Let’s Play Ball…A Study in Contrasts

I know yesterday was 1 of 162 games…but I can already tell a huge difference between this year’s Braves and last year’s Braves. This game had something that was missing most of last year…dramatics. See last year if Kelly Johnson  dropped a pop fly that should have been caught, the flood gates spring open. The Braves suddenly forgetting how to get outs face a 4-5 run deficit instead of just one. If last year’s bullpen came jogging out from the ‘pen yesterday in the same situation Mike Gonzalez faced, second and third and no outs…3 runs score or more…hands down no doubt. Especially with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley coming up, one of them would have taken the Junker deep. Not this year, Gonzalez mows down Victorino and Howard, then gets Utley to ground out to Renteria…inning over meltdown no where to be found. Same thing would have happened in the ninth.

This year’s team is different though…the big meltdown inning never happened. We were never down more than one run. Leaving the chance for Edgar to do what he did with Myers’ middle of the plate fastball. In turn setting himself up for Ryan Madson’s middle of the plate fastball to win the game. These are the situations last year’s team lacked…a chance. A bad inning like the 6th…was only a tremor instead of the mega-quake.

I am excited. I have been since we got Soriano from Seattle and only gave up Horacio Ramirez. I became ecstatic when we got Gonzalez for LaRoche. I wasn’t going to let his second half last year replace the fact that I was ready to let him go at the beginning of the previous two seasons. Then the team "sold" bringing with it a new hope. We locked up McCann for the better part of his CATCHING career. He turned around and repaid us by going 3 for 4 with a 2-run HR, a 2B and a single. This guy is for real. Batting title and a starting All-Star game catcher…This year…no doubt.

I already feel this season being another one of those where we are in the driver seat with the rest of the East trying to chase us down.

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So Long…Good Friend…Gone But Not Forgotten

For those of you who have been reading the blogs I have been posting recently, you may have noticed I am jubilantly anticipating this upcoming season. I have spent most of my days over the last couple weeks ready people’s expectations and watching archived games on MLB.TV. I can’t get enough of it. Last night I even got a pretty good taste of it as the reigning College World Series Champion, Oregon State Beavers kicked off there title defense with a 5-0 no-hitter against Hawaii-Hilo.

I mean we took care of the bullpen problem which was the main goal of the off-season. We now might actually have the best ‘pen in the Bigs. A ‘pen that should get us about 15-20 more wins that last year’s team gave away. We have, according to SI.com, the best catcher in the league in Brian McCann. I am going to call it now and say he will be starting the All-Star Game this year. We have Andruw back for at least one more year. Chipper will hopefully be healthier. Smoltzie will once again be solid, Huddy is looking to regain whatever it was he lost crossing the country and Mike Hampton is back for the first time since 2005. Franceour will settle in and become the All-Star everyone expects him to be.

Now that I have gone off on that tangent the real reason I am writing this post is to talk about what will be missing. Since he made his debut with the Braves in 2001, Marcus Giles was the heart and soul of the Atlanta Dugout. He always brought a fire and determination to every game. He was usually the first one dirty and the first one at the top step to cheer for a teammate. He brought life to a team at the turn of the millennium that had been business as usual. Giles always had a huge smile on his face and was usually the one sitting in the dugout with his are around a teammate cheering them up.

Giles reminded me of the annoy kid brother, you would tell on to get him to go away or the fly who keeps interrupting your picnic. He started the brutal punching and body slapping that became a Braves tradition after home runs. He would get the guys to play the silent treatment to the rookies when they were due for celebration. Oh yeah the guy running past the camera after that same rookie got initiated into the Majors with the customary Shaving Cream pie. Giles was the guy you knew everyone enjoyed playing with.

