Sunday, February 22, 2009

Atlanta Braves Preview

Overview: In 2008, the Atlanta Braves ended their season at 72-90, their worst finish since 1990, the year before rattling off 14 consecutive division titles. The Braves seem to have reloaded themselves through trades and free agent acquisitions this offseason, uncharacteristic to their usual development of prospects, though with all out battle projected to occur throughout spring training between Jordan Schafer, Gregor Blanco, Brandon Jones and Josh Anderson there is plenty of youth looking to burst onto the scene in the 2009 season. The Braves do look like a team that will be very competitive in the division that produced the 2008 World Series Champions.

Starting Pitching: Their strength in 2009 is going to be their greatest weakness from 2008. The Braves starting rotation is looking very deep with new acquisitions Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami couples with Jair Jurrjens and Tom Glavine. Lowe and Vazquez are proven durable starters and will give the top of the Braves rotation some great innings and set up the bullpen for success. It would make sense to me that Vazquez is primed for the best season now that he is back in the National League where offense is at a premium. He finished 3rd in the AL in strikeouts in 2008, and from a fantasy perspective, he should throw a for few more this season. Lowe will be a solid contributor, though his defense may hurt him from time to time as he averages better than 60% groundballs to flyballs. He throws for strikes now, better than earlier in his career and has managed his demons better than when he was in Boston. The fans in Atlanta will be very supportive of him and he should be in great position to put together some strong years for the Braves. If history proves to repeat itself with Kenshin Kawakami, a veteran Japanese starting pitcher, he will put together a strong start to the season and then once offenses figure out his stuff, he will struggle towards the end of the season (see every Japanese starting pitcher's first season numbers). Kawakami will need to be prepared to adapt. Jair Jurrjens could develop well this season with Javier Vazquez pitching in front of him. The two have similar styles and demeanor's, each could end up with 15+ wins as well. The Braves finish the rotation with Tom Glavine. It will be nice to see him finish his career in a Braves uniform, but I don't see him pitching long into the season with arm troubles highlighting the twilight of his career. Jorge Campillo, Charlie Morton and Tommy Hanson will be ready to throw and Tim Hudson could be ready to go in September. Remember Jorge Campillo finished last season with a 8-7 record and a 3.91 ERA, the Braves are loaded with pitching depth after last season's debacle.

Bullpen:
The bullpen also looks to be a strength. Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano and Manny Acosta all recorded saves for the Braves in 2008. This season, Mike Gonzalez should be taking the ball in the 9th each time. He carries a history of arm trouble, as does Soriano, but the depth with other quality bullpen arms will be able to allow Bobby Cox to keep their arms fresh.

Offense:
Offensively, the Braves just picked up Garrett Anderson this past week, which makes their depth in the outfield pretty solid. Anderson and Matt Diaz promise to be a very good platoon capable of hitting .300, 30,100 and only providing the Braves with a $5,000,000 price tag. Jeff Francoeur will be getting the majority of at-bats in right-field, but if he does not return to form, it won't be long before younger players mentioned at the beginning get a look. It has been said that Josh Anderson is in the lead for the opening in centerfield after hitting .294 (.334OBP) in limited at-bats in 2008. Gregor Blanco and Jordan Shafer will also get looks for this job. The rest of the team is pretty well set with Brian McCann, Chipper Jones and Casey Kotchmann looking like they will be a solid heart of the order. Yunel Escobar looks like he has the opportunity to grow to become an Edgar Renteria-type player, which would be a lift to the offense, with Kelly Johnson next to him at second. Johnson is potentially the weakest link on this offense (assuming Francoeur returns to form). Johnson's numbers all fell in 2008 and he plays poor defense. It won't take long for Martin Prado to take at-bats away from Johnson. Prado hit .320 in 2008 and will be one of the strongest assets to Bobby Cox's bench in 2009. Prado, David Ross, Greg Norton, Omar Infante, Anderson/Diaz should complete the bench. This will be a strength for the
Braves as Bobby Cox can mix and match well with this group.


Projections:
PECOTA predicts the Braves and Phillies to tie for 2nd in the NL East at 90-72. I predict that the Braves could do a bit better than that record and be in position to finish the season stronger than the Mets or Phillies with the pending return of Tim Hudson. Their major weaknesses will be defense and the lead-off spot in the lineup. This team is going to be built on solid pitching and the offense will put the Braves in position for wins each night. This is not too much of a stretch as the top three teams in the NL East are going to be close, but I predict the Braves to resume their dominance of the in 2009 by winning the division.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Interview Tips

Over the past couple of weeks I have been very fortunate to have been entrusted by the Braves to do some initial screening interviews for the job I held last summer, the Braves Around Town external marketing street team. I have heard some unreal responses to the questions I was asking and I figured that I would pass along some of the insight that this experience has given to me.

First, the way to express that you want a job in baseball is to explain that you wish to make a career in the field. I am guilty of saying that I am a fan of the game or that I am passionate about the sport, because that is true, but that response is truly a dime a dozen. Everyone applying for a job in baseball is a fan of the sport or knows something about it. Those who specifically state that they wish to make a career are absolutely making it know that they are serious about working in sports and immediately show a more professional side. From the interviewee's that I spoke with that shared this desire to make a career in sports, I believe that all were offered the position. The way that you state your purpose is certainly important and I have already changed the way I speak about my career aspirations. This may be one of the most important lessons that I learned through my first month at work.

Next, I have realized through these interviews and in discussions with full-time staff that baseball is entertainment for many, but it is more importantly a business. Having experienced nothing but the entertainment side of the industry up until the past three weeks, I was easily distracted from the fact that inside the office, the baseball industry is not unlike that of any other industry, with our product being ticket sales. Everything returns to ticket sales and realizing this is incredibly important. Part of interviewing for a position that I feel is necessary is to have a working knowledge of what you are applying for. When I had to take five minutes here and there to explain that this job has no player interaction or limited game day responsibilities when a clear description has been posted online, I have to think that the only reason why there is a resume on my desk is because the job seeker is dreaming of hanging out with players or watching the games for free. Knowing that even entry level positions such as these all relate back to the business functions of the team is necessary. Applicants that did not understand the position prior to the interview or that baseball is a business struggled in this process.

Finally, my last piece of advice would be to go through these interviews and have a positive and friendly attitude. Those who realized what the position required often maintained this attitude. Being able to demonstrate that you are a fun and friendly person is fairly easy to do in 10 minutes, but it is even more easy to show a negative and non-excitable personality. Even though baseball is a business, it is in the business of making people happy. Maintaining this upbeat and positive attitude is important in any industry, but particularly so in sports. It is absolutely necessary to be able to have fun while being a professional. It is called the entertainment industry and its employees need to demonstrate that they can entertain.

The purpose of this message is to pass on some of the best advice I have received and can give at this very early stage in my career to the hiring process for professional sports teams. You will rise to the top if you can demonstrate a positive attitude, a dedication towards a career in sports and knowledge of the business and the goals of the franchise or league that you desire to work in.

The best part about this first real full-time job in sports is that I learn something new with each passing day, perhaps each passing hour. I am very excited to commit those thoughts to writing and then to share with others. I hope this helps.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Steroids in Baseball

The other night, I was having a great conversation with a friend of mine regarding the new steroid controversies that have spread in baseball throughout the past week. Two former MVP's, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada, have admitted their former use of performance enhancers after previously stating that they had never tried these substances. In the society that has shunned steroid users is faced with an unusual predicament. The greatest statistical player of the last decade, a player on pace to shatter records in many power categories, is now a known steroid user. This is the game's most prominent player and baseball cannot hide or shun Alex Rodriguez as they have Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmiero. Rodriguez has another decade on his playing contract and is not going anywhere.

I think that it is time for someone to make a bold statement. In a society that is so numbers oriented, I think that it is time to make it known that the steroid era is a significant part of baseball history and the best players of the steroid era deserve to rise to the top and be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Pushing the Hall of Fame credentials for Mark McGwire would be one way to make this statement. McGwire and Sammy Sosa are responsible for the success and prosperity of the game today. During 1998, the race to pass the Maris home run plateau was a huge part of the game. The dominant power seasons put forth by McGwire were during a time when performance enhancer use was rampant in baseball. The reason for this is that players wanted to perform better, which would lead to earning more. Why would team officials, the office of the commissioner or the players want to hinder this? Higher performance (higher utility) would lend to more productive and successful teams. So for the better part of two decades, the use of performance enhancing drugs ran rampant in Major League Baseball. In 2004, three seasons after McGwire retired with 583 home runs and the legacy as being one of the greatest power hitters of all time, that was the first time that the MLB and the MLBPA agreed to terms on a substantial testing and disciplinary response to the use of performance enhancing drugs based on pressure from the U.S. government and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Up until 2004, performance enhancing drugs were part of the game. The players who rose to the top during those years still deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments. For purists who like to compare historical players to modern players, I feel that is unfair and impossible. The game changes over time and innovation is always the driving force to that change. Performance enhancing drugs are just one innovation that baseball players used to heighten their ability. This is much like the equipment trends that have happened over the years -- lighter bats, bigger gloves, tighter wrapped baseballs, etc.

It has now been established that the steroid era is over since using these types of drugs is damaging to the body and harms the game. Thus, I find it perfectly acceptable to see a players career tarnished with steroid use post-2004, however before 2004, I believe that steroid use was the product of the system and the great players, who made the late 90's so much fun to watch deserve enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

The next time I walk through the NBHOF, I hope to be able to see Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds and remember all of the memories that I have of those players. How McGwire's 62nd home-run in 1998 was the first baseball game I ever watched in its entirety on television, feeling touched seeing two great competitors of different teams and nationalities in the midst of a pennant race hug one another. What an incredible showing of what sport should be. It was in that moment that I became a baseball fan. It was in that moment that baseball revived itself from the 1994 players strike. Major League Baseball owes a lot to its great athletes from the steroid era and it is time that designations are made in favor of the player because they were doing exactly what their predecessors did in switching to lighter bats -- they were looking for an advantage.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Free Agent Market

With pitchers and catchers reporting for duty in just under 9 days there are a ton of talented players still on the free agent market. More than any other year that I have seen in my time as a fan. This is an updated list of the top talent still available on the free agent market:

Paul Lo Duca, C
Moises Alou, OF
Lvian Hernandez, P
Braden Looper, P
Paul Byrd, P
Pedro Martinez, P
Mark Mulder, P
Odalis Perez, P
Eric Gagne, P
Will Ohman, P
Jason Isringhausen, P

Many of these players can certainly be classified as being either insurance policies or reclamation projects, yet in years past, they would have been snapped up quickly. There are former all-stars and there are potential future hall of fame players on that list (Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez). Is it be possible that a future hall of famer will have to beg for a job, sure, but three? I don't think so. This has been a crazy off season, and I think that teams have been very reluctant to spend their excess payroll dollars in a year where baseball is appearing to prepare itself for a tough year based on their pricing and the poor economy. Only teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs have been spending significantly and other teams have been making solid bargain moves or by making trades to improve.

I forecast that this is going to be a very unique season. Players appear poised to wait for teams to find holes that they need to fill whether that be because of injuries or lack of talent and teams do not appear willing to give these players their requested salaries because they are by in large not worth it. It may be May or June before some of these players sign to provide depth for the team. Today also provided one of the best bargains of the free agent season. Ty Wigginton to the Orioles for 2 years at 6M was a deal. He is a solid .270, 20, 70 guy and 3M is probably under value for a guy like that. I can't believe it, but good kudos to the Orioles for the second consecutive day!

One final point I wish to make about the free agent market. There is one superstar that would make an immediate and significant impact on any team, Manny Ramirez. This future hall of famer cannot get work because just one team has shown significant enough interest in him to offer a 2009 contract. I think Manny would make sense for a whole slew of teams, but his asking price appears to just be too high. As a result, all of these teams have and will continue to abstain from the bidding. Perhaps only Los Angeles and San Francisco have the interest in Ramirez and after two declined offers, Manny may have just alienated the Dodgers like the Red Sox apparently did to him (according to Ramirez). So what does this mean for Manny? Is the best hitter from the past decade, coming off of one of the best half-seasons in recent memory going to be jobless. The answer appears to be -- YES! For whatever reason, Ramirez declined both offers from the Dodgers, each reasonable and a good deal for each party. Now, because of his greed or desire for the right contract, Scott Boras may have finally lost. The economy appears to have created such a bubble that the elite players market in baseball has burst on Ramirez and Boras. I can only wonder what would have happened if Alex Rodriguez had stayed with Boras last season. Would it have been the same situation?

For the foreseeable future, I do not see any of these players with a Major League Baseball franchise unless either they are willing to accept a lower contract or a team gets desperate for talent. If you were to create two columns for each category, I'll bet that over the next several months each of these players will fall into one category or the other -- it will be fun to watch which side has more patience.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rich Hill to the Orioles

For the first time in many years, I get to say that the Baltimore Orioles made an excellent move. I would be very willing to say that the way that the Chicago Cubs treated Rich Hill in their 2008 season was probably as a result of their excellent pitching depth and the trade for Rich Harden and emergence of Ryan Dempster did not help either. Yet, I think it was a terrible move to demote a guy that was probably the second best pitcher on their staff and not give him a second chance to show his 2007 form, that was probably the second best pitcher on their staff (11-8; 3.92). He has a filthy curveball and is ready to get that second chance. What hurt him in 2008 was his control, walking 18 in 19.2 IP, and after allowing 63 walks in 195 IP the previous season, he will walk batters. Though, it is reasonable to expect that his control will improve.

I am very excited to see Hill in an Orioles uniform. Further, I expect him to pitch better than Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster in 2009 as I anticipate injuries to Harden and a fall back to average play for Dempster. Hill however has something to prove to his now old club and will have very little pressure in Baltimore. His challenge will be facing the dominant AL East teams. He has a great curveball in his arsenal and could be successful like Ted Lilly was with Toronto in 2007, using a very similar 12-6 curve against the same division.

I love this move, and I wish Rich Hill success in 2009 and perhaps the Orioles may crawl from the cellar with catching prospect Matt Weiters coming very soon.