Tagged: Braves

Opening Day 2010

Well, well, well… I’m finally back, just in time for the season to start. I graduate from the University of Tampa next month and I have been caught up in all the pre–graduation work. Then I expect to move in July, likely out of my lifelong hometown of Tampa, for graduate school and possible employment. So updates here will likely be even more sporadic than they were last season

Back to baseball, we are just about in full swing. The Braves debut with most other teams on Monday and the Rays host their opener Tuesday night. (The night I happen to have a late can’t–miss class.)

I checked out Braves Spring Training on March 13 when they hosted the Blue Jays. Ricky Romero owned the Braves and Toronto won 3–0 behind untimely errors against Tim Hudson. The slightly–improved Champion Stadium looked great as usual, and we sat in the lower level for the first time. I was about four rows behind Frank Wren, right behind the plate. It was a bit hotter than expected due to the concrete and steel, but nothing like it would be today. That didn’t stop me from having chicken noodle soup catered to my seat. It was good too.

After the game we stayed at the Best Western Lakeside (my first night ever in a hotel room all to myself) and ate at Colorado House of Beef. I recommend the Colorado’s Best, a 14–ounce center–cut portion of New York strip steak. We may go back again next year.

Now on to the regular season. The Rays added both Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac to the Opening Day roster. I like the idea because both men are versatile and did very well this spring. Rodriguez particularly killed the ball. Hopefully Rodriguez carries it over into the regular season and earns some playing time. It seems like Brignac will get most of the second base appearances while Ben Zobrist will play right field. These three should get all the time they can because they are all better than Gabe Kapler. Nothing personal against the Jewish muscleman, he’s just past his prime.

Mike Ekstrom narrowly beat Joaquin Benoit for the final bullpen spot. This surprised me quite a bit; I see Benoit as the better pitcher. But Ekstrom was said to have better fastball command and he didn’t just miss a season injured. So he should hold over in a mop–up role until J.P. Howell comes back. I also like Andy Sonnanstine in the long relief spot, and I love former Brave Rafael Soriano as the closer.

The Rays are expected to possibly drop their payroll by $20 million next season. That’s quite sad for this market. As Tom Verducci said, we “failed the litmus test” last year when our attendance only rose by less than 1,000 fans per game. I’m as guilty as all of us, only having gone to two games. In our defense, the economy in this area sucks and only nine teams saw any increase in attendance in 2009 — ours was the sixth–best increase. In terms of cutting payroll, if we get Pena, Soriano and Burrell off the books, that’s about $25 million right there. If Crawford decides to unfortunately depart, that’s more than $10 million extra. We could actually sign one or two good players next offseason. Combine that with the rise of Desmond Jennings and other prospects, and we can still contend. Don’t count us out.

I wrote a spring recap/season preview for the Rays for my school newspaper. I basically talk about everybody there, and it would clog a lot of space on this blog, so the link is here.

On to the Braves, their starting rotation looks like the 1990s, chock full of stars: Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson, Hudson, Kawakami. When Tim Hudson is the fourth starter on an underrated staff, you know you have something special. Tommy Hanson could win a Cy Young Award soon, and so could Jair Jurrjens. If they just keep up the pace and Derek Lowe stays in shape, the Braves could sneak into the postseason.

The talk of Braves camp is Jason Heyward. What an amazing talent. He has rocket power, a great batting eye, good speed and a cannon arm. He can be the next Ken Griffey, Jr., hopefully without the injuries and slowing down. He can make Braves baseball its most exciting since the late 1990s. Now if only Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus can rebound and Nate McLouth starts to hit.

The Yankees and Red Sox begin the season tonight. I’ll be cheering for the weather and the medical staff. Now we wait impatiently for our teams to begin the 2010 season. Every team — OK, maybe about 25 out of 30 — has hope for a championship. Let’s bring one down south.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Late Recap of Rays FanFest 2010

Well, for the first time in my second decade of MLBlogging, I’m back. And just as it began in the previous two years, the 2010 Rays season kicked off with FanFest on February 20.

I arrived at around 8:30 at Tropicana Field, much later than that 7:00 arrival last year. The line was still short, maybe just a few dozen people. FOX 13 interviewed the first people who got there (they couldn’t do this last year?), then the doors finally opened around 10:10. It felt good to escape the cold winds, and just as good to escape into center field. I promptly gathered my cards for the autograph lines as I checked the schedule. My brother went out to FanFest for the first time since 2001, so we could double our autograph intake. I noticed that Table 2 featured Desmond Jennings and Dan Johnson at noon, then Carlos Pena at 1:00. I had both Jennings’ and Pena’s cards, so Table 2 it was. My brother headed off to Table 5 with a Matt Joyce card. Table 1 with Evan Longoria was not happening by the time we reached the lines.

So after playing the waiting game, during which time I pulled up several pieces of the field as souvenirs, it was time to approach the tables. Of course, they didn’t start right at noon, which I’m sure angered people in the Longoria and B.J. Upton lines. I had a good spot in line, about halfway up from the end where the line curves around. Plus it just so happened that many of those ahead of me were there to see Pena, while I was comfortable with Jennings. So I jumped ahead and took my shot. I talked to Johnson first, asking him how Japan treated him.

“They treated me well,” Johnson told me. “But I did more work there in two weeks than I did in a year here.”

We also agreed that Japan (where Johnson hit .215 with 24 home runs for Yokohama in 2009) promotes a vastly different culture. After he signed my program and I thanked him for the 2008 home run in Boston, I moved on to Jennings. I didn’t have many words, but he did sign my 2007 Bowman Sterling card. That will be money in the bank many years down the road — at least as long as Jennings himself cashes in on his potential.

After eating (expensive) Checkers food in the right field seats, I returned to the field and caught up with Jennings again. This time I visited the Metro PCS Call a Friend booth, where I had Jennings call my dad. They talked for a minute about everything Rays, and it made their days. Well, at least Dad’s.

At 2:00, it was town hall meeting time. This is always one of my favorite events, being able to listen to broadcasters and other notable names discuss the game and the team, plus asking them questions. The first round starred Dewayne Staats and Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. Roberts may be 83 years old, but his baseball memory remains perfectly clear. Plus he signed my program. A Hall of Famer’s signature is worth every dollar and every minute I spent at FanFest. Anyway, Roberts spent a lot of time on the differences between his era and today, and the dynamics of pitching. I asked him how far he thought baseball went to protect the hitter in today’s game. His first sentence spoke volumes.

“When I started, hitters didn’t even wear helmets.”

Then he made it a point to discuss the controversy over hitters wearing body armor at the plate, which never happened 50 years ago. He told a few more stories, littered with details — this guy knows the count on which he gave up a home run in a memorable game in 1954. And, of course, pitch count was a major point of contention. Roberts suggested that a pitcher’s mechanics determine injury risk more than the amount of throwing. He has a point.

After they wrapped up, 3:00 meant time for round two. Radio broadcasters Dave Wills and Andy Freed (whom I had spoken to earlier in the day) made their way up on stage at the Batter’s Eye Restaurant. Joining them was the man who will hopefully turn the Rays’ strikeout–prone, foul–bunting woes around: new hitting coach Derek Shelton. His focus is on situational hitting, which I think is essential to any championship team. In discussing this topic, Shelton made a valid argument.

“If Carlos Pena is up with a runner on third base, less than two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, I want him putting the ball on the ground. If it’s two outs and nobody on base in the same situation, I want him taking his three swings and trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Shelton’s main points were that it’s not striking out often, but striking out at the wrong times, that kills run production, and that they just needed to play to win the game. He also mentioned his work with most of the team’s hitters during the offseason, notably with B.J. Upton. He says Upton needs to cut down on the “moving parts” in his swing, and his extremely fast hands could do the work. He added that it could take as long as 18 months to recover from the shoulder surgery Upton went through in November 2008, which would explain his epic fail 2009 season. Speaking of which, Pat Burrell is also in shape and ready to hit under Shelton’s guidance.

Shelton answered my question about which young player would break out by explaining Upton’s progress and saying he would be that guy. Dave Wills told me this last year too, so maybe it’s not a lock. My brother asked Shelton about Kelly Shoppach, with whom he worked with the Cleveland Indians. He said Shoppach was “closer to 2008” than his injury–riddled 2009 season. 2008 was when he hit 21 home runs and rendered Victor Martinez nearly irrelevant. He also loves Tropicana Field, a rarity in this league.

That ended my 2010 Rays FanFest on a high note. The autographs were an automatic win for us, and of course talking to these people up close and personally is a rare treat that should always be capitalized upon. The only problems: the people running the show had little sense of timeliness, and there is no possible way to do everything one can do in seven hours. They need to make this a two–day event. Overall, I would say FanFest hit the line between B+ and A–.

I will end here by announcing my annual journey to Champion Stadium in Kissimmee to see the Braves. It is happening March 13 when the Braves face the Blue Jays, who I saw there in 2007. Hopefully Jason Heyward gets some playing time. He’s rated the number–one prospect, ahead of Stephen Strasburg, and has already sent shockwaves around Braves camp. Hopefully he and Jennings become the game’s two most dominant outfielders.

Until next time, go Rays.

Zaun Signs with Brewers; Soriano from Braves to Rays

Two major roster moves have shaken up the Tampa Bay Rays — and my other favorite team, the Atlanta Braves.

First, Gregg Zaun signed a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week. This is unfortunate for the Rays, who hoped to keep him to back up Kelly Shoppach. There is still Shawn Riggans if he returns in good health, or even Dioner Navarro if necessary. The Brewers had virtually no catching game, so Zaun is a good pickup for them. Good luck to Gregg in this endeavor.

Today came the big announcement that the Rays and the Braves had made a big deal. The Braves, who gave the Rays Willy Aybar before the 2008 season, sent closer Rafael Soriano to Tampa Bay for middle reliever Jesse Chavez.

Soriano had just surprisingly accepted arbitration with Atlanta, signing for one year and $6.5–$7 million. The Braves recently signed former Red Sox (boo) pitchers Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito for the back end of the bullpen, so Soriano was available on the trading block.

Soriano shared closing duties with Mike Gonzalez in 2009 and posted a 2.97 ERA with 27 saves out of 31 opportunities. He walked 27 hitters along with 102 strikeouts. His closing experience gives the Rays a huge bullpen boost. They could no longer trust J.P. Howell’s on–again, off–again finishing of games. Soriano turns 30 years old on December 19 and thus is in his prime, and while he has been injury prone, he made a career–high 77 appearances last year.

Chavez gives the Braves a reliable middle reliever. He was previously acquired by the Rays in the Akinori Iwamura trade with the Pirates. The 26–year–old made a team–high 73 appearances in 2009, totaling a 4.01 ERA, ballooned by a 5.10 ERA in his final 30 appearances. He can help bolster the front end of an overhauled Atlanta bullpen, the way he would have in Tampa Bay.

Essentially, the Rays dumped Iwamura’s salary and got Soriano through that move, while the Braves kept their bullpen strong and freed up Soriano’s salary to acquire a powerful first baseman or outfielder. Great job by Andrew Friedman and Frank Wren, and best of luck to both Soriano and Chavez.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

All-Star Break Happenings

Hello everyone, it’s time for my one and only All–Star break update. I have to sandwich this between a Thursday–Sunday vacation I just took in which I had no Internet access and a flight to San Diego tomorrow (Wednesday) morning. So I’ll do what I can in talking about my teams and their headlines.

