144: Half Way Home & The Braves Are Caught In A Rundown…

Gil Mechanicsville, VA

By Gil In Mechanicsville

In a 162 game season, 81 games represents one half of the games necessary to complete the race to the play-offs. Once upon a time, the team in the American League with the best record would face the National League team with the best record and meet in a best of seven series for the title of World Series Champion. Then, the leagues grew and grew. First to two divisions, East & West, for both leagues. This meant games would needed to be added as the two division winners of each league would meet in a best of seven series for the privilege of playing in the World Series.

Then each league expanded again, now there we three division in each league but this meant an odd number of teams would vie for the right to become league champion and meet the opposing league for the opportunity to be the World Champions of Baseball. No problem, there would be one team from each league which would be designated as a Wild Card team. They would be the team with the best record who had not won their division. First it was a best of three, then expanded to a best of five. Now a best of seven. All the while, the season was getting pushed deeper and deeper into the fall.

Not to be deterred by all the hardships generated from playing a sport, clearly designed for summer being played in cities with wind chills in the teens at night on dates normally reserved for football, the major league owners saw an opportunity to add even more revenue by expanding the play-off to include two Wild Card teams. No matter how improbable it might seem, even teams with very so so records had a chance to get into the big dance. Not that they had a serious chance of actually winning, they still had a chance. So, with all the revenue being produced from television rights, the season has now become a marathon with the final month of October and shutter, November, being like the final mile of the 26 mile marathon, only it was uphill and into the wind. A very steep hill and a cold, cold wind….

So, what does the previous three paragraphs have to do with the Braves? Well, by all accounts, the 2015 Braves were going to be one of the worse teams in baseball. Likely to lose at least 90 games and possibly 100 with the midnight trade of Craig Kimbrel to the Padres by John Hart. After all, why would a team going nowhere need a luxury piece like Kimbrel? No use having an All-Star closer when you are only going to win 60 games. So, what is the dilemma? Well, it is a bit of good news, bad news for the Braves at this point. With a team going nowhere, the two Johns would pretty much have a free hand of trading and selling off players. Not like the fans would notice. They would have given up by the end of May. The Nationals, who were stocked to the gills with high priced pitching, would be going to the World Series this year. They would win the division by 25 games and with only token resistance from the Mets, should have things wrapped up by June 1st.

Only problem, the Nats were so busy reading their press clippings, they forgot they still had to play every game on the schedule. Now, to be realistic, the Nationals have played better of late but they are far from unbeatable. The Mets? They have some really good young pitching, good enough to be a Wild Card team and even challenge an underperforming Washington for the NL East title. That is except they are struggling to find enough offense on a nightly bases to win consistently. This leads us to the Braves. At the half way point, the Braves are 40-41. One game under .500 and only 1/2 game behind the Mets and 5  behind the Nats. Okay, I know, it’s still a losing season at this point but the loss of Freddie Freeman for the past month has had a lot to do with the Braves’ recent woes offensively.

But, the Braves’ silver lining has begun to show through the clouds of doom and gloom. Pitching…. Despite the hic-ups incurred by Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, the debuts of Matt Wisler and Manny Benuelos have given Braves’ fans a glimmer of hope for the future. That and the recent hardening of the relief corp has helped to diminish some of the angst felt by everyone in Atlanta when a starter had to come out of a game. Now, by no means are the Braves being mentioned as shoo ins for the play-offs but stranger things have happened. This is what makes this season’s trade deadline a real poser for Hart & Company. Can you really trade away your best catcher and best reliever for a couple of more prospects when you are not yet really out of the conversation?

What kind of message does it send to your team when you ship your spark plug and chief cheerleader, Jonny Gomes, off to another club. Are the Braves really going to trow in the towel when the fight could still be won? I am as realistic as the next guy, I know this year was all about transitions, a revamping of an underperforming and underachieving team into a prototypical National League team built on pitching, defense and speed. Perhaps this year’s team was a little too good too quick. It is going to be tough to make choice between being buyers or sellers this year as long as the Braves are hanging tough. Lots of baseball still to be played this year. The Braves may well fade this year late like the last three seasons but I would not count on it. By all rights, the Nats should be winning going away but you never know. Lots of years the Braves were supposed to win it all too and got beat.

So, let’s keep watching and rooting for and enjoying one of the most interesting ball clubs we have seen occupying Turner Field in years. Good pitching, good defense and just enough offense to keep you in the game for the full nine innings. We still have 81 more games to play to prove if the Braves are contenders or pretenders.

143: A Third Of the Way Home And They Are Not Dead Yet.

Gil Mechanicsville, VA    by Gil In Mechanicsville

As this is written, we are at the 65 games played mark for most major league teams, this represents about 40% of the total games for a season. It is at this point that most teams know their strengths and weaknesses. The haves are looking at the have nots and licking their chops for the player or players who can push their team over the top into the play-offs and ultimately The World Series. Surprisingly only a few teams look to be totally out of it. Those being the Phillies, the Rockies and Milwaukee. There are others who currently could be thought as slipping further and further behind even though their records are not that bad such as the Reds, the White Sox, Oakland and Seattle. the last two were on many pundits’ short list of being a World Series contender given their histories and improvements made to their rosters.

So much for predicting outcomes base on histories. I guess that is why they force teams to play the games between the lines because as they say, you never know… That brings us to this years version of the Braves. predicted by many to be far and away one of the worse teams in all of baseball for 2015 primarily because they had made an massive off season salary dump with such stars as Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis. Most people predicted the Braves would lose 90 games this season and would be battling the Fightn’ Phils to stay out of last place in the NL East. Well, at last glance the Braves are still hovering around .500 and st only 4.5 games behind the Amazins’ are actually therorictly still in it. How could this be so? after all, they not only traded three of their best hitters, they also traded away the best closer in baseball in order to get out from under the pall of doom also known as Melvin Upton Jr., the baseball player formerly known as B.J.

So what happened? Turned out Cameron Maybin has become the All-star player many thought he would be. Only took him six years, who knew. Maybin came to the Breves as part of the Craig Kimbrel/Melvin Upton for pitching prospect Matt Wisler, minor league outfielder Jordan Paroubeck, outfielder Carlos Quentin, plus the the 41st overall pick for 2015. So, not only did the Braves get a decent outfielder to replace Upton, they got a stellar pitching prospect who likely will see time with Atlanta at some point this season and the 41st draft pick. Don’t get me wrong, it hurt to lose Kimbrel but the salve on that wound was ridding Atlanta of BJ and his hideous contract. The gravy on the deal turned out to be that Maybin as played a stellar centerfield, a position the Braves had penciled in EY Young Jr to play during the off season. In a word, the Braves looked to have fleeced the Padres on the deal. That is saying something when you tell one of the players traded for, Quinton, who is being paid $8 mm this season to not even bother to get on the plane to report.

The other prospects coming to the Braves have made a surprising impact too. Jace Peterson who was part of the Justin Upton trade has been a much better player than the utility player he was purported to be. While he is still learning the second base position on the job, he has proven to be good enough to force s position change for projected super star prospect Jose Peraza to centerfield. his second move in as many years after being touted as an up and coming shortstop. Peterson has also proven himself to be a good lead off man with an OBP of .354 to go along with a .284 BA. The other prospect coming into the fold is Mike Foltynewicz, a young right handed starter who is still finding his way as a major league pitcher.

It’s funny but remember how much former GM Frank Wren talked about moving away from the power baseball game to a team with speed but never was able to make that happen? Well, it appears that Frank’s dream showed up this season. The Braves signed a bunch of veterans this off season to act as place holders to fill in short term until the prospects are ready in 2017 when the Braves move into their new stadium. This current group of misfit toys have played so much better than they were suppose to. Guys like AJ Perzinki, Jonny Gomes and Juan Uribe’ have all played well in addition to help stabilize a young club house that sorely was lacking in leadership skills. Even former Baby Brave Kelly Johnson has made a resurgence of sorts by playing three different positions as well as adding some left handed power and a .280 BA with 6 home runs and 21 RBI in 100 at bats so far his season.

Still, the bullpen has become a house of horrors with one of the worse ERAs in the majors. From night to night, one never knows which pitcher is going to put out the fire and which one is going to throw on more kerosene. The problem now facing John Hart and Co is how do you sell off pieces of the current club whole they are still viable as a post season contender? It seems the veterans did not get the memo that they were suppose to roll over and lose so deals could be made at the deadline which would allow for the Braves to bring up a few more prospects, trade for some other highly rated prospects and fire Fredi Gonzalaz all in the same season, thus severing the last tie to the Frank Wren era and John Hart bringing in his own man to manage this team.

142: Two Months Down And the Braves Are Still Relevant.

Gil Mechanicsville, VA    by Gil In Mechanicsville

So, with a quarter of the season already flying by, we have had a chance to get and idea of the 2015 Braves and what they are all about. Oddly enough, even without big time power bats and an All-Star studded roster, the Braves appear to be holding their own. Currently at 21-21, the Bravos are in third place in the NL East and 3 1/2 back of the Washington Nationals, the Atlanta club is just good enough most nights to keep you tuned in until the final out.

Other than Freddie Freeman, and possible A.J. Pierzynski, this season’s edition does not really have the one swing equals one run kind of power that gets you featured on Sports Center or Quick Pitch night after night. What they do have is a scrappy bunch of young ball players sprinkled with some salty veterans who somehow seem to know how to keep themselves relevant. To be honest, some nights I miss the three run homer by the good guys but truthfully, watching the line up drop in single and doubles and putting up a crooked number can be pretty exiting too. There is after all, a certain beauty in seeing solid contact being made batter after batter, even if sometimes those solid contacts turn into outs. At least the opposing team is forced to make a good play to record an out.

The pitching staff may be the Braves Achilles heel this season when all is said and done. Like the old adage, a team is only as good as it’s next day’s starting pitcher. So true for the 2015 Braves. Shelby Miller has risen to ACE status while Julio Teheran has slipped a bit but Julio can still hurl a gem or two with a fair amount of consistency. The number three guy is a still wet behind the ears young pup named Alex Woods. While Alex is not exactly the second coming of Sandy Koufax, he is a solid lefty who  is still learning on the job. He still needs to learn how to put opposing batters away after getting them down two strikes but being more efficient and learning how to keep the ball off the sweet spot of the bat could help him get deeper into ball games and save the pen.

The fourth and fifth starter slots are still the most worrisome for the Braves. Mike Foltynewicz has a cannon for an arm but he still has trouble harnessing it and he is still working on the mental part of the game. He is another guy you fell fortunate to get five complete innings out of in under 110 pitches. There is no doubt he has the potential to be a great starter but as with every young pitcher, there is a certain amount of growing pains we have to deal with as he learns how to pitch at the gam;s highest level.

The Braves latest experiment at number five is William Perez. A native of Venezuela, he has served his time in the minors. While his debut as a reliever was less than impressive, his no decision against the Rays may have given us some insight to his mental make up . He refuse to give in or give up and with the help of his teammates, showed a bit of toughness when things were not going well for him. Perhaps it was the image of him spiking the ball after a nifty double play to escape an inning unscafted was the most memerable moment of his recent outing.

The Braves are still trying to piece together a solid bullpen. One that employs the services of Eric Stults and Trevor Cahill is not likely one to strike fear into the hearts of opposing managers late in games. I think we all got a bit spoiled after having the likes of O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel at the back of the line up. No everything is bad with the Braves pen, there are some solid players plying their wares in Atlanta this season. Jim Johnson and Jason Grille have both been pleasant surprises so far. Brandon Cunniff has been a very pleasant surprise. Brandon is another gem who was mined from the independent leagues once again proving you never know who is watching you play. Luis Avilan looks to be more like the pitcher we saw in 2013 than the guy who struggled in 2014.

That still leaves Ian Thomas, Eric Shults, Trevor Cahill and Nick Masset holding down the fort, none of whom makes us feel the game is won simply because they are in the game. Young Cody Martin is back in Gwennett for a little R&R after faltering of late. Over use can do that to a pitcher but as long as the starters are only giving you five innings a night, Fredi G has little choice but to call on his pen to try to finish up the game. That and a ball club that relies heavily on it’s main weapons to hold a slim lead because they are not typically bombing the opposing team with runs.

Going forward, the Braves are taking their first excursion to the west coast this week. Unfortunately, we all remember the disaster of last season when the Braves went out west and proceeded to lose all but one game because they could not muster any offense. The season was never the same afterwards for the 2014 Braves. Perhaps this trip will give us some insight as to who and what this year’s team is all about. Contenders or pretenders, stay tuned for the verdict.

141: So It Begins Again

Gil Mechanicsville, VA    by Gil In Mechanicsville

Well, the 2015 season is underway and the first couple of weeks have held forth a few surprises. I guess the biggest being the departure of fan favorite and closer extraordinaire, Craig Kimbrel. Less than 24 hours before the start of the season, Kimbrel was sent to San Diego along with some heavy baggage formerly known as B;J Upton who’s play was so bad, he felt the need to change his name thinking he could fool the fans in Atlanta into believing a new player had been acquired.

So, a few additional faces we had not had a chance to discuss. Trevor Cahill, a former All-Star who has apparently lost his way since undergoing hip surgery. Mechanics are a funny thing for a major league pitcher, the least little thing can cause him to become a complete Jeckyl and Hyde act.  Coming to Atlanta the final week of spring training for a minor league outfielder and a deep discount on his 12 million dollar salary. Trevor did not look at all comfortable in his first start but perhaps like Matt Latos of the Marlins who was shelled by the Braves in his first start, he can come around to the point he can become somewhat of an innings eater. We will know soon enough I suspect.

Eric Stults also made the team. Originally slated as a fifth starter, he moved up a slot with the continued problems experienced by Mike Minor and his balky shoulder. The Braves will continue to hope Stults can be an effective back end of the rotation guy but I do not see the Braves going too deep into the season with him in the line up if Stults continues to struggle. I look for the Braves to turn to another one of their late spring acquisition, Matt Wisler. The 22 year old right hander who came along with Cameron Maybin from San Diego for Kimbrel and Melvin Upton. The young rightie has a high ceiling and appears far ahead of the Brave other wunderkin Mike Foltynewicz. Perhaps the Braves will score a trifecta win with Wisler, Folty and Lucas Sims by the time they move into their new digs north of Atlanta. For sure, the good folks in Gwinnett should take avantage to see these kids develop while parking and seating is cheap. I should also mention Manny Banuelos is another possibility if he can return to his pre Tommy John form. Like I said, mechanics are very important and is often the difference in a weak grounder to short or a 400 foot big fly.

The only real questions for the Braves will be if they can maintain the knack they have shone early on for staying focused in the field and continuing to put up good at bats. Not everyone on this season’s team is hitting over .300 but most every one of the hitters at putting up good at bats. There have been very few three strike at bats by the Braves hitter. Now, they have shone a few chinks in their armor to date but it’s been a fun ride so far. Still, the Braves are getting very little respect from the talking heads who are covering the sport on a professional basis. Can’t say that I blame them after the Braves made them look foolish last season. Besides, teams that tear down to the studs are not suppose to win. I guess the players did not get that memo….

By the way, I would be remiss if I did not mention my new favorite pitcher for the Braves, reliever Cody Martin. Love that kid. Cannot throw a 95 mph fastball but he can throw strikes and opposing hitters are not having much success against his Madduxess 90 mph cutter. He may be the one that Braves Country is glad didn’t get away.

#140: New Faces for 2015, Part V

By Gil in Mechanicsville

With only about two weeks left before games begin in earnest and the promise of a brand new season starts the long and rutted road to the World Series, the Braves still have spots open for the taking in their line up. The foot injury to Melvin Upton Jr. and the recurring shoulder problems of left handed pitcher Mike Minor has created opportunities for at least two more players to begin the season playing for the Big A.

Holdover players Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons and Christian Bethencourt looked to have had a good spring training. While CJ took a while to heat up, he has suddenly returned to 2013 form but with more power. Allowing the home runs to come rather than pursue them looks to have allowed the Atlanta third baseman to stay on the ball longer and make solid contact with greater frequency.

Simmons, Freeman and Bethancourt all have looked comfortable at the plate and should provide steady offense this year. Newcomers AJ Perzinski and Jonny Gomes have done nothing to dispel the names they have made for themselves as professional ball players. The veteran leadership often needed in a clubhouse full of youngsters was sorely missing last year after the departure of Tim Hudson and Brian McCain have been replaced with the likes of Perzinski, Gomes and relief pitcher Jason Grille.

Nick “The Neck” Markakis has begun his long awaited return to the game after off season spinal fusion surgery and by all accounts will be a force in the Atlanta outfield, perhaps not as exciting Jason Heyward but no slouch. Understandably, it will take a few weeks for him to regain his full strength but his initial return against Astros showed him going 3 for 4 as the DH. A good sign for a guy who had not seen live pitching for five months. His reputation is as a solid outfielder who knows how to play the game. He does not make mental errors and always hits the cutoff man and throws to the right base.

The rest of the starting line up still appears to be in a bit of a flux. Alberto Callaspo, one of John Hart’s earliest off season signings and projected starting second baseman showed up overweight. The teeth gnashing and ash wallowing began amongst the Braves fans who follow the blogs. Fortunately, it appears the 31 year old Venezuelan has shed some pounds and has played regularly at both second and third base this spring. He began slowly but of late, his bat has heated up. The switch hitter has shown the versatility that would enable him to be part of a soft platoon with Chris Johnson at third. Perhaps urged on by the strong showing this spring by Jace Peterson, who came to the Braves as part of trade that saw Justin Upton depart for San Diago, to win away from him the starting job at second base gave him incentive. Peterson’s slash line of .341/.449/.390 in 41 at bats this spring and solid defense has been a very pleasant surprise. Project as a “super sub” type player, Peterson has taken a bit of the air out of the “Perazza Now” balloon. That and Jose Peraza’s youth becoming evident at the plate. While his glove is major league ready, his bat evidently can benefit from some more time in the minors.

The center field jobs looks to be won by an impressive showing by E Y Young Jr. EY Jr was released by the Mets and was signed to a minor league contract by the Braves. Initially he was penciled in as a possible utility, fourth outfielder but the foot injury to Melvin Upton has given him the opportunity to open the season with Atlanta manning the number eight position in the defense. The added upside to EY Jr is he is a natural lead-off man. While it does not look at this point Upton has been Wally Pipped at this point, he has at least given most Braves fans the sense that Upton should take his time getting healthy before he needs to return.

Todd Cunningham’s window of opportunity may be closing if he does not win a job outright this spring. He has the ability to play all three outfield positions but he may be the pro-typical Quad A player. The same may be true for Joey Terdoslavich. He has had a decent spring for the Braves, hitting .278 with seven extra base hits, he can play either corner outfield spot as well as first base. He worked with his dad during the off season to cut down on his swing. He is in the mix against veteran Kelly Johnson who has played everywhere the Braves have asked him to to display his versatility. KJ’s bat has begun to heat up of late and it appears he will be given every opportunity to win a spot as a utility/left handed bat off the bench for this year’s club.

The last players to be considered will be Phil Gosselin, Zoilo Almonte and surprising off season minor league signing Pedro Ciriaco who has 15 hits and 7 strike outs in 42 at bats this spring. A second baseman who has spent time with Boston and Kansas City, he has a strong accurate arm and some speed. While it would be a long shot to see him make the team this spring, he has opened some eyes. Phil Gosselin looks to have secured his spot as the utility infielder again this season after being the starting second baseman the latter part of the 2014 season. Zoilo is still vying for the spot platoon role with Jonny Gomes. It’s my opinion that he is on the bubble to start the season with the club.

The pitching is still to be discussed. I will do so in my final spring training blog.

#139: New faces for 2015 and beyond, Part IV

Gil Mechanicsville, VA

By Gil in Mechanicsville

In early January, John Hart made two moves to shore up his outfield, the first was to sign right handed hitter Jonny Gomes to a one year contract for $4 million in 2015 with a $3 million vesting option for 2016. If the option does not automatically vest, it will become a team option.
Gomes, 34, has a career slash line of .277/ .376/ .485 against southpaws. Likely, Jonny will be used in a platoon in left field in a combination with either former Yankee outfielder Zoilo Almont or waiver pick up Eury Perez. Gomes has been referred to as being someone who plays like “his hair is on fire”. One thing is certain, no one will accuse this latest edition of the Braves of sleepwalking through games. Perhaps the biggest question will be Jonny’s ability to adapt to the proposed rules that the batter keeps one foot in the batter’s box at all times. Methinks he will need his entire time in spring training trying to overcome his current OCD routine of stepping out after each pitch. Maybe the Braves can start by finding him a batting helmet with a chin strap.

Until the sudden arrival Eury Perez, it was assumed the switch hitting Zoilo Almont would serve in a platoon role with Gomes with Zoilo getting the lion’s share of playing time facing right handed hurlers. The 26 year old Dominican has a career slash line of .268/ .330/ .433 and an OPS of.763. Zoilo however will likely have to now beat out Perez who fell into the Braves’ lap after being dropped off the Yankee’s 40 man roster to make room for Steven Drew.

Since the Braves appear to have lost faith in Todd Cunningham as a legitimate option in center, Perez rockets up the charts to B.J.’s backup and the out-of-options outfielder will have every opportunity to win a spot this spring on a wide-open roster. On a team that might have to steal a lot of bases to press the issue, Perez could have some value both off the bench and, if BJ struggles, he could steal some time from the high-priced outfielder. Perez probably won’t be much more than a fourth outfielder. On a good team, he’d be in AAA. On a bad team…well, he starts to looks a lot better than he really is.

Perez was originally signed as a undrafted free agent by the Washington Nationals in 2007, he was picked up by the Yankees off waivers last September when the Nats dropped him off their 40 man roster. At least the Braves are not waiting until the end of spring training to fill out their outfield like they did in the 70’s.

#138, New faces for 2015 and beyond, Part III

Gil Mechanicsville, VA

By Gil in Mechanicsville

Another addition to the 2015 Atlanta Braves roster is catcher A.J. Pierzynski. While is was originally thought by many fans in Atlanta that A.J. Would be the mentor to Christian Bethencourt and the primary back-up for the young Panamanian with fan favorite and home run threat Evan Gattis moving to the outfield. The idea was that Evan might still play behind the plate and allow for some depth at the backstop position. Every team needs an emergency third catcher, right? Well, that plan went out the window with not only the trade of Justin Upton to San Diego but with the trade of Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros for three prospects.

The 39 year old Pierzynski was signed to a one year deal for $2 million dollars plus a possible additional $700,000 in incentives. A.J., aka, the most hated man in the Major League Baseball is a 17 year veteran of the majors. Certainly enough time to rub more than a few teammates and opponents alike the wrong way. I get the feeling the reputation has been earned by a perchance to speak the un-varnished truth no matter who’s toes are stepped upon. With the addition of Pierzynski, of whom the character, Jack Parkman, of the baseball comedy films Major Leagues I & II may well have been based upon, and outfielder Jonny Gomes, things should be interesting in the Braves club house this season.

Anthony John Pierzynski is listed as being 6′-3” weighing 235 pounds bats left and throws right. Amazingly, his career stats both as a major and a minor leaguer are remarkably similar. In his 17 seasons in the bigs, he has amassed a career line of .281/ .320/ .424 with a career OPS of .744. Perhaps his best years were with the White Sox with whom he earned a World Series ring in 2005 but he has been very consistent through-out his big league career. Defensively, Pierzynski has thrown out just 24% of potential base stealers. The league average is 28% so the Braves are not employing him for his prowess with the leather but for his cumulative knowledge of the game and his winning attitude. I have no doubt he will push Christian to play at a high level. In addition, the veteran will likely be used as a left handed bat off the bench on occasion. While not known as a homerun hitter, he does have some power. Not Evan Gattis power but he can get the ball in the stands.

One thing for sure, he should be beneficial in tutoring young Bethancourt on how to prepare for games by going over pre-game scouting reports and establishing a game plan for that day’s pitcher and not just phone it in. To not play the game at full bore will gain the wrath of the most hated man in baseball.


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