Watching things come full circle is a part of life and naturally when one door closes the next one opens. We make decisions and judgements that we feel are best at the time and sometimes down the road we look back and second guess our decisions or maybe even regret them all together. However at the end of the day some decisions can be quickly reversed, others take time to correct and others are permanent and mold our lives forever.
Baseball in a sense is no different. Although baseball doesn’t necessarily have the ramifications of life, the comparisons are similar enough that you can see the point I’m trying to make. Trades, free agent signings and in game management decisions can shape a franchise for the short term, the long term and somewhere in between.
When things come full circle we are sometimes angry with the result, other times we’re thrilled with it and then there’s times when we’re just flat out confused by what has happened. Last night Juan Uribe ended the Braves season with one swing of the bat. Everything from the winter meeting moves of bringing in the Upton brothers, getting off to a red hot stat in April, to over coming horrific injuries, came down to one swing of the bat. The Braves season of 162 games of battling it out each and every night for 6 full months will be summed up by a hanging slider by David Carpenter that was crushed over the left field fence to give the Dodgers a 4-3 advantage in the 8th inning of game 4.
But what will get lost in this translation is that the Atlanta Braves over came many obstacles this season and over all had a season to be very proud of. If you’re someone who believes that it’s World Series or bust each season or as Billy Beane would say “If you don’t win the last game of the season then no one gives a crap”, that’s fine but you will end up disappointed a great majority of the time if not every time in the case of some fan bases who have had entire generations come and go since their teams have won the World Series ( Chicago Cubs )
There is something to be said about the Braves winning the N.L East because most people didn’t expect them to. I think when you suffer a loss like the one the Braves experienced last night the fan base begins to forget everything else that happened over the course of 162 games. During Spring Training there was a lot of hype surrounding this team and their newly rebuilt outfield but no one was certain that the Braves would win the division as Washington was still the favorite amongst many baseball experts.
Not only did the Braves prove that prediction wrong but they were actually in 1st place for every single day of the season except for one, April 4th.
This was not an easy road traveled either. The Braves suffered so many injuries and set backs this season that I think a lot of us almost forget about the ones that happened earlier on in the year. Johnny Venters never even threw a regular season pitch this year and he has been our premiere set up man. Eric O’Flaherty threw his last pitch somewhere around the middle of May against this very Dodger team at Turner Field. At this point many of us Braves fans began to panic and wonder how Fredi Gonzalez would get the ball to arguably the best closer in all of baseball Craig Kimbrel. What happened after that? The Braves would still go on to post the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball and on top of that set a franchise record for the same mark.
Jason Heyward missed significant time as did Brian McCann. Freddie Freeman spent a couple of weeks on the disabled list and still drove in over 100 runs on the season. BJ Upton and Dan Uggla struggled throughout most of the 2013 season and BJ was one of the players expected to make a huge impact when he signed with the Braves this winter and it just never happened. Other players stepped up and young players assumed roles that were well beyond the original expectations of them in 2013. No one panicked and no one quit and as a fan I am appreciative of the heart and effort this team always put forth.
When I look at the 2013 Division Series I am still glad that we were able to get a chance to play the best of 5. The Dodgers beat us 3 times and I can say they deserved to advance where as in 2012 I was unsure if the Cardinals really were the better team after that one game playoff. But at the same time some frustration does set in because at the end of the day this series went 4 games and from my perspective part of the problem was that in the post season you have to put yourself in a position to win, in a position where someone can make a big play, get a big hit or make a big pitch to help your team win that particular game.
During this series Games 1 and 3 were won by the scores of 6-1 and 13-6. The Braves were not even relevant in either of those contests which would end up amounting to 50% of the series, easy wins for the Dodgers where Atlanta was just dominated. Games 2 and 4 however were a 2-1 victory for the Braves and then of course last nights 4-3 defeat. But even in Game 4 the Braves were competitive and gave themselves a shot to win a ball game. If games 1 and 3 had played out in a similar manner there’s a good chance that 1 run ball games can be very split in terms of results and there’s a very good chance that the Braves could have been in a position to go back to Atlanta for game 5 or maybe they could be advancing to the N.L.C.S themselves.
Fredi Gonzalez has already been questioned and will continue to be questioned about his decision to leave Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen and use David Carpenter for the 8th inning. Now I’m fully aware that perception is 9/10th’s of everything that goes on in this world and how things seem are just as important if not more important then what they actually are. And what did fans see last night? They saw arguably the best closer in all of baseball standing in the bullpen as Juan Uribe hammered a hanging slider from David Carpenter in the bottom of the 8th inning of a do or die game.
The fans wanted to see Kimbrel pitch 2 innings to close the game and from what I’ve heard Kimbrel wanted to give it a shot as well. Now I love that Kimbrel wanted to get in there and close this game out and get all 6 outs but would he have been able to? Kimbrel has never had a 6 out save in his career and in game 2 he struggled a little bit getting that 4 out save to preserve that game and was greatly benefited by a close call on a steal attempt at 2nd base.
What if Fredi brought in Craig Kimbrel for a 6 out save and he blew the game in the 8th or even the 9th because he ran out of gas? Would people then question Fredi’s decision to put him out there in a crucial game to do something that he’s never even attempted before? I think there are arguments to both sides but because the outcome was undesirable we will continue to second guess the decision. If David Carpenter goes out there and strikes out the side then no one has an issue with the move.
Now the big question that looms over the Braves organization is where do they go from here? We just witnessed the Reds fire Dusty Baker after he had a very competitive season with the Reds and made a playoff run with his team. But it wasn’t to the satisfaction of the front office. They had hire hopes for this years Reds team and they believe they could find a better fit for dugout leadership to make a deeper run and accomplish the ultimate goal of winning the World Series.
Leadership is important in sports. Managers in baseball can’t play the game but they put their players in the best positions to be successful and they can certainly have an impact on the outcome of games and this is especially hitting home to anyone who truly believes that Fredi Gonzalez is the reason the Braves are heading home as we speak.
Whether you believe that Fredi Gonzalez is personally responsible for last nights loss or not you can’t ignore the significance of the front office’s support or lack of support for Gonzalez. And the reason for this in my opinion is because much of the Braves roster is set for next year. Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson, Jason Heyward, Just Upton will all surely be back and in the starting line up on Opening Day come 2014. There’s a very good chance that BJ Upton will get another chance to prove himself and try to secure himself a starting spot in Spring Training as he’ll only be in year 2 of his 5 year 75million dollar deal.
The rotation will set up in a similar fashion as well, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran will anchor the top 3 spots with the bottom 2 up for grabs I’d imagine. Many familiar faces will be in the bullpen as well; Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, Eric O’Flaherty will be back in business and try to continue and improve upon the dominance of the 2013 Braves bullpen.
My point is I’m not sure there will be any significant roster changes for 2014. Frank Wren has done everything he could and spent a good deal of money to put this team together and he can’t stretch the dollar too far for the future because eventually guys like Freddie Freeman will need long term deals and there’s no way that the Braves front office will want him to walk away.
The most significant change may come in the form of a beloved Braves player hitting the road and possibly heading to the American League. Brian McCann didn’t sound to confident in the fact that he’d be returning next year and they’re saying the Rangers, Blue Jays and Yankees are likely to emerge as front runners for his services.
So is new leadership the drastic change that Frank Wren will produce in this off season? Is Fredi Gonzalez too soft spoken? Does he not possess the urgency that’s needed to win big games and snap his team back on track after a brief losing streak? Are his in game managerial decisions not up to Frank Wren’s standards? All of these questions will be answered shortly I’m sure.
The biggest strength of this Braves team may be the combination of talent and youth. The Braves sport the 2nd youngest roster in all of baseball and still managed to have one of the best records in all of Major League Baseball. So there is a very good possibility that this team does improve not by adding different players but continuing to grow and develop the ones that they already have.
During the 1940’s the Brooklyn Dodgers coined the saying “Wait Til Next Year!” and that’s exactly what Braves fans have to look forward to at this point. The promise and hope of 2014 will begin to take over the hurt and disappointment of 2013 and that’s what will bring us all back together during Spring Training as we try to root this team to a World Series and finally win the final game of season.
By: Bob McVinua
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
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.
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