Buster Olney: Atlanta Braves

Kris MedlenBrad Barr/USA TODAY SportsThe Braves have their fingers crossed regarding the health of Medlen's right arm.
Kris Medlen recoiled in pain and immediately walked off the mound Sunday, and today the Atlanta Braves will learn more about their Opening Day starter after he undergoes an MRI for what was initially diagnosed as a forearm strain.

So the rotation could become an immediate area of concern for the Braves. Tim Hudson has moved on to the Giants, and the Braves don't know if Mike Minor will be ready at the outset of the season, after having an offseason procedure.

If Medlen is sidelined, then Atlanta could be looking at an opening rotation of Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, Freddy Garcia, Alex Wood and David Hale (the 26-year-old Hale made two starts for the Braves last year, and pitched effectively). The Braves also believe that Gavin Floyd, who is progressing well through his rehabilitation in camp this spring, could be available to them in late May or June.

They could look for alternatives in other camps -- and typically, March 10 is about the time that general managers and scouts begin to check in with rival clubs about needs and available players.

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Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.


1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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Ben WetzlerAP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensBen Wetzler, a lefty from Oregon State, was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round last year.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- For the third consecutive day, the Philadelphia Phillies did not comment on the decision to inform the NCAA that the college juniors they drafted in the fifth and sixth rounds last summer -- Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler and Washington State outfielder Ben Monda -- might have violated rules regarding agent contact.

Monda was cleared by the NCAA weeks ago, and, on Friday evening, the NCAA announced that Wetzler will become eligible to play again on March 2 after completing a suspension.

As time passes and the Phillies’ silence continues, the impression hardens within the industry -- particularly among agents and college coaches -- that the team acted out of vindictiveness, because neither Wetzler nor Monda accepted their offer. That will not have a chance to change unless the Phillies explain their side of the story.

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Matt WilliamsAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackMatt Williams has some changes in mind for the Nats, with defense a likely starting point.
VIERA, Fla. -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and some of the other Washington pitchers waited on bullpen mounds here Sunday morning, and somewhere else on the field, the hands of a clock reached the prescribed moment and an air horn sounded -- and the pitchers went to work, like horses coming through the gates.

Not long after, at another work station, a pitcher began to gather his equipment and prepare for a move to another field, but before he could leave a coach said to him, “Wait here until you hear the horn.”

The horn sounded a few seconds later, and the coach shooed the pitcher along.

This is the structure built under new Nationals manager Matt Williams, and before you get the wrong impression and think of the place as humorless and sterile, please understand that just about everybody else here pokes fun at his need for order, including Williams.

This is about commitment, the players understand, about being purposeful in work, and not about Williams counting seconds and identifying loiterers. In his first meeting with the pitchers and catchers here the other day, the players say that Williams was direct and positive and all about helping them get better.

“He hasn’t forgotten about how hard the game is,” one veteran said. “He played, and he gets it.”

Williams was so highly regarded by a core of the players in Arizona, where he has coached in recent seasons, that if Kirk Gibson had been let go, Williams would’ve had a lot of support in the Diamondbacks clubhouse to be the replacement. They responded to him, because of how direct and businesslike he is, and the Nationals are doing the same in his first days on the job, with his schedules and air horns and all.

He is well spoken, succinct and thoughtful, and he absorbed their work Sunday. “I just want to see their commitment level,” he said. “It’s a team that has a lot of talent, and there’s a lot being said about this club, but we have to fully commit if we’re going to win. So that’s what I’m looking for -- I’m looking for their enthusiasm and attention to detail, and we’ll go from there.”

What Williams noticed in Sunday’s workout was how Strasburg

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There is snow and ice piling up outside again, so here are some quick observations about Freddie Freeman's $135 million deal.

1. Among the group of talented Braves youngsters -- Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor -- Atlanta has placed its largest investment, with its very limited resources, on the player it believes will provide the greatest return in production. It's that simple.

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Braves must go low with Kimbrel 

January, 30, 2014
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KimbrelPouya Dianat/Getty ImagesIf the Braves want to keep Kimbrel for all of 2014, where they meet in arbitration will be crucial.
The arbitration case that will be made for Craig Kimbrel next month will be unique, because no reliever has started a career with three-plus seasons like Kimbrel -- 381 strikeouts among the first 883 hitters he's faced, with a 1.39 ERA and 139 saves. The Braves love Kimbrel, having drafted and developed him and promoted him into the closer's role just a couple of months into his career.

But the gap between what the Braves have offered Kimbrel -- $6.55 million -- and what Kimbrel wants in arbitration -- $9 million -- is enormous, and there’s more at stake for Atlanta in this hearing than the $2.45 million that separates the sides.

If the Braves win the case, they will give themselves a legitimate chance to keep Kimbrel for 2015. If they lose

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
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Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Top 10 defenses in the majors 

December, 29, 2013
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Manny MachadoMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesBaltimore's Manny Machado earned the American League Platinum Glove Award last season.
There probably has been more focus on evaluating and maximizing defensive efficiency than any other part of baseball in the last five years. If we're looking for explanations about why offensive production has been declining, increased defensive production might be responsible.

In Part IV of our series, we look at the top 10 defenses in Major League Baseball.

1. Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles posted pictures of their Gold Glove winners in their spring training facility, and with good reason: Buck Showalter’s club has continued the organizational tradition -- fostered by the likes of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and others -- of strong defense. The best of the group is third baseman Manny Machado (“The best at his position, and it’s not close,” said one evaluator), although we don’t know what condition he'll be in during his first months back on the field since having knee surgery.

They have Gold Glove defenders at shortstop (J.J. Hardy), center field (Adam Jones) and at catcher (Matt Wieters). Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Chris Davis are solid defenders, and newcomer David Lough posted one of the best UZR/150 ratings among outfielders with at least 650 innings last season.

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Top 10 bullpens in the majors 

December, 28, 2013
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KimbrelPouya Dianat/Getty ImagesBaseball hasn't seen a reliever dominate like Craig Kimbrel since Mariano Rivera emerged.
The top 10 series continues with a look at the best bullpens in the majors.

1. Atlanta Braves

If you want to know what the start of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career might look like, Craig Kimbrel is the reliever version of Mike Trout. The Atlanta closer has faced 883 batters in the regular season, and among those, he’s struck out 381 and allowed 123 hits.

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Braves could deal Craig Kimbrel 

December, 12, 2013
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Craig KimbrelAP Photo/David TulisGiven Atlanta's long-standing payroll constraints, Kimbrel could become a luxury, not a necessity.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays have been collecting information this week in their trade conversations about starter David Price, because eventually they will have to trade him. They drafted Price, they developed Price, they love Price, and he is a team leader, but they will move him because of a simple math equation: He will soon make too much money for them to afford.

If they trade him this offseason, they will get strong value in return. If they wait, their trade return -- as well as their payroll flexibility in 2014 -- will be diminished, because Price is moving closer to the time he can become a free agent, after the 2015 season.

The Atlanta Braves should be taking notes on all this, because they have a player who fits this description and these circumstances. Someone they drafted and developed, someone they love, a team leader -- and someone who is soon going to be too expensive for their relatively modest payroll: Craig Kimbrel, the best closer on the planet.

They should be looking to trade him, and right now might be the best possible time

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ArroyoAP Michael E. KeatingHe's not an ace, but Bronson Arroyo has nine straight seasons of 199 or more innings pitched.
Baseball executives expect the posting fee for Japan’s Masahiro Tanaka -- just the cost to start negotiating a contract with him -- to go way beyond previous records. Because Matt Garza is not attached to draft-pick compensation, he’s going to cost upwards of $50 million. Teams could pursue Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, two of the better starting pitchers in the free-agent market, but signing either will cost you a draft pick.

These prices at the top of the market are why a lot of the early offseason conversation is being generated around the pitchers who can be signed for fewer years, and for less money -- such as these 10, among others.

1. Bronson Arroyo: His 37th birthday is in February, but there have been no signs that his trend of taking the ball every fifth day will stop any time soon.

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Mets' struggles creating value 

September, 28, 2013
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Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Mets' disappointing season has likely earned Sandy Alderson's club a protected draft pick.
The New York Mets’ loss Friday was the 87th of their season. And it was a really important loss.

With that defeat, the Mets moved back into position to have the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft -- and if this holds over the last two days of the regular season against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mets’ first-round pick would be among those 10 that are protected against draft-pick compensation.

This past winter, the Mets’ pick was not protected, which affected their aggressiveness in trying to sign Michael Bourn and others. If they finish the year lined up for the No. 10 pick (or better), it could nudge them into pursuit of one of the better free-agent position players who will be available this winter. If they signed a Shin-Soo Choo or a Jacoby Ellsbury, the Mets would have to surrender only a second-round pick in compensation.

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Gold Glove winners, by the numbers 

September, 13, 2013
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Manny Machadooy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsHis bat has been the revelation. Everyone knew Manny Machado's glove would be good.
This is about the time of year when Gold Glove ballots are dispensed to coaches and managers, and based on my own experience in collecting the votes in past years, I’d say there are two different types of voting styles.

1. Some voters are devoted to turning in the best ballot possible, and will give lots of time and lots of thought to the process before picking their winners.
2. Some voters just want to get it over with and will pick out the first decent name that pops into their heads.

So, in other words, the Gold Glove voters are like the rest of the electorate in this fine democratic society.

Every week, I get an email from Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information noting the results of a conference call specifically held to talk about defensive metrics. He’s all over this kind of stuff, so I asked him to give me a pure statistical evaluation of who he thinks should be the Gold Glovers at each position, in each league.

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Why MLB must ban plate collisions 

September, 7, 2013
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Prince FielderAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezA hard collision at home plate caused Giants catcher Buster Posey to miss much of 2011.
A talent evaluator who works in baseball imagined the future testimony aimed at a team -- or all of Major League Baseball -- in a lawsuit filed by a catcher seriously injured while blocking home plate.

"'I was told in spring training by my catching instructor that this is something I need to do,'" the evaluator said, imitating the words that any catcher could say. "'I didn't block home one day and he called me a -----, and he said that blocking home plate is something that every catcher is expected to do.'"

The evaluator jumped into another role, imagining himself as the catcher's lawyer: "'What happened next?'"

Evaluator as catcher: "'I blocked home plate, as I was instructed to do, and now I can't walk.'"

This testimony could be especially effective, the evaluator noted, if it comes from someone sitting in a wheelchair, and if you think that can't happen, maybe you should watch this video of the hit that Harrisburg catcher Brian Jeroloman took in a Double-A playoff game the other night, when he was run over by Erie's Brandon Douglas.

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Injuries that could change October 

September, 6, 2013
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Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez Adam Davis/Icon SMIIt's been a great stretch for the Dodgers, but Matt Kemp has largely been an observer.
We’ve reached the stage of the season when a lot of injuries are probably not going to be healed by the time the playoffs start, a time when the team athletic trainers and the doctors are running out of time to fully treat their patients. In a lot of cases for contenders, open questions will linger about whether star players can actually be productive when they come back.

Here's a look at the top injury situations hanging over contenders with three weeks and three days remaining in the regular season -- in a race against time:

1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

The team’s description of his injury -- that the best hitter in baseball has an abdominal issue -- has been obtuse, and imprecise, which is well within the rights of the Tigers. They’re kind of going the route of an NHL team that describes an ailment, officially, as a "lower body injury" during the playoffs.

Which leaves us to speculate, and Cabrera’s injury does seem to have all signs of a sports hernia.

If that’s the case, it means Cabrera is going to have to deal with this until he has corrective surgery -- and he has demonstrated over the last month or so that he can hit with his injury. But you do wonder if, in his effort to protect Cabrera during the postseason, Jim Leyland may consider playing Jhonny Peralta at third base when Peralta becomes eligible to rejoin the team.

Cabrera, one of the game’s great grinders, has missed four of the last five games.

2. Allen Craig, Cardinals

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