Braves would have to find five spots on the 40-man roster for non-roster invitees. I have them at 39 currently so that would be room for one of the spots. Putting Daniel Winkler on the 60-day DL will open up a second spot. But three other players would have to be designated. Not that the room can't be found, but it makes me think Hart's not done dealing.