Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Braves Continue to Shoot for the Stars

On the first day of the 2015 calendar year, the Atlanta Braves packaged a pair of useful arms in David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve to acquire Manny Banuelos. A little more than a week later, the Braves sent pitcher Nate Hyatt and third baseman Kyle Kubitza to the Angels. Both players who could have potentially helped a bad Braves team in 2015, but the Braves wanted young left-hander Ricardo Sanchez.

Both trades - and there were others - were a sign that the Braves were willing to cash in high-floor guys for higher-ceiling, but riskier options. Yesterday, the Braves went to the well once more and packaged Robert Whalen and Max Povse for Alex Jackson, formerly of the Mariners' organization. A player to be named later will eventually also be sent from the Mariners. (Ed.: On 12/9/16, Tyler Pike was announced as the player to be named later. For more on him, click here.)

A right-handed outfielder, Jackson was the sixth overall selection of the 2014 draft. That alone makes this a bit of a surprise because the M's were so willing to cash him in. The young man turns 21 on Christmas and just finished a 92-game run with Clinton in the Midwest League (A-ball). While a catcher when he was at the prep level, Jackson has settled into right field since going pro. There are some who believe the Braves may try him again at catcher, but I tend to believe that with his offensive issues (I'll get to that), Atlanta won't try to add on with a move back behind the plate.

When the Braves picked Braxton Davidson 26 picks after Jackson in 2014, people graded Davidson's raw power potential as elite in that year's draft. It's worth remembering that Jackson was right there with him. Entering the draft, Baseball America named him the top position player available. In 135 games in high school, he crushed the opposition for a .375 batting average and 47 homeruns. He was on his way to the University of Oregon to pay baseball, but $4.2 million has a way to change people's minds.

To this point, we have seen a little of that raw power so many raved about (21 HR, .166 ISO), but too many strikeouts (223 in 793 PA). The Braves hope the switch to Atlanta's system will allow Jackson to start over. His swing has been tinkered with and needs even more work. It almost looks like he's fighting himself to get the barrel through the zone. He does show a decent eye at the plate (8.9 BB%) and had a .346 wOBA while playing in a hard park to hit homers as a right-handed batter (89 HR park factor over 3 years). According to Statcorner, his adjusted wOBA was 109, which means when you take into account league and park factors, his production was actually 9% above the average.

And remember...we are talking about a guy who had a bad year. And he did, but beyond the potential, there is some signs here that Jackson could be on the rise. Yes, his swing needs more work, but his line drive rate was up about 6% last year. His strikeout looking rate fell nearly 1%. He hit about 3% less pop-ups. By themselves, these stats tell us little, but taken collectively, they could - and I have to stress could - be a sign that he's "getting it" more than he did in 2015 and responding better to coaching.

But even if Jackson is a lottery ticket that doesn't become a winner, the Braves traded from a strength and didn't unload any top prospects. Max Povse is a personal favorite of mine because he's a freak of nature on the mound. He's a 6'8" behemoth who gets great sinking action with his low 90's fastball. It's tough to even locate the ball when he pitches because all you see is a mess of legs and arms come flying your direction as he cocks and delivers the ball. With his control and groundball tendencies, Povse would have also been a favorite of Roger McDowell, who stressed both.

Also headed to the Mariners is Robert Whalen, who I would classify as a maximizer in that he maximizes everything he has to try to get batters out. He's smart and not just because he's smart enough to realize he can't get by on a plus pitch or absurd stuff. Another groundball guy, Whalen throws a lot of pitches (a half-dozen of them) and knows when and how to use them.

That's a lot of praise for both pitchers and they deserve it. Both could help the Mariners in 2017. Here's the but, though. While both pitchers are prospects deserving of a look, neither rank highly both in terms of their respective placement among top pitching prospects in the system or rank highly in general compared to their minor league peers. To put it more bluntly, if all three reached their best case scenarios, the Braves traded a pair of 2 WAR pitchers for a batter capable of 4.5 WAR and then some. That's not to say any of the previous sentence happens and quite frankly, the better money is on Povse or Whalen posting 2 WAR versus Jackson posting All-Star worthy money.

But...there's a chance it could happen. The Braves followed the safe philosophy under Frank Wren where they valued high floors and depth over lottery tickets. John Coppolella and John Hart have proven that while depth is important, you gotta buy that lottery ticket every now and then. Sure, most will provide no return for your investment, but eventually, there's going to be a win and that, my friends, will be a game changer for this franchise.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

TOT: Braves Trade Underappreciated Joe Adcock

No Attribution via Wikipedia Commons
November 27, 1962 - The Milwaukee Braves traded Joe Adcock and Jack Curtis to the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named later, Don Dillard and Frank Funk. The Cleveland Indians sent Ty Cline (March 18, 1963) to the Milwaukee Braves to complete the trade.

It is criminal how little love Joe Adcock receives from the Braves franchise. It's also understandable because he played with Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, but it doesn't make it any less criminal. Only five other first basemen hit more homeruns during the 50's than Adcock, who smacked 181 - including 151 during his seven-year run to finish the decade with the Milwaukee Braves. Adcock was in the lineup during the Braves' first game after moving from Boston and played in nine World Series games for the team during the '57-'58 years.

Adcock was renowned for his power and delivered some of the most awe-inspiring moonshots of the 50's. He was the first batter to hit a homer onto the left-center field upper-deck roof of Ebbets Field. It was Adcock's arrival that gave the team a right-handed hitter to park behind Mathews' left-hand bat. His power numbers with the Braves is even more impressive because he received 500 plate appearances just once over the final half of the decade as he was platooned by the Braves. While it's questionable just how accurate splits data are for that time in baseball history, it's worth mentioning that Adcock carried a career OPS that was 25 points higher against righties than against lefties.

By 1962, though,  the Braves were rebuilding and the 35 year-old Adcock just didn't fit into the picture anymore. He still hammered 29 homeruns in 1962 with a .839 OPS, but had trouble running and was prone to breaking down. The Braves sought to get younger and a few weeks after the team was sold to the LaSalle Corporation, Adcock was traded to the Cleveland Indians.

He was one of five-players in the deal. Going to Cleveland with him southpaw 25 year-old Jack Curtis. A part of the rebuild himself, the Braves had acquired Curtis for Bob Buhl the previous April. Buhl, like Adcock, had been an integral member of the 1956-57 Milwaukee teams that had gone to the World Series, but the 33 year-old no longer was a fit for Braves. Curtis had logged 75.2 innings - mostly in relief - before the Braves included him in the Adcock trade. He would pitch just four more times in the majors - all with the Indians in 1963 - before heading back to the minors. After toiling there for a few more years, his career in affiliated baseball was over by 1968.

The Braves sought to get younger and did so in this deal. They received two players immediately and by April, received a third as the player to be named later. All three were between 25 and 28. Unfortunately, none of them would blossom as a Brave.

Don Dillard was a left-hand hitting outfielder who had struggled to find playing time for the Indians after posting impressive stats in the minors. For two years, Dillard had received around 170 plate appearances as a fourth outfielder for Cleveland, but couldn't break through even after the Indians moved Tito Francona to first and traded Jim Piersall. Dillard would again serve as a fourth outfielder for Milwaukee in 1963 and hit just .235 over 127 PA. After a year spent with Toronto, who the Braves operated as a minor league franchise with the Washington Senators, Dillard played just 20 games with the Braves in 1965 while spending much of the season with the Atlanta Crackers and Syracuse Chiefs (Triple A clubs for the Braves and Tigers respectably). His major league career was over.

