PHOENIX – Was just about to write a new blog when the news broke that Tony La Russa is going out on top, retiring after his Cardinals won the World Series. This came only about 30 minutes after I got a call in my Phoenix hotel room from someone asking me if I thought Terry Pendleton might be interested in becoming a manager.
My guess is that TP, who started his career in the Cardinals organization and played seven seasons for St. Louis, will be mentioned as a candidate for the Cardinals managerial job, a year after being switched from hitting coach to first-base coach with the Braves.
Pendleton turned down overtures from a few teams years ago, in part because he didn’t want to uproot his children while they were in school and because he loved Atlanta (still does) and Bobby Cox. Plus, he didn’t want his possible first managerial job to be with a team in flux, with a GM that could be on the way out and/or with a team that had an uneasy ownership situation.
Now that his kids are grown up, Cox is retired and Pendleton is no longer the hitting coach, I wonder if he might be more inclined to leave for the right job. And believe me, if St. Louis has any interest in him, that might be a job too good for almost any young manager or aspiring manager to turn down….
Then I was just about to finish the blog and check out of my Phoenix hotel when got word of the Derek Lowe trade. At first I thought person who told me was joking, then I heard the $10 million figure the Braves were paying and it made sense. About what we thought they’d have to cover of his remaining $15 mill in order to trade him.
They got a serviceable young lefty reliever from the Indians in the trade, but the only thing that really mattered was, the Braves got rid of Lowe, which opens a spot for one of their talented young starters in next year’s rotation. It had just become an untenable situation with Lowe and the Braves, and they weren’t going to go to spring training again with him clogging up one of the rotation spots, and certainly not as a $15 mill middle reliever.
From the day that Wren told us after the season that he didn’t see Lowe in next year’s rotation, well, it was pretty obvious the Braves would trade him for whatever they could get in terms of salary relief.
Much as I liked Lowe as a person and will miss his humor and good nature, it was a trade that had to happen for a team with as much young pitching as the Braves have. Hopefully the change of scenery and move back to the AL will help Lowe put together a good season with the Indians.
At $5 mill, he’s a good gamble for Cleveland. If he just wins 10-12 games and works 180 innings or so, it will have probably been worth it for them. Plus, he’s a good influence on young pitchers. He takes an interest in their development and sets an example with his work habits in spring training. But he had to go.
While our Carroll Rogers was doing the heavy lifting on the Lowe trade story, I spent my last hour or so in Phoenix on Monday morning answering questions on Twitter and the blog and crunching numbers, etc., before heading to airport. Now, after transcribing more interviews on plane for upcoming stories, I’m home.
And so, back to complete our originally scheduled blog…
♣ Organization is solid: When the Braves stumbled to one of the worst September collapses in baseball history, it created a negative vibe that could linger for some time with many fans, who wonder what went wrong and what will be done to assure it doesn’t happen again.
But out in the Arizona Fall League, if you tell a scout or an official from another team that you cover the Braves, they’ll tell you that GM Frank Wren has the Braves in an enviable position going forward, with a big-league roster sprinkled with top-tier young talent and a farm system that a one opposing team official said was better-stocked than any other than Kansas City’s.
And for the first time in a while, that includes plenty of good position-player prospects in addition to a bevy of fine young arms.
A couple of those position players have been on display in the AFL – 20-year-old catcher Christian Bethancourt and 1B/3B/LF Joey Terdoslavich, who hasn’t made any top-prospect lists in the past but should find his way onto some this winter after following up his 52-double, 20-homer, .286/.341/.526 season at high-A Lynchburg with a strong performance in the fall league, where a couple dozen or more scouts watch every game. The Braves plan to play him at third base this season, after a season spent primarily at first base.
I’m going to do stories on those two guys in the next week or so, first one on Bethancourt this week and then one on Terdoslavich.
I’ll also do a story in the next couple of weeks on lefty Sean Gilmartin, who has really impressed out here with how he’s handled himself against some top hitting prospects, just a few months after signing with the Braves after being drafted out of FSU.
Although Gilmartin’s upright pitching mechanics resemble Tom Glavine’s, whom he emulated after watching as a kid, I had one veteran scout tell me out here that Gilmartin’s stuff is actually more reminiscent of Steve Avery. Glavine finished his pitches better than Gilmartin does, the scout said. But Gilmartin has a chance to be real good, he added.
Another AL scout, an older guy who’s been around for decades, said Gilmartin stands out because he already has such good command of four pitches. “He throws strikes a lot a lot better than some of those Texas pitchers,” the scout said, a day after the Rangers’ excruciating Game. 6 loss to St. Louis in the World Series.
