As Braves fans get increasingly anxious over the team’s lack of moves since the Derek Lowe salary dump, this might be a good time to point out that Atlanta on Aug. 25 had the majors’ fourth-best record (79-53) and was on pace for a 96-win season.
OK, I just ducked to avoid a tomato.
But seriously, it’s understandable that many are unsatisfied with the thought of the Braves standing pat, more or less, if that’s what they end up doing (I don’t think they will stand pat).
The concern stems from knowing that despite the Braves being one of the sport’s best teams for four-fifths of the season, they had a collapse of near-historical proportions in the last fifth of the season.
They stumbled and bumbled to one of the worst September blown leads in the annals of the sport, losing 20 of their last 30, blowing what had been an 8-1/2 game wild-card lead on Sept. 5. They had only the simultaneously collapsing Boston Red Sox, with their fried chicken-eatin’, beer-quaffin’ pitching rotation, to thank for diverting some attention away from Atlanta’s free fall from there’s-no-way-they-can-blow-it lead to they-just-did.
Anyway, trying to convince people that bringing back basically the same squad would be a tough sell with some fans. The Braves have said since the season ended that they wanted to add some power to the outfield, along with a shortstop.
They’re still trying to find help in both areas, but the Braves’ limited funds, plus their refusal to part with a lot of young talent in a trade, have left them on the outside looking in both in terms of a free-agent pool they’ve barely stuck a toe in, and the trade market for players who cost too much in return and/or in remaining salary commitment.
There are still two months left before spring training, and I still think the Braves will make a trade between now and then, perhaps soon. If they don’t do it now or in January, they could even do a deal in spring training as a last resort. One way or another, they’ll add another decent (or better) power bat and a shortstop.
But fans shouldn’t expect it to be someone like shortstop J.J. Hardy, owed $21 million by the Orioles over the next three seasons and probably not available anyway, or Carlos Beltran, who might get $10 million or more per season in a multi-year contract — more than the Braves want to pay a healthy free agent much less one with his knees. [Addendum: Beltran signed a two-year, $26 million deal with St. Louis after this blog was published.]
I won’t be surprised if the Braves end up trading for a player who previously seemed unavailable, perhaps even someone of the caliber of an Adam Jones – just to use an example of the Baltimore outfielder whose name popped up recently in connection with the Braves, a connection believed tenuous at best.
However, there’s a better chance the Braves would settle for a reasonably priced player with a good track record and perhaps a connection to them or their manager – someone like Cody Ross. The Rockies and a couple of other teams are pursuing Ross, but I think that Ross, all things being equal, would prefer to a reunion in Atlanta with his former Marlins manager (Fredi Gonzalez) and teammate (Dan Uggla).
Of course, if the Braves wanted Ross badly enough they’d have already signed him, which is why the most likely scenario appear to be this: The Braves opt for a trade target, either an every-day starter or a platoon type such as Colorado’s Seth Smith, who’s been mentioned in plenty of discussions between the Braves and Rockies, who first pursued Jair Jurrjens and lately have focused more attention on Martin Prado.
If the Braves could get Smith and a young center fielder, possibly power-hitting prospect Tim Wheeler, then that might just be enough to make the Braves pull the trigger.
The deeper we get into the offseason, the less chance I think there is of the Braves trading both Jurrjens and Prado, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one is dealt. The thing that’s held back any deal so far, in my opinion, is the same issue that we believed there would be when we first heard Jurrjens and Prado were available in trade for the right price. And that is, their value is probably higher right now to the Braves than to other teams.
In Jurrjens’ case it’s because of knee and other injuries that have limited the 2011 All-Star to 43 starts over the past two seasons. Until convinced he’s healthy, other teams don’t want to trade the kind of talent for Jurrjens that Cincinnati gave up for Padres starter Mat Latos, who is younger and has made 31 starts each of the past two seasons despite some previous arm concerns.
And even though Prado was a 2010 All-Star second baseman and has versatility and a great reputation for work ethic and clubhouse intangibles, the fact is that the Braves would likely have to replace him with two players – a left fielder and a backup third baseman for Chipper Jones.
So maybe they bring him back and supplement the outfield with a fourth-outfielder type such as Ross or Smith, instead of a younger and/or more complete player.
Having seen Wren operate in the past, it still wouldn’t shock me if the Braves pulled off trades or signings to land a starting outfielder and a backup infielder. But if they move Prado, it sure seems they’d need a backup third baseman in addition to a backup shortstop, rather than one who could do both. Otherwise, who’d play third if Chipper got hurt and rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky (assuming he’s starting) struggled or just had nagging injury or needed a day off?
Makes you realize how unique and valuable Prado is to this particular team.
