Will Reed Johnson be the odd man out?

Jay Hey could be back as early as the Arizona series next week, which leaves the Braves with a most unanticipated, yet welcome, problem.

The bench, which appeared to be a weakness, has been among the best in baseball. But someone’s got to go.

*It can’t be Ramiro Pena, who’s exceeded expectations and is the only middle infield reserve on the 25-man roster.

*It won’t be Evan Gattis. You don’t send down a player with a .524 slugging percentage, particularly one who’s been far better defensively than advertised (showing a mean throwing arm in LF).

*It shouldn’t be Jordan Schafer, who’s been everything we thought he’d be in 2009, providing the Braves with generally solid defense and base-running and, so far, unexpected pop. Plus, he’s out of options and would never clear waivers.

(Shows how much we know: from last December’s post including Schafer in our countdown of the 20 worst A-Braves)

When FW re-signed him earlier this winter, I couldn’t help but think of Craig Robinson, Larvell Blanks and Adrian Devine. Wasn’t once enough?

*It could be Gerald Laird, but he’s signed to a two-year deal and if you lose him you lose the option of using Gattis and McCann as pinch hitters.

*That leaves Reed Johnson, who has a team option for next year and an affordable contract this year. He should be easy enough to trade. It’s no reflection on Reed, but, considering the options, what would you do?

Schafer, Pastornicky only Braves yet to report

Judging by Fredi’s comments the former prospects would be advised to go apartment hunting in Buford.

“We’re waiting for [Pastornicky] again this year,” Gonzalez said, in a good-natured tone that nonetheless sent a message. “Schafer probably has a tough time getting travel arrangements. He’s another one I’m going to grab. He only lives two exits up the road here; I haven’t seen him yet.

“I didn’t know he signed a deal with Frank – he’s got a five-year deal, guarantee to play one of the three outfield spots.”

 

Braves bolster bench

Baker, a right-handed bat, could get some starts at 2B in place of Uggla. Baker is a career.298 hitter against southpaws, with a .505 slugging percentage.

He’ll fill the roster spot vacated by Jack “of No Trades” Wilson, who was released today.

Frank Wren should stop making trades w/ Pittsburgh

We were all pleased with Matty D.’s re-acquisition last summer. Now …

Diaz, who has a .302 OBP and 7 homers in his last 200 games, will make $2 million this year. Hell, Brent Clevlen could give you that for a quarter of the price.

Two million might not seem like much but consider the consequences of the Diaz trade.

If not for Matty D.’s contract the Braves would’ve likely dealt for Seth Smith, who Oakland received for a couple of aging hurlers who project as fifth starters. The Braves could’ve easily offered a more talented package of pitchers without sacrificing any of their better prospects.

The only fathomable reason Smith is not a Brave is his $2.5 million salary. Subtract Diaz and they could’ve made him fit (one hopes $500,000 wouldn’t have been a barrier.)  It seems minor, but Smith is a better hitter and fielder capable of playing CF in a pinch.

As it stands the Bravos will likely have to carry three back-up OF’s since neither Diaz or Hinske can play CF. If something happens to Bourn who plays center? Good news for Jose Constanza, at least.

Perhaps Matty D. will rebound in 2012. He better, because we’re stuck with him.

Seth Smith should be a Brave

Seth Smith will make about $2.5 mil next season, apparently too much for the Braves to take on. Though I never advocated trading Martin for Smith the former Rockies outfielder would have been a nice acquisition as a platoon LF and pinch hitter par excellence.

Instead he’s going to Oakland, acquired for two middling pitchers ages 28 and 27. Hell, Todd Redmond and J.J. Hoover would have been a much more desirable package. The Braves could have afforded to trade both but apparently can’t afford another $2.5 mil.

Instead of a lefty hitter with a career.833 OPS backing up Martin, one who can play CF in a pinch, the Braves will have Matt Diaz, a liability with the glove who finished 2011 with an OPS lower than those posted by Gonzo and McOut.

If the Braves are counting on Drew Sutton to back up Chipper, we’re in trouble

I hope to God DOB’s speculation is off-base:

Kenny R. reports that Seth Smith talks between Braves and Rockies cooled after teams couldn’t agree on which pitchingprospect the Braves would receive along with Smith in exchange for Prado.

If this is the case, if indeed the Braves’ focus with Colorado had indeed shifted from center-field prospect to pitching prospect in package with Smith, then to me that’s an indication Atlanta was and probably still is trying to get center fielder Adam Jones from Baltimore, and would use any pitching prospect it received from Colorado either to replace the one that the Braves might lose in a deal for Jones, or actually use that pitching prospect from the Rockies as part of a package Atlanta would send to Baltimore for Jones because the Braves wouldn’t agree to part with one of their own pitching prospects that the O’s covet.

Of course, that still would leave a gaping hole as backup third baseman if the Braves trade Prado, so I’d have to think they have another deal lined up or are at least very confident they can get a quality backup for Chipper. That is, unless they believe offseason minor-league free agent signee Drew Sutton could fill that role. He played it plenty in the minors and played eight games at third for Boston last season.

Atlanta will be the 28-year-old Sutton‘s fourth organization in five years.

 

Best to Brooksie

Brooks was non-tendered last night, along with Peter Moylan, although Petah may end up coming back. It’s doubtful Brooks will, as he was non-tendered despite not being arbitration-eligible.

As is the Braves bench has only two openings, with Matty D., Hinske and Ross all signed for 2012. One assumes back-ups who can play SS and CF will take the final two spots.

Too bad Brooksie is a liability with the glove because you could argue he’s the best pinch-hitter the Braves ever had. In fact, has any pinch hitter been more consistently clutch than Brooks was in 2010?

May 10: Braves trailing 9-6. Conrad hits walk-off grand slam, capping an eight-run comeback.

June 12: Brooks delivers the eventual game-winning suicide squeeze in the 9th against Minnesota.

July 24: Contrad slams go-ahead grand slam #2, against the Marlins.

Aug. 10: Brooksie’s two-run homer in the top of the 9th gives the Braves a 3-2 win over Houston.

Aug. 13: Another game-winning homer, off Hideki Kuroda of the Dodgers.

No need to bring up that Giants playoff game again. Brooks is responsible for a lot of great memories and, without him, the Braves probably don’t make the playoffs in ’10.

Braves pick up McLouth’s option

Did I say McLouth? I meant Hinske, back next year for $1.5 million. No complaints here.

Gotta love Hinske’s reaction to the news.

“All these guys are my good friends, and I want to go out there and battle with them,” Hinske said. “I don’t want to be with any other team. I want to be with the Atlanta Braves. I want to play with Brian McCann and Chipper Jones and David Ross and Dan Uggla. These guys are my boys.”

The next Brent Clevelen or Andres Torres?

A big spring has placed former Tigers prospect Wilkin Ramirez into contention for a back-up OF job. As of Sunday he was batting .421 (8-for-19) with a triple, homer, five RBIs and three stolen bases.

“He’s got some juice, man,” said Jones. “He’s been one of the guys that’s really impressed me this spring. A lot of people said that he was Pedro Cerrano [a fictional power hitter in the movie Major League], that he could hit the fastball but not necessarily the breaking ball. But he hit a slider out dead-central [to center field] today.

“I’d say he’s got as much pop as anybody in camp.”

So who is Wilkin Ramirez? The Braves acquired the 25-year-old Dominican from the Tigers last summer, and, though his numbers were fairly pedestrian, he did show considerably more patience with Gwinnett, walking 10 times in 24 games.

He’s certainly got the talent; Baseball America ranked him among Detroit’s Top 10 prospects in 2008 and ’09. Ramirez projects as a plus defender with above-average speed and power. With the bat, he’s Jeff Francoeur though, unlike the Lilburn Flash, it appears he’s learning.

Braves talking with Jorge Cantu

UPDATE: Never mind.
Free-agent slugger Jorge Cantú made it known Saturday while attending the Michael Gill Benefit Ragball Tournament in Channelview, Texas, that ongoing conversations with the Houston Astros regarding a potential contract have recently ceased, thus leaving the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres as the clear-cut favorites to obtain his services.
Pluses: Cantu’s only 29 and has twice driven in 100 or more runs (as recently as 2009).
Minuses: He’s a liability on defense, committing 16 errors in 81 games at the hot  corner last year with Florida. And Cantu’s second-half OPS was a Diory Hernandez-like .606.

Meh.

Braves bench no longer a strength

When the 2010 season started, the Braves bench featured Matty D., Hinske, Infante, Ross and Conrad. If Fredi sticks with a 12-man pitching staff (I’d prefer 11), the ’11 Braves will be short at least one hitter, as Diory Hernandez appears a lock to stick with the parent club. Who else spells Gonzalez at short? Brooks?

Conrad will compete with Jordan Schafer and Matt Young for the last bench spot, but only if the Braves feel comfortable with Joe Mather backing up McOut in CF. And that assumes Mather, a career .233 hitter, makes the team.

FW had a nice winter, but let’s hope he’s not done. Some fine-tuning is required. Of the remaining free agents, Jerry Hairston Jr. (.244-10-50, 9 SB) would be the best fit. He’s played CF and SS in recent years.

Scott Hairston? Why not Andruw

Scott's pop

This is what we’re reduced to, weighing the pros and cons of signing an oft-injured and well-traveled fourth outfielder. I never thought about Scott Hairston as a CF option because 1.) He’s not very good and 2.) I thought he was only a corner OF.

Turns out he’s decent enough in CF, faring better than Ankiel and McLouth in those defensive metrics I still don’t quite understand (or want to).

Hairston’s only real value is as a right-handed hitter versus southpaws. He’s a career .278 hitter against lefties, with a .498 slugging percentage despite playing most of his career in Oakland and San Diego’s pitcher-friendly ballparks.

All that said, I’d rather have someone who can run. Or Andruw, who had an .OPS more than 200 points higher than McOut’s in 2010. And he’s still only 34 years old.

Hinske’s coming back

Solid part-timer, excellent pinch hitter and a good character guy. Plus, he wants to be here.

Glad to have you back, EH.

The outfielder/first baseman agreed to a one-year deal with a second-year option to stay with the Braves, turning down an offer from the Milwaukee Brewers in his home state, said a person familiar with negotiations. Contract figures weren’t immediately known, but the deal includes plenty of incentives for number of plate appearances.

Brooks on Bobby

When asked what Cox had meant to him, Brooks Conrad had to take a deep breath and attempt to at least control the tears. After spending most of the previous nine years in the Minors, Conrad spent this entire season in the Majors.

Forced to take Conrad out of the lineup following a three-error performance in Sunday’s loss to the Giants, Cox took time Monday to talk to the 30-year-old rookie and reassure him that the club was still well aware of everything he had contributed during the season.

“I don’t think you see that a whole lot in this game,” Conrad said. “It’s a cutthroat game. It can be brutal at times. When you’ve got a guy backing you no matter what, it’s pretty cool. He’s got every one of our backs no matter what, and I was proud to play for him.”

Let’s not forget what Brooks meant to the Braves this year.

May 11: In his first start of the season, filling in for an injured Chipper Jones, Conrad homers and has a Web Gem in an 11-3 rout of the Milwaukee Brewers. He’d start again the next day, hit a home run and drive in four more.

May 20: Conrad caps a ninth-inning rally with a walk-off pinch-hit grand slam, giving the Braves, who trailed 9-3 entering the ninth inning, a 10-9 win over the Cincinnati Reds. It was the Braves’ third straight walk-off win and the first time a Brave hit a walk-off grand slam when down by three runs since Del Crandall in 1955.

June 12: With the score tied, 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning, Conrad successfully squeezes in a run with a bunt hit. The Braves beat the Minnesota Twins, 3-2. He was one of four players to put his team ahead with a bunt hit in the ninth inning, along with Howie Kendrick, Marco Scutaro and Chris Heisey.

July 24: Conrad snaps a 5-5 tie with an eighth-inning grand slam off Florida Marlins reliever Burke Badenhop. The Braves go on to score eight runs in the inning, rallying from 5-2 down, and go on to win, 10-5. He’s the fifth player in the last 60 years to hit two pinch-hit grand slams in the same season.

August 10: Conrad hits a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning vs Matt Lindstrom. The Braves score three runs in the ninth inning and rally to beat the Houston Astros, 4-2. He became the first player to hit three go-ahead HR in the 8th inning or later off the bench since Rusty Greer for the Texas Rangers in 1995.

August 13: With the Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers tied, 0-0, Conrad breaks the tie with a home run vs Hiroki Kuroda. The Braves win, 1-0. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Conrad was the fourth rookie in Braves history to win a 1-0 game with a home run.

The bench, the bullpen and the rest

The starting pitching has been slightly above average. The offense, slightly below. The defense, well below. But the Braves’ ‘pen and bench have been exemplary. Tonight’s win was a microcosm of the 2010 Braves. It may not be much, it may be excruciating, but you can’t turn away.

And hats off to the fans. More than 36,000 turned out tonight — about time.

Open thread, 8.11, Braves vs. Tony Scotts

The Bravos are the bane of stat geeks. Offensively, they’re mediocre at best. Same with the defense (87 errors; only the Nats have more). The starting pitching, while a strength, is not the league’s best.

Can a team get to October on the backs of a stalwart bullpen and heroic bench? Looks that way.

They’ll have to step up again today. Jay Hey isn’t in the line-up, though we’re told his injured knee won’t keep him out long.

1. Infante 2B. 2. Cabrera RF, 3. Gonzalez SS, 4. Diaz LF, 5. Glaus 1B, 6. Ross C, 7. Conrad 3B, 8. Ankiel CF, 9. Hanson RH