Right-hander Frank Funk had spent over six years in the minors for the Giants franchise after signing as a 18-year old kid back in 1954, but was never able to make it to the majors. Finally, at the tail end of the 1960, the Indians purchased him and he made it into nine games out of the pen to finish off the year. He was a regular fixture of the Indians in 1961 and picked up 11 saves for Cleveland. The following year, he struggled and received a few less opportunities as the team could not count on him as much. That led him to be included in this trade. While an often-used pitcher out of the Braves bullpen through the season's first four months, he would make it into just five games after July 26. On the year, Funk had a 2.68 ERA, but his ratios were trending in the wrong way. He never pitched in the majors again, though he continued to pitch in the minors throughout the 60's.

And then, there was Ty Cline. Whereas Dillard and Funk had some expectations, Cline was supposed to be a star. He was a much hyped prospect from the moment the Indians signed All-American out of Clemson in 1960. He even finished that season with the Indians and would play a dozen more games with them the following season. The Indians were so convinced Cline was ready to be their everyday center fielder that they sent Jimmy Piersall to the Senators after the 1961 season. Cline had amazing speed and was a defensive whiz. If he could only hit, he would be an All-Star.

But he just couldn't do that. While gifted with speed, he wasn't gifted with the ability to utilize it as a weapon. Nor was he gifted with the ability to hit all that much. He had a .308 OBP as a rookie and a .331 slugging percentage. After arriving late to camp in 1963 due to a military commitment, Cline was beat out for his job and sent to the Braves as the player to be named later. The Braves could have used a center fielder. Lee Maye had on-based .294 the previous year himself and was tabbed to receive most of the time in center during 1963.

However, Cline never challenged him for playing time and Maye was actually pretty good in 1963 (.756 OPS). Cline hit just .236 over 190 PA with no homers. He would spend two more years as a fourth outfielder and occasional first baseman for the Braves before being sent to the minors after the 1965 season. The Cubs drafted him in the Rule 5, but the Braves would bring him back at the deadline in '66 for added depth. They sent him packing the following year and he would play for the Giants and Expos before landing a supporting role with the Big Red Machine in 1970 and 1971. Over his 12 years in the majors, Cline managed a .238/.304/.304 triple slash. Unfortunately, his time with the Braves was even worse.

Ultimately, this trade paid next to no dividends for either team. Adcock struggled through one injury-filled season with the Indians before being sent to the Angels, where Adcock would play three seasons as a platoon option at first base and hit the final 53 homeruns of his career.

Adcock was a quiet force on some very good Milwaukee Braves teams. He smashed historic homeruns and despite being mislabeled as a platoon player, he posted great stats that were comparable to many of the better first basemen of the 50's.

A 5-Pack of Minor League Signings

The Braves have signed a lot of free agents to this point. Oh, sure, you know all about R.A. Dickey (shameless plug), Bartolo Colon (even more shameless plug), and Sean Rodriguez (I have no shame), but the majority of players the Braves have signed won't be profiled in your season preview nor will they likely even play in SunTrust Park. I'm talking about minor league free agents and if you aren't aware, I've been keeping track of these guys throughout the offseason. Let's start reviewing these guys and how they fit into next year's organizational mix.

Armando Araiza, C, 23 years-old

The Braves need catchers and not only because the major league situation is a mixed bag at this point. Last year, the Braves had two catchers on their 40-man roster and invited five more to camp. That's not even including the amount of catchers needed for the minor league camp. Suffice it to say, while it may not always be lucrative, being a catcher carries amazing job security.

Araiza has been around since 2010 when he made his professional debut as a 17 year-old in the Dominican Summer League. He's displayed a rocket arm (45% career CS) and very little with the bat (.239/.327/.333 minor league triple slash). Last year, his seventh in the Rays' organization, was spent largely inactive outside of some time spent on loan to the Mexico League. Once back in the system, he played 27 games between Single-A and Double-A and had some of his best offensive numbers, though 101 PA does not really count for a lot. His nine game cameo with Montgomery was his first taste of Double-A baseball. The Braves don't have any catching prospects above A-ball so Araiza will have a shot to stick around.

Andres Avila, RHP, 26 years-old

For seven years, Avila slowly climbed the ladder in the Oakland Athletics organization, but after 72 games in Double-A over the last two years, the righty still is looking for his first game in Triple-A. Mostly a reliever during his career, Avila displays good control and some impressive strikeout numbers (8.2 K/9 career, 9.5 K/9 last year at Double-A) while being prone to long flies.

Avila has a nice floor for minor league filler. He's twice been named to All-Star Game rosters, including last year. In fact, his pre-All Star break numbers were stellar for Midland last year (3.03 ERA, 51 K's in 38.2 ING, 1.16 WHIP). It was the second half where things kind of came off the rails. He'll likely be in the mix for a Mississippi bullpen spot or, possibly, work his way into the picture for a Gwinnett assignment.

Joel De La Cruz, RHP, 27 years-old

I covered De La Cruz in my 2016 Player Review series so I won't want to repeat myself too much. De La Cruz gave the Braves about what you expect from minor league veterans pitching for their fourth franchise - a lot of meh. Atlanta squeezed 62.2 innings out of De La Cruz, which shows how desperate the Braves were for innings last season. He wasn't very good (5.19 FIP) and couldn't get enough major league hitters to pound his sinker into the ground like he could in the minors.

He'll certainly get a shot to stick around this spring, but his chances are very slim even without considering the additions of Colon and Dickey, plus the resigning of Josh Collmenter. If I had to guess, De La Cruz will either be cut at the end of camp or be a swingman for Gwinnett next year.

By slgckgc on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Sam Freeman, LHP, 29 years-old

Cornering the market on Freemans in baseball, the Braves added the veteran of 142 major league games last month. Freeman struggled in seven games with the Brewers last year while spending most of the year also struggling in Triple-A. He was just two years removed from appearing in 44 games out of the Cardinals' bullpen with a 2.61 ERA and 3.79 FIP.

Unlike many minor league signings, I can easily obtain a pitching profile on Freeman. He has four pitches, including a 94-95 mph four-seamer that he can push up to 97 mph on a good day. His sinker carries similar velocity, though he uses it nearly half as much. Predictably, one gets plenty of flyballs while the other gets grounders. He also relies a good deal on an 86 mph splitter and rarely, almost entirely against lefties, employs a slider.

Freeman's biggest issue comes down to controlling the strikezone. It's not that he's exceptionally wild, though a career 5.3 BB/9 and 13.1 BB% rate might make you think that. It's more that he makes the colossal mistake that relievers simply cannot make - he falls behind hitters. Freeman has to throw strikes out of bullpen and has a career 52.5 first-strike percentage, which is roughly 8% below average. Freeman also has not shown the ability to get lefties out - which is why left-handed pitchers have such good job security. In fact, righties have a wOBA of 99 points less than left-handed hitters, which is truly surprising. Freeman is a project and there certainly is room for a lefty to get into the mix with the Braves' bullpen right now, but unless Freeman takes a big step forward a few months shy of his 30th birthday, it seems unlikely that he'll be in the opening day bullpen.

