Results tagged ‘ Garret Anderson ’

Can you still Believe?

Postseason hope might not be officially dead in Atlanta.  But I think it’s pretty safe to say it’s currently floating down the E. Coli-infested Chattahoochee River with Chad Paronto on its back.

There’s no doubt that the Braves are capable of sweeping their four-game series against the Nationals this weekend.  But you have to think the Rockies will likely clinch the Wild Card spot by winning at least one of their last four games against the Brewers and the Dodgers, who have lost four straight and five of six during a stretch against the Pirates and Padres.

When Matt Diaz hit his game-tying, three-run homer against the Marlins on Tuesday night, it was still easy to Believe that the Braves were going to find a way to get into the playoffs.

Two losses later, it’s hard to Believe how that one last gasp to keep legit hope alive was destroyed.

While getting picked off third base to end Wednesday night’s game, Diaz went from being the unsung catalyst to the goat in the matter of minutes. 

That same aggressive, shoes-on-fire approach that led Diaz to stray too far off third base was arguably what had allowed the Braves to load the bases in the ninth. 

Had Diaz not busted down the line after producing his two-out grounder, Marlins third baseman Wes Helms might not have rushed his throw that resulted in the inning-extending error.

In the end, there is no excuse for getting picked off in that situation.  Diaz knows that and he’ll continue to be bothered by this event for many days to come.

But as the Rockies continue to roll and the Dodgers continue to slide, Sunday may conclude with the realization that even with a perfect finish the Braves might have found themselves forced to face the fact that the hole they had dug was too deep to escape.

With the playoff picture now fading out of focus, there will still be a few things to follow over the next couple of days.

Perez Watch:  The Indians will likely call the Braves to ask permission to interview bullpen coach Eddie Perez for their vacant managerial role.   While playing in Cleveland in 2002, Perez developed a strong bond with Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. 

While Perez might not yet be deemed ready for a managerial role, it will be interesting to see what he would do if the Indians were to offer him the greater responsibility that he’d experience as their bench coach.

Perez’s ultimate goal is to serve as Bobby Cox’s successor and remain in Atlanta.  But he could also be tempted to leave for a role that would allow him to better prepare himself to serve as a manager in the Majors.

Garret eyeing 2500:  Garret Anderson is just one hit shy of becoming the 90th player in Major League history to record 2500 in his career.  Dating back to the start of 1995, Anderson’s first full season in the big leagues, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are the only players to have compiled more hits.

Chipper needs two more: Chipper Jones remains two homers shy of becoming the first Major Leaguer to ever begin his career with 15 consecutive 20-homer seasons.  I think it’s pretty safe to assume we’ll see the veteran third baseman coming out of his shoes with a couple of swings during this final weekend.

 

  

Braves bats have recently slumbered at Turner Field

Had the Padres bullpen kept things relatively clean following Mat Latos’ exit on Tuesday night, it would have been a little easier for the Braves to simply tip their caps and accept the fact that they were on the wrong end of a one-run shutout loss.  

During Latos’ seven scoreless innings, the Braves recorded two hits and moved just one baserunner (Matt Diaz in the sixth) into scoring position.  During each of the next three innings that followed the 21-year-old hurler’s exit, they put a runner in scoring position with one out and still managed to register just one run.
 
While recording just one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position during those three innings, the Braves prolonged a troubling trend that has factored heavily in the that they’ve produced a pedestrian  7-6 record in their past 13 home games.   During this same span, which dates back to July 31, they’ve won seven of 10 road games.

Within their past 13 games at Turner Field, the Braves have compiled a .224 batting average and hit .223 (23-for-103) with runners in scoring position.  During their past 10 road games, they’ve batted .297 and been successful at a .397 (33-for-87) clip with runners in scoring position.

This glaring discrepancy comes within a small sample size.  But at the same time, it’s not as if the Braves possess the margin of error that will allow them to continue experience these kind of offensive struggles at Turner Field and still catch the Phillies or the Denver-based Rock-offs. 

With a second consecutive extra-inning, walk-off victory last night, the Rockies moved 5 games in front of both the Braves and Marlins, who are once again tied for third place in the National League Wild Card standings. 

Even with all of Colorado’s recent success,  it’s too early for the Braves to panic.  While they’re spending the next two nights facing a couple of Padres starters not named Latos, the Rockies will be facing the greater challenge presented by the Dodgers, who have the luxury of serving as the opposition when Josh Fogg makes his first big league start of the season tonight. 

If Fogg channels 2007 and once again becomes the “Dragon-Slayer”  that he was down the stretch that year, then Denver can prepare for another Rocktober and Atlanta can only hope the Dodgers continue to slide or that the Phillies send Brad Lidge to the mound to protect ninth-inning leads on a nightly basis.

Obviously before the Braves can make a serious push toward the postseason, they’ll need to get healthy.  With Ryan Church likely returning tonight and Nate McLouth confident that he’ll be ready when he’s eligible to come off the DL on Monday, they’re at least moving in the right direction.
 
While Martin Prado went hitless in six at-bats last night, it was at least encouraging to hear that he was able to complete a 12-inning game without dealing with any of the headaches or dizziness that had bothered him over the previous 10 days. 

The Braves also welcomed Garret Anderson back to the lineup on Tuesday night and watched him gut through a 1-for-5 performance.    Obviously outfield range isn’t one of Anderson’s assets.  But last night, it was apparent that he was still dealing with some of the lower back discomfort that has kept Church sidelined the past three games.
 
A healthy Anderson wasn’t going to get the game-winner that David Eckstein placed in the  left-center field gap.  But had Church or McLouth been in center, instead of Omar Infante, I think there’s a chance we might have at least seen a 13th inning.
 
Speaking of health, Chipper Jones certainly has said that he’s feeling some of the aches and pains that develop toward the end of a season for a 37-year-old man.  But it’s not as if his offensive struggles simply started over the course of the past nine games, during which he’s recorded one hit in 28 at-bats. 

This nine-game stretch doesn’t seem as concerning when he you account for the fact that he’s walked seven times in his past 18 plate appearances —  largely a product of the fact that the Marlins made it their mission not to let him hurt him this past weekend. 

Plus in the six games that preceded this nine-game slide, Chipper recorded 13 hits, including a pair of homers, in 23 at-bats. 

Concerns about Jones should focus on the fact that he’s hit just .241 with a .384 slugging percentage during his past 62 games.  Within this stretch, which dates back to June 10, he has seen his batting average drop from .335 to .281 and his slugging percentage drop from .565 to .462. 

Making this stretch even more maddening for Jones is the fact that he’s struggled from both sides of the plate and whether at home or on the road. 

Here are some of Jones’ splits during this 62-game stretch:
Vs. LHP   .235 (18-for-91) batting average, .330 on-base percentage, .395 slugging percentage
Vs. RHP  .244 (33-for-135) BA, .384 OBP, .378 SLG
Home:   .239 (28-for-117) BA, .343 OBP, .385 SLG
Road:    .242 (24-for-99) BA, .389 OBP, .384 SLG

Now that the Braves are returning to health, Jones might be given more opportunities to benefit from the rest provided by a day off.   But at the same time, this wouldn’t guarantee an immediate revival.  After straining his left oblique muscle on Aug. 7, he missed three games and didn’t return to the lineup until Aug. 11.
 
If Jones feels that he needs a day off, Braves manager Bobby Cox will likely be more apt to give him one during one of these final two games against the Padres. 

With the Braves heading to Philadelphia this weekend knowing just how significant it would be to exit with a three-game sweep, they’ll need Jones in the lineup  for each of those three games against the Phillies. 

 

Church joins the list of injured Braves

Ryan Church has spent the past week serving as a capable replacement for Nate McLouth in center field.  But  the versatile outfielder found himself as a member of the growing list of  injured Braves players, who were unavailable for Saturday night’s game again the Marlins. 

Church played through the lower back discomfort caused by an aggravated his sacroiliac  joint during Friday night’s series opener against the Marlins.  But when he returned to Turner Field on Saturday afternoon, he found himself battling spasms and a discomfort level that could keep him sidelined until at least Tuesday.

“It was coming on during one of the games in New York and I was just trying to grind through it,” Church said.  “But it’s starting to (spasm) now.”

An aggravated sacroiliac joint has also prevented Garret Anderson from manning the left field position during the first two games of this weekend’s series.  Anderson will begin swinging a bat again on Sunday and might alsobe available for Tuesday night’s series opener against the Padres.
 
“It’s one of those things that’s just a day-to-day type of thing,” said Church, who like Anderson has dealt with this ailment in the past. 

With Church, Anderson and McLouth unavailable, the Braves starting outfield on Saturday consisted of Reid Gorecki in center, Omar Infante in left and Matt Diaz in right.   Infante, who hadn’t previously started in the outfield this year, was replaced at second base with Kelly Johnson.
 
While Martin Prado returned to Turner Field on Saturday and said he was feeling better, it still appears that it will be at least Tuesday before he’s cleared to resume his duties as the starting second baseman.  Prado, who was diagnosed with exertional headaches, is scheduled to visit Dr. Richard Berstein on Monday.
 
The Braves were also without Brian McCann during Saturday night’s game.  Braves manager Bobby Cox gave McCann the opportunity to choose whether he wanted to have his day off on Saturday or Sunday. 

Considering that the Marlins are starting Ricky Nolasco on Sunday, McCann may have made the right choice.  The All-Star catcher has seven hits, including two doubles and two homers, in 22 career at-bats against Nolasco.   But he’s just 1-for-8 in his career against Chris Volstad, who started Saturday’s game for the Marlins. 

McLouth would like to start running to test his strained left hamstring.  But the Braves have decided it would be best for him to wait a few more days.  The 28-year-old center fielder is eligible to come off the disabled list on Aug. 31.  

Heyward making bid for promotion to Gwinnett

While assessing prospects, baseball’s talent evaluator often say that a player will tell you when he’s ready for the next level.  

With this in mind, Jason Heyward is certainly providing plenty of indication that he may not need to remain at the Double-A level much longer.  But for now, the Braves are simply keeping an open mind regarding his immediate future.

While it currently seems far-fetched to imagine Heyward would end this season in the Majors, there’s certainly a chance that he could at least make his way to Triple-A Gwinnett within the next couple of weeks.  

“We’ll continue to evaluate him and keep our options open,”  said  Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp who has spent the past few days watching Heyward and the other members of the Double-A Mississippi Braves.   

In the 21 games he’s played since being promoted from Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach to Mississippi, Heyward has hit .438 with three homers, 10 doubles, a .517 on-base percentage and a .753 slugging percentage.   

Still 19 years-old and just two years removed from his successful high school career in suburban Atlanta, Heyward is drawing comparisons to Andruw Jones, who broke into the Majors at 19 and two months later homered in his first two World Series at-bats.

Like Heyward did this year, Jones started the 1996 season in the Carolina League.  After 86 games at the Class A-Advanced level he played 38 games in Double-A  and then experienced a 12-game stint at the Triple-A level before getting his call to Atlanta.  

When Jones arrived in the Majors, he had amassed 1251 at-bats in 349 games at the Minor League level.  Entering Thursday, Heyward had compiled 776 at-bats in 209 Minor League games.  

With this in mind, Heyward could certainly benefit from more Minor League development before being asked to test his skills at the Major League level.  But within the next few weeks, there’s certainly a chance that he could be knocking on Atlanta’s door while helping Gwinnett continue its push toward an International League championship.  

This is the first year the Braves have had their Triple-A affiliate in suburban Atlanta and they could certainly increase their attendance by bringing Heyward home for the stretch run this season.  But before doing this, they have to make sure that he experiences the necessary development that will provide him the best chance to succeed when he likely gets his first taste of the Majors next year.

Heyward, who was named Baseball America’s top prospect through the first half of this season, is undoubtedly one of the most impressive prospects the Braves have produced.   Along with being an athletic outfielder with a powerful swing, this mature teenager displays both confidence and an obvious respect for the game and his surroundings.
 
When Heyward first arrived in Mississippi, it was believed that he may not make his Atlanta debut until June next year.  But all current indications provide reason to believe that he’s going to prove to the Braves that he’ll be ready long before that time arrives.  

Anderson rounding into form:  Braves manager Bobby Cox has been supportive of Garret Anderson throughout the season and his prediction that the veteran outfielder would round into form has proven to be valid.  

While hitting .355 over his past 34 games, Anderson has raised his batting average from .253 to .302 and his slugging percentage from .364 to .465.   He has hit four of his nine homers since the All-Star break.

Anderson’s good friend and former Angels teammate Casey Kotchman has also recently increased his production while hitting .307 with a .466 slugging percentage in his past 26 games.
 
Today marks the one-year anniversary of Kotchman’s debut with the Braves.   In the 129 games he’s played for Atlanta, the first baseman has hit .264 with eight homers and a .374 slugging percentage.  Four of those eight homers have come over the course of his past 21 games.  

 
 

Does Cox still have some magic in his tank?

When Jeff Bennett decided to be the one doing the hitting earlier this week, Braves manager Bobby Cox said that the reliever’s decision to punch a door wasn’t exactly smart.  Then he added that it was at least encouraging to see that Bennett cared.
 
Using this same logic, I guess many Braves fans are proving that they still have some passion while questioning whether Cox is the right man to lead this year’s team. 

Dating back to the days when Cox was leading the Braves into the postseason on an annual basis, there was always a small group of fans who questioned his tactical approach.  But this seems to be the first year that a growing legion is questioning whether his time has passed.
 
As our faithful blogger Rother pointed out in the comments section earlier this week, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are among the most recent coaching legends who have heard fans question whether they’re too old to prolong the traditions of excellence that they established at their respective universities. 
 
Like Bowden with Florida State and Paterno with Penn State, Cox is the man most responsible for the fact that the Braves transformed from laughingstock to a perennial championship contender.  He rebuilt the Minor League system during the late 1980’s and then served as an unmatched general while leading the Braves to an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles. 

About five years ago, I wrote that Cox had earned the right to continue managing the Braves as long as he desires.  As I’ve had the opportunity to be around this game longer, I’ve come to view that as a  short-sighted comment that should never be made in reference to any legend, regardless of their accomplishments. 
 
Still I’m not ready to concede that Cox isn’t the right man for this job.   This year’s team possesses flaws that extend beyond the fact that the offense hasn’t adequately backed a strong starting rotation.   But while this clubhouse might not be as harmonious as some of the recent ones that have existed in Atlanta, the fault shouldn’t squarely be placed on the manager.
 
The Braves have pushed for Yunel Escobar to enhance his knowledge of the English language and he told them that he intended to do so this past offseason.  But other than the expletive he mouthed toward the press box after being charged with an error on Thursday, I haven’t seen him provide much indication that he’s willing to speak anything other than Spanish.

With limited communication skills and his stubborn personality, Escobar has proven to be both unable and unwilling to fully grasp the messages that veterans like Chipper Jones and the Braves coaching staff have attempted to deliver over the course of his two years at the Major League level.
  
Like Bowden and Paterno, Cox has reached a point where he has to rely more heavily on his assistant coaches.  Within this framework, the responsibility of guiding Escobar has been placed on the shoulders of bench coach Chino Cadahia, who at least attempted to show provide some discipline after the shortstop displayed his unprofessional reactions on Thursday.
 
As for Garret Anderson,  there isn’t anybody who was going to be able to alter the lifeless approach that he’s developed throughout his 16-season Major League career.
 
Provided no other external alternatives, Cox pushed for the Braves to sign Anderson during February’s final week and the veteran outfielder has at least rewarded him with consistent offensive production that lacks power.
 
But while Anderson’s bat has been solid, his defensive skills have proven to be worse than expected.   His limited range has been on display throughout the season and he certainly didn’t gain any supporters  on Friday night, when he didn’t even react to Dustin Pedroia’s high chopper  until it landed in shallow left field.
  
Instead of publicly ripping Escobar or Anderson, Cox has continued to shower them with the same kind of support that Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson have been provided while proving to be this year’s top two offensive disappointments.
 
While this approach might prove maddening to fans while the team is losing, it’s one that allowed for the dramatic turnarounds the 1991, 1993 and 2004 clubs experienced on their way to division titles. 

So for now, I’m just going to maintain the belief that Cox has earned the right to prove he still has some magic in the tank.  

Every pitch counts

When you dissect the progression of a baseball season, you can lead yourself to believe that every pitch has the potential to produce consequences that extend beyond the game during which it was thrown.
 
Had plate umpire Bill Hohn called a strike on the 0-2 fastball that Eric O’Flaherty threw during Sunday afternoon’s game at Fenway Park, J.D. Drew wouldn’t have had the opportunity to deliver the next pitch off the Green Monster for a one-out, go-ahead RBI single. 

The Braves believe Hohn’s call cost them that series finale against the Red Sox.  Extending this arguable belief, did this call also deny them the opportunity to carry a four-game winning streak into tonight’s series finale against the Yankees?

If Drew had been called out on strikes, with first base open, two outs and left-handed slugger David Ortiz on deck, Cox said that he still would have called upon Peter Moylan to face the right-handed hitting Kevin Youkilis. 

But had first base umpire first base umpire Tim Welke not ruled in Jake Fox’s favor on a bang-bang play  with two outs in the seventh inning of Monday night’s win over the Cubs, Cox wouldn’t have needed to replace Javier Vazquez with Moylan, who needed just two pitches to end that threat and his evening.

After needing 14 pitches to erase Tommy Hanson’s potential sixth-inning damage and toss a perfect seventh inning during Tuesday night’s win over the Yankees,  Moylan was given a night to rest. 

Thus he was unavailable when Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game.   Had the Braves gotten the desired ruling from Welke, there’s seemingly reason to believe that the Aussie would have been the one facing A-Rod.
 
Instead, the Braves were forced to call upon Jeff Bennett, who allowed A-Rod to halt a 1-for-24 skid with a two-run single that gave the Yankees a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. 

There’s no guarantee that Moylan wouldn’t have allowed A-Rod to deliver the clutch hit.   But they certainly likely would have had the option to stay away from Bennett, who opted to challenge the veteran third baseman with four consecutive fastballs before seeing his 0-2 delivery deposited into center field.

Bennett, who was the one who surrendered Nick Green’s walk-off shot on Sunday, was inching closer toward ending his days in Atlanta.  But he’s at least bought himself some time with the fractured left hand he suffered when he punched a door after Wednesday’s sixth inning.  

When you’ve seen opponents hit .316 against you in 33 appearances and .295 with runners in scoring position, there seemingly must come a time when you’re the one who wants to do some hitting.   All indications are that the defenseless door  simply suffered a bruise similar to the one on Kenshin Kawakami’s neck. 

Kawakami, who was hit on the right side of his neck with a Joba Chamberlain line drive on Wednesday night, reported that he was feeling better than expected on Thursday.   Still with an offday on Monday, the Braves will likely skip his next turn in the rotation and allow him to make his next start during the July 4 game in Washington D.C.  

Tonight’s lineup:   With left-hander Andy Pettitte starting tonight’s series finale for the Yankees, Cox opted to keep Garret Anderson’s hot bat in the lineup.  But he did stick with his second base platoon with the insertion of Martin Prado, who is batting second.  

Yunel Escobar, who leads the club with 36 RBIs, is batting in the fifth spot.  Escobar is hitting .385 (25-for-65) with runners in scoring position.  

Will daunting stretch be the turnaround point?

As the Braves prepare for this 13-game stretch that will pit them against the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies, we can either focus on the tone of “Taps” or take the optimistic approach by taking the belief that this will be the two-week stretch that will turn the whole season around. 

While taking two of three against the Yankees this week, the Nationals provided hope or  at least made Herm Edwards proud by proving that “you play to win the game.”

With their starting rotation, the Braves will at least enter this stretch with the confidence that they’ll have at least be in every game that is played.  But as Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez will be the first to attest, mound dominance will only lead to utter frustration when backed by an offense that has habitually provided minimal support. 

But we’re going to keep things positive and take the assumption that Thursday’s seven-run uprising in Cincinnati was a sign of things to come for Bobby Cox’s offense.  With his four-RBI performance, Nate McLouth showed what he could do at the top of the lineup and at the same time provided himself more reason to feel comfortable within his new enviroment. 

In addition, we were reminded that things seem to click when Martin Prado and Matt Diaz are in the lineup.  Unfortunately the Braves are scheduled to face right-handed starters during each of their next five games and thus we may find ourselves watching much more of Garret Anderson and Kelly Johnson than Diaz and Prado. 

The Braves are 14-11 in the games that Prado has started and 15-13 in the games started by Diaz.  They are 14-10 in games against a left-handed starting pitcher and 17-24 in games during which the opponents starts a right-hander.

During Thursday’s win, Diaz certainly made an impressive bid to earn more time in left field.  His fourth-inning solo homer provided cushion and his sixth-inning leadoff double led to a three-run inning that allowed Tommy Hanson to cruise toward his second straight win. 

But Diaz’s bid to earn more playing time was most significantly enhanced with his fifth-inning diving grab in left-center field with one out and runners on first and second base.  If Anderson had been in left field, that ball gets to the wall, at least one run scores and there’s no guarantee that Hanson would have been able to once again wiggle out of the ensuing jam.

While finding himself in a platoon, Anderson certainly hasn’t provided the offensive production the Braves envisioned.    In 108 at-bats against right-handers, he has hit .231 with a .612 OPS.   In 43 at-bats against left-handed pitchers, he has hit .326 with a .774 OPS. 

Then of course, while hitting .238 with a .670 OPS in June, Anderson hasn’t recently found consistent success against anybody.  At the same time, 2ith a .267 batting average and .746 OPS this month, Diaz hasn’t exactly set the word on fire.

But with his defense and further proof that he is capable of finding equal success against right-handers and left-handers,  Diaz at least provided further reason to argue that he should be seeing more time in left field.

In 60 at-bats against right-handed pitchers this year, Diaz has hit .267 with a .777 OPS.  In 58 at-bats against lefties, he has hit .293 with an .812 OPS. 

Prado’s case: While hitting .306 (15-for-49) against lefties and .238 (15-for-63) against righties, Prado has made it a little harder to argue that he should be seeing more time at second base. 

But his argument proves to be much stronger when you account for the fact that Johnson has hit .148 with an abysmal .402 OPS in 14 games this month.  If a bigger sample size is needed, Johnson has hit .216 with a .630 OPS in his past 27 games. 

Statistically, Johnson has once again proven that he doesn’t necessarily benefit from the platoon that puts him in the lineup against right-handers.   He is hitting .196 with a .569 OPS in 148 at-bats against righties and .303 with a .948 OPS in 66 at-bats against lefties.

Weekend prediction:  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this will be a productive weekend for Jeff Francoeur.  Playing in front of his Boston-area relatives, Frenchy is once again going to prove that he’s one of those guys who can rise to the occasion.  During his only previous three-game series at Fenway Park, he had eight hits, including a double and a homer, in 15 at-bats.

Lowe’s blog is live:  On Saturday, Derek Lowe will be making his first start in Boston since helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series.  He talks about some of those memories in the first installment of his new blog.    

Back to life and back to reality

Nate McLouth provided an immediate upgrade and he’ll undoubtedly prove to be an asset to the Braves over the course of the next few years.  But as we’ve seen through the first week of his career in Atlanta, his five-tool talents aren’t great enough to serve as the solution to his new team’s offensive woes. 

When the Braves were shutout during the first two games of the McLouth era, they opted to move their new center fielder into the leadoff spot and magically they found themselves scoring 19 runs during a three-game span that began on Sunday.

But stealing a line from the old Soul II Soul song, the final two games of the Pirates series brought the Braves back to life and back to reality..
 
When the Braves prevented Tommy Hanson from losing his debut on Sunday, they (or Chipper Jones specifically) took advantage of Manny Parra, who has an 11.90 ERA in his past four starts,  and an over-taxed Brewers bullpen.
   
The majority of Monday’s seven-run uprising came at the expense of Zach Duke, who was charged with six runs and 11 hits in six innings.  But this was nothing new for the Braves.  Back in April, when Brian McCann couldn’t see, they actually pounded the left-hander with 12 hits and six runs in six innings.
 
Then Wednesday night, they botched the opportunity that was provided when Charlie Morton’s early exit prompted the impromptu entrance of Jeff Karstens, who had suffered the loss during  Monday’s 15-inning marathon with an 18-pitch outing.
 
With a quick rebound, Karstens allowed one run over 4 1/3 innings and set the stage for Paul Maholm, who allowed one unearned run over seven innings on Thursday afternoon.  Maholm till hasn’t surrendered an earned run in the 14 innings he’s tossed against Atlanta this year.
 
“I thought Maholm pitched another great game, but, we’re saying that too much in here,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. 

Chipper Jones said that Thursday was actually a day when the Braves justifiably had to tip their caps to Maholm.
 
While respecting Jones’ opinion, I’m sticking with Cox and holding the belief that Mike Hampton likely would have already damaged his wrist if he had to tip his hat as frequently as the Braves hitters have this year. 

While hitting .224 on this recently-completed nine-game homestand, the Braves were limited to two runs or fewer five times.  Making matters worse is that they went winless in the four games that their starters allowed two runs or fewer. 

Over the course of the past nine games, the Braves starters allowed 26 earned runs and posted a 3.90 ERA.  Take away Tommy Hanson’s debut and that ERA drops to 3.33. Regardless, either way you look at it, this span should have included more than four wins.

While the Braves were able to at least enhance their feeble outfield production with the acquisition of McLouth, they’ll need to do much more to make the necessary improvements to a lineup that still relies too heavily on the production of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. 

” If (Brian McCann) isn’t playing and I go O-fer, we’re in trouble,” Jones said. “If I’m not playing and Mac goes O-fer, we’re in trouble.”  

While there was no doubt that this lineup would be centered around Jones and McCann, the Braves obviously were counting on more from Garret Anderson and Jeff Francoeur, whose fourth-inning single on Thursday provided him just his fourth hit in his past 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
 
Anderson is who he’s always been minus the power that he displayed during the early years of this decade.   When they signed him, the Braves knew about the fact that he’s a far from vibrant personality.  But it’s safe to say that they envisioned him hitting better than .254 with a .373 slugging percentage through his first 40 games.
 
Anderson’s struggles have only magnified those of Francoeur, whose .621 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is actually 32 points lower than the mark he produced during last year’s disappointing campaign. 

Courtesy of the disappointing statistics he’s produced over the past two years, Francoeur has been forced to face the reality that he’s subject to regular criticism. 

While being one of the many who have been critical of his production, I would certainly never question Francoeur’s determination and passion for the game. He’s still the same great kid that arrived on the scene four years ago. But he’s currently not the same great player we had envisioned. 

As things currently stand, it’s tough to envision Francouer being back with the Braves beyond this season.  But at the same time, it’s not like Frank Wren is going to his team’s outfield woes by trading him.

While there’s still a chance that the Braves could deal Francoeur at some point this season, they certainly aren’t going to do so until they have somebody capable of filling the right field position.
 
Thoughts of Matt Diaz playing right field every day are erased by the reality that Anderson isn’t capable of playing left field on an everyday basis.  Plus with Jordan Schafer and Brandon Jones currently ailing, I don’t see any other internal options developing any time soon. 

So with limited available funds, the Braves will continue to evaluate the trade market with the hope that it produces a solution before it’s too late. 

To get the return that they are seeking, they will have to supply something significant.  While dealing Javier Vazquez would provide the opportunity to gain some financial breathing room, the Braves may be reluctant to deal him before having a better feel about what they could expect from Tim Hudson during the season’s final two months and next year. 

Without a suitable replacement, it’s also tough to envision trading Yunel Escobar.  But for every sensational contribution the shortstop provides, he seems to further bother his teammates by habitually committing mental mistakes and displaying the flashy personality that infuriates opponents and umpires.    

Wren’s task isn’t an easy one.  But as it becomes harder for him to watch his anemic offense there’s certainly reason to believe he’ll be further motivated to improve it.      

Anderson showing signs of encouragement

Given that it was their first home run from an outfielder since May 1, the Braves had every reason to enjoy watching Garret Anderson jog around the bases after taking Max Scherzer deep during Sunday’s win over the D-backs.
But what I found most encouraging about Anderson’s first homer of the season was the fact that it produced a seemingly greater rarity   —  an obvious smile as he entered the dugout.
This isn’t to say that Anderson hadn’t previously smiled since joining the Braves in February.  Nor am I indicating that a player’s value is based on the amount of times that he shows his pearly whites.
But in this case, it was just good to at least see a sign that Anderson is having fun and seemingly getting comfortable with his new environment.   More importantly , in his past 17 games,  he’s hit .333 with a .424 slugging percentage.   
While those numbers might not be eye-popping, they’re pretty impressive when compared to those posted during this span by the Braves other outfielders.    
Dating back to Anderson’s return from the disabled list on May 5, the Braves left fielders have hit .306 with a .743 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).   Their center fielders (primarily Jordan Schafer) have hit .156 with .408 OPS and their right fielders (primarily Jeff Francoeur) have hit .228 with a .493 OPS.
In other words the mix of Anderson and Matt Diaz in left could prove to be serviceable.  Of course while hitting  .406 with a .563 slugging percentage in his past 13 games, Diaz has also provided the Braves even more reason to also utilize him with greater regularity at the other two outfield positions.
Regardless of how they fix their problems in center and right, the Braves at least have reason to feel better about the $2.5 million that they spent on Anderson.  
In other words, I no longer view Anderson as the $2.5 million mannequin that Scott Boras was shopping.  When I wrote that in April, Anderson was preparing to go on the disabled list and prolong extended strings of inactivity that had started on March 6, when he injured his calf while preparing for his second exhibition games.
Had Anderson shown at least some form of emotion while dealing with his leg ailments, I’d have probably viewed his situation in a more sympathetic manner and strayed away from thoughts about the possibility that he simply didn’t want to be in Atlanta.    
But that’s not who Anderson is.  Instead, he’s a calm and reserved professional, who has remained true to his personality while never attempting to indulge the media with false emotions.    
Having dealt with a handful of players who have displayed a false personality in the public eye, I’ve grown to appreciate guys like Anderson who simply want to play the game and avoid the spotlight that it brings.
Anderson won’t be a defensive asset and he won’t provide the power the Braves desperately need. But while letting his play speak for itself over the past month, he’s steadily proven that he was the best option the Braves had when they were still seeking an outfielder during February’s final week.  
Schafer’s sticking around:   Since recording his most recent multi-hit game on May 7, Jordan Schafer has batted .160 with 25 strikeouts a .229 on-base percentage and a  .187 slugging percentage.   But even with Gregor Blanco showing some recent progress with Triple-A Gwinnett, the Braves haven’t provided indication that they’re ready to send Schafer back to the Minors.  
Over the past two weeks, Blanco has hit .348 (16-for-46) with eight strikeouts, a .426 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage.  

Braves need to make changes to outfield mix

Braves general manager Frank Wren isn’t in a position where he can wait until the July 31 trade deadline to upgrade his powerless outfield mix.    There’s a need for immediate changes and also indication that we’ll begin to see it in the near future.  
But now that we’ve completed the easy part by stating the obvious, what is the best way for Wren to improve an outfield that ranks last in the National League in slugging percentage (.356), homers (7) and OPS (.674)?
In dire need to hear something positive?  Well there are three NL teams, whose outfield mixes have produced a worse batting average (.248) and on-base percentage (.318).
Given that he’s played just 12 games since returning from a disabled list stint that was preceded with long stretches of injury-related activity, maybe it’s unfair to already declare the Garret Anderson project to be a bust, unless of course you want to factor in the defensive element that is sorely affected by his limited range.
But is it unfair to ask for at least one home run through the 71 at-bats compiled by a left fielder that you solely acquired to add some pop to your lineup?  If so, then you’re probably arguing that you shouldn’t have expected to see longball regularity from a 36-year-old veteran who hadn’t hit more than 17 homers any of the previous five seasons.  
With this being said, is it unfair to at least expect more than two extra-base hits (two doubles) in the 46 at-bats that Anderson has totaled since returning from the DL?  In the 12 games that he’s played since being activated, he’s hit .283 with a .321 on-base percentage and .326 slugging percentage.  
Those are numbers that only look good when compared to the .197 batting average, .214 on-base percentage and .273 slugging percentage that Jeff Francoeur has compiled in the 66 at-bats that he’s tallied this month.  
While there are a number of players that are going to experience bad months, Francoeur isn’t in position where he can produce these kinds of numbers and expect to  remain in Atlanta much longer.  Earlier this week, I pointed out that the biggest difference between this year and last year for the 25-year-old outfielder is the $2.92 million raise that he gained while avoiding arbitration in February.
During his first three full Major League seasons, Francoeur has collected an average of 630 at-bats.    Using this as a variable, let’s look at the fact that he’s hit .235 with  11 homers, a .287 on-base percentage and  a .341 slugging percentage in his last 631 at-bats   — dating back to May 6, 2008.
Among every Major Leaguer player who has collected at least 500 plate appearances during this span,  Bobby Crosby, Michael Bourn, Willy Taveras,  Chone Figgins and Jason Kendall are the only ones who have compiled a lower slugging percentage.  
Francoeur’s .287 on-base percentage during this span ranks dead last, just ahead of the .288 mark compiled by Arizona’s Chris Young, whose contract calls for him to make $23.75 million from 2010-2012.
Using this as a comparison and blinding yourself from the fact that Young has recorded 15 more stolen bases than Francoeur’s zero during this span, maybe the Braves shouldn’t feel too bad about the fact that they’re paying Francoeur $3.325 million this year.  
At the ripe age of 25, Francoeur might one day regain the power that has been absent since his 29-homer, 2006 season.  But as they continue to patiently await the return of this power, the Braves find themselves in a position where they have to at least explore the option of trading him to a team that believes they can fix him.
Obviously, Francoeur enjoys working with Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.  So maybe Jaramillo could persuade Jon Daniels to roll the dice with another ex-Braves player.  Sill while the Andruw Jones project is currently working, Texas is loaded with outfielders and many other top prospects  who were once destined for Atlanta.
The Braves aren’t going to get much in return for Francoeur. But they need to at least explore the possibility of moving him before they reach a point during the offseason, when they might non-tender him and get absolutely nothing in return for a former top prospect, who was once-considered to be the next Chipper Jones.
In addition, while attempting to alter their outfield mix, the Braves to face the reality that Francoeur still might generate a greater return than Anderson would on the trade market.  
Jordan Schafer’s rookie struggles have played a part in the lack of offense the Braves outfield has generated this year.  But while playing the field this year, the  only Atlanta outfielder to better the .660 OPS generated by Schafer is Matt Diaz with a .766 mark.  
With Diaz and Brandon Jones, the Braves have a couple of internal pieces who could at least attempt to improve the corner outfield production.  But to truly make a difference Wren is going to have to look outside his organization and navigate a trade market with funds that were reduced by the questionable signings of Anderson and Kenshin Kawakami.
Kawakami’s three-year, $23 million contract will continue to haunt Wren through the end of the 2011 season. The immediate effects have already proven to be a hindrance.  
How nice would it have been to have had an extra $7 milllion to spend on an outfielder right now or back in February,  when the Angels  avoided re-signing Anderson and opted to give Bobby Abreu  one-year $5 million?
Without a homer in his first 140 at-bats this year, Abreu wasn’t going to bring the Braves the power that they need.  But his .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .364 slugging percentage certainly look much better than the marks compiled by Anderson or anybody else the Braves have utilized as an outfielder this year.

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