When GM Frank Wren, manager Fredi Gonzalez and the rest of the Braves’ brass and top scouts gather this week outside Orlando, they will do what Braves officials have gotten too used to doing at this time of year for the past decade: Begin putting together a sweeping plan to tweak or revamp last year’s team into a serious playoff contender while operating within what’s become a fairly tight budget.
Oh, and doing it while watching other teams play for the pennant. Ouch.
Yes, Braves officials will watch the NLCS games at night while gathered in a large meeting room at their hotel in downtown Celebration, Fla. The Braves themselves were last in an NLCS in 2001, and Wren said they’d obviously prefer to put off future annual organizational meetings in Florida a few weeks while occupied with the postseason.
Think about that: It will have been a decade since they last made it to the league championship series when Gonzalez tries to guide Braves back there in his first season at the helm in 2011. A decade.
And while Gonzalez will likely find it impossible to build icon status and the level of universal respect around baseball that Bobby Cox did in a quarter-century or so – to start with, no manager stays in one place long enough to do that anymore – his mentor scoffs at the idea that Gonzalez is in an unenviable position. That of being the proverbial man that replaces John Wooden, rather than the man who replaces the man who replaced Wooden.
“Just let me add, about replacing me,” Cox said during Gonzalez’s introductory news conference Wednesday, and here Cox went off in a different direction than the question he’d been answering, because he had something he wanted to say about an opinion he’s heard often, at which he, as we noted, scoffs.
“Walter Alston was replaced by Tommy LaSorda, who was a scout and a minor league manager, and did a great job,” Cox said. “They forgot all about Walter Alston. And that’s what’s going to happen here, OK?
“I told Fredi when he first got the Florida job, that you are who you are. You’ve got to be yourself. You take little things from managers, players, and you put them in a little bag here. It’s a little bag. But Fredi’s 6 feet 2, 235 pounds; it’s a big bag.” [Can I just say, here I was smiling, because Cox was loose and on a role, going off on tangents unlike we're accustomed to hearing from him. OK, carry on:]
“But you are who you are, and Fredi’s got all the right makeup to be a great manager. He already is. He’s got all the respect around baseball that you can get. It’s not going to be as difficult [as people think]. I’m going to be in the background. There’s always new starts, and Fredi’s getting a great start here.”
Gonzalez, seated next to Cox, smiled and said: “I’ve been called worse than a big bag.”
And there was much laughter in the room.
♣Turner Field = elimination: Anyway, so the Braves last made it to the final step before the World Series in 2001, when they lost the NLCS to Arizona in five games. The elimination loss came at Turner Field, which probably comes as no surprise to most of you.
In my first couple of seasons covering the Braves, I noted (before we had blogs, or I would have written it here) that Turner Field was the place where playoff runs came to die. Braves playoff runs, that is.
The last time the Braves faced elimination in a home postseason game and won? That’d be the 1996 NLCS against St. Louis, when the Braves won in six seven games. In their final year at old Fulton County Stadium.
We’re not saying Turner Field is cursed. We’re just saying the Braves have faced elimination in eight postseason home games since moving into Turner Field in 1997. And they’ve lost all eight of those games.
The eight times: They lost Game 6 against Florida in the ‘97 NLCS. Lost Game 6 against San Diego in the ‘98 NLCS. Lost Game 3 of the 2000 division series vs. St. Louis. Lost Game 5 of the ‘01 NLCS vs. Arizona. Lost Game 5 of ‘02 division series vs. San Fran. Lost Game 5 of the ‘03 division series vs. Chicago. Lost Game 5 of the ‘04 division series vs. Houston. And lost Game 4 of this year’s division series vs. San Fran.
Those are the seven times the Braves have faced possible elimination in postseason games at Turner Field. And eliminated, they were.
So that’s one part of the past that Gonzalez can only improve upon. Nowhere to go but up, in that specific category.
Of the Braves’ past five postseason trips, four ended at Turner Field. The only exception, the only time they were eliminated in a road game in the past 10 years, was the 18-inning loss in Game 4 at Houston in ‘05. That is not Devine (ahem, pardon the pun; I couldn’t resist).
Gonzalez, Wren and about a dozen other Braves officials and top scouts will convene at Celebration, Fla., and nearby Dark Star (aka, Braves spring training headquarters at the monolithic Disney fun sector) and jump bull-bore into planning and putting together next year’s team.
They will scour the 40-man rosters of every team for players who are pending free agents, or who might be non-tendered or otherwise available in trades. During morning and evening sessions, and over lunch or while sitting at the ballpark watching instructional league games, Wren will talk to scouts and other team officials about dozens and dozens of players, seeking any insight and recommendations they have.
There will be freewheeling sessions in that big room at the hotel, and at restaurants over meals and possibly drinks. The Braves will try to leave no stone unturned as they search to improve their offense, specifically with the addition of at least one proven, productive outfielder — preferably (but not absolutely) right-handed and with more power than the Braves got from all of their outfielders not named Heyward.
They’re going to have to be creative, Wren said last week. Which wasn’t surprising, given that the Braves will probably have a payroll in the $90-93 million range, which, Wren said, in terms of “real dollars” will be slightly higher than the payroll this season, which was slightly higher than 2008.
(As we’ve written here many times, including last week, Wren and other Braves officials insist that when insurance payments are included, along with late-season additions, etc., the Braves’ payroll actually increased, even though none of us amateur accountants has been able to figure out exactly how they come up with the figures they presumably are working with; they don’t give us those figures.)
Anyway, the Braves have close to $55 million committed next season to five players, when you include prorated signing bonuses and buyouts to these salaries: Derek Lowe ($15 mill), Chipper Jones ($13 mill), Tim Hudson ($9 mill), Brian McCann ($6.5 mill) and Nate McLouth ($6.5 mill).
Add another $5 million combined for the options the Braves will pick up on versatile veteran Omar Infante (wil he be at third base? second base? back to utility role? outfield?) and shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and you’re at about $60 mill for seven players.
OK, now add in raises for the arb-eligible players they choose to keep from this list: Martin Prado, Jair Jurrjens, Peter Moylan, Eric O’Flaherty, Matt Diaz, Melky Cabrera, Scott Proctor.
One can see where the Braves could get to $70 million a hurry if they keep at least a few of those guys, which we know they will.
Oh, and I haven’t even included the $6.67 million the Braves still owe Kenshin Kawakami, a portion of which they will surely have to eat in order to unload him on a team here or in Japan. If you included Kawakami’s salary, the Braves would already be at about $75 mill including three or four of those arb-eligibles.
“I think we owe it to him, and to us, to explore what possibilities there are out there,” Wren said of Kawakami. “Because with the development of our young pitchers, it’s become more difficult for us to project him in the rotation, and that’s really the best role for him.”
I then asked if sending him to a Japanese team was an option.
“I don’t know that yet,” Wren said. “We haven’t had a change to explore exactly what our options are going to be there, but I think … he very well may be back here, but we’ll at last explore alternatives for next year.”
(Me talking here: I’m not going out on a limb here by saying I really believe Kawakami will be elsewhere.)
Then there are the Braves’ pending free agents other than Infante and Gonzalez (those two are technically considered pending free agents, until the options are picked up after the World Series): Billy Wagner (planning to retire), Takashi Saito, Kyle Farnsworth, Troy Glaus, Derrek Lee, Eric Hinske, Rick Ankiel.
The Royals sent $1 mill to the Braves as part of the trade that brought Ankiel and Farnsworth, in order to cover the $500,000 buyouts of their 2012 options (Farnsworth’s option is $5.25 mill and Ankiel’s is $6 mill).
Lee’s still a full-time player, and the Braves don’t have a full-time position available because they’re planning on rookie Freddie Freeman to be their primary first baseman and play perhaps 140 or more games.
♣ Wagner void: The Braves will miss retired farmer Billy Wags, both for his obvious work on the field but also his work with their young pitchers in the bullpen, in the clubhouse, and going all the way back to workouts in the spring
Saito would be great to have back in a mentor/backup closer role, but he’ll be 41 next season and I don’t know that the Braves can commit significant dollars to someone that old in the bullpen.
Also, keep in mind the mentor thing probably won’t be quite as big a deal in 2011, with potential closer/setup duo Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters (or Venters and Kimbrel) already having some seasoning and other youngsters not expected to have as significant a role in next year’s bullpen.
(Then again, you never know: Who among us, a year ago or even last spring, ever thought Venters would have as big a role as he filled?)
“It was so valuable having Billy Wagner out there for the development of these young guys,” Wren said. “And it started from the time they threw their first bullpens in spring training. Billy was out there and he was talking to them. He really enjoyed that mentor role. He enjoyed it, and those young pitchers just ate it up. It’s great to see.
“You want your young pitchers to be open and trying to learn. Not all players are that way. Some guys come to the big leagues and think they’ve got it all figured out. To our guys’ credit, none of them had that approach. They were sponges to whatever Billy had to say.
“I think that’s why we saw them perform like they did down the stretch. Especially a guy like Craig Kimbrel. I mean, he came down the stretch and was able to perform at a really high level, and obviously gained the confidence of the manager and pitching coach, who felt like they could use him in any situation at the end. I think a lot of credit goes to Billy.”
Then Wren was asked about getting another veteran to help in that regard.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be a guy of that ilk,” he said. “I mean you’re talking premium, Hall of Fame closer credentials. You don’t find those guys very often.
“There might be a veteran addition to the bullpen, but that’s not a given. Because we’ve got a lot of good arms out there. Peter Moylan might be the veteran. He’s been around long enough to know what goes on. There’s some depth that we have out there that we feel real good about.”
♣ Whither Hinske? Hinske was a big part of the team, both in terms of leadership in the clubhouse and performance on the field, particularly during the first half when he helped spark the Braves after their nine-game April slide.
Hinske told me immediately after the playoff loss to the Giants that he really enjoyed his entire Braves experience and the guys in the clubhouse, and would certainly be interested in returning.
Here’s what Wren said Thursday when I asked about possibly re-signing Hinske:
“Eric Hinske was great for this team. He’s expressed an interest in coming back,” Wren said. “I just don’t want to predetermine a lot of this until I’ve had a chance to sit with the staff and sit with our scouts and look at our next year strategies to make sure it all fits, and make sure there is a good role for him on the team. It’s a little different, just in the fact our regular first baseman is going to be a left-handed hitter. That’s different than last year.
“It was a combination of Glaus and Hinske that was attractive to us a year ago, and that’s what made that work so well. The great thing for ‘Ski is, he can play different positions, and he can do some different things. But the biggest impact was coming off the bench.”
Then Wren was asked about acquiring someone to help out at first base, to back up the 21-year-old Freeman.
“I think we’re going to at least discuss that,” Wren said. “Not a platoon; I don’t think there’s a platoon in his future. But I’m thinking you may not want a young player to play 162. Maybe he plays 140 and you kind of take care of him against selected guys and give him a break.”
♣ Getting back to the big need, and McLouth: Of course the Braves would like to add not just one, but two proven outfielders. But we also have to take into account the situation with Nate McLouth, and the fact that only one spot might be open in the Braves’ outfield — center or left, with McLouth in the other, at least as the Braves sit and plan now for the coming season.
He’s owed a $6.5 mill salary in 2011, plus there’s a $1.25 mill buyout on a $10.65 mill club option fro 2012. No team is going to take on that full salary after McLouth’s performance since he was traded to the Braves in June 2009, including a .190 average in 2010 with 12 doubles, six homers, 24 RBIs and a .298 OBP in 288 plate appearances.
So unless the Braves find an extremely creative way to package him in a trade with someone else, the reality is that they are going to have to hope he improves in 2011 because they can’t afford to pay him $7.75 mill to go away.
(In that scenario, he could sign with any team for the big-league minimum, and the Braves would still be on the hook for that $7.75 mill. Imagine if he went elsewhere and suddenly hit like he did in 2008, or like he did for a couple of weeks in September? The Braves aren’t going to have that happen. They’ll keep him and hope, or, like I said, have to come up with a very creative way to move him and most of that salary.)
After McLouth’s demotion to Triple-A, he returned in September and hit .367 with seven extra-base hits (three homers) and 10 RBIs in a 10-game stretch from Sept. 5-18, and also had two other would-be homers taken away by catches above the center-field fence.
“We saw him get off to a great start when he got back and everybody said, ‘That’s the Nate McLouth that we saw in Pittsburgh,’” Wren said. “So we know that it’s in there. Now it’s really our task to unlock it and keep seeing it.”
The bad news: In his other 75 games this season, before and after that 10-game stretch, McLouth his .165 (35-for-212) with nine doubles, three homers, 14 RBIs, 31 walks and 55 strikeouts.
Of the 285 major league players who had at least 275 plate appearances this season, McLouth ranked 285th in batting average (.190) and 269th in OPS (.620).
Since he was traded to Atlanta on June 3, 2009, McLouth has hit .229 with 17 homers and 60 RBIs in 169 games, with a .330 OBP and .709 OPS.
In his last 169 games for Pittsburgh before the trade, he hit .257 with 27 homers and 98 RBIs, with a .339 OBP and .891 OPS.
He also stolen 28 bases without getting caught once in his last 169 games with the Pirates. With the Braves he’s stolen 19 bases in 27 attempts.
♣ So how do they do it? How can the Braves add a potential bat or two while operating under a presumed $90-93 mill payroll? That restriction pretty much assures they won’t be in the bidding wars for the biggest free-agent outfielders available, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, who are both expected to get long-terms (six- or seven-year) deals worth more than $100 million. Both will be overpaid because of the limited market, and so will Adam Dunn, who many believe will re-sign with the Nationals.
The Braves aren’t included to overpay for any free agents, with the recent exception of Lowe, who signed in unusual circumstances when the Braves were rather desperate to land a front-line pitcher after losing out on others. (And by the way, the two years and $30 mill left on his contract sure don’t look nearly as onerous for the Braves as the three and $45 mill did at this time a year ago.)
At first glance, it seems obvious the Braves are going to have to trade some of their young talent to get a top, affordable outfielder in a deal. And teams will line up if the Braves make available young pitchers on the current roster or from their bevy of top minor-league arms.
But the Braves aren’t going to trade potential future No. 1 starters Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, and Wren makes it sound like they’re inclined not to trade other young arms already in the majors, such as rumored potential trade target Jair Jurrjens.
Though again, keep in mind that Wren is probably not going to come out and say anything otherwise, not at this stage of the offseason.
“We’re going to have to be creative,” Wren said. “We’re going to have to take a look at every possibility. At the end of the day, I’m not sure what those are going to be and how it’s going to shake out. But we’re going to be at least exploring everything.”
As for the idea of trading from a position of strength, their starting pitching, he said: “We’ve kind of based our whole turnaround the last two years on pitching, and I think that’s something we’re going to try to continue, to at least out-pitch people. And we want to get a more well-rounded team.
“Our first-half team, we really were happy with our first-half team and the way they produced. We were in the top tier from a standpoint of offense and runs scored. We didn’t have the power, but we hit doubles and made things happen. So I think we’re going to try to continue to have strong pitching and know that we have to look to improve our offense.”
What does that mean, exactly? Well, here in the middle of October, it’s difficult to say. Give it a little more time, and we might start hearing things that give us a better idea how the Braves are going to go about this.
“It’s way too early to even contemplate what we might do, because you just don’t know,” Wren said. “We’re going to be very hesitant to trade pitching, because I think that’s our strength. There’s a reason why we matched up, as highly thought of as the Giants’ rotation and the Phillies’ rotation were, the last two weeks of the season we matched up with those rotations very well. Our guys pitched pitched-for-pitch with those rotations, which were thought to be the two best rotations in the National League.
“And that’s without J.J. [Jurrjens] being available for us. He’s likely going to have the knee ’scoped and just get it cleaned, so he’s 100-percent healthy coming into spring training. You roll the clock back a year, J.J. was right there at the top of that rotation, too. So that’s an area where we feel really good going into the spring.”
♣ OK, let’s get this filed. Sorry for the delay in getting up a new post, but we (Carroll and I) had a real busy week after the Braves’ playoff series, obviously, and are supposed to try to take some time off.
In case you missed it, check out this link to Steve Hummer’s terrific feature story on Fredi Gonzalez from the Sunday AJC. Here’s the link itself if you’re having any trouble with that link and want to paste it in your browser: http://www.ajc.com/sports/atlanta-braves/gonzalez-fresh-style-familiar-684078.html
Oh, and if you’re a film buff and haven’t seen The Social Network, I’d urge you to. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, for sure. And speaking of best-of-the-year, the San Diego band that I think made probably the best rock album of the year, The Soft Pack, is at The EARL in Atlanta on Thursday.
And this great singer-songwriter, Elizabeth Cook, is at Eddie’s Attic on Wednesday. I’ve told you her album, Welder, is one of the best country albums of the past few years, but I had no idea that clogging is another of her talents. Check out this video, and get in line behind me if you’re planning to propose.
Here’s the Soft Pack on one of the many great cuts off their self-titled album, and here they are doing it on Letterman. The lead singer used to pitch for the University of Richmond baseball team, by the way.
“ANSWER TO YOURSELF” by The Soft Pack
You gotta answer to yourself
You can’t depend on anyone else
You gotta know where you stand
And what’s in your hands
Yeah you gotta answer to yourself
You gotta write down what you know
You gotta make sure that it’s known
Because they’re coming along to see what you’ve done
And they’re gonna claim it for their own
You got a rabbit in your hat
You got a few tricks up your sleeve
Don’t get stuck in a rut
Or stuck in the same
You got exactly what you need
You got a talent don’t you know?
You’re more talented than you know
And you give it a shot
And give it the time
And be surprised how far it goes
But I think I’m gonna die
Before I see my time
But I think I’m gonna die
You gotta answer to yourself
2 days a week outside yourself
You take an hour a day, an hour a day
And you don’t respond to anyone else
You got a few things on your shelf
You got to look through for yourself
You gotta choose what to read
Choose what to believe
And you don’t take it from anyone else
But I think I’m gonna die
Before I see my time
But I think I’m gonna die