David Freitas, C/1B, 27 years-old

Already a veteran of four franchises during his seven-year career, Freitas has some solid hitting numbers along the way (.273/.361/.421), though only 66 games have come at the Triple-A level. He has been on the cusp of a callup in each of the last four seasons, but has never received that call and that might be for a reason. Ever since he signed with the Nationals after they made him their 15th round pick in 2010, Freitas has logged some of time at first base. Last season, that contrast between positions became much closer as he played 284 innings at first base compared to 334 innings behind the plate.

Now, that may be nothing - and may even be a way to get his bat in the lineup while playing higher-rated catching prospects - but he's never been very good at throwing out runners, seems to be good for 4-5 errors behind the plate a year, and I can't find anyone praising his defense. That shouldn't scare you - Brayan Pena has played 567 games in the majors after the Braves deemed him not a capable receiver. Nevertheless, though Freitas does have some interesting qualities, I would be fairly shocked to see him get much of a look this spring.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Braves Get Ahead of the Black Friday Rush, Add Sean Rodriguez

By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Thanksgiving is a time for family. It's a time for giving, well, thanks. It's also a time to apparently sign super utility players because, well, when really is a better time?

Yes, in a bit of a surprise, the Braves have lured Sean Rodriguez to Atlanta for $11.5 million dollars ($5M annual salary plus $1.5M signing bonus). The salary total will double Rodriguez's pay from last year, which was his highest single-season salary of a nine-year career that has included stops with the Angels, Rays, and Pirates.

I hate to use the phrase "NL Player." As in, a guy who is perfectly suited for the National League. That said, if that phrase has an ounce of validity, Rodriguez fits the mold quite well. He has logged a hundred games at each infield position and in left field. He can also fill in at the other corner outfield position and in a pinch, slide over to center field.

He is a perfect super utility guy in more ways than one. He carries historic splits that include a .249/.344/.411 slash against lefties with a .335 wOBA and 116 RC+ compared to losing the platoon advantage and posting a .224/.274/.377 slash with a .287 wOBA & 82 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. To be fair to Rodriguez - that split isn't nearly as stark over the last three seasons (.332 wOBA & 111 wRC+ vs. LHP, .315 wOBA & 98 wRC+ vs. RHP). That latter fact makes him not a complete waste against right-handed pitchers, but you still want to maximize his opportunities against lefthanders. Incidentally, the Braves could certainly use a bat at second base against southpaws - at least until Ozzie Albies is ready.

Rodriguez isn't much of a runner. Early in his career, he maxed out at 13 steals, but over the last four seasons, he has attempted just 14 attempts and he's been caught as many as he has been successful. Beyond that, Rodriguez is 5% below the average career-wise in base-running advances according to Baseball-Reference.

Before I get into his defense, I wanted to touch on a "skill" that might interest people as Rodriguez likely will be a super utility guy with a lot of non-starts throughout the season. As a pinch hitter, Rodriguez is no Lenny Harris or even Dwight Smith for that one season. Career-wise, he's 16-for-110 with 2 HR. Of course, being that pinch-hitting really isn't a skill that is repeatable year-after-year, Rodriguez will likely have ten pinch-hits this season and a walk-off Grand Slam against the Reds. I think I remember that happening once so why not again?

Now, let's talk about his defense. He's flexible and quite difficult to grade. While cumulatively, if you look at the number of innings he's logged over a career, you can get somewhat an idea, those cumulative numbers are based on easily swayed single-season marks where he logged 100 innings or less at a variety of positions. With that in mind, it's rather impossible to give you much of a grade that you can take to the bank, but I'll give it a try. At first base, where Rodriguez will become Freddie Freeman's new backup, Rodriguez grades out as slightly above-average. 4 career DRS with a 5.1 UZR/150. Actually, he might be a better defender than Freeman is, though reports are scare on Rodriguez's Splits Runs Above Average.

Rodriguez came up as a second baseman and has his most extended career look there. He's pretty stout there and hasn't missed a beat throughout his career. At worst, he's below-average. At best, he's elite. That doesn't remain a fact if he switches to short stop. He can play the position for you and is a better option than relying on guys like Daniel Castro (overall), but Rodriguez is a below-average option at shortstop. In fact, his DEF component of Fangraphs WAR was hit hard by the 177.2 innings he logged as a shortstop and -24.3 UZR/150. Over at the Hot Corner, he's about average. Nothing too good, nothing too bad.

He doesn't have a wealth of experience in the outfield (814.2 innings combined in his career), but his DRS and other metrics paint the picture of a guy who is adequate in the corners and a bit stretched to play more the occasional center field.

All in all, Rodriguez picked a great time to have a career-season. Of his previous six seasons before 2016, he finished the year with a wOBA between .305 and .313 (with two bad outliers). And then, 2016 hit and Rodriguez suddenly added new tools to his skillset. One of the most surprising was a 9.6% walk rate. While his career high was a comparable 8.7% in 2011, since then, his walk rate had declined from 7.9% the next year to Rafael Belliard-level 2.1% in 2015 (ed. note: Belliard actually had a career 5.4 walk rate and I love him).

He swung at pitches outside the zone at a rate that was was nearly 7% less than the previous season according to PITCHf/x. For that matter, he swung less in general. Interestingly enough, he made the worse contact of his career, which helps explain a career-high 29.8% strikeout percentage. However, where we might think the walk rate was a trend-buster, his strikeout rate wasn't that much worse than his 2015 rate (+3.5%) or career rate (+4.7%).

To go with his new approach at the plate, Rodriguez made more solid contact. His ISO was a career-high .240 over a .157 career rate. One of this biggest questions can be connected to his Quality of Contact Stats. Rodriguez has fluctuated percentage changes between his Soft and Medium contact rates, but has been steadily in the mid-20's for his hard-hit rate. However, last year, he posted a Soft/Medium/Hard percentage breakdown of 15.3% / 41.6% / 43.1%. A general guideline on how to read these numbers suggested that a 15/45/40 breakdown was considered excellent.

Now, can he repeat this effort? According to Ronnie Socash of Around the Box Score, there is reason to believe he can. Much like another former Pirate, Jose Bautista, Rodriguez re-worked his swing to include a larger leg kick at the plate in order to get more torque and power. The results in Year 1 indicated that the switch was a game changer for Rodriguez and gives us hope that it wasn't smoke-and-mirrors, but sustainable adjustments that led to Rodriguez's breakout performance in 2016.

That's not to say everything is likely going to be repeated. A quarter of all flyballs Rodriguez hit in 2016 turned into homeruns. To put that into perspective, it would have ranked tied for fourth in the game with Chris Davis and Yasmany Tomas provided Rodriguez had enough at-bats. That's not to say Rodriguez will fall back to his career norm of 11% of flyballs turning into homeruns, but there is good reason to be skeptical. That said, if he keeps the Soft% / Med% / Hard% rates, or at least something similar, it really doesn't matter how many of those hit become homeruns because that is a rate breakdown that will lean toward successful.

