Monday, May 29, 2017

Monday Roundup: Trade Johnson?, Cumberland's Run, Bullpen Issues

Welcome to another week of Braves baseball as we say goodbye to May and head into June. The end of May is often a time in which teams start realizing what they have - and don't have - and start to make more frequent adjustments. With the Braves continuing to disappoint, might a player or many be in their final days with the team?

That question will certainly be answered, but in the meantime, here is a brief rundown of the week.

Ramirez | Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff
May 22, 5-2 WIN vs. Pirates
-Mike Foltynewicz pitched around a lot of trouble and the Braves got homers off the bats of Brandon Phillips and Matt Adams to pull away 5-2. Adams' two-run bomb was his first since joining the team. Ender Inciarte went 5-for-5 (all singles) while Phillips, Adams, and Tyler Flowers all had multi-hit games. Folty went five innings and allowed both of Pittsburgh's runs, though one was unearned. He walked two and K'd 5. Jason Motte, Jose Ramirez, Arodys Vizcaino, and Jim Johnson each tossed a hitless frame.

May 23, 6-5 WIN vs. Pirates
In one of the weirdest games of the year that included Pirates manager Clint Hurdle being ejected and a 3-hour rain delay, it was Matt Adams who was the hero. Adams doubled and homered before the delay, but it was his walk-off base hit that won the game in the ninth that mattered the most. The Braves were losing 3-2 before the delay, but soon after play resumed, Atlanta pulled ahead with two runs in the seventh. In the ninth, Jim Johnson couldn't hold the lead, though it wasn't all his fault. With the bases loaded and two outs, Johnson was a strike away from ending it when Mercer foul-tipped a ball that Kurt Suzuki couldn't hold onto. On the next pitch, Mercer put the Pirates ahead with a base hit. Luke Jackson got out of the inning and got the win when the Braves came back in the bottom of the ninth. In addition to Adams' three-hit barrage, Suzuki and Inciarte had three hits while Brandon Phillips and Nick Markakis each had two.

May 24, 12-5 LOSS (10 ING) vs. Pirates
For the second consecutive night, the Braves were an out away from winning the game in the top of the ninth, but couldn't close the deal. This time it was Jose Ramirez, who was pitching as Johnson and Vizcaino received a night off. The normally reliable Ramirez gave up three hits, none as big as the two-run Jose Osuna single. That came after a two-out walk. In the tenth, Josh Collmenter earned a DFA by giving up back-to-back-to-back jacks on his way to surrendering seven runs. It ruined a good night for Julio Teheran, who gave up three runs - all unearned - in six innings. Four Braves - Inciarte, Phillips, Matt Kemp, and Rio Ruiz - had two-hit games.

May 25, 9-4 LOSS vs. Pirates
Bartolo Colon gave up five runs in the second and seven overall during yet another disappointing outing. Ruiz would lead the offense with three hits, but the big hole was too much for the Braves. Matt Wisler, who replaced Collmenter on the roster, threw a pair of scoreless frames in relief.

May 26, 2-0 WIN at Giants
The Braves get their first shutout and Jaime Garcia plays a starring role. On the mound, he went 6.2 innings while allowing four singles, a pair of walks, and picking up five strikeouts. More importantly for Garcia was that he got two groundouts for every flyout. At the plate, Garcia picked up the slack for a punchless offense. With Tyler Flowers and Dansby Swanson on base, Garcia rocketed a single to left. Flowers scored easily and after Belt's throw got away, as did Swanson. Garcia was only credited with one RBI, but he'll take it. After Jose Ramirez stranded a runner by retiring the only batter he faced, Arodys Vizcaino and Jim Johnson shut the door from there.

May 27, 6-3 LOSS at Giants
Bad Foltynewicz was on display as the righty surrendered five runs over four innings. The Braves never threatened from there. Tyler Flowers, as he tends to do, had another multi-hit game and Ruiz and Kemp each doubled. Sam Freeman pitched a scoreless inning while Luke Jackson worked two scoreless. Ian Krol struggled again in the ninth, giving up a run on a hit and two walks.

May 28, 7-1 LOSS at Giants
A theme of this week was a starter that crapped the bed early. R.A. Dickey became the latest Braves starter to do just that as he gave up seven runs over the game's first three innings. He pitched well enough from there to throw six innings, but the damage had been done. He walked five. Matt Wisler worked another scoreless two-inning frame. Kemp had three singles in the loss while Nick Markakis went 2-for-3.

This week: 3-4
Season: 21-27, tied for 2nd in NL East, 8.5 GB

Upcoming Schedule: The Braves end May with three games in Anaheim against our old friend Andrelton Simmons and the Angels. Mike Trout will likely miss the series and perhaps more time due to a thumb issue. After a day off on June 1, the Braves head to Cincinnati to end the week with a night game on Friday and then two day games during the weekend.

Three Last Things

1) Jim Johnson on the Move?
Could the Braves already be fielding calls about their closer, Jim Johnson? That might be the case, according to the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo. Should the Braves entertain this?

Are you kidding me? Absolutely, they should. That's not a slight on Johnson, by the way. Ignoring his woeful 23-game run with the Dodgers after that trade we don't talk about anymore, Johnson has been wonderful with the Braves to the tune of 2.5 fWAR since 2015. Again, if you ignore his time with the Dodgers, Johnson's fWAR in that time would rank him tied with Koji Uehara and Kelvin Herrera for 23rd in baseball. Compared to the market, Johnson is also pretty cheap at $4.5 million this year and next.

But the market has recently paid handsomely for closers. Last season, acquiring Mark Melancon cost the Nationals an excellent controllable reliever in Felipe Rivero and an intriguing C+/B- lefthander in Taylor Hearn. That's probably the weakest deal I'm going to mention. Aroldis Chapman cost the Cubs a consensus Top-10 prospect in baseball right now in Gleyber Torres among the four players the Cubs surrendered. To acquire Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox has to give the Padres a tremendous four-player package including Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra (who, granted, forgot how to hit). The Cubs gave up a bat with unlimited potential in Jorge Soler for Wade Davis. Ken Giles cost the Astros, among others, Vincent Velasquez. Finally, the Yankees surrendered Andrew Miller for four players, including Clint Frazier who has been among the Top 25 or so prospects in baseball.

Now, all of these trades were different and do not imply that Jim Johnson will receive X amount of value in a trade, but for all the things I mentioned in the second paragraph (great success, cheap price), that drives up the Braves' asking price for Johnson. The fact that they have another year of control over Johnson also means the Braves can be patient. They never have to deal him. But if a team is offering a Torres or Frazier, you better believe Arodys Vizcaino will be the new closer.

Until he's traded, of course.

2) Cumberland's Climb
Cumberland | Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff
At this point, it wouldn't surprise me much to hear Brett Cumberland went 4-for-4 with four homers and a pair of plate appearances where he was hit by a pitch. The former Cal-Berkeley star got off to a rough start, but has been one of baseball's hottest hitters since hitting his first homer for Rome on April 20. Since then, he's hitting .312/.505/.662.

Wait, that wasn't clear enough. A FIVE-OH-FIVE ON-BASE PERCENTAGE OVER 111 PLATE APPEARANCES!

My apologies for yelling. He's doubled six times, hit seven homers, and walked 19 times to 23 strikeouts. Plus, he's been hit 13 times by a pitch. Extrapolated over a full season, Cumberland would get hit 84 times. That's probably a record of some sorts.

To be fair, the question involving Cumberland was never "will he hit?" He had the bat, the plate discipline, and the pop to be a real asset at the plate. It's his work behind the plate that continues to lag behind. Here's the good news about that - he's got time. I recall another catcher who had the tag "he'll hit, but can he catch?" attached to him. Funny enough, he became a plus defender and a poor hitter - until he came back to Atlanta before the 2016 season and suddenly re-learned to hit. Hopefully, it won't take Cumberland so long to hit in the majors like it did Tyler Flowers, but I'll take the defense (minus the throwing issues).

3) Bullpen Usage Needs Work
I've mentioned this before, but I can't say I'm a fan of the way Brian Snitker utilizes his bullpen. Snitker enjoys the idea of pitcher roles. Johnson, you get the ninth. Vizcaino, you get the eighth. Lately, it's been Jose Vizcaino getting the seventh. Sink-or-swim, this is your inning. Only the Reds have had fewer instances this year in which a reliever enters with no runners on. That says to me that Snitker likes the idea of a "clean inning" and not messing with double-switches too often. To be fair, not sure I'd like to do many double-switches with this bench either.

Nevertheless, Snitker likes the three-out full inning out of his reliever. The Braves are near the bottom of the NL in both games where a pitcher records more than three outs and games in which a pitcher records fewer than three outs. They are also third in the fewest amount of inherited runners, which is actually shocking considering how poorly the pitching staff has performed. Because Snitker is so dependent on roles, the Braves rely on guys to pitch back-to-backs at an unhealthy rate - especially for their top arms. Johnson and O'Flaherty each have seven outings where they are pitching on zero days rests. Johnson had 17 last year so he's well on his way to "improving" upon that. That's tied for sixth-most in the NL. Ramirez has five back-to-backs and Vizcaino has four.

I realize I'm picking on Snitker, but the eye test agrees with the numbers. He's not anxious to deviate from his assigned roles for pitchers - even when it would be better for the team. As the Braves consider management options beyond this season, his work with the bullpen could be something that will take him out of contention.

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