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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Braves Quick Hits

Now that they have completed an 8-3 road trip, the Braves attempt to take advantage of a chance to extend their momentum over the next couple of weeks.   Each of their 13 games scheduled before the All-Star break will be played against teams (Mets, D-backs and Cubs) that are currently at least eight games below .500.

Those of you who have watched this club closely, can choose whether this is  good or bad thing.  The Braves are 24-21 (.533 win percentage) against teams currently below .500 and 20-17 against teams that currently have a winning record.

The Braves will play seven of these 13 games against the Mets, who have gone 9-10 since losing six straight earlier this month.   With the Braves starting a pair of left-handed pitchers this week, the Mets are hoping David Wright (shoulder) returns to the lineup as early as tonight.  Wright, who hasn’t played since Thursday, has batted .403 against left-handed pitchers this season.

On the opposite end of this spectrum is Jason Heyward, who has continued to create reason to wonder if he is still bothered by the effects of getting in the face with Mets left-hander Jon Niese’s fastball in August.  Heyward was hitting just .212 (11-for-52) against left-handed pitchers through May 27.  He has since gone hitless in 28 at-bats against southpaws.

Fortunately for Heyward, the Braves have not faced a left-handed starting pitcher in their past 13 games.  And the Mets are not scheduled to send a left-handed starter to the mound this week.

Alex Wood gets the start for the Braves in tonight’s series opener.  Wood has allowed two earned runs or less in seven of eight starts this year.  He’s allowed one earned run or less and lasted at least seven innings in four of those outings.

B.J. Upton hasn’t proven anybody wrong as he he has hit .231 and produced a .259 on-base percentage in the six games he has played since moving to the leadoff role.  But while recording at least one hit in each of those six games, he has at least given the superstitious Fredi Gonzalez reason to stick with the “If it’s not completely damaged, don’t fix it approach.”

 

 

 

 

 

Heyward remains the only logical option to consistently fill the leadoff spot

Fredi Gonzalez watches the same games and analyzes the same numbers that you do.  When he put B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot for Tuesday night’s game against the Astros, he fully anticipated the ridicule that followed.  But as long as he wants to keep Jason Heyward in the middle of his lineup, then he really does not have a logical option to place at the top.

Raise your hand if you just read that previous sentence and said something like, “Yeah, so, just go with the most illogical option?”  (Seriously, you just raised your hand with nobody around you understanding why.  And you think Fredi is a buffoon for putting B.J. in the leadoff spot.)

Gonzalez made it clear that he is not married to  having Upton fill the leadoff spot.  It sounds like he’s going to experiment with this arrangement much like he did the Tommy La Stella experiment that did not work last week.

Perhaps, three weeks into his career was too early to ask La Stella to fill the lineup’s top spot. Or maybe the time was right for him to finally get exposed.  Whatever the case, as he went 2-for-20 and drew two walks over the five games he served as the leadoff hitter, he did not show the patience and plate discipline that had set him apart during his Minor League days.

If La Stella continues to consistently put the ball in play, he could prove to be effective in the lineup’s second spot.  But the jury is still out on the second baseman.

When La Stella was hitting .387 entering last Tuesday’s game against the Philllies, a highly-regarded scout pointed to a stat sheet and told me, ‘that three will be a two within a week.”  Once again, he proved to be right.  La Stella will enter tonight’s game hitting .289.

Freddie Freeman is really the only logical number three hitter on the Braves roster.  So if Gonzalez wants to keep La Stella in the two hole, he would have left-handed hitters filling the second and third spots of his lineup. This brings us back to the argument against filling the top of the lineup with three consecutive left-handed hitters.  In other words, using this premise, Heyward is out of the mix for the leadoff spot.  (SPOILER ALERT:  Heyward is always the best leadoff option, unless the Braves facing a left-handed starter.  Just in the process of making an argument right now.)

So now we’re tasked with the assignment to find a right-handed hitter to put in that leadoff spot. Well, unless you want to argue that it would cut down on the double play opportunities Chris Johnson would encounter, Johnson, Justin Upton and  Evan Gattis are not exactly leadoff types.  When given a shot to fill this role last year, Andrelton Simmons proved to be the least productive of the many leadoff hitters the Braves have utilized since saying goodbye to Rafael Furcal.

