We’re a 1/3 of The Way Home

I can’t believe it’s already the end of May and that baseball season is almost a 1/3 of the way over already. It’s been a fun two months and I’ve enjoyed cheering for and stressing over these Bravos for the past almost 60 days. I thought that this was a good time to assess what I think the Braves have and what they don’t have. And moving forward what this team will have to do in order to be successful.

As usual I don’t want to bore anyone with stats, I may throw a few in there for reference points but I’ll try not to over load anyone. I can’t stand the fact that you can’t even read an article on baseball without it looking like a math problem.

1) B.J Upton

Have to start with the 75 million dollar man who has the lowest batting average in Major League Baseball at this point in time. Now this is not the B.J Upton that Frank Wren signed in the off season, not even close. The B.J that Wren saw in Tampa tearing the cover off the baseball for the entire month of Sept hasn’t shown up yet but his arrival is welcome at any point in time.

Major League Baseball players don’t forget how to hit. They are there for a reason or else you and I would be up there swinging a bat making millions of dollars ( wouldn’t that be nice ). There are 3 things that I contribute to B.J’s struggles and none of them have to do with lack of talent. Flawed mechanics, pressure and unfamiliar pitchers.

B.J has added so many moving parts to his swing it’s ridiculous and that’s why he’s late on every fastball that he attempts to hit. He needs to simplify that swing in the worse way and get rid of that added “loading” process that he’s developed like a bad computer. He also needs to forget about the contract. Money doesn’t play on the field for the players and that’s why guys making the league minimum can get off to hot starts and 75 million dollar players can strikeout every time up. And just like Pujols struggled last year going to the American League there’s a chance that B.J is batting the unfamiliarity of new pitchers who have figured him out before he’s had the privilege of doing the same to them.

2) Starter Stamina 

This may seem like an odd thing to be #2 on this list but it’s concerning to me. We need our starters to give us quality innings and I’m not saying that we don’t or haven’t gotten these innings from our starters but we need more of it. We haven’t gotten a complete game out of one of our starters in quite a while and even 8 inning appearances are rare. You look around at other staffs in the league that go deeper into games and it really saves a lot of wear and tear on that bullpen. And as we’ve just witnessed bullpen over load will catch up with you and you can verify that with Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.

3) Where are the blow outs?

Staying on the trend of bullpen burnout where are the blow out wins for the Braves? When you are playing 1 or 2 run games every single night your manager is going to feel obligated to throw his best arms in order to close the game out, it’s that simple. 2 years ago when we played a major league most ” 1 run games” we taxed a ton of innings on the arms of our relievers which has come back to haunt us. This team needs to find the occasional 7-1 win for the sake of our bullpen health.

4) Jason Heyward 

Bouncing around from bullpen issues back to outfield issues. B.J needs to be fixed at the major league level. He’s 28 years old and he’s making a ton of money on his 75 million dollar deal. The minor leagues are not an option for him so he’s going to need to correct his issues at the big league level and hope he can make enough adjustments.

However, Jason Heyward could be a candidate to get sent down to AAA for a little while. We do have Jordan Schafer who is more then capable of playing RF and joining  the Upton brothers in the starting line up. This would also give us a true lead off man at the top of the order and that’s something we’ve been missing all year.

Bring Heyward down to AAA for 2 weeks could make all the difference. He could go down and relax, focus on hitting the ball. I’m not sure how receptive he would be to the idea but his age and salary make him a candidate for that type of move. What if a few weeks in the minor leagues brought back a completely different Jason Heyward? And some may argue well what if it doesn’t? Hey at least we would have tried something.

5) Jordan Walden

Tonight Walden looked really good as he hit between 95 and 97 on the radar gun consistently. Sometimes players just need a little time off to rest up and start fresh. It seems that maybe his D.L stint was a blessing in disguise and if he can continue  to be affective then this would help to recreate our late inning 1-2 punch as Kimbrel would have someone to set him up.

The other thing to note is Walden does have closer experience with the Angels so these late inning situations are nothing new to him at all. The pressure will likely be far less of an issue then it appeared to be with Varvaro and Gearrin which would also allow for them to go back to their normal roles out of the bullpen in which they have been stellar at.

6) Brandon Beachy

The talk from what I’ve heard is that they’re hopeful that Brandon Beachy will be back to pitch 1 of the double header games against the Mets on June 18th if I’m not mistaken. So we’re still about 3 weeks away from that date but the topic has brought up a lot of interesting questions. The main one being who will be removed from the rotation when Beachy is inserted or is putting Beachy back in the rotation the best move for the team?

Kris Medlen showed last year that working out of the bullpen can be a great predecessor to the starting rotation. Medlen was brilliant out of the bullpen last year and gave us an opportunity to throw a quality pitcher several times a week and sometimes for multiple innings. Could Beachy ease himself into the starting rotation by fulfilling one of these roles for the Braves who have already suffered multiple bullpen injuries?

Now if Beachy were to jump immediately into the rotation that would call for someone to “exit stage left”.  Maholm, Hudson and Minor all seem immune to such a move for various reasons which would leave Teheran or Medlen out to dry. Right now it actually seems as if Teheran has been a little more affective then Medlen has and as a young pitcher and highly touted prospect you’d almost hate to break Teheran’s momentum as a starter by changing his role.

