- Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki is drawing praise for his handling of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, as MLB.com’s Mark Bowman writes. Dickey himself and manager Brian Snitker both said that the veteran Suzuki did well receiving the tricky righty in his first attempt in game action. That may bode well for his bid to carve out playing time, as the organization intends to utilize either Suzuki or Tyler Flowers as the primary knuckleball catcher. It’s not yet clear how the playing time will be allocated between the two backstops out of the gate, though that seems likely to change throughout the season depending upon performance. Anthony Recker is also on hand as an option behind the dish, but he doesn’t appear to have a clear path to a roster spot.
Walker was once a well-regarded prospect in the Orioles’ system, winning the team’s minor league player of the year award after a strong 2014 season spent mostly at Double-A Bowie. He has since struggled to get much traction at Triple-A Norfolk, however, batting a decent but modest .264/.321/.437 there last season. Walker had little chance at a roster spot with the Orioles once the team re-signed Mark Trumbo this past winter.
Walker does, however, have an option remaining, and he’s relatively young, at 25. While his Triple-A numbers haven’t been impressive, they also haven’t been horrific, so it seems possible he could yet emerge as a viable big-leaguer with a bit of improvement. If he does, his ability to play both first base and left field should give the Braves or some other organization at least a couple ways to use him. The Braves, of course, have Freddie Freeman at first, but it’s possible to see Walker helping the team out as a backup and in the outfield (where he could potentially serve as a right-handed caddy for Nick Markakis) at some point this season.
- Braves general manager John Coppolella sat down with Mark Bowman of MLB.com to discuss the team’s offseason and the GM’s early impressions from the first week of Spring Training. Coppolella noted that he feels the team has better bullpen depth than it’s had at any point in the past four to five years. He noted that if there’s one area that the Braves could still look to make a late addition, it’d be in the form of a bench bat. “That could be a trade or it could end up being somebody in camp right now,” said Coppolella. Notably, Atlanta has been connected to former Braves bench pieces Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson in the past month, both of whom remain available.
FEB. 24: Commings received the same $100K signing bonus that Tebow did upon signing his minor league pact with the Mets, tweets Rosenthal.
FEB. 23: The Braves have agreed to sign former NFL defensive back Sanders Commings to a minor league contract, reports Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (on Twitter). Rosenthal wrote earlier this month that the former Kansas City Chiefs and University of Georgia corner had interest in pursuing a baseball career as an outfielder.
Commings, who will turn 27 in early March, was a fifth-round pick by the Chiefs back in 2013, though he appeared in just two games with Kansas City in his brief NFL career. He’s no stranger to baseball, having played high school ball in Augusta, Ga., as Rosenthal noted. The Diamondbacks actually drafted Commings in the 37th round back in 2008, but he opted instead to attend Georgia and ultimately pursued a career in football.
Commings is being represented by agent Charles Hairston, the cousin of former Major Leaguers Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston. Jerry Hairston lauded Commings’ athleticism and natural baseball acumen when speaking to Rosenthal, telling him that he believes Commings would already be in the Majors had he stuck with baseball for his whole career. Certainly, that’s a bold statement and one that should be taken with a grain of salt from someone who clearly has a vested interest in selling the abilities of the player in question — the Starling Marte comp used by Hairston seems particularly egregious — but it’s also unlikely that Hairston would’ve taken the time to work with a talent that he did not believe had a potential future in the game.
Jerry Hairston and Commings have been working out together five times per week, Rosenthal noted in his column, and Hairston enlisted Class-A Rangers right-hander Collin Wiles to throw to him this winter. Wiles, the former No. 53 pick in the draft (2012), said that he’s been impressed by Commings’ work at the plate as well.
It’s not yet clear exactly where Commings will begin his minor league career. While the odds are certainly stacked against him, and he’ll inevitably draw comparisons to former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who is pursuing a baseball career with the Mets, there’s little harm in the big picture for the Braves to roll the dice on Commings’ athleticism.
With elbow health continuing to generate headlines, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports takes a look at the variety of new treatments — generally grouped under the header of orthobiologics — that pitchers, teams, and medical professionals have turned to in an effort to avoid the necessity of going under the knife. Stem-cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma treatments are now increasingly being deployed throughout the game, though it remains to be seen whether they’ll prove effective. You’ll certainly want to give this piece a full read to understand the state of the science. Those interested in the general subject will also want to read up on the surgical alternatives to the traditional Tommy John approach to torn ulnar collateral ligaments, as we recently discussed here.
Here’s the latest on some injury and health matters around the league:
- Veteran Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton is headed for a visit with his surgeon after feeling pain in his recently repaired left knee, as Jeff Wilson of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram was among those to report on Twitter. It’s unclear as yet how serious a concern the latest knee issue is, though it’s far from the first time that Hamilton has dealt with problems in that joint. The 35-year-old, who last appeared in 2015, is in camp on a minor-league deal. He has been expected to compete for a reserve role as a left-handed-hitting option in the corner outfield, at first base, or in the DH slot.
- There’s promising news on Orioles closer Zach Britton’s potential oblique issues, which came to light yesterday. He told reporters, including Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com (links to Twitter), that he’s not overly concerned with the issue and would still be available to throw were it the regular season. Britton’s comments largely echo those made yesterday by manager Buck Showalter, serving to further reduce the volume on the alarm bells. The key southpaw adds that he finds it encouraging that he has not experienced any pain while throwing.
- Mariners righty Steve Cishek has picked up a ball for the first time since his hip surgery last fall, as MLB.com’s Greg Johns reports. For now, he’ll only throw lightly off of flat ground every other day, though hopefully he’ll ramp up from there. “It felt pretty good, surprisingly,” said Cishek. “There’s some discomfort, but the joint has to get used to that motion again. I was surprised how good it actually felt.”
- Likewise, Mets third baseman David Wright is only beginning to throw the ball, though in his case too it represents an important first step. As Mike Puma of the New York Post reports, manager Terry Collins says it’s likely that Wright won’t take to the field until the middle of March as he continues to work back slowly from serious back and neck issues. Wright is expected to receive opportunities to hit, likely on the minor-league side of camp, in the interim. New York is understandably taking a cautious approach to the veteran. While it still seems unlikely he’ll be ready for Opening Day, the hope may be that he can return to strength in time for MLB action in a relatively early stage of the coming season.
- Mets righty Zack Wheeler is back on the bump and was able to throw thirty pitches today without incident, as Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News tweets. He, too, will surely be handled with kid gloves after a slower-than-hoped return from Tommy John surgery and some elbow discomfort earlier this month. It’s a good sign that Wheeler has been able to return to the mound relatively swiftly, though it remains anyone’s guess just how much the club will get from him in 2017.
- There’s some cautious optimism in Braves camp about the health of lefty Paco Rodriguez, as MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reports. Though Rodriguez “has understandably shown occasional signs of rust” as he works back from his own TJ procedure, writes Bowman, the health signs have been encouraging. Atlanta agreed to a $637,500 salary with Rodriguez to avoid arbitration, seemingly leveraging the possibility of a non-tender to secure a deal that fell below MLBTR’s projection of $900K.
- Likewise, Braves righty Dan Winkler is attempting a return, though in his case it’s from a somewhat scarier elbow fracture, as David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explains. The 27-year-old, who had already battled back from Tommy John surgery, faced a much different recovery process after his second procedure. Now, he’s working on refining his delivery to avoid future problems. Because of the time he’s missed, the 2014 Rule 5 draftee still must stay on Atlanta’s active roster for about two months in order for the organization to take full control of his rights.
- Twins righty Kyle Gibson is also seeking to make mechanical changes this spring, as Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press reports. The 29-year-old, who’s set to earn $2.9MM through arbitration, is seeking to tamp down persistent shoulder problems. As Berardino writes, a new training regimen has been designed in order “to teach Gibson’s arm to pronate properly at the end of his delivery” and thus “keep the humerus from rubbing on the shoulder’s connective tissues.”
The Braves are among the organizations considering a move for free-agent infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson, according to Jon Heyman of Fan Rag (via Twitter). At this stage, though, Johnson is holding out for a MLB roster spot, per the report.
Presumably, Atlanta isn’t currently willing to clear 40-man space and guarantee cash to Johnson, who turns 35 tomorrow. Whether any organization ultimately will do so remains to be seen. On the one hand, an injury could suddenly make Johnson seem quite appealing; on the other, clubs may be less inclined to promise a MLB job as camp goes on.
In the Braves’ case, the presence of Jace Peterson — another left-handed-hitting infielder who could see time at second and third — complicates matters. While both could theoretically coexist on the same roster, it’s perhaps more likely that they’d end up battling for a single job.
Though Johnson’s latest stint in Atlanta wasn’t terribly productive — he hit just .215/.273/.289 in his 132 plate appearances there last year — there’s little question that the Braves front office is favorably disposed towards Johnson. After all, the club has signed and then traded him in each of the past two seasons.
Johnson did rebound last year upon moving to the Mets (a now-familiar intra-division transition). And he has been fairly consistent in recent years, providing solid pop while representing a less-than-inspiring on-base threat. Since becoming a purely part-time player in 2013, Johnson has posted a .241/.306/.402 batting line with 47 home runs over 1,372 plate appearances. He has also shown the ability to handle just about any defensive assignment that’s thrown at him, though he has only been asked to play shortstop in a pinch.
While there are obvious limitations to Johnson’s game, he seemingly represents a solid potential bench piece for many clubs. For instance, the Royals could seemingly stand to plug in a lefty-hitting second base option (more on that here), and it’s also possible to imagine matches with the division-rival White Sox, Tigers, and Twins — among other organizations that make some degree of sense on paper.
- While Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips claims he didn’t block the Reds’ initial attempt to trade him to Atlanta in November, members of the Cincy organization say otherwise, according to Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer. However, those individuals have elected against going on the record to dispute Phillips’ account so as not to create a public rift with the longtime franchise cornerstone.
“I didn’t say no to [the] trade,” Phillips told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. “I didn’t really know what was going on. When I heard about it, I was like, ’For real, why didn’t you guys make that happen?’ That’s why I didn’t want to say anything or to call anybody out. I never said I didn’t want to play for the Atlanta Braves. I’m here now, and I’m very happy.”
Regardless of the cause, the Braves temporarily abandoned their goal of trading for Phillips, which led to their signing of Sean Rodriguez in free agency at the end of November. That disappointed Phillips, who had his “head down a little bit” afterward, but the shoulder injury Rodriguez suffered in a car crash last month put Phillips back on Atlanta’s radar. The Braves ultimately picked up the 35-year-old Phillips last Sunday for two minor league pitchers who lack big league potential, and they’ll take on just $1MM of the remaining $14MM on his contract. While Bowman notes there are “some concerns” regarding the left hand injury Phillips suffered late last season, the Braves simply couldn’t pass on Phillips at such a minimal price.
For Phillips’ part, he was “jumping for joy” when the move became official. Phillips had to waive his 10-and-5 rights in order to make it happen, and it surely helped the Braves’ cause that he’s a Georgia native who owns a home near their new stadium, SunTrust Park. “It was like I signed my first check or something,” said the three-time All-Star.
“I wanted it to happen a long time ago, but things happen,” added Phillips, who had been a Red since 2006. “There are different sides. I never thought it would happen, but I told my agent, ’You’ve got to make this happen.’ I miss Cincinnati. That’s always home. But Atlanta is my home, home.”
If healthy, Phillips believes he “can be one of the best players in this game” – a level he hasn’t reached in several years. More realistically, Phillips should be a satisfactory stopgap in 2017 for an improving Atlanta club which is anticipating high-end prospect Ozzie Albies’ forthcoming major league debut. Albies, 20, reached the Triple-A level as a teenager last season and now ranks between 11th and 26th on the top 100 prospects lists of Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law and MLB.com.
- With Sean Rodriguez set to miss most or all of the season, the Braves are trying to find an in-house backup for star first baseman Freddie Freeman, details David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Right fielder Nick Markakis, utilityman Chase d’Arnaud, infielder Jace Peterson and catcher Tyler Flowers are all candidates to slot in behind Freeman – who missed just four games last year and has appeared in no fewer than 147 contests five of six full seasons. If Atlanta doesn’t settle on any of those four as a reserve first baseman, it could turn to free agent Kelly Johnson, as he and the team are still in touch, tweets O’Brien. Another go-around in Atlanta would be the fourth for Johnson, whom the Braves drafted in 2000 and then signed as a free agent in each of the two prior winters. The club subsequently traded the journeyman to the Mets during both the 2015 and ’16 seasons.
- Former Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart discussed his tenure in a recent appearance on MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM (audio link). Stewart expressed disappointment with the fact that he wasn’t given a longer leash in Arizona, suggesting he hadn’t received a “true opportunity to do the job.” That said, he acknowledged the error behind one of the moves that perhaps helped spell the end of his time in Arizona — the infamous deal that sent Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair to the Braves for Shelby Miller. “My gut that whole time said that I should not move Dansby Swanson,” he said, though he stressed that he still believes in Miller. “If anything, maybe substituting [him] with another player” would have been something he would like to “have a redo” on, said Stewart.