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Chop-N-Change: An Atlanta Braves Blog | Page 29

Jason Heyward Not #1? HULK SMASH!

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Over at MLB Fanhouse, Frankie Piliere has a top 100 prospect ranking, one of many to come out this offseason. It's the same mix of names that you see everywhere, in slightly different places. But most of them tend to be pretty consistent at the top. Jason Heyward's been regarded as the consensus best prospect in baseball for a while now, with a few ranking Stephen Strasburg's golden arm just above him. Piliere's list is different, however: Heyward was ranked fourth, behind Strasburg, Michael Stanton, and Desmond Jennings, causing me to get my dander thoroughly up.

Michael Stanton and Jason Heyward are basically the same age: Stanton is 3 months younger, but both were born in the second half of the year, which means that they have the same baseball age each season. Heyward's career minor league SLG is .508, while Stanton's is .539; Heyward's OPS is .899, while Stanton's is .893. So far, fairly even. But Stanton's numbers are depressed by his disappointing .766 OPS in 341 PA last year at AA. On the other hand, during Heyward's 195 PA at AA last year, he had a 1.057 OPS.

Last year, Heyward hit 17 homers in just 99 games, while striking out and walking exactly 51 times each. Power and plate discipline in equal measure. Stanton had 28 homers in 129 games, but 59 walks against a whopping 144 strikeouts. That's one reason his career minor league batting average is .267, 51 points lower than Heyward's .318. Stanton is an athletic player, unlike many Three True Outcomes prototypes (Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard), but he has a serious, serious strikeout problem, and he'll struggle to keep his batting average over .250 in the major leagues if he can't fix the holes in his swing. He's a terrific athlete, and there's a decent chance he will, but right now there's no certainty.

On the other hand, everything that Jason Heyward has ever done in the minor leagues has added up to one certainty: he will hit. Calling Stanton a better prospect than Heyward, at this stage in their respective development, is crazy talk. Crazy, I tells ya!

Why I Think Heyward Won't Hit Better Than Melky

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There's no actual news to report (well, other than Peter Moylan's $1.15 contract from last week), so I thought I'd point your way toward our old friend Peter Hjort's Braves depth chart over at Capital Avenue Club. It's an interesting roster that Frank's built us, with potential platoons in 1B and LF and Chipper's standard effective platoon at 3B.

Eric Hinske is basically a platoon player anyway: since he bats lefty even though he throws righty, for his career he's OPS'ed .804 against RHP and only .666 against LHP. Then again, that doesn't help us much, because while Glaus has a platoon split, it's not one that Hinske can really address: Glaus, a righty, has a career .957 OPS against lefties but still an .822 OPS against righties. So the only reason to use Hinske over Glaus is to protect the health of a guy who's only played 280 games the last 3 years. That will also keep him fresh to back up Chipper when he inevitably gets dinged up over the summer. I'm not a big Hinske fan, but he can be useful if he's utilized sparingly.

Matt Diaz will probably be the regular (or mostly regular) left fielder, but Melky Cabrera will likely be given a certain number of defensive innings anyway. If Heyward opens up the season on the farm -- as Tom and I hope -- then Melky could see a few more starts in right. I don't really expect Heyward to be significantly better in 2010, and certainly not in the first half of 2010, than Melky Cabrera.

Why do I think that Melky and Heyward will be about the same? Justin Upton. In 2007, at the age of 19, Justin Upton posted a .961 OPS (.319/.410/.551) in A+ and AA, and was promoted to the majors. Last year, at the age of 19, Jason Heyward posted a virtually identical .963 OPS (.323/.408/.555) in A+ and AA, and was given 3 games in AAA rather than a late promotion to the majors. In his first 151 games in the big leagues, over the 2007 and 2008 seasons, when he was 19 and 20, Justin Upton batted .242/.334/.435. Considering that Upton's minor league track record was very similar to Heyward's, I don't think this level production is completely unlikely. Remember, last year, in 154 games, Melky batted .274/.336/.416 -- almost the same as Upton's line. I'd rather see him getting at-bats in right field the first two months of the season than Heyward. In this league, penny-pinching is no crime.

Another Outfield Target?

Written by Tom Gieryn on .

It's not hard to see from my past few posts that I think the Braves need another outfielder.  I'm not a fan of throwing Jason Heyward into the fire: he's still very young, he's not guaranteed to produce immediately, and his development could certainly be adversely affected by a premature introduction to the big leagues.  What's more, two months without Heyward could be worth perhaps $20 million down the road, if Heyward is as good as advertised.  The Braves gain an entire extra year of control over Heyward by letting him play at Gwinnett until June or so, and his first free agent year (if he becomes a star) should easily surpass a $20 million value.  I don't view Melky Cabrera and his career .716 OPS as a starter.  I think Jordan Schafer absolutely, unequivocally, needs more time in the minors.  So that leaves you with Diaz in one corner (a risk in and of itself), plus a collection of risky picks in the other corner.  So what's to be done?

Well, Johnny Damon is still out there, and David O'Brien dispelled a rumor that he was considering retirement.  We've talked a lot about Damon here, so I won't rehash his merits as I see them.  But with a $4-5 million price tag (and it's hard to envision him signing for more than that), it's quite difficult to argue that he wouldn't be a bargain.  There's one other name emerging on the rumor mill as well, that might bear worth considering for the Braves: Jim Edmonds.  I was a huge proponent of signing Edmonds last winter, and I'm back on the bandwagon again, now that Edmonds says he wants to make a comeback, and that he's got several teams interested.  Edmonds hit .250/.362/.521 against right-handed pitching in 2008, and while he's probably not a true center fielder anymore, he was always a very strong defender and likely could be just fine in a corner, even at age 40.  And he's willing to play for the league minimum.  The Braves have plenty of dead space on their roster (Stephen Marek, Todd Redmond, Brooks Conrad, et al), so the 40-man roster spot is not a big deal for the Braves.  What does it hurt to bring him to camp and see if he can't be a quality platoon partner for Matt Diaz?  And Edmonds is no Johnny Damon in terms of name recognition; whereas a struggling Damon might still block Jason Heyward, a struggling Edmonds almost certainly wouldn't.  What could it hurt?

Goodbye, Brandon Jones

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You probably know this by now, but Brandon Jones is a Pittsburgh Pirate. At least for now. Pirates beat writer Dejan Kovasevic writes that "they claimed him with the hope of including him in a trade... their outfield has plenty of quantity with eight outfielders already competing for five jobs this spring."

I always felt sorry for Brandon, who had a lovely year in 2007 at AA and AAA, but only logged a total of 145 major league PA over the next two years. (His combined line of .271/.331/.388 was perfectly in character with those years: not abominable, but not nearly good enough to force the team to play him more.) He seemed to regress in AAA in 2008 and 2009, perhaps justifying the Braves' neglect, but as mediocre as he was, I always felt that he'd have done a little more with Jeff Francoeur's at bats than Jeff did -- lest we forget, Jeff hit .243/.290/.357 over 977 PA in the same two years.

Maybe there was no room on the team for him. At this point, the 26-year old Jones -- he's 33 days younger than me -- looks like the very definition of a Quad-A "replacement player." But after his 2007 season, he deserved for someone to give him a chance. I hope that happens on another team, whoever that may happen to be.

The Last Decade: Braves All-2000s Second Team, The Bench

Written by Tom Gieryn on .

We've been through the starting lineup for the Braves All-2000s team Second Team, and now it's time to delve into their backups. This isn't simply going to be a who's who of the best players that didn't happen to be in the All-Decade starting lineup: the benches for both the first and second teams are going to be made up of the best Braves bench players of the past ten seasons. So we're talking about guys that were rarely or never everyday starters. Putting together the bench was difficult: there were lots and lots of choices, and the sample sizes sometimes make it very difficult to choose. But it was also a lot of fun, as I ran across tons of different names that I hadn't thought about in a while. So here are the backups for the Braves All-2000s Second Team:

OF: Eli Marrero (2004), .320/.374/.520 with 10 HR, 40 RBI and 4 SB in 90 games.

The Braves acquired Marrero from the Cardinals alongside J.D. Drew in December 2003, in the deal that sent Adam Wainwright to the Gateway City. Marrero was seen as a key bench asset: he was a rare backup catcher who had enough leg speed to patrol the outfield, so he could back up Javy Lopez, then-rookie Adam LaRoche at first base, and also spell Drew and Chipper Jones in the outfield corners. The Braves inherited the second year of a two-year, $4.5 million contract he had signed with the Cardinals, but in spring training the Braves replaced that with a new two-year deal worth $5 million (decreasing his 2004 salary but adding an extra year for 2005).

Marrero had a career year -- his .894 OPS was the only time in his career that he cleared .800 -- providing average defense in both outfield corners and bashing ten homers in limited duty while sharing the left field job with fellow one-year wonder Charles Thomas, whom he narrowly edged out on this list. (Chipper Jones had moved from left back to third base in June, after Mark DeRosa lost the job.) However, Marrero's $3 million salary looked awfully expensive to the Braves as they underwent radical cost-cutting following the 2004 season. The same day that the Braves acquired Tim Hudson, they agreed to ship Marrero (and the aforementioned salary) to the Royals in exchange for pitcher Jorge Vasquez. Marrero would play for four different teams over the next two seasons before falling out of baseball after the 2006 campaign.

IF/OF: Willie Harris (2007), .270/.349/.392 with 2 HR, 32 RBI and 17 SB in 117 games.

Harris was just another face in the non-roster invitee crowd in spring training 2007, but he had a standout spring and continued raking at Richmond after not making the team out of camp. When struggling Ryan Langerhans was dealt to Oakland in May, Harris got the call. He was an instant sensation, hitting .412/.477/.546 over his first 110 PAs, and eventually earning frequent opportunities to lead off. He became a fan favorite as a journeyman underdog from nearby Cairo, GA. He cooled off considerably the rest of the season, posting just a .631 OPS the rest of the way, but still played sparkling outfield defense (+14 UZR/150). His cold streak to close out the year left the Braves skeptical of his future prospects, so they let him sign a one-year deal worth $800,000 with the Washington Nationals the following winter. He's since had two solid years as a roving utility player in the nation's capital.

The rest of the second-best, below the jump...

Must-Read Baseball Books

Written by Kristi Dosh on .

I often take the chance during the offseason to post about more general baseball topics.  So, please indulge me while I share with you a list of my favorite books on baseball.  I'd also love suggestions for any good ones I've missed!  I've been a Braves fan my entire life, but over the years I have become more and more passionate about baseball as a whole.  I will watch any kind of baseball game, anytime, anywhere.  In the past four years or so, I've read less and less romance novels and more and more non-fiction books on various baseball topics.  The best books I've read more than once.  Here are my favorites:

Built to Win: I had to mention this one first since it was written by the Atlanta Braves' own Team President, John Schuerholz.  I credit this book with jump-starting my infatuation with baseball books.  As a Braves fan and someone who wanted to be the first female GM in baseball, I had to read this book the minute it was published.  Unfortunately, that minute was during law school, so it had to wait a couple of months until summer break.  Not only was it worth the wait, I've read it three times since then.  You don't have to be a Braves fan to love it either, it's a great insight into how one of the greatest GMs of all time contributed to the Braves amassing a record 14 division titles.

Feeding the Monster:  I read this one on a beach in Hawaii after taking the bar exam.  You can't beat a good book on a good beach.  This one chronicles the behind-the-scenes of the 2004 Red Sox.  Talk about timing, this author was granted permission to follow the team during a season in which they won their first World Series since 1918 and the "Curse of the Bambino."  Again, not a book where you have to be a fan of the team it's written about (although it helps that I am).  The greater focus is on the inner-workings of a Major League club, which is only more interesting because it became a World Series Champion club.

Moneyball:  This is probably the book you're all most familiar with and likely to have read.  The author details a season he spent with the Oakland A's and how their innovative thinking on player statistics allowed them to field a competitive team with a low payroll.  All really interesting but the As weren't nearly as unique in their thinking as the author makes them out to be.  Billy Beane, who is a main character, even denies being a so-called "Moneyball" guy.  I took a lot of the information in this book labeled as unique and innovative with a grain of salt.  It's the only book I've read on baseball that wasn't written by someone who has worked in baseball or covered baseball as a sportswriter.  I added it to the favorites list because I think it's a must-read for baseball fans, but it barely makes the list.  I do not think it's the revolutionary book it is sometimes acclaimed to be, but I do think it provides some good insight into how teams evaluate players, prepare for the draft and choose how to use the players on the roster.

Minor Players, Major Dreams:  This is a great book I found accidentally last year.  I was able to buy a copy for $1.99 on Amazon and when it arrived I found that it had been signed by the author.  Let me tell you, this book deserves more credit than that.  The author was a former high school baseball player and convinced the Ogden Raptors of the independent leagues to let him play for a year so he could write this book.  I think every high school boy who has major league dreams should read this book.  It provides great insight in to what minor league players go through on a daily basis.  It's also a great read for fans like me who are just curious.  You find yourself rooting for these guys as they fight for their last chance to become Major League players.  Highly underrated and under-advertised book.

Ball Four:  Another one you've probably heard of and are likely to have read, written by former player, Jim Bouton.  Very controversial book in its time (1970) about a season in the life of Jim Bouton.  I just posted a review of this book on my site yesterday that you can click here to read.

I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally:  This is the sequel to Ball Four and so a must-read as well.  This one details the aftermath of Ball Four's publication.  I posted a review of this one on my site today that you can click here to read.

That concludes the list of must-reads for the casual fan.  If you're interested in baseball economics, collective bargaining and the struggle for competitive balance, May The Best Team Win is the best book out there, until of course I publish my book!

I'm always looking for suggestions for baseball books I've passed by or missed, so feel free to tell me about your favorite!

The Last Decade: Braves All-2000s Second Team, The Middle

Written by Tom Gieryn on .

There were some very uninspiring choices for the Braves All-2000s Second Team at the corner positions, but the Braves have had considerably more success filling their up-the-middle positions over the last decade.

Catcher: Javy Lopez (2000-03), .282/.336/.500 with 95 HR, 316 RBI and 1 SB in 500 games.

Lopez is certainly one of the Braves all-time legends, and he'd undoubtedly be a first-teamer on the Braves All-1990s squad. Still, his stardom carried over enough into the 2000s to merit a second team slot for that decade as well. In May 1998, Javy signed a three-year, $19.75 million extension that kept him in Atlanta through 2001. He experienced serious decline as the decade began, seeing his OPS drop from .908 in an injury-plagued 1999 season to .822 in 2000 (his age-29 season) to just .747 in 2001. That's still a solid couple of years for any other catcher, but not up to his 1990s performance. Still, the Braves believed in him enough to re-up with him after the '01 campaign.

Lopez agreed to take a pay cut after his poor performance, inking a $6 million pact for 2002 that included a $7 million player option for 2003. Lopez hit bottom in '02, posting just a .299 OBP and a .670 OPS as he battled injuries and played just 109 games. After the poor showing, he exercised his player option for 2003, and proceeded to have the best year of his career. He hit .328/.378/.687 and bashed 49 homers in just 495 plate appearances, appearing in 129 games. He made his third All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger, and finished fifth in MVP voting. Unsurprisingly, that kind of season priced Lopez out of the Braves' range the following winter, and he signed with the Orioles for three years and $22.5 million (following Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield on the way out of Atlanta).

Not too difficult to choose Lopez in this spot; Johnny Estrada had a good year in Atlanta in 2004, but followed that up with a stinker after he got hurt in a collision at home plate.

Second base, shortstop, and center field are all below the jump...

John Sickels Writes Up Matt Young and Gerardo Rodriguez

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John Sickels has been doing prospect lists for all 30 teams this offseason. (I linked to his Top 20 list for the Braves a week ago.) Today, he just released a list of outtakes, and there were a few Braves on there. 

Gerardo Rodriguez, 1B, Atlanta Braves
Bats: R    Throws: R     HT: 6-1     WT: 195    DOB: October 25, 1987
Once you get past Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, the Braves system is short of hitting talent. One marginal exception is Gerardo Rodriguez, who has very good power. Unfortunately, that's about all he has. He swings from the heels, strikes out a lot, doesn't draw walks, and is a poor defensive player. I don't think he's much of a prospect, frankly, but he can hit home runs, and if he makes some adjustments with the strike zone, he might surprise us as higher levels. That's a very substantial "if." Grade C.

Matt Young, OF, Atlanta Braves
Young was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of New Mexico back in 2005. He is too old to be a classic prospect and has spent all or part of four years in Double-A, but worse players have had major league careers and at some point he'll probably get some at-bats. He does two things well: draw walks and steal bases. He lacks distance power, and scouts have always been skeptical about him since he's undersized, but there's always the chance he could go on a hot streak at the right time, and end up with some playing time. I could see something like this going down: the Braves have injuries in the outfield that they can't cover, Young gets called up, hits .320 (based on an unsustainable BABIP) with some walks and  steals in 75 games, then spends the next four years as a reserve outfielder with a .230/.310/.350 line while everyone waits for him to repeat his first 75 games. Grade C.

A lot of us have been wondering if there's anything to Matt Young, or if his lack of power really seals his fate. Without really mentioning their names, Sickels seems to be painting Rodriguez and Young as clones or slightly worse versions of Cody Johnson and Gregor Blanco.

One encouraging thing for Rodriguez is that his 60 games in A+ last year were actually his best numbers as a professional. Signed as a teenager by the Yankees, the Braves picked him up in 2008 after he'd spent two straight years in their short-season rookie ball. Sent to Danville, he hit .253/.310/.507 in 58 games -- not tragic, but not great numbers for a 20 year old who'd already spent the last two years in rookie ball. In 2009, they assigned him to Rome, and he put up virtually identical numbers, .258/.301/.475 in 63 games. Then they promoted him to Myrtle Beach midway through the year, and he did a little better: .281/.331/.500.

As Sickels says, his power tool is kind of his one big calling card, though he has some speed. In 746 combined PA at three levels of the Braves system, he struck out 208 times while walking just 44 times, but he hit 36 homers, 29 doubles, and 10 triples, and stole 9 bases getting caught just 3 times. Still, this is really all splitting hairs. As long as he strikes out 5 times for every walk, he has no chance to do anything useful, ever. He's done well to maintain his decent 2008 rookie league performance across two promotions since then. But he'll have to figure out how to bring down that hideous K/BB some day soon -- fortunately, he's only 22, so he has a bit of time.

Matt Young is kind of the opposite. A second baseman-turned CF-LF, he's been in our system since 2005, and he's always drawn more walks than strikeouts, with decent stolen base numbers (though a mediocre SB%), and not much power to speak of. Last year, at the age of 26, he had a decent year in AA -- .289/.421/.407, with 42 SB (16 CS) and 94 walks against just 59 K. He had a bad week at the end of the year in AAA, but deserves another shot to start the year in Gwinnett. The real problem is that lack of power -- a .407 SLG in Double-A at the age of 26 is basically proof that you cannot hit in the major leagues. His major league equivalency for his 130 games in AA: .234/.338/.319. Sorry, kiddo.

The Mark McGwire Song

Written by Kristi Dosh on .

For those here in Atlanta, I'm sure you've heard of Randy & Spiff, formerly the morning show guys on Fox 97 and now on True Oldies 106.7.  I don't listen to them regularly, but I've always been a fan of their Shower Stall Singers segments.  My personal favorite was from 1991 or 1992 when the Braves played the Pirates in the playoffs and the Shower Stall Singers featured "Taking Care of Pittsburgh" to the tune of "Taking Care of Business."  I've got the tape and have been meaning to load some of those great tunes for us Braves fans to reminisce about the good ole days when we were winning pennants every year.

So, Randy & Spiff have recently been reunited on the morning airwaves at 106.7, thus reuniting the Shower Stall Singers.  My dad alerted me to a great song they played this week about Mark McGwire.  Really entertaining and totally stuck in my head.  Definitely take a minute to listen to this.

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming...

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Conan O'Brien

We don't usually talk about non-baseball-related matters here on the website, and whenever we enter the real world, I usually talk about nothing less significant than the coming Robocalypse. But there's one more issue I'd like to weigh in on today. Conan O'Brien has the full support of this blog, in gratitude for all the awesome things he's given us after three decades at Saturday Night Live (when it was good), the Simpsons (when it was good), Late Night (when it was good), and the Tonight Show (when it was better than Leno). He gave us Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, "Marge vs. the Monorail," and the greatest bear in the history of television.

In case you weren't aware, NBC gave the 11:30 time slot back to Jay Leno, forcing Conan off the Tonight Show. You probably didn't watch either show -- most Americans didn't. The facts of the case are these: Jay Leno, who isn't funny, continued not to be funny. Conan O'Brien, who is funny, continued to be funny. So NBC canceled both shows and gave Jay the better one. Conan's gonna take a cash payout and probably leave NBC and go to Fox or something.

We love you and your hair, Conan! We stand with you.