If Medlen was able to do the job once he could almost certainly do it again. He would add valuable depth to our bullpen and would be a critical asset to the “bridge to Kimbrel” project. I wouldn’t look at this as a “demotion” if this were to happen, I’d keep an open mind and view it as an opportunity to help the ball club win games as we inch closer to our ultimate goal of winning  the World Series.

7) This weekend

Now I rarely put too much emphasis on a single regular season series, especially when it’s before the All-Star break but there’s something very interesting that’s about to happen on our schedule and in the standings this weekend. The Braves still have 1 more game with the Jays and the Nationals still have one more remaining with the Orioles.

It’s not too far fetched to believe that we could beat R.A Dickey as we have many times over his career, especially at Turner Field and that the Nationals could fall victim to a pretty good O’s club. All in agreement? That would put the Braves 5.5 games up in the N.L East standings before the big showdown this weekend when Washington comes to town.

I will once again throw out a not so impossible scenario, that being an Atlanta sweep over Washington this weekend. Many would say this is unlikely but if you recall earlier in the year the Braves went to D.C and beat Strasburg and Gio on their way to a road sweep of the Nationals. Why couldn’t they sweep them once again in their own back yard?

But anyways you guys get what I’m getting at. If that were to happen the Braves would wake up Monday morning with an 8.5 game lead and a strangle hold over the N.L East. Not to say Washington still couldn’t claw back but that would be quite a whole to over come and would really be a big blow to their already struggling morale as a ball club.

This is an opportunity for the Braves to really deliver a big blow in these 4 consecutive games they play from now until Sunday. If they make the most of them they could really be sitting in a good spot.

8) Dan Uggla

Uggla hasn’t been the player that we thought he would be when he came over from the Marlins which is why I think a lot of fans are so nervous about B.J Upton. They can see glimpses of the same thing going on and many would argue Uggla has never fully snapped out of the funk that he began with 2 years ago.

However this year Uggla has already hit 10 home runs and we’re a 1/3 of the way through the season. A few of them have been timely blasts that changed the outcome or at least the course of a game in the late innings. You can never underestimate the power of the long ball as instant offense and thus far Dan has given the Braves just that. On pace to hit nearly 30 homers, even 25 would be a very solid power year for Uggla and the Braves could surely use the production.

9) Fredi Gonzalez

Eventually the manager has to face the music and take accountability for the results of their players. Right now the Braves are in a good spot sitting 10 games over .500 and holding a 4.5 game lead in the National League East. However is making the playoffs enough? What measures is Frank Wren currently holding Fredi Gonzalez to?

If Fredi were to make the playoffs as a wild card and once again lose in the one game playoff is that enough to satisfy the boss? At what point does Wren say we want to win the World Series and you’ve failed to deliver us that result with a team that’s more then capable of competing at a high level?

I still believe that Bob Melvin out in Oakland has gotten far more out of his players then Fredi has out of ours. Last year they won a division and 94 ball games. They took the Tigers to 5 games and had a shot to pull of the upset. They hosted a playoff series at home. And yes the Braves also won 94 ball games but Fredi did it with a lot more talent and a larger pay roll.

The Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001 and eventually the standards of just “getting in” will be thrown out the window and replaced with higher expectations. I know the Braves management likes Fredi a lot but they have also already put up with a lot in forgiving him for the epic late season collapse of 2011.

10) Will An Ace Emerge

I think the 10th and final thing to watch for the Braves is whether or not an ace will emerge from this staff. At the start of the season some argued it would be the veteran Tim Hudson while others were convinced it was Kris Medlen. Neither one has been overly dominating and although Medlen could have a better record if given more run support he still hasn’t been nearly as sharp as he was last year and is actually in danger of being removed from the rotation all together.

I think right now the staff ace appears to be Mike Minor. He’s the guy I personally feel most comfortable giving the ball to every 5th day and possibly close to that is Julio Teheran who has emerged quite nicely in his last few outings. Hudson and Maholm have been shaky despite Maholm’s very fast start.

Down the stretch every rotation needs that one guy who can stop a losing streak and who can lead their rotation into the playoffs. The guy who will get the ball in game 1 hands down. The guy you want on the mound with your season on the line.

Someone needs to grab that role going forward. I hope that player emerges over the summer months.

 

By: Bob McVinua

Bullpen Burnout

I don’t want this article to become one that is filled with stats and numbers. I don’t want to go into the details of the past season, this season or any other season. All this is about is discussing an often misunderstood entity of the game of baseball. The major league bullpens.

The topic of bullpens rarely turns into a heated debate even by baseball’s biggest fans. People are far more focused on the starting rotation and the position players that play every single day. It’s rare for there to be a block buster bullpen signing or trade that really gets the juices of baseball fans going and the names in each bullpen are barely recognizable to most baseball fans.

However we can’t over look this important element of the game and what really goes on in the process of making decisions regarding this entity of the game. Bad bullpens hurt your chances of being a successful ball club, just ask the New York Mets who for several seasons now have had enormous issues at the back end of their bullpen. There’s nothing more heart breaking for a team and nothing that zaps morale faster then the bullpen blowing a late game lead.

A lot of talk has been made of the Atlanta Braves bullpen the past several seasons. Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel made up arguably the best back end of any bullpen in the Major Leagues. They put up numbers of historical proportions and struck fear in the hearts of opposing teams that trailed the Braves in the late innings.

But suddenly fear, anger and even circumstantial doubt has clouded fan bases and management a like after the Braves realized that not one but both of their elite left handed relievers were going to be lost for the season and possibly beyond due to the need for Tommy John surgery. People immediately began to say that Fredi Gonzalez miss handled his bullpen and simply over worked them. And to that statement I have absolutely no argument because I think that played an enormous factor in what happened to the two star relievers. Bad mechanics and being over worked to me are two of the biggest factors in the requirement for Tommy John surgery and the latter was certainly an issue in Atlanta the past couple of seasons.

However we have to remember one thing. Outside of elite closers, bullpen guys are not forever nor do bullpens stick together in the long term. Typically that just doesn’t happen. If you even look back to the 2011 season the Braves bullpen in less then a season and a half as seen 3 of it’s 7 core members from that year leave the team. Almost half the bullpen is gone from that year and we aren’t even 2 full seasons removed.

Christian Martinez is on the D.L and now Venters and O’Flaherty will join him. Now if those 3 guys do not return to the Braves bullpen this year then you now have one remaining member of the 2011 Braves bullpen on your present day roster and that’s of course Craig Kimbrel.

Bullpens are filled with journeymen relief pitchers who are often on 1-2 year contracts. Again outside of elite closers none of these guys are on long term deals. Why? Because quite often they are replaceable. You can mix and match, sign and trade guys around to create a bullpen that is affective.

Did Fredi damage two of our best relief pitchers? No doubt about it. He went to the well far too many times and now that well has gone dry. He needs to dip into another well that is now currently being created by management both in the clubhouse and in Frank Wren’s office.

Will these loses hurt the Braves? Without question. You can’t lose two elite pitchers out of your bullpen and feel no affect but at the same time you can’t assume that the Braves won’t find other pieces to plug in there to fill the void that was left by the injuries. The Braves can look to sing free agents that may be poking around looking for work. They can make a trade by giving away a mid level prospect for some relief help. They can do an inventory so to speak on their minor league system and see who may be able to fill one of these roles at the big league level.

As long as Craig Kimbrel stands strong at the back end of that bullpen then there will be a constant calming affect with all the rest of the staff. Confidence will continue to fester and grow within that bullpen as we welcome new guys into bigger and better roles. This is an opportunity for new guys to make names for themselves and for new guys to step and replace those who have fallen.

At the end of the day isn’t that what sports is all about?

By Bob McVinua

 

 

Do The Braves Have a Heyward “Obsession” ?

There are lots of reasons for playing lots of different players and all of them come with a unique set of circumstances. Some players are written into the line up card because they provide speed or power, some because they are the leaders of their respective ball clubs and others are just in their because they make too much money to sit on the bench despite their struggles.

But when Fredi Gonzalez inks in Jason Heywards name into the line up card what reason is he giving himself? Is he playing Jason for his ability to help this ball club win baseball games? Is he putting him out there so that he can work through his struggles? Or is he putting him out there because he’s Jason Heyward and he’s supposed to be a franchise player for the next decade and a half?

Certain players bring a certain element to the game that isn’t on the field related. A certain element that is based more on emotion then it is on factual information. We are only a brief way into this 2013 season and it’s too early to be labeling anyone as a success or failure for the season and I won’t even attempt to do that. However I can bring some issues I see with Heyward to the surface of this argument that I’m going to present to you guys.

Since before Heyward even saw a pitch in the Major Leagues he was a Braves icon. There was so much excitement and hype around him that blew even Freddie Freeman’s move to the big leagues out of the water. Freddie Freeman, despite often out performing Jason Heyward does not gather the same type of enthusiasm.

Maybe it’s because on paper Jason Heyward is almost a perfect a athletic specimen. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 240lbs. He can field his position, throw out base runners, hit for average, hit for power and the man can run like a deer despite his large frame. There are very few baseball players that look as good as Jason does on paper.

Unfortunately baseball games are not won on paper they are won on the diamond with excellent team and player performances on a nightly basis. And I believe that things may be getting a little too comfortable for Mr. Heyward. Being penciled into the line up card night in and night out despite his struggles and on top of that has not even been dropped out of the 2 hole yet.

Fredi is dealing with the pressure to play Heyward because he can not appear to give up on the team’s franchise player. There’s the energy surrounding the Upton, Upton and Heyward outfield. The only issue is one Upton is playing excellent baseball, the other Upton gets paid too much money to bench and Heyward is neither of those two things.

With Heyward under performing from a statistical stand point and only making 3.6 million from a financial aspect, the Braves could exercise the option of sitting Heyward. Now if any of you are arguing that no one has ever gotten better by sitting on the bench and missing at bats, you’re absolutely right but I’m not sure that’s Jason’s entire issue.

I think the Braves have possibly made it a little to comfortable for Jason in Atlanta. Always putting him in the line up and generally speaking batting him in a critical part of the line up ( the top 3rd) is sending him the message that he is guaranteed to occupy that spot no matter what the results may be.

But what if the Braves took a different approach with Heyward and Fredi put him in a position where he competed for playing time and competed for at bats with the other outfielders. Several situations come to mind of how Fredi could handle this in the near future.

Drop Heyward to 6th or 7th: When Jason was put in the bottom part of the order last season he thrived and basically tore the cover off the ball for weeks on end. He was hitting for a solid average and showing off his power while driving in runs. A lot of his success last season came from the lower part of the order and the reason he got moved back up to the top of the order was because of his excellent performance in the 6th spot. Not sure if he’s more comfortable there or if it’s a lower pressure situation (only Jason knows this) but he does seem to hit better in those areas of the line up.

Evan Gattis needs a job: If you have been a fan of what Evan Gattis has been bringing to the table for the Braves then you may want to listen to this alternative solution. With Freddie Freeman due back on Monday the whole at 1st base will now be plugged on a nightly basis. So if Gattis wants to get regular at bats then he will have to catch. However Laird catches at least 1 day a week with Teheran and in a few weeks McCann will hopefully be ready to come back. This creates a possible situation of moving Justin Upton to Right Field and having Gattis play LF, leaving the struggling Heyward on the bench. The line up would include all the major bats of Freeman, McCann, Gattis and the Uptons.

A Solution to our Lead Off Needs: The idea of possibly sitting Heyward also opens up the opportunity to get Jordan Schafer into the lineup. In a very small sample size Schafer has looked impressive this year and seems eager to get some playing time. The key here is that Schafer is a “true” lead off man, something that the Braves have been lacking all year. Schafer can also defend the outfield with his solid glove work and could take over for BJ in Center while moving him to right field.

These are all just possible solutions and I’m not saying that any of them should be 100% pursued at this point in the season but it’s imperative that Fredi keeps his options open and explores any and every alternative that would help the Braves win ball games.

By: Bob McVinua

 

Getting Healthy Could CATCH Up To The Braves

It’s a very rare set of circumstances. One that not many teams in sports will ever experience. Something that appears so positive that it can’t possibly bring a negative or complicated outcome to your franchise. That circumstance is getting healthy.

Baseball teams worry about health from the moment Spring Training begins and they don’t stop worrying about it until the last pitch of October is thrown and a champion is crowned. The Braves have had their fair share of injuries to begin this season but fortunately we have plugged players in there that have been able to experience a great level of success and lead the team to what is now a 12-1 record to start the season, very impressive.

A lot of these injured players will have a home waiting for them when they return, a spot on the diamond and a place in the line up. Freddie Freeman will be one of those guys who when he returns will not have any trouble fitting back into the line up nor will Jonny Venters when he returns to the bullpen.

However not all of the Braves players will be so lucky. Brian McCann if not for the fact that he wasn’t challenged enough by off season shoulder surgery and the long road to recovery as a catcher coming off that procedure, he has been met with the bitter sweet moment of realizing that Evan Gattis while helping the team win baseball games is also in the process of taking his job.

Does anyone remember the name Wally Pipp? If any of you do I’m quite impressed but if you don’t then you certainly are in the majority. Wally Pipp was the starting 1st baseman for the New York Yankees until one day on June 2, 1925 he showed up at Yankee Stadium complaining of a terrible headache.

Manager Miller Huggins suggested that Pipp take the day off and they’d let that “Gehrig kid” play a game over at 1st base. Wally Pipp got two aspirin from the trainer of the Yankees and decided to take the day off. Well that “Gehrig kid” went on to play 2, 130 consecutive games for the Yankees at 1st base and Pipp would lose his job with the Yankees forever.

You can’t help sickness sometimes, such as a simple headache and sometimes you can’t prevent something like a shoulder injury from occurring but your manager also can’t prevent someone from permanently taking your job while you’re on the shelf either. With the importance of wining and the importance of drawing big crowds on a nightly basis, the manager can ill afford to sit a player who is red hot and helping the team win ball games. Which could spell trouble for Mr. McCann when he returns.

With the numbers that Gattis is putting up right now, what are the odds that McCann could duplicate or surpass them? With the way the pitching staff is performing, could we really assume that McCann could do a better job at handling the pitchers? I’m not sure there is a lot of room for improvement at the catcher position in Atlanta.

Now Fredi Gonzalez will have to make some major decisions regarding the roster when McCann comes back. Will he carry 3 catchers? Gattis can play catcher, 1st base and left field, not extremely well on the latter but he can put the glove on and put a good effort towards fielding the other 2 positions to keep his bat in the line up. Then there’s the idea of trying to teach Gattis to play 3rd base, which personally I view as a disaster waiting to happen. Very few bats in Major League baseball are worth a defensive liability and if people think Francisco struggles at 3rd base I don’t even want to tell you how poorly I think Gattis would be at the hot corner.