The signing of Rodriguez is a nice coup for the Braves. He's the type of player that makes good teams better. It remains to be seen how good the Braves will actually be in 2017, but you have to imagine that the market for Rodriguez was fairly large as the super utility role has been considered much more valuable in recent years. For the Braves, Rodriguez fills another role that the Braves have been lacking - competent options to take over in case of injury. Over the last few years, if there was an injury at shortstop, it was Daniel Castro taking over. The Braves used AAAA lifers like Brandon Snyder, Reid Brignac, and Blake Lalli because they were the best options from a pretty bad group of choices. Atlanta gave the ball to Joel De La Cruz, Ryan Weber, and Roberto Hernandez because they had to. With signings like Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon, and R.A. Dickey, the Braves are trying to avoid such situations.

Whether that makes Atlanta a contender for a playoff spot in 2017 seems iffy. The young pitchers still need to step up. The catcher and third base positions are still questionable. Nevertheless, these signings indicate, to me at least, that the Braves feel that window to compete is cracking open.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Braves Searching for Catcher Help, but Options are Thin

Tyler Flowers (By Editosaurus (Own work) [CC0],
via Wikimedia Commons)
For so many years, the Braves were absolutely loaded at catcher. Javy Lopez arrived in 1994 and for a dozen years, he was one of the best catchers in baseball. After a brief intermission where Johnny Estrada looked alright, the Braves handed the reigns over to Brian McCann for nine years. Behind the plate, the Braves made other teams green with envy as they tried desperately to find a franchise cornerstone.

It has been another story since McCann's defection to the Bronx after the 2013 season. The Braves handed the job to Evan Gattis, but after a year, Atlanta was ready to move on to a more defensively capable backstop. They went with Christian Bethancourt, but the latter's issues at the plate and work ethic quickly put him in the dog house. Fortunately, A.J. Pierzynski found the fountain of youth to provide some stability at catcher in 2015 after Bethancourt fell on his face. Last year, Atlanta moved on from Bethancourt and added Tyler Flowers. While Pierzynski would stumble, Flowers had his best offensive year. To do so, he apparently sold his soul to do more at the plate because he couldn't throw out anyone trying to steal on Braves' pitchers.

As we pivot toward 2017, the Braves are hopeful to improve this position, but will need to go outside the organization to do so - and even if they do, there's no guarantee they actually will improve.

Before we get there, let's take a look at the farm. The Braves do have some prospects behind the plate and they ought to after using early-round picks on Lucas Herbert and Brett Cumberland the last two years. That doesn't include Jonathan Morales, who was picked nearly 700 picks after Herbert in 2015, and displayed some timely hitting and better-than-advertised defense at times in 2016. Atlanta also acquired Kade Scivicque last season in the Erick Aybar trade and the former 2015 fourth rounder is the closest to the majors. Unfortunately, he's only played three games at Double-A to this point and carries his fair share of questions.

More over, none of the four catchers I just mentioned are better than a C+ grade prospect at this point. Each have potential to be a starter behind the plate in the majors, but none seem too close to realizing that.

So, what do the Braves do? Well, like I said, they do have Flowers for at least another year (plus an affordable option for 2018). They also have a pair of journeyman options on the 40-man roster in Anthony Recker and Tuffy Gosewisch. I touched on Recker during my Player Reviews section. Suffice it to say, I have considerable doubts that he'll slash .278/.394/.433 again. Gosewisch was recently picked off waivers and has a career .199/.237/.286 slash with some average pitch-framing metrics. Recker and Gosewisch are a worst case scenario - what the Braves would be left with if they don't add a better option.

But does that option exist on the free agent market and do they reasonably fit into the picture for the Braves? The market is pretty bare, but there are a few names that could be a possibility.

Jason Castro
Possibly the most desired catcher on the market, Castro has a half-dozen teams after him and the Braves appear to be one of the most interested. The amount of interest says more about how little is available than it does about Castro's playing ability. Outside of one big season in 2013, you aren't getting much offense. His triple slash over the last three years is a paltry .215/.291/.369. It should be said that, as a left-handed hitter, Castro does have traditional splits that can be navigated with the right-hand hitting Flowers. Against lefties over the last three years, Castro has a .197/.252/.291 split. While his marks against righties aren't be too exciting (.221/.305/.398), we are talking about a difference in wOBA of 65 points. Also, while we are talking about possible highlights of Castro's game, his defense is outstanding. During the same time frame I just brought up, Castro has the 19th best catcher fWAR almost entirely due to his defense. He also calls a great game and "steals" strikes (catcher RAA of 9, 12.9, 12.8 last three years). That last number ranked fifth last year - right behind Flowers.

There is an issue, however. Remember those handful of teams also chasing Castro? That has a tendency to inflate his salary. How much do you want to pay a guy with a three-year fWAR of 4.2? If you want a reference, Flowers had a three-year fWAR of 2.0 when he hit free agency last winter and the Braves promised at least $5.3M over two years with additional incentives and an option year that could increase the value of the deal (without incentives) to $9M. I'd like to tell you that you could simply double that and promise a third year (3 years, $18M), but that seems difficult to imagine. MLB Trade Rumors predicted, while heading to the White Sox, that Castro would get 2 years, $15M. Let's say the market demands that Castro receive at least 3 years and $22M. Is that too much? How about $28M? Where do the Braves put a cut-off line where adding Castro no longer makes financial sense, even if he does provide considerable value? Castro and Flowers are a fine tandem of catchers who both had a 1.1 fWAR last year. If you put the two together, you get a Salvador Perez (2.2 fWAR) from this year. That's not too shabby provided the price is right.

Nick Hundley
He's a veteran of 746 major league games and I still want to call him Todd. Because Nick's offensive numbers improved a good deal once he came to Coors Field, you might be tempted to pass Hundley off as a product of location and there is some validity to that, but he actually sported better numbers on the road than at home last year (110 wRC+ compared to 55).

A bigger question for me is how Hundley makes sense. Another right-handed catcher, Hundley has a better track record at the plate than Flowers, but not enough to be significantly more valuable. Further, his pitch framing metrics are poor and he only caught 9-of-68 people trying to steal last year. Hundley received $6.2M over two years to head to Denver. Seems unlikely he'll receive less to come to Atlanta and that's a hefty price for a guy who probably shouldn't play over Flowers.

Chris Iannetta
Need a one year option? Consider Iannetta. His game has fallen off the cliff over the last two years, he'll be 34 a week into the season next year, he doesn't have good pitch framing metrics, is a right-handed batter, and...

Actually, you know what. Best not to consider Iannetta too much at this point. He does have good walk numbers and is just two years removed from a .252/.373/.392 slash with a 3 fWAR. Of course, at his age, two years ago for a catcher could be a big deal.

Wilson Ramos
Few options are as boom or bust as Ramos. He was in the midst of a breakout season for the nationals before tearing his ACL. It was his first plus year offensively and was worth slightly more fWAR than the previous three years combined. Before we consider the injury, can he repeat that success? While a 21.4 HR/FB is suspect, Ramos has always carried some high HR/FB numbers as a product of a very high groundball rate. One thing that he did more of last year was to pull the ball more and hit it harder - two very repeatable things. He also showed maturity as a hitter and swung less at pitches out of the zone (along with swinging less in general). This made him less likely to swing himself into bad counts. It should also be said that while Ramos was a rookie back in 2011, he lost significant parts of the next three years due to injury so his development was delayed.

