Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Recent Minor League Releases

The Braves have made a number of releases, but only Nick Swisher drew much coverage yesterday. Here's some other cuts the Braves have made recently. These cuts have either been taken from the league transaction pages at the official sites for each minor league or a tweet shared by Bill Shanks today.

Coke - Bruce Hemmelgarn/Getty
P Phil Coke - A mid-spring signing, Coke's career with the Braves was over before any of his ultra-successful jerseys could be put up for sale. A LOOGY who wasn't a great LOOGY to begin with, Coke is the kind of guy teams like the Braves get desperate for and hope he builds some trade value. Apparently, they had second thoughts.

P Dakota Dill - The Sul Ross State University alum (which we all know is in Texas) was a 26th rounder in 2013. He missed 2014 with injury and just never impressed enough out of the bullpen despite pretty good strikeout numbers (9.3 K/9). Like many on this list, he was probably a bubble player entering spring who wasn't good enough to move up the chain, but too old to keep around.

P Sean Furney - The Braves acquired Furney at the end of spring training last year for cash considerations with the Diamondbacks, but unlike many trades Atlanta has completed with Dave Stewart, this one won't be very notable. Furney spent 2015 with Rome and Carolina and the 24 year-old was just okay. A former undrafted free agent, Furney doesn't have the control needed to strikeout so few (5 K/9 last year).

Holmberg - Rob Carr/Getty Images
P David Holmberg - A minor league free agent who appeared in two games this spring, Holmberg has been woeful in the majors over the last three years. Yes, it's only 62 innings over 14 games, but a 7.92 FIP is impressive only because of the level of ineptitude it requires. Holmberg was a "let's see" guy who didn't pan out.

P Ben Libuda - First 2015 pick from this list. Drafted in the 26th round last June out of Worcester State College, Libuda appeared in 16 games with both rookie-league teams last year as a reliever. The results were pretty ugly (nearly a WHIP of 2.00) and the Braves didn't see enough this spring to keep around the nearly 23 year-old.

P Ethan Martin - For Martin, it was a chance to come home (he was born in Athens, GA). However, it never materialized into regular season games. Formerly the #59 prospect in Baseball Prospectus's 2009 Top 100, Martin was a lot of potential, but next to zero positive results. The former 15th overall pick has a career minor league ERA of 4.48 and a shift to the bullpen in 2014 only helped him moderately. He has logged 44 innings in the majors between 2013-14, but surrendered ten homeruns for the Phillies during his run.

P Monte Reese - An undrafted free agent from Thomas University in Georgia, Reese appeared in only two games in the Gulf Coast League last summer. Already 24, the Braves probably felt he didn't fit into their Danville Braves plans.

P Ian Stiffler - The second pick on this list from the 2013 draft. Selected in the seventh round, Stiffler has been a big disappointment for Atlanta so far. He's only pitched 24 times over three years and had not made his Low-A debut yet. This spring was likely a sink-or-swim moment for Stiffler and he certainly didn't swim. He takes his career 6.38 ERA with more walks than strikeouts into the land of free agency.

P Blair Walters - Formerly of the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros organizations, Walters joined the Braves in 2014 after starting the year in the independent Frontier League. A solid starter for both Lynchburg in '14 and Carolina in '15 (2.33 and 3.13 ERAs), Walters was a placeholder who made his minor league team better by being a consistent arm, but was not considered a prospect.

C Alejandro Flores - A filler player at the end of the bench, Flores has made stops in the DSL, GCL, and Appy Leagues over the last three years with a .210/.294/.305 slash to show for it. Like many on this list, the Braves may have felt Flores would either have to make the Rome Braves roster or get cut. Obviously, the latter happened.

1B Jeff Campbell - Like Reese, Campbell was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Braves last summer. A 1B/DH, Campbell hit .277/.303/.372 over 26 games (plus an inning as a pitcher). He'll turn 24 the day after Independence Day and the Rome Braves roster is a tough one to make.

1B Tanner Krietemeier - Drafted out of Oklahoma State in the 23rd round of the 2014 draft, Krietemeier hit one homerun in 409 plate appearances over the last two years. That's just not what you want to see from a first baseman.

1B Jordan Lennerton - Atlanta picked up Lannerton last year out of the Tigers organization. He posted some decent years there, though he was often old for his level when he was successful. 30 years-old, Lannerton was a bubble guy this spring after watching the players the Braves added on minor league deals for Gwinnett.

3B Jake Lanning - Atlanta's 24th round selection last June, Lanning split time between second base and third base last summer with Danville and actually wasn't terrible (.273/.345/.341). The Holy Cross College alum is an example of how little time late-round college guys are given to perform. Already too old to stick around in rookie leagues, they have to get their career jump-started or risk a release. Apparently, the Braves saw all they needed out of Lanning.

3B Dylan Manwaring - With good size and a baseball pedigree, Manwaring was a ninth round pick in 2013. The son of former Giants catcher Kirt Manwaring, Tony DeMacio told Eric Single of MLB.com that the younger Manwaring "can hit...he's got power." Over three years in rookie ball, Manwaring would hit .157/.270/.207 with 105 strikeouts in 330 PA. His power led to one homerun. Another swing-and-a-miss for the high floor, low ceiling DeMacio years.

OF Jose Morel - Formerly a good international signing for the Braves, Morel played in just eight games above rookie ball in five years. He did hit well for Danville last year, but even a .313/.372/.390 slash is pretty empty when it includes one homerun and three steals in 54 games during your FIFTH year in rookie ball. Morel failed to make the Rome roster and the Braves cut bait.

It's unlikely Atlanta is finished with their cuts so I might do a follow-up to this column when the minor league rosters are announced in about a week or so.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Eric O'Flaherty: Not the Same Guy We Remember

For a run-down on the previous week, including this pick-up, the Tyler Moore trade, Justin Upton news, Mike Foltynewicz, and more, read my column from today at atlantabraves.about.com.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Many people applauded the Braves re-acquiring lefty Eric O'Flaherty on Sunday, but is there much to praise beyond just having a familiar face around? Can O'Flaherty resemble the pitcher who was so good for the Braves from 2009 until injury ended his 2013 season prematurely or are the Braves wasting their time on a flier who has lost the skillset that made him valuable?

When O'Flaherty came to the Braves via a waiver claim after the 2008 season, he was a fastball/slider pitcher who mixed in the occasional curve or changeup. Atlanta quickly cut into his fastball usage by getting him to utilize a sinker and by 2011, it was his most-used pitch. He liked it so much  that he began throwing it so often that he used it half of the time or more by 2012. And it was a quality pitch.

He still threw his slider at a similar rate to his M's days (25-27%) and simply stopped throwing his four-seam fastball as much. He also scrapped the curveball and nearly did the same with the changeup, leaving him almost entirely as a three-pitch pitcher, but a sinkerballer for the most part.

The tangible results were excellent. His groundball rate climbed north of 55% with a spike of 66% in 2012. While not a strikeout pitcher, he was getting into the 7 per nine range. Sabermetrics were often not thoroughly impressed with him because his K and BB metrics were never golden, but considering he was maintaining his success despite good (but not great) FIPs, it became a situation where we took into account the pitcher O'Flaherty was rather than who he compared to.

His injury in 2013 led to Tommy John surgery and a trip to free agency, where he signed with the Oakland A's. Has he been a different pitcher? Oh, yeah.

Ignore the high ERA for a second. He's lost a tick in velocity (from about 92-93 mph to 91-92 mph) on his fourseamer and his slider has lost about 2 mph. Not significant losses. The lost downward movement on his fourseamer and sinker is concerning, though. His slider has also began to come in on a plain and stay there rather than drop 1.5-2 inches. I'm not seeing a significant change in release point so it might be downgraded stuff and/or feel. O'Flaherty has never really relied on stuff - especially against lefthanded batters. His biggest weapon was deception. He hid the ball well against lefties which gave the impression that the ball was jumping out of his hand. As he progressed, his sinker helped neutralize right-handed batters to allow O'Flaherty to shake the LOOGY label. With its effectiveness limited, O'Flaherty is again vulnerable to right-handed batters. Here is a graph showing vertical movement. His changeup has dropped off the map, which isn't advantageous because hitters generally will allow it to float out of the zone because of decreased velocity.

Diving in deeper - starting in 2012, O'Flaherty was getting the ball in the zone with increased infrequency. During his first three years with the Braves, he kept the ball in the zone about 50% of the time according to PITCHf/x. Even though he had a great season in 2012 (3.27 FIP, 3.31 xFIP), his Zone% fell to about 42%. This also coincided with increased usage of his sinker and the two go hand-in-hand. He also had the movement to get outside-the-zone swings and hitters were swinging at what could be considered balls 35% of the time. Subsequently, they were making a bit less contact. If you are going to live outside-the-zone, you must entice batters to swing at those pitches. O'Flaherty was able to do that in 2012, but not so much in 2014 and especially last year. Further, because his sinkers and sliders were losing downward movement, they often became fodder for hitters to pummel in-the-zone. Last year, he saw the highest amount of in-the-zone pitches swung at of his career. Unsurprisingly, he also saw the greatest amount of in-the-zone contact. Hitters simply were not missing.

They also weren't hitting dinky pop-ups. Last year, O'Flaherty gave up a 22.6% line drive rate. That's 4% over his career rate and the highest of any full season of his career. In the above graph, flyball rates are blue, ground-ball rates are green, and line-drive rates are red. Line-drives are bad for pitchers because nearly 70% of them become hits. Increased line-drives means more baserunners. More baserunners means worse pitching. Worse pitching means we lose. In the following graph, pay special attention at how many line drives O'Flaherty saw off his most-used pitches.

Chances are that O'Flaherty won't be dinged with a .388 BABIP again (his career norm is .292) and there is reason to suspect he should be better against left-handed batters than he was in 2015 (.274/.358/.319). Plus, as I wrote before, I like Alex Torres, but not in the LOOGY role that he likely would have performed as if he was the sole lefty in the pen. Of course, Torres might not even make the roster, but if you are going to have a guy like Torres, you need a lefty specialist and O'Flaherty might be that guy. (ed. Torres was reassigned shortly after this post) But it's important to realize that the O'Flaherty that worked so well with Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters is probably not the guy the Braves acquired on Easter. There is nothing to suggest that the O'Flaherty who had a sub-1.00 ERA will be rejoining the Braves.

Is this move more nostalgia or really filling a need? Probably the former, but Roger McDowell has done more with less before.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - Matt Harrison

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.

Elsa/Getty Images
Not only have we reached the end of this series, it concludes perfectly with one of the four uber-prospects the Texas Rangers acquired in exchange for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. You have to wonder if Mahay ever gets upset that nobody mentions that the Braves got him as well. It's always the Teix deal, not the Teix/Mahay deal. Poor guy.

The 2003 draft was eventful for the Braves. They didn't pick until 35th overall and selected Luis Atilano and Jarrod Saltalamacchia back-to-back. They also selected Jo-Jo Reyes, Jamie Romak, Brandon Jones, and in the 30th round, they grabbed Jonny Venters out of Lake Brantley High School (Florida). Venters has had the second best bWAR from that draft for the Braves. The top bWAR came from the guy the Braves picked 900 picks earlier - Harrison. He was Atlanta's sixth pick in the Top 100.

Before Atlanta selected him, Harrison was a lefty out of South Granville High School (go Vikings!). The school had only produced one major leaguer - the generically named Jeff Johnson, who pitched parts of three seasons with the Yankees with a 6.52 ERA. Harrison had a scholarship offer to attend North Carolina State, but gave it up to ink a contract with the Atlanta Braves. Just 17 years-old, Harrison headed to the Gulf Coast League for his first taste of professional ball. He showed a solid ability to throw strikes, which is sometimes difficult for teenage pitchers, and after two years at rookie ball, Harrison headed to Rome to begin 2005. It was a nice season from the tall lefty as he finished with a 3.23 ERA over 167 innings. He maintained a 3.9 K/BB rate and while the homerun rate wasn't excellent, it was still a solid year.

It did not, however, get him in the Top 100 prospects. The next season would change that. Splitting the season between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, Harrison finished with a 3.35 ERA and pretty similar rates overall. While certainly not an ace, he was a productive prospect with a chance to contribute as a left-handed starter - something that often comes with a high degree of value. Baseball America ranked him as the #90th best prospect in baseball while Baseball Prospectus was even higher on him, placing him #79th.

2007 looked like it might be the year for Harrison, who had already logged a dozen starts in Double-A. However, something was a little off. His K/BB rate, which had never been under 3.45, was sitting at 2.29 by late July. He had always given up his share of hits, but Harrison's calling card was his ability to not hurt himself with walks. Now, compared to many of his peers, a 2.6 BB/9 is hardly a bad thing, but it was a half-a-walk higher than any other season. What the Braves, and the league, didn't know is that Harrison was hurt. Shortly before the end of July, he was placed on the disabled list.

That threw a wrench into a negotiation currently under way. John Schuerholz was desperate to avoid a second consecutive year out of the playoffs after 14 straight division titles. Despite clear issues in the rotation, Schuerholz zeroed in on the possibility of out-slugging everyone with the young and powerful Teixeira. The Rangers saw a chance to maximize Teix's value before he hit free agency after the 2008 season. They wanted Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, and Neftali Feliz - a dynamic package with three Top 100 talents. They also wanted Harrison, but his injury concerned them. To smooth things over, the Braves added lefty Beau Jones, who they had taken with the 41st pick of the 2005 draft. Jones was an interesting arm, but the Braves saw him as a bullpen prospect so they weren't very attached. The Rangers agreed to the five-prospect package and Harrison headed to Texas. He would be shut down for the remainder of the minor league season, but did made seven starts in the Arizona Fall League.

It didn't take long for Harrison to get to the majors after that. He made 15 starts with the Rangers in the summer of '08, but it wasn't until 2011 that he established himself. He made a full 30 start season for the Rangers, brought his walks down, and did a better job at keeping the ball in the yard. The results was a 185.2 ING campaign in which he had a 3.39 ERA and 3.52 FIP. He even made a start in Turner Field on June 18. He was in line for the win until Darren Oliver blew it. Texas scored off Scott Proctor in the ninth because using Scott Proctor in a tied extra inning game only works when Jerry Meals is behind the plate. Felix came in and got the save with K's of Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward.

Harrison was even better the next year. He lowered his ERA to 3.29, picked up his first 200-inning season, was an All-Star, and even picked up a Cy Young vote or two. Knowing they had a potential workhorse on their hands, the Rangers gave Harrison a $55M extension to buy out his final two years of arbitration and first three years of free agency. He would be team-controlled through at least his Age-31 season with an option for 2018.

But...that didn't work out so well. In the three years that have transpired since signing the extension, Harrison has made just 9 starts. His back injuries led him to eventually succumb to lumbar spinal disc fusion surgery in June of 2014. He - well, his contract - was also traded to the Phillies last July in the big Cole Hamels trade.

As 2016 is just around the corner, things have not change for Harrison. His back remains an issue and the Phillies don't expect him to contribute "anytime soon, if at all." It's unfortunate news for the lefty has been stuck in a bystander role just after reaching the heights of his career. Will he ever throw another meaningful pitch? That remains to be seen. You have to hope he does because never pitching again because of a back injury is a tough way to go out. Still, it's not looking good for the first pitcher of the Teix trade to get to the majors.

And that concludes the Former Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects as a Brave who Never Actually Played in Atlanta. Oh, that explains why I shortened the title. To go back through the list, you can either click any of the links below or just click here to run through them in reverse chronological order.

Previous Random Former Prospects...
Brett Evert
Rob Bell
Jose Peraza
Tom Redington
Dennis Burlingame
J.R. Graham
Elvis Andrus
Bobby Smith
Bubba Nelson
Neftali Feliz
Gorkys Hernandez
Matt Belisle
Matt McClendon

Saturday, March 19, 2016

TOT: Braves Sign Vinny Castilla for the First Time

Transaction of Today...March 19, 1990 - The Atlanta Braves purchased Vinny Castilla from Saltillo (Mexican).

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Don Baylor once said that he would not trade Vinny Castilla for Chipper Jones. Now...that's probably a bunch of crap, but there was a time when Castilla - almost overnight - became a star. Of course, that was back when Coors Field made stars of guys who didn't hit much elsewhere like Dante Bichette, Quinton McCracken, and Neifi Perez. Still, it had to be shocking for the Braves to see Castilla magically transform into the type of hitter who would go on to belt 320 major league homeruns.

When Castilla signed with the Braves today 26 years ago, he was seen as an aggressive hitter with decent pop for a shortstop, but a hit tool that was likely going to limit his effectiveness to be much more than a utility player. He had spent a couple of years in the Mexican League before 1990 and the Braves paid $20,000 to sign Castilla (with almost all of it going to his team). After signing with Atlanta, he split the season between Sumter (low-A) and Greenville (AA), slashing just .257/.322/.385. He played a lot of shortstop, which seems hard to imagine for those of us who know him almost entirely as a third baseman. Castilla would split most of 1991 between Greenville and Triple-A Richmond, in which he OPS'd just .692. He finished the year as a bench player for the '91 Braves, appearing in 12 games - mostly as a defensive replacement at shortstop or third base. The following year, 1992, Castilla OPS'd just .655 with the R-Braves and was hardly noticeable during a nine-game cameo in the majors.

Twenty-five years old, Castilla was a possibility for the 1993 bench after the Braves released Jeff Treadway. However, the future All-Star's time with the Braves ended on December 17, 1992 when the Rockies took Castilla with the 40th pick of the expansion draft. He joined David Nied and Armando Reynoso as Braves farmhands that the Rockies grabbed in the expansion draft. Clint Hurdle, who would later become Castilla's hitting coach and manager in Colorado, was managing the Mets' AAA team in Tidewater when Castilla reached AAA and felt the skinny infielder was "nothing special" and "might make it as a utility player." But he, like so many others, were wrong.

Castilla was a regular fixture of the inaugural Rockies team. He platooned at short, played in 105 games, and belted nine homers. He also on-based just .283. He only played in 52 games during the strike-shortened 1994, plus 22 in the minors, though he hinted at big things to come with a .331/.357/.500 slash.

