Where Was The Passion When You Need It The Most?

I hate quoting depressing songs for the titles of my articles but they just seem to fit these days. Where was the passion in the month of Sept for the Atlanta Braves? I’ll never accuse any team of laying down or not playing hard because I’m not in a position to judge that. However I can say that they didn’t have the fire in their eyes that I would have liked to see from them. Even after the game when Uggla stood out on the field for a post game interview I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My jaw dropped when this guy who is supposed to be a leader on this team can stand there and say “It just wasn’t in the cards”. Are you kidding me? Where is the passion I ask again. Lackluster attitude from one of the most talented guys on our ball club. Why not say something to the affect of, “We didn’t hit with runners in scoring position”. “We had an over worked bullpen”. “Starters didn’t get deep into games”. “We made some errors in the field”. “We lacked the big hit”. Saying things like that aren’t calling any one person out which is what you want to avoid doing as a good teammate. I don’t expect him to go out there and blame Kimbrel for blowing the game or saying that Prado couldn’t get the big hit when we needed him to. No not at all. However if you spread collective blame throughout the clubhouse, that’s taking responsibility. It wasn’t bad luck that cost the Braves a trip to the postseason, it was simply poor execution. Nothing more and nothing less.

I’m sitting here as heart broken as you are and I know it’s horrible that we have to talk about next year so soon but it’s reality at this point. Yes it may be a little too soon to speak of next years team when they’ve only had 1 day since a tragic loss and late season collapse. However I think this article could get the minds of Braves fans thinking and we only have to look forward to the winter meetings in December that’s when a lot of big moves could be made. So were not that far off from having some possible team changes. Just a couple of months. So let’s take a look at some of the team issues ( in my opinion) and what we can possibly do to improve on them. I welcome all of you to send me you r thoughts as well. Feel free to disagree.

Derek Lowe: I don’t think there’s any better place to start then with the worst pitcher on the staff. This isn’t an attack on Derek Lowe because he had one or two bad starts late in the year. No that’s not the case. Derek Lowe finished the season with a 9-17 record to go a long with a 5.05era. That’s unacceptable. Another thing to consider is this isn’t a 24 year old kid who’s developing or a 29 year old pitcher coming off a major injury who’s trying to turn his career around. Lowe is now 38 years old and showing a lot of signs of declining. I don’t see a pitcher who will be 39 next June (early in the season) having this miraculous come back season. Do any of you? Lowe makes 15 million dollars, enough said. He looks like a pitcher who’s at the end of his career that Fredi Gonzalez continued to put out there despite his struggles. A starting pitcher needs to give his team a chance to win and Lowe failed to do that this year. Look at his last start of the season. The Phillies jumped all over him and the Braves were out of that game early on. Or the start against the Mets where he couldn’t get out of the 3rd inning. Another blow out loss when the Braves really needed a big win.

Martin Prado: Last year Prado was great for us and when he got injured Braves fans were heart broken. You can always tell a players true value by how fans react when they get hurt. If fans don’t really care or aren’t worried about it then the value of the player isn’t all that high. Last year when Prado got hurt it was a huge loss to this team and really hurt them in the postseason. I just didn’t see the same fire in his eyes this year as I did last year. Him going to LF without so much as a word exchanged with Fredi Gonzalez shoes how selfless the guy is. He’s a team player for sure and a great guy to have in the clubhouse. But does he deserve to be in the starting line up on a team that’s trying to win a World Series? Prado had 13HR and 57RBI’s this season which isn’t horrible for a 2 hole hitter that missed quite a bit of time do to injuries and a staff infection. That was obviously beyond his control but the stat that concerns me the most is his batting average. A two hole hitter has to be close to .300 to be affective and Prado hit .260 with an OBP of barely over .300. At times during the season his OBP actually dipped into the .290’s which you can’t have as a 2 hole hitter. This team needs table setters. A lot of HR’s were hit this year with the bases empty as we struggled to put the crooked number up on the board. Is Prado the answer in LF? We know Chipper is coming back so Prado won’t be playing 3B full time anyways. Can we do better in LF then Prado? I guess that’s my question? Maybe a Shane Victorino type player. Someone who has good speed and hits for a high average. Jose Reyes would be a perfect fit for the top of our order but with our payroll it’s clearly an unlikely fit.

Is Hudson Our Ace?: Sure Tim Hudson pitched great for us down the stretch as an ace pitcher should. He really showed a lot of guts last night pitching deep into the game and keeping Philly from putting big numbers on the board. I’m very proud of Tim Hudson, he had a great Sept for us. He came up big against the Mets when we won that 1-0 game against RA Dickey. He came up big against Strausberg as well. Does this look familiar to anyone? Derek Lowe pitched tremendously in the month of Sept last year and just didn’t have it in 2011. Hudson is a gamer but so is Lowe. Hudson is a “bulldog” as Chipper would say but then again so is Lowe. Derek Lowe lost his stuff this year because he’s 38 years old. Hudson is 36 right now, will he hold up for another 162 game season pitching the same way he did this Sept? A baseball team can’t win a championship without a clear cut ace. He doesn’t have to be a CY YOUNG winner, I’m not saying that at all but he has to be someone you can give the ball to with confidence. Do the Braves have that right now? Tommy Hanson? Jair Jurrjens? Brandon Beachy? Mike Minor? Derek Lowe? None of those guys really jump out at me at all. Can Tim Hudson give us another year of 16-10 or better pitching? Can he rise to the occasion next year down the stretch, he’ll be 37 years old? The young guys can’t fill the void of an ace pitcher and with Lowe struggling so badly I don’t know if we have a guaranteed ace for next year.

Do We Bring In An Ace?: The season has been over for 24 hours and Fredi Gonzalez has already told Frank Wren that he wants the focus to be on pitching this off season. Why? Does Fredi have concerns about Hanson’s shoulder injury which appears to be more serious then they originally let on? Is he unsure about Jurrjens and how he will return? Is he hesitant to rely on such a young rotation as he did for the month of Sept? Trading for an ace is difficult and it’s normally much easier to bring one in through free agency. I know the Braves are not a big market club but sometimes you have to spend some money to get better and make a serious run at things. We need guys who can go pound for pound with the Phillies aces. If you cancel yourself out of the division before opening day you only leave yourself one way to get in, the wild card. I want to go into next year feeling good about our chances when we face Philly. How do we do that? They have 4 great pitchers on that staff. We need AT LEAST 2 in order to compete with them for a 162 game season. Guys like Mark Buehrle and CJ Wilson will be free agents this winter. Can the Braves make a play at one of them? The Rangers will certainly be the favorites to retain Wilson but maybe the Braves can convince him otherwise especially if the Rangers have a quick exit from the playoffs. I think the Braves should look into both options. Obtaining a starter would be big for this team and if we can unload Derek Lowe’s 15 million dollar salary then we’ll have extra payroll.

Options We Could Replace Prado With: If Prado does indeed end up on the bench then we will need to replace him and we can go about this in 2 ways. We can get a lead off style hitter to compliment Bourn at the top of the order. This player to me is Coco Crisp, a guy who stole 40 bases last year and gets on base an awful lot. Bourn and Crisp would be a dynamic duo at the top of this order and Crisp who has been playing in Oakland would love nothing more then to play for a contender. Now if we go for a guy who has a little bit of pop in his bat, someone who could hit 6th in the order and give McCann or Freeman some protection we could go with a Michael Cuddyer type player. He would be a cheap fill in and he hit 18HR last year for a terrible Twins team. He could be a nice fit in Atlanta.

How Do We Get This Offense to “Click”?: The question that no one could find an answer to. When opening day came around we scored only 2 runs against the Nationals. I remember that day as clear as if it was yesterday. Derek Lowe pitched a very solid game and didn’t give up any runs. The offense would struggle for months on end before having short outbursts showing that they were capable of scoring 7 or 8 runs in a game. The offense not only lost us games on the score board but they were also partially responsible for draining the life out of our extremely talented bullpen. That was a double killer for this Braves team. If we hadn’t played so many 1 run games this year then we wouldn’t have had to burn out Kimbrel and Venters. Those guys pitched in WAY too many games but in Fredi’s defense what else was he supposed to do? He had to send them out there, he couldn’t just give away games. We need to protect those guys by scoring more runs. We need to see a lot more 7-1 and 6-0 wins this year. Is it going to take a line up change? Is it going to take a free agent or bat we obtain from a trade?

Chipper Jones: Chipper has been the leader of this ball club for as long as I can remember. He delivered big hit after big hit and won the National League MVP award. He helped the Braves win a World Series in 95 and was part of that magical run of 14 straight division championships. However this is not the same Chipper that we’ve known over the years. He will be 40 years old at the start of next season and we are expecting him to play third base which is not called the hot corner for  nothing. Can Chipper make it through a 162 game season again? This year went better then last year but realistically how long can this last? Chipper’s bat was consistent and he is a switch hitters which is a big plus to our line up. Is Chipper staying longer then he really should? Clearly he’s under contract so the Braves were fully aware of the risk when they inked his deal so it’s not a “selfish” act on Chipper but is it time to walk away? Is Chipper’s veteran presence worth all the time he will miss next season? Even this past week he said he would have sat out most of the Phillies series if this was an April series. An April Series? He sat out the first game of the Phillies series in SEPT when the division was still somewhat within reach. Is Chipper willing to play everyday? Or is he in this just to try and scratch out another World Series title before he hangs it up? Clearly he believes this Braves team is capable of making a run this coming year as he clearly can’t wait around to rebuild a contender. So that vote of confidence should count for something.

Big Off Season Moves Create Confidence: How did the Mets respond to their 2007 epic collapse? They went out and got Johan Santana, an ace that they were in desperate need of. I realize that’s a New York team with a huge payroll that we don’t have. However the concept of restoring fan’s confidence was priceless. I’m from the North East and there wasn’t a Mets fan in site that was confident going into 2008. They were all excited during spring training. No the move did not pan out as they still missed the playoffs once again but the point is they weren’t worried about the collapse on Opening Day. That’s what Frank Wren needs to do. Bring in players who were NOT A PART of this epic collapse. This team needs some fresh faces to say “hey this is a new team, this isn’t last years club”. If they put those same 8 guys out on the field and keep the rotation exactly the same how are the fans supposed to react to this? They need to bolster the pitching rotation with either a guy who can be a potential ace or a guy who can eat up a lot of innings and save wear and tear on the bullpen. This club is also in need of another bat in the line up.

Jose Reyes: Short stop is big weakness for the Braves going into next season. Do we really want to bring back Alex Gonzalez who just doesn’t seem to have the will to win? He hits for a low average and is only good for his glove and hitting a few bottom of the order HR’s. I’m not knocking what he did to contribute this season but I don’t think it’s what we need. Is Pastornicky going to be ready to give the big leagues a shot? He would join other young stars like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and all of the young pitchers, all of which would make him feel right at home I’m sure. He could play next to Chipper Jones for a season and learn a lot from him I’m sure. OR do the Braves make a splash. Do they finally open up the payroll and say I’m sick of losing to Philly, I need to do something NOW. Frank Wren is conservative but if you want to play with the big boys you need to spend some money. Could Jose Reyes be wearing a Braves uniform next year? Yes it is a stretch so don’t send me tons of comments saying that I’m out of my mind or asking me if I’m on drugs but just hear me out.

– We could down sell Reyes by giving him a chance to play for a winner. He would have great production in the line up with guys like Chipper, Mac, Freeman and Uggla hitting behind him. He would have a great shot at winning the division or at least making the post season as the Braves are MUCH closer to being a World Series contender then the Mets are.

– He could stay in not only the same league but the same division. He wouldn’t have to adjust to knew pitchers like he would in the American League and he could even stay in the very familiar N.L East.

– He could be the missing piece to our championship contender instead of being one of the core members on a team that’s waiting for tons of players to develop or for management to bring in more talent to help him and David Wright.

-We could hit Reyes in the 2 hole. He’s a guy who will easily hit 50pts higher then Prado did this season not to mention the fact that he would score a lot more runs and cause havoc on the base paths. Imagine Jose Reyes hitting behind Michael Bourn. Those two guys could end up with 90 or more steals between them. They would be PERFECT table setters for guys like Mac and Uggla who hit a ton of solo HR’s this year. It could really get the offense going.

This team is very close. That’s the bottom line. Chipper wouldn’t stick around if he thought this team had no chance of going all the way next year. Great teams don’t build 8.5 game leads despite a struggling offense. If this offense can “click” as Fredi would say then this team could win 95 games next year if not more. Think about how many 1 run games we played this year… Let that sink in and think about all the wins we missed out on. The wear and tear on the bullpen would never have been an issue if the offense had been able to score more runs.

Frank Wren can’t sit back and coast through the off season, he’s going to have to remain aggressive and bring in another piece or two to make things “click” around here. We are in a division with the arguably the best team in baseball. We can’t go into next season with 1 hand tied behind our back. We need to go in there and have a shot at home field advantage which can only be obtained with winning the division.

By: Bob McVinua

 

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