But that's the thing. Last year was the second time in his career that he reached 500 PA. This is actually an issue that has plagued him going back to his minor league days. Can the Braves really go all in on a guy who, while the youngest option on the market, might also be the riskiest? He might be able to play by early summer so that's a plus and while not a gifted pitch framer, he's adequate and if he repeats his offense, his pitch framing numbers aren't quite as important. Personally, I would pass unless his demands came down and he was willing to agree to a contract that protected the team from getting burned by future occurrences of injuries.

Wilin Rosario
Desperate for an option and unwilling to spend big money? Consider Rosario, who hit .321/.367/.593 in Korea last year. Of course, Korea is like a video game on steroids as far as offensive numbers go. There is another issue - he might not be a catcher anymore and might demand a major league deal to leave Asia, where his power is a big deal.

Worth a shot, right? No bad one-year deals, right?

Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Actually, no. If he was a plus defensively, sure, but he's not really that either. Salty has just one season of a 2 or better fWAR and that was in 2013. He hasn't rated positively in pitch framing since 2012. Historically, Saltalamacchia resembles a league average bar against righties, which could make him a platoon option. However, his three-year sample shows a disappearance of a platoon split. At this point, Salty is unlikely to be better than Recker or Gosewisch - just more expensive.

Matt Wieters
Okay, so we all know this story by now. After starring at Georgia Tech, Wieters was the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft and destined for big things. He was well on his way, though his bat never really looked like much more than league average when injuries wiped out most of his 2014 and 2015 seasons. He returned for 124 games last year and slashed .243/.302/.409. His defense remains a mixed bag. While still good, it's no longer elite and his pitch framing, which was never great, has been below average since 2013.

Unlike last year, the Orioles passed on extending Wieters a qualifying offer, which makes his pathway to Atlanta a little easier to see. MLB Trade Rumors even predicted that Wieters would land with the Braves at an average annual value of $13M a season over three years. Are the Braves that interested? According to Mark Bowman, probably not, but you have to imagine that if Castro's asking price gets too high or he signs elsewhere, they will re-evaluate their position with the remaining top free agent catchers. I find Wieters to be fairly underwhelming, but if his price tag falls, I could be interested.

That's the free agent market - such as it is. Of course, there is also a trade market that could be tempting to try out.

Oakland's Stephen Vogt will likely be discussed and he definitely is an interesting option after finishing off a three-year run where he posted a 5.5 fWAR for the A's. The two-time All-Star is arbitration-eligible for the first time and just turned 32. The Braves could call Arizona about Welington Castillo or Chicago about Miguel Montero, though each would be in their walk year and in Montero's case, $14M is a hefty price for a 33 year-old catcher who hit .216/.327/.357 last year.

There are no real great choices. You can stand pat and hope that Flowers, who posted a wOBA 35 points higher than his career average, was a late bloomer. You can try to catch lightening in a bottle with a one year pact or trade for a 2017 free agent like Montero. You can spend possibly too much money on a multi-year deal for a catcher with clear flaws that are unlikely to go away.

If it were me, Castro would be the only real target (short of the A's selling Vogt short). If Castro gets too expensive, I would stay in contact with Wieters and Ramos and hope that a shallow market brings their price tag down. Either way, it might be best to get used to the idea that Tyler Flowers has a good shot of starting behind the plate when the Braves open the 2017 season in Flushing on April 3.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

TOT - That Month Hoyt Wilhelm was a Boston Brave

Baseball Digest, August 1959, via Wikipedia Commons
Transaction of Today...November 20, 1947: The New York Giants drafted Hoyt Wilhelm from the Boston Braves in the 1947 minor league draft.

For about a month, the Boston Braves had the rights to a prospect who was going against the grain by living and dying with a knuckleball. The prevailing wisdom was that only old pitchers trying to extend their career a few years tinkered with a knuckleball as a little something extra. Hoyt Wilhelm not only bucked that trend, he made a Hall of Fame career throwing the pitch. As a teenager, Hoyt Wilhelm, had been a fan of Emil Leonard, otherwise known as "Dutch." He had followed the former Washington Senator and learned how to throw the knuckler just like Leonard. Not only was he successful, he gave hope to a lot of pitchers who would try to mimic him as he had done with Leonard.

A veteran of The Battle of the Bulge who received a Purple Heart, Wilhelm had returned to the states to rejoin Mooresville, then a team in the Class-D North Carolina State League. He was 25 years-old and coming off a 20-win season when the Boston Braves purchased his contract.

However, what happened next - I just don't know. The minor league draft was apparently a thing and less than a month after having his contract purchased by the Braves, Wilhelm would head to the Giants via that draft. He wasn't alone as three other players who also played in the majors exchanged teams that day. If anyone has more information about the particulars, please share them in the comment section because this is one of those odd transactions that doesn't make a lot of sense. Regardless of all that, it was the end of a short and thoroughly unproductive relationship between Boston and the man who would later earn the moniker, Old Sarge.

After a few more years in the minors, Wilhelm impressed Giants manager, Leo Durocher, who kept the then-29 year-old on the roster to begin the 1952 season. Immediately, he became one of the first relief specialists. In 71 games, Wilhelm picked up eleven saves (later given to him after the save rule was adopted) and pitched 159.1 innings - a staggering total in modern-day figures considering he never started a game. He even took home an ERA title.

His career was off-and-running. After another four years with the Giants, he made spots with the Cardinals, Indians, and Orioles. It was with the O's that he received his first significant run as a starter and claimed a second ERA title in 1959. He would be shifted back to the bullpen and later helped to expand the idea of a relief specialist with three consecutive 20-save seasons.Again, the save wasn't adopted as an official statistic before 1969, but boxscore data has allowed us the opportunity to go back and award saves to pitchers long after their career was over.

Wilhelm became the career saves leader in 1964 and five years later, became the first pitcher to save 200 games. It was that season, 1969, that he finally wore a Braves hat in a game after beginning the year with the Angels. The Braves had moved twice since purchasing Wilhelm's contract and were now a contender in the first year of divisions, which placed Atlanta in the NL West. Wilhelm was acquired in a four-player deal that included young Mickey Rivers, who later became an All-Star for the Yankees. The trade came after the September roster deadline so Wilhelm would be ineligible for the playoffs. That was unfortunate because Welhelm only pitched in the playoffs once during his career - 1954 for the champion Giants. Nevertheless, his play in September helped the Braves win the division by three games before falling to the Miracle Mets in the NLCS.

Wilhelm would be an All-Star for the Braves in 1970 and pitched in his 1000th career game before being sold to the Cubs shortly before the season ended. He would be traded back to the Braves after the season, but didn't last very long in 1971. He would retire at the age of 49 in 1972. He had appeared in just 16 games for the Dodgers and recorded only one save - the 228th of his career. His claim as the game's best relief pitcher (based on most saves) would last seven more seasons before 1980 when Rollie Fingers' passed him.

Nearly 70 years ago, Wilhelm's first stint with the Braves franchise ended rather quickly. He would become the first relief pitcher ever voted into the Hall of Fame and was a knuckleballer pioneer. Atlanta would later have great success with Phil Niekro and will look to reconnect to the curious pitch in 2017 with R.A. Dickey.

Continue Reading...
2016 Player Reviews: Vizcaino, Whalen, Winkler, Wisler, Withrow
TOT - Braves Try to Salvage Mike Hampton's Career...and Fail
TOT - Braves Say Goodbye to a Colossal Mistake

2016 Player Reviews: Vizcaino, Whalen, Winkler, Wisler, Withrow

I started this series on October 3 and it has finally reached its conclusion. Welcome to the final edition of 2016 Player Reviews, brought to you by stubbornness and procrastination. I was going to do two more posts, but remembered that the Braves did me a solid by dropping Ryan Weber so I only had five players left to review and decided to supersize things so I can move on to other pressing concerns. Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing on social media along the way.

Did you miss the last edition? I got your back. Want to catch up on all of the series? I have you covered as well.

*Ages reflect the player's age on opening day, 2017.

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, 26 years-old

2016 Review: It was the tell of two seasons for Vizzy. After taking over as the full-time closer following a brief time-share with Jason Grilli, Vizcaino was absolutely lights-out through 34 games. In 32.2 innings, he struck out 45 compared to 15 walks. While the Braves rarely needed a prototypical closer in the first half, Vizzy nailed down ten saves along the way. But, over his next five games, he surrendered eight runs (five earned) and walked five compared to just two strikeouts. He hit the DL with an oblique strain after being used in a blowout against the Rockies in which his heater averaged a season-low 91.7 mph. A month later, he returned, but was ineffective over four games before being placed back on the DL with shoulder inflammation. The Braves had hoped he would return in September, but he never made it back.

2017 Projection: The expectation is that Vizcaino will be good-to-go by spring training after taking the winter off. If Vizzy comes back ready to fly, it'll be interesting to see what version of Vizzy we receive. Obviously, the injuries were an issue, but his groundball rate shot up 19% last year from where it was in 2015. Was it better control that made his fastball induce a higher frequency of grounders? Was it the Roger McDowell-effect? It'll be something to watch in 2017 provided Vizcaino returns to form and, if he does, the Braves will have yet another weapon in a pen that is shaping up to be a strength for the Atlanta Braves.

Robert Whalen, RHP, 23 years-old

2016 Review: It was a bit surprising to see Whalen ascend to the big leagues in 2016. It's not that he wasn't a prospect, but he carried just a fringy prospect grade in a system filled with higher-end prospects and when 2016 began, Whalen had yet to throw a pitch above A-ball. The Braves were able to uncover some strikeout potential that he hadn't shown since rookie ball in 2013 and Whalen K'd 22.2% of Southern League batters that he faced over 18 starts. He also carried a 3.19 FIP while doing it. He received a promotion to Gwinnett, where he looked brilliant over a trio of starts. In August, he joined the big league club. He had a pair of quality starts mixed in, but also looked a good deal like a rookie pitcher. His season came to a close on August 25 with shoulder fatigue. He had thrown a total of 144.2 innings - nearly 50 innings more than the previous season when he tossed a career-best 96.2 innings. It should also be noted that Whalen had offseason surgery on both of his knees last winter, which allowed him to pitch without pain for the first time in a few years.

2017 Projection: Whalen won't stand out compared to some of the other prospects the Braves throw at you. He has below-average velocity and works off his four-seamer while utilizing his slider against lefties and his sinker versus righties. He also has a change-up and curveball. Whalen definitely punched his ticket for an extended look this spring and might have some value as a long reliever who can be tough on righties with a sinker that is both difficult to connect on and elevate when you do. However, I see him heading back to a very deep Gwinnett pitching staff where he can try to show the Braves (and potential suitors) that his success in 2016 was a sign of bigger and better things to come for the former Mets farmhand.

Daniel Winkler, RHP, 27 years-old

2016 Review: In a first half of low points for the Braves, few were more depressing than what happened on an April afternoon when Winkler, on a 1-2 count, fractured his elbow on a pitch to the Cardinals' Randal Grichuk. Winkler, who had missed most of 2015 after recovering from Tommy John surgery, had been an early season bright spot for the Braves. He had allowed just one of the eight batters he had faced to reach and that came on a walk. He also had four K's and was throwing his 92 mph fastball, 88 mph cutter, and 81 mph slider with confidence. For a brief moment, it looked like he might be a hidden gem in 2016.

2017 Projection: If there was any measure of good news related to Winkler's injury, he (and Braves fans) took solace in the fact that there was no ligament damage. He's unlikely to pitch this winter, but should be on schedule to try again this spring to get his major league career going. He is still a Rule 5 player who will have to be kept to begin the year or waived and offered back to the Rockies. At this point, we know he has an electric arm, but there have been questions about his pitching motion to begin with. He'll be a good story this spring if he's able to recapture his previous form.

From the Fort Bragg luncheon. By Sgt. anthony hewitt
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Matt Wisler, RHP, 24 years-old

2016 Review: There was a lot of hope attached to Wisler after he finished 2015 with a 2.21 ERA and 26 strikeouts over his final 36.2 innings. He had a few rough starts early on, but finished this May with a 3.16 ERA and 48 K's over his first 68.1 innings. However, the wheels came off after that. Over his next ten starts, he had a 7.71 ERA before a demotion to Gwinnett took Wisler out of the picture. After four starts in the minors, Wisler was back in the majors to finish the season and we saw Good Wisler (career-high 10 K's against the Padres) and Bad Wisler (six runs given up in his next start).

2017 Projection: So far, Wisler has not shown the ability to command the strikezone and fool hitters. While he won't walk many batters, he's getting 1.5% less swinging strikes than the average. He's also a shade below-average in first-pitch strikes. This is despite inducing more swings than average and even a bit more contact than average. He still has a lot of potential to be a middle-of-the-rotation arm, but the reason the Braves signed Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey while bringing back Josh Collmenter is because Wisler and others have yet to prove that they belong in the majors. He'll get another shot in 2017 to shine, but things won't be any easier. Not only is there is a tougher road to securing a spot, but the competition is getting even more fierce with Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims joining the fray.

Chris Withrow, RHP, 28 years-old

2016 Review: After missing most of the last two seasons on the shelf, Chris Withrow was glad just to be back on the mound. The plus side was that, when combined with his dozen games in the minors, Withrow pitched 58 times and logged 48.2 innings of action. However, his arm wasn't nearly as electric as it was with the Dodgers when he first got to the bigs in 2013. His four-seamer was down 2 mph from when he was a top prospect and the results were a bit lacking (4.90 FIP/4.99 xFIP versus 3.57 FIP/3.03 xFIP in 2013).

2017 Projection: Unlike many of the lively arms the Braves have, Withrow doesn't have age on his side. On April Fool's Day, 2017, he'll turn 28 years-old. To put that into perspective, remember that Julio Teheran won't turn 26 until the end of January. There's a lot to like with Withrow, but a K% that was just  17.7% (down from over 30%) is not one of them. As I've said many times during this rundown of returning Braves, Withrow is in the mix. He used his final option this year, though, so how attached the Braves are to him will be tested if he struggles next spring.

Thanks for coming along for this ride.

