Games that mean something started this week, the Braves welcomed an old enemy into the fold, and top pitching prospects were pushed to challenging assignments. Welcome to the first week-in-review of the regular season.
Atlanta Braves Go 1-5 To Begin The Season
The big league club started the regular season getting solid pitching performances from the starting rotation, a blistering start from right fielder Matt Kemp, spotty bullpen and defensive work, and poor hit sequencing.
The one win was a 3-1, 13-inning victory over the New York Mets where newcomer and former Met Bartolo Colon matched New York’s Jacob deGrom pitch-for-pitch and that allowed Matt Kemp some late-inning heroics.
Unfortunately, the team as a whole is only hitting .251/.310/.402, and is even worse with runners in scoring position at .189/.333/.302. The last two losses in Pittsburgh were particularly painful as shoddy defense kicked away games that were very winnable. To rub salt in the wound, the Braves best first week hitter, Matt Kemp, has been held out of both games due to a tight hamstring suffered while making a diving catch in frozen, snowy Pittsburgh on Friday.
So the question a lot of fans are asking is “Is it time to panic?” The answer is, always, absolutely yes it is time to panic if it will make you feel better. Hey, I won’t judge. Fans will fan in different ways, and it’s all good.
But if it doesn’t make you feel better to panic, then don’t. Any team can go 1-5 on a week. A team that is likely to finish sub-.500 is more likely to. But I guarantee that the offense will improve. We’ve already seen Freeman, Markakis, Swanson, and Phillips show some life this weekend. The team will get better sequencing from their hits, which will mean more runs. The bullpen really isn’t this bad. Yes, even Chaz Roe.
I am concerned about the defense, because other than Inciarte and Swanson there really isn’t any superlative defensive players. That’s the one aspect of this week that I think we’ll continue to see issues with.
Also, after starting the season against two teams that are expected to be in the thick of the playoff hunt, the Braves will play Miami and San Diego this week and they… won’t. This should be a better barometer for the team as they go into the middle weeks of the first month of the new season.
Ryan Howard Signs Minor League Deal
The big transaction news was that former Phillies first baseman and 2006 MVP Ryan Howard signed a minor league deal with Atlanta. Howard has reported to extended spring training in Orlando and will likely begin his season in AAA Gwinnett.
Howard slugged 25 home runs last season in a part-time roll for Philadelphia, even though his overall slash line was only .196/.257/.453 and continued a precipitous decline in overall productivity that had been accelerating since Howard signed a controversial 5 year, $125 million contract extension that seemed by most fans and pundits as a mistake at the time, and quickly became an albatross around the Phillies budget. Philadelphia finally cut ties with Howard this offseason, paying a $10 million buyout rather than exercise Howard’s $23 million club option.
The Braves plans for Howard are unknown, though he would certainly provide a power option for manager Brian Snitker off the bench. The problem with Howard is that he provides no defensive ability, playing only first base and playing that position poorly. And while having Howard on the bench to potentially provide instant offense is tempting, he has been almost completely neutralized by left-handed pitching the last two seasons.
All that said, this is a zero-risk proposition for Atlanta. The Braves can judge if Howard has anything left in the tank, and even if he just serves has minor league depth, Howard provides a strong veteran voice for a Gwinnett clubhouse that has relatively little major league experience, especially compared the the veteran-heavy AAA rosters of previous years.
So overall, I give this acquisition a big shrug. It’s unlikely to pay off big for Atlanta, but there’s a good chance it pays off a little, and in as said there is zero risk for the franchise.
Braves Add Reliever Jason Motte on Minor League Deal
The Braves added another veteran with a painful connection to the Braves past when they signed former Cardinals and Rockies reliever Jason Motte to a minor league deal on Sunday.
Motte, 34, has battled injuries the last several years, including rotator cuff problems that killed most of 2016 for him. The Rockies designated him for assignment at the end of spring training.
Motte is mostly known to Braves fans of course as the closer for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, and got the save in the inaugural one-game National League Wild Card Playoff that pitted the Cardinals and the Braves against each other and produced the farce that gave this blog it’s name.
Unfortunately for Motte, the following spring he tore his UCL and had to have TJS. He returned in 2014 but has been largely ineffective coming back, and then had the rotator cuff problems last season. The Braves will see if he has anything left in the tank.
My colleague Brent Blackwell has a more extensive (and better) breakdown of the Howard and Motte transactions.
Minor League Opening Day was Thursday for the consensus number one farm system in baseball (note: the Braves).
AAA Gwinnett is off to a slow start after dropping their first three games against a loaded Durham Bulls team. The offense for Gwinnett is expected to be strong this year and that has born out so far with the team averaging over 5 runs a game, but defense has been fairly sloppy early going as the team has given away 5 unearned runs already on the young season. Standout offensive players so far have included 1B Matt Tuiasosopo, SS Johan Camargo, and utilityman Kyle Kubitza.
Special notice also to relief pitcher Caleb Dirks, who made one of the more athletic plays you’ll see from a pitcher in the season opener on Tuesday.
Caleb Dirks records the rarely seen foul pop out to the pitcher as part of a clean 6th inning. G-Braves still down 10-4. pic.twitter.com/YrA8LhoBDr
— G-Braves Media (@GBravesMedia) April 7, 2017
The G-Braves got on a winning path on Sunday however behind a fine pitching performance by right-hander Lucas Sims, who was mixing pitches well, including his elusive change-up. Sims carried a no-hitter into the 5th inning before surrendering an RBI double.
The M-Braves have gone 2-2 to start the season, and got a big scare in the second inning of game 1 of the season when Max Fried left his start with an injury. It has since been diagnosed as back tightness, and fortunately does not seem to be serious. Despite some clutch relief work by right-hander Wes Parsons and others, Missisippi batters couldn’t solve the Jacksonville starting pitcher, Marlins prospect Dillon Peters.
Game 2 had Mississippi flexing their pitching muscles as Patrick Weigel, Jesse Biddle, and Akeel Morris combined on a 6-hit shutout. Weigel struck out 7 in 5 innings while third baseman Luis Valenzuela lead the offensive change with a 4-hit night.
Game 3 was the AA debut of top Braves pitching prospect Kolby Allard. If he was nervous he didn’t show, going 5 innings and striking out 5 and allowing 6 hits, with the only truly hard-hit pitch being an Austin Dean solo home run in the fifth. Dean had already made the defensive play of the game, making a good catch on a Dylan Moore deep fly and robbing him of at least a double and an RBI and leading Jacksonville to a 6-1 win.
Game 4 featured the least-hyped of the M-Braves rotation, right-hander Matt Withrow, carrying his own no-hitter into the 6th inning. The Braves would need 13 innings to come away with the win, with centerfielder Keith Curcio going off to the tune of 5-for-6 with two doubles and a triple.
The inaugural season of the Florida Fire Frogs class A+ affiliate in Kissimmee saw the talent-laden team go 2-2 against the Daytona Beach Tortugas.
Luiz Gohara got Game 1 off on the right foot with a 5 inning, 4 hit, 7 strikeout performance. Unfortunately, the Frogs couldn’t pull out the “W” due to lack of hitting and Least Interesting Pitcher In The System Andres Santiago giving up six runs (sorry Andres, I’m sure you’re a great guy).
Game 2 saw the Frogs bring out the lumber as third baseman Austin Riley and catcher Alex Jackson both homered to back left-hander Tyler Pike‘s solid Braves organizational debut (4 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO).
The Frogs got a very strong performance from 2016 3rd-round pick Drew Harrington (6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 SO) to propel them to a 4-1 win, Austin Jackson with two hits including a double and infielder Omar Obregon with three hits.
Unfortunately, in Game 4 of the series the Frogs croaked 14-5. No, I don’t promise not to use that again. The line was not pretty for starter Ricardo Sanchez, but Baseball America’s Ben Badler was at the game and had this scouting report on Twitter.
Thoughts on watching Braves prospect Ricardo Sanchez pitch today and what I liked about his stuff. More on Braves prospects this week at BA. pic.twitter.com/8W9nvUNvG9
— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) April 9, 2017
Not much happening with Rome visiting the West Virginia Power, only going 4-0 and looking every bit the reigning Southern League Champions despite near total roster turnover.
Rome’s starting rotation of Bryse Wilson, Oriel Caideco, Jeremy Walker, and Ian Anderson have a combined ERA of 2.08 with 19 strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched to start the season, with 2016 first-rounder Joey Wentz making his season debut today.
The bats played loudly as well, with outfielders Anfernee Seymour, Anthony Concepcion, and Randy Ventura leading the charge. Another great sign was catcher Lucas Herbert who hit the ball with authority in both games he started, including a long homer in Game 2.
The R-Braves will open up their home schedule on Thusday with Paulding County’s Austin Perry attending thanks to winning Outfield Fly Rule’s social media ticket giveaway. Pay attention to @OFRSports on Twitter for the next chance to win tickets!
OFR’s Players of the Week
Atlanta Player of the Week: Right fielder Matt Kemp, who went .500/.529/1.125 with 2 homers and 4 doubles in four games before going to the bench with a tight hamstring (he should be back in the line-up by Tuesday).
Atlanta Pitcher of the Week: With all due respect to the work put in by Bartolo Colon in the Braves only win of the week (6 innings, 2 hits, 1 run), Pitcher of the Week honors go to Opening Day starter Julio Teheran, who in two games has gone 13 innings without allowing an earned run.
Minor League Player of the Week: There’s lots of options as most of the Braves affiliates have at least a few hot offensive starters, but we’re going with Rome first baseman/outfielder Anthony Concepcion who is batting .313/.313/.500 on the young season, including a two-run homer on Friday and a game-winning RBI single in extra innings on Sunday.
Minor League Pitcher of the Week: This should be a hotly contested honor each week this season and there were plenty of options even in a shortened week, including Lucas Sims of Gwinnett, Patrick Weigel or Matt Withrow of Mississippi, Drew Harrington of Florida, and Bryse Wilson, Oriel Caidedo, or Ian Anderson of Rome. But the honor this week goes to lefty Luiz Gohara, who was brilliant in the debut game for the Florida Fire Frogs, going 5 innings, allowing 4 hits, and striking out 7.
If you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself as a Braves fan to check out this outstanding write-up and video of Gohara’s outing on Baseball America.
…And Knowing Is Half The Battle
When Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips went 0-f0r-3 against the Mets on Thursday, it broke a 35-road game hitting streak against New York. That was the longest road hitting streak in the majors by any player against the same opponent since St. Louis’s Joe “Ducky” Medwick had a 46-game streak against Brooklyn from 1933 through 1937.