Hello again everyone from the deep freeze (-1% F this morning – brrr!!!!).
Before we get started, I wanted to make clear that this post was in process before I saw that the talented AJC columnist Mark Bradley had a similar post today (read it here, if you’d like). All I can say is alike minds think great, or something like that. Any similarities are purely due to the fact that even an orangutan could figure out that there were some things that would likely keep Fredi Gonzalez up at night this season!
Without further ado, here are my thoughts about the things that could keep the Braves out of the postseason this year. One other note: just to keep things simple, I am assuming that Chipper does make it back as the starting third baseman on opening day:
5) The Braves have little to no speed on the roster. When you combine this with the fact that the team has, at best, average home run power, this means that the Braves will often be put in the position of having to put three men on base to score. Putting three men on base before you make three outs is hard to do; a lot harder to do than putting two men on base. If your initial base runner is in scoring position (through taking an extra base or even stealing a base), you don’t need that pesky third hit to score. What this does, over the course of a season, is make your team put up a lot of goose eggs! I’d love to see the percentage of scoreless innings a team of this type puts up versus a similar team with speed (note to self: a project if/when spare time allows). Empirically, we’ve lived this with Braves teams of recent vintage, and it can be frustrating. The lack of steals is probably not that big a deal, given the percentages. But the inability to take second on balls in the gap, move up on deep hit fly balls, and generally not being able to capitalize on opportunities that other teams (like the Phillies) can capitalize on is, in my opinion, a big deal. If for no other reason than this, taking a long look at Matt Young in centerfield is a key spring training opportunity for Atlanta (43 stolen bases in Mississippi in 2009, 39 last year in Gwinnett).
4) The Braves lack of depth, especially at 3B/LF. Losing Infante and Diaz (especially Infante) from last year’s team, while bringing us the bat we needed in the form of Uggla, really hurts the team here. It is virtually certain that Chipper won’t start more than 120 games, and won’t appear in more than 140 (if you disagree with this assessment, I’d strongly suggest some remedial work at Baseball Reference!). In all likelihood, that means that Prado plays third for about a fourth of the season. If Martin is playing third, then who plays left? Hinske? Ouch! I think he showed last year that he produces best at this point in his career when he gets plenty of rest. Plus his OF defense is, on a good day, downwind, only average. Yet if you go the other way and play Hinske at third, it looks to me like you just create defensive liabilities at both positions. Who else is there? Maybe the “loser” of the centerfield sweepstakes (Schafer, Young, or McLouth)? Joe Mather? While he’s shown brief flashes of usefulness in the minors, he seems like wishful thinking at best. Short of a rebirth for Schafer or McLouth, I think this could be a big issue for the team. I would not be at all surprised to see some of our young pitching talent used here, addressing both this and the next issue on my list.
3) Centerfield is a mess. To me, it’s amazing that the Braves made the playoffs last year with the production they got from their centerfielders. McLouth never got over the Mendoza Line . Ankiel was close to useless as a Brave, with OPS of .538! Melky Cabrera? Ugh! Gregor Blanco, who was traded for Ankiel, actually was our best hitting centerfielder with OPS of .756. Right now the Braves strategy for centerfield is to basically pray for a miracle (OK, maybe not a miracle, just something that could be best described as “Wishin’ and Hopin'”. In my experience, that’s never an optimal strategy. What should they do? Well, as mentioned above, Matt Young has to get a long look, especially with his speed. If neither Schafer nor McLouth shows signs of a complete turnaround, I think the Braves need to look at trading young pitching for young positional players, filling a gap for now and the future. If this looks like it’s still an issue later in the spring, we’ll evaluate some specific options here on Tomahawk Take,
2) The Braves options are limited if either Freddie Freeman or Alex Gonzalez struggle. I have gone on record as saying that I think Freddie Freeman will be a very good first baseman for the Braves, and that he will do fine in 2011. Having said that, he is a rookie and rookies have their ups and downs, almost without exception. On the other side of the infield we have Alex Gonzalez, who seems to have a pattern of having a good offensive season then following that up with a lackluster season. The bad news for the Braves is that 2011 is due to be a subpar season for him. When you combine that with the fact that he didn’t exactly set the house on fire as a Brave in his “good” season last year (.676 OPS with 6 HR’s), I think there is cause for concern. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be terribly worried about these two guys. The problem I see is that, when you add in the “black hole” in CF, there is a really good chance that the 6, 7, 8, and 9 spots in the Braves order could ALL be soft outs. If that happens, this team is in trouble. You cannot afford to have 44% of your lineup not producing, especially when you play in a division that is pitching-rich like the NL-East. You let the great pitchers like Roy Halliday put it on cruise control half the time, they will be a bear against the strength of your lineup the other half of the time. What can the Braves do? I’m sorry to say, but I don’t think there is a lot they can do here, other than to make sure that Freeman gets enough time off to stay fresh and doesn’t lose his confidence, especially against left-handers. No team is perfect. I think the Braves play the odds here that one or the other of these two guys has a good season. And the final area of concern is——
1) The Braves infield defense is questionable. I’m being kind. Freeman is an excellent fielder. I think Chipper is a better fielder than he is given credit for (although most defensive metrics and a lot of observers don’t agree). Gonzalez might have been a good fielder earlier in his career (I see to remember him as a good fielder in his Florida days), but he didn’t show me much last year (although, to be fair, he did have limited range and screwed up a number of easy plays!). And McCann is the worst catcher I’ve ever seen at catching throws from the outfield, plus he’s never been great at blocking balls in the dirt. And I’ve been avoiding talking about the worst offender of all, Dan Uggla. By all three measurements (errors, new-age metrics, naked eye), he’s just never been a good fielder. The Braves made a lot of errors last year, and didn’t seem to make up for it with a ton of spectacular plays. Objectively, they weakened their defense this year. Given the type of offense the Braves have, it’s likely they’ll play a lot of close games. Last year the Braves won a lot of close games. They’ll need to do so again this year if they hope to win the division. Giving up unearned runs is not the best way to win close games. And, not to pile on, but most of the Braves starting staff specializes in inducing ground balls. The Braves simply have to catch the ball. So what should they do? Well, if you assume that their players are all athletic enough to catch the ball, then it’s been proven that the next two factors are repetition and concentration. I never got the sense that Bobby Cox was one to make veterans practice fundamentals. Fredi will have to, even if it’s unpopular. The Braves pitchers need to work quickly, so the defense stays on their toes. And Fredi should have the guts to swap Prado and Uggla if Uggla’s fielding is ugly. I firmly believe this can be done without making it become a huge issue.
In total, I think this is a very talented team. I think it will be motivated. I think it has a great on-the-field leader in Chipper Jones. I believe the strength of the team will be its pitching staff, and that the combination of the improved offense and strong pitching can win the division. But I also think that Frank Wren needs to acknowledge the problems and start working on fixing them now.