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Spring Training Q&A with Todd Cunningham

Much like David Hale, outfielder Todd Cunningham has seen quite a shift in his expectations this spring.  A year ago, he entered Major League camp as the reigning Atlanta Braves Minor League Player of the Year, an award that earned him a spot as a non-roster invitee.  He played in 22 Grapefruit League games before ultimately opening the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, where he went on to hit .265 with 60 runs scored an 20 stolen bases.  This spring, Cunningham is a member of the 40-man roster with a taste of the Majors under his belt (he hit .250 in eight games for Atlanta last year), vying for a return trip to Turner Field.  Gwinnett Braves Media Relations Manager Dave Lezotte caught up with him today at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, FL.

Todd Cunningham (center) has hit .250 with a home run and three RBIs in eight games for the Atlanta Braves thus far this spring. (Photo by Chris Roughgarden)

Todd Cunningham (center) has hit .250 with a home run and three RBIs in eight games for the Atlanta Braves thus far this spring. (Photo by Chris Roughgarden)

DL:  Last year, you were a non-roster invitee to Braves Spring Training.  This year, you’re on the 40-man roster.  How does this spring compare to last year?

TC: Every year, you’re just trying to get ready for Spring Training.  Wherever you settle in the lineup or whatever team you end up on, it kind of works itself out.  It’s all about getting ready for the season and being ready to go for game one.

DL: You’re competing for a roster spot with Atlanta, going up against some former Gwinnett teammates like Jose Constanza and Joey Terdoslavich.  What’s that competition like?

TC: We all get along so well, there’s no bad blood among us.  It’s all about the competition.  We go out and we play hard, all of us enjoy the game of baseball.  We have that connection, that bond, regardless of what happens.  It’s all about going out there and playing hard.

DL: Obviously you still root for those guys when they’re at the plate.

TC: Yeah, they’re your teammates.  You’ve come up with them and played with them, so you want everyone to do well.

DL: Last year with Gwinnett, you hit two home runs all year.  In your third game this spring, you homered.  What was it like showing some power in a Major League Spring Training game?

TC: It feels good.  Hopefully that works itself into my swing; it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate a little bit.  Hopefully that shows up throughout the whole season.

DL: As a G-Brave in 2013, you were the everyday centerfielder.  This spring, you’ve been playing a lot of left field.  Are you still working towards being in center, or is it left field now?

TC: The whole goal is to be able to play as many (positions) as possible.  You start looking at the levels above you, the big league level and who they have, and there’s a lot of contracts out there.  For me and my position, trying to find a way to get in there, you have to be able to play more than one.  The more positions I can play, the better, but obviously the longer I can stay in the middle of the field, the better, too.

DL: Is there different preparation involved for playing the corner outfield spots as opposed to center?

TC: Balls just don’t stay true on the corners, you get all the slices and hooks and top-spin.  It’s a lot about first-step reads.

DL: Last season with Gwinnett, you hit .265 and stole 20 bases.  Is there an area of your game that you’re working on improving for this year?

TC: Just being able to drive the ball consistently.  I’d kind of go through stretches last year where I’d get behind some balls.  To be able to do it throughout the whole year, would obviously improve (my) game.

DL: Last year, you got the opportunity to make your Major League debut with the Braves.  It was a limited stint, but certainly an eye-opening experience for you.  How important is that experience for you heading into this season?

TC: It’s great.  It put me in position to come in as a roster invitee. It was just a really cool experience, to kind of get (my) feet wet.  Especially when we were on that 14-game winning streak, it was a lot of fun to be in that atmosphere.

DL: Brian Snitker is the manager in Gwinnett this year.  You got a chance to work with him at the Major League level last season, what are your thoughts on Snit?

TC: I’m excited to have his experience transferred down to the Triple-A level.  He’s been around the game for a long time, so I’m sure there are things that everyone can pick up from him.

DL: The Gwinnett roster obviously will take shape once the Atlanta roster works itself out, but there should be a veteran presence on the club this year.   I know you guys aren’t thinking about Triple-A just yet, but what’s your early feeling about the Gwinnett club?

TC: The whole goal, like I said, is to get to the big leagues, but also be ready for game one.  I think everyone is going to be on the same page there and be ready in case the opportunity presents itself to be in Atlanta.  As far as how the Triple-A team is going to shape up, I think it’s going to be a lot of guys all with the same goal in mind, which is really cool when you get that many guys on the same page.  It should be an exciting year, wherever I end up.

DL: If you do end up back in Gwinnett at some point this season, how do you handle that?

TC: Just the same as I’ve always handled it.  It’s baseball, I’m trying to get better, I have things that I’m working on.  Keep the big picture in mind, trying to get back to Atlanta, and just keep working.

Scenes from Spring Training 2014

Chris Roughgarden of the Gwinnett Braves Photography Staff was at Champion Stadium on Thursday night to shoot the Atlanta Braves/Washington Nationals night game.  She got some great shots of several 2013 G-Braves, which can be viewed in the slideshow below.  The Braves won the contest, 3-2.

