Whirlwind Wednesday for the Braves

Forgive me, but I think yesterday’s barrage of news warrants postponing today’s chart.

Sometimes it seems like the Braves just decide to pack as much news into one day as possible.  Back in 1993, the Braves dealt for Fred McGriff on the same day that Fulton County Stadium caught on fire.  That day’s events (pardon the pun) sparked a remarkable season-ending rally that culminated in a dramatic final day, with the Braves winning their last NL West title over the 103-win Giants.

Perhaps yesterday’s events will give the Braves the same kind of lift.  In one day, they promoted one of baseball’s top prospects, released a Hall of Fame pitcher, and traded for an All-Star outfielder.  Let’s tackle those in reverse order.

Nate McLouth

In a move that comes mostly as a shock, with the lip service everyone had been giving Anderson, Schafer, and Francoeur, the Braves actually addressed one of their biggest needs yesterday by dealing three prospects for Pittsburgh’s Nate McLouth.

McLouth looks like a pretty good all-around outfielder at this stage in his career, but he is 27 and has just two full major league seasons to his credit prior to this year.  He sports a career .261/.339/.462 slash line with solid speed, or at least good baserunning instincts.  He’s been successful in 64 of his 69 career stolen base attempts, which is excellent.  Interestingly, he didn’t really hit for such power in the minors, totaling just 19 homers and an ISO around .120 for his last three minor league seasons.

Everyone probably remembers his tremendous start in 2008, which propelled him to become the Pirates’ token All-Star.  He had an .899 OPS in the first half and dropped off to .781 thereafter.  He also won the Gold Glove award, although UZR isn’t very high on his defense.  I wouldn’t have a problem if you wanted to call him an average defender, but lots of undeserving players win the Gold Glove, and at least on the surface, he doesn’t appear to have the range to be considered any more than just “good.”  His bat at that position is what gives him value.

McLouth is probably at his peak right now, even though he’s not off to the same hot start as last year.  His career line should probably be the expectation at this point, but maybe he hits .265-.270 if he gets a few more line drives.  His speed will be an asset, and I assume he will bat leadoff to take the most advantage of that speed, banishing Kelly Johnson to the lower half of the order.  McLouth is signed to a very reasonable contract through 2011, with a $10.65M club option for 2012 that will probably be exercised if he hasn’t already started declining by then.  Assuming the market rebounds by then, that could be considered well below his value in 2012.

As for the prospects the Braves gave up, Jeff Locke was a highly regarded pitching prospect, but he was somewhat lacking in results at this stage in his young career.  Charlie Morton is probably close to major-league ready but was far down the Braves’ depth chart.  Gorkys Hernandez was blocked by Jordan Schafer, but he’s a solid OF prospect.  Altogether they’re not a bad haul for McLouth, and the Braves had the depth to spare them.

Overall, I like the deal, but I think the Braves are still an outfield bat short of being considered favorites in the same breath as the Mets and Phillies.

Tom Glavine

Earlier this week, I read that the Braves were considering three scenarios with Glavine, but I’m thinking this was the last resort.

Whatever criticism the Braves get for releasing one of the key cogs in the 1990s winning machine, they will get because they shouldn’t have signed Tom Glavine for 2009 in the first place.  There was little evidence that he would be more than a fringe major league pitcher, and the Braves already had plenty of that kind of pitcher, only they were all 20 years younger.

The nail in Glavine’s coffin had to be the $1M bonus he would receive if he played for the Braves this at all this year.  With two months of AAA dominance by the Braves’ top pitching prospects and four pitchers already established in the rotation, there was simply no place for Glavine.

Tom Glavine has clearly had a tremendous career and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as one of the top left-handed pitchers of all time, whether or not he pitches again.  I’m sure some teams will at least consider signing him if he’s open to continuing his career elsewhere, but part of me hopes he’s thrown his last pitch and that he threw it as a Brave.  Greg Maddux and (probably) John Smoltz will not be able to say the same.

Tommy Hanson

I have mixed feelings about moving Kris Medlen to the bullpen, but there’s little doubt at this point that Tommy Hanson is currently one of the Braves’ five best starting pitchers.  I’ve already said plenty about him throughout the season, but let’s take one more look at his past before he makes his major league debut on Saturday.

Hanson was a 22nd-round pick in 2005, a draft-and-follow player out of high school.  He first pitched professionally in 2006, with 51 innings and a 2.09 ERA and an impressive 56/9 K/BB ratio in 13 starts for Danville (rookie league).  He spent 2007 between Rome and Myrtle Beach, logging 133 innings.   His command took a slight hit, but he was still striking out more than 10 per 9 innings with a K/BB ratio of nearly 3, and his ERA was in the low-3s.

Last year was a busy year for Tommy.  Between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, he made 25 starts and totaled 138 innings with similar command and strikeout prowess to 2007, improving his ERA to 2.41.  He was also the MVP in the Arizona Fall League, the first pitcher to receive that honor, pitching 28 2/3 innings with 49 Ks, 7 walks, and a miniscule 0.63 ERA.  That’s a total of 166 2/3 innings in 2008.

In 2009, Hanson has picked up where he left off last year.  The strikeouts just keep coming, and he has 90 already in just 66 1/3 innings at AAA Gwinnett.  That’s more than 12 per 9 innings, and he’s struck out over a third of his total batters faced, which would be career highs for him at any level.  He’s only allowing 5.5 hits per 9 innings on top of that, leaving him with a nice 1.50 ERA.

That pretty much covers the good news on Hanson.  I really only have two concerns about him: one minor and one of unknown severity.

My first concern is his fly-ball tendency, which I’ve discussed before.  His highest ground-ball percentage at any minor-league level was the 44% he posted at Rome in 2007.  That number dipped as low as 32% in his first short stint at Myrtle Beach later that year.  Fly balls aren’t always a problem, but he faces a different set of problems from a ground-ball pitcher.  He’ll be more susceptible to poor outfield defense.  (I would say that the Braves are somewhere between “average” and “below-average.”  Frenchy has a good arm but poor range.  Anderson has neither a good arm nor good range.  McLouth we’ve discussed already.)  He’ll also give up some home runs.  Those problems play out differently in certain ballparks (more doubles in Citi Field, more homers in Citizens Bank), but Turner Field is fairly neutral.

My second concern is his durability.  I think Tom Verducci takes it one step too far with his annual list of young pitchers who are prime injury candidates, but I do place some importance on gradually stretching out a young pitcher’s IP total so that he doesn’t (a) fade late in the year, or (b) start having arm trouble.  There’s no fool-proof method, and plenty of pitchers have survived purported “abuse” with zero consequences.  But if he goes much farther than 200 innings this year, I’ll be a tad concerned.

That’s a lot to digest in one day.  The Braves’ lineup will have a new look against the Cubs tonight, and we’ll see how Hanson fares against Milwaukee on Saturday.  I would presume that Medlen will be available in relief by tomorrow at the latest (the fifth day after Sunday’s start), and I hope the Braves use him for long relief, so that he remains an insurance policy in case of an injury.  The same goes for Tim Hudson when he comes back in a few months, if all stays well in the rotation until then.

Maybe today will be the start of a long run above .500 for the Braves.  They’re 26-26 this morning, and now there’s reason to hope for improvement.

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2 thoughts on “Whirlwind Wednesday for the Braves

  1. Glavine

    I largely agree on Glavine. After last season, I thought he was done, and wondered why the Braves signed him in the first place.

    Having said that, in hindsight it looks to me like they never really intended to give him much of a shot in the first place, since he pitched well in his rehab starts to no avail.

    I don’t really think that Glavine has another quality season in him, but for him to work hard for so long in a comeback attempt only to be released when it seems that he’s finally ready to pitch…it seems like pretty shabby treatment to me.

    I think the best thing to come out of this would be if Glavine…and Smoltz never pitched again, and then the Big 3 could all go into the HoF together. I’d make that trip to Cooperstown for sure.

    McLouth

    He ought to be an improvement, and I’m hopeful that he’ll be a big help, but a guy with a career high of 26 home runs wasn’t quite what I was hoping for in terms of a “big bat.”

    Hanson

    I’m really, really excited about Hanson.

  2. I’m not pleased with the way things went down with Glavine, either. I’ll hold out some hope for the scenario you mentioned, since Smoltz is trying to come back for a similarly-pitching-rich club.

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