It gets overshadowed by other baseball offseason deadlines, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Friday (Nov. 20) is when teams must have 40-man rosters finalized including those minor leaguers that must be protected from the Rule 5 Draft that’s held on the final day of the Dec. 7-10 Winter Meetings.
(Stay with me during the preamble — I promise this blog should get exciting and memorable quickly. Oh, and remember you can follow us on Twitter @ajcbraves.)
Between Friday and the Rule 5 Draft, teams can add major league free agents to the 40-man, but not players from its minor league system. And so by Friday, most teams will add at least a minor leaguer or two to their 40-man rosters, players they deem too talented to leave unprotected for other teams to pluck for a mere $50,000 price in the major-league phase of the draft.
The Braves currently have seven openings on their 40-man roster, minus unsigned free agents and a few guys dropped after the season including pitchers Vladimir Nunez and Buddy Carlyle, who could be re-signed as minor-league free agents. (Addendum: Nevermind on Buddy, who signed with Nippon Ham Fighters; announcement came out of Japan at about the same time I was posting this blog last night).
Which brings us to the focus of this here blog — left-hander Lee Hyde, a reliever whose stock has risen recently and someone the Braves will presumably add to their 40-man roster by Friday.
(Oh, I almost forgot: Who, some of you are asking, must be protected? Glad you asked. Basically, it’s any minor leaguer who has played five years if he signed his first contract at 18 or younger, or four years if he signed at 19 or older. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s it, more or less.)
If you haven’t heard of Hyde, it’s because the Fayetteville, Ga., native and former Georgia Tech (and Fayette County High) star has been hurt since the Braves drafted him. Hurt a lot.
“Hyde has really come on,” GM Frank Wren said of the 2006 fourth-round pick. “We had hoped he would progress a little faster, but injuries kept hindering him. Now he’s starting to take off.”
After missing most of the 2007-2008 seasons recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery followed by shoulder problems probably caused from overcompensating, Hyde stayed healthy (relatively) during 2009 while posting a 2.27 ERA and 1.037 WHIP with 45 strikeouts and 15 walks in 35-2/3 innings with three affiliates.
Most of that was at high-A Myrtle, where he dominated the way a talented 24-year-old should against the mostly younger players at that level, putting up a 1.21 ERA and 0.985 WHIP with 28 strikeouts in 22-1/3 innings.
If 35-2/3 innings doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that before this year Hyde had only pitched 61-1/3 innings pitched since the Braves drafted him.
After being promoted to Double-A this year, he had 13 strikeouts in 10-1/3 innings during seven appearances, and Hyde earned an invitation to the Arizona Fall League, where his progress has continued.
“Going into this year my goal was just to stay healthy,” Hyde told me when I was out in Phoenix to see Braves prospects two weeks ago. “I had a pretty good year, and then getting to come out here, it’s a blessing. It’s nice to be healthy and playing baseball again.”
Pitching in the prospect-laden AFL in conditions that favor hitters, he had a 3.27 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP that’s the ninth-lowest in the league through today (Monday), with 12 strikeouts and five walks in 11 innings.
Opponents were batting just .179 against Hyde after a hitless inning Monday in his 12th appearance, and three of the fourth runs he had allowed came during his fourth appearance, including his only homer allowed.
In his other 11 appearances, he had allowed one run, six hits and three walks in 10-1/3 innings.
If he can stay healthy, there’s little doubt Hyde can compete for a spot in the major league bullpen – perhaps as soon as this year. His stuff is that good.
He features a 92-94 mph fastball that’s effective against lefties and righties, along with with an 85-87 mph slider and a knuckle-curveball that could be a highly effective pitch if he can get more consistent with it.
But make no mistake, with Hyde it’s all about staying healthy. If he can do that, he can pitch in the majors.
“So far, so good,” said Braves A-ball (Rome) pitching coach Jim Czajkowski, who’s also the pitching coach for the Peoria Saguaros AFL team that includes Braves pitching prospects Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel, Jeff Lyman and Hyde, along with first baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Brandon Hicks.
“Let’s knock on some wood,” Czajkowski said in Phoenix. “He’s been good here. Since he’s been here he’s done some long-toss that he wasn’t able to do during season, and his miles per hour has actually increased some – he’s been at 93-94 in games. Sometimes he drops down to 91-92, but for about four outings in a row he was right at 93, consistenly. For a lefty…”
For a lefty, that’s strong, folks.
Hyde missed a few weeks this summer after popping some scar tissue in his surgically repaired elbow, not unusual for pitchers after TJ surgery. He was briefly terrified that he’d torn the ligament again.
“I just felt a pop and it scared the crap out of me, to be honest with you,” he said. “I was mad and scared, just mixed emotions. I thought bad things. But when I woke up the next morning it wasn’t really swollen. That’s when I thought maybe it was just scar tissue.”
But he said he still pitched “timid” for much of the season after that, not wanting to push his elbow too much.
He said that being able to rest before the fall league, and to long-toss then and between appearances in Arizona, has refreshed his arm and given him a few extra miles per hour on his fastball.
And when he’s got that knuckle-curve working, he can be extremely tough on hitters. It behaves like an old-school 12-to-6 curveball (so named for the downward movement, from 12 to 6 o’clock), only it comes in harder.
“His knuckle-curve is a hard pitch to command, but when it’s on it’s like a straight 12-6 hard breaking ball,” Coach C said (hey, we’re blogging, I can’t keep looking up spelling of his name). “And it comes out just like a fastball. So it’s a very difficult pitch [to hit].
“Very tough pitch to command, but it’ll definitely be a difference maker. Not a lot of guys in the big leagues have something like that. Most 12-6 curves are slower, he can put velocity behind it.”
Hyde grew up loving the Braves and admiring Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. A year ago, he worked out with Smoltz a lot during the offseason in Alpharetta, and saw first-hand the veteran pitcher’s talent and immense determination (Smoltz was coming back from shoulder surgery at the time).
“Just amazing to see how fast he recovers for as long as he’s been around the game,” Hyde said. “Pretty amazing athlete, too. We shot the basketball around a little bit, too. Just watching him shoot the basketball, and I heard he was a really good golfer….”
(They have that in common – Hyde plays golf regularly and beat Kimbrel last week on a Phoenix course to win a dinner bet at Benihana’s.)
Hyde’s had to deal with serious arm problems that stalled his development early, but said it’s made him even more determined to reach his potential.
“It’s given me a whole new appreciation for the game,” he said. “When you play it for so long — I’ve been playing it since I was 4 — I don’t want to say you take it for granted, but it’s kind of like you’re playing day-in and day-out, and sometimes you’re like, I kind of want to go home today.
“But I had a whole new appreciation for the game this year, and it just made the season so much more enjoyable for me.”
He thinks overcoming adversity early on might end up being a blessing in disguise.
“It definitely could be,” Hyde said.
♣ Braves interest in Willingham? Braves GM Frank Wren is staying tight-lipped this winter on any and all free-agent pursuits and rumors, which figure to be rampant given the common knowledge that the Braves are looking for a power hitter and are expected to trade one of their high-profile veteran pitchers, Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez (not necessarily to get that hitter, but perhaps).
Anyway, one of the latest rumors was a FOXSports.com report that the Braves are interested in Nationals left fielder Josh Willingham, who had 24 homers and a career-best .863 OPS last season.
He makes plenty of sense for the Braves, especially given that he’ll probably make less than $5 million in arbitration next season and is right-handed, not to mention an Alabama native who has an an impressive .840 career OPS and more than 20 homers in three of his four full seasons.
But there are drawbacks, beginning with the 30-year-old’s poor defense and back problems (he’s not played more than 144 games in a season, and only 235 games in the past two seasons).
Most importantly, there’s the asking price. Or at least that was a serious drawback when teams called about Willingham at the trade deadline, and the Nationals wanted too much young talent in return to find any team willing (get it, willing? OK, late.)
Still, you’re talking about a guy who has posted OBPs of .356, .364 (twice) and .367 in his four full seasons. He’s a quality hitter with a .265 career average and .881 OPS against lefties, and .264 with an .827 OPS against lefties.
Just not so much against the Braves. Or did you see my stats last night? Willingham has been awful against the Braves, with a .213 average, three homers and .637 OPS in 197 at-bats, his second-worst OPS against any NL team.
Hell, if he’s traded to him his OPS might rise 20 points.
Then again, at Turner Field he’s hit .134 with one homer and a .419 OPS in 30 games (97 at-bats), his worst OPS at any of the 24 ballparks in which he’s played. So maybe not.
♣ Schafer meets Nixon — shopping: OK, you probably saw here last week that we noted how Jordan Schafer’s surgically repaired wrist is healing ahead of schedule, according to Wren, who said the cast initially wasn’t expected to come off until mid- to late-December but was coming off a few weeks early.
The Braves say they don’t want to put any pressure on him or have him put any more on himself. He isn’t playing any winter ball, and Wren said it’s likely he’ll start the season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
But I did this note because I have a photo of Schafer taken this week at an Atlanta furniture store, Huff’s Furniture, where the young center fielder supposedly just randomly ran into an old Braves center fielder, Otis Nixon. We got the photo from a relative of store owner Jim Huff, who was in the photo with his grandson Peyton (I had to crop them out to make it fit).
♣ Reds in the red? How’d you like to be the Cincinnati Reds, one of the many teams that’s talking about trimming payroll.
They were only at $73.5 million last season, and might have to go somewhere close to $65 mill, according to Cincinnati Enquirer beat writer John Fay, who points out that they already have have $59.25 million committed to six players for 2010: Aaron Harang ($12.5 million), Francisco Cordero ($12 million), Scott Rolen ($11 million), Bronson Arroyo ($11 million), Brandon Phillips ($6.75 million), Willy Taveras ($4 million) and Arthur Rhodes ($2 million).
That means if they kept all those guys and paid every other player on the roster the minimum $400,000 salary, they’d still be over $66 million. Yikes.
Which means someone or multiple someones is going to have to be traded, if they really intend to trim that much payroll. Which has to chap the behinds of Reds fans, who saw promise in a team that went 27-13 in its final 40 games.
And it’s not just teams like the Reds who plan to cut payroll. The list includes Detroit, St. Louis, Toronto and others, and the trend had powerful agent Scott Boras telling reporters at the GM meetings that some teams seem only concerned with paying off debts and making profits, rather than competing.
White Sox GM Kenny Williams – yes, I’m going to that well one more time — said: “Listen, there’s no unlimited funds for anybody in this game – seemingly. [Then he paused, smiled.] I shouldn’t say that. For 99 percent of the teams there aren’t unlimited funds. And there certainly aren’t any [blueprints for success]. the Yankees won this year, but they’ve been at it for a long time trying to get it back.
“There’s not recipe for success in this thing. There’s no manual for how to get it done. Sometimes the big free agents – I know those are the ones that get your headlines. It’s not always the ones who push you over the top.”
Braves executives have said several times that their payroll is expected to be at or slightly above last year’s level, which was about $92-95 million depending who was counting what and when.
I asked Wren last week if he agreed with Williams’ statement about “99 percent” of teams not having unlimited funds [Williams meant everyone but the Yankees, which would actually make it 96.7 percent of baseball's 30 teams].
“I think it’s the vast majority,” Wren said. “I don’t know if it’s 99 percent, but I think the vast majority are dealing with revenues that are different than they were a couple of years ago. So we’re all to a certain extent dealing with it.
“We’ve been fortunate in Atlanta that we’ve been able to kind of hold the line on our payroll. We had growth last year and hopefully, I think we’re going to be in the same area we were in last year, so that’s a positive. It lets us kind of maintain the trek we’re on right now.”
♣ Diversions: OK, let’s wrap this up and post it. Going to what should be a great show Tuesday night at Variety Playhouse here in Atlanta, featuring Justin Townes Earle and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. (Already had tix before I realized KU-Memphis was on ESPN … arrgh. It’ll be a post-midnight viewing of the basketball game, from tip-off to last second. Also planning to go see Patterson Hood on Saturday at a small club (Andrews Upstairs) in Buckhead. This sure is a good time to not have night games to cover, lot of good concerts and basketball — man I’m glad hoops season is here).
Oh, before I forget: How funny has Curb Your Enthusiasm been lately? Hilarious episodes the past two weeks, the Black Swan episode and, well, Sunday night’s (if you saw it, you know why I can’t comment here).
We’re loving this Sunrise/Sunset album by band The Duchess & The Duke (here’s a link to one of their cuts) and also Scott Miller & the Commonwealth’s live album Reconstruction, recorded a few years ago. I’m admittedly late to Miller’s bandwagon, and don’t know how I missed him this long. This guy’s the rootsy real deal. Terrific songwriter.
And speaking of great songwriters, he’s one by Conor Oberst off the Monsters of Folk album (last week at the Tabernacle, that alt-rock supergroup put on one of the best shows I’ve seen in a few years). This song might be my favorite from a self-titled album that’s got a bunch of great ones to choose from.
“AHEAD OF THE CURVE” by Conor Oberst
Another perfect day
They keep piling up
I got happiness that I can maintain
Some beginner’s luck
I had shoes to fill
Walking barefoot now
Can’t tell north from south
But no split hair’s gonna get me down, no
I’m stayin’ above the flat line
And I’m ahead of the curve
Take a piece of the sunshine with me
On a red-eye flight to another world
It isn’t any trouble
If you wanna come with me
I know it’s out the question, honey
But I sure could use the company
And a place to be
Now the sky is pink
Rooftop swimming pool
I’m not carefree, no
I’m free to care
I just never do
All the bags are checked
And the reasons why
Yesterday lingers on
That’s the piece you keep when we say goodbye
You can get what you want now
Knock it out of the park
Bury it by the river
Easy, there’s a search party
But it’s getting dark
I won’t hold you to nothing
I wanna make that plain
Prob’ly end up a stranger and crazy
But I’m still hoping there’s another way
And a place to stay
What a scene has got you sentimental
When the knot comes, when the knot comes loose
All the things you’ve put upon your mantle
What a shame, what a shame
It’s old news
I’m staying above the flat line
I’m ahead of the curve
Take a piece of the sunshine with me on a all night drive to another world
You can get what you want now
Knock it out of the park
Prob’ly end up a drifter and lonely
But I’m still hoping for a change of heart
And a place, a place, a place to start