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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Stock Watch: Nate McLouth and Other Surprises

Spring Training Stock Watch:

The Atlanta Braves currently have a 7-4-1 record this spring and appear to be rounding into shape for Opening Day. Chipper is back at third, Uggla is in town and Freddie and Jason are providing plenty of excitement.

Although Spring Training stats are meaningless, they can help determine which players will be the last couple men on the 25 man roster when the Braves face the Nationals to kick off the season.

Here are some of the guys who have improved or hurt their chances of breaking camp with Atlanta.

Stock Up:

Nate McLouthAfter a dismal season in 2010 (I would write the full stat line but why point out any more than he hit under .200 and was sent to the minors at one point), McLouth looks to be the weakest member of the Braves lineup. However, he has shown signs this spring that he may be playing more like he was still in Pittsburgh.

In 15 at-bats, he has more hits (7) than he did all of last spring (6) and is getting on base at a .636 rate. With a homerun and stolen base as well, McLouth is showing that he may still be a key part of the lineup as the Braves look to challenge the Phillies in the NL East.

Freddie Freeman – Freeman has had the first base job since the end of last season, but it’s reassuring to see the young slugger hitting his way through the Grapefruit League. With a .458 batting average (that includes three doubles) Freeman has proven everyone right so far and left no doubt about who should be starting at first base.

Ed Lucas – Lucas came into camp with an outside shot to snatch a utility role on the Braves bench, and has increased his chances greatly with a strong performance this spring. With seven hits in just 16 at-bats, Lucas has shown he may add value on offense while being a Swiss army knife on the bench.

Lucas can play all four infield positions and has experience at all three outfield spots (although he isn’t exceptionally gifted at any position) and has worked his way into a battle with Diory Hernandez and Brandon Hicks for one of the final bench spots.

Brandon Beachy – After his breakout season last year, Beachy was on everyone’s radar, but most people figured Mike Minor would run away with the fifth spot in the starting rotation. While Minor has been good (1.80 ERA), Beachy has been the more impressive hurler thus far.

Although his ERA is twice Minor’s Beachy has struck out seven batters while walking none in five innings, showing continued command and the ability to keep batters off base. As Beachy and Minor get stretched out and pitch more than a couple innings per start, the battle should heat up.

Christian Martinez – The forgotten man in last year’s bullpen, Martinez has pitched well this spring and could land himself the long reliever role. Third on the team with 5.2 innings pitched to date, Martinez hasn’t allowed a run while striking out six and walking just one.

If he can continue to pound the strike zone and keep runners off base (just three total have reached so far), Martinez could be there for the Braves when a started falters early in the game.

Stock Down:

Jordan Schafer – Due to Nate McLouth’s struggles, Schafer has been given seemingly every opportunity to win the fourth outfielder job despite his bad performances since his wrist injury in 2009.

While McLouth has been stellar this spring, Schafer is hitting just .214 in 28 at-bats (although he has stolen a pair of bases) and has walked only once. The Braves obviously think Schafer can still live up to the high expectations once placed upon him, but it’s looking like he will have to begin 2011 in the minors trying to find his swing.

Joe Mather – Mather had about an even shot of winning a bench role on this year’s team, but has been outplayed thus far by some other fringe roster candidates. He has just three hits in 19 at-bats and has made an error in the field.

Earlier this spring he was compared to Jayson Werth (for his size, not his hitting ability, but still) but he hasn’t come anywhere close to producing like Werth in Spring Training.

Brooks Conrad – The hits keep coming for Conrad. After some critical errors in the NLDS, Conrad came into 2011 looking for a fresh start on the Braves bench. However, he has struggled this spring and might not get that chance.

He already made an error in the field, but that’s to be expected. What wasn’t expected are his struggles at the plate, where he has just two hits in 16 at-bats and has whiffed five times. If he can’t be an above average offensive bench player, the Braves would be wise to leave him in the minors.

Scott Proctor – Last year Proctor was supposed to finish his rehab and join Atlanta to give them a veteran presence in the bullpen. Things didn’t go according to plan, as Proctor struggled in the minors and the majors with the Braves.

However, he got a new contract with the hope that he could fill a bullpen spot with some quality innings. His struggles have continued this spring, as proctor has a 6.75 ERA and has walked four batters in four innings thus far.

Old Relievers – This group consists of the Braves veterans in the pen: Peter Moylan, Scott Linebrink and George Sherril. All three have struggled early in Spring Training but are essentially guaranteed a spot on the roster.

Sherril is coming off a terrible year and Linebrink and Moylan weren’t as good in 2010 as previous years, so hopefully they are just shaking off some rust. If not, the Braves young relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are sure to be worked early and often should they be the only reliable options in the pen.

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2011 NL East Preview: Catcher Power Rankings

As we head toward the start of the 2011 MLB season, it’s time to start previewing the NL East.

Instead of just giving a projection for each team, I’ll rank all of the projected starters at every position, leading up to the final predictions.

The catchers are up first, and as with the division in general, the Braves and Phillies are battling for the top spot. Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz were 1-2 in the National League in WAR for catchers this past season (and Ruiz actually had a higher wOBA), but who will perform better in 2011?

The WAR data used is from FanGraphs and all 2011 projections are from Bill James (via FanGraphs)

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Atlanta Braves Must Wait on Long-Term Extensions with Dan Uggla Locked Up

When the Atlanta Braves signed Dan Uggla to a five-year, $62 million contract they locked up one of baseball’s best right-handed power hitters.

While I would have liked a slightly shorter deal (three or four years) I understand the Braves probably didn’t have that option. As a consistent 30-plus-homer second baseman, Uggla could easily demand a four-year contract once he became a free agent.

Although Jason Heyward is coming off a stellar rookie season and Freddie Freeman will be starting at first base in 2011, they are both left-handed (as is Brian McCann and the more powerful side of Chipper Jones) so the Braves sorely needed some power from the other side.

Uggla could have been a one-year stopgap but the Braves don’t have any right-handed impact bats that are close to the majors at this point.

Whether Uggla drops off or not, the Braves did a nice job to sign him long term, and even if he isn’t as prolific of a slugger at the end of the deal, he should be able to perform up to his contract overall.

To me, the biggest drawback of the Uggla extension is that the Braves must wait a little longer to lock up some of their young talent long term.

The first two names that come to mind are Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Jurrjens will be the first one to hit free agency and is a key part of the Braves rotation even coming off a rough year.

Hanson is arguably the best starter on the Braves and probably is the most important piece that the Braves need to think of securing soon. While they have a ton of pitching depth in the minors, Hanson could eventually serve as a veteran presence to younger guys like Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado.

Not long after, extensions for Heyward and Freeman will come up. They are both future offensive juggernauts that could carry the Braves lineup for years (similar to Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez on the Colorado Rockies) if given the chance.

Chipper Jones is technically secured through 2012 (with a vesting option for 2013) although many speculate that 2011 will be his last big league season. Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson also have contracts that run through 2012, so it looks like it will be a couple years before the Braves have a lot of money to lock players up long term.

If the Braves don’t extend any young players soon, it isn’t because they don’t have them in their long term plans, but likely because they won’t have much money available until the 2012 season comes to an end.

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Chipper Jones: What the Atlanta Braves Can Expect in 2011

When Chipper Jones tore his ACL (for the second time in his career) in 2010, many (including myself) thought he would hang up his spikes for good and go down as one of the best switch hitters of all time.

But Chipper wasn’t going to leave the game until he could do so on his own terms, even if it meant a grueling recovery and playing for a manger other than Bobby Cox for the first time in his career.

When 2011 kicks off, Braves fans can expect to see Chipper playing third base and probably hitting out of the three spot in the lineup the way he has for over a decade.

But what should we expect from Chipper in 2011?

Before we get to stats, Chipper’s health needs to be brought up. Even before he tore his ACL, Chipper was accustomed to spending time on the disabled list. He hasn’t played 150 games since 2003 and has played more than 140 just once since then.

Even if he can fully recover from his torn ACL and avoid any future setbacks, Chipper will be spending some time on the DL in 2011.

I’ll set the under/over on how many games Chipper plays in 2011 at 120. Over the past seven years, he has average 122 so I think it’s a fair starting point.

Fredi Gonzalez has to be aware of Chipper’s health problems, and even if he were to avoid the DL all season he likely wouldn’t reach 150 games. Nagging injuries that could force him to miss a day or two will likely develop and he will probably get plenty of off days to try and keep him healthy.

Health aside, what kind of production can we expect from Chipper?

Since winning the batting title in 2008, Chipper’s offensive game has declined a lot. Not only is he no longer capable of providing plus power, he has hit .265 and .264 in the past two seasons. Granted, some of that probably has to do with bad luck (his BABIP in both years is over 20 points below his career average), but Chipper likely won’t hit as high as his .306 career average.

All that said, he still kept his on base percentage above .380, so he will have some value to the team even if his average continues to fall.

