• Exclusives

    Braves have added one of baseball’s fastest men. They also got Michael Bourn.

    by Kent Covington

    On April 21, 1993 at (then) Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Atlanta Braves Manager, Bobby Cox handed a lineup card to home plate umpire, Harry Wendelstedt, with the names Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon scribbled atop the batting order. Sanders would go 1-for-5 that day with 2 stolen bases. Nixon went 0-for-4 with an RBI.

    That would be the last time fans would ever see two men that fast in a Braves lineup at the same time.

    Eighteen years later, however, you might just see it again.

    In a move that has been the talk of the town around Atlanta, the Braves completed a deal on Sunday to acquire the Major League stolen base leader, Michael Bourn, from the Houston Astros.  But two days earlier, with far less fanfare, they added another premier base stealer to the roster when they promoted outfielder, Jose Constanza, from AAA Gwinnett.

    Constanza, who was signed by the Braves as a minor league free agent prior to the 2011 season, has waited a long time for this opportunity. He signed with the Cleveland Indians organization in 2003 as a non-drafted free agent, and throughout his 6 years in the Indians system, he anxiously awaited a big league call up that never came.  Now, at age 27 (approximately 50 years-old in baseball years), he’s finally getting his shot. And the numbers seem to suggest it’s well earned.  

    Prior to his August 29th promotion, Constanza was hitting .312 for the “G-Braves”, with a .361 on-base percentage and 23 stolen bases. Despite batting left-handed, he also handled southpaws well, batting .300 against them.

    Last year, Contstanza finished with the International League’s (AAA) second-best batting average (.319). He also boasted a .373 on-base percentage and 34 steals in 40 attempts in 114 games. In 2009, he led the AA Eastern League in stolen bases (49), while batting .282 over 130 games. 

    Beyond the naked numbers, his ability on the base paths has drawn the praise of his peers. Based on a 2010 survey of minor league players and coaches, Baseball America called Constanza “Class AAA’s fastest base runner”.

    Despite his minor league success, Constanza has been criticized by some observers for his low walk rate.  He accepted only 35 bases on balls last year in 448 plate appearances. And just 25 free passes in 363 PA’s at AAA this season. Without a doubt, “free swinger” isn’t a label you want as a leadoff-type hitter auditioning for a big league job.

    That said, the negatives of his low walk rate are somewhat mitigated by one simple fact… He’s an excellent contact hitter.  He is skilled at keeping the ball on a low plane to make use of his speed, and he’s logged a solid 8/1 at-bat to strikeout ratio this year at Gwinnett. 

    Constanza has indeed proven himself against minor league opposition. The question now is obvious. Will his success translate to the big leagues?  There’s only one way to find out.

    But how long will he be here? Will he truly get the chance to prove he belongs (or doesn’t belong)? 

    Constanza was called up as an emergency replacement for injured outfielder, Nate McLouth. When word of the Bourn trade hit the newswires, many assumed Constanza’s stay in the big leagues would last only as long as it took for Bourn to catch a flight to Atlanta. Not so. Braves Manager, Fredi Gonzalez indicated on Sunday that he plans to take Constanza north with the team, as they travel to D.C. to open a 3-game set against the Nationals.

    Furthermore, Gonzalez hinted that we might even see both Bourn and Constanza in the lineup in Washington. Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders, anyone?

    When McLouth is ready to play, the Braves may still opt to return Constanza to Gwinnet for the time being. If that is the case, however, he seems a safe bet to be among the call-ups when the roster expands in September.

    However the remainder the season plays out for the rookie outfielder, at least for now, one thing is certain. A Braves roster that has been among the slowest in baseball in recent years suddenly features two of the game’s fleetest athletes.  And an offensive scheme limited solely to station-to-station baseball, which for us fans has sometimes only narrowly eclipsed the recreational value of watching paint dry… may suddenly give way to a more explosive offensive attack.  

    I, for one, plan to enjoy the show.

     

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