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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

On Braves’ rotation, and remembering Bobby Dews

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The Braves this offseason traded away the best starter, Shelby Miller, from a rotation that ranked 20th in the majors in ERA (4.27), 26th in opponents’ batting average (.270) and 23rd in opponents’ OPS (.763).

They didn’t tender a contract to lefty Mike Minor, who was their best pitcher in 2013 but struggled with shoulder woes in 2014 and missed the entire 2015 season recovering from arthroscopic surgery to repair that ailment.

Kyle Kendrick was a Braves nemesis for much of his career with the Phillies. He signed a minor league deal with the Braves last week. (AP photo)

Kyle Kendrick was a Braves nemesis for much of his career with the Phillies. He signed a minor league deal with the Braves last week. (AP photo)

They return two-time Opening Day starter Julio Teheran and a cast of promising but still fairly, or in some cases very, inexperienced rookies and second-year starters, including Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz (coming off surgery to remove a rib), lefty Manny Banuelos (coming off surgery to remove bone spurs from his previously surgically repaired elbow), Williams Perez and Ryan Weber, who wasn’t considered much of a prospect when he came up as an emergency fill-in late last season and impressed in a couple of his five starts.

They also have some very highly regarded prospects knocking at the door, including recent additions led by Aaron Blair and lefty Sean Newcomb, homegrown prospect Lucas Sims, and Braves minor league pitcher of the year Tyrell Jenkins.

The Braves believe, as do plenty of outside observers, that the organization has the most quality and quantity of pitching prospects in all of baseball. But for 2016, a transitional year in the team’s rebuilding project, they didn’t want to go into the season relying on four relatively unproven arms to fill out the rotation behind Teheran.

At the same time, the Braves didn’t want to spend big on free agents who would effectively block their young starters in their continued development, since they believe so many of those pitchers are ready, or close to being ready, to make an impact and could comprise most of a formidable rotation for many years to come.

And so, you have the recent trio of free-agent signings – Kyle Kendrick, Jhoulys Chacin, Bud Norris — that did nothing to excite the fan base, but could help the Braves field a decent rotation without thrusting too many kids into the fray at once.

(Those who don’t believe the sink-or-swim approach on a widespread basis can have adverse effects or hurt morale among the team and its fans should review the second half of last season, the blown leads and demoralizing losses, and also consider this team again figures to be among the bottom half of the majors in offense, and likely the bottom third).

Kendrick was the most recent of the Braves’ “scrap-heap” starting-pitcher signess, if you will, having agreed to a minor league contract last week (Dec. 31) that will pay him $2 million if he makes the major league roster. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick also reported Kendrick, 31, could make up to an additional $4 million in incentives.

That deal followed earlier signings of starters Chacin (to a minor league contract in mid-December) and Norris (one-year, $2.5 million major league deal on Nov. 25).

As the only big-league signee among the three, Norris presumably has an advantage in the competition for a roster spot this spring. He’s coming off a brutal 2015 season with the Orioles and Padres – 3-11  ith a 6.72 ERA in 38 games (11 starts) – in which he lost his rotation spot with Baltimore and ended up in San Diego’s bullpen.

The career-worst performance followed a career-best 2014, when Norris was 15-8 with a 3.65 ERA in 28 starts for the Orioles, with 139 strikeouts in 165 1/3 innings. “We feel that he will be a valuable part of our starting rotation in 2016,” Braves GM John Coppolella said after signing Norris, comparing the move to their signing reliever Jim Johnson a year ago. “Like Jim Johnson last year, this is an upside play.”

Johnson was coming off a career-worst 7.09 ERA in 2014 after consecutive 50-save seasons with Baltimore. He bounced back with the Braves to post a 2.25 ERA in 49 appearances before being traded to the Dodgers in July and having his ERA balloon to 10.13 in 23 games for L.A.

The Braves re-signed Johnson this winter and will count on him and veteran Jason Grilli, coming back from Achilles tendon surgery, to lead a bullpen that struggled mightily in 2015, but could be improved if it gets upgraded work from recent additions such as lefties Ian Krol and Alex Torres and returning David Carpenter, several promising youngsters, and perhaps one or two others from a collection of offseason minor league-contract signees.

As for the rotation, the Braves have tried to assure they have more than enough depth entering the spring, since in these situations more than enough depth often ends up being barely enough or not enough at all after injuries to some and disappointing performances from others.

Chacin will get $1.1 million if he makes the major league roster, and his solid performance this winter in Venezuela has raised hopes that he could be an under-the-radar, low-risk signing that pays big dividends for the Braves.

I wrote about him here a few weeks ago, and and a week later he threw a two-hit shutout with nine strikeouts and one walk Dec. 22 for the Caracas Leones. He had a 3.05 ERA in nine starts for the Leones entering the playoffs.

Kendrick is coming off a career-worst 6.32 ERA with Colorado after signing a one-year, $5.5 million contract a year ago.  He missed some time with a sore shoulder, his 100 earned runs allowed were the most in the NL, and Kendrick’s 33 home runs allowed tied James Shields for most in the majors. It should be noted that nearly two-thirds of the homers against Kendrick came at Coors Field, where he gave up 21 long balls in just 65 innings.

While Kendrick had a bloated 7.31 ERA and 10 homers allowed in his final nine overall starts for the Rockies, in his last 10 road starts he had a decent 3.99 ERA and .265 opponents’ average with seven homers in 56 1/3 innings.

Signing Kendrick is another low-risk proposition for the Braves, since it’s a minor league dea and thus not guaranteed. The Braves and Roger McDowell do have a good track record for helping pitchers get back on track after a bad season or two. A year ago they had two of them, Eric Stults and Wandy Rodriguez, on minor league contracts competing for the fifth-starter job in spring training — a job that went to Stults, who was traded to the Dodgers in May in the Juan Uribe deal.

Kendrick spent his previous eight seasons with Philadelphia, another team with an extreme hitter-friendly home ballpark, and Kendrick was a respectable 74-68 with a 4.42 ERA in 226 games (185 starts) for the Phillies. In his last season with the Phillies in 2014, Kendrick was 10-13 with a 4.61 ERA in a career-high 199 innings (32 starts).

Many Braves fans remember Kendrick as a thorn in Atlanta’s collective side for years in Philly. He’s 9-4 with a 3.41 ERA in 26 games (20 starts) vs. the Braves, which included 6-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 17 games (11 starts) through July 2012.

• Remembering Dewsy: When Bobby Dews died last week, tributes and praise for the former player, minor league manager and longtime Braves coach came from all over, spanning generations of iconic Braves including players such as Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones and Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox. They absolutely loved him. Everyone who met him did. Seriously, I never met anyone who had a bad word to say about Bobby Dews.

Bobby Dews hitting infield fungoes before a game in 2010. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Bobby Dews hitting infield fungoes before a game in 2010. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

What I’ll remember most about Dewsy, even more than seeing him hit fungoes with his batting gloves on, or watching a then 60-something Dews catch an inning for the Braves in the Hall of Fame game at Cooperstown one summer, were the conversations I’d have with him on the field, away from others.

We’d talk about music, women, alcoholism and recovery, writing – he was a damn fine writer and poet – and, yes, occasionally about baseball. He loved baseball as much as anyone I’ve never known. But at the same time, he made me feel like baseball was not nearly as important as living, learning, surviving our mistakes and trying to become better people.

Dewsy was gold. He was a a beautiful person. They never made a movie about his life, but someone should. Then again, he’d never have agreed to that if he was alive. Getting praise or attention was so far from what Bobby Dews was about.

He was one of those people you had to meet to fully appreciate. And if you met him, you were enriched. Whatever I or anyone else has said about him, trust me, it can’t even begin to convey how special he was. I feel extremely fortunate to have gotten to know him.

I was at my parents’ house in North Carolina last week for Christmas when I heard the news of his death. Even though I’d known he had serious recent health problems, the news still came as a shock and brought deep sadness for all who knew him. It always does when we lose someone so real, so genuine, so good.

The day I got home from N.C., I went out to pick up some branches that had fallen from an old oak tree in my yard. I didn’t take my phone, and when I got back inside there was a voicemail from Scott Boras. Yes, that Scott Boras. And it had nothing to do with a free agent or one of his clients. It was about Bobby Dews.

Boras, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif., had just heard of Dews’ death. I’ve never heard Boras speak in the quiet tone he had throughout the voicemail he left me. Here’s part of what he said about Dews.

“He was my first pro manager in the Cardinal organization,” said Boras, a former minor league infielder who made it to the Double-A level in the 1970s. “He and George Kissell were two amazing mentors to have. He was a uniquely skilled communicator and just had great influence in my life.

“I wanted you to know what a committed and devoted man (Dews) was. He would get up every morning early and give you extra ground balls, pay special attention to you, say things to you that were so important to a young player. He was really unique.”

Rest in peace, Dewsy. You’ll never be forgotten by anyone who knew you.

• Let’s close with this, the best of the many fine versions of a blues standard. This one’s by the late, great Muddy Waters.

“I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love” by Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

See you watching me like a hawk
I don’t mind the way you talk
But if you touch me somethin’s got to give
I life the life I love and I love the life I live
So if you see me and think I’m wrong
Don’t worry ’bout me just let me go
My sweet life ain’t nothing but a thrill
I life the life I love and I love the life I live
My diamond ring and my money too
Tomorrow night could belong to you
The girls move me at their will
I life the life I love and I love the life I live
I may bet a thousand on a bet this time
One minute later I can’t cover your dime
Tomorrow night I might be over the hill
I just want you to know baby the way I feel
You see me walkin’ as I pass you by
Don’t talk about me ’cause I could be high
Just forgive me if you will
I life the life I love and I love the life I live