Friday, November 18, 2016

TOT - Braves Try to Salvage Mike Hampton's Career...and Fail

Chrisjnelson at the English language Wikipedia
[CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Transaction of Today...November 18, 2002: The Florida Marlins traded Mike Hampton and cash to the Atlanta Braves for Ryan Baker (minors) and Tim Spooneybarger.

The 2002 Braves had an issue - The Big Three was splitting up. Tom Glavine was flirting with the idea of leaving for New York while Greg Maddux was expected to be on his way out as well. The latter would ultimately accept arbitration, but the Braves naturally felt that some other team would hand him - and Scott Boras - a mega deal that would take Maddux away. John Smoltz was still rolling along, but as a shutdown reliever rather than a fearsome starter. And while the 2002 Braves led the NL in ERA, the expected losses of Glavine and Maddux had them nervous - especially because Jason Marquis and Damian Moss weren't awe-inspiring as rotation depth.

So, the Braves got creative. They would package Moss in a deal for Russ Ortiz and brought back Paul Byrd as a free agent. But a month before that flurry of moves, which would include Maddux accepting arbitration and the rushed trade of Kevin Millwood to the Phillies, the Braves pulled off what was a bit of a head-scratcher. I should probably say that "a bit" is a massive understatement. On this day 14 years ago, the Braves finalized a trade to acquire left-hander Mike Hampton from the Marlins.

This was actually the the conclusion to one of the most complicated trades in baseball history. It starts without the Braves, actually - though, this deal doesn't happen without Atlanta. The Marlins and Rockies, who both had just finished up their first decade in baseball, got the ball rolling with a trade that was less about players and more about contracts exchanging hands. Going to the Rockies were catcher Charles Johnson, outfielder Preston Wilson, reliever Vic Darensbourg, and utility player Pablo Ozuna. Johnson and Wilson were due to make about $13.5 million in 2003 and each had deals beyond 2003. Going to the Marlins were speedy outfielder, Juan Pierre, and Hampton. Pierre was pretty cheap at that point as a third-year player and would pay big dividends for the Marlins less than a year later as they shocked the world with a Championship in 2003. Pierre was just 3-for-7 in stolen base attempts in the playoffs, but on-based .481 in the World Series and .343 in the NLCS.

But the key player in this deal was Hampton. He had finished second to Randy Johnson in the 1999 Cy Young voting as an Astro before spending a year in Flushing with the Mets. The Rockies, looking to show that they could scrap together a rotation of stars to match their offense, spent heavily before 2001 on Hampton and fellow lefty - and former Brave - Denny Neagle.

The experiment was a failure. The Rockies went 73-89 in Year 1 of the Hampton/Neagle fronted rotation as they matched the NL's best offense with its worst pitching staff. Hampton exemplified both sides of that dynamic by winning a Silver Slugger with seven homers and giving up 31 homers on his way to a 5.41 ERA/5.21 FIP. His follow-up campaign was even worse. In 2002, he walked more batters than he struck out and failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 1996.

The Rockies were ready to move on and tried to rid themselves of Hampton's contract. However, finding a taker would be problematic. Finding a team to take on the left-hander's salary was bad enough, but any kind of trade would require a team that had some big contracts to pass over to the Rockies, who would also have to be willing to pump in some monster cash to offset Hampton's cost. Oh, and there was another problem - Hampton had a no-trade clause. And even though the first trade happened, the Marlins were not a team Hampton was willing to play for. Ironically, Hampton didn't want to be a Marlin because they weren't a "contender."

However, the Braves were. But how would the finances work? As the Los Angeles Times' Ross Newhan wrote, "the Florida Marlins will basically subsidize Mike Hampton's attempt to regain his pre-Coors Field form with their division rival Atlanta Braves." For the first three seasons, the Braves would be responsible for just $5.5 million for the former Cy Young runner-up's robust salary. This was because Atlanta would receive an unheard of amount of $36.5 million in cash to cover salary over the first three seasons. Only $6.5 million was coming from the Rockies, who absorbed Johnson and Wilson's contracts rather than shower another team with money. Instead, the Marlins would pay $10 million a season for three years for a guy who wasn't a Marlin long enough to even receive a jersey.

There were also reports that the Braves were "averaging" out the total that they were responsible for when it came to Hampton - which came out to about $48.5 million in total over six years. Since $43 million would be due over the final three years of the deal, some suggested the Braves were putting future salary commitments on the payroll for those small salary years so that their total due to Hampton in current and future salary was just over $8 million a season. This was never confirmed from what I have seen, but was fun forum talk back when forums were a thing.

In the end, the Braves would owe Hampton $2M in 2003 and 2004, $1.5M in 2005, $13.5M in 2006, $14.4M in 2007, and $15 million in 2008. There were expectations that the Braves could do for Hampton what they had done with so many, including John Burkett (see more on Burkett). In addition, those three low-salary years could have bought the Braves enough time and financial flexibility to re-sign one of their two big free agent starters - likely Glavine. Ultimately, that never happened for one reason or another and the Braves would move on with Byrd and Ortiz before being blindsided by Maddux returning.

Before we look again at Hampton's run with the Braves, let's not forget that the Marlins did get two pitchers from the Braves in exchange for Hampton and $30 million. Ryan Baker was a right-handed reliever out of UNC-Charlotte who had made a cameo in Double-A the previous season. He had a good velocity, but also was prone to big innings and I'm not talking about the good kind. He would play three years for the Marlins, but only reached Triple-A for one game before his career came to a close. Another right-handed reliever, Tim Spooneybarger, had a live arm and nothing he tossed to the plate stayed straight. He never seemed to jive with pitching coach Leo Mazzone despite having a productive season in 2002. He was expected to do some big things, but arm troubles completely killed his career. He pitched just 33 games for the Marlins in 2003 before missing all of 2004. He returned and pitched in just four games at high-A ball in 2005. After two more years on the shelf, he made a brief six-game comeback with the Orioles' low-A squad in 2008. And...that's his career.

Hampton did bounce back in 2003 for the Braves. He lowered his ERA to 3.84 and got his FIP down to 4.08. However, while that was a big improvement over his Rockies' days, it paled in comparison to the form he showed as a frontline starter for the Astros and Mets. In full disclosure, deep metrics, which did not exist at the time, actually show that he was much more comparable to his best years with Houston and New York than at first glance. Regardless, Hampton was seen as a success story for the '03 Braves. He even took home his first Gold Glove and his fifth consecutive Silver Slugger. It would be the final year he would win an award.

In 2004, Hampton would start 29 games for the Braves, but his numbers did decline. The highlight of his season came on Odctober 7 against the Astros in Game 2 of the NLDS. He held serve with Roy Oswalt before the Braves got to Brad Lidge to tie up things and force extra innings. In the 11th, Rafael Furcal hit a walk-off two-run homer to tie up the series at 1-1. Three days later, Hampton even worked a scoreless inning of relief in Game 4, which the Braves won as well to force a Game 5. They would lose that game, though.

