We’ve got some Junior Wells wailing on the stereo, Dodgers-Cardinals muted on the TV, door to the patio open and a nice Punch cigar burning. It hasn’t been a week since the season ended, but doesn’t it already feel like long time since the Braves were serious contenders for a postseason spot? And no, that’s not the cue for some lovable cynics here to say, “Because it has been a long time – about four years!”
No, I was referring to that fleeting time less than two weeks ago when the Braves were on a 15-2 tear that brought them within two games of Colorado for the wild-card lead. Two games. Then they lost one when the Rockies won one, and that was that. Flameout Even as Bobby Cox talked about how badly the Braves wanted to make sure they held on to second place in the East, they lost their last six in a row (their longest skid of the season, by the way) and finished in third place behind Florida.
But while the Marlins’ clueless owner debated whether to fire manager Fredi Gonzalez – the man got 88 wins out of a team with the lowest payroll in the majors, a $35 mill payroll about one-sixth the size of the Yankees’ small-nation GNP of a payroll — the Brave are genuinely optimistic and excited about their prospects next season. And wait, that group of cynics I referred to earlier, before you pounce on that remark.
Because I can honestly tell you, the past couple of seasons didn’t end with that kind of enthusiasm from certain members of the Braves. Off the record, players had concerns entering the past couple of offseasons, concerns about how the team could fill its needs within its payroll restrictions, or whether they could still get free agents to come to Atlanta like they used to, or whether the pitching staff could be reliable with so many old and/or surgery-rehab guys being counted on the next year. On and on. They had concerns.
Not now, or so they say. You talk to guys and they’ll say, on and off the record, that this Braves team still has holes, but not many, and not gaping. They believe that with the addition of another power bat and, they hope, the re-signing of Adam LaRoche or acquisition of another proven first baseman (though all the Braves really want Frank Wren to re-sign LaRoche) that this will be a playoff team next year.
Most don’t even seem too concerned about the situation at the back end of the bullpen, where closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez are both eligible for free agency. I don’t know if they just assume that one of them will be re-signed or believe that some combination of Peter Moylan and a lefty-to-be-determined can get the job done, or what. But no one seems too worried about that area (personally, I think it’s crucial that the Braves get that taken care of, and not just go to spring training hoping to do it with what they have or to pick up a guy late – and I think team officials see it that way, too, and will have that high on the priority list, whether that’s stated or not).
Speaking of things being stated, I should tell you all right now that GM Frank Wren is probably not going to be as open in discussing some needs and possible targeted individuals as he was a year ago, when so many offseason pursuits blew up in the Braves’ faces. Even if ultimately they were probably better off not landing Jake Peavy or A.J. Burnett – if they’d gotten Peavy and his big contract, they probably wouldn’t have traded for Javy Vazquez, and say what you will about Derek Lowe, but he did a lot more this season for his team than Peavy did for his – the sting of those and the Rafael Furcal debacle wasn’t forgotten by Wren.
Or rather, he didn’t forget the criticism that he took after that string of misfires, even if the Peavy thing had more to do with the GM on the other end, and the Furcal thing with the player and/or his agent. If at all possible, I think Wren will try to operate a little more covertly this winter, ala his predecessor, John Schuerholz (though it’s impossible in this day and age of media proliferation and Internet chatter to operate off the radar quite like Schuerholz did).
But anyway, it’s pretty clear the Braves’ primary pursuits will be a right-handed power bat (and this time they mean it – right-handed and power) to balance a left-heavy lineup, and someone to handle first base for another year or two until Freddie Freeman is ready. If that someone isn’t LaRoche, then it best be a reasonable facsimile, or else how have the Braves made themselves significantly better offensively if they had a right-handed power bat but subtract LaRoche, the only guy in the lineup who hit more than 21 homers this season, albeit for three teams (he hit 12 of his 25 homers for the Braves, in 57 games).
LaRoche had a .957 OPS for the Braves. Anyone care to guess who had the second-highest OPS on the team after the All-Star break?
That’d be Matt Diaz, who hit .321 with nine homers and a .909 OPS afer the break, the only Brave other than LaRoche to have either a .900 OPS or .500 slugging percentage (.507). If someone would have told you this spring that Diaz would be the only Brave on the opening day roster to have a .500 slugging percentage or .900 OPS after the All-Star break (not that those are easy figures to reach, because they’re not – that’s lofty stuff. I’m just saying, who’d have thought Diaz would be the lone Brave to do it?)
Oh, and the only players on the team to have .400 or higher OBPs after the break? LaRoche (.401), Diaz (.402), Yunel Escobar (.401) and … are you ready? … Greg Norton (.400). But Norton did it with a .206 average in 46 at-bats (seven hits, all singles) after the break, so….
Anyway, as you no doubt realize, the ‘09 Braves were a flawed team with great starting pitching that covered those flaws many nights. Specifically, they didn’t have enough hitters getting extra-base hits and driving in runs, and didn’t have enough who got on base consistently, even if their raw team OBP at season’s end (.339) wasn’t bad (only four NL teams had a higher OBP).
They ranked 10th in the league in slugging (.405), 10th in homers (149), and for a team without a lot of power, they sure were awfully slow. The Braves were dead last in triples (20), and only the Cubs stole fewer bases than Atlanta (58 in 84 attempts).
Now, I’m not a big believer that speed is going to win a whole lot of games in this era, without the artificial turf that made it a key component of several teams in the ’70s and ’80s. But the absence of speed coupled with a lack of significant power – hey, that’s just a bad combo.
Hey, six NL teams stole more than 100 bases, and three are in the playoffs – Dodgers (116), Phillies (119) and Rockies (106).
The other NL playoff team, the Cardinals, stole 75 bases in 106 attempts, and had 160 homers and a 3.66 team ERA, fourth in the league behind the Dodgers (3.41), Giants (3.55) and Bravos (3.57).
The Cardinals were more balanced and had a far more potent middle of their batting order after getting Matt Holliday to team with the bad hombre, Sir Albert.
Think about what a Carl Crawford could mean to the Braves’ lineup…. Alright, now stop, because he’s a lefty and would probably too much to pry from the Rays anyway. But do you realize he stole more bases (60) than the entire Braves team?
♣ The Braves will have their organizational meetings next week at Dark Star in Florida, and during those four days they’ll get down to brass tacks discussing the likes of Tim Hudson, LaRoche, Kelly Johnson, Gonzalez and others that may or may not be back with the Braves in 2010.
Wren, Cox, Wren’s top assistants and the team’s scouts will all convene and talk about what they think, guys they’ve seen this season around both leagues who will or might be available as free agents or via trades, and where Martin Prado should play next season under ideal circumstances (second base) or where he might need to play if the Braves think it’d be easier to put together a solid lineup with him elsewhere (doesn’t make sense to me, either, at least not the option that was mentioned last week by the manager, who mentioned sort of unconvincingly (at least that’s how it sounded to me) on Monday morning that Prado could play right field, had played it there in winter ball, and that the Braves can’t give up on Kelly because he had such a good season in 2008 and would’ve put up the same doubles, homers, etc, if he’d had another 250 at-bats. Hey, that’s what Bobby said; I’m just repeating it to you.)
Anyway, here’s a name that I think will come up next week: Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz. Yes, the guy that our own Coach (of the blog, or at least he used to be, haven’t seen him around much lately) suggested Cruz as the answer a year ago. If the Braves had traded for him instead of signing Garret Anderson, hey, they’d have probably been a better team. But the same could be said for Bobby Abreu and other relatively low-cost options).
But anyway, Cruz is right-handed and hit .260 with 33 homers, 20 stolen bases and an .856 OPS in 128 games, and while his .931 OPS at hitter-friendly Arlington was a lot higher than his .778 on the road, he hit almot as many homers (15) on the road than at home (18) in virtually the same number of at-bats.
True, he hit far better against righties (.270 with .898 OPS and 26 homers in 330 at-bats) than against lefties (.235 with .752 OPS and seven homers in 132 at-bats), but I doubt that would sway the Braves either way, if they’re interested. Sometime it’s just a matter of a team wanting a big right hitter up there to make the other team think about it, to break up a bunch of lefty hitters, or vice-versa. And he’s a big dude, a specimen. And the Rangers might have an extra outfielder or two a willing to part with him in a trade. Might.
Did I mention he also stole 20 bases? I did? Good. That’s one more than Nate McLouth stole this season for the Pirates and Braves, by the way. And Cruz goes about 235 pounds.
♣ What about Heyward? Yes, when Jason Heyward gets here, he should eventually give the Braves a rare blend of power, pure hitting ability, and speed. He’s a guy with .300-.400-.500 potential who could steal 20-25 bases and (eventually) hit 30-35 homers in the majors, maybe more of the latter if he keeps growing (if you’ve not seen him, dude is 6-4 and 225, and has a V-shaped back and thin waist. Looks like a young Derrek Lee, and I’m betting that Heyward will be up around 235-240 in a few more years).
He hits (and throws) left-handed, not that it much matters. Heyward, the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, is going to be a fixture in the middle of the Braves lineup for a long time, say most who’ve seen him and/or talked to Braves officials and to scouts around baseball about him.
I’ve done both, and I’ll say it again, he’s the best prospect I’ve seen since I saw Vlad Guerrero come up with the Expos when I lived in Fort Lauderdale and they were training in West Palm Beach. Heyward is that special.
So when’s the 20-year-old manchild gonna be manning right field (or possible left, but I think they’ll keep him in right) for the Brave? Opening day? June? Or not until September or even 2011?
If I had to guess, I’d still go with June, as I’ve been saying since, oh, about last March, when it became apparent the Braves were almost certainly going to have Tommy Hanson get another couple of months in at Triple-A before they brought him up. You feel I the blank on why – Heyward is only 20; he’s had abou one week above Double-A; keeping him down until June could save the Braves an entire year of affordability if he’s not a Super Two arbitration guy in a few years, etc.
But most of what I hear leads me to believe they’ll keep him down at Triple-A to start the season.
I’ve got a story in Friday’s paper about Heyward and some other Braves prospects that could be up soon. I had a few good quotes that got left out because of space. Here’s one from Wren, when I asked him about whether a big performance in the Arizona Fall League could possibly help get Heyward to the majors quicker:
“I think you saw what the Fall League did for Tommy Hanson last year,” Wren said. “It’s a great springboard. Is it the ultimate answer? I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not the answer to tell you whether a guy’s ready for the big leagues. It does give you a good indicator, and it is a good springboard for young players to get to the next level.
“Jason really hasn’t played at Triple-A, except for just the last week [of the season]. So it may be a springboard to get him to Triple-A to where he’s more comfortable. We’ll wait and see and evaluate where we think he is in that ascension to the big leagues when we get to spring training.”
You guys tell me, does that sound to you like they’re maybe leaning one way over the other?
That came from an interview I had with Frank on the last road trip. He was asked again this past Monday about his “mindset” regarding Heyward and when they might bring him up.
“I think it’s premature to have any real mindset about Jason, other than we know he’s an outstanding young talent and we just want him to go play in Arizona and continue to get as much experience as possible,” he said this time. “And we’ll see where that takes him.”
He did say that Jordan Schafer’s struggles last season with the Braves would have no bearing on when they decide to bring up Heyward. In other words, they won’t be afraid to bring him up with little experience in the high minor leagues, if they think he’s ready.
“That’s the one thing you learn in this game, every single player is an individual, and different,” Wren said of the Schafer/Heyward line of questioning. “There’s obviously some things you learn from past events, but I think individual player’s struggles don’t necessarily change your decision process….
“We think a lot of it had to do with [Schafer's] wrist. Because he had proven to a lot of us that he had earned the right to get a chance.”
I then asked if that got Schafer a reprieve from the Braves (I used that specific word), to which Frank sid: “Oh sure. And I’ve had conversations with Jordan. We still think very highly of him, and we’re looking forward to getting him out there healthy again, so he can show us what he can do.”
Cox said that same day (last Monday) of the young CF: “We haven’t given up on Schafer. But the fact is, he hasn’t played much in two years. Kind of unfair for him – he played almost the whole time he was with us with a bad wrist.”
Bottom line, as I see it: Schafer’s only had 400 at-bats in the major and minors the past two years, and is going to need more time in the minors before he’s back up. He can’t play winter ball this year because he’s recovering from wrist surgery, so I’m not expecting a spring training as good as the one he had last year.
Alright, we’ve got plenty more stuff, including some info on Craig Kimbrel and other pitching prospects. But we’ll give you that a little later. Need to get this up and go run some miles on the treadmill before a veg in front of the TV watching baseball and a bunch of strong Thursday night shows on DVR when the game’s over.
Oh, before I forget, one startling stat to lay on ya: From July 23 through the end of the season, the Braves went 13-19 at home and 24-11 on the road. To me, that’s amazing….
♣ Diversions: Planning to go see the Lucero, a great Memphis band that plays raw, greasy blend rock, on Saturday at Masquerade in Atlanta. I’ll skip Kings of Leon at Philips on Friday, just because I don’t want to see them in an arena. They might be that big now, but I still think of them as a smaller-venue band, and that’s how I want to see them (saw them at the Fillmore in San Francisco with Secret Machines six years ago, and at the Fox in Atlanta a couple years ago).
James McMurtry and Jamey Johnson are playing (separate shows) at the 40-Watt in Athens soon, and a bunch of other great acts are coming to Atlanta and Athens in coming weeks…. Anyone see thae lineup for that VoodooFest in New Orleans at Halloween? Insanely good and eclectic lineup.
Oh, and someone give us a review of Zombieland, the Woody Harrelson movie. I’m hearing nothing but great things about it.
Alright, talk to ya soon.
“BIG BLACK CAR” by Big Star (Alex Chilton)
Driving in my big black car
Nothing can go wrong
I’m going and I don’t know how far
So, so long.
Maybe I’ll sleep in a Holiday Inn
Nothing can hurt me
Nothing can touch me
Why should I care?
Driving’s a gas
It aint gonna last.
Sunny day, highway
If it rains it’s all the same.
I can’t feel a thing
I can’t feel a thing
I’ve got a big black car.
Nothing can hurt me
Nothing can touch me
Why should I care?
Driving’s a gas
It ain’t gonna last.
The lights above, oh yes.
I see the stars above