Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Frank Wren With Yet Another Savvy Deal

The deadline has come and gone, and while the Braves didn't land a top of the rotation-type starting Pitcher, Frank Wren proves yet again that he's one of the more underrated GMs in the game. He's been consistent in saying since day one that one of his main goals has been to continue stockpiling arms (everyone's well aware by now that the old saying that "you can never have enough pitching" continues to be at the top of baseball's Ten Commandments"), and that he'll have to be blown away to be convinced to include any of the organization's top-flight arms in any deal that isn't huge.

Ryan Dempster's preference for the Dodgers may well have "saved" him from having to finally part with one of those arms, but his follow-up deal to obtain Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson could easily turn out to be yet another in a line of great "under the radar" deals that continues to keep the organization's ship sailing smoothly.

Maholm definitely isn't one of the sexy big-name guys who's name was bantered about over the couple weeks leading up to the deadline but he's quietly having his best season, and has been doing so in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field on a bad team. He's 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his last 7 games (6 starts), and if you exclude his first two starts of the season he's 9-4 with a 3.04 ERA. He's also not the rental Dempster would have been - Maholm's contract provides a club option for 2013 at a very affordable $6.5 million.

The really great thing about this is that it provides much more cost-certainty to help with the 2013 budget while also providing another potential 20 months for Delgado and Teheran to develop without having to be "rushed" if they need it. Odds are they won't, but Maholm is a much nicer option than Jair Jurrjens going forward. (Delgado turned in a dominant start for Gwinnett this afternoon by the way.)

Wren addressed all three of the areas the organization hoped to upgrade before the deadline in one fell swoop. Maholm helps stabilize the rotation, allowing Kris Medlen to return to his important bullpen role following tonight's start (assuming they decide to let Delgado take Tommy Hanson's next two turns while he's on the DL with a sore back). He also added a bat off the bench that kills southpaws AND can play above-average defense at all three OF positions, allowing Fredi Gonzalez to be much more flexible with his bench.

While the deal likely signals the end of both Jurrjens' and Matt Diaz' Braves' tenures, it does so without disturbing the organizational pitching depth chart. Yes Arodys Vizcaino has electric stuff, but he's recovering from Tommy John surgery, and there have long been indications that the organization never believed he'd be able to develop enough stamina or refine a sufficiently strong enough third pitch to remain a starter long-term. I actually took a little time to scour a couple threads concerning the deal where some fans screamed (as always) about how terrible the deal was because Vizcaino was included. His most apparent ceiling remained as a high-leverage reliever assuming he successfully returns from the surgery.

The last month has seen Frank Wren turn two RP prospects into 40% of the rotation moving forward (Maholm and the minor league deal Ben Sheets signed) and an extremely valuable PH/4th OF that the organization has been pursuing for a couple years. He did so without increasing payroll (the Cubs included cash in the deal to "upgrade" to Vizcaino - presumably covering the rest Maholm and Johnson's salaries this season) and did so without including anyone the organization presumed would be a member of its rotation any time in the near future.

If it didn't knock your socks off, so be it, it's a great deal. Bravo Frank Wren. Again.  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is There Another Target Out There?

OK, the Greinke Sweepstakes found a winner in Anaheim. We consistently heard he was THE target for Frank Wren and company. The company line is that the organization simply wasn't going to mortgage the future again for a rental. Funny thing though, Ryan Dempster was a Brave, then wasn't a Brave, and apparently doesn't want to be a Brave. However, if he DID want to be a Brave the organization wouldn't have minded grossly overpaying for him by sending Randall Delgado to Chicago.

The word making the rounds currently is that Wren's mainly looking to fortify the bench and the bullpen, yet he made no attempt to hide the fact that his main goal during the last two weeks was to upgrade the rotation. Was everything we heard erased with a third consecutive very strong start from Ben Sheets? Will another strong outing from Mike Minor tonight be enough to convince anyone that the rotation as currently constructed is going to be good enough to compete for a Title? Count me in the group that has its doubts.

Don't get me wrong - if the Ben Sheets we've seen for 18 innings is the Ben Sheets we're going to have from now until October, he and Tim Hudson can match up with just about anyone. The problem is that it's awfully tough to see any reason to feel confident that we can compete with anybody after their turns. Remember "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" anyone???

Tommy Hanson's struggling more than he ever has at any level. Yes he's a battler and kept working incredibly hard during his last outing that reminds some of the legendary Nuke LaLoosh of Bull Durham fame (5 IP, 3 hits, 1 earned, 7 Ks, 7 BBs, and 7 SBs allowed) - but he's looked nothing like the guy the club had hoped would be Robin to Huddy's Batman when the season started. Brandon Beachy's unfortunately not even a whisper. Jair Jurrjens is done. Minor and Delgado have shown flashes of their upside, but both are battling what all young Pitchers do - inconsistency. Uber-prospect Julio Teheran is struggling mightily in Gwinnett - the company line there is that he's accomplishing everything they're asking of him (working hard on polishing his secondary offerings presumably), and the results don't reflect his progress. I'm hopeful that the evaluators that see Julio every day are right in their assessments, but it wasn't that long ago that they were saying the same things about Jurrjens.

As it stands now, Huddy and Sheets would have to go undefeated in the postseason for the team to have a chance - there's no one that currently makes you feel like they're up to the task of taking on the best teams' # 3 starters other than Kris Medlen, and he's not an option. Could "moving on" from Dempster and "not overpaying" for Greinke signal that they might entertain sending Medlen back down to get stretched back out if enough bullpen help can be acquired? Maybe, but that's not the feeling I get. If I'm right, then we still need ONE MORE starter. Maybe Tommy gets things together. Maybe Minor keeps making strides. Delgado and Teheran? We hope they're learning valuable lessons quickly. That's an awfully big gamble to take in a penant race, particularly one during Chipper Jones' last stand.

The one true difference maker that could be penciled in in the front half of a contender's rotation is still out there, and the price tag wouldn't be nearly as exorbitant as the asking prices for Greinke and Dempster. That guy is James Shields. Has he struggled for most of this season? Sure, but Shields is coming off a season where he finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young balloting. He has the ability to dominate teams when he's on, has a very team-friendly contract, and is under control through 2014. Trading for Shields would presumably leave enough financial flexibility for the team to pay market value to retain Michael Bourn as well as extend Martin Prado AND go after a LF next season even if it cost a pitching prospect or two (Justin Upton, anyone???)

Shields is owed around $2.5 million for the rest of this season, has a $9 million option for 2013, and a $12 million option for 2014. Assuming Sheets is "one and done" in Atlanta, you'd still be looking at beginning 2013 with a rotation that has Hudson, Shields, Hanson, Minor, and one of Delgado or Teheran until Beachy returns sometime after the All-Star break. One of the Pitchers (presumably Teheran is my gut feeling) could be included in a package IF the organization was willing to entertain the idea of trying to trade for someone like Upton.

Hudson, Shields, and Sheets would give this team a legitimate shot at sending Chipper out a winner. Getting Shields wouldn't compromise finances like re-signing Greinke would have, nor would it be as damaging to the stable of arms Wren's trying to hold on to. Tampa's presumably looking for a Catcher with upside and control as a part of any package for Shields (or Wade Davis or any other Pitcher they might make available). We have that piece in Christian Bethancourt. Shields' contract would also help with the flexibility the team needs to extend McCann following next season, meaning you'd have at least 2-3 more years to develop his eventual replacement.

Come on Frank, please go get that one more piece to give Chipper that one last shot - you have the pieces.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pitching Just Keeps Coming

Frank Wren has said his goal since day one of taking the reigns of the organization was to return it to its roots - based entirely on developing waves of young pitching talent to keep feeding the big club when needed. He's certainly well on his way to accomplishing that.

Everyone knows the big names - the Teherans, Delgados, Vizcainos, Minors, Gilmartins, et al. But there's more in the pipeline, and some of it could be moved along almost at will it seems. The names most haven't heard are guys like Aaron Northcraft, Mark Lamm, J. R. Graham, Mauricio Cabrera, and recently drafted Lucas Sims and are pretty impressive prospects in their own rights.

Possibly the most impressive one in the stable of arms, Cody Martin, spun another gem last night for Hi-A Lynchburg.

Martin's Complete Game Gem

We've got pitching, and have more pitching coming. It's time to turn a little of it into a true "Ace" - go get Zack Greinke and make this year's club a serious contender. A rotation topped by Greinke, Tommy Hanson, and Tim Hudson stacks up with anyone else's, particularly in a short series.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is This The "Perfect Storm"???

Lots of chatter about significant players that are potentially available as we've reached the break, a handful of which could reasonably be expected to make the Braves serious contenders should they be acquired. That said, we all have to learn to temper expectations as fans. Frank Wren has been charged with keeping the organization competitive for the long run and given the current corporate ownership structure he's dealing with, going "all-in" isn't necessarily an option. However, it's time to take the GM cap off for a little bit and daydream a little.

There have already been rumblings that the team may very well dip into next year's finances to upgrade this year's product - there's significant money coming off the books following this season with Chipper Jones retiring, the end of the financial commitment to Derek Lowe, and the ability to further open up future salary space by declining to re-sign Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, and Martin Prado. In other words Wren is in position to almost entirely turn the roster over moving forward.

The question is, is it time to do that with an eye towards retaining the pieces he might be able to acquire in an attempt at sending Chipper off into the sunset with his second ring? For today's piece, I'm going to argue yes.

The signing of Ben Sheets was brilliant. Sheets has looked very good in his first two minor league starts, and last night's stretched him to 90 pitches. He likely can be called upon to step into the rotation with the big club whenever Wren decides he wants to do so. The Sheets signing and slotting means one of Randall Delgado or Mike Minor will be optioned back to Gwinnett within the next two weeks. It also may very well signal that at least one of them is available in a package to further upgrade the rotation for a playoff run.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last month, you've heard that Zack Greinke is likely available whenever the Brewers receive a significant enough offer to pull the trigger. We "know" that offer isn't coming from the Yankees or Red Sox, and it doesn't seem that the Rangers or Angels are interested in topping significant offers if they're made. Word has it that the Orioles are likely to be bidders but aren't moving Dylan Bundy or Manny Machado under any circumstances. The Braves have always loved Greinke (who's from the Orlando area where the team's spring training complex is), and Zack is said to prefer to avoid the pressure that comes with pitching in the biggest markets. An unnamed former teammate has also been quoted as saying that Zack mentioned at times that he thinks he would like pitching in Atlanta. The time is right for Wren to pounce - yes retaining him beyond this year will be expensive, but he's the type of Pitcher you commit to building your organization around. Offer Milwaukee their choice of Delgado and SS Tyler Pastornicky or Minor, Pastornicky, and Zeke Spruill or another lower level pitching prospect for Greinke and bite the bullet after the season and hope that he can be re-signed for a somewhat team-friendly contract after having time to realize he will like it here.

Now we're finding out that Arizona is serious about being willing to listen to offers for Justin Upton. Upton's struggled a bit early this season, but is an elite level talent, and is signed through 2015 with $38.5 million due from 2013-2015. That number averages out to less of a commitment per season than Chipper's current contract. While he's not going to be a realistic "replacement" for Michael Bourn in CF if he proves to be too expensive to re-sign following this year, he would be an awfully good fit moving forward because he's capable of easily replacing Chipper's production in the middle of the order, and would allow Martin Prado to move to 3B for good if he's retained. One of Arizona's rumored wish list pieces is a top of the rotation SP as part of the package. This may finally be the time to turn that "currency" (Wren's own word) the organization has stockpiled - young, controllable high ceiling SPs - into a serious offensive threat. Build a package around Julio Teheran (and include Matt Diaz to clear a little salary) and see if you can pry Upton away. Doing so would likely mean you have to part ways with Bourn following this season, but Upton's the type of player you would do that for. With Andrelton Simmons out for 4-6 weeks, I'd also ask if they'd include Willie Bloomquist in the deal and upgrade the pieces involved where needed. Bloomquist is a very good super-utility type guy who can handle SS, and he's under control through next season for less than $2 million.

Those moves would leave you with the following roster for a postseason run...

CF- Bourn
3B- Prado
RF- Heyward
2B- Uggla
C- McCann
LF- Upton
1B- Freeman
SS- Bloomquist (until Simmons returns)   

Bench- Ross, Chipper, Hinske, Francisco, Wilson
SP- Greinke
SP- Hudson
SP- Hanson
SP- Jurrjens
SP- Sheets

Prado moves around between 3B, LF, 2B, and 1B the rest of the season to allow Chipper to continue to get plenty of ABs as well as allowing everyone to stay fresher as the season drags on. Then he can settle in at 3B next season or the team could choose to allow him to walk and spend his dollars on a CF replacement for Bourn and go with Francisco there. When Simmons returns, Wilson can be released.

That is exactly the type of roster that could send Chipper out on top one more time.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Deserving Bourn Named To All-Star Team

Michael Bourn has been named to the 2012 NL All-Star team, replacing Ian Desmond. Desmond is playing in the Nationals' game that's going on right now, but is nursing a lat strain and is going to use the break to try to get healthy.


Bourn finished second in the "Final Five" voting that concluded this past Thursday, and many have pointed out that he arguably deserved to be named to the team to begin with. He's having a career year, and there's little doubt the Braves wouldn't be where they are at this point if not for him.

Unfortunately this leaves Martin Prado as the lone deserving Brave left off the roster. Martin is showing everyone that his struggles last season were likely completely attributable to his health. There's no way anyone could ask for more from the top two hitters in their lineup than Bourn and Prado have provided the Braves at the halfway point of the season.

Ben Sheets' Thoughts Following His First Start

Ben Sheets interview following his minor league start  for the Mississippi Braves this week...


Sounds promising. Have to think it will likely take more than 2-3 starts to be completely "ready" to join the big club's rotation, but you can see that he's not about to try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes and pronounce himself the Sheets of old that struck out 18 Braves in a game several years back.