One more kid who’s been off the radar but showing some good things out here is switch-hitting minor league outfielder Todd Cunningham, a second-round pick in the 2010 draft out of Jacksonville (Ala.) State.
After hitting .257 with a .348 OBP in 87 games for high-A Lynchburg, with four triples, four homers and 14 stolen bases in 386 at-bats, Cunningham has opened a few more eyes with a few big games in the fall league.
Granted it’s an extremely small sample size, but Cunningham has hit .326 (14-for-43) with a .362 OBP in 11 games with three doubles, a triple and 11 RBIs. Friday I saw him have a three-hit game that included a double and a terrific sliding catch in foul territory.
“He’s someone who we liked in the draft; we really liked his bat,” Braves assistant GM Bruce Manno said. “He’s a good hitter. He was hurt this year [strained elbow] for part of the season, so he ended up playing 87-88 games, then missed the rest of the season.”
That’s why the Braves wanted him to go to the fall league, where Cunningham has gotten more at-bats and shown he’s healthy.
“He can handle the bat,” Manno said. “He’s doing more things offensively now. He swings bat from both sides of the plate and his approach is very good.”
Cunningham is scheduled to play center field next season for either Lynchburg or Double-A Mississippi.
♣ Speaking of center fielders, prospect Matt Lipka was moved from shortstop to center field during the Braves’ instructional league after the season, and team officials were pleased with his progress at the new position.
The speedy Lipka, a former prep all-state wide receiver in Texas, was the Braves’ first pick in the 2010 draft, the 35th overall selection.
After hitting .288 with a .344 OBP and stealing 21 bases in 24 attempts during 52 rookie-league games in 2010, Lipka slipped to .247 with a .305 OBP and one homer in 127 games at Class-A Rome in his first full season of pro ball in 2011. He stole 28 bases and was caught 14 times.
He’s only 19, and the Braves are high on him for the long term. They have four shortstop prospects they believe to be sound – Tyler Pastornicky and the gifted Andrelton Simmons in the nearer term, and Nick Ahmed and Elmer Reyes behind them – and decided that Lipka could better help them in center, where they don’t have much quality depth in the organization.
Another of their top prospects, Edward Salcedo, has been shifted from shortstop to third base and progressed at Rome in his first full season above rookie ball. Salcedo showed marked improvement at the plate upon being moved full-time to third base, after splitting time between shortstop and third base early in the season.
With Lipka, the move to center could help him get to the majors sooner, and his physical tools are suited to the position. During the instructional league he worked on outfield skills with Doug Dascenzo, the Braves’ new minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator, and worked on improving his leadoff hitting approach with Don Long, the Braves’ new minor league hitting coordinator and former Pirates hitting coach.
“He’s athletic,” Manno said. “If you didn’t know, during four weeks of instructional league you’d think he’d been out there [center field] a long time…. I think center field is goingt to be a real solid position for him, where he can excel and just use his athletic ability. That’s been fun to see him take to it.
“We told him day before instructional league that we were going to move him to center, and he took to it very well. He’s excited. He’s aggressive, has a great work ethic, and just takes everything you give him and runs with it.”
♣ Bench upgrade coming? I wasn’t surprised to see the Braves pick up Eric Hinske’s $1.5 million option for 2012, and thought it was a good move despite his reduced production in 2011. As I’ve said, his versatility and veteran leadership made it a reasonable risk to pick up that option and hope he can get back to something resembling his 2010 form.
After hitting .256 with 33 extra-base hits (11 homers), 51 RBIs and a .794 OPS in 281 at-bats in 2010, Hinske hit .233 with 20 extra-base hits (10 homers), 28 RBIs and a .714 OPS in 236 at-bats in ’11.
After hitting .253 with a .797 OPS in 83 at-bats with runners in scoring position in 2010, he hit .232 with a .639 OPS in 56 at-bats with RISP in ’11.
I couldn’t help but notice that rookie Wilkin Ramirez had four hits in 10 pinch-hit at-bats and Diory Hernandez went 5-for-15 as a pinch hitter (9-for-25 between them), while Hinske went 9-for-56 (.161) as a pinch-hitter in 2011 with two extra-base hits (both homers) and 23 strikeouts.
This after Hinske went 14-for-47 (.298) with seven extra-base hits (three homers) and only seven strikeouts as a pinch-hitter in 2010.
It’s imperative that the Braves upgrade their bench, in my opinion. They certainly can’t afford to get so little production from the bench, particularly pinch-hitting, again in 2012.
It got overshadowed beneath the avalanche of other negative stats during the Braves’ disappointing finish, but consider the difference in their pinch-hitting from a year before:
In 2010, Braves pinch-hitters ranked 3rd in NL in average (.250), first in RBIs (42) and slugging (.447), and fourth in OBP (.319)
In 2011, their pinch-hitters plummeted to15th in the NL in avg (.175), tied for seventh in RBIs (27), dead last in OBP (.239), and ninth in slugging (.303).
That’s a staggering .224 decline in OPS for Braves pinch-hitters over 2010. Yes, Braves pinch-hitters had a .542 OPS in 234 at-bats in ‘11, after posting a .766 OPS in 228 at-bats in ’10.
Bench play can be a mercurial thing in the big leagues, which is why most teams have a vereitable revolving door of bench players, few of whom seem to last long with one team in a bench role. Hinske has unusual stature, and bringing him back made sense.
But again, the Braves have to hope he gets it back. And you’ve got to wonder if Brooks Conrad will be able to hang onto a spot.
Conrad was 13-for-62 (.210) as a PH, with 29 strikeouts.
Between them, the Braves’ two best 2010 pinch-hitters (Hinske and Conrad) from 2010 went 22-for-118 (.186) in that role in 2011, with nine extra-base hits, 52 strikeouts and 16 RBIs.
In 2010, they were a combined 27-for-105 (.257) as pinch-hitters with 14 extra-base hits, 27 strikeouts and 24 RBIs in 2010. Nearly twice as many strikeouts in about the same number of pinch at-bats. And obviously those included a lot of big at-bats.
♣ McLouth era ends quietly: To the surprise of no one, the Braves declined the $10.65 million option on Nate McLouth’s contract and paid the $1.25 million buyout. This move has been predictable since McLouth’s woeful performance in 2010, which was followed by another disappointing, injury-marred season in ’11.
McLouth’s .344 OBP was a big improvement over 2010 (.198), but nothing else was. He hit .228 with four homers and 16 RBIs in 267 at-bats, including just .179 with a meager .531 OPS in 84 at-bats vs. lefties.
In the past two injury-shortened seasons, McLouth hit a combined .210 with a .322 OBP and .650 OPS in 166 games, with 24 doubles, 10 homers, 11 steals and 40 RBIs in 509 at-bats. He had a concussion in 2010 and had a sport hernia this season that required surgery. He didn’t play after July 28.
The Braves got the one-time All-Star from Pittsburgh in a June 2009 trade, and McLouth hit just .229 with a .335 OBP and .699 OPS in 250 games (848 at-bats) for the Braves, with 44 doubles, 21 homers, 76 RBIs and 23 steals in 33 attempts.
In his last two-plus seasons with the Pirates, from Opening Day 2009 until the trade, McLouth hit .266 with a .351 OBP and .856 OPS in 333 games (1090 at-bats), with 73 doubles, 47 homers, 161 RBIs and 52 stolen bases in 56 attempts.
Read those stats again for comparison. During his more than 2-1/2 seasons in Atlanta, it was only for a brief stretches that the Braves saw the player they thought they were getting.
♣ Whew. That was long. Thanks for hanging in there till the end, if you did. OK, let’s get this posted. We’ll close with a classic from Joe Ely, who I’m going to get to see perform this week in Austin along with Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, James McMurtry, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shawn Colvin, Jerry Jeff Walker and many others at the Guy Clark 70th birthday tribute. You can hear the song by clicking here. This one reminds me of a woman I used to know. She was Colombian,and I knew her well. Or so I thought.
“SHE NEVER SPOKE SPANISH TO ME” by Joe Ely
I met her in old Mexico
She was laughing sad and young
In a smokey room no-one could see
All the poets they agreed
Spanish is a loving tongue but
She never spoke Spanish to me
She was born in Monterey
And all the Christmas songs were sung
The padres knew what she would grow up to be
Saints and sinners all agree
Spanish is a loving song
But she never spoke Spanish to me
Like a lion screamin’ in the jungle-o
She’d never fool with things she couldn’t see
She spoke to all the shadows in her bungalow
But she never spoke Spanish to me.
She said “If you’re from Texas, son,
Where’s your boots and where’s your gun?”
“Well, I got guns that no one can see!”
She laughed at that and both agreed
Spanish is a loving tongue but
She never spoke Spanish to me.
I left her in old Mexico….
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog