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    The “Braves Way” Is Dead. Here’s the Path Forward from Scandal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the house of cards once called the Atlanta Braves front office collapsed, blown away by a chorus of gale-force gusts produced by Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into allegations of scandalous behavior.

    We shall not invoke the name of the former general manager who resigned on the opening day of the offseason. I frankly do not care if he ever is heard from again, to be quite honest.

    But at some point, no matter how angry or embarrassed or betrayed or brokenhearted one is, you must look around at the altered landscape and assess the way forward. As the Braves leadership – using that term quite loosely – gathered in Orlando for its annual October organizational meetings, the focus undoubtedly was not so much on the 2018 roster as it was on how to emerge from the worst scandal in franchise history.

    Yes, it’s bad. It quite possibly may get worse once MLB announces its findings and subsequent punishments. No, it won’t set the franchise back a decade. Yes, it may rattle the very foundation that cracked a week ago Monday.

    But keep this in mind: SunTrust Park will be filled to capacity on March 29, 2018, when the Braves open the new season against Philadelphia. Advertisers likely are not leaving. No company with a business in The Battery is going to shut its doors.

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    However, the Braves better be very aware their loyal fanbase – which has gone 22 years since experiencing a World Series title, 18 years without an NL pennant, 16 years with nary a postseason series triumph – looks at its baseball team with a skeptical eye in wake of this mess. Restoring that trust and unwavering support will not happen overnight, but there are a few things whoever is minding the store now and moving forward best keep in mind.

    Accountability

    We see it all the time, whether a public figure commits some sort of transgression or a corporation endures a security breach. Somebody gets behind a microphone, or writes a press release, or posts on social media some canned statement that says little.

    The Braves cannot go down that “blah, blah, blah” road. Somebody, be it John Hart or Terry McGuirk or John Schuerholz, better step up and own this. Pleasant? Nope. Necessary? Absolutely.

    Schuerholz is regarded by some as merely a figurehead driving deals for new stadiums and spring training complexes. Others think the Hall of Famer still is influencing baseball decisions. Hart, as director of the front office who was brought in to mentor the since-deposed GM, reports to McGuirk, the conduit between the faceless Liberty Media conglomerate and the baseball franchise it owns for purposes tax related.

    I have my doubts anybody on Liberty’s board of directors could name more than five players who wore an Atlanta uniform in 2017.

    Regardless, whoever serves as the mouthpiece moving forward better be open and honest. No corporate double-talk. The fans demand (and rightly deserve) to know who knew what, why this happened, what lessons have been learned and what is going to happen moving forward.

    And it better be sincere. If it’s bull, the fanbase will smell it from a mile away.

    Change

    Dumping the brash, somewhat disruptive and downright rude former GM was a no-brainer. Call it a resignation all you want, but the dude had no choice. In essence, he was fired, and he shouldn’t be the first one to pack their office.

    It is inconceivable to me and countless others I have talked to in recent days that this was a back-door, dimly lit, lone-wolf scenario. Those who knew the depth of the alleged transgressions had a moral obligation to speak up, and by not doing so, there must be payment.

    That payment amounts to taking a broom to the executive offices at SunTrust Park. Hart very well may view himself as a bridge to 2018. Schuerholz may fancy himself with a relevant role in the clean-up. McGuirk, who has not uttered a peep since the scandal broke, might feel far enough removed above the fray.

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Wrong, wrong and wrong. All three must go; if not now, certainly before spring training starts. If there ever was time to cut the cord from two decades ago, now is that time. Yes, that includes Bobby Cox, whose influence (along with Schuerholz) likely has played too much of a role in recent years, resumes and job titles be darned.

    And while we’re at it, once and for all, “The Braves Way” is dead and gone, never to be uttered again. It is worn out and rings hollower today than ever before.

    Contend

    This is easier said than done because, duh, every one of the 30 teams in baseball sets out to compete for a playoff spot each season. But arguably no team on the planet, in any league, at any level of the sport, needs a good 2018 season more than the Braves.

    Forty-eight months ago, Craig Kimbrel stood locked in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium as Los Angeles rallied for a victory that eliminated Atlanta from the NL Division Series. The great tear-down began a few months later, with the late years of this decade the target to return to the limelight with a team bolstered by young starts and a farm system plentiful in top prospects.

    There is no doubt the spotlight shines brightly on this franchise today, but for all the wrong reasons. Within that white-hot glow of scrutiny and skepticism, it may be easy to forget the Braves do have the best farm system in the majors, with several young players either already having ascended to the big leagues or sitting a year or two away.

    The right moves this offseason could accelerate the timeline to contention. That would not be a bad thing given how the Braves have screwed up the one thing that figured never to be shaken – its relationship with an adoring, loyal, generational fanbase that has waited patiently and trusted the process.

    That trust, that patience, is in scant supply these days. Even a run at a wildcard berth that carries beyond Labor Day would be a needed salve on the festering wound this scandal has left.

    The path forward may not be easy, but spare me the tears. The Braves deserve whatever punishment comes from this. The real question in my mind is how does the organization move forward.

    And you better believe we are watching. Closely.

    —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.

    Doritos Goat hires Scott Boras, Braves interested.

    The word “Doritos” is taken from the Spanish word doradito, which means “turned golden”. That, as it turns out, is a fitting name for the Doritos Goat, known to friends and family simply as “DG”. After getting his big break in a Super Bowl XLVII commercial for the popular flavored tortilla snack chip, DG is looking to cash in on his new found notoriety by hiring renowned super agent Scott Boras. 

    Sports agent, Scott Boras

    Boras is speaking with a number of Major League Baseball franchises in the market for a new mascot, including  multiple teams in the National League East.

