Blowhardism demands that the announcement of Chris Haney's retirement be accompanied by a tear-jerking career eulogy, complete with the pre-requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth, exclaiming that "If (insert minor league journeyman here) had only gotten a chance…" At some point, however, there is so only so much even the most bombastic of pontificators can say about a given player that won't sound thoroughly clichéd or just plain sugar-coated. Haney was a left-handed soft-tosser with a minor league resume longer than your standard issue gangsta' rapper's rap sheet and a major league record of success shorter than Gary Burghoff. Any number of similar players with a similar description can pull out the classic "I coulda been a contenda!" lament, but Haney's major league irrelevance was hard-earned by 824 2/3 innings of pitching with a 5.07 ERA. No more the life of charter buses and AAA parks for Chris Haney.
One word to describe the return of Buddy Hernandez: Neat. In the eyes of the Braves brass, there are 4 main problems with Mr. Hernandez: 1. He's had arm problems in the past. 2. He's short. 3. He has trouble pitching on back to back days. 4. He's short. Issues 1 and 3 aren't insignificant, of course. It's important for a relief pitcher to be able to throw back to back days, and pitching prospects, especially relief prospects, are injury prone enough that hearing the words "sore" and "elbow" in the same sentence can be frightening.
But still, priorities people, priorities. Moving from possibly the premier pitcher's park in organized baseball (Myrtle Beach) to a major hitter's park (Greenville), Hernandez maintained a sick 12.35 K/9, posted a 1.22 ERA, didn't allow a single homerun, and maintained respectable control. Since entering professional baseball, Hernandez has allowed opponents to hit him to the tune of .176. Those numbers, especially the stratospheric strikeout rates Buddy has posted in his professional career, have left many statheads, almost always skeptical of relief prospects, nearly agog, mouth's agape. And rightfully so. Strikeouts have tremendous predictive value for young pitchers, and Buddy's K/9 statistics had certainly earned him a 40 man roster spot over the likes of Billy Sylvester. And that's without mentioning Vinny Castilla's siphoning off of one precious roster spot, not to mention the life force of the Atlanta Braves.
The transactions of March 18th also don't contain many surprises or reason for kvetching, save the demotion of Ramon Castro. (The infielder, not the Marlins' catcher) Castro came to camp fighting with Jesse Garcia for the prestigious role of utility infielder on a potential playoff team. Castro gets surprisingly little press for a 22 year old who hit .324/.450/.495 at Greenville last season, and .307/.386/.487 in the same city in 2001. His offensive upside is substantially larger than that of Jesse Garcia's, whose .300/.349/.439 line at Richmond last year represents the pinnacle of Garcia's hitting performance. Garcia's career major league hitting statistics are singularly un-impressive, in limited at-bats.
The Braves, however, have fooled themselves into believing that spring training statistics, accrued in a severely limited sample size in a myriad of mitigating circumstances, have some predictive value. Castro didn't help himself with numerous errors around the time of roster cuts, or a .176 batting average in 34 at-bats, and Garcia's .300 average in slightly more at-bats probably was Castro's death knell.
In some ways, preferring Garcia over Castro is somewhat justifiable and somewhat understandable. With two defensively erratic middle infielders in Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal, the argument can be made that Garcia's superior defense and ability to be an excellent defensive replacement in the 9th inning has more value to the Braves than Castro, who is somewhat like Giles.
Unfortunately, the Braves margin for error in 2003 isn't large enough for "somewhat justifiable" and "somewhat understandable." Giles and Furcal, while erratic, aren't really bad defensive players, nor is Ramon Castro. Garcia, on the other hand, is a legitimately bad offensive player, one of the few remaining hitters who can justify the phrase "gets the bat knocked out of his hands." The Braves are going to need all the offense they can get, from their regulars but also from their pinch-hitters and Sunday starters. Garcia's not at all likely to provide that offense. In fairness to the Braves, it's looking increasingly likely that Garcia is not going to make the team. However, I don't want to comment on the 25 man roster until it's officially announced this Sunday.
Kudos to John Schuerholz for using the Rule 5 draft to his ultimate advantage. Chris Spurling was a worthwhile gamble for a team with a decimated bullpen like the Braves. Still, he was not going to make the Braves 25 man roster, and Schuerholz was faced with the possibility of returning Spurling to the Pirates for a mere $25,000. Instead, he flipped Spurling to the Tigers for Coenen, a good if not great left-handed prospect. At the age of 22, Coenen, who is 6'6, threw 165 innings in the Midwest League. He struck out 141 batters, a solid number, while walking 65. Scouting reports indicate that Coenen throws 88-90 MPH, with an excellent "slurvy" breaking ball, and his strikeout numbers indicate that his stuff his pretty good. Since Spurling was not going to be in the Braves system, in essence Schuerholz traded nothing for a recent high draftee who's posted solid numbers in his limited professional career. And since Hernandez has been returned to the Braves, the team lost no talent in the draft. Schuerholz handled this perfectly.
I'm sure Mike Myers is distraught at the release of his Mini-Me. For the Braves, Venafro just didn't fit into the team, and his rough spring didn't help matters. The Braves have little use for a one-batter type of pitcher, what with several endurance question marks in the rotation and quite a few one-inning pitchers in the bullpen. By releasing Venafro on the 26th, the Braves will only have to pay the lefty $125,000 of his $500,000 major league contract. Kudos to the Braves for cutting Venafro at the right time, but it does beg the question: Why was Venafro given a major league contract instead of an NRI?