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There are two spots on every team that, it can be argued, individually, are the most valuable of all: the leadoff batter and the closer. For the Braves to make a serious run at the Mets this season these are two spots that will have to be addressed.

They are the first and last guys on the field who have direct control over what the game’s outcome might be (excluding the SP). It seems as though right now we’ve got all the middle players but don’t have the bookends. Marcus Giles has been filling the role of leadoff batter and has seen his production decline since moving up from the #2 spot in the order where he spent last year plus being mired by injury. The closer has been non-existent, with John Smoltz stubbornly deciding to move back to the starting lineup. Don’t get me wrong, I love Smoltzie, but I believe the closer’s role is the most valuable on a team, any team; without the closer, games don’t get won. The rest of the game is just a battle to see who can get to the ninth and finish, and Smoltz proved he was capable but unwilling to perform the task. How many more wins might the Braves have this year if John Smoltz was in the bullpen? Well, considering the bullpen has at least 18 blown saves this season the Braves could be looking at a record of 58-31 at the All-Star break. Granted, it’s not likely Smoltz would have saved all 18 of those games but the Mets mark at the break was only 53-36. Even if he’d blown 4 to 5 of them we still could be a game ahead of the Mets in the division! True, we would have to fill his spot in the starting lineup, but starters are more common than closers. What the Braves don’t have and have always had problems finding has been a quality closer. They’ve got one now, he’s just in the starting rotation.

Joe Torre once said, and numerous Yanks agreed, that Mariano Rivera has been their most important player of the last ten years. Not David Cone, not Andy Pettite or Roger Clemens or Mike Musina. The closer’s role is of the utmost importance. It can’t be said enough, and it’s high time baseball started to recognize that fact.

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Why would a trade for Livan Hernandez make sense?

1. We could possibly trade Marcus Giles for him, opening up the possibility for Wilson Betemit to become a regular player at second base. (I realize the rumor mill has Betemit on the trade block, but I feel like the kid could be a better player than Giles. I hate to say that, but it’s true.)

2. Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden is reported as saying that though Hernandez’s numbers aren’t that great, if he was moved to a team in a pennant race they would improve because he needs that competitive challenge to keep the fire stoked. I believe, and I think the Braves do, too, that the Braves are in a pennant race. If Livan wants intensity this Braves team could provide it.

3. My feeling is this: if Hernandez requires intensity to pitch well, it’s possible he could make an excellent closer. Or he could replace Smoltz in the pitching rotation and Smoltzie could move to the bullpen. I know he’s unproven as a closer, but I believe Hernandez fits the mold and could excel in that role. (I still shudder when I think of the 15K game he had against the Braves in the 1997 NLCS.)

I don’t even know if he would entertain the idea of moving to closer; or if John would. But in the current MLB climate, a solid closer would be a great, great, great thing to have.

Photo courtesy of Yahoo!/AP

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Baseball Tonight

Watching Baseball Tonight on ESPN, Harold Reynolds comments on the value of the closer, saying “No other team has the benefit of a Mariano Rivera in the bullpen,” continuing by saying that the Yankees are in good shape because of their closer.

Later in the segment, they move on to talk of the Braves, John Kruk is asked about John Smoltz and he says they should definitely trade him, insinuating that there’s no way the Braves can win the wildcard, much less the division. He said they should get a “couple of prospects while they still can.”

My position on this topic is obvious; I definitely would NOT trade Smoltz. I believe we are still in the postseason picture. But the one thing that escapes me, that I wish any of the Baseball Tonight analysts would enlighten me with, is why, when Atlanta DOES have benefit of having a Mariano Rivera caliber closer, should they trade him away for prospects when he could save games NOW. And why won’t they go ahead and make the move to put him in the bullpen. It doesn’t make sense to me. When John said in June that he would consider a trade he added, “If it would help the team.” If he’s truly got the team’s best interests in mind, why not just start saving games? Or is he only interested in helping the team as a starting pitcher? If that’s the case then maybe they should trade him, but if that’s the case he should recant his comment about having the team’s best interests in mind.

Also: Angel Hernandez has made an ass of himself, adding credence to my earlier post on umpires needing to learn their place.

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John Smoltz

smoltzie.jpgThe Braves are not going to trade John Smoltz for a closer. Why? Because: John Smoltz is one of the best closers in the majors.There’s no closer available for trade that even comes close to John Smoltz. The only possibility would be Mariano Rivera and he ain’t going nowhere. Also: there’s no guarantee Mo would perform as well away from Yankee Stadium as he does wearing pinstripes. As was stated in an article today, if the Braves had Mo Rivera since 1995 “they would likely be a dynasty instead of a postseason disappointment.” But would you trade John Smoltz for him? No. Not me. But then I would put Smoltz in the bullpen to close games.Who else is there? Don’t even mention Trevor Hoffman; Hoff excels in the ordinary, but hasn’t done well in the clutch (see 2006 All-Star game plus 3 blown saves in 11 postseason appearances). Who else? Eric Gagne who’s been a big, fat zero since MLB outlawed steroids. Todd Jones is a quality closer again after a few years of questionable play, but he’s not worth a John Smoltz, even though the Tigers would LOVE to have John. Who else would they throw into the package? It doesn’t matter: the Braves want to keep Smoltz and Smoltz is on record saying that he doesn’t want to leave Atlanta.

I just wish he could start and close.

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The lead the Mets have built is virtually insurmountable, or so the analysts will tell you. The Braves were behind 13 games at the All-Star break, and no team has ever lost a division race when leading by at least 10 games at the break. Can the Braves do it? Sure they can. Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Besides, this is an improbable team and has been for the past 14 years; one more unlikely feat would just add to the legend this Braves franchise is building upon.

Consider this:
The Braves winning percentage (WP) through the first 89 games this season was .449. An awful mark, but a lot contributed to it. If the Braves go on a more Brave-like 2nd half and finish the final 73 games with at least a .712 WP they’ll finish the season with a .567 WP. This would take a second half mark of 52-21.

By contrast:
The Mets first half WP was .595. If they were to go on a few losing streaks (remember the Braves have 9 games against them in the second half) and finish with a .534 WP, they will tie the Braves; both would have a record of 92-70, and there will be a playoff game with the winner taking the division and loser likely to take the Wildcard. For the tie to occur in this mathematical scenario, the Mets’ second-half win/loss record would have to be 39-34, a respectable mark, and very, very, possible.

This scenario isn’t only possible; it’s feasible. I won’t even say it’s not likely, because the Braves have killed the Mets every season for the last 14 years. Until the final day of the season passes and the Braves are still behind in the win-loss column, I’ll have to say I believe the Braves can do it. At the very least, the Wildcard is very much a likelihood.

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braves-padres-ejections.jpgSunday’s game’s home-plate umpire was hay-haired Bruce Dreckman. The portly pontiff cast out the Padre’s bench coach and manager, and to make matters even worse he tossed Jeff Francoeur and Bobby Cox in the seventh. But the most glaring discrepancy of all was the manner in which he tossed them. He practically ran, ran, towards the Padre’s dugout to toss the Padre’s bench coach, which of course prompted Boche to enter into the fray and almost immediately be ejected as well. In the seventh, Francoeur was not so much tossed as flung from the ballpark by a furious, red-faced Dreckman, after Francoeur left the plate with a parting shot after being rung up on strikes. Bobby had only to show his face to get thrown out at that point.

To be fair, I don’t know what Francoeur said to Dreckman, but absolutely nothing he could have said should have been worth the immediate reprisal that followed. I don’t care if he called the man a cocksucker, which I am quite confident he didn’t.

My point is this: umpires need to learn their place. Nobody, nobody, goes to a baseball game to see the umpires. And yet the umpires showboat and prance as the worst prima donna. It’s almost as if they believe that the fans in the stands could give one whit if Bobby Cox drew a broadsword and lopped Bruce Dreckman’s head off right there at home plate. Once the pall settled on the audience, announce that a replacement is needed and shuffle a new one down from the stands. It’s not like it requires a skill set or an education; it barely requires basic comprehension-level intelligence and that ever elusive quality for a good umpire: 20/20 vision.

Seriously, the game would benefit greatly if the umpires would just remember their place and understand that occasionally their calls are going to rub someone the wrong way. Let the player or coach yell at you for a minute or two and then let them go back to the dugout. Tossing players and coaches for sideways glances and random remarks speaks strongly to the umpire’s own lack of self confidence. If he was really sure of himself and the quality of the game he was calling then he should have the poise to stand there like a man, rather than raving like an infantile lunatic.

Photos courtesy of Yahoo/AP

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Negatives

There’s opportunity-o-plenty in the National League this year, folks, and the Braves are in a perfect position to take advantage of it. I know a lot of you will say the Braves are too far back to make a serious run, but here’s a list of some first-look negatives that could actually turn out to be positives if you look at them a little more closely:

  1. The best team in the NL is the Mets.
  2. The Mets are in our division.
  3. We’re 13 games behind them.
  4. John Smoltz said he wouldn’t object to a trade a few weeks ago and it’s rumored that Detroit wants him bad.
  5. The bullpen has been lousy.
  6. The starting pitching has been lousy.
  7. The lineup hasn’t been hitting very well.

That’s a lot of negatives, right? Well, let’s look at a few of them from a different perspective:

  1. The Mets are notorious for finishing poorly. They’ve been picked to win the division for about the last ten years but have never been able to pull the trigger. Why? Usually because the Braves beat them over and over and over and over again.
  2. The Mets are in our division and we’re a long way behind them, but we’ve still got 9 games to play against them. If we win those we’ll be in pretty good shape.
  3. The NL, for the most part, sucks. True, the only team that’s shown any spunk this season so far has been our division rival Mets, but that still leaves the Wildcard up for grabs.
  4. John Shuerholz spoke with John Smoltz and is quoted as saying that John doesn’t want a trade. He’s happy here and wants to finish his career a Brave. He also said that though the division looks out of reach he still wants to make a push for the Wildcard. That means, my friends, that as the trade deadline approaches the Braves will be BUYERS, not sellers. And we all know that Shuerholz can finagle a very beneficial trade if he needs to.
  5. The bullpen’s problem has been the closer. If we fill that role the bullpen’s woes will be over. Maybe they’ll add a hand or two at the trade deadline to shore up the bullpen, or maybe they’ll find the right guy within to close games. Either way, if we find someone who can close games the bullpen will be fine. a. Just don’t expect it to be John Smoltz. It would be great if he would, but it probably won’t happen.
  6. The starting pitching has been up and down all year, but could very easily begin to show some consistency. The arms we’ve got are good and haven’t pitched to their potential. If they put together a solid second half we’ll win a lot of games. Plus, Horatio Ramirez has shown some dominant stuff since returning from the DL.
  7. The lineup is coming around. They forgot for a little while that they don’t have to hit the ball out of the park every at bat to win games, but it looks like they might have begun to discover the one-pitch-at-a-time technique that can so often get away from us. Hit the ball. Run. Repeat. Win.

In all I’ve got to say I’m looking forward to watching our progress this year. June was a tough month to watch, but it’s July now and the All-Star break is over. Now it’s back to business time and if there’s one thing the Braves have always known how to do it’s been to get down to business. If Tim Hudson can go to San Diego on Friday and give us a solid start, the first step toward a great second half–and postseason play–will be achieved.

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