Spring training questions: Atlanta Braves

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Will Jair Jurrjens be OK for the start of the season after showing up to camp with a bum shoulder?
Jurrjens, who finished third in the NL with a 2.60 ERA last season, reported soreness immediately after reporting to spring training. An MRI turned up no structural damage, and the Braves are currently cautiously optimistic that he’ll be ready on time. Whether the story ends there will be determined over the next several weeks. Jurrjens has a clean delivery, but he’s thrown a lot of pitches for someone who just turned 24 last month. With their lack of starting pitching depth, the Braves would be hard-pressed if they lost him for any length of time.
2. Is Jason Heyward ready to take over as the everyday right fielder?
The games haven’t even started, yet the hype machine is working overtime already. Some thought that Heyward, baseball’s best position prospect, should have been given a callup in the second half of last year. He ended up hitting .323/.408/.555 in a season spent mostly at Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Mississippi. The now 20-year-old Heyward bulked up over the winter and has reportedly been crushing the ball in batting practice. He’s advanced enough as a hitter that few doubt he’d be able to hold his own in the majors right away. Whether he’s really enough of an upgrade over Melky Cabrera to make it worth carrying him on Opening Day is another question, particularly once the financial ramifications are taking into account (by keeping him in the minors for another two months, the Braves could delay his arbitration and free agency eligibility by a year).
So, yeah, I think Heyward is probably ready to be an average or maybe an above average regular for the Braves. But given that Cabrera is a pretty average regular himself, the team may want to give Heyward the Tommy Hanson treatment anyway. Hanson was kept in the minors last year just long enough to ensure that he wouldn’t be super-two eligible after 2011.
3. Will the Braves have to go get themselves one more pitcher?
This really goes along with the first two questions. As is, the Braves rotation fallbacks are disappointing left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes and right-hander Kris Medlen, who should be a key cog in the bullpen. Unlike most seasons, there aren’t any quality prospects ready to step in, though I think Medlen would do just fine if needed. Also complicating the matter is that Reyes is out of options and might be picked up by another team unless the Braves opt to carry him as a reliever.
In a perfect world, the Braves would have one more rotation option behind Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami. And they have a seemingly ideal trade candidate in Cabrera if they opt to make Heyward their right fielder. Should the right situation arise next month, the Braves may well use Cabrera to improve their depth elsewhere. Or it’s something they could try to do in June, though Cabrera’s value would take a hit if he plays behind Heyward.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.