A Major Experience

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Just a little warning this post features a heavy amount of self-promotion (as if you don’t expect that from a site called Paul on Sports).

Friday night I had the opportunity to cover my first Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves. I was freelancing for MLB.com and really enjoyed the whole experience.

It was certainly a different experience from covering college football. Figuring out what I was doing in an open clubhouse was a challenge initially, but the Mets’ writers were more than happy to point me in the right direction.

Not only did I do game coverage of the Mets 5-0 win, but former Met and Triple-A manager Wally Backman talked to the media about joining the coaching staff for the final 10 days of the season. You really get the feeling that Backman may in fact take over for Terry Collins as the Mets’ manager last year.

He spent about 10 minutes breaking down each of organization’s top prospects, and there’s no doubt that New York has the young pitching to compete for the next few years and with one big piece they could be the class of the National League East sooner than later.

Anyway here are the stories I wrote from Turner Field last night. Make sure to comment on them and tell MLB.com to never bring me back.

 

Will they or won’t they?

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On Sunday Mark Bowman of MLB.com reported that the Atlanta Braves were kicking the tires on the idea of promoting catching prospect Christian Bethancourt from Triple-A Gwinnett and moving Evan Gattis to left field.

The ramifications of this move would be that B.J. Upton and his $75 million contract would be on the bench as Justin Upton would move to right field and Jason Heyward would take over in center. Combine B.J. Upton’s $13.45 million salary with Dan Uggla’s $13 million salary and the Braves could be looking at a $26.45 million bill for a pair of pinch-hitters.

Upton is hitting .213 with an on-base percentage of .284 so far this season. He has struck out a team-high 85 times, while walking just 26.

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Bethancourt, who would be a defensive upgrade behind the plate from Gattis, is hitting .278 with three home runs and 30 RBI in 55 games this year. In his last 10 games he has hit .366 with a homer and seven RBI.

As abysmal as Upton has been at the plate during his tenure in Atlanta Bowman wrote, and I agree wholeheartedly, that his defense lately may be what has accelerated this discussion. Ironically on Sunday he had a pair of nice catches against the Angels, but this season he has seemed lackadaisical in center, and other teams have noticed.

With Upton playing deep in center, anything that falls in front of him has been worth an extra base this season. Opposing runners are constantly stretching bloop singles into bloop doubles.

The only real negative to his move would be the clubhouse dynamic of it. Uggla has been a consummate professional since losing his starting job at second base to Triple-A call-up Tommy La Stella. I’m not sure Upton would react the same. There’s also the dynamic of how it could affect baby brother Justin’s attitude.

Still after 193 games B.J. Upton hasn’t even been close to worth what the Braves paid him, and as his defense deteriorates it’s time for another Baby Brave to get his shot at keeping Atlanta on top of the National League East.

Santana signing sends right message

@ajcbraves

After an injury to Kris Medlen ended his season and left the Atlanta Braves starting rotation in limbo, I planned on writing my next post about how Frank Wren’s decision to not pursue a top-flight starter this off-season had backfired on him.

Then this morning before I could even get out a rough draft, Wren made a move that surprised me a bit. The Braves proactively signed Ervin Santana to a one-year deal worth a reported $14.1 million.

USA Today Sports

“In light of what has happened over the past few days with our pitching staff, we felt it was incumbent on us to do everything we could to strengthen our starting pitching,” Wren said in a Braves.com article.

“Throughout the winter, we didn’t feel like we were going to be in this market. But we felt Ervin was the No. 1 guy in the market. We’ve always felt if we were going to go out there, we would love to have him.”

Santana was 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA last year in Kansas City. Of his 32 starts for the Royals, 23 were quality starts.

The deal is a good one for both sides.

Santana, who wanted a $100 million contract and fired his agent when he couldn’t land one, gets a nice deal and an opportunity to prove he deserves a bigger one this winter.

Atlanta will lose its first round pick in this year’s draft (No. 26), but they can make Santana a qualifying offer after the season and either he A) accepts it and the Braves keep him or B) signs a larger deal elsewhere and the Braves get a compensation round pick.

