A Conversation With a Fan

Andrew and Mac have a chat about the Braves pitching situation (among other things): Who should pitch in the middle innings out of the bullpen? How should the playoff rotation shape up? Read on to catch up on their discussion.

In an effort to bring into my column the opinion of a fan that actually knows what he's talking about, I recently held an email correspondence with Mac Thomason, operator of BravesJournal.com, a phenomenal weblog that is one of the first sites I visit every morning. We talked about the Braves playoff chances, the general health of the organization, and many other Braves-related topics.

Andrew Bare: A lot of fans I've talked to seem to believe that while the Braves can win the World Series, the bullpen will likely as not hold them back. Now, maybe it's because I get to be the wildly optimistic, Rany in our little Rob-and-Rany operation here, but I think that if it's handled correctly, the bullpen won't hold this team back as much as some may think.

I'm making a couple of assumptions, of course. First, that Bobby Cox is going to go with an 11 man pitching staff, with 4 pitchers penciled in as starters. I'm also assuming we'll be looking at a bullpen of Smoltz-Holmes-Mercker-King-Gryboski-Ramirez-InsertNameHere. For this team, the goal for the bullpen is finding a way to get a lead to Smoltz without losing said lead in the middle innings.

If Smoltz is used in a way that maximizes his usage (2 inning saves where needed, frequent 8th inning appearances), that just removes one more inning of low-quality, middle relief pitching. Also, and I know I might be alone on this, I believe that Holmes, Mercker, and King are basically solid pitchers. Even Gryboski, who's caught a lot of (deserved) flak, as shown some signs of effectiveness.

Look, this is not going to be a GOOD bullpen, by any means. But all the Braves need to do is bridge a gap from the 7th inning to Smoltz. And I think they can do that.

So tell me Mac: Am I totally off-base?

Mac Thomason: I don't think you're totally off-base, because pitchers are unpredictable. One can hope that King can start pitching the way he did with the Brewers, that Holmes can come back from his latest injury, that Gryboski can walk the tightrope. Is it _likely_, though? I'm cautiously optimistic that Bobby will figure out a way to use the setup men to keep them from killing the team. After all, he's done it before. King is probably their best bet, because he's been the best reliever in the past. I think Bobby's auditioning him and Mercker, hoping to find someone who can pitch like Remlinger did the last few years, but that's easier said than done.

I think Bobby will find at least one reliever he can count on in a setup role.But you want to avoid a '96 situation, where you have one setup man and the closer, plus a bunch of relievers you have no confidence in. After all, you saw what happened in '96. Bobby at times this year has tried to get that _one more inning_ from the starter and had it backfire. Last year, he didn't have to do that. With Ortiz -- who simply throws too many pitches to get through more than seven innings -- as the #1 pitcher, followed by the fragile Maddux, he's going to have to go to the pen a lot.

Bullpen depth is a nice thing to have. Is it the be-all and end-all of winning in postseason? Not really. The Angels relied heavily on their pen last year, but the year before the D-Backs didn't have any relievers they had confidence in. Of course, they had Johnson and Schilling... Well, it takes all kinds. But if a great bullpen were what was needed to win, why did last year's Braves lose in the Division Series?

The Braves' best hope in the end is that they can pound their enemies into submission and not even have to worry about the bullpen. That might actually work in the NL, where there are an awful lot of flawed teams, plus the Giants, an old team that seems to have hit the wall even before Bonds had to take time off. But I can't see winning the World Series without some quality pitching performances.

AB: We've been talking about the bullpen, and that is important. But as you mentioned, the Braves had that vicious buzz saw of a bullpen last year and they still couldn't overcome that vicious buzz saw of a hitter, Barry Bonds. The thing with a bullpen is, even if it only has one or two reliable pitchers, there are ways to manipulate the game so that you only need those pitchers.

Starters are a little different, of course. It's a lot harder to finesse your way through a bad starting rotation. Of course, I don't think that the Braves have a bad starting rotation, per se, but it's definitely flawed.

I think the questions are: Do you go with a 4 man rotation in the playoffs, or risk it and go with a 3 man group? And if you do go with 4, who the heck gets that last spot? Horacio Ramirez has been impressive at times, and we all like his poise, grit, determination, whatever other intangibles you want to throw out there. But coming right down to it, he just hasn't been very good this year. (As an aside, he has a pretty dramatic platoon split this year, so he might well make a useful LOOGY in the playoffs.) Shane Reynolds has been excellent at allowing 5 runs while the Braves score 8, but he obviously doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

The problem with a 3 man rotation is that while the 3 pitchers who'll make up the staff are all pretty solid pitchers, I don't really trust them on 3 days rest. Ortiz does what he does, throws 125 pitches to get through 7, but almost always keeps the team in the game. That's a fine guy to have on the staff, maybe even as the number one, but if he's going to throw 130 pitches on Monday, he doesn't inspire much confidence on Thursday.