  • Jeff Francoeur got traded to the Mets? Seriously?
  • Carlos Pena competed in last night’s Home Run Derby, where he narrowly missed advancement to the second round. Albert Pujols would like to thank the fan who brought an out over the wall and turned it into a home run. Pena had a bad pitcher, Scott McNulty, who threw the ball outside 90% of the time. And he’s an assistant baseball coach at my school. Maybe I should interview him about the experience. I’ll leave out the “bad pitcher” part.
  • Speaking of the Home Run Derby, I thought Nelson Cruz, who lost in the finals to Prince Fielder, was quite impressive. Looking at him, I can see that he’s a good all–around player with an easy power swing. I would like to see him go on to big things. He has already shot up from “Four–A” journeyman to All–Star.
  • Despite my approximately 3,300 votes for Pena, he did not win the Final Vote. I also voted against Shane Victorino because he’s a Phillie, but he won anyway. I would like to thank Dustin Pedroia for opening up a spot for Pena, though I’m surprised Ian Kinsler isn’t there. He should be, he deserves it.
  • The Rays stand at 48–41, 3.5 games behind the Yankees and six games back of the Red Sox. They have started slowly making their move lately, though the last place Oakland A’s have inexplicably given them a lot of trouble. At least here there was no long losing streak prior to the All–Star break. The Braves are 43–45, a half game ahead of the Mets, which is hilarious. I hope the Mets crash and burn for the rest of this season. And beyond.
  • Jeff Francoeur got traded to the Mets? Seriously? He was sent packing for Ryan Church in Thursday night’s trade, the first between the Braves and Mets in more than 15 years. Francoeur had been on the chopping block for several weeks as the Braves had run out of patience, but I never thought they could send him to the enemy. Church didn’t think he would be a Brave either, but here he is. He’s been the better player since last year, and his left–handed bat gives the Braves options between him and right–hander Matt Diaz. This may be a good deal.

I’ll be watching the All–Star Game tonight as I pack for San Diego. I’ll be staying for six nights at a little family reunion in Escondido. We should be seeing about 30 of our relatives, including a few that I haven’t met. Hopefully we have some baseball fans in the house. News just broke that Evan Longoria, the first ever Rays starter in an All–Star Game, is out due to an infected ring finger. I hate that for him and the team. Good luck to the remaining Rays and Brave in the game tonight, and until I’m back, go Rays.

Your 2009 All Stars

Rather than dwelling on the embarrassing Rangers series and the Rays giving back their goodwill as they are ever so accustomed to doing, I would like to address the 2009 All–Star Game and its participants. Four Tampa Bay Rays, breaking last year’s record of three, made it into the game with the possibility of a fifth.

Evan Longoria won the voting at third base by a landslide, and for good reason. He has hit 21 home runs and is up about 20 points on his batting average in 2009. He is still doing just about everything he did last year and making his case as a top MVP candidate. Congratulations to the first ever Tampa Bay starter in an All–Star Game. Now do us proud.

Jason Bartlett was voted in as a reserve shortstop by the players. He should have been the starter, and would have been if not for the reputation and Yankee votes for Derek Jeter. He is hitting around .360 with eight home runs — he had one last season — and has stepped his game up in just about every possible way. And he was already the team MVP last year.

Carl Crawford is another very deserving name. Hitting around .320 for most of the season, Crawford now has eight home runs and a blistering 41 stolen bases. Add a few more walks and he would be Rickey Henderson. This lineup falters without a jump start from him. This will be his third All–Star appearance.

Ben Zobrist was a controversial, but sensible, selection by Joe Maddon. Not even a regular starter for nearly two months, Zobrist has hit home runs and done all the right things when games were on the line. He has 16 home runs, eight stolen bases and about a .400 on–base percentage. He has elevated himself in literally every facet of the game. Just like in the regular season, Maddon can play him in several different spots here. And I know he is not the guy to let this get to his head.

Carlos Pena can also be voted in as part of the Final Vote on MLB.com. He leads the league in home runs and usually plays an outstanding first base. I would like to see him finally have this honor and share it with many other Rays and their loyal fans.

On the Atlanta Braves front, they only managed one representative: catcher Brian McCann, who had the credentials to start despite a slow start to the season due to eye injuries. Those have obviously since been corrected. He has been the bright spot in the lackluster offense for the Braves. Chipper Jones is still doing well, Yunel Escobar is having a good year and Nate McLouth was a welcome boost, but McCann is gluing them all together. He has also had to work with a 60 percent turnover in his starting rotation and has done a very good job with them.

I think the biggest name left out was the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler. He was only hitting .255 as of tonight, but was already near 20–20 and has been the spark plug to the Rangers in the absence of Josh Hamilton (who won a starting job anyway). He is in the Final Vote, but I have to vote for Pena. Our apologies to Mr. Kinsler, though his team beating the Rays makes me feel less sorry for him.

