July 2014

Thoughts heading into the Marlins’ series

Now that the Braves finally parted ways with Dan Uggla and opened the season’s second half with a win over a Phillies club that seems destined to look much different soon, it’s time to begin looking toward what should be an exciting end to this month.  While it will be a lot of fun watching Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux savor their time in Cooperstown this upcoming weekend, there will also be reason to keep a close watch on what the team is doing on an off the field.

With the July 31 Trade Deadline quickly approaching, it still seems the Braves’ primary targets will be relievers, specifically the left-handed variety, and role players to strengthen what has been a rather anemic bench.

After two months of being left short-handed, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez can now at least approach the remainder of the season with the confidence that he will at least have a fully-stocked bench.  From the time Dan Uggla was benched until the time he was mercifully released on Friday, Gonzalez was forced to to through 65 games (40 percent of the season) with a short bench.

As early as the first week of May we heard about the financial consequences (penalties on loans and future investments) that would prevent the Braves from releasing Uggla this season.  Then of course, Uggla forced the team’s hand when he showed up 30 minutes before the first pitch of the July 12 game at Wrigley Field. While some might have speculated that he had just “overslept” most members of the organization seemed to realize this was a calculated move by a frustrated man.

It’s hard to have pity on Uggla considering he has always been guaranteed the remainder (now approximately $18.5 million) of the five-year, $62 million contract extension the Braves provided after acquiring Uggla after the 2010 season.  But if his presence was going to continue to weaken the roster and potentially poison the clubhouse, then the Braves had no choice to do what they finally did on Friday.

Unfortunately, the parting of these two parties should have occurred this past winter,  soon after the Braves left Uggla off their postseason roster.  At the time, it was assumed the Braves should simply be happy if a club was willing to assume approximately $8 million of the $26 million Uggla was owed during the 2014-15 seasons combined.

In the end, the Braves ended up eating a similar amount. But considering Uggla spent the past two months essentially serving as a statue while filling a valuable roster spot, the amount of time it took to cut ties stands as just one of the many mistakes made during Uggla’s tenure in Atlanta.  Instead of being the power-hitting second baseman initially envisioned, Uggla will now simply be part of the debate centering around whether his contract was actually worse than the ones signed by Kenshin Kawakami, B.J. Upton and Derek Lowe.

With Uggla gone, the Braves now can used Tyler Pastornicky or Phil Gosselin to share the backup infielder role with Ramiro Pena.  Jordan Schafer’s legs and defense have at least provided some hint of value as he has served as the backup infielder.  But if possible, the Braves have to find somebody who can prove to  be more of a threat than Schafer (4-for-22 as a pinch hitter) and Ryan Doumit (9-for-42 as a pinch hitter) off the bench.

Gattis set to return:  With Evan Gattis back in the Braves’ lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Marlins, Christian Bethancourt has been sent back toTriple-A Gwinnett, where he can continue playing on an everyday basis.  While handling the starting catching duties for the past few weeks, Bethancourt at least gave the club a chance to evaluate whether he could be ready to handle this role on a full-time basis as early as next season.

There has long been reason to debate whether Gattis is a better fit in the American League, where he could serve as a designated hitter when he’s not catching. But now that he is dealing with a back injury, there is even more reason to wonder how long he might be capable of handling the grind of being an everyday catcher at the Major League level.

 

Thoughts from Monday night’s loss

While many of you might still be stewing about the reversal of the challenge that seemingly should not have been permitted, the most influential development from Monday night’s 11-inning loss was the reminder that the Braves simply can’t rely on Luis Avilan like they did last year.   So with the Trade Deadline just a few weeks away, we are left to believe acquiring a left-handed reliever remains high on general manager Frank Wren’s wish list.

When Avilan was not given a chance to complete the decisive seventh inning of an April 10 loss against the Mets, I questioned why manager Fredi Gonzalez did not allow the left-hander to prove he could still get right-handed hitters out like he had in the past.  As the next couple of weeks passed and Avilan’s struggles grew, there was reason for me to tell Gonzalez, “I guess you were right on that one.”

I doubt there will come a point where I’ll be saying the same about last night’s decision to allow Avilan to protect the one-run lead the Braves gained in the top half of the eighth inning.  The Mets sent a right-hander (Ruben Tejada), a switch hitter (Eric Young Jr.) and two left-handed hitters to the plate to face Avilan.  After retiring the first two batters he faced, the Braves’ southpaw allowed Curtis Granderson to send a game-tying homer over the right field wall.

Walden, who has limited left-handed hitters to one hit in 21 at-bats dating back to June 15, ended the inning and kept the game tied by striking out David Wright.

While Walden will surely be used in these situations in the future, there is also reason to wonder how much faith the Braves can still have in Avilan, who has not looked anything like the guy he was when he produced a 1.52 ERA in a career-high 75 appearances last year.   On the way to producing this impressive mark, he limited right-handed hitters to a .202 batting average and .292 on-base percentage.  Left-handers hit .144 with a .219 on-base percentage against him.

This year, right-handers have batted .314 with a .397 on-base percentage against Avilan.  Lefties have batted .266 with a .344 on-base percentage.  One scout suggested that Avilan looks like a guy who “doesn’t want to break” like some of the other members of the Braves bullpen have over the past couple of years.  But per FanGraphs, his fastball velocity is actually up a tick (from 93.5 to 93.6 mph)  and his curveball velo is down just one mile per hour, from 75.8 to .74.8.

Regardless of what the issue is, the Braves have seen enough to know there is a need to fortify their bullpen with another left-handed reliever.  Those of you wondering when Jonny Venters will return would be wise to simply root for the feel-good possibility of this story.  There was never any guarantee Venters would return from a second Tommy John surgery.  But there was always definite reason to doubt he would ever again resemble the dominant reliever he was before his elbow blew out during the 2012 season.

So while everyone will be pulling for Venters to beat the odds by pitching at the big league level again, the Braves will be searching to upgrade their bullpen with a left-hander.  At the same time, with memories of Scott Downs fresh in their memories, they will be cognizant of the fact that this is not the safest of markets to shop.

It will be interesting to see how influential the eighth inning RBI single Jason Heyward recorded on Monday night proves to be.  Three pitches before slapping a curveball to center field, he had ducked away from a Josh Edgin fastball that was approaching his head.  Adding to the resulting uncomfort was the fact that he was standing in the same batter’s box where his left jaw had been fractured a little more than 10 months earlier.

Heyward’s single off Edgin snapped an 0-for-37 skid against left-handed pitchers.  As this futile stretch extended, there was reason to wonder if he was dealing with the lingering effects of last year’s traumatic experience.  But now that he has ended the drought at the scene of the crime, maybe he has slayed that mental monster that has affected so many others who have been hit in the head with a pitch.

 

 

 

With online balloting set to end tonight, here is a look at my All-Star ballot

With just a few hours left in this year’s All-Star balloting process, here is cheat sheet for you to use to ensure you vote for the most deserving players.  While there was never much reason to believe a Braves player would be elected to start in the upcoming Midsummer Classic, I think there is a good chance Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel receive selections.  I’d love to see Jason Heyward get a deserving selection based simply on the fact that he has been the game’s best defensive player this season. Along those same lines, it will be a shame if Evan Gattis’ name is not announced during the selection show.  While Gattis is sidelined with a bulging disc in his back, he certainly deserves a chance to at least enjoy the festivities surrounding the event.

NL Catcher:  Jonathan Lucroy

AL Catcher: Salvador Perez

Over the past few years, I always had the mindset that if Yadier Molina was healthy, he would be my choice to serve as the NL’s starting catcher.  But Lucroy has been that good both behind and at the plate this season.

NL First Baseman: Paul Goldschmidt

AL First Baseman: Miguel Cabrera

Despite enduring two long slumps already, Freddie Freeman  made this a tougher decision than expected.  Couldn’t go wrong with Goldschmidt, Freeman or Anthony Rizzo.  Edward Encarnacion has been great. But unlike Lucroy in comparison to Molina, he has not been that much greater than Cabrera.  Plus, he’s on the ballot as a DH.

NL Second Baseman: Dee Gordon

AL Second Baseman: Jose Altuve

I’ve always been an Ian Kinsler fan.  But after getting a chance to watch Altuve for a few days last week, I’m sold that he’s the kind of guy the fans need to see in the ASG.

NL Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki

AL Shortstop: Erick Aybar

Watching Andrelton Simmons match defensive skills with Tulo and then Aybar during a seven-day stretch in June was a treat.

NL Third Baseman: Todd Frazier

AL Third Baseman:  Josh Donaldson

If these two  were to be selected, I wonder what the odds would have been back in March.

NL Outfielders: Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig

AL Outfielders: Mike Trout, Adam Jones, Jose Bautista

Carlos Gomez was the last omission in the NL.  The selection was a little more difficult in the AL.  Gave some thought to Brandon Moss and like with Heyward, there’s something special about watching Alex Gordon play defense.

 

 

 

 

Braves now have a chance to evaluate where Bethancourt stands

Though this arrangement does not jive with the plans they had kicked around over the past couple of weeks, the Braves are now going to get a chance to get a better feel about whether Christian Bethancourt might be ready to handle the everyday catching duties at the Major League level.   They just were hoping to be able to do so while still having Evan Gattis’ bat in their lineup.

As Gattis spends at least the next couple weeks sidelined by a bulging thoracic disc in his back, the Braves will attempt to compensate for his significant absence from the middle of their lineup.  At the same time, they should be stronger from a defensive perspective behind the plate.  But as we saw again last night with Alex Wood on the mound, Bethancourt certainly is not immune to those same communication issues that Gattis has had with at least three members of Atlanta’s rotation.

The difference last night was Wood proved to be much more mature than Teheran was when he visibly showed his frustration for a few innings and then ultimately looked foolish as he balked during the sixth inning of his June 21 start against the Nationals.

With that being said, it will take some time for Bethancourt to get a feel for the preferences and tendencies possessed by some of Atlanta’s pitchers.  Like when this issue with Gattis popped up in D.C. last week, it seems important to point out that this past winter Brian McCann told me it took him nearly four seasons before he truly became comfortable and confident calling a Major League game.

So, yeah, there might still be some growing pains as Bethancourt introduces himself to the big league level while sharing the catching duties with Gerald Laird.  But at the same time, with these two handling the catching duties opponents are likely going to be much more hesitant to run.

Gattis threw out just nine of the 40 opponents who tried to steal against him this season.  Laird has retired eight of the 15 baserunners who have tried to steal with him behind the plate.  As for Bethancourt, his arm has obviousy always been that special gift that has set him apart.

Had the Braves ever opted to send Gattis to left field to create a spot for Bethancourt, they would have certainly weakened their outfield defense.  But let’s not forget those talks had as much to do about a couple lackadaisical plays  B.J. Upton made in the field as they did Gattis’ shortcomings behind the plate.

Since making a pair of blunders when the Angels were in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, B.J. has been much more valuable in the glove.  In fact, he’s actually looked much more like the guy the Braves described when they heralded his glove work upon giving him a five-year, $75.25 million contract before the 2013 season.

I’m certainly still not sold (and quite frankly Fredi G. probably isn’t either) on B.J. in the leadoff spot.  But given the fact that the Braves are 7-1 since Upton was moved to the top of their lineup, he’s certainly not going anywhere else within the next day or two.   As he has hit safely in each of these seven games, Upton has batted .267 with a .313 on-base percentage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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