Power is another issue. Chipper slugged a career low .426 in 2010. He hasn’t hit 30 homers since 2004 and likely won’t approach that number this year even if healthy. In 2010 (granted, it was in limited playing time) he hit only 10 long balls.

There is, however, hope that Chipper will regain some of his form and help provide the Braves with some offense in 2011. From June 11 until his season ended on Aug. 10 (a two month period), Chipper produced a .307/.387/.520 slash line with seven homeruns and 24 RBI.

Chipper was off to an incredibly slow start, but looked like his old self before getting hurt. If he can avoid a slow start again in 2011, he could be a very productive third baseman when healthy.

Bill James predicts that Chipper will produce a .288/.401/.481 slash line with 17 homeruns and 66 RBI in 119 games next season, and I think his assessment is pretty good.

With a line like that, he wouldn’t be the Chipper of old, but would give the Braves a good on-base presence before Brian McCann and Dan Uggla while provide some pop.

My Prediction for 2010: 120 games, .290/.410/.490, 20 homeruns and 75 RBI

Think that I’m being overly optimistic or not seeing a huge resurgence coming? Let me know what your prediction is in the comments.

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MLB Robbery of the Year: Jason Heyward Should Have Won the 2010 NL ROY Award

I waited a day before writing this.

The second I saw that Buster Posey won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, I wanted to write about why Jason Heyward should have won, but I waited a day to see if it was just an impulsive reaction to my favorite player just missing out.

It’s not. Jason Heyward should have won the 2010 Rookie of the Year Award.

I’m not trying to take anything away from Buster Posey.

He had a great season, was an integral part of the Giants winning the World Series and is the best young catcher in the game. But Heyward was better.

On the surface, Posey looks like a good choice over Heyward. He finished the year with a higher OPS and batting average than the Braves rookie. Although Posey played in fewer games, he matched Heyward’s homerun total.

What voters seemingly failed to realize, is that we live in an age where there is a deeper understanding of how well a player performs, and stats like WAR, OPS+ and Win Probability Added can measure a players performance better than what you find on the back of a baseball card.

I’ll start off with OPS+. 

When Heyward’s astonishing OBP from this past season is brought up, many have pointed to the fact that Posey finished the season with a higher OPS than Heyward. But with all the advanced statistical measures available today we can use OPS+, which includes ballpark factors to help decide who the better hitter was. Heyward beats Posey in OPS+ (131 to 129), so if they played on the same team, it’s likely that Heyward would have ended up with the better OPS, and actually had the better offensive season.

Secondly, I’ll get into Win Probability Added. As any fan watching a game knows; all homeruns aren’t created equal. A solo shot in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth is much more important to someone’s team than a solo shot in when leading by 10 runs.

Heyward absolutely dominated Posey in Win Probability Added this past season. In total, Heyward finished with a WPA of 4.82, more than three times as much as Posey’s 1.09. In other words: Heyward, who using OPS+ was the better hitter, got his hits when it mattered more to his team.

Finally, we’ll look at WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. This stat essentially tells how many more wins a team got with a certain player than it would have with a replacement level (AAA or unsigned free agent) player.

One reason that I like WAR in this situation, is that when Fangraphs calculates WAR, they have a positional component, that accounts for differences between two positions (let’s say right fielders and catchers). Because right field is easier to play and a replacement level right fielder would likely produce more than a replacement level catcher, Posey gets a boost in his WAR.

Yet, even with the positional differences, Heyward comes out on top again with 5.0 WAR to Posey’s 3.9.

All told, Heyward was a better player than Posey in 2010. He finished the year with a slightly better offensive season and even when positional differences are accounted for, added more wins to his team’s total than Posey did. Jason Heyward got robbed, and should’ve been the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year.

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Atlanta Braves’ Future Pitching Rotation: Which Prospects Will Join Big Club?

With the season in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to move forward and start looking at what the team can do to win next year and in the future.

Although Atlanta’s team strength on the major league level was its pitching staff, they have an incredible number of young and talented hurlers both already in the majors and waiting in the minors to make an impact in the future.

In order to make it onto this “future” pitching staff, a player must be currently in the Braves system and 25 or younger at the present date.

It’s not just an arbitrary number; the logic behind 25 is that ages 26 to 30 are typically considered a player’s prime years.

Anyone who is currently 25 would be right in the middle of that (28) when the contracts of Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson come off the books (thus allowing more of our youngsters to get the call).

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2010 MLB Playoffs: It’s Time for Paul Emmel to Own Up to His Mistakes

One of my favorite umpires in the MLB is Jim Joyce. Not because I hate the Tigers (I don’t) and was excited to see someone get robbed of history when it was within his grasp.