Here are the starting lineups:

American League:

C – Joe Mauer
1B – Mark Teixeira
2B – Dustin Pedroia (Should have been Kinsler)
SS – Derek Jeter (Should have been Bartlett)
3B – Evan Longoria
OF – Jason Bay
OF – Ichiro Suzuki
OF – Josh Hamilton (Should have been Crawford or Torii Hunter)

National League:

C – Yadier Molina (Should have been McCann)
1B – Albert Pujols (Obviously)
2B – Chase Utley
SS – Hanley Ramirez
3B – David Wright
OF – Ryan Braun
OF – Raul Ibanez
OF – Carlos Beltran (Will not play due to injury; replacement to be announced)

On an unrelated note, I would like to mention that pitcher Alex Koronis has made his professional debut with the Princeton Rays as a late–inning reliever. The former Tampa Spartan earned a save in his debut on June 30 and has pitched two scoreless outings. This is the first time that I can say a player that I covered, no matter how briefly, has gone on to bigger things. In addition, former Spartan Jose Jimenez hit his first professional home run with the Arizona League Angels on June 23. Keep it up, guys.

Now we have to find out who the starting pitchers and the final men will be. I’m voting for Pena and alternating between Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval and Matt Kemp. Anybody but Shane Victorino because we don’t need any more Phillies. Congratulations to the All Stars, and until next time, go Rays.

Braves Release Glavine, Acquire McLouth

I’m back! With my class ending early tonight and big news from the Braves (and the Rays, who are beating Kansas City 9–0 behind Jeff Niemann), I thought it was time.

First, the Braves released future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, who was due a $1 million bonus once he joined the 25–man roster. I thought I was reading The Onion when I saw this headline. Are they serious? Do they honestly think that throwing Kris Medlen to the wolves or bringing back Jo–Jo “God, No” Reyes would be acceptable solutions? I know Tommy Hanson is ready, but why make Glavine the sacrificial lamb? He did everything the Braves requested of him and worked like hell to come back. The Braves made his career and they owed him something for all he had done.

And they let him go over one million dollars?

I wasn’t aware that when Liberty Media removed the team’s $80 million spending limit, they were looking to set the bar lower. This move is bogus, and may Glavine prove this team wrong.

Of course, Frank Wren brought back some of the goodwill with his trade for Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth. He was acquired for pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez.

McLouth is one of my favorite players thanks to his all–around talents. He can hit for a good average, hit more home runs than the rest of the outfielders combined, steal bases like no other Brave and play a strong center field. And now to have him in Atlanta is a big relief, having seen the struggles of recently demoted Jordan Schafer.

Welcome to Atlanta, Nate. Though you may be out before you get a milion dollars.

1-0 So Far

The Atlanta Braves soundly defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the opening game of 2009 by a count of 4–1.

Derek Lowe pitched an absolute masterpiece, going eight innings allowing only two hits and no runs.  He only had four strikeouts, but that’s just Lowe being Lowe.  He allowed zero walks as well.  Mike Gonzalez did allow a run before proving his worth with big strikeouts of Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez with the tying run on base.

How about that Jordan Schafer?  He came up against Brett Myers and hit a home run in his first Major League at–bat!  He became the 99th MLB player ever to accomplish this, and the first Brave since the one and only Jermaine Dye back in 1996.  Not only did Schafer do it, he hit it to the opposite power alley in left center field.  In Citizens Bank Park.  It gets no better than that.

Brian McCann and the reformed Jeff Francoeur also hit early bombs in support of Lowe.  McCann’s was an absolute cannon shot into the second deck that followed a great at–bat from Chipper Jones.  Francoeur tagged Myers on the first pitch of the second inning on a line drive into the left field seats.  Sure enough, he was spraying the ball around all night.

Now the Rays will march right into Fenway Park and manhandle the Red Sox in similar fashion.  That is, if I have anything to say about it.  The Braves and Phillies meet again Tuesday night, weather permitting.  Until next time, go Rays and Braves.