Monday, May 15, 2017

The Two-Minute Braves

Braves Radio Net reporter Kevin McAlpin tweeted this Friday night:
I followed with a tweet of my own:
But I was only beginning a cascade of responses
It got me thinking - what would a team of "Two-Minute Braves" look like. The name simply refers to players who were with the organization for all of what seemed like two minutes. And because I clearly have nothing better to do, here I go down this rabbit hole.

Let's set some groundrules. To be eligible, the player must have been the property of the Braves, but never played for them. We'll make an exception for a short, un-noteworthy stint in the minors, but that's it. So with that out of the way, here are the Two-Minute Braves.

Catcher
Though his major league career includes just eight seasons, Dave Nilsson is one of the better success stories in baseball. The Brewers signed him out of Australia back in 1987 and five years later, he was in the majors. Always a good player with nice power, he developed over his final four years to bat .297/.375/.488 while becoming the first Australian to play in the All-Star Game in 1999. But his time in the majors was done. With the Summer Olympics coming to Sydney in 2000, Nilsson wanted to play for his country and no team was willing to give him time off during the summer to do so. He did attempt a comeback in 2004, signing with the Braves and playing 16 games with Richmond, but only had two extra-base hits before retiring from the American game for good. He did continue to play in Australia, though, and helped the Aussies win a Silver Medal in the '04 Olympics.

First Base
The latest addition to this team is Ryan Howard, who @Outliers above nominated. There's not much more to say about The Big Piece of Mediocrity at this point. The former MVP, Rookie of the Year, and Silver Slugger had a tremendous peak but hit .226/.292/.427 over the final five years.

Second Base
Buffa Lutheran (CC-BY-SA 2..0) via Wikipedia Commons
It looked like - and basically was - the end of the line for Wally Backman. A regular fixture of the Mets during the 80's, Backman had moved from the Twins-to-Pittsburgh-to-Philly over the previous four seasons heading into 1993 when the Braves inked him in late-January. He spent the spring with the Braves, but with Mark Lemke, Rafael Belliard, Jeff Blauser, and Bill Pecota in the mix, Backman found playing time sparse and was cut before the season. He signed with the Mariners next and played his final ten games of his career out west. As brief as his time was with the Braves and Mariners, he later had an even shorter run with the Diamondbacks - this time as their manager. Four days after being announced as their top guy after the '04 season was concluded, he was sacked for a string of legal worries, including domestic violence and drunk driving.

Shortstop
Sometimes, you just need a contract to facilitate a deal. Over the last couple of seasons, the Braves have used their financial flexibility to help deals happen and Mike Aviles is a prime example of the Braves doing so. He was picked up last August with Kade Scivicque in the Erick Aybar trade. It was all about the money as five days later, he was officially released. This weekend, he was promoted back to the bigs and in a twist of fate, his first games of 2017 came against his old buddies - the Braves.

Third Base
You take a chance on power and in Mat Gamel, the Braves were hoping for the best. Gamel was one of baseball's top prospects back in 2009. Baseball America named him the #34th best prospect in baseball. He would go on to bash eleven homers over 75 games in Triple-A while adding five more in the majors with a .242/.338/.422. But due to injuries, a hole in his swing, and more injuries, the stout left-handed hitter would not be able to establish himself in the bigs and played just 43 games in the majors over the next three seasons. The Cubs grabbed him after 2013, but he became a free agent shortly after and the Braves came calling. A few days into camp, though, the Braves released Gamel. He made a comeback bid in 2015 first with the Yankees and then with two Atlantic League stops, but failed to impress.

The Outfield
Keith Allison (CC BY SA2.0) via Flickr
I mentioned Carlos Quentin in my tweet so unsurprisingly, he makes my outfield. Quentin had a solid, though injury-shortened, six-year run between 2008 and 2013 in which he slashed .260/.356/.503. Things hit bottom in 2014 and with a season left on his contract, the Padres were anxious to cut bait. Meanwhile, the Braves were trying to get rid of their own salary issues with a closer making too much moolah on a rebuilding team (Craig Kimbrel) and an outfielder who forgot how to hit (Melvin Upton Jr.). The reason for Quentin's inclusion in the deal had everything to do with cash - in that, his contract was just as good as cash. When teams swap significant amounts of cash in deals, the baseball commissioner has to agree to the exchange. Rather than have a hold-up hours before the 2015 opener, the Braves took on Quentin's contract in lieu of sending $8M the Padres way to dump him themselves. A little more than a week later, the Braves cut Quentin. He's since spent a little time in the Mariners' minor league system and tried (and failed) to make the Twins and Red Sox rosters the last two springs.

Gary Matthews Jr. clearly had talent when the Braves picked him up off waivers following the '03 season. Sure, he was a lifetime .242/.324/.371 hitter at the time who had already bounced around five different organizations, but Matthews had flashed some potential with 14 homers in '01 and a .354 OBP and 15 steals the following year. He just needed somewhere to stick around. That was not the 2004 Braves. Atlanta opened the year with Chipper Jones in left, Andruw Jones in center, and J.D. Drew in right. Eli Marrero and DeWayne Wise helped to provide depth. By that point, Matthews had already been released. Chipper would last just two weeks before his first trip to the DL. Another trip to the trainers for Chipper, and Mark DeRosa's struggles at third, would open up left field, but since Matthews had already moved on, it was Chuck Thomas who took advantage. Meanwhile, Matthews landed in Texas and would excel over a three-year stint in Arlington. But Thomas helped the Braves get Tim Hudson so...winning.

My final outfielder for this group is Zoilo Almonte. One of the first signings of the Holy John Trinity regime, the belief was that Almonte would pair with Jonny Gomes to make a fine platoon. At least, I thought so. Instead, he looked awful in spring training and despite being gifted a major league deal, Almonte couldn't beat out non-roster invitees like Eric Young Jr. and Kelly Johnson. Rather than accept a minor league demotion, the outfielder wanted to be released and the Braves did just that. Almonte missed most of 2015 until winter ball and has settled into a big basher role in the Mexican League.

Designated Hitter
What? We might need one. Enter Russell Branyan, a Paul Bunyon-looking corner infielder from Warner Robbins, GA. Branyan was supposed to be yet another weapon the mid-to-late 90's Indians developed and he did blast 36 HR between 2000-01, but when he wasn't sending majestic moonshots into the atmosphere, he was making a lot of outs. The Indians sent him to the Reds midway through 2002 and after a year-and-a-half, the Reds non-tendered him. In early February of 2004, Atlanta signed him. At the time, the Braves had the rookie Adam LaRoche at first base with Julio Franco. They also had an opening in left field which the aforementioned Gary Matthews Jr. failed to secure. Branyan didn't make the squad and after a forgetful eleven-game run in Richmond, the Braves sent him to back to the Indians. He would play through 2014 and did hit 194 major league homeruns during his 14-year career.

Left-Handed Starter
By Ed Schipul [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There was a time in the spring of 2015 where Wandy Rodriguez looked like he was beginning to put it back together. After a six-year run through 2013 with almost a thousand innings, over 800 strikeouts, and a decent 3.80 FIP ended with a release in 2014 following six ugly starts, Rodriguez came to Atlanta with a good chance to make the roster and hold down the fifth spot. Unfortunately, the inept Eric Stults was pitching just a bit better and the Braves kept him and cut Rodriguez. Both pitchers would play in 2015 and neither were very good - though Rodriguez's 4.33 FIP was a good run less than Stults.

Right-Handed Starter
While many of the players on this list were guys the Braves took a chance on only to watch them fail, Bronson Arroyo is a bit different. An innings-eater and nothing more, Arroyo had signed a big deal to join the Diamondbacks after eight years in Cincinnati. The typically durable righty made 14 starts before needing Tommy John surgery. By June of 2015, he was a year deep into his rehab and hopeful to pitch later that summer. That's when he found out he was headed to Atlanta. Or, at least the bulk of his remaining $15M due to him was going to Atlanta. The Braves had bought a first-round pick from the previous year's draft in the form of Touki Toussaint. All it cost them was Philip Gosselin and Arroyo's contract. Whether or not Arroyo would have ever thrown a pitch for Atlanta is debatable and also moot as a month later, he was included in the often-criticized Hector Olivera trade. He would never play for the Dodgers either. This spring, he resurfaced for the Reds and the now 40-year-old is in their starting rotation.