I saw it first hand last spring when I went down to San Francisco to watch 3 games of a 4 game early season visit. The one day the teams actually took Batting Practice, Giles you could tell was up to no good. Telling jokes with Chipper and trying to tackle Andruw and Franceour. He even put on a show in the cage trying to hit pitches back at the screen protecting the BP pitcher. He finally hit one out of the park on his last swing out his session and promptly rounding the bases. Getting in the way of guys taking infield and trying to high five everyone he ran past.

I was really disappointed in the way he was sent packing by the Braves after he had injected new life into this organization. But this has become the nature of the business. You can’t root for the players anymore you have to root for the jersey. I am glad to see that he landed on his feet in San Diego where he gets play in front of his hometown fans and along side his brother. I am sure Franceour and McCann and the rest of the kids will keep the liveliness going, but it won’t be the same with out Giles big smile. I just want to make sure he knows after the way the Braves showed him the door that he was greatly appreciated and brought something the team had been liking. Thank you for the passion you brought to the team and the scrappy way you played the game. You will truly be missed, Mr. Giles.

My Appeal…What is it Good For?

Congrats to me I am actually posting for the second consecutive day. Okay so maybe I have a little ground to cover before I become the Cal Ripken of bloggers but it is a start.

Like most you, I recently read the MLB.COM article about Andruw Jones stating, "But my heart is in Atlanta. I would love to finish my career in Atlanta." I will be honest I had already begun shopping around the league for Andruw’s replacement. The chance of him returning to Atlanta seemed to be far from obtainable. I mean with the current free agent market and the Atlanta $80 Million Payroll situation. I was searching the farm system for the next Andruw.

Upon reading this my hard stance that he was already out the door shifted a tad bit. I am still not convinced he will be playing centerfield in Atlanta next year. I do believe more than any other player in the game Andruw is sincere about giving the Braves a small discount. Small being the key word.  The Red Sox, Yankees, Angels and Dodgers will be trying to pick him up after next season with an armored bank truck. I still think the Braves can make a reasonable offer that will catch his fancy. I don’t think he wants to be one of the highest paid players in the game but he does want his fair market value. As long as we make him part of the $100 Million Club, I think he will be close to staying. And if we can keep his yearly salary around $16 Million…well that’s only…$3 Million more than what he is making now.

Here is why I am still skeptical. Saying you want to stay and finish your career in Atlanta is usually like waving good-bye. The first example has to be, Tom Glavine. He wrote and I own his book, None But the Braves. Yet when the Mets came calling with the sweeter offer, he was at Borders making sure the book was out of print. With today’s free agent market as bad as it is days and guys like Jason Marquis getting $22Mil/3Yrs, it makes it harder for teams to shell out the big bucks to their stars. Especially the clubs with spending caps on their payrolls.

The Braves also have a track record of allowing their heroes to ride off into the sunset on someone else’s horse. Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro, Dale Murphy, David Justice, Sid Bream, Mark Lemke, Tom Glavine and more create a distinguished list of Brave’s Legends who saddle up in their twilight years in a different stable. At this point I could be sold on the fact that Chipper Jones might be the first of any of those to finish in Atlanta.

Yes, reading last week’s comments by Andruw made me happy about the upcoming season. Now I won’t have to watch while thinking that I won’t ever see Andruw doing this for Atlanta anymore. I am still not going to set my stock in him returning. I am pleading that the Braves will make a reasonable offer, one that will be able to spark his interest. Braves games would never be the same if know we actually had to worry about balls hit to center not being caught.

The Sun Will Rise…The Newest Title Streak

I seem to have let myself down by not posting on here regularly like I had set out to do. As the new season quickly approaches I am going to make more of an effort to keep this updated daily. To all my fans…haha….if I actually had some this would be my promise. Here we go…

Like I mentioned in my promise/apology/opening the new season is just around the corner. In fact we are less than a month away, the best place to start would be a preview of my Atlanta Braves.

For the first time in 15 years the Braves will enter the season after having not made the playoffs. For that matter after having a losing record. The off-season goal was to overhaul the worst bullpen in the Majors. Our guys blew a combined 29 save opportunities…are you freakin’ kidding me. Once again when John Schuerholz sets out to accomplish something he gets the job done.

I was a little worried when our first signing to help our bullpen was Tanyon Sturtze. He won’t be available until sometime in May or June and he was coming off a season that saw him post a 7.59 ERA. He did end up having surgery after 18 games which probably contributed to his high ERA but his career ERA is only 5.21. So Sturtze was questionable and it seem like we were set out to try to fix our bullpen with spare parts.

Next came the Winter Meetings with the first developments of the Adam LaRoche for Mike Gonzalez deal. At that point I was still not thinking straight because I had been ****** into LaRoche’s second half breakout. After watching then let Marcus Giles go without a trade or any return, I realized its better to look at a player’s overall numbers. Giles was tough to let go because of his fiery nature and his annoying younger brother/cheerleader mentality. I loved watching the way he played the game and the desire he brought to the dugout. But unfortunately his numbers were starting to decline. Yes, he was uncomfortable hitting lead-off but in theory you are actually only ever leading off one inning out of the whole 9. I would loved to have gotten anything for him now. He however is in a tremendous situation, hometown, Brian as a teammate and a doubles-hitter’s paradise at Petco Park.

Finally though as the meeting were winding to halt, we made a move. I still am not sure if maybe the Mariners had never seen or scouted Horacio Ramirez. Lets just say, we sold the blind kid the canary with a head taped on. Ramirez was at best an extremely under achieving pitcher. He would have stretches of dominance followed by 15 days on the DL. So for the M’s to pack up there rising star set-up man, Rafael Soriano and ship him to Atlanta straight up for Ramirez…well its just another case of Schuerholz being Schuerholz.

Yes, Soriano got doomed by a Vladimir Guerrero line drive and missed the last month of the season. Guess who else took one off his noggin…that’s right Horacio. So I still think we got the better end of the deal. I was already thinking fantastic this should really help, we now have Soriano hand off to Bob Wickman in the 9th. This was looking really good already.

The Winter continued to drag on and every MLB Rumor site still was buzzing with the Pirates coveting LaRoche more than ever. Even enough to think about sending Jose Castillo, Chris Duffy or one of their young starting pitchers. Every indication from the Braves end was that we were going to keep dangling LaRoche and listen to offers and not actually trade him unless something totally struck our fancy. Or until we got LaRoche’s arbitration figures back. I am not going to jump on the wagon being led by people who feel we were ready to trade him the minute he got more expensive. Gonzalez just got a raise from from the Pirates that was the same amount that the Braves countered LaRoche with…2.8 million. I just can’t buy into that belief.

Now we have a situation that most teams would kill for…3 closer possibilities. While I fully believe the Braves will hold onto all 3, it puts us in the driver’s seat for potential deals. We finally have a solid closer in Wickman and to compliment him we have Soriano a righty setup man and Gonzalez a lefty. If this doesn’t work well I think it might be time to pack up camp and move to Portland. I for one believe that if we would have had this ‘pen last year, the NL East would have been a lot different. The streak would have been preserved.

So with the God-awful bullpen situation resolved we have now opened a whole new can of worms by giving up the right side of the infield. Our answer at second is shaping up to be Kelly Johnson, Bobby’s favorite prospect, who missed 2006 after Tommy John surgery. He was drafted as a shortstop and then moved to the outfield and has never spent any time at any level playing second base. He has spent the whole off-season working with First Base coach and former Braves second baseman, Glenn Hubbard, improving his skills. This reminds me of another Braves prospect was being groomed to be a second baseman and needed to spend time working with Hubbard to improve his skills…his name was Marcus Giles. Giles was a horrendous infielder but a marvel with the bat so the Braves couldn’t give up on him. The only difference this time is Johnson can handle the lead-off duties.

Now the First base situation, if you would have come to me at the beginning of last season and wanted to trade LaRoche I would have been helping him pack his bags. Which is why now that he has been dealt I can’t really use a strong half of one season to go back on that feeling. Yes, as with most Braves I am sad to see him leave. His glove was fabulous at first and he has potential to continue his hot hitting and become and All-Star. But it comes down to need and supply. We desperately needed a new bullpen and we had a strong supply of First basemen. Scott Thorman, I believe will have a solid season, which means if he gives us half the output of LaRoche then we will have enough offense to win the close games. Last year the only way we could win was to blow out the other teams. Now he just have to put up enough runs and we don’t have to worry about padding the lead in case the bullpen collapses. We still have Renteria, Chipper, Andruw, Jeff Franceour and Brian McCann. Chipper is declining but he will still put up good numbers, Andruw will need to put up huge numbers because its his contract year. Frenchy will get off to a better start so he doesn’t have to spend the entire year digging himself out and B-Mac will be the NL’s starting catcher in the All-Star game. I feel we have a solid line-up.

Last week also included the addition of Craig Wilson, recognizable as a former Pirate most recently having played for the Yankees. He did have an off year last year but ask A-Rod and the Big Unit about playing in New York. He is an upgrade in left over Ryan Langerhans and Matt Diaz. He will also be valuable when needing to spell Scott Thorman at First if it turns out he can’t hit the lefty pitching and he can be the third/emergency catcher. Wilson was actually someone the Braves have been wanting to acquire before he went to the Yankees last year. Much like they wanted Wickman last year before he re-signed with the Indians. Once again Schuerholz gets his man.

So this is where we stand:

Potential Line-up going into Spring Training:

1. Kelly Johnson (2B)
2. Edgar Renteria (SS)
3. Chipper Jones (3B)
4. Andruw Jones (CF)
5. Brian McCann (C)
6. Jeff Franceour (RF)
7. Scott Thorman (1B)
8. Craig Wilson (LF)

Bench:

Willy Aybar
Chris Woodward
Ryan Langerhans
Bryan Pena
and either one or a combination of the following:
Matt Diaz
Martin Prado
Pete Orr

Starting Rotation:

1. John Smoltz
2. Tim Hudson
3. Mike Hampton
4. Chuck James
5. Kyle Davies

Bullpen:
CL: Bob Wickman
SU: Rafael Soriano
MR: Mike Gonzalez
Macay McBride
Oscar Villarreal
and one or two of the following:
Lance Cormier
Blaine Boyer
Chad Paronto
Tyler Yates
Joey Devine
Anthony Lerew
Peter Moylan
Phil Stockman
Jonathan Johnson

So like I said our bullpen is solid. Schuerholz has said this is probably the best bullpen he has had as Braves GM.

All of this while still managing to mind the Time-Warner $80 Million salary cap. Lets just pray that the sale of the Braves will go though at some point before the end of the season. We also need to ask that the new owners will be willing to spend money again. Andruw has stated his desire to remain a Brave and he is willing to listen to reasonable offers from the Braves. He even hinted at the idea of coming back for only a $3 Million raise and said he was giving super agent Scott Boras final say in his contract negotiations. So it gives me a glimmer of hope that Andruw remaining a Brave isn’t a lost cause.

To say I am excited would be an understatement. I can’t wait to see how this team performs. Its time to "Play Ball!"

Life Through the Looking Glass

This week I haven’t been able to do anything but think about how peoples’ lives can end so differently. Two baseball players died this week. Although when it comes to circumstance they had two drastically different endings. Baseball Legend, Buck O’Neil died Saturday at the age of 94. His was not suprising his health had been deteriorating for sometime now. He was made legend by the Negro Leagues but made immortal by his stories. He became the star of the 1994 Ken Burns’ documentory, Baseball. He had one of those voices you will never forget. His stories combined with his voice made you want to curl up in his lap and listen for days out on the screen porch. He died of old age surrounded by family.