    One of those teams is believed to be the Atlanta Braves. MLB.com Braves beat writer, Mark Bowman, recently reported that the team has in fact been in contact with Boras and is eyeing DG as a possible replacement for Homer the Brave, who has devolved into a walking baseball with little more personality than Ben Stein on opium.

    Of apparent concern to the character-conscious Braves, though, is the goat’s repeated run-ins with the law. Most notably, DG was involved in a drunken drag racing incident with Major League pitcher Derek Lowe. Also, while not illegal, many teams were unhappy to learn that DG recently sold clean urine samples to Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera. 

    The Miami Marlins also have interest in DG’s services. One team official told BravesWire that Scott Boras has been emphasizing the goat’s mass appeal as a way to boost attendance. Boras reportedly told Marlins brass that the presence of DG at Marlins Park could draw as many as 50 additional fans in 2013, drastically increasing attendance.

    Doritos Goat and RHP Derek Lowe

    Farther west, Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, while dabbing the sweat from his brow with a $100 bill, told reporters he liked the idea of DG in Dodger blue. Sitting on a diamond encrusted office chair with a solid gold coffee mug emblazoned with the words “MO MONEY!” in his left hand, Colletti went on to say that he has challenged his management team to think outside of the box as they try to invent new ways to spend their infinite pool of cash, in which the front office staff often skinny dips after hours. Doritos Goat would seemingly meet his criteria of an innovative expenditure.

    Almost all of the teams believed to have interest in DG are eyeing him as a replacement mascot. The New York Mets, however, have inquired about the goat’s availability to play left field, citing DG’s vibrant pulse and his apparent ability to “give a damn about something”.

    True to form, Scott Boras is said to have opened the bidding at Mayaguna, a small island in the Bahamas, approximately 60 miles northwest of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

    ESPN’s Buster Olney reported last week that DG turned down a 3-year, 30 million dollar offer by the Minnesota Twins, calling the offer “insulting” and adding the he “has a family to feed”.

    Braves Bullpen Trio Needs New Name

    By Kent Covington

    In 2011, no bullpen trio in baseball was more dominant than Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.  In fact this group of Braves’ relievers was reminiscent of another bullpen trio; The “Nasty Boys” (Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton) of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds.

    The Nasty Boys… pretty cool nickname, huh?  That moniker could be found on a variety of t-shirts sold by street vendors outside Riverfront stadium and on the handmade signs of countless fans in ‘90.  “The Nasty Boys” was catchy, it sounded mean and it aptly described the “stuff” of that flame-throwing trio. It helped form an aura around Cincinnati’s relief core, which may have enhanced, at least slightly, the sense of intimidation felt by opposing teams that trailed the Reds after 6 innings.  And it certainly helped the buzz factor surrounding the team as they mounted their World Series run, a perk the Reds marketing department put to good use.

    An indelible and marketable nickname also helped that trio to leave a more vivid imprint on Major League Baseball.  Twenty-two years later, we’re still talking about The Nasty Boys.

    Now, let me ask you something.  Twenty-two years from now, will anyone say “Hey, remember ‘O’Ventbrel’?”

    O’Ventbrel is the nickname that seems to have caught on—at least to some degree—to describe the remarkable Braves trio of Kimbrel, Venters and O’Flaherty.  But is O’Ventbrel really the best we can do?  The ’90 Reds trio gets The Nasty Boys and these guys get O’Ventbrel??

    Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    With this nickname, we’ve turned the back-end of the Braves ‘pen into the “Brangolina” of Major League Baseball. It’s not intimidating, and it’s not memorable.  Let’s leave the name-squishing to TMZ.

    How many O’Ventbrel t-shirts did you notice on street vendor tables outside “The Ted” last season?

    My point is simply this:  These guys deserve better. They deserve an enduring label.  And let’s face it… anything that adds even a small measure of excitement to the sometimes lethargic crowds at Turner Field is a plus.

    That’s why we believe it’s time to kill O’Ventbrel (no, not the pitchers; just the nickname).

    Over the past six months, I’ve asked our Twitter followers to suggest nicknames for this Braves trio. I’ve polled those suggestions and have isolated a couple of names that stand out.  The first of those names is “The Unholy Trinity” (credit to @politicgame).  It sounds edgy and aggressive, and it has an intimidation factor.

    But someone (@ChopAttack) recently suggested a nickname via Twitter that seems to poll better than anything else… “The Untouchables”.

    The Untouchables is, of course, the name of a classic gangster flick and television series, so the name is inherently menacing.  And it definitely describes the “stuff” of this trio, which is at times, well… untouchable.  It’s also short and memorable.  The marketing possibilities surrounding this moniker are endless.  A 1920’s gangster photo shoot with Kimbrel, Venters and O’Flaherty—complete with pinstriped suits and tommy guns, anyone?  And fans would surely have fun with the classic gangster theme.

    Admittedly, As long as Braves broadcasters, writers, and even manager, Fredi Gonzalez, continue to repeat “O’Ventbrel”, this effort may be a lost cause.  But again, these guys deserve better, so we’ll give it our best shot.

    So with this blog, we officially ask you to join our campaign to replace the utterly forgettable O’Ventbrel with a far more enduring and buzzworthy name.

    Here’s to the continued dominance in 2012 of The Untouchables!


     

    The Moves the Braves DIDN’T Make and Why

    By Jim Pratt

    Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren seems to run his ship by the philosophy that the best deal is sometimes the deal not made. With little financial flexibility and very few holes to fill, that strategy seems well suited to the Braves’ needs. Considering Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado are rumored to be Atlanta’s primary trade chips, Wren needs to maximize their return in any trade.

    Carlos Beltran signed a 2-year, 26 million dollar deal with the Cardinals.

    Left Field is the biggest, if not only, hole in the lineup that is a must fill. Carlos Quentin, Carlos Beltran, Josh Willingham and Yonder Alonso were all possible targets that have since either been dealt to or signed with another team.

    Here is a look at some of the off-season moves the Braves DIDN’T make.

    Obviously the prospect price tag wasn’t what kept former White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin from Turner Field. It cost the San Diego Padres nothing more than a potential mid-rotation starter in Simon Castro and a probable LH reliever in Pedro Hernandez to acquire him. The Braves were likely reluctant to give up much in the prospect area for Quentin due to his injury history and pending free agent eligibility next season. Quentin could have been the ideal power bat for the Braves order, but having averaged only 120 games played over the past four seasons, it was too much of a risk.

    Injury concerns were also at play when considering All-Star outfielder, Carlos Beltran, but more than that it was his rumored asking price that was going to be the deal breaker. He eventually signed a 2-year deal worth $26 million with the World Champion St.Louis Cardinals.

    Josh Willingham signed a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal with the Twins

    Atlanta’s chance to acquire free agent Josh Willingham exited stage left when he signed a 3-year $21 million contract with the Minnesota Twins in mid-December. Willingham is coming off a career year, offensively, with 29 HR and 98 RBI in 2011. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider they were put up in the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum. At age 32, his 136 games played were the most since 2007, but at $7 million per season it would seem a perfect fit for what the Braves need. Willingham’s desire for a 3-year deal and his substandard defensive play might have been what kept the Braves away.

    Before the Cincinnati Reds pulled the trigger on a deal for Padres’ RHP Mat Latos, there were rumors they were interested in Jurrjens. Since it seems unlikely the Reds would deal their young shortstop Zack Cozart, the only other logical fit would have been INF/OF Yonder Alonso. A natural first baseman, the same problem of being blocked at that position in Cincinnati would have occurred in Atlanta with Freddie Freeman entrenched at 1B. His potential .290/20+ HR bat would have been a plus in the Braves’ lineup, but a brief 16 game trial period in the outfieldlast season proved unsuccessful.

    Baltimore is looking for a king's ransom for center fielder Adam Jones.

    The Adam Jones rumors seem to have faded as the calendar turns to the New Year. Jones, who hit .280 with 25 HR for Baltimore last season, would have been a nice addition. He is under contract through 2014, and if a deal had been made, Jones could have moved from LF to CF after this season if Atlanta is unable to re-sign center fielder Michael Bourn. But the Baltimore Orioles think a lot of their young center fielder … with the emphasis on a LOT. Atlanta’s front office probably had trouble hiding their laughter after the Orioles reportedly asked for Jurrjens, Prado and two of the Braves top young pitchers.

    Since those non-moves are now in the rear view mirror, BravesWire will next take a look at some deals that could still be done to bolster an offense that ranked #22 in runs scored last season. Keep an eye out for that next week.

    Follow Jim Pratt on Twitter: @2OutSacBunt

    P.S. The Fried Baseball podcast will return spring 2012 with an entirely new feel. More guests, more interviews and more insanity. See ya then!

    If the Braves Reported to Camp Tomorrow…

    By Kent Covington

    Braves remain confident in their current roster, but are hoping for an upgrade.

    As us Braves fans, bloggers and commentators wait patiently impatiently for General Manager, Frank Wren, to upgrade the roster, let’s take a moment to reflect on what’s already here.  What if the Braves reported to camp right now?  What if spring training started tomorrow?

    Here’s the likely opening day roster if it remained mostly unaltered:

    STARTERS:

    T.Hudson

    T.Hanson

    J.Jurrjens

    B.Beachy

    Minor/Teheran/Delgado

     

    RELIEVERS:

    C.Kimbrel (R)

    K.Medlen (R)

    A.Vizcaino (R)

    C.Martinez (R)

    Venters (L)

    O’Flaherty (L)

     

    STARTERS:

    F.Freeman (1B)

    D.Uggla (2B)

    T.Pastornicky (SS)

    C.Jones (3B)

    B.McCann (C)

    M.Prado (LF)

    M.Bourn (CF)

    J.Heyward (RF)

     

    BENCH:

    E.Hinske (1B/LF)

    Ross (C)

    Constanza (OF)

    Diaz (OF)

    unnamed veteran SS/INF

     

    REMAINING QUESTIONS:

    • Will the Braves add another bat?

      RHP, Peter Moylan was non-tendered by the Braves, but could still return to the team.

    • If so, what kind of bat?  Could they broker a deal for a potential everyday impact player… or will they aim for a less costly target, such as Cody Ross?
    • Is Atlanta looking for a situational lefty to replace lhp, George Sherrill, who will depart as a free agent after one year with the club?
    • Will the club bring rhp, Peter Moylan, back?
    • Who will the Braves acquire to back up their rookie starter at shortstop?

    I am convinced that the Braves will find the veteran backup shortstop they seek, even if it happens after the team reports to camp.  I also believe it is more likely than not that the team will add a bat… but who?

    The success of the Braves pitching staff will hinge largely on health.  Before the all star break last season, Jurrjens and Hanson combined to go 22-7 with a 2.14 ERA.  No other pair in baseball put up the kind of numbers “JJ” and Hanson boasted in the first half.  That duo, along with Tim Hudson, formed as effective a trio as there was anywhere in baseball.

    But hampered by shoulder and knee ailments, respectively, Hanson and Jurrjens were non-existent in the second half of the season. After the All-Star break they were a combined 2-6 with a 6.75 ERA.  So again…

    Jurrjens and Hanson:

    Before All-Star break – 22-7, 2.14 ERA

    After All-Star break – 2-6, 6.75 ERA

    If both remain in Atlanta, much will hinge on the health of Hanson/Jurrjens

    Tim Hudson had surgery to address an ailment of his own (herniated disc) over the winter.  He is expected to be ready for spring training, and the Braves don’t seem concerned about him.  That said, he will turn 37 years old during the ’12 season.

    The development and performance of a few young arms will also affect the success of this staff. Can Brandon Beachy build on his impressive ’11 rookie season (7-3, 3.62 ERA, 169 K’s)?  What will the Braves get from their 5th starter (who will likely be the product of a spring competition between rookies Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran)?  And if Jurrjens is traded—he’s been the subject of multiple rumors this winter—the performance of young hurlers will play a tremendous role in the Braves’ 2012 fortunes.

    As for the offense, without a significant upgrade via trade, the Braves will rely heavily on the ability of Martin Prado and Jason Heyward to remain healthy and rebound from disappointing ’11 seasons. They’ll also have to hope Rookie of the Year runner up, Freddie Freeman, fares better in his sophomore campaign than Heyward did last season.  And it certainly wouldn’t hurt if some of rookie shortstop, Tyler Pastornicky’s, offensive success at the AAA level translates to the big leagues.

    Contrary to popular belief, Atlanta COULD compete with Philly in the East and earn another postseason berth without any noteworthy alterations.  The Braves were, after all, just 2.5 games behind the Phillies in July of last season, before injuries effectively sidelined their top two starters for the remainder of the season.  And that was with the horrendous first half of Dan Uggla and no leadoff hitter at the time.

    Consider also that Atlanta led the NL in on-base percentage in 2010 and was 6th in the league in runs scored. After the ’10 season, the Braves upgraded by effectively replacing Troy Glaus and Melky Cabrera in the lineup with Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. Amazingly, despite a substantial upgrade, the offensive numbers actually went down, not up.

    Point being, this offense considerably underperformed in ’11.  That’s why Larry Parrish’s first year as Hitting Coach in Atlanta was his ONLY year as Hitting Coach in Atlanta (not that he shoulders all the blame).  This lineup is capable of much more than it showed last season.

    If the team reported to camp tomorrow, this would be a ballclub CAPABLE of competing at the highest level.  HOWEVER, if the roster remains largely as is, Atlanta’s chances will be qualified by a lot of “Ifs”.  IF the Braves’ “big 3” of Jurrjens, Hanson & Hudson can remain healthy. IF Prado stays healthy and returns to ’10 All-Star form.  IF Heyward can avoid injury an fulfill his potential of over the course of a full season.

    The Braves can compete with their current complement of talent. But, obviously, the more talent they add, the more margin for error (or injury) they’ll enjoy… and the less they’ll be forced to rely upon good fortune.

    Either way, IF Lady Luck smiles upon the Braves in ’12, they could be among the best teams in baseball next season. There is ample cause for concern, but there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

    P.S. The Fried Baseball podcast will return in early 2012 with an entirely new feel. More guests, more interviews and more insanity. See ya then!

     

     

    Frank Wren: The best in the business?

    Braves General Manager, Frank Wren

    By Kent Covington

    As the Braves survey the marketplace for potential trades and roster upgrades, they do so from a position of strength. That strength comes not only from their bounty of bargaining chips—few teams are as well stocked with young talent—but also from the competence of their front office.

    Atlanta Braves General Manager, Frank Wren, is quite simply one of the best in the business.

    Just a few short years into his tenure as Deal-Maker-In-Chief, he already deserves credit for a series of remarkably canny trades. (I’m sure significant credit belongs also to his inner circle of scouts and assistants, but for our purposes, we’ll consider them part of the Frank Wren collective.)

    Among Wren’s trade credits:

    •   Jair Jurrjens , Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria
    •   Omar Infante, Will Ohman for Jose Ascanio
    •   Javier Vazquez, Boone Logan for 4 prospects
    •   Nate McLouth for Charlie Morton and 2 prospects
    •   Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Dunn, Melky Cabrera for Javier Vazquez
    •   Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Pastornicky for Yunel Escobar
    •   Dan Uggla for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn
    •   Michael Bourn for Jordan Schafer & 3 prospects

    Only one of the trades listed above still draws widespread criticism. That trade is, of course, the ill fated deal that brought Nate McLouth to Atlanta. But ill fated is not the same thing as ill conceived. The McLouth exchange didn’t work out for the Braves. No debating that. But just because a particular trade doesn’t pan out doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision at the time. Many were skeptical that Nate would ever duplicate his ‘08 all-star stats, but there was no reason to anticipate a complete bust. At the time of his trade to Atlanta, McLouth was, after all, fresh off a season in which he was one of the top few players in the game at his position (It’s true. Check the stats.) The Braves needed a center fielder, and Wren swooped in and grabbed McLouth from Pittsburgh before most general managers had any idea he was even available. He deserved kudos for swinging that deal, regardless of the outcome.

    A few have also complained about Wren’s decision to unload talented shortstop, Yunel Escobar, to the Toronto Blue Jays in ‘10, but it’s simply too early to judge that move. The Braves acquired their likely ’12 opening day SS, Tyler Pastornicky, in that deal.

    OF, Michael Bourn--traded to ATL in July 2011

    The success of all other trades listed above speaks for itself.

    Even a couple of Wren’s seemingly less fruitful trades were more beneficial than many realize. Take the Vizcaino/Dunn/Cabrera—for—Vazquez deal for instance. Remember that Mike Dunn was one half (along with Omar Infante) of the package later sent to South Beach for Dan Uggla, while Vizcaino is expected to pitch in a Braves uniform for many years to come.

    And just as impressive as the deals he has brokered… are the trades he did NOT make. Wren has fielded countless calls from fellow GM’s over the past few years asking about Atlanta’s young arms and other top tier prospects. Those conversations were generally very short.

    Even after the promotion of Rookie of the Year candidates, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Johnny Venters, Brandon Beachy and Craig Kimbrel (who won the ROY award this year) over the past couple of years, Atlanta’s farm system remains one of the deepest in baseball.

    This is a credit to Wren’s restraint. He doesn’t panic when division rivals ink superstars to gaudy free agent contracts.  He doesn’t act out of desperation and sell the farm to respond with a short-sighted blockbuster trade. He sticks to the plan. He plays the long game. He’ll make every effort to strengthen the roster immediately, but he won’t mortgage the future to do it. Wren has jealously guarded the team’s young arms and core prospects, preferring instead to deal from the Major League roster.

    The trade that brought 2B, Dan Uggla, to Atlanta is a perfect example. O.Infante and M.Dunn were sent to Florida; no minor league talent included. And while the Braves did exchange minor league talent for OF, Michael Bourn, all players traded to Houston were considered second-tier prospects from Atlanta’s perspective.

    Braves refused to part with RHP phenom, Julio Teheran and other top young arms

    Many critics will be quick to point out the free agent contracts given to Atlanta flameouts, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami. It’s true that those signings were, by any measure, miserable flops. However, to the best of my knowledge, no general manager has Ms. Cleo on speed dial. That is to say, no one knows what fortunes lie ahead. GM’s must make the best possible decision with the facts in hand.

    Heading into the 2009 season, Atlanta had cash to spend, but limited free agent options. Kenshin Kawakami was a measured gamble at a point in time when I would argue it made sense to roll the dice. And while 23 million over 3 years is an unthinkable fortune to us common folk, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster contract by modern MLB standards. The risk was tolerable. And it’s worth noting that Kawakami actually earned his keep through the first year of that deal.

    As for Derek Lowe… Who could have predicted that one of the most consistent starters in baseball would suddenly become the poster boy for maddening inconsistency? Again, the Braves had money to spend, and they desperately needed a reliable veteran anchor atop the rotation. Lowe seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Sensible move at the time. Sometimes even the best of bets fall flat.

    Speaking of free agents, while financial constraints have limited the Braves to addressing needs solely by way of trade over the past three seasons, that should change next winter. With several of Atlanta’s largest contracts expiring at the conclusion of the ‘12 season, Wren and Co. may be legitimate players in the free agent market come this time next year.

    But of course, the Braves don’t want to wait for next year. They want to compete THIS season. And rest assured, the front office is busy. I understand the impatience of many Atlanta fans. In fact, I share it. But don’t mistake inactivity for inaction. Wren is the assertive type, and he will turn over every rock to try and find a deal(s) that makes sense.

    The Braves have made it clear that any significant upgrade this winter will likely come by way of trade. And really… how many big trades have there been so far? Most of the headlines have been grabbed by free agent signings. The trade market should heat up soon, and Wren will be right in the middle of it, bartering hard.

    It’s comforting to know that the Braves’ front office won’t swallow a bad deal, just so they can say they made one. But I suspect that, one way or the other, this team and this general manager will find a way to upgrade before the winter comes to an end.

    Have faith. These folks know what they’re doing.

    Even with a modest mid-market payroll, Frank Wren has the Braves back in the playoff picture while simultaneously positioning this team to contend for many years to come. I don’t think Braves fans could ask for much more than that.

    PS:  The Fried Baseball podcast will return in early 2012 with an entirely new feel. More guests, more interviews and more insanity. See ya then!

     

     

    What went wrong… no peace I find

    Editor’s Note: BravesWire.com contributor, former sports writer and lifelong Braves fan Bud L. Ellis has seen it all since attending his first Braves’ game in 1979 … but nothing like the collapse that cost the Braves the 2011 NL Wild Card. At Turner Field for the final game of the season Wednesday, Ellis shares his thoughts on what happened, and how things went terribly wrong.

    By Bud L. Ellis
    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The ball slammed into the first baseman’s mitt at 11:42 p.m., and Freddie Freeman reached for his batting helmet. The Atlanta Braves’ rookie, out by at step on the final play of a season turned upside down, slammed his headgear toward the Turner Field baseline.

    Freeman dropped into a crouch behind the bag, as a roaring crowd of 45,350 turned deathly quiet. An hour earlier, the Braves stood two outs away from extending their season to a 163rd game, a one-game playoff against the white-hot St. Louis Cardinals for the National League wild card, the playoff spot the Braves firmly gripped with both hands just four short weeks earlier.

    Braves first baseman, Freddie Freeman

    At 18 minutes before midnight, the final bell rang on the Braves’ 2011 season, ending a collapse never experienced before in the sometimes-proud, sometimes-putrid 130-year history of the franchise. Ahead in the NL wild-card standings by 8 1/2 games on Labor Day, the Braves finished one game behind St. Louis, an epic fall that shook every nook and cranny of Braves Nation to its very core.

    Seated in the front row of the terrace level at Turner Field, I sat quietly for close to five minutes before accepting the fact my offseason had started. As I slowly made my way toward the parking lot, toward a winter of discontent, the baritone sounds of Ray Charles, “Georgia On My Mind” played over the loudspeakers.

    As a Braves fan for the past 32 years, and as a sports writer for more than a decade, the baseball season defines my year. And this year crashed around me, the final piece landing with a thud right in front of my dazed eyes. Some 23 hours later, I sat in my home office, a room adorned with Braves’ items of all shapes, sizes and creation. It’s the room where I watch close to 150 games a year. The ones I don’t see from here, I see with my own two eyes in person.

    Trying to comprehend the most difficult month of my baseball life, I turned to the only therapy this Scribe knows.

    I started to write …

    Winds of Change

    As the Braves flew out of Chicago on Aug. 25 toward New York City, Atlanta sat 26 games over .500 at 79-53, and led the NL wild-card race by 9 ½ games over defending World Series champion San Francisco. The day’s 8-3 victory certainly was noteworthy, Atlanta’s seventh victory in eight games. But while the Braves worked their way toward The City That Never Sleeps, hundreds of thousands fled in the opposite direction.

    Hurricane Irene was working its way north along the Southeast Coast. The Big Apple sat squarely in the monster storm’s sights. Several Major League games for the weekend already had been postponed by the time many of the Braves left their Manhattan hotel for Citi Field and Friday’s series opener with the Mets. Upon arriving, they learned the final two games of the series were being moved to Sept. 8, an off day for both teams.

    Atlanta never looked interested in that night’s 6-0 loss, and one certainly could understand. The Braves jumped on their charter and flew safely home while the nation held its breath. As it turned out, Irene weakened considerably before lashing its way ashore in New England. The feared flooding of America’s largest city didn’t happen; the devastation instead reserved for areas farther inland where torrential rains spilled rivers into houses and businesses throughout the Northeast.

    In the grand scheme of things, in things that really matter, a hurricane outweighs the championship pursuit of a baseball team. But with a sudden August weekend away from the diamond, coupled with a scheduled off day Monday, the hottest team in baseball found itself with what amounted to a second All-Star break in as many months.

    In hindsight, the Braves never were the same. The team that flew into the storm’s path was on a 96-win pace.

    It would win just 10 more times the rest of the season.

    A Stacked Deck

    Any Braves fan who peeked at the 2011 schedule when it was published last September circled the first full week of the season’s final month as one worth watching. A difficult six-game road trip loomed, with three games in Philadelphia and three in St. Louis. At least an off day on Thursday, Sept. 8, broke up the stretch.

    But that date would be filled with baseball, a double-dip, the two makeup games from Irene. Atlanta had lost six of nine after the break, arriving in New York for the doubleheader after being swept by Philly. But with 20 games to go, Atlanta led the Cardinals by 6 ½ games in the wild-card race, and a doubleheader sweep of the Mets calmed any jitters Braves Nation felt entering a weekend set under the Gateway Arch.

    Then came the game that many will point to for years to come as the one that triggered the slide toward early winter. Michael Bourn, the speedy center fielder whose acquisition at the trade deadline vaulted the Braves into the conversation as a serious World Series contender, tripled in the top of the ninth (his fourth hit of the night) to drive in a run, giving Atlanta a 3-1 lead.

    On came Craig Kimbrel, the rookie closer who had converted 43-of-47 save opportunities. The flame-throwing righty had not allowed an earned run in 37 2/3 innings, locking down 25 consecutive save chances. But not on this night. Kimbrel couldn’t hold a two-run lead, allowing a pair of runs in a game the Braves eventually lost in extra innings.

    Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    The Cardinals took advantage, sweeping the series to pull within 4 ½ games. While it’s unfair to pin the entire month of September on a player who set a major-league record for saves by a rookie, the fact remains if the Cardinals don’t push across two runs in that fateful bottom of the ninth, Atlanta would have left St. Louis with no worse than a 6 ½ game lead. With their boot on the Cardinals’ neck, the Braves couldn’t deliver the crushing knockout blow.

    The failure to do so would prove fatal to Atlanta in the end.

    Pressure Cooker

    As disturbing as the St. Louis series was, in immediate review it wasn’t cause for full-fledged panic. The math dictated the Braves still were fine. With 15 games left, Atlanta had a magic number of 12 to clinch its second consecutive wild-card berth. With the Marlins and Mets waiting at Turner Field, the Braves left the Midwest with plenty of reason to be optimistic.

    And yet, chinks in the armor had started to show. The once-unshakable bullpen showed signs of wear. Atlanta would lead all of the majors in extra-inning games. More than one-third of its games would end up being decided by one run. All those phone calls from first-year Braves’ skipper Fredi Gonzalez to the big three of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Kimbrel were starting to resonate.

    As the Cardinals refused to go away – St. Louis would finish September 18-8 and win 11 of its final 15 – and the close games and pressure continued to mount, the Braves drew tighter. Eight of Atlanta’s final 17 games were decided by two runs or less. The team’s average with runners in scoring position plummeted. The players who helped carry Atlanta into the NL Division Series last season – a tense four-game loss to the eventual champion Giants that featured four games decided by one run – were unable to do what they had done all summer.

    The Braves went 17-9 in June and in August, 16-11 in July. September was a horror show that played out amid an unfathomable barrage of shaky relief, short outings from the starting rotation and the inability to drive in runners on base. All of a sudden, the Braves looked like an also-ran, not a playoff powerhouse. Atlanta would win just nine of 27 games in the season’s final month. The Braves split that six-game homestand against Florida and New York, then dropped two out of three in Florida.

    At the most critical time of the season, the Braves had played their worst baseball of the season. Panic started to set in among Braves Nation.

    Extra Agony

    As the sun rose on Sept. 22, the Braves’ once unconquerable wild-card lead stood at a shaky 1 ½ games. With a day off before opening a three-game set in Washington, Atlanta and its fans stood in awe as the Cardinals’ momentum imploded. Leading 6-2 after eight innings at home, St. Louis allowed six runs in the top of the ninth to the Mets. Now two games ahead, the Braves took full advantage the next night, jumping on Washington in the series opener for a 7-4 victory while the Cardinals fell to the Cubs 5-1.

    The lead stood at three games. The magic number to clinch also stood at three. Order had been restored, and Braves Nation breathed a sigh of relief. But baseball is a cruel mistress, one that will turn her back on you at the drop of a hat. Atlanta dropped the final two games in Washington, then returned home and lost two in a row to Philadelphia. At the same time St. Louis won three of its next four, drawing even in the standings with one game to go.

    Lowe's struggles played a large role in Braves collapse

    Game No. 162 arrived, and the faithful denizens of Braves Nation filled Turner Field, shaking the stadium the way the original Tomahawk Choppers made Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium one of pro sports’ most intimidating venues two decades earlier. Atlanta jumped to a 3-1 lead on Dan Uggla’s homer in the third. When the Cardinals batted around in Houston in the first inning, it appeared the two teams were on a collision course for a one-game playoff the next night.

