Braves are starting to alter the coaching staff and front office

As this past week has progressed the Braves have discussed alterations to their front office and a coaching staff that might soon include former Astros manager Bo Porter. But the only significant addition they have confirmed thus far was the hiring of former Yankees scout Gordon Blakeley to serve as a special assistant to the general manager.

This has been a busy week for interim general manager John Hart, who met with manager Fredi Gonzalez on Wednesday morning to discuss the coaching staff and a roster makeup. Hitting coach Greg Walker’s resignation stands as the only current change among the coaches. But there is certainly reason to believe at least a couple more changes will come that could open the door for Porter, who served as Gonzalez’s third base coach with the Marlins.

Given that the Braves have not yet hired a permanent GM to fill the role vacated by the recently-terminated Frank Wren, it remains to be seen who will serve as Blakely’s boss. But Blakeley’s addition confirms that assistant GM John Coppolella does have some additional power within this new front office makeup.

Dating back to their days together within the Yankees organization, Blakeley has always stood as a mentor to Coppolella. Now the veteran scout will have a chance to work with his prized pupil and more importantly attempt to help the Braves on international front as much as he did the Yankees. Robinson Cano, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez are among the players he was credited for signing while he was with the Yankees.

While Hart has taken on an active role over the past couple weeks, there still has not been clear indication that he wants to fill the GM role on a permanent basis. Thus there will continue to be speculation about the potential return of Royals GM Dayton Moore, who seemed to be an obvious candidate even before Wren was officially terminated. But with the Royals still in the playoffs, Moore’s focus is currently elsewhere.

A year’s worth of struggles leads reason to wonder what changes are in store for the Braves

As the Braves were getting destroyed and nearing the inevitability of being swept by the woeful Rangers on Sunday afternoon, it was hard not to think about all the negative developments that this organization has experienced since nearly forcing the Dodgers to a fifth game in last year’s National League Division Series.

Before getting into specifics, I think it’s safe to say that while this year’s Hall of Fame experience in Cooperstown was wonderful, the Braves did not want a celebration of the past to be this year’s most memorable occasion. Coming in a close second might be the three-week stretch this past winter when a flurry of long-term extensions gave hope for the future.

However you want to look at it, there hasn’t been much reason to be excited about the present for the Braves, who are expected to make significant changes once this season concludes. The only question is whether general manager Frank Wren and all of the members of the coaching staff will survive what has been the most disappointing season the Braves have experienced since the 1980s.

Coming off a 2-7 road trip that concluded in embarrassing fashion in Texas, the Braves now sit four games behind the Pirates and 2 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the battle for the National League’s second Wild Card spot.  Needless to say, with 13 games remaining, the odds of passing both the Pirates and Brewers are slim.

But it would be easy to just continue harping on the negative.  We’ve been doing that as the Braves have gone 58-67 going back to April 29.  To put this in perspective, the Braves have matched the Mets during his span, played a half-game better than the Astros and one game better than the Cubs.

Sorry about that, I meant to get back into positive mode.  If you want to hold out hope for a miraculous turnaround that would earn the Braves a playoff berth, you can look at the fact that the Pirates will play three games against the Brewers this weekend and then come to Turner Field for a four-game set that might have plenty of postseason intrigue.

Of course in order for their to be some drama surrounding next week’s Pirates series, the Braves will first have to take care of business against the Nationals and Mets. And since we are focusing on positives, it seems fitting to point out that Stephen Strasburg (0-4,4.98 ERA in past nine starts vs. Braves)  and Gio Gonzalez (0-6, 5.53 ERA in his past seven starts vs. Braves) are both scheduled to pitch this week in Atlanta.

While the Braves long ago bid adieu to hope of defending their division crown, they now have to win two of these next three games against the Nationals to prevent a National League East title celebration from taking place on their home turf.  The Nationals managed to avoid this embarrassment when the Braves put them in the same position last year.

Obviously the offense has been the primary problem throughout this frustration-filled year for the Braves. But long before scoring became a nightly struggle, this organization started to experience some of instability that seemingly marked the start of the struggles that have followed.

Highly-regarded scout Dom Chiti and notable pitching guru Dave Wallace both left the Braves to join Buck Showalter’s coaching staff in Baltimore. While both benefited financially by going to a Major League coaching staff, Wallace had indicated in the past that he was not interested in going back to the big leagues. But his mindset changed as he butted heads with members of the front office.

Then of course, the Braves nearly made the mistake of allowing pitching coach Roger McDowell go to the Phillies. President John Schuerholz stepped in at the last minute to keep McDowell, whose value extends far beyond what he does for the pitching staff.

A few weeks later, when Schuerholz hired his good friend John Hart to serve as a senior advisor in the baseball operations department,there was obvious reason to wonder about Wren’s job security.  There is still reason to wonder a year later. But it does seem like Hart like his other ventures, especially as an MLB Network analyst, to assume the position on a full-time basis.

This past offseason’s most significant development centers around the departure of Tim Hudson.  While for more than a year it had been assumed Brian McCann would depart after the 2013 season, there was at least some reason to think Hudson would remain close to his family by continuing to play in Atlanta as he faced the uncertainty surrounding his attempt to return from a fractured right ankle.

This mindset changed last September, when he said he had not had any conversations with the Braves about sticking around. Then of course came the early November revelation that the Braves had essentially offended him with an initial  one-year, $2 million offer that included an option for the 2015 season.

Though the Braves’ offers improved, they would have never matched the two-year, $23 million offer Hudson received from the Giants. But as another disappointing September elapses, there is at least reason to wonder how beneficial Hudson’s clubhouse presence might have been this year had the Braves at least reached out last September and made him a respectable offer that he might have accepted.

As Hudson has spent the past few months experiencing an All-Star selection and aiding in the development of Madison Bumgarner, the Braves have lost three rotation members (Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd) to elbow injuries.  While it’s never easy to overcome this kind of damage to a rotation, the Braves can’t say pitching is the reason they are now on the brink of being eliminated from the postseason scene.

If the Braves end up going on an incredible run and making the postseason, some of the struggles experienced over the past year will be forgotten.  But in the midst of extended disappointment, there is no choice but to wonder how things might have been different if so many of these things had not gone wrong.

Time is running out as the Braves attempt to prove they aren’t who they have been

As the offensive woes have continued to mount, there has been reason to wonder when the Braves might break out of their funk and at least start hitting more like they did last year.  But with less than three weeks remaining in the season, we’re probably way past the time when we should be using the word “funk” when describing a team that has disappointed at the plate since being shutout on Opening Day.

Instead, it might be time to accept that this offense is either an underachieving group or one that proved deceptive enough last year to be grossly overvalued entering this year.

If former NFL coach Dennis Green was currently serving as the Braves manager, I wonder if this would have been his reaction following Monday night’s 2-1 loss to the Nationals:

Reporter:  What did you see from your offense as it was held to one run or less for the sixth time in the past nine games tonight?

Green: The Braves are who we thought they were. 

Let’s not forget that while winning 17 of their first 24 games, the Braves hit .245 compiled a .705 OPS and averaged 3.7 runs.  The Pirates, Cubs, Cardinals and Padres were the only NL clubs to average fewer runs per game during that period. 

Since getting off to that 17-7 start, the Braves have gone 57-63.  In the process, they have hit .242, compiled a .669 OPS and averaged 3.7 runs. Given that the average runs total is identical within these differing sample sizes, it must be the pitching that has been different.

Well, of course it has. No sane individual expected Atlanta’s rotation to maintain the ridiculous 1.57 ERA it produced during the season’s first 24 games.  The pitching staff as a whole produced an incredible an unsustainable 2.04 ERA during that stretch.  <p> 

While winning just 57 of the 120 games that have followed, the Braves have seen their injury-decimated starting rotation produce a 3.84 ERA.  The staff as a whole has a 3.59 ERA during this span.

The Pirates have produced an identical 3.59 ERA going back to this same date.  But while going 65-52 during this stretch, Pittsburgh has been 9 1/2 games better than the Braves in the standings.  The Buccos have made up this ground while hitting .266, compiling a .749 OPS and averaging 4.3 runs within this span.

Consequently, the Pirates would earn the National League’s second Wild Card spot if the season ended today.  They are 1 1/2 games in front of the Braves and Brewers.

The Pirates will host the Brewers (Sept. 19-21) and then come to Atlanta for a four-game set that might determine which of these two clubs will earn a playoff spot. 

Three weeks ago, it did not seem like these two teams would be in their current positions.  When the Braves took the first two games of a series in Pittsburgh, they extended their winning streak to five games and handed the Pirates their seventh straight loss.  But the tide turned in that series’ finale, during which Jordan Walden’s command issues and a lack of communication between the Upton brothers led to a bad loss for the Braves. 

Going to back to that final game in Pittsburgh, the Pirates have won 11 of 17 and the Braves have lost 10 of 18.

Though Atlanta’s offense has been a problem throughout the season, its current stretch of futility has been quite troubling.  Along with being limited to one run or less in six of the past nine games, the Braves have hit .211 and compiled a .582 OPS while averaging 2.3 runs in their past 15 games.

There is still a possibility that the Braves will turn things around in time to gain a playoff spot. But as every day elapses, there is more reason to begin assuming these guys simply are who they have been most of this season.

Offensive woes have continued to blemish solid pitching

As Alex Wood neared the completion of his latest gem on Sunday, I decided to take a quick look at how unfortunate he has been because of a lack of run support.  Given that I really don’t care for the quality start (six innings and three earned runs or less) stat, I opted to simply look at those starts in which he had completed at least seven innings while allowing two earned runs or less. 

I found that before preserving his eight stellar innings in Sunday’s 1-0 win, the Braves had lost six of the previous nine games in which the young lefty had allowed less than three earned runs and recorded at least 21 outs.

That’s mind boggling.  But those of you who have closely followed this team and its oft-slumbering offense were likely at least prepared for the numbers to not be pretty.

This led me to check the Braves’ overall record whenever their starting pitchers complete seven innings and allow two earned runs or less.

2014: 29-16

2013: 33-9

2012: 31-8

2011: 32-4

2010: 30-7

2009: 29-15

I chose to go back to 2009 because that was the last year in which the Braves would not have qualified for the postseason under the current format which allows for two Wild Card entries from both leagues.  In other words, they would have qualified in 2011 had the two-team WC format been in place. 

If the Braves are going to return to the playoffs this season, they will obviously need their maddening offense to provide some form of consistent production over the next four weeks.   Since totaling 28 runs over a four-game span (Aug. 18-21), the Braves have totaled 23 runs in the 10 games that have followed.  They have scored more than three runs just twice during this 10-game span. 

This troubling trend is nothing new for the Braves, who count the Padres as the only Major League club they have scored more runs than this year.

The .680 OPS produced thus far would be the lowest recorded by the Braves since the glorious 1988 (.646) and 1989 (.647) seasons.

LEADOFF SPOT:  Whether or not you view Jason Heyward as a leadoff hitter, it is hard to argue against the belief that he is the best option the Braves have.  My only argument would be that they could get away with putting Emilio Bonifacio in the leadoff spot in games they’re facing a left-handed starting pitcher. 

Heyward has batted .301 with a .366 on-base percentage in the 18 games he has played since moving back to the leadoff spot on Aug. 13.  He has reached safely on a third of his plate appearances against lefties during this span.  This latter stat was obviously aided when he walked in his first two plate appearances against the erratic Cole Hamels on Monday afternoon.

REMAINING SCHEDULE:  As mediocre as the Braves have been over the past few weeks, let alone the past few months, they have to feel quite fortunate that they stand just 1 1/2 games back in the battle to claim the National League’s second Wild Card spot.  Their most likely fellow combatants in this battle will be the Pirates, Brewers, Cardinals and either the Giants or Dodgers.

With six games remaining against the Nationals, the Braves can hold on to a glimmer of hope that a miraculous September will allow them to defend their division crown.  But they might be better off focusing on the Wild Card chase which could be significantly influenced when the Pirates come to Atlanta for a four-game series (Sept. 22-25). 

By the time the Pirates arrive in Atlanta, they will have completed their current three-game series against the Cardinals and the three-game set they’ll host against the Brewers (Sept. 19-21).

The Cardinals and Brewers are scheduled to square off seven more times.  The Dodgers and Giants have six more matchups as they battle for the NL West crown. 

So, the Braves can hope that the NL West and NL Central clubs (Pirates, Cards and Brewers) beat up on each other over the next couple of weeks.  But none of that will matter if the Braves do not halt their offensive woes in time to prevent going into this offseason with an empty feeling.


Like last year, the Braves have surged at an unexpected time

It is far too early to compare this current four-game surge to the 14-game winning streak that essentially ended the National League East race last year.  But if this does prove to be the start of a special surge for the Braves, we will remember that like last year’s streak, it began when there did not seem to be much reason for optimism.

Last year was different simply because the Braves got off to a hot start and held a division lead of at least four games every day after May 20.  But some doubt crept in on July 25 when they dropped to 19-21 over their previous 40 games.  More importantly, they had lost Tim Hudson to a season-ending ankle injury less than 24 hours earlier and the NL Central-leading Cardinals were coming to Atlanta the next day.

Instead of being burdened by doom and gloom, the Braves showed their resiliency by producing an incredible streak that enabled them to celebrate a special season.  Though, this previous sentence was in reference to last year, there is a chance it could apply to what is transpiring this season.

Or as tonight’s starter Aaron Harang will attest, some of these same words could have been used to describe what he and his 2002 A’s teammates experienced when they produced a 20-game winning streak that took them from being 4 1/2 games back on Aug. 12 to 3 1/2 games up on Sept. 4. 

“We have the team that can do that,” Harang said. “When that happened (with the A’s), we got multiple guys all producing all at once and pitchers all were trying to feed off each other.  One of the guys would go out and throw seven or eight innings of one run ball or no runs and the next night the guy would come in and say I’m going to one up you. You just kind of feed off of each other when you get in that situation…Every night, it was somebody else who was getting that big hit.”

When Harang toes the rubber at PNC Park tonight, he’ll attempt to add to the recent success of Atlanta’s starters, who have allowed three earned runs or less in five of the past six games.  The only rotation member to be part of a loss during this span is Harang, who had another forgettable afternoon outing against the Dodgers last week. 

Harang will not have to deal with the afternoon elements that have existed during two of the three occasions he has allowed more than four earned runs this year.  But it looks like he will have to deal with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is expected to come off the disabled list tonight.  McCutchen went 3-for-3 with a double against Harang last year. 

Meanwhile, the Braves will have to adjust to the oddity that Francisco Liriano presents when he takes the mound for the Pirates tonight.  Liriano will become just the 25th different left-handed starting pitcher to face the Braves this year.  STATS, LLC. says this is the lowest total for any club in the Majors this year. 

This fact jives with what Jason Heyward said on Monday when he was asked about his struggles against left-handed pitchers this year.  He has batted .157 with a .228 on-base percentage against LHPs and .306 with a .391 OBP against RHPs.

“It’s just nice to face (left-handed starters) again,” Heyward said. “I feel there has been some inconsistency in regard to when we face them.  It’s tough to face shut-down lefties out of the pen regardless. But when you have to face them without getting any at-bats off of starters, it makes it that much tougher. 

Liriano, who has produced a 1.89 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, is the second left-hander the Braves have faced within the past three days.  A two-run homer by Justin Upton helped them beat southpaw Jon Lester and the A’s on Sunday night. 

Speaking of the younger Upton, Elias says he is batting .388 (19-for-49) against pitchers who were selected for this year’s All-Star Game. Matt Adams (.476) and Jose Altuve (.441) are the only players who have compiled a better batting average with at least 40 plate appearances against this group.



Braves comment on Saturday’s late start

After suffering a 4-1, 11-inning loss that concluded at 2:29 a.m. ET on Sunday, many of the Braves players indicated they were shocked that their front office had decided to wait through a three-hour, 51-minute rain delay before throwing Saturday night’s first pitch.  One reason for the long wait might have been the fact that more rain is in the forecast for Sunday night’s series finale.

Adding to the misery of this marathon event was the fact that the Braves lost for the ninth time in their past 10 games and lost the momentum they had gained with a win in Friday’s series opener against the first-place Nationals, who sit 4 1/2 games in front of the Braves.

“We got some momentum going last night,” B.J. Upton said. “For us to sit around for virtually four hours when it’s been raining all day and kind of force the issue, it kind of blows my mind, especially when we could have gotten an extra day to build on things. I don’t think we saw that coming, for us to start a game at close to 11 o’clock and then get out of here at 3 o’clock. I’ve never seen it. I haven’t been around the longest, but that’s definitely a first for me.”

According to Stats Inc. the 10:51 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s game was the latest for any Major League game since the Braves also opted to wait until 10:53 p.m. ET to begin a June 17, 2013 game against the Mets.


“From a player’s aspect, it was kind of shocking a little bit,” Freddie Freeman said of the late start. “It’s definitely tough to get hot and then sit down for four hours and try to get re-hot again, but it’s our job and we still went out there and gave it our all.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez did not think the late start had an impact.

“I didn’t think anything about the particular starting time,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got to be ready in the Major Leagues to play. And sure, we wanted to start at 7 or 7:05, but it’s Mother Nature and you can’t judge what’s going on.”



Nine things to ponder entering the Nationals series

Now that the Braves have experienced a week that managed to be even worse than the one that bridged April and May, they will spend the next 10 games hosting three first-place clubs  —  the Nationals, Dodgers and A’s.

There are two ways to look at this.  If the Braves extend the struggles encountered during their eight-game losing streak, by this time next week you can essentially bid adieu to legit postseason hopes and that lingering frustration you have felt while following this year’s maddening team.  Or if they turn things around, you will feel much better about having spent the past 4 1/2 months watching this club’s interesting journey.

Here are nine things to ponder entering this weekend’s series against the Nationals:

1.  The Braves will get a better understanding about Andrelton Simmons’ left ankle later today.  If it’s determined he will be sidelined for more than a few days and possibly placed on the disabled list, there’s a strong possibility Jose Peraza will get a chance to make the jump from Double-A Mississippi to the Majors.  Peraza has played just 41 games above the Class A level, but the 20-year-old infielder has batted .335 with a .361 on-base percentage and 25 stolen bases (32 attempts) since getting promoted to Double-A Mississippi.

2.  Braves starting pitchers have completed at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or less five times during the current eight-game skid.  In other words, most of the blame still points in the direction of an offense that now counts the Padres and Cardinals as the only two Major League clubs that have scored fewer runs.  If Peraza gets the call, he obviously fits the leadoff spot perfectly.  If not, this lineup could benefit from a decision to platoon Jason Heyward and Emilio Bonifacio in the leadoff spot.   Heyward’s .225 on-base percentage vs lefties is a concern.  But when clubs go with a southpaw starter, Fredi Gonzalez can go with Bonifacio, who has compiled a .442 OBP vs. lefties.

3. As the Braves have won 20 of 29 against the Nationals dating back to last year, there has been reason to wonder if some of their success has led to a mental edge.  But some of that edge might have evaporated when the Nats claimed victories in the final two games of a four-game set in Washington D.C. in June.

4.   The Braves will not have to deal with Nats ace Doug Fister this weekend.  It also appears they will miss Clayton Kershaw during the four-game series against the Dodgers.  But during the three-game set against the A’s, they are lined up to face Jason Hammel, Sonny Gray and Jon Lester.

5.  Ervin Santana looked like a $14.1 million bust as he produced a 6.44 ERA in the six starts he made from May 16-June 12.  But as he has posted a 2.95 ERA in the nine starts that have followed, he has proven capable of his assignment to solidify a fractured rotation that has lost three members to season-ending elbow surgeries dating back to March.

6.  Stephen Strasburg enters tonight’s start having gone 0-2 with a 3.90 ERA in the seven starts he has made against the Braves dating back to last year.  Strasburg has lasted fewer than five innings in three of his past five starts against Atlanta.

7.  If another reason is needed to put Heyward back in the leadoff spot, he has batted .423 (11-for-26) with a 1.098 OPS in his career against Strasburg.  Freddie Freeman has hit .450 (9-for-20) with a 1.319 OPS against the former top overall selection.

8.  One year after not losing more than four straight, the Braves have now lost at least seven straight games twice this season.  After their seven-game losing streak (April 28-May 5), they won 11 of their next 18 games.

9. There has been something missing from this club as this season has progressed.  It can be said the lack of spirit felt inside the clubhouse is simply a product of the fact that this has been a sub .500 club for the past 90 games (41-48).  Or some might say we were just spoiled to have the vibrant and humorous likes of David Ross, Tim Hudson, Peter Moylan and Brian McCann for so long.  But you have to wonder if the spirit of these aforementioned players might have at least been preserved better had Kris Medlen not been forced to assume a bystander role this year.

As this week has progressed, I’ve found myself realizing that I have overlooked Medlen’s absence far too often while attempting to dissect this club’s problems this year.  But instead of dwelling on what they do not have, the Braves simply have to hope that what they already have is enough to bounce back and prove they are a legit playoff contender.

Memories of Pete: A beloved legend of the Braves’ family

After handling our respective duties during an Aug. 4, 2008 game in San Francisco,  a group of us went to Lefty O’Doul’s to have a drink and tell just a few more stories about the friend we had lost 24 hours earlier.  As we prepared to exit the establishment, Pete Van Wieren left a shot of Dewar’s sitting on the bar.  He tapped his finger near the shot glass, stood and walked away with the wish that he might have had the chance to share just one more drink with Skip Caray.

Almost exactly six years after sadly saying goodbye to Skip, the baseball community finds itself mourning the passing of Van Wieren. The fact that he had missed last week’s Hall of Fame celebration in Cooperstown provided a clue.  But it was not until Saturday morning that most of us realized how dire his battle with cancer had become.

When Van Wieren came to Turner Field to emcee the Hank Aaron 715th home run anniversary celebration, staged before this year’s home opener, he was thrilled his doctors had informed him that he was as healthy as he had been since he was diagnosed with with cutaneous B-cell lymphoma on Nov. 4, 2009  — 13 months after he had retired from his 33-year stint as a Braves broadcaster.

Knowing he had experienced other encouraging updates over the previous couple years, I asked Pete how optimistic I should be with the tone of what I would write.  He said, “I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m feeling great.”

The cancer returned a short time later and progressively worsened.  Van Wieren began receiving hospice care a couple days ago and then according to family members died peacefully this morning.

While thrilled that he will no longer suffer, I count myself among the many of you who are saddened by the reality that we will never again have the chance to see Van Wieren take great joy in the chance to be around the game of baseball.  But we will always have memories of that distinct voice that was enriched with the wealth of knowledge he gained through countless hours of preparation on a daily basis.

Though we possessed different roles within the same industry, I would say Pete has had a significant influence on my career.  While none of us could ever match the dedication and attention to detail that Van Wieren brought on a daily basis, we can always better ourselves just by trying.

Like many of you, I grew up away from Atlanta as the fan of a team that was not the Braves. Still throughout my youth, I recognized Skip, Pete and Ernie Johnson Sr. as three of the most recognizable figures of the Braves organization.  They were revolutionary figures courtesy of TBS’ nationwide reach.  But somehow Cooperstown’s doors have never been opened for any of these three legends.

From 1976-2008, Van Wieren served as a Braves broadcaster and one of the organization’s greatest ambassadors.  Whether in a hotel lobby or at a team-related function, he always graciously interacted with fans.  Then of course whether calling a game or emceeing  an event, he blessed us with gifts that came via the sound and contents of his voice.

During his final two years as a broadcaster, he called every Spring Training and regular season game, except for one  — an absence caused by laryngitis.  What a treat it was to have Pete at Spring Training on a daily basis those two seasons (2007-08).

As Pete spent the past few years watching his grandchildren grow and fulfilling his passion for poker, I urged him to return to Spring Training for a week or two.  He always said, “We’ll see” and never really indicated whether he was being limited by the cancer.

When I wrote  this Thanksgiving story two years ago, Van Wieren provided us hope that he might have beaten the cancer that had rudely interrupted his plans to spend much of his retirement traveling and spending time with his family.  He did some of this, but not nearly enough.

Still during his 69 years on this earth, Pete enriched countless lives and left his mark on a Braves organization that will forever be grateful for the opportunity to call him on of their own.

So, if you’re wanting to show your appreciation tonight, I suggest you grab a cold Heineken and raise it high.  Or you might just leave one sitting alone on the bar before walking away with the wish that you might have had just one more to share with Pete.



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.





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