Left-Handed Reliever
In late May of last year, the Braves continued to find inventive ways to add draft choices. Packaging minor league arms Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek together, the Braves acquired Brian Matusz and the #76th overall pick of last June's draft. Matusz, a former big prospect, had found his niche with the Orioles as a left-handed reliever. That was until the wheels came off early in 2016 for the southpaw. After the trade, the Braves quickly cut Matusz and he made one appearance - a start - with the Cubs last year. He gave up a half-dozen runs in three innings. He's now in the Diamondbacks system and still struggling to recapture his old glory. Belicek finished the year with the O's, but was cut at the end of spring training a few months ago. Barker's still around for them and pitching in Double-A. Finally, that draft choice was used on Brett Cumberland, who has one of the most interesting slash lines in baseball so far - .191/.433/.353.

Right-Handed Reliever
Preston Wilson, Warren Morris, and Kris Benson were a few of the top rookies in 1999 in the National League, but the winner of the Rookie of the Year award that season was a reliever. Twenty-two-year-old Scott Williamson, a righty who went to an All-Star Game just two years after being picked out of the ninth round. A starter in the minors, Williamson fulfilled a variety of roles for the '99 Reds. He shared closing duties with Danny Graves, saving 19 to Graves' 27. He was also a setup reliever and even long reliever, logging 93.1 innings over 62 games. He K'd 107 that season. He would pitch parts of four more seasons with the Reds, flashing excellence and briefly appearing as a starter. He also wore down due to injury. In 2003, Williamson was traded to the Red Sox which began an ever-increasing collection of jerseys as Williamson played for many cities - never for very long. After failing to make the Giants bullpen in '08, the Braves took a chance. Considering that year's bullpen relied on Jeff Bennett and Blaine Boyer to each throw 70 games, they needed all the help they could. Williamson, though, struggled over 15 games and was released. He would continue to pitch through 2011 with the last three years of his career in independent ball. He hung 'em up after 2011, four years after his last appearance in the bigs.

Special Hall of Fame Section
I've previously wrote about these three situations and didn't want to include them as members of this squad, but they are worth a mention.

First, for about a month in 1943, Lefty Gomez was a member of the Boston Braves. One of the most beloved Yankees of his time, Gomez was in the twilight of his career when the Braves bought him off the Bronx Bombers. The general manager at the time - Bob Quinn - had an odd connection to Gomez. His son was dating the cousin of Gomez's wife. Gomez spent a month on the bench - never getting into a game - before being replaced by one of the pitchers he had been mentoring.

Four years later, the Braves lost Hoyt Wilhelm in the minor league draft. Didn't know Wilhelm had been a Brave? That's okay - he barely was. When he was 25, his contract was purchased by the Boston Braves. They quickly lost him a month later in the minor league draft. I still don't understand how, but I'm betting it was an oversight.

Finally, let's move to 1966. With the draft split up to allow for both a summer and winter draft, the Braves selected Tom Seaver in the January section of the draft. A rising junior at USC, Seaver had been a tenth rounder the previous June, but chose not to sign with the Dodgers. The Braves took their chances and a few weeks later, they were in agreement on a $40,000 bonus to sign the righty. But there was a rule. You couldn't sign a player who played for a school that had already begun their season. USC's regular season hadn't begun, but their exhibition season had. The Braves were slapped with a fine and their contract with the righty was voided. Seaver had signed a contract, though, and was not ineligible to return to USC. So, a solution to the mess was reached. His $40K contract would be given to whatever team was willing to pay in and won a lottery. Three teams stepped up and it was the Mets whose name was picked out of a literal hat.

And that's my team. Do you think I missed a player who was a better fit? Let me know in the comments.

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