2015 Atlanta Braves Opening Day

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In what is becoming an annual tradition here, today is the day in which we celebrate the (should be considered) national holiday of Opening Day in MLB! This is the point where I usually write several paragraphs about how his is the year in which everything comes together and the Braves finally realize their potential. This is the year that the Braves make a deep run in October. This is the year their young talent fully matures and makes that next step. This could be the year that the Braves return to the World Series. Well, a funny thing happened between the last pitch of 2014 and this first pitch of 2015. The Braves went into full-fledged rebuild mold.

Julio Teheran is the Opening Day starter for your Atlanta Braves

Julio Teheran is the Opening Day starter for your Atlanta Braves

Gone are prodigal son Jason Heyward, the savior at second base Tommy La Stella, both Upton brothers, the best closer in the game Craig Kimbrel, feel good story Evan “El Oso Blanco” Gattis,  the 2014 Tommy John casualties Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Jonny Venters, the hired gun Ervin Santana (who is now gone from his new team for 80 games for using PED’s) and nearly every setup man in the bullpen from last year. Gone is the hopes of the Braves celebrating their 20 year anniversary of being World Champions with a repeat performance of this feat. Gone is the general manager to either praise or blame for the current state of the Braves. Gone will be several fans (not this one) upset and hurt by the moves. Rather, enter the pains of rebuilding.

Taken from the Braves Facebook page

Taken from the Braves Facebook page in 2013…  😦

The Braves did not just give away these players (well, Melvin Upton, Jr., they certainly tried and his transaction became the toughest, but more on this later). The fact was that the Braves team of the past few years was talented, but flawed. They did win 96 games and the NL East only TWO years ago! With a young, and mostly returning team. The originally projected Braves team for 2015 would have been decent. The problem is that is was unlikely that the Braves were going to be great, and then next year, there were going to be a massive exodus of talent due to the team’s corporate ownership, Liberty Media, and the bottom line. In reality, the looming exodus after 2015 did not have to happen, but was going to, regardless of what we fans think. And with the new park opening in 2017 (a subject for another day), the new front office decided to punt on the last two years at Turner Field and have hope for Sun Trust Park. So here we are, a team of misfits, scabs, and a couple of remaining stars from the past half decade, and a wounded fan base.

The Braves have certainly found a way to dominate the offseason chatter. They have actually done this for three consecutive years now. 2013 they signed the then BJ Upton to the largest free agent contract in team history, traded for his brother Justin, and had what many people, myself included, felt was the most talented outfield in the game. Ultimately we were wrong, but it was exciting and fun. 2014 saw several extensions for the rising young stars of the team. Freeman, Kimbrel, Simmons, Teheran, and Johnson signed huge extensions days after news of the new park was announced. The GM Frank Wren and Manager Fredi Gonzalez received contract extensions. Heyward had his arbitration years bought out, creating hop a longer extension was still an option. And after Medlen and Beachy had their right elbows fail them again, the Braves made a huge splash by signing Ervin Santana to save the rotation. The 2014 season did not cooperate. The hitters regressed, the pitching was solid, but not exceptional, and the team only won 79 games. A drop of 17 games with a very similar roster is troubling, but what if 2014, and not 2013, was the aberration?  A couple of moves could be made to bolster the roster, and look out MLB in 2015! Sadly, that is not the direction the team went.

Pic from MLB's Facebook page (2013)

Technically true! Pic from MLB’s Facebook page (2013)

The alarming strikeout rates, lack of power, and complete failure with runners in scoring position prompted a complete overhaul. Young second baseman Tommy La Stella was sent to the Cubs for a former Braves pitching prospect derailed by injuries. Heyward was sent along with primary setup man Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals, just so all my friends and family can enjoy their talents at my expense, for young pitching prospects. Justin Upton was moved out west to the Padres for more prospects, including one recovering from Tommy John surgery, which is the Braves way, of course. Bullpen arms David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve were sent to the Yankees for a former highly touted prospect returning from Tommy John surgery. Then El Oso Blanco was sent to the Astros for more prospects. Then yesterday, as everyone was preparing for a 2015 season that may or may not be good, the Braves pulled the trigger on another deal. The best closer in baseball was packaged with the worst contract in baseball and sent to the Padres for a couple of warm bodies for the outfield (one of which was immediately DFA’d) and a couple more intriguing prospects.

Heyward and Justin Upton were pending free agents, so moving them was rationalized simply by stating the obvious, they were gone after 2015 anyway. Sell now, and get max value. Gattis was a cheap power hitter, but really had limited options on the Braves roster due to rising catcher Christian Bethancourt, Freeman at first, and the scary prospect of him lumbering in the outfield. If MLB had the DH in both leagues, then maybe Gattis will still be in the middle of the Braves lineup, but they do not, so he is now in Houston. All the setup men are gone because bullpen arms are mostly expendable when you are not going to contend. La Stella played the wrong position and the Braves could get a high ceiling arm (who is now suspended for 80 games for PED’s…). Kimbrel is gone because a closer like him is a luxury and dumping him and his salary allowed for the Braves to also jettison the other Upton’s albatross of a contract while still getting impact prospects in return.

The Chop

The chop!

 

Whereas 2015, and probably 2016 are going to painful to watch, there is a plan in place. The Braves farm system went from the bottom five in baseball to the top five in the matter of months. Draft picks were acquired and a focus on scouting has returned. Even a greater nod to analytics has begun with the inclusion of Coppolella in the front office. Several veteran players were signed and even if half of the new pitching prospects realize their potential, the rotation will be scary good in the near future. Rebuilding sucks, but you know what else sucks, mediocrity. Year after year of being just good enough to contend, but ultimately not being good enough to excel is hard to endure. The string of recent first round exits and Braves postseason heartaches has not been fun. My Cardinals friends give me grief about the Braves only winning one World Series in the 90’s. All of that talent, and only one ring to show for it. I always respond with something about the Buffalo Bills or decades of losing in markets like Pittsburgh or the hell that was the 80’s for Braves fans. But the truth is that the 90’s do sting a bit. The 1991 and 1996 World Series were very winnable. The 1997 NLCS still haunts me. Even one more World Series win changes everything. If this rebuild is what it takes to get there, then so be it. I will still watch more than my fair share of Braves games this year, including this afternoon’s opener. I am honestly excited to see how this team does. The offense of the past few years has been painful to watch, so this new look team should at least be a little bit more exciting to watch. I could be wrong and this could be a callback to the 1980’s Braves with Freddie Freeman playing the modern day Dale Murphy.

I'm going to miss seeing this (photo from NBC)

I’m going to miss seeing this (photo from NBC)

So here is to another year of baseball! My team may not be favored to win it all, but wait ’til next year (in my best Cubs’ fan voice)!

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It’s Braves Opening Day!

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Back to my regularly scheduled running blog later, but today is Opening Day in baseball and that takes top priority.  As you can probably tell from my random posts, I am an avid fan of the Atlanta Braves.  This has left me disappointed most seasons, especially in the playoffs, but they are still my team.  And on the first day of the year, everyone is in first place!  Unless you are in the NL West where the Dodgers have already played three games.

Hoping for a successful year!

Hoping for a successful year!

The spring was a roller coaster for the Braves this year.  It started with Braves fans despondent because the team made no off-season moves of note while losing Tim Hudson and Brian McCann to free agency.  But then, during the first couple of weeks of spring training, the Braves started locking up much of their young core of players to long-term deals, which has been unheard of in the past few years, and things began to look up!  Then Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy hurt their arms, needing their second Tommy John surgery, which does not have a good track record for a return to success.  The Braves have the dubious honor of leading the majors in Tommy John surgeries and they added three more (two for sure) to that total this spring.  That is why the Braves opening day rotation is not quite what us fans had expected.  Well, that and another pitcher having his urethra operated on in the off-season.  So the Aaron Harang era is about to begin in Atlanta!  These injuries also led the Braves to sign the best available free agent pitcher, Ervin Santana, blowing up the projected budget in the process. Of course, blowing up the budget is different for Atlanta than say the Yankees, because at the projected Opening Day budget around $111 million, the Braves are still ranked 14th in baseball in payroll.

Not a chart you want to be leading

Not a chart you want to be leading

But today is Opening Day, a day for optimism and excitement.  We finally get to see our favorite teams on the field again and at least for one day, they all have a chance to make it special.  162 games is a long time, and many things can and will happen.  Last year, the Braves were given zero chance of winning the division and by the end of April, they had already buried the rest of the division, so it can happen.  If the young core of Heyward, Freeman, Kimbrel, Teheran, Simmons, and Justin Upton continue their growth, a long with Gattis replacing McCann and Uggla and BJ Upton remember how to play baseball, even at a replacement level, this year still can be special.

Julio Teheran is the 2014 Opening Day starter for your Atlanta Braves

Julio Teheran is the 2014 Opening Day starter for your Atlanta Braves

I spent more time yesterday watching Braves highlights from years past than I care to admit.  I watched Brooks Conrad’s walk off grand slam from 2010, both of Chipper’s walk off home runs against the Phillies in 2012, Bream’s slide in the 1992 NLCS, David Justice’s solo shot in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series to give the Braves their only World Series championship in Atlanta.  In fact, while watching Justice’s home run, I noticed the one and only Bill F’n Murray in the stands with Ted Turner.  Murray is a Chicago guy and I believe a Cubs fan, but it was still cool seeing him there when then only celebrity I remember from the 1990’s Braves was Jeff Foxworthy.

Turner and Murray, 1995 World Series (photo from Sports Illustrated)

Turner and Murray, 1995 World Series (photo from Sports Illustrated)

So I think that the Braves should bring back Murray to throw out the first pitch of a game and maybe channel some Groundhog Day (yes, I went there, and yes, I am sorry) magic into the organization because October 28, 1995, would be a mighty fine day to relive.  Well, expect for one minor detail.  This is the only Braves post season game that I have missed in my entire life!  Yep, the biggest game in Atlanta Braves history and I missed it because my parents made me go to a Tim McGraw concert!  This was before the age of smartphones and I sat there, in my Chipper Jones jersey, nervously waiting for score updates anywhere that I could get them.  I was even interviewed by a local radio station that was doing a remote from the concert.  They could not believe that I was there instead of watching the game.  But I was 13, and did not have much say in the matter.  This night will haunt me for the rest of my life!  And of course, there is no Tim McGraw song presently on my iPhone.

Pic from MLB's Facebook page (2013)

Pic from MLB’s Facebook page (2013)

Sadly, I am at work today, so I cannot watch the game, but I will be following along on my phone and hopefully my 1 o’clock clients will leave quickly so I can return to my office and listen to the game.  Despite the injuries, I still have high hopes for this season.  I still feel that the Braves will win over 90 games and make the playoffs.  Maybe a year full of doubters and pundits claiming that the Dodgers, Cardinals, Yankees, Nationals, Giants, Red Sox, and Tigers are obviously better teams will help the Braves come out of no where (as much as a defending division winner can) like the Red Sox did last year.  Who knows, but it is baseball season once again, and that is always a good thing.

Play Ball!

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Today is Opening Day (yes, I know that the Astros and Rangers played last night, but that isn’t the same as today) for Major League Baseball and it should be a national holiday recognized all across the United States, since, you know, it is the National Pastime, and even Canada (or at least in Ontario).  Doing so would save many baseball fans like myself a sick or vacation day at work, and would help keep truancy down in schools, especially those in cities where games are taking place.   Everyone that knows me knows that baseball is my ultimate sports obsession, especially the Atlanta Braves, but even if that weren’t the case, today would still be special.  In my mind, Opening Day signifies the beginning of warmer weather.  It means the summer is rapidly approaching and the dreariness of the winter shall be left in the past.  I know some of these early games in Cleveland and Minneapolis don’t feel this way, but that is where I go mentally regardless.  Joe DiMaggio, aka Joltin’ Joe or the Yankee Clipper, summed up Opening Day rather well with the following quote:

You always get a special kick on Opening Day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.

Taken from the Braves Facebook page

Taken from the Braves Facebook page

Opening Day is a day of ultimate enthusiasm.  It is the only day of the year you are guaranteed to proclaim that your team is in first place!   Even Cubs fans that tirelessly cheer “Maybe next year!” for take comfort in seeing their beloved Cubbies in first before some tragedy befalls them once again.  The small market teams in Pittsburgh, Miami (maybe not them thanks to their greedy owners), Tampa, and Kansas City are optimistic today.   Growing up a Braves fan in the 1980’s, I could not proclaim that very much, so I relish it whenever I can, even if the 1990’s did it’s best to spoil, yet humble me.

Pic from MLB's Facebook page

Pic from MLB’s Facebook page

I have only had the privilege of attending one Opening Day game in person in my lifetime (but I have called in sick to watch several others), and that was back on April 5, 2010.  That day also served as my first game at Turner Field (yes, I know that is a terrible admission for a rabid Braves fan).  I live in Memphis, which is Cardinals territory and most of my friends, and even my twin brother are Cardinal fans.  That being said, this was not my first Braves game.  I had attended numerous games at Fulton County Stadium, as well as catching the Braves on the road in Cincinnati and St. Louis over the years.  But I had never seen white home uniforms at Turner Field, so it was great to finally go to the current home of my beloved Braves.  It was a warm and sunny day, and hopes were high.  Despite not making the playoffs the previous season, the Braves had showed some life in 2009 that the 2010 squad was certainly going to build upon.  Highly touted and number one overall prospect Jason Heyward had launched baseballs all spring and won the job of starting right fielder on Opening Day, creating an electricity around the team.  And Heyward did not disappoint, launching a homerun in his first major league at bat!  The Braves thumped the Cubs that day 14 to 2, and contributed to the dismantling of Carlos Zambrano’s career.  Opening Day often sets a tone for the season, and it certainly did here with the Braves and Cubs.  Heyward went on to be an all star and nearly won the NL Rookie of the Year Award.  The Braves won 91 games and the National League Wild Card.  The Cubs lost 87 games and Zambrano was demoted to the bullpen for a portion of the season.  But before the rout on this day, Cubs fans could still hold their heads high and take solace in the fact that they were a first place team.

Hammerin' Hank Aaron throwing out the first pitch 4.5.10

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron throwing out the first pitch 4.5.10

Tonight, starting at approximately 6:10 CST, I will be parked on my couch, watching the Atlanta Braves battle the Philadelphia Phillies as if it is Game 7 of the World Series.  Susan will wish that the season to already be over, and my workout routine will have to be adjusted accordingly.

And three more great Opening Day quote for your enjoyment:

There is no sports event like Opening Day of baseball, the sense of beating back the forces of darkness and the National Football League. – George Vecsey, New York Times sports columnist

There’s nothing like Opening Day.  There’s nothing like the start of a new season.  I started playing baseball when I was seven years old and quite when I was forty, so it’s kind of in my blood. – George Brett, HOF 3B

It’s like Christmas except it’s warmer. – Pete Rose, MLB all-time hit king