Hampton started 2005 on fire. He carried a 1.67 ERA to the end of April. While his "former" team, the Marlins, touched him up for five runs in his first start of May, he got back on track in his next start against another former team - the Astros. In his best individual performance of his time with the Braves (and the 2nd best of his career according to game score), Hampton faced a batter over the minimum as he shut down Houston over nine shutout innings. He allowed a pair of singles, walked one, induced a pair of double plays, and struck out three over the 98-pitch masterpiece. For good measure, he hit an eighth-inning homerun. It was the 21st complete game and ninth shutout of his career. It was also the last instance of each individual accomplishment.

His 2005 season took a quick detour after its promising beginning. He was hurt in his next game and would pitch just four more times over the rest of the season. It was the beginning of what Braves' fans remember the most about Hampton - the injuries. He would miss both of the next two seasons and made 13 forgetful starts for the Braves in 2008.

Over six seasons, the Braves paid Mike Hampton $48.5 million for 85 starts, a 4.10 ERA, and just a .202/.250/.347 slash as a hitter. I realize that's excellent for a pitcher, but even his bat was a letdown. His good moments such as the 16-0 shutout and his playoff effort in 2004 were overshadowed in a move that just didn't work for the Atlanta Braves in any shape or form. Getting Hampton was supposed to work as Leo would to do his magic while giving them the financial flexibility to bring back one of their Hall of Fame starters. While Maddux returned, it wasn't the way the Braves had intended.

Hampton would stick around for two more seasons, though he only pitched ten games - all out of the bullpen - after missing most of 2010 with rotator cuff surgery. He would retire at the end of spring training the following year. It was the end to a career that began in 1990 in the Arizona Summer league for the Mariners. Interestingly, he returned to the Mariners last year as a bullpen coach under Scott Servais, who once served as his catcher.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

TOT - Braves Say Goodbye to a Colossal Mistake

By Johnmaxmena2 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Transaction of Today...November 15, 1989: The Atlanta Braves release Bruce Sutter.

A mistake.

It is rarely a mistake to add a Hall of Famer, but when you do so like the Braves did after the 1984 season, it can only be described just that - a mistake. Worse, it was the mistake that kept reminding the Braves of their misguided approach to free agency that winter.

It was a mistake that even as the Braves tried to move on from it 27 years ago today, they couldn't completely and every winter since, the Braves continue to pay for their ineptness.

It began in December of 1984. Two years removed from their first division title since 1969 and back-to-back second place finishes under Joe Torre, Braves general manager John Mullen and owner Ted Turner saw an opportunity to make a splash. They fired Torre because Turner felt they were stagnating and brought up Eddie Haas from Triple-A to replace him. And then, on December 7, they signed Sutter.

For the Braves, adding Sutter gave them the flexibility to withstand the pending loss of Donnie Moore along with give them the ability to move reliever Steve Bedrosian to the starting rotation. Meanwhile, in Sutter, they had acquired one of the most dynamic pitchers in baseball. He was coming off a season in which he went to his sixth All-Star Game in nine years in the league, his fourth Rolaids Relief Award, and a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting.

Part of the new breed of relievers who didn't start their careers as starters before being shifted to the pen, Sutter was renowned for his split-fingered fastball and great control. Outside of one bad season - by his standards - in 1983, Sutter had not finished a season with an ERA over 3.20 and had led the Senior Circuit in saves in five of the previous six seasons before becoming a free agent.

St. Louis wanted to keep Sutter, but was not willing to give in to his steep demands. Not only did he want a hefty salary moving forward, but a no-trade clause. The Cards balked, which opened the door for Ted Turner. Never one to shy away from making the news, Turner swooped in with an offer that still defies logic. According to an article written a month after Sutter joined the Braves and penned by Kenneth Reich of the Los Angeles Times, Sutter was due an exorbitant amount of money for a reliever by even today's standards. For starters. he would be paid $750,000 as a player in each of the next six years. That alone was a significant price to pay when the average salary in 1985 was $368,998.

But that's where the deal went into full nutty. After six seasons, Sutter would receive a minimum of $1.12 million for the next 30 years. Sutter, who could have been playing somewhere else in 1992, would still get paid at least $1.12 million that season. 1992 was the first year that the major league average salary scaled over the one million dollar mark, but even with that in the mind, the Braves would be paying Sutter more than the average salary even if he wasn't playing for them. And he wouldn't be, but this contract's nuttiness is still not complete so let's not get back to his playing career just yet.

At the end of the contract, Sutter would receive $9.1 million in "principal." That comes in 2021 - when Sutter 68 years-old and four years after the Braves move into their new ballpark in Cobb County (or the franchise's second park after Sutter's retirement).

The grand total of this contract was $47.2 million. Not for nothing, but that represents just the minimum Sutter would receive because I won't even touch the interest rates which could have increased this contract a lot according to what Reich wrote in 1985. To put it in a different way...the Atlanta Braves paid Gordon Beckham about $130,000 more in 2016 than they paid Sutter. Say what you will about Beckham, but he was still a better use of money.

The saddest part of this whole deal was the monster failure on the field. The move of Bedrosian to the rotation did little to help the Braves and the presence of Sutter did even less for the bullpen. In 1985, fresh off one of his best performances of his career, Sutter struggled with the Launching Pad. A veteran of Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium, Sutter saw balls fly out of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium at a ridiculous high rate of 1.3 per nine innings (13 in total). By August, he was also dealing with shoulder inflammation and with Atlanta going nowhere, he was shut down a month later.

After the '85 season, Sutter underwent shoulder surgery, but it did little to help with his performance. He would pitch in just 16 games during the '86 season and was removed from the closer role early on by the Braves in favor of Gene Garber and Paul Assenmacher. On May 27, Sutter retired two of the three batters he faced in the tenth inning against the Pirates. He would be placed on the DL after the game and miss the remainder of the season. In February of 1987, he underwent yet another shoulder surgery to try to clean up the damage, but would miss all of the '87 season rehabbing from the procedure.

When the 1988 season began, Sutter worked his way back into higher leverage situations. He took over the closer job in May and from the 17th of that month until the 17th of the next month (June), Sutter looked like he might be back in form. In ten games, he pitched 12.2 innings with 10 K's, one walk, and one run allowed. He also saved seven consecutive games. However, getting his ERA into the low 2's would be a short-lived accomplishment. He blew six of his next eight save opportunities and missed half of August with another trip to the DL. He would pitch just seven times after returning, including a save on September 9, 1988 against the Padres. It was his 300th of his career. It would not only be his final save, but also the final game of his career.

He underwent surgery on his knee to end the season and the next spring, he was diagnosed with a severely torn rotator cuff. John Mullen, who was the general manager of the Braves when they signed Sutter in 1984 and had returned as an assistant GM under Bobby Cox, commented on Sutter after he officially retired following a 1989 season completely spent on the DL. "It`s obvious he can`t pitch anymore. He`s not going to try to pitch anymore. It`s just the end of the line...It was just one of those things. His arm just didn`t do what we hoped it would. He certainly gave it his best shot, but one thing led to another concerning his arm problems."

Sutter finished his career with 1042 innings over 661 games, all out of the bullpen. In addition to 300 saves, he had a 2.83 ERA and 2.94 FIP over his dozen years in the majors. Unfortunately, while he spent five years with the Braves, he only appeared in 112 games and didn't look anything like the guy the Braves hoped they were acquiring when they gave Sutter one of the most creative contracts in baseball history.