Category: N.L East

Braves Are No Stranger To Adversity

The word “injury” has plagued this 2013 Braves team all season long. The injury bug didn’t take long to hit as Jonny Venters the teams premier set up man was unable to throw a single pitch this regular season. Then it was Eric O’Flaherty who was hit with a season ending injury. At this point in time it was about mid May and many were in panic mode over what would become of this feared and revered Atlanta Braves bullpen.

It wouldn’t take too long to find out the answer to that question. After a little mixing and matching Fredi Gonzalez found the right guys to plug into those critical 7th/8th inning roles and they have been nothing short of spectacular. Luis Avilan has filled a huge role for the Braves this season as he’s been the main lefty to take over for both Venters and O’Flaherty and boy has he not disappointed. Avilan is sporting a very impressive 4-0 record out of the bullpen with a shiny 1.21era. The Braves have also gotten tremendous contributions from David Carpenter and Jordan Walden as well.

So really the Braves bullpen is a situation where it reshaped itself. Nothing more and nothing less. The faces are different as are the names but the results have remained pretty much the same. As a Braves fan myself I have absolutely no concerns about this bullpen at all. Even without the likes of Venters and O’Flaherty  they still strike a ton of fear into their opponents and Fredi Gonzalez knows if he can get a lead to the 7th inning the game is pretty much over 9/10 times.

Roughly one month ago the Braves took another enormous blow as they lost their veteran ace Tim Hudson to an ankle injury. Hudson wasn’t just a veteran pitcher with playoff experience and an effective sinker. He was the leader of that rotation and his positive attitude and outlook affected everyone in ways that went far beyond the game itself. Many were concerned with how the rotation would fair without Hudson in it and while I’m sure Braves starters would tell you they miss him dearly, they’ve still managed to get the job done. Since the Hudson injury they’ve been able to put a strangle hold on the N.L East and even went on a run of winning 14 consecutive games.

Alex Wood stepped in and again like the guys in the bullpen has filled a bigger role then any of us could have even imagined. He’s given us quite a few quality start with an era under 3.00. His deceptive motion has kept hitters off balance and his fast ball is bordering on electric. But again, someone stepped up and held down the fort. This is the mark of a winning team and the Braves thus far have proven to have that in their DNA.

This afternoon as the Braves were playing the Mets at Citi Field, Jason Heyward suffered a fractured jaw and will miss 4-6 weeks. I don’t need to recap the medical report or the play in which it occurred because I’m sure everyone has heard about it and doesn’t need the refresher.

Heyward was really starting to heat as he was hitting .366 over the past 21 games and certainly seemed to have found a home in that lead off spot which had plagued Atlanta for most of the season. Jason will definitely be missed and this column is not to suggest other wise. The point I’m trying to push across here is that the Braves have over come so much adversity this season as it is, ranging from player injuries to those who just haven’t played up to expectations. And with all that said the Braves are still in 1st place by an enormous margin and still on top of that hold the best record in the National League.

With that being said. How do the Braves go about dealing with the Jason Heyward injury? Well here are a few things to think on as we wait to see what Fredi Gonzalez does.

Jordan Schafer:

For me he becomes the critical piece in all of this. Schafer has played 67 games for the Braves in which he’s hit .290 with a .380 on base percentage. He also has scored 24 runs and has stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts. Jordan Schafer isn’t Jason Heyward but he’s also a far cry from a player who should be buried deep on the bench and forgotten about.

Throughout most of this year ( minus the time he’s spent on the disabled list himself) Schafer has fought for playing time. This includes the period where both B.J Upton and Jason Heyward were struggling. There was a time when Schafer was thought of as the possible solution to our lead off issue until it was eventually resolved by putting Heyward in there, go figure.

Schafer gives us a very solid glove and arm in the outfield, speed on the bases and his plate approach is ideal for that of a lead off hitter. There’s no reason to make any other move then to give Schafer the opportunity to play every day. This way you can also keep Simmons down in the 8th spot where he feels far more comfortable in comparison to the top of the order where he’s struggled for a better part of the 2013 season.

15 Game Lead:

It’s an eerie feeling for me to even mention this after what happened in 2011 but I can’t help but feel as if the Braves have the division all but wrapped up at this point. This doesn’t mean that they have nothing to play for or that winning games becomes any less important but if you were to have the choice of being up 1 game or 15 in your division I think all of us would take option # 2.

With the Braves holding such a large division lead they can afford some of these set backs as long as Heyward will be back before the end of the season and ready to go for the playoffs. This is a luxury that most teams do not have and one that deserves to be recognized.

Jason Heyward:

Then there’s Jason Heyward himself. We are all wishing Jason a speedy recovery and hoping that he comes back sooner rather then later. A fractured jaw is no joke and is an extremely painful injury but there is always a silver lining to any situation. Heyward’s injury is not directly related to his baseball activities and or motions. What I mean by that is this; his injury isn’t a broken hand, a torn ACL or fractured ankle. It’s nothing that will stop him from doing baseball related motions or one that will have a grave affect on his ability to play the game once he returns.

His jaw needs to heal for his own safety, comfort and peace of mind but once that occurs I think that an athlete like Heyward will bounce back rather quickly. He won’t be favoring his hand or limping on a bad ankle and his body should remain strong enough to make a push at the end of the season to be ready for October.

We all look forward to having Jason Heyward back in the line up as soon as possible but until that time comes I believe this Braves team is more then capable of holding down the fort. Every time there’s been an injury, every time someone has struggled the other guys have been there to pick them up. Someone always gets hot at the right time, a pitcher always comes up with a big start and the bench comes through when we need them the most.

By: Bob McVinua

Braves Trade Deadline Report

I’m sometimes hesitant to even put out an article about the trade deadline because the last thing the internet needs is more rumors and theories floating around, most of which never even come close to materializing.

However there is something to be said about the anticipation of the trade deadline as it’s almost the summer version of the winter meetings in which it allows teams to make that one final push towards their ultimate goal of winning a World Series. And while some fan bases will have renewed hope or further reassurance that their team is in it to win it, other fan bases will suffer the harsh reality that their team is no longer a contender and that they will be more or less packing it in for the rest of the season.

Over the winter meetings the Braves put themselves in kind of tricky spot, possibly without even realizing it. When Frank Wren signed BJ Upton and traded for Justin Upton to create a young and dynamic outfield as they would be combined with a young budding super star Jason Heyward, Wren was not just going for the gold in 2013 but he was building an outfield that could be together for the next 5+ seasons.

Now in doing so I loved the moves and was very optimistic about what the Braves would be able to accomplish this season. Now with that being said they’re in 1st place as of today by 5 full games and stand a solid 12 games over .500 despite their most recent 3 game losing streak.

Frank Wren’s move to build this epic young outfield put him in a situation that would prove to be difficult if things didn’t go his way. I say this because Wren will have to sit on his hands and hope for his young outfield to continue to progress and show signs of improvement or he will be forced to tear it down and admit that he made a mistake. The moves to obtain not 1 but both Upton brothers essentially locked Wren and the Braves into a strategy that would lead them down a road of difficult decision and produce a team that would give them some lack of flexibility at a point in time such as say, the trade deadline.

The Braves outfield isn’t going anywhere which means that 1/3 of the starting line up is locked in stone. Freddie Freeman is locked in at 1st base, Uggla is locked in at 2nd base and Simmons is untouchable at short stop.

The ONLY two pieces of this team that could change at the deadline would be third base and catcher. Now trading Brian McCann to receive some sort of value type player out of fear of not being able to resign him this off season makes some sense for next year and beyond but you have to remember, Frank Wren wants to win now, the team is built to win now as much as it is in the future.

You won’t be able to get enough in return (most likely) to replace the offensive output that McCann will give you down the stretch. Mind you his numbers aren’t staggering by any means but he also missed 6 weeks of the season due to his recovery from shoulder surgery and has been playing pretty well since he came back. Altering our catcher situation doesn’t seem like the way to go so I’d say lock McCann in as well.

That leaves Chris Johnson who came over with Justin Upton in the trade with Arizona and to be honest CJ has been a pleasant surprise for the Braves this year. He’s hitting .332 which is good for one of the highest batting averages on the team for a regular every day player, only Freeman is even comparable.

But despite Chris Johnson’s success he’s still not filling the void that really makes the Braves vulnerable. What the Braves really need is a lead off hitter and a way to get Simmons as far away from that lead off spot as possible. If we could bat Simmons 8th on a regular basis where he feels a lot more comfortable and is a lot more likely to produce, combining that with a solid lead off man that can play every day, I think this Braves offense would start to take off.

Yes, the Braves have Jordan Schafer who has played extremely well in limited action and of course he could fill the void at lead off. However the issue is there’s no way he’s going to play everyday. Fredi Gonzalez can’t sit Justin, BJ or Heyward on a regular everyday basis. Unless he came up with some sort of Outfield Rotation where one of the 3 outfielders sat every 3rd or 4th game and let Schafer into the line up. But I doubt that would go over very well and I’m not sure how productive that would be in trying to get steady offensive production from our other outfielders.

With all of that being said what the Braves are looking for is a rare find and rare breed of player. What the Braves need is a 3rd baseman who is capable of playing solid defense and batting in the lead off spot, someone who is capable of hitting over .280 consistently and possesses decent enough speed that they can be a threat on the base paths.

The difficult thing is we could all name multiple outfielders who could fill this void if we didn’t have such a jammed packed roster full of talented outfielders already. You may find a lot more short stops or 2nd basemen with these types of skill sets but with Uggla and Simmons on the roster those spots aren’t really available either.

It will be very interesting to see how Wren deals with and addresses the short comings of the ball club which knock on wood so far have been fairly minimal judging by their record and status within the division. However come October these types of weaknesses will be magnified and as the Braves search for more consistent offense I don’t think there’s any where else better to start the search then the top spot in the line up.

By: Bob McVinua

Braves Bats Are “Chopping” At The Bit

When Frank Wren assembled this ball club over the winter he knew exactly what he was getting in the general sense. No he did not anticipate B.J Upton having one of the worst batting averages in the Major Leagues but he knew these 3 things. He knew that this club would not produce many .300 hitters. He knew that this club would swing in miss a lot and he also knew that this team would live and die with the long ball.

Anyone who argues this point is missing the boat in my opinion. Frank Wren is a very smart guy and a very good General Manager. Whenever this team has been in need of something he’s gone out and gotten it. Whether it was a big power hitting right handed bat in which he traded for Dan Uggla. Or when Fredi Gonzalez was in need of a lead off man, what did Frank Wren do? He made a move for Michael Bourn who is one of the best pure lead off men in the game today.

Have all the moves panned out? No they haven’t but none of us can doubt Wren’s effort and passion to better this ball club. He was also the GM who refused to trade a top pitching prospect for Carlos Beltran when the Giants did. A trade that didn’t really pan out as Beltran ended up being injured and then leaving the following year anyways. Wren decided to trade Jordan Schafer for Michael Bourn instead and as we’ve all seen this year, Schafer has found his way back to the ball club despite Bourn’s departure.

But enough of me cheer leading for Frank Wren. I’ll put the pom poms down for a minute and tell you where I think the Braves line up stands at this moment, why it’s struggling to find consistency and how Fredi may be able to fix it.

1) Where’s the ignition?

An offense starts with the first batter who comes into the box to begin the game. The guy who is supposed to make the offense “go” or “start”. The Braves entered the season knowing that they didn’t have a true lead off man or really for that matter any lead off man at all. Simmons was unproven in that spot and B.J just doesn’t hit for nearly high enough average.

This I believe has hurt them at times. They lack that top of the order speed that allows a guy to get on and swipe 2nd base. Someone who has a high OBP and hits as close to .300 as humanly possible. The only guy that the Braves have to fill that role is Jordan Schafer who is currently hitting .310 in limited at bats. Schafer possesses a very good glove in Center Field and is more then capable of playing Right Field and Left Field as well.

Could he be the answer? It’s very possible. Although it’s been limited at bats Schafer has proven that he can hit at the big league level and has re-established himself as a credible player with a much improved attitude from his younger playing days. Schafer will also benefit tremendously from the fact that  Jason Heyward and B.J Upton are both struggling. Fredi has shown that he’s willing to pull both Heyward and B.J from the starting line up but only for limited amounts of time. Do we reach a certain point where Fredi Gonzalez throws his hands up in the air and gives Schafer a full time starting job?

2) Big bats are abused behind the plate

This has been an on going concern for me and I’ve brought it up a few times in past articles but I believe it’s worth mentioning again. Brian McCann is an outstanding hitting catcher, in fact he’s an outstanding hitter period. I love what he brings to the table and apparently so do the people who keep handing him Silver Slugger awards.

However he is a catcher and he does take a beating behind the plate. The old adage that catchers lose 1-2 at bats per game because their hands hurt so bad from catching that they can barely be affective at the plate may not be 100% accurate but it does represent some valid points.

Catchers don’t play every day. And in the National League you can’t DH them. So often they are reduced to pinch hitting situation once every several games. Now this is why many N.L catchers don’t represent the most offensive production on their ball clubs. Yes there’s Buster Posey and Yadier Molina but those types of guys are few and far between.  Thus making it difficult for a manager to have this type of player on their team and deal with the frustration of being forced to give them regular time off.

When your star player plays Left Field or 1st base you can get them into the line up 150+ times a year. They can play a day game after a night game without issue. Catchers can’t really do that and thus proves an issue with McCann. One of our more consistent hitters isn’t able to help the club every single day.

3) Double trouble

If having one great hitting catcher wasn’t tricky enough for Fredi Gonzalez he now has 2 of his most productive hitters at the catcher position. Evan Gattis has emerged as one of the best young hitters in the game and doesn’t falter even in the biggest moments, a flare for the dramatics if you would. He’s been extremely productive all year and has consistently found a way to drive in base runners.

However as I just mentioned he also plays catcher, just as McCann does. Often Fredi needs to choose one or the other to start behind the plate and occasionally finds other ways to get Gattis into the line up. He’s experimented with him both in left field and first base to see if he could handle the glove work of either or both of those positions.

The issue there is that Freddie Freeman is becoming one of the best overall 1st basemen in the National League. He fields his position as well as anyone with his great glove, agile footwork and his 6’5 frame. Some experts are already predicting a batting title in his future as well. So 1st base isn’t going to provide much playing time for Gattis which leaves left field.

Gattis in the outfield ( no that’s not a movie) is a bit of an adventure. I mean the guy is a catcher by trade and that doesn’t really translate outside of his throwing arm to tracking balls down in the outfield. So when put out there the Braves do sacrifice quit a bit of defense and puts even more added pressure on him to hit to make up for the difference.

4) B.J Upton and Jason Heyward

I’m just going to group these two guys in one category because they have almost identical batting averages and unfortunately that’s not flattering for either player. The comparison betweenwhat was supposed to be 2/3 of our All Star type outfield is that they are both hitting under .150. The Braves just can’t afford to have both of those guys struggling at the same time.

This topic has been worn out in my opinion and I think Braves fans already have a good enough sense of where I’m going with this but I couldn’t not point out the obvious. If I’m Fredi Gonzalez I would have my staff working around the clock with both B.J Upton and Jason Heyward to see if I can’t get at least one of them going.

The Braves have been good this year without getting any production from either one of those guys. If one or both of them could heat up during the summer months then I think this team is capable of pulling away from the Nationals in the N.L East.

5) Am I working today?

Can you imagine driving to your place of employment, walking in the door and asking your boss if you’re going to work today? And all he does is point to a piece of paper hanging on the wall with a bunch of names on it. He tells you if your name is on there then you’re working today, if not then you’ll sit out. And when you are selected to work you don’t know exactly where you’ll be working or which department you’ll be in that day.

Now obviously there are limited comparisons to being a Major League Baseball player and that of someone working a regular job that doesn’t involve a bat and a ball. However I’m sure you can get my gist of where I’m going with this. People in any work environment strive when they have consistency and understand their job and their responsibilities. It allows them to not only relax and settle in to what they’re doing but it allows them to perfect their craft.

Fredi Gonzalez hasn’t allowed his players that luxury. Outside of a few select players everyone is thrown in and out and up and down the line up. They don’t know if they’ll be on the bench or batting lead off. And I understand that Major League Baseball players need to be capable of performing in any situation whether it be predictable or not but what I’m getting at is this. Does it produce the best results?

When looking for stability I’d start with the top of the order. My suggestion would be to take Chris Johnson who’s batting .336 and put him in the 2 hole. This club needs a guy or two who can get on base in case Justin Upton hits one over the center field fence. How many of Justin Upton’s home runs have been solo shots? Too many guys, way too many. We need runners on the pillows when he comes up to bat so that we can maximize his production in the line up.

If Fredi can establish a regular line up that he puts out for the majority of games then I think you will see more offensive production from this club on a more consistent basis.

6) He who hesitates is lost

At certain points you need your leader to be decisive. Leaders solve problems and they do so in a way that displays confidence and the faith of his troops, players or employees that they are doing the best thing for everyone as a whole and that this decision will benefit everyone in the long term even if it doesn’t appear so at the time.

If Fredi has the trust of his players and the relationship with them that allows him to make critical and season altering decisions without an emotional outburst in the club house then I’d like to see him display this authority soon. What is the problem with Jason Heyward? Why is he not hitting? Is it his mechanics? Is it health? Is it where he’s hitting in the lineup? Examine all of these aspects with the comments and suggestions from your coaching staff included and make a decision. Is Jason Heyward going to be a regular player in the line up? Is he going to come off the bench for an extended period of time and try to work out his issues in the big leagues? Or does he get sent down?

Putting Heyward in a situation where he plays one day and then sits the next isn’t helping him at all. There’s no consistency other then Fredi being inconsistent. If he’s not in the line up for a week or two weeks then have him in the cage with the hitting coaches on a regular basis. Have him watching films till all hours of the night. Ask him questions to see where his head is at.

The same needs to be done with B.J Upton. Make a firm decision and stick with it. The wishy washy attitude of Fredi Gonzalez is only contributing to their struggles.

Conclusion:

Without direction you’re lost. This team needs more defined direction. I’m not bashing the team nor am I saying there is any reason to panic. This club is in 1st place and by 4.5 games over a team that every one else picked to win the division.

Do I think this team will hit? Absolutely. When the dog days of summer come across the country the Braves bats will heat up with the weather. The heat and humidity cause the ball to fly out of the park at an alarming rate and that will play right into Atlanta’s style of play. It could be a very good summer in Atlanta and I predict it will be.

By: Bob McVinua

We’re a 1/3 of The Way Home

I can’t believe it’s already the end of May and that baseball season is almost a 1/3 of the way over already. It’s been a fun two months and I’ve enjoyed cheering for and stressing over these Bravos for the past almost 60 days. I thought that this was a good time to assess what I think the Braves have and what they don’t have. And moving forward what this team will have to do in order to be successful.

As usual I don’t want to bore anyone with stats, I may throw a few in there for reference points but I’ll try not to over load anyone. I can’t stand the fact that you can’t even read an article on baseball without it looking like a math problem.

1) B.J Upton

Have to start with the 75 million dollar man who has the lowest batting average in Major League Baseball at this point in time. Now this is not the B.J Upton that Frank Wren signed in the off season, not even close. The B.J that Wren saw in Tampa tearing the cover off the baseball for the entire month of Sept hasn’t shown up yet but his arrival is welcome at any point in time.

Major League Baseball players don’t forget how to hit. They are there for a reason or else you and I would be up there swinging a bat making millions of dollars ( wouldn’t that be nice ). There are 3 things that I contribute to B.J’s struggles and none of them have to do with lack of talent. Flawed mechanics, pressure and unfamiliar pitchers.

B.J has added so many moving parts to his swing it’s ridiculous and that’s why he’s late on every fastball that he attempts to hit. He needs to simplify that swing in the worse way and get rid of that added “loading” process that he’s developed like a bad computer. He also needs to forget about the contract. Money doesn’t play on the field for the players and that’s why guys making the league minimum can get off to hot starts and 75 million dollar players can strikeout every time up. And just like Pujols struggled last year going to the American League there’s a chance that B.J is batting the unfamiliarity of new pitchers who have figured him out before he’s had the privilege of doing the same to them.

2) Starter Stamina 

This may seem like an odd thing to be #2 on this list but it’s concerning to me. We need our starters to give us quality innings and I’m not saying that we don’t or haven’t gotten these innings from our starters but we need more of it. We haven’t gotten a complete game out of one of our starters in quite a while and even 8 inning appearances are rare. You look around at other staffs in the league that go deeper into games and it really saves a lot of wear and tear on that bullpen. And as we’ve just witnessed bullpen over load will catch up with you and you can verify that with Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.

3) Where are the blow outs?

Staying on the trend of bullpen burnout where are the blow out wins for the Braves? When you are playing 1 or 2 run games every single night your manager is going to feel obligated to throw his best arms in order to close the game out, it’s that simple. 2 years ago when we played a major league most ” 1 run games” we taxed a ton of innings on the arms of our relievers which has come back to haunt us. This team needs to find the occasional 7-1 win for the sake of our bullpen health.

4) Jason Heyward 

Bouncing around from bullpen issues back to outfield issues. B.J needs to be fixed at the major league level. He’s 28 years old and he’s making a ton of money on his 75 million dollar deal. The minor leagues are not an option for him so he’s going to need to correct his issues at the big league level and hope he can make enough adjustments.

However, Jason Heyward could be a candidate to get sent down to AAA for a little while. We do have Jordan Schafer who is more then capable of playing RF and joining  the Upton brothers in the starting line up. This would also give us a true lead off man at the top of the order and that’s something we’ve been missing all year.

Bring Heyward down to AAA for 2 weeks could make all the difference. He could go down and relax, focus on hitting the ball. I’m not sure how receptive he would be to the idea but his age and salary make him a candidate for that type of move. What if a few weeks in the minor leagues brought back a completely different Jason Heyward? And some may argue well what if it doesn’t? Hey at least we would have tried something.

5) Jordan Walden

Tonight Walden looked really good as he hit between 95 and 97 on the radar gun consistently. Sometimes players just need a little time off to rest up and start fresh. It seems that maybe his D.L stint was a blessing in disguise and if he can continue  to be affective then this would help to recreate our late inning 1-2 punch as Kimbrel would have someone to set him up.

The other thing to note is Walden does have closer experience with the Angels so these late inning situations are nothing new to him at all. The pressure will likely be far less of an issue then it appeared to be with Varvaro and Gearrin which would also allow for them to go back to their normal roles out of the bullpen in which they have been stellar at.

6) Brandon Beachy

The talk from what I’ve heard is that they’re hopeful that Brandon Beachy will be back to pitch 1 of the double header games against the Mets on June 18th if I’m not mistaken. So we’re still about 3 weeks away from that date but the topic has brought up a lot of interesting questions. The main one being who will be removed from the rotation when Beachy is inserted or is putting Beachy back in the rotation the best move for the team?

Kris Medlen showed last year that working out of the bullpen can be a great predecessor to the starting rotation. Medlen was brilliant out of the bullpen last year and gave us an opportunity to throw a quality pitcher several times a week and sometimes for multiple innings. Could Beachy ease himself into the starting rotation by fulfilling one of these roles for the Braves who have already suffered multiple bullpen injuries?

Now if Beachy were to jump immediately into the rotation that would call for someone to “exit stage left”.  Maholm, Hudson and Minor all seem immune to such a move for various reasons which would leave Teheran or Medlen out to dry. Right now it actually seems as if Teheran has been a little more affective then Medlen has and as a young pitcher and highly touted prospect you’d almost hate to break Teheran’s momentum as a starter by changing his role.

If Medlen was able to do the job once he could almost certainly do it again. He would add valuable depth to our bullpen and would be a critical asset to the “bridge to Kimbrel” project. I wouldn’t look at this as a “demotion” if this were to happen, I’d keep an open mind and view it as an opportunity to help the ball club win games as we inch closer to our ultimate goal of winning  the World Series.

7) This weekend

Now I rarely put too much emphasis on a single regular season series, especially when it’s before the All-Star break but there’s something very interesting that’s about to happen on our schedule and in the standings this weekend. The Braves still have 1 more game with the Jays and the Nationals still have one more remaining with the Orioles.

It’s not too far fetched to believe that we could beat R.A Dickey as we have many times over his career, especially at Turner Field and that the Nationals could fall victim to a pretty good O’s club. All in agreement? That would put the Braves 5.5 games up in the N.L East standings before the big showdown this weekend when Washington comes to town.

I will once again throw out a not so impossible scenario, that being an Atlanta sweep over Washington this weekend. Many would say this is unlikely but if you recall earlier in the year the Braves went to D.C and beat Strasburg and Gio on their way to a road sweep of the Nationals. Why couldn’t they sweep them once again in their own back yard?

But anyways you guys get what I’m getting at. If that were to happen the Braves would wake up Monday morning with an 8.5 game lead and a strangle hold over the N.L East. Not to say Washington still couldn’t claw back but that would be quite a whole to over come and would really be a big blow to their already struggling morale as a ball club.

This is an opportunity for the Braves to really deliver a big blow in these 4 consecutive games they play from now until Sunday. If they make the most of them they could really be sitting in a good spot.

8) Dan Uggla

Uggla hasn’t been the player that we thought he would be when he came over from the Marlins which is why I think a lot of fans are so nervous about B.J Upton. They can see glimpses of the same thing going on and many would argue Uggla has never fully snapped out of the funk that he began with 2 years ago.

However this year Uggla has already hit 10 home runs and we’re a 1/3 of the way through the season. A few of them have been timely blasts that changed the outcome or at least the course of a game in the late innings. You can never underestimate the power of the long ball as instant offense and thus far Dan has given the Braves just that. On pace to hit nearly 30 homers, even 25 would be a very solid power year for Uggla and the Braves could surely use the production.

9) Fredi Gonzalez

Eventually the manager has to face the music and take accountability for the results of their players. Right now the Braves are in a good spot sitting 10 games over .500 and holding a 4.5 game lead in the National League East. However is making the playoffs enough? What measures is Frank Wren currently holding Fredi Gonzalez to?

If Fredi were to make the playoffs as a wild card and once again lose in the one game playoff is that enough to satisfy the boss? At what point does Wren say we want to win the World Series and you’ve failed to deliver us that result with a team that’s more then capable of competing at a high level?

I still believe that Bob Melvin out in Oakland has gotten far more out of his players then Fredi has out of ours. Last year they won a division and 94 ball games. They took the Tigers to 5 games and had a shot to pull of the upset. They hosted a playoff series at home. And yes the Braves also won 94 ball games but Fredi did it with a lot more talent and a larger pay roll.

The Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001 and eventually the standards of just “getting in” will be thrown out the window and replaced with higher expectations. I know the Braves management likes Fredi a lot but they have also already put up with a lot in forgiving him for the epic late season collapse of 2011.

10) Will An Ace Emerge

I think the 10th and final thing to watch for the Braves is whether or not an ace will emerge from this staff. At the start of the season some argued it would be the veteran Tim Hudson while others were convinced it was Kris Medlen. Neither one has been overly dominating and although Medlen could have a better record if given more run support he still hasn’t been nearly as sharp as he was last year and is actually in danger of being removed from the rotation all together.

I think right now the staff ace appears to be Mike Minor. He’s the guy I personally feel most comfortable giving the ball to every 5th day and possibly close to that is Julio Teheran who has emerged quite nicely in his last few outings. Hudson and Maholm have been shaky despite Maholm’s very fast start.

Down the stretch every rotation needs that one guy who can stop a losing streak and who can lead their rotation into the playoffs. The guy who will get the ball in game 1 hands down. The guy you want on the mound with your season on the line.

Someone needs to grab that role going forward. I hope that player emerges over the summer months.

 

By: Bob McVinua

Do The Braves Have a Heyward “Obsession” ?

There are lots of reasons for playing lots of different players and all of them come with a unique set of circumstances. Some players are written into the line up card because they provide speed or power, some because they are the leaders of their respective ball clubs and others are just in their because they make too much money to sit on the bench despite their struggles.

But when Fredi Gonzalez inks in Jason Heywards name into the line up card what reason is he giving himself? Is he playing Jason for his ability to help this ball club win baseball games? Is he putting him out there so that he can work through his struggles? Or is he putting him out there because he’s Jason Heyward and he’s supposed to be a franchise player for the next decade and a half?

Certain players bring a certain element to the game that isn’t on the field related. A certain element that is based more on emotion then it is on factual information. We are only a brief way into this 2013 season and it’s too early to be labeling anyone as a success or failure for the season and I won’t even attempt to do that. However I can bring some issues I see with Heyward to the surface of this argument that I’m going to present to you guys.

Since before Heyward even saw a pitch in the Major Leagues he was a Braves icon. There was so much excitement and hype around him that blew even Freddie Freeman’s move to the big leagues out of the water. Freddie Freeman, despite often out performing Jason Heyward does not gather the same type of enthusiasm.

Maybe it’s because on paper Jason Heyward is almost a perfect a athletic specimen. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 240lbs. He can field his position, throw out base runners, hit for average, hit for power and the man can run like a deer despite his large frame. There are very few baseball players that look as good as Jason does on paper.

Unfortunately baseball games are not won on paper they are won on the diamond with excellent team and player performances on a nightly basis. And I believe that things may be getting a little too comfortable for Mr. Heyward. Being penciled into the line up card night in and night out despite his struggles and on top of that has not even been dropped out of the 2 hole yet.

Fredi is dealing with the pressure to play Heyward because he can not appear to give up on the team’s franchise player. There’s the energy surrounding the Upton, Upton and Heyward outfield. The only issue is one Upton is playing excellent baseball, the other Upton gets paid too much money to bench and Heyward is neither of those two things.

With Heyward under performing from a statistical stand point and only making 3.6 million from a financial aspect, the Braves could exercise the option of sitting Heyward. Now if any of you are arguing that no one has ever gotten better by sitting on the bench and missing at bats, you’re absolutely right but I’m not sure that’s Jason’s entire issue.

I think the Braves have possibly made it a little to comfortable for Jason in Atlanta. Always putting him in the line up and generally speaking batting him in a critical part of the line up ( the top 3rd) is sending him the message that he is guaranteed to occupy that spot no matter what the results may be.

But what if the Braves took a different approach with Heyward and Fredi put him in a position where he competed for playing time and competed for at bats with the other outfielders. Several situations come to mind of how Fredi could handle this in the near future.

Drop Heyward to 6th or 7th: When Jason was put in the bottom part of the order last season he thrived and basically tore the cover off the ball for weeks on end. He was hitting for a solid average and showing off his power while driving in runs. A lot of his success last season came from the lower part of the order and the reason he got moved back up to the top of the order was because of his excellent performance in the 6th spot. Not sure if he’s more comfortable there or if it’s a lower pressure situation (only Jason knows this) but he does seem to hit better in those areas of the line up.

Evan Gattis needs a job: If you have been a fan of what Evan Gattis has been bringing to the table for the Braves then you may want to listen to this alternative solution. With Freddie Freeman due back on Monday the whole at 1st base will now be plugged on a nightly basis. So if Gattis wants to get regular at bats then he will have to catch. However Laird catches at least 1 day a week with Teheran and in a few weeks McCann will hopefully be ready to come back. This creates a possible situation of moving Justin Upton to Right Field and having Gattis play LF, leaving the struggling Heyward on the bench. The line up would include all the major bats of Freeman, McCann, Gattis and the Uptons.

A Solution to our Lead Off Needs: The idea of possibly sitting Heyward also opens up the opportunity to get Jordan Schafer into the lineup. In a very small sample size Schafer has looked impressive this year and seems eager to get some playing time. The key here is that Schafer is a “true” lead off man, something that the Braves have been lacking all year. Schafer can also defend the outfield with his solid glove work and could take over for BJ in Center while moving him to right field.

These are all just possible solutions and I’m not saying that any of them should be 100% pursued at this point in the season but it’s imperative that Fredi keeps his options open and explores any and every alternative that would help the Braves win ball games.

By: Bob McVinua

 

The Beasts Of The East

The Atlanta Braves aren’t a good team anymore. That label went out the window when Justin Upton came to town this past week. The Atlanta Braves my friends are a GREAT BASEBALL TEAM that is not only capable of doing great things, they will succeed in doing so.

Fist off we can’t forget that the Braves won a very respectable 94 games in 2012. And also mind you this includes the sluggish 0-4 start and playing 3 meaningless games with the struggling Pirates at the very end of the season. My point being this could have easily been a 96 or 97 win team had circumstances been slightly different. So we are already starting with a very good product and here’s why I think this years Braves team will take home the N.L East crown.

“UpUpHey”: The new look Braves outfield already has a catchy nick name and believe me they also have some SERIOUS talent. When I start breaking down this team suddenly our outfield becomes a clear focal point in terms of strength and value to the club. The Braves outfield is very special for a few reasons. We are talking about 3 guys; Justin Upton, BJ Upton and Jason Heyward who are all capable of hitting over 20 home runs, stealing over 20 bases and they can all field their position at a high level. Speed, power and golden gloves will grace the Braves outfield in 2013 which will be an enormous boost of confidence for our pitching staff in terms of defense as well as run production.

Lights Out Bullpen: The Atlanta bullpen has been a great strength of this team for a couple of years and Fredi seems to have found some very solid combinations for the late innings which allows us to get the ball to our All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel who had a record breaking season last year. As if the Braves bullpen wasn’t dominate enough, Frank Wren goes out and adds yet ANOTHER power arm in right handed thrower Jordan Walden. Walden possesses a mid to high 90’s fast ball and an impressive 11.1/9inning strikeout ratio. Combine that with a career era of just 3.06 you get one of the best “4th men out of the pen” in all of baseball. When you have arms like Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel you can basically play 6 inning ball games all year long. Talk about putting pressure on opposing teams. Would you want to trail Atlanta 4-2 going into the 7th inning? No, I wouldn’t either.

Starting Rotation: People can attempt to poke holes in our rotation all they want and believe me they’re trying. They can claim that some guys played to a higher level then normal last year and that we still lack experience at the back end. Let me tell you, this Braves rotation is not the same as the Greg Maddux / Tom Glavine era. But it’s still pretty darn good. We have the crafty veteran Tim Hudson leading the way, Kris Medlen who was completely dominate the last 2 months of the regular season last year, a great young arm in Minor who is poised to have a break out year and a very solid and dependable guy in Paul Maholm. The final spot is likely to be filled with top pitching prospect Julio Teheran who has been waiting in the wings for a while now. I’m very excited to see Teheran is capable of doing in a full time role with the Braves. He’s been up to the big leagues a few times in his career but never with any true consistency. Making a few spot starts here in there is never a true gauge of a pitcher’s ability and considering the offense Atlanta is going to put up this year I can’t think of a better situation  for a young starter to emerge into.

A Healthy McCann: Brian took a lot of heat last year for his sub-par performance especially late in the year when he elected to play with his sore shoulder. His late season struggles actually amounted to him eventually being benched for the Braves critical do or die 1 game play off which just goes to show that Fredi Gonzalez lacked confidence in his veteran back stop. Despite the time he was playing hurt and the time he actually missed due to injuries McCann still managed to put up respectable numbers for a National League catcher. McCann hit 20 home runs and drove in 67 runs for the Braves, which isn’t his full potential by any means but in comparison to the average catcher those numbers aren’t bad. However in 2013 we aren’t looking for “average” from Brian McCann, Braves fans can expect an increase in production after he had surgery on his injured shoulder in the off season. McCann is ahead of schedule and is targeting Opening Day as his return.

Michael Bourn Misconception: “The Braves don’t have a true lead off hitter”. This statement is technically correct and can’t really be argued. It’s likely that Simmons will be asked to hit in the lead off spot as insinuated by Fredi Gonzalez. As stated Simmons is not the prototypical lead off man that Bourn is however there are a couple of things I do like about Simmons in comparison to Bourn. The first one being that Bourn only hit .222 for the entire 2nd half of the season and I’m almost certain Simmons can at bare minimum match that but I’m projecting something in the .270’s which would be in reality a great improvement. The other issue with Bourn last year was the excessive number of strikeouts, not only for a lead off man but Bourn struck out 155 times which is a lot for ANY player. Now Simmons doesn’t necessarily have the comparable at bats to Bourn but last year Michael Bourn struck out in 20% of his at bats compared to 12% for Simmons. With the added speed to the overall line up ( The Upton Brothers) the Braves may miss Bourn less then people had originally thought.

American League Power: The Braves are looking at a line up that has 6 players that are almost certain to hit 20 homers or more. This group includes BJ Upton, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla. I don’t think there’s any player in that group that anyone can argue won’t hit the 20 home run mark this year and we can possibly add in someone like Juan Francisco or Chris Johnson depending upon how much playing time they receive. This will be a very deep and difficult line up to navigate through and despite the strikeouts the Braves are going to score a LOT of runs this year.

Replacing Chipper: In reality no one can just “replace” a living legend and future hall of fame player. No one can ever wear number 10 or take Chipper’s place in terms of his legacy as an Atlanta Brave we can replace him in the simplest aspect of all, his 2012 production. This past season Chipper hit 14 home runs and drove in 62 runs. Chris Johnson who came over in the trade with Justin Upton, hit 15 home runs and drove in 76 runs. If you look at those numbers and compare them we would actually get 14 more runs batted in and one additional home run with starting Johnson at 3B over Chipper. Now of course we need to be practical here and not say Chris Johnson is a better player then Chipper Jones because he’s certainly not but in the here and now he’s more productive at 28 then Chipper was at 40.

Now it’s still early and we haven’t gotten a chance to see the team in action but for all the reasons mentioned above I have reason to believe this team is going to be a real force in the National League this year and a team that other organizations are going to fear. Having won 94 games last year

So with all of that said here are my predictions for the 2013 Atlanta Braves

Final Record: 100 wins / 62 loses

National League East Champions

Best Record in the National League

 

By: Bob McVinua

Braves Are Firing On All Cylinders

Two issues last year prevented the Braves from making a run at a World Series title. We all saw the potential this team had but wondered if they could put it all together and make a serious run at a championship. As the wheels fell off last Sept there were 2 glaring holes in this club. The lack of production from the offense and the inability of our starters to pitch deep into games, causing our bullpen to wear down.

Well currently those two issues have been corrected in grand fashion. The Braves are firing on all cylinders offensively. They’re averaging just about 7.5 runs per game over their last 7 games. Very impressive considering they started out so slow to start the season. They are doing it with a balanced attack. In my opinion the strength of the Braves line up is that it has excellent depth. 1-8 we are as good as any team in the National League.

No we don’t have a “Josh Hamilton”, “Prince Fielder” or “Matt Kemp” type player. I don’t believe anyone in our line up at the moment is capable of hitting 45 home runs and driving in 125 runs. However we don’t need them to. With our depth we can afford to have certain guys heat up and cool down throughout the season and still maintain a balanced attack. When your offense relies on just 1 or 2 guys you can’t afford to have them get injured or slump, your offense will surely slow down. Right now Freeman and Heyward are probably the two hottest hitters in the line up. Freeman hit 2 balls out of the ball park last night and Heyward continued his impressive hitting streak as it reached 9 games. Maybe next week it will be McCann and Uggla carrying the line up. You never know. However I do know this. If your offense is being compared to the Texas Rangers then you are surely doing something right.

The other thing that’s impressed me over this stretch of good play is that our pitchers continue to get deep into games. Last night Fredi called upon Johnny Venters to come into a game in which we had an 8 run lead, just to “get some work” in. When would that ever have happened last season? Never. He was forced to use Venters, Kimbrel and O’Flaherty almost every game. All 3 of them were in the top 10 in Major League Baseball for relief appearances made. That’s a lot of stress on those young arms that so far we are avoiding this season.

Speaking of the bullpen. This is another great strength of the Atlanta Braves. Not only do we have the Big 3 at the back end of the pen to close out games, we also have Kris Medlen and Livan Hernandez to give us multiple innings on multiple days each week if needed. Having those rubber arms in the pen will take a lot of stress off the guys at the back end as the season goes on. Christian Martinez has also been very solid for us this year as well.

It’s still early but you have to feel very good if you’re a Braves fan. Not only is this team built for the future but it’s also built to win right now. A luxury that most teams don’t have. They are either in a win now mode like the Yankees and Phillies. Or in a rebuilding mode like the Royals and Astros.

So I think Braves fans have a lot to look forward to this season and many seasons to come.

By: Bob McVinua