So essentially by default, Gonzalez threw B.J. and his .272 on-base percentage into the leadoff spot yesterday. How long this arrangement lasts remains to be seen.  But it’s obviously not one that makes sense, especially this week with the Astros set to start three consecutive right-handed pitchers.

I understand that Astros veteran left-handed reliever Tony Sipp has been tremendous against left-handed hitters this season.  But he’s also been pedestrian again them throughout most of his career.  More importantly, does is really make sense to allow a lineup’s structure to be based on the concern that one specialist MIGHT be able to dominate three consecutive left-handed hitters in an inning?

So if La Stella has to be in the two-hole for now, I think the Braves would be best suited to begin their lineup against right-handed starters  with the left-handed trio of Heyward, La Stella and Freeman.

Concerns about putting Heyward in the leadoff spot on a daily basis are focused on the fact that he has hit .139 with a .198 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers.  In fact, he his hitless in his past 27 at-bats against southpaws.

So, when the Braves face a left-handed starter, it might make sense to fill the leadoff spot with Simmons, who has hit .348 with a .362 on-base percentage against southpaws this year.  But, other than recognizing that his speed is an asset when he gets on base, I can’t even begin to make an argument for B.J. being in the leadoff spot.

Proposed lineup vs. RH starters:   Heyward, La Stella, Freeman, Gattis, J. Upton, Johnson, B.J., Simmons

vs. LH starters:  Simmons, J. Upton, Freeman, Gattis, Johnson, Heyward, B.J., La Stella

 

Here is a look at the top on-base percentages compiled by players while manning the leadoff spot (Min. 50 games) for the Braves dating back to Furcal’s departure after the 2005 season:

Yunel Escobar (80 games)  .370

Gregor Blanco (70 games)  .370

Omar Infante (97 games)  .363

Heyward (99 games)  .354

Michael Bourn (204 games )  .340

Martin Prado (139 games) .340

Kelly Johnson (141 games) .338

Nate McLouth (99 games) .336

Marcus Giles  (113 games) .334

Jordan Schafer (88 games) .316

Andrelton Simmons (65 games) .255

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts about Jaime’s potential staying power and Freeman’s turnaround

It was hard to understand the correlation Fredi Gonzalez attempted to make between last weekend’s series against the Angels and last July’s three-game set against the Cardinals at Turner Field.  As the Braves swept St. Louis in that series, you could see that they were ready to break free from the mediocrity they had produced over the previous couple weeks.  This proved true as those three games marked the start of a 14-game winning streak.

Last weekend’s series against the Angels did not provide anywhere near as much optimism.  And if it did, that optimism died somewhere in the midst of  next three miserable games played against the Phillies.

But if the Braves spend these next two days doing what they did during their first two days in D.C., then there is a chance this four-game set against the Nationals will deservedly draw comparisons to that Cardinals series, which began two days after Tim Hudson suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

Here are a few thoughts on what has transpired as the Braves have won the first two games of this weekend’s four-game set.  They have now won seven of eight during this year’s season series and 20 of the 27 games played against the Nationals dating back to last year.

1)  Strong bullpens are stumbled upon, not created:  The spectacular bullpen the Braves had in 2002 featured two veterans —  Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond  —  who had come to Spring Training as non-roster invitees.  When last year’s pen produced a franchise-best ERA, the top two projected setup men —  Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters  — had their arms in slings.  Now this year’s oft-maddening relief corps might finally be taking shape.

Jordan Walden has allowed just one hit while holding opponents scoreless in his past four appearances.  Shae Simmons has continued to show he can be a reliable seventh or eighth inning piece.  And now Juan Jaime has arrived with the potential to reduce the workload incurred by Simmons and Walden.  Jaime showed off his high-octane fastball and a knee-buckling low-70s curveball as he worked a scoreless 11th inning in his Major League debut last night.

The knock against the 26-year-old Jaime is that he can’t consistently throw strikes.  Well, in order to stay with Atlanta, he’ll obviously have to prove he is capable. But he at least provided some indication as he walked just five of the 47 batters he faced for Triple-A Gwinnnett from May 13-Tuesday.