No, I like and respect Jim Joyce because after everything that happened, he was “man” enough to throw his pride out the window and admit that he messed up and cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

Well, now it’s time for Paul Emmel to step up and admit that he messed up.

By now, most baseball fans have heard about Game One of the NLDS between the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants.

In the fourth inning of a scoreless game, Buster Posey attempted to steal second base and was thrown out by Brian McCann. If you haven’t seen the play or don’t believe that Posey was out, click here for some photo proof.

Posey eventually scored the only run of the game, and the Braves fell behind in the series 1-0.

In Game Two, Emmel was at his finest again. Alex Gonzalez hit a ground ball that shortstop Juan Uribe made a diving play on. Uribe’s play was nice, but his throw pulled Aubrey Huff off the bag. Emmel called Gonzalez out anyway and then threw Bobby Cox out of the game for arguing.

In a crucial Game Three tonight, Emmel was behind the plate. Jonathan Sanchez was on top of his game, but Emmel felt the need to help out.

First, when Brooks Conrad was up, Emmel twice called Conrad’s attempted check swings strikes without even appealing to the first base umpire.

Then, in the bottom of the ninth with the Braves down by one run, Jason Heyward stepped in against Brian Wilson. After the at-bat, Fox brought up FoxTrax to show the pitch sequence. FoxTrax confirmed what most people saw in the at-bat:  Wilson threw four balls and one strike to Heyward.

Four balls typically means a walk, but with Paul Emmel behind the plate, it resulted in a called strike three on Heyward.

And before you criticize me for being a bitter Braves fan (which admittedly and deservedly at this point, I am), I’m not the first one to call Emmel a bad ump. Here’s a link from a Minnesota Twins blogger with about another game in which Emmel was behind the plate.

I understand Paul Emmel is human. I understand mistakes happen. I don’t wish harm on Emmel for what happened. I do, however, wish two things would happen.

  1. Paul Emmel can be a man about this matter and admit he screwed up. I don’t buy the logic that Emmel called it safe because he saw it was safe. If Emmel saw that Posey was safe then he shouldn’t be an umpire because he sees things that aren’t there. 
  2. The MLB needs to take action. I understand errors are part of being human, but this is his job, and he needs to do it well. When a doctor makes a mistake that kills a patient, he has his performance reviewed and could have his license revoked. Paul Emmel may have killed the Braves World Series dreams with his terrible umpiring, and Bud Selig needs to take action instead of turning a blind eye like he did during the steroids era.

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Atlanta Braves Must Recapture Early-Season Magic To Make the Playoffs

From the beginning of the season this year felt different for the Atlanta Braves. Walk-off wins were the norm and despite the Braves nine game losing streak in May the team came together to take the lead in the NL East while the Phillies were dealing with injuries.

Even as the Braves lost key players (Chipper Jones, Kris Medlen) they kept winning close ballgames. Late in the season, the Braves were overtaken by the Phillies, but the Braves seemed like a lock for the playoffs as recently as this past Friday morning.

Now, the Braves are tied for the Wild Card lead after dropping two games against the Phillies despite having favorable pitching matchups in both games. The team that could come back from any deficit seems gone and a new, punch-less squad has taken their place.

The most disturbing part has been the Braves lack of offense against Kyle Kendrick and rookie Vance Worley. The Braves scored five runs on Friday (although they were at a point when the outcome of the game really wasn’t in doubt) before getting shut out Saturday.

To make matters worse, the defense has also been shoddy lately. Atlanta has allowed six unearned runs over the first two games of the series.

Baseball often comes down to pitching, defense and offense. As the saying goes, to win you need to be good at two or more of the three. Right now, the Braves have above average pitching and have been terrible elsewhere.

Both Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are scheduled to pitch a couple innings on Sunday, so Tim Hudson will have to bring his A-game because the Braves offense likely will again struggle to score runs.

With the Padres and Giants playing at four tomorrow, there are plenty of scenarios that could play out.

  1. The Braves Win and Padres Lose: The optimal scenario for Braves fans, with a win and Padres loss the Braves would clinch the Wild Card despite every effort to give it away.
  2. The Braves and Padres Win: A three way tie between the Braves, Padres and Giants would create a couple playoff games. The Padres and Giants would first have to decide the West before the loser played the Braves for the Wild Card.
  3. Braves and Padres Lose: The two teams would end up tied for the Wild Card and in a one game playoff. In this case (and the last one as well) Derek Lowe would likely pitch for the Braves in that game.
  4. Braves Lose and Padres Win: The Braves miss the playoffs despite taking a two game lead into the final game of the season.

Only one of these scenarios would get the Braves eliminated, but at this point that scenario probably has the greatest chance of happening.

The season has one regular season game remaining, and the Braves will likely need to regain their late-inning magic to send Bobby Cox to the playoffs one last time.

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Atlanta Braves: Has Derek Lowe Finally Turned The Corner

To say that Atlanta Braves fans have been disappointed in him over his first two years would be somewhat of an understatement.

As far as I can remember, the only time we had been completely satisfied with his performance was after his first start with the Braves, when he shut out the Philadelphia Phillies for eight innings on Opening Night last season.

Maybe (just maybe) it’s time to feel happy again (or at least not disappointed) with Lowe. Since the beginning of August, Lowe has posted a 3.23 ERA despite going just 3-3 over that span. Lowe did skip one start in the rotation, and has come back dominant as ever in September.

In his first start of the month, Lowe kept the Braves from getting swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates with six innings of one-run ball. In his last start, which was arguably his best as a Brave (you could make a start for his first, as the Phillies are a much better team than the Nationals), Lowe fanned 12 batters in eight shutout innings to give the Braves the win in the series opener.

Perhaps Lowe has finally turned a corner in which he can be the pitcher the Braves first expected when they gave him a huge contract following the 2008 campaign. In his career, Lowe’s best month has been September (3.30 ERA) and if he continues this trend, he could end up being more valuable to the Braves down the stretch than Tim Hudson.

The Braves initially gave Lowe a big contract as a direct result of his post season success, which we may finally see this year. Lowe and Hudson are the only two Braves starters with playoff experience, and Lowe has been the better of the two in the playoffs (granted, it is a small sample size for both pitchers).

If Lowe continues to pitch well, he will increase the Braves chances of making the playoffs and might finally get to show us his good post season work. With good work in the playoffs, Lowe might finally start earning the contract that so many Braves fans have regretted for the better part of two years.

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Atlanta Braves New Acquisitions Must Step Up in Playoff Push

Although the Atlanta Braves have been leading the NL East for some time now, they made a number of trades to try and strengthen their team for the stretch run.

With the Phillies getting key players back in their lineup seemingly every day, the Braves were looking for guys like Rick Ankiel, Derek Lee, and Kyle Farnsworth to fill in some holes that the team had.

The Braves did well by not giving up any major prospects (although Tim Collins could be great, his value is limited by the fact that he is a reliever; the best prospect they gave up was Robinson Lopez, who has a high ceiling but is unpolished as of right now) and seemingly improved their ballclub.

However, if the Braves are going to be playing throughout October, the new arrivals will need to step up their play since they haven’t exactly set the world on fire since joining the Braves.

Thus far, Alex Gonzalez has been the only new arrival to play reasonably close to his expectations. Gonzalez has a better batting average (.267 to .259) in Atlanta but a lower slugging percentage and OPS. While Yunel Escobar has actually played better, the Braves have to be happy that unlike Escobar, Gonzalez isn’t a distraction who seems to have his head elsewhere during a pennant race.

Unlike Gonzalez, Lee, Ankiel, and Farnsworth haven’t given the Braves much of anything since coming to Atlanta.

In 20 games, Ankiel was hitting just .212 and slugging just .318. Gregor Blanco, a centerfielder the Braves sent to the Royals (who in my opinion, should have been given more of a chance after hitting .310 with the team earlier this year) has a .275 batting average and eight stolen bases (as well as .362 slugging percentage, which is bad but higher than Ankiel’s) in 18 games with the Royals.

Although The Farns had done well earlier this year with Kansas City, he has been terrible with the Braves, posting a 9.45 ERA in his first 6.2 innings pitched. Although he is striking out a ton of batters, walks (he has already allowed five) have been a problem.

Finally, we get to the Braves most recent acquisition, first baseman Derrek Lee.

Brought in after Chipper Jones was injured to give the Braves more pop in their lineup, Lee has sucked the life out of the cleanup spot. In his first five games with the club, Lee has just two hits (and eight strikeouts) in 19 at-bats.

To be fair to all the players acquired (especially Lee), it is important to note that they have only a small amount of at-bats in Atlanta. If any of the Braves new acquisitions were to go on a month long tear through the end of the season, they would end up with terrific numbers in a Braves uniform despite their slow starts.

With Utley, Howard, and Victorino all back in the Phillies lineup, the Braves will likely need some added offense to hold off Philadelphia over the remainder of the year. If Ankiel and Lee can start hitting like they have in the past, the Braves should finish strong and be playing into October. 

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