Maddux is a legend, even if a lot of people seem have forgotten that. But he's never been good in the postseason on 3 day's rest, and there's no reason to expect that to continue.

So for me, if there's one primary concern going into the postseason (and all of this is assuming there won't be some epic collapse over the last month and ten days) it's not really the bullpen. It's the backend of a decent starting rotation that seems somewhat ill-suited for the 3 days rest it might well have to work on.

MT: Though you don't have to give up games in the postseason, you must remember that in a seven-game series you'd be giving one start to your fourth starter which _might_ come from your first starter, and then only if it goes seven. You get the advantage of full rest for everyone, including allowing your second starter a five-day rest. If that second starter is Maddux, it could be a big help. And it opens up your bullpen as well. Let's say the World Series goes seven, it's tight in the last game, and Hampton is out of gas in the sixth. Well, Ortiz is available to relieve, and wouldn't you rather have him out there than Gryboski?

In a five game series, you're talking about taking one start from your second_ starter and going to your fourth, and then only if the series goes more than the minimum. Of course, the schedules for these first round series are goofy and it's possible you'd be able to come back with your two top starters on full rest, depending on TV.

I'm a four-man rotation guy, as you might guess. The way I figure it, you don't ask people to do _more_ than they're used to in postseason, because it's likely to backfire. Maddux has made one start on short rest this year (after a rain delay), and I believe that's the only short-rest start anyone's made. Now you're going to make everybody work harder? I don't see it.

Of course, if the Braves weren't choosing between Shane Reynolds and Horacio Ramirez I'd be more comfortable. I think Ramirez has hit the wall; he's been pitching without a break for about ten months now and has to be tired. Reynolds has almost been serviceable at late, but he's a fine-line pitcher at the best of times. The one thing he can do is keep the ball in the park; given that, he might be useful against a team that relies upon power as its primary weapon, but that's it. Since the Braves didn't make a move to get a starting pitcher, and since Hodges is a reliever only right now, I assume that they're going to go with three men in the postseason. It probably won't matter until the third time around.

If I were running the team -- and thank God, I'm not -- I would be tempted to make Hampton the #1 starter in postseason. He seems the best fit of the three top starters to go on three days' rest, he's the only lefty of the three -- which would come in handy against the Giants and Yankees, the teams the Braves would most likely face in potential NLCS and WS play – and frankly he's been the best pitcher the last couple of weeks. I suppose if he keeps that up he'd be the #1 starter.

Off the subject: _Mike Hessman?!?_ We finally get rid of Wes Helms and now his Mini-Me is the platoon first baseman? I can see it now, it's game seven of the World Series in Yankee Stadium, Andy Pettitte or David Wells on the mound for the Yankees, and our first baseman is hitting eighth, in front of Henry Blanco, the DH.

AB: It doesn't make for the most interesting of discussions, but I have to admit that I don't know if I'd prefer a 3 man rotation for the NLDS. I'd prefer a 4 man, normally, but I really have no confidence in either Ramirez or Reynolds to follow up the Big 3. I can see using Ramirez against teams heavily dependent upon lefties; as I mentioned, he's got a pretty big platoon split.

Of course, all of this could become much clearer over the last month and 10 days. Ramirez is obviously quite talented; if he finds his second wind and flourishes, he might make a good option for the fourth spot. And I wouldn't even rule out the possibility of the Braves acquiring a starter in the next 10 days. Livan Hernandez has cleared waivers. The Braves seem to keep crossing paths with Livan, and it's always seemed to me that Hernandez was destined to spend some time with Atlanta.

Hampton, Ortiz, and Maddux might go on a tear and make themselves the obvious candidate for the first rotation spot. Who knows? I'm going to hold off judgment until October, and even then, I'll likely not be entirely sure what I want. (How's that for a firm basis for discussion? "I don't know" has always been the foundation for excellent debate.)

I am glad you brought up Mr. Hessman, if not for the sake of discussing him. So far, we've been discussing postseason pitching staffs under the idea that Bobby will go with an 11 man staff. It's a logical assumption. The question then becomes: Who takes the place of the 12th pitcher on the postseason roster?

I imagine we'll see Johnny Estrada. Cox does love his 3rd catchers, and the organization seems to be quite infatuated with him. And to be fair, he's been very good this year for AAA Richmond.

I know you're not fond of third catchers, and usually neither am I. But Estrada is different from the Steve Torrealbas and Jorge Fabregas' of the world. He's a switch-hitter who can actually hit, and with a little power at that. He won't be a waste of a roster spot, but he's actually someone Bobby might have confidence using as a pinch-hitter. He could be a fairly useful tactical weapon off the bench.

Any thoughts on that final roster spot?

MT: I've gone with the assumption that it would be Estrada from the beginning. For one thing, he's been on the 40-man all the time, so they wouldn't have to finagle a spot. For another, he's clearly Richmond's best player. If Bobby were willing to use him as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher, or for Blanco when Maddux pitches (assuming they stick with that absurd arrangement) he'd be a good use of the spot.

On the other hand, Bobby didn't use Javy Lopez in then 1993 NLCS and he got one AB in the 1992 NLCS, none in the series. (I think he was on deck when Sid slid.) Eddie Perez, who is, or was at the time, a pretty good hitter for a backup catcher, wasn't used in postseason when he had the third job. Braves third catchers have always been more security blankets than anything. Of course, if I had my choice I'd dump Blanco, make Estrada the backup, and Fick the third catcher. I'd also go with ten pitchers and bring up someone to pinch-run. And if you need a third catcher, make sure he's somebody like Cabrera or Willard who has some offensive value, especially since he's more likely to be of use as a hitter than as a defensive player.

If Julio's injury is as bad as it sounds, Hessman might well make the postseason roster, and actually play against lefties. Fick hasn't had any problem with lefties in the past, but has looked hopeless (6-49, though two hits are homers and one a double) against them in his limited play this year. He might get more chances to get into a groove down the stretch; we'll see. They could "platoon" him with DeRosa, with Vinny swinging between first and third, but that's pretty radical for Bobby at this stage of his career. (Ten years ago, he would have done it, but ten years ago Bobby never would have gone along with moving Chipper off third or touched Vinny with a ten-foot pole.)

AB: If I were running the club (and ditto what you said, thank god I'm not) Estrada would probably be my second option off the bench against a righty, and probably even my second against a lefty. As you said, it's an open question if Bobby will use him as a pinch-hitter. But the Braves seem to value Estrada pretty heavily, so who knows?

For the sake of information, other options for that last spot include AAA outfielders Ryan Langerhans and Donzell McDonald, as well as 2B/SS/3B Jesse Garcia, and yes, even Michael Hessman. McDonald makes a certain amount of tactical sense. The Braves have no shortage of bats, but this team lacks a lot of speed. McDonald can fly, and at the plate he possesses a bit of plate discipline. There's absolutely no power there at all. There's also the possibility, however remote, that one of Buddy Hernandez, Travis Phelps, or even Bubba Nelson will find himself on the postseason roster.

From what I understand, Julio's injury is much less severe than it sounds. The TBS guys were saying that the club expects him back in two weeks, which is actually a pretty big deal. If I had told you 2 years ago when the Braves signed him that Julio Franco would play a huge role in the Braves postseason hopes for 2003, you would have laughed at me. Heck, I would have laughed.

I am glad you brought up the role Bobby Cox will play towards the end of your last comment, because I'd like to talk about Bobby for a second. In my mind, one of the more fascinating discussions that can arise from any talk about the Braves 12 year run is the role Bobby has played as a manager.

It's interesting what you learn when you read the Internet. Before I started using the Internet for Braves-related activities 3 or 4 years ago, the thought had never even occurred to me that anyone would have anything but the highest opinion of Cox or GM John Schuerholtz. It turns out, of course, that there's a pretty sizable, and vocal, portion of Braves' fans that don't think either are particularly good at their jobs. We can get to Schuerholtz in a minute, but right now, I'm interested in what you think of the job Cox has done these past few 12 years.

MT: I think Bobby has done a magnificent job, and have said so on a number of occasions. (Here's a long piece on Bobby that I think is one of my better jobs.) The most difficult thing for a manager to do is to keep a team in contention for more than 3-4 years; the Braves have been one of the best teams in baseball for thirteen years now. (And he's never had a really bad year compared to expectations.) Nobody's done that before, not even McGraw or McCarthy. (And nobody but them even comes close except Stengel.) It's easy to say that he only did this because he had the talent, but take a look at Philadelphia -- a team that most people thought had more talent than Atlanta entering this season. They're holding onto the wildcard only by the skin of their teeth, and Larry Bowa has had more trouble with his players this year than Bobby has in his whole career.

That's what it's all about in the end -- keeping your players working together towards the common goal. The great managers can do it consistently, a good manager only for awhile, a bad manager only with luck. There's not enough luck in the world for thirteen years of winning.

Does he make mistakes? Sure. Everyone does. My belief is that most of his biggest "mistakes" in game management have been in situations where there was no "right" answer and he guessed wrong. It's easy to second-guess, but sometimes things just happen. You can't blame the manager for not being able to predict the future. He's made some odd player choices. There are to me three that stand out: platooning Ryan Klesko early in his career, overusing Odalis Perez when he wasn't even pitching well, and letting Keith Lockhart take playing time from Marcus Giles. But realistically, only the Perez mistake cost the Braves much, and they traded him for Sheffield anyway...

Baseball Prospectus had a (free) article previewing the Braves' postseason roster yesterday. What we know is that (thankfully) the Braves will go with fifteen position players and ten pitchers. In addition to the eight regulars, we can be pretty sure of Estrada, Blanco, DeRosa, Matt Franco, and Bragg, with either Julio Franco or Mike Hessman depending upon the former's health and availability. That leaves one spot, with Hessman (if Julio is ready), Langerhans, and Garcia the candidates. If they were going to use McDonald, they would have called him up. I agree I'd prefer him to the others because he can run and get on base. I would guess Garcia (since he was brought up before Sept. 1) would be the man, and he can at least run a little, but Hessman might be playing his way on regardless and the others hoping for an injury.

AB: I think the mistake a lot of fans make is that they compare Bobby to the ideal manager- the coach who'll never give a veteran preference over the better rookie, who is always willing to bring his closer into tie games in the 7th and 8th innings, and who knows just how to use their bullpen and bench to the highest advantage. Of course Cox is going to come out looking bad in that comparison.

Instead, just look around the league. Really, in 30, 40 years, are there any other managers besides Bobby who people are going to remember? Maybe Tony LaRussa, but he's more obviously flawed than Cox. I like Mike Sciosia a bit out in Anaheim, and I'm a big fan of Jim Tracy out in LA but other than that, this isn't a very inspiring group right now. So when you compare Bobby to his contemporaries he comes out looking a lot better than if you go down a strict checklist of managerial attributes.

I think we would be remiss if we didn't also discuss John Schuerholtz a bit. He gets a lot of grief, even more than Cox, and I'd agree that he's more of a complicated case than Bobby. But I refer back to what you just said: Ultimately, it comes down to winning. And while Schuerholtz has made his fair share of mistakes, the undeniable fact is that under his watch, the Braves have won 12 consecutive division titles. That's a feat that calls for a certain amount of respect, does it not?

In my opinion, Schuerholtz' chief flaw, as you might expect a stathead to say, is a complete ignorance of some rather important changes in the game. The organization doesn't emphasis the importance of being patient or working counts. In fact, you posted an excerpt of a Baseball Prospectus article on your site a few weeks ago, in which said article Dayton Moore, Braves director of scouting, said the Braves wouldn't try to get Jeff Francoeur to work counts. That's unfortunate.

MT: Well, they'll remember Joe Torre. As a rule, four or five rings will do that. Buck Showalter, maybe, if he gets the Rangers turned around.

To me, Scheurholz's great flaw is that even more than Bobby he's addicted to veterans, especially veterans of the Joe Simpson/Dave Gallagher/Rey Sanchez type who don't do anything to help the team offensively but look good in the uniform and can run. The corollary of that is that he doesn't recognize the value of young players. It's easy to see now that giving up Rob Bell and Bruce Chen didn't hurt the team, but he could have gotten a lot more for them. That is, the mistake wasn't trading them, but that he treated them as generic live arms rather than the elite prospects they were considered to be.

He's done a great job, generally. Even though he drives me nuts at times. He's made the moves to make the team better, and only rarely (maybe the Jordan signing) overpaid in the free agent market. A lot of GMs could learn a thing or two from him about rebuilding without tearing the team down.

I'm worried about Robert Fick. Last year with the Tigers he slumped in the second half, but it was blamed on an injury. Well, now he's in a horrific slump -- as bad as Andruw's worst slumps -- and it's not like he has Andruw's defensive value. At what stage does Bobby have to think about getting Matt Franco back in there?

AB: Fair question. But I don't think we'll see Matt Franco get any significant playing time as a starter. Bobby doesn't trust Franco, and I can't really say I blame him. That said, Fick's struggles are more than a little concerning, and he certainly hasn't earned the right to hit against lefties.

Mac Thomason can be reached at Mac@bravesbeat.com. Andrew Bare can be reached at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com. He encourages your emails so that he can stave off the all-encompassing loneliness that threatens to permanently darken the topography of his soul.

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