Anyway, to recap:
Lowe was traded to Cleveland on Oct. 31, the Braves paying $10 million of his $15 million salary in 2012 to end what had become pretty much an untenable situation with them and the aging pitcher. The Braves also let defensive whiz Alex Gonzalez go without trying to re-sign the 34-year-old shortstop after a terrible .241/.270/372 offensive season.
Some might argue that it’s already addition by subtraction for the Braves.
They will move one of their top young pitching prospects into the rotation vacancy, and apparently will have Pastornicky be their primary shortstop after a .314/.359/.414 year in his third full year in the minors, which included seven homers, 45 RBIs and 27 stolen bases (38 attempts) in 117 total games in Double A and Triple A.
I said “apparently” because I’m still not entirely convinced the Braves are settled on going into the season with Pastornicky as their starter, at age 22 (he was 21 until last week) and with only 27 gamers above Double A.
Granted, it was an impressive 27-game stint, as Pastornicky hit .365 (38-for-104) with a .407 OBP, .413 slugging percentage, one homer and seven steals in his late-season run with Triple-A Gwinnett before a high ankle sprain sideline him.
Also, he’s played 128 games at Double-A Mississippi, where he has a .286 average, .341 OBP and 18 doubles, seven triples, eight homers and 31 steals in 489 at-bats.
When I asked Braves GM Frank Wren about him on Dec. 2, before the Winter Meetings, he said, “We’re comfortable with him at shortstop at the major league level. We think he’ll grow and get better, and offensively he’s shown us that he can handle the bat over the last year and a half. I think he’s at least a 20-plus stolen base player at the major league level, and his numbers in the minor leagues were double that… Some of that would be predicated on where he bats in the order, as well.”
As for not having much time in Triple A, Wren didn’t seem concerned. “Most clubs feel like once you’ve had success at Double A you’re very close to getting an opportunity at the big league level,” he said. “We’ve clearly felt that way for a number of years, going back to when [Jeff] Francouer and [Brian] McCann jumped to the major leagues from there.”
McCann was a 21-year-old Double-A Mississippi player in 2005 when called to the majors without any Triple-A experience.
He proceeded to hit .278 with a .345 OBP, five homers and only 26 strikeouts in 204 plate appearances for Atlanta during that ’05 season, after hitting .265 with a .359 OBP, six homers and 26 strikeouts in 198 plate appearances at Double A.
McCann made the NL All-Star team the next year at 22, and today has six consecutive All-Star appearances and five Silver Slugger awards.
Francoeur was also a 21-year-old Double-A player when promoted to the bigs at midseason 2005 without any Triple-A experience.
He astounded us that summer with a .300 average, 20 doubles, 14 homers, 45 RBIs and an .884 OPS in 70 games for the Braves, hitting even better in the majors than he had that season at Double A (.275 with 28 doubles, 13 homers, .808 OPS in 84 games).
Francoeur had 29 homers and 103 RBIs the following season, but his career arc soon diverged from McCann’s and “Frenchy” has played for three organizations since being traded by the Braves during the 2009 season. He has a .270 career average with a .313 OBP and modest .746 OPS but is coming off arguably his best season since his rookie year — .285 with a .329 OBP, 20 homers and an .805 OPS in 2011 with Kansas City.
But we digresss.
The Braves also had unusual success the past two seasons with a rookie in the regular lineup – right fielder Jason Heyward in 2010 and first baseman Freddie Freeman in 2011. Each was second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
As a 21-year-old, Freeman hit .282 with 21 homers and a .346 OBP in 157 games for the Braves last season, after Heyward, posted a whopping .393 OBP with 18 homers and an .849 OPS in 2010, when he was voted to start in the All-Star game (which he missed due to injury) and finished 20th in the MVP balloting. He didn’t turn 21 until August of his rookie season.
Freeman had a full season at Triple-A Gwinnett, but Heyward played only 50 minor league games above Class A, including just three in Triple A.
So yes, it can be done. Really young players can contribute big to major league teams, as the Braves themselves have seen with all four of those players who were 21 or younger as rookies, three having arrived with little experience above Double A.
On the other hand, how many times can the Braves expect to defy the odds, as it were?
How many believe that Pastornicky will come up and have anything close to the impact that any of those four rookies had? The Braves don’t need him to be a standout, of course, they probably just need him to play solid defense and keep his head above water offensively, provided they get what they expect or hope to get out of others.
But what if Pastornicky isn’t ready? What if — oh, I don’t know — he has a good spring that reinforces the confidence of team officials, then struggles mightily from the get-go during the regular season?
If the Braves don’t get anything better than a backup-type shortstop this offseason, nothing more than a light-hitting Ronny Cedeno-type (.675 OPS in 2010, .636 OPS in 2011), they would worse at shortstop both in terms of run production and run prevention than they were with Gonzalez (Atlanta was 15th in average and 15th in OBP among shortstops in 2011, but did at least rank fourth with 15 homers from the position).
Which is why I’m not convinced they won’t make a deal to land either a very good backup or a starting-type shortstop.
As for the outfield, can they afford not to add another big bat?
Sure, the Braves have every reason to believe Prado will be more productive than he was last season, when he was sidelined more than a month by a lower-left staph infection. And who would be surprised if Jason Heyward is closer to being what he was as a rookie than what he was in a disappointing, injury-slowed second season, when he lost 50 points in his batting average (.227) and a stunning 141 points in his OPS (.708) from 2010?
Also, having Michael Bourn in center from Opening Day should assure the Braves get significantly more production out of that position and the leadoff spot (Bourn is eligible for free agency after the ‘12 season and a Scott Boras client, hence the desire to add a future CF now in case he’s not re-signed).
But what if there is an injury or two in the outfield? Can the Braves afford not to make a significant offseason addition to an outfield that as a unit ranked 12th in the NL in average (.251), 11th in OBP (.320), and last in both home runs (41) and slugging (.375)?
There are still two months until spring training.
♣ Speaking of youth: I mentioned this stat on Twitter and in our blog comments section a while back, but let’s elaborate on it today. It’s about teams with three players aged 22 or younger in the regular lineup, and how few championship-type teams have featured such youth.
To find a pennant-winning team that had three players, we had to go back to the 1970 Reds, the Big Red Machine. The NL pennant winners had a trio of 22-year-olds — Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, Bernie Carbo – in the regular lineup.Of course, they also had Lee May (34 homers), Tony Perez (40 homers, 129 RBIs), Bobby Tolan (.316 avg, .384 OBP, 16 homers, 57 stolen bases) and Pete Rose ( also .316 avg, .385 OBP, 120 runs).
Those Reds swept Pittsburgh in the LCS, then lost 4-1 to Baltimore in the World Series.
The last team to win a World Series with at least three players 22 or younger in their regular lineup was nearly a century ago. It was the Braves – the 1914 Boston Braves.
That team had four players 22 or younger. That team also had a Rabbit (Rabbit Maranville) for a shortstop, a Possum (Possum Whitted) as a utility player, and pitchers named Otto (Otto Hess), Iron (Iron Davis), Dolf (Dolf Luque) and Ensign (Ensign Cottrell).
In other words, it was a very long time ago.
I know, I know … some will say, but how many teams have actually given three players 22 or younger a chance to play every day? Don’t know, folks, since a lot of teams might have had three or more that young in the lineup early on and made a change or two at midseason. We don’t have the capability of simply having a computer go through and tell me how many teams had three players so young in their regular lineup over the course of a season.
The point was to find a team that won a championship with so much youth. You can decide for yourselves if that’s because not enough teams have tried it, or whether teams have tried because they weren’t comfortable with such a mix or because they gave up on it at some point during the season.
The fact remains, highly successful teams have (very) rarely had 22-or-younger players handling at least three of the eight positions on a regular basis. And I haven’t even mentioned that the Braves will also have a young pitching staff.
♣Trivia time: Most of you know that the Braves moved their high-A minor league team from Myrtle Beach to Lynchburg after the 2010 season and played their first season as the Hillcats in 2011. Shortstop prospect Andrelton Simmons won the Carolina League batting title (.311, only player to hit .300 in the league) and third base-first base prospect Joe Terdoslavich broke a six-decade-old league record with 52 doubles.
But our trivia question involves a Lynchburg pitcher from the past. The question: Who was the last minor league pitcher to post 300 strikeouts in a season?
We’ll answer in a little bit.
♣ Braves caravan: Players, coaches and executives will greet fans and sign autographs on the Braves’ two-week caravan through the Southeast beginning Jan. 27. Stops during the third annual event includes appearances at schools, children’s hospitals, military bases and businesses, and autograph sessions at Academy Sports + Outdoors locations.
“We want to reach out, give back, and hopefully bring some baseball cheer to our fans throughout Braves Country during the offseason,” team prez John Schuerholz said.
Participants, times and specific locations for each stop will be announced later by the Braves. Here’s the schedule of cities and dates:
Friday, Jan. 27 – Spartanburg, S.C. and Charlotte, N.C.
Saturday, Jan. 28 – Lilburn and Snellville, Ga.
Sunday, Jan. 29 – Montgomery and Auburn, Ala.
Monday, Jan. 30 –– Atlanta and McDonough, Ga.
Tuesday, Jan. 31 – Macon, Ga.
Wednesday, Feb. 1 – Augusta, Ga. and Columbia, S.C.
Thursday, Feb. 2 – Birmingham, Ala.
Friday, Feb. 3 – Athens, Ga.
Saturday, Feb. 4 – Nashville, Tenn.
Monday, Feb. 6 – Rome and Cumming, Ga.
Tuesday, Feb. 7 – Greenville, S.C.
Wednesday, Feb. 8 – Atlanta
Thursday, Feb. 9 – Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn.
♣Trivia answer: It was Dwight Gooden, who in 1983 had a jaw-dropping 300 strikeouts (with 112 walks) in 191 innings with Class A Lynchburg, then a Mets affiliate in the Carolina League.
Gooden was just 18 that season, his second in the minors. He went 19-4 with a 2.50 ERA in 27 starts.
“Doc” went straight to the majors to begin the following season, going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 27 starts that year for the Mets including seven complete games and three shutouts. He had a whopping 276 strikeouts in 218 innings, leading the league in strikeouts and WHIP (1.073) at the age of 19.
The following season, Gooden was 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, 268 strikeouts in 276-2/3 innings and 16 complete games. He led the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts, innings and CGs. He was 20 years, folks. Twenty.
But Gooden paid the price for early overuse of his arm and later misuse of the rest of his body (i.e., cocaine addiction). He would have only one more season with more than 200 strikeouts — 223 in 1990, also the only other time he won more than 18 games (19-7).
He last pitched in the majors in 2000, at age 35.
♣ OK, warning to all those baseball-only types who don’t want to read about music, movies or anything else on the Braves blog: STOP READING HERE. There is no more baseball-related content on this blog. So go straight to the comments if you care to.
If you don’t heed this warning and decide to go ahead and read the Top 50 albums (as in music) list that follows, then don’t bother whining about it. Repeat: There is no more baseball talk on this particular blog, just my annual Top 50 favorite albums list.
So without further ado….
♣The Top 50: My rules are a little different than those of most other lists of this type, in that there are no genre restrictions, no payoffs from record labels, no conspicuously high placement of this artist or that one in exchange for a future cover story (not that that ever happens at corporate mags, ahem…).
I’m not a music critic, just an music-obsessive guy who spends way too much money and time sifting through CD and record bins and purchasing product in just about every city where I can find a surviving record store.
Which brings me to the only real rule for this Top 50: I have every album on this list, the entire physical album (or CD) and not just songs downloaded from said album. Including the best-of-the-rest list below the 50. As I mentioned, I spend entirely too much money on music (and a rather elaborate security system, for obvious reasons).
Oh, and I should mention, this year I didn’t include live albums, EPs or cover/tribute albums. If I had, live albums by Todd Snider and Levon Helm and the Guy Clark tribute album would’ve made the top 20, and EPs by Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr. would’ve made the list.
But enough blather.
Here are the 50 in what I thought a particularly strong year for great music. To me, the hardest part was choosing between the first two on the list, Tom Waits’ tour de force Bad As Me, his finest album since 1999’s Mule Variations, and Kurt Vile’s lo-fi masterpiece Smoke Ring for My Halo. The next-hardest part was picking the last five or 10, which would probably change if I did it again tomorrow. There are at least 15 on my also-ran list that were in the Top 50 at some point.
Top 50 albums of 2011
BEST OF THE REST (in alphabetical order): Ryan Adams Ashes & Fire, Adele 21, Dave Alvin Eleven Eleven, Arctic Monkeys Suck It and See, Charles Bradley No Time for Dreaming, Richard Buckner Our Blood, Glen Campbell Ghost on the Canvas, Centro-matic Candidate Waltz, The Civil Wars Barton Hollow;
Crooked Fingers Breaks in the Armor, Cults Cults, Das Racist Relax, Dawes Nothing Is Wrong, The Decemberists The King is Dead, Deer Tick Divine Providence, Dropkick Murphys Going Out in Style, Robert Ellis Photographs, Felice Brothers Celebration, Florida, Florence + The Machine Ceremonials;
Foo Fighters Wasting Light, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Iron & Wine Kiss Each Other Clean, Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch the Throne, Booker T. Jones The Road From Memphis, Killer Mike Pl3dge, The Kills Blood Pressures, Kort Invariable Heartache, Shelby Lynne Revelation Road, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Mirror Traffic;
Laura Marling A Creature I Don’t Know, Neon Indian Era Extrana, Okkervil River I Am Very Far, Old 97’s The Grand Theatre, Vol. 2, Over the Rhyne The Long Surrender, Josh T. Pearson Last of the Country Gentlemen, Pistol Annies Hell on Heels, Raekwon Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang; Ashton Shepherd Where Country Grows, Social Distortion Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes;
Tommy Stinson One Man Mutiny, Tedeschi Trucks Band Revelator, Those Darlins Screws Get Loose, Frank Turner England Keep My Bones, Tyler, the Creator Goblin, Twilight Singers Dynamite Steps, Butch Walker and the Black Widows The Spade, White Denim D, William Elliott Whitmore Field Songs, Wild Flag Wild Flag, Hank Williams III Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town.