Three games behind the wild-card leader with only five to play seems about as desperate a situation today for the Braves as they faced on the morning of Sept. 10, when they were fifth in the wild-card standings, 8-1/2 off the lead.
But if you’ve been following them closely and don’t view the Braves any differently today than on Sept. 10, well, then all I can say it you must be determined not to change your perception regardless of events.
Because it’s been a helluva run back to relevance for these Braves, and no less a realist than Chipper Jones has been talking the past week about how much this finish could and should mean for the Braves moving forward next year.
The same Chipper who in previous weeks had talked about how next season might be his last if he doesn’t play any better than he did for much of this one.
Seeing his team rally down the stretch and win 15 out of 17 games before last night’s defeat against Florida, seems to have invigorated the old man (and we’re talking about Chipper here, not Bobby Cox; though the past couple of weeks also seemed to perk up Bobby’s disposition).
Suddenly Chipper is talking not about riding off into the sunset next year, but about how this Braves team should ride this momentum and use it going into next season, how they should build off this and know that they can win two of three from any team and do better than that against the inferior ones.
If you’re a Braves fan, surely you love hearing that kind of talk, and seeing this team finally put together a run — albeit probably too late — down the stretch that was worthy of the starting pitching they had been getting all season long.
If you’ve got the best rotation in baseball, and a pretty good offense (at least after a couple of additions were made), there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to go on long surges. Maybe not 15-of-17 runs and 10-game road winning streaks (the longest such streak in the league this season), but long runs that would’ve been enough to keep them with or ahead of Philly and everyone else in the league if the Braves hadn’t gotten off to the lackluster 34-40 start.
Even after last night’s loss, the Braves’ 52-31 record since June 28 is the best in the league, slightly ahead of the Phillies (53-32), Rockies (50-33), Cardinals (49-32), Marlins (46-26) and Dodgers (45-38).
Of those six teams, four will make up the playoff field. All but the Braves and Marlins, most likely.
Given that we’re talking about having the best record in the league over more than a half-season of baseball, it seems a pretty clear indication of what this Braves team is capable of doing, and should be capable of doing next season provided they have a strong rotation and avoid major injuries again.
Those are two big “ifs,” but the rotation part of the equation seems like it’s perfectly doable. You’ve got to figure that Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are going to have strong seasons, particularly since Jurrjens’ ERA in his second full season is better by about a full run than in his rookie year.
Hanson has only gotten better as the season as wore on, and has a head on his shoulder to match that immensely gifted right arm. Jurrjens and Hanson are two smart kids, folks. The Braves are extremely fortunate to have two that young, that good, and that relatively cheap for another year or, in Hanson’s case, two.
Then it gets interesting, in terms of who’ll be back in the rotation. You have to figure Derek Lowe will be, simply because he’s owed $45 million over the next three years, and the Braves have never been a team that eats big chunks of a player’s contract in order to move him.
Lowe, despite 15 wins, hasn’t had a good season by his standards (or the standards expected from someone with that contract), but he’s not hurt, he’s not been anything but a good teammate who’s worked hard, and he’s still at an age where there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to eat 200-plus innings, lower the ERA back closer to his norm from this season’s 4.55, and be a solid middle-rotation starter.
To trade him, I’m guessing the Braves would have to eat $10 mill of his remaining salary. Just a guess, but that seems about right to me. And no way they are going to pay $25 million for one season of work, trading him when his value is at its lowest point. But maybe I’m wrong and some other team looking to dump a similar contract for a position player would be willing to swap. But that seems unlikely to me. Very.
So he’s back.
That leaves two spots, and three candidates – Javier Vazquez, Tim Hudson, Kenshin Kawakami.
Vazquez has been one of the three or four best starting pitchers in the National League this season, ranking among the leaders in virtually every important category including ERA, strikeouts, opponents’ average, opponents’ OBP, etc. He has a 15-9 record and 2.83 ERA entering tonight’s start against the Marlins, the same record as Lowe with an ERA nearly two runs lower.
Vazquez is a bargain at $11.5 million next season, the last year on his contract. Teams will line up this winter if the Braves make him available, and they might at least dangle him to see if they could get a power hitter in return.
Let’s be clear: The Braves would very much prefer to keep Vazquez and acquire a hitter some other way. But how? This free-agent class is lame, and unless you believe they should roll the dice and hope that a Bobby Abreu still has plenty in the tank, who would you prefer they pursue on the market?
If the Braves want to get a 25-30 homer guy, they’re going to have to give up a nice piece in return. Kawakami is a solid back-end-of-rotation starter, and his contract (two years left at a little under $8 mill per season) is reasonable for a 190-innings guy who could have easily won 12-15 games this season with decent run support.
But I can’t see a team giving up a power bat for K.K. For a power arm, 200-strikeout pitcher like Vazquez, yes. But not K.K., a finesse guy who’s 34 and has had some shoulder weakness and/or soreness at times.
Hudson is the most interesting and/or difficult decision the Braves might face. In today’s market, his $12 million option for 2010 is not exactly a bargain, not for a guy who’s only made six or seven starts since returning from Tommy John surgery, and been good but not great in those starts.
Hudson has had one 15-win season in six years, his 16-10 season in 2007.
He went 16-7 with a 2.70 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 240 innings in a stellar 2004 season with Oakland, and hasn’t totaled as many as 150 strikeouts since, and only once had an ERA lower than 3.33 since then (3.17 in 2008).
Huddy is a great teammate, beloved in the clubhouse, and he and his wife do terrific stuff in the community through their foundation. They have put down roots here, and have finally finished, or nearly finished, the dream house they built in Auburn, where he went to school.
There’s no doubt in my mind he’d take quite a bit less than $12 mill per season to stay here in a multi-year extension, probably less than $10 mill per. And I don’t think any other team would offer him even that much right now, not until he’s back for a full, healthy and strong season.
So do the Braves trade Vazquez, who may or may not be having a career-type of season, and hope that Hudson can get back to being something close to what Vazquez has been this season, or at least close to what Hudson used to be?
Or do they keep Vazquez atop what whould be the best rotation in baseball, one that wouldn’t even need Lowe to be more than a solid back-of-the-rotation guy? (And if Lowe was back to being at his peak, coupled with that trio of Vazquez, Jurrjens and Hanson, you’re talking legit comparisons to great Braves rotation of the past, in terms of depth if not quite three Cy Young-caliber guys in their prime at the top.)
Would you sign Hudson, add him to the Vazquez-Jurrjens-Hanson-Lowe mix, and trade Kawakami for something less than an elite power hitter? Maybe for a good reliever or a good-not-great hitter?
Before too much longer, we’ll start to get some answers. But until the Braves are done with the present, the here and now, team officials are not going to focus or talk much about the future.
♣ A Rocky path? While it is a formidable task facing the Braves, making up three games with only five to play, it should be noted that Colorado, which is 6-3 in its past nine games, has a difficult road ahead, or at at least the end of it is difficult.
After facing the very mediocre and beatable Brewers pitchers Jeff Suppan (11 losses, 5.04 ERA) and Manny Parra (10 losses, 6.16 ERA) in the next two games in Colorado, they’ll travel to L.A. to finish the season with a three-game series at Dodger Stadium.
Do you folks realize the Dodgers have won 12 of 15 against the Rockies this season? Now, you might look at that two ways — Dodgers own them, or Rockies are due. Or maybe you look at it in both of those ways.
Regardless, the Dodgers are trying to hang on to have the best record and home-field advantage in the NL side of the postseason tournament. They’ll be trying to win those games, in other words.
And they’re scheduled to start lefties Randy Wolf (11-6, 3.22) and Clayton Kershaw (8-8, 2.89) in the first two against Rockies Ubaldo Jimenez (14-12, 3.52) and lefty Jorge De La Rosa (16-9, 4.45), respectively, then Dodgers righty Kiroki Kuroda (8-7, 3.76) in the finale against Jason Marquis (15-12, 3.95).
Jimenez and De La Rosa have already lost two games apiece against the Dodgers this season. But Marquis has two of the Rockies’ three wins against the Dodgers.
The Dodgers have lost five of their past seven games. However, they’re 5-1 in their past six home starts.
Meanwhile, the Braves, of course, have Vazquez facing Florida’s Ricky Nolasco (12-9, 5.28 ERA) in tonight’s series finale, then a four-game weekender at home against the lowly Nationals.
The pitching matchups for the Nationals series are as follows:
– Thursday: Nationals RHP Garrett Mock (3-10, 5.91 ERA) vs. Hanson (11-4, 2.98 ERA).
– Friday: Nationals RHP Livan Hernandez (8-12, 5.48) vs. Lowe (15-9, 4.55).
– Saturday: Nationals TBA vs. Jurrjens (14-10, 2.61).
– Sunday: Nationals RHP J.D. Martin (5-4, 4.69) vs. Hudson (2-1, 4.08).
OK, I’m outta time. I was going to do something on how much Nate McLouth has struggled lately, going 5-for-45 (.111) with one extra-base hit and a .273 OBP in his past 11 games, and about how the Braves’ best leadoff hitters this season have been Omar Infante and Matt Diaz.
But we’ll save that for later.
I saw a terrific show Monday night at the 40-Watt Club in Athens, where an R.E.M. reunion nearly broke out at the Minus 5/Baseball Project show. Three original-band members (including seldom-seen former drummer Bill Berry) jamming onstage together, and Michael Stipe watching from the back of the bar, in stocking cap and beard, standing about 20 feet away from me.
Anyway, here’s a shaky-camera clip that posted online in a couple of places, including this cool website I’ve never seen and also Steve Wynn’s own site here. (AJC colleague Jeff Schultz is friends since high school in L.A. with Wynn, and introduced me to him. Cool dude. Wynn, not Schultz.) The encore was tremendous, with Berry and Mills sitting in for three tunes including a raucous cover of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” The video clip is from the encore.
Oh, and haven’t the first couple of episodes this season of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office been howlingly funny?
“IT’S HARD” by The Who (Townshend)
Any tough can fight – few can play
Any fool can fall – few can lay
Any stud can reproduce – few can please
Anyone can pay – few can lease
(It’s a hard hard hand to hold
It’s a hard land to control)
Any man can claim — few can find
Any girl can blink — few can lie
Anyone can promise — few can raise
Anyone can try — but a few can stay
Any brain can hide — few can stand
Any kid can fly — few can land
Any gang can scatter — few can form
Any kid can chatter — few can inform
It’s hard — It’s very very very very hard — so very hard
(It’s a hard hard hand to hold
It’s a hard land to control)
Any soul can sleep — few can die
Any wimp can weep — few can cry
Everyone complains — few can state
Anyone can stop — few can wait
It’s hard — It’s very very very very hard — so hard
Anyone can do anything if they hold the right card
So I’m thinking about my life now
I’m thinking very hard
Deal me another hand Lord, this one’s very hard
Deal me another hand Lord, this one’s very hard