As much as Buck’s passing was sad, Cory Lidle’s was tragic. I remember going home for lunch and turning on Fox News to see that a plane had crashed into a 50-story building in Manhattan, NY. I spent the next hour watching coverage and errily waiting for that next plane to hit much like 9/11. But 10/11 was no terrorist attack it was a hobby gone terribly wrong. I didn’t find out it was Lidle until about 5PM Pacific. My mom called me at work and asked me if I had heard about the plane crash. When I said I had she asked if I had heard it was a Yankee pitcher. I had heard nothing about that all afternoon. Not knowing Lidle was an avid pilot, the complete Yankee rotation and bullpen went through my head. I quickly entered ESPN in the address bar and found out it was Lidle. I learned a lot about Cory Lidle that evening. He was a replacement player in 1995 and was never allowed to join the MLB Players’ Union. He was only 34. He spent the last 11 years with 7 different organizations. He was outspoken but Baseball wasn’t just a job it was a love. Because he was a non-Union player he had to work that much harder because he wasn’t protected like the rest of the club. He leaves behind a wife and a 6 year old son. They had to find out at the airport in California after arriving from New York. His dad found out on TV after returning home from the golf course. They still don’t know how this flight would have gone terribly wrong for a pilot with nearly 100 solo hours. Luckily for the Yankees’ family they had already been eliminated from the playoffs and don’t have to mourn on the field. But then the question surfaces about whether or not he would have been flying if they were still playing.

Baseball lost two members of its exclusive fraternity. Yet they died so drastically different they are still mourned just the same by family, teammates and fans.

In The Beginning or The Sorrow of A Season Ended…

Lets just skip the hi’s and hello’s and get straight to the point…my undying passion for baseball. Last night I like most die-hard baseball fanatics was sitting through the Yankees v. Tigers rain delay. I was watching the Baseball Tonight rain delay coverage with one of my favorite baseball personalities, Eric Byrnes of the Arizona Diamondbacks. When my roommate got home from work and after listening in for a few minutes expounded with, "How can you sit and watch them talk, its like watching talk radio." My answer was that I am a baseball nut and I love absorbing as much knowledge as I can and I am also a fan of opinions and cross fire discussion. I love to read books about baseball history. While I am only 23 years of age I have fanaticism with the ’40-’50s baseball era. If I could have picked another age to have grown up in I would have been a teenager in either Boston, New York or Chicago. Listening to games on the radio. Honestly there is no better way to be involved in a game than by radio. Radio broadcasters have to verbal painters. Scully, Allen, Caray, Barber, Buck, Brickhouse, the greats that gave passion to broadcasts that kept fans enchanted for hours.

My love of baseball was born in first grade in Georgia. 1991, the year the Braves run of Division titles began. I have rejoiced in the triumphs and cry in the defeats. I stayed up to see the amazing ’91 Game 7 battle between John Smoltz and Jack Morris. Those words by Jack Buck still cut deep,"The Twins are gonna win the World Series. The Twins have won it. Its a 1-0 10th inning victory." In 1992, the most improbable of endings. Francisco Cabrera, who only had 10 at-bats all year, comes through in the clutch. He singled in David Justice and Sid Bream. 1995, the crowning achievement finally winning it all and how better to have come through than Tom Glavine and David Justice. 1999, after vicious battles with the Mets all year including the 15 inning thriller the game before, Kenny Rogers walks Andruw Jones with the bases loaded to send the Braves to the World Series.

But like all good things they eventually must come to an end. The streaked ended this season. It was a good run. Congrats to the Mets on buying the Division, I guess the bridesmaids get married eventually. Well be back next years. The world will be made right again. Maybe this will light a fire under the butts of the guys who had never missed the playoffs. And under those spoiled Atlanta fans to finally come out and support the team again.

So e-mail me and post comments, I would love to have some baseball **** chat and heated debates and discussions with true baseball fans around the country. I will keep this updated with all my best ability. Until next this is Matt Vandy signing off.