- The Braves seem to have averted a significant problem with third baseman Josh Donaldson and his ailing calf. That’s the same area that wiped out a huge chunk of his 2018 season. But Donaldson is due back this weekend, manager Brian Snitker tells reporters including Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Twitter link). The 33-year-old Donaldson has thus far rewarded the faith of the Atlanta organization, slashing a smooth .258/.395/.495 through 119 plate appearances with the club.
The Yankees announced today that an MRI showed inflammation in the right knee of infielder DJ LeMahieu. He suffered a contusion on Friday night and has been limited since. It’s a tough balance for the Yanks, who are already pressing numerous players into unexpectedly significant roles. While the preferred course might be to put LeMahieu on the shelf and bring in a replacement, the club is surely wary of keeping him out longer than needed and must also keep a close watch on 40-man roster pressures. It’s a tough spot — one that makes the club’s ongoing success all the more impressive (and frightening for the rest of the American League East).
Here’s more from the game’s eastern divisions:
- Brock Holt’s path back to the majors has encountered another roadblock. The Red Sox utilityman is now dealing with a shoulder injury, as Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com was among those to report. Details aren’t yet known — he’s due for a medical exam tomorrow — but it seems Holt came down with the ailment recently. He has been working back after suffering a scratched cornea. Holt, 30, turned in a strong .277/.362/.411 slash in 367 plate appearances last year. His absence is amplified by the fact that both Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Nunez are also on the injured list at the moment.
- Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte left tonight’s game with a hamstring injury. Initial indications are that he is in good shape, skipper Brian Snitker told reporters including David O’Brien of The Athletic (Twitter link), but the true condition of the muscle will be more apparent tomorrow. It’s conceivable that a roster move will be needed. The club wouldn’t necessarily need to bring up an outfielder, though it’s already running out an eight-man bullpen. Adam Duvall surely wouldn’t mind an opportunity. He’s playing at Triple-A for the first time since 2015 and doesn’t seem to want to stay (.306/.388/.647 with seven home runs and 16:11 K/BB through 98 plate appearances).
- It seems that Mets second baseman Robinson Cano has avoided a significant injury after being struck by a pitch on Sunday. X-rays on his hand were negative, so it seems the club needs only to wait for the swelling to subside before it’ll be able to slot him back in the lineup. Cano is off to a solid but hardly overwhelming start to his tenure with New York’s National League entrant. Through 108 plate appearances, he carries a .270/.324/.430 slash line with three home runs. UZR and DRS have soured on his glovework a bit in the early going, though it’s tough to put too much stock in a short-sample run of defensive metrics.
Sobotka has scuffled out of the gates for the Atlanta club, turning in a dozen innings of 8.25 ERA ball to open the year. While he’s getting grounders (46.9%) and strikeouts (12.8 per nine), he’s also coughing up quite a few walks (6.8 per nine) and home runs (2.25 per nine on a 25.0% HR/FB rate).
It’s hard to diagnose the true root of the issues. Though Sobotka is still sitting at over 96 mph with his fastball and generating a 14.6% swinging-strike, opposing hitters are simply making better contact than they did in his debut stint last year. He’s getting first-pitch strikes 63.9% of the time, which is generally a good sign for walk rate, but is in the zone with just 35.8% of his pitches.
In any event, a brief respite may not be the worst outcome here, so long as the strain isn’t too serious. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll need a rehab stint and how long he’ll be sidelined. Of course, the Braves pen isn’t in the best position to weather any absences, even from a pitcher that hasn’t produced the desired results.
It’ll be interesting to see what the club gets from Dayton, a 2017-18 offseason waiver claimee who is now back from Tommy John surgery. He seems to be throwing the ball well at Triple-A, having compiled eight strikeouts without a walk (but with one home run against him) in his 5 1/3 frames. Dayton was a fascinating breakout reliever for the Dodgers in 2016 but did not sustain his initial showing in the ensuing season before going under the knife.
The Braves have acquired left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins from the Athletics, Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweets. Oakland announced that it will receive cash or a player to be named later in return. Atlanta subsequently selected Blevins’ contract, optioned Wes Parsons to Triple-A Gwinnett and transferred reliever Arodys Vizcaino to the 60-day injured list.
An Athletic earlier in his career, Blevins never made it back to Oakland this year after returning to the organization on a minor league contract in the offseason. The 35-year-old instead tossed 10 2/3 innings of 1.69 ERA ball with 13.5 K/9 and 3.38 BB/9 with the A’s Triple-A affiliate.
Blevins had to settle for a role in the minors after a trying 2018 as a member of the Mets, with whom he posted a 4.85 ERA, 8.65 K/9 against 4.64 BB/9, and a measly 21.8 percent groundball rate. Difficulty retiring same-handed hitters played into Blevins’ struggles last year, a season in which he declined sharply after a largely impressive run with the A’s, Nationals and Mets. From 2016-17, his first two full seasons in New York, the soft-tossing Blevins managed a stingy 2.87 ERA with 11.97 K/9, 3.86 BB/9 and a 43.3 percent grounder mark across 91 innings. He was tough on both left- and right-handed hitters in the first of those two seasons, though the latter teed off on him in 2017.
Blevins will now join an Atlanta bullpen which is in dire straits, having limped to the majors’ eighth-highest ERA (4.74) with its worst walk rate (5.87 per nine) and second-worst fWAR (minus-0.7) this season. In the Braves’ estimation, the fact that lefties Jonny Venters and Jesse Biddle are on the injured list and fellow southpaw A.J. Minter has been awful helped create a need for Blevins.
- The Braves have placed reliever Jesse Biddle on the IL with a right thigh bruise and right calf strain, Mark Bowman of MLB.com writes. Atlanta recalled righty Shane Carle in a corresponding move. The IL placement continues a difficult stretch for Biddle, who, as Bowman notes, has retired just 10 of the last 23 batters he gone against. The southpaw faced four batters in a loss to the Rockies on Friday and failed to retire any of them, though one reached on an error, and yielded four runs (one earned) on three hits. Biddle has still notched a solid 3.18 ERA in 11 1/3 innings this year, but he has also walked upward of seven hitters per nine and seen his swinging-strike rate plummet from 10.4 percent in 2018 to 6.8 this season.
Per a team announcement, Braves righty Mike Foltynewicz will be activated from the IL in time to make his first start of the season tonight against Colorado. Right-hander Bryse Wilson will head back to AAA-Gwinnett.
The hard-throwing Foltynewicz, 27, whose 96.4 MPH average fastball velocity was tops among all NL starters last season, was sidelined at the end of spring with a balky right elbow. Atlanta’ll hope his return quenches what’s been a parched Brave rotation in the early going – the club’s starters have thus far posted the NL’s highest walk rate, at 4.08 men per nine, with an ugly 4.50 xFIP that collectively ranks second-to-last in the Senior Circuit.
With shaky command from rookies Wilson, 21, Kyle Wright, and Touki Toussaint, plus the all-over-the-place nature of the recently demoted Sean Newcomb, Atlanta may need to move rotation help to the top of its mid-season shopping list.
7:29pm: The move is now official. Justin Upton was shifted to the 60-day injured list to clear a 40-man roster spot. That doesn’t seem to reflect upon his outlook, as he was already expected to be sidelined for the first two to three months of the season with a turf toe injury.
5:59pm: The Angels will select the contract of lefty Sam Freeman in order to activate him for tonight’s game, Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times was among those to tweet. It’s one of several pitching moves for the Halos this evening.
Freeman, 31, caught on with the Angels just before the start of the season after he was released by the Braves. He wasn’t at his best in 2018, pitching to a 4.29 ERA. Though he managed a 52.1% groundball rate and rung up 10.4 opposing batters per nine innings on strikes over his 50 1/3 frames, Freeman also permitted an unhealthy number of walks (5.7 BB/9).
After losing closer Arodys Vizcaino to season-ending shoulder surgery Wednesday, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos unsurprisingly acknowledged that his club will consider multiple avenues to improving what was already a struggling relief corps (links via MLB.com’s Mark Bowman and Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Atlanta, per Anthopoulos, is going to look to “do what we can … both internally and externally.”
Vague as the comment may be, the minds of all Braves fans are zeroed in on one name: free-agent Craig Kimbrel. However, both Bowman and Burns suggest that a match between Kimbrel and the Braves remains unlikely, as the team isn’t keen on inking its former closer to a multi-year pact. Cognizant of upcoming restrictions on their international spending abilities, the Braves are apparently also placing an extra emphasis on the draft pick they’d forfeit to sign Kimbrel. It’d be a surprise if that were a primary factor in their thinking, though. Atlanta already has a deep farm, and they recently ensured that their two brightest young stars will be on the roster for upwards of a decade. Stockpiling depth and trade capital is an ever-important endeavor, but draft forfeitures shouldn’t be the primary roadblock if the two sides eventually land in the same ballpark in terms of years and dollars.
It seems there’s still a gap, although Kimbrel’s precise asking price isn’t clear. A weekend report from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal pegged Kimbrel’s price point at something in the vicinity of the three-year deals received by Wade Davis ($52MM) and Zack Britton ($39MM) over the past two offseasons, but even those contracts have a fairly notable range between them. For Atlanta, the annual value isn’t a sticking point so much as the length. A three-year deal, per Burns, “is a commitment the Braves won’t make.”
The question for the Braves, if Kimbrel isn’t the solution, becomes one of where they can turn for improvement. The free-agent market is rather bare beyond him at this point. Old friend Bud Norris remains unsigned but, like Kimbrel, wouldn’t be ready immediately. Veteran Ryan Madson is without a team, but as of early February, he was reportedly pondering whether he even planned to pitch in 2019. He’d need even longer to get up to speed.
The mid-April trade market isn’t likely to be any better, as most teams will be reluctant to sell off veteran assets so early. The Blue Jays made a pair of early moves to ship out Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar, but financial motivations and a desire to clear space for younger players fueled those deals. Their bullpen isn’t in the same situation. There’s sure to be some depth hitting the waiver wire in the coming weeks, but Atlanta doesn’t have a strong waiver priority, and the preference would presumably be to add more stability than someone who’d recently been designated for assignment anyhow.
Barring a drop in Kimbrel’s asking price, the likeliest outcome looks to be that the Braves try to patch things from within. To this point, none of their vaunted young starting pitching prospects have been tried out as a reliever (with the exception of a lone Touki Toussaint long-relief appearance following a short Sean Newcomb start). It’s worth seeing whether someone like Toussaint, Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson can step up in the late innings as the team looks for ways to help a relief corps that entered play Wednesday with a 5.43 ERA before being saddled with its second loss in as many days.
The Braves have announced that closer Arodys Vizcaino has undergone season-ending shoulder surgery. The procedure involved a labrum clean-up and the removal of scar tissue.
This news represents a major hit to a Braves relief unit that was already under fire. That’s true of many other clubs — including several division rivals — but that doesn’t make it easier to bear. A.J. Minter, the club’s other top option for the ninth inning, has scuffled out of the gates. Others in the bullpen currently include Wes Parsons, Luke Jackson, Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle and Chad Sobotka, although of that bunch, Carle and Sobotka have struggled quite a bit in the season’s first few weeks.
The Atlanta organization isn’t short on promising arms in the upper minors, though the bulk of their top-regarded arms are in rotation roles. Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright opened the year in the big league rotation, in fact, though each has since been optioned down to Triple-A Gwinnett. Southpaws Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard are both starting at the Triple-A level as well.
Right-hander Mike Soroka, arguably the most promising young arm the Braves have in-house, didn’t appear to be an option in the hours leading up to the news on Vizcaino’s shoulder. To the contrary, Mark Bowman of MLB.com tweeted that afternoon that it’s likely that Soroka will be recalled to start tomorrow’s game for the Braves. He’ll at least temporarily step into a rotation that is expected to get top starter Mike Foltynewicz back by the end of the month.
It won’t go unnoticed that there is still a rather prominent free agent reliever still left unsigned. Long-time Braves closer extraordinaire Craig Kimbrel held talks earlier in the winter but failed to come to terms with the value-conscious Atlanta organization. He’s still reportedly seeking a multi-year deal; the Braves will be loath to commit to a lengthy accord, but Kimbrel’s leverage may be on the rise as late-inning relief units falter around baseball.
Signing Kimbrel before the June draft would cost the Braves a pick in the 2020 draft, as Kimbrel rejected a qualifying offer from the Red Sox upon conclusion of the 2018 season. Nevertheless, the on-paper fit is now more pronounced than ever, and fan outcry for the organization to broker a reunion with an already beloved franchise icon has been audible since late in the offseason.
The Braves kicked off the winter with a high-profile signing of Josh Donaldson but then went largely dormant, negotiating only small-scale returns for Brian McCann and Nick Markakis. At the time of the Markakis signing, general manager Alex Anthopoulos spoke of the contract’s below-market rate perhaps giving the team flexibility to make further moves down the line — in addition to Braves leadership already having spoken of increased spending capacity earlier in the winter — but that has yet to come to fruition.
As for Vizcaino, the injury may well prove to be the end of his Braves tenure. The hard-throwing righty entered the season with five years, 168 days of Major League service time, meaning he’s already now surpassed the six-year service mark needed to qualify for free agency. Perhaps the Braves will look to retain him on a bargain contract next offseason, but Vizcaino will have the ability to listen to offers from any and all interested parties. He’ll quite likely be forced to settle for a one-year deal with a low base salary and plenty of incentives, if not a minor league contract, as teams throughout the league look at him as a potential bounceback candidate. He won’t turn 29 until November, though, so at the very least, Vizcaino will have age on his side in free agency.
The Braves announced today that they’ve placed southpaw Jonny Venters on the 10-day injured list. He’s dealing with a strained calf, though his struggles likely played a role in the timing. Venters made a miraculous return to the majors last year after five full seasons away owing to a brutal run of arm injuries. He pitched well enough to be tendered by the Atlanta organization. But Venters struggled this spring and has continued to do so through six regular-season appearances, over which he has surrendered six earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings.