Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – Good day from Dark Star, where it’s getting dark as rain and storms head this way. Looks like the Braves and Cardinals might get in a few innings before the storms arrive, but not much more than that.
Before we go any further: If you missed it in comments section on last blog, Braves had their second round of roster cuts today, dropping relievers Mike Dunn, Jeff Lyman and Mariano Gomez, outfielders Brent Clevlen and Mitch Jones, and catcher Orlando Mercado.
More on what that means for the roster-spots battles in just a minute.
As for today’s game and rain, it would’ve been good if they could have been sure to get at least get in a few innings for Jair Jurrjens, who was scheduled to pitch today. But we’re about to start in rain and Jurrjens has been scratched and replaced by reliever Peter Moylan.
Bobby Cox said before the game that Jurrjens would probably wait to pitch tomorrow in a minor league game if this one got banged.
“Unless he insists on the cages,” said Cox, referring to the option of Jurrjens throwing simulated innings in the batting cage today if he preferred that to pitching Monday on the team’s only scheduled off day of the spring.
The forecast, as of 11:30, was for the bad stuff to arrive about 2 p.m., but it’s already raining pretty hard at 1:05 as we get underway.
Anyway, there was some news this morning: Nate McLouth was scratched from original lineup this morning after Braves decided to send the slumping center fielder to a minor league game so he could bat every inning.
Dude is 1-for-35, batting .029 with three walks and 14 strikeouts – twice as many strikeouts as the next-highest Braves totals by minor leaguers Brandon Hicks and Clevlen.
“He can get nine at-bats over there, see if he can get it going a little bit,” said Cox, who then compared McLouth’s spring woes to another recent Brave, albeit one with a bit more power and longer resume.
“Remember the spring Teixeira had?” Cox said, referring to Teixeira’s struggles in only Braves spring training in 2008. “I was beginning to wonder if he was every going to hit a ball hard. His base hits [in spring training] were little ground balls that would sneak through. I was like, ‘Let’s get going.’”
(Tex eventually got going, to put it mildly. He hit a combined .308 with 41 doubles, 33 homers, 121 RBI and a .962 OPS that season with the Braves and Angels, including .358 with 13 homers and a 1.081 OPS in 54 games after the Braves traded him to Anaheim.)
As for McLouth, he’s 0-for-28 with 12 strikeouts since getting his only hit of the spring on March 6. He’s had two strikeouts in five of his last eight games, including three times in games where he had only three plate appearances.
Cox said he wasn’t sure which minor-league game McLouth would play in today. “It was a last-minute deal,” he said. “Doesn’t matter. Just see some balls.”
I asked if it was McLouth’s or the Braves’ idea.
“It was our idea,” Cox said. “He was all for it. Said he wanted to do it.”
♣ Two-man race: The second round of roster cuts trimmed the field of contestants for the final two bullpen spots and last bench job, though it’s been apparent for some time that Jones and Clevlen weren’t serious contenders to begin with due to the positions they play (or don’t play).
Left competing for the last bench job are Joe Thurston and Brooks Conrad, same as it’s been all spring, for all intents and purposes.
Cox always keeps two backups who can play middle infield; last year it was Omar Infante and Martin Prado, until Prado became the starting 2B. Now it’ll Omar and one of these two guys, Conrad and Thurston, who are similar players and have had similarly impressive springs.
Conrad has, in Cox’s estimation, made more great defensive plays than anyone else in the Grapefruit League. Hard to argue against that point, because I can remember at least five or six gems that he’s turned, mostly at 2B but a couple at 3B.
Thurston, too, has made several outstanding plays in the field. And he’s shown some impressive pop with a couple of well-stung home runs last week and some serious blasts in BP (it’s just BP, but team officials are there watching and taking mental notes).
Thurston’s hit .323 with a .344 OBP, two homers and seven RBI in 31 at-bats, with five strikeouts and one walk.
Conrad, 30, spent seven years in the minors before getting a cup of coffee with Oakland’s big club in 2008, and last year he hit .204 with five extra-base hits and eight RBI in 54 at-bats over 30 games with Atlanta.
Thurston, 30, spent most of a decade in the minors through 2008, with brief stints with the Dodgers in three seasons and with the Phillies and Red Sox in one season apiece. He didn’t have significant major league playing time until last season with the Cardinals, when he played in 124 games and hit .225 with a .316 OBP in 267 at-bats. He had only one homer among his 22 extra-base hits.
Thurston had some decent numbers in his long minor-league career, batting .295 with a .358 OBP and .779 OPS in a whopping 4,676 at-bats (I said it was a long minors career). Had one season with 39 doubles, and 11- and 12- homer seasons.
Conrad’s had a similarly length career in the minors, batting .261 with a .344 OBP and .810 OPS in 4,119 at-bats during parts of nine seasons, including three seasons with 36 or more doubles and four consecutive seasons with more than 20 homers through 2008.
When Conrad got called up by the Braves last July, he made seven starts at second base and hit .355 (11-for-31) with five extra-base hits (two homers) and eight RBI in 10 games.
He went 0-for-23 in his remaining 20 games with the Braves, while being used almost strictly as pinch-hitter for the rest of that first stint and during a later callup.
One other thing to keep in mind, as I was just reminded: Conrad is on the 40-man roster, and Thurston is not. I don’t think it’ll be the deciding factor unless they judge the two of them to be otherwise equal. But so far, they basically have looked equal. So….
♣The last ‘pen job: Left standing from an initial crowded field of contestants are righties Jesse Chavez, Craig Kimbrel, Manny Acosta and Scott Proctor, and lefties Jonny Venters and Jo-Jo Reyes.
If I had to guess today, I’d say Chavez and either Venters or Reyes will get the last two spots on the opening-day roster, but Proctor will be up by the third week of April.
Chavez hasn’t had a good spring, but made 73 appearances last season as a Pirates rookie. I don’t think the Braves are going to let a few spring appearances change their view of a pitcher they spoke so highly of after getting him in the Winter Meetings trade for Rafael Soriano.
Kimbrel’s stock continue to climb and the Braves have nothing but good things to say about the 21-year-old future closer’s work in camp and his rapid climb in the past year.
While it won’t shock me if he makes the opening-day roster, but I think the Braves prefer to get him at least a little more experience in the high minors – he only has 14 appearances and 13-2/3 innings above A-ball.
Also, Kimbrel’s not on the 40-man roster, and the Braves are already going to have to make one 40-man roster move to open a spot for Proctor when he’s ready, and another before that presuming that to add Jason Heyward, presuming he’s going to be the opening day right fielder. (It should be easy to open one spot — move INF Diory Hernandez on the 60-day DL. He’s recovering from shoulder surgery and not expected back until May or June anyway, though he’s already hitting.
Acosta has eight strikeouts and two walks in 5-1/3 innings this spring, but has also given up a pair of home runs among five hits. He struggled for much of his time in the majors last season (45 hits and 19 walks allowed in 37-1/3 innings) and he’s not out of minor-league options, so it seems to me the Braves would prefer to have, say, Venters and what Cox calls his “super sinker.”
(As we know from Kevin Gryboski and a couple of others, Cox does like to keep a so-called groundball specialist, even if they’ve been a bit erratic at times.)
Proctor will undoubtedly take one of the spots as soon as he’s ready, and Cox keeps saying that he hasn’t ruled him out for opening day. But he also conceded this morning that Proctor, who is 10-1/2 months removed from Tommy John surgery and only made his first appearance Friday, would have to be used carefully initially if he’s on the opening day roster.
So instead of rushing him to opening day after just a handful or fewer spring appearances, I think the Braves will have Proctor pitch for a couple of weeks in the minors. Besides, don’t forget that service-time matter — if Proctor is on roster all season,he’ll be a free agent at season’s end. If he spends two or three weeks in the minors before he’s added to the major league roster, the Braves will have him under contractual control for another season.
Not saying they would do it for that reason, because it won’t come to that: It’s only the prudent move to not rush him back for opening day, when they have other options, including several already on the 40-man roster.
As for Reyes, it’s only been in the past few days that Cox and Frank Wren said enough to make me believe Jo-Jo’s really being considered for a bullpen spot.
He’s got that hammer curve that could make him effective, and he’s had more success the first time through against lineups in the past than he has the second or third time that hitters face him. So who knows, maybe he could thrive in the bullpen role, at least for this season.
Still, the Braves might decide they really need Jo-Jo starting at Triple-A, at least for the early part of the season. Because if a starter gets hurt or has a sore shoulder and needs to miss a start or two, the Braves’ only starting depth besides Reyes is Kris Medlen, who’s going to be the long reliever in the ‘pen and is very valuable in that role.
But keeping him on the roster this long convinces me the Braves are either strongly considering Reyes for a bullpen role or are showcasing him for other teams who might be interested in trading for him, particularly if they think he could be effective as a reliever or starter.
♣ OK, it’s getting darker here and rain’s falling harder. But we’re going to start this game. So let’s get this posted now.
“DADDY LEARNED TO FLY” by Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers)
Daddy’s gone away and no one can tell me why
Mommy’s been so sad since Daddy learned to fly
Everyone brought food and everybody cried
Nothing’s been too good since Daddy learned to fly
The fun we used to have and the way we used to laugh
Have all gone away since they cut my world in half
But sometimes I can see him smiling from the sky
But he never stops to visit since Daddy learned to fly
Everyone tries so hard to ease my troubled mind
I guess he’s doing better than the ones he left behind
They say that I’m not old enough to know the reasons why
The clouds reached down from heaven and Daddy learned to fly
They tell me that in time everything will be ok
Life gets back to normal like before he flew away
They say he can see me so I’m trying not to cry
But sometimes I can’t help it since Daddy learned to fly