Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Braves Blog: Spring Training

Excited for the Season, Not for Spring Training

February is mercifully coming to an end and spring training games are about to begin. I don’t know about you guys, but the season can’t get here fast enough for me. I’m usually slow to transition into the mood of baseball season, but not this year. I’m just ready to have our Bravos on TV every night.

One thing that hasn’t changed for me is that I hate spring training. There’s really nothing good that can happen in March, but a whole lot can go wrong (see Adam Wainwright). I usually try not to pay much attention and just hope we make it to opening day without hitting any mines.

There are roster battles going on in almost every camp, but the main point of spring training is to get the pitchers ready for the season. The veteran position players are basically ready to go from day one. Even the position battles aren’t that interesting because teams often already have their minds made up about who they want on the opening day roster. An up-and-coming prospect that wows everybody in the spring will often begin the year in the minors anyway. A long shot non-roster invitee might totally outperform the guy he’s competing against for one of the last spots on the roster, yet still be cut loose on March 31st in favor of the guy with higher upside.

And most fans have learned that any player’s spring training results have to be taken with a grain of salt or two. An injury prone veteran picked up off the scrap heap might come out of camp hitting .310 with 4 homers in 40 at bats, but what does it matter if those results came against minor leaguers and veteran pitchers just trying to get their work in? A pitcher looking to bounce back from a poor season may be all strikeouts and no walks during March, but he may not be so aggressive against real lineups in real games come April.

We have to keep all of this in mind as we count down the minutes to opening day. But since we’ve still got over a month to wait, we might as well identify a few things to pay attention to during Grape Fruit League play.

The Gonzalez Era Begins

So far the transition from Bobby Cox to Freddy Gonzalez has gone remarkably smoothly. Working in the Braves organization and under Cox has helped Gonzalez, and it doesn’t seem like he wants to shake things up much. He knows many of the players from the minors, spring training, and from his time as 3rd base coach. It’s weird; it almost seems like nothing has changed. It will be interesting to see if we start to notice some differences now that the exhibition season is about to get under way.

During the Cox-Schuerholz era, the manager and GM made roster decisions together. Frank Wren seemed to put the final decisions in Cox’s hands. I don’t know how it will work with Gonzalez. Bobby often seemed to put more value/trust in experience. He had a lot of patience and gave veterans every chance to prove they could get the job done before turning to a younger player or looking outside the organization. Actually, veterans often had to prove that they absolutely could not get the job done before Cox would give up on them, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough. I wonder if Gonzalez will have the same tendencies. Personally, while I believe Bobby’s patience was often beneficial, it could also be really, really annoying, and at times it was detrimental. Hopefully Gonzalez will be patient but not slow to act when the writing is on the wall.

Chipper’s Comeback

Chipper’s attempt to comeback from knee surgery has drawn the most attention so far this spring, and it will likely be the issue reported on most throughout March. There haven’t been any major setbacks yet, but there have been reports that things haven’t gone as smoothly as Chipper had hoped. Everyone will be watching to see how he moves in the field and runs on the bases. The most important thing is that he doesn’t have a major setback, so they won’t rush it if he isn’t ready.

It will be interesting to see how much Chipper plays this spring. Will he be ready to play every day when camp breaks? Will he be an everyday player at any point this season or will he need a day off every few games? I don’t think the team can plan on him playing 150 games. I mean Chipper hasn’t played more than 143 games in a season since 2003, and he’s averaged 122 games a season over the last 7 years. Now he’s coming back from a torn ACL at age 39. How much of the year will he be healthy enough to play? When he can play, will he be healthy enough to play well? We’ll start to find out the answers to these very important questions over the next few weeks.

What if Chipper Can’t Get All the Way Back?

Let’s year the Braves went into the season without a backup plan in case the Troy Glaus thing didn’t work out. I had made a big deal of that and for a while it looked like I had overreacted, but eventually it hurt the Braves. Is there a backup plan this year in case Chipper can’t come all the way back? I’m not sure that there is one, but one could emerge around Jordan Schafer. Schafer’s last few years have been disastrous, but he’s still young and he’s definitely talented. It will be very interesting to see if his wrist injury is finally a thing of the past. If Shafer can make the team as a 4th outfielder he could move into the lineup whenever Chipper can’t go, with Martin Prado moving back to third.

Prado in Left

It was amazing how easily many Braves fans accepted the idea that Prado would have no problem moving from the infield to the outfield, based solely on the fact that he had sometimes played left field in winter ball. Prado has played almost exclusively on the infield during his entire minor and major league career. He’s also coming back from a variety of injuries, including a hip pointer and a torn oblique. Prado’s response to being moved to left has been just what you’d expect: he has worked his ass off to become a good outfielder, while still working out at third base, and hasn’t muttered a single complaint. Still, it’s possible that the change could end up effecting him at the plate, particularly if he struggles. I think this is one of the biggest issues to watch this spring.

Freddie Freeman

Obviously people are going to be paying attention to how Freeman plays this spring, simply because he’s expected to be the starting first baseman this year. He trained very hard in the offseason and added 17 pounds of muscle. That’s great. I just hope it doesn’t end up having a negative effect, like slowing down his swing or causing him to lose flexibility. I’m no fitness expert but adding a lot of muscle has been a bad thing for a few players. I’m more concerned about Freeman than I would be with, say, Prado because Freeman was kind of long and lanky. He’s 6-5 and his game has always been built on his beautiful left handed swing. I remember when Todd Helton put on a lot of muscle a few years ago. Instead of making him more powerful, it just seemed to make him slower. Hopefully that won’t be the case for Freeman, because he’s going to be the regular first baseman, whether he plays well or not. In his case, if he struggles, the Braves won’t have any better option than just being patient.

Did McLouth Have a Bad Year or is He Just Not Any Good?

It seems like confidence is a necessity for an athlete. If a player doesn’t have confidence it will be hard for them to recover from periods when they struggle. On the other hand, overconfidence can also be a problem when a player struggles because they might not give the kind of effort needed to reverse the situation. Nate McLouth seems to have confidence in himself, despite his struggles last season. He still believes it was just a bad year. However, in contrast to, say, Jeff Francoeur, McLouth’s confidence doesn’t seem to be blinding him from the reality that he’s got to work to try and get his career back on track.

This is a big year for McLouth. It’s been nice to see that he isn’t acting as if everything is cool and he’s just going to go through the motions and get ready for the season. He was at camp early and he’s been working. This is all good. Of course, he might still suck.

Hopefully McLouth can find his game this season. McLouth and Jordan Shafer really need to get their careers back on track this season. If they don’t, the Braves could end up having major holes in two of the three outfield spots if Prado has to spend a lot of time filling in for Chipper at third base.

Is the Bullpen a Strength or a Potential Weakness?

I’m actually confident in the Braves bullpen going into this season. I’m definitely less concerned with the pen than I am with the lineup. But relief pitching is actually the area that people are most often citing as a question mark for the Braves this season. This is understandable. The Braves lost one of the greatest closers of all-time to retirement, and they did not replace him with an established closer. The Braves have some talented but young pitchers in their pen, as well as some experienced relievers who are trying to come back from disappointing seasons. That’s a mixture likely to cause concern for many people.

Those concerns are valid, but Craig Kimbrel won me over last September/October. He didn’t give any hint of being a guy who couldn’t handle the pressure of the 9th inning. He is a flamethrower, and as long as he doesn’t revert to the wildness that has been a problem at times in the minors, he’s going to get guys out. Johnny Venters was used a ton last season and hopefully that won’t come back to hurt him this year. As long as his arm is okay, Venters is very capable of being an 8th or 9th inning guy. And even if things don’t go as planned, the Braves have options within the organization. They are not short of young arms.

How Will the Kenshin Kawakami Situation Turn Out?

