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Spring Is In The Air

Jan 25, 2015 -- 1:23pm

For those of us that cover the Braves on a daily basis, the annual Braves Country Caravan is looked at as the unofficial start to Spring Training. For nearly two full weeks, players, coaches and Front Office members travel around the southeast performing charitable work and holding a number of autograph appearances that are free and open to the public. This is one of my favorite times of year since it starts getting the juices flowing and gets me thinking baseball once again. I had a chance to catch up with a number of players and coaches and here’s what they’re saying about not only Spring Training but the 2015 Campaign as a whole…

Fredi Gonzalez: Heading into his fifth season as the Braves skipper, Fredi told me the teams goal and mindset as they prepare for the upcoming campaign is to find a way to get into the Playoffs. His goal from day one will be to find a way to get this team back to its winning ways, and erase a painful 2014 season that saw Atlanta finish 29th in the Majors in runs scored. Fredi told me he expects plenty of competition for spots in left field, second base, the fifth spot in the rotation, along with roles in the  bullpen.

Roger McDowell: Like Fredi, Roger is extremely excited about the roster battles that will take place in Orlando. First and foremost, the Braves need to determine who their fifth starter will be. In addition, the bullpen will have a much different look in 2015 with Jordan Walden, David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro all gone from a year ago.

Craig Kimbrel: Really likes what he has seen from the starting rotation. Craig told me he knew Julio Teheran was a special talent from the time he met him as a 17 year old in Danville.  In addition, Craig said that anytime you can add talent the likes of Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, the bullpen is going to be in good hands.

Mike Minor & Shae Simmons: Both pitchers will head to Orlando healthy. You’ll recall Minor had surgery last offseason and also dealt with a sore left shoulder which caused him to miss most of Spring Training and not make his first start until late April. Minor also was scratched from his final scheduled start in September with some soreness in the same shoulder. Meanwhile, Shae Simmons, who missed most of the second half of the season with a sore right shoulder is also 100% and ready to go for Day One of Pitchers & Catchers.

For all the latest, tune into the Braves Clubhouse Report this and every Wednesday at 2:30 right here on 680 The Fan. As always, you’ll get all the very latest from Orlando from the Braves Radio Network crew who will be there with the team every day in Orlando.

Kevin McAlpin covers the Braves for the @BravesRadioNet. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinMcAlpin.

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Dream Come True For New Braves Backstop

Jan 08, 2015 -- 10:17am

The term “dream come true” gets tossed around quite a bit in the world of sports, but on Wednesday, I had an opportunity to talk with one of the newest Braves, AJ Pierzynski, just moments after signing his one year contract. Throughout the course of his 17 year career, Pierzynski has made headlines for his intensity both on and off the field. The 38 year old spoke in the home clubhouse at Turner Field reflecting on his past, and his new role as mentor to Christian Bethancourt.

But the often fiery Pierzynski enjoyed time reflecting on his past, coming up from Florida as a kid to watch games at Fulton County Stadium. Before he knew little kids would chase him down for his autograph, he would do the same in the parking lot after games. As a matter of fact, he still has many of the signed programs he got over the years. His cousin was such a diehard fan (during a time in the 80’s where it wasn’t so easy) and vowed not to study for his finals at Florida until the Braves won a game. But, for AJ, getting to don the Tomahawk and Braves uniform is truly a dream come true. While he’s appeared in over 100 games in each of the last 14 seasons, Pierzynski understands his role in Atlanta will change as he will work with grooming Christian Bethancourt. However, if Bethancourt struggles at the plate, having a workhorse like Pierzynski available is certainly a nice insurance policy for the club to have.

Pierzynski wasn’t the only newcomer that was pumped for his new opportunity in Atlanta as reliever Jason Grilli spoke highly of the tradition that came along with being part of a revamped Braves bullpen. Gone are David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro, Chasen Shreve and Jordan Walden. Grilli joins Jim Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino and lefty specialist Josh Outman in a bullpen that looks to set the table for, as Grilli told me Wednesday, “the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel.” Going into 2015, there should be no doubt that Roger McDowell will have plenty of options when he picks up that phone in the middle of the game.

Kevin McAlpin covers the Braves for the @BravesRadioNet. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinMcAlpin

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Braves continue reshaping the roster

Jan 02, 2015 -- 8:59am

I don’t know about you, but for me, the best part of changing the calendar to January is the fact we can say that Spring Training starts next month! In what’s been a busy offseason for John Hart and company, they started the New Year off by sending set up man David Carpenter and young lefty reliever Chasen Shreve to the Yankees in exchange for Manny Banuelos. Most moves the team has made the Braves have made this offseason haven’t come as much surprise. The Atlanta pen will have a much different look in 2015 than it did a year ago, adding the likes of Jim Johnson, Jason Grilli and Arodys Vizcaino among others. As a matter of fact, the entire 25 man roster will have a much different look now that two thirds of the outfield has been traded, and Atlanta has added a new second baseman in Callaspo and backup backstop in AJ Pierzynski.

As for realistic expectations for the club in the coming season, it’s still hard to put a finger on exactly what can be expected from the 2015 Braves. The rotation is young but extremely talented. With some question marks lingering around the fifth starter, the top four in that rotation look solid with Teheran, Wood, Miller and Minor. But these young starters are going to be asked to do even more, like find a way to cover the 400 innings left behind from Santana and Harang. So, heading into Orlando, there shouldn’t be much doubt that the Braves rotation along with a revamped bullpen should give the Braves plenty of opportunities.

When it comes to the offense, the Braves bats may need to come up with a new plan of attack. Perhaps turning from a power approach to more of a small ball and contact oriented philosophy. Markakis and Callaspo at the top of the order should help set the table for Freeman and Gattis. Will Chris Johnson be as bad in 2015 as he was last year? I doubt it. Will he have a season like he had 2013? Probably not. But is he a guy that should be somewhere in the middle? Absolutely. I also believe Simmons will grow at the plate, and it sure looks like the bench should be stronger. What will the Braves get from BJ Upton and how long will his leash be? Those are still unclear, but with a new hitting coach in the mix, maybe a different voice and philosophy can help get BJ back on track. One thing is for certain, more than ever, the Braves offense NEEDS to find a way to get BJ back to the type of player he was in Tampa.

Kevin McAlpin covers the Braves for the @BravesRadioNet. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinMcAlpin

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The deal we all know is coming, but when?

Dec 17, 2014 -- 1:08pm

When it comes to Braves outfielder,  Justin Upton, the name of the game is hurry up and wait. Over the last two months, the trade that will send Justin Upton elsewhere has hardly been the best kept secret in major-league baseball. As he goes into the final year of his contract, the Braves have shown no interest in keeping him here long term. That would be too expensive. Justin is hitting the prime of his career. He's 27 years old and he's coming off a season that saw him hit 29 home runs and belt 102 RBIs. If it were 1998, those numbers would be commonplace, but in the steroid free era (mostly) that baseball is currently in, numbers like that are monstrous. As difficult as it is to land a top of the rotation ace it's even more challenging to find power and big slugging numbers like those that Justin Upton produces. With all of those factors combined Justin is a year in, year out MVP candidate, so long as he puts up numbers like he did last season. That makes him extremely valuable.

So here's the question, when will this trade take place? The answer to that could be as soon as a week or as long as months from now. The Braves know they have an extremely valuable piece in Justin Upton, and they aren't going to trade him for just anybody. John Hart knows what Upton is worth, and the longer the Braves wait to trade him, I believe the more they'll be able to get in return. There's not a humongous rush to trade him as the off-season still has two months left to go. But whenever this trade does take place, make no mistake, this is the trade the Braves MUST win this off-season. The proper return for a player like Justin Upton is a must, and I feel like John Hart is going to find a way to get big return for Justin. What that return will be is anybody's guess. But when it comes to top-notch starting pitching, solid bullpen arms, top prospects and all star position players, expect names that fall into these categories in return for Justin Upton.

So after this trade gets made what do the Braves look like moving forward into 2015? Well, you may say that the NL East will be more wide-open this year than in any season we've seen over the last decade. In my opinion, as things stand right now in mid December, the Nationals haven't gotten that much better. The Marlins have gotten much better. The Phillies have gotten worse and the Mets have gotten better. Some would say that the Braves have taken a step back, only to take large steps forward in 2017. We'll just have to wait and see about that. As things stand right now, who knows what to expect from the Braves offensively? Surely they can't be any worse this season than they were at the end of last season. If they can pitch, play defense and have a solid bullpen, they can go along way, but they must hit. They have the pieces to pitch and play defense, but will the Justin Upton trade bring on players that can help this team score more runs? I hope that's the case. That's why this trade is so important. If the Braves can get prospects, a hitter and a starting pitcher in this deal, that can go in awfully long way. The Jason Heyward trade was a big trade, but the biggest blockbuster is still looming. When Justin Upton gets traded, count on it being the biggest blockbuster the Braves will make all off-season, as well as the trade that will shape their foreseeable future.

Ben

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MLB Winter Meetings 2014

Dec 08, 2014 -- 1:23pm

As the Winter Meetings get underway today in San Diego, all eyes will be on John Hart and how he continues to shape the Braves roster for 2015 and beyond. The moves from the last two weeks signal that Hart isn’t ready to completely dismantle and rebuild a club that won 17 fewer games this season as opposed to 2013. Hart knows he has valuable commodities in both Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. He also understands that the one area his club struggled in last season came from an offensive standpoint. Move Justin and or Gattis, and runs will really come at a premium.

Let’s take a look at what’s gone on to this point. The first move came about a month ago as Tommy La Stella was sent to the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino. Then, a few days later, Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden were moved for Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins. Then, last week, free agent Nick Markakis agreed to a four year deal with Atlanta, adding a two time Gold Glover and guy who can hit .290 at the top of the order. Now that the Winter Meetings have kicked off, the Braves will be one of the more interesting teams to follow. Some had noted that they were likely in a position to tear it all down and go into rebuild mode for the new park in 2017. And yes, if they trade Justin and Gattis, that would clearly be the case. But, there are two seasons to be played in the interim, and from what I can tell, the Braves aren’t ready to write those off. There are certainly items on Hart’s shopping list that could get crossed off this week. The rotation continues to be an area of focus now that Medlen and Beachy have been non tendered. As constructed now, Atlanta has four starters (Teheran, Wood, Minor and Miller). David Hale has shown over the last two seasons that he’s capable of being another guy you’d feel good giving the ball to. But, still, I think adding another piece to the rotation will remain a priority for Hart and the Braves Front Office.

Kevin McAlpin covers the Braves for the @BravesRadioNet. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinMcAlpin

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Braves non tender three

Dec 02, 2014 -- 7:02pm

On Tuesday evening, the Braves announced that they have non tendered three players, all pitchers as Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Gus Schlosser all failed to receive contracts for 2015. The trio of hurlers are now free agents and able to sign with any club. However, it doesn't mean their Braves careers are over. I fully expect Atlanta to continue to have conversations with Medlen, one of the most popular players in that clubhouse. Both Medlen and Beachy are recovering from their second Tommy John surgeries and their timeline for when they could be ready for the upcoming season is still to be determined. Both Medlen and Beachy should generate interest from a number of teams, but given their injury history, teams may be leary to go much higher than the Braves would offer. Medlen was originally drafted by Atlanta in the 10th round of the 2006 draft and is 34-20 with a 2.95 ERA over 152 career appearances (61 starts). Beachy on the other hand was signed as an undrafted free agent in July of 2008 and hasn't appeared in a Major League game since August 20, 2013.

Tuesday's move leaves the Braves with three arbitration eligible players left unsigned for the 2015 season: Mike Minor, David Carpenter and James Russell. With the MLB Winter Meetings set to get underway on Monday in San Diego, the Braves will likely engage in a number of conversations with both free agents and other clubs. With Lester likely out of the picture, most of the talk should surround both Justin Upton and Evan Gattis.

By the way, for those counting, pitchers and catchers report to Orlando in just 80 days!!

Kevin McAlpin covers the Braves for the @BravesRadioNet. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinMcAlpin.

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