The Atlanta Braves enjoyed a significant advantage in recent seasons, deploying not one but two premier left-handed relievers. Now Jonny Venters has undergone Tommy John surgery and Eric O’Flaherty is likely to follow.
Huge blows, for sure. But not necessarily crushing.
General manager Frank Wren said Saturday that the trade market has yet to develop, but rest assured, the Braves will actively search for another left-handed specialist. Mike Dunn, whom the Braves sent to Miami in the Dan Uggla trade in November 2010, would be ideal.
For now, the Braves still have one quality lefty, Luis Avilan, who has pitched 6-2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Right-hander Jordan Walden, currently out with right shoulder inflammation, throws a “split change” that neutralizes left-handed hitters. Righty Cory Rasmus, the younger brother of Colby, was recently called up after displaying a good changeup and putting up terrific numbers at Triple-A.
Frankly, the Braves could be in worse shape. The Washington Nationals are only two games over .500 and rank 13th out of 15 in the National League in runs per game. The Philadelphia Phillies are two games under .500 and dealing with their own injury issues — catcher Carlos Ruiz suffered a strained right hamstring Sunday, and first baseman Ryan Howard will undergo an MRI on his right knee Monday.
The Braves are deeper than both of those clubs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez is turning to the red-hot Jordan Schafer when he gives center fielder B.J. Upton occasional days off to work through mechanical issues. Ramiro Pena represents the same kind of alternative to Uggla at second base, and the Braves are getting terrific production from multiple players at catcher and third base.
There is still a lot to like with this team.
Hey, what about Rios?
Someone with the Chicago White Sox made a great point to me the other day: Sox right fielder Alex Rios doesn’t get enough credit for reviving his career.
Rios, 32, had a .613 OPS for the Sox in 2011 but recovered for an .850 OPS in ’12 and is at .921 this season. His biggest adjustment, at the suggestion of Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto, was to “stand taller” in the box. Rios says he also focused on swinging at better pitches.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had with a hitter,” said Manto, who initially proceeded cautiously with Rios as the team’s new hitting coach last season. “It was a blast, an absolute blast working with him.
“We both decided that maybe getting taller would be better. He wanted to do certain things with the ball. We both felt that, in the position he was in, it wasn’t going to work as well. Through basic conversation, as the days went on, he got taller and taller in the cage.
“One day he said, ‘I want to do it tonight.’ I said, ‘Do it tonight? You can’t do it tonight. Let’s work on it a little bit.’ But he said, ‘I want to do it tonight.’ So I had to explain to (manager Robin Ventura), ‘He jumped the gun. This is what you’re going to see tonight.’ But it was a lot of fun.’ ”
The White Sox claimed Rios on waivers from the Blue Jays on Aug. 10, 2009, assuming the final five-plus years of his seven-year, $69,835,000 contract. As it turns out, the move now looks pretty shrewd. Rios is earning $12.5 million both this season and next, and his deal includes a $13.5 million club option for 2015.
His struggles in ’11 seem long ago. But Rios hasn’t forgotten.
“You’re thinking of so many things at the same time,” Rios recalled. “You’re thinking about mechanics, approach, about not contributing to help the team win. You want to work on so many things, it’s not even healthy.
“It’s tough. It gets you tired mentally. It’s not a good place to be. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But you just have to keep trying until something clicks.”
Something clicked. Rios, an All-Star selection in 2006 and ’07, could return to the game in July after a six-year wait.
Why isn’t Trout running?
Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia dropped Mike Trout from the No. 1 to No. 2 spot in the batting order after only eight games and later moved Josh Hamilton from the No. 4 to No. 5 spot. When I asked Scioscia on Saturday if he might implement further changes to help his offense, he responded that he is more worried about his pitching — and understandably so.
Still, the questions linger: Does batting second in front of Albert Pujols restrict Trout from stealing bases? Would the Angels be better off putting Trout back at leadoff and hitting Hamilton second?
Trout clearly is running less — he is only 8 for 11 in stolen bases after going 49 for 54 last season, when he did not join the Angels until April 28. Scioscia, however, points out that Trout has taken off offensively while hitting in front of Pujols. Trout’s OPS is .913 since moving into the No. 2 spot, and 1.117 since April 29.
The other issue is Hamilton, who is seeing the lowest percentage of fastballs in his career — and the highest percentages of changeups and curveballs (and nearly the highest percentage of sliders).
Those patterns surely would change if Hamilton were hitting between Trout and Pujols. Trout would run wild if pitchers continued throwing breaking pitches to Hamilton more than half the time.
On the other hand, that pitching . . .
The Angels’ inability to win easily on days they score often is wearing on some of their hitters, even if none will say so publicly.
When I complemented one hitter on Saturday’s wild 12-9 victory over the White Sox, he shot me a look as if to say, “That was far too difficult.”
The White Sox, trailing 6-1, also loaded the bases in the ninth Sunday against Angels closer Ernesto Frieri but managed only one run before losing 6-2.
The good news:
Two injured Angels relievers — left-hander Sean Burnett and righty Kevin Jepsen — are expected to rejoin the team this week. Right-handers Jered Weaver and Tommy Hanson should be back in the rotation soon.
Which way Jays?
The Toronto Blue Jays appeared to be turning things around when they won their final two games in Boston last weekend and then swept two at home from the San Francisco Giants. But they were back to their old sloppy ways in losing two straight at Yankee Stadium, getting outscored 12-2.
Even the Jays’ smarter players are doing dumb things. Right fielder Jose Bautista, for example, was picked off at second base after New York Yankees right-hander David Phelps issued back-to-back one-out walks in the first inning.
I mentioned in a recent Full Count video that the Jays could deconstruct with little difficulty if they chose that route. They do not award no-trade clauses, and most of their long-again contracts are reasonable. Such a reversal, though, would beg the question: What the heck are the Jays doing?
Besides, the way the Jays’ season is going, it’s not as if their players are especially coveted. Take catcher J.P. Arencibia, who is eligible for arbitration starting next season. He has 10 home runs, yes, but the rest of his game — hoo boy. He is below-average defensively. His on-base percentage is .245. He has struck out 52 times in 155 plate appearances and has walked only twice.
I don’t mean to pick on Arencibia; this is a team-wide “fail.” The Jays are 12th in the American League in runs per game, next-to-last in rotation ERA (ahead of only the Astros) and 10th in bullpen ERA.
Don’t forget Girardi
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman deserves all the credit he is receiving for keeping the team’s injury-depleted roster as competitive as possible. The additions of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and even Lyle Overbay have proven to be master strokes, and Cashman sees no upgrade as too small — witness his latest move, swapping out infielder Alberto Gonzalez for Reid Brignac.
Well, if Cashman is a candidate for Executive of the Year, then Joe Girardi should be a candidate for Manager of the Year. And at this point, I’m not sure the race should even be close.
If anything, Girardi’s leadership amid adversity is a bigger revelation than Cashman’s bargain-hunting, which we have seen before. It’s time to update the narrative that Girardi is too tight, beholden to “The Binder.” A lesser manager would have panicked, but Girardi has improvised, without complaint.
The Yankees’ lineups occasionally border on farcical — Jayson Nix hit second on Friday, while Ben Francisco and his .402 OPS hit fifth. But the Yankees’ .628 winning percentage is second only to the Rangers in the AL, and only the Rangers and Royals have allowed fewer runs.
The Reds’ imbalance
The Cincinnati Reds rank second in the NL in runs per game, largely due to the efforts of their first, third and fourth hitters — Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.
Thanks to those three, the Reds are first in OPS at center field, second at first base and fourth at second. Meanwhile, they rank seventh in right field, 11th at third base, 13th at shortstop, 12th in left field and last at catcher.
The return of left fielder Ryan Ludwick from shoulder surgery, likely in July, should help. Still, rival executives wonder if the Reds will attempt to trade for offense — if nothing else, perhaps as insurance for Ludwick.
The outfield market: meh
As I reported on the pregame show Saturday, the Reds will try to sign Choo before he hits free agency. The problem is, Choo might prove to the best outfielder on the market, and his agent, Scott Boras, generally prefers his clients to establish their values through open bidding.
Obviously, much can change in the next four months. Teams might question Choo’s defense, even if he returns to right field. Still, try to name an outfielder who will be more attractive than Choo.
The Yankees’ Curtis Granderson just came off the disabled list. The Red Sox’s Jacoby Ellsbury has yet to get hot. The other potential free-agent outfielders include the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran, Rangers’ Nelson Cruz, Giants’ Hunter Pence and Mariners’ Mike Morse.
None of those players is at the level that Hamilton was last season, or Beltran was when he was younger. None can match Choo’s current blend of on-base ability and power.
The Reds, in trying to keep him, will face an uphill fight.
Inside the numbers
• Which are the real Indians? Rotation ERA first 21 games: 5.72. Rotation ERA past 21 games: 2.98. The team is 17-4 over the latter stretch.
• Catchers’ ERA isn’t always a fair measure of a catcher’s work, considering how heavily it is influenced by pitcher’s performance. Still, I find it interesting that the Braves’ Evan Gattis leads the NL at 2.98. The Rangers’ A.J. Pierzynski is first in the AL at 2.84.
• The importance of defense: The Pirates are first in defensive efficiency, followed by three other clubs who also are playing perhaps better than expected — the Cubs, Indians and Padres.
• A.J. Burnett is again putting together a strong free-agent year. He ranks first in the NL in strikeout rate (11.29 per nine innings) and third in ground-ball rate (70.3). That ground-ball rate would be his highest since 2005.
• Injuries help explain why the Braves and Nationals rank next-to-last and last in the NL in OPS out of the No. 2 spot. Jason Heyward, the Braves’ primary No. 2 hitter, missed more than three weeks after undergoing an appendectomy. Jayson Werth the Nats’ primary No. 2, has been out since May 2 with a strained right hamstring.