Although pitchers and catchers reported to Braves camp weeks ago, Kenshin Kawakami has still not arrived. Apparently Kawakami had an expired passport and has been dealing with visa issues. I was disappointed to learn that this was the cause of his absence. I was hoping that Mothra had swooped down and gotten him. Unfortunately it appears the situation will not be worked out so easily.

The Braves have been and are still trying to trade KK—or rather, to sell him—but they haven’t yet found a team willing to pay as much of his salary as they would like. Plenty of Japanese teams have interest in Kawakami, but the pitcher is intent on proving himself in the Majors. The Braves took Kawakami off of their 40-man roster and placed him on the AA roster this winter and they did not invite him to spring training until late in the offseason. Despite these hints, Kawakami did not change his mind about going back to Japan. The Braves have had offers from MLB teams but they are still trying to hold out for a better deal.

At the moment, the team is apparently not even considering giving Kawakami another shot to pitch in Atlanta if a better deal doesn’t come along. I don’t see why any team would up their offer because they know the Braves don’t want to be paying KK $6 million to pitch in AA. In my opinion, I think you’d have to say that it is possible that Kawakami could come into camp and pitch well and end up getting another shot, especially if nobody offers more money. But for now it looks like Kawakami’s days in Atlanta are over and the Braves will just send him to whatever team is willing to help the most with the final year of his deal.

The 5th Starter Spot

Both Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor showed promise when called on for spot starts late last season. With Kris Medlen’s return still far off, it was assumed that the battle for the 5th spot in the rotation this season would come down to Beachy and Minor. But for some reason the Braves decided to take a flier on veteran righty Rodrigo Lopez, signing him to a minor league contract and giving him the opportunity to compete for the 5th starter job in spring training. This was a strange move because Rodrigo Lopez sucks. I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing Robert Cox, because I honestly love the man, but this move could have been problematic in his hands. If Mr. Cox was still running the show I would be concerned that Lopez might somehow end up getting the job and logging 10-12 starts in games that actually count before someone finally pulled the plug. We can only hope that Freddy Gonzalez does not have the same weakness for veterans.

For now let’s assume that Lopez will not be a factor. Bobby’s retirement could also end up being a good thing for Minor, as he did not impress anyone in the organization last year when he mentioned to the media that his arm was tired. He was basically shutdown at that point. In my mind, the best situation would be for both guys to have a good spring, for Minor to win the 5th starter job, and for Beachy to make the team as a reliever.

Final Roster Spots

While the Lopez signing was unexpected and a bit alarming, it was nowhere near as troubling as the signing of fringe utility man Joe Mather. With Omar Infante being dealt to Florida in the deal for Dan Uggla, the Braves were looking for a versatile player to take his place. In a way they accomplished their goal by signing Mather. He is capable of playing multiple positions. However, you don’t want him playing any position for your team. He’s not any good. Again, this would have been an extremely dangerous signing if Bob were still at the helm, as you can bet that Mather would have seen as much action as Chris Woodward, Corky Miller, and Greg Norton did before him.

It appears that management has their heart set on Mather being the backup first baseman/utility man for this year’s team. If that is the case, hopefully Gonzalez will use him only as an emergency replacement player late in games, and not as a guy who starts at various positions against left handed pitchers. The best thing would be if somehow Mather didn’t make the roster at all. This might not be a likely outcome but I think it’s a possibility. In terms of making the team, Mather’s biggest asset isn’t even his versatility; it’s the fact that he’s basically the only right handed hitter in the mix to come off the bench. Again, the trouble is that he’s not good against left or right handed pitching.

Brooks Conrad may not be a lock to make the team out of camp but he seems pretty safe. And he really should make it. We know he’s not a guy you want playing in the field, but he’s a good weapon off the bench. Diory Hernandez has a chance to make the team simply because he can play short. Then there’s Matt Young, a career minor leaguer whose game seems to be very similar to Gregor Blanco (disciplined plate approach, good speed, zero power). Apparently Young is adequate defensively in left and center.

There are other veterans fighting to make the team as a reliever (Cristhian Martinez, Scott Proctor) or 4th outfielder (Brent Clevlen). A number of the better and best prospects will be in camp, but most will be sent out early, and I really wouldn’t expect any of the young guns to begin the year in Atlanta. I’m pretty sure we can rule out the front office making any deals to try and improve the team at this point. The only deal that seems imminent is the shipping out of Kawakami.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Bulldawg Blog: Big Game on Thursday

One Last Opportunity for a Big Win

Thursday night the Dawgs will be in Gainesville to play the #13 Gaytors. This is the toughest of the team’s four remaining regular season games, but it’s also the best chance for a signature win. The Dawgs don’t have to win this game to get into the tournament, but a victory would be a major boost for the resume. Georgia will be looking to avenge a double OT loss to the Gators in Athens back in January.

Florida is the SEC’s highest ranked team and they are well on their way to winning the SEC East. The Gators are 21-5 overall and 10-2 in the conference. They are 12-3 at home and have won their last 5 games. It won’t be easy for the Dawgs to pull this off, but they may catch a break, as the status of senior forward Chandler Parsons is up in the air. He didn’t play last weekend at LSU, sitting out with what Florida is calling a deep thigh bruise. Parsons averages 10.8 points a game and leads Florida in both rebounds and assists.

The Dawgs have suffered several disappointing losses this season, including that loss to Florida a month ago, and I would really love to see them get a win here because it would make up for some of those home losses. After failing to win a single road game last year, the Dawgs have been much better away from this season. They’ve won their last 3 on the road heading into this one. But road wins against the Gators have been hard to come by for UGA. The Dawgs haven’t won in Gainesville since the 2001-2002 season, losing 8 straight since then. It’s about time to snap that streak.

A win would also give the Dawgs 8 conference wins for just the 2nd time in the last 8 years. If we don’t win, we would still have a very good chance to finish with 20 wins and a winning record in SEC play. Home games with South Carolina and LSU are up next, followed by a tough one at Alabama in the season finale.

The Hawks Blog: Rough Start to the "2nd Half"

Back From the Break and Broken

Yeah, so the final 27-game stretch did not get off to a good start last night. We knew things were going to be tough for the Hawks over the next couple of months, but last night was just demoralizing. The Lakers were certainly focused, but that wasn’t what this game was about. This was about the Lakers toying with us. We weren’t even a threat. They couldn’t miss and we couldn’t hit. The other problem was that they absolutely dominated on the boards.

We didn’t have an answer for Kobe, Fisher, Odom, Gasol, or Shannon Brown. We fell down 8-0 right away and trailed by 15 during the very 1st quarter. In the 2nd quarter we cut the deficit to 9 and had a wide-open 3 to make it a 6-point game, but we made only one 3-pointer all night and this wasn’t it. By halftime the deficit was 21 and the game was over.

If Larry Drew Falls in the Forest and Doesn’t Make it to the Game, Does Anything Change?

Hawks coach Larry Drew doesn’t seem to mind sharing his thoughts and feelings with the media. As a fan, you’re sitting there questioning every aspect of this team’s game, from attitude to execution. And then the coach goes out and voices those exact same concerns with the media. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about it. He appears to be a total non-factor other than the shuffling of players in and out of the game.

Could Someone Please Reprogram Josh Smith?

Josh Smith began the year showing off an improved shot. He was clearly better across the board, hitting mid-range jumpers, 3-pointers, and free throws better than ever before. However, instead of being an occasional option from outside, or a last resort at the end of a shot clock, Smooth is now spending most of the team’s possessions floating around the perimeter or just inside the 3-point line. He’s settling for jumpers and not doing anything to create a higher percentage play. He needs to be on the block, driving, or cutting most of the time.

His finesse offensive game plan seems to be influencing other parts of his game. Twice last evening he threw up wild “alley-oop” passes that banged off the backboard before anyone could even think about trying to go up and catch them. I’m not exaggerating. The first time he did this it looked like he was trying to throw the ball through the backboard. Someone needs to get Josh’s attention and tell him to go back to playing the way he did last season, because right now, he’s not even entertaining.

I’m Through with Marvin Williams

I’ve been willing to be patient and hope that Marvin would continue to grow into a better than average NBA player. I’ve basically been positive about Marv for his entire career with the Hawks. I supported the move to resign him last year. Now I’m ready for him to be gone. I’m done. He’s not going to blossom or even progress. He’s just Marv.

I’m also starting to just plain dislike him. I’m tired of his duck walk. I’m tired of his emotionless face and blasé body language. I’m tired of his total lack of instincts and basketball IQ. I’m just tired of him. I would love to see the Hawks trade him at the deadline. I’m sure getting something decent in return (like a capable point guard) is highly unlikely, but I just want him gone.

Tonight’s Game

The Hawks are in Phoenix tonight. This is a winnable game. The Suns will be playing their first game since the All-Star break, while the Hawks will obviously be playing for the second night in a row, but our starters sat the entire 4th quarter last night so rest shouldn’t be an issue. The Suns are 27-27 and have been outscored by opponents on the year. They are 11-10 against the East and 16-13 at home.

There are some concerns about this matchup, namely that the Phoenix roster is filled with a lot of the former Orlando players that used to give us such trouble. They are much taller and longer now and that could cause problems. Plus, we’ll be playing Vince Carter, which means he’ll transform from Wince Carter into Vincanity for 40 minutes.

Our ship-jumping friend Josh Childress has been a colossal disappointment for the Suns this season, and has played in only 1 of the team’s last 10 games. He’s just happy to be playing basketball for a really, really good living. Yeah, he sucks. He takes from the sport. And his fro is silly. Go Hawks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Hawks Blog: 2nd Half Preview

At the Breaking Point

And we were all ready to complain about the team being stagnant and treading water. Turns out that may have been optimistic.

The Hawks are 34-21 at the break with 27 games left. On the surface, it looks like the Hawks are heading for another 50-win season/2nd round playoff exit. That’s disappointing, as we had hoped (and that’s all it was, blind hope) that perhaps changing coaches might allow the team to take another step forward. Obviously that hasn’t happened. If anything, the Hawks have regressed. Worst of all: by the end of the year we may be talking about the Hawks taking a significant step backwards.


Larry Drew’s offense may look slightly less like an AAU team than Mike Woodson’s did, but it hasn’t made the Hawks a better offensive team. They are down in points per game this season, significantly. They’re not shooting the ball any better. Are they passing the ball more and running less isolation plays? I suppose. But it’s only led to more turnovers and less rebounding.


If the Hawks are a more sound team defensively—and that’s a major “if”—they have lost the aggression that was their personality. That aggressive style meshed well with their athleticism. They’re giving up fewer points, but they’re forcing fewer turnovers. Plus, opponents are basically having just as much success shooting the ball.


Last year the Hawks were 35-20 through 55 games. That’s only 1-win better than they are right now. However, the Hawks played a balanced schedule through 55 games last year. This season, the Hawks have put up their 34-21 record against the easiest schedule in the league. Last year they were a solid 25-20 against winning teams; this season they are just 8-13 against teams that are over .500. The Hawks were 28-9 against below .500 teams last season. They have maintained that level of play against weak opponents this season, going 26-8 against losing teams so far. The problem is that, as you’ll notice, the Hawks played 37 games against below .500 teams last year, and they’ve already played 34 games against losing teams this season. In other words, there aren’t many more bad teams left on the schedule.

One of the few bright spots of this season has been the Hawks drastic improvement on the road. They always struggled away from home under Mike Woodson, and last season they were again below .500 on the road, finishing at 19-22. This season they are 17-12 in away games. Unfortunately, the Hawks’ most consistent positive trait of the Woodson era—playing tough at home—has been reversed. The Hawks were 34-7 at home last year. They have already lost more games at Philips Arena this season than they did all of last year, going just 17-9 at home so far.

An increase in non-competitive losses (at times extremely non-competitive) has been one of the most disturbing trends of the season so far. The Hawks lost just 9 games by double digits last season. They’ve already lost 10 by double digits this season. They are also on pace to win fewer games by double digits this season.

The Roster

Al Horford continues to progress into an All-Star caliber player, despite being undersized for his position. He is hardnosed, never lacks in effort, and is consistent. He’s also clutch.

Unfortunately, the arrow is pointing down for the rest of the guys playing meaningful minutes for this team.

Joe Johnson: Down. He’s been hurt part of the time but when healthy his play has fallen off (as expected). If you thought that the huge contract and the security would drive him to want to prove his worth, you’ve been disappointed. He’s a zero as a leader.

Josh Smith: Down. Josh’s improvement as a shooter has been impressive. Unfortunately, it’s had a negative effect overall on his performance. He’s driving less (and therefore getting fouled less), playing away from the basket more (and therefore getting fewer rebounds), and he settles way too much. He’s somehow turning the ball over more and creating fewer turnovers at the defensive end.

Jamal Crawford: Down. This was to be expected, as he had a career year last season. Still, at times he just doesn’t seem to be as hungry. Maybe the thrill of playing for a competitive team has worn off. Maybe he isn’t as motivated because the Hawks didn’t extend his deal and he could well take a hit under the new CBA.

Mike Bibby: Down. He’s done. As a starter he’s way done. Off the bench, as a spot up shooter he could be okay. But he doesn’t create for others, he doesn’t create for himself, and he’s a massive liability on defense.

Marvin Williams: Down. He sucks.

Mo Evans: Down. Mo is having a bad year.

Zaza Pachulia: Down. Zaza’s numbers are down as well.

The Others

I liked the idea of having guys like Jason Collins, Josh Powell, and Damien Wilkins play more this season in order to keep the starters fresh, and to keep it from being such a shock when they are used in the postseason. But at times Drew seems to view them as more than role players, almost as if he’s just looking to shake things up. I can understand Drew being desperate for answers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any good ones at the end of the bench. As for the draft picks of the last few years, it doesn’t look good. Late round picks are hit or miss, and it doesn’t look like we hit on any of these.

Tough Road Ahead

It’s never good when you lose to bad teams. Regardless of what the rest of the schedule looked like, losing at home to the Bucks, Bobcats, Sixers, and Rockets--while also losing twice at New Jersey--was going to suck. But over the final two months we’re likely to rue those games we gave away all the more. There are virtually no easy games the rest of the way.

The “2nd half” begins with a rude awakening: 5 west coast games in 7 days. It starts with Lakers-Suns on back-to -back nights and ends with Blazers-Nuggets on back-to-back nights, with a game against Golden State (19-11 at home) in between. We catch a break playing the Nuggets now, as they are in transition, but that’s a small consolation.

We come home after the trip out west for 4 games at Philips. Unfortunately, we face the Bulls, Thunder, Knicks (evening things up for missing Melo out West), and Lakers. We then go to Chicago.

Our next 6 are at home, but we face some tough teams, starting with Portland. Instead of having 3 days off between the Blazers game and a game with Miami, we play the makeup game with Milwaukee (already beaten us at home this season) and then play the Heat the next night. The home stand ends with Detroit and then Chicago again. The night after the game with the Bulls we play at Philly (who beat us by 34 at home a few weeks ago).

Fortunately, we do have a couple of soft spots in the final 10 games, beginning with a home game against the Nets (they’ve beaten us twice this season) and a road game at Cleveland the next night. We’ll need to win those games, because we then head home for Orlando and Boston, then go to Houston, and then come home to play the Spurs.

The other soft spot is next, as we play at Indiana and at Washington on back-to-back nights. We come home to play the Heat and then finish up in Charlotte. Even the “easy” games the rest of the way are either on the road, part of a back-to-back set, or against teams that have already beaten us this season.

Maybe the tough competition and hostile environments will bring out the fire in the Hawks and they will turn their season around. It’s probably more likely that we’ll wilt under the pressure. We may completely fold. It’s not asking too much for them to go 13-14, which would give us a 47-35 record, and likely the 5th seed. All we can do is hope.