There are still plenty of questions about a rotation that right now features Santana, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Freddy Garcia and possibly David Hale, as Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd aren’t up to 100 percent yet.

Despite those concerns the move by Wren (and Liberty Media) sent the right message to a clubhouse that saw team leaders Brian McCann and Tim Hudson leave via free agency this winter. The message is that the Braves don’t plan on rebuilding this season, but that they plan on competing for championships once again.

 

The right moves?

AJC/David Tulis

Update 2/20 12:45 pm: The Braves added a nice cherry on to the top of the contract extension sundae on Thursday. Atlanta agreed to a seven-year $58 million deal with shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Considering what he brings to the table defensively, that’s quite a bargain for the gold-glover. I think that Mike Minor will be the next Brave to get locked up for the future.

Including the Simmons deal the Braves have committed $280 million to its young talent the last two weeks.

Original post: After a quiet off-season for the Atlanta Braves, the franchise made four deals the last few weeks that will shape the future of the franchise as it gears up for a 2017 move to Cobb County.

Prior to new deals for Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran, the biggest move Atlanta made was trading for C/Of Ryan Doumit and signing veteran pitcher Gavin Floyd.

Freeman’s deal was the headline grabber, as he inked a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million deal. Kimbrel was signed to a four-year, $42 million deal that could be worth as much as $58.5 million after incentives.

Teheran was locked up for six years and $32.4 million, while Heyward signed away his final arbitration years for a two-year deal worth $13.3 million.

Yahoo.com

I think you all know how I feel about the Freeman deal. The first thing I wrote for this blog was that the California native was the future of the franchise and the Braves should make him their poster boy. They’ve done just that with the biggest deal in franchise history.

Teheran’s deal makes sense as well, although there are some out there who feel the Braves invested too early in the Colombia native. In his 34 career Major League starts, the righty is 15-9 with a 3.44 ERA. Last year he was 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA.

He’s only shown signs of getting better with each and every start, which is why the Braves opted to gamble on him now rather than risk allowing him to hit the free market after further proving himself at the big league level.

The two riskiest deals are Heyward and Kimbrel’s.

It’s not an absolute, but the length of Heyward’s deal means it will likely be the final contract he signs with Atlanta. Heyward was looking for more of a long-term commitment from the Braves prior to the arbitration-avoiding deal, and if he puts together two more good years it’s unlikely the Braves will have the necessary cash to keep the hometown hero.

After an encouraging 2012, Heyward took a slight step back last season, hitting just .254 with 14 homers and 38 RBI. He’s shown all the tools at the MLB level, but has yet to put it all together on a consistent basis, which is why Atlanta couldn’t invest in him like they did his best buddy Freeman.

If Heyward has two solid seasons in Atlanta he will certainly be able to parlay it into a hefty payday on via free agency. That’s the risk for the Braves. If the homegrown star does come into his own the franchise will have to either lock him up for a deal similar to Freeman’s or watch him flourish for another team.

Fangraphs.com

Kimbrel’s deal is thought to be the biggest risk, considering the shelf-life for elite closers. Kimbrel has been the best closer in baseball the last two season, racking up 92 saves with an ERA under 1.21 both years. Opponents have hit just .155 against him in three-plus MLB seasons.

Still closers are constantly looked at as deprecating assets thanks to guys like Éric Gangé, Carlos Marmol and Heath Bell. I understand the risk of signing a young reliever to such a long deal, but ultimately I liked the move for the Braves.

I’m not one of those guys who thinks that all innings are the same, and I think it takes a special player to be dominant in the ninth. Kimbrel has been a difference-maker since he debuted in 2010, and while the Braves may have over-paid for his final arbitration years the deal saves them two years of free agency. As he stays healthy I’d like to see the game’s best closer in a Braves uniform.

The only deal I didn’t get overly excited about was Heyward’s, because I do think he can become a terrific asset for the franchise (much more so than B.J. Upton). I worry that the relationship between him and the Braves will sour over the next two seasons due to the lack of a longer deal. Still the deal is a good business decision for Atlanta.

I think these moves have put the Braves in a great spot for the next few seasons to compete for division titles and the World Series as the Braves play out their final years at Turner Field and move out to the suburbs.

Shiny new things

5 p.m. Update: It looks like the Braves will no longer wear their regular red jerseys on Friday home games. Instead they will go with the creme jerseys all weekend long. I know I’m probably in the minority but I actually don’t like the off-white jerseys at all.

Original Update:

On the day that the Braves officially announced their new eight-year, $135 million dollar contract with Freddie Freeman, Atlanta also unveiled a pair of uniform additions.

First the Braves released their new spring training hat, which I really like. It’s an ode to the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun:

The Braves also unveiled a new military appreciation uniform that will be worn five times this season. I am a big fan of the Braves’ regular Friday red jerseys, but I like this version as well.

What do y’all think of the new uniform additions?

Cobb County Braves

homeofthebraves.com

I’ve had a little more than a full day to fully digest the news that the Atlanta Braves will no longer call Turner Field, or even Atlanta for that matter, home.

The Braves are moving to the suburbs for a new $672 million stadium in Cobb County, of which Cobb is expected to pay for around $450 million.

The Stadium is set to open in 2017, the same year as the Atlanta Falcons new downtown stadium. The mailing address will still be Atlanta. The hat will still have a cursive A. The road jerseys will still say Atlanta. But the reality is that the Atlanta Braves will no longer play in the city of Atlanta.

homeoftehbraves.com

I think that attendance will improve. What makes me thing this? the graph to the left provided by the Braves.

The red dots represent ticket sales for the 2012 season. It’s pretty clear that the majority of fans who actually purchase tickets to Braves games live north of the city, in the suburbs.

This is a move that truly makes a lot of sense for the Braves, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. It really feels like a gut punch from a franchise I have loved my entire life.

I cried when the Braves traded Deion Sanders to the Reds in 1994. It was the first, but certainly not the last time, the Braves would make me feel this way. While I no longer cry over things the Braves do, this latest bit of news stings and Grantland’s Rembert Browne puts this into words far better than I could even attempt to.

This is a developing story that will continue to unwind as we get closer to construction, but one anecdote in the AJC will certainly stick with me and Braves fans for a while.

(Hans) Utz said Mike Plant, Braves vice president of operations, pulled him aside in one of the earliest conversations and said the team would leave unless the city complied with its requests.

“We said we can’t negotiate under this threat of blackmail; rather than make threats, why not talk instead about what we can jointly accomplish and find a route that isn’t based on blackmail?” Utz said.

Those negotiations stalled, Utz said, because the Braves wanted to engage on both sides of the process, to set parameters of the development and then to choose the developer — a role city officials deemed a conflict of interest.

But we’re told the Braves privately contend that the stiff-arm came from the other direction. At one of their meetings this spring, we’re told, Utz looked at a frustrated Plant and said, “It’s not as if you can move anywhere.”

Plant was a member of the 1980 Olympic U.S. speed-skating team. That encounter, we’re told, is what set Plant’s competitive juices flowing and prompted the outreach to Cobb County. And it’s likely to become a part of Braves lore.

What’s done is done, and as Browne wrote, I just hope that Atlanta heeds this warning and ensures the Falcons don’t move to Flowery Branch decades after the new stadium and that the Hawks don’t go to Gwinnett.

There are lots of questions that will be determined in the next few months and even years about this new ballpark. Will MARTA go to Cobb County now? Will this make I-285 officially the worst interstate in the country?

But really the only question I have for Cobb County at this point is, how many Waffle Houses do you plan to have in the new ballpark?

All the Uptons

BVkyX7CCEAA86u1With the Braves set to host the Los Angeles Dodgers tomorrow night in game 1 of the NLDS, Sports Illustrated has released this week’s cover. It features Atlanta outfielders Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and SI Swimsuit model Kate Upton.

Let’s go reverse SI cover jinx.

And for those you freaking out in Atlanta that you missed a chance to be Borat and kidnap Upton to make her your wife, don’t worry the photo shoot actually took place at Citi Field in New York (The Braves are just rubbing it in now Mets fans).