DARK STAR, Fla. – Before we discuss the challenges facing the Braves in the season that starts next week and how their proposed trade for Carlos Lee – wait, he was kidding? – could help a lot in that regard, let me first mention something I was thinking about regarding the end of the Bobby Cox/Chipper Jones era and what it will mean to a series of upcoming weekends in Cooperstown, N.Y.
If you’re a Braves fan and haven’t been to the little village that is baseball heaven in the Catskill mountain foothills of central New York, start thinking about making a trip or two because you’re going to have a few opportunities to see a Brave (or Braves inducted).
In a five-year span beginning in 2014, five or six former Braves (including four players) figure to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, 300-game winners who will surely be first-ballot inductees, are expected to be in the 2014 class along with Cox. There’s a possibility they could even be joined by longtime Braves general manager John Schuerholz.
Cox and Schuerholz, the two primary architects of the Braves’ decade-and-a-half run of success, will be on the Veterans Committee ballot at the 2013 Winter Meetings, the next time the committee considers candidates from 1973 and later. (Next year the committee considers candidates from 1946 and earlier. That’s how that process is done, with one of three historical periods considered annually on a rotating basis.)
One factor that could prevent the quartet of Braves going in together would be the fact that Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella are also among those considered by the veterans committee at the ’13 Winter Meetings, unless one or more of them comes out of retirement to manage again. Only four can be elected in one year by the committee.
But it seems a fairly safe bet that Maddux and Glavine will be inducted that July 2014 day alongside their former manager, which couldn’t have been scripted any better considering the admiration and respect those three have for one another and the impact they all had on the Braves.
In the next year or two after that we could see the induction of John Smoltz, the other of the iconic Braves Big Three pitching machine. Maddux and Glavine last pitched in 2008, while Smoltz stayed around for another season, hence the one-year gap in HOF eligibility (players are eligible five years after they last appear in a major league game). There is debate over whether Smoltz will be a first-ballot inductee, since his three full seasons spent as a closer made his resume look a bit different than what HOF voters are used to considering.
Smoltz had a 213-155 record, 154 saves, a 3.33 ERA, 3,084 strikeouts and a 1.176 WHIP, and he was an eight-time All-Star who won the NL Cy Young award in 1996 and finished seventh or better in the voting four other times.
The only comparable starter-closer resume belonged to Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who had a 197-171 record, 390 saves, a 3.50 ERA, 2,401 strikeouts and a 1.161 WHIP. Eckersley was a five-time All-Star who won one Cy Young award and finished in the top seven in voting five other times, as well as three top-six finishes in the league MVP voting.
Their postseason resumes: Smoltz had a 15-4 record, 2.67 ERA and four saves in 41 games (27 starts) with 199 strikeouts in 209 innings. (This guy was pretty good in the postseason, eh?)
Eckersely had a 1-3 record, 3.00 ERA and 15 saves in 28 postseason games (one start) with 22 strikeouts (and only three walks) in 36 innings.
Eckersley was a first-ballot HOF inductee in 2004 after being named on 83.2 percent of the ballotts (75 percent are required).
Will Smoltz make it on the first ballot? He certainly could, and statistically one could make a strong case that he should. But I don’t think it’s close to a certainty.
Which brings us to his longtime teammate Chipper Jones, who will be eligible for the 2018 class if he sticks to his decision to retire after the 2012 season.
The only surprise to me in any Hall of Fame discussions about Jones is that there are those who question whether he’ll be a first-ballot inductee. I don’t honestly see how 25 percent of the voters could possibly look at his resume and decide that Jones, who is generally regarded as one of the three or four greatest switch-hitters in history and arguably one of the three greatest all-around third baseman in history (I still put him a little behind Mike Schmidt and alongside George Brett at the top of my 3B list. Notice I qualified it with “all-around” – Brooks Robinson was peerless defensively, but just didn’t hit enough to rank with that trio.)
You know all the Chipper stats by now, so I’m not going to repeat them, other than to remind he’s above .300/.400/.500 in average, OBP and slugging percentage (well above in slugging, at .533) and has 526 doubles, 454 homers and 1,561 RBIs. He’s the only switch-hitter in history with at least a .300 average and 450 homers.
And for those who lean more to sabermetric stats, he ranks third among active players with an 82.7 WAR (wins above replacement), behind Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, well ahead of the likes of Derek Jeter, Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Roy Halladay.
Folks, Chipper should and will be elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
♣ Projecting the NL East race: As things stand today, here’s how I see what should be the most competitive NL East race in quite some time. I should add, the team I feel least sure about in the first four is not the Braves, Nationals or Marlins, but the Phillies.
Their run of five consecutive division titles could be in peril despite that starting rotation. Unless they throw more money at the problem and get another big bat, the Chase Utley and Ryan Howard situations give other teams in the division a chance to build a lead early on Philly despite their still-formidable starting rotation.
As of today, here’s how I see the race:
So what do you folks think about the division race?
♣ Carlos Lee: OK, that was a tease. On Saturday at Dunedin when I asked Fredi Gonzalez who’d play left field while Martin Prado is filling in for injured Chipper to begin the season, Gonzalez mentioned possibilities including the Eric Hinske/Matt Diaz tandem, roster hopefuls Jordan Parraz, Jose Constanza and Luis Durango and … Carlos Lee.
He quickly smiled to make it clear he was kidding.
At least I think he was.
We mentioned Lee this winter as a possibility if the Braves were looking to swap bad contracts with someone and the Astros were interested in Derek Lowe. But later I was told by someone familiar with Lee that he had a huge and highly profitable cattle ranch near Houston and would probably use his 10/5 trade-veto rights to quash any proposed trade.
Besides, Lowe’s contract is gone now and Lee is owed about $18.5 million this year, which, near as I can tell, is about $17 million or so more than the Braves seem willing to spend.
But they do need to get some outfield help, be it a Marlon Byrd or Will Venable. (I’ve heard they had or have some interest in Byrd and a couple of lesser available Cubs. And it was reported by a couple of other folks including Fox Sports.com that the Braves checked on the Padres’ Venable. If it’s true that the Padres asked about Kris Medlen in return, it’s understandable that the Braves ended that conversation quickly. Medlen for Venable? No.)
♣ The bullpen: Five relief spots are set with the power trio of closer Craig Kimbrel, lefty setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, and versatile righties Medlen and Cristhian Martinez, each capable of pitching multiple innings at a time. Unless the Braves have an unexpected change of heart and move Medlen to the rotation, this first five in the ‘pen is a lock, leaving two openings.
Barring a trade, I’d be a little surprised if the Braves don’t go with Cory Gearrin and Jairo Asencio for the last two spots. Gearrin has allowed six hits and no earned runs in eight appearances, with three walks and 10 strikeouts in 9-1/3 innings. The sidearmer has shown by frequently taking some velocity off his fastball he gets better movement and makes the pitch an effective weapon against lefty hitters, who were his bane last season.
Asencio has a 2.70 ERA in a team-high nine relief appearances this spring, allowing 10 hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts in 10 innings. It’s important to note he’s out of minor-league options, meaning he’d have to go through waivers before he could get sent down. Such matters are always considered when making roster decisions. The MVP of the Caribbean Series as the Dominican Republic’s closer this past winter, Asencio would almost certainly be claimed off waivers by some team aware of his potential.
Also worth noting: He came to spring training only a few weeks after finishing winter ball, and gave up three earned runs in his first four appearances, including two runs ni his only two-inning appearance. Since then Asencio has pitched five scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in five innings, including two strikeouts three times in his past four innings.
Lefty Yohan Flande has also been impressive, pitching 9-1/3 scoreless innings in six spring appearances with only four hits. But he’s had more walks (six) than strikeouts (five) and is not out of options. And with Medlen in the bullpen, the need for a lefty specialist is reduced because of Medlen’s effectiveness against hitters from both sides (the righty uses his change-up well against lefty hitters).
Rule 5 pick Robert Fish hasn’t pitched in two weeks and has been dealing with some arm soreness, though the Braves haven’t said anything specific. We’ll probably hear something on that in the next day, but he obviously won’t be ready for the opening day roster even if he had been impressive in his early appearances, which he frankly wasn’t.
♣ OK, gotta get on the road to Port St. Lousy for Braves at Mets. Got a lot of new music last night from Orlando’s Park Avenue CDs to listen to on the drive down and back, including The Pines’ Dark So Gold (great atmospheric Americana/country vibe), Gentleman Jesse’s new album Leaving Atlanta, a deluxe edition of The Stooges’ Raw Power (who in the world sold this back – but thanks, I got it cheap), Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys’ old-school country Back at the Quonset Hut and Polica’s Give You The Ghost.
“I’M AMAZED” by My Morning Jacket
I’m amazed at a quiet ocean
I’m amazed at your warm devotion
I’m amazed at what the people sayin’
I’m amazed by a divided nation
Like the rhythm of the earth, I get disrupted
I’m amazed at all that has been
I’m amazed at all that will be
I’m amazed at the tv stations
I’m amazed what they want me to believe
After all is said and done- where is the justice?
I’m amazed, the lack of evolution
I’m amazed at the lack of faith
I’m amazed at the love we’re rejecting
I’m amazed what we accept in its place
Like the rhythm of the earth
And the rhythm of the ages
Like the rhythm, I get disrupted
– by David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog