Phoenix – Greetings from the desert Southwest, where it’s a cloudless day with the temperature headed to the mid-90s and there’s another slate of Arizona Fall League games starting at 12:30 p.m. before intimate gatherings typically comprised of couple dozen scouts and about 75-100 assorted others, including autograph hounds, girlfriends, potential girlfriends and those just fortunate to have the afternoon off.
(And if they’re unemployed, well, then at least they live in a place where they can go watch top prospects play in beautiful weather without crowds or high prices.)
So today we’re here in Peoria to see the Peoria Saguaros – that’s the team that has six Braves prospects on it (seven before Jason Heyward left with a strained back last week – face the Mesa Solar Sox in Peoria. Saw the same two teams play yesterday at HoHoKam Park (Cubs’ spring training site) in Mesa, where Mike Minor gave up a couple of runs and two hard-hit balls in the first inning, but was quite impressive for the rest of his three-inning stint.
Oh, before I forget, I’m suppoed to say you can follow me (and Carroll, when she’s with the team) on Twitter. You know what that means, right? Lineups as soon as they’re posted, and news as soon as we get it in dugout, clubhouse, etc. (Also means the earth may have stopped turning on its axis, but that’s another story.) Anyway, if you’re into that sort of thing, and I hear that a great many are: @ajcbraves
Where were we? Oh, yes: Minor, the Braves’ top pick (seventh overall selection) from the June draft is not the reach that some have portrayed him to be. Not some lucky dude the Braves picked seventh because they were sure they could sign him. The lefty’s good, folks. Not overpowering, but throws plenty hard (91-92 mph fastballs yesterday), with an excellent changeup and a good curveball and slider. And he’s impressive on the mound, his demeanor and aggressiveness.
That’s the thing that really stands out — his mound presence. He’s in control of things out there, a mature guy who spent three years at Vanderbilt and learned a lot from the coaches and from a former Vandy teammate, lefty David Price.
Anyway, I’m going to write about him next week. Scouts I talked to at yesterday’s game were impressed, including a scout from the Rays, who had drafted Minor out of high school. I don’t know that we’ll see Minor during the 2010 season, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. A 2011 arrival seems more likely, though, after a full season in the minors.
He was the only Braves prospect I got to see yesterday, because 1B Freddie Freeman and SS Brandon Hicks weren’t in the lineup and relievers Craig Kimbrel, Lee Hyde and Jeff Lyman had all pitched on Saturday (they have a ton of pitchers on these teams and make sure not to overwork any of them).
Hopefully I’ll get to see the rest of the Braves’ pitchers today and/or tomorrow before I head back, with a tan and my craving for serious Mexican food and fish tacos having been temporarily satisfied. Freeman and Hicks are in the lineup today, Hicks at third base.
Driving around Phoenix in my rental car, I’ve had the excellent new REM live CD and recently released Meat Puppets CD, Sewn Together, cranked on the sub-standard stereo while I puff on a Padron (windows down; they frown on cigar smoking in rentals these days). They’re from Phoenix (Meats Puppets, not Padrons; Padrons are made in Miami), and they’ve lived to tell the tale after going through some heavy stuff that nearly killed one of them.
If you ever liked the Meat Puppets (or even if you didn’t or didn’t know their music), I’d suggest you give this CD a listen. Good weirdness, great rock. It’s one of my favorites from 2009, and I sure never thought I’d be saying that about anything by this band, which put out some seminal releases in the 1980s but had faded away for quite a while.
♣ Speaking of cranking things up: The World Series will be over soon, and the Braves and other teams will begin their offseason pursuits in earnest.
First up for the Braves is the expected announcement that Tim Hudson has signed a three-year extension.
That’s going to lead to a steady stream of rumors about which of the other Braves starters is going to be traded and where. Because as you know, they’re going to have a surplus of major league starters, six including Hudson, Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami.
While there are about 45 million reasons they’d prefer to trade Lowe, there are also about 45 million reasons why that might not be possible (he’s owed $45 mill over the next three years after signing a $60 million deal 10 months ago and having one of the worst seasons of his career as a starter).
Vazquez, coming off arguably his best season and one of the best by any pitcher in the majors in 2009, is owed just $11.5 million in 2010 before he can become a free agent. If they had their druthers, the Braves would like to keep him, maybe re-sign him to a long-term deal. He’s a fine pitcher and teammate and a great example for the other pitchers, and Vazquez has made it known he’d prefer to stay in Atlanta, where he always wanted to pitch and where his first season was everything he’d hoped it would be (well, except for the Braves not making the playoffs).
But the Braves want to add a power hitter to their lineup, and the only pitcher they’re willing to trade who might bring back a power hitter is Vazquez. Teams aren’t likely to give up an affordable and/or young power hitter in return for Lowe, that’s for sure (the best the Braves could hope in a trade for Lowe would be to shed most of his salary without having to eat a big portion of it; the talent they’d get in return in such a trade would likely be minimal).
I don’t know that they’re interested in trading Kawakami just one year into a three-year, $23 million contract they gave the Japanese League veteran, the first player from Japan to play for Atlanta. And if they did trade Kawakami, he wouldn’t bring back the kind of hitter that Vazquez could fetch in a trade.
As much as they hate to trade Vazquez, there are also some questions whether he could repeat the type of performance he had in 2009. The veteran hasn’t put together back-to-back seasons like that one before, and if they don’t trade Vazquez now they run the risk of him having a mediocre season and then trying to trade him before the July 31 deadline or take a draft pick as compensation should they lose him to free agency a year from now.
What could lead the Braves to pull the trigger on a Vazquez deal is not just the hitter they might get in return, but obviously also the knowledge that they should still have one of the top starting rotations in baseball with Hudson, Lowe (who’s certainly not too old to expect a good rebound season), Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Kawakami.
So stay tuned. It won’t be too long before we start getting some news or at least rumors of substance.
♣ Closing and playing first base: The Braves haven’t indicated yet whether they’re going to make any effort to re-sign free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche either of their free-agent closers, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez (blog favorite Garret Anderson, the Braves’ other prominent free agent, is expected to sign with an AL team).
I don’t see any way the Braves offer arbitration to Soriano, who made over $6 mill last season, but they could offer it to LaRoche and Gonzalez, assuring they’d get draft picks as compensation if they leave. Gonzo made $3.45 million, and the Braves have to decide if they’re comfortable with him possibly accepting arbitration and doubling that salary.
LaRoche made $7 million in 2009 and the Braves could probably afford to pay him an arb-set salary for one season, even if it approaches eight figures. That way they’d be assured of a draft pick if he signed elsewhere after they offered him arb. And if he stayed, he’d obviously be an ideal bridge to Freeman a year from now (provided Freeman’s ready a year from now, which isn’t a given but could be a reasonable assumption).
But do the Braves want to pay either of those guys — LaRoche and Gonzo — that much? That remains to be seen. If they don’t bring back LaRoche, they lose one of their best defensive players and best power hitter (at least second-half power hitter), and for a team looking to add power to its lineup, they would then have to either add a very big hitter at either an outfield position or first base, or a couple of hitters at those spots to make up the difference.
I don’t think the Braves can or would go to spring training expecting Heywad to fill a power-hitter role right away as a rookie, and if I had to guess I’d still say we don’t see him until June or so. But that could change, of course. Talk to me again in a month or two after we see how the Braves are going about things.
As for closer, there’s a couple or more schools of thought about how to go about filling the important spot, if it’s not with Gonzalez, or perhaps a Gonzo/Moylan combo? (Again, I don’t know that the Braves are ready to pay Gonzo what he’ll get, and by the way, I should add there’s probably not much risk in being stuck with an arb-set salary, because he’s going to get some multi-year offers I’m almost certain, and would thus not accept Braves arb offer. At least that’s how it seems to me).
Yes, there’s been speculation the Braves will check into Billy Wagner’s price tag. I can tell you Bobby Cox spoke highly of him over the past years, and raved about his stuff when Wagner returned from Tommy John surgery in that late-season appearance against the Braves this year, talking about how his stuff was as good as ever. He’s a “gamer” to Cox, and there is no higher praise from the manager.
But would Frank Wren want to give up a first-round draft pick to sign Wagner, who projects as a Type A free agent and could be offered arbitration by the Red Sox? The salary alone is a big cost, but giving up a possible first-round pick is a big thing for an organization that has put a lot more importance in recent years on building through the draft.
The Braves might instead opt to trade for a cheaper closer, someone who’s either served primary as a setup man but has closer-type stuff, or a youngster with closer experience and an affordable salary. Yes, I’ve heard speculation about Matt Capps being a possibility. Yes, he’s affordable for at least a couple more years. But is he the answer? He’s 25 and last season had a 5.80 ERA and 1.656 WHIP (after his stellar 0.969 WHIP and 3.02 ERA in 2008).
The Braves probably need a short-term closer, maybe for a year, while they try to develop their own guy. Kimbrel, the Braves’ minor league Pitcher of the Year, has closer stuff, including a 94-mph fastball. Just needs to keep the walks down, and he made a lot of progress this year while being promoted from A-ball to Double-A and finally Triple-A.
“He’s made great progress,” Wren said near the end of the season. “We’re talking about a kid who was pitching at Rome early in the season, and has made it all the way to Triple-A for the playoffs, pitched very well at Double-A. So he’s getting to the point where he’s not too far away, and he has power stuff.”
The Braves felt similarly about Joey Devine when they drafted him as a future closer a few years ago, but things didn’t turn out well after he was thrust into a major league role only a few months after being drafted out of N.C. State (remember the grand slams he allowed in his first two games?).
Kimbrel is being brought along carefully, and could have a legit shot at making the Braves’ bullpen this season and possibly getting consideration for closer a year from now. But that’s making assumptions and certainly no guarantee.
Just keep in mind that there are many ways to fill the closer role, and a lot of teams succeed in doing it without signing a big-time closer. Just look at this past season, when the Dodgers paid their young guy Jonathan Broxton $1.825 mill, and San Diego’s Heath Bell slid into the closer’s role formerly owned by Trevor Hoffman and made $1.25 mill while doing a fine job.
In St. Louis, well-traveled Ryan Franklin emerged as an All-Star closer this season at age 35, making $2.5 mill.
Anyway, just a way of saying that filling that role can be done a lot of ways.
♣ Alright, we’re underway here. It’s Sags vs. Sox, Solar. Forgot to mention the amazing episode of Mad Men two nights ago, built around the JFK assassination. That’s about as good as dramatic TV gets, that episode. It set up what promises to be a helluva season finale this Sunday. Between that and Sons of Anarchy, I’m gonna be bumming when both shows wraps up for the season.
“TWO HALVES” by My Morning Jacket
Remember when you were seventeen
You goin’ crazy, you know what I mean
It wasn’t that long ago
In the grand scheme of things
It wasn’t that long ago
You think you’re so much smarter now
Twenty-one everything stays in place
Forty-one some things start to fade
Well when you’re so young, you wanna be older
And when you’re older, you want the body you have now
I believe in a perfect world
You rule your own universe
The only gun you’ll ever need will be in your brain
The only gun you’ll need is in your hands
You want this now you want that
Can’t have it all you should enjoy what you have
But I know what you want
Well I know what you want
Well I know what you want, you want the better of two halves!
Well I know what you want
Well I know what you want
Well I know what you want, you want the better of two halves!