The Braves are streaky: two long win streaks (10 and 8 games), multiple ugly patches (lost 4 of 5, 4 straight, 3 straight, and 5 of 6). Reminds me a lot of the 1982 Braves team that made the playoffs… only to lose three straight to St. Louis. But that team went 89-73. This year’s squad is now on a pace to go 96-66.
If this pace holds: The Nats would be buried in second place – 13 games back. The NL playoff teams would be Atlanta, Arizona, and the three Central division leaders (Cincy/St. Louis/Pitt). Guessing now that Cincinnati and the Cardinals will continue to roll and win the Central, while Pittsburgh scrapes by and eliminates the Giants from the wild card with a late burst (yes, I think AZ wins the West). In the AL, it may be a lot more interesting, with eight teams all within 5 games of one another. If the Angels ever get themselves together, it could be nine, but their pitching is tenuous at best. I do expect multiple AL teams to fade (Baltimore, Cleveland, Yankees).
Biggest Disappointments (NL): the Dodgers, then the Nationals. The Marlins occupy their own category. Hard to believe the Dodgers are eight games under water. Almost as hard to believe that the Nats are barely above .500. The Nationals (at least) should do better in Summer than in Spring.
Biggest Disappointments (AL): Toronto, then Kansas City. Both teams rolled the dice with big changes during the past off-season. The Atlanta-Toronto series spoke volumes: games with lots of hitting, games in which the wheels just fall off. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jose Reyes is injur– oh, I guess you have. So Emilio Bonifacio has stepped up, right? Uh, no…. that .243 OBP neutralizes his speed. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Alex Gordon has been awesome. Lorenzo Cain has broken out. Other than that, pffft. All you really need to know from KC is that James Shields is now 2-6… with a 2.96 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Yes, Houston is in its own category, too, but even they are looking better than the Marlins.
Biggest Surprises (MLB): the Yankees are hanging in there (8 games over .500), and Cleveland is trying to make it interesting. Can’t say that much is entirely surprising in the NL – even with Arizona leading the West.
Biggest Surprises (Braves): the play of both Jordan Schafer and Chris Johnson. An insurance policy picked up for nothing from the waiver wire and a ‘throw-in’ to the Upton trade. Both of these guys are totally outplaying the marquee free-agent acquisition of the off-season, so much so that the team has declared that the 3B Platoon is now over, and a new one may be starting up for Center Field. These two guys have overshadowed the hitting of Freddie Freeman, who is actually having the breakout kind of year hoped for. Baseball is a funny game.
Biggest Shock (Braves): Oso Blanco gets a category all to himself. To say that his play has exceeded expectations is akin to saying that the iPhone has sold pretty well for Apple. Evan Gattis – if he had enough plate appearances to qualify – would be tied for fourth in the league in HR, 12th in RBI – best on the Braves – as a backup catcher and occasional left fielder. He also leads the team in WAR. His ISO score is #2 in the majors (to Chris Davis), slugging is 3rd, and OPS is 15th. He has more homers than the entire starting outfield for the Dodgers. He has single-handedly (he could probably could swing that way) changed the personnel plans of the team for 2013 and perhaps beyond.
Biggest Disappointments (Braves): B.J. Upton, obviously, with dishonorable mentions to Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla. BJ is just lost. I won’t dwell on that here, because this site has already devoted a lot of virtual ink to the subject. Jason has improved – I guess (.195 vs. .121) – since losing his appendix, but is still riding the Interstate. At least there seems to be hope for him. With Dan Uggla, I’m starting to become resigned to the notion that he is what he is. I was hoping when he was acquired that .245 was his ‘floor’ average, which is okay for a 30-HR guy. He’s on pace again for the 30-HR level with a ton of walks, though both his BA and OBP numbers have bottomed out, both down around 40 points.
Fredi Gonzalez was speaking to the media yesterday, and almost seemed to be thinking out loud about asking BJ to go to Gwinnett for a while to get himself fixed. Honestly, this would be a good idea, and if BJ is serious about getting back to being the stud he needs to be, he should consider that suggestion carefully.
So: if you’re assigning awards…
Team MVP: If it were only the first 2 weeks of the year, the answer would be Justin Upton. But at this point, you’ve got to go with Gattis. He’s done everything necessary and more, and his teammates now expect a miracle every time he comes up.
Team LVP: Clearly, it is Melvin Emanuel Upton.
Cy Brave: It is hard not to go with Craig Kimbrel and his 16 saves, but the nod here goes to Mike Minor: 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA (3.12 FIP, 0.92 WHIP). He has taken his successes from the second half of 2012 and extended them. K/BB ratio has increased to 4.7:1 and he has cut the HR rate to 0.87/9 innings.
Sigh Brave: I find it difficult to do this, but Tim Hudson has clearly been struggling lately, with a 5.37 ERA, though his FIP is much better (4.16). Yes, Kris Medlen is 1-6, but he’s been partly the victim of some bad luck, though his FIP is the worst on the team (4.48), so some of it (walks) is his own doing. Both players can do better, and both will likely do so.
Injury Updates: When you think about it, it is actually rather surprising that Atlanta is still in first place, given all of the issues in the infirmary:
1. Brian McCann – did not play until May 6th.
2. Freddie Freeman – out for 2 weeks (oblique).
3. Jason Heyward – out for a month (appendix).
4. Jordan Walden – out for two weeks+ in May (back).
5. Luis Ayala – acquired April 11, unavailable since April 24. No timetable for his return.
6. Cristhian Martinez – on the DL since Ayala was acquired. No timetable for his return.
7. Blake DeWitt – on the DL since April 20.
8. Jonny Venters – Tommy John Surgery; likely out until July 2014
9. Eric O’Flaherty – see Venters, Jonny.
These have not exactly been cramps and brusies. It was actually a little scary last night when Gattis took a pitch on the elbow. But it appears that the ball will be okay after a few days off.
The Good News: Despite that last category, there’s lots of it.
1. Have you noticed? No starting pitcher has missed a turn. This didn’t happen last year – and the Braves haven’t seen this kind of consistency for years – literally.
2. There may be teams that actually want Juan Francisco. I have to believe that the first one offering a serviceable reliever will win the modest trade war that is happening. No it won’t be an Eric O’Flaherty, but hopefully somebody who can allow Alex Wood to go back and get ready to start in 2014. Maybe the Dodgers would give us Pete Moylan back? Unfortunately (for us – not him), even as this post was being written, he was promoted to the Majors and we’ll see him – in Los Angeles – on Thursday.
3. Speaking of arms: the Braves could easily be awash in starting pitching in 2014. Right now, the team owns rights to NINE bona fide starting pitchers who either are, or almost are major league ready: Hudson, Maholm, Medlen, Minor, Teheran, Beachy, Gilmartin, Graham, and the aforementioned Wood. That kind of depth allows the organization a ton of flexibility – it will be very interesting to see how that is played out.
4. The Nats are only 28-27. I can’t repeat this enough. They will have to play at a 62-45 clip (.579) to reach 90 wins, which is nonetheless doable…but they still have to pass Atlanta (which only needs to go 58-52 to get 90) So far, they have shown no ability to throw together the kind of consistency necessary to approach that, but you cannot count them out – and games like last night make that point. Both Gio (tonight’s pitcher) and Strasburg have
been throwing better lately. The Braves will not see Bryce Harper this weekend (and he could be DL’d), so that will hurt their ability to score… but it will be up to the Braves’ offense to do the damage necessary to keep up the pace.
Coming Up During the Next “Third”
This is the push toward the All-Star Break and the trade deadline. This could be good for Atlanta. The schedule starts tough (Nats/Pirates) and then has several teams that the Braves should expect to take at least 2-of-3 from. The Giants come to town mid-June, and the Reds have the last series before the break in July. We are littered with under-performers otherwise, so it is a favorable time to pad the lead. Mor hugs all around.
Let’s roll, Braves!