The option to trade someone is there, although with McCann’s contract situation that also gets tricky. McCann would be an excellent fit for an American League team who could DH him once or twice a week to keep his bat in the lineup and his legs fresh. It would also extend his career in the long term as well. Laird is barely into his 2 year contract so trading him doesn’t seem like a likely scenario either. Although they do have the benefit of him being signed past this year which could pose the question of, can we trade him for bullpen help if injuries continue to plague us at the back end? A lot of teams may be willing to trade a 3rd or 4th guy out of the pen for  a catcher if they are experiencing a shortage in their organization.

To all the Brian McCann fans out there and I know there are a lot of you. There’s hope and not all is lost for your favorite Brave. McCann is still held in extremely high regard within the Braves organization and is still one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball as his stats don’t lie.

The other aspect to this equation is that Evan Gattis has an extremely small sample size and every pitcher he has faced is facing him for the very first time. The opposition doesn’t have much film on the young catcher and it’s likely that when teams face him a 2nd, 3rd and 4th time the results will vary a little bit in a downward direction.

When a player is going well it’s perfectly normal for a fan base to rally around him and get excited, that’s what being a fan is all about. However the Braves have been down this road before and have not always been pleased with the results.

Tim Spooneybarger: The Braves top bullpen prospect who compiled absolutely outstanding numbers during his 3 minor league seasons as he compiled an era of under 1.00. Came up to the majors in 2001 and was supposed to be the next great closer in Atlanta. His numbers as a Brave weren’t that bad but some say his personality clashed with the coaching staff and was left off the post season roster that year. He was traded shortly after that to the Marlins and his career fizzled out shortly after that.

Jeff Francoeur: I know you all know this name and if you’re anything like me you can’t help but love the way this guy plays baseball. I hate to say a bad thing about Francoeur because he has managed to put together a decent big league career and is still one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. However when Francoeur began his career with the Braves he was labeled as the next “face of the franchise” and as a guy who would bring a championship to Atlanta. And then on July 10th, 2009 he was suddenly traded to the Mets for a mediocre outfielder in Ryan Church.

The question to me becomes, we may never know how good Gattis can really be without adequate playing time but at the same time it’s hard to sit one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball and one of the Braves most respected leaders on the bench. A very difficult decision for Braves management awaits, just glad I’m not the one who has to make it.

By: Bob McVinua

A Dark Horse Is Emerging To Possibly Make The Braves Rotation

Anyone who is even somewhat familiar with the Atlanta Braves farm system has heard the name Julio Teheran. He is one of baseballs top prospects and has been the pride of the Braves farm system for the last couple of season. And while I believe Teheran is a very talented kid with a lot of up side, there has also been another name emerging in Braves camp this spring that could make for an interesting potential battle for the 5th spot in their rotation.

That young pitcher would be a guy by the name of J.R Graham. A 6’0 tall, 185lb hard throwing right handed pitcher. Graham may be a little less recognizable then Teheran but he has the ability to light up the radar gun and has been clocked at over 100mph on several occasions.

Although hype and name recognition often rule the roost in sports these days, I still believe that statistics over rule “potential”. I want a guy who can produce on the field and who has proven he can do so. Now I’m not going to make the case that J.R Graham is a far and away better starter then Julio Teheran but what I want to lay out is a few facts that show we could have a closer race for that 5th spot in the Atlanta rotation then many would assume.

When you look at both players 2012 stats you will see that Graham has the edge in several important categories. Now before I even start I know a lot of people will say that Teheran was in AAA for 2012 and Graham was still only in AA. Now the competition is surely different between AAA and AA but I don’t believe it is so different that we can’t draw comparisons from it.

JR Graham: 12-2 record with a 2.80 era in 26 starts

Julio Teheran: 7-9 record with a 5.08era in 26 starts

So the first thing I took notice of is the record. A far better winning % from Graham in comparison to Teheran. The ERA is also more then 2 runs per 9 innings better. Both pitchers made 26 starts so the data sample is pretty much the same.

JR Graham: 148 innings pitched with 7.5 hits/9 innings and 0.5 HRs / 9 innings.

Julio Teheran: 131 innings pitched with 10.0 hits/9innings and 1.2HRs/9 innings.

So it appears that in equal starts we are getting more bang for our buck with JR Graham. 17 more innings over 26 starts doesn’t seem like a lot but that could be 17 less innings your bullpen needs to eat up and that 17 innings is easily converted over to the amount of 2 starts of 8.5 innings a piece. As you can also see Graham allows 2.5 hits less per nine innings and also allows less then half the home runs. Again these numbers seem pretty insignificant but when you stretch them over the course of the entire season you could see some considerable differences.

JR Graham: 2.1 walks/9innings with 6.7 strikeouts/9innings

Julio Teheran: 3.0 walks/9innings with 6.7 strikeouts/ 9innings

Nothing overly alarming here but we can see that Graham averages almost a full walk less per nine innings and has identical strikeout numbers to Teheran which has always been Julio’s strong suit.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story here, nor will they ever with any sports situation but as I mentioned before I will always favor the numbers in a toss up situation. Both of these pitchers have electric fastballs which can hit into the high 90’s on the radar gun with Graham actually being clocked at 102mph during this spring. Now whether that radar gun was entirely accurate is up to you to believe or not believe but regardless he’s pushing triple digits with the heater.

Both of these guys have a lot to prove this spring training and my hope is that the Braves won’t unfairly gives this job to Teheran just because of hype or his ranking as their top prospect. I think JR Graham could really help this team at the back end of the rotation and if not there as a possible arm in the bullpen later on in the year.

Don’t sleep on JR Graham, we could be seeing him a lot in 2013

By: Bob McVinua

The Beasts Of The East

The Atlanta Braves aren’t a good team anymore. That label went out the window when Justin Upton came to town this past week. The Atlanta Braves my friends are a GREAT BASEBALL TEAM that is not only capable of doing great things, they will succeed in doing so.

Fist off we can’t forget that the Braves won a very respectable 94 games in 2012. And also mind you this includes the sluggish 0-4 start and playing 3 meaningless games with the struggling Pirates at the very end of the season. My point being this could have easily been a 96 or 97 win team had circumstances been slightly different. So we are already starting with a very good product and here’s why I think this years Braves team will take home the N.L East crown.

“UpUpHey”: The new look Braves outfield already has a catchy nick name and believe me they also have some SERIOUS talent. When I start breaking down this team suddenly our outfield becomes a clear focal point in terms of strength and value to the club. The Braves outfield is very special for a few reasons. We are talking about 3 guys; Justin Upton, BJ Upton and Jason Heyward who are all capable of hitting over 20 home runs, stealing over 20 bases and they can all field their position at a high level. Speed, power and golden gloves will grace the Braves outfield in 2013 which will be an enormous boost of confidence for our pitching staff in terms of defense as well as run production.

Lights Out Bullpen: The Atlanta bullpen has been a great strength of this team for a couple of years and Fredi seems to have found some very solid combinations for the late innings which allows us to get the ball to our All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel who had a record breaking season last year. As if the Braves bullpen wasn’t dominate enough, Frank Wren goes out and adds yet ANOTHER power arm in right handed thrower Jordan Walden. Walden possesses a mid to high 90’s fast ball and an impressive 11.1/9inning strikeout ratio. Combine that with a career era of just 3.06 you get one of the best “4th men out of the pen” in all of baseball. When you have arms like Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel you can basically play 6 inning ball games all year long. Talk about putting pressure on opposing teams. Would you want to trail Atlanta 4-2 going into the 7th inning? No, I wouldn’t either.

Starting Rotation: People can attempt to poke holes in our rotation all they want and believe me they’re trying. They can claim that some guys played to a higher level then normal last year and that we still lack experience at the back end. Let me tell you, this Braves rotation is not the same as the Greg Maddux / Tom Glavine era. But it’s still pretty darn good. We have the crafty veteran Tim Hudson leading the way, Kris Medlen who was completely dominate the last 2 months of the regular season last year, a great young arm in Minor who is poised to have a break out year and a very solid and dependable guy in Paul Maholm. The final spot is likely to be filled with top pitching prospect Julio Teheran who has been waiting in the wings for a while now. I’m very excited to see Teheran is capable of doing in a full time role with the Braves. He’s been up to the big leagues a few times in his career but never with any true consistency. Making a few spot starts here in there is never a true gauge of a pitcher’s ability and considering the offense Atlanta is going to put up this year I can’t think of a better situation  for a young starter to emerge into.

A Healthy McCann: Brian took a lot of heat last year for his sub-par performance especially late in the year when he elected to play with his sore shoulder. His late season struggles actually amounted to him eventually being benched for the Braves critical do or die 1 game play off which just goes to show that Fredi Gonzalez lacked confidence in his veteran back stop. Despite the time he was playing hurt and the time he actually missed due to injuries McCann still managed to put up respectable numbers for a National League catcher. McCann hit 20 home runs and drove in 67 runs for the Braves, which isn’t his full potential by any means but in comparison to the average catcher those numbers aren’t bad. However in 2013 we aren’t looking for “average” from Brian McCann, Braves fans can expect an increase in production after he had surgery on his injured shoulder in the off season. McCann is ahead of schedule and is targeting Opening Day as his return.

Michael Bourn Misconception: “The Braves don’t have a true lead off hitter”. This statement is technically correct and can’t really be argued. It’s likely that Simmons will be asked to hit in the lead off spot as insinuated by Fredi Gonzalez. As stated Simmons is not the prototypical lead off man that Bourn is however there are a couple of things I do like about Simmons in comparison to Bourn. The first one being that Bourn only hit .222 for the entire 2nd half of the season and I’m almost certain Simmons can at bare minimum match that but I’m projecting something in the .270’s which would be in reality a great improvement. The other issue with Bourn last year was the excessive number of strikeouts, not only for a lead off man but Bourn struck out 155 times which is a lot for ANY player. Now Simmons doesn’t necessarily have the comparable at bats to Bourn but last year Michael Bourn struck out in 20% of his at bats compared to 12% for Simmons. With the added speed to the overall line up ( The Upton Brothers) the Braves may miss Bourn less then people had originally thought.

American League Power: The Braves are looking at a line up that has 6 players that are almost certain to hit 20 homers or more. This group includes BJ Upton, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla. I don’t think there’s any player in that group that anyone can argue won’t hit the 20 home run mark this year and we can possibly add in someone like Juan Francisco or Chris Johnson depending upon how much playing time they receive. This will be a very deep and difficult line up to navigate through and despite the strikeouts the Braves are going to score a LOT of runs this year.

Replacing Chipper: In reality no one can just “replace” a living legend and future hall of fame player. No one can ever wear number 10 or take Chipper’s place in terms of his legacy as an Atlanta Brave we can replace him in the simplest aspect of all, his 2012 production. This past season Chipper hit 14 home runs and drove in 62 runs. Chris Johnson who came over in the trade with Justin Upton, hit 15 home runs and drove in 76 runs. If you look at those numbers and compare them we would actually get 14 more runs batted in and one additional home run with starting Johnson at 3B over Chipper. Now of course we need to be practical here and not say Chris Johnson is a better player then Chipper Jones because he’s certainly not but in the here and now he’s more productive at 28 then Chipper was at 40.

Now it’s still early and we haven’t gotten a chance to see the team in action but for all the reasons mentioned above I have reason to believe this team is going to be a real force in the National League this year and a team that other organizations are going to fear. Having won 94 games last year

So with all of that said here are my predictions for the 2013 Atlanta Braves

Final Record: 100 wins / 62 loses

National League East Champions

Best Record in the National League

 

By: Bob McVinua

With No Margin For Error The Braves Made Many

End of the season articles are always the toughest for me to write. I am an avid sports fan and enjoy watching all of my favorite teams play. However there is something special about the Braves that separate them from the rest, something that makes them special. Perhaps that’s because baseball is special.

Baseball represents so many of things that make life great. Baseball is the change of seasons and the welcoming of spring. Putting away your coats and shovels and getting out your baseball gloves. No more hiding in doors and watching TV, it’s time to get outside and play with your kids or even have some fun for yourself. Feel the sun beating on your skin and the warm air all around you. Get yourself ready for those long summer nights and put behind you those long cold winter months. Everything comes a live in the spring. The days start to get longer and your spirits start to lift a bit.

Then it’s time for baseball. It’s time for your favorite team to take the field again with the hopes that ANYTHING can happen. It gives you a chance to believe that miracles can happen and that underdogs can rise above adversity and any disadvantages that they may be up against.

Baseball like life is all about development. Baseball players aren’t created in a day a month or even a year. They are created over a life time of hard work and dedication. Perhaps trips to the minor leagues and riding buses around small towns just keeping the dream alive. Isn’t that what life is about? Working hard today for a better tomorrow? Starting out small and rising through the ranks of your company and proving yourself worthy. A lot can be taken from the baseball diamond and can be translated into real life situations. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce our way. Sometimes people make bad decisions and errors, some more costly then others. But all of us are working towards some ultimate goal in our lives, just as the Braves players and any players for that matter are working hard to obtain their team and individual goals.

The one game playoff is no different. The Braves were sadly given one chance after a full years worth of hard work to prove that they were worthy of a spot in the next round. But how many people out there have worked hard for a year or many years to get ONE SHOT at a job interview. Whether you get this particular job could come down to just one interview. And in that interview you know that they can’t get to know the real you in just 30 or 60 minutes. They can’t possibly understand all you’ve been through or the years of hard work that have gotten you this far. And just like the Braves who played 162 games to get to where they were, people don’t realize how good of a team they really were. We won 94 games this year just 5 more wins ALL SEASON and we could have won the division. They can’t judge us as a failed team because of one bad game but some will try. The format isn’t fair but sadly that’s the way that it is for right now at least.

In terms of the one game playoff recap or highlights I’m sure all of you have seen it a million times as have I. So there won’t be any point in me beating a dead horse here but I will point out a few things that I felt were game changers.

 

David Ross Home Run: This is exactly what the Braves needed. They needed to strike first and strike early. With Kris Medlen on the mound I thought that it would only take 3-4 runs to win this game and that was with a little margin for error. Medlen has been lights out all year so I felt very good about things. The Braves record is much stronger when they score first vs when their opponent scores first. The only issue with this was that I felt as if the team as they have done all season, will sit on a lead thinking it can last the entire game. I thought their could have been more urgency to score runs in the following innings.

Play Small Ball: In the bottom of the 3rd the Braves just received a shut down inning from Medlen after giving him the lead. Now at this point the emphasis needs to be on taking on more runs one at a time. Michael Bourn leads off the inning with a single which was a fantastic start. Now with Molina behind the plate and Loshe very strong at holding runners close to the bag it was nearly impossible for Fredi to send Bourn in that situation. I wouldn’t have either. What I would have done is had Prado lay down a bunt. He handles the bat extremely well and could have gotten Bourn to 2nd base with only 1 out and the middle of the order coming up. Bourn scores easily on any single and with Heyward and Chipper due up I’ll take my chances. Not to mention it would have caused Loshe to throw more “stress” pitches that inning. Fredi showed signs of bunting as he gave Prado the signal once to lay one down but took it off after the ball was fouled off. However with 1 strike I would have left it on. Then we’re a single away from making it 3-0. Build the lead slow and steady but take advantage of your opportunities. This was almost guaranteed to be a low scoring game of under 5 runs for both clubs if there hadn’t been mental mistakes.