    But the final game of the regular season turned out to be a perfect microcosm of Atlanta’s September stumble. The Braves would not score again after Uggla’s third-inning blast. The Phillies drew within one on Jack Wilson’s error in the seventh. And while Venters escaped a mess in the eighth, Kimbrel could not do so in the ninth. Two outs from heading to St. Louis, the Braves gave up the tying run.

    When the 13th inning dawned, the end felt near. Atlanta had spent the past 10 innings swinging for the fences, coming up empty. Sure enough, a bleeder to right by Hunter Pence plated the eventual winning run. Uggla reached with one out in the home half, but Freeman’s shot to first was corralled, starting the season-ending double play that slapped Braves Nation across the face like a cold shot of wind from the north.

    Winter arrived far too soon. And in the front row of Section 223, a 38-year-old father of two who thought he’d seen it all the past 32 years bowed his head in agony.

    “No Peace I Find”

    Had you descended from some distant planet in the fall of 1999 and landed next to me in the overflow press seating in the left-field stands of Turner Field, you might think it always was like this. Covering the World Series for a suburban Atlanta newspaper that October, I still remember thinking just how surreal it seemed to be watching the Braves – a team I grew up cheering for despite multiple 90-loss seasons, last-place finishes and just two playoff appearances from 1966-1990 – play for baseball’s biggest prize.

    Atlanta reached the Fall Classic five times in the 1990s. I was blessed to see the Braves win it all in person in 1995. I was cursed to see the final three games at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the next October, three losses to the Yankees after the Braves escaped from New York with a 2-0 Series lead. By 1999, playing for it all seemed old hat to many.

    But not to me. I remember 1983, the year the Braves led the NL West by 6 ½ games in mid-August only to lost 27 of its final 44 games to finish two games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. I remember the brutal years of the mid and late 1980s, when Atlanta finished last five times in six years in the West while Bobby Cox rebuilt the farm system. I remember the feeling of watching a second consecutive World Series title slip away in 1996.

    And yet, nothing seems to fit what I’ve watched the past month. The Braves’ collapse of 2011 was simultaneously slow and sudden. A jarring hit, followed by the reassurance the lead was big enough, the calendar was short enough, to keep the unthinkable from happening. But the Cardinals kept winning, the Braves kept losing, and just enough time remained on the stopwatch for the door to slam on the fingers of the Braves and its saddened, stunned fan base.

    Similar circumstances would wreck some franchises. There would be knee-jerk reactions, firings and trades driven by pure, raw emotion. One point of solace to take from this is the Braves will not engage in such behavior. Certainly, there are hard questions to ask and, yes, fingers to point, after 2011 turned so sour after such a sweet summer.

    But the team that finds itself packing up its lockers and heading home is a good squad, with a good mix of veterans and youngsters primed for future success. One can only hope the lessons learned will resonate from this lost opportunity will resonate throughout 2012 and beyond. But that doesn’t heal the gaping wound that festers and oozes at the moment.

    The worst part of this didn’t come with the final out, or the 50-mile drive home in silence, or 90 minutes of far from restful sleep. It came with dawn’s early light, in telling two young boys their favorite baseball team couldn’t come through when we needed it most. And as I hugged my two sons and tried to explain what happened, I thought back to the lyrics Ray Charles sang as Braves Nation trudged out of Turner Field a few hours earlier:

    “No peace, no peace I find.”

    —30—

    Follow Bud L. Ellis on Twitter: @bud006

    The Braves’ 5 critical keys

    by Kent Covington

    So… how ‘bout that road trip?!

    As I watched the Cardinals take a 5-0 lead in route to sticking the Braves with their second sweep in a week’s time, I fully expected to hear Jigsaw’s voice in my living room (for those of you who didn’t get that reference, please Google the terms “Saw”and “torture”).  Fortunately, I didn’t have to saw off my foot to reach the remote.  It might have been a difficult choice, had I been faced with it.

    Braves' highest paid player, Derek Lowe, is just 9-14 with a 4.70 ERA


    The bad news:
    Atlanta’s once mighty Wild Card lead has been cut in half to 4.5 games entering play against the Marlins at Turner Field Monday night.  First-half ace, Jair Jurrjens, may very well be out for the remainder of the season.  Tommy Hanson is still on the shelf.  Martin Prado and Jason Heyward continue to look like poor imitations of themselves.  Johnny Venters may finally be showing the wear and tear of two years of inexorable overuse.  Derek Lowe, after providing Braves fans with a brief swell of optimism, has reminded us that he cannot be wagered upon. And the veteran leader of the staff, Tim Hudson, who had been brilliant nearly all year, has looked lately as though he’s drinking from the same water fountain (or keg spout) as Lowe.

    The good news: The Braves still have a 4.5 game lead in the Wild Card race, which at this point in the season is substantial.  They have only 3 games remaining against a winning team (3-game set at home against the Phillies to close the season).  They also have a few weeks to get their **** together before they begin postseason play, assuming they’re able to find a foothold on the side of this cliff they’ve been sliding down recently.

    While it is not the all-but-over race it appeared to be a week ago, I still believe the Braves will repeat as NL Wild winners.  However, if the Braves once again limp into the playoffs, playing their worst baseball since April… will it matter?  I doubt a repeat of last year’s postseason script will do much for Braves fans.

    With that in mind, what are the keys if the Braves are to not only lock down a postseason berth, but compete for something that matters when they get there?

