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March 4, 2009

On the Beat

The Braves' New World

by John Perrotto

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It would be understandable if the Braves had reported to spring training with an inferiority complex. They'd suffered more rejection over the winter than the ugliest guy in the senior class looking for a prom date.

The Braves seemed to be the only team committed to offering oft-injured pitcher A.J. Burnett a five-year contract as a free agent, but then the Yankees swooped in with a five-year, $82.5 million offer to steal him away. They felt they had an excellent chance to acquire right-hander Jake Peavy from the cost-cutting Padres in a trade, but after weeks of exchanging various proposals, the two sides came to loggerheads, and no deal was made. They also believed they had a deal in place to sign shortstop Rafael Furcal for three years, claiming that his agent, Paul Kinzer, had agreed to an offer sheet, which is considered to be the same as a handshake agreement. Furcal, however, abruptly changed his mind and re-signed with the Dodgers. Finally, the Braves were believed to be the favorites last month to sign free-agent outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who instead decided to take a sentimental journey and signed with the Mariners, the team he began his career with.

Venerable Braves manager Bobby Cox isn't crying the blues, though, and in fact he's as excited as ever to begin his 27th and probably final season as a major league manager. "The one thing we don't do around here is feel sorry for ourselves for very long," he said. "Sometimes things go against you in this game, but you just have to keep moving on. We had some disappointments in the offseason, but we also brought in some guys who are really going to help us a lot. I like our club. I like it a lot. I think it's a good club capable of winning a lot of games."

The Braves have gone three straight seasons without making the postseason, and it seems like an eternity considering they had made a record 14 straight playoff appearances from 1991-2005. Their successful run was fueled by great pitching, as a triumvirate of future Hall of Famers-Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux-had formed the foundation of most of those playoff teams, but the Braves gave up 4.8 runs per game last season, ranking 21st out of 30 major league teams as they finished 72-90.

Cox believes that the off-season work that general manager Frank Wren has done to rebuild the starting rotation puts them in a position to challenge for the National League East. The Braves signed right-handers Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami as free agents, and they also traded for White Sox right-hander Javier Vazquez. While those three aren't Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux, they are an upgrade over many of the starters that the Braves used last season. Their acquisition will help the Braves overcome the loss of right-hander Tim Hudson, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and it will allow right-hander Jorge Campillo, a revelation last season with 3.2 SNLVAR, to move to the bullpen and provide depth to what could be an exceptional relief corps.

Lowe was sixth in the major leagues with 6.9 SNLVAR last season. Vazquez had a disappointing 2008 with 3.3 SNLVAR, but the Braves believe he'll be helped by moving to the weaker-hitting NL, and PECOTA calls for him to have a 3.80 ERA. The new trio will join a rotation that includes a future ace in right-hander Jair Jurrjens, whose 4.1 SNLVAR as a rookie last season was second on the Braves to Hudson's 4.5, and a former ace in Glavine, who will now be asked to be the fifth starter, something he is much more equipped to do at the age of 42 than to be a front man.

What Cox likes most about his three new pitchers is their durability. Vazquez is the only major league pitcher to make at least 32 starts in each of the last nine seasons, while Lowe made at least 32 starts for seven straight years, and Kawakami averaged 25 starts over the past five years in Japan's shorter season. "We added three veteran guys who go to the post," Cox said. "It's huge, just huge for us. You can't beat having guys who go to the post. That was a big reason for our success for so many years."

Cox is also excited about his bullpen; left-handed closer Mike Gonzalez returned from Tommy John surgery last season to post a 1.12 WXRL in 33 2/3 innings, and right-handers Rafael Soriano and Manny Acosta, both hard throwers, figure to be the primary set-up men. Working in middle relief will be Campillo, along with right-handers Jeff Bennett, who had a team-high 1.76 WXRL last season, and Peter Moylan, who has recovered from last year's Tommy John surgery. "We have a lot of good arms down there," Cox said. "When you have that many good arms, you can usually build a pretty good bullpen out of it. Gonzo came back last season throwing as well as ever, and we have a lot of guys who can get the lead from the starters to him."

The Braves' offense was in the middle of the pack last year, ranking 16th in the majors by scoring 4.7 runs a game, but that masks a strong unit that ranked fifth in the National League in team-level Equivalent Average. Cox doesn't think that the hitters will need to do anything more if the pitching staff is as good as he believes it will be. "Pitching is the key to everything," Cox said. "You can have the greatest team ever on the field, but if you don't have the pitchers, you're not going to win."

---

In a surprise move, Stan Kasten named himself as the Nationals' interim GM in the wake of Jim Bowden's resignation last Sunday. Bowden stepped down after being swamped by reports that he was under investigation by the FBI for his alleged role in the skimming of bonus money paid to amateur free agents in the Dominican Republic. Kasten is accustomed to multitasking; he was simultaneously president of the Atlanta Braves and the NBA's Hawks back when Ted Turner had owned both teams. He was also the Hawks' GM from 1979-90.

Kasten did not give a time frame as to when he wants to hire a permanent GM, but the fact that he did not promote from within-assistant GM Mike Rizzo would be the strongest candidate-seems to indicate that the Nationals will go outside the organization to replace Bowden. Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava continues to be mentioned as the most likely choice. "That would be an excellent question for some time later in the week, when I address it," Kasten said to reporters Monday when asked who Bowden's replacement might be.

Kasten held a meeting on Monday with the Nationals' baseball operations staff at their spring training complex in Viera, Florida, and he urged everyone to step up during an unprecedented situation in which a club is without a GM barely a month before the season opener. "I made sure everyone understood adversity invariably creates opportunity, too, and everyone should view this as an occasion for opportunity, an occasion to demonstrate initiative, and to show the same enthusiasm that all of us around the team feel about the team itself," Kasten said. We should feel that way about the front office as well. I do think there are opportunities for renewed initiative. I'd like to see it. It would get rewarded."

There has been persistent talk throughout baseball in the past week that Kasten plans to clean house in the front office, with the possible exception being that the highly regarded Rizzo will be spared. Kasten wasn't ready to address those reports yet. "Well, I'll talk about turnover when it come," said Kasten. "I support everyone who is a Washington National. The senior people are all close to me, and I hope that continues."

---

Michael Lewis' seminal 2003 book Moneyball portrayed the Athletics' front office as being a bit smarter than those of the other 29 teams, but Athletics GM Billy Beane also realizes that the book (as well as sites like BP.com, and books like the annual Baseball Prospectus) has helped to create a new generation of front-office types who are intellectually inclined. The Athletics can no longer claim an exclusive edge in brainpower over the competition. "People who used to apply for jobs on Wall Street are applying for jobs in baseball," Beane told Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record. "Everyone is scary smart now."

Much of the success that Beane and the Athletics have had over the years has come from finding inefficiencies in the player market. When the Athletics made four straight post-season appearances from 2000-03, they had a lineup built around players with good on-base percentages, which at the time was not being valued by all that many other clubs.

Now, nearly all 30 teams place an emphasis on high OBPs, and they're also actively searching for any other stats that might be available due to market inefficiencies. "There's something out there somewhere, but it's more difficult to find now," Beane said. "Put it this way: Whatever it is, I'm not about to tell anyone."

Perhaps the new hot statistic will be revealed in the movie version of Moneyball; the book is being turned into a feature film by Columbia Pictures, and Beane will be played by Brad Pitt. "I guess it's better than Ernest Borgnine," Beane cracked.

---

Pedro Martinez is the most high-profile of the free agents attempting to use the World Baseball Classic to land better contract offers, and he's hoping that a strong showing for the Dominican Republic will attract more interest from major league teams.

While the Indians, Dodgers, and Pirates had all contacted Martinez's agent during the offseason, none have offered a guaranteed deal. Martinez had only 1.0 SNLVAR in 109 innings last season. "I understand business, and I understand the business of baseball, which is the ugly face of baseball," Martinez told Adam Rubin of the New York Daily News. "Whether you like it or not, the last few years, I'll be the first one to tell you I haven't been the Pedro Martinez I'm used to being. If nobody takes a chance, I'll go fishing. If I'm healthy and able to do the things I used to do, I think a lot of people are probably going to regret not taking a chance."

Another free-agent hoping to open eyes in the WBC is Sidney Ponson, who is pitching for the Netherlands. He had 1.1 SNLVAR in a combined 135 2/3 innings with the Rangers and Yankees last season, and he did not get off to a roaring start on Tuesday when he gave up four runs in three innings in an exhibition game against the Pirates, who were not playing any of their regulars. "It's not only me, but there are a lot of free agents still out there," Ponson said. "Maybe it's the economy. Who knows? I figure this is a good opportunity to let scouts see me, and show them I can still pitch in the major leagues and help somebody out."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Athletics have put shortstop Bobby Crosby on the trading block after signing free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera. ... Miguel Batista, Roy Corcoran, and Mark Lowe are emerging as the early candidates to become the Mariners' closer. ... The Orioles have decided on their closer: left-hander George Sherrill will remain in that role, and Chris Ray will be the set-up man. ... Frank Francisco has pulled ahead of C.J. Wilson in the competition to be the Rangers' closer.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets have interest in signing catcher Ivan Rodriguez as a free agent, and trading backup catcher Ramon Castro. ... Outfielder Moises Alou, who was limited to 15 games with the Mets last season, plans to retire after playing for the Dominican in the WBC. ... All-time home-run king Barry Bonds, who hasn't played in the major leagues since he was with the Giants in 2007, and who was shunned by all 30 clubs on the open market last season, continues to hold out hope of playing in the major leagues this year. ... Left-hander Odalis Perez, who backed out of a minor league contract with the Nationals by not reporting to camp, says that he has eight teams interested in signing him as a free agent.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Bobby Cox,  The Who,  Baseball Jobs

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