Springtime Storylines: Did I pick the Braves to win the NL East because I'm a fanboy?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: a switch over to the senior circuit, which kicks off with the Atlanta Braves — yes, the Atlanta Braves — as my first place pick.

big question: Did I pick the Braves to win the NL East because I’m a fanboy?

No! Well, maybe. Look, I’m basing this on the merits, I swear. It’s a rotation thing, mostly. The Braves finished third in the majors with a 3.57 ERA last season, and that’s with a swooning Derek Lowe, a mostly absent Tim Hudson and with Tommy Hanson not making his debut until June. Sure, Javier Vazquez is gone, but the Braves’ rotation is arguably the best in the league and no one who is coming back had a freakishly good year in 2009. I have this strange feeling that Lowe is going to have a bounceback season. The amount one fretted about the team giving up Vazquez was inversely related to how much one remembered how good a pitcher Tim Hudson was before his surgery. Jair Jurrjens and Hanson are legitimate studs. It’s not going to be easy to score runs against these guys.

At the same time, the Braves’ fatally-flawed 2009 offense stands to take a great leap forward. The notion that Jason Heyward isn’t going to dramatically outperform Jeff Francoeur (68 OPS+ while with the Braves) in right and Nate McLouth isn’t going to dramatically outperform Jordon Schafer (62 OPS+) in center is redonkulous. Chipper Jones’ second half slump was unprecedented in his career. While his MVP-candidate days are certainly over, he should round back into nice form for a late-career Hall of Famer. Think nice OBP and average with reduced power. Troy Glaus at first base is certainly a risk, but if he can stay healthy he will improve on the woeful production the Braves got from their first basemen last year as well.

So what else is going on?

  • The above optimism about the lineup and the rotation notwithstanding, the make or break of this team is going to be the bullpen. I like the additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, but I’d be lying if I said I thought they’d each hold up well this year. Let’s face it: they’re old. If they do, Katie bar the door. If they don’t, well, we’ll just chalk this whole winning-the-NL-East thing up to springtime optimism, OK?
  • Let’s talk about Heyward. I have no doubt that he’s going to be a great one, but we have to be realistic about what he’ll do in 2010. He’s 20. He’s played 50 games above A-ball. The fact that he forced his way onto the 25-man roster despite his age and the fact that the Braves traded for a major league outfielder just this winter speaks well of his potential, but he’s going to get schooled by a lot of big league pitchers who are close to being old enough to be his father. As alluded to above, the key to Heyward is not to see where he stacks up on the leader boards, because he won’t register much of a blip there. The key is to see how much he outperforms the dreck the Braves trotted out to right field last season. First let’s watch him lap Jeff Francoeur three or four times. Then we can talk about the text of his Hall of Fame plaque.
  • This is Bobby Cox’s last season, but I’m not going to abide much in the way of “Let’s win it for Bobby!” baloney. Baseball players are professionals. They’re always trying to win it. The notion that anyone apart from maybe Chipper Jones, who has worked for the guy for the past 16 or 17 years is going to get some kind of emotional boost out of the last hurrah is the stuff of simpletons, and come to think of it, I don’t really believe even Chipper Jones is wired that way. 
  • Though none of the Big Three actually pitched in Atlanta last year, it is worth noting that this truly is the first season since 1986 when neither Tom Glavine, John Smoltz or Greg Maddux will have any bearing on the Atlanta Braves on-field prospects whatsoever (last year Glavine had that rehab assignment drama). Show of hands: how many of you weren’t alive in 1986? For those of you who were alive, what were you doing? I turned 13 around the time of the All-Star break, had a crush on a girl named Anne that I hoped might one day lead to kissing of some sort (it didn’t) and was not yet aware that my Huey Lewis & The News tapes — yes, tapes — really, really sucked.  

So how
are they gonna do?

Am I wearing rose-colored glasses? Probably. Am I drinking the Jason Heyward
Kool-Aid? Sure, I’m not gonna lie about it. But the fact is that there
is good reason to think that multiple aspects of the Braves’ attack will
improve in 2010 and no strong reason to think that any aspect of it is
going to seriously regress. I think it might just be enough to steal
this thing from the Phillies. Besides, I’ve hewed pretty closely to the conventional wisdom with these picks so far that it’s about time I go out on a bit of a limb here. If it’s going to break while I’m on it I’d rather it be a limb with my team’s name on it.

Prediction: First place in the NL East, Bobby Cox retires a winner and Chipper Jones is named player-manager for 2011. Why not?

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Spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws

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Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post reports that, according to three congressional officials familiar with current talks, an upcoming spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws. This is an issue we have spent some time covering here. A bill proposed in 2016, H.R. 5580, would have amended language in Section 13 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which would have made it so minor leaguers wouldn’t be protected under a law that protects hourly workers. There is also an ongoing class action lawsuit over unfair labor prospects.

As DeBonis notes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is among the representatives backing the measure. The provision specifically concerning minor leaguers didn’t appear in any of the draft spending bills, but DeBonis spoke to officials familiar with the negotiations under the condition of anonymity who said it was under serious consideration by top party leaders.

DeBonis got a comment from Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner. He said, “We’re not saying that [minor league pay] shouldn’t go up. We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

O’Conner said as much in an interview back in December. It’s an extremely disingenuous deflection. O’Conner also said, “I don’t think that minor league baseball is a career choice for a player.” This is all about creating legislation that allows Minor League Baseball to keep money at the top, which is great if you’re a team owner or shareholder. If they could get away with it, every owner of every business would pay its employees as little as possible, which is why it’s important to have unions and people keeping an eye on legislation like this that attempts to strip laborers of their rights in the dead of night.

Minor league players need to unionize. Or, better yet, the MLBPA should open their doors to include minor leaguers and fight for them just as they would a player who has reached the majors. Minor leaguers should be paid a salary with which they do not have to worry about things like rent, electricity, food, and transportation. They should be provided healthcare and a retirement fund. And if anyone tries to tell you it’s not affordable, MLB eclipsed $10 billion in revenues last year. There’s plenty to go around.

The owners are banking on this legislation passing and labor still coming in excess due to young men holding onto the dream of making the major leagues. According to CNN, “far less than 10 percent of minor league players ever get the chance to make it to the major leagues.” Some of these players have forgone college to work in baseball. They arrive at the park in the morning and leave late at night, putting in far more than your standard eight-hour work day. Since their bodies are their vehicle for success, they have to exercise regularly and vigorously off the field while maintaining a healthy diet. (And teams are still reluctant to invest even the smallest amount of money to ensure their young players eat well.) Minor leaguers make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dream and now Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to legalize taking further advantage of them.