There was a point this offseason when young Braves pitching star Tommy Hanson was fed up and talked about leaving Atlanta.
Fed up with the weather, that is.
And talking — only half-seriously, we gather — about going home to Southern California to get away from Atlanta’s near-record rain in November-December.
“I was joking that if it rains one more day, I’m out of here,” Hanson said of a conversation he had with roommates, Kris Medlen – a fellow Southern Californian — and Braves minor league pitcher Ryne Reynoso.
“I couldn’t take it,” Hanson said. “Then after it stopped raining, it got cold and everything froze.”
But the towering redhead stuck it out and had a good time in his first offseason in Atlanta, where he shares a Buckhead hi-rise apartment with Medlen and Reynoso. Last week you might have caught Hanson live on the MLB Network in their studio. They flew him up to New York for an overnight trip just to do that segment live in their studio.
Yes, Hanson is kind of a big deal — even if he’d never say so himself.
Hanson and Medlen moved into their new digs during the All-Star break last year, after deciding they’d had enough of the daily commute to Turner Field from their apartment in the ‘burbs north of Atlanta, where they had both began the season with the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves.
Reynoso moved in later, after spending almost the entire 2009 season at Double-A Mississippi (7-9, 3.47 ERA in 24 starts) except for one start at Gwinnett.
While the weather wasn’t perfect at times during his first offseason in Atlanta, just about everything else – including the stuff that really mattered – went splendidly for Hanson, 23.
He arrived with a potentially heavy burden of soaring expectations, but Hanson met or surpassed them while going 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts to finish third for NL Rookie of the Year.
“[The hype] didn’t bother Hans at all,” manager Bobby Cox said right after the season ended. “That’s pretty hard to live up to. Everybody’s expecting a shutout every time you pitch. And he lived up to it. Again, that comes with makeup, his character, his abilities to fix things on the mound himself.”
It only took Hanson a few starts to settle into a groove and succeed against major league hitters, much like he’d answered every other challenge during his brief professional career.
He was called up from Gwinnett two months into the season, and in his first start Hanson struggled in his last innings and was charged with six hits, six earned runs and three homers in six innings of a June 7 game against Milwaukee, which the Braves still won.
Despite allowing nine hits in 5-2/3 innings in his next start June 12 at Baltimore, and giving up 14 walks in 17 innings in three starts beginning with that game, Hanson was charged with only two runs against the Orioles and none in his three starts after that.
He had a 26-inning scoreless streak snapped when he gave up a homer in the seventh inning of a July 4 start at Washington.
But the kid is a perfectionist. So when I asked him if anything about last season jumped out at him as he analyzed it and reflected upon it this winter, Hanson said: “I think the biggest thing was how, when I first got called up, I wish I would have felt more comfortable sooner.
“When I got more comfortable out there, I sort of took off.”
Keep in mind, this is a rookie who gave up three runs in 30 innings during his second through fifth starts in the major leagues. At age 22. After pitching in a total of 29 games above A-ball.
Medlen had such a great start at Gwinnett that he was actually called up to Atlanta before Hanson, who was dominating Triple-A hitters almost to the point of absurdity by the time he was brought to the majors.
Hanson had a 1.49 ERA and 90 strikeouts with 17 walks in 66-1/3 innings at Gwinnett before getting his call to the majors. And despite missing the first two months of the big-league season, he still finished second among NL rookies in strikeouts (116) and fourth in innings pitched (127-2/3)
“It was a huge learning experience last year,” said Hanson, whose 2.89 ERA was the lowest for a Braves rookie in 20 or more starts since 1943, when Nate Andrews had a 2.58 ERA and the franchise was still located in Boston.
“And it just gives me that much more confidence to know that if I’m out there feeling comfortable, I can compete with anybody, that I belong,” he said. “I can go out and compete and help the team win.”
Hanson led all major league starters in lowest batting average allowed by right-handed batters at .192, ahead of the Angels’ Matt Palmer (.197) and San Francisco’s two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (.203).
If Hanson had pitched 34-1/3 more innings to quality, his 2.89 ERA would have ranked seventh in the NL with the Giant’ Matt Cain, one spot behind Vazquez.
And despite pitching a career-high 194 innings combined in Triple-A and the majors, Hanson appeared to get stronger – and pitched better — as the season wore on. He gave up five or fewer hits in seven of his last eight starts, and had at least seven strikeouts in eight of his last 10 starts.
Hanson posted a 2.25 ERA in his last six starts, with 43 strikeouts, 14 walks and 26 hits allowed in 40 innings. He had only a 2-1 record in that span, including three games when the Braves scored only one run while he was in. But Hanson never showed any sign of frustration or disappointment.
Always upbeat, always humble. From the time that national writers came to camp to write stories about the phenom during spring training, through his last start in Washington on Oct. 1, when Hanson allowed one run, five hits and one walk with nine strikeouts in seven innings.
The rangy right-hander never changed his demeanor, and his teammates, manager and coaches loved everything about him.
Now, Hanson is eager to get it started again. He said he’s never felt better after getting a full offseason of rest (he only took a month off last winter after the Arizona Fall League).
“I’m definitely looking forward to some baseball,” said Hanson, who “I’ve had enough time away from it. I’m ready to go. My arm’s never felt better. And I feel really good about the team. I think everything that was done [this offseason] is going to help the team out.”
Hanson and plenty of other Braves pitchers will take part in a two-week voluntary pitching camp that starts Monday at Turner Field, and then the words you’ve all been waiting for: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 19.
Other position players will report to Dark Star (Disney’s Wide World of Sports) on Feb. 22. First full-squad workout is set for Feb. 23.
Now, back to Hanson’s comment about the offseason moves. Braves starters led the majors with a 3.52 ERA and pitched the second-most innings (986) behind St. Louis starters (1,003-2/3).
But they traded Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees, after Vazquez finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting and led the Braves with a 15-10 record, 238 strikeouts and a career-best 2.87 ERA.
The Braves had a surplus of starters after signing Tim Hudson to a three-year extension following a late-season return from elbow surgery. They tried first to trade Derek Lowe, but $45 million left on his contract thwarted their attempts.
Blah blah blah, you all know the rest of that story. So let’s look ahead.
“It’s tough losing Javy,” Hanson said when I talked to him Thursday. “He helped a lot of us out. I know him and J.J. [Jair Jurrjens] were real close, and he helped me just being able to watch him pitch. But with everybody we’ve got back we’re going to be more than fine with our rotation.
“And we’re going to be tough in the bullpen, too.”
The Braves lost closers Mike Gonzalez (free agency) and Rafael Soriano (traded after he accepted arbitration). They signed veteran closer Billy Wagner and setup man Takashi Saito (who’ll be 40 in February) and traded for hard-throwing if still-developing relievers Mike Dunn, a lefty from the Yankees, and Jesse Chavez, coming off a 73-appearance rookie season with the Pirates.
They join incumbent relievers Peter Moylan, Medlen and lefty Eric O’Flaherty, along with possibly Manny Acosta. And don’t forget waiting in the wings: veteran signee Scott Proctor, who’s expected back from elbow surgery in May or June.
The Braves rotation includes Hudson, Jurrjens, Lowe, Hanson and veteran Kenshin Kawakami, in his second season since coming from Japan. The order, we probably won’t know until Cox announces his spring-training pitching plans, at which point we can usually figure out how that projects to opening week.
Can the Braves again field one of baseball’s best starting rotations?
“I think so, definitely,” Hanson said. “Getting Huddy back, in his second year being healthy — good things will come from that. And having everyone else back … it should be fun to watch. Hopefully like last year, where every time someone takes the mound it’s a good start.”
As for Hanson, he’ll be coming to camp this year to get ready for the season, not worrying about making perfect pitches during every start of spring training like he tried to do last year when he wanted to impress Cox and the brass.
“That’s the biggest thing, just being comfortable and knowing what to expect this time,” he said. “Last year I had no idea what to expect, how ready I needed to be [going into spring training], all that. I just didn’t know. This year I have an idea how far along I need to be in my throwing, conditioning, working out. The main thing is throwing – I feel like I’m right where I need to be.
“Last year, it’s hard when you get on the mound in front of people who’ve never seen you throw, and you want to show them your best stuff. Now they’ve seen me, they know what I can do.
“Instead of having to be ready right away in spring training, I feel like I can work up to where I need to be [going into the season], and work on the things I need to work on instead of having to impress everyone.”
He also predicts good things from his roomie Medlen, who made huge strides last year from his deer-in-headlights first couple of starts to being a middle reliever the Braves trusted in some big situations late in the season.
Medlen had a 2.80 ERA in 26 relief appearances after the All-Star break, with 39 strikeouts and 10 walks in 35-1/3 innings.
For the season, Medlen had a 4.26 ERA in 37 games (four starts), and he allowed 65 hits and 30 walks with 72 strikeouts in 67-2/3 innings.
“I think he’s kind of in same boat as me — I’m not happy my first year’s out of way, but [am] kind of,” Hanson said. “I’m looking forward to my second year and knowing what I need to do. And I’m definitely looking forward to watching Med pitch, because I think he’s going to have a great year.
“I was on a routine [starting every fifth day] last year, where he wasn’t. He got moved around and went a long time without pitching sometimes. This year he knows a little bit more what to expect, and he’s going to be ready for it.”
“Medlen really came on strong,” Cox said of the right-hander, who’s about eight inches shorter than his roommate Hanson. “He had more strikeouts than innings pitched, and less hits [than innings pitched] in his very first year.
“He’s come a long ways. We like him.”
♣ Damon update: Still available, but perhaps not for much longer.
As I’ve said, it ain’t over till the Braves say it’s over, folks. And they still haven’t come out and said they have no interest in Johnny Damon, who grew up a Braves fan in Orlando, respects the hell out of Bobby Cox, and has said he’d like to play for the Braves, who train near his Orlando home.
As of Friday he’s still unsigned, and the Braves could still use a proven leadoff man and left fielder – which would allow them to not rely on Melky Cabrera to play every day if uberprospect Jason Heyward isn’t ready to start the season in right field (Matt Diaz could play some right if the Braves get Damon).
If the Braves decide to jump in with an offer, it wouldn’t take long for GM Frank Wren and agent Scott Boras to work a deal for Damon.
Remember that a year ago, after some media outlets had reported the Braves had no interest in Derek Lowe, Wren reached out to Boras in January and quickly negotiated a deal for the veteran pitcher.
A deal for Damon would be a whole, whole lot cheaper (and shorter) than the one for Lowe, so you’ve got to think they could do it quickly if the Braves decide they can’t pass up the opportunity to sign a reduced-rate, 36-year-old veteran with his winning background — weak arm and aging legs be damned.
Seriously, does anyone really not believe Damon would help the Braves win?
But it wasn’t just the ballpark, folks. His .365 on-base percentage in 2009 was 10 points above his career mark, his 36 doubles were his most in nine seasons, and his 82 RBIs were his best since a career-high 94 in 2004 with Boston.
The Braves would get a marquee player and a teammate of highest repute in Damon, a top-20 finisher in American League MVP top voting four times, including three straight years (2004-2006) with Boston and New York.
And you might have heard, he was on a few teams that did some things in Boston and the Bronx.
♣ Funny rotation: Steve Rushin had a recent Twitter post — we hate the word “Tweet” and try to always avoid using it — in which he noted that the Phillies’ new Ha-Ha-Ha rotation (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels & J.A. Happ) rivals the Ho-Hu-Ha staff of ‘72 A’s (Holtzman, Hunter & Hamilton).
Well, I thought, why stop there?
Tommy Hanson is obviously off-limits, but the Phillies could pursue Jason Hammel, the right-hander who went 10-8 for Colorado last year in his first full season in the majors.
And they could go after Aaron Harang. Sure he lost 31 games the past two seasons with Cincinnati, but only after winning 32 games for the Reds during the two prior seasons. Or they could make a run at Rich Harden, who had 352 strikeouts in 289 innings over the past two seasons with Oakland and the Cubs.
As a fallback, they might even consider lefty John Halama, the 37-year-old journeyman who started 13 games for the Braves’ Triple-A team last season.
Halama hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, but just think about the marketing opportunities of this hilarious rotation. Funny how? Funny as in Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha.
For relief, they might even pursue Joel Hanrahan, who had a 1.72 ERA in 32 appearances for Pittsburgh last season. And for the playoff drive, I hear that Mike Hampton might be recovered from his latest surgery.
OK, we’ll stop. It’s getting late in the offseason, isn’t it? Whew.
♣ Vazquez named top Brave: Speaking of Javier Vazquez, he was voted Brave of the Year (team MVP, in other words) by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Vazquez got 10 of the 20 votes cast, while Jair Jurrjens and Brian McCann each received four votes. I was a bit surprised to hear Yunel Escobar and Martin Prado got only one vote each.
♣ And now, a projected finish: If you haven’t seen it, here’s how Baseball Prospectus projects the final 2010 division standings to look.
They have the Braves finishing second in the East at 85-77, three games behind the Phillies and tied with Diamondbacks for NL’s best record for non-division winner.
So what if the Braves make one more addition to their lineup. Maybe a veteran leadoff hitter, for instance? Would that be worth a game, three games, in these projected standings? Who knows?
(Blogmeister addendum: Apparently since I first linked these standings earlier today, BP has altered them quite a bit and now has the Braves winning the division. I guess they liked all the moves the Braves made today? (he says sarcastically. But anyway, remember as you read the rest of this note that I wrote it before they altered their projections. I, on the other hand, haven’t altered my responses to original projections.)
I never put much stock in projected standings, particularly not before we even get to spring training. But I looked over these to see if I agreed.
Well, not with 96 wins for the Rays. Too many. Oh, and it’ll take more than 82 wins to finish first in the AL Central. And I don’t know about Oakland over Seattle in the AL West. Also, I don’t think the Marlins will finish last behind the Nationals.
Oh, and what the … the Nationals with 82 wins?
Like I said, I never put too much stock in projected standings.
♣ Diversions: I know we’ve got a few Graham Parker fans on the blog, and you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve been listening to upcoming release and that it’s quite good. Called Imaginary Television, it’s a concept album wherein our her, the estimable Mr. Parker, pens songs for TV shows that don’t exist.
It’s not coming out until March, but I got my dirty paws on an advance copy.
This is more great music from a man who keeps putting out terrific albums that, if he’s lucky, sell about one-tenth as many as the average (in every sense) American Idol alum.
But as long as he keeps cranking them out, we’ll keep listening. If only more knew what they were missing.
Speaking of missing, they just announced a Drive-By Truckers show at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta on … March 12-13. Fellas, don’t you know that’s the middle of spring training?
♣ Eat, greet, etc: The Braves 400 Fan Club is having its annual winter banquet and fundraiser on Saturday, Feb. 13 at the Marriott Perimeter Center just off I-85 inside the Perimeter (take the Clairmont exit). It’ll include a gala reception, silent auction and raffle of Braves memorabilia beginning at 5:30, followed by the awards dinner and program at 7:00 PM.
The theme this year is great Braves pitching rotations, and the guests will include current and former Braves pitchers and guests with stories to tell about the franchise’s pitching success. Braves radio man Jim Powell will emcee the program.
Hall of Famer Phil Niekro is scheduled to attend, along with Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Charlie Liebrandt, several Braves minor leaguers including Craig Kimbrel, and Giants first-round draft pick Zack Wheeler from East Paulding High in Georgia.
Yankees great Bobby Richardson will accept the Luke Appling Award.
Admission is by reservation only, and the deadline is Feb. 9. Tickets are $65 and include dinner. You can make reservations on the 400 Fan Club website at www.braves400.org, or mail a check to Braves 400 Club, P.O. Box 7689, Atlanta, GA 30309. Information is also available at 770-416-4539.
“IT’S ALL UP TO YOU” by Steve Earle
No matter which way the wind blows
It’s always cold when you’re alone
Ain’t no candle in the window
You’ve got to find your own way home
Now the rain ain’t gonna hurt you
It’s come to wash away your blues
It’s all up to you
Nobody said it would be easy
But it don’t have to be this hard
If you’re lookin’ for a reason
Just stand right where you are
Now there ain’t no one out to get you
They’ve got to walk in their own shoes
It’s all up to you
It’s all up to you
No one else can get you through
Right or wrong, win or lose
It’s all up to you
You can stand out on that highway
Look as far as you can see
But when you get to that horizon
There’s always someplace else to be
But don’t you stop to look behind you
‘Cause you’ve got some travelin’ left to do
It’s all up to you