Fredi Gonzalez Reuters

Springtime Storylines: Will standing pat get the Braves back to the playoffs?


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Atlanta Braves.

The Big Question: Will standing pat get the Braves back to the playoffs?

The Braves didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Red Sox in the aftermath of the 2011 season, but their collapse was no less epic. They held a seemingly insurmountable 9 1/2 game lead for the National League Wild Card on August 26th (10 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals, by the way), only to flush it all down the toilet in September.

One would think that such a miserable finish would provide Liberty Media with the impetus to allow GM Frank Wren to improve an offense which was 22nd in the majors last season in runs scored and OPS and 26th in batting average and on-base percentage, but while the Marlins and Nationals made splashy additions over the winter, the Braves did absolutely nothing. Well, except for trading the overpriced and disappointing Derek Lowe to the Indians for a minor league left-hander.

The inactivity looks bad from a symbolic perspective, but the Braves appear to be banking on bounce-back seasons from key players who dealt with injuries and/or ineffectiveness last season, including Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado and Brian McCann. They are also hoping for further progression from some of their young players, especially Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Freddie Freeman. Getting a full season out of Michael Bourn will probably help, too.

Remember, the Braves won 89 games last season when a lot of things didn’t go according to plan. Remember Dan Uggla’s nightmare first half? If Heyward and Hanson get back on track, they have a good chance of being back in the thick of things again. And hey, at least there’s a second Wild Card this time around.

What else is going on?

  • Chipper Jones’ farewell tour is already off to a shaky start, as he’s expected to miss at least the first few games of the season following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. It’s certainly convenient that Martin Prado can just slide over to third base, but this leaves Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz splitting time in left field. In other words, on any given day, one of their best bench bats will be in the starting lineup. Some extra depth would be helpful. We’ve heard rumors that the Braves could be interested in Cubs’ outfielder Marlon Byrd, which would actually be a decent fit on paper. The Braves clearly need a backup plan, because chances are this won’t be Jones’ only DL-stint this season.
  • The Braves attempted to cash in Jair Jurrjens for a bat during the offseason, but a deal failed to materialize, likely due to the high price tag and lingering concerns over his right knee. However, the current depth is a pretty nice luxury to have, especially with Tim Hudson expected to miss the first month of the season following November back surgery. Randall Delgado will likely fill Hudson’s rotation spot for now and it’s possible the Braves could revisit the possibility of moving Jurrjens around the deadline. With any luck, top prospect right-hander Julio Teheran could be ready to make a big impact by then.
  • Can Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty possibly replicate what they did last year? Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez went to his three-headed relief monster early and often, as they combined for an ungodly 238 2/3 innings. Whether the overuse helped contribute to the team’s collapse is up for debate — Kimbrel did fall off a little bit in September — but Kris Medlen could really help lighten the load in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
  • The Braves let veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez walk over the winter, but the expectation was that they would sign a short-term bridge for prospect Tyler Pastornicky. That didn’t happen. And no, bringing back the injury-prone Jack Wilson doesn’t count. Even worse, Pastornicky isn’t a lock to win the starting shortstop job out of spring training. It’s now possible that the slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons will get the nod, despite never playing above High-A. Either way, the Braves will potentially have one of the weakest hitting regulars in the majors.

How are they gonna do?

The Marlins and Nationals are naturally getting more buzz this spring following their highly-active offseasons, but I still feel like the Braves have more immediate upside than either of them. Of course, my optimism hinges on the starting rotation staying healthy and Heyward returning to form, which is obviously no lock. Fredi Gonzalez’s managerial style doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, either. I don’t think they are good enough to win the division, but I currently see them finishing second and securing a spot in the new one-game Wild Card playoff.

White Sox acquire right-hander Tommy Kahnle from Rockies

Tommy Kahnle
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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According to the official Twitter account of the Chicago White Sox, the club acquired right-hander Tommy Kahnle from the Rockies on Tuesday evening in exchange for minor league pitcher Yency Almonte.

Kahnle was designated for assignment by the Rockies last week in a flurry of moves made in preparation of next month’s Rule 5 Draft. The 26-year-old former fifth-round pick posted an ugly 4.86 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, and 39/28 K/BB ratio in 33 1/3 innings this past season for Colorado and he wasn’t much better at Triple-A Albuquerque.

Almonte, 21, had a 3.41 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 110/38 K/BB ratio in 137 1/3 innings this past season between Low-A Kannapolis and High-A Winston-Salem.

It’s a straight one-for-one deal of two non-prospects, and the timing of it — in the evening, with Thanksgiving approaching — has our Craig Calcaterra wondering whether an executive was just trying to get out of some family responsibilities …

Mark McGwire to become the Padres bench coach

Los Angeles Dodgers batting coach Mark McGwire roams the field during practice for the National League baseball championship series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, in St. Louis. The Dodgers are scheduled to play the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The other day Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres were in discussions with former Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire about their bench coach job. Today Jon Heyman reports that the deal is done and will soon be announced.

McGwire has been the hitting coach for Los Angeles for the past three seasons. When his contract was not renewed following the end of 2015 he was rumored to be up for the Diamondbacks’ hitting coach job. He likely view staying in Southern California to be a plus, as he makes his home in Irvine, which is around 90 miles from Petco Park. That’s a long commute, but Mac can afford the gas, I guess.

How to talk to your family about the designated hitter at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner

While political topics are normally the subject of awkward conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table, hardcore baseball fans know that it can be just as awkward to talk about the game with relatives.

They don’t know baseball as well as you do — not by a long shot — but for some reason everyone thinks they have the God-given right not only to offer their baseball opinions but to demand acknowledgement that those opinions are correct. Baseball may be dying, you guys, but it’s vestigial status as our National Pastime makes everyone think they’re an expert by simple virtue of being an American. It’s maddening.

I can’t tell you how to keep your family away from sensitive topics, but here are brief answers to some frequently asked questions about the state of the game, and how you can defuse combustible conversations:

Will the National League adopt the designated hitter?

Despite the fact that the DH has been around four 43 seasons, your relatives — even those far younger than 43 — will loudly proclaim it to be a new-fangled abomination as they pass the sweet potatoes. While the best way to avoid conflict here is to say something like “I think the differences between the leagues are special and should be preserved” and try to quickly move on to something else, we don’t progress as a civilization by indulging foolishness in the name of peace. Tell your relatives that pitchers batting is dumb and that the DH should be universal. And then tell them to get their own sweet potatoes. You’re trying to eat here for cryin’ out loud.

Where will the big free agents go? Don’t the Yankees spend all of their big money and buy championships anyway?

My god, your uncle/cousin/sister’s boyfriend who probably shouldn’t be piping up about ANYTHING right now given that none of you really like him and it’s not going to last anyway is out of touch when it comes to such things. Tell them that the Yankees haven’t won jack since the first year of Obama’s first term and that even when they were winning the World Series all the time they did so on the back of homegrown talent, savvily-developed. Indeed, they STOPPED winning championships once they went huge on free agency and jacked up payroll and, despite the fact that they still owe a lot of old guys money, they are back to developing talent again and are way less likely to spend stupid money in free agency than they used to be. Careful here, though: people have strong feelings about the Yankees regardless of their ignorance and will likely fight back on this point. Maybe it’s safer just to discuss Obama. Here’s an idea to that end: how — as your drunk uncle claims — can Obama simultaneously be the least effective president ever AND a total dictator? Maybe Obama is one of those two things, but my drunk uncle has never given me a satisfactory answer to how he can be both.

Why doesn’t baseball have a salary cap? The players make too much money.

The idea of a salary cap in baseball is dead. Deader than vaudeville. It blew up the game in 1994-95, and the owners blinked rather than try it again in 2002.  Since then the money has been flowing, competitive balance has been better than most people will admit, and the owners seem to have very little desire to fight that fight again.  It’s not going to happen. Yet, for some reason — likely the Football Industrial Complex’s propaganda machine — every sports dilettante thinks that baseball not only needs a salary cap but that it’s actually something that could happen, even though it isn’t.

Here some ju-jitsu is in order. Rather than bog things down with facts which show that there is no need for a salary cap, turn the question around on them and ask them when the billionaires who own baseball teams will accept a cap on how much they should earn for their “labor.” When they spout off about how owners built the business themselves and are entitled to whatever they can get, ask them which of the current owners, who form a veritable Who’s-Who of Paper Movers, Genetic Lottery Winners and Men Who Were Born on Third Base Yet Think They Hit a Triple, built a dang thing. Peter Angelos, maybe. Just don’t tell them that he’s a rich plaintiff’s lawyer who had the union’s back during the 1994-95 strike.

What’s wrong with young players today? Why don’t they act professionally and respect the game? 

By this time your uncle may be so drunk on the Beaujolais Nouveau that he may actually slip and say “Latin players” instead of “young players,” and that’s assuming he’s polite enough to use words like “Latin” to refer to people from the Caribbean, Central and South America. If so, skip the lecture about how arguments regarding baseball decorum and “playing the game the right way” are really just proxies for cultural anxiety and creeping xenophobia and go directly to the inevitable conversation about immigration, refugees and Donald Trump. It’ll save you time and make everyone angrier way, way faster. And this is a wonderful thing.

Or, at least it is for me. I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year and the quicker people get to open warfare the quicker I can kick everyone out, bringing some peace and quiet back to my house. Plus: more pie for me.


(with both thanks and apologies to Brendan Nyhan of the New York Times)

Jerry Dipoto refutes the notion that Robinson Cano is unhappy

Robinson Cano

Yesterday John Harper of the Daily News reported that, according to a friend of Robinson Cano‘s, Cano is unhappy in Seattle and would like to go back to New York. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto responded to that report, saying that it’s totally false based on his conversations with Cano and his agent:

“[Cano’s agent] reached out to let me know that did not come from Robbie and that’s not at all reflective of how he felt,” said Dipoto, who replaced former GM Jack Zduriencik two months ago. “Shortly after the season ended, I sat down with Robinson in my office for two hours and we had a great talk and I think we left with a very clear understanding of who one another might be.

There are official lines and things one says to one’s friends. Then again, there are also friends who know things and “friends” who assume things thought by others and then talk to newspapers about it too. Where all of this falls on the truth/knowledge spectrum is something none of us can ever know.

What can be known for sure is that (a) Cano had a rough season from both a health and baseball perspective; (b) Cano is a professional who knows that there is zero upside to communicating displeasure with one’s current team to the press, either directly or through surrogates; and (c) when one is productive and one’s team is winning, one feels very differently about life than if one is not productive and not winning.

In short: there could very well be truth from both sides of this little happening.