Denizens and everyone else, here’s to a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, rockin’ New Year and all that.
Now, a new blog and Top 50 CDs of 2010 list for you to peruse, use or abuse as you see fit.
In spring training or during the season, there’s usually too much rather than not enough for us to write and blog about. But coming up with a fresh topic during the holidays can be difficult, particularly when you cover a team that moved quickly to complete its major offseason moves by early December.
But we got what we needed for this holiday blog via a conversation with GM Frank Wren, as he literally sat on a beach in Cozumel this week, following a couple of morning scuba-diving sessions with his vacationing family. He said the reef off that Mexican resort is one of the best anywhere for diving, and also added that it was 80 degrees and he had a bit of a sunburn.
I put my cold hand over my phone – temp’s about 60 in my 1950s-era ranch house, where we’re trying to minimize furnace use to get a couple more years out of that contraption – and cursed Wren for rubbing it in. Then I thanked him in advance for being gracious with his time while on vacation. (Really was cool of him to do this.)
The interview was for a Q&A that will run in the Christmas day print edition of the AJC, and should be posted online at some point in next couple of days. For now, I thought I’d tease it with a few topics that have been discussed quite frequently on the ol’ blog – Liberty Media, payroll, Zack Greinke, and the Braves’ increased emphasis on speed.
I asked Wren: Is it difficult working within the constraints of a mid-size payroll in a division with two high-payrolled teams, the Phillies and Mets, or is that not as big an issue as some might imagine, and something you just get accustomed to dealing with?
“The one thing about it is, as long as you know what you have” it’s workable, he said. “And we have an ample payroll to win, there’s no question about that. We’ve seen all kinds of signs of that in recent times. San Francisco was marginally higher than us, and plenty of other [winning] clubs are in our payroll range. Texas and Tampa Bay were lower. You look at clubs that are well constructed, if you have young players coming up in your system – only way any team can consistently compete, that’s not in the really high payroll levels, is by having a strong farm system, where you’re continually bringing young players to the big leagues who can contribute to your team.”
I followed that by asking him if the payroll limits force a team like the Braves to be even more diligent in terms of making good draft picks and trades that add, rather than subtract, depth in the minor league system?
“What you have to be diligent about is, you have to know your players better than anyone else knows them,” he answered. “You make sure you don’t trade those players who have a chance to be real productive, game-changing types. You’re going to make trades, but you just make sure you don’t give away players who are going to have a huge major league impact in the future. But sometimes players develop at different paces, and you’re not going to see it, they come around and develop at a different time than you thought they would. We’re not going to stop being aggressive and making trades, getting players to help us win.
“John [Schuerholz] and Bobby [Cox] were so good and so consistent for so long, but that’s not the norm. That’s really hard to do, and every other club will tell you that. Being there 14 years in a row just doesn’t happen. Our goal is to be consistent, year-in and year-out, but to do that you’re also going to have to keep developing players and getting players.”
When I asked him if there were specific areas or things the Braves would like to accomplish in the future, that’s when Wren brought up the subject of speed.
“We’ve talked about it — and it’s a hard thing to do — as we transition to a more athletic team,” he said. “Where speed and defense and those areas are so valuable in the overall scheme of things the way the game’s played today, transitioning more to that type of team as we go forward, while also maintaining our strong pitching base. Not to say you can’t have a very successful team without that, but if there’s one attribute that plays so well in our game it’s speed. In the last five or six years, there’s been a re-emphasis on speed.
“But speed without the presence of other skills really doesn’t do you a lot of good, either. That’s why those players are so rare. They’re hard to come by. That’s been a focus of Tony [DeMacio, Braves scouting director] last year in the draft, as well as for Johnny [Almaraz, Braves international scouting director]. That’s hopefully the direction we’re headed more and more as we go forward. But it’s five or six years to turn that around, from the time you sign a player to when they become an impact player in the big leagues.”
While on the subject of payroll restrictions, I asked him about Liberty Media, the Denver-based conglomerate that owns the Braves. I asked how much interaction he had with Liberty officials, or whether that was left primarily to Braves CEO Terry McGuirk.
“We all in the front office have interactions with them several times a year, whether we’re playing [against the Rockies] in Denver, or they’ll come to Atlanta or at our annual meetings,” Wren said. “But primarily they have given us the ability to run this franchise, especially Terry, to put together the budget and basically just keep them informed. It’s an ideal situation for a baseball operation, to be able to make decisions internally.”
I asked him if it was a good ownership situation, from his perspective, since we often hear from fans who’d prefer to have a big-spending local owner, preferably one person, rather than some far-flung corporation.
“It’s an outstanding situation,” Wren said of the current ownership arrangement. “It’s never been a time that I know of where there was a [phone] call saying, ‘Why are you doing this or doing that?’ They’re confident in the leadership situation in Atlanta, to make decisions in those situations. I think [criticism from media or fans] is misdirected – the budget is set internally, not by Liberty Media.
“There are a lot of teams with single owners who are local are doing exactly the same thing we’re doing – with a similar payroll and how they’re doing things. We get very high marks for how our franchise is run throughout baseball….
“The economics are really a function of our market size and the revenues that are coming in. It’s not because there’s an owner saying ‘You’re not going to do this.’ It’s just a function or our market. And like I said, I can reel off half a dozen other markets very similar to us that do have local owners, who are doing it the same way we’re doing it. So that’s a bit of a red herring when you always want to throw it on Liberty.”
Oh, and as long as he seemed so relaxed on the beach, I figured I’d ask about Greinke, the former AL Cy Young Award winner who’d just been traded from Kansas City to Milwaukee. I asked Wren, if the Braves ever considered making a run at Greinke this winter.
“His name was brought up,” he said. “We talked
about it. I just think it was going to be cost-prohibitive for us, because some of those players it would have taken to make that deal are players we’re going to be counting on in the next year or two, and we think they’re going to be premium talents at the major league level.”
There’s a lot more coming in that Q&A with Wren that we’ll get posted this week. He was candid and, uh, Frank (did I really just use that? Oy.)
♣ Whither Uggla? Don’t panic, folks. There have not been any setbacks in negotiations between the Braves and Uggla on a potential contract extension. A report in a Boston paper last week got everyone excited, because it made it sound like a deal was imminent on a five-year extension worth $60-61 million.
Fact is, the Braves and Uggla agreed after he was traded to the Braves in November that there was no great urgency to get an extension done, and both sides said they wanted it to happen and didn’t see any reason it wouldn’t.
That hasn’t changed. Uggla, who’s eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, wants to stay with the Braves for a lot more years, and they want to keep him. Will they guarantee a fifth year, something the Marlins would not do? I think in the end, they probably will, especially in light of the seven-year contracts that were just handed out to Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford. Werth, 31, is 10 months older than Uggla.
Although Werth has an .848 career OPS to Uggla’s .837, and a .369 OBP to Uggla’s .349, Werth has only two seasons with as many as 27 homers (Uggla has done that in all five seasons in the majors). Werth has driven in more than 70 runs only twice in the past five seasons; Uggla drove in at least 90 runs in four of those five seasons, and 88 in the other.
Werth never scored more than 73 runs before totaling 98 and 106 runs in the past two seasons. Uggla has scored 100 or more runs three times, and totaled 97 and 84 runs scored in his other two seasons.
I’m not suggesting that Uggla should be paid what Werth’s getting, and I realize that Uggla isn’t a free agent yet. But he will be 10 months from now if not signed to an extension, and five years at $60-65 million sure sounds like a bargain about now, compared to the staggering seven-year, $126 million contract that the Nationals lavished upon Werth.
And for those who suggest that Uggla won’t be worth $12 million by the fourth or fifth year of that deal, you might be right. Or you might not be. No middle infielder has ever hit as many homers in his first five seasons as Uggla, but just as importantly, for contract purposes, it’s worth noting that very few current players have put up as consistently productive numbers in their first five seasons as Uggla has.
But the bottom line is this: Whether you’re comfortable paying him a guaranteed fourth or fifth year, right now that appears to be the going rate for such a player. So you pay it, or you risk him putting up the same kind of season he’s produced every year, then commanding an even greater contract next winter, when multiple teams will surely be ready to offer that kind of cash for a consistent 30-homer, 95-RBI middle infielder, regardless of his mediocre defense.
Dude’s a run-producer and a big-time power threat. He’s going to get paid. And the Braves have searched too long for a right-handed power bat to let this one slip away after one season.
I’m confident they’ll get a five-year extension done, whether that’s next week or next month.
♣ Braves and the NL East: We were having a discussion on the blog a few days ago about the Braves’ postseason chances in 2011, when I suggested that the Braves, with starting rotation returning intact, and Uggla added to the lineup, should be better than they were during an injury-plagued 2010 season in which they won 91 games and the wild card.
One of our regulars, screen name MFin04, replied with this: “Contending this year and contending last year are two different beasts. Teams continue to get better every year. Phillies got better, Nationals got better, Marlins always find a way to win with young guys, the Mets are going to be healthier this year I’d presume. So while the Braves got a little bit better with Uggla, the rest of the division did too.”
I just wanted to repeat here the answer I gave him (since we were up to about 60 pages of comments, I’m sure many of them went unnoticed by a lot of our readers). My reply was:
“Please. The Nationals finished 28 games out of first place (and 22 games behind the Braves), lost Stephen Strasburg to injury, Adam Dunn to free agency and Josh Willingham in a trade, and added Jayson Werth and some far lesser pieces. Even if they were to sign, say, Derrek Lee, they still haven’t closed much of the gap on the Phillies and Braves. Look at their pitching staff.
“You say the Marlins (who finished 11 games behind Atlanta) “always find a way to win with young guys” and the Mets (who finished 12 games behind Atlanta) “are going to be healthier this year, I’d presume,” and then you conclude with, “So while the Braves got a little bit better with Uggla, the rest of the division did too.” Why, just because the Marlins always find a way to win with young guys and the Mets are going to be healthier? Those are the reasons you believe they’re going to close double-digit gaps on the Braves in the standings?