Of course to really have a strong bullpen, the Braves will need to see the recent trend change for Craig Kimbrel,  who has blown two of his past seven save opportunities and allowed at least one run in three of his past eight appearances.  But given the dominant outings he has sprinkled in between, I don’t think the veteran closer currently ranks too high on the club’s concern list.

2)  Freeman is back:  There was certainly reason to be concerned with Freddie Freeman as he entered last Saturday’s game against the Angels having hit. 188 with a .665 OPS in his previous 23 games.  But the 24-year-old first baseman enters tonight’s game having collected eight extra-base hits in his past 31 at-bats.  Somehow against the Marlins, he’s managed to go 2-for-36 this season.  But against the Nationals, he has bated .515 (17-for-33) with three homers and a 1.503 OPS.

3) Gattis remains hot: Before delivering the decisive single in Friday night’s 13-inning win, Evan Gattis extended MLB’s longest current hitting streak to 19 games.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the hitting streak is the longest by a player who was the starting catcher for every game of the streak since Jason Kendall put together a 20-game stretch for the 2004 Pirates.

 

 

 

Minor and Strasburg will attempt to stick around longer this time

On the way to recording their timeliest win of season, the Braves watched Gavin Floyd dominate and then make an abrupt exit because of what proved to be a fractured right elbow.  It seems nothing has come easy for the Atlanta bunch this season.  Well, unless you account for those days they’ve had a chance to play the Nationals.

With Thursday night’s series opening win, the Braves improved to 19-7 against the Nationals dating back to the start of the 2013 season.   Accounting for the fact that they notched two of their seven wins with a doubleheader sweep in September, the Nationals have proven victorious during just six of the 25 days they have been pitted against the Braves during this span.  That’s nearly a month’s worth of futility.

Now, the Nationals will spend the next two nights challenged by Atlanta’s two most talented starting pitchers  —  Mike Minor and Julio Teheran.   With the always erratic Ervin Santana set to start Sunday, the Braves have to hope to win at least one of these next two nights, when the Nationals are set to start Stephen Strasburg and then Doug Fister.

Minor has allowed a career-high 11 hits in his past two starts and three times in nine starts this season.  Now that he has spent the past 10 days falling victim to Coors Field and a potent Angels lineup that only mustered three runs against him, the quietly confident southpaw is looking forward to another chance to emerge victorious in an underdog role.

Minor has never thought that he should have taken ahead of Strasburg (the top overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft).  But when he opposes him tonight, he will attempt to thrive off the motivation created by the fact that he was taken six picks after Strasburg.

Of course the last time we got excited about a Minor-Strasburg matchup, neither got through two innings.  Minor walked four and surrendered four hits, while notching just five outs during that wacky Aug. 17 evening.  Strasburg surrendered a leadoff home run to Jason Heyward and then hit Justin Upton in the first inning, likely in retaliation to Bryce Harper getting hit twice the night before and three times by the Braves during the month of August.  Strasburg was ejected after he threw three consecutive pitches behind Andrelton Simmons in the second inning.

This event simply added to the many oddities Strasburg has experienced in the process of lasting fewer than five innings in five of his 13 career starts against the Braves.  He has exited before the end of the fifth in just nine of his other 77 career starts.

With Floyd now on the disabled list, the Braves have recalled left-handed reliever Ryan Buchter to provide bullpen depth for the next few days.  The Braves will now have to decide whether to bring Alex Wood up to start a game during next week’s series in Houston or wait until he would be needed to account for the June 28 doubleheader in Philadelphia.  Either way you cut it, it looks like they might have to promote one of Gwinnett’s starting pitchers (Gus Schlosser is on the 40-man) to serve as the 26th roster member for that doubleheader.

FREDDIE FREEMAN It looks like Freddie Freeman has regained his productive form.  Freeman enters Friday night’s contest with six doubles and a triple in his past 25 at-bats.  Freeman entered Saturday with just two extra-base hits (both home runs) in the 48 at-bats he had compiled this month.

 

 

 

 

Will the limping Braves get right against the Nationals?