-DL

Spring Training Q&A with David Hale

This time last year, right-hander David Hale was working on adding a sinker to his repertoire and preparing for his first Triple-A season with Gwinnett.  A year later, the Marietta, GA native finds himself competing for an Opening Day roster spot with the Atlanta Braves, having already made his Major League season and postseason debuts last fall.  Gwinnett Braves Media Relations Manager Dave Lezotte caught up with Hale today at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, FL.

Image

Hale, Atlanta’s third-round pick in 2009 out of Princeton University, went 6-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 22 games, 20 starts for Gwinnett last year. (Photo by Chris Roughgarden)

DL: Last year, you made your Triple-A debut, battled back from a right shoulder strain and made your Major League debut by season’s end.  A lot of things happened to you in one season.  What did you learn from those experiences?

DH: Just to stick with it, and to improve on the stuff that I have.  I added another pitch last year, my sinker.  It gave me a lot of confidence in pitching, and I could focus more on the art of pitching instead of just trying to overpower people.  I could actually go at them with a pitch that I could come in on them and then go away on them.  It’s more of an art to me now, to focus on pitching like that.

DL: September 13, 2013, you made your Major League debut for the Atlanta Braves.  Being from Marietta, growing up a Braves fan and getting a chance to make a debut in front of your family and friends, what was that like?

DH: It was incredible, I had so many people there that I haven’t seen in years.  To have all them come out and support me, it means a lot, it really does.

DL: You worked 5.0 scoreless, four-hit innings and struck out nine in that game.  You didn’t have more than nine strikeouts in any Triple-A start all season.  Did your performance surprise you that night?

DH: I think it did.  It was good for me because it gave me some confidence; let me know that I can perform at that level.  I couldn’t have asked for a better outing, just to do that in front of my family and friends, and like I said, to give myself some confidence.

DL: You got a win the next time out on September 26 vs. Philadelphia, and not long after, you were named to the Braves’ postseason roster.  How shocking was that?

DH: You know, I really wasn’t expecting that.  When it came down to it, I guess they were looking for a long relief kind of guy, and I was able to fill that spot.  It was a blast; it’s something that I certainly won’t ever forget.

DL: You pitched in Game 3 of the NLDS at Los Angeles, a tough 13-6 loss for the Braves.  Still, it was a huge personal moment for you at the end of that game.  What was it like stepping on the mound in the playoffs, at Dodger Stadium of all places?

DH: It was pretty cool to be on the mound during the playoff atmosphere.  Like you said, L.A., that place is enormous; I didn’t realize it was the largest stadium in the league.  It was a little daunting, but we were down a little bit, so that took away (some) of the nerves because it was out of our hands.  But still, my heart was racing and it was fun to be there.

DL: When we talked last season, one of the things we focused on was your use of video as preparation at the Triple-A level.  You have access to even more of that at the Major League level, what is your preparation like here?

DH: I kind of do the same thing.  We have a lot of the same video stuff in the big leagues as in Triple-A, so I always like watching that.  I get a feel for the hitter before I ever see him, so it’s like I’ve faced him before.  It’s being comfortable through knowledge, I guess.

DL: This year at Spring Training, you’re competing for a Major League roster spot.  What is that competition process like?

DH: It’s pretty stiff.  We have a lot of good starting pitching, so I’m just doing the best I can and hopefully putting the ball in the decision-makers’ courts.

DL: What are you working on the most this spring?

DH: Consistency, that’s something I’ll say for the rest of my career.  Working on that sinker, just being consistent with it, as well as my off-speed pitches.

DL: Do you have a good feel for that sinker so far this year?

DH: Yeah, it actually is feeling really good right now.  I’ve got to get that off-speed stuff going again, but it’s early obviously, and that’s why we have Spring Training.  Just getting the feel back.

DL: You’ve been a starter and a reliever in your minor league career.  Would you accept either role in the Majors?

DH: I’ll catch if they want me to.  Whatever they want me to do to be on this roster, I’ll do it.

DL: This is a young pitching staff, both the rotation and the bullpen.  Who do the young guys look up to on the staff?

DH: Like you said, it’s a pretty young staff.  (Kris) Medlen has taken on a big leadership role.  Then you have Freddy (Garcia), he’s been around forever, so we all look up to him.

DL: If you end up back in Gwinnett at some point this season, how do you handle that?

DH: Just stick with it and just keep getting better through practice.  I don’t think any team has ever had 25 men on it for the entire season.  I just need to put myself in position to take a spot if one opens up.

Brian Snitker Interviewed on 92.9 The Game

Snitker PC

Brian Snitker answers questions at his January 23 press conference at Coolray Field (Photo by Chris Roughgarden)

In case you missed it, new Gwinnett Braves Manager Brian Snitker was a guest on Mike Sammond’s radio show on 92.9 The Game last Saturday.  In the roughly 10-minute interview, Snitker talked about his move back to the minors, the challenges of managing and coaching third base simultaneously, his experience as the Major League third base coach for Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez, the development of Braves’ top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt, his thoughts on Atlanta’s club in 2014 and more.

Click below to listen:  


-DL

Tom Glavine: The First G-Brave in Cooperstown

Newly-minted Baseball Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine pitched twice for Gwinnett in 2009.

Newly-minted Baseball Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine pitched twice for Gwinnett in 2009 (Gwinnett Braves).

Though he played just two games with the club, legendary Atlanta Braves’ left-hander Tom Glavine is a former G-Brave.  With the announcement of Glavine as part of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2014 induction class yesterday, the Gwinnett Braves Baseball Club has its first member of Cooperstown.

Glavine, who will be enshrined in the Hall alongside rotation-mate Greg Maddux and their manager Bobby Cox on July 27, 2014, was ever-so-briefly a member of the Gwinnett roster in 2009.  The G-Braves were not quite two months into their inaugural season at then-named Gwinnett Stadium when Glavine came to town on a minor league injury rehab assignment.

Glavine had rejoined Atlanta as a free agent in 2008 after spending the previous five seasons with the New York Mets.  He went 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA in 13 starts that year, a campaign shortened by three trips to the disabled list.  A nagging left elbow strain ended the left-hander’s season in mid-August, and Glavine underwent surgery with Dr. James Andrews to repair a torn flexor tendon on August 21.  The 2009 season was to be the 43-year-old’s comeback from the only major injury of his career.

His first rehab outing came with Double-A Mississippi on April 12, 2009, a 2.0-inning start in which he allowed a run on three hits in a no-decision.  Though he was efficient with 26 strikes among his 36 pitches, Glavine wouldn’t take the mound again until late May.

It was on May 23, 2009 when Glavine made his Gwinnett Braves debut.  In front of a Gwinnett Stadium crowd of 9,294, he turned in 3.0 innings against Toledo, yielding three runs on five hits.  Two of those runs came on a two-run homer by Mud Hens’ first baseman Ryan Roberson in the third inning.  Glavine left in line to lose, but the G-Braves scored seven runs over the fourth and fifth innings to take a 9-3 lead.  Two scoreless frames from reliever Francisley Bueno and a rain storm that erupted prior to the sixth gave Gwinnett the 9-3 victory in a shortened five-inning contest.

Five days later, Glavine made his final appearance in a G-Braves uniform and provided one last glimpse of his legacy for the 5,571 in attendance.  He handcuffed the Indianapolis Indians to six hits over 5.0 scoreless innings, walking one while striking out two.  Glavine threw 67 pitches, 41 for strikes to earn the win as Gwinnett prevailed, 10-6.

Those two outings (1-0 with a 3.38 ERA) marked the whole of Glavine’s time as a G-Brave.  However, it was not his final outing in professional baseball.  The last start of his career came with the Class-A Rome Braves on June 2, 2009.  Glavine won that game as well, tossing 6.0 scoreless, three-hit innings, walking none and striking out two in a 3-0 blanking of Augusta.

Glavine’s rehab assignment ended after that game, as did his professional career.  Though he had been dominant in his last two minor league starts, the 22-year Major League veteran was released on June 3, 2009.  The following February, he officially retired from the game in order to join the Atlanta Braves’ broadcast team and serve as a special assistant to Braves’ president John Schuerholz.

Four years later, Glavine is rightfully headed to the Hall of Fame.  He goes in as a career 305-game winner, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, a 10-time All-Star, a World Series MVP and lastly, a former G-Brave.

Though Glavine is the first player to don the Gwinnett Braves uniform to reach the Baseball Hall of Fame, he’s not the only member of the 2014 class with ties to the Richmond/Gwinnett franchise.  Glavine, along with managers Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, all spent time as players with the Richmond Braves.

Bobby Cox, Richmond Braves third baseman in 1967.

Bobby Cox, Richmond Braves third baseman in 1967 (left photo).

Long before his days in the Atlanta dugout, Cox was a Braves’ farmhand himself, playing in 99 games with Richmond in 1967.  A 26-year-old third baseman, Cox batted .297 with 17 doubles, four triples, 14 home runs and 51 RBIs for manager Luman Harris and the ’67 squad.  That team finished first in the International League with an 81-60 regular-season record before falling in the first round of the playoffs.

Tony La Russa played for Atlanta in 1971 and was a member of the Richmond Braves in 1972.

Tony LaRussa played for Atlanta in 1971 and was a member of the Richmond Braves in 1972.

LaRussa played second base for Richmond in 1972 and appeared in 122 games for the club led by manager Clyde King.  Like Cox, he was productive at the plate, hitting .308 with 13 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs and 42 RBIs.  The ’72 R-Braves finished sixth in the IL with a record of 65-78, missing the playoffs.

Glavine as a member of the Richmond Braves, likely during the 1987 season.  (Gwinnett Braves Archives)

Glavine as a member of the Richmond Braves, likely during the 1987 season. (Gwinnett Braves Archives)

And finally we’re back to Glavine, who also pitched for Richmond in 1986 and 1987.  After going 11-6 with a 3.41 ERA in 22 starts for Double-A Greenville in 1986, Glavine joined Richmond and went 1-5 with a 5.62 ERA in seven starts.  Though his numbers weren’t great, he contributed to a team that claimed the franchise’s second Governors’ Cup Championship.  A 21-year-old Glavine returned to manager Roy Majtyka’s club in 1987, and despite a tough-luck 6-12 record, posted a respectable 3.35 ERA and four complete games in 22 starts.  That would be his last non-rehab stint in the minor leagues, as he joined the Atlanta Braves that same season and became a Major League mainstay in 1988.

While Cox, LaRussa and Glavine are going into the Hall based on the merits of historic Major League careers, each began their journey to Cooperstown in the minor leagues.  For a moment in time, those journeys intersected with the rich history of the Richmond and Gwinnett Braves franchise.

-DL

New on the 40: Ryan Buchter

Yesterday, I delved a bit into the background of right-hander Wirfin Obispo, the hard-throwing Gwinnett Braves closer who was just added to the Atlanta Braves’ 40-man roster last Friday.  Today, it’s time to do the same for the other newest 40-man addition, left-hander Ryan Buchter.

The 26-year-old Buchter emerged as a bullpen force for the G-Braves last season, compiling a 4-0 record and a 2.76 ERA in 51 relief appearances.  In addition to converting all five of his save chances, the southpaw also ranked among International League relief leaders in strikeouts per 9.0 IP ratio (1st, 14.95) and lowest opponent batting average (3rd, .168).  Buchter’s most impressive work came down the stretch as he posted a 0.00 ERA over his final 14 appearances in August and September.

Much like Obispo, Buchter’s “breakout” season in 2013 came after a well-traveled start to his career.  Originally drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 33rd round of the 2005 draft, the New Jersey native has already been traded twice.  The Nationals dealt him to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for right-hander Matt Avery in 2008, and the Cubs moved him to Atlanta in a deal for right-hander Rodrigo Lopez in 2011.  Amid the ever-changing scenery, including stops in eight different leagues, Buchter put together All-Star seasons in the Class-A Midwest League in 2009 and the Double-A Southern League in 2010.

Buchter’s travels and subsequent learning experiences were featured in a story I wrote for the final regular-season issue of Tomahawk Talk last year.  In it, he reflected on his unlikely discovery by the Nationals, the benefits of being traded, his confidence gained from the 2012 Arizona Fall League, his “rollercoaster” 2013 season in Gwinnett and more.

Ryan Buchter, photo by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves.

Ryan Buchter, photo by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves.

Buchter Breaks Out

Left-hander Ryan Buchter has emerged as a go-to arm out of the Gwinnett Braves bullpen in 2013

by Dave Lezotte (published in Tomahawk Talk, August 26, 2013)

He may not qualify as the biggest prospect arm on the Gwinnett Braves’ roster, but what left-hander Ryan Buchter has been able to do in his first full Triple-A season is nothing short of impressive.  The New Jersey native has held International League hitters to a .178 batting average, striking out 83 over 51 innings in 42 outings this year.

Buchter’s professional career, including stops with the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs organizations, has always been a bit under-the-radar.  Even his signing by Washington came about almost on accident.

“It was a mistake,” said Buchter about his discovery by the Nationals.  “I ended up pitching against somebody who was being scouted already.  I kind of outpitched him, and it all started from there.”

The pitcher being scouted by both the Nationals and the Cubs was Winslow Township High School right-hander Chris Rollins.  The Nationals passed on Rollins in the 2005 First Year Player Draft, but took Buchter in the 33rd round out of Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, NJ.

A draft-and-follow selection, Buchter attended Gloucester County Community College in nearby Sewell, NJ before starting his professional career in 2006 at age 19.  His first two seasons as a Nationals’ farmhand were anything but successful.  In his first year in the Gulf Coast League, he went 1-1 with a 7.24 ERA in 11 games, one start.  The next year, he went 1-2 with a 6.82 ERA at Short-A Vermont.  He finally showed some promise in 2008, going 4-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 games between the GCL and Class-A Hagerstown, but was traded away after the season.

The Nationals dealt Buchter to the Cubs in exchange for right-hander Matt Avery on November 3, 2008.  The change of scenery proved to be a turning point in his career.

“Getting traded kind of jump-started me,” said Buchter about the move to the Cubs.  “It made me take a different path in my career.  I started to work a little harder that off-season and it started to show right away.  From there, I kept building and building.  I attribute (my success) to being traded and not wanting to let the new team down.”

With his career refreshed in a new organization, Buchter put together two award-winning seasons in the Cubs’ system.  In 2009, he made his first professional All-Star Game, going 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA and five saves in 38 games for the Peoria Chiefs of the Class-A Midwest League.  A year later, he was an All-Star again in the Double-A Southern League, going 7-2 with a 4.65 ERA in 47 games for the Tennessee Smokies.  His third campaign as a Cub began with mixed results as he split time between Tennessee and Advanced-A Daytona, but another shakeup was imminent.

On May 26, 2011, Buchter was traded for the second time.  The Cubs sent him to Atlanta in exchange for 35-year-old right-hander Rodrigo Lopez.

“I was just sent down to High-A to iron out some kinks,” reflected Buchter on the time of the trade.  “I started throwing well in Daytona with the intention of (moving back up) to Double-A or Triple-A.  When I got traded, (Daytona manager Buddy Bailey) pulled me aside and said ‘I have good news and bad news for you.  The good news is, you’ve been traded.  The bad news is, you’re going back to High-A.’  That was a difficult thing to handle.”

Buchter started his Atlanta Braves’ career with Advanced-A Lynchburg, going 2-5 with a 3.59 ERA and a career-high 15 savs in 2011.  In 2012, he moved on to Double-A Mississippi, returning to the Southern League for the first time since pitching with Tennessee.  Facing familiar competition, he boasted a 3-1 record, 1.31 ERA and four saves in 35 relief outings for the M-Braves.

“I just went out and did what I knew I could do,” said Buchter about his success.  “Just give me an opportunity and I’ll pitch and throw well, especially late in the game.  I embraced the role I was being used in, seventh, eighth, sometimes ninth (inning) and it worked out.”

His stint with Mississippi worked out for a late-season promotion to Gwinnett for his Triple-A debut.  Buchter went 0-2 with a 10.12 ERA in nine outings for the G-Braves, indicating that he still needed some refinement.  A trip to the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League and an extended look in Braves’ Major League camp during the spring helped him regain confidence.

“It helped me iron out some bad habits that I created when I came up here (to Gwinnett),” said Buchter about his fall and spring assignments.  “It made me realize that I can get anybody out.  I can get the prospects out; I can get the big league guys out.  Once you realize that, I don’t want to say the game becomes easier, but you start to have a little more faith in yourself.”

Buchter began his 2013 season on Gwinnett’s Opening Day roster and was nearly unhittable early, postin a 1.00 ERA in nine April outings.  He came back down to earth in the summer months, going 0-0 with a 4.58 ERA in 28 games from May through July, but found his best stuff in August.  Through his first seven games, he went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and one save.

“It’s been a pretty fun rollercoaster,” said Buchter about 2013.  “With pitching, it’s easy to be a perfectionist and want to go out and pick yourself apart for giving up a walk or giving up a hit.  Sometimes the hardest thing is to realize that if you throw up a zero (no runs), it’s actually a good inning no matter what else happens.”

He’s had plenty of those good innings lately for Gwinnett, most of them in pivotal spots.  With the departure of closer Cory Rasmus to the Los Angeles Angels in a July trade, Buchter has been given more opportunities to pitch with late leads and in save situations.  Pitching in tight ballgames is something he relishes.

“The game’s a little more fun when you’re out there and you’re up by one, down by one and you know your team needs you to throw up a zero,” said Buchter.  “It’s something that I’ve learned to embrace and I look forward to a one-run game.  I get a little antsy in the bullpen hoping they’ll call down and say my name, that way I get a chance to come in.”

Buchter has climbed to the top of the league in relief strikeouts thanks to a fastball that sits in the mid-90′s and a willingness to challenge hitters with it.  For the left-hander, getting ahead in the count quickly is the key to his prolific strikeout numbers.

“If I get ahead, a lot of times my success rate is a lot higher than a lot of guys,” said Buchter.  “Get strike one, and then I try to pitch to one side of the plate for righties and lefties.  If I get two strikes on a guy, then I’ll try to put him away.  It’s a very simple game plan.  A lot of fastballs; then I’ll mix the cutter in and then try to put them away with the breaking ball.”

Buchter’s professional career started with an unlikely discovery, progressed with three different organizations and has resulted in a 2013 season that has him closer than ever to the Major Leagues.  While he waits for a shot at Atlanta’s bullpen, he remains optimistic and focused.

“Obviously, you’re waiting for your turn, and for a lot of bullpen guys, it’s luck,” said Buchter.  “It’s luck and what the team has planned for you.  They may have a plan for you, they might not, but you’ve got to continue to stay focused on the task at hand down here (in Gwinnett).  It’s good to just keep your mind on things down here and do your job every day.  If you don’t do your job here, they’re not going to be looking for you anyway.”

The Atlanta Braves will certainly be giving Buchter a long look when Spring Training starts up in February.  For the first time in his career, he has the stability that comes from being on a Major League 40-man roster.

-DL

New on the 40: Wirfin Obispo

Late last Friday, the Atlanta Braves announced the addition of two 2013 Gwinnett Braves to their 40-man roster.  Left-hander Ryan Buchter and right-hander Wirfin Obispo, the back-end of the G-Braves’ bullpen for the bulk of the season, have both been added to Atlanta’s 40-man for the first time in their careers.

Today, the focus is on Obispo, the hard-throwing Dominican Republic native who first turned heads during Spring Training.  An impressive Cactus League run — 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA and eight strikeouts over six outings — earned him serious consideration for a bullpen spot in Atlanta, but Obispo wound up spending all of 2013 in Triple-A.  After a slow start, some minor adjustments on the mound brought him back strong, and he went 2-4 with a 3.53 ERA over an International League-leading 54 appearances.  The July trade of right-hander Cory Rasmus to the Los Angeles Angels thrust Obispo into the Gwinnett closer’s role, and it is there that he truly shined.  He converted nine of 11 save chances from mid June through September, posting a second-half ERA of 2.55.

While the Braves wait to see if Obispo will be next season’s version of David Carpenter, we look back on what has already been an interesting, challenging career for the former shortstop prospect.  Below is a feature story on Obispo written by Juan Dorado for the eighth issue of Tomahawk Talk last season.

Wirfin Obispo, picture by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves

Wirfin Obispo, picture by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves

The Journeys of Obispo

From the Dominican Summer League to the Japanese League and now finally in the U.S., right-hander Wirfin Obispo has been on an amazing journey

by Juan Dorado (published in Tomahawk Talk, July 18, 2013)

On the first week of July each year, the International signing period begins.  Major League teams scatter around the Caribbean Islands in search of the next great Latin-born player.  In 2002, a young shortstop from the Dominican Republic by the name of Wirfin Obispo was signed by the Boston Red Sox organization, and so began his well-traveled baseball career.

Nineteen years old at the time, Obispo was assigned to the Dominican Summer League Red Sox.  In 37 games, he hit .211 (24-for-114) with four doubles, one triple and five RBIs.  Despite being two-to-three years older than most players on his team and yet struggling at the plate, Boston decided to bring the right-handed hitting infielder back in 2003.  During the spring, however, he suffered a setback and went through his first real injury as a ballplayer.

“After I came back for my second season, I suffered a leg injury,” recalls Obispo.  “The Boston Red Sox organization didn’t think I could really play after that, so they decided to let me go.  Honestly, I don’t think it could have worked out any better.”

Obispo was unemployed, but not discouraged.  He spent the off-season rehabbing and getting back into shape for a winter workout with the Cincinnati Reds and International Scouting Director Johnny Almaraz.  While working out in front of Almaraz, the fleet-footed, strong-armed, 160-pound shortstop was asked if he had ever thought about pitching.  Even though he had spent his whole childhood and professional career as a shortstop, Obispo was open to the idea.

“In 2004, when I was working out for Cincinnati and Johnny Almaraz, he told me that he wanted to see me as a pitcher,” said Obispo.  “He looked at me as a shortstop (prospect) but then he asked if I would like to pitch.  I was glad to go out and pitch for him, so I went on the mound and he saw that I had a good fastball.  After that, he signed me, but this time as a pitcher.”

On January 23, 2004, with the support of Almaraz and the Cincinnati Reds organization, the right-hander signed as a minor league free agent.  Obispo spent the next three seasons as a pitcher for the Dominican Summer League Reds.  He excelled in the role, appearing in 47 games, 26 starts, and posting an 8-11 record with a 2.38 ERA.  The fireballer struck out 204 batters while walking only 58 during his rookie ball career.

Obispo was great in his first two stints in the DSL, but it would take until 2006 for the Reds to really take notice.  Now primarily a starter, he went 4-5 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 starts in the DSL, limiting hitters to a .168 batting average and striking out 93 in 79.1 innings.

The Reds decided that Obispo was ready to begin a professional career in the United States and invited him to minor league Spring Training in 2007.  Unfortunately, problems off the field prevented the emerging hurler from pitching in the U.S. for the first time.

Instead, Obispo found himself in another unfamiliar place, and 8,623 miles from his home in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.  With the help of Junior Noboa and Melvin Soto, professional scouts and assistants of the Reds organization, he was shipped off to Japan to play for the Yomiuri Giants.

“It was an incredible experience, one learns a lot over there,” said Obispo.  “It was a little uncomfortable at times.  Technology was fast moving and highly advanced, so it took a while to get acclimated with the environment, but once you get accustomed to it, it becomes like any other place.”

Obispo spent five seasons overseas, accumulating an 8-4 mark with a 4.13 ERA in 30 games between the Yomiuri Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters.  He battled injuries along the way, including a left hand injury suffered on a line-drive come-backer that severely limited his production in 2008.

When he returned to health in 2009, Obispo went 6-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 14 games, seven starts for the Giants.  During the Japanese League postseason, he won decisive games in both the Nippon Professional Baseball Climax Series and Japanese Championship Series, eventually defeating the Yu Darvish-led Nippon Ham Fighters in six games to claim the 2009 JL crown.

After his Japanese contract expired in 2011, Obispo’s desire to pitch in the United States earned him another try with the Reds organization.  Cincinnati signed him to a minor league contract on February 2, 2012.  He spent the season between Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville, hurling a combined 96.0 innings and posting a 5-3 record with a 3.00 ERA in 35 games.

Despite his familiarity with the Reds, Obispo opted to try his hand at free agency in the off-season and signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves.  An exclusive clause guaranteeing him an opportunity to pitch in Major League Spring Training was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I’m still very inexperienced playing baseball in the United states.  Including this season, I have only played two years stateside, so I was excited to participate in Spring Training with the Braves,” said Obispo.

Considered a long shot to make the Major League roster, Obispo still raised some eyebrows with a high-90′s fastball and a sharp breaking slider.  He dominated the Grapefruit League in his six appearances, tossing 5.0 shutout innings while giving up two hits and striking out eight.  In the end, his lack of experience prevented him from earning a spot in a deep Atlanta bullpen, and Obispo was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett.

Pitching for the G-Braves, Obispo was greeted rudely by International League opponents.  He went 0-1 with a 5.82 ERA in his first 18 games, a slide that was particularly aggravating given his successful spring.

“I wasn’t doing anything different from Spring Training, but it was like my head was getting in the way,” admitted Obispo.  “I was over-thinking everything, I was doing everything I did before but I was running into bad luck and letting it affect my head.”

Obispo didn’t let his early struggles keep him from improving, and with continuous hard work with pitching coach Marty Reed, he found an underlying problem with his preparation and delivery.”

“Coach Reed helped me out a lot.  He saw that I used to get loose and warm up from the side, but when I pitched in games I was upright, standing straight towards the plate.  He didn’t really force me to pitch from the side, but asked if I was more comfortable from there, so I made the adjustment and began pitching slightly turned.”

The quarter-turn has paid off.  From May 20 through June 27, Obispo went 14 outings, 17.2 innings without allowing a run.  He yielded just four hits and four walks while striking out 18 during that amazing span.  As of July 8, Obispo was 1-1 with a 2.01 ERA and three saves in his last 18 outings, including 22 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.  He posted a 0.81 WHIP and limited hitters to a .133 batting average in that time frame.

With two years under his belt and confidence steadily building on the mound, Obispo is certainly knocking on the Major League door, but he’s not worried about the logistics of finding his way to Atlanta.  Instead, he is concerned with doing his job on a nightly basis.

“I think I would be silly to say I didn’t want to get to the Majors soon, but I would like to finish the season healthy and pitch well wherever I am, that’s the main thing,” said Obispo.  “Like a teammate always told me, ‘I’m just an employee working hard until I get a promotion.’”

Later this week, we’ll focus on the other Braves’ 40-man addition, the left-handed reliever Ryan Buchter.

-DL

2013 Final Report Now Available

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In the month since the end of the Gwinnett Braves’ 2013 season, have you been starving for Game Note-style information?  Do you have a hunger to read about all the noteworthy achievements for each of the 57 players to don the G-Braves uniform last year?

If you answered “yes” to both questions, you’re in luck.  The 2013 Final Report is now complete.

Should 20 pages of charts and bullet points not quench your baseball thirst, keep in mind that there’s only 174 days and two hours until the start of the 2014 season.

-DL

Nineteen Former G-Braves on Atlanta’s NLDS Roster

The second season officially begins tonight for the Atlanta Braves, who open the best-of-five National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Turner Field.  It’s no secret that the success of the Braves at the Major League level goes hand-in-hand with the preparation and rehabilitation that occurs here in Triple-A, a connection that became even more evident with the release of Atlanta’s 25-man NLDS roster yesterday.  A total of 19 players have connections to the Gwinnett Braves, including 15 that suited up for the G-Braves in 2013.

Pitchers:

David Hale (credit Chris Roughgarden / Gwinnett Braves)

David Hale (credit Chris Roughgarden / Gwinnett Braves)

Luis Ayala, David Carpenter, Freddy Garcia, Jordan Walden and Alex Wood all made brief appearances in Gwinnett this season, and all will be participating in the Playoffs as Braves for the first time.  Veterans Ayala (8 games, 0-1, 6.48 ERA) and Walden (1 game, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) appeared for the G-Braves on injury rehab assignments, while Garcia (0-1, 19.64 ERA) and Wood (1-0, 1.80 ERA) each made just one start for Gwinnett.  Before turning into a prime set-up man for Craig Kimbrel, the right-handed Carpenter was on Gwinnett’s Opening Day roster, going 1-2 with a 3.52 ERA in six relief appearances.  The most interesting inclusion on the pitching staff, however, is right-hander David Hale.  Atlanta’s third-round selection out of Princeton University in 2009, Hale worked past a right shoulder strain to go 6-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 22 games, 20 starts in his Triple-A debut.  A September call-up for the first time in his career, Hale was brilliant in two spot starts for Atlanta down the stretch, going 1-0 with a 0.82 ERA, 14 strikeouts and just one walk in 11.0 innings.  The Marietta, GA native won’t see a playoff start, but should be an asset in long relief.

The playoff success of the Braves will depend largely on pitching, and the four biggest names on the staff all have ties to Gwinnett.  Kris Medlen (2009, 2012), Mike Minor (2010-11) and Julio Teheran (2011-12) are the announced starters for the first three games of the NLDS.  Medlen has just one playoff start under his belt (the infamous 2012 NL Wild Card Game), while Minor and Teheran will experience postseason starts for the first time.   Kimbrel (2010), widely regarded as the best closer in baseball, will look to extend his dominance into October.

Catchers:

All three Braves’ catchers — Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird and Brian McCann — spent time on the Gwinnett roster in 2013.  McCann made a brief stop at Coolray Field on his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, while Gattis (strained right oblique) and Laird (kidney stone procedure) were also with the club on rehab assignments.  Gattis also returned to Gwinnett for the final three road games of the season, hitting .461 with three doubles, a home run and one RBI in a tune-up for the stretch drive.

McCann is a career .300 hitter with three homers and eight RBIs in seven NLDS games, all with Atlanta.  Laird has limited action in all three playoff rounds, winning the World Series as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 and returning to the World Series with the Detroit Tigers in 2012.

Infielders:

Freddie Freeman (credit Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves)

Freddie Freeman (credit Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves)

Of Atlanta’s five infielders, two played for Gwinnett in 2013.  First baseman Freddie Freeman, the International League Rookie of the Year with the G-Braves in 2010, hit .500 with two doubles, three runs scored and two RBIs in three games as he recovered from an oblique injury.  That span included the only five-hit game by a G-Brave this season, Freeman’s 5-for-5 performance on April 20 at Charlotte.  Infielder Paul Janish started his season on a rehab assignment as he returned from right shoulder surgery, but was later optioned to the Gwinnett roster.  In 41 total games, the defensive specialist hit .207 with five doubles and 12 RBIs.

The Braves (and the Dodgers, for that matter) know what to expect from Freeman, who is coming off a career year in which he hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs.  Janish won’t see the starting lineup ahead of Elliot Johnson and Andrelton Simmons, but will be used to spell Chris Johnson at third base in the late innings.

Outfielders:

This six-man group (not including Gattis) includes four players who played in Gwinnett in 2013, including three on rehab assignments.  Jason Heyward (appendectomy), Jordan Schafer (right ankle contusion) and B.J. Upton (right thigh strain) all used stints in Triple-A to return from injury.  Heyward (.300, double, 6 RBIs) and Upton (.333, 3 doubles, 2 RBIs) were both productive offensively, while Schafer (.063, 2 doubles, 2 RBIs) struggled.

Jose Constanza (credit Chris Roughgarden / Gwinnett Braves)

Jose Constanza (credit Chris Roughgarden / Gwinnett Braves)

Jose Constanza edged out fellow former G-Brave Joey Terdoslavich for the final bench spot given his knack for getting on base and stealing bags.  Gwinnett’s “Fan Favorite Player” in 2013, Constanza hit .276 with 17 RBIs and a team-high 21 stolen bases.  He strung together an 18-game hitting streak and a 25-game on-base streak this season.  He won’t start and isn’t the first option as a pinch hitter off the bench, but expect to see Constanza utilize his speed as a pinch runner.

All 19 former G-Braves and the rest of the Atlanta Braves begin their quest for a World Series title tonight with Game 1 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Check back at the G-Blog for further updates on Gwinnett players in the 2013 MLB Playoffs.

-DL

All Things Five

Anniversary MarkHard to believe, but the 2013 International League season (and our home opener at Coolray Field) is just 85 days away!  With April 4 quickly approaching, we’re starting to lift the curtain on some of the things you can expect to see for the upcoming season of Gwinnett Braves Baseball.

The first major announcement occured this morning with the launch of the Fifth Season campaign and logo (pictured left).  Celebrations of the anniversary season include a new alumni Bobblehead Series and brand new 5-Pack Plans.  The series of five bobbleheads features G-Braves who have gone on to stardom in Atlanta, including Brandon Beachy, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen.  Conveniently, you can purchase tickets to all five bobblehead giveaway nights in the Bobblehead Pack, one of the four 5-Pack Plans that were rolled out in today’s announcement.

The 5-Packs also include a Fireworks Pack (all five dates are Friday Fireworks nights), a Best 5 Games Pack (our most popular games including Opening Night on April 4 and July 4) and a Silver Sluggers Pack (five day games).  Reinforcing the five theme, each 5-Pack starts at just $50.  You can get more details and buy online as well by visiting gwinnettbraves.com/5pack.

To add to the excitement of Season Five, gwinnettbraves.com is hosting a look back at some of the great players that have played for the G-Braves in the team’s first four seasons.  Expect to read up on guys like Barbaro Canizares (this week’s feature), Matt YoungTodd Redmond and Mauro Gomez in addition to the likes of Freeman, Kimbrel and others.  A new “5th Season Friday” feature will debut each Friday through the end of March. 

Is that enough fives for you yet?  Me neither.  As if the baseball gods had a hand in it, the G-Blog was announced as the 55th most visited ProBlog on the MLBlogs Network for the past year.  Fifth place would have been more fitting, but it’s an honor to finish near the middle of the Top 100 in our first year.  You can check out the entire list over at mlblogs.mlblogs.com.

Give yourself a high-5 for reading this post and head over to gwinnettbraves.com for more on the 2013 season!

-DL

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