Braves: Colon, Dickey are bridge in rebuild, not new blueprint

 

When the Braves signed R.A. Dickey immediately after the free-agent signing period began, the 42-year-old knuckleballer assumed he’d be easily the oldest guy on the Braves’ largely youthful team. Despite what general manager John Coppolella told him at the time about potentially signing still another grizzled pitcher who was even older.

Bartolo "Big Sexy" Colon will be 44 in May in his 20th season and first with the Braves. (AP file photo)

Bartolo “Big Sexy” Colon will turn 44 in May in his 20th season and first with the Braves. (AP file photo)

Lo and behold, soon after Dickey agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Braves, so did 43-year-old Bartolo Colon, who averaged 15 wins and 195 innings over the past four seasons and was practically a cult figure during the past three years with the Mets, where teammates tagged him with a nickname, “Big Sexy,” that Colon got legally trademarked.

Last week at Dickey’s introductory news conference, after he talked about how emotional it was to put on a Braves cap and jersey and how special it was for the Nashville native to join the team he grew up watching on TV and listening to on the radio with his late father, I joked with Dickey that, most important, he wouldn’t be the oldest Brave.

He laughed hard at that and said he couldn’t have imagined there’d be an older pitcher on the staff – until it happened.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Dickey said in his twang. “Coppy said to me, we’re going after Colon, and I said (to himself), whatever; he’s never leaving New York because he’s had a great run there, why would he leave there? So I automatically thought that I was going to be the oldest player on the team. Not three days later (Colon) signed.

“I told my wife, I said, ‘Hey man, Big Sexy is coming over.’ So I gave myself the name Little Ugly. So, Big Sexy and Little Ugly are going to be leading it on.”

Leading what on, exactly? That’s what some Braves followers wondered in the immediate aftermath of signing two ancient starting pitchers to one-year contracts worth $20.5 million — a $12.5 million deal for 2015 All-Star Colon, and a $8 million deal for Dickey that includes a $7.5 million salary in 2017 and a 2018 option with a $500,000 buyout.

Hadn’t Coppolella and Braves president of baseball operations John Hart preached to Braves Country for two years that young pitching would again be the lifeblood of the organization going forward? Hadn’t they made a multitude of trades – deal after deal after deal – and made a bunch of draft picks that stockpiled high-level pitching prospects throughout the organization?

So why were the Braves now signing the oldest pitchers in baseball to fill two of the top spots in the starting rotation? Was this a signal that the grand plan had suddenly been balled up and thrown away, or at least that the Braves were detouring from their oft-stated course and taking short cuts to be more competitive in 2017 rather than following the patient rebuild blueprint?

No, no, no, Coppolella and Hart said last week. The big plan hasn’t changed, but Braves officials realized they needed to make a short-term tweak to improve the team next season while also easing the pressure from some pitching prospects who looked a bit overwhelmed last season. Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, from the first wave of pitching prospects the Braves acquired in trades early in the rebuild, struggled for much of 2016, Blair to an alarming degree.

Meanwhile, other pitching prospects, including several that Braves officials — along with plenty of other talent evaluators — believe have a chance to be truly elite, are not yet knocking on the big-league door. Team officials didn’t want there to be any temptation to rush those valuable assets to the majors before it was reasonably certain they’re ready. The next wave of Braves pitching prospects includes potential top-of-rotation types Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Patrick Weigel, but some of them are probably two or three years away.

There is still another wave of pitching prospects behind that one, led by the trio of then-high school seniors the Braves selected with their first three picks in the 2016 draft.

And so, with Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz as the only two starters who appeared to be locked in for next year’s rotation when the 2016 season ended, the Braves purchased a $20.5 million bridge not only to help get them through 2017, but to give the team a better chance to compete from Day 1 during the first season at SunTrust Park.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who's 42, got a kick out of finding out he wouldn't even be the oldest Brave in 2017. He signed a one-year contract with Atlanta a day before Bartolo Colon did the same. (Fred Thornill/The Canadian Press via AP)

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who’s 42, got a kick out of finding out he wouldn’t even be the oldest Brave in 2017. He signed a one-year contract with the Braves a day before Bartolo Colon did the same. (Fred Thornill/The Canadian Press via AP)

“We’ve been in this for about two years trying to rebuild this the right way, and given a lot of starts to a lot of kids that we really like that may not have been ready,” Coppolella said. “I think by being fortunate to where we could add R.A., he’s someone who’s going to take the starts and give these kids more time. I think what he’s been through and who he is going to really help them, too. And like John and (manager Brian Snitker) said, we finished 20-10 (in the last 30 games of the season) with really two starters we could count on. Being able to add two really good starting pitchers that are as good off the field as they are on the field is going to really help this team make some strides in short order.”

After losing 95 games in 2015 and 93 in 2016, the Braves were buoyed by their 59-65 showing after Snitker took over last season, including a 50-47 record in their final 97 games and a 31-25 record after the addition of veteran Matt Kemp in the cleanup spot behind Freddie Freeman.

“I might be happier than Coppy and John (Hart),” Snitker said last week, discussing how the Braves’ patchwork rotation sometimes left him plugging in an inexperienced pitcher to start a game and provide a few innings before a series of relievers went the rest of the way.

“We did a lot of things really well at the end of the year, pieced things together with the pitching,” Snitker said. “I was talking to R.A. about how I’d bring (starters) in and say, get this thing off the ground and we’ll figure it out after that. With injuries and some of the young guys that haven’t progressed like we wanted, the biggest thing we talked about all summer and towards the end of the year was starting pitching, and (getting) somebody to lean on and somebody these young guys can go do.”

That’s where the Braves and Snitker believe Dickey and Colon can be invaluable.

“These young guys are just learning, and they go through spells and through experiences through a major league experience where we as coaches can talk to them about it,” Snitker said, “but when they have peers that have been there and done that and can put their arm around them and say, ‘Look, dude, I’ve been there, I’ve done that before and I know what you’re feeling,’ it means a lot. It means the world. Now we probably have two of the greatest guys in the game for our young guys to lean on, and I know that they’re going to lean on them. I know I’m going to lean on those two guys.

“You can’t replace starting pitching, it’s just one of those things that you have to have to be successful. We were pretty successful by piecing the starting pitching together. If we solidify our rotation, we feel really good about where we’re at right now. We’re not that far away. Call every guy on our ballclub right now, and each and every one of them can’t wait to get to spring training and get the thing going, and for all the right reasons.”

Hart expanded upon Coppolella’s answer about Colon and Dickey not being a shift in the Braves’ long-term strategy.

“A big part of what we did when we made these trades and we started building this through the draft, through the international and through some of the trades, was that we acquired a lot of real young talent,” Hart said. “A lot of our pitchers are at the A-level, the high-A level, the Double-A level. We were sort of forced to giving some starts – Matt Wisler did a terrific job up and down, Aaron Blair showed a little bit towards the end. We look at those two guys as probably the closest upper-level guys we have.

“That next wave is at least a year away, and I think as we viewed this, going into this new ballpark, with the club that we had and giving this club and our fans an opportunity to compete, without standing in the way of some of these young pitchers. We just didn’t feel with that next wave of young pitchers – it’s a year away, it might be two years, before they come. And so in looking at it, rather than keep giving starts to guys that aren’t going to fit for us long term or taking guys maybe before their time, we felt it was better for us to go out and get the veteran pitchers.

“We’re certainly going to have at least one, maybe two youngsters in this rotation as we go forward. It’s a long season, a lot of things happen, and a big part of what John and I are going to be focused on certainly is what’s going on at the major league club, but we pay attention to what’s happening down below. We’re going to be following the progress of the Sean Newcombs and the Max Frieds and the Mike Sorokas and Kolby Allards and all these youngers that we really like. But these kids, they’re still in the bus leagues (low minors), a lot of these guys.”

It’s been more than a quarter-century since a major league team had two pitchers aged 42 or older make at least 10 starts apiece, the 1990 Texas Rangers with 43-year-old Nolan Ryan and 42-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who later taught Dickey how to throw the knuckler.

The Braves would point out, Dickey and Colon — each a former Cy Young Award winner — aren’t typical 40-somethings (not that there is a typical 40-something pitcher, since so few last that long).

While Colon averaged 195 innings the past four seasons and twice made All-Star teams in that period, Dickey pitched at least 208 innings in five consecutive seasons through 2015, before dipping to 169 2/3 in 2016 when Toronto made a late trade for Francisco Liriano and Dickey got squeezed out of the rotation for the stretch drive and playoffs.

Dickey began to pitch well and regain the feel and proper velocity for his knuckler before losing his spot.

“It was terrible,” he said of not pitching late in the season. “I mean, being completely transparent with you, it was very hard. I had a responsibility to try and be a good teammate and encourage some of the guys on the team, but inside it hurt because I wanted to contribute so badly, felt like I could. But at the same time I try to be a pro about it. I got it; I hadn’t pitched out of the pen consistently in a long time, and we had Liriano, who was throwing the ball well, who we  had gotten at the trade deadline. So I got it. But it was still very tough. Because I haven’t missed a start in seven years, so to be taken out of the rotation at that point was tough.”

He handled himself as he’s done throughout his career, and his professionalism and reputation as a good teammate were big factors in the Braves pursuing him. They insist he topped their list of free-agent candidates entering the offseason. Dickey said he understood exactly why they pursued him.

“To contribute to the growth of the organization any way I can,” he said, adding that his contract states that part of his duties are to contribute to the Braves’ growth on and off the field. “And if things don’t go well, then I still have an obligation as a professional to keep eating innings, to keep protecting the young guys, to keep being a leader for anybody who wants to listen, things like that.

“So it’s a good spot for me, not only because of its proximity to home and my family, but it’s also a culture where I feel like it’s in the midst of a lot of growth, and that’s fun for me.”

• What better way to close this than this classic from The Possum, the late, great George Jones.

“I DON’T NEED YOUR ROCKIN’ CHAIR” by George Jones

George Jones

George Jones

I don’t need your rockin’ chair
Your Geritol or your Medicare
Well I still got neon in my veins
This grey hair don’t mean a thing
I do my rockin’ on the stage
You can’t put this possum in a cage
My body’s old but it ain’t impaired
Well I don’t need your rockin’ chair

I ain’t ready for the junkyard yet
Cause I still feel like a new Corvette
It might take a little longer but I’ll get there
Well I don’t need your rockin’ chair

I don’t need your rockin’ chair
Your Geritol or your Medicare
Well I still got Neon in my veins
This grey hair don’t mean a thing
I do my rockin’ on the stage
You can’t put this possum in a cage
My body’s old but it ain’t impaired
Well I don’t need this rockin’ chair

Retirement don’t fit in my plans
You can keep your seat I’m a gonna stand
An Eskimo needs a Fridgedaire
Like I need your rockin’ chair

I don’t need your rockin’ chair
Your Geritol or your Medicare
Well I still got Neon in my veins
This grey hair don’t mean a thing
I do my rockin’ on the stage
You can’t put this possum in a cage
My body’s old but it ain’t impaired
Well I don’t need your rockin’ chair

My body’s old but it ain’t impaired
Well I don’t need your rockin’ chair

 

 

 


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