It was Tyler Pastornicky’s 22nd birthday Tuesday, the day the Braves announced that Brooks Conrad had been non-tendered along with Peter Moylan, making the two of them free agents. The Braves want a shortstop better than Conrad to back up the rookie Pastornicky if he’s to be the starter.
Few were surprised — or at least few should’ve been — that Moylan was non-tendered, because we’ve mentioned it could be coming since shortly after it was announced in September that he needed shoulder surgery. And since last week, it had been abundantly clear.
But Conrad? Most of us figured that after he survived his nightmarish three-error debacle of a division-series game in 2010, then remained on the 40-man roster and won an Opening Day spot again in 2011 — well, it seemed Conrad was probably safe until he started making too much money.
Even before he was eligible for arbitration, with the Braves in position to pay him as little as the major league minimum salary of $480,000 in 2012 if he was on the team, and even with Conrad still having a minor league option, meaning he could have been sent down without going through waivers, the Braves non-tendered him Tuesday.
The only key difference between being non-tendered and outright released is that the Braves could, if they wanted to, now sign Conrad to a minor league deal and not have to wait until mid-May to add him back to the roster (any player given his outright release between Sept. 1 and Opening Day can’t be returned to the 40-man roster until May 15th).
But make no mistake, the Braves gave Conrad no assurances whatsoever that they would try to re-sign him later. Instead, they told him to look and see what’s out there, try to get into a good opportunity with another team, and if nothing came up and he was interested in signing a minor league deal later this winter or spring, then they’d be open to discussing it with him.
There’s a pretty good chance Conrad has played his last game for the Braves.
On Friday, Conrad was home with his wife and young kids at their suburban Phoenix home when got a call from a Braves official. He was told then what the team was going to do before Monday’s midnight tender/non-tender deadline.
“It was a little bit of a shock because I had no indication of what they were thinking [until that call],” said Conrad, who didn’t realize his job was in jeopardy when he left Atlanta after the season.
But when he was told Friday of the Braves’ plans, to have a utility infielder who was a strong defensive shortstop to be the backup at that position.
“Obviously looking at the roster and hearing what they’re going to do, it makes a little sense,” Conrad said, “in that they want to have that security in the backup veteran shortstop.
“It’s just the way the business works. Obviously it’s sad to hear because I love Atlanta, love the organization and everybody in the clubhouse. I guess we’ll look around and see what we can do, what we can find.”
Conrad handled the situation as he has every other one in his two years with Atlanta. Whether he struck out with runners on base late in a tie game, or hit a walkoff grand slam to cap one of the greatest ninth-inning comebacks. Whether he made a string of defensive gems during 2010 spring training that made us say I thought this guy was supposed to be a barely serviceable defender?, or played so badly in the field for a few weeks in 2011 that we pitied him and honestly wondered whether the guy would be able to play again or be scarred for life.
Through those situations and everything in-between, Conrad was always the same. At his locker afterward to answer questions. Humble when he did well, never making excuses when he didn’t.
This is a man who appreciated his station in life as much as anyone. Having toiled in the minors until he got his first cup of coffee with Oakland at age 28. Having only 73 at-bats in the bigs before he was 30 in 2010, when he finally got to stick around for a while, playing in 103 games that season for Bobby Cox’s Braves.
There was a reason that every teammate supported him and defended him after his gaffes cost the Braves so dearly in the 2010 division series against San Francisco. They really loved the guy. He was a big part of their clubhouse, and they pulled for him like a brother.
We’re all gonna miss him. He was as good a dude as you’ll meet in the game. We toss around the clichés about players being good guys and playing the game the right way, respecting team and all that, but with him it was entirely accurate.
“I wished I could have stayed,” Conrad said tonight. “I could end up coming back.”
He said something about the Braves’ mentioning the possibility of a minor league deal. “Which was nice,” he said. “Very gracious of them, they’d like me back, maybe. We’re gonna look around and see what’s going on and see what happens.”
And that was it. No ripping the team, on or off the record. No tone of bitterness whatsoever.
“It’s little bit of bad news,” he said, with one of his infant children making noise in the background. “Just because of way I feel about the city, the fans, the support I got there. Just an awesome organization. It was privilege to be part of, day in and day out. I have a little bit of a heavy heart, but it’s just part of the business.”
One of our blog commenters, who goes by the handle Mister Frisky, asked today, “Can someone tell me why Conrad was brought back for 2011?”
I’ll take a stab, Frisky: Conrad had seven homers and a .500 slugging percentage in 120 at-bats against right-handers in 2010.
With bases loaded, he went 4-for-9 with two grand slams and 11 RBIs.
With runners in scoring position, he led the Braves with a .378 average (17-for-45), with nine extra-base hits and a whopping 1.195 OPS.
And in close-and-late situations, he hit .313 (15-for-48) with a team-high five homers and .750 slugging percentage.
Yeah, he was a big-time clutch hitter for the Braves in 2010, Frisky. Helped win a whole lot more games than he lost with his September-October defensive gaffes.
That’s why he was brought back. But the performance slipped this past season, and now he’s looking for a job. Such is a life of a major league journeyman.
♣About Moylan: We thought he might be non-tendered as soon as the extent of the injury became known. And even though the surgery wasn’t as invasive as most of had expected when we first heard “torn rotator cuff,” it was nevertheless a procedure that typically requires six months of recovery.
And anyone who’s been around baseball for long can tell you, shoulders are more unpredictable and often more difficult to rehab that elbows. Especially for pitchers.
And he’s 33, not 23.
So even though Moylan is a clubhouse favorite and integral part of some recent Braves teams, a workhorse who has cranked out 80 or more appearances in three of the past four seasons, including a franchise-record 87 the year he came back from Tommy John elbow surgery, we knew the budget-conscious Braves might go the prudent route and not tender a contract that would’ve guaranteed him at least a $1.6 million salary in 2013 (the maximum paycut for arbitration-eligible players is 20 percent, and he made $2 mill in 2011).
Last week in Dallas at the Winter Meetings, GM Frank Wren made it pretty clear to us that’s the route the Braves would go, and later try to re-sign Moylan as a free agent provided they are satisfied with his rehab progress. They wanted to see if there are any lingering issues after he starts throwing, and did not want to commit much money to him when they believed there was a chance he’d not be ready for the early part of the season.
Moylan’s supposed to start throwing next month and told me Tuesday that his goal is to be ready at the beginning of the season. He said the shoulder feels strong and he has no restrictions on its use, other than to wait till January to throw. He posted on Twitter at about 6:15 a.m.Tuesday that he had completed his morning workout at the gym, adding, “And I guess I’m a free agent.”
Teammates might advise the Braves re-sign him because his contributions to the bullpen go beyond his considerable workload when healthy. He is a character who keeps everyone loose in the ‘pen, and already has more seniority than any reliever currently under contract on a team that lost Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to retirement and free agency after the 2010 season, and let Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill go as free agents after they struggled or got hurt late in the 2011 season.
So unless the Braves sign another graybeard, Moylan will be the closest they have in the ‘pen. And even if they do sign another veteran, it’d probably help to have two older guys in the ‘pen. We never know when Kris Medlen, penciled in for bullpen duty, could get switched to the rotation and leave the ‘pen with only two pitchers (Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters) who currently have as much as two full seasons of MLB service?
♣Heyward in the D.R.? No, but it might have happened. When the season ended, the Braves discussed the possibility of asking Jason Heyward to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, after his injury-plagued disappointing second season. Word spread down in the D.R. that he was coming and would play for Escogido. A baseball writer down there e-mailed to ask me if it was true.
Turns out, discussion never got to the point of asking Heyward what he thought. After the Braves hired new hitting coach Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher for their new assistant hitting coach position, Wren said it was decided by team officials and Walker that Heyward would be better served working in Atlanta this winter with the new hitting coaches, who both live in the area.
Wren said at the Winter Meetings that Heyward would begin twice-weekly sessions at Turner Field this week. Heyward got back Monday from a weekend at Nike Headquarters in Oregon with some of the company’s other high-profile endorsers from baseball.
♣ Regarding payroll: Got this lovely missive directed at me last week on the ol’ blog, the latest in a long series of similar posts from this fella. A couple of other folks on the blog mentioned that it was helpful to their understanding of Braves payroll and the lack of specific figures provided by the team, so I figured I’d run most of the question and my reply again here, since many probably missed it on page 50-something of the comments.
Here is the obvious question: Who expected a Hanley, Fredi reunion? Am I missing something? Hey AJC. Rather than write captain obvious piece, how about lets find out a solid number for this years budget? And they wont tell you, say “they wont tell me.” Jesus. We are truely sheep around here. — Najeh Davenpoop, aka @Fredo
My reply: “I thought we’d stated this multiple times, but perhaps not. My fault. I’ll be more clear: The Braves have not given us their payroll limit or target or what they have to spend, for at least the past three years. They have left it to us to speculate, then to add together the salary amounts and come to an actual payroll figure, which is sometimes slightly different from their own accounting because they don’t tell us exactly how each player’s salary is figured into that year’s payroll — i.e. is it amortized equally over the length of the contract, including signing bonus? Is a buyout spread over multiple years, if they knew in advance they’d be exercising said buyout, as was the case with Nate McLouth? Or does the buyout go into the following year’s payroll, if that works best for the team at that time. We don’t know and we’re not told if our speculation is correct.
“This [team] isn’t a state institution, where we can simply demand to see the books. The Braves nor any other MLB team is compelled to say how much money it makes, how much it spends, etc. They just aren’t. And unlike the NFL and the NBA, where there are salary caps, there is no cap in baseball and many teams don’t share a lot of financial details because they are free to spend what they want to spend until they reach the luxury-tax threshold, at which point teams must pay a tax on any amount over. That affects only the Yankees, Red Sox and very few other teams in any given year.
“So no, we can’t tell you exactly how much the Braves have to spend. Because they don’t tell us what their payroll limit is, or how close our estimates might be, or whether it’s a hard-and-fast payroll number they work with or one that might change if necessary. Since it’s set by the Braves, or the Braves and Liberty Media, and since they don’t share it despite numerous queries by us in the media, how would you suggest we go about getting that number, Mr. Davenpoop? Again, this isn’t the NFL or the NBA, where such information is shared for an obvious reason — those leagues have salary caps.”
♣ Etc. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said during the postseason this year that Justin Verlander was the best pitcher he’d ever managed. I was talking to Leyland last week in the hotel lobby at the Winter Meetings about the 1997 Marlins that he managed and I covered. One of us mentioned sinkerballing menace Kevin Brown. “He was the best pitcher I had before Verlander,” Leyland said…. If you’ve never seen the Tim Hudson appearance on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk, you must. Funny stuff. Click here for the link…. Speaking of Medlen, he’s active, candid and amusing on Twitter. He had this comment Tuesday morning when someone mentioned a projected starting rotation. “@ajcbraves @nicoia geez everyone is counting me out of the rotation huh? Hahaha”… Those wondering what Miami’s new retractable-roof stadium will look like, click here to see a photo tour done Tuesday by Palm Beach Post Marlins beat writer Joe Capozzi. The stadium – it looks sleek and nice, but just not a place I’d call a “ballpark” – is said to be 92-percent complete.
♣ OK, let’s close with a beauty from Pearl Jam. You can hear a powerful live version by clicking here, and be sure to watch all the way through.
By the way, a couple of special music notes. Jason Isbell gave us a lot of time for an interview last week, which I think you fans of his music are going to love. I’ll post it here in the next day or two. He’s a huge Braves fan, so we talked some about baseball and a lot about his music, what inspires him, and what it’s been like leading his own band since leaving the Drive-By Truckers.
I’m about to finish my annual Top 50 CDs list, which should be up in another week or so, well before Christmas. Thanks to all those who’ve asked and said you look forward to that.
“BLACK” by Pearl Jam (E. Vedder)
Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as her body once did.
All five horizons revolved around her soul
As the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn
Ooh, and all I taught her was everything
Ooh, I know she gave me all that she wore
And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything.
Oh, the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything…
I take a walk outside
I’m surrounded by some kids at play
I can feel their laughter, so why do I sear?
Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin round my head
I’m spinning, oh, I’m spinning
How quick the sun can drop away
And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything?
All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything…
All the love gone bad turned my world to black
Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be… yeah…
Uh huh… uh huh… ooh…
I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life,
I know you’ll be a sun in somebody else’s sky, but why
Why, why can’t it be, can’t it be mine
Too doo doo too, too doo doo….
– By David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog