Sunday, May 18, 2008

You Got Questions?

Forty-two games into the season, the Braves inability to go one way or another has forced me to ask many questions. And in a true sign of ego, I will also answer them.

1. Are the Braves a .500 team?

Atlanta seems incapable of getting a run and staying above .500. A five-game win streak got them to 10-9, they lost two straight. Got back to 12-11, lost four straight. Followed that with another five game win streak to get to 18-15, lost three straight, and have been alternating wins and loses since to come into Sunday at 21-21.

Now, most will point two the road record (6-16), but I think that is misleading. They have only allowed seven more runs on the road than they've scored so that record should not be that bad. Then there is the 2-12 one-run record. I feel one-run records can be a sign that the bullpen hasn't been keeping leads, but its hard to really get much out of the record beyond that and there are better ways of seeing how effective the bullpen has been at keeping leads.

I think right now...the Braves are merely a .500 team for a few reasons. The starting pitching has yet to show up beyond Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens. Tom Glavine has had a few games and a few bad ones so in truth, that is what the Braves had to expect from him. That is why they needed three reliable pitchers _and_ Glav. They do not have that. Jo-Jo Reyes has shown a bit more control than he did last year with just five walks in three games, but he has been far too hittable. Chuck James was horrible and demoted. Jeff Bennett retakes his place and in Bennett's defense, he never lost a spot in the staff. His three starts aren't that bad (0-1, 3.07 ERA)

And then, there is the bullpen. In the late innings, this pen is really at a disadvantage. Manny Acosta simply isn't that good. Blaine Boyer's arm will likely self-destruct if he doesn't get a few days off. Royce Ring has sorta done his job. He somehow has been recorded as pitching seven 17 games. Will Ohman's WHIP is scary, but the results haven't been. However, there is no Rafael Soriano, no Mike Gonzalez, not even a John Smoltz just yet. Phil Stockman will hopefully add something solid.

In the lineup, four players are getting it done, four are not. That sets you up for a lot of innings where rallies get started, but not finished. Chipper Jones is obviously incredible and Yunel Escobar, Mark Kotsay, and Brian McCann have followed suit. But the Braves need, absolutely need, better production from Mark Teixeira, Kelly Johnson, and Jeff Francoeur. The LF platoon of Matt Diaz/Gregor Blanco isn't too bad, but one can't hit for power and the other can't get on base.

The lineup is the easiest to fix. You just have to believe that players will perform up to their reasonable expectations. But the pitching will need work and improved health, especially in the pen. I am still convinced that if the Braves want to compete for a spot in October, they need a starter to step behind Hudson and Jurrjens.

2. Will Chipper hit .400?

Simple answer, no. But he will win his first batting title this year and if the Braves can somehow get into the playoffs, will be in line for his second MVP. Chipper is locked in like I have never seen him. If he can stay healthy and play 145 games, I have to believe that he can definitely hit above .350, which is a hell of an accomplishment in itself. In the last five years, five players have managed that feat (Ichiro twice).

3. Are the Braves better with KJ and Kotsay switching spots?

Stagnant, not better. While Kots is outproducing KJ so far, KJ remains the better offensive talent and while Bobby Cox never seems to agree, the better player to receive more at-bats. You organize your batting lineup to get your best offensive players the most at-bats. Hence why the top five players should include KJ, Yunie, Chipper, Teix, and McCann. Maybe if it's a lefty on the mound, I could see dropping McCann and hitting Francoeur fifth.

4. Finally, will Mike Hampton finally help the Braves win games this year?


By not pitching them.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Right Man for the Job?

After last season ended, the lack of reliable starting pitching came to the forefront as a serious problem for the Atlanta Braves. The rotation last year combined for a 4.45 ERA and once you take out the two aces (John Smoltz and Tim Hudson), the staff managed just 5.1 ING per start. The bullpen, the focus of the previous offseason, stood up admirably well, posting a top notch 3.54 ERA despite three pitchers getting into 70 games.

Frank Wren's first offseason was spent scouring the league in search for starting pitching. He traded for the tremendously talented but raw Jair Jurrjens and signed the former Brave Tom Glavine. Despite the fact that he was relying so much on Smoltz and Glavine and their combined 83 birthday celebrations, the staff was supposed to be competitive starting crew with returnees Hudson, Chuck James, Jo-Jo Reyes, Buddy Carlyle, and - of course - Mike Hampton.

Through one-plus months of ball, we know these sure things.

-John Smoltz is hurt, probably not going to start another game this year.

-Jair Jurrjens is the real deal, one of the game's most promising pitchers.

-Mike Hampton is hurt. Again.

With Hudson and Jurrjens, the Braves have two very good starters who give the Braves a chance to win each game. Glavine has been decent and basically giving the Braves what I felt he was capable of. Decent effort, nothing more. Essentially, an overpaid Chuck James without James' penchant for giving up homers. Speaking of James, there has been little progression in the numbers for him or Reyes.

Without Smoltz, this staff looks pretty weak. It is time to move on to more options.

Possibly the quickest fix is Greg Maddux. Now, I am not a sentimental guy. The Big Three getting together for one last run with Uncle Bobby and Cousin Chip means little to me. What does interest me is Maddux's impact on the team.

While much was made of Maddux's inability to win 350 in a timely matter, the numbers show that Maddux has been as good as anyone the Braves can realistically target. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a number that shows a pitcher's true ERA, sits at 3.74. He would fit nicely behind Hudson and Jurrjens and provide some insurance if Jurrjens fails to keep up his high level through the dog days of summer.

Maddux also averages around six innings a start. If Glavine can do the same, it would give you two inning-eaters. Both pitchers would provide another year of learning for Jo-Jo Reyes, who can be left at Richmond barring injury.

Getting Maddux might be complicated. He will be paid $10M this year and has a no-trade clause. However, it would be a good bet to say that Maddux would waive it to get out of the San Diego sinking ship and go to a team like Atlanta. He would be comfortable here, pitching in a stadium he won many games with teammates he is used to.

The time to start talking to the Padres is now. The quicker this deal is done, the easier it will be to acquire Maddux. The last thing you want is a bidding war in July. The Padres don't seem to be going anywhere and have shown in recent days that they are willing to move in another direction.

Bring back Mad Dog.

The offense will come together. There are just too many good hitters for it not to. Add Maddux to the staff and whatever help Smoltz, Mike Gonzalez, and Rafael Soriano give to the bullpen and the Braves suddenly look like true blue contenders.

(Idea inspired by this post at chopnation.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Braves Fall 3-2 to Bucs

-There goes the win streak.

-Bobby Cox's decisions bugged me tremendously in this game. Bunting with Greg Norton and sticking with Glavine after luckily getting six average innings are the biggest two. I hate the bunt and I hate Glavine so sticking with him just made me want to slap someone.

-The hitters...were horrible.

-Urgh. Frustrating game.

Friday, May 9, 2008

John Sickels reviews Tommy Hanson

My favorite minor league analyst reviewing my favorite Braves prospect.

Tommy Hanson was drafted by the Braves in the 22nd round in 2005, a draft-and-follow pick from Riverside CC in California. He signed and made his pro debut in 2006, going 4-1, 2.09 with a 56/9 K/BB ratio in 51 innings for Danville in the Appalachian League, showing excellent control of a fastball/curveball/changeup combination. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2007 book, but noted that he had higher potential and that there was a chance he could break through in '07 and '08, possibly emerging as a top prospect.

Hanson began 2007 with Rome in the Sally League, going 2-6 but with a 2.59 ERA and a 90/26 K/BB in 73 innings, with just 51 hits allowed. Promoted to Myrtle Beach at mid-season, he went 3-3, 4.20 with a 64/32 K/BB in 60 innings. The main negative here was an elevated home run rate at Myrtle Beach, with 10 homers given up in just 11 starts and 60 innings. Nevertheless, I was impressed with him and gave him a Grade B+ in the book this year, a grade for which I took some flack. Most people seemed to think he was more of a Grade B/B- type guy.

I personally think the grade is fair. I think a B- grade would have been low and he is somewhere between B and B+ for sure, maybe closer to the latter. When I look at Hanson, I see a guy who stays young enough for his level, but does well each stop. Even his struggles at Myrtle Beach were not particularly tough to imagine because he had youth on his side.

2008 has been great so far: 3-1, 0.79 for Myrtle Beach, with a 42/10 K/BB in 34 innings and just 14 hits allowed, zero homers. Yes he's repeating the league, but given the way he's dominated so far I imagine a promotion to Double-A will be in order shortly and we'll get a better read on his progress then. He's just 21 so although he's a league-repeater he isn't old for the competition by any means.

I think inning-repeater is a bit disingenuous. Yes, he's repeating a level because he finished last year with the Pelicans, but that is a scant 94 total innings with the Pelicans.

Hanson is a big guy at 6-6, 210 pounds but he keeps his mechanics in gear most of the time. His fastball is solid at 89-92 MPH, with movement. His curveball is excellent and he's made significant improvements with his changeup. My only real concern here is that he's very much a fly ball pitcher, which could leave him vulnerable to excessive gophers at higher levels.

Definitely my concern too. He fluctuates between 30% and 40% for groundballs. That is a bit of a fear. But then, if it works for Cole Hamels...

It's too early to draw comparisons to other pitchers, but if he stays healthy I think Hanson projects as a number three starter. If he can pick up a bit more consistent velocity and maintain his command, he could exceed that. Let's see what happens when he hits Double-A. Does his strikeout rate stay steady? Do the home runs come back? These are the two main questions for me.

My grade? B+

I think he can be a solid starter in the mold Sickels suggests, possibly better. According to the comments, Hanson has brought increased velocity this year, allowing him to remain a strikeout threat.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Omar, where you been?

From the latest Braves team report via Yahoo.

INF Omar Infante’s debut with the Braves should come in a week or less—however long it takes for him to get enough at-bats in his minor league starts to feel comfortable. Infante, on the disabled list all season with a broken left hand, went a combined 2-for-7 in his first two rehab games with Class AAA Richmond on Monday and Tuesday.

Okay, that's all good and so forth...but who loses their spot?

Well, currently, the Braves have five bench players. Greg Norton and Gregor Blanco (or should I say Matt Diaz?) are safe. Corky Miller probably is too because he is getting the backup catcher time.

That leaves a pair of players who are out of options in Ruben Gotay and Brayan Pena. My gut tells me Gotay will get the boot, but I would prefer to keep Gotay and do something with Pena. Pena is essentially dead weight with Norton around. Before, Pena was the first bat off the bench. He has been replaced. Norton can play all the positions Pena can except catch, though by Bobby's refusal to use him as a catcher and all the commentary to say pitchers don't like throwing to Pena, he isn't a catcher either. At least not in the system.

Time to put him on the table and get something for him. He really has no place on this team now. Pena is a good hitter and maybe another organization will use him as a catcher, maximizing his value. Probably not and he probably should have been traded before that became known, but oh well. Pena has had 14 AB and the only game he has come to the plate twice was the time the Braves batted around so he got two plate appearances as a pinch hitter. He has had absolutely no use for a glove. Get it done, Wren.

And no, I didn't say get r done. If you say that around me, I might be forced to slap you. Sorry, but its got to be said.

UPDATE...oh, so I write all that and after tonight's game, the Braves DL'd Pena and recalled Infante. So...I'm sorta right.


Rafael Soriano hurts and nobody seems to know why. But then again, that's why he has tendinitis, which is greek for "I hurt yet no one knows why."

The article also mentions Peter Moylan, who will get operated on tomorrow and no one really knows how bad he is. I swear, did the Braves change their HMO or what?


Good win tonight by the Braves, though they wasted a lot of opportunities. I know Bobby won't, but I'd like to see an outfield of Diaz, Kots, and Blanco tomorrow.

Smoltz...and Bonds!

Dugout Central chimes in with this column.

Last season Smoltz threw the second-most innings on the staff – about a seventh of their total innings. The team finished with the third-lowest ERA and the sixth-fewest runs allowed. Last season they probably didn’t have anyone capable of doing what Jair Jurrjens could do this season, and their pitching staff wasn’t as deep. It’s still hard to see this year’s pitching staff being significantly better than last seasons’. The Smoltz injury and subsequent move to the bullpen costs the Braves a lot of great innings.

It is a valid point. Without Smoltz in the rotation, someone has to pitch the other 170ish innings that coming into the season, Smoltz was relied on to pitch. That is a hell of a lot of innings to go. While I can agree with the comment at the bottom and having Smoltz for 40-60 more innings is better than zero innings, it does hurt this staff tremendously, turning what many called a deep staff into a thin one.

You can replace Mike Hampton. You can't replace John Smoltz.

To make the playoffs, they’ll need their offense to continue to be as good as expected. They’ll also need Tim Hudson to step up and Jurrjens to continue to pitch well. One more above average starter would also help. You can bet GM Frank Wren is working the phones looking for anyone willing to give up any decent starter to provide the Braves some quality innings. The challenge? What GM isn’t looking for the same?

Exactly. I did a little research last night for the kind of names the Braves might target (low cost, little investment in time) and came up with Odalis Perez, Livan Hernandez, and Shawn Chacon. Now, maybe the Braves want to put a big investment on the table...but it's going to cost them and I just don't think they are comfortable making their second straight prospect dump like they did with Teix.

Elsewhere, the MLBPA doesn't have enough to do is questioning why Barry Bonds is still a free agent and received no offers. At first glance, its easy to say "well, he has his legal troubles." Then maybe you can add that he's old and can't field worth a damn and always has had a girl's arm.

But it actually is a question worth asking. Last year, Bonds hit .276/.480/.565. There is not an AL team around that can't improve their DH numbers with Bonds?

Of course, he's a PR risk. And a clubhouse cancer. And he has small testicles after years of steroid abuse. But I gotta think the Orioles would have a better offense with Bonds.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Let's Meet...Greg Norton!

That's Mr. Norton looking pretty happy as a D-Ray. Now, they are just the Rays. Oh wells.

He was probably happy in Tampa because he had his best season there in 2006 when he hit .296/.374/.520 with 17 homers. After sucking last year, he picked up with the Mariners and was forced out because of a number crunch despite hitting well in limited opportunities. The Braves acquired him today for a player to be named and he will replace Martin Prado, who stupidly hurt his wrist sliding into first yesterday.

Norton is your typical reserve corner guy. He can play some first, third, right, and left. In a pinch, you can move him to second, but you would rather not. He's not going to hit for much average, but does get on base pretty well despite a low average and will hit for some pop. And he's a switch-hitter, which helps matters.

Norton was originally a second round choice of the Chicago White Sox, where he spent most of his professional career until signing with the Rockies in 2000. After two years there, he spent a year with Detroit, back with the Rockies for spring training in '05, back with the ChiSox for the rest of '05, two years with the Rays, and then the start of this year with the M's where he was 7 of 16 this year after getting called up.

A small deal that could be useful depending on which Norton you get ('06 or '07 Norton).

Is he really?

This from the Morning Juice blog via Yahoo...

Jonesing for Chipper: He's had a fantastic career but he's underrated when it comes to placing him with the game's best in this or any era. And if somebody out there gives me a, "Oh, Hanley Ramirez went second in my roto draft, you're an idiot"-like comment, you're getting a virtual slap. Let's see ... other than Bonds and A-Rod, you could argue Chipper was as good or better than Griffey, the Big Hurt, Sheffield, Manny.

The one thing that makes this argument so valid despite Chipper's injuries is that he plays a much tougher position that 1B/DH or the OF. However, Junior does make up a little since he played center field, and a solid center field at that, for so many years.

If we were to start this discussion with adjusted OPS+, it would not look well for Chipper's argument. The Big Hurt is third active with 157 OPS+ and Manny fourth with 154. Chipper ranks tenth at 144, Sheff tied for 11th with 143, and Junior much further down the list at 15th with 139.

In runs created, Chipper again ranks tenth, but this time, all four players rank ahead. Thomas is second among active players (though first if you think Bonds is done), Junior third, Sheff fourth, and Manny fifth. However, runs created is a counting stat which automatically gives prejudice to those who have played more games. Here is how they rank in RC/G.

Thomas - 8.9
Manny - 8.9
Chipper - 8.3
Sheff - 7.6
Junior - 7.5

Much like OPS+, the stats seem to suggest that Thomas and Manny are clearly the best offensive players and Sheff and Junior don't belong in this discussion.

Let's go further...with baseball prospectus. EQA adjusted for all-time has Chipper with a .318 EQA. Manny trumps that with .327 and Thomas breezes past it with a .336 EQA. Griffey is at .309, but Sheff makes a minicomeback in the discussion with a .317.

How about Wins Above Replacement Player? Chipper is sitting pretty at 102.7. Manny again goes past that with 113.1, Thomas clicks in at an impressive 133.0, Junior at 132.4, and Sheff is at 124.2. But lets do a seasonal average. I took out brief cups of coffee like Chipper's 1993 callup and four plate appearances.

Manny - 7.56 WARP3
Chipper - 7.32 WARP3
Thomas - 7.00 WARP3
Junior - 6.62 WARP3
Sheff - 6.19 WARP3

We finally see Chipper's position give him a lift and surpass Thomas, whose stats are muddled by the fact he was a 1B and DH his whole career. But Manny's numbers still reign supreme. I think it's fair to say Chipper was as good or better than Thomas and definitely better than Junior and Sheff, but I'll keep Manny as better than Chipper. It's not a huge difference, but Manny is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. Yes, Chipper ranks just as high as switchhitters go, but there are many more right-handed hitters to rank against.

But fun stuff nonetheless.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Early May Report

The Braves continue to drift along, a game under .500, and without much (get ready, Joe Morgan) consistency. However, when you look at the injuries, poor play, and lack of real definitions in the bullpen, the fact that the Braves aren't four or five games under .500 is a damn accomplishment.

Chipper Jones is having an absolutely amazing start to the season, batting .421/.471/.692. Apparently, all that talk about Teix having such a big impact on him is true. The double play combo of Yuniel "Mr. Dynamic" Escobar and Kelly Johnson has been decent and once KJ starts to hit his stride for more than a few games, it will take off. Teix has been taking off of late, too, and McCann looks a lot more like 2006 Super Mac than 2007 Fairly Decent Mac. Francoeur has been doubling like crazy (11 already) and Kotsay hasn't sucked (so that's a win). Diaz isn't doing that bat, but Gregor Blanco is hitting well enough to snake some at-bats from him.

The offense has all continues to rank in the top five in AVG, OBP, and SLG, yet only eighth in runs scored. Something is amiss here and I believe the runs scored will increase with time.

The team ERA is second in the NL at 3.46, which is pretty amazing and probably not going to last. Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens have been amazing, but John Smoltz is hurt and likely to go to the bullpen rather than stick in the rotation when he returns. Jo-Jo Reyes had five good innings last night, but struggled in the sixth. However, the pen has been surprisingly solid considering its missing Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan, and Mike Gonzalez. Possibly Tom Glavine can find himself with a solid game today.

Truth be told, the stats like this team. The expected record is 18-11, a good four games better than their actual record. If they were 18-11, they would be in the driver's seat in the NL East. Luckily, the Phils and Mets aren't off to stellar starts either because the Braves trail the East by a mere two games.

-Elsewhere, Mike Hampton considered retirement after his latest setback. I think I speak for most Braves fans when I say...please do. I'm sorry, Hambone, but it's annoying to even have you around.

-Brent Lillibridge's struggles at Richmond continued when he got a callup and went 0 for 8 with an RBI before being demoted yesterday.

-Down in Richmond, Barbaro Canizares continues to mash the ball to the tune of .337/.374/.495. He's 28 so don't get too carried away, but does only have three professional years under his belt. Neither Brandon Jones nor Scott Thorman have hit a homer, but at least BJ is starting to hit a little and has raised his AVG to .270.

-Next in line to get a shot? Charlie Morton. The Bobby Cox fav is 1-0 in six starts with a 2.14 ERA and an 0.98 WHIP.

-Picked up in the Tyler Yates deal, Todd Redmond has been a bit of a brightspot for the 9-20 Mississippi Braves. He's 2-1 with a 3.75 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. The thing that jumps out at you...26 K's, 3 BB in 36 innings.

-The team ERA for Myrtle Beach is 2.70. Of course, Thomas Hanson has been the best arm so far with a 0.79 ERA and an even better 0.71 WHIP. Looks like he'll get a callup real soon. Closer Kevin Gunderson should join him. Eight saves, an 0.71 ERA, and a 1.26 WHIP.

-While the Pelicans don't hit that well, Gorkys Hernandez is tearing up Carolina League pitching so far, hitting .309/.378/.568 with 5 doubles, 5 triples, 2 HR, and 5 SB. If he can hit for some power, he might surpass Jordan Schafer. The double play combo of Tavis Jones (.099 IsoOBP, 8 steals) and Brandon Hicks (.281/.347/.578) is also coming up big early on.

-Rome is a mixed bag. Overall, the team is struggling, but Jason Heyward and Cody Johnson aren't embarrassing themselves so that's good. The pitching is good enough to compete with Scott Diamond, Eric Barrett, Jose Ortegano, and Steven Evarts all posting good numbers. Right now, they just need to get going.