In 1995, the Rockies let Charlie Hayes go after the veteran handled the hot corner for the first two years of the franchise's existence. Castilla would claim the position and never look back. An All-Star in '95, Castilla also won a Silver Slugger while slashing .309/.347/.564. He quickly became part of what was a tremendous collection of offensive stars with Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Ellis Burks, and Bichette. The Rockies were a surprise contender and took home the NL West title with a first-round matchup with the Braves on the docket. It was a chance for Castilla to put a hurting on the team that left him unprotected in the 1993 expansion draft. While the Rockies would ultimately lose in four games, you couldn't blame Castilla as he had seven hits, including a double and three homeruns (two off Greg Maddux).

Over the next three seasons, he hit 40 or more homeruns each year - one of just four third baseman to accomplish that feat and of those other three, only Eddie Matthews did it in three consecutive seasons like Castilla.

1998 was his finest season. He finished 11th in the MVP race, won his third and final Silver Slugger, and reached some big traditional benchmarks (108 RS, 206 H, 46 HR, 144 RBI) along with some some nice sabermetric accomplishments (.401 wOBA, 121 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR). He was on top of the world, but the Rockies nucleus was both aging and expensive - plus they hadn't won much with them. Galarraga signed with Atlanta in '98 and after a woeful fifth-place finish in 1999, the Rockies let Bichette leave via free agency and traded Castilla.

Joining another expansion team, Castilla became the starting third baseman for the third edition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It went awful. With the thin air of Denver no longer boosting his flyballs, Castilla struggled to a .221/.254/.308 slash while missing significant time. His struggles continued into 2001 until the Rays released the third baseman a month into the season. The Astros, who were using the woeful Chris Truby at third base, went for the upgrade and signed Castilla for the rest of the year. Moving back to both the NL and a park that helped hitters like "Enron Park" (as it was known) re-established Castilla as a solid major league player. He slashed .270/.320/.492 after his mid-May signing and helped to deliver a playoff birth for the Astros. Six years after facing the Braves in the 1995 NLDS, Castilla got a second shot to down the Braves in '01. Castilla homered in Game One off Braves closer John Smoltz and had three hits overall in the series, but the Rockies were outscored 14-6 over the three games.

After 2001, Castilla figured that if you can't beat them, join them. Or in Castilla's case, re-join them. In an effort to help Chipper Jones keep fresher legs, the Braves moved their All-Star third baseman to left field and added Castilla. The TBS announcers were always quick to point out that Castilla provided a defensive boost at third base, though his defense was never great and by his mid-30's, it was more accurate to say Castilla made the plays he could get to. That's good and all, but he simply didn't have much range. In '02, he also didn't have a bat. Quick, name the worst OBP by an Atlanta Brave (min 500 PA). You might remember that it's Andres Thomas, who did the impossible and on-based .228 in 1989. Second place on this list of futility? Vinny Castilla, who on-based just .268 in 2002. He did pick up seven hits, including his fifth postseason homerun, in Atlanta's NLDS loss to the Giants.

In 2003, Castilla's numbers improved (though still far-removed from his Rockies days) and after the Braves lost the NLDS to the Cubs, Castilla was allowed to leave Atlanta for a second time. The Braves went with Mark DeRosa and after that failed miserably, Atlanta moved Chipper back to third. Meanwhile, Castilla returned to the Mile High City and had a bit of a resurgence. He hit 35 homeruns (one more than he hit with the Braves) and led the National League in RBIs (if that means anything to you). He also picked up his only 40-double season. Still, his return to Colorado was brief as the Nationals signed Castilla ahead of 2005. While the Nats weren't an expansion team, they were playing in Washington for the first time. Castilla held down the position for Ryan Zimmerman, who had just been drafted. His numbers fell more in line with his Braves experience than the Rockies numbers he had posted the previous year. In 2006, Castilla spent time with the Padres and - for a third time - Colorado, but struggled as an 38 year-old. It would be his final year in the majors.

Castilla would return home and had a run as a player/manager for Hermosillo. He also managed Team Mexico in the 2007 PanAm Games and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. In addition, Castilla worked as a special assistant coach for the Rockies from 2012-15.

Twenty-six years ago today, the Braves signed Castilla, a player who would eventually become the Mexican leader in runs scored, hits, doubles, and homeruns. Not bad for a guy who was "nothing special."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TOT: 1994 Ends Prematurely for Gant

Transaction of Today...March 15, 1994 - The Atlanta Braves released Ron Gant.

Bernstein Associates/Getty Images
It was the end of a too-short but formidable partnership between Ronnie Gant and the Braves.

About six weeks after the news that Gant suffered a catastrophic injury to his right leg after losing control of his dirt bike, Atlanta made the right business decision and paid Gant just $906,593.40 of his $5.5M contract. It was all that was required for termination pay, something that is pretty unique for arbitration deals. They had been, according to then-Team President Stan Kastan, advised to not pay Gant at all and instead argue that he violated the terms of his contract and the Braves owed him nothing. Also remember that $906,000 in 1994 was worth a bit more than it is now. Gant was one of the highest paid players in baseball - a distinction that was well deserved. But after his dirt bike crash, he would become a free agent as he rehabbed the injury.

A fourth-round selection of the 1983 draft out of Victoria, Texas, he would become Atlanta's top selection value from that draft in overall value, though 27th-rounder Mark Lemke turned out okay, too. Gant's first few years in the minors brought little attention until the then-21 year-old arrived with Durham in 1986. He slashed .277/.372/.529 that season with 31 doubles, 10 triples, 26 homeruns, and 35 stolen bases. The next season was spent mostly at Greenville, though he received a cameo in Atlanta. In 1988, he got a chance to stay in the majors and responded with an impressive 19 homeruns in 618 PA. He only on-based .317, but it was a nice rookie campaign.

He was an infielder then, but not a particularly good one and despite having the athleticism to play the position, Gant lacked the feel. A woeful 1989 followed in which Gant hit just .177 and was banished for half of the year to Richmond. However, Atlanta started to see that they needed to take away the pressure of playing defense in the infield away from him and sent Gant to the outfield as they sought a return to form.

Experience plus a position switch (and other tinkering) is what led to 1990's breakthrough campaign. With the Braves of today in rebuilding mode, fans might want to know what should give them hope despite all the losses. If you flash back to 1990, it was the beginning of Ron Gant: Professional Superstar. Sure, the Braves were not good at all in 1990, but when you have someone who performs like Gant did, it gives you hope for the future. The Texan hit .303/.357/.539 with 32 homeruns and 33 steals. Only two other players had ever gone 30/30 for the Braves and their names are steeped with greatness (Hank Aaron in 1963, Dale Murphy in 1983). Despite playing for one of baseball's worst teams, Gant finished 14th in the MVP balloting in 1990. He was just getting started.

He went 30/30 again in 1991 as the Braves went from worst-to-first. He won his only Silver Slugger, finished sixth in the MVP balloting, and stole seven bases in the NLCS against the Pirates (three more than the rest of the team managed). He also got pulled off a bag by Kent Hrbck, but the ump was too busy counting his money to see that. I kid, I kid. Returning in 1992, Ron Gant had an interesting thing happened to him as he got into a bar fight with Connie Mack IV. The fight occurred right before spring training and yes, this is Connie Mack's great-grandson who also represented Florida's 14th district from 2005 until 2013 in Congress. Mack was drunk and tried to provoke Gant into a fight. When he succeeded, he somehow broke his ankle in the fray. I don't know if that created a distraction, but Gant's numbers fell off in 1992 despite making his first All-Star Game. He homered twice against the Pirates in the NLCS, but was a non-factor in the World Series and only started two games.

In 1993, Gant rounded back in form with a .274/.345/.510 season with a career-high 36 homeruns. He finished fifth in the NL MVP balloting and was one of the league's most fearsome players. His four-year run heading into the 1993-94 offseason stood at .272/.340/.491 with 117 HR and 125 steals. He was a star and the Braves paid him as such, signing him to a $5.5M contract in the offseason as part of his final year of arbitration. To put that total into perspective, Atlanta was paying Greg Maddux $4.975M for 1994 and Tom Glavine $4.75M. Fred McGriff was their highest paid offensive player at $3.755M.

But before spring training, disaster struck. According to Gant, he was "doing jumps and lost control" of his dirt bike and his "leg just wrapped around a tree." It was a rough few weeks for Gant, who also was under investigation after teenage girls named Gant and his cousin Stephen Gaskin in a complaint that the two men sought sex from them. The case went nowhere, but it added to the stack of bad news. Briefly, there was thought that the dirt bike accident wouldn't end his 1994 with team physician Joe Chandler suggesting it would only be three months, but apparently the Braves came to a different conclusion later. The release of Gant opened up left field for a trio of hot prospects - Ryan Klesko, Tony Tarasco, and an infielder by the name of Chipper Jones. The latter would tear his ACL and Klesko settled into the job.

Gant would sign with the Reds a few months later and continued to rehab, but would not play again until after the Strike ended in 1995. As a member of the Reds, he was a success story, hitting .276 with a career-best .940 OPS. He even stole 23 bases, the final year he would steal more than 15. He led a great Reds offense that was second in the NL in runs scored. Gant was even given a chance to get the best revenge on the Braves as the Reds met the Braves in the NLCS. Gant, who only OPS'd .694 in the postseason during his career, was a non-factor in Atlanta's sweep of Cincinnati and managed just three singles.

Leaving the Reds for St. Louis, Gant saw his 1996 end in a similar result to his 1995 - with his team losing in the NLCS against the Braves. He did smack 30 homers, his fourth and final 30-HR campaign. He had some good years left in him, though he bounced around. After the Cards came the Phillies and then the Angels and the Rockies, A's, and Padres. He returned to Oakland in 2003, but struggled terribly and retired.

Since his career came to a close, Gant has became a fixture on Atlanta television as a co-host of Good Day Atlanta and formerly an analyst for the Braves. You have to believe that 22 years ago today when his time with the Braves came to a close, he had no idea if he would ever play again, let alone be as good as he was. But that's a testament of Gant's will and determination. Fortunately, he held no ill will against the Braves and understood it was the right move.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Braves Cut Three More Relievers

I went over this a little in today's 5 for Monday post at my other site. Give it a read as it also touches on the rotation (especially Jhoulys Chacin), spring training stats, the 2016 draft, the road back for Jason Grilli and Mike Foltynewicz, and others odds and ends.


Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Braves continued their quick and decisive series of cuts on Monday morning, adding Matt Marksberry and Chris Withrow to the list of arms that were previously in the running, but now have "just died and went back down to the minors." Southpaw Hunter Cervenka joined the duo, though he was "reassigned" rather than optioned because he wasn't on the 40-man roster.

Marksberry and Withrow were both surprising cuts, especially at this point. As a favorite in the battle to join the Braves coming out of camp, Marksberry had moments of glory before a recent bad game. Marksberry has some qualities that make him an attractive member of any bullpen, but he's hurt by one thing right now - he has options. The Braves want to maintain a high level of depth and keeping a LOOGY at AAA rather than losing a player without options was an easier sell for the Braves.

Withrow was even more shocking because many, including me, had him pegged as a key member of the 2016 bullpen. Over 56 innings in the majors, Withrow has a 3.44 xFIP, 3.08 SIERA, and 93 cFIP - which all give the impression that he's a capable major league option when healthy. The Braves may have not seen the level of control they want  from the righty, though to option him this quickly is still curious. Again, much like Marksberry, Withrow has options (actually just one) whereas players like Jose Ramirez don't.

Speaking of Ramirez, his chances of making this roster only improve. The same can be said for Rule 5 additions like Evan Rutckyj and Daniel Winkler, along with non-roster invitees Alex Torres, Carlos Torres, and Alexi Ogando. However, there is still much that is left to be done because we only know that Arodys Vizcaino and Jim Johnson will be in the mix. If he suffers no setbacks, Jason Grilli will be there as well. That doesn't even take into account Ian Krol, who was expected to be a player in the bullpen, but might go the way of Withrow and head to Gwinnett to start 2016. Oh, and we should also mention the possibility of a long-relief arm such as Williams Perez or Ryan Weber being shifted to the bullpen to provide insurance for the rotation, though I'd think Winkler could be included in that mix as well.

The Braves are being proactive here, which puts the pressure on those players remaining in the picture to produce. We've seen what happens when they don't.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - Brett Evert

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images
The seventh round of the 1999 draft gave us just two major leaguers in 30 picks. Andy Philips, who had an entirely average existence after being the 27th pick of the round, and Coco Crisp, who has logged a nice career after the Cardinals took him with the 18th pick of the round. The final pick of the round was Brett Evert by the Braves. For eight years, he tried to rise the ladder, but finished his career with just shy of 800 minor league innings. But his time with the Braves doesn't end there.

Born in Salem, Oregon a week before Halloween in 1980, Evert was a tall righty who honed his craft with the North Salem High School Vikings. The school notably produced Jed Lowrie, who is about four years younger than Evert. As he finished his high school playing days, Evert was set to attend San Diego State on a scholarship, but when the Braves came calling, he took the $169,500 and postponed his college experience.

Evert joined the Braves in the Gulf Coast League after signing and was pretty impressive from the moment he showed up. Much more physically matured than some of his peers, Evert offset mid-90's velocity with a feel for a change-up and curveball. Over 48.2 innings with the GCL Braves, he walked just eight unintentionally and did not surrender a homerun while striking out 39. If anything, he was bit by the kind of thing that gets young pitchers - balks. He was called for a quartet of them in 1999. He would only be called on three more for the remainder of his career.

Opening 2000 with Jamestown in the New York-Penn League, Evert was way too hittable and that continued during a seven-start run with Macon to finish the season. He was a decent enough prospect at this time. Just 19 years-old during the 2000 season, he showed pretty good control and got a fair amount of strikeouts, but overall, Evert wasn't a Top 10 prospect. Maybe not even a Top 20 prospect. He was just a guy with a decent fastball and a chance.

Things changed after 2001. Returning to Macon to open the year, Evert overmatched the South Atlantic League over a half-dozen starts. He was no longer too hittable and over 36.1 innings, he struck out 34 and walked just three. It was night and day compared to the seven starts he logged with Macon the previous season. The Braves promoted the 20 year-old up the chain to Myrtle Beach and he continued to excel. He tossed his first shutout, increased his strikeout rate, and looked like one of the best prospects on a team that included Jung Bong, Trey Hodges, Wilson Betemit, Ryan Langerhans, and Adam LaRoche. The season received praise from Baseball America, who ranked Evert the #66th prospect in baseball.

He wouldn't stay in the Top 100 for long, though. 2002 saw Evert fail at AA and look considerably less dominant in a ten-start run with the Pelicans. His ERA climbed nearly three runs in one season and most of his prospect starpower eroded. In 2003, the Braves kept Evert in AA and even a run as a reliever did little to bring back the great numbers of '01. He would be cut from the organization after further struggles in 2004, including a horrid run with Richmond in his AAA debut. Hooking on with the Mariners, he showed no improvement to finish the year.

Opening 2005 with Tacoma, Evert was almost entirely a reliever during a small run with the team before being cut. Joining the Milwaukee Brewers organization, Evert bounced between levels, receiving time at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. His numbers with Huntsville in the Southern League were both interesting (4.6 K/BB) and alarming (1.8 HR/9). 2006 brought similar results and also including his fourth and final organization - the Boston Red Sox. He made one start for Pawtucket, his final game at AAA, and appeared in nine games out of the bullpen for Double-A Portland. He was cut at the end of the year and joined Lancaster of the Atlantic League for a start. He returned in 2007, but pitched poorly.

That year was it for Evert. After eight years in organized ball, plus another on the independent scene, Evert's career came to a close with an overall ERA of 4.09. But it wasn't the end of his baseball journey. The following year, Evert caught on with the Colorado Rockies as a part-time Northwest scout for the Rockies. That lasted a year until the Braves came calling for a second time with an offer - full-time scout of the northwest. He took the position and is now one of Atlanta's top regional scouts, supervising the Northwest, Northern California, and Western Canada. He signed Brandon Drury and Cody Martin, players who made their major league debuts last season. Last June, he pushed the Braves to select Mike Soroka, the young Canadian right-hander selected at the tail end of the first round. He was also influential in Atlanta's fourth round pick of Josh Graham, the University of Oregon righty. When the 2016 draft comes, look for the locations of some of the prospects. If they come from the northwest and western Canada, Evert was likely one of the guys who convinced Atlanta to draft the guy.

Previous Random Former Prospects...
Rob Bell
Jose Peraza
Tom Redington
Dennis Burlingame
J.R. Graham
Elvis Andrus
Bobby Smith
Bubba Nelson
Neftali Feliz
Gorkys Hernandez
Matt Belisle
Matt McClendon

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Full Analysis on the Braves Cuts Today

Saturday appears to be cut day for the Atlanta Braves. Last Saturday, the big takeaways were David Carpenter and Ryan Kelly being released from the organization. Today, a few releases and a number of players being optioned or reassigned. If you are unsure about the difference, if a player is on the 40-man roster, he must be optioned to the minors. Reassigned is the technical number for minor league free agents that are being sent to the minor league camp. Where they ultimately start the season will be decided later. All told, 14 players were cut from the major league camp and 49 players remain from the 70 that opened camp.

Kyle Kendrick - Many of us groaned when Kendrick's signing was announced last New Year's Eve. He was coming off an ugly season with the Rockies and had been average or worse during his entire career. Adding another sinker baller who gives up too many homeruns was not exactly awe-inspiring. Fortunately, Kendrick looked awful in two starts to open his camp run. Meanwhile, Jhoulys Chacin, who was signed shortly before Kendrick, has looked pretty good. Kendrick's release doesn't make Chacin a lock to make the roster, but it certainly helped his case.

Chris Volstad - Signed shortly after the 2015 season concluded for the Braves, Volstad was a long shot even before the additions of Kendrick and Chacin (let alone the other players acquired this offseason). He looked destined for a trip to AAA, but he pitched just as poorly as Kendrick. Actually, he was worse considering Kendrick was starting the games so he was facing more major league regulars. With so many pitchers in-house, Volstad pitched his way out of the organization.

Optioned to Gwinnett:
Danny Burawa - One of the ex-Yanks acquired by the organization after adding Gordon Blakely in October of 2014, Burawa appeared in a dozen games with the Braves (and one awful one with the Yankees) last season. He had decent control at the beginning of his career, but it has regressed since injuries wiped out nearly his entire 2012 season. He has flashed strikeout potential, though his numbers fell a bit last season. Already 27, his window is rapidly closing.

Daniel Castro - Unlike the three names I've gone over so far, Castro actually looked decent this spring, but the numbers were against him. He stole some time at second base last year against lefties to shield the struggling Jace Peterson, but offseason acquisitions made him an afterthought. He'll remain in the "first person up" slot until better prospects overtake him for that, too. Castro's best chance at getting back to the majors in the short-term future is an injury/trade of Erick Aybar. He's fairly smooth in the field, but just doesn't have the bat to stick.

Tyrell Jenkins - About the time Jenkins was optioned, he tweeted, "trust the process, embrace the struggle, and keep pushing!" Jenkins was a bit of an early camp name as he impressed the coaches with some mechanical adjustments. He only helped his stock in camp, but he started below a lot of names and just didn't have the time to push his way up the depth chart. He pitched well last year and will have a shot to build on his success. If he can improve his K/BB numbers, he'll be in the majors very soon. He won't turn 24 until July.

Casey Kelly - Acquired in the Christian Bethancourt trade, Kelly has logged 40.1 innings in the majors since 2012 with little success. As recently as 2013, he was a perennial Top 100 prospect, but injuries and poor play have limited him to 196 innings since the end of 2011. Braves are taking a chance on Kelly and despite making his debut in 2012, this is only his second option year. What will be interesting to see as the Gwinnett season opens is if Kelly will be used as a starter or reliever. San Diego began to convert him to the latter last year.

Optioned to Mississippi:
Mauricio Cabrera - He's been the "talk of the camp" in back-to-back springs with his triple-digit velocity, but the same old story remains. Can he throw his pitches for strikes? Five years into his minor league career, we have rarely seen him do that. This is only his Age-22 season and the Braves made the wise decision to shift him to the pen full time last year. As always, he'll be fun to watch, but until the results begin to even come close to the potential, he'll be stuck in neutral.

Chase d'Arnaud - When he signed around Thanksgiving, the chances of making the Braves were much better, but free agent signings since then have killed whatever hope d'Arnaud had of making this roster. He'll now try to hang on at AAA and hope some bad luck for others gets him back to the majors, where he holds a career .225 wOBA in 175 PA with a -0.6 fWAR.

Chris Ellis - Considered a bit more polished that the higher ranked prospect he was acquired with in the Andrelton Simmons trade, Ellis looked solid in A+ ball last year, but fell apart after a midseason promotion to AA-Arkansas. While Ellis has a more polish in that he shows a decent idea on how to get the ball into the strikezone, he seems to struggle with keeping his mechanics straight on the mound along with just having a feel for the moment. If he is able do that, he could max out as a bottom-of-the-rotation arm or decent reliever.

Nate Freiman - A Rule 5 guy in 2013, Freiman showed a decent hit tool that season with little power. He followed that up by showing decent power, but no hit tool in '14. Last year, he was stuck in AAA and continued to decline across the board. Freiman flashed some good power and on-base skills back in the day, but he's an AAAA bat at this point and maybe not even that. With few players pushing for time at first base in AAA, Freiman looks like he'll get some good playing time if he hits at all.

David Holmberg - He's been in the majors each of the last three years and this is the progression of his FIP - 5.48, 7.57, 8.60. In his defense, that only comes out to 62 total innings, but that's still damn awful. He's been used as a starter primarily and could be in line for that at Gwinnett, though it wouldn't surprise me to see him in AA for depth reasons.

Sean Newcomb - Often ranked as high as #2 in the Braves system, Newcomb has all the potential in the world to be a frontline starter. He could fail to reach that and still become a dynamite reliever. His velocity comes from a low-energy delivery which could bold well for his future. But he can't depend on his heater as he advances and needs his secondary pitches to become better. How much advancement comes with those pitches will decide just how good Newcomb becomes.

Rio Ruiz - Other prospects had a better spring so far, but Ruiz showed off a confident swing and caught some eyes. That's important for a player that took a step backwards in 2015 after his wOBA fell 50 points. Ruiz definitely has a fan in the organization in the form of Kiley McDaniel, who ranked him #43rd in his Top 100 heading into 2015, and has since taken a position with the Braves. Ruiz has the skillset to stay at third base and if his bat rounds into his form, he could develop into a Kyle Seager type who trades a little of the power for better walk rates. While much of the Third Baseman of the Future hype is attached to Austin Riley - and deservedly so - Ruiz is closer and can take the position if he turns the corner.

Madison Younginer - He was brought in for depth and has been pretty decent-to-average during his minor league career. He's only throw 3.2 innings above AA so a decent run at AAA is needed for the 25 year-old first. He has very good sinking movement on his pitches and can be tough to elevate the ball against. If he can find success at AAA, he'll be in the same camp as some of the guys who got bullpen looks for the Braves last year. If he gets a look, he'll have to take advantage of it, though.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

TOT - Moylan Returns to America

Transaction of Today...March 10, 2006 - The Atlanta Braves signed Peter Moylan as a free agent.

Pool/Getty Images
There are a lot of people who have negative things to say about the World Baseball Classic. Many say the players don't really care about the WBC - especially the American ones - and are simply going through the motions of spring training. A number of the elite players that could play for America have declined because the regular season was far more important than some silly exhibition series. Unless you are a country whose nationalism is ingrained in baseball like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, or Japan, the World Baseball Classic is just a different experience to the usual spring training games. It's over-hyped and ultimately meaningless.

Peter Moylan of Australia would probably disagree with that sentiment.

A failed minor league player who had spent two years in the Twins system in 1996 and 1997, Moylan had left organized ball here in the states after infuriating the Twins with his immaturity. His numbers were pretty poor as well and despite flashing an above-average fastball Down Under, he couldn't get his heater above 90 mph with Minnesota. Returning to his native land after being released, Moylan eventually settled into the opportunistic world of pharmaceutical sells. Yes, he was a pharma guy. I'd call him a pharma bro, but some idiot has already taken that title and attempted to become the world's biggest douchebag.

Moylan didn't completely leave baseball in the rear view, but it was no longer his day job. He caught on with the Blackburn Orioles, a local baseball club in which Moylan played more first base than anything. He hit well and had fun, something that was probably lacking as a member of the Twins organization.

Eventually, Moylan began to tinker with something new - throwing sidearm. After testing it out against the Orioles during batting practice, be began to utilize it in games as a closer and quickly became one of the league's finest relievers. This - and back surgeries after returning to Australia - set the stage for Moylan to make a big splash. The Claxton Shield gave Moylan an atmosphere. As the premier baseball competition in Australia, the Claxton Shield brought in the top teams in the country to decide on who was the best of the best. The event has since been disbanded and replaced by the Australian Baseball League.

Moylan not only impressed the scouts who attended the event with mid-90's heat, he also got noticed by the coaches that were putting together a roster for the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Team Australia failed to win a game, scoring just four runs in three games and surrendering 18, but Moylan was a bright spot. He showed his improved ability with strikeouts of MLB stars and scouts were tripping over each other to sign the righthander.

Ultimately, it was the Braves that Moylan settled on, signing a minor league deal with the Braves on this day a decade ago. A year later, Moylan would embark on a career-defining season a 1.80 ERA in 80 games for the 2007 Braves. He would remain an effective - but often hurt - part of the Braves through the 2012 season. After spending 14 games with the Dodgers the following year, Moylan would miss 2014 with Tommy John surgery. The Braves brought him back on a player/coach minor league deal in 2015, but their bullpen was so fractured that Moylan's contract was transitioned into a normal deal after rejoining the Braves for 22 games.

This offseason, he signed with the Royals to continue his major league career that got its relaunch when the Braves convinced Moylan that his best chance for future success was in Atlanta.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Trade Erick Aybar? Why not?

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Could the Atlanta Braves consider dealing away one of their projected starters and likely #2 hitter before 2016 even begins?

It seems unlikely, but Dave Cameron of Fangraphs thinks the Braves might be a suitable trading partner for the St. Louis Cardinals. The NL Central power is a top contender (again), but just lost shortstop Jhonny Peralta with a thumb injury that could keep him out June or maybe even July. That is a significant amount of the season and while the Cardinals have an option, moving Jedd Gyorko into the starting lineup could be both problematic at the plate and in the field if his -17.5 UZR/150 over 220 innings at shortstop last year is a sign of things to come. St. Louis also has a few kids who might be a better fit as Cameron's colleague at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan, argues.

If the Cards look for an outside-the-organization solution, the Braves could come bearing gifts - notably, Erick Aybar. The former Angels shortstop was acquired this offseason in the Andrelton Simmons trade and from the get-go, the prevailing wisdom was that Aybar wouldn't last the whole year in Atlanta. With the organization knee-deep in a rebuild, the 32 year-old Aybar seemed like a questionable fit even before you take into account his pending free agency after the 2016 season. Of course, somebody's got to play shortstop for the Braves and Aybar is a perfectly good shortstop, but why keep him for a year when you can trade him for an asset or assets you can control beyond 2016?

Before we even consider who the Braves would go to in the event of an Aybar trade, let's consider what the Braves might be looking for. All of the reasons that the Braves might be so open to a trade also work against any package the Braves could receive. While they can play hardball, Atlanta has a player on the back end of his career who will be a free agent next winter. His numbers are declining both at the plate and in the field and the Cardinals don't even need to hack any other team's information to grasp that.

If another team or teams were interested in Aybar, it could help Atlanta's position, but considering how long it took for Jimmy Rollins and Ian Desmond to find work, shortstop is not a position with a lot of buyers right now.

What could the Braves be looking for? At best, the Braves might be able to pillage an organizational Top 10 talent like shortstop Edmundo Sosa or right-hander Junior Fernandez. The former just turned 20 and will be making his full-season debut this season. He's shown good pop and a decent all-around game, though his defense may mandate a switch later to second base. In the meantime, he will add to the glut of middle infield prospects for the Braves. He won't be mentioned in the same breath as Dansby Swanson or Ozhaino Albies, but is he better than Johan Camargo? I'd say so. Fernandez is a Dominican with triple digit heat and pretty good control despite a delivery that is max effort. The latter might push Fernandez into a bullpen role where he projects to have high-leverage bullpen stuff.

Again, that's the high end and what the Braves would cross their fingers for. In the (likely) event that the Cards balk, the Braves will be seeking sleeper prospects who have a plus tool or maximize their abilities. A guy like Corey Littrell could work. He's from the school of John Gant/Robert Whalen/Andrew Thurman - starters the Braves have acquired who have a feel for what they are doing on the mound, but won't rank high in prospect ranks because their stuff isn't overwhelming.

Bruce Caldwell is interesting from a utility role perspective and has bounced between 2B and 3B for much of his career, though he's played a little in the corner outfield positions and seems like the last guy in to pitch an inning if needed. Converted catcher and current outfielder Anthony Garcia hit a ton last year (.283/.391/.477 in 105 games). He's been around for awhile and the Cards are packed in the outfield. Another lefty, David Oca, hasn't received a lot of press and has just 3.1 innings above rookie ball so far, but comes with some video game stats (0.2 HR/9, 2.3 BB/9, 9.2 K/9).

If the Braves and the Cards did deal, what would the Braves do about their shortstop position? Atlanta is blessed with a lot of guys who can play shortstop, but do you really want them to? Jace Peterson and Emilio Bonifacio would likely jump to the front of the line, though Daniel Castro might get an extended look because he's an actual shortstop. The Braves could also aggressively seek to acquire a shortstop toward the end of spring training from players who are either out-of-options or on the losing end of a competition.

While it's tough to believe Atlanta would trade Aybar right now, the Braves have certainly proved that if you offer the right package, there's not a player the Braves won't consider dealing. Could Aybar be next? That all depends on what the Cardinals - and any other team - are willing to surrender.