Five Thoughts heading into the D-backs series

Had the Braves not blown a four-run first-inning on Tuesday night and allowed an opponent to record a comeback victory for the fourth time in an eight-game span, there would have been a much different feel at the end of Wednesday afternoon’s loss to the Mariners.  Yeah, you don’t want to get shutout and you certainly don’t want to be dominated to the point where the  only fly ball or line drive you send out of the infield accounts for the first out in the ninth.  But it’s not like Hisashi Iwakuma is chopped liver or the version of Tim Lincecum that teams other than the Braves have seen over the past couple years.

Iwakuma has completed at least seven scoreless innings in three of his first seven starts and the 2.66 ERA he has notched since joining Seattle’s rotation on July 2, 2012 ranks second only to Clayton Kershaw (2.16) among pitchers who have made at least 50 starts in this span.  Ranking seventh on this list is Wednesday’s tough-luck loser Mike Minor (2.92).

In tonight’s series opener against the D-backs, the Braves will turn to Julio Teheran, whose 2.49 ERA dating back to April 23, 2013 ranks second only to Kershaw (2.08) among pitchers who have made at least 35 starts during this span.   Teheran will be opposed by Brandon McCarthy, who has surrendered at least five runs in six of his past 12 starts, including both of his past two.  But as Lincecum has twice proven this year, a 5-plus ERA does not guarantee doom against the Braves offense, which has not taken advantage of….

1. Jason Heyward’s surge:  The day before this season began, I posted this entry within which I provided thoughts about each member of the Opening Day roster.  While I was dead wrong about the club being in trouble if Aaron Harang needed to make more than 10 starts, I’m sticking with my prediction that Heyward will garner more MVP votes than any of his teammates this year.  Heyward has raised his batting average from .194 to .254 and his on-base percentage from .288 to .339 while hitting .302 with a .378 OBP and .806 OPS in his past 32 games.   He’s hit .333 with an .867 OPS in his past 16 games.

While these numbers might not be MVP-caliber, Heyward is  trending in the right direction and making his presence felt in other ways.  He leads all Major Leaguers with 17 Defensive Runs Saved and has a team-high  2.2 FanGraphs WAR (Justin Upton ranks second with 2.0 and Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis are tied for third with a 1.5).

2. Speaking of Freeman:  Since hitting .413 with five homers and a 1.239 OPS in his first 17 games, Freeman has batted .240 with a .731 OPS in the 41 games that have followed.  He’s struck out 17 times and drawn 12 walks while compiling a respectable .357 on-base percentage in his past 16 games, dating back to May 19.  To put that in perspective, B.J. Upton has struck out 12 times and drawn eight walks while compiling a .333 on-base percentage during this same span.

3.  When strikeouts go awry: Jordan Walden struck out each of the first three batters he faced while making his first rehab appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett on last night. But he uncorked a wild pitch with the third strike thrown to the last of those three hitters and then ended his 23-pitch appearance by allowing a two-run home run to former Brave Elliot Johnson, who was manning the cleanup duties for Columbus.  If Walden gets through his next appearance without any problems, there’s a chance he could be activated for next week’s series at Coors Field.

4. When Walden returns, the Braves will need to open a spot for him in the bullpen.  One way or another the transaction could affect Alex Wood, who is no longer benefiting from being in the bullpen. Yes, the club has been able to harness his innings.  But in an effort to protect his arm, they’ve put him in a role in which he has warmed up and sat down twice before entering two different outings over the past few weeks (May 14 in San Francisco and Tuesday night).  Wood is best suited for a starting role and has the potential to be one of the top assets in Atlanta’s rotation.

Thus the Braves might end up sending Wood to Gwinnett to stretch out by making a start or two.  If the current members of the rotation remain healthy, a trade might be necessary to open a spot in Atlanta’s rotation. There have been some discussions about moving Harang.  But given that Harang has allowed two earned runs or less in 10 of his 12 starts and posted a team-best 2.46 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), it might be more prudent to find a potential suitor for Gavin Floyd, who is only going to get more expensive via the contractual incentives he has in relation to starts and time spent on the active roster.

5.  The trade was still a focus when the Braves went to Arizona last year for the first time since acquiring Justin Upton and Chris Johnson in a seven-player trade that sent Martin Prado to the D-backs.  Prado has hit .283 with a .710 OPS this year and Randall Delgado has continued to prove to be a 4-A pitcher (7.24 ERA in 17 appearances, two starts).  Zeke Spruill, the other pitcher the Braves included in the deal, has a 5.68 ERA through 14 appearances at the Triple-A level.  Arizona might end up getting a solid utility player in Nick Ahmed. The most valuable piece of the package they received for Upton and Johnson might prove to be Brandon Drury, who has hit .269 with 13 homers and an .839 OPS through his first 60 games for Class A Advanced Visalia.  But while the D-backs love the passion that drew Troy Tulowitzski to Drury a few years ago, it has to be remembered that he’s already 21-years-old and he has not yet advanced to the Double-A level.

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