• Andrelton Simmons

    IT’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    When Dealing with Prospects, Patience is Key

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — Once upon a time, back in the days of superstations and games of the week and The Sporting News and Sunday morning newspapers, minor-league coverage was not easy to find and it certainly was not at our fingertips.

    If your favorite team had a hot prospect, you relied on magazines and notes columns and the passing mention from your TV or radio broadcasters to get information. There was no MILB.tv. There were not blogs dedicated to the ups-and-downs teenagers and kids in their early 20s navigated on a nightly basis in poorly lit stadiums far from home. If you did not live within driving distance of a minor-league stadium, you likely never saw highlights of a prospect until he made his big-league debut.

    Which brings us to Thursday night, inside the newest baseball stadium in the major leagues – SunTrust Park where, as an aside, raindrops are just as common as homers and strikeouts. The Atlanta Braves’ jewel of a home hosted the series finale between the rebuilding Braves and the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that looks as imposing as any team to take a diamond since the 98 Yankees and 84 Tigers.

    Braves' rookie LHP Sean Newcomb

    Braves’ rookie LHP Sean Newcomb struck out 7 and walked 7 through 4.2 IP at SunTrust Park Thursday night.

    Climbing the bump on this night for Atlanta was one of the key components of the massive restructuring of its organization. Left-hander Sean Newcomb, he with the golden left arm and impressive raw stuff and questionable control, toed the rubber for the Braves against a Los Angeles team that began the night 43 games above .500 and cruising toward October.

    And this night would end with Newcomb putting together a line that is hard to build at any level. When you strike out seven hitters, you typically pitch deeper than five innings. When you walk seven hitters, you typically are showered and changed by the fifth inning. Yet the 24-year-old hurler found himself leaving the game after 4 2/3 frames, holding one of baseball’s best offenses to just four hits with an arsenal that at the surface can be best describe as electric, but the walks coming back to bite him in allowing three runs.

    Newcomb exited his 10th major-league start with a 4.61 ERA and a 1-6 record, not necessarily the type of numbers that spark dreams of October glory. But an important caveat to remind ourselves of as the Braves begin promoting more and more of the kids the organization feels will lift Atlanta back to postseason prominence and eventually will bring championships to its suburban palace:

    Be patient.

    Newcomb is an interesting case study in prospect expectations, in the current culture of information overload and results needing to be delivered yesterday. Somehow – and I think this goes far beyond baseball and transcends our society on multiple levels – we come to expect greatness out of the gate. We see the video clips, we read the musings of those who watch prospects, and we think those players are pre-ordained to dominate immediately upon descending to the highest level of baseball in the world.

    Fact of the matter is that just does not happen very often. For every kid who starts a season in Single-A and ends same season hitting two homers in his first World Series games (Andruw Jones, as a 19-year-old in 1996), there are tons of 19-year-olds who start a season in Single-A and end same season in Single-A.

    Greg Maddux posted a 5.59 ERA through his first two Major League seasons.

    Hall of Fame RHP Greg Maddux posted a 5.59 ERA through his first two Major League seasons.

    Back to Newcomb. He was acquired at a high cost: defensive wizard and fan favorite Andrelton Simmons, who has discovered the hit tool this season to the point where a national baseball show tonight is debating whether he is worthy of AL MVP honors. Twitter and other social media outlets are all aflutter at second-guessing the Braves for dealing Simmons for a prospect of Newcomb’s ilk. Of course, hindsight is 20-20.

    Watching Newcomb live tonight reinforces two points. One, his raw stuff is plus-plus, and he has the potential to be a frontline starter for the next decade. The Jon Lester comps are right on point. Two, he needs work. He needs to continue honing his control. He needs experience at the major-league level.

    The difference is two decades ago, there was a more patient, more forgiving populace willing to invest the time in the development that needs to happen at the major-league level. But in today’s world of instant access/gratification/analysis, a kid who puts up good numbers in the minors is expected to bring that same level of dominance and success into the majors at day one.

    There are precious few players in every generation who make that happen. For the rest, the journey to becoming solid – if not sensational – major-league players are measured against the best of the very best. Which is unfortunate. We have seen many players who go on to great careers, in some cases Hall of Fame careers, who needed a year or two or three in the majors to find themselves, to hone their craft, to make the adjustments needed and learn the lessons to unleash their full greatness.

    Long after Newcomb left the mound, and long after I left SunTrust Park to write my next-day Braves’ preview, another bigtime Atlanta prospect made his mark. Second baseman Ozzie Albies, promoted earlier in the week and playing in his third game at the big-league level, belted a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth – his first major-league hit in his eighth at-bat.

    Amid the joy of seeing Albies round the bases on my TV, I could not help but think somewhere, there were people saying to themselves, “it’s about time he did something.”

    This is the culture in which we live, for better or worse.

    —30—

     

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Springtime surprises for revamped Braves

    When the Atlanta Braves arrived at Champion Stadium this spring, nobody in baseball knew what to expect of the revamped, ragtag group of players assembled by the team’s front office in the offseason. In fact, many of the players themselves didn’t know what to expect, but were excited about the talent and youth coming together. The team looked so different that Craig Kimbrel had shirts printed for all of the players with the humorous ‘My Name Is ______’ tag. Humorous as it may have been, it turns out there are many players that not only broke camp with the club that no casual follower of the club has heard of or knew was with the team but many of those players look to be on the opening day roster.

    Coming into camp, the common wisdom was that there would be one roster spot up for grabs. This changed when Mike Minor began his throwing program and reported shoulder discomfort and tightness. Minor is no stranger to this ailment, but the timing of it made for an unexpected battle for not one but two rotation slots. The news now is that Minor has begun a throwing program after a series of exercises prescribed by Dr. Andrews improved his range of motion. The hope is that what plagued Minor throughout 2014 will no longer bother the lefty. But even with his progress, Minor is expected to miss at least a month of the season. This has opened the door for none other than veteran Wandy Rodriguez.wandy2

    You’ll remember that Wandy Rodriguez was cut loose by the Phillies’ front office after failing a physical as spring training was getting underway. The Braves signed Wandy to a minor league contract with an invite to camp. If he makes the 40-man roster on opening day, he will received $2 million for his services in 2015. This, of course, is no longer an if. Barring any catastrophic outing between now and opening day, Wandy has secured the 4th rotation spot after a fantastic spring with his new club. Rodriguez holds a 91-94 record with a 4.06 ERA in his career. Additionally, he posted 6 consecutive seasons with an ERA under 4.00 while playing for the Astros and Pirates.

    With 2 rotation spots, the battle for the 5th roster spot continues. Another surprise this spring is the promise of Mike Foltynewicz. When the Braves made their trade with the Houston Astros sending away Evan Gattis, it wasn’t expected that any of the prospects coming back would be big league ready. Despite a tough outing Tuesday when he was lit up by the Phillies, Folty remains in the mix for a rotation spot. Also fighting for the spot is former Padre Eric Stults, veteran starter Chien-Ming Wang and former Yankee Manny Banuelos.

    ATLANTA’S ROSTER COMING TOGETHER ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL…

    Coming into camp, the Braves expected big stories from some of their newest acquisitions. What nobody expected was for Andrelton Simmons to walk into camp with his offense and defense firing on all cylinders. In 10 games and 30 ABs, Simba is hitting .467 with a club-leading 12 RBIs.

    Joining the hot bat of Simmons are the two guys battling for the spot as his double-play partner. The Braves signed Alberto Callaspo in the offseason with the assumption that he would be their opening day second baseman, but his presence in camp has not yet materialized in much positive. Instead, Jace Peterson and Pedro Ciriaco have stepped up in big ways. Showing adequate defense for their age and lack of experience, the true test was whether either player had progressed at the plate. In 41 ABs over 16 games, Peterson has 14 hits and 8 walks with a .341 average. However, with those astonishing numbers come 11 strikeouts. Ciriaco has a comparable 41 ABs in 17 games. Over that span he has put together 15 hits, 9 RBIs and a .366 average. The major difference between the two 2B candidates is OBP. Jace at .449 and Pedro at .372.

    The biggest acquisition for the offense over the winter was veteran outfielder Nick Markakis. It came as both a surprise and a blow immediately following his signing when he underwent cervical spinal fusion surgery. For much of the winter it was unclear when Markakis would be able to return to full baseball activity. That he wouldn’t be ready for opening day seemed a foregone conclusion until he made his spring debut this week and put all doubts to rest. In his first 2 games and 6 ABs, Markakis has 2 runs, 2 hits and a .333 average. His progress on the field seems to indicate that he will be ready for the April 6th first game against the Marlins.

    A regular that came into camp with something to prove that has remained unproven is third baseman Chris Johnson. Johnson had a major fall off after his first remarkable year with the club, but the Braves remain hopeful that last season was the anomaly and not his successful batting title-contending year. However, Joey Terdoslavich has been given some time at the hot corner to determine whether he can pick it. With Terdoslavich in the mix as well as veteran Callaspo, Johnson’s starting job looks not to be as solid as previously thought. As we saw more and more at the end of 2014 with B.J. (now Melvin) Upton and former (and still on the payroll) Brave Dan Uggla, the team will not allow for one player to bring down the lineup day in and day out.

    Still in contention for bench spots are the aforementioned Terdoslavich, the rejuvenated Kelly Johnson and Almonte. Much of what happens with the bench will come down to who wins the 2B starting position, whether Eric Young, Jr. is the starting center fielder and how much the Braves think they can rely on Alberto Callaspo and Johnson.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.

    Braves split series in Cincy despite flirting with no-no

    After breaking out the bats in the series opener against the Reds at Great American Ballpark, the Braves were once again the victims of their own lack of run support for quality starting pitching. Walking away from the a series split in Cincy, Atlanta missed an opportunity to improve in the wild card standings.

    The Braves leave GAB for Citi Field for a 3-game set sitting 8 games back in the division and 1 game behind the Giants for the second wild card slot.

    Andrelton Simmons has hit .429 over his career at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

    Andrelton Simmons has hit .429 over his career at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

    In the lead up to the series in Cincinnati, we broke down the slugging numbers for several players, but overlooked the hitter with the best numbers at Great American Ballpark: Andrelton Simmons. In 6 games over his young career, Simmons has hit .429 at Great American. He has slugged an ungodly .893 in that band box. He was 12 hits, 4 doubles, 3 homers and 6 RBI. In the 3 games he started over the series, Simba hit .267/.267/.600 with 2 doubles, a homer and 2 RBI.

    Keeping pace at the plate over the series, Justin Upton knocked another homer and hit .267. He also recorded his 2nd triple on the season. In August, Upton is hitting .288 with 4 doubles, a triple and 6 homers. Upton’s RBIs, 23 in August, continue to lead the Braves (nearly 20 more than the next closest hitter, Freeman). Upton is 3rd in the NL in RBIs right now behind only Giancarlo Stanton and Adrian Gonzalez. Additionally, he is 4th in homers in the league behind Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Lucas Duda.

    Pitching in the series was mostly solid, though Aaron Harang struggled in the 4th inning of the finale costing the Braves the game. Julio Teheran got the team off to a great start with 6 shutout innings where he allowed only 4 hits and struck out 3. Behind him came Russell in relief, a shaky sight for those who have watched the Braves since the trade deadline brought the club James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio. However, Fredi Gonzalez is not longer going to use Russell for lefties only and in his 2 innings of relief work for Teheran, Russell didn’t allow a hit or run.

    Of course, the greatest pitching performance came from Mike Minor who flirted with a no hitter. Unfortunately, Minor didn’t get the no-no or the win. After 7 2/3 innings pitched allowing only 1 hit, Minor gave way to a series of relievers including Walden, Carpenter, Varvaro, Hale (who got the win) and Kimbrel. Despite giving up that 1 hit and 1 earned run, Minor got the no decision and the Braves finally got the win in extra innings thanks to a 12th inning blast by none other than Justin “Clutch” Upton.

    Since having his spot skipped in the rotation early in the month, Minor is 1-1 in 3 starts (21 1/3 IP) with a 2.53 ERA. In those 3 games he has given up only 2 homers, has held opponents to .176 batting average and has 19 strikeouts. If the Braves hope to make a run at the Nats and/or stay in the wild card hunt, they need this Mike Minor to show up every time.

    BRAVES VISIT TO CITI FIELD TO CAP ROAD TRIP…

    It’s impossible for the Braves to play the Mets at Citi Field without mentioning the ridiculous numbers Freddie Freeman has against the Mets. Picking up the mantle of Chipper Jones, Freeman has hit .317 at Citi Field with 12 doubles and 5 homers. Against the Mets overall, Freeman has hit .324 in his career. He has been nothing but a pest for the Mets. This season Freddie has hit .392 against New York with 7 doubles, a homer and 13 RBIs. On the season, Freeman has hit .310 with RISP and .364 with 2 outs and RISP. His clutch stats in addition to his career history against the Mets bodes well for a team that gets going with Freeman as the spark.

    Over the weekend, the Braves acknowledged that during their talks with the Cubs prior to the trade deadline they did attempt to trade B.J. Upton. The Cubs instead sent over Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell and the Braves kept B.J. This news isn’t too surprising given the struggles of the elder Upton since joining the Braves. However, the Braves willingness to trade him and presumably eat a huge amount of his contract might also signal that the Braves are willing to sit B.J. the way they previously had Dan Uggla. With Emilio Bonifacio’s versatility, the Braves can continue to use him in center field. In August for the Braves, Bonifacio has hit .255 with a .296 on-base percentage. He has stolen 3 bases as a Brave. By comparison, in August B.J. Upton is hitting .119 with a .257 on-base percentage. Their defense appears comparable. How the Braves proceed will likely have an impact on their overall success. It may simply come down to money.

    The Braves will send Wood (9-9, 3.05) to the mound vs. Gee (4-6, 3.84) tomorrow. Wednesday will pit Teheran (12-9, 2.96) vs. Wheeler (9-8, 3.48). The series will wrap with Minor (5-8, 4.90) vs. Niese (7-9, 3.47). The Braves will then travel back to Turner Field for a homestand beginning with the Miami Marlins.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves end skid, Uptons set mark

    Beginning the weekend against the rival Washington Nationals, the Braves knew that they needed wins to keep pace in the NL East. A sweep could put the division out of reach going into the late days of August. However, the Braves stepped up and took 2 out of 3 from the Nats, placing themselves 3 1/2 games back in the division.

    After an 0-8 road trip, coming home to Turner Field is exactly what the struggling Braves needed. Getting to face Stephen Strasburg at the Ted helped their cause greatly, ending the losing streak and removing the monkey from their back.

    Stephen Strasburg had not given up 3 home runs in a game before Friday night’s home run derby off him when he didn’t give up just 3 dingers, he gave up 4. He has now given up a career high 18 homers on the season. Brothers Justin and B.J. Upton both hit 2-run blasts to dead center field. Then Freddie Freeman broke out of his slump to go yard off Strasburg. Then Tommy La Stella hit his very first big league home run. It wasn’t Strasburg’s night. Though it’s beginning to look like it is never Strasburg’s night when visiting the Ted. Against the Braves this year he has allowed 17 runs on 24 hits (5 of them homers). In his career at Turner Field, Strasburg has given up 7 homers and has allowed the Braves a .295 batting average against him. Strasburg left Friday’s game after 5 innings after giving up 7 runs on 7 hits and somehow striking out 9 batters.

    When the Braves signed B.J. and Justin Upton they certainly thought that there would be many a game when the two brothers went deep in the same game. It may have taken much longer to do it, but the Uptons have surpassed the record for the most times where two brothers went deep in the same game. With 5 such games, the Uptons now hold the record. There is now the possibility they put that record out of reach for any set of brothers to come.

    Justin Upton made some personal history of his own over the weekend. On his 21st homerun of the season, the younger Upton recorded his 1,000th hit and 500th RBI.

    For whatever reason, Major League Baseball had no qualms with the Braves beginning game 2 of the series after a 4 hour delay to the start due to rain. Despite the marathon delay, Aaron Harang pitched superb baseball but wasn’t helped out by his teammates who only managed 1 run in the 10 inning game that didn’t end until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

    The rubber match was a pitcher’s duel in every sense. Alex Wood stepped up and pitched as he had before being sent to the ‘pen earlier in the season and then down to Triple-A Gwinnett. Wood went 7 1/3 innings, gave up 1 run on 5 hits and struck out a personal best 12 hitters. After securing 2 additional runs in support of Wood, Kimbrel recorded his 34th save of the season.

    MIKE MINOR REJOINS ROTATION…

    As the Dodgers arrive in Atlanta, they have called up Kevin Correia to give their rotation an extra day rest. This means the Braves will luck out and miss both Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke this series.

    Due to 2 days off this past week, the Braves were able to give Mike Minor some extra rest, missing his spot in the rotation. He will rejoin the rotation this series and will face Dan Haren in game 2. Minor has struggled mightily this season, in no way looking like the pitcher he was last season. In 2013, Minor had a 13-9 record with a 3.21 ERA. This season he is 4-7 with a 5.42 ERA, including a stint on the DL with shoulder soreness.

    After turning his ankle in a weird event covering third base, Andrelton Simmons has been out of the lineup and off of his ankle hoping to avoid the disabled list. The Braves reported that Simba got treatment on the ankle most of Saturday and Fredi Gonzalez has said he would like to pencil Simmons into the lineup for Tuesday. Simmons will potentially test the ankle running Monday and barring any problems, will be in the lineup as Fredi wants. In the meantime, Emilio Bonifacio and Ramiro Pena have filled in for Simmons. Bonifacio has hit leadoff 4 of the past 6 games.

    The Dodgers send Correia (-,-) to the mound vs. Teheran (10-8, 2.92) tonight. Tuesday will feature Haren (9-9, 4.57) vs. Minor (4-7, 5.42). Wednesday’s game will pit Ryu (13-5, 3.21) vs. Santana (11-6, 3.69). And the finale of the series will send Hernandez (0-0, 3.00) to the mound vs. Harang (9-6, 3.31).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves take shortened series, head to Big Apple

    What was supposed to be their Achilles heel–starting pitching–has turned out to be the greatest strength in the early going for the 2014 Braves. The rain-shortened series in Philadelphia once again put the dominant starting pitching on display with great outings from Ervin Santana, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. Unfortunately, the all or nothing offense was only able to notch one in the win column of Julio Teheran after waiting ’til Santana left the game to explode Monday night and offered no run support for Alex Wood in another solid outing from the young pitcher.

    Evan Gattis went on a tear in Philly hitting .667 while slugging 1.667.

    Evan Gattis went on a tear in Philly hitting .667 while slugging 1.667.

    Part of that all or nothing offense was Evan Gattis. In 2 of the 3 games played in Philadelphia, Evan Gattis reminded us of why he was one of the most dynamic hitters on the club last season. He hit .667 with 6 hits, 3 homers and 4 RBI with only 1 strikeout. Wednesday night Gattis put 4 hits on the board, a career high. He added to his superb career April numbers. Over 30 games going back to last season, Gattis has hit .303 (33-for-109) with 8 doubles, 10 homers, 23 RBIs, an on-base percentage of .342 and a .651 slugging percentage. Gattis has 5 dingers in his past 3 games at Citizens Bank Park.

    Justin Upton arrived in Philly the hottest hitter in baseball and the reigning NL Player of the Week. Unfortunately, his terrible road numbers weren’t snapped in Philly. At home, Justin is hitting  .591, with 4 diners and 8 RBIs (6 games). His road numbers are another story. He is batting .118 with a .211 on-base percentage (9 games).

    The surprise of the series was, of course, Dan Uggla’s offense. Where his defense stumbled, including a costly error in Philly’s game 1 rally, his offense made up for it. The highlight of the series for Dan was a grand slam in game 1 that capped a game-winning rally by the Braves. It was Dan’s second homer of the game. He and Gattis both notched 2 homers in that game. Uggla finished the 3-game series in Philly with 3 hits, 2 homers, 5 RBIs, 1 walk and 2 strikeouts. He hit .273 with an on-base percentage of .333 and slugged .818.

    With an all or nothing offense there are bound to be nights when gems from starting pitching don’t get rewarded with a win. Such was the case with both Ervin Santana and Alex Wood in Philly.

    Ervin Santana pitched 6 solid innings, allowing 4 hits, 1 run and striking out a career high 11. However, Luis Avilan game up 5 runs in relief that allowed the Phillies to rally and take the win out of Santana’s hands. In one of those strange scoring events in baseball, Avilan was credited with the win after the team rallied at the top of the next innings after he crumbled on the mound. David Carpenter recorded his second career save, his first save with the Braves.

    Julio Teheran’s brilliant complete game shutout was matched with a brilliant outing by opponent Cliff Lee who also went the entire game. Teheran went the distance allowing 3 hits, 0 runs and striking out 4. Lee, perhaps more dominant, went the distance while allowing 11 hits. The tipping point was the homer Lee gave up to Evan Gattis, the deciding run for the Braves. Cliff Lee is the only pitcher in big league history to lose 2 games where he has allowed 1 run and struck out 13 or more batters. Lee has had tough luck numbers against the Braves recently. In his last 2 starts against Atlanta he has pitched 17 innings, giving up 2 runs and striking out 26 strikeouts. Yet he has a record of 0-2. It was a great win for young Teheran for many reasons, but that he achieved it against the opponent he did is huge.

    A.J. Burnett threw 7 innings of 3-hit ball that resulted in no runs for the Braves. His 5 strikeouts were outmatched by the 7 K’s of Alex Wood. However, Wood’s 8 innings of 8-hit ball surrendered a single run that proved to be all the Phillies needed when the offense couldn’t get Wood any run support. It was one of the best outings we’ve seen from Wood in his young career.


    BRAVES, HARANG RETURN TO CITI FIELD…

    Aaron Harang spent part of the 2013 season with the New York Mets. In 4 games started with the club, he had an 0-1 record and a 3.52 ERA with 26 strikeouts (23 IP).

    Friday night’s game will be the first time that Jason Heyward will face Jonathan Niese since being hit in the face by a pitch last season, costing him a good chunk of the second-half of the season with a broken jaw. Heyward is 9-for-24 with 2 HRs against Niese.

    Freddie Freeman hits the Mets very well and has taken the place of Chipper Jones as the player with the most success against the club. Freeman is 9-for-27 with 2 HRs against Niese and over the past 21 games Freddie is 29-for-81 (.358) with 6 homers and 20 RBIs against the Mets.

    Atlanta hopes to have closer Craig Kimbrel back in their arsenal this weekend. Kimbrel hasn’t pitched since last Saturday due to shoulder soreness. Shut down, but not placed on the DL, Kimbrel has never had any type of arm soreness or injury before now. The Braves, playing it safe, gave the closer extra time to make sure he was 100% healthy. In a bullpen session Wednesday, Kimbrel reported no discomfort in his shoulder. In 5 2/3 innings this season, Kimbrel has allowed 1 run, has 12 K’s, and has 5 saves. He remains 10 saves away from tying John Smoltz on the all-time list of Braves with the most saves.

    The Braves will send former Met Aaron Harang (2-1, 0.96) to the mound in the season opener against Jonathan Niese (0-1, 3.46). Veterans Ervin Santana (1-0, 0.64) and Bartolo Colon (1-2, 6.00) will square off in the second game. David Hale (0-0, 2.89) will cap the series against Zack Wheeler (1-2, 4.67).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    Braves sign Simmons to 7-year extension

    Both Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons are now celebrating extensions--2 years and 7 years, respectively.

    Both Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons are now celebrating extensions–2 years and 7 years, respectively.

    Frank Wren continues a torrid spring of signings with today’s news that Atlanta has signed shortstop Andrelton Simmons to a 7-year extension. Simmons joins Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel as part of the young core the Braves have locked in for many years to come.

    The deal signed today with the defensive wizard is worth $58 million. Simmons’ deal includes a progressive salary beginning with $1 million for 2014, $3 million in 2015, $6 million in ’16, $8 million in ’17, $11 million in ’18, $13 million in ’19 and $15 million in 2020. In addition to his annual salary, Andrelton was given a $1 million signing bonus. Simmons will be 31 when his contract expires.

    Andrelton Simmons, the last regular man to arrive at camp due to visa issues, was quick to sign the extension with the Braves. Andrelton said he couldn’t be happier with the extension, noting that the Braves are a team he grew up following. Part of the reason for that is his fellow Curaçao countryman Andruw Jones who patrolled Atlanta’s outfield for 12 seasons, winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards. Simmons won his first Gold Glove award in 2013. His first of many, certainly.

    Andrelton Simmons is best known for his defense, notching a defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 5.4 in 2013, the highest WAR for his position. Also in 2013, Andrelton recorded 499 assists, another best among those at his position. That same year he finished 14th in MVP balloting and won the Gold Glove. Simmons has a career .256 batting average in 206 games (840 plate appearances). While the small sample size doesn’t necessarily foretell Simmons’ offensive strengths in the years to come, his defense thus far is a good indication that he has the potential to be one of the best if not the best defensive players in the history of the game.

    Simmons’ signing is one of several in recent days and speaks to the payroll flexibility the Braves gain with the announced move to a new stadium in Cobb County.

    Atlanta’s front office has committed approximately $280 million to 5 players in extensions in just over 2 weeks Jason Heyward was signed for 2 years, Freddie Freeman for 8 years, Julio Teheran for 6 years, Craig Kimbrel for 5 years and now Simmons for 7. In addition to these signings, both Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren had their contracts extended through at least the 2015 seasons.

    Speaking to the recent extensions of himself and his teammates, Simmons said, “it’s really nice to see the Braves want to keep this team together. We have great talent.”

    Mike Minor, the only missing piece of the puzzle, is likely the next domino to fall. Minor is under Atlanta’s control for 4 seasons including the 2014 season.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves lock up Kimbrel, Teheran to long-term deals

    KimbrelTeheran

    Frank Wren locked up dominant pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran in the span of a week.

    In a continued spending spree, the Braves announced Sunday that they had signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a 4-year, $42 million contract. Kimbrel’s deal includes a 5th year option for $13 million. Kimbrel and the Braves avoid an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for Monday.

    Kimbrel’s deal is the largest contract in Major League Baseball for a closer who has not yet reached free agent status. The deal with Atlanta will lock Kimbrel up for what would have been his first 2 years of free agency, if not 3 depending on if his option is exercised.

    Kimbrel’s contract comes on the heels of the signing of young pitcher Julio Teheran to a 6-year $32.4 million extension with an option for a 7th year (a total of $44.4 million). At 25, this contract will lock Kimbrel in until at least his 29th birthday. At 23, the Teheran deal will lock him in until his 29th birthday as well.

    The early winter announcement that the Braves have purchased land in Cobb County to build a new stadium has given general manager Frank Wren room to negotiate new salaries with a young core of players (Freeman, Heyward, Kimbrel and Teheran). All three players who were headed for arbitration hearings–Freeman, Heyward and Kimbrel–were signed to extensions before their hearing dates. The next domino to fall for the Braves is likely to be defensive genius Andrelton Simmons.

    Kimbrel has been the most dominant closer in baseball since his Rookie of the Year season when he set the mark for most saves by a rookie closer, surpassing another RoY winner Neftali Feliz. In his 3 years as the Braves closer, including his RoY campaign, he has recorded 138 saves. His best season in saves came in 2013 when he recorded 50 saves, the most in the National League.

    Since making his MLB debut in 2009, he has recorded a career 1.39 ERA in 227 1/3 innings. He has an amazing SO/9 rate of 15.1 with 381 strikeouts to his career and has never given up more than 20 walks and 4 homers in a season. He was selected as an All Star in each of his 3 full seasons in the big leagues, has finished no worst than 9th in Cy Young voting each season and finished as high as 8th in MVP balloting in 2012. His career best season in ERA came in 2012 when he finished the season with a 1.01 ERA.

    Young Julio Teheran has been a gem since his prospect years with the club. Though he got off to a rough start when first called up, his trip down to Gwinnett righted the ship and he has become one of the most consistent pitchers on Atlanta’s staff. In 2013, Teheran finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting following a 14-8 season with a 3.20 ERA.

    In Teheran’s 3 years of service in the big leagues, he has a more than respectable SO/9 rate of 7.1 with 185 strikeouts to his young career (170 of them in his rookie of the year season). Teheran is a solid middle-to-back of the rotation option for the Braves with Minor and Medlen leading the way. He also has the reputation of having one of the best pick-off moves to first base in the league.

    As the Braves begin camp, the present and future are looking very bright for the club.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Andrelton Simmons vs Rafael Furcal

    Heyward lifts Simmons

    Andrelton Simmons was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2010 amateur draft and made his big league debut in 2012.

    With the exciting, though not altogether surprising, announcement that Andrelton Simmons has been awarded a Rawlings Gold Glove as well as named by ESPN 2013’s best defender, we wondered how Simmons stacks up against a former Braves shortstop to which he’s often been compared: Rafael Furcal.

    Simmons became the first Braves infielder to win a Gold Glove since Terry Pendleton did it in 1992 and immediately surpassed Furcal who shockingly never won the award with Atlanta, Los Angeles or St. Louis.

    Let’s start by taking a look at the defensive numbers for Simmons and Furcal in their first full seasons. For Furcal, the numbers listed are an average of his time at shortstop and second base (where he played 31 games during his rookie season):

    Age Position PO A E DP Fld%
    Andrelton Simmons 23 SS 240 499 14 94 .981
    Rafael Furcal 22 SS/2B 192 362 24 72 .971

    Take a minute to consider where Simmon’s fielding percentage in 2013 ranks against some of the best shortstops to play the game. Troy Tulowitzki has the highest career fielding percentage at shortstop at .985%. He is followed by the gifted Omar Vizquel who, with 24 seasons to his big league career, finished with a .984%. You get to sixth on the list, Rey Sanchez, where you’ll find the .981% that Simmons put up this season. Sure, he has only put in a season and a half in the big leagues, but even with minimal playing time in his young career this is rarefied air that Simmons shares. You have to scroll clear down to 185 on the list to find where Rafael Furcal’s 13 seasons rank for shortstops (at .965).

    Furcal

    Rafael Furcal was signed as an 18-year-old free agent by the Atlanta Braves in 1996. He made a made a splash in 2000, his rookie season.

    Furcal’s first full season was not rewarded with a gold glove, but due to it being his first season of substantial play and his impressive offensive numbers, Furcal was rewarded for his effort with the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Of course, Simmons was not eligible for the RoY due to the injury-shortened 49-game 2012 season that qualified as his rookie year. Otherwise, there’s no question that he would be int he RoY conversation.

    Offensively, there are clear differences between Furcal and Simmons.

    While Simmons has been superior defensively, Furcal put together better numbers at the plate. While Simmons hit more home runs, drove in more runs and had more total hits than Furcal, there is no disputing the brilliance Furcal displayed his rookie year on the base paths. Before we discuss the latter point, let’s take a look at how Simmons and Furcal’s first full seasons in Major League Baseball compare offensively:

    G PA AB R H HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG
    Andrelton Simmons 157 658 606 76 150 17 59 6 40 55 .248 .296 .396
    Rafael Furcal 131 542 455 87 134 4 37 40 73 80 .295 .394 .382

    Simmons’ strikeout total stands out immediately, given Atlanta’s strikeout-happy lineup. The runs are less, the hits more for Simmons. Furcal displayed less pop in his rookie season, but hit for a high average.  The clearest contrast, however, is Furcal’s sizable edge on the base paths.  Furcal reached base safely far more often than Simmons and once there, he made opposing pitchers pay for putting him there.

    With clearly better-than-average speed, it’s peculiar that Simmons isn’t more of a base stealing threat.  He played his first full season for a team far better equipped to wait for the 3-run homer than to run opposing pitchers ragged. Certainly, that’s a factor.  And while he doesn’t have Furcal’s blinding speed, he has proven himself to be a smart, heads-up base runner.

    Furcal was always a lead-off hitter. It was quite apparently the role he was born to play. That’s just not Andrelton Simmons. He will never be the quintessential lead-off guy. However, if Simmons can develop better plate discipline and find his way on base more consistently, it would seem a waste not to put his speed to better use.

    When Simmons appeared on Atlanta’s radar, some speculated that he might be the next Rafael Furcal. It now appears that “Simba” is even more impressive with the leather than Furcal, which is saying something. Whether Andrelton can become the offensive force that Furcal was when at his best remains to be seen. He’ll never steal 40 bases, but he may eventually provide a similar spark to the lineup in other ways. Simmons’ potential appears to be as a run-producer, rather than a table-setter.

    We can only hope the young shortstop proves to be more durable than Furcal, about whom every conversation begins with the words “if he’s healthy”. Because if Andrelton Simmons is able to remain on the field, largely unencumbered by the ailments that have derailed far too many promising careers, we could be watching a shortstop for the ages.

    Update (11.8.13): Andrelton Simmons was voted by the fans, with the help of pre-established input from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), the winner of the 2013 National League Rawlings’ Platinum Glove Award. Simmons edged out Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina by 1% of the total vote.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves suffer sweep, move on to Miami

    Ask any Braves fan and they will tell you that the Braves are at their best when they are competing against teams above .500 who are likely headed for the playoffs. That same Braves fan will tell you just how frustrating it is to watch their club fall to teams like the Mets, Marlins and Phillies who, by the numbers, shouldn’t have a chance at bringing down a club with a record as strong as the Braves. That said, it happens, and Braves Country was witness once more to this phenomenon over the weekend in Philly.

    Evan Gattis hit 2 homers in the series finale in Philly. His 1st, in the 2nd inning off Hamels, was estimated to fly 441 feet.

    Evan Gattis recorded first career multi-HR game Sunday. First HR was estimated at 486 ft. 

    While there were frustrating moments and scary moments alike, there were moments for Braves fans to cheer about. Evan Gattis stepped up in a big way, providing all of the offense in the series finale against Cole Hamels. El Oso Blanco went yard twice against the Phillies’ ace, once in the 2nd inning when he launched a homer that was estimated to travel 486 feet (those in the press box say that estimate was conservative) and again in the 7th inning, providing the only 2 runs for Atlanta Sunday.

    Though Paul Maholm has struggled in the first inning throughout the season, his 2 runs allowed Sunday should have been enough to keep the Braves in the game. Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t come through for Maholm on a day when he tried to establish himself as a postseason rotation option. Maholm pitched 6 solid innings, giving up 7 hits, 3 walks, and striking out 5 on a pitch total of 108.

    Those frustrating and scary moments during the series? Strikeouts being the most frustrating, of course. It’s become clear that when the postseason arrives, not taking for granted that the Braves will be in the playoffs, Fredi Gonzalez will have to consider the danger of placing both Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton in the lineup at the same time. Saturday night B.J. Upton struck out in each of his first 3 at-bats, ending the night with the Golden Sombrero. While there was a hope that B.J. had turned things around and would be able to contribute, even in a small way, in the absence of injured Jason Heyward, it’s hard to believe that at this point.

    Also frustrating were the losses in game 1 and 2. Mike Minor had an awesome start in the series opener, but recorded the loss. His 7 strong innings of 9-strikeout ball allowed the Phillies just 2 runs. However, without adequate run support, that alone wasn’t enough to topple Cliff Lee who went just 1 inning longer than Minor and allowed just 1 run fewer. Game 2 delivered another blow to the Braves. Though it is never easy to stomach a walk-off win when it comes at the hands of your opponent, it was especially tough after the Braves had tied up the game with a homer in the 9th by shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

    A scary moment of the series came when Scott Downs took a come-backer off his glove hand. After leaving the game, x-rays revealed a broken finger. Downs insists that the broken finger won’t slow him down, but it is certainly worrisome for the Braves’ bullpen, especially given the ongoing groin injury of Jordan Walden. One other issue that arose during the Philly series is the knee soreness of first baseman Freddie Freeman. Fredi Gonzalez is trying to give Freeman rest as much possible. The 12-game the lead the Braves have in the division with 20 regular season games remaining certainly gives the Braves options. Unfortunately, to continue to win games the most consistent bat the Braves can insert in their lineup is that of Freeman. Since the start of the 2012 season, Freddie Freeman is 3rd in National League in RBIs behind Jay Bruce and Allen Craig. Clearly his bat has been important to Atlanta’s success.

    BRAVES HOPE TO REBOUND IN MIAMI…

    Arriving at Marlins Park, the Braves sit just under .600 with a record of 85-57. The Marlins are 27 games back in the division, but their record isn’t the one the Braves will be watching. With their 12-game lead in the division, there is little hope of the Nationals catching up at this point. However, the Braves will be watching the Dodgers who currently hold a 83-58 record. Home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs will depend on the best record in the league. Currently, as the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals battle it out in the NL Central, the Dodgers are the biggest threat to the Braves for the best record in the NL.

    It would be great to see Alex Wood rebound from his outing against the Phillies. Though it could have been worse, Wood only went 4 2/3 innings, surrendering 9 hits, 4 earned runs and 3 walks on 94 pitches. At this point in the season, the Braves are auditioning a potential 4th starter for the playoffs. It would seem that the starters that will go 1-2-3 in the playoffs at this point are Minor, Medlen and Teheran (in no particular order). Wood, prior to his last couple starts, seemed the most likely option for the 4th spot in a postseason rotation, assuming the Braves utilize a 4-man rotation. However, he will have to prove that he has an edge over Maholm.

    The Braves are approaching a franchise record for most the most players in a season with double-digit home run totals. Currently, the team record is 9 players, established in 2007. The 2013 club currently has 8 players with 10 or more home runs. B.J. Upton is currently sitting at 9 homers on the season.

    The 4-game set against the Marlins will kick off Monday with Medlen (12-12, 3.48) vs. Alvarez (3-3, 3.95). Rookie Teheran (11-7, 3.01) vs. Koehler (3-9, 4.70) will match up Tuesday. Look for a pitching duel Wednesday with Minor (13-6, 3.06) vs. Fernandez (11-6, 2.23). And the series will wrap Thursday with rookie Wood (3-3, 3.45) vs. Eovaldi (3-6, 3.80).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.