    What to watch…  the Braves 5 critical keys (in no particular order):

    •  Tommy Hanson:  A healthy Tommy Hanson is a MUST for the postseason.  It’s important that he’s not only healthy by the end of September, but also that he’s able to make multiple starts in preparation for the NLDS.
    • Tim Hudson:  The Braves desperately need him to find the handle and regain his command.  He must be the anchor for this injury plagued pitching staff.
    • Derek Lowe:  Lowe reminded us last September/October that he is capable of earning at least some of that ridiculous paycheck of his.  And that ability could not have entirely vanished in a year’s time.  He’s capable, but woefully unreliable. The Braves will just have to hope and pray for the best when he takes the hill.
    • Johnny Venters:  Worn out?  Venters clearly has not been the light’s out super-setup man lately that he was most of the season.  The back-end of the Braves’ bullpen has been a mainstay all year long. Needless to say, Venters is a huge part of that.
    • Martin Prado:  The production that made him what many believed to be the team’s MVP in ’10 has been sorely missed this season. There is still time for Prado to iron out the wrinkles.

     

    Kimbrel on the verge of ANOTHER big league record

    By Kent Covington

    On August 31, 2011, Atlanta Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel, chiseled his name into the history books when struck out Washington’s Michael Morse on a 100-mph heater to set a new rookie saves record (41).  What must it have felt like for the rookie to not only break the saves record before September 1,  but to then get a phone call from the Hall of Fame?  “Hall” officials asked him to donate the spikes he wore during his record-breaking performance, and of  course, he gladly granted their request.

    Now, just a week after shipping his shoes to Cooperstown, Kimbrel may once again be on the verge of making history.

    Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    Turn back the clock to June 11th of this year.  The Braves were playing the second game of a 4-game set at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Kimbrel was called upon in a non-save situation to pitch the bottom of the 10th inning after the Braves had taken a 6-2 lead.  Astros outfielder,  Carlos Lee, hooked a Kimbrel offering into the left field corner, doubling home Hunter Pence.

    That would be the last time anyone would score on Craig Kimbrel for at least 12 weeks.

    Kimbrel has now pitched a remarkable 37 and 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.  He’s got to be zeroing in on some sort of record with a streak like that, right?  Indeed he is.

    The record for most consecutive scoreless innings in relief is 39.  It was set by Cleveland Indians relief pitcher, Al Benton, in 1949 and tied by Oakland reliever, Brad Ziegler, in 2008.

    If Kimbrel can record another 1 and 2/3 innings without yielding a run, he will break the second noteworthy Major League record of his extraordinary rookie season.

    Just as impressive as his streak of 113 scoreless outs is the manner in which he’s recorded them.  It could be argued that there has never been a 12-week stretch of dominance like this by a reliever in the history of the game.  In fact, I can’t imagine how anyone could argue otherwise.  Have a peek at these numbers:

    Inn R H BB SO
    36.2 0 8 8 64

    For comparison, over the first 37 innings of Ziegler’s scoreless innings streak in ’08, Zielgler allowed 20 hits and 11 walks, while striking out 17 batters.

    Kimbrel is, by all accounts, a down to earth, mild mannered kid.  Ironic, given that everything he accomplishes on the field is punctuated with such flair.  It’s not enough to break the rookie saves record… he breaks it with a month left in the season.  It’s not enough to shut hitters down for 37+ straight innings… he has to make them look bad in the process.

    Even if Kimbrel fails to pass Benton and Ziegler in the record books this month, it matters not.  This will still be the single greatest season ever turned in by a rookie reliever, and it will almost certainly be recognized with NL Rookie of the Year honors.

    Will the Braves closer break a second MLB record in the span of 2 weeks?  We’ll have to wait and see.  Either way, enjoy what’s left of this kid’s first big league campaign.  Because it’s safe to say,  Kimbrel’s epic rookie season is history in the making.

    Game on! And… game over

    By Kent Covington

    Jair Jurrjens will take the ball for game-1 of the series Tuesday night

    After an unexpected 3-day vacation, courtesy of Hurricane Irene, the Braves return to action tonight to take on the perennially losing—yet somehow fearsome—Washington Nationals at Turner Field.

    The bad news: The Nationals have been a thorn in the Braves’ side. To Atlanta, the Nats are more irritating than a screaming kid in a restaurant; the guy in front of you on the freeway whose phone call is apparently much more interesting than driving; giggling teens in a movie theater; text spam; a shopping cart left in the middle of the only vacant parking space, and… well, you get the point. They’re annoying. In recent years, it seems the Nats have saved their best baseball for Atlanta, making nearly every contest anything but an easy win—if a win at all.

    The good news: It doesn’t matter.

    The Braves currently hold a 9-game lead in the NL Wild Card race (10 games in the loss column) over the second place San Francisco Giants.

    If the Braves were to go just 15-14 in their remaining 29 games, they would finish the season with a 94-68 record.  The Giants would have to play .852 baseball (23-4) from here out just to force a 1-game playoff for the Wild Card berth.  That assumes the NL West leading Arizona Diamondbacks would be able stave off the Gaints in the division race, which in this hypothetical scenario, would force them to play .704 ball (19-8) the rest of the way.

    Baseball Prospectus currently places the Braves’ likelihood of winning the NL Wild Card at 95%. I gotta tell ya… from where I’m sitting, that seems low.

    On the other hand, Atlanta’s odds of overtaking the first place Philadelphia Phillies for the NL East pennant are, unfortunately, almost as anorexic.

    Bottom line: It’s over. The Braves will repeat as NL Wild Card winners. The Phillies will win the East. And it appears the sizzling hot Milwaukee Brewers can now coast into the winner’s circle with the NL Central pennant. The only remaining question in the National League is who will come out of the West.  However, that race could also be decided with nearly a month left in the season if the Giants don’t find their groove quickly (they currently trail the D-Backs by 5 games).

    So boys and girls, while the Nationals seem to relish their role as tomahawk tormentors, they won’t have the pleasure now. Even if they win this midweek series, they can’t play spoiler. This time, the Nationals—and every other opponent from now until game-1 of the NLDS in Milwaukee—will be seen as only one thing to the Braves… practice squad.

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