Back to life and back to reality
Nate McLouth provided an immediate upgrade and he’ll undoubtedly prove to be an asset to the Braves over the course of the next few years. But as we’ve seen through the first week of his career in Atlanta, his five-tool talents aren’t great enough to serve as the solution to his new team’s offensive woes.
When the Braves were shutout during the first two games of the McLouth era, they opted to move their new center fielder into the leadoff spot and magically they found themselves scoring 19 runs during a three-game span that began on Sunday.
But stealing a line from the old Soul II Soul song, the final two games of the Pirates series brought the Braves back to life and back to reality..
When the Braves prevented Tommy Hanson from losing his debut on Sunday, they (or Chipper Jones specifically) took advantage of Manny Parra, who has an 11.90 ERA in his past four starts, and an over-taxed Brewers bullpen.
The majority of Monday’s seven-run uprising came at the expense of Zach Duke, who was charged with six runs and 11 hits in six innings. But this was nothing new for the Braves. Back in April, when Brian McCann couldn’t see, they actually pounded the left-hander with 12 hits and six runs in six innings.
Then Wednesday night, they botched the opportunity that was provided when Charlie Morton’s early exit prompted the impromptu entrance of Jeff Karstens, who had suffered the loss during Monday’s 15-inning marathon with an 18-pitch outing.
With a quick rebound, Karstens allowed one run over 4 1/3 innings and set the stage for Paul Maholm, who allowed one unearned run over seven innings on Thursday afternoon. Maholm till hasn’t surrendered an earned run in the 14 innings he’s tossed against Atlanta this year.
“I thought Maholm pitched another great game, but, we’re saying that too much in here,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
Chipper Jones said that Thursday was actually a day when the Braves justifiably had to tip their caps to Maholm.
While respecting Jones’ opinion, I’m sticking with Cox and holding the belief that Mike Hampton likely would have already damaged his wrist if he had to tip his hat as frequently as the Braves hitters have this year.
While hitting .224 on this recently-completed nine-game homestand, the Braves were limited to two runs or fewer five times. Making matters worse is that they went winless in the four games that their starters allowed two runs or fewer.
Over the course of the past nine games, the Braves starters allowed 26 earned runs and posted a 3.90 ERA. Take away Tommy Hanson’s debut and that ERA drops to 3.33. Regardless, either way you look at it, this span should have included more than four wins.
While the Braves were able to at least enhance their feeble outfield production with the acquisition of McLouth, they’ll need to do much more to make the necessary improvements to a lineup that still relies too heavily on the production of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.
” If (Brian McCann) isn’t playing and I go O-fer, we’re in trouble,” Jones said. “If I’m not playing and Mac goes O-fer, we’re in trouble.”
While there was no doubt that this lineup would be centered around Jones and McCann, the Braves obviously were counting on more from Garret Anderson and Jeff Francoeur, whose fourth-inning single on Thursday provided him just his fourth hit in his past 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
Anderson is who he’s always been minus the power that he displayed during the early years of this decade. When they signed him, the Braves knew about the fact that he’s a far from vibrant personality. But it’s safe to say that they envisioned him hitting better than .254 with a .373 slugging percentage through his first 40 games.
Anderson’s struggles have only magnified those of Francoeur, whose .621 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is actually 32 points lower than the mark he produced during last year’s disappointing campaign.
Courtesy of the disappointing statistics he’s produced over the past two years, Francoeur has been forced to face the reality that he’s subject to regular criticism.
While being one of the many who have been critical of his production, I would certainly never question Francoeur’s determination and passion for the game. He’s still the same great kid that arrived on the scene four years ago. But he’s currently not the same great player we had envisioned.
As things currently stand, it’s tough to envision Francouer being back with the Braves beyond this season. But at the same time, it’s not like Frank Wren is going to his team’s outfield woes by trading him.
While there’s still a chance that the Braves could deal Francoeur at some point this season, they certainly aren’t going to do so until they have somebody capable of filling the right field position.
Thoughts of Matt Diaz playing right field every day are erased by the reality that Anderson isn’t capable of playing left field on an everyday basis. Plus with Jordan Schafer and Brandon Jones currently ailing, I don’t see any other internal options developing any time soon.
So with limited available funds, the Braves will continue to evaluate the trade market with the hope that it produces a solution before it’s too late.
To get the return that they are seeking, they will have to supply something significant. While dealing Javier Vazquez would provide the opportunity to gain some financial breathing room, the Braves may be reluctant to deal him before having a better feel about what they could expect from Tim Hudson during the season’s final two months and next year.
Without a suitable replacement, it’s also tough to envision trading Yunel Escobar. But for every sensational contribution the shortstop provides, he seems to further bother his teammates by habitually committing mental mistakes and displaying the flashy personality that infuriates opponents and umpires.
Wren’s task isn’t an easy one. But as it becomes harder for him to watch his anemic offense there’s certainly reason to believe he’ll be further motivated to improve it.