Buster Olney: Atlanta Braves

Remaking the Atlanta lineup 

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
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Tommy La StellaScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBatting Tommy La Stella near the top of the lineup is an option for Atlanta.
ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman is now 24 years old and like Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, he is learning that opposing pitchers have decided they simply have no reason to give him anything to hit.

Going into Sunday’s game, Freeman had seen the third-fewest pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball, behind Pablo Sandoval and Giancarlo Stanton, as you can see here (Sandoval is a big hacker, Stanton an obvious power threat):

Pablo Sandoval, SF: 36.9 percent
Giancarlo Stanton, MIA: 39.1 percent
Freddie Freeman, ATL: 40.1 percent
David Ortiz, BOS: 40.2 percent

Those numbers -- and the generally poor numbers for most of the Atlanta batters -- have created a quandary for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who must structure his lineup in such a way that will nudge opposing pitchers to throw to Freeman. At the same time, there is a concern about stacking one part of the order with too many strikeout hitters.

For the readers: Put yourself in Gonzalez's shoes and consider the Rubik's Cube that is the Atlanta lineup structure. This is what Gonzalez opted for on Sunday night
videoATLANTA -- Jeff Trout stays up to watch his son Mike play, no matter what part of the world he happens to be in. Mike knows this because, no matter how late the Angels’ games end, he gets text messages from his parents after the final pitch is thrown.

“He doesn’t miss a game,” Mike Trout said Saturday.

The words are positive, as they have always been, from the time Mike was growing into his love for baseball to now, when he’s generally regarded as the best in his sport. Way to get some knocks, his father might text if Trout has a few hits.

“He’s never negative,” Trout said. “If I go through a little skid or something, he’ll say, ‘Keep a smile on your face,’ or ‘Keep your head on straight.’

"There have been times when he might’ve said, ‘Do this,’ or ‘Do that,’ and I’d be thinking too much out there. He knows I got here for a reason and that it'll turn around.”

What rival players and evaluators love about Mike Trout, beyond his talent, is the unabashed joy he plays with, and this seems to stem from the way he was raised into the game by his mother, Debbie, and father, Jeff.

“They always told me that if they had to put a uniform on me, they didn’t want to do it,” Mike Trout said. “Baseball was a thing where I woke up every day ready to play. It’s always been fun. I was probably driving them crazy to play.”

Mike Trout would get up early and be waiting for his mom to take him to the field or for his father to go outside to play catch, throw batting practice to him or play whiffle ball in their backyard. The driveway was the home run boundary to left field, and in right, hitting the ball into the woods, beyond the grass of the lawn, was pay dirt.

“Every chance he got, he would throw to me,” Mike Trout said. “I’d have my buddies over and he’d be out there playing with us.”

He started beating his father in whiffle ball, he recalls, sometime when he was about 8, 9 or 10, and as Mike pitched to his father -- with Jeff Trout bent down in a crouch or sitting on a bucket to frame the strike zone -- he started to occasionally get the ball past him when he was a sophomore in high school. Such is the life of the father of a prodigy.

To this day in the offseason, Jeff Trout will flip balls to his son in the cage, but he doesn’t throw a lot of hitting advice at his son, doesn’t break down his mechanics. What he does is encourage.

“That’s why he’s always been so helpful,” Mike Trout said.

Jeff Trout had reason to send positive texts to his son Saturday night, after Mike had three hits and four RBIs and the Angels broke out in extra innings to beat the Braves. This is how Kole Calhoun saved the game.

Mike Trout is the third-fastest player to reach 75 career home runs and 75 career steals in MLB history, doing so in his 399th game. Only Eric Davis (335) and Alfonso Soriano (395) did it in fewer games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Other Angels-Braves notes

• We have a small sample for 2014, but Josh Hamilton has basically doubled his OPS against lefties since last year, improving from .596 to his current 1.190. He is chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, down from 45.4 percent in 2012 to 36.9 percent this year, and he is hitting .342 in 19 games.

Between rounds of batting practice Saturday evening, Hamilton explained that he had a shift in thought process early in spring training.

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Justin and B.J. UptonGetty ImagesBrothers Justin and B.J. Upton are both among the top 15 in the majors in strikeouts.
From the time the Braves added brothers Justin and B.J. Upton to a lineup that already included Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, they seemed like a science experiment built for this question: How many strikeouts can one lineup generate while still being successful?

The Braves racked up 1,384 strikeouts in 2013, most in the National League, and they also finished second in the NL in victories, with 96. The parts fit together.

Here in 2014, Atlanta hitters are still striking out a lot; their 297 K's are tied for the fourth most in the majors. But what has changed significantly is this: Braves hitters have stopped drawing walks, which often are a companion to strikeouts.

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Johnny CuetoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto didn't allow a run in eight innings on Sunday and still couldn't get a victory.
There had never been a day in which at least eight different Major League Baseball starters each threw at least seven innings while allowing no more than three hits. Well, on Sunday, this happened a record 10 times.

From ESPN Stats and Info, how history was made:

Johnny Cueto: Hitters were 1-for-8 with five strikeouts in at-bats ending in his cutter, the most strikeouts he's had with that pitch in any start in his career.

Just one problem for Cueto and the Reds: They lost 1-0 in extra innings.

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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
Jan 30
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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
12/31/13
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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
12/29/13
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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
12/28/13
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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
12/12/13
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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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