Fredi Gonzalez, new Atlanta Braves manager, speaks with guests before the start of play against the Florida Marlins  in their MLB spring training baseball game in Jupiter

Springtime Storylines: Will the Braves miss a beat without Bobby Cox?

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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 2011 season. Next up: The Fredi Gonzalez-led Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Will the Braves miss a beat without Bobby Cox?

I’ll preface my comments by saying that most of my formative years were spent watching the Braves dominate my Mets in the National League East. Irreparable damage was done to my psyche, I’ll tell you. But as much as I loved to hate those teams of the 90s and early aughts, I’ve grown to have a certain level of appreciation for familiar foes like Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox. In turn, I promise you it’s going to be just as weird for fans of opposing teams as it will be for Braves fans to see someone other than Cox in the dugout this season.

Now, don’t take that to mean that the Braves won’t continue be a pain in the neck with Fredi Gonzalez as manager. They will. They absolutely will.

While the Braves won 91 games and the National League Wild Card last season, they did so finishing 11th in the league in homers and 10th in slugging percentage. They were also 10th in the league with a .719 OPS against left-handed pitching. It was pretty obvious that they needed to add some power to their lineup during the offseason, ideally from the right side of the plate.

As luck would have it, they were able to acquire second baseman Dan Uggla, one of the consistent right-handed hitting sluggers in the game. And from one of their division rivals, no less. In early January, the Braves and Uggla agreed to a five-year, $62 million contract that will keep him with the club through 2015.

The Braves didn’t make many other changes aside from adding minor bullpen pieces like Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill, but I still think they’re improved. For example, the addition of Uggla slides Martin Prado to left field. And while Prado doesn’t fit the mold of a slugger, he should be an improvement from the pathetic .242/.302/.385 batting line the Braves got from left field last season.

Aside from Billy Wagner’s retirement, the pitching staff remains intact. And that’s a good thing. They finished third in team ERA last season, including a 3.80 ERA from their starters and a 3.11 ERA from their lights-out bullpen. I wouldn’t count on Tim Hudson to repeat his 2.83 ERA from last season, but this staff has enviable depth. When you can afford to find a better option than Mike Minor to be your fifth starter, you’re doing pretty well.

The scary part about this team is that key pieces like Tommy Hanson, Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Jair Jurrjens and new first baseman Freddie Freeman (more on him below) are all 27 years old or younger. When you figure in young pitchers like Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen (recovering from Tommy John surgery), Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters and top pitching prospects like Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, this team is built to have success for a very long time. Happy now, Craig?

So what else is going on?

  • Fredi Gonzalez intends to have fireballing right-hander Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters share the closer role, at least to begin the year. Fine by me. Kimbrel’s dominant stuff is tailor-made for the ninth inning – and he very well could be the primary guy before the end of the season — but he has only pitched 25 innings at the major league level (this includes the postseason) and has been prone to control problems in the minors. And while lefty closers are the exception, not the rule, Venters held righty batters to a .207/.312/.232 batting line last season. Keeping both pitchers fresh and giving opposing batters a different look in the ninth inning over the course of a series sounds like a pretty smart strategy to me.
  • Chipper Jones, who turns 39 in April, is tearing the cover off the ball this spring after undergoing career-threatening surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee last August. I’m sure he’ll miss a handful of games due to various bumps and bruises, but so far so good. He might even be a switch-hitting zombie at this point.
  • Spring training statistics don’t mean a whole lot, but Nate McLouth looks healthy and is hitting pretty well, which is quite a contrast from where he was this time last year. Is he primed for a rebound season? Perhaps. But really, can things go worse for him than they did last year? If somehow they do, the Braves have a big problem in center field.
  • For a team that is expected to contend this season, the Braves are showing an awful lot of faith in 21-year-old Freddie Freeman to be their every day first baseman. However, if everything breaks right with this team, they aren’t going to ask too much of him offensively. He’ll probably bat seventh or eighth on most days, which should take the pressure off.

So how are they going to do?

I’ll say this, I like them more for the division now than I did about a month ago. Still, I’ll go the conservative route and say they’ll finish in second place and repeat as Wild Card winners.

Tony Gwynn’s family sues tobacco companies for wrongful death

Tony Gwynn
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The widow of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and their two children, former major leaguer Tony Gwynn Jr. and Anisha Gwynn-Jones, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court arising out of Gwynn’s death of oral cancer in 2014.

According to the lawsuit, Gwynn started dipping as a 17-year-old while playing baseball for San Diego State. According to the complaint, “Once Defendants got Tony addicted to their products, he became a self-described `tobacco junkie”‘ who used 1 1/2 to 2 cans of Skoal per day.” The suit seeks unspecified damages against Altria Group Corp., the parent company of Philip Morris, and US Smokeless Tobacco Co. LLC.

It will not be an easy lawsuit for the Gwynn family to win. While Gwynn himself cited his copious tobacco use as the cause of the salivary gland cancer which eventually killed him — and while it makes a lot of intuitive sense to assume that smokeless tobacco use + time = oral cancer — Gwynn’s specific form of cancer, of the parotid gland, is not associated with tobacco use. The gland which developed the cancer was around his ear and there has been no observed link between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of that particular gland, let alone any sort of consensus on the matter. There are strong links, obviously, between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, mouth, and throat, in addition to other health problems.

None of which is to say definitively that tobacco didn’t cause Gwynn’s cancer — there just isn’t enough medical data on this form of cancer to be so certain — or that the defendants in this case may not settle with the Gwynn family to avoid the expense, risk and bad p.r. of defending a suit arising out of the death of a beloved figure. But it is certainly not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination, and Gwynn’s family will have the burden of proof.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 23:  Hunter Pence #8 and Matt Duffy #5 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after Pence hit a walk-off rbi single to score Brandon Belt #9 (not pictured) against the San Diego Padres in the bottom of the ninth inning at AT&T Park on May 23, 2016 in San Francisco, California. The Giants won the game 1-0.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 1, Reds 0: Clayton Kershaw with a two-hit shutout. And he only needed 102 pitches to do it. His opponent, Brandon Finnegan was almost as good, allowing one run over eight innings. And that run came on a double play. Low offense and both pitchers going the distance led to a game time of two hours eleven minutes. Welcome to 1966.

Giants 1, Padres 0: Johnny Cueto tossed a two-hit shutout of his own. And he had to, as the Giants and Padres traded zeroes until the ninth inning when Hunter Pence doubled in Brandon Belt for the walkoff win.

Mets 7, Nationals 1David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker all homered, with Cespedes and Walker going back-to-back in the fifth inning. Bartolo Colon allowed only one run over seven innings. Colon also did this, due to a stiff back:

At the plate, Colon did his best to not contribute to Gonzalez’s rough night, telling catcher Wilson Ramos he wasn’t going to swing.

“I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, `Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging,” Colon said through a translator. “After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: `No, I promise you. Throw it right down the middle. I am not going to swing.”

If you’re going to all gaga and anti-DH when pitchers hit homers, you kinda gotta contend with this too, do you not?

Cardinals 4, Cubs 3Randal Grichuk hit a walkoff homer. He’s also the latest addition to the “Describe in Literal Terms What Happened” All-Star Team:

“I was trying to battle and get a pitch in the zone and put good wood on it and get on. Luckily, I was able to get a homer.”

ESPN is busy preparing a seven figure offer sheet for him to be an analyst when his playing career is over.

White Sox 7, Indians 6; Indians 5, White Sox 1: The old Doubleheader of Existential Stasis, as the clubs split and ask themselves if it would have been better to never have left bed that morning. Todd Frazier hit a solo shot and Brett Lawrie hit a three-run homer for the White Sox in the first game. In the nightcap Jose Ramirez, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe went deep for the Tribe. It doesn’t matter, I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway. Eat at Arby’s.

Pirates 6, Rockies 3: A scary moment when Pirates starter Ryan Vogelsong was hit in the face with a pitch. He’s been admitted to a hospital but seems alright. Wilfredo Boscan was the emergency reliever, allowing two runs on two hits and himself hitting an RBI single in four innings. It was a bad game all around for folks near home plate: umpire Jeff Nelson left the game after some debris hit him in the eye during a play at home.

Tigers 5, Phillies 4: Two homers for Miguel Cabrera who apparently did not feel any bad effects from that bruised knee on Sunday. Miggy also doubled and scored a run on a Victor Martinez single. J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos also homered for Detroit, which has won six of seven.

Marlins 7, Rays 6: Four hits for Ichiro, bringing the future Hall of Famer to 2,960 in the U.S. portion of his career. More importantly, one of his singles contributed to an eighth inning rally which helped the Marlins come from behind. Suzuki is 10 for 13 in the past three games. As a part time player he ain’t exactly as important to Miami as David Ortiz is to Boston, but he too is going out on top, presuming he is going out, hitting .417/.478/.467 on the season.

Angels 2, Rangers 0: The Angels were supposed to be a carcass on the highway after losing 40% of their pitching staff to ligament injuries but they’ve won eight of 11 because, well, baseball. Albert Pujols‘ homer in the third inning was his 569th, which ties him for 12th in career homers with Rafael Palmeiro. Nick Tropeano allowed four hits and one walk while striking out six while pitching into the seventh inning.

Royals 10, Twins 4: Sal Perez went 5-for-5, hitting a double, a triple and three singles while driving in one. Omar Infante only had one hit, but it was a two-run double and he added a sac fly to give him three driven in on the night. Ricky Nolasco gave up six runs on eight hits in less than three innings of work, so that continues to be a great situation for the Twins. Between this season, next season and his inevitable buyout, Nolasco is owed $25 million by the end of next year. The Twins have the worst record in baseball, which is saying a lot given that the Braves are in this league.

Athletics 5, Mariners 0: Rich Hill tossed eight shutout innings and notched his seventh win of the year, which is a pretty good trick for a guy pitching for a team that’s in fourth place and six games under .500.

 

The Mets are among six teams that help Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 19:  A detailed view of the blackboard with theoretical physics equations in chalk by Alberto Ramos, Theoretical Physics Fellow and visitor, Antonio Gonzalez-Arroyo from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (both not in frame) at The European Organization for Nuclear Research commonly know as CERN on April 19, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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In a special for USA TODAY Sports, Mike Vorkunov details how six teams — the Mets in particular — provide an education program that helps their Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas. It seems like an obvious win-win: smarter players make smarter decisions, making them more likely to achieve their potential as athletes. That, of course, requires spending money, which is why only six teams make the investment. For the players, if baseball doesn’t work out, they are better able to support themselves in other ways.

Vorkunov lists the Pirates, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners as the other teams who provide an education program for their Dominican prospects. We learned earlier this month that the Phillies were also investing in making sure their minor leaguers eat healthy. As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “few teams” supply their minor league players with healthy food options.

Juan Henderson, the head of the Mets’ Dominican academy, said, “We see the benefit of it. I gotta tell you, we’re working with a new generation of baseball players. You see in the past that players just carry a bat and a glove and a helmet on the baseball field and in the academy. Those years, I think, are going to be pretty much over. Now they also do that, but they also carry books, they also carry an iPad, they also carry a laptop.”

Kudos to the six teams for making a great decision and here’s hoping the other 24 teams follow suit.

Video: Albert Pujols hits 569th career home run, tying Rafael Palmeiro

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 22:  Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returns to the dugout after scoring in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 22, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Angels first baseman Albert Pujols cranked out a two-run home run in the third inning against Rangers starter Derek Holland, breaking a scoreless tie. It’s the ninth homer of the season for Pujols and the 569th of his career, putting him into a tie with Rafael Palmeiro for 12th on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard.

Harmon Killebrew is Pujols’ next target at 573, followed by Mark McGwire at 583 and Frank Robinson at 586.

Pujols hadn’t homered since May 13. He entered Monday night hitting a mediocre .228/.309/.395 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 188 plate appearances.