I had my first opportunity to check out the 2009 Atlanta Braves live and in person when they traveled to Arizona to face the Diamondbacks May 28-31st. I have lived in AZ for the past 5 years so Chase Field has become my go-to ballpark to see the Bravos. This season I was fortunate enough to have the Braves in town for a four-game series. Hotlanta split the series 2-2 with the Snakes and I ended up coming away with some positive, negative and suggestions for improvement for the team going forward. Here’s a breakdown of the good, the bad, and the ugly from the desert:
The good: Atlanta’s starting staff continues to impress and keep the team in close games. Derek Lowe gave up 5 runs in the series opening loss, although only 3 of those runs were earned, after Kelly Johnson botched a grounder that allowed for a big inning that ended up deciding the ballgame. Despite the fact that Lowe wasn’t as sharp as he’s been for the majority of the season, he was still able to bear down, gut it out and minimize any further damage after the Johnson error sparked a four-run 4th, which kept the Braves within striking distance.
In Game Two, Jair Jurrjens was the recipient of a rare offensive explosion from the Braves and picked up the “W” in the Braves 10-6 victory. While Jurrjens was handed a 10-1 lead after 3 1/2 innings, he did appear uncomfortable pitching with such a large lead. This happens to many of the game’s best pitchers who often thrive off of pitching in tight situations. But for Jurrjens, who has been coined the Braves hard luck loser this season after putting up some mighty impressive numbers, this win helps balance things out a bit.
In Game Three, Javier Vazquez looked strong putting up zeros for six innings against the D-Backs, keeping a 2-0 lead intact after escaping a sixth inning jam unscathed. However, he finally ran out of gas in the seventh when Chris Young tied the game with a pinch-hit single. While the Braves ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion 3-2 in the 11th, the club couldn’t have asked for anything more from Vazquez. His gutsy outing deserved to be capped with a win.
In the finale of the series, Braves rookie Kris Medlen looked solid, picking up his first major league win, allowing one run on four hits with nine struck outs in six innings of work. Medlen was making his third big league start in the fifth spot of the Braves rotation after Jo-Jo Reyes went down with an injury. Reyes was filling in for a rehabbing Tom Glavine, who after a recent strong five-inning effort for Triple A Gwinnett appears to be close to returning to the Braves rotation. The return of the veteran Glav is sure to make an already deep Braves rotation that much deeper.
The bad: The Braves offense remains inconsistent and spotty. After looking stagnant in the series opener, they exploded for 10 runs in game two to illicit hope amongst the frustrated Braves faithful. However, true to form they followed up that offensive outburst with only two early runs in their eventual 3-2 extra inning loss. To make things even more disconcerning, they scored the 10 runs in game two in the first four innings before being blanked the rest of the game. Then, despite jumping out to an early 2-0 lead in game three, the bats were then silenced again for the remainder of the game, wasting Javier Vazquez’s strong effort. The nine runs the Braves accumulated in the series finale against Arizona had fans and management scratching their heads as to why this team can’t consistently put up runs to support their underappreciated starting staff.
The ugly: The Braves lack power, especially in the outfield, which is a large reason why the offense has stumbled.
The culprits: Rookie center fielder Jordan Schafer and right fielder Jeff Francoeur. On Monday, before the Braves opened a homestand at Turner Field against the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta sent Schafer down to Triple A Gwinnett. Schafer is hitting only .206 on the season, but what is more alarming is his 63 strikeouts, which rank as the fourth highest in Major League Baseball. The Braves recalled Gregor Blanco from the minors to take Schafer’s place for the time being and hope he will be able to provide a lift to Atlanta’s sagging offense. As for Francoeur, he has been hovering around .250 for the past month and still appears lost and often overmatched at the plate. Frenchy has only gone deep four times this season, which has contributed largely to the Braves power drought. Braves GM Frank Wren must be listening to trade offers for Francoeur but whether the team deals him or not depends largely on what they could garner in return. Francoeur is still young and talented and for a team that is struggling to find offensive production, it wouldn’t be wise to subtract a bat without replacing it with an upgraded one.
Suggestions for improvement: I think the Braves absolutely, positively HAVE to add a power bat to the outfield before the July 31st trade deadline. There are rumors circulating that the team is looking at bringing Mark DeRosa back to Atlanta. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right move, but it is encouraging to know that the team is looking for ways to bolster their offense. Pitching keeps teams in the race and the Braves have the arms to continue to do so. But, if Atlanta hopes to make a legitimate run at what appears to be a wide open NL East, they need to greatly improve their offense.
For those frustrated fans who have already thrown in the towel, I offer these words of hope. Before June 2nd’s game against Chicago, the Braves find themselves in third place only 4 1/2 games behind first place Philadelphia. We aren’t even at the All-Star Break folks. There is A LOT of baseball to be played. The Braves benefited greatly over their run of fourteen consecutive division titles from a strong starting rotation and a deep pitching staff. In the playoffs, pitching is often what carries a team far and if a staff gets hot at the right time, anything is possible. If the Braves can find enough offense to at least supplement their staff, they have just as good a chance as any team of playing October baseball.