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    Andrew

    Andrew has written 17 posts for Braves Wire

    Julio Teheran ready for big league success?

    Last season, Julio Teheran entered Spring Training with sky high potential and a solid chance at earning a permanent role in Atlanta’s rotation. However, a year later, the Columbia native traveled to Lake Buena Vista in a similar position as he did in 2012 — but with more doubts and a heap of pressure to boot.

    Teheran didn’t only struggle last spring; he struggled with Triple A Gwinnett, as well. His velocity dropped, his earned run average soared and all of the sudden, the baseball world became a lot more apprehensive about his chances to one day develop into an MLB ace.

    Adversity on the field was not something this kid was used to facing, to say the least; and how he responds will give us a strong indication of his mental toughness. It isn’t always easy for young pitchers to live up to high expectations — just ask Tommy Hanson. Much like Hanson, Teheran had previously been named the top right-handed pitching prospect in the world, but has been unable to live up to the hype just yet.

    That said, the 22-year-old came to camp this March and looked a lot more mature. Perhaps mature enough to not only crack the Major Leagues, but enjoy substantial success.

    With the chance to get his career back on track, Teheran has put together quite an impressive spring, and may have locked up the Braves’ spot as the No. 5 starter.

    In 20 Spring Training innings, Teheran currently sports a 1.04 ERA and has surrendered just seven hits. Oppenents are batting under .100 against him, and he’s registered a whopping 35 strike outs in just 26 innings. He also has 12 more Ks than anyone else on the Braves roster (Maholm has 18).

    Suffice it to say, if he pitches HALF as well in the regular season, Teheran will be just fine.

    “If we’ve got to break camp tomorrow, he’s our fifth starter,” Fredi Gonzalez said recently. “He’s pitched that well.”

    At this point in time, Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm are virtual locks to be a part of Atlanta’s rotation, with the fifth and final spot up for grabs. Teheran doesn’t exactly have a lot of competition, and reports are already coming out that he’s a lock for No. 5.

    And if/when that happens, expect the other Braves starters to give Teheran their full support.

    “He’s really looked good, man,” Tim Hudson said. “I think he’s made the biggest stride forward of anybody I’ve seen in camp. You can see the confidence grow, more than anything.”

    Perhaps the lack of competition has made matters easier for Teheran. With the departure of Randall Delgado, the organization doesn’t have any other viable candidates to leapfrog him in the depth chart. Sean Gilmartin hasn’t looked Major League ready this spring and GM Frank Wren has made clear that they do not wish to rush JR Graham’s development.

    “With him and Delgado, I don’t know if he necessarily handled the competition for the spot the right way,” Kris Medlen said. “He was (tentative). Now he’s like, ‘It’s mine.’ And he’s pitched like it, too. Everything’s working for him right now. His mechanics look awesome, and he’s getting dudes to swing over the ball by that much (holds hands six inches apart).

    Sometimes we forget that young prospects — whether we’re talking baseball or any other sport — are still kids, not machines. Think back to when you were 21 and how developed you were physically, mentally and emotionally. While there will always be guys like Stephen Strasburg and Mike Trout who can jump into the big leagues without much adversity, they simply aren’t the norm.

    “This is the first time I’ve seen him where you can tell he looks and feels he belongs,” Frank Wren said roughly a month ago. “When he was a younger kid, you’d look out on the field and you could pick him out immediately (because of his slender build). He’s grown up.”

    Teheran needed time to evolve into the kind of athlete that can compete at the highest level baseball in the world, and it appears he’s accomplished that task.

    Now we just have to see if this recent success can continue once games start to matter.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter based in North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewhirsh

    Braves hot corner competition begins

    With the departure of Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves head into 2013 season with a Hall-of-Fame sized vacancy at third base. And with no clear-cut favorite to take over at the hot corner for Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s club, the battle for playing time at 3B is now underway.

    The two competitors for the job are Juan Francisco and newly-acquired Chris Johnson. With Francisco being a left-handed hitter and Johnson being a righty at the plate, a “platoon” would seem the most obvious scenario, with the duo splitting time based on the opposing pitcher. Ideally, however, that’s not what the Braves’ skipper envisions.

    “You want competition in spring training; you want somebody to win the job,” Gonzalez said. “I think a platoon, which is the worst-case scenario, is still good. … Best-case scenario, maybe one of those guys wins the job. I think spring training will take care of that.”

    One possible reason for Gonzalez calling a platoon a “worst-case scenario” is the fact that this third-base tandem is not well suited for such a pairing. A platoon works best when one player hits left-handed pitching better than the other, whereas his counterpart performs better against right-handers.

    The problem is that Chis Johnson has what some refer to as “reverse splits”. Though he is a right-handed hitter, he actually hits righties better left-handed pitching. Since both Braves third basemen perform better against RHP, the potential benefit of a platoon is largely negated. With that in mind, Fredi Gonzalez has suggested that playing time at third base will be awarded as it is earned.

    Francisco joined the Braves last year and struggled in a limited role as Chipper’s backup. After being acquired last Spring from Cincinnati, the Dominican Republic native hit for just a .234 average and .278 on-base percentage. However, he did show off the homerun power that attracted the Braves to the infielder last Spring, belting 9 homers in 192 at-bats.

    Being young with little MLB experience, there’s good reason to believe that Fransisco can improve upon his 2013 numbers, and the team has asked that he take specific steps to that end.


    Over the winter, Fredi Gonzalez and General Manager Frank Wren called the 25-year old into a closed door meeting and challenged him to work on both his swing and his physical conditioning. Fransisco responded positively, putting in plenty of extra work with Hitting Coach Greg Walker, trying to make his all-or-nothing swing a little less, well… all or nothing. He also came to camp in noticeably better shape, though still wider around the waster than a typical infielder.

    Only time will tell if Fransisco’s winter work pays off.

    Chris Johnson, 28, came to the Braves along with Justin Upton this winter in the trade that sent Martin Prado to Arizona. Playing in 136 games last year, Johnson was a far more productive hitter than Francisco, hitting for a .281 average and .326 on-base percentage. While he doesn’t have quite the pop that Francisco does, he did hit 15 home runs in 488 at bats last season. And it’s not as though the Braves are in need of more power hitting with the lineup they’ll have. With a cereer .276 average, Johnson is the more polished and proven hitter of the two.

    While a platoon is still possible, neither Francisco nor Johnson wish to be part-time players. As is always the case in sports, competition breeds success.

    “That’s what they want us to do, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Johnson of fighting for a starting role. “I think we were going to do that anyway. I think we both want to start and play every single day. That’s the goal. But if it works out where we’re going to platoon, then me and Juan are OK with that. Whatever we can do to help the team.”

    Added Francisco: “This is my chance. I need to work hard every day, every practice, every game.”

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

     

    Will the Braves land Justin Upton?

    The Atlanta Braves have already brought in one Upton brother this offseason. Why not make it two?

    Frank Wren made team history by signing B.J. Upton back in November to a franchise record five-year, $75 million contract to play the outfield and (hopefully) hit for a nice combination of average and power.

    Like his brother B.J., Arizona’s Justin Upton runs well, hits for power and does it from the right side of the plate, making him an attractive option to plug the hole that now exists in left field for the Braves. He could hit in the middle of the lineup or fill an important void in the leadoff spot (left vacant with the departure of Michael Bourn).

    When you look at how crowded Arizona’s outfield has gotten this off-season, it would make sense for Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers to strike a deal sometime between now and the end of Spring Training. With Upton, Jason Kubel, Geraldo Parra, newly-signed Cody Ross and up-and-coming prospects Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock, the D-Backs have quite a logjam going on, and fixing that in exchange for players that could help in other areas makes a great deal of sense.

    That said, Towers doesn’t seem overly pressed to deal Justin, who is signed to a long-term contract. And, of course, the less motivated he is to deal the younger of the Upton brothers, the higher the price will remain.

    Upton has a limited no-trade clause, meaning he can veto any potential trade to four teams. Atlanta is not on his list of no-trade destinations. Seattle, however, is. So while Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik was able to persuade Kevin Towers last week that Just Upton should dawn an M’s uniform, Justin was not convinced and vetoed the deal.

    Not only are the Braves not on Upton’s no-trade list, but they are likely atop his wish list of possible destinations.  With the opportunity to play for a good (potentially great) team alongside his brother, there are few–if any–better scenarios out there for Justin Upton.

    Again though, Towers is far from desperate to trade Upton, so he can afford to wait for the right deal to come along; one that provides Arizona with a return similar to the package offered by the Mariners.

    Seattle’s offer included three of their top six prospects, including Taijuan Walker—one of the absolute best prospects in the game today. Additionally, they tossed reliever Charlie Furbish, who posted a 2.72 ERA in 46 1/3 innings last season.

    So who gets shipped off in this hypothetical Upton-to-Atlanta trade scenario? Two names that come to mind immediately are Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado; one of them would almost surely have to be involved in this deal. Since Atlanta appears unwilling to part with shortstop Andrelton Simmons, young SS Nick Ahmed could be part of it as well.

    Teheran/Delgado + Ahmed wouldn’t be enough, though. Towers would definitely be interested in at least one or two more pieces: either an additional prospect or a player on the MLB roster. Then the D-Backs will likely look towards the Braves bullpen, which was bolstered with the recent acquisition of Jordan Walden. Arizona might focus on one of the Braves’ lefties… probably Johnny Venters (given Eric O’Flaherty’s 4.3 mil salary and looming free agency).

    With Walden in tow, it wouldn’t be devastating to lose Venters, but giving up too much pitching would be a dangerous move for the Braves to make. Over the past two years, we’ve seen season-ending and even career altering injuries to members of Atlanta’s pitching staff, reminding us once again that you can never have too much pitching.

    If Frank Wren is so inclined, he can put together the kind of trade proposal to make this happen—if not now, in the near future. But would Justin Upton’s presence be worth a large sacrifice?

    Upton certainly has all the tools of an impact player. However his home/road splits are alarming. Over the past 3 seasons, Upton has put up the following numbers at home: (781 at-bats) .311 avg, .392 OBP, .536 SLG, .928 OPS. Pretty impressive.

    BUT… here are his numbers away from Chase Field over the past 3 years: .253 avg, .331 OBP, .408 SLG, .739 OPS.

    In the end, it will come down to Wren’s willingness to part with a significant amount of his farm system. So far, in his tenure as GM, he’s been reluctant to mortgage the club’s future for an immediate payoff.

    After all, the last time the Braves made a move like that (when John Schuerholz was GM), they shipped Netfali Feliz, Jerrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones to Texas for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. And, well, we remember how that turned out, don’t we?

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

    Here’s B.J.’s take a potential trade for his brother…

    Braves’ remaining trade and free agent options

    With the loss of Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves were left with a major vacancy in their lineup—one they may not fully compensate for this winter alone. Replacing a future Hall-of-Famer, after all, is a difficult task. Gone too, presumably, is fleet-footed leadoff man Michael Bourn.

    Newly acquired slugger BJ Upton figures to take Chipper’s place somewhere in the middle of the Braves’ lineup. In inking Upton to a 5-year contract, Braves’ General Manager Frank Wren closed the deal with their top free agent target fairly quickly, filling the right-handed power hitter role. The hole atop the batting order, however, remains.

    If the Braves are able to score a capable leadoff hitter, it will make life easier on Braves’ Manager Fredi Gonzalez, but that quest is proving difficult. Wren and Co. do, however, have a plethora of ways to sort out their lineup for the 2012 campaign.

    Given Martin Prado’s ability to play a multitude of positions, we may see him slide over to third base and take Chipper’s spot on the field. This would give the Braves the opportunity to go after someone to play in left: a position that is much easier to fill than 3B.

    The Braves could patch up the empty LF position from within, which would be the simplest and most cost-efficient way to go about this. If Wren chooses to go with players already in the system, we’ll probably see some sort of a platoon like we did when Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske manned LF during the 2011 season. Not the most inspiring option, but an option it is.

    In a platoon, we could see Jose Constanza and Reed Johnson splitting time, as each bat from a different side of the plate. Prospect Evan Gattis is another possibility, and could see time in the big leagues this year regardless of what the starting lineup shapes up to be. Now 26 years old and no longer a kid by baseball standards, Gattis and his powerful swing could be ready to make the jump to Turner Field, and perhaps become a valuable player for the Braves off the bench. He currently has 13 home runs in the Winter League and is turning some heads.

    Of course, all this left field talk could be moot if Juan Francisco steps up and shows enough improvement to take over at 3B (which would keep Prado in left).  Francisco hit for a .234 average last season in 192 at-bats. At times, however, he did display the big-time power that attracted the Braves to him in the first place. Though Fransisco, like Gattis, is tearing up the Winter League, I wouldn’t bet rent money on his earning a starting role.

    Ideally, given the choices from within, the Braves will bring in a new starter from the outside. With the winter meetings done with, Frank Wren may have missed his best opportunity to land a new LF; however, that doesn’t mean his search is done.

    There are plenty of feasible options to choose from—both via free agency and the trade market.

    One player who could be had via trade is Emilio Bonifacio. While he was part of the blockbuster deal that sent most of Miami’s foundation to Toronto, the Blue Jays may be looking to free up some space in their budget after acquiring R.A. Dickey.

    Bonifacio hit just .258 but had a .330 on-base percentage in an injury-plagued 2012 season in which he played in just 64. In 2011, when he was healthy, he batted .296 and finished with a .360 OBP in 152 games. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, Bonifacio would be a significant upgrade in the lineup over the likes of Francisco and Johnson.

    Cody Ross, who batted .267 last year and hit 22 home runs, was on Atlanta’s radar. However, he has reportedly agreed to a deal with the DBacks.

    Someone else the Braves could go after, even if it may be a long shot, is Josh Willingham. The 33-year-old veteran is currently signed by the Twins, but the Braves might have the assets necessary to make a trade happen (if Minnesota is willing, of course).

    Willingham hit 35 home runs last season with a .260 average. Throw him into Atlanta’s lineup along with Heyward, Upton, McCann, Uggla and Freeman, and we’re looking at perhaps one of the best power-hitting teams in baseball.

    Other than the aforementioned players, there are other alternatives out there…

    Arizona’s Jason Kubel is a nice power bat, but he hits left handed, and if the Braves opt for adding more power (rather than a leadoff man), they would like to add it from the right side of the plate.

    Colorado’s Dexter Fowler is available for the right price, but the “right price”, as defined by the Rockies’ brass, borders on the absurd.

    Nick Swisher is still on the market, but has likely priced himself out of Atlanta’s plans.

    And there are likely other names about which the Braves have inquired, who we haven’t even thought about.

    If a deal can’t be struck before Spring Training, there’s always the trade deadline next summer. The Braves can get by with the playing they have now for the first two-thirds of the season; the playoffs, on the other hand, might be a different story.

     

    Where does Kimbrel’s season rank all-time?

    Peter Moylan, Kris Medlen and Billy Wagner pose in tribute to Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel

    At the young age of 24, Craig Kimbrel has already cemented his status as one of the elite closers in all of baseball—perhaps even the best.

    In this season, his second full year in the big leagues, the former third round pick has put together a remarkable campaign, evolving into a legitimate Cy Young candidate despite his role as a reliever.

    With 42 saves and a 1.02 ERA, Kimbrel has been among the Braves’ most valuable players and among the most fascinating figures in the game today. Despite being somewhat of an underdog for the Cy Young Award, the mere fact that he’s in the conversation proves just how good he’s been.

    But Kimbrel’s season has been more than just Cy Young-worthy—it’s been historic.

    His 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings ratio is currently the best K/9 ratio ever recorded by a Major League pitcher. His .123 batting average-against is the lowest figure among MLB pitchers since 1900, and no National League reliever has had a lower WHIP (0.649) in that time as well.

    Additionally, he’s struck out 49.5 percent of batters faced (the highest percentage in the live ball era), and has the best strikeout to walk ratio (4.2) of all time.

    So where does Kimbrel’s season rank, historically?

    Let’s start with the two most recent closers to win Cy Young Awards: Dennis Eckersley (1992) and Eric Gagne (2003).

    Eckersley had 51 saves in ’92, along with a 1.91 ERA and a 0.913 WHIP. These numbers were good not only for the Cy Young, but for an All Star bid and AL MVP honors as well.

    Gagne amassed 55 saves in 55 chances in ’03, eventually setting consecutive saves record with 84 in a row. His WHIP that season was incredible (0.692), but not quite as low as Kimbrel’s; neither was his ERA (1.20). And while Gagne was perfect in save opportunities in ’03, he did get tagged for 3 losses. Kimbrel has lost only 1 game this season.

    Despite posting a lower number of saves than Eckersley and Gagne did in their best seasons, the rest of Kimbrel’s stats in 2012 look better than the former Cy Young winners. Given that saves are based largely on opportunities presented to each pitcher and that the other stats are more closely tied to individual performance, it’s safe to say that Kimbrel has had a more statistically dominant season than Gagne and Eckersley had in their best years.

    Another standout season belongs to former Angel Fransisco Rodriguez, who broke the record for most saves in a year with 62 in 2008. However, despite the record, the rest of K-Rod’s stats don’t stand up to Kimbrel’s. The Venezuela native posted a 2.24 ERA that season along with a 1.288 WHIP and a .216 average against, all far inferior to Kimbrel’s marks.

    No closer conversation would be complete without Mariano Rivera, who may in fact be the best at that position in the history of the game.

    Rivera’s best statistical season goes somewhat overlooked, as it was his ninth highest save total in his illustrious career. That year, 2008, was when he had his lowest career WHIP (0.665) and second lowest ERA (1.40). Additionally, his strikeout to walk ratio that year was by far the best in his 18 seasons at 12.83.

    Still, those WHIP, ERA and K/9 numbers pale in comparison to Kimbrel’s.

    So even though Kimbrel’s save total may not be historically noteworthy, it’s definitely possible to make a case that his 2012 campaign has been the best ever by a closer.

    We could compare Kimbrel to a number of other closers—namely guys like Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, and Hoyt Wilheim—but given the fact that the Braves’ superstar sits at No. 1 in so many single season categories, those comparisons are unnecessary.

    While it’s difficult to make a definitive case for who has had the best season as a closer of all time, it’s clear that Kimbrel’s 2012 effort has been among the very best. And with a long career ahead of him, this may only be the beginning.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

    Braves closer Kimbrel in Cy conversation

    It is rare indeed for a relief pitcher to capture the Cy Young award. In fact, only nine relievers have accomplished such a feat.

    Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel could be the tenth.

    In 43 appearances and 43 innings pitched, Kimbrel boasts a National League-best 1.26 ERA with 31 saves in 33 opportunities. His 0.65 WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) is the best in baseball.

    The last closer to come away with a Cy Young was Eric Gagne in 2003, who won as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The burly Canadian won the award for a number of reasons, most notably his perfection. Gagne was virtually flawless that season, notching 50 saves in 50 opportunities. It’s hard to argue against a 100 percent conversion rate, and that alone was enough reason to give Gagne the award.

    Closers to win Cy Young award within last 30 years — compared to Kimbrel:

     

    ERA

    SV

    BLSV

    WHIP

     

    Steve Bedrosian (’87)

     

    2.83

    40

    8

    1.20

    Mark Davis (’89)

     

    1.85

    44

    4

    1.05

    Dennis Eckersley (’92)

     

    1.91

    51

    3

    0.91

    Eric Gagne (’03)

     

    1.20

    55

    0

    0.69

    Kimbrel (projected)

    1.26

    45

    3

    0.65

     

    What did the competition look like for each reliever to win the CY?

    Rick Sutcliffe finished just behind Bedrosian in ’87 for the award. He went 18-10 that year with a 3.68 ERA. Davis’ runner up in ’89, Mike Scott, was 20-10 with a 3.10 ERA. In 1992 it was Jack McDowell who was edged by Eckersley. McDowell went 20-10 with a 3.18 ERA. And in 2003, Jason Schmidt was the runner up with 17-5 record and a 2.34 ERA.

    In each case, a reliever won the award partially because no starting pitcher ran away with the honor. Gagne had arguably the strongest competition of any modern reliever to capture the Cy. But then again, he turned in the most impressive season of any closer to win it.

    Unfortunately for Kimbrel and Braves fans rooting him on, there are multiple starting pitchers having Cy Young-caliber seasons thus far, with RA Dickey (15-3, 2.72 ERA) and Johnny Cueto (14-6, 2.58) topping the list.

    But despite the odds, Kimbrel remains in the thick of the race. There are many factors to consider down the stretch, none more encouraging than the thought of other candidates falling apart at the seams. While it remains unlikely several of the National League’s best starting pitchers stumble during the final months, it’s not impossible.

    From Kimbrel’s side, a number of things have to go right to keep him in the thick of the Cy Young race at the end of the season. For starters, he needs to remain relatively perfect in save opportunities. While he’s only blown two saves thus far, each misstep from hereon out will make this achievement increasingly unlikely.

    Of course, there is a lot of baseball left to be played, but that may work against Kimbrel rather than help him. It will be difficult for Atlanta’s closer to maintain the kind of success he’s had thus far, but that’s what it will take. A two or three game downturn, and his candidacy for the Cy Young likely falls apart.

    Additionally, he may have to rack up saves at a higher pace than he has thus far to win over voters. As of Saturday, Kimbrel was on pace for 45 saves over the course of the 162 game schedule. While that’s a remarkable number in its own right, eclipsing Gagne’s total of 55 from 2003 would go a long way towards compensating for the two hiccups earlier in the year.

    On the other hand, contenders that work in starters’ roles can afford a few bad games down the stretch and still manage to come away with hardware. That’s one of the added benefits of a heavy workload.

    But if Kimbrel remains consistent, that steadiness would be among the best arguments to give him the award. It’s almost unheard of for a closer to pitch an entire season without a major bump in the road, especially one as young and inexperienced as him.

    By the way, top NL starters aren’t the only thing Kimbrel has to worry about. He also faces competition from fellow flame-thrower, Cincinnati Reds’ closer Aroldis Chapman (1.31 ERA, 26/30 in saves).

    It’s a bit of a long shot. But Kimbrel still has a chance. And if his first two years in the league are any indication, this year won’t be the last that we have this discussion.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

     

    Zack Greinke in a Braves uniform?

    The Atlanta Braves are coming out of the All-Star break sporting a 46-39 record, 4 games out of first place in the NL East. An acceptable start, yes—but not the level of success that leads to a World Series championship.

    That’s where the trade deadline comes in.

    In a complete reversal from last year, pitching has become the Braves’ biggest weakness in 2012. Between the loss of Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, the inexplicable struggles of the formerly dominate Johnny Venters and a plethora of other issues, Atlanta’s need to add more pitching is as palpable as it’s been in recent weeks.

    But given the improvements we’ve seen thus far on the Braves’ offensive side of the game, mending the issues on the mound could easily turn this team from a fringe wild card challenger to a legitimate NL pennant contender. That will be Frank Wren’s goal leading up to the deadline.

    Luckily for Wren, the coming weeks will provide him with a fantastic opportunity to add a quality arm or two to the mix for the playoff push. With an above average roster already in the fold and Chipper set to enter the final months of his career, there’s little reason to believe Wren and Co. won’t be aggressive as July 31 approaches.

    Venters’ rough year notwithstanding, the true problem with the Braves’ pitching staff stems from the rotation, so one has to think that a starting pitcher will be at the top of Wren’s shopping list. Between the struggles of Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor and the loss of Beachy, it would be difficult for Atlanta to compete in the postseason without adding depth to this beleaguered pitching staff.

    Obviously, there are innumerable possibilities for Atlanta when it comes to trade scenarios. With 15-20 potential partners and dozens of conceivable assets to choose from, there’s no way to accurately predict what the team will look like when July comes to an close.

    However, there are a few particularly enticing possibilities for the Braves to consider—none more alluring than Zack Greinke.

    The Milwaukee Brewers are having a horribly disappointing season, but Greinke has been one of the team’s few bright spots. With a 9-3 record and a 3.32 ERA, the former 6th overall pick would be a huge boost to the Braves’ staff if he could be acquired for the right price.

    Between him, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens (assuming he continues to pitch well) and veteran newcomer Ben Sheets, the Braves could trot out a fairly strong five-man rotation heading into the postseason (if they make it that far). Sheets will make his Braves debut on Sunday, and while the Braves are optimistic about the former NL All-Star, it’s hard to imagine he’ll erase the need for a trade.

    Of course, acquiring a top-end starter comes down to meeting the seller’s asking price. There’s no doubt that Brewers’ GM, Doug Melvin, is going to want a lot in return for Zack Greinke, and the potential bidding war that could ensue (the Angels have already been linked to Greinke) will only drive up the price.

    But to get a lot you have to give a lot, and Atlanta has a lot to offer. This isn’t to say that anyone in their system is “expendable” by any means, but they have enough young talent to part with a promising asset or two and not horribly sacrifice the future.

    Melvin is going to probably want an MLB-ready arm as part of the package, and that may come down to either Delgado or Minor. Again, losing either would hurt, but it would be far from the end of the world. But by giving up one of those two—both with the potential to blossom and be long-term fixtures wherever they end up—the rest of the package may not be so difficult for Wren to put together.

    At the end of the day, if Melvin asked for Delgado or Minor along with a second-tier prospect, it’s hard to imagine Wren will be able to say no. This goes without saying, but all this is pure speculation, as we have no idea what the Milwaukee GM is thinking. But it sure feels like a possible scenario.

    Another reason Greinke makes sense is his childhood ties to the organization. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, back before the Rays or Marlins existed, he supported the Braves in his youth.

    He’s made it clear in the past that he would like to play for the Braves, and if the Braves are willing to ante up this winter, a long-term deal could easily be in the cards.

    True, it would be expensive to bring him back on a multi-year basis, perhaps even in neighborhood of $20 million per season. But he’s also the kind of asset the Braves will desperately need 1-3 years down the road, and there’s little reason to believe they’ll be able to acquire a comparable player for a better price. With Tim Hudson likely only having another good couple of campaigns in the tank, Atlanta is going to need a strong, reliable veteran presence to lead the way for their new wave of pitching talent, which is coming along slower than most anticipated.

    Some may say that money should be saved to give Hanson a new contract, but with the notoriously hard-to-bargain-with Scott Boras as his agent, there’s absolutely no way Wren can afford to sit around and wait for those negotiations to happen before bolstering his rotation in other ways.

    There are other options to consider, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster being three of them, but the ability to re-sign and count on Greinke for years to come puts him above the rest.

    The Braves aren’t the kind of team that likes to make surrender a lot for rentals, and that hasn’t changed. But with the desperate need for a quick fix, it only makes sense to go after the guy who could have a long-term impact with the organization.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Prado, Heyward Leading Braves’ Offensive Revival

    With the Braves’ pitching falling far short of expectations this season, it’s been up to the offense to pick up the considerable slack. Maintaining a 41-36 record despite one of the worst team ERAs in the National League, Atlanta’s hitting is biggest reason they’re still afloat—quite the change in dynamics from last year.

    This upswing has been a pleasant surprise for Braves fans, and there’s a fairly distinct correlation between this change from 2011 to 2012, and that falls on the improvements from Martin Prado and Jason Heyward.

    The Braves’ finished 22nd in runs in 2011 as Prado and Heyward—two of the team’s most important bats—were mired in prolonged slumps. With the reemergence of the two, all of the sudden Atlanta’s offense is dangerous once again.

    Heyward, who had come off a stellar rookie campaign, fell into the dreaded sophomore slump in ’11, hitting .227 and just 14 home runs. Prado, after moving from second base to left field, hit just .260 last year. To say he’s rebounded from that would be an understatement, as he’s on pace for the most productive season of his career.

    Prado, 28, seems to have finally adjusted to his change to the outfield after Dan Uggla’s arrival, and he’s been the Braves’ best hitter this season. His .316 batting average is among the best in the National League; his .822 OPS is high than any other year since his MLB debut in 2006.

    Prado believes that his inability to use the whole field and lack of confidence played a role in his struggles, issues that appears to have disappeared.

    “One of the things that got me [to the major leagues], I feel gifted to handle the ball the other way,” Prado said. “I guess last year, I forgot and I didn’t have that confidence to hit the ball the other way. I’m trying to get back at it and forget about pulling the ball too much. I’m concentrating more on going up the middle and right field.”

    Heyward got off to a rough start this year, but he’s been on fire of late. This includes a stretch in which he hit six extra base hits in five games. Injuries have been an issue for the 22-year-old, but now that he appears healthy, Heyward is playing up to his potential.

    “Well, being healthy, you can make adjustments. When you’re not healthy, with a shoulder problem or what have you, you’re not able to make this adjustments,” Heyward said recently. “If you can’t make adjustments, somebody is able to get you out the same way more than one time in a row. When you’re hurt, you can tell yourself that you want to make that adjustment, but you might not be able to.”

    Atlanta has now cracked the top 10 in the Majors in runs scored, currently sitting pretty at No. 9 overall with 342. The Braves’ .260 average is good for 11th, which isn’t spectacular, but up from last year’s unimpressive .243 number.

    As the All Star break nears, the Braves find themselves very much in the mix for both a wild card spot and the NL East crown. While it will take an improvement in the pitching department before we can consider this team a true contender, it’s important that the Braves have been able to receive the hitting they have from

    Because as we learned the hard way last fall, every game counts—whether it be in April, June or October.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

    Braves pitching depth has eroded quickly

    As the old adage goes, you can never have too much pitching. Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez now understand that as well as anyone.

    During the offseason it seemed as if the Braves had enough depth on the mound to put together two full rotations, as BravesWire’s Kent Covington outlined in February. Now, the Braves find themselves hard-pressed to fill out one.

    Through 48 games, Atlanta has the 21st best ERA in the Majors and have displayed consistently mediocre pitching since the start of the 2012 season. While the bullpen hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations, there remains hope that the relief core can return to form without any personnel adjustments. The Braves have not lost faith in underperforming relievers, Eric O’Flaherty and Johnny Venters, whose early season struggles have been at the heart of Atlanta’s bullpen inconsistency.

    The starting rotation–particularly the back end–is more worrisome.

    No player has been more disappointing than Jair Jurrjens, who remains in Gwinnett and has yet to regain the confidence and command necessary to return to the big leagues. Now a far cry from the pitcher that started last season with a 12-3 record, Jurrjens continues to struggle in the minors, currently sporting a 5.56 ERA in Triple A through six appearances. At this point the Braves would be foolish count on his return and must plan to move on with the former All-Star, a difficult pill to swallow to say the least.

    Then there’s Mike Minor, who’s regressed quite a bit so far this season and become one of the most hittable pitchers in the league over his past six starts. After making some ill advised comments during Spring Training about his placement in the organization, the former seventh overall pick has hardly been worthy of a spot in Atlanta’s rotation, as he’s failed to win a game since April 19. Surrendering an average of 5.43 earned runs per game since his last victory, it may be time for Minor to join Jurrjens in Gwinnett for the time being.

    For Randall Delgado, who won the Braves’ 5th starter job out of spring training, it has been anything but smooth sailing. Delgado, 22, currently sports a 2-5 record and a 4.53 ERA—hardly what team management had hoped for when they decdided to bring him north with the big boys.

    Beyond the aforementioned starters, the Braves’ prospect depth has also been disappointing. Julio Teheran, one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, appears no readier for prime time than he was at the same point last year. His underwhelming performance in spring training earned him a bus ticket back to AAA Gwinnett.

    While slated for the bullpen this year, top-rated RHP prospect Arodys Vizcaino was a starter throughout his minor league career and would have added to ATL’s starting pitching depth.  Unfortunately,  he is currently recovering from “Tommy John” surgery and won’t return until next season.

    RHP prospect JJ Hoover was also a part of the Braves’ pool of young arms seemingly ready for big-league action, but he was traded the Reds for 3B Juan Fransisco back in March.

    Nevertheless, the Braves still have two rotation options in their bullpen in Kris Medlen and Livan Hernandez, both of whom have experience as starters. Given the troubling state of the back end of Atlanta’s rotation, there must have already been a least a couple of closed-door discussions about shifting one of the two back to the rotation in place of Minor or Delgado. This switch could become even more feasible if Peter Moylan proves healthy and effective upon his return, which could be drawing near.

    While the Braves have pitching issues at the moment, the rotation’s top-end trio of Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy is more than solid. And while Atlanta’s pitching depth is not what it appeared to be just two months ago, the Braves still have options. Options which may have to be exercised if something doesn’t give very soon.

    Andrew Hirsch is a freelance sports writer and MLB analyst for BravesWire.com. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

    And before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

     

    Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor lifting Braves pitching

    By Andrew Hirsh

    With Tim Hudson on the disabled list and Jair Jurrjens pitching poorly enough to earn a demotion to Triple A Gwinnett, the lack of production from the Braves’ two most valuable starters could have spelled trouble in the early portion of the 2012 schedule. But here we are, 19 games into the season, and Atlanta finds itself near the top of the National League standings.

    In addition to the strong offense exhibited over the past several weeks, the dominance of Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor have been among the biggest contributors to the Braves’ recent success, giving Fredi Gonzalez the quality pitching necessary to preserve a winning record thus far.

    Beachy has been fantastic since his 2012 debut, maintaining an ERA slightly above 1.00 through his first four starts and going 2-1 in the process. His overall game has developed quite a bit since last October, and his maturity—particularly his mental maturity—has been palpable of late.

    After averaging an eye-popping 10.7 K/9 innings last year, Beachy has yet to strike out more than six batters in a given start in ’12, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By sacrificing strikeouts for a lower pitch count and higher efficiency, he’s been able to take the next step in his career and become a more accomplished player. With batters hitting a mere .191 against, the Indiana product has put himself on track to not only become one of the best pitchers in Atlanta, but perhaps one of the best in the game.

    No longer inexperienced nor particularly young, Beachy has started to look like a veteran capable of greatness, displayed both on the stat sheet and in his general demeanor on the mound. Give credit to Roger McDowell for much of the 25-year-old’s success, as he’s developed at an incredible pace since his first MLB start in 2010.

    Minor, who made some ill-advised comments in the offseason regarding his future with the Braves, has put past doubts to rest and provided reason to believe he could be a permanent member of this rotation. Setting aside a rough season opener, Minor has been been as good as Braves fans could’ve hoped this year, quickly becoming a valuable member of this Atlanta pitching staff.

    Since allowing six runs in five innings in his first appearance of the season, the former first round pick has conceded only four earned runs in his past three starts, including two masterful performances in which he allowed just one run in 15.1 combined innings.

    While neither Beachy nor Minor earned a decision in their respective starts in Los Angeles this week, their strong performances led to two wins against a Dodgers team that had not lost at home prior to the Braves’ arrival. The series win at Dodgers Stadium over arguably the strongest opponent they’ve faced so far sealed an impressive 5-2 road trip for Atlanta.

    After exploding offensively against the Brewers, Mets and Diamondbacks, the Braves found it more difficult to score against the upstart Dodgers. Top-notch pitching performances were required to leave LA with a series win, and Beachy & Minor provided just that, allowing three and two runs on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

    With Beachy and Minor impressing and Hudson set to make his first start of the season this weekend, the Braves’ staff figures to once again be among the very best in the league.

    Couple this dominance on the mound with the hitting we’ve seen, and you have yourself a very strong ball club.

    Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewhirsh

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.