“One could certainly argue that the Phillies improved by adding a tremendous starting pitcher, Cliff Lee, although they lost one of their key lineup cogs in Werth. But the rest of the division? What did those teams do to put them ahead of the Braves, who won the wild card, kept their starting rotation intact, and added a 30-homer hitter? The Braves lost a very good closer to retirement, and it remains to be seen whether Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters can handle the closer role without much dropoff. Otherwise, the Braves’ only significant loss was All-Star utility man Omar Infante.”
OK, other blog participants, your thoughts?
♣ Etc. The Braves have signed a load of 6-year minor league free agents this winter that seem a cut above the usual flotsam
that falls into that category. The latest is lefty Yohan Flande, signed from the Phillies organization last week. He’ll be 25 in January — old for a custard treat; just checking to see if you’re paying attention still — and went 10-8 with a 4.38 ERA and 1.402 WHIP at Double-A Reading in 2010 in 27 starts, with 84 strikeouts and 44 walks in 158-1-3 innings. Those aren’t impressive numbers, obviously, but he was rated among the Phillies’ top 20 prospects before last season, and has a 34-17 record, 3.28 ERA and 1.250 WHIP in five minor league seasons. So who knows? Certainly worth taking a look at. The Braves plan to have him in their Triple-A Gwinnett starting rotation…. In case you missed it, former Braves lefty Chuck James signed a minor-league deal last week with the Twins…. Center fielder Rick Ankiel signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Nationals, which is one-fourth of the amount of the $6 million option the Braves declined on Ankiel for the 2011 season…. Speaking of the Nats, they will pay Jayson Werth $21 million per season in 2015-2017, when he’s 36, 37 and 38.
♣ The best CDs of 2010, period: It’s too bad that fewer people buy music these days, because they’re missing out on a great period of new music in all genres. Seriously, this was one of the best years I can recall for new, bold and just plain terrific new music.
Which only made it that much harder to put together my annual list of the best 50 CDs/albums. But here it is, after much coffee-fueled late-night cramming (had to play a bunch of them again, since it’s been months since I last listened to a few of them – you who buy too much music know what I mean).
My rules are simple: It must be a CD or LP that I possess in its entirety (confession: I cheated on two CDs this year, borrowed them from a lovely lady). It can not be a recording that I heard a cut from, or that I just read about. No, no, no. Can’t be something I downloaded one or two songs from or heard at a listening station at Decatur CD or Criminal Records, or that the dude played at Wuxtry.
That means two things: First and foremost, I spend irresponsible amounts of money on CDs. Secondly, there are going to be plenty of great CDs that I missed, that I haven’t found so far at a reasonable price. I’m a sports writer, not a rock critic getting dozens of CDs sent to me gratis every week. Dammit.
Lastly, we’ve got no genre restrictions. If I like it and think it’s good enough — top-50 good — I rank it. Plenty of CDs not listed here got great critical reviews, but I either didn’t hear them in their entirety or didn’t like them enough to rank. And yes, I know a few I’ve ranked in the bottom half of my list finished in the top 10 of others. So? Maybe I just didn’t like them as much, or maybe I don’t have conflicts of interest, like a magazine that gets a cover story from this or that artist in exchange for a better-than-deserved review or ranking (not that that would ever happen; ahem).
There might also be one or two I simply overlooked when I was going back through my stacks and stacks of CDs, trying to figure out exactly what came out this year. It happens every years. I reserve the right to change one or two if I immediately realize that I overlooked one or two last night when I was finishing this exhaustive task. But only one or two, and only for a day or two. Can’t be changing my list for anything else.
Two other things: We tried to avoid all reissues or tribute albums this year (or else the John Prine and Loretta Lynn tributes would both have made my list). The Bruce Springsteen gem is not a reissue. And lastly, the CD of the year was a really tough call for me between terrific work from The Black Keys and The National, with Jamey Johnson’s hard country double-CD also great enough to be No. 1 in a lot of years.
Among the many other CDs I really like this year that fell just outside the list were new ones by Alejandro Escovedo, Bad Religion, Gil Scott-Heron, Broken Bells, Josh Ritter, Warpaint, Tom Petty, Graham Parker, Wolf Parade, New Pornographers, Merle Haggard, Midlake, The Thermals, Mary Gauthier, Jason & The Scorchers, The Roots with John Legend, Maximum Balloon, Mynabirds, Sharon Van Etten, Surfer Blood, Ryan Adams, Wavves, Dangermouse & Sparklehorse, Eels, John Mellencamp, Future Islands, Everest, The Tallest Man on Earth, Futurebirds, Free Energy and Budos Band, among others. But now….
Best CDs of 2010
ADDENDUM: I picked up more CDs on my year-end vacation in Seattle, after this list was published, a few of which could’ve been in the top 50 or at least been mentioned: Robyn’s Body Talk, Crocodiles‘ Sleep Forever, and Antony and the Johnsons‘ Swanlights.
– By David O’Brien, Braves blog