Brett Lawrie has put in a ton of hard work to transition to third base this spring.
Brett Lawrie's reputation preceded him to the Toronto Blue Jays, and the stories were not good. A prima donna, talent evaluators said. A pain in the rear, they said. Very difficult for the organization, they said. After the Milwaukee Brewers traded Lawrie -- the 16th overall pick in the 2008 draft -- for Shaun Marcum at the winter meetings, you could not go up an escalator without hearing another ugly tale about Lawrie.
Alex Anthopoulos, the general manager of the Blue Jays, has been in his job for about 18 months and already has a reputation among his peers for doing exhaustive research, and presumably he heard the same stories as he prepared to make the trade for the infielder. But the Jays' experience with Lawrie has been excellent, Anthopoulos said on Saturday, and Lawrie has been doing excellent work, since being shifted from second base to third base.
"He's been working his butt off," Anthopoulos said. "All of our coaches are blown away by how quickly he's making adjustments."
The Blue Jays broached the subject of a position change for Lawrie at the time they made the trade for him, given his offensive prowess (at age 20 last season, he hit .285 with eight homers, 16 triples and 30 stolen bases in Double-A) and given the fact it's always easier to find a second baseman than a good third baseman. "I don't care -- I'll play anywhere," Lawrie told Anthopoulos. "Put me wherever you want."
It was a good first sign that Lawrie, a native of British Columbia and a former catcher who turned 21 years old in January, was evolving through his baseball experience, and he has continued that evolution since coming to camp, while learning the new position. "Right now, he's doing everything defensively on his physical ability," Anthopoulos said. "He's got some adjustments to make, but we think that'll come with playing time ... Our scouts think he could be an above-average third baseman defensively, over time."
Lawrie has hit well, batting .360 with two homers, and he is a temptation for the Blue Jays; they could install him at third and leave Jose Bautista in the outfield for good. But Anthopoulos has walked through the various possibilities with Lawrie, including the chance that the Blue Jays could decide to send Lawrie to the minors, where he could learn more about playing third base, where he could refine his defensive skills, where he could have a chance to dominate offensively. "I told him we would be open-minded" about Lawrie making the team, Anthopoulos recalled. "He said, 'Hey, when I'm ready, I'm ready.'"
Lawrie has been sharing a place with two players from whom he can learn, catcher J.P. Arencibia and outfielder Travis Snider -- two players who, like Lawrie, are former top picks who have learned about making adjustments to life as a professional ballplayer.
And so far, Lawrie is apparently making major adjustments with the Blue Jays.
• The Jays have been running like crazy this spring, writes Mike Rutsey.
• Ricky Romero, Toronto's Opening Day starter, got knocked around.
Updates related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan
1. A couple of former Chicago Cubs who are playing in Japan are OK.
2. Hiroki Kuroda made contact with his brother, who is OK.
3. Kei Igawa was able to track down his family.
4. Takashi Saito is worried about his homeland.
Bad news for Santana
Johan Santana's season is in jeopardy, write Steve Popper and Bob Klapisch; the team thinks it'll be lucky if Santana pitches this year.
My own sources indicate that the Mets have viewed Santana's rehabilitation as a long process, and that if he requires more time, then he won't be rushed back. The Mets have not counted on a lot from Santana this year, given the nature of his surgery.
More on the Mets
Much gloom hovers over the New York Mets organization these days, of course, because of the Madoff situation, because of the uncertain status of Santana, because the team is not likely to contend and because this figures to be a transitional year, given the expected departures in the next eight months of Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran (along with Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo).
There is no running from the simple fact that most of the headlines generated around the Mets this year will involve lawyers.
But the new Mets baseball operations regime, led by Sandy Alderson, is assessing the overall talent in the organization, and finding some pieces of hope.
1. There is some optimism that the team will be competitive this year -- if not necessarily playoff caliber -- because of what figures to be a good offense and defense. R.A. Dickey, who came out of nowhere to go 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA last season, is throwing well again this spring, with arguably the hardest knuckleball of any of those who have used it for a primary pitch in recent decades.
2. There is some talent to grow with coming through the minors, if the players continue to develop, from Ruben Tejada (who must prove he can hit to be more than a utility man) to Jordany Valdespin (who must clean up his defense and plate discipline) to second baseman Reese Havens, to their No. 1 pick in 2010, Matt Harvey. The new front office will have to generate a new wave of high-end pitching talent, behind Harvey.
Talent evaluator observations from around spring training
1. Rave reviews continue to pour in about Gio Gonzalez of the Oakland Athletics, who made great improvement last season and seems on the cusp of climbing into the next tier of pitchers. Said one observer: "I think he's figured it out."
2. An evaluator on the Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen reconstruction, which is a complete changing of the guard: "I think they have a chance to work it out. [Jake] McGee has closer's stuff; it's just a matter of him commanding his fastball. If he can do that, they'll be able to mix-and-match at the end of games."
3. On the progress and growth of David Price: "He is commanding his fastball inside to right-handed hitters very well. Very aggressive."
4. Brad Lidge, the Philadelphia Phillies' closer, is throwing at 86-87 mph, markedly less than his typical in-season velocity. But keep in mind that a lot of veteran relievers will show pedestrian velocity early in spring training before ramping up the velocity late in camp or at the outset of the season. "There's no reason to push it," Mariano Rivera said earlier this spring. Charlie Manuel says nobody should worry about Lidge.
5. About Desmond Jennings, the Rays' 24-year-old outfield prospect: "He doesn't seem to have a clue at the plate, any kind of real plan. He's got ability, but I'm not seeing a lot of refinement in the way he hits."
Dings and dents
1. Joe Mauer caught for the first time, in a side session.
2. Joel Zumaya has been shut down for a week, at least.
3. Injuries already have become a factor for the Colorado Rockies, writes Troy Renck.
4. Adrian Beltre is close to returning to games, as mentioned within this notebook.
5. Ryan Braun suffered a strain, but says it's not serious.
6. Andrew McCutchen had just a minor wrist irritation; there is greater concern, however, about James McDonald.
7. Dontrelle Willis suffered a freak injury.
8. The Cincinnati Reds are shutting down Johnny Cueto for a couple of days.
9. Forgot to post this yesterday: Grady Sizemore has started doing more running, more cutting, with more of the type of action that he'll need to play in games. He could be a month or so away from being ready to play in the big leagues.
10. David Newhan is trying to come back after a serious surfing injury.
11. Within this notebook, there is word that Joey Devine feels like he's going through a normal spring training progression, despite being shut down after nine pitches during a simulated game.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Ruben Amaro got an extension.
2. The news conference announcing the departure of Chuck Greenberg was very awkward, writes Gil LeBreton. Jon Daniels is navigating through change.
3. Brad Mills is putting together the Astros' lineup, Zachary Levine writes.
4. Baseball has some ownership issues, writes Phil Rogers. Within this piece, there is also speculation that the Phillies might be willing to trade either Cole Hamels or Roy Oswalt to Texas as part of a Michael Young trade. It's hard to imagine that the Phillies would compromise the strength of their starting rotation, which is the backbone of the team right now. We'll see.
5. Marc Carig writes about the different ways that Joe Girardi could structure his lineup.
6. Mike Scioscia will start making cuts.
7. As expected, Bryce Harper was sent to Class A to resume his baseball education.
The battle for jobs
1. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Zach Britton had another great outing on Saturday.
2. Michael Morse, who is having a great spring, has become the front-runner to win the Washington Nationals' left-field job, writes Adam Kilgore.
3. Kyle McClellan hasn't won the No. 5 spot yet, says Tony La Russa.
4. Within this piece, there is word that Juan Miranda is the front-runner to be the Arizona Diamondbacks' first baseman.
5. The Cleveland Indians have some competition in their camp for pitching jobs, writes Paul Hoynes. Within that notebook, there is word that Fausto Carmona had another dominating spring performance.
6. Greg Dobbs is hoping he can resurrect his career with the Florida Marlins, Clark Spencer writes.
7. Rich Harden is out of the competition for a spot in the Oakland rotation, Susan Slusser writes.
8. Blake Hawksworth is looking to bite into the role of reliever with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
9. Jason Isringhausen has gone from reckless rookie to sage, writes David Waldstein.
10. Jesus Flores has fallen behind Wilson Ramos in the battle for the No. 2 job in the Nationals' camp.
1. Carl Pavano has 13 scoreless innings this spring, as mentioned within this notebook.
2. A.J. Burnett has yet to issue a walk.
3. Alex Gordon had another big day for the Kansas City Royals, driving in six runs.
4. Russell Branyan continues to have a great spring for the D-backs, writes Nick Piecoro.
5. Felix Hernandez impressed some wide-eyed kids, Larry Stone writes. Meanwhile, Justin Smoak had a good day.
6. Adrian Gonzalez is batting 1.000 after his first game. The one swing brings some relief, writes Ron Borges.
7. Tim Hudson is pleased with his progress, writes David O'Brien.
8. Stop if you've heard this before: Chipper Jones had a good day against the Mets.
9. John Lackey had a nice outing.
10. Josh Johnson has a 10.00 ERA so far this spring, Joe Capozzi writes. Johnson is working on a changeup.
11. Brad Penny had a good outing for the Detroit Tigers.
12. Clayton Richard doesn't want to talk about why his spring debut was delayed, writes Bill Center.
13. Juan Uribe didn't play against the San Francisco Giants, again.
14. Mark Teahen is hitting well. He'd be a nice fit for the Los Angeles Angels, if the two sides could work out a trade.
A new line of work for Cashman
The other day, Brian Cashman answered his phone while waiting to be served at a coffee place, and he mused that whenever he finishes his work as a general manager, he might like to open a coffee place. He is often asked how it was that he worked for the demanding George Steinbrenner so many years, and coffee goes a long way toward explaining that, he joked.
"Cash's Coffee... For The Jolt You Need," he said, mentioning the title and marketing theme of the would-be establishment.
From the mailbag
My question is: do you see the Pirates being a .500 team any time soon? Oh, and I love it when you talk about cows. I live on a dairy farm also.
-- Corey Wilt (Everett, Pa.)
Corey: I'm a sucker for questions from a dairy farmer, but you're asking about baseball, and this means you won't care to get my perspective on Jersey cows or maple syrup production or manure-shoveling. Oh, well.
About the Pirates ... It's evident to folks in other organizations that, overall, the Pittsburgh franchise has markedly more high-end talent than it did when GM Neal Huntington took over. But the hole they were in was so deep that it'll take another two or three years of productive drafting and development before we could say they might be a factor in contending for the NL Central title.
Dayton Moore took over for Allard Baird as the Royals' GM in the summer of 2006 and, after five years of strong work within their reconstruction (which included spending increases in the draft), they are now a couple of years away from seeing a major wave of talent manifest in the big leagues. That gives you some kind of idea of how long rebuilding takes -- and this only has become more challenging because more and more teams are working from the same sophisticated playbook of assessing and collecting players based on skill metrics and value formulas.
Moore assumed control of the Royals in 2006 and has had the patient support of ownership. Huntington took over the Pirates in September of 2007, and time will tell if he gets the same kind of backing from his bosses.
Whether they like it or not, the Baltimore Orioles are stuck in the AL East, so general manager Andy MacPhail's job description is to accumulate enough talent to take down the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, not even mentioning the quality rosters in both Tampa Bay and Toronto. Several years into another rebuilding process, the Orioles have some players who were supposed to be franchise cornerstones, but as of yet they haven't quite lived up to the billing.
The best example is Matt Wieters. He wasn't just supposed to be a good catcher -- he was billed as a switch-hitting Joe Mauer with more power. To date, the only part of that description that has proven accurate is the fact that Wieters does indeed hit from both sides of the plate. His career .266 AVG/.328 OBP/.393 SLG line is simply not what was envisioned when he burst on the scene, and after two years of letdowns, questions are beginning to surface about just what the Orioles have in Wieters.
While he isn't likely to live up to the expectations that were thrust upon him -- no one should be expected to perform at that level, really -- history suggests that Wieters' slow start isn't abnormal. It's simply a truism in baseball that young catchers don't hit.
Over the past 50 years, 70 catchers have accumulated at least 600 plate appearances before the end of their age-24 seasons, giving us a decent sample of players who had at least one full season's worth of playing time in the big leagues by the time they were Wieters' age. As a group, their overall line was .259/.325/.390, nearly a dead ringer for Wieters' performance. Of course, the average is skewed up by the fact that the guys who hit well got more playing time than the guys who hit poorly, so his career .721 OPS actually ranks 23rd on that list, putting him in the top third of all the players in the sample.
While he hasn't made an immediate impact like Mike Piazza and Brian McCann did, there are far more examples of catchers who didn't really show much offense in the big leagues until after they turned 25. Mike Sweeney, Charles Johnson, Craig Biggio and Todd Hundley all hit worse than Wieters did in the majors through the same point of their careers, but still became quality offensive players despite their early struggles.
The similarity in all four breakouts was late developing power, as none of them showed much in the way of driving the ball before turning 25. This is also the skill that is most surprisingly absent from Wieters' performance; he was a prolific power hitter at Georgia Tech as well as during his climb up the minor league ladder, slugging .576 in two minor league seasons. At 6-foot-5 with the build of a first baseman, power should come naturally to Wieters. History suggests that we can't make too many judgments about his relative lack of thump so far, as few catchers develop into big home run threats at an early age.
Perhaps more interesting, however, are the group of good hitting catchers who aren't on the list we mentioned earlier -- they simply weren't good enough to get significant playing time in the big leagues before turning the big 25. Among those who fell outside the scope of our original sample are Jorge Posada, Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek and Chris Hoiles. By WAR (wins above replacement), those are four of the top 12 catchers in the past 20 years, and at the same point in their careers as Wieters is now, they were still trying to convince their organizations that they were worth regular major league playing time.
In fact, if you look at the 10 best hitting catchers since 1990 by wRC+ (an index where 100 is average), the list is dominated by guys who didn't establish themselves as big league stars early in their careers.
Piazza, Mauer, and McCann were great at a young age, but the other seven guys were all late bloomers. In fact, until Mauer and McCann came along, Piazza essentially stood alone with Johnny Bench as examples of modern-day catchers who came into the league and were dominant offensive forces right out of the gate.
Wieters' career path is the historical norm, but unfortunately for the perception of his future, he came along right on the heels of a pair of anomalies. If he had debuted a decade earlier, we would think nothing of his early struggles, as it was just accepted that catchers take longer to figure out how to hit big league pitching. Mauer and McCann raised the bar, and perhaps unfairly so, as they set levels that few catchers in history have been able to live up to.
Patience is almost universally required with young backstops. The fans in Minnesota and Atlanta got a free pass on the learning curve, but what Baltimore is going through is completely normal. Given his pedigree and history of offensive performances, it is far too early to be throwing out your list of Matt Wieters Facts right now. Given another year or two, the hype may not seem so crazy after all.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The greatest question about the Red Sox, as they enter the 2011 season generally regarded as the best on-paper team in the American League, is about their starting pitching. The last turn through has not been good for this group.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has had a rough spring, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters Sunday about another change Boston will make to Matsuzaka's regimen. In the past, he has had a long-toss session and a bullpen session on the same day, something he did as part of his schedule in Japan, which had an extra day built in. Francona, pitching coach Curt Young and Matsuzaka talked about splitting up the long-toss session and the bullpen session into different days, because there was concern that Matsuzaka couldn't handle as much out of the bullpen work as Boston wanted after throwing long-toss.
The mechanics required to discuss this kind of thing with Matsuzaka -- a translator is called and Matsuzaka is brought into the office and a laborious conversation follows -- is not something Francona likes, because he can't stand the way it feels like Matsuzaka is being reprimanded, when he's not. A change in Jon Lester's regimen would require a 30-second conversation in the outfield.
But the fact is that Matsuzaka, now entering his fifth year with Boston, remains a work in progress.
Curt Young is changing things up with him.
And on Sunday, Josh Beckett took the mound against the Pirates and he never looked fully comfortable, never looked at ease. After throwing his first pitch, Beckett took about 45 seconds to kick and rebuild the hole dug by Pirates right-hander Brad Lincoln, and afterward, he repeatedly asked for new balls, presumably to get a different feel for the seams. Even after he got good results among the first hitters, Beckett slapped at the side of his leg in frustration, clearly feeling that he didn't execute his last pitch as well as he wanted.
He allowed one run the first time through the lineup, but in the midst of his second pass through the batting order, Beckett's day disintegrated, as John Tomase writes. It's spring training and the linescore is washed away and literally meaningless, but Beckett is coming back from the worst season of his career, and everybody in the Red Sox world -- including Beckett -- would probably feel better if he was rolling up zeroes. He's got about three starts left to piece it together.
By the way: Alfredo Aceves, who signed with Boston after the Yankees passed on him because of past back trouble, will start tonight after being stretched out in his regimen by the Red Sox this spring. In Boston's perfect world, the Red Sox wouldn't need him to step into the rotation. But there are concerns about the Red Sox starters this spring.
• Late last season, I spoke to someone who has come to know Carlos Zambrano through the years and asked if he thought Big Z's strong second half would carry over to 2011 or if Zambrano's temper would inevitably blow up again. "How the hell do I know?" he said, laughing.
So far, so good: Zambrano has thrown well this spring, and according to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, Big Z is in better shape and he has his mind together and has his fastball back. Remember those outings last year when Zambrano was clocked at 88-90 mph? Well, so far this spring, he's throwing 92-94.
Look, if the Cubs are going to win, their starting rotation -- which could be pretty good -- will have to be their catapult, and right now, Zambrano and Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells and rotation candidate Andrew Cashner look good.
• One of the most difficult pitches to master, veteran pitchers will tell you, is what is generally known within clubhouses as the "Greg Maddux two-seamer." It's a sinker thrown by a right-handed pitcher near the front hip of the left-handed hitter, a pitch seemingly so far inside that the batter will give up on it -- only to see the ball veer, with late movement, over the inside corner for a strike.
Although Trevor Cahill has one of the best sinking fastballs in the majors, he did not pitch inside much to left-handed hitters much in 2009, before doing that more in 2010, and there are signs he is beginning to get a feel for that Greg Maddux two-seamer. He struck out a handful of hitters looking in his start Sunday, and some of those were with the sinker that ran back over the inside corner to left-handed hitters. It can be a vicious weapon for a pitcher who will mostly live on the opposite side of the plate -- away to left-handed hitters, inside to right-handers -- with his sinker.
• A lot of switch-hitters prefer to take their batting practice strictly in adherence with the side the BP pitcher throws from. In other words, if the pitcher is right-handed, the hitter will always bat left-handed, and the pitcher is left-handed, the hitter will bat right-handed, to keep a consistent look at the ball out of the pitcher's hand.
Jason Varitek, Boston's switch-hitting catcher, takes a different approach. As he took batting practice against a right-handed pitcher Sunday, he flip-flopped round to round, hitting left-handed and then switching over to the right of the plate. He explained afterward that he's always done this, because every ballpark is different, every backdrop is different, and he wants to get a feel from both sides of the plate. And when he takes his turn at batting practice, he can't control whether the pitcher will be right-handed or left-handed. "You take what you can get," he said.
• Observations from some talent evaluators:
1. Jered Weaver looks poised to follow up on his outstanding 2010 season, says one evaluator: "He's throwing the ball great … great command."
2. The greatest challenge that the Mets probably face, beyond the ownership issues, is combating the cloud that hangs over the franchise. "They've got to change that negativity," said one longtime evaluator. He's right. For a month, the stories coming out of the Mets camp have been, in no particular order: Madoff stuff; Oliver Perez's futility; Jose Reyes' likely future with a team other than the Mets; Carlos Beltran's knee problems; Johan Santana's slow rehab. It'll be a battle for them to get out from underneath all of this.
Dings and dents
. Not good.
that could net him $4.8 million -- a really nice reward for a 30-year-old grinder who reached the big leagues at age 26.
will be their starting first baseman, writes Nick Piecoro. Branyan can opt out of his deal March 25, which means that he will either know he will have a regular job or else he can go look for a spot elsewhere (and by all accounts, he has been killing the ball).
, writes Ben Shpigel. Freddy Garcia's outing against the Twins wasn't
, writes Mark Feinsand.
UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole showed big league stuff Friday night, throwing six perfect innings before Georgia rallied in the seventh. Cole's performance, coupled with his size, athleticism and delivery, cemented his status as the top college arm in this draft -- and it illuminated many of the reasons he compares favorably to Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals.
Cole came out throwing 92-94 early, mostly two-seamers, with an above-average slider at 86-89 and a plus-plus changeup -- I'm talking Clay Buchholz/Johan Santana good -- at 84-87. He has great arm speed on the changeup and the action on the pitch is somewhere between the fade on a normal changeup and the bore on a lively fastball. He has tremendous confidence in the pitch, running it in on right-handed batters' hands, using it 0-0 or doubling up on it. The slider was also sharp but he wasn't as consistent with it, particularly when trying to backdoor the pitch to left-handed hitters -- Georgia's first hit came on such a pitch, which hung slightly and ended up in the left-center gap.
Cole uses his lower half extremely well with a ton of torque created by the way he rotates his hips and a strong stride toward the plate (although he wasn't always landing cleanly, possibly a function of the mound's condition). He's cleaned up his arm action since he matriculated at UCLA; in high school and even early in his freshman year, his stride was shorter and his arm was very late, to the point where his lower half wasn't helping him generate velocity. He also turns his pitching hand over sooner, which is generally good for reducing stress on the shoulder. Cole's body also looks better, as he's stronger and more physically mature, while still maintaining his athleticism.
Given where Cole is now and where Anthony Rendon (who DH'd again tonight) is, there is absolutely no question in my mind who the No. 1 prospect is for this year's draft. It's Cole, and that was also the unanimous sentiment among scouts with whom I spoke at the game. Cole could easily have pitched in the big leagues with the stuff he showed Friday night.
I think it's reasonable to discuss the comparison of Cole to Strasburg, who was the top college pitcher in the 2009 draft and among the best we've ever seen. Both pitchers are listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. Strasburg had more velocity, but not a lot more -- he'd sit 94-98 and touch 100, while Cole worked at 92-98 without touching anything over 98. Both featured above-average breaking balls; Strasburg's was more consistent than what Cole showed Friday. Cole has a far better changeup, and his changeup might even be better than Strasburg's breaking ball was at the time he was drafted.
Both could boast of track records of success, although Cole's came in a better conference, and in Cole's case the velocity was always there dating to high school, as opposed to Strasburg's sudden velocity spike when he got to San Diego State and improved his conditioning. As much as Strasburg was hyped and anticipated, Cole compares pretty favorably to him, and it's going to be hard for any team to pass on him at the top of this year's draft.
In the minds of many, the NL East was clinched on Dec. 15, 2010. That was the day that the Philadelphia Phillies signed Cliff Lee, giving them arguably the best starting rotation in baseball history. Almost immediately, most assumed the Phils would cruise to their fifth straight NL East title.
But, as they say, that's why you don't play the games on paper.
A lot has changed since that fateful December day, and given the recent injuries suffered by certain key Phillies -- not to mention some time to regain our perspective -- things aren't looking quite as sunny in Philadelphia. In fact, with the uncertainty surrounding Chase Utley's knee tendinitis, not to mention the Phils' right-field situation in light of Jayson Werth's departure and Domonic Brown's broken hand, it's unclear whether the Phillies are even the NL East favorites anymore. That's troubling news for a team that's built to win now, and if you compare the Phillies' roster to that of the Atlanta Braves, it appears Atlanta is poised to regain its chokehold on the division it dominated for much of the past two decades.
Make no mistake, until the severity of Utley's knee injury is known, the Phillies are still the favorites for 2011. According to Baseball Prospectus' projected standings, the Phils will win 91 games and the Braves 87. Of course, Utley has been worth an average of more than six wins above replacement over the past six seasons. And even last year, when a broken thumb cost him almost a third of the season, he was still worth 4.2 WAR. His current backup is Wilson Valdez, essentially the definition of replacement level. A nagging injury to Utley could easily put the Braves over the top. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
With the injury to Brown, the Phillies' lineup is so old that Old Hoss Radbourn could give you a scouting report. OK, maybe not that old, but 29-year-old Ben Francisco is the youngest member of the projected of the Opening Day lineup.
Atlanta isn't young, but it's much younger and features two potential cornerstones, in 22-year-old first baseman Freddie Freeman and 20-year-old right fielder Jason Heyward, who posted a .393 OBP last year and is possibly the most valuable young talent in the game. Catcher Brian McCann is just 27 and one of the most consistently excellent players of the game. Speaking of consistent, the Braves shrewdly sold high on Omar Infante after his career year that featured a career-high batting average on balls in play, and used him to acquire second baseman Dan Uggla, who has more than 30 homers in four straight seasons. Atlanta finished fifth in the NL in runs last year, and should be much improved on offense. The Phillies were second in runs, but based on aging will almost surely be less potent.
Obviously, the Phillies have the edge on the rubber, but the Braves' rotation isn't chopped liver, and it will cost -- in total -- only slightly more than the $20 million Roy Halladay is making in 2011. And that's really where the differences between the two teams comes to light. Check out their long-term payroll obligations:
The Phils have certainly been operating with a larger payroll in recent years, but the difference in long-term commitments is staggering. Philadelphia will be paying Halladay, Utley, Cliff Lee and Ryan Howard each more than $15 million -- in 2013. All of them are excellent players, but all are on the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to be worth anything close to their salaries by then. And because of those commitments, it will be difficult for them to afford free agents while also retaining their top young players, such as Cole Hamels.
The Braves' only commitment beyond 2013 is the $13.2 million they owe Uggla in 2014 and 2015. Therefore, they have plenty of money to extend Heyward, Freeman, McCann and promising young right-hander Tommy Hanson should they deem them worthy of long-term commitments.
The one saving grace for the Phillies is their farm system, which Keith Law ranks as the fifth-best in baseball. Unfortunately for them, Law has the Braves' system in the No. 3 spot, and it is led by Julio Teheran, considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in the game.
Because of the Phillies' aforementioned financial commitments, they will need their top prospects, such as Brown, outfielder Jonathan Singleton and right-hander Jarred Cosart, to pan out in order to remain atop the division. The Braves, however, aren't nearly as desperate for their prospects to prosper. With their long-term flexibility, they will be able to supplement their young core of Heyward, McCann and Hanson with free agents when necessary and know that it's likely that some combination of Freeman, Teheran and right-hander Arodys Vizcaino will become impact players.
Should Utley stay healthy and the Phillies win another World Series in the next couple of years, their fans will certainly forgive a couple of lean years down the road. However, Philadelphia is essentially doubling down on the next season or two, and if its core begins to age more rapidly than expected, those expecting to watch an all-time great team are going to be sorely disappointed. And the Braves are in prime position to pounce for both 2011 and beyond.