We're just 8 days away from the time where rosters expand to 40 men. Do the Braves have any help on the farm?
A little primer before we get into the nitty gritty here. On September 1st, rosters expand from 25 men to 40 men. That means that any player on the 40-man roster can be called up to play in the majors. If you're not in the majors on August 31st, you're not eligible for the playoff roster. One exception: if a player is on the 60-day DL, they can be replaced by someone who plays the same position. The Braves have no one currently on the 60-day DL, but 2 guys that could be options for that: Kris Medlen and Chipper Jones. It would be impossible for some young blood to replace Chipper on the roster: the only 2 men on the 40-man that play third base (and I use that term *very* loosely) are Brandon Hicks and (as of one game last night in Gwinnett) Troy Glaus. Hicks isn't an option because he just broke his right index finger (thats his throwing hand) and I wouldn't expect him to be ready. As for Glaus...we'll see how he looks once his rehab is over.
Now, Kris Medlen...thats an interesting possibility. With Medlen being a pitcher, the Braves have tons of options to replace him on the roster with a shift to the 60-day. Looking at players currently on the 40-man but not in the majors, we've got...Kyle Cofield, Mike Dunn, Lee Hyde, Kenshin Kawakami, Craig Kimbrel, Stephen Marek and Jose Ortegano. Out of this list, I'd expect Dunn, Kawakami, Kimbrel and Marek to be called up once Gwinnett's season ends on the 6th of September, if not sooner (since the team has been eliminated from the playoff hunt). You know about Dunn: he walks a good bit of men (11.88 batters per 9 in his 8 1/3 inning stint in the majors, 4.70 in Gwinnett this year), gets a lot of strikeouts (a batter per inning in Atlanta, 12.07 per 9 in Gwinnett), and doesn't allow any homers (none in 52 1/3 this season). He's also not very hittable, allowing a .174 BAA in Gwinnett this season. I fully expect him to be part of the bullpen in September to take some lower leverage innings away from some of the more important relievers like Jonny Venters and Peter Moylan.
Let's talk about Kawakami for a little bit. We all know how badly he pitched for the Braves this season (1-9 record, 4.75 ERA, 6.15 K/9). But it appears that since his demotion to Gwinnett, he's pitching a little better. He's only thrown 15 1/3 innings (so much for getting his arm stretched out), but has struck out 16 men and only walked 4. The big stigma on him in Gwinnett so far: 4 home runs allowed. His last appearance featured some good, and some bad: 2 homers allowed, but he struck out 9 without a walk. With the lack of faith Bobby Cox had in Kawakami this summer after his demotion from the rotation, I'd expect him to simply rot in the Braves bullpen and not be placed on the roster.
Now, we reach a pair of men who interest me greatly: Craig Kimbrel, and Stephen Marek. I'm going to touch on Kimbrel first, since he's spent time with the Braves this season. Kimbrel had been anointed a future closer since being drafted in 2008, but people are getting a little touchy with that proclamation with Jonny Venters' emergence this season and Kimbrel's control struggles (which quite frankly, have been prevalent his entire career and shouldn't be news to anyone). Kimbrel has been, quite frankly, a dominant beast for Gwinnett this season. 13.14 K's per 9 (74 in 50 2/3 innings pitched) while only allowing 3 home runs and a .156 BAA. He's also kept the ball on the ground, with a GB:FB mark of 1.71. But again...the control. In those 50 2/3 innings, he's allowed 32 walks (5.68 per 9. Its actually an improvement over last year when the mark was 6.75 per 9). This is what makes me nervous about having someone like him on the playoff roster. His control was a mess during his stint with the Braves earlier this spring (10 walks in only 8 1/3 low leverage innings), and its been bad since being demoted to Gwinnett (18 walks in 17 2/3 IP since the All-Star break). Do the Braves really want to have someone like Kimbrel taking up a roster spot? Sure the strikeouts are absolutely dynamic, but he could also pull a Mark Wohlers and walk the bases loaded. Its a situation that could shatter his confidence if it happens in a key October situation. Remember Joey Devine?
That brings me to Marek. He's been best known in Braves circles as "the other guy in the Teixeira deal", coming over from the Angels in July of 2008. He only pitched in 14 innings as a Brave in 2008, spending his year in Mississippi and putting up rather uninspiring numbers (11 K, 6 BB in 14 innings). 2009 on the other hand, was a complete and utter disaster for Stephen. He walked more batters than he struck out in 45 innings for Mississippi and Gwinnett, and posted a horrid ERA of 6.00. I'm stunned the Braves left him on the 40-man, but they did. He rewarded them in spades this season. He started in Mississippi, and was magnificent: no runs, 1 walk, and 18 strikeouts in 13 innings. That earned him a promotion to Gwinnett, where he continued to light the world on fire. In 45 innings, Marek has struck out 51 batters, walked 16, and only allowed 3 homers. Combine the numbers, and he's got a 4:1 K:BB rate in 58 innings with those 3 homers allowed. He's also got a sterling .200 BAA. Marek has more than pitched his way into contention for a slot in the bullpen in September, and confidence shouldn't be an issue: on September 3rd, he'll be 27. Marek isn't a young pup like Kimbrel who can easily be destroyed. He's been pitching professionally since 2004, and this isn't his first rodeo.
I really believe Marek would be a great option to replace Medlen on the playoff roster if he's able to hold his own for the big club in September. If he doesn't make it, either Kawakami, Dunn or Cristhian Martinez would have that final bullpen slot...none of those men have to worry about passing loopholes since they've all spent time in Atlanta this season. All 3 of those guys are high risk, low reward...none will be able to blow hitters away with any reliability, and they've all had their struggles this season. Any of these guys coming in, Marek included, in a key situation late in a playoff game would be a risky proposition. I believe Marek would possess the best chance at becoming a nice late game option, like Francisco Rodriguez was in 2002 for the World Champion Angels.
As for position players...there are a lot of guys in Gwinnett who are playing great (Barbaro Canizares, Freddie Freeman, Matt Young to name 3), but the thing is...none of those men are on the 40-man roster. Someone would have to be outrighted off in order to make room. The first option would be putting Chipper Jones on the 60-day DL...that would clear a roster spot, but as I mentioned earlier, the player wouldn't be eligible for the postseason. There are a couple of players that could be outrighted off the 40-man in order to make room for one of these hot hitters, but the risk of one of them getting claimed by another team is always there. Jordan Schafer has had an absolutely terrible season in the organization, and he's finally been placed on the DL by Mississippi to end his season. Just how bad was he? Let me put it this way: in 274 at bats for Gwinnett, Mississippi and Rome, his slash line was .201/.268/.255. A far cry from the budding superstar we saw in 2007 lead the organization in hits, right? Regardless, he's still a young player who could contribute at the major league level. I could only assume he'd get claimed off waivers by someone, and I don't think the Braves would be willing to risk losing him.
Another guy who could be outrighted is Nate McLouth. Unlike Schafer, I think McLouth would have a good chance of going unclaimed, due to his huge contract. McLouth is both an option to be called up in September, and to be jettisoned from the roster. Would the Braves be willing to take the financial hit of letting McLouth go? Doubtful. But man, has he ever struggled since being demoted to Gwinnett: .232/.333/.394 in 99 at bats. When a proven major leaguer can't crack .240 in AAA, there's a problem here. Is it mental, or is there something physically wrong with him? No one in the Braves fanosphere really knows at this point, just that the idea of McLouth getting at bats for a contending team in September is something that scares us all. If he is called up, I'd expect him to get *maybe* one start a week or to be used as a pinch runner. Regardless of what happens, I have a nagging feeling we won't be seeing Nate with the Braves in 2011...maybe outrighting him off the roster would be a good option, just to see if a team would be willing to claim him.
Finally, one more man on the 40-man that seems to puzzle a lot of people...Wilkin Ramirez. Just who is Wilkin Ramirez, you ask? The Braves acquired him from the Tigers on July 31st for cash. He actually was a selection for this year's Futures game...and I can't figure out why. Before being traded by Detroit, Ramirez was struggling terrible for Toledo, with a .216/.276/.346 line and 60 strikeouts in 153 at bats. Since joining the Braves, Ramirez has improved, albeit slightly. His average has dropped to .210, while his OBP and SLG have both gone up, to .290 and .419 respectively. He's a bopper, and thats about all. For the season (spending time in Erie as well as at Toledo and Gwinnett), his line is .227/.294/.452 with 163 strikeouts in 427 at bats. So essentially...he's a Hispanic, older Cody Johnson? Fantastic, just what the roster needs. I see no reason to keep someone like this on the 40-man. Just outright him and see what happens. If the team loses him, what's the big deal? I'm not really seeing a lot of upside or future in Ramirez.
The 3 men I mentioned that could be good options for the roster in September...first, Matt Young. Young features fantastic plate discipline (49 walks and 51 strikeouts in 440 at bats this year for Gwinnett) and great speed (32/37 in steals this season). He's got doubles power (31), but doesn't have a lot of homer power (career high is 6, back in 2005). Young could be a great pinch hitter to get a man on base or a fantastic late innings pinch runner, the role that Brandon Hicks was playing this season during his stint in Atlanta.
Barbaro Canizares is the IL leader in batting average, and spent a cup of coffee with the Braves last summer. The Cuban is not much of a fielder, but could play first base if necessary. He's got more homer power than Young, but is overall a doubles kind of guy. His plate discipline is pretty solid, but not as good as Young's (34 BB, 47 K in 370 AB this year). He's spent part of the last 4 seasons in AAA, and his lowest average over that time span is .294, with a low OPS of .795. Like Young, he could be a good bat off the bench if you need a late game hit.
And finally, we come to Freddie Freeman. He's third in the IL in OPS, and doesn't turn 21 until September 12th. For what its worth, the 2 men ahead of him in the IL OPS race are in their 30s. Freeman is right there with them at the age of 20. He'll probably be the starting first baseman in Atlanta last year, and fans were clamoring for his addition to the roster with the struggles of Troy Glaus. Derrek Lee's terrible start to his Braves career while Freeman continues to rake haven't softened the cries at all. Freeman's got above average pop and has some average plate discipline, though he does strike out at a little bit of a high clip (18.8% this season). The big question is, do the Braves want him to get his feet wet a little this September in the heat of a huge pennant race, or throw him right into the fire next April? He's going to need to be added to the roster sooner rather than later, so I'd just get it out of the way now and see if he can contribute anything to the club this September while giving Lee (and Glaus when he comes off the DL) some rest in order to hopefully keep them fresh for October.
So that takes care of what could happen in a week or two. I didn't touch on some of the other pitchers on the 40-man because, quite frankly, they're just not at the point where they could contribute meaningfully to the team. Giving some of the young blood a little playing time wouldn't hurt, and could help the veterans on the roster get some rest on their aching joints down the stretch after a hard season.