Braves fans likely would not have been concerned had they entered this season with the guarantee that their team would be in its current position  —  1 1/2 games out of first place entering this week’s series against the Nationals.

That is unless this guarantee came with the revelation that Washington would could currently sit atop the National League East standings despite the fact that Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez would have all missed at least one month’s worth of action because of injuries.

While the Nationals have persevered through these injuries and won 12 of their past 18  games, the Braves limp into D.C. knowing they squandered a prime opportunity to to distances themselves while their division rivals were down.

When the Braves won 17 of their first 24 games, they held a season-best 3 1/2-game lead in the NL East and owned Major League Baseball’s second-best winning percentage .  In the process of shaking hands at the conclusion of just 19 of the 48 games that have followed, they have compiled a winning percentage (.404) that has been better than just the Rays (.354), Mets (.383) and Padres (.391) dating back to April 28.

The Braves have generated a couple glimmers of hope  —  a three-game sweep in Miami and   a 5-2 homestand against Milwaukee and Colorado.  But for the most part they have played rather uninspired ball for the past two months.

As bad as the first half of May was, the Braves still held a three-game division lead when they completed that sweep against the Marlins on June 1.  But as they’ve lost 10 of the 15 games that have followed, the Nationals have won 10 of 15.

Thus, here we are D.C. ready to see if the Braves can jump back into first place by extending a dominant stretch during which they have won 18 of 25 against the Nationals dating back to the start of the 2013 season.

But regardless of what transpires over the next four days, the Braves will continue to evaluate the potential adjustments that could be made in attempt to avoid the inconsistencies that have plagued them the past two months.

BETHANCOURT COMING?  Since it created a stir earlier this week, let’s revisit those preliminary discussions the Braves have had about promoting Christian Bethancourt, the talented catcher, who has finally provided some indication he might be adequate with the bat at the big league level.  This move would improve the Braves defensively behind the plate and weaken them in left field, where Evan Gattis would once again get a chance to roam.

It must also be remembered that B.J. Upton’s struggles at the plate and in the field significantly influenced these discussions.  As the dominoes would fall with this potential decision, Jason Heyward  would replace B.J. in center field.  But it’s still a little too early to say whether any of this will happen.

Yeah, the Braves had reason to be upset when Upton botched a routine fly ball on Friday and then made a costly error on Saturday.  But he also made a sensational diving catch on Sunday and more importantly is nearing the halway point of year two of a five-year, $75.25 million contract.

Exactly one month ago, Upton arrived at Turner Field and told hitting coach Greg Walker he had figured out how to control the pre-swing bat waggle.

In the 15 games played from May 19-June 3, Upton his .268 with a .782 OPS and 5.9 plate appearance/strikeout ratio.   In his past 13 games, the Braves center fielder has hit .182 with a .546 OPS and 3.3 plate appearance/strikeout ratio.      All told, in the 25 games played since telling Walker he was confident he had made the right adjustment, Upton has batted .225 with a .668 OPS. <p>

Upton has obviously been much more productive than he was last year and the .630 OPS he has produced thus far is not necessarily eons away from the .670 OPS he compiled at this same point (67 games) of the 2012 season, during which he proved impressive enough for the Braves to give him a franchise-record deal at the time.

So for now, it seems it would be wise for the Braves to remain patient a little longer with B.J.  But it never hurts to at least be looking at potential moves that could be made over the next few weeks.

When Alex Wood was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to stretch out as a starter, it was always known that he would return to at least start one of the games played during next Saturday’s doubleheader in Philadelphia.  But it was also not necessarily a coincidence that he was lined up to be pitching on the same days as Aaron Harang.

As Harang was allowing 13 hits and eight earned runs in just five innings against the Phillies on Wednesday, Wood was limiting Indianapolis to one earned runs over five innings.

Wood will likely make one more start for Gwinnett and then rejoin the Braves rotation.  Even before Harang faltered yesterday, it seemed the Braves were still leaning him to be the odd man out when Wood returns.  It will now be interesting to see what Harang might warrant on the trade market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would it be better for the Braves to trade Harang or Floyd?

Alex Wood will spend the next couple of weeks preparing to rejoin Atlanta’s starting rotation.  How the Braves will create a spot for him remains to be determined.  But given a choice it still seems like they would be more willing to trade Aaron Harang than Gavin Floyd.

Wood was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett to make room room for Jordan Walden, who was activated from the disabled list on Tuesday.   As Wood makes at least a couple starts for Gwinnett, he will attempt to regain the endurance he has lost since he was moved to the bullpen after a May 4 start against the Giants.

Wood will almost certainly be back at the Major League level by the time the Braves play a June 28 doubleheader in Philadelphia.   But he could return sooner if one of the current members of Atlanta’s rotation suffers an injury or gets traded.

Late last week, I suggested it would be more prudent to keep Harang, who salary will not exceed $2 million regardless of what transpires over the next 3 1/2 months, and deal Floyd, who is going to get more expensive over the remainder of this summer.

But the financial element does not seem to be influencing the Braves mindset in any way.  Once they went over budget to give Ervin Santana his $14.1 million salary in March, they signaled they are all in this year, regardless of the cost.

Thus when determining whether they would rather trade Harang or Floyd, they will base their decision simply on who they believe will be more effective throughout the remainder of this season.

Floyd will receive a $175,000 bonus for each 15 days he has spent on the roster and $250,000 for each 30 and 60 days on the roster.  Given that he has he has currently spent 36 days on the roster, he has already added $600,000 to his $4 million base salary.

The Braves also agreed to give Floyd a $250,000 bonus for each start he makes between his 21st and 28th of the season.  At his current pace, the veteran pitcher would make his 21st start during the third week of August.  While there are many different variables to be accounted for, this would set him up to gain approximately $1.75 million through these start incentives.

So, there’s a chance Floyd will end up costing somewhere closer to $7 million by the time this season concludes.  If he maintains something close to the 2.57 ERA he has produced through his first seven starts, this would certainly be a cost the Braves would be willing to pay.

Some might argue that Harang would be an even better bargain if he maintains something close to the 3.33 ERA he has posted through his first 13 starts.  But as good as he has been, allowing two earned runs or less in 10 outings, it still feels like we’re still waiting for that clock to strike midnight.

Before going further, the Fielding Independent Pitching, measure what a pitcher’s ERA should be over a given period assuming that the balls in play and timing were league average.  Many sabermaticians believe this stat is more effective than ERA to predict future performances.

So if you are among those who buy into this theory, an argument to keep Harang could be supported by the fact he leads the Braves starters with a 2.82 FIP.  But it should also be noted that Atlanta’s two best starters also own the rotation’s two worst FIP marks  — Julio Teheran (3.63) and Mike Minor (3.75).

Teheran’s FIP is similar to what it was last year (3.68) when he posted a 3.20 ERA.  He currently leads the Majors with a 1.89 ERA and the 2.49 ERA he has posted since April 23, 2013 ranks second only to Clayton Kershaw among pitchers who have made at least 35 starts during this span.   Minor’s FIP is a little higher than it was last year (3.39) when he produced a 3.21 ERA.

So, before making too much of the FIP stat, remember we’re dealing with a relatively short sample size.  Like you would never allow this stat to make you believe Harang is better than Teheran or Minor, it’s probably wise to also do the same in relation to Floyd.

If we take away Harang’s early excellence (0.82 ERA through his first five starts) and his clunker in Miami (9 ER in 4 2/3 innings), he has posted a 3.64 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .288 with a .348 on-base percentage in the seven starts that have followed.

On the way to posting his 2.57 ERA through seven starts, Floyd has allowed opponents to hit .279 with a .333 on-base percentage.

Like most other pitchers during the early stages of a return from Tommy John surgery, Floyd might experience an occasional rough outing like he did against the Mariners last week.  But the assumption is that he will get stronger and more consistent as he distances himself from this surgical procedure.

It might not be wise to make any assumptions about Harang, who has taken great joy in his ability to prove most of us wrong over the past couple of months.  There is no doubt a pitching-hungry club would be willing to take a chance on him at what now stands as a bargain price.

This will not be an easy decision for the Braves to make as they attempt to create a rotation spot for Wood.  But as things currently stand, it seems they are more willing to figuratively and literally place their money on Floyd.

 

 

 

 

 

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