Double Play Ball: This is the one that hurt the most. Beltran leads off the 4th inning with a single which is the Cardinals first hit of the ball game. Now here comes the middle of their order so Medlen must be in trouble right? Well not exactly. He gets a tailor made double play ball hit right at Chipper. Beltran still has some speed but he’s no where near the runner he once was and Holliday is an extremely slow runner coming out of the box and on top of that he is battling hip and back issues. Chipper just need to get the ball to second in a timely manner and Uggla would have had plenty of time to get Holliday at first. But instead Chipper throws the ball into right field allowing Beltran to go to 3rd. Now this play changes the entire dynamic of the inning. Medlen could take the mound with 2 outs and no one on if that double play is turned correctly. However now it’s 1st and 3rd with 0 outs. And with the way Medlen was pitching prior to and after that 4th inning you could clearly tell it was the error that shook him up. He wasn’t the same that inning because in his mind he should have been out of trouble. Yes as a pitcher you need to bear down but at the same time you expect your top ranked defense to make those kinds of plays behind you.

Why Are You Bunting: This was perhaps the biggest shocker to me.  In the bottom of the 4th inning the Braves had a chance to respond to the Cardinals and tie up this ball game. Simmons comes up with 1st and 3rd with 1 out. Now Simmons is a pretty good hitter in his own right so I wouldn’t have been shocked to see him lace a ball up the middle and keep the train moving. Or at least he could have hit a Sac Fly to tie up the game. But instead he lays down a safety squeeze per Fredi’s request and ends up being out at 1st base on an interference call. So now Medlen has to come up and try to drive in the run from 3rd with 2 outs. Not a good situation. The dynamic of the game would have changed again if the Braves had tied it up. The Cardinals took the lead but would have surrendered it right back the very next half inning. Mentally that makes a huge difference. Playing a tied game where you know one run could give you the lead vs needing one to tie. Now if Fredi was worried about Freeman’s ability to score on a fly ball then would a safety squeeze be any better? Probably not considering Simmons would have to push that ball in the perfect spot to allow Freeman to get home from 3rd. If Loshe fields that ball cleanly there’s no way that Freeman makes it home safely.

More Sloppy Play: You’ll notice how I skipped right over the Holliday home run. That was one run on one mistake from Medlen. That home run was not one of the bigger game changers for me although it did extend the Cardinals lead to 2. What bothered me far more then that home run was the sloppy play in the top of the 7th. Uggla makes a critical error to allow Freese to reach 1st safely and then advance on the poor throw. Now this was bad by Uggla on two accounts. First off he booted a pretty routine ground ball that allowed the lead off man to reach in the first place which never should have happened but then on top of making the initial error he threw the ball away. I mean that throw wasn’t even close. He should have just stuck that ball in his back pocket. Then the Cardinals would have had to decide if they wanted to bunt the runner over to 2nd or not which is slightly different then bunting him to 3rd as it would still take a base hit to score him. Once Freese was bunted over to 3rd base Fredi brought in Chad Durbin which proved to be the right call as Kozma hit the ball hard and right at Simmons who was playing in. Another chance for the Braves to cut off that run and Simmons like Uggla threw the ball away.

In Field Fly Rule: Perhaps they should call it the outfield fly rule in this case. This play was extremely aggravating to me and I can’t lay it to rest until I vent my feelings on here. I won’t go on a long rant but I think this call was horrible. I don’t care what the rule book says the point of the infield fly rule is to protect the base runners. In this case the base runners did not need protection as there was NO WAY Kozma was going to intentionally drop that ball to try and gun down the lead runner. Even if he threw out Uggla at 3rd which is very doubtful the Braves would have had 1st and 2nd with 2 outs, the same as if he had caught the ball. So there was NO NEED to call an in field fly there as it only hurt the base runners rather then protecting them. Did this call lose us the game? My answer is I don’t know. The bases would have been loaded with McCann coming to bat and only one out. Everything plays differently with the bases loaded. McCann would not have walked like he did. Motte knew he could pitch around McCann with a 3 run lead and he had a base open to do so. McCann would have gotten at least 1 or 2 good pitches to hit and he could have hit a home run or he could have grounded into a double play. Either way we’ll never know and I think that’s what is bothering most Braves fans. Personally I would have rather had Zozma just catch the ball, end of story.

2013: As you guys know the blog doesn’t stop just because it’s the end of the season. I’ll cover the winter meetings, trades and free agent signings as well. If you guys have any other ideas of topics you’d like to see covered please let me know and I’d be happy to accommodate as many of you as possible.

My next post will be done soon and it will cover some ideas that I have on how we can improve next years Braves team and some of the moves that I feel will and should be made.

Thanks to everyone who has read my blog over the course of the season. And lets not forget, Baseball is like a good friend that moves away each winter but is guaranteed to return at the first sight of spring.

By: Bob McVinua

” A man has to have goals- for a day, for a life time- and that was mine, to have people say there goes Ted Williams the greatest hitter who ever lived” – Ted Williams