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My, how times have changed for Braves rotation

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) In the tunnel leading to the dugout at the Atlanta Braves spring training stadium, there’s a picture of John Smoltz being inducted into the Hall of Fame, right above a photo showing Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine holding their Cooperstown plaques.

My, how times have changed.

The Braves head into another rebuilding season with a rotation that figures to be a work in progress well beyond opening day, with manager Fredi Gonzalez conceding it might be the All-Star break before things sort themselves out.

For now, Julio Teheran is the only sure thing, but even the 25-year-old former All-Star is coming off his worst full season in the majors. Bud Norris, who went 3-11 with a 6.72 ERA a year ago, figures to be the No. 2 starter, and the only other pitcher who seems locked into a spot is 23-year-old Matt Wisler, coming off a promising rookie season.

Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.

The Braves will give a long look to a plethora of young pitchers, many of them acquired in trades over the past year as part of a massive roster overhaul that isn’t likely pay dividends for at least another season or two.

“Sometimes that wave is out by the Marshall Islands,” Gonzalez quipped. “But it’s coming.”

This is all rather jarring because starting pitching was the cornerstone of Atlanta’s unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles. In some ways, the Braves are hoping to pull off a repeat of the late 1980s, when they drafted Glavine and acquired Smoltz in a trade, setting the stage for a worst-to-first turnaround in 1991. They signed Maddux two years later, giving the Braves a trio of Hall of Famers-to-be who would anchor their rotation for the better part of the decade.

No one on the current roster should be expected to fill those massively large spikes, but Gonzalez is hopeful that youngsters such as Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Aaron Blair, Sean Newcomb, Williams Perez and Lucas Sims will eventually form the cornerstone of another stellar rotation.

“At least we have some candidates,” the manager said. “A lot of stuff has got to go right. They’ve got to get better and that kind of stuff. But I like the arms, I really do.”

In the meantime, veteran pitchers such as Norris, Kyle Kendrick and Jhoulys Chacin – all of them coming off miserable seasons – may have to fill in the gaps until the youngsters are ready.

“This team is very young,” said Norris, who threw two perfect innings in Saturday’s spring training loss to Pittsburgh. “I just want to do my part, be that veteran presence in the rotation.”

Norris was a 15-game winner for Baltimore in 2014, but he followed up with the worst season of his career. He came down with bronchitis, lost 20 pounds in four days and never recovered. Released by the Orioles in early August, he finished out the season with San Diego and signed a bargain-basement deal with the Braves.

Only 31, there’s still time to get things back on track.

“I had a tough one last year,” Norris said. “I’m here to prove I’m the same guy I was the six years before that.”

Kendrick also has plenty of prove.

He had double-figure wins in six of eight seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies but struggled through a miserable year after signing with the Colorado Rockies, going 7-13 with a 6.32 ERA in the thin air of Coors Field.

Now he’s back in the NL East, getting a chance to pitch in the much more favorable pitching conditions of Turner Field.

“I’m somewhere where I want to be,” he said, “and I’m excited about it.”

Foltynewicz is mounting a comeback of his own. One of the hardest throwers in the organization, the 24-year-old right-hander developed blood clots in his shoulder, a frightening condition that could’ve ended tragically if not diagnosed. He underwent surgery that left a nasty scar under his right armpit and is taking things slowly at the beginning of camp.

While it’s doubtful he’ll be ready for the start of the season, Foltynewicz is one of those guys who could join the rotation during the season. Also, he’s another young pitcher with holes in his repertoire, which were evident as he went 4-6 with 5.71 ERA in 2015.

A 100-mph fastball doesn’t mean much without other pitches.

“These guys get paid to hit the fastball, no matter how hard it is,” said Foltynewicz, who hopes to improve his slider. “You’ve got to have some off-speed pitches, and you’ve got to have command of them.”

Maybe on the way to the dugout, he’ll get some inspiration from those pictures on the wall.

Astros owner Jim Crane says MLB ‘explicitly exonerated’ him

Jim Crane
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Even during a pandemic, the Astros can’t seem to avoid putting their foot in their mouth. Per The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, Astros owner Jim Crane claimed in a legal filing on Monday that Major League Baseball “explicitly exonerated” him in the club’s 2017 sign-stealing scandal that resulted in a now-tainted championship.

Crane is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former pitcher Mike Bolsinger, whose last appearance in the majors was on August 4, 2017 against the Astros. He faced eight batters, allowing four runs on four hits and three walks in one-third of an inning. Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations arising out of the sign-stealing scandal. Bolsinger is seeking damages for himself as well as for the Astros to forfeit the nearly $31 million in bonuses earned from winning the championship in 2017, asking for the money to be reallocated to children’s charities and retired players in need of financial assistance.

Commissioner Rob Manfred did not use the word “exonerated” in his report on the league’s investigation into the Astros’ cheating scheme. Manfred did, however, write, “At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Saying that the league found “no evidence” that Crane was involved and patting Crane on the back for not obstructing the investigation is not the same was “explicitly exonerating” him. The Athletic asked MLB if it agreed with Crane’s characterization of the report. Rather than agreeing with Crane, the league simply said, “All of our comments about the investigation are included in the report.”

This isn’t the first legal filing in which the Astros made a questionable claim. Recently, Astros lawyers claimed the organization expressed “sincere apologies and remorse for the events described in the report by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”

In Monday’s filing, Astros lawyers swung at Bolsinger, citing his poor pitching performance overall in 2017. They wrote, “Plaintiff wants to have a California judge and jury literally call ball and strikes, and award him money damages based on rank conjecture about what might have happened to him in Houston on August 4, 2017 due to alleged rules violations he speculates may have occurred that day.”

Astros lawyers also questioned the frequency of the club’s cheating and its impact, writing, “Major League Baseball (‘MLB’) investigated alleged rule violations by the Astros related to sign-stealing, resulting in a January 13, 2020 report in which the Commissioner of Baseball expressly found that ‘it is impossible to determine whether the (Astros’) conduct actually impacted the results on the field. The MLB did not conclude that sign-stealing violations occurred in every game or even most at-bats in the 2017 season.”

Astros fan Tony Adams, who analyzed every home game during the 2017 regular season and posted the results on SignStealingScandal.com, found that there were 54 “bangs” on August 4 when Bolsinger pitched against the Astros. That was the highest total among all Astros home games that season. Bolsinger entered in the middle of the fourth inning, first facing Yuli Gurriel. Adams found three bangs — all on curve balls — in a plate appearance that ended in a walk. Adams found four more bangs — all on breaking balls — in a Brian McCann at-bat later that inning that also ended in a walk. Bolsinger then gave up a single to Tyler White, with trash can banging on a cut fastball and a curve. The next batter, Jake Marisnick, singled as well, hearing bangs on a cutter and a curve. Bolsinger finally got out of the inning when Bregman swung at a first-pitch curve (yes, there was a trash can bang for that) and flied out.

Importantly, Bolsinger’s lawyer notes that Crane’s motion makes MLB eligible for discovery. It is already eligible for discovery in New York federal court where the league is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by daily fantasy sports contestants. Bolsinger’s lawsuit is brought out of California state court. The Astros want Bolsinger’s lawsuit dismissed or at least moved to Texas.

Because the Astros can’t seem to stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this whole situation figures to get even more wild as time goes on. Due to discovery, we may end up learning even more about the Astros’ cheating ways than the league may have let on in their report on their investigation.