We’re inside the last week before Christmas, Braves fans. Do you know where your left fielder is?
No, I didn’t think so. But at least you’re about to know the best 50 albums of 2012, as judged by your Crusading Everyman. The list is at the bottom of this blog.
As for left field, you’re not sure who it’ll be and neither is anyone else. The Braves say they continue to search the trade market for a left fielder or third baseman, but also insist if they don’t make another big acquisition at either spot and end up going to spring training or starting the season with what they have now, they’ll be OK with it.
Until proven otherwise, we’ll take them at their word.
Going into the season with what they have now seems a bit more feasible and less risky than it would’ve if they had stated that intention a few weeks ago, right after signing center fielder B.J. Upton. More feasible because they later re-signed outfielder Reed Johnson, and less risky because Juan Francisco has continued to make what the Braves believe to be significant strides during winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he’s slimmed down some and kept working on his swing.
From what I gather, the Braves would be fairly comfortable going into the season with Martin Prado splitting time with Reed Johnson in left field and splitting time with Francisco at third base, and saving the extra funds for a big in-season trade or two as needs arise.
In that scenario, Prado would play every day but at a couple of positions once again — he’s proved that playing multiple positions doesn’t affect his offense the way it does some players – and Johnson and Francisco would play mostly against pitchers they handle best, lefties for Johnson and righties for Francisco.
In that scenario, Prado or second-year shortstop Andrelton Simmons would probably bat leadoff.
Johnson is a fourth outfielder and pinch-hit specialist still capable of starting several games a week. His .290 average last season with the Cubs and Braves included a .311 average against lefties, with a .798 OPS and 14 extra-base hits in 151 at-bats. During the 2008-2011 seasons, the veteran hit .308 with an .822 OPS and 34 extra-base hits in 276 at-bats vs. lefties.
There is also the chance for Jose Constanza to compete for left-field time this spring if the Braves don’t make another move. And then there is the more intriguing possibility – intriguing for you fans, for the Braves, and definitely for us in the media – that Evan Gattis, dubbed “El Oso Blanco” (The White Bear) by his admiring teammates in the Venezuelan Winter League, could earn a spot as a backup left fielder and third catcher, if not at spring training then perhaps by July. He homered for the third consecutive game Tuesday and has half as many homers (13) as strikeouts (26) in 177 at-bats this winter.
The thick-armed Texas with the considerable raw power has a colorful past and what the Braves believe could be a bright future, despite the fact Gattis is 26 and hasn’t played above Double-A. He was out of baseball nearly four years – read about it here — while on a personal journey to figure out his purpose in life, a quest that included various new-age spiritual teachers and self-help gurus.
But for the past couple of years, Gattis has found a happy place pounding tape-measure homers and climbing the organizational ladder. And he and fellow Braves big-hombre roster hopeful Ernesto Mejia have thrilled the Aguilas fans this winter in Venezuela, with Mejia (14 homers) ranking first and Gattis second in the league home-run race before Tuesday, when Gattis continued his binge.
Mejia was batting .311 with a league-leading 38 RBIs, a .923 OPS (fifth in the league) and 27 extra-base hits in 209 at-bats (52 games) before Tuesday. This after hitting .296 with 50 homers and 191 RBIs during the past two seasons in Double-A and Triple-A.
He’s already 27 and has played eight years and more than 700 games in the minors without so much as one cup of coffee in the bigs, but Mejia’s progress the past two years and offseason move to the 40-man roster could put him in position to compete for a backup first-base/pinch-hit job at some point this year.
Gattis, meanwhile, has boosted the Braves’ confidence in his major-league potential, bouncing back from a wrist injury that sidelined him for a couple of months this season, after he’d gone on a remarkable power-hitting binge in high-A and Double-A at the beginning of the season. He was injured shortly after being promoted to Double-A and moved to the outfield to help open a potential path to the big leagues.
He’s regained his considerable strength this winter and was batting .282 with an .871 OPS, 20 extra-base hits and 33 RBIs in 47 games before Tuesday. His dramatic late-innings hits and tape-measure longballs have made him a fan favorite in Venezuela and earned him the colorful nickname from his mostly Latin teammates there.
While the competition in the winter leagues is usually on par with Double-A or Triple-A for most of the winter (until more major leaguers play in their homeland in the final weeks of the winter-league season and playoffs), Braves GM Frank Wren pointed out that playing in front of the large crowds – often 20,000 to 30,000 for some rivalry games – in the Latin American winter leagues is an experience that can give scouts and team officials some good insight.
“The intensity is much greater [than in the minors], and the crowds give it a more important feel,” Wren said. “They [Gattis, Mejia, Francisco] have come up big in big moments, which tells you something about them. Tells you something about their makeup.”
Danny Knobler at CBSSports.com had this Tweet on Monday: Braves very excited about Evan Gattis, suggesting to teams that they could even go with him in LF next year. We’ll see.
Now, granted, some of what they’re saying may be posturing, because as the Braves continue to look through what are now far fewer trade possibilities than a month ago, they don’t want teams thinking they are desperate to find a left fielder (or a third baseman, though they’d prefer to have Prado play third and get a left fielder, ideally one who could bat leadoff).
Switch-hitters Dexter Fowler and Emilio Bonifacio might be the only remaining available outfielders who could both play left and bat leadoff, and Colorado’s asking price has been too high so far for Fowler. Angels OF Peter Bourjos was an option, but it looks like he’ll be staying put after the Angels traded Kendrys Morales this week.
It’s unclear if Bonifacio is even available at this point. Toronto seems less inclined to part with the versatile speedster, who could be their starting second baseman.
Cody Ross and Josh Willingham were possibilities earlier, and still might be, although free agent Ross is asking for a longer contract (three years) than the Braves had in mind, and the Twins haven’t shown any inclination to trade Willingham after getting plenty of pitching back in the trades that sent outfielders Denard Span to the Nationals and Ben Revere to Philly. But we’ll see. Still possibilities.
So with the trade market diminished, the Braves need any leverage they can get if they still want to acquire an outfielder (or third baseman, though there are even fewer of those).
But if part of it is posturing, part of their excitement over Gattis is sincere. I’ve seen that a few times this winter during conversations with Wren, who smiles and relishes relaying the latest news of El Oso Blanco. (Wren loves that nickname.)
• Still want RHB: By the way, Gattis bats right-handed (as does Mejia). With Gattis, this is big for the Braves, who have been trying for years to get more right-handed bats in their lineup. His right-handedness can only help his chances.
Yes, the Braves pursued trades this winter for Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo and Minnesota’s Span and Revere, all left-handed hitters who got traded elsewhere. But Wren said from the start that lefty or righty wasn’t important for leadoff (any of those guys would’ve been penciled in for leadoff if the Braves had gotten one).
For any outfielder or third baseman they might get who wouldn’t be batting leadoff, he strongly prefers adding another right-handed bat (Upton was first).
When a rumor circulated Tuesday that the Dodgers might be looking to trade outfielder Andre Ethier, a lot of Braves fans immediately asked me if the Braves would be calling the Dodgers. (It didn’t take long before a Dodgers official tried to quash the rumor by saying they weren’t looking to trade Ethier and had merely received a couple of calls about him.)
Even if he were available, I said the Braves would not likely be involved, even though they were interested in Ethier in the past. I said it not so much because Ethier now owed a fairly steep $82.5 million over the next five seasons, in addition to a $17.5 million vesting option in 2018 with a $2.5 million buyout. Rather, it was because he bats left-handed. And no, he’s not a leadoff hitter (only two at-bats in his entire career from the leadoff spot).
The Braves are building around lefty sluggers Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, and adding Ethier would keep them too lefty-dominant in the middle of the order, with three of their four middle hitters batting from the left side for years to come in that scenario, and four of their middle five hitters in 2013 all batting from the left side, including catcher Brian McCann.
Even if you have four lefty hitters and four righties, that’s not balance when all four lefties are going to hit in the middle of the order and the four righties or switch hitters would be in the top and bottom of the order.
And it might not be so bad if Ethier was one of those lefty hitters who hits about the same against lefties or righties. He is not one of those hitters. He has a career .238 average and .649 OPS vs lefties, .311/.913 vs. righties. He has 19 homers in 1010 at-bats vs. lefties, compared to 110 homers in 2514 at-bats vs. righties.
That’s extreme for any team, but particularly the Braves, who faced more lefties than any other major league team in 2012, with more than 2000 at-bats against lefties while no other team had as many as 1900. The Braves’ .244 average vs. lefties was sixth-lowest in the NL, and they had a .689 OPS vs. lefties compared to .721 vs. righties.
In 2011, the Braves had far and away the most at-bats vs. lefties among NL teams, and ranked last in the league in average (.229), OBP (.291) and slugging (.354) vs. lefties.
So you can see why they would like to do all they can to get that lefty situation improved.
• The Top 50 albums: If you don’t like my non-baseball comments or Tweets, now would be the time to stop reading today’s blog and skip to the comments. Because the baseball portion of our program is over and the annual music list begins now.
As many of your know, I spent an inordinate about of time (and money) purchasing and listening to music. So what started as my Top 25 albums list years ago on the blog has since expanded to a Top 50, along with a length honorable-mention section.
The rules are few, but important: No genre restrictions, unlike other such lists. I listen to everything from rap to alt-rock, trad country to metal. And then I rate them from the CDs or albums released this year that I’ve obtained, almost every one of which I’ve purchased. (A few were sent to me, but only a few.) No downloading for me, no listening to it on the listening station or online and making judgment. I have to have the entire album or CD for it to be eligible.
For my list, I didn’t open it to soundtracks (or else Searching for Sugar Man would be high on the list), live albums (Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit definitely, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Mike Cooley probably would’ve made it if I did), or re-issues (expanded re-issues by Joe Strummer, GZA, R.E.M and Sugar would’ve made it).
So without further ado, here’s the goods. It’s been a good year for music, though to me there wasn’t a clear-cut choice for No. 1 like there has been in many previous years. I went with Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music as my No. 1, nothing to do with the fact he’s from Atlanta and everything to do with the fact it’s destined to be a hip-hop classic, as are Nos. 3 and 5. Killer Mike has been in my car CD changer for months, and I never tire of it. Also, Old Neil appears higher than ever on my list, for good reason — it sounds close to peak Neil with Crazy Horse.
So here’s my list. Let me know your own top 3, 5, 10, whatever. Enjoy.
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order)
Allow Darlin’ — Europe; And You Will Knows Us By the Trail of Dead – Lost Songs; Best Coast – The Only Place; Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors; Cory Branan – Mutt; Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color; Calexico – Algiers; Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek; Cat Power – Sun; Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth; The Coup – Sorry to Bother You; Diamond Rugs – Diamond Rugs;
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me; Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur; Alejandro Escovedo – Big Station; Galactic – Carnivale Electricos; Gentleman Jesse – Leaving Atlanta; Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!; Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain; Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance;
Will Johnson – Scorpion; Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again; Chris Knight – Little Victories; Mark Knopfler — Privateering; Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral; Langhorne Slim & The Law – The Way We Move; Bettye LaVette – Thankful N’ Thoughtful; Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home; Van Morrison – Born to Sing: No Plan B; My Darling Clementine – How Do You Plead?; Sinead O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
Graham Parker & The Rumour – Three Chords Good; Sean Price – Mic Tyson; Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream; Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides; Redd Kross – Researching the Blues; Rick Ross – God Forgives, I Don’t; Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe; The Shins – Port of Morrow; Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror; Patti Smith – Banga;
Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables; Sons of Bill — Sirens; Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball; Titus Andronicus – Local Business; Turnpike Troubadours — Goodbye Normal Street; M. Ward — A Wasteland Companion; Paul Weller – Sonik Kicks.
TOP 50 ALBUMS ADDENDUM: My list was completed and posted before the last week of December. With Christmas gift cards and such, I purchased a bunch more records right after the list was published, several of which would’ve made either my Top 50 or at least honorable mention. They included Lindi Ortega’s Cigarettes & Truckstops (one of the best country albums of the year); American Aquarium’s Burn. Flicker. Die. (Think Drive-By Truckers/Lucero; it’s produced by Jason Isbell, who also plays on it along with his wife, fiddle-picker extraordinaire Amanda Shires); Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse (I’m admittedly late to Segall, who put out three albums in ‘12); David Ramirez’s Apologies (think early Ryan Adams, but more raw and more country); Purity Ring’s Shrines; Dum Dum Girls’ End of Daze (an EP, but their best record so far), and Wild Nothing’s Nocturne (reminds me of the The Church and some ‘80s dream-pop bands, which is a good thing).
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog