While the Braves wait for Eric Hinske to decide between offers from them and his home-state Brewers, and Matt Diaz waits for the Braves to make a decision about his future, most of us are just waiting for the Hot Stove to heat up.
And this is coming from a beat writer whose team made one of the only significant moves so far this winter, trading for second baseman Dan Uggla.
Yes, this offseason has been uncharacteristically short on juicy trade rumors and free-agent negotiations played out publicly. Apparently most teams — exception: Yankees — and agents are more or less abiding by the recent request that they not leak offers and negotiation updates to the media.
Those are the leaks that usually provide much of grist for the offseason rumor mill, and I wonder just how long teams and agents will continue to bite their lips and let so many calls from reporters go to voicemail, and go unreturned.
Or maybe there just are not nearly as many talks happening as we’re used to in late November. Arbitration offer deadlines and the exclusive free-agent negotiation period were shortened and the process sped up this winter, in the hopes that teams and players might begin serious talks earlier and more deals – trades and signings – might happen sooner than in recent years.
But it appears the reverse might actually be happening. Teams found out earlier than in past years which free agents would be offered arbitration by clubs and which would cost draft-pick compensation for signing teams.
Now, most are just sort of sitting on that info, fully digesting it and waiting for a couple more deadlines before formulating strategies for full engagement in talks during the Winter Meetings that start Monday (Dec. 6) in Orlando.
Teams probably figure that with the arb-acceptance deadline so much sooner this year, coming on Tuesday (Nov. 30), and the Dec. 2 deadline looming for teams to tender contracts to unsigned players, there’s really no reason to rush into anything.
Not when they can wait until after the Dec. 2 deadline and know exactly which players are available all over baseball, with those non-tendered players joining the free-agent pool.
This offseason could quickly go from slower-than-usual to something close to frenetic next week in Orlando. And even though the Braves have already made their big move of the winter, landing the big right-handed bat they had sought for at least the past couple of years, they still have moves to make.
They want to strengthen a bench that’s taken some hits this winter, with the loss of Omar Infante in the Uggla trade and lesser players who were dumped, and would also like to add a veteran reliever, preferably with some closing ability.
♣ Waiting for Hinske: Once the Braves get an answer from Hinske, they’ll obviously know much more about their bench needs.
The 33-year-old left fielder/first baseman/pinch-hitter is deciding between an offer from the Braves believed to be worth between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, and a similar offer from Milwaukee.
Hinske’s brother, Ryan, a high school football coach in Wisconsin, last week told the Appleton (Wisc) Post-Crescent that Hinske would like a two-year deal. If either team offers that, you get a sense he’d sign right away.
Understandable, given his age (33) and the year-to-year nature of the job of a veteran utility man/pinch-hitter. Meawwhile, teams prefer not to make more than a one-year commitment to players whose performance can go from really good to bad so rapidly (see: Greg Norton), while the players try to capitalize on a good season for more security.
If all things are reasonably close to equal, offer-wise, I tend to believe Hinske will come back to Atlanta, where he’s comfortable with his teammates and confident that the Braves can make another playoff run (if Bobby Cox was back, I’d be even more confident Hinske would return).
But you just never know about the pull of the hometown, especially for a player who’s nearing the end of his career, and has never gotten to play so close to family members on a regular basis.
And if the Brewers offer the same or a bit more than the Braves, that might be difficult for him to turn down, unless Hinske just doesn’t believe the Brewers have much chance to contend for a playoff berth (he’s been to the playoffs four consecutive years with four different teams, including three World Series trips before last year’s first-round loss to San Francisco).
Hinske hit .256 with 21 doubles, 11 homers and 51 RBIs in 281 at-bats last season, with a .338 OBP and a .456 slugging percentage. When Braves left fielders struggled mightily in the early season, Cox put Hinske out there and he helped spark a resurgence after the nine-game losing skid in late April.
But after he cooled off and began to slump, Cox removed him from the regular left-field job and eventually stopped platooning him with Diaz, too. I never fully understood the reasoning for that, to be honest with you. I thought the Braves were pretty solid with Diaz and Hinske platooning in left field.
Hinske hit .274 (48-for-175) with 14 doubles, six homers, 34 RBIs and an impressive .817 OPS before the All-Star break, compared to .226 (24-for-106) with only 10 extra-base hits, 17 RBIs and a .754 OPS after the break.
Hinske was one of the players often cited by others for the Braves’ improved team chemistry, a leader from the beginning of spring training.
As a pinch-hitter, he hit .298 with three homers and a .985 OPS in 47 at-bats. And in whatever role he was playing, during the late innings of close games Hinske hit .302 with three homers and a 1.009 OPS in 43 at-bats.
Overall, he hit .314 with a .945 OPS in 99 at-bats after the sixth inning.
Yes, the Braves need him back.
His managers have used Hinske sparingly against lefties in recent years, and he excelled against lefties in very limited exposure to them last season. Hinske went 8-for-21 (.381) with three doubles and two homers against lefties, after batting just .191 (21-for-110) with four doubles and homers against lefties over the 2007-2009 seasons.
But he makes his bones hitting righties, and last season his slugging percentage against righties was .427, down from .457 over the previous three seasons combined.
All that said, the Braves need him. Or, at least in my opinion, they shouldn’t lose him over a few hundred thousand bucks, if it were to come to that. For team chemistry and late-innings production, that seems a small price to pay over what you might have had in mind.
♣ Diaz awaiting decision: After coming to Atlanta five years ago as a 26-year-old minor leaguer in a deal no one noticed, a trade for an obscure pitcher who went on to more obscurity, Matt Diaz’s career blossomed as a Brave.
A .303 average, .353 OBP and .815 OPS. That’s what Diaz has done in five seasons for the Braves.
The amiable outfielder really wants to continue as a Brave. But he’s smart. He looks at moves the Braves have made this offseason, realizes he might be moving on. Or not. He hasn’t talked to a team official since the season ended.
“Just hanging tight for a few more days,” Diaz said from his Central Florida home on Monday, as one of his two small children made a lot of noise in the background.
“That’s what I heard, that you wouldn’t hear anything till the last day [before the non-tender deadline],” he said. “Just try not to worry too much.”
Diaz had a .313 average and career-best .878 OPS in 2009, when he had career-highs of 425 plate appearances, 13 homers and 58 RBIs.
Then he slipped to a .250 average and .739 OPS last season, with seven homers and 31 RBIs in 84 games. Diaz was limited to 244 plate appearances due to a first-half thumb infection that required surgery.
Joe Mather, a versatile corner outfielder/infielder recently claimed off waivers from St. Louis, or someone else-to-be-determined might replace Diaz as a part-time left fielder and right-handed pinch-hitter.
That’s what can happen to a player whose price tag rises through arbitration, to a point where teams weigh his contributions against the cost of others who might offer similar performance for significantly fewer dollars.
Diaz has made it clear he’d skip his final run at arbitration and return for something close to the $2.55 million he made last year, but the Braves haven’t made an offer or indicated any intention to tender a contract.
“Not with two kids and one more arriving any week now,” said Diaz, whose wife, Leslee, has a Dec. 16 due date for the couple’s third child. “Is she going to pop? I’m worried, but about a few more important things than that [contract situation].”
There hasn’t been much idle time for him to even think about his next contract.
“No, not with our families,” said Diaz, whose parents and parents-in-law both live nearby. “We have two Thanksgivings and two small kids, so you’re more worried about them not throwing food and stuff like that. That makes it harder to relax at Thanksgiving than [whether or not he'll be tendered a contract].”
If the Braves don’t retain him, the right-handed-hitting Florida native would be a free agent. Philadelphia mananager Charlie Manuel, a neighbor in Winter Haven, has already indicated the Phillies would be interested in Diaz.
“That’s anyone’s first choice, to return to the team you’ve had success with and are comfortable with,” Diaz said. “But I think we’re prepared either way. We’ve done a pretty good idea of keeping our identity away from what I do and the team I play for. You know my priority list.”
It’s God and family first for Diaz.
“It’d be great to be back, but we’ll be fine either way,” he said. “I definitely think I can help. I felt like once I was back last year [from injury], I helped.”
Even in a down year for Diaz, he hit .273 with five homers and a .512 slugging percentage in 112 at-bats against lefties. Jason Heyward (six homers in 173 at-bats) was the only Brave with more homers off lefties, and David Ross (.526) was the only Brave with a better slugging percentage against lefties.
Atlanta’s .385 slugging percentage against lefties was fifth-lowest in the NL.
During the 2007-2009 seasons, Diaz hit a blistering .369 against lefties, with 45 extra-base hits (17 homers) and a .975 OPS in 396 at-bats. He hit .265 with a .700 OPS in 468 at-bats against righties during that same three-year stretch.
More than just his future hangs in the balance with next week’s non-tender deadline. There is also the matter of the name for the soon-to-arrive baby boy.
Diaz explained that he and Leslee have several names in mind, but a couple of their favorites are names that teammates recently used for their own children. So they’ll wait to pick a name after they know if Matt will continue playing for the Braves.
How ’bout the name of an actual teammate?
“We had a lady at church who said, ‘I like the name Omar,’” Diaz said, chuckling. “I said, ‘Yes, but if that kid doesn’t speak Spanish, he’ll be shunned.’” (Diaz speaks only limited Spanish.)
Are we going to miss this guy if the Braves don’t bring him back? You better believe it.
Etc. Speaking of Dan Uggla, you may have heard by now that he has 23 homers and a .901 OPS in 89 games against the Braves, and a .354 average with 12 homers, 36 RBIs and a 1.051 OPS in 45 games at Turner Field. But how ’bout this: In his last 25 games against the Braves, Uggla had eight homers, a .364 OBP, and a .615 slugging percentage. It’s as if the Braves finally said “uncle” and traded for their nemesis to stop the pain.
All right, let’s close this thing with a tune from the Drive-By Truckers. It’s “Birthday Boy,” and here’s a live bootleg with surprisingly clean audio. Also, check out this making making-of video about the song, told by band members around another live performance of the tune. Good stuff.
“BIRTHDAY BOY” by Mike Cooley (Drive-By Truckers)
Which one’s the birthday boy?
she said I ain’t got all night
What’d your mama name you?
You can call me what you like
Every skinny mystery gotta make it hard somehow
Sit your narrow ass down hot shot
I’ll solve yours right now
You got a girlfriend don’t you boy?
Nervous hands cant lie
Married men don’t ask how much, single ones ain’t buying
One day you got everything, next day it’s all broke
Let miss Trixie sit up front
Let her wipe your nose
Working for the money like you got eight hands
Flat on your back under a mean old man
just thinking happy thoughts and breathing deep
Between your mama’s drive and daddy’s belt
It don’t take smarts to learn to tune out what hurts more than helps
The pretty girls from the smallest towns
get remembered like storms and droughts
that old men talk about for years to come
I guess that’s why they give us names
So a few old men can say they saw us rain when we were young
Which ones the birthday boy?
she said I aint